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Suspense

“You wanna do something fun?” 

I looked up at Janie, red, slick hands wiping the jean windshield that was my narrow thighs. I could see the heave in my chest, feel the bones rattling in my neck. Her eyes were bright and crazed, and standing up at this moment felt like lifting a car. Still, I stood.

“Something fun, huh? More fun than this?”

I gestured to my torso. The broken skin mixed with torn fabric and blood reminded me of the inside of a strawberry danish. Talk about taking a bite out of life. 

I could sense her resolve, and while not so much as glancing down at her well-done friend, she turned back around to the mouth of the cave. 

Eight hours earlier

“You know what I actually hate? It’s this. It’s what we’re doing.” 

I laughed out loud. This trip was all Janie’s idea. Her voice bounced around the stone walls, our tent doing little to muffle the acoustics. I watched her zip up her sleeping bag and stuff it neatly into the corner of our tiny, synthetic-blend green tent. 

“I thought you were dying to come here,” I snorted, lacing my boots up. I bought them specifically for this trip. The tread was new, leaving wet marks in the shape of my shoe size all over the freezing stone ground. As I did this, my ears caught the quiet drips of water whose mother lake hid miles within the earth.

“I was,” She sighed, disappointed. Whether it was in herself or in the great wonder that was nature, I wasn’t sure. 

There was a little truth to it. The glitz and magic of Destinations Magazine’s must-visit locations only included well-edited photos. Unbeknownst to its readers was the feeling of the unforgiving, freezing stone ground and the ten packs of astronaut food we spent good money to pack. Honesty doesn’t sell an article, however. 

“I think you’ll like it,” I lied, mostly talking to keep myself warm, “once we’re in there, we’ll be in there, you know?” 

Janie grunted at me in agreement. I shoved an extra bottle of water into my pack, and we made our way into the beloved Meramec. 

My companion turned on her headlamp first. “Weak,” I teased, and as she chuckled back at me from behind, “you’re not getting the true cave experience.” 

“I want to see what we came to see, Anna. Is that okay with you?” 

It was, but to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. Not yet, anyway. The glittering stalactites were about a mile away, past the slippery tundra of rocks and water. I turned my headlamp on then. 

As we crunched further in, the sound of droplets became more coherent, and every now and again we needed to slosh through puddles of ice water. It was always just enough distance to keep my boots wet, and mark my tracks. If there were any other direction to turn but forward, then it may have even been handy. 

Janie turned around to look at me, her headlamp making a black spot in my vision.

“What?” I asked, squinting. 

“What did you say?”

I covered my eyes with my hand. “I didn’t say anything, but you’re blinding me.” 

“Oh,” Janie switched off her light, “Sorry. Did you say something just now?”

“I said I didn’t.” 

I walked past her, eyeing her. She had come to a full stop to rummage through her bag, but she seemed fine. A few cones of mineral and stone began to appear, like a ceiling of elderly teeth. I shined my light on them, watching them shift and glow. 

Stepping closer into the pocket of rock to get a closer look, I sank my boot into a knee-high tower of freezing water. Damn. I pulled the full weight of my body out with my arms, catching the silver bodies of cave fish swimming  inside with my headlamp. 

“Janie! Hey, there’s some fish over here.” 

Nothing.

“Janie? Let’s stay together, okay?” 

I continued to call out for her, listening for the rustle of her backpack. The floor of the cave copied her footsteps, leading much more deeply up the rocky path. I quickened my pace, almost running, my voice echoing over and over. The black of the cave swallowed my view of everything the light couldn’t touch. 

I ran further inward than I ever figured Janie would go without me, and thinking back, for much longer than I would have hoped. Time really plays tricks on you in the catacombs. 

“Anna.” 

From behind me, Janie’s voice was low and calm. Low enough not to echo, even. I turned around to see her. 

“Janie, what the hell? I was looking for you!”

Her face was incredulous. “Yeah, Anna, you were running. I wasn’t sure if maybe there was a bear or something.” 

A bear? Her breaths were heavy, perhaps from having to run after me. “I don’t think a bear would wander in here.” I scoffed. “Let’s just make sure to stick together.”

Janie made a face. “Speak for yourself.” 

We continued our trek into the cave, next to the drying footsteps I thought were my friend’s. Unable to stop myself, I finally looked down at them. Size ten. 

“What now, Anna?”

“These haven’t been here the whole time, have they?” I motioned to the tracks. 

Janie looked nervous. “I don’t remember them. But there could be other hikers here. I mean, this place has to be popular.” 

I nodded. Other hikers, here because of the spread in Destinations Magazine. It made sense, but wouldn’t we have seen them? I spanned the length of the cave with my headlamp. Nobody. 

My anxiety matched Janie’s now, as we squinted at each other through our blaring lights. I watched Janie rifle through her bag once more, and this time, I waited for her. 

“What are you doing?” 

She seemed hypervigilant now, the rifling becoming a blatant search. “I can’t find my phone. I thought I left it on earlier, I heard voices. I thought it was you.” 

I remembered. Janie went down on her knees to search, emptying her pack. I helped her, going through our snacks and water. No phone. 

“It’s probably in the tent. We have mine, if anything happens.” 

If anything happens? I knew I shouldn’t have said it. 

“Make sure you have it,” Janie said, pulling my backpack off my shoulders, “just in case.” 

  I obliged, but somehow, I knew. I unzipped the top for her, eyes glossy. When all the pockets were empty, I repacked my bag with sweaty hands.

