The beam from the flashlight cut through the dense blackness of the cave. Over a century of neglect had allowed nature to overtake it, all but hiding the fact that it had been man-made.
Denise Griffith clutched Bill’s arm as they stood at the cave’s entrance. “Why’d we have to come up here?”
“Where else are we gonna go?” Bill’s crooked smile radiated a charm that made him almost handsome. It was this quality that drew Denise to him in the first place. That and his rebellious attitude. “You wanted a little privacy. Not another soul for miles.”
This was true. They had driven up the side of the mountain as far as they were able, then walked for what seemed to be an eternity up a barely-existing trail before they arrived here. The whole time, Denise was certain that they would get lost and starve to death in the wilderness or be eaten by a wild animal. Bears and coyotes inhabited this forest, she knew.
With a gentleness that most people would find surprising coming from him, Bill detached Denise’s hand from the vice grip she had on his arm and then took her hand in his. He exuded a cocky confidence that calmed her nervousness somewhat. She didn’t like being away from town, disconnected from civilization, out of reach of cell phone reception. Regardless, she allowed herself to be led into the cave.
Darkness soon enveloped her. The autumn sunlight that crept past the dying leaves of the trees surrounding the outside of the cave barely penetrated the interior, throwing a gloom the first couple of feet before dissolving like candlelight in fog.
Denise could feel Bill trying to press forward with determination, but her slow steps held him back. She didn’t understand his desire to be here of all places. Burlingham was a small town, but there were still plenty of areas that provided privacy. She knew that wasn’t the issue—he wanted to explore.
“This town is a dead end,” he once told her. “I’ve seen every part of it. There’s nothing for me here.”
“Why don’t you move to Portland? You’d be able to get a job there.”
“Ehhh,” had been his response, just as it always was when she said something he didn’t like but didn’t have a way to put his feelings into words.
Denise had snuggled up to him. “I could quit school and come live with you.”
“And then what? Portland’s just as much of a dead end, only bigger. I gotta get out of Oregon. I need to see the world.”
She hated when he talked like that. She knew that if that happened, he would leave her behind. “And how you gonna do that? Win the lottery?”
“I don’t know. Stop hassling me!” He had pulled away from her. It seemed so easy for him to shun her when she challenged him. So easy to disregard her feelings. So easy to hurt her. “All I know is I hate everything about this place.”
Did that include her?
“I just need to get out of here.” But he didn’t. He never made any concrete plans to leave town. In fact, he couldn’t even find a full-time job to save up money to make leaving possible.
Denise knew this, but refrained from saying anything for fear of making him angry at her and breaking up. She also wanted to escape her home, but she wanted to do it at Bill’s side.
Instead, she found herself at his side creeping deeper into Survivor’s Cave. Though she couldn’t understand it, this seemed to make Bill happy. And if he was happy, then she was okay with it, even if she herself was terrified.
He had told her about Survivor’s Cave a few weeks prior. Having lived her entire seventeen years in Burlingham, she had heard the name here and there, but had not paid much attention to it. She always assumed it was the stuff of legends, but Bill swore he had been in it once when he was younger, maybe fourteen or fifteen. And now he had it in his mind to go explore it again and wanted to drag her along.
The cave was cool and wet. As Bill shined his flashlight around, Denise could see mossy clumps hanging from the ceiling and along the walls. It also illuminated trash on the ground that looked like someone had left it behind years ago. Even in the middle of nowhere, she couldn’t escape the awfulness of people.
Bill let go of her hand, then unscrewed the lens off the front of the metal flashlight. The back end of the tube fit into the lens, making it a stand with the exposed bulb at the other end throwing off a omni-directional glow. He set this newly-configured lamp on the ground, then pulled off his backpack. Denise watched as he removed a beach towel from the pack and spread it out on the ground. He motioned to it.
“Come on, sit.”
The dank floor of the cave was the last place she wanted to be, but she complied and sat on the towel.
He joined her, then pulled out a bottle from his backpack. It was “hard” lemonade. He unscrewed the cap, took a swig, then offered her the bottle.
Denise only glared at it.
“Gonna be that way?” he asked? The derision in his voice was just as compelling to her as his charm. She hated herself for being so easily controlled, but she wanted to make him happy. Still, there was a glimmer of disgust at herself as she took the bottle and sipped the alcohol inside.
“Why do I listen to you?”
“Because you’re hopelessly in love with me.”
“Yeah, that must be it.”
Love? She didn’t know what the word meant. She wanted to be with him, to please him, to spend all eternity with him. But wasn’t love supposed make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Wasn’t love the gooey center of a chocolate bar? Wasn’t love supposed to make you feel happy?
Denise had read a number of Young Adult romance books where teenage girls meet the guy of her dreams, usually a stranger who drifts into town with some mysterious background who sweeps her off her feet, much to the consternation of her parents. Denise had the parental disapproval down—her mother had a very low opinion of Bill and disliked Denise’s infatuation with him. But any mystery with Bill ended with his choice of fashion, preferring to resemble a relic from the ‘80s with a black Ramone’s T-shirt and ripped blue jean jacket.
