“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Two: The Drive

This is the second chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, probably twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

Chapter Two: The Drive

The road was slushy from last night’s snow, but I was able to maneuver well enough. I headed toward the freeway – I needed to get to the other side of the county, to Constan Mountain. I had told Amber I had “errands” to run. Not quite true. Just one errand, one really big, really weird, really final errand. And if it worked, I’d never go home again. And yet, nobody would miss me.

As I drove, I thought about Moonlight Cavern.

Moonlight Cavern was a role-playing game I had played with some friends back in high school, several decades ago. We had discovered Dungeons & Dragons in sixth grade, and played that all through junior high school. Sometime around tenth grade, we threw out the rulebooks and the dice, and we just made the rules up ourselves. “Moonlight Cavern” was the name of a game my friend Phil led, when we were seniors. Most of our games, like Dungeons & Dragons, took place in a fantasy world, but not Moonlight Cavern. This one took place in our time, in our area. We were still dealing with fantasy elements and nasty monsters, but they were in our world, here in the city of Scarlet and throughout all of Plough County. We played Moonlight Cavern in Phil’s basement, and between sessions we sometimes had to go and do some research in the area, because a lot of the strange events were based loosely on real legends and ghost stories of Plough County.

One of the key elements of Moonlight Cavern was a strange underground formation called the “Cave of Time.” That’s not what Phil called it, of course. To him, it was Moonlight Cavern itself, after which he named the game. Moonlight Cavern was located deep in the woods on Constan Mountain. Within the game, this cave was an important locale which moved the plot along rather nicely, because entering the cavern allowed you to travel through time. The other players and I started calling it “The Cave of Time,” which was hilarious to us, because we all grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure books. The first book in that series, as we all knew, was entitled The Cave of Time, and we had a blast making fun of Phil whenever our characters had to go to the cave again.

Despite the fact that so much of the Moonlight Cavern game was based on local legend, I assumed that the Cave of Time was something Phil made up. Time travel just didn’t sound like the kind of thing that would be a folktale around here. But just two years ago, in the summer of 2019, long after the game had ended, I started thinking about it again for some reason. I got curious about the cave, and did some research. I looked online, but googling “cave of time scarlet” and “cave of time constan mountain” didn’t yield anything helpful. So I went old-school, and drove to the public library in Scarlet. I found there a book from 1938 called Meanderings and Oddities in Plough County. And there it was on page 84 – the story of a cave in the foothills of Constan Mountain which was reported to have “strange temporal affects.” It seems that some locals had reported walking near it, and returning home just minutes after they left, despite walking for hours. Others reported strange feelings of dread or confusion. One person, named Ebenezer Meck, was walking nearby in 1907 and said he saw a man dressed like a colonial soldier.

I took the book to the desk to borrow it, and then headed to my car to try to find this place. The book had a vague and confusing description of where the cave was located. It was hard to even get my bearings, to get a starting point. Constan Mountain is really more of a ridge, after all, and there are a number of separate wooded areas along it. It didn’t help that today’s highways weren’t around when the book was published. I had to rely on descriptions of dirt paths that might have been paved into roads, or might still be dirt, or might have just been lost to the mists of time. I drove around for two hours (mostly in circles) until I was on a dirt road my car really shouldn’t be on. I decided to just park and walk the rest of the way. And I found it. Or at least I found a hole in the side of the mountain. This part of the mountain was very rocky, and there was a gash in the rock about five feet tall, jagged and rough. It looked like a person could fit through the hole with some persistence, but I didn’t know if there was really anything beyond it. I didn’t have a flashlight with me, and I noticed the sun was going down, almost at the horizon. Was it really that late? I wasn’t sure, but I knew I didn’t want to be here after dark, so I started to run back to my car. And that was it. I never went looking for it again, until today.

All these memories of Moonlight Cavern and searching for caves came back to me that morning in 2021. I was heading to Constan Mountain again. As I took the exit off of the freeway, I wondered what exactly I expected to encounter today. All I knew was that this cave was deep in the woods, and it was weird, and it supposedly had some connection to time. What made me think that it would provide what I was looking for today? What made me think this would work? What made me think I could even find the cave again, two years later, in a different season? Desperation, that’s what. This was a Hail Mary – there was no other way. I couldn’t wait eight more years.

