Working Title: The Stories We Tell Part 3 of 3 WIP
It is done! I finished part three. To be honest, it became somewhat tiring. I knew where I was going and how to get there, but I admit to being a bit fatigued on this one. It is one of the longest pieces I have written (that wasn’t a chaptered piece), and it simply required a lot of dedication and resolve on my part. It was also really hard to carry a consistent and realistic emotion throughout all of this, mainly because I got tired of thinking like I needed my narrator to think. But I am mostly happy with the conclusion. I feel like there could be some improvements made to the finale, but that is something I will return to in time, once my brain has had a chance to recover from this piece. I’m still a bit too close to it. So, I hope you have enjoyed this so far, and I hope you enjoy the grand finale. If you see anything that could be improved, feel free to drop me a note in the comments. And, because I’m proud of my accomplishment, the whole thing clocks in at roughly 11,000 words and a touch over 24 pages. Thanks for reading!
Jocelyn and I took off through the caves, moving as quickly could in the dark. Our flashlights careened wildly, lighting the rocky walls, the dusty floor, and the innumerable potential obstacles in wide-arcing beams as we tried to get to the small opening that Brian and Hayley had entered before. As Hayley’s screams grew more distant even as we approach, we heard Brian’s cries beginning to ring out as he called after her.
After entering the side passage, Jocelyn and I paused to take in our surroundings. There were two paths carved into the stone, diverging to the right and left. Our lights played across the walls for a moment before finding Brian’s pale blue arrow scrawled on the wall. At least he listened.
Into the dark we dove, hearing Brian’s voice growing louder as Hayley’s grew more and more distant. We moved as quickly as we could, bumping along the walls in our haste to reach our friends. Brian seemed very close now, and the arrows along the wall had grown more and more hastily scrawled, now little more than trailing lines of blue dust on the wall. I was amazed that he had the wits about him to continue marking his path; I knew I wouldn’t if Jocelyn were screaming like that.
In one brief moment, the cave went from in front of me to mashed into my face. I glanced behind me, seeing Brian’s pack dropped unceremoniously in the middle of the floor. Jocelyn halted, looking at me in concern as I picked myself from the stone floor. Perhaps it was a trick of the lights, but she looked impossibly pale, her face drawn in fear even as her eyes showed concern. For the first time, I noticed that she had only had time to pull on her t-shirt before I took off on a mad dash. Her shoes hung loose on her feet, the laces splayed across the floor. I was lucky she hadn’t been the one to fall.
“Are you okay?” Her eyes roved around the tight walls of the tunnel as if the walls themselves would leap up and drag her away.
“I’m fine,” I huffed, pushing myself to my feet. “Just scraped my hands up.” I had not realized how much I had exerted myself getting this far until I had to stop. Now the weight of each breath tugged my body back towards the floor. A sharp stitch pierced my side, and my lungs felt like they would soon burst as I gulped in available air. After all this was over and we had a good laugh about it, Brian and I would start back at the gym, I promised. And Hayley and Jocelyn could come to. Maybe we’d all run a marathon. Or become world class mountain climbers. Once this was a hazy memory in the past.
Jocelyn’s soft, sharp breaths were a counterpoint to my ragged gasps. There was unsettling silence in the caves now. I felt a hint of relief flood through me, certain that whatever danger had appeared was now passed. We could take our time, walk carefully, and meet up with the certain to be embarrassed couple. However a pinprick of anxiety encouraged me forward.
“Let’s go,” I panted.
The silence was suddenly deafening and dangerous. I knew I should feel relieved, but somehow the sudden silence was worrying. I could hear Jocelyn’s steps behind me, the steady ebb and flow of her breathing. My own breaths were still ragged inhales and exhales, but close to resembling something human. And nothing. No laughter, yells, or sounds from ahead of us. Only half-formed blue arrows pointing along our trail.
Our pace stayed steady, but far more cautious. There were areas where we had to climb over small piles of rocks, warning of possible future cave-ins or collapses. Jocelyn gave me a worried look, but pressed on. Eventually the silence gave way to a sound that I have heard in every nightmare since. Sobs.
They were heaving sobs, initially too frail to hear and distinguish from shifting rock. Yet as we continued on our path, they grew louder. They became sobs that reached right into my body and ripped out the last bit of air I had left.
While the sound was bad enough, once my light turned the corner and showed him sitting there on the ground, I felt my own knees begin to give out. I stumble toward him, ignoring the pain as my bloody hands began to clot with dirt. I did not know what happened, but I felt tears behind my own eyes, heard them in the unsteady waver of my voice.