I remembered packing my phone. Better than stepping into the water, better than my sixteenth birthday, I remembered. I looked up at Janie, who was still glaring at the overwhelmingly large bootprints.

“Let’s go back,” she suggested, shivering. “We haven’t gone far, maybe thirty minutes?” 

There was no way to tell how long we’d been here. No sky, no time. But I nodded. I was cold, and I knew Janie was going to do what she wanted regardless of my feelings-- especially if my feelings were that we’d been exploring for significantly longer than half an hour.

“Anna.”

I was zipping the last pocket. “What, Janie?” 

I turned my head toward her voice. When she wasn’t standing there, I felt a familiar hand on my bicep. Shaking, pitched high, Janie whispered in my ear.

 “That wasn’t me.” 

I wrapped my arm around my back to feel her inches behind me. I began to stand, and she mirrored me until we were both upright. 

“Do you have all your stuff?” I whispered back.

“Yes.” 

“Let’s go.” 

We ran. Somehow, we decided at the same time that an all-out sprint was appropriate. As we were running, I watched the ground. Fresh, wet size tens faced opposite us on the stone floor of the cave. I started to slow down when I noticed them disappearing. 

Anna began to jog with me, and we both stopped at a small joint in the leg of the cave. For a second, I wondered if we were two girls who fell hilariously victim to a silly prank. We stood there to stare at each other, our chests inflating a little less with each passing second. 

Click

A bright flash of white hit the black air like lightning, blinding us for a moment. Janie stumbled back, and as I went to catch her, I felt something hit my abdomen. I was facing the wall, my arm reaching out sideways to reach her. Harsh, copper penny blood creeped up from my throat into my mouth. 

“Anna, oh my god!”

Another click, and a flash, like a camera. I grabbed Janie’s collar and dragged her out of the corner we were in, waving my left over arm at anyone who may have been in front of us. I couldn’t see anyone worth running from, but my now-bitter tongue said otherwise.  

When I felt confident that Janie had chosen flight over fight, I let go of her and felt down my stomach. Perpendicular to my body was a long, cold object, jutting neatly from my ribs. It was too thick to be a knife, and really too rough to be any traditional weapon of which I could imagine. 

My boot caught uneven ground, sending me flying onto my back. My head hit the rocks, freezing stone immediately soothing the hot pain that followed. 

“Janie! Janie, I fell!” It came out like begging. 

She slid to a stop, turning around to face me. I arched my neck away from her, back into the sorry, sullen earth that was suddenly very noisy.

Barreling down the length of the cave came a man. He was large, over six feet, pounding the ground with thick, black soled hiking boots. He wore an army green jumpsuit, and held a camera close to his body. He had a rough beard, and blue eyes-- 

Janie picked me up with strength that surprised me. “Anna, let’s go.” 

We continued to run, and my mind raced with us. I knew that man. I knew his face, but I couldn’t place it. I felt like I should have, while I was awaiting my inevitable death on the floor. Coward.

Reporter: Can you tell me the most exciting place you’ve ever explored?

Bairn: Absolutely… I visit a lot of places, and I’ve always, uh, figured I’d never choose a favorite. I mean, all over the world, you know? But there is one. 

Reporter: Care to elaborate? 

“Anna, are you okay? Anna!” Janie’s voice echoed in front of me. 

I had slowed down, almost to a stop. I knew where we were now, very, very close to camp. Maybe five more minutes and we’d reach the tent. 

“Anna!” 

“Janie, keep running!”

Janie stared at me, incredulous. But to my intense surprise, she did as I asked. I turned around. And I waited, while this flashback continued to play. 

Bairn: There’s a cave in Missouri, the Meramec Caverns. It’s amazing. You can really be… alone, in there, you know? No one, and I mean no one, can find you. 

Reporter: And you enjoyed that? 

Bairn: Of course. You can do anything. Be anyone. When I think, “Hey, you wanna do something fun?” I think of Meramec.

Mark Bairn. He was close now. I egged him over to me, acting hurt, helpless. I stood against the deceivingly small pond of water that maimed my still-soaked pant leg.  

“Please, no,” I feigned, my big doe eyes black under my headlamp.

I watched him sink long-ways into the deep, narrow cave water. He splashed and slipped around, his enormous arms grabbing for me. Waiting for an opening, I lifted my leg as high as I could. 

I landed an even, sturdy kick to the face, and his head hit the corner of the pool. Splat.

While he was limp, I slipped the strap of the camera over his head, and stuffed it into my jacket. He looked like a goner, but there was no way to be sure until I could get his pulse. Instead of doing my due diligence, I ran as fast as I could to meet Janie. 

When I found her, I realized just how late it was. 

“Anna…” 

It was the first chance I had to look down at myself. A stalactite, once pinky brown, was now red and lodged squarely into my ribcage. Giving Mark Bairn’s camera to Janie, I began to unlodge it. 

“Not so deep,” I grunted, the tip coming out easier than I could have hoped. She made a face, and I noticed a large rock in her left hand. 

“Where’s that guy?” Game face, Janie.

“That guy is Mark Bairn. It was his article that we read in Destinations.”

I decided not to watch her eyes widen, or to console her in the emotional death of her favorite literature. Instead, I sat down, taking my boot off to make a bandage out of my only dry sock. After a few minutes of peaceful silence, she sat down next to me, his camera around her neck.

We flipped through the contents, most of which were photos, but there were videos as well. Men, women, children. Most dead, some dying. From behind us, our camera man groaned. 

I stared into Janie’s face, and she began to stand. She still had her rock. 

End.

October 08, 2021 01:31

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