Terror in the Dark
Dave awoke to darkness so complete, he felt his face to make sure his eyes were open and he was not blindfolded. Rather, there was a trail of something sticky running down his forehead to his cheek and he followed it up to his scalp where he probed a tender lump with his fingertips. The pain brought back the memory of where he was and how he’d got there.
“Don’t go spelunking without a partner,” they’d warned him repeatedly, and just as often Dave had ignored the advice. He loved being underground, inside the living rock. The true wonders of the world were here, in the depths where the sun never shone, under the feet of the ordinary people who trod the surface in ignorance.
Dave wasn’t stupid; he knew that caving was a dangerous sport and he always carried proper gear and took safety measures. But he didn’t like company; other people slowed him down, or talked too much. He hoarded his experiences to himself, telling no one, not even taking pictures so that the images remained in his mind alone.
Today had begun like any other. Dave had risen before dawn, prepared his pack with his spelunking gear, and driven to a fissure he had descended before but not explored fully. He’d rappelled into it, leaving his line in place for the ascent back out, made sure his helmet lamp was working and his backup fully charged, and then proceeded down the water-carved tunnel he’d discovered earlier. Eventually it let out into a large cavern, resplendent with crystalline formations that dazzled him with rainbows when he shone his lamp on them. This was why he caved, for moments like this.
Dave made his way carefully around needle-like stalactites, blunt stalagmites, and pillars where the two had met and fused. One slip and a careless gesture could destroy the work of millions of years of slow dripping. This cave was special. Pristine. Magnificent.
Then his helmet light caught an opening at the rear of the cavern that did not appear natural. Closer inspection showed that it wasn’t, and curiosity urged Dave to explore further. It turned out to be an old mine shaft, abandoned when the miners had broken through to the cave. The path was twisty as the miners followed the veins of ore through the harder rock, and there were offshoots that turned the place into a maze. Dave carefully marked each turn he took with chalk so he would be able to find his way out.
Maneuvering through the narrow tunnels was hard work, and Dave took off his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow. At that moment, something seemed to jump out at him from the shadows and he jerked back, tripped over a small outcropping he’d missed moments earlier, then lurched forward and hit his head on the low ceiling. The next thing he knew, he was awakening to complete and utter darkness with a bump on his head and drying blood on his cheek.
Don’t panic, he told himself, and tried to stay calm. He felt for his helmet, but it had rolled away. He widened his search until his fingertips touched the hard plastic rim, and then found the lamp, shattered. That was bad. He searched through his pack for the backup lamp but couldn’t find it. Did he even have any matches on him? He couldn’t remember if he’d packed any. Trying desperately to stay calm, Dave felt his heartbeat quicken and his breathing become ragged. This was bad. He could try to retrace his steps, but there were all those twists and turns and maze-like side tunnels which he had so carefully marked, and which he could no longer see. Yes, this was really bad.
As Dave sat there on the hard rock floor and forced himself to be still, he started to hear sounds of which he’d been unaware before while his blood had been pounding in his ears: susurrations, soft murmurs like the rustling of leaves, or wings, or the scampering of small feet. Maybe there were bats in the tunnels and he could follow them out. Maybe there were rats which he could likewise follow. It was a good plan if he could only see them. Once more he searched through his pack for the spare lamp or a box of safety matches.
He became aware of a breeze that playfully stroked his cheek. Where was it coming from? Maybe that was the way out. He started to edge in that direction, then realized the breeze was stroking the other side of his face. How could that be? Now there was another sound, a wistful sighing, and then a quiet chuckle. This is crazy, Dave thought. Now I’m imagining things.
He tried to think. How long had he been here? How long had he lain unconscious after he hit his head? Would someone find his rappel line and think to come looking for him? He’d left his truck parked near the fissure. Surely someone would notice it and come searching. In the meantime, he had water in his canteen, some energy bars in his pack, and little else. The matches he almost always carried were not to be found. His backup lamp was missing. He knew he had seen it before he started exploring. Things didn’t just wander away by themselves.
Dave decided to retrace his steps, at least as far as the first branching tunnel. He might recognize something by feel that would cue him as to which way to turn. As he started walking he thought he heard footsteps behind him. He stopped and they stopped. It’s just the echo of my own footfalls, he told himself, and started walking again. Once more he heard the steps following him. He started hurrying, keeping one hand on the rock wall, hearing the steps behind him keeping pace. Suddenly he came to a corner where the tunnel turned and banged his cheek into the rock face. The footstep behind him stopped, too, but a moment after he himself had become motionless. This was no echo.
He whispered into the darkness, “Who’s there?” and a breeze caressed his bruised cheek. “Help me,” he whispered again, and this time distinctly heard a quiet chuckle and the rustle of something soft nearby. He reached out his hand and met emptiness.
Suddenly he remembered his cellphone. He had it with him, turned off. There was no reception this far underground, so there was no point wasting the battery, but it was a source of light. He fumbled in his pockets until he found it and turned it on. The screen lit up and emitted a soft glow that momentarily blinded him. He looked up and gasped.
Receding down the tunnel was something white and wispy, leaving a slight breeze in its wake. “Stop!” Dave shouted. The gauzy thing slowed, turned, and faced him for a moment before rounding a corner and vanishing. Just where it had disappeared was one of Dave’s chalk marks. He walked over to it and looked down the corridor, but the ghostly presence was nowhere. Carefully, conserving his phone’s battery, he found his way out of the warren of the mine and back into the geode of the cave where he’d first entered the tunnels. On the ground, just below the opening, was his backup lamp where it had fallen out of his pack as he’d squeezed into the narrow space.
Dave replaced the broken lamp with the backup and retraced his steps to where he’d left his rappel line. By the time he climbed into his pickup he was shaking badly. He leaned his forehead on the steering wheel and sobbed.
Submission for Elftown Prose Contest 2011