“Brian, what’s wrong? What happened?” The words fell out into the dead air as my eyes took in the little details. They saw Brian’s hands, bloodied, the nail beds jagged and raw, pressed up against the wall. They saw the smudges of dirt along the edge of his short sleeves, noted deep bruises already beginning to bloom. Pieces to a puzzle I could not and cannot understand.
“She—She—There were bats,” his words broke up into sobs as he sat up, his eyes fixated on the immovable stone I front of us.
“Where is Hayley?” I whimpered, my own tears beginning to flow. My mind reeled in the darkness, leaving me bereft with only lips to numbly spill forth questions.
“They flew,” he moved his hands in a swooping motion. “And she just started screaming and running.” He sniffed, his tears streaming down his face in solid lines of immeasurable sorrow. “And she ran—” at this, his words again dissolved under a wave of tears as gestured weakly to the wall in front of him.
“Brian, where did she go?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed, eyes wild in bewilderment. “I saw her running down here, and—and I followed. But then she was gone.”
I felt my heart begin to panic even as my mind began to collect itself. So, Hayley was lost in the caves. This was bad, but not terrible. “Okay, so she got lost. We can retrace our path and check out any other ways she might—”
“No,” Brian interjected sharply. “You don’t understand. I saw her run down here. I saw her run through there!” His finger jutted out towards the cold gray wall, trembling with the force of his statement.
“Brian, that’s a solid wall,” began Jocelyn, calmly and what she intended as soothing. I winced as she continued. “There’s no way she could have done that. Maybe the dark played tricks on you—”
“Is that your answer for everything?!” He yelled, and I felt a dim sense of retribution I did not even know I wanted. “She disappeared! She ran straight through this!” His fist pounded against the wall.
“Is there a trap door or something,” I offered, trying to make sense of this. Brian simply slumped over and sobbed.
“Even if there is, we may not be able to find it,” responded Jocelyn, meekly. “We should head out and find some park rangers.”
There was silence between us, punctuated by the sounds of Brian’s sobs. He was devastated and probably certain he was losing his mind. He had watched the love of his life sprint in terror through a solid rock wall, and nothing about that made sense. My heart aches for him even thinking about that.
“Brian?” I put a hand on his arm. “We need to get some park rangers.” His sobs paused as he looked up at me.
“Do you think they can find her?”
“I’m sure of it. And they have all the best equipment. I bet they even have special training just for this,” the words felt hollow in my mouth, but they gave light back to his eyes.
“You’re right,” he agreed, clinging desperately to the hope I had fabricated. “I bet they do this all the time. They’ll find her.” He was up and walking back the way we entered before I realized it, suddenly empowered by hope.
Jocelyn caught my shoulder as we followed him. “Mark, you know she couldn’t have—”
I cut her off, feeling a rising tide of dull anger as she stomped on our hopes. “I know. But she could be lost.”
“Of course,” she mumbled, “It’s just—none of this makes sense, does it?”
I did not want to answer, because to admit to the insanity we were living in would make it all the more horrible. “I’ve got to keep an eye on Brian. He’s not really in his right mind.” I jogged the few steps ahead to catch him, leaving Jocelyn a few steps behind. I cared about her deeply, but in that moment, she was an outsider to our drama. I had known Brian and Hayley for years. I knew Brian would not have given up on her easily. But Jocelyn couldn’t understand what this was, couldn’t fully comprehend the way the world was suddenly no longer real to either of us. It wasn’t her fault, but I felt I should punish her for it anyway. “Watch your step, Bri. You dropped your pack up ahead.”
He nodded, grunting in the dark as he dutifully trained his flashlight on the floor in front of him. We trekked on in silence for a few moments, the only sound the crunch of our feet on the ground and Brian’s occasional sniffle. He was the one to break the silence. “How could she just disappear?” he whispered.
“I—” the words, intended to be healing and jovial, dried up in my mouth. “I don’t know, Brian. She couldn’t have, right?”
“Right,” he mumbled, “she couldn’t have. Exactly.” I felt a knot of tension ease a bit as we planted ourselves firmly in reality again, only to re-emerge as he spoke again. “Then how did she do it?”
