From the room’s longest wall and the pale vertical patterns where his skinny frame blended in with the thin lines, he emerged. He had been waiting for the man she was with to finish talking to the waiter and then stand up, leaving her alone at the table with its white napkins, morning caught on the glasses and silverware, and the remaining fog lifting off the river. Weaving through the gathering crowd, he walked over and chuckled as he said, “Karen Hildebrandt.”
The fork clanged against the plate as she dropped it, nearly catapulting scrambled eggs into the air. “Are you serious?” She slapped the table, pushing down her giggles. “Steve? Oh my God.”
“Yeah, hey….” Steve shuffled in his black pants and black t-shirt. Laughing with his head hanging down, his slicked-back black hair receded in the front and exposed the crown of his head and the color difference between it and the tan on the rest of his leathery face. “I thought it was you. I mean, I knew, right?” He smiled at her as he went in for a long hug. “How could I not stop?”
“I can’t believe it’s you. Of all the places.” She returned the embrace.
“You still look like a classic pin-up girl.” He looked her up and down, his eyes landing on the knee-length black skirt that defined her body’s shape as her legs were cocked to the side closest to him.
“Oh, please.” Her face turning bright red, pupils opening, she tucked her auburn hair behind her ears, sipped from the water glass, and looked off towards the serving tables with silver pans and chafing dishes. The man who had been sitting with her stood in the long line. He turned his head to her, catching Steve out of the corner of his eye, but he swiveled back to select his ingredients from the options at the omelet station. Karen returned her eyes to Steve standing by the table. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“I could always pick you out in the crowd…just like the old days.”
“The red flower?”
“Yep.” He blushed. “That…and the matching lipstick. Somehow the stage lights hit your face just right. It was like looking straight into a rose.”
“I had to be close to the stage for that,” she said, leaning back in her chair.
“Well, when you weren’t, I noticed that too.”
She smiled at him. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m on my way to a radio station to pitch my latest effort.”
Karen’s mouth dropped. “Oh my God, you guys got back together.”
“No, no, but I am kind of on my own tour. Lacey and I didn’t want to put ourselves through it again.”
“I remember one of my former colleagues, who’s now at National Review of all places,” she said, her eyes rolling, “told me you guys did a reunion tour in 2004.”
“Yeah, it was fine. But it wore me out after a while. I’m fifty now….”
“I know…isn’t it crazy?” Karen added as he spoke, shaking her head.
“And I was just going through the motions. But Lacey has got her own gigs. Very popular. I think it has something to do with Mad Men or Masters of Sex. Nostalgia for that era. The clothes, the hair, the music.”
“What’s her band?”
“Lacey Dagger and the Dagger Sisters.”
Karen covered her smiling mouth. “And she still plays guitar?”
“Guitar…and is the lead singer now. Something she always wanted to do.”
“But you got in the way,” she smiled at him.
“Well, yeah. She was just the female version of Brian Setzer.”
“That’s so great, Steve.”
“You should see them. Beehive hair. Retro glasses. Pumps. The floral dresses. Stockings with the seam running up the back. They all look like they came from a Fifties diner.”
“Yeah, it’s great actually,” he said, looking down at the tiled floor. “They’ve been on the longest tour so far…this uh…Johnny Cash Tent Revival followed by a stint opening for Hank III. Working their way down the West coast. I-5. And then it’s off to the South.”
“Where else, right?”
“It’s the bread and butter.”
“What about you?”
Karen blushed and sat up straight as the man from the omelet line returned. “I’m on a very, very long road trip. He’s never done anything like this,” she stopped herself. “In fact, here he is.”
The man adjusted the navy V-neck sweater over his dress shirt.
“Greg, this is Steve.”
“Hi. Steve Walcott.”
“Steve…” Greg said plainly, as he put down his plate full of sausage and bacon and waffles, carefully unfolding the linen napkin across his white pants. He brushed the tip of his prominent nose. “I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned Steve before, honey.” Greg smiled at Karen who smiled back. Greg wiped his hand before extending it to Steve. “Nice to meet you. I’m Karen’s husband.”
“Same.” Steve pulled back his skinny arm and fingers.
