It was Dave who found the cave originally, if you’re wondering. We were hiking, if you can call it that, by which I mean we were looking for a place to drink and not be hassled by jackasses. So we were “hiking” through Shurtleff Park and I was getting tired of hauling the twenty-four pack when Dave spotted this little grotto on the other side of the lake.
I didn’t want to go, but Chuck and Eileen thought it would be fun and Dave called me a pussy, so I went along with it.
It took us half an hour just to get there the first time (though Eileen would fix that for future ventures), mostly because Dave insisted on circumnavigating the lake by way of a steep hill that bent around it like a boozehound draped across a couch. We had to walk all side-stepped, with one hand out to catch a tree branch or boulder when we inevitably slipped and stumbled.
We hadn’t even started drinking yet. Not seriously. It was a little too soon to be stumbling around in the dark, I said. Chuck said to be intrepid. Have an adventure. Eileen laughed. I tightened my grip on the High Life and trudged ahead.
The entrance was smaller than it looked, or rather, it looked the same size from a distance as it did up close. When I walked up, Chuck and Eileen were nuzzling on a rock just outside the dark opening and Dave was nowhere around.
“He went inside already,” Eileen said. “We thought we’d wait for you.”
“It’s pitch black in there,” I said. “He doesn’t have a flashlight.”
“He’s got, uh, he’s got a lighter. He’s got my lighter actually,” Chuck said. “Shit. Let’s go in.”
“He’s got his phone,” Eileen said. “He’s fine.”
I stepped up to the entrance and surveyed the cave walls. It was a little shorter than me, maybe 5′8″ or 5′6″, even Eileen could hardly stand up straight inside and she was short. The walls were cold, I remember, that first time, and they vibrated, like putting your hand on the hood of a running car. I yelled Dave’s name, but he didn’t answer.
“I can’t see anything in there,” I said. “Why the fuck did he go in without us?”
Chuck shrugged. “That’s Dave, man. Pass me un cerveza por favor.”
“Una,” Eileen said. “Una cerveza.”
“Una, dos, tres,” Chuck replied. “Si, si, yo quiero.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Por que your dad’s an idiot and your mom’s an idiot.”
I ripped an opening in the cardboard and passed the box over. Eileen grabbed one too and then I set the pack down on the ground near the entrance.
“Have ya’ll been out here before?” I asked.
“We’ve been to the park before, but we haven’t seen this before,” Eileen said.
“I’ve seen it before,” Chuck said.
“What, like in the daytime with people around?” I replied.
“He hasn’t seen it,” Eileen said. “I had to beg him to come out this time.”
“Fuck you,” Chuck said and smiled. “I’ve been places. I came here with my folks when I was a kid.”
I called Dave again. No answer.
“Let’s just go in,” Chuck said. “He can’t be far.”
“Why isn’t he answering?” I asked.
“I’m sure he’s just fucking with us,” Chuck replied.
“One of us should stay back,” Eileen said. “Just in case.”
“In case of what?” Chuck said. “Bears?”
“Don’t start that.”
“Maybe there’s a ledge in there and he slipped,” Eileen said. “Maybe it happens again when you guys go in there.”
“Maybe he both has and hasn’t slipped and we won’t know which one until we go in there and observe him.”
“‘When you guys go in’,” I said. “So you’re volunteering to stay out here?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I pulled out my phone and called Dave. The phone rang on my end for a few seconds, but Dave didn’t pick up.
“He’s not answering–” I said.
“Wait–” Eileen put her hand up and crept to the front of the cave. I could barely catch the light from her white tank top just a few feet ahead.
Then I heard it too. Fur Elise in chip-tune echoed across the cave. Dave’s ringtone. Far away.
Chuck put his hands up. “Uh, I will stay out here and guard the beer. You guys go find Dave and see if there’s a good spot to chill in, I want to smoke and I don’t want some ranger coming over and harassing us.”
“That’s fine,” Eileen said, walking back out of the cave. She took out her phone and turned the flashlight on. “You coming, Sam?”
I looked at Chuck. Nothing rattled him, in fact usually nothing even caused his eyes to un-dilate or focus on objects more than a hand’s width away, but he seemed alert now. And his beer was almost empty.
Eileen, though, her gaze was steady and that gave me some confidence. The light from her phone bounced off the ground and lit up the entrance like an underground pool, like something you’d see at the Playboy Mansion, except quiet.
You know that feeling you have when you walk up to a house, say your own house, and you know, you know that no one is inside? There’s a kind of darkness that signals that nothing is moving, or nothing has been disturbed since you last left. It’s like the warmth of your touch, however long it lingered, has now dissipated and nothing else has been through and brought the place back to life. The cave was like that. Empty. Unalive.