I had no answer, and the feeling of dread in my stomach was beginning to gnaw straight through me. “I’m sure the park rangers will be able to help.” The words were useless, and I believed them no more than I could believe Hayley disappeared behind a rock wall. But if we were to be in the habit of believing impossible things, it was at least a comforting one to cling to. Brian pushed on ahead of me, unwilling to share my hope. We three walked along in silent darkness, individual islands in pools of artificial light, wearily trodding through the belly of the beast.
We never found Brian’s pack. In the moment, that fact dimly registered on my clouded mind, but it is something which has continued to haunt me. There was no way to miss it; the path we were on had not deviated or branched along the way. We followed the arrows in reverse, finding scrawled reminders every step along the way. But the pack in the center of the path was gone, and we exited the side passage without any sign of it. It became one more impossibility in a series of increasingly impossible events.
As we entered the cavern, Jocelyn caught my elbow. There was a softness in her voice that soothed my injured feelings. “Are you okay?” she whispered, careful to keep it below Brian’s hearing.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Just stressed. And worried.”
“I know. But, it will work out.” As much as she intended that as a reassuring statement, I could hear the question in her voice.
“It will. We just need to get out of here and get some professional help.” I tried to sound optimistic, conjuring every positive bone in me to make it convincing.
“Exactly,” her voice relaxed. “But, I need to grab my pack and pants before we leave. We don’t need another injury trying to get out.”
She was right and I felt sudden tension arise within me. She needed to go back to the other side of the cavern, but Brian was on a tunnel-visioned war path to the exit. Deterring him would be impossible, and leaving her in that half-clothed state would slow us down if not stop us completely with an injury.
“I can run over and catch up with you guys. I’ll be back before you make it up the side,” she offered, reading my mind. The tension dissolved; I could live up to both my responsibilities.
“Yeah, that’s a good plan,” I agreed stupidly. She smiled, kissed my cheek, and took off towards the little pool that had housed such peace only moments before. Brian watched her leave, dulled confusion flashing across his grief-stricken face. “She’s going to pick some stuff up and meet us, Bri. Let’s just keep going.” He dutifully obliged.
If our trip had not been traumatic already, it began to explode into impossibilities with that decision. Believe me when I’ve said I’ve spent weeks and months replaying all these events, as if I could somehow alter what happened by imagining all the different scenarios. We were doomed before we set foot in those caves, and that is the only thing I can be certain of. Brian and I had just reached the wall to climb up when there was a brief scream cut short by the sound of splashing water. We both turned, immediately alarmed.
“Jocelyn?” I called out. My own words echoed back to me, and died away to silence. “Jocelyn!” I called again, panic rising in my voice. The sounds of splashing water and coughs greeted me as I continued to call her name, praying for a response. “We’ve got to go,” I said, turning to Brian. He had turned back to the wall.
“We have to get help,” he growled robotically, repeating my mantra back to me.
“Brian, she could be in trouble. We have to check on her.” I was already turned and moving, certain he would accompany me. Instead I heard the grinding sound of his flashlight on the rocks as he pulled himself up.
“We have to get help.”
I barely heard him, already moving as quickly as possible across the floor of the cavern. The light of my flashlight was increasingly weak, dully lighting a small circle in front of my feet. I did my best to avoid other pools, making my way to the one that glowed dimly, flinging furious shadows on the wall. The sound of splashing and sputtering grew louder as I came closer.
Jocelyn was in the center of the pool, her flashlight clipped to her pack and casting wild shadows as she fought against something unseen. I rushed to the edge, lying flat in a desperate attempt to reach her, but she floated inches from my fingertips.
I saw her eyes, roving and mad as a wounded animal. She groped blindly against the water, struggling to pull herself to the edge. I could not see what kept her, but it was a frozen moment of pure panic. I dove in to the water, feeling it begin to drag me down. But I fought ferociously towards her, even as her head dipped below the surface of the water.
Her hand was in mine. In that final moment, I felt her fingers wrap around mine, and I was certain I had her and could pull her to safety. Her eyes found mine, pleading with me to bring her back to the surface, and I tried to bring her close to me.
But something else pulled at her, dragging her towards the murky bottom. Her fingers gripped mine with vice-like grip, her eyes growing more and more desperate as air escaped her in a flurry of bubbles. She was screaming as she disappeared into the depths. I refused to let her go, but her hand began to feel like pure fire in my hand. It burned, deadening the nerves in my hand until I could not even feel her pull away. She descended, dragged by an impossible spot of light. It was brighter than the light of her flashlight, wavering in and out of our reality as it gently surrounded her, pulling her further and further away. I watched her eyes go from panicked to scared to unfocused as it pulled her away.
