“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Four: The Cave

This is the fourth 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.

My head still throbbed from the fall on the ice. My legs and feet were wet and freezing, jeans clinging to my calves, socks squishing in my boots. I was sweaty and I could almost hear the blisters growing on my toes. As the Dead Voice had predicted, my back was killing me, from the force of the anodized aluminum of that damned Maglite slammed into my spine. But I was here. I was at the cave. I was at my goal, or at least the means to my goal. I stood there at its entrance, in silence for a few moments, my eyes transfixed on the open wound in the rock. It was neither a welcoming door nor a forbidding gate, but more of an indifferent crack. It didn’t care one way or the other if I tried to go in. Looking at it, I wouldn’t have guessed that it was the entrance to anything, but simply an odd rock formation. At least the Dead Voice was gone now. It’s the little things, you know.

I stood before the cave longer than I intended to, longer than I expected to. I felt a hesitation, something holding me back. I wondered why. I certainly didn’t want to turn around, did I? I did not relish the thought of trudging back along this same path. I did not relish the thought of seeking medical care, or seeking auto repair, or seeking anyone to explain any of this to. I did not want to go back. But all the same, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go forward.

Maybe it wasn’t me, I thought. Maybe the strange aura of this cave is causing anxiety to well up in me. Maybe it’s just fear of the unknown. Then again, if this cave does what I hope it does, then what’s on the other side of it isn’t exactly unknown. But the cave itself was. The mode of travel was the scary part, not the destination.

I felt a cramp in my left leg, and looked for a place to sit down. “No,” I told myself. “If you sit, you won’t get up.” That was the motivation I needed to move forward. I leaned down, and massaged my leg with my fist. Once I worked out the cramp, I walked up to the gash in the rock. I touched it; it felt like normal rock. I took off my backpack, and grabbed the flashlight. It still worked, despite my full weight landing on it a half hour ago. I shone the light into the opening, and couldn’t see anything. It was just darkness. I zipped up the backpack and tossed it into the cave. I heard it hit the ground a moment later. I was relieved that it wasn’t some kind of bottomless pit. Holding the flashlight at my side, I tried to figure out the best way to approach this.

I stood flush with the entrance, and reached my arm in as far as I could. I felt nothing. There clearly was some room in here. I pulled my arm out. I turned myself sideways, and stepped in with my right leg. My foot hit stone, at the same level as the ground out here, and I shifted my weight to that leg. I had to bend in an awkward position to get my shoulder in, but I did. The right third of my body was now within the mountain. I pushed through as hard as I could, but my girth was too much for the slit. I sucked in my gut as best I could, and started to shimmy. The rock wall behind me scraped against my back as I moved. I heard my jacket begin to tear as I made progress. I tried to control my breathing, but it was getting difficult. I felt stuck, I felt frightened, I felt like I was having a panic attack. I closed my eyes, and breathed slowly. I couldn’t inhale as deeply as usual because of the compression. I concentrated on my goal: I must make it in here. I must make it in here. I must make it in here. I must make it in here. My future depends on it. My world depends on it. I depend on it.

One last push, and I was in. My back stung where I scraped against the sharp stone. I was sure I was bleeding. Wet, cold, concussed, bleeding, with burnt hair, I allowed myself to collapse to the floor. I looked around, shining the flashlight throughout the room. For that’s indeed what it was. I was in a room made of stone. All of the walls were jagged and bent, no right angles, but it was as much a room as any in my house. It was vaguely circular, with a diameter of something like thirty feet. There were a few large cracks in the walls, kind of like the one I came through, and I wondered if there were other chambers in here. That book of local lore I read said there were supposed to be. I looked up, and saw that the ceiling, while barely tall enough for me to stand at the entrance, slanted up to what must be thirty or forty feet up. It was damp in here, and I could hear distant dripping. But it didn’t feel cold. My wet toes probably had a chance of avoiding frostbite in here. I reached for the backpack, and grabbed a cigarette and the lighter. I leaned against the wall and celebrated my success.

I nursed that cigarette to the filter, and tossed it out the crack into the snow outside. I shoved the pack and the lighter into my jacket pocket, and picked up the flashlight. I stood up, and started to walk around the room slowly. As I walked away from the entrance, the dripping grew louder, the sound of water echoing in the distance. I walked up to the far wall, and examined one of the long cracks. It resembled the entrance where I’d come in, but was smaller. A child might be able to fit through it, but not me. I hoped I didn’t need to go through there. I followed the wall around, and noticed that there were many of these cracks. They stretched out in all directions, opening to some unknown beyond. The closer I looked, the more cracks I saw. I touched the wall. It felt solid. It felt smoother and colder than the stone at the entrance, almost like it was some kind of metal. I tapped it with the end of my flashlight, and heard a low ring as I did. Definitely not stone, at least not completely. I wondered if this cave might have been constructed?