The little bulb on the floor in front of them cast a dim light on Bill’s face. The sparse dark stubble on his cheek stood out in contrast to his pale skin. His unkempt hair hung down over his deep-set eyes, giving him a hollow, skeletal look. One corner of his mouth curved upward, exposing crooked teeth that had never been tended by an orthodontist. Denise felt something for him, but she wasn’t certain exactly what it was.
She didn’t have time to ponder as he leaned in to kiss her. Denise found herself on her back, her arms and legs entangled with his. She knew that she was now lying on bare dirt, but she didn’t care.
The ground below her trembled, just enough for her to notice. She ignored it at first, until a low rumble accompanied it.
Bill pulled away from her and turned his attention to the back of the cave. “Did you hear that?”
Fear washed through her again. “Yeah. Let’s get outta here.”
“I think someone’s back there.”
Bill stood and reassembled the flashlight. Holding it in one hand, his other slid under his jacket to find a sheathed knife hanging from his belt. He unsnapped the catch and pulled the long blade free.
He ignored her and took a few cautious steps further into the cave. Denise watched as he became a mere silhouette against the beam of light that preceded him. She couldn’t take being left alone, so she rushed to his side and again grabbed hold of him.
They reached an ancient blockage. If she remembered correctly, this had been the start of a mining tunnel. And indeed, she saw a thick beam sticking out from what was now apparently a cave-in from who knows when.
That rumbling sound came again, and this time it sounded as if it came from a speaker at their feet. Bill shined his light at the base of the back wall to find a hole approximately two feet wide that appeared to have been created by erosion. A small trickle of water ran through it.
Bill dropped to his knees and aimed the light into the hole. “Looks like there’s an opening. Something’s back there.”
“I’m gonna check it out.”
“I hate it when you do things like this. It could be dangerous.”
“Nothing’s gonna happen, babe. Trust me.” Before Denise could object, he prostrated himself in the wet dirt and slid his lanky body like a snake into the hole with his arms outstretched in front of him. “There’s a tunnel here.”
Denise watched as his feet disappeared. She wrapped her arms around herself in the darkness he left her in. “Damn it, Bill.” She didn’t want to follow him, but she also didn’t want to be left alone in this cave. She considered going back outside into the sunshine and fresh air, and maybe continuing all the way back down the trail to Bill’s junker of a car. But in the instant that thought entered her head, she pushed it away. Instead, she crouched down and peered into the hole, seeing flashes of light only a few feet away where Bill must have been swinging his flashlight around. Taking a deep breath, she wriggled into the hole.
In no time, Denise was again standing at Bill’s side as he pointed the beam down what was definitely an old mine shaft.
“Looky what we found,” he said, grinning at her. He turned back to the depths of the tunnel and called, “Hello! Is anybody in here?”
The only response was the echo of his voice.
“Which way do we go?”
As he swung the flashlight around, Denise saw that they were standing in the center of the tunnel. Survivor’s Cave had apparently bisected it perpendicularly.
“Bill, this is a very bad idea.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Without waiting for a reply, he walked away from her, choosing to go down the tunnel to the left. Denise had no choice but to join him.
Soon, however, they reached another blockage. It seemed that this mine shaft had a propensity toward cave-ins, as the ceiling had collapsed at some point in the past. The wooden beams that had once been put in place to hold the dug-out mine shaft were now half buried.
“Looks like the end of the line,” Bill said.
“Good. Let’s leave.”
A distant noise from behind them caused them both to spin around and breathe heavily. Like before, it was a deep rumble, almost a roaring noise. But now, closer to it, Denise could discern that it had a distinctly mechanical quality to it.
Somewhere in the depths of this mountain, machinery was being operated.
Bill stepped forward. Denise, in a state of shock, released her grip on him and remained where she was standing.
“Hello!” he called. “Who’s th—”
Before he could finish the sentence, the ground under their feet shifted. The trembling grew in intensity until both Bill and Denise fell. Denise grabbed one of the beams that was sticking out of the downfall at a forty-five degree angle. She saw Bill hit the ground with both hands outstretched, and then the flashlight rolled away.
Large clumps of dirt rained down from the ceiling. Denise took cover in a cramped space under the beam she was holding. “BILL!”
The flashlight spun around to illuminate Bill. He crawled toward her. She heard him yell her name. Then, Bill was gone. Denise didn’t know if it was a trick of the light, but she was certain she saw him being swallowed up by the floor. She screamed.
The tunnel turned pitch black. The noise of the earth crashing down deafened her. She felt suffocated, strangled by the dust and dirt in the air. Large rocks now fell from above—she knew this from the vibration and sound since she was unable to see.
Something huge hit the beam that was her only shelter. She heard it crack.
Rubble completely covered her only means of escape, sealing her in like a tomb.
Denise’s last thought before losing consciousness was to wonder what death would be like.