This is the third chapter of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly 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.

I trudged through the snow past the grey barn. Step after step I was trying to remember that last visit to the cave – how long did I travel that day on this dirt road? When was looking for the cave a few summers ago, it was maybe a five minute drive along this road. How fast had I been driving? Fifteen, maybe twenty miles an hour? Certainly faster than I was currently walking. With eighteen inches of snow here, I was maybe going at a mile and a half an hour. I couldn’t even be sure I was on the road. For now, I just walked perpendicular to the main road, heading toward the wooded mountain ahead and away from where the deer had killed my car. I finally reached the tree line. If I remembered right, this dirt road wove into the woods for some ways. While I couldn’t see the ground on account of the snow, I could see a wide gap in the trees. That must be where the road enters the woods. I was grateful. I celebrated with a cigarette, and leaned against a thick oak tree.

After a few minutes, I threw the butt in the snow, and walked into the forest. It was so quiet. I heard no birds, no wind, no distant traffic. All I heard was my own crunchy footfalls. But I didn’t relax. I didn’t calm my mind. I had to keep my mind occupied, or else he would show up. So I did some mental math. If it was a five-minute drive down this path from the road, and I had been driving an average speed of fifteen miles an hour, and I normally walk at three miles an hour, but this shin-deep snow is slowing my pace significantly, by maybe 50% or so, then I’m probably walking at something like ten percent of my erstwhile driving speed, which means that it will take about fifty minutes, but that’s only to the spot where I parked back then, so then there’s still the ten or fifteen minutes of walking I did that summer day, which today will be more like twenty or thirty, and that all adds up to about sixty-five minutes, and I didn’t think I could keep this math going for sixty-five minutes, but I had to find some way to distract myself, because I knew that if I allowed my mind to be quiet, I would have a visitor, an interloper who would join me on this journey. He would show up. And I really didn’t want to talk with him right now.

But the math only went so far. My mind went quiet. My steps grew louder. The soft crunch beneath my feet echoed back to me from the mountainside to my left. I continued to walk through the gap in the trees, those winter-bare giants on either side of me, leaning in as though to hear the echoes better. Now I was hearing more and more echoes, the rhythmic compression of snow repeating more quickly than I was walking. Footsteps. Right behind me. And there he was.

“Nice day for a walk, isn’t it?” he said to me.

I avoided looking in the direction of the voice, somewhere off to the left. I knew that I wouldn’t see anyone if I looked. He was never real – just a voice. A voice who always found me when I was alone. The Dead Voice. Maybe if I ignored him he’d just go away.

“I said, it’s a nice day for a walk,” he repeated. “I thought maybe I’d join you for a while.”

I breathed deeply, finding the nerve to keep silent. I would not give him the pleasure of a response.

“Ah, you see, I know where you’re going,” he said. The voice waited patiently for me to reply. He sighed. “And I also see you don’t want to talk about it. A pity.”

I did not want his pity. I did not want his understanding. I did not want him there at all.

I kept walking. I kept quiet. Crunch crunch.

Shocked by the insistence in the voice, I almost stopped. But I didn’t. I kept my face forward, I kept my feet moving. And suddenly my feet slid, my arms flailed, my stomach flipped, and my head slammed into the ground.

Stars danced and floaters erupted in my eyes as I tried to focus. All I could see was a blurry scene of grey and brown stripes. Slowly, the stripes came into focus: it was the trees, framed against the grey sky. My head was throbbing, shooting pain with each heartbeat.

“You just gave yourself a concussion,” the voice said. It sounded like its source was suddenly far away, on the other side of a pool filled with jelly. “I did try to warn you.”

“Warn me about WHAT? Owww…” I noticed two things as I yelled. First, I noticed that yelling really hurt right now. Second, I noticed that my voice too was on the other side of the jelly pool. Must be the concussion or whatever.

“I tried to warn you about the frozen puddle you just stepped on. That pain you feel in your head is from when it smacked into the ice. Your back’s going to hurt soon too, from landing so hard on the flashlight in your backpack.”

I noticed how cold the back of my head was. “Why didn’t the snow cushion my fall?”

“Because you were so efficient with the way you tripped! You kicked all the snow away right where your head hit! Look!”

I tried to stand up. The world spun as I did, and I felt like I’d throw up. I landed on my knees instead. “Give me a minute.” Oh God. This is not good.

“No, it’s not good,” said the Dead Voice. “What are you doing here anyway?”

“You know very well what I’m doing here,” I said quietly. “I’m heading for the cave.”

“Yes, I know that. But why?” He sounded as though he were really interested.

“Because it’s the only answer. I give up. There’s no other way.”

“Of course there’s another way. There’s always another way. Haven’t I taught you that?”

I gingerly stood up. The back of my head was screaming, but at least the dizziness was passing. “Not very well you haven’t. Come on. If you’re going to insist on talking to me, we might as well walk.”

“You’re not up to walking. You know that.”

I turned my head quickly to the left, toward the place where the voice seemed to come from. That was not a good idea. My mouth wide open, I gripped the back of my head as though I were trying to reattach it. That’s how it felt. “Owwww, that hurt,” I said. Getting my bearings back, I said to the void in front of me, “You don’t get to tell me what I’m up to doing. I’m past the point of no return now. How am I supposed to explain the car? How am I supposed to explain what I’m doing here?”