“I hate for you to keep standing, especially while we have breakfast, but I don’t see any chairs available.” Greg kept his eyes focused on pouring coffee.
Steve smirked. “We were just catching up. Karen and I know each other from….” He stopped and laughed at her.
Karen blushed again and wiped her mouth with her own napkin after finishing her mimosa with a long drink. “I used to cover him.”
Greg crossed his arms before lifting his coffee cup.
“I used to cover him and his band in the Weekly Reporter, Greg.”
“Not my band. The band,” Steve corrected her.
“Right.” Karen looked up at him.
“Ah…” Greg said, “so you’re a musician.”
“What was the band?”
“OBGYN,” Karen jumped in, laughing along with Steve.
Steve controlled his laughter and looked at Greg. “Our Big Galactic Yellow Noodle.” He got serious. “OBGYN. We started as Satan’s Pony, switched to Mother’s Touch after we lost Chris, our first bassist, to law school.”
“Then they hired this gorgeous redhead,” Karen interrupted, “Lexi Sweetbane to play upright bass. They had two female guitarists. OBGYN was born. Lacey and Lexi…and Steve.” Karen leaned her shoulder and head more towards Steve.
Steve looked over at Greg. “Lacey is my wife. Lexi is her sister.”
“I mean,” Steve continued, “they’re not sisters biologically, but it’s part of the act.”
“What’s the act?” Greg asked after dumping syrup onto his waffles, his eyebrows raising but his eyes remaining focused on the sticky mess in front of him.
“We all live together.” Steve winked at him.
Greg nodded and then looked over at Karen who was glowing at Steve. “Ah…” Greg said, shoveling waffles into his mouth. “So, what kind of music?”
Steve looked at Karen. “Mostly psychobilly stuff. You wouldn’t know it.”
“You’re right. I don’t.”
“It’s 1940s jive mixed with punk and horror and science fiction, Greg,” Karen said, ordering another mimosa.
“Upright bass, simple rhythms, twanging guitar, rhythm and blues. Lots and lots of reverb on the guitar and vocals. Lots.”
“And the lyrics,” Karen said, her eyes glistening.
“Yeah, B-movie stuff. Werewolves, vampires, teenage sex, Martians, rednecks, reefer…rednecks.”
Greg cocked his head and licked his lips.
“They had one hit, Greg. ‘Daddy Was too Drunk to Fight Zombies.’”
“Just one hit, Steve?” Greg looked up from the edge of his orange juice glass.
“Just the one,” Steve smirked. “Mostly college radio along the Pacific coast. Portland and Davis loved us.”
Karen leaned in towards Steve, placing her arm between her body and the full glass of orange juice and Greg across from her. “I remember first seeing you all in San Francisco back in ‘88.”
“That was right before we got on our first major tour. We nailed it in California, of course, and spots in the Midwest and the South. God, did the South love us. Especially Richmond.”
“The former Confederate capitol loves their psychobilly.”
“Apparently so. They gave Tulsa and Austin a run for their money.”
Karen kept talking without looking at Greg. “Their early albums were made in a cheap studio, which made it sound like they recorded in a bedroom with mattresses stacked against the walls and windows.”
“Which they were,” Steve added.
“Steve had this flat voice, only going up in register when emphasizing something ‘Oh yeah’ or ‘Help me get it bad’ or ‘The Devil’s in my pants tonight.’ He sang like he was getting punched in the stomach while singing and having sex at the same time. But everyone in the band joined in singing when it got to the chorus, like old-timey music.” Karen took a deep breath. “Steve went by the name Adonis Killthrill, and one time, this reporter asked him, ‘Describe your music,’ and Steve said, ‘Your granny’s gospel bit by vampires.’” Karen giggled.
Greg wiped the beads of water from his glass. “So what are you doing here?”
“Well, as I was telling Karen, I’m on my way to a radio station in St. Louis. I have this other outlet.” He looked at them, mainly at her.
“Oh?” She smiled at him. “What?”
“Here.” Pulling a plastic jewel case with a silver disc in it from his pocket, he slid it across the table to Karen.
“You carry this around?” Greg asked, leaning his body towards the table and the jewel case, his mouth chewing over it.