I swam to the surface, refilling my lungs with air. There was nothing I could do. I watched that creature drag her downwards, the light of her flashlight illuminating that face, frozen in pleading terror, until it was too small to see. The depths swallowed her alive; that thing carried her into impossible waters where I could not reach.
I sat sobbing in the water, no longer knowing what part of this world still inhabited reality. In the distance, I could see the small light of Brian climbing his way to the surface, dutifully going to get help. Part of me thought about just sinking down right there, discovering whatever inevitable bottom this hungry pool had. I felt certain in that moment that we were no longer a part of reality as we knew it, so what would my death even matter? This cave simply devoured us as soon as we entered, and now it was playing with us. As unhinged as those thoughts sound in the light of day, there is still a part of me that fully believes that. I think, sometimes, that maybe I did just sink away in that pool, and this is all the last gasps of my oxygen deprived brain. Maybe that’s the afterlife. Maybe these memories are my hell, that creature my personal demon.
Someone dragged my body from the water. I assume I did, though I have no memory of it. I cannot remember the walk across the cavern back to the wall. I remember dim awareness of my still numb hand dangling at my side as I followed Brian’s beacon. I remember Brian progressing solidly, dutifully following the arrows marking the safe path. I remember the impossible light moving through the darkness, leading his trail. I remember the way the arrows had changed their direction on our entrance, and saw a new path emblazoned before Brian. There was no time to intervene as my brain slowly put the preposterous pieces together. In a single instant, I heard his brief shout as the step gave way beneath him. I watched his flashlight traced his path to the floor before getting buried under a pile of loosened rock and debris. I felt everything inside of me crumble into dust at the shattered world I lived in.
His face, pinned beneath the rubble, is painted sharply in my mind. His body was twisted unnaturally, like some doll pulled apart and haphazardly stuck back together. Some joints pointed the wrong way, and there was a splatter of red on the rock near his head. Most of him was lost beneath the rocks, but I saw cold eyes looking at me from a head turned sharply away from me. There was no pulse, but I knew before I even checked. That thing had brought us to be devoured.
As if I had not yet paid my debts, my flashlight gave out.
How long I sat there sobbing in the dark, I do not know. Time only has meaning in relation to the life we have left, and as far as I was concerned, I was already dead. I had disappeared in twisting caverns, drowned in an impossible pool, and fallen between crushing rocks.
The light that lived in perfect darkness flitted around me, staying just far enough away to be noticed but barely seen. It waited on its haunches, watching me with those golden eyes as it shifted between real and not real imperceptibly. I was trapped in the dark, no idea where to go, and it waited patiently for me.
Eventually I could not sit there any longer next to the rapidly cooling body of my best friend. I stood, pacing along the wall. I kept a hand on the cool stone, staggering long as if it would suddenly open back into the wide open world. I felt despair as I thought of never seeing the blue sky again, of never seeing anything but this infinite blackness. I turned to walk back and saw the creature floating around Brian. It was a haze covering the area that I instinctively knew was the tomb. I rushed towards it, shouting as if chasing away a scavenger. In an instant, it was simply gone, leaving only the blackness. I sank again to my knees, crying out tears that burned and stung my raw cheeks.
It was hunger that finally drove me to my feet, stumbling again along the wall as if I could find some magic passageway. I carefully walked along the wall, dutifully avoiding turning back and risking stumbling over that grisly scene. If I did that, I am certain I never would have moved again. Or worse, I would have fled screaming into that infinite darkness, another soul swallowed up.
The sound of my shoes scuffling along the dirt floor was suddenly interrupted by a decidedly foreign sound. Something crunched under my feet, the sound echoing over and over in the silence. In my desperation I laughed, recognizing the intruding sound of the chip wrapper in the darkness. I was likely delirious with grief, hunger, and dehydration at this point, but I took it as a sign of salvation, wildly climbing onto the rock surface and feeling out a path. I crawled along that wall, my one good hand and feet constantly reaching out to feel for any stable surface. I laughed as I rose steadily above the floor, groping through the gravel and dust like a blind man. I avoided any path marked by that awful creature, always moving further and further away from it as I moved higher and higher. Eventually, I found my hands gripping the edge where a wide expanse stretched out before me. Still crawling, I found orange peels and food scraps littering the floor. I laughed and stood, racing towards what I hoped was an exit.