Suddenly I heard a noise above the sound of the dripping. Not very loud, but distinct and clear, the sound of a whisper saying, “NOW.” I flinched, and the flashlight fell out of my hand, landed with a clang, turned itself off, and rolled away. I was in complete darkness. I swore. I was suddenly quite scared. What was that noise? Did I imagine it? It was so clear. Was it a message for me?

“Hello?” I said, surprised at how quiet my voice sounded. I heard no response in the darkness. No more whisper. Just the endless dripping. Wait – why is it this dark? Why can’t I see the entrance anymore? It occurred to me that it was probably night outside – the cave was performing its magic, and the outside world was spinning around at a speed independent of my experience in here. I stood there, trembling and breathing quickly, until I caught a glimpse of a very faint blue light.

I walked toward the light. As I walked, my foot kicked against something that made a clanking noise and started to roll. I quickly crouched down on the floor, and crawled in the direction of the kick. I reached out and felt the cold metal of my flashlight. I picked it up and stood up. I didn’t turn it on, because I didn’t want to lose sight of the faint blue beacon. The blue light was still shining ahead of me. It flickered slightly as I approached, and then my foot hit something else, something hard. I stopped, put my hand out, and realized that I was at one of the walls. The blue light was shining from another chamber, and I was seeing it through one of the cracks. I felt around the crack to get a sense of its shape and size, and put my face through as far as I could. The light was coming from somewhere on the far side of the chamber, perhaps forty feet from me. It was so dim that it was still difficult to tell what it was. But something was definitely shining in there.

“Hello!” I called into the chamber. “Is anybody there?” I heard my own voice echo, and then more dripping. No reply. No whisper. Just the faint blue light. I turned on my flashlight, and involuntarily blinked a few times at the brightness. I shone the flashlight into the crack. This new chamber, the “Blue Room,” was about the same size as the one I was in. With the flashlight shining, I couldn’t see the blue light anymore, but I could see that there was a section of the far wall that was discolored, different, somehow almost shimmering. I thought that’s probably where the light came from.

I stepped back to shine the light at the crack and the wall around it, to see what I was up against. Oh boy. This would not be easy. The crack was about four feet in height, starting about two feet off the ground. It was maybe about three feet wide at its widest, but it was not very uniform. I was not sure I could make it through. I felt the edges with my hand – they were more jagged and sharp than the entrance to the cave was. I tried kicking at the wall beneath where the crack started. I tried pulling and pushing at the jagged edges. Nothing was moving. I wasn’t going to be able to increase the size of the crack.

Just then I heard a tittering sound, like a small bird. I turned around, and saw light shining through the cave entrance. It was day again outside. I wondered what day it was. I walked back there, and looked out. The snow was still there, and so were my footprints. Must be tomorrow morning. I’d been in this cave for maybe twenty minutes, and already a full day has passed outside. The Cave of Time was real. I just had to figure out how to harness it. I walked back over to the entrancing crack. Somehow I knew the answer was in there, in the Blue Room.

I ran my hand over the edges. I reached through with the flashlight, and poked my head through trying to see what the entrance it looked like from inside. Not much different. I tapped at the rock on the other side with the flashlight. Sounded and felt the same. Same quiet gong, same toughness. Unless I had explosives, which I didn’t, I had to somehow squeeze through here.

I took off the backpack and tossed it in the Blue Room. There. Now I had to go. I took a deep breath, and lifted my right leg up to the crack. The wall was about a foot thick, and I was able to get my leg through, and proceeded to sit down very uncomfortably, with one leg in and the rest of me still out. There was no way to get my head through from this position, though, unless I bent myself completely in half. I took my leg back out, and tried with the left leg instead. This was even more uncomfortable, but this way I could see a way to get the top half of my body in, but it would be very tight. I bent my head down toward my knees, and twisted my torso in a way I don’t think I was designed for. I couldn’t breathe, I was compressing my own lungs so much. I could feel the top of the crack touching my head. I pushed my head to the left, scraping the crack with a very unpleasant sound. It felt like a knife ripping through my scalp. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t inhale. And then it got tighter. I could not move. I could not breathe.

But I did not get this far just to die halfway through a wall in a cave. I still had the heavy Maglite in my right hand, the hand outside the Blue Room. I held up the flashlight, and bashed it into the right side of my head, trying to create enough momentum to jar my head loose. The pain was excruciating, but my head shifted at least a few millimeters. I held the flashlight up again, and hit my head again, even harder. I heard the bulb shatter with the force, and I saw stars and streaks swirling in front of me, from either the blunt force trauma or the lack of oxygen, or both. I still couldn’t quite get my head through, so I forced myself to hit one more time with the flashlight. My head jarred loose, I felt myself turning, and I fell to the ground. I passed out.