“Actually, yeah, I do,” Steve smirked. “I’ve been associated so long with that other stuff that I have to show something different for it. Literally.”
“Do you want to give me a sneak peek, or keep it as a surprise?” Karen asked, playing with the jewel case between her fingers.
He was quiet for several seconds. “Surprise.”
She laughed. “OK.” She took another drink. “It’s not porn, is it?”
Steve laughed, nearly coughing into Greg’s breakfast. “God no. We did that already.” He cleared his throat, spying Greg out of the corner of his eye. “No, it’s something you’d never expect from me.”
He smiled. “Just put it in your computer, and the rest will take care of itself.”
“Well, I should let you two get back to breakfast.” Steve tapped the top of the wood counter by their table. “There’s this tour at three today of the cave. We should all go.”
“What’s the tour?” asked Greg.
“It’s…uh…a historical tour…the big cave that’s around here.” He looked at Karen before turning to Greg.
“Thanks, but we have a long trip ahead of us before we reach Palm Springs,” Greg said.
“We’d love to,” Karen said, digging into her purse and pulling out her phone. “What’s your number?”
Steve took the phone from her and punched in the numbers himself, looking up at Karen when he was finished.
“Cool,” she said, smiling and keeping the phone out under her palm. “I’ll keep it on.”
“Vibrate?” Steve asked.
Karen giggled. “If that’s what it takes.”
“Well,” Greg said, “thanks for catching up. It was nice to meet you.” His arm was out.
Steve shook it. “Yeah, it was good to see you guys. Come out this afternoon. I’ll text with the info.” He raised his skinny arm to them and walked away.
Greg scooted his chair towards the table, his robust belly causing their waters to spill. He cleaned off his knife. “Drug addict?”
“What?” Karen asked, moving on to her third mimosa.
“That guy must have weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. His eye sockets look like the cave he wants to check out.”
“Drugs weren’t what he enjoyed doing.”
Greg chewed his food, sniffing and flopping out the issue of Barron’s he brought. “So…it was the snuff films he enjoyed doing.”
“Oh, come on, Greg.”
“You two seemed to remember each other pretty good,” Greg said with a hard stare at her over his coffee.
Karen rolled her eyes. “There was nothing between us. They were a really unique band. He just has a very active—granted, weird—imagination. He’s very talented. Their style was a watershed in American music.”
“More like an outhouse by the trailer park.” He wrinkled his nose. “Did you live with them? The Weird Sisters, or whatever their names were, and Uncle Fester.”
Karen shook her head and took a drink. “Don’t be this way. That was years ago.” Her phone vibrated, and she looked at it immediately.
Keeping his eyes on the paper, Greg flipped to the next article. “That’s not answering my question.”
* * * * *
“No Greg?” Steve asked as he put away the brochure to the cave tour.
“No,” Karen answered, sweeping back her overly colored auburn hair. “He wanted to work. Catch up on business. I told him to stay.”
Steve motioned to the ticket line. “What does he do?”
“He works in finance.”
“That’s usually code for Wall Street or a hedge fund or something to do with big money.”
Karen blushed and pressed her lips harder together, the crimson lipstick brighter.
“So he’s a capitalist pig.”
“Let me get the tickets,” she cut him off. She twisted hair between her thumb and finger. “I watched the DVD.”
“I’m floored. I had no idea you were a chef…with a show.”
“Kinda. I have a show on the local access station, and this was an audition for The Food Network. My agent and I are pitching it to them.”
“Your own show?”
“Trying to make it happen, yeah.”
“You would be the perfect antithesis to Guy Fieri.”
“Yeah, but still.”
“No, I know. I just never thought I’d be wanting to be part of big-corporate America.”
“We all have to pay the bills.”
“It’s not that. I guess I can’t get rid of the anti-this or -that at heart.”
“I want to go in there in decent attire but spout off something about plastic surgery gone wrong.”
“Caused by a mad scientist.”
“With an upright bass.”
Karen thanked the young woman behind the glass at the ticket counter. “I think it’s great. Do you they know you as the guy from OBGYN?”
