James and the Cave
There are lots of ways for the teenage son of a single mom to get in trouble on the privileged streets of suburbia. I stole hubcaps and chromes off cars. I drank beer. I smoked pot a couple times and even tried to fall in line with a crowd more than twice my age. But the biggest mistake of all came when James and I decided to venture into the cave.
We knew the danger in that decision. We heard all of the stories. The kids in school said the cave contained more mysteries than even modern science could figure out. Lack of oxygen meant lack of exploration. No one knew exactly how deep the tunnels went. No one knew all of the different paths. There were short guided tours, sure, and vague maps too. But nobody in the ninth grade ever went in further than the entrance.
We just wanted to be the first ones.
It rained a lot that day. I remember very distinctly watching ten foot waves of water smack up against the rocks from up upon the beachhead. I wished it would stop. We had tried to entice a couple guys from school to come with us. We told them the story about the missing child from back in the 1800s. We even told them that hikers still heard his voice. But after a long wait, nobody showed. And we knew they would blame it on the storm.
“Bunch of pussies,” James shouted from the edge of the woods. “Let’s do it anyway. Then we can tell them about all the cool shit they missed.“
Without another word, he took off through the trees.
I followed him.
I don’t know if that will make sense to anyone reading this, at whatever time they read it. I never had many friends. I never had any siblings. James was the closest thing in the world to either. He was the son of a single parent, just like me. His brother went to school in a city far away. Maybe I knew that this, this monumental adventure would set our friendship above all the rest. Maybe I just wanted to belong to something. Maybe I just wanted someone to hang around with for more than a couple years.
The beach led to a stretch of woods that hid several steep valleys and ravines. I slipped a few times and scraped my hands, but the sounds of James doing the same somewhere ahead told me where he was headed. Eventually, a clearing came up, and he stopped. I found my best friend standing outside the mouth of the cave.
He had two oxygen tanks that he stole from his dad strapped to his back. I refused to carry them. Part of me felt like we would never go through with his plan. Part of me hoped we could still go home. Nevertheless, James was already halfway through setting up his own when I found him.
“You sure those things work?” I asked.
“Sure as shit. I tested them. Guess it’s good that it’s only the two of us. Dad only had two… you ready or not?“
Echoes of thunder rumbled over our heads like the scene of some stupid horror movie. A fresh batch of heavy rainfall pattered the leaves above our heads. The thrill of decision felt like a rush of adrenaline. We had come this far. I couldn’t chicken out. In that moment, I felt less like a scared kid of thirteen and more like a man as I stared down the shadows that extended well beyond our line of sight. I felt invincible. Of course we would be alright.
“Ready,” I nodded.
James stepped forward and helped me attach all of the equipment to my chest and back. He looked serious. I took that attitude as a reassurance, like, maybe he really did know what we were getting ourselves into. Maybe there was some hope for us. After everything was set and ready to go, we walked forward like two space aliens and gingerly hopped over the rope.
The first sound that sticks out in a cave is the dripping. It sounds like an unseen leaky faucet. Water fell around us into pools of slowly growing liquid bacteria, and our footsteps ricocheted off the walls like a bad omen. As we got further away from the entrance, it got harder to see, and I pulled out two pairs of flashlights.
The light revealed cavernous and twisted paths that broke and separated from one single road down the center. I pointed towards each of them, but my bulb did nothing but dull the unending blackness that stretched out in each direction.
“Do we need our oxygen yet?” I asked. The tank started to weight heavily on my back.
“I don’t… I don’t think so. We’re not enclosed yet.“
And so we continued on. We never had to worry much about finding our way back. The path dove and rose at random points, but stayed straight most of the way. Eventually we heard the ocean roar over our heads. James turned back to me. He looked like he wanted to say something about how cool it sounded underneath the sea. But suddenly, somebody else’s voice echoed through the walls instead.
The flashlight dropped out of my hand and the world went dark. Its beam of light caught hints and flashes of stalactites in the shadows. It dipped down a hill and I tried to chase it just as James called out the voice in the dark.
“Hello? Who’s out there?“
I begged him to shut up. Nobody should be out there. The fact that we heard anybody’s voice deep in an abandoned cave made me shiver in the disgusting humidity.
“Help me,” it replied.
Without another word, James took off in the direction of it’s cry. I grabbed the flashlight before it dipped down a hole and tried to run after him. But bits of rock jutted out from the path. I lost my footing and fell hard. The pain in my knee made it difficult to get up.
“James, GET BACK HERE. There’s no one in here. It’s just an echo.“
“You heard it too. I’m not going to leave him.” he called back.
I tried to get up and run. I screamed for James to slow down as I limped after him down the main path. He stopped abruptly at the intersection of an unknown corridor.
“Shut the fuck up. It’s the kid. It has to be. Listen,” he said as I nearly slammed into his shoulder. “Hello?“
“Help,” someone replied in the distance.
James took off down the other path. I waited at the fork in the road and begged him to stop. I may have been a stupid kid, but I knew that following these tunnels could lead to death. Oxygen or not – it was all too easy to get lost. We didn’t have proper maps. We didn’t have any training. We were just two arrogant ninth graders, chasing ghosts in a place we did not understand.
“James, I’m not following you man. James, get back here. JAMES.“
Eventually, his faded footsteps faded into the background. I begged through tears for him to come back. I listened for whispers in between the unending drips of water. I tried to make shapes out of the shadows in the distance and hoped they could be him. But nobody replied. Nobody showed up.
I waited for several painstakingly long minutes. That quickly turned into an hour. Then two. The walls of the cave started to whisper, after a while. I wondered whether my oxygen would deplete. I wondered whether I was already feeling the effects. Eventually, I had to go back. I hated leaving my friend, and I was terrified of the consequences, but I did not want to die in there.
The man path stayed straight all the way back. I shouted and banged against the walls with a stick while running. I hoped that somewhere, anywhere, James could hear my footsteps and follow the sound of my voice. I half expected to find him waiting at the entrance of the cave, laughing and carrying on like an idiot. He would probably call me a pussy for crying. But when the rough, gravel path finally spilled out to the freedom of dimmed sunlight and green grass… James was nowhere to be seen.
I sat by the entrance for another hour. The panic of the encounter finally started to weigh down at that time. Our parents would be looking for us soon. They might check the beachhead and find us missing. Would they blame me? Would they think I did something? I didn’t know. But I decided to run there anyway. James’ dad found me by the jetty, sobbing hysterically, and ranting about a voice in the cave.
What followed was the largest coordinated search in state history.
Divers searched for hours and days on end. High end equipment was brought in to search the various unmapped twists and turns of the cave. A lot of new information was discovered. But the explorers could only get so far. The tunnels proved to be even deeper and more intricate than previously expected. Some stretched counties wide, and some waded into depths nearly one hundred feet beneath the ocean’s floor. The official search lasted six weeks. But they never found a trace of James.
It has been fifteen years since the biggest mistake of my childhood.
I still live in the same town. I have a family of my own, now, and kids who love to explore those same woods. The cave has been blocked off ever since the incident. A wood piece of paneling prevents anybody from getting in. But my son still wanted to see the spot. He heard the stories in school, just like I did. He has a curious mind, just like mine. Sometimes… I worried that he would try to investigate the cave on his own time.
And so, last Tuesday, we took that same familiar path together; from the beachhead down through the woods. We stood outside the entrance. We stared down blackness that poked in through the barrier. We listened for a while. Because I wanted to.
And then we heard it.
The voice sounded childish, and quiet, and maybe a little scared. Like the voice of a ghost. But somehow, even after all these years, I still recognize the tone.