Short Story Of the Day, The End of Spelunking by Bill Chance

“I wanted a metamorphosis, a change to fish, to leviathan, to destroyer. I wanted the earth to open up, to swallow everything in one engulfing yawn. I wanted to see the city buried fathoms deep in the bosom of the sea. I wanted to sit in a cave and read by candlelight. I wanted that eye extinguished so that I might have a chance to know my own body, my own desires. I wanted to be alone for a thousand years in order to reflect on what I had seen and heard – and in order to forget.”
― Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn

Cisco, by Mac Whitney, Frisco, Texas

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#40). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


The End of Spelunking

Sammy was a big kid – for his age – big and clumsy. “And lazy,” his father would add. His father said that so many times that even Sammy began to believe him.

“Look at you!” old women would exclaim, “I bet you play football!” Sammy would murmur, “No Ma’am.” Every year Sammy’s father would pressure him to try out for the team.

“Do you some goddamn good,” he’d say, “Get yer nose out of them goddamn books.”

But Sammy didn’t want to get his nose out of them goddamn books. His stomach would churn and his head would pound during spring tryouts and Sammy would complain to his mother – who would keep him home and write him an excuse note.

“Nothing wrong with that kid that a good ass-kicking won’t fix,” was his father’s opinion – though Sammy couldn’t see how that would help him at all.

Sammy was home in bed for the duration of spring football tryouts and when his mother retired for her afternoon nap he reached under the bed and pulled out a library book he had hidden away.

The book was called, “The History, Geography and Geology of the Looking Glass Batholith.” Like every year, his father had reserved a resort cabin at Looking Glass for the family for a week of vacation. A handful of his father’s buddies from work went too – for them, it would be golf all day, poker games all night – which would leave Sammy out in the cold. Literally. His father liked to host the poker games in their cabin and Sammy would end up sleeping in the back seat of the car to get away from the booze and the smoke.

The resort was nestled in a rugged little valley with rounded pink granite domes ridging the eastern end. The domed formation was called a “batholith” and every year Sammy would gaze longingly at their stark beauty – the way the color of the living rock would change at dawn and dusk, in bright sunlight or rolling fog. Every year he would stare and think about how it would feel to climb the domes.

Otherwise, he was bored to tears.

But now, he figured he was old enough to go up into those hills, climb the batholith itself. He told his parents his plans.

His mother spewed her usual warning, “Now, just be careful, I don’t know… there’s so much that could….”

“Dammit, let the kid go for his silly hike if he wants.”

His father spit the word “hike” out like it was irritating the inside of his mouth. “At least he’ll get the hell out of our hair for a coupla hours.”

Sammy had the book and was studying the Looking Glass domes. He learned how they were formed by hot buoyant magma rising through the earth’s crust and then exposed by eons of weathering. Once exposed to the air their crystal structure changes and they throw off layers of rock like a peeling onion.

Reading this, Sammy would shiver with anticipation. As he devoured the information, greedily thumbing from page to page, totally engrossed in the timeless world of geography, a folded piece of paper fluttered out of the book and blew in the slight breeze from the window out over his bedroom floor.

He dove from the covers and fetched up the paper, sitting at his desk to carefully unfold it. It was a page torn from a spiral notebook, and didn’t look too old. Someone had left it in the book. It was covered with dense writing and a couple of large diagrams filling the extra space from corner to corner.

The top of the page was labeled, “Professor Jennings, Geo 441 class, Field Trip Notes,” and under that “Spelunking.” His excitement grew as he scanned the written notes and began to understand the drawings.

This was a map of a cave system in the highest dome along the ridge. He had read that caves in granite were rare but that sometimes the onion layers of peeling granite had space between, leaving a long, steep curling cave under the weathering sliver of rock. There was no mention of any particular cave in the book from the library. The geology students must have discovered it on their field trip.

The notes were not extensive, but Sammy could figure out the entrance from the description, plus there was a notation about an “UV Arrow” left behind on the rock. Sammy had a geologists’ blacklight, battery powered, and knew he could use that to visualize the invisible arrow painted on by the students.

It looked like there was an entrance near the top of the dome and an exit down near the bottom. One way in, one way out.

Sammy trembled as he decided he’d give it a shot. His mother would not let him do this and he’d have to sneak out on his own. He dug for his cash out of the old tin can on his nightstand – he’d stop by the camp store and buy a new, strong, waterproof flashlight.

————————————————

Sammy was still out of breath from the effort of walking up the side of the mass of rock. There was a lot of friction between the rough stone and the rubber on the bottoms of his tennis shoes and he was surprised at how steep an angle he could simply walk up. It was an almost perfect dome, like a salad bowl turned upside down.

As best as he could tell from the paper; the entrance to the cave was somewhere near the top. He wandered and walked around, frustrated. He almost gave up. But finally he found a dark crack partially hidden by a stray boulder and an isolated bit of scrub brush, and hanging over the edge, he could see it opened up and continued down in a zigzag between squarish boulders jammed into the crack. Sammy fished his flashlight out, clicked it on, and waved it down into the darkness. Immediately a ghostly green arrow glowed out from the flat side of the crack, pointing downward.

He had found the cave.

Sammy was not prepared for how frightening the cave looked. It was a jagged, dark crack, piercing down into stark blackness. It did not look inviting, interesting, or fun. Dejected, Sammy sat back along the edge of the crack and ate a bologna sandwich that his mother had packed. He looked down into the darkness while he ate. He had told nobody about his plans or the cave. No one would be able to tease him about his cowardice. It was getting late anyway.