“To whom? Who needs this explanation?”

I shook my head slowly and kept walking. With every step, the crunching at my feet felt like crunching in my brain. “The only way – ow – is forward. I won’t let everything be – ow – for nothing.”

The voice was quiet for a second, and then said, “Sunk cost.”

I sighed. “Yes, I know all about sunk costs. It’s not logical to keep pouring money into something that’s failing just because you’ve already poured a lot of money into it. My whole life is nothing but a sunk COST!” I screamed this last word, and immediately fell back to my knees. I had to control my anger – it hurt my head too much. “But I haven’t failed today. Not yet. I’m moving forward. I’m going to find the cave again. I’m going to go back.”

“Back? Why don’t you turn around and go back right now? Back home. Your phone is in your pocket. Call Amber, and she’ll pick you up out by the barn. You can call the cops and get the car towed.”

“How do I explain,” I answered, “why I started wandering through the woods for an hour before calling?”

“You were disoriented and confused by the accident. Maybe that wouldn’t be a lie. After all, exactly who are you talking to right now?”

“No kidding. This conversation is over.”

I kept walking. I unzipped my jacket – it was getting hot out here with the trudging and the arguing. But the voice was silent. Maybe I finally sent him away. Good riddance.

I walked about ten more minutes, until the gap in the trees ended. In front of me was just woods, trees and snow. I turned around – this must be where the road stopped, or at least got too narrow to really see in these conditions. Presumably, this was where I’d parked my car the last time I came to find the cave. It was hard to tell – nothing looked familiar.

I decided to work under the assumption that I was right. I tried to remember that summer trip: I think that the road narrowed into a footpath, and that I walked along that path for a few minutes. So I starting walking straight. I thought that the cave would be on my left about a hundred yards off the trail – if I stayed on the trail correctly. I had a vague memory of what the terrain looked like there – on the left, the mountain would loom menacingly above me, and the trail would start ascending a little. I kept watch for those signs.

“Why do you want to die?”

Damn it. The Dead Voice was back. This time he seemed to be off to my right. Or maybe my hearing was still off from the concussion.

He repeated, “Why do you want to die?”

I decided to engage. What else was there to do? “What makes you think I want to die?”

The voice laughed. “Please. Give me a little credit. I know what’s going on here. I know what you’re looking for in the cave.”

“If I was here to die, I could just freeze to death out here without going to all that trouble.”

“Yes, your plan is much more complicated than that,” he said.

“Complicated? I guess it is. But it’s better. If I died, I’d hurt a lot of people. This way, I won’t.”

“Very thoughtful of you. But again, why? Why do you want to cease to exist?”

I started walking faster. “Look, there are a lot of reasons, as you know very well.”

“Humor me,” the voice said, without a hint of humor.

I closed my eyes and sighed. “God damn it,” I said under my breath. “Fine. You want to hear the litany? Here. First off, there’s the news these days. You know what’s in the news? Mr. Potato Head. Dr. Seuss. All anybody is talking about right now is how ‘cancel culture’ is ruining America. And people are listening. And complaining. And getting angry. And threatening to attack the Capitol again. And the left is just complaining about the right, and how stupid they are. And getting angry. And then there’s the masks. And the vaccines. And a gold statue of Donald Trump. And it’s all so stupid and so asinine and I don’t know why anyone would want to live here.”

“So move to Canada,” the voice said. “Or just turn off the news. Suicide because of politics? Really?”

But I wasn’t done yet. I continued, “Second, there’s the fact that I haven’t been happy in years. Nothing brings me joy. My job is meaningless. My hobbies are meaningless. My wife is miserable. She doesn’t deserve the mess I’ve caused for her. My kids barely see me because I just sit in my den all the time, stewing and playing video games. Frankly, they’d be better off with my life insurance payout than with me there.”

“You’re depressed. So get some therapy. Take your meds. Come on, you know better.”

“And third, I also happen to have this voice that likes to tell me what a bastard I am. This voice that likes to attack me and belittle me and tell me that I should always know better than I do. This voice who tells me that people would be better off without me. This voice that rips my soul in two and then tells me it’s for my own good!” My head was pounding from all the screaming I was doing. But I had to get the final word in. “You!” I shouted. “You! The voice of my darkness! You are why I’m here, so shut up and leave me alone!” I was panting, out of breath from my tirade. It didn’t feel any better to get it all out.

There was a momentary silence. A clump of snow fell off a tree nearby and landed with a thump. Finally, the Dead Voice said, quietly, “Me? You’re blaming this on me? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Go to hell,” I said. And I started walking again. Just a few seconds later, I noticed something. My surroundings looked familiar, the way the earth tilted ahead, the way the mountain loomed on the left. This was right. I stopped, and peered deep into the woods on the left. I walked that way, closer to where the mountain rose. I strafed along the foot of the incline, until I saw it. There in the rocky side – a gash. I looked behind me – through the trees, the sun was low in the west. Sunset was coming soon. I looked at my watch – 11:30 in the morning. Sunset in the morning. I was here. This was the Cave of Time.

Next chapter: The Cave

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes