by Aidan Lanz
The helicopter seeds spiraled down from the shaded canopy of the forest and brushed delicately against Callum’s arms and face as he trekked through the punishing underbrush. Scratching his legs as he went by, the bushes and ferns reached out in anguish at the beginning of their annual imperious dormancy. The air was so soaked that beads began to form on his skin and when he breathed, he was unsure whether or not he was actually drawing air.
He was confused as to why she asked to meet him in the middle of the forest. This better not be another one of her pointless expeditions, he thought to himself. She was always trying to find something to unearth, but she never did. It was always some else’s shed, or cellar, or clearing. Never hers. His frustration along with it being incredibly hot that day was beginning to wear away at his morale. He had been walking for about an hour and still had no idea where he was going, so he took a moment to sit and rest. He sat and watched a single ant crawl up his leg, momentarily getting caught in a small streak of blood that had begun oozing from one of the innumerable cuts on his legs. He picked up a large, red leaf from the ground, and coaxed the ant onto it. He lowered it to the ground, letting it scamper away to the safety of the tree.
An amused voice called out from beside him, “Callum! I told you to follow the stream until you found me. I shouldn’t have to go get you.” He spun around to see his friend Simone. She slid her bare feet around the bottom of the stream that ran through the forest, sucking the refreshing chill up through her whole body.
“I got tired,” he said getting to his feet. She gave him a disappointed look.
“Take off your shoes and get in here! We’re almost there.”
He slipped off his beaten up sneakers and dipped his sore feet into the cool creek. It pushed past him, sweeping away the pressing heat and cleaning the blood and sap from his calves. Rejuvenated, he followed Simone’s beckoning gaze up the stream.
He could hear the rushing of the cascade long before it came into view. They rounded a bend in the stream and were met with the misty scent of spray as they neared the basin. The water flowed from a cave on the limestone cliffside, the mouth of which yawned like a petrified animal.
She turned to him. “Let’s go! I’ve wanted to go find where the water starts for ages, but I was never brave enough to go alone.” He chuckled.
They scaled the step-like indentations in the rock face to reach the mouth of the cave. A cool breeze rushed by them, sending a sickening chill through Callum’s stomach. Simone reached into her backpack and pulled out two flashlights. She handed one to him. He took it and flicked it on with an echoing click. The walls of the cavern lit up, tinkling as drops of water rolled down the sinuous structures.
The stream flowed past them, growing less and less turbulent the further they traveled into the cliffside. The sounds of the forest faded away, replaced with only their dampened footsteps padding through the stream. Callum couldn’t help but feel as if this gradual peacefulness was luring him into a false sense of relaxation. It was like the cave itself was willing them to go deeper, whispering in their ears and promising peace in the quiet darkness of its arms.
Simone scanned the walls of the cave, Running her beam over the lifeless expanse. Nothing moved but the water beneath her feet and Callum beside her.
She reached over and grasped Callum’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Watching their step, Simone and Callum were drawn deeper into the cavern. It was hard to tell how far they had gone into the cliffside, or even how long they had been walking. Was it minutes? Hours? A day? The echoing of the cave became louder again.
“We must be close,” Simone muttered, surprised by the fluttering in her voice and how loud it seemed.
Sure enough, the cave widened into a large circular crevice. Callum shined his flashlight around, staring in awe at the height of the ceiling, which loomed hundreds of feet above them. Water rushed down in sheets from all sides, pooling in the center of the room before flowing out through the passage they had just come through.
They hugged each other, focusing more on the tunnel that led back than the new place that was theirs. It felt taken, and private. It was like they were trespassing.
Simone panned her flashlight down from the ceiling, letting if fall over an undefined lump across the room. They glanced at each other, exchanging confused glances. Slowly they advanced towards the dark mass.
They stood only a few feet away from what looked like a cloth or a blanket, soaked and rotting with years of water flowing over it. Simone knelt down and reached her hand towards the cloth. The instant her hand brushed against its surface, it crumbled away, revealing a row of cracked ribs with a withered expression. The body was contorted in a disturbing, tortured position. The blinding shine from the flashlight off of the bleached skull surrounded Simone; her eyes filling with its triumphant laughter in her dooming curiosity. She screamed, scrambling back, splashing her back against the wall. It soaked her fear and sent it explosively throughout her whole body, radiating through the cavern. Callum’s flashlight fell from his hand, shattering on the cave floor.
Simone’s scream scattered across the cave, beginning again and again in an agonizing loop. The walls of the cavern shook, and boulders began to crash from above. The sheets of water turned into torrents as the walls crumbled away.
Callum raced to Simone’s side, grabbing her hand and pulling her towards the exit.
“We have to go,” he yelled over the crashing and churning.
Stumbling as fast as they could manage, they raced forward, the thought of daylight pulling them ever faster towards the cave entrance. The water rushed close behind them, growling and chasing them. Dodging the falling stones, their bare feet were cut by the sharp rocks that littered the floor. Simone’s flashlight beam shook aimlessly around the cave as they ran. The water rushed past them, raising the level to their knees, tripping them up.
They struggled on, growing closer to the light of the mouth in the distance. Suddenly, a rock came crashing down, knocking Callum to the ground. Simone struggled back against the current to reach him. His leg was pinned to the cave floor. He screamed when she took his arms and tried to pull him out. Tears mixed with sweat and blood, and water.
“No. No. No.”
A rumbling began in the distance. Simone’s face filled with terror and desperation as the light from the cave entrance became scattered and then disappeared. The water pushed against the blocked cave door, and when it could not get through, it began to fill up the cave, fast. She frantically pulled at Callum’s leg, but to no avail. He opened his mouth to say something but was choked as a large wave passed over his head. Simone held tightly to his hand, pulling until she too was swept away by a crashing wave. Her hand slipped from his. Letting go, she held him close.
Callum held his breath, his heart racing faster and faster, his lungs crying with frustration and despair. His eyes were dark blue with the rushing water. Simone’s flashlight sat against a rock on the bottom of the stream, still shining. His heart, beating faster, then slower. Slow. Slow. A rock came crashing from the ceiling, shattering Simone’s flashlight. Black.
Simone was spinning, disoriented as the vengeful river threw her off of cave walls and floors. Bashing. She reached out her hand and took hold of a crack in the wall, the water struggling to pull her away. She held tightly. A wave pushed her from below and she went racing towards the ceiling.
The water spat her out in a small alcove in the ceiling. Shaking and weak, she pulled herself to sit against the wall, hugging her knees, her head back in a sorrowful plea. Her wet hair stuck to her shoulders and neck, clinging tightly to her for safety. She breathed slowly.
Her lip quivered, and a fluttering sigh escaped her soul.
“I’m so sorry, Callum.”
The water rose through the small hole in the alcove, running in tongues across the floor, licking her feet. She pushed herself against the wall. It coaxed her with its gurgling, and she slowly lowered her scraped and bleeding feet into the water. Sitting in it, she let it flow over her legs, higher. It picked her up gently as it flowed past her neck. Her feet left the floor and she floated up with the water, the pressure building in her head from the compressing of the air.
She reached up her hands to meet the fast-approaching ceiling. Pressing her lips to the stone, she drew one final breath and whispered triumphantly to the skull, the cave, the water, and to Callum, “One night awaits us all.”
She sank beneath the water, floating weightlessly into the bright, beloved night. Her soul, free. Her body, bequeathed.
Aidan Lanz is a junior in high school. He lives in the Twin Cities, where he enjoys competitive diving and cooking. His favorite writer is Margaret Edson. This is his first publication.