“I think my agent told them, ‘He was the front man for a rock group best known for songs inspired the great B-movies of yesteryear.’ Nothing too shocking. Get a foot in the door, go from there.”
“No, makes sense.” She handed Steve his ticket.
They grabbed a spot in the long line between a group of school children and a family of four, each of whom wore matching ball caps and shirts from Old Navy. Karen smiled at them when she caught one of the children staring at her and Steve.
“Good to know we still stick out like sore thumbs even in middle age,” Steven said, noticing the child too. “You never looked out of place at the shows,” he continued, leaning in to her.
“I waited until Greg stepped out and watched the DVD. When the screen was all black, I thought, Steve’s moved on to performance art…makes sense. I had this image of you in leather dangling by hooks over candles in the shape of a pentagram or an inverted cross.”
The boy tugged at his sister’s sleeve.
“There was that great dramatic pause before you said, ‘We are making chocolate-chip pancakes today!’” The audience went crazy.” Karen looked at the siblings and wanted to wipe off the red lipstick and apply a shiny black she had. She untangled hair from the silver chain dangling between the cuff on her ear’s cartilage and the piercing in her earlobe. “I loved it. You had this accent, like a mixture of Shakespearean drama and French excitement.”
“I can’t wait to show you how to make some flavorful pancakes, perfect for a lazy weekend,” Steve repeated his lines from the DVD.
“Great title too. ‘Chef Steve’s Rockin’ Kitchen,’” she said, blushing.
“That’s me. My agent thought that was better than Demon Kitchen.” He looked down at the kids and made a face at them, raising his hands. They giggled and turned back around.
“What was the theme song you sang?”
Steve cleared his throat and sang, “Come on down to the kitchen, the flavor’s rockin.” Eyes in the crowd turned on him. He looked at Karen. “The last part Lacey comes in with me.”
“I figured it was her. I could hear the upright bass walking its line.” Karen laughed. “I can still see you wearing that all-black get-up. The kitchen apron with red flames at the bottom, your hair slicked back, your black shirt. And then,” she lost control of her laughter, touching his ribs, “You glided from cabinet to refrigerator to table with your flour and butter and chocolate chips.”
“That’s right,” he said, turning his body towards hers, looking down at her.
“And then you tell us how much to use, the temperature, what to expect. And your catchphrase…‘That’s how it’s done!’ Oh God, so good. It’s like watching a better-looking Peter Murphy cook.” She took a deep breath. “Ah, Steve, I’m so glad you’re happy. From a working-class family to psychobilly star to TV chef.”
“Thanks. I can’t complain. I’m always looking for new opportunities.”
“You look like a vampire,” the little boy said, turning back around and giggling.
“Dylan,” the father snapped his son’s arm, “Watch it, or you’ll be sitting up here while your sister gets to see the cave.” The father spoke over his shoulder to Steve. “Sorry.”
“No worries,” Steve said, smiling.
“Everybody dresses differently nowadays,” the dad said over his shoulder again.
“I beg your pardon?”
The father cocked his head back but didn’t look at Steve. “Nah, it’s just, you know, Columbine, Marilyn Manson, Twilight, all that stuff. Not for us.”
“Doesn’t have to be.”
“That’s America,” the father said, herding his family away from cartoons of grey bats and blind salamanders and an old metal bucket from the cave’s mining days bolted to the floor, large enough for him and his two children to fit in.
The guide, standing between the crowd and the gate, interrupted with a Southern accent. “Hi folks, my name is Toby, and I’ll be your guide today.” Behind him was the sidewalk leading down to the mouth of the cave. He shuffled his plump body next to an orange sign that contrasted his brown pants and forest green vest with badges stitched on it. “Before we go down, let’s remind ourselves of some things. The tour lasts about an hour, and it’s strenuous at times. Some bending over, climbing nearly six hundred stairs,” Toby’s voice increased pitch, “and long walks, and inclines. So, just be aware of that if you have heart or breathing problems, bad backs, weak knees, or ankles…OK?” Toby placed his hands across each of those areas. “There’ll be cramped places, heights, the dark, and bats and other cave creatures, but they shouldn’t bother you.” Toby bobbed his head. “There are restrooms right around the corner before we leave, because you can’t relieve yourself down there. Please don’t touch the cave walls or anything in it. The cave is very much alive. Phew! Anyone still want to go?”