When I came to, I couldn’t decide which hurt more, my head, my neck, or my ankle. I was completely disoriented. The only light was a faint blue glow coming from somewhere behind me. I tried to sit up, and realized I wasn’t actually lying on the ground. I was twisted up, my head on the floor, my right leg hanging from something in the air, the rest of my body straining to hold the head and leg together. I tried to pull my leg down, but it wouldn’t move. My right ankle was wedged in something. I was on my left side on the floor, and I tried to shimmy myself a little closer to where my ankle was stuck. I realized what had happened. I must have succeeded in hammering my head through the crack, and then fallen into the Blue Room. But as I fell, somehow my right leg got wedged into a corner of the crack. I grabbed my thigh with both hands, and tried to shift it, but it was not budging. I wanted to look with the flashlight to see what the problem was, but it was gone – probably still in the entrance chamber, and – oh yeah – the bulb was shattered too. I wondered if the lighter were still in my pocket, though. I reached in, and it was there. I pulled it out, and lit it. I reached as close as I could to my ankle, and I saw that there was a narrow channel near the bottom of the crack, and my ankle had somehow slipped into it. It must have been with some force when I fell, because there was no moving it now.

I was starting to get cramps in my legs from the awkward position I was in, and I knew I had to solve this now. I stowed the lighter back in my pocket, and grabbed hold of my leg with both hands, and creeped my fingers down my jeans until I could grab the cuff. I pulled as hard as I could. Nothing. I reached further, and was able to untie my boot, and remove it. I tossed it behind me. I grabbed my foot, and had a strange sensation: I could feel my foot with my hands, but I couldn’t feel my hands with my foot. My foot was completely numb.

But it wasn’t just numb; it was swollen, too. I felt around my ankle, and something seemed out of place. It was twisted in this channel at an angle that was just a little too far. Great – now it seemed like I’d broken my ankle as well. Or at least seriously sprained it. I must have hit the ground really hard.

There was only one thing to do. I had to get my foot out of here, so I just pulled. I pulled as hard as I could, saying a prayer of thanks for its numbness. I finally got it out, and when I gingerly placed it on the floor, I could see that it was still bent to the right at a nauseating angle.

I sat on the floor, in the darkness. I was an absolute disaster. My head was pounding, and I must have given myself another concussion. My ankle was broken, and I was probably in shock from all that. I needed another cigarette. I reached in my pocket and grabbed the lighter and the crumpled pack of Camels. The smokes were bent, but not broken, so I lit one. Oh God, that felt good.

As I sat there puffing, I thought about what I went through to get here. On top of all the medical problems I’d given myself, I also killed my flashlight, and my car. Or rather, a herd of deer killed my car. I really hoped this was all worth it. That blue light had better be special. I put the cigarette out on the floor of the chamber, and used my arms to turn myself around on the floor, to face the light. It seemed to be coming directly from the wall, as though someone had painted a circle of phosphorescent paint there. It was a medium blue, the color of the sky just before sunset. It shimmered and oscillated slightly. There was nothing else near it – somehow I expected some kind of altar, or maybe a lever. But nothing. Just the blue shimmer on the wall.

“IT’S TIME.”

I heard that whisper again, the same one I heard earlier in the other chamber. I wasn’t scared this time, probably on account of being in shock. I just said, “Time for what?” No reply. I started to get up, intending to walk to the shimmer, and then I remembered the state of my ankle. Instead, I got on my hands and knees and crawled there. Every movement hurt, but I knew that the only progress at this point was to get to the shimmer. Otherwise, I’d just die here in this cave. That wasn’t an unpleasant thought, honestly, but that wasn’t the point of this journey. I had to stick to the plan, and the plan now seemed to involve that shimmer.

When I made it to the wall, I looked closer at it. The shimmering light was a rough circle, about two or three feet in diameter, emanating from the rock itself.

“TOUCH.”

From a kneeling position, I could comfortably reach up and touch the circle of light. I brought my hand up and slowly moved it toward the light. As I approached, I couldn’t sense any heat or cold coming from it. I placed my hand on it, and suddenly my entire hand was in agony. The light was burning my flesh, but from hot or cold I couldn’t tell; it was like all of my nerves – hot, cold, and pain nerves = were hyper-activated. I reflexively tried to pull back, but my hand adhered to the wall. I could not move it at all. The light around my hand began to pulsate and I saw what looked like tiny tentacles or fibers of light crawling off the wall and enveloping my fingers, my hand, my wrist. I was being pulled in to something. The excruciating pain crawled into my wrist and up my arm. I looked on, unable to do anything, as my entire arm was covered by this viscous light. I felt like I was going to pass out again. As my consciousness was beginning to fade, I heard the whisper shout urgently:

“THINK! THINK! THINK!”

Think? Think about what? I thought about the only thing I cared about right now: a date. As the light surrounded me, and I felt oblivion creeping down my throat, the only thing on my mind was that date. November 3, 1996. November 3, 1996. November 3, 1996. The pain stopped, and everything went black.

Next chapter: The Crow.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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