I was driving on narrow, winding roads now, weaving through the countryside, as I approached the foot of the mountain. The snow was heavier here, and the roads were not fully cleared off. As I fishtailed wildly around a curve, I realized that I hadn’t passed a single car on my drive today. Pickup trucks, SUV’s, yes, but mine was the only car. Maybe this was not the best idea. I lit another cigarette and opened my window, and braced for a blast of cold air. Funny – it wasn’t as cold as I expected.

I eased up on the accelerator as I saw a grey barn coming into view ahead, on the left. That was familiar – if I remembered correctly, just after the barn was a dirt road with deep ruts that wove into the woods. If I turned there, that road would lead me to pretty near the cave. I allowed the car to slow down on its own as I approached the turn. I couldn’t see the dirt road – the snow was too deep. Of course! No one had plowed it; why would they? Nobody had any business back in those woods, especially in this weather, especially in a compact car. I’d never be able to drive through that. I closed my eyes in frustration, as the car continued to slow almost to a halt. I sat motionless in a motionless car, thinking of what to do next.

Suddenly there was a deafening crash. My stomach twisted and my head was whipped to one side. My eyes shot open to see chaos in front of me, just spinning colors and shapes. Then the nauseating feeling stopped, and I began to comprehend what I was seeing through the windshield. There was snow above me, a grey sky below, and five white-tailed deer were upside-down, running away through the snow. The pain in my neck told me confirmed that I was upside down, my head crushed into the ceiling of the car.

I smelled hair burning, and felt a sharp pain in the back of my head. I reached my hand to touch it, and found the still-burning cigarette, tangled in a clump of hair. After burning my finger on it, I grabbed the cigarette, and tossed it out the window. I patted my hair down, and the tiny fire stopped. Particles of ash stuck to my hand. I looked in the mirror – not much harm done.

I tried to open my door. It opened easily, and after I was able to unbuckle the seat belt, I rolled out of the car into the snow.

I clambered upright, and turned back to look at my car. It was upside-down a few feet off the right side of the road. I walked around it to see the extent of the damage. The driver’s side rear door was dented deeply, with dots of blood and fur stuck to it. Beyond that, it looked alright. I guessed that if I could flip it back over, it would probably be drivable.

I heard a faint animal cry, and labored breathing. I turned, and saw a deer lying on the ground about twenty feet from the car, bleeding from its head. It looked pained. I knelt down next to it. “Why did you do this?” I asked the deer. “What would make you do this?” I glanced up at the car to see if the bloody dent in the door was about the size of this deer’s head.

I turned back to the deer. It opened its eyes and stared into mine. I knew that look, empty yet pleading. This deer wanted to die.

“I understand,” I said. I crouched back into the car, and found my Leatherman knife. I went back to the deer, opened the blade, and slit its throat. The snow turned red as the deer’s breathing stopped. I kept vigil with it a few minutes. I prayed for it to find peace, and stood up. I stood there a moment, looking at the car. I walked over to the road, and saw deer tracks in the snow, heading from near the grey barn right to where the deer hit my car. It looked like maybe five sets of tracks. After attacking me, they had turned around, heading back into the woods a little farther east of where they came out. I could not fathom how or why five deer flipped my car off the road, but here we were.

I looked around. Apart from the barn, there were no buildings in sight. The road curved to the left a few hundred yards ahead, and there might be a house down there. But nobody saw this happen, that’s for sure. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, intending to call 911. I looked at it, and then thought better of it. Why would I call 911? To get medical care? I seem to be fine, other than losing some hair to an errant cigarette. Maybe I should call so I can get a ride home? No, I reminded myself. I don’t need a ride home. That’s not where I’m going. And I can walk the rest of the way to the cave. I looked back at the car. Should I try to flip it back over? I decided to leave it where it was, upside-down in the snow. Besides, if the journey ahead of me were successful, the car wouldn’t be there anymore. It would never have been my car in the first place.

I walked to the car one last time, found my backpack, and checked that everything was still in it. All accounted for: flashlight, duct tape, lighter, smokes. I dropped the Leatherman back in, zipped it up, threw it over my shoulder, and closed the car door. The keys were still in the ignition, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need them anymore. I turned my back to the car, crossed the road, and started to trudge through the snow past the grey barn.

Next Chapter: The Voice

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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