The crowd laughed with him, some nodding, the children jumping up and down on their tiptoes.
“Once we reach the base of the Grand Room,” Toby said, pointing to the largest pink blot on the map behind Plexiglas next to him, “a photo is taken, which can be purchased at the end of the tour for twenty dollars.”
Steve rolled his eyes at Karen, who giggled.
“And don’t forget, folks,” his high-pitched voice rising, “we’ve got an old-fashioned lantern tour, a Christmas spectacular with carolers and a huge Christmas tree in the Grand Room, and,” he leaned his bubbly body in towards the crowd, “ghost tours to selected parts of the cave. I did mention the ghosts, didn’t I?” Toby closed his eyes halfway with his smirk. He flopped out his hand. “I’m sure we’ll all be fine. Any questions? When we’re done,” he traced his finger up the far right of the map, “we’ll take a cable car back up to the surface. Y’all be so tuckered out we’ll do the driving for you.”
As the crowd shuffled through the gate with Toby, Steve let them bubble around him. He stood for a while at the History and Legends sign, clicking pictures with his phone as his eyes moved down the bulleted list. He would stop every now and then, typing. He stared at the cross-section map of the cave, noticing how cardiac it looked, the cave depicted in pink, each main level looking like a series of four hearts descending then rising towards the long vein with the red funicular train in it, the little passages of each section shooting off like arteries bleeding into nothing but emptiness. Near the bottom right of the map, Steve leaned in closer, his skinny neck stretching towards Infinity River on the map, its illustration changing from a pool of blue in a pink vein to a blue squiggle to a thin black line reaching a question mark at the end.
“You coming?” Karen smiled, popping her head back around the corner.
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve nodded after typing on his phone and snapping a photo of the map.
* * * * *
Beneath a metal roof, the group slowly descended the stairs that had been welded together in the lush forest and over the mossy rocks. After staring at a tree near his left, Steve put his hands on Karen’s arms and rubbed them, smiling at her as her chills momentarily stopped. He typed some more on his phone then put it away, daylight having been obscured by the high slopes of grey rocks between which they walked. On his left, just past the tree with a faded mark on its midsection, he could see the sinkhole mentioned in the History and Legends sign, the original way to get into the cave. It was a gaping socket in the rocky ground, the one dark spot in a webbing of greens and browns and birds singing overhead.
Approaching the tourist entrance, a limestone wall reinforced by metal, Karen made eye contact with Steve and nodded her head to the patinaed sign hanging on the rocks, warning that everything inside was protected and disturbing anything was punishable. She laughed at him. He rolled his eyes and mouthed, I’ll be good, stepping with her around the corner to the right, into the black doorway, disappearing with the stairs into darkness.
As the temperature dropped, Steve shivered walking from the stairwell onto the smooth floor of the first room. He looked up and saw the sinkhole filled with pale blue. A grey haze hovered in the amber light of the walls and ceiling. Steve looked over the edge of the railing and saw the ridges of blacks and greys far under him. He thought of all the things that fell through the sinkhole, decayed, and made the mound on which he now stood.
“Gotcha,” Toby said to Karen and Steve, as his camera flashed. “If you don’t buy it, we’ll probably use it on the Web site.”
Raising the left side of her mouth, Karen said, “We’re on record now.”
“At least they’ll be able to identify the bodies,” Steve replied.
Toby waddled in front of everyone, the platform under him creaking as he turned and faced the crowd. “Welcome, everyone to the Grand Room. If you turn around and look at the stairs we just used, you’ll note that we traveled 300 feet below the surface. As our tour continues, we’ll go all the way down to 500 feet. This room is so large that we’ve had five hot-air balloons in here at one time. The temperature down here stays pretty constant at about 55 degrees, regardless if it’s summer or winter up there.” Toby cleared his throat. “But…there is one spot in the cave, much lower than we are now, that the early miners believed was a bottomless pit, and it….”
“The Abyss of Doom,” Steve interrupted at the back of the crowd, his voice echoing. Karen looked up at him, shaking her head.