Despite the odds, I finally found myself back in the first opening, back where Brian had seen his bat and mocked my concerns. I reached out to the wall, trying to find the way out. It was in here, I was certain. My fingers trailed along the rock face, puling and gripping it as if I would tear down the mountain just to be free. Surely, the opening was here. I briefly felt chalk under my fingers, pointing in a direction that I could not decipher. It was likely meaningless anyway. Still, no gap appeared in the rock. I continued my search until my fingers felt chalk again, and again. I was going in circles, but could find no opening. It was as if the cave has sealed its lips tight, swallowing me inside. The walls seemed to spin and move around me, putting the exit always a few inches away, I was sure. In the darkness behind me, I felt I could see glimpses of light moving to and fro, blocking any hope of progress.
In despair, I fell to the floor. I was crying cold tears that I could not feel until they landed softly on my hands. My sobs came in silent waves as my mind tried to process my own fate of either starving or freezing to death in this rocky tomb. I wondered if anyone would ever even find my body. It could have been minutes or it could have been days—time only existed as a running count of the overwhelming burden of tragedy on my life—but eventually I saw a light move in the darkness, drawing nearer and nearer to me. It moved gracefully, but impossibly slow in the darkness until it stopped just in front of my face, its eyes meeting my own. Those eyes were huge, encompassing the whole room, the whole cave, possibly the whole world. I could see everything contained within them, and most importantly I could also see myself. My own eyes looked back at me in there. And, suddenly, my own thoughts and memories began to play.
It sighed contentedly, drinking in all these precious moments from my life. First days of school, best friends, true loves, and endless opportunity played before me. The creature reached out, its hand seeming to move through my eyes and into my body, shuffling through my deepest personal thoughts and pulling at something that the rest of me fought to keep back. It continued to pry, however, and I felt my reserves give way. The cave flashed into my mind, playing back before me in the world of that thing’s eyes. Laughter, anger, fear filled me with each relived memory. I saw Brian lying bloody and twisted, heard the sound of Hayley’s shrieks grow dimmer and dimmer. Jocelyn floated away from me, a terrified statue etched in ivory as it drifted through the inky black water. I heard the sound of dogs—
Dogs? The creature recoiled for a moment as I was brought back into the present. Yes, dogs barking nearby. Perhaps a rescue, I dared to dream. No, the entity seemed to whisper back to me, not dogs, just lonely wolves seeking their next meal. My strength was failing as the creature drew more and more of me out, trying to drink away the last vestiges of life I had left, but the sound of dogs gave me strength to fight back. I steeled myself, trying not to remember, not to think about my life before. All I had now was the thought of a life lived in the bright air and sunshine yet again. The creature’s grip on me tightened, and I felt that hope begin to waver as it found moment after moment of adoration with Jocelyn at the center. The smell of her hair, the feel of her skin, the warmth of her lips—all faded to cold, dead memory as her eyes pleaded with me in the dark water. She drifted away from me, her fingers slipping through mine and into oblivion.
But no, I fought. I tried to muster a yell, to let them know I was here, but my throat was so parched that I could barely manage a whisper. Nonetheless, I could hear the barking louder now, maybe even echoing off the walls around me. Salvation!
The creature screeched as the flashlights of the rescue team came into view. I dimly felt them speaking to me through the golden haze of its eyes. My lips moved, but there was no sound, only the ever increasing fury of whatever thing had me in its grasp. I felt water flowing down my throat, something warm wrapping around my body. In their hands, I began to feel the creature’s grip loosening. I was winning the fight and pulling away. There was a stretcher, and a light pinprick on my arm, and then they moved me out of the creature’s lair, away from its prying eyes. At some point a fresh breeze hit my face, and I felt tears spring up again. At some point, their voices began to fill my head before turning into a nonsensical buzz in my personal delirium. At some point, the golden hued world of the creature’s eyes gave way to impenetrable blackness once again, and I slept.
They found Brian right where I told them, his head still stuck at that unnatural angle. At least they managed to fix it for the funeral. Hayley and Jocelyn were never found; they searched all the pools in that cavern, and assured me that none of those was deep enough to drown in. As for Hayley, well, the caves had a funny way of turning around on you. And they went for miles. Shock, they called it. Trauma. Of course, it didn’t matter to me what they said or found. I know what happened.
Everyone has a story. And there is something out there that needs our stories, that feeds on our stories. It appears to me that it has a taste for the sour flavor of despair, the tang of fear, and the bitterness of tragedy. Or maybe, like my shrinks keep saying, that’s just the story I’ve told myself.
We all have a story to tell.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.