He sat there for a long time and stared at the brown bag leftover from his lunch. His mother had drawn a heart on it with a red marker. He pulled a self-striking match from a little container he carried, swiped it on the rock, lit the bag, and dropped it flaming down into the cave, watching the yellow flame and swinging shadows as it tumbled down into the depths.

Without thinking about it, he felt himself gathering everything up into his hiking bag, and clicking his new flashlight on. With a simple sigh he slid off the edge and lowered himself down into the crack.

The cave was very irregular. At the top it was wide and the only difficultly was finding his way around the boulders that obstructed the passage. After dropping down, the cave turned and moved sideways for a while, blocking off all light from the entrance. Sammy flicked his light off for a split second until the absolute subterranean blackness scared him and he turned the flashlight back on.

As he pushed farther into the cave it began to narrow and curve downward. Sammy had to slide over some steep drops, scraping his elbows and knees on the rough surface and suddenly realized that he would not be able to retrace his steps back to the surface the way he had come down. He had to fight back the first fluttering feelings of panic deep down in his gut. The paper had definitely shown a second exit at the bottom of the cave, another way out. His sweat started to come out cold as he realized that he had staked his life on a scribbled map he had found loose in a library book.

Sammy had no idea how long he had been down inside the cave. It was dead quiet except for the fast pulse of his echoed breathing and an occasional squeak of tennis shoe on stone. There was only the yellow beam of his flashlight and the curving layers of granite, gray and pink, sprinkled with dark glinting flecks of mica and glowing crystals of quartz. The whole world closed into the narrow plunging walls of the cave passage and Sammy had no choice but to press forward.

As he pushed forward the crack was beginning to close up and the rocks that were wedged in were smaller, jagged, and sharp. The only way was to slide down the steep passage, feeling with his feet as he went.

Suddenly his shoes stopped up against flat rock. The opening had dead ended. Sammy frantically tried retreating upward, but he kept sliding back down until his elbows and forearms were scraped raw. Under the yellow flashlight streaks of his blood showed black on the stone.

Desperate, choking back panic, he looked around. Shining his flashlight at the dead floor he noticed a small gap off to one side. It was the only way out. He didn’t think he could fit through there. He had no choice but to try.

He pushed his feet down the hole and they went down a few feet until they met another obstruction. Wiggling his toes he felt space out if front. The passage made a right turn. Holding his hands over his head, Sammy sat down into the hole, wiggling his body down and forward, until he was jammed in with his legs out in front, extending down the narrow hole.

As he wriggled, his shirt was pulled off over his head, his bare skin scraping against the tearing granite. Desperate, he pushed down until his head descended through the opening. Now he was committed – no way to work backward – his only option was to push on and hope it opened up.

Wedged in, his bare chest constricted between the walls of rock, he could sense his feet extended out over space. He felt nothing but open air. He had to stop moving for a minute, pinned in, barely able to breathe, and fight the panic welling up from deep within his gut. He knew that if he lost it, if he panicked, if he gave in to the fear and claustrophobia – he would wedge himself in even worse, and die slowly, die writhing, die trapped, choked to death by the terrible weight of the entire mountain above him.

He realized that nobody would ever find him.

He stayed motionless until the fear began to subside. He fought back until he was able to enter a place of calm. He knew that he didn’t want to die down in that terrible hole, but still he learned, learned suddenly because he had no other choice, to accept whatever was about to happen, accept it and push on.

With a sudden sense of calm, Sammy found his muscles relaxed a little and he was able to slide down more easily. He wriggled around the bend and felt his feet, calves, knees and thighs extending out over nothingness. His waist reached the edge and Sammy twisted around on his belly; then lowered down.

Sammy jammed the flashlight into his mouth and then used both hands to hang from the opening. His feet still dangled free and he had no idea how far he would fall if he let go. He could only look up at his torn and bloody hands holding the edge. He had no choice though, so he relaxed his grip and dropped.

His shoes hit solid rock after falling no more than six inches.

There was a little extra space. He paused, looked around, and pulled his shirt out of the hole over his head. His shirt was a torn shred of a rag and blood was dripping from a hundred little scrapes and cuts. He felt great.

The passageway that led out of the little room was not high enough to stand in, but almost. It bent around and began to dive down but something caught Sammy’s eye. He clicked off his flashlight and, sure enough, there was a faint, gray glow filtering through the tunnel ahead of him. One last tight squeeze and he popped out into a tumble of twisted trees bathed by the dim sunset light.

Night fell quickly but Sammy had no problem finding the trail that ran along the base of the dome and led back to the resort. The moon and stars were like beacons. He had never noticed the silver beauty of the night sky.

Back at his parent’s car outside the cabin, Sammy fished a clean shirt out from below the seat and hid the torn one under some beer cans in the trash. His mother was glad to see him, but the poker game was going loud and strong and nobody seemed to pay him much mind.

There was some leftover fried chicken and Sammy took some out to the car. He wanted to read by flashlight and then get some sleep. He had always been humiliated by having to curl up in the back seat of the car but now he didn’t mind.

————————————————

The next week, vacation over, back at home, Sammy felt a warm pride when he thought about his adventure in the cave – he could feel the germ of a hard knot of courage – little more than a speck now, but maybe to grow like a pearl in his chest.

But when he thought specifically about the memory of the moment – the panic that came welling up when he felt the inexorable grip of the subterranean granite, his breath would gasp shallow and he would shiver with sudden cold sweat.

So he pulled out a worn notebook he kept hidden behind his set of encyclopedias and thumbed to a page with the title “THINGS TO DO” written in large block capitals across the top of a list. Scanning down carefully Sammy found “Spelunking” on a line a third of the way up from the bottom. He carefully marked the word out with a dark, even, horizontal line.

That made him feel a lot better.

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