“Yes…uh…that’s right. Very good,” Toby answered. “They called it the Abyss of Doom. They had heard about the Spanish explorers who named the sinkhole above us…oh, my Spanish is awful, y’all…it’s Lo Bocha.”
“La Boca del Diablo,” Steve spoke up, the crowd turning towards him again.
“What does that mean?” a young girl at the front of the group asked.
“The Devil’s Mouth.”
“Jesus, Steve…,” Karen giggled under her breath.
Steve looked at her.
“Yes, thank you, I was getting there,” Toby said, blushing. “Anyway, the miners threw rocks down the Abyss, didn’t hear a sound, and then felt the temperature rise up from the pit, and they thought it was the gateway to Hell.”
“One of the gateways,” Steve whispered to Karen.
“What did you tell me years ago? Another one is in…where?”
“That,” she said, covering her laugh, pressing her other hand on his chest.
“The Indian guides who were with the Spanish refused to get any closer to the sinkhole,” Steve said to her as they shuffled along the trail with the group, passing formations that looked like antiques draped by thick layers of candle wax. “They had another name for the sinkhole…and feared it greatly. They heard strange sounds far below. They marked the trees all around us with a sign that meant turn around. I saw one before we headed down.”
Karen raised her eyebrows.
“The next room we’ll see…the Throne Room…was first discovered in 1849 by Fess Symmes, a miner hoping there was lead or maybe even marble in the walls,” Toby said. “We’ll see the large formation that looks like a giant throne.”
“Turns out, it was all bat poop,” Steve said to Karen.
A camera flashed.
“Ma’am I asked you not to use your flash. One more time, and I’ll have to confiscate it.” Toby smiled at the woman. “Now, let’s move on. Keep up with the group. The cave is dangerous and there are many areas we have yet to secure.”
* * * * *
As Toby rambled on about the 1800s, how the mining companies changed strategies and started extracting bat guano for gunpowder and fertilizer, and how Unionists threw slave owners down the sinkhole, Karen and Steve drifted further and further from the group. They stood for a long time at a natural underground waterfall illuminated by rotating colored lights installed behind it; above it, the water tumbled over frozen claws of rocks.
“I bet we step into some bat poop along the way,” Karen said.
“Or maybe,” Steve said, “we’ll run into some cave people who’ve lived down here for centuries. They have these smooth parts where their eyes should be. They probably have jagged teeth like fish. And they wear clothes from the 1800s, like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ And, of course, they inbreed.”
Karen laughed out loud. “Your imagination has never stopped, has it?”
“And you’d probably want to talk to them.”
Karen giggled, touching Steve’s arm. “Everything down here looks sexual…like giant penises and vaginas and butts.”
“There was a group of teenagers that went into the cave at night, planning to have sex, and were never seen again. People who camp in the forest above us have said they can hear them talking. And what our jolly guide failed to tell us was that the Throne Room was where James Gifford lived during the 1900s, after the mining companies left.”
“Bank robber?” Karen asked.
“One child escaped and couldn’t eat meat for the rest of his life.”
“What?” Karen shook her head. “Why?”
“Gifford would butcher deer in front of the children. He’d smoked it right there…hang it up on the walls or from the ceiling.” Steve looked around at the formations on the floor that had built up into bubbles and round masses looking like they oozed together centuries ago. “This room is rumored to be one of the most active. People have seen shadowy figures running about.”
“Not the deer.”
“How do you know this?” Karen asked.
“I Googled it. I had time to do it between being judged by that family and knowing I’d be bored.”
“Do you remember that one song you wrote for me?” Karen asked him, ducking every now and then, squeezing her body through an archway.
“Your boobs in the way?” Steve laughed, easily passing through the same archway.
“Yes, yes, they are,” she laughed back at him. “Anyway…the song.” In a wider passage, she held his hand and brought her shoulder to his arm.
“The one that said I was no one special…until what happened next was extraordinary.”
“Meeting me…,” Karen faded.
“Yes.” Steve looked at her.
“Your lyrics made me into a teenage werewolf, I believe.”
“Yeah…had to cover up my tracks somehow.” He smiled at her. “You bit me.”
She looked up at him, her large brown eyes as dark as some of the lowest points on the walls. “They’re really pulling ahead of us.”
“It’s OK. Let ‘em. I’ve got my phone.” He turned his head behind him, “In fact, let’s take our time. We paid for it.”
“Are you serious?”
“So, you know where we are,” she said to him, “because they are gone.”
“Perfect. Come on.”
When they reached the reptilian skin of the formations, the tans giving way to rusts, Steve held her hand until the group and Toby’s light faded away. They stared into the darkness until the echoes stopped, Toby’s voice stopped, the darkness and the cave’s colors rippled in.
* * * * *
“Yeah…it’s a lot colder,” Karen said, shivering. “I keep seeing wet footprints on the ground going the other way.” She looked down at the grey-tan floor and the small floodlights along the tunnel.
“I’m sure our guide is talking on and on right now, but there’s this legend that says the Conquistadors buried gold somewhere in here. But more importantly, they found the fountain of youth.”
“What would we even do with it?” Karen asked, half looking at him, half looking at clay-like formations stacked in front of her.
Steve’s head lowered then picked it back up, his skin pale, his face lit from underneath. “You wanted Mr. Sensitive-Artsy-Guy, but you settled for Mr. Vanilla-Consistent-Salary.”
She looked at him.
“Am I wrong?”
“No…you’re not, but he treats me well.”
“He creeped me out.”
“You’re not married to him. I am.”
“His face reminds me of someone whose nose has been broken a few times because he looks too smug.”
She looked up, the stalactites above catching her eye like feathers stripped from golden birds. “I do love him. He’s not my soul mate,” she looked at him, “but he’s supportive.”
Lifting her hair from her neck, he started to kiss her in the low light.
“I don’t think the fountain of youth is here,” she said, turning to him and whispering in his ear.
“Well…then…I’ll leave you be.” He smoothed down his black hair.
She smiled at him. “We had fun, didn’t we?”
She took a deep breath. “If it makes you feel any better, the last ‘rock concert’ he went to was Journey in 1984 with Bryan Adams and Eddie Money opening.”
The pale light from the floor lamps flickering, Steve could see her air quotes in the small winding passage. “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Karen said, “it sounds like water.” She looked up at him. “Didn’t we already pass the waterfall?”
“It must be the river.”
“It’s this underground river. There’s lots of mud and cold water. They don’t know how long it is.”
“I’m serious. The end has yet to be found.”
As they wound their way around the wet lumps of rocks, the floodlights suddenly shut off as though one switch controlled their snaking path. Total darkness.
“I think our tour is done.” He turned his phone off and on several times. “I guess it’s been an hour.”
“They must’ve left.” He turned to her in the darkness. “It’s a cave. Things need to be in their natural environment. They turned out the lights when they were done.”
“Well, we don’t want to go that way,” Karen said, nodding in the darkness and towards the river’s tumble. “What do we do?”
“They’ll come back for us. I’m sure Toby had a head count.”
“Steve…where are you going?”
“Just over here. The water sounds closer now for some reason. Like it’s moved towards us.”
“Steve!” Karen whispered, grabbing his wrist at the last minute before he left her.
Steve got out his phone and used the flashlight to scan the room. “Shit!”
“I thought I saw something move. Probably a bat…or just a shadow from those rocks.” He pivoted in a slushy spot, stopping the lone beam of the phone’s flashlight on a jagged face in front of him.
“What is it?” Karen peered over his shoulder, gripping his hand tighter.
Leaning back from the wall, he quickly moved the light to the floor. “Nothing.”
“It’s just…I can’t tell if it’s…,” he paused, touching the wall, smelling his finger, making sure the light remained on the floor, “it’s probably just old iron oxide…not blood.” He looked at her in the dim blue light of his phone. “Let’s keep moving. I feel warmer air up ahead. I think we’ve gone up a bit.”
“It’s too dark,” Karen said, crouching close to him. “I don’t know which way we’re going.”
Pushing his phone’s screen again and again, he said, “The photo of the cave I took earlier is gone.”
“What do you mean?
“I had it on here, but it’s gone now.”
“Well, we are 500 feet below any cell-phone towers.”
“No, I mean, I can see the battery…fully charged…and there are no bars, and all my other apps are here…but it’s gone.” He stopped and said to her, “What is that buzzing sound?”
They looked around the room, his phone’s flashlight moving across the damp walls like it was trying to find the source of a trickling shadow.
“My phone!” The screen flickered and vibrated in Karen’s pale palm.
Steve shrugged. “Answer it.”
“Hello?” She looked at Steve. “Hello?” She swallowed. “Static.”
“Come on. There’s some light up ahead, and I can feel the air.” Steve pulled her hand, but then his right foot stepped into a grey haze that had no bottom. Sliding down, he brought her with him. “Oh…my…God…that is cold,” Steve said, nearly laughing. He could feel the cool blade of water up to his chin. “We are in the river.”
“Help!” Karen yelled.
“We need help!” She threw his hand off her mouth.
“You have to be quiet.”
“Calm down. We’re floating. It’s OK.”
“OK…OK,” she said, her gasping slower.
“Let’s paddle back the way we fell.”
“Which was where?” she asked, her teeth clicking.
“Over here.” He kicked his legs, and together they moved in the cold darkness. “I can feel soft dirt.” His fingers dug in, clinging to whatever wouldn’t break apart after a few seconds. “OK…we’re OK. Let’s just float here. The water’s up to my chest now. I can swing my feet into this wall.”
There was a sound of rocks falling somewhere around them.
“This water tastes awful.”
“Don’t drink it,” Steve said, smiling at her.
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Who knows if drinking it will make us forget or remember everything.”
“Look…,” Karen said.
“There’s a light up there.” She pointed to a small white spot slowly sliding in the darkness.
Steve squinted. “I think that’s a lamp.” He squinted again, but a haze now covered his face.
“This is good,” she said. “This is really good.”
“And did you hear that?”
“Yeah, someone said, ‘Over here.’”
“I think it was Toby. It was so faint.”
“I couldn’t tell where it came from. Must have been far away because it was a whisper. Someone is coming for sure. I hear footsteps.” Karen spun her head to where she believed the slow clacking sound of boots on rocks stumbled towards them.
“I can feel mud or sand…something soft under me now,” Steve said, as he latched onto a different wall, stopping their movement. He looked at her after they hugged and laughed. The light and the footsteps moved towards them. “Hey! We’re over here.” Steve controlled his breath. “How should we retell it?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you retell it years from now, you’ll have to throw in something.”
“Like…uh…we went exploring without them.” He laughed.
“We did,” Karen replied, wiping her eyes, smiling.
“No, I mean, on our own. There was no group, no office, tickets, none of that.”
“OK,” she said, laughing, tightening her hug around him as the sound of the footsteps increased. “I’ll have to tell Greg something.” She breathed deeper. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”
“We fell through the sinkhole.” Steve chuckled, swirling his body towards her in the cold dark water. “Throw in an actual ghost.”
“Mr. Gifford?” Karen said, looking around the room, shivering. There was a clicking sound near them.
Steve nodded. “We were on tour up in Europe, and Kurt…remember him?”
“Of course…the drummer.”
“Yeah,” he paused to smile at her, his toes on the grimy floor shifting under him. “You remember….Anyway, he’s like, ‘Swear to God this is true.’ And then he starts in about how he read Romania is so haunted with ghosts because, way back when, people were buried alive inside buildings as sacrifices to gods.” Steve nodded towards her, “And Kurt’s like, ‘There’s this one tunnel, after this one earthquake, all these skeletons were found inside the walls of the tunnel.’ And Kurt looks at us and says, ‘And they were all standing upright when they found them.’” Spitting out water, he looked away from Karen and towards the footsteps. “I remember growing up my dad told this story about Old California. There was this one with a local rancher who was riding to town one night when he heard something behind him. Well, this old guy knew what it was, so he says, ‘Ah, poor, lost soul, you died out here so long ago because of the drought. You’re still hanging around, long past due.’”
“Do you have to use a bad Western accent?” she giggled, her breathing calmer.
“Sorry. My dad always told it that way too. Anyway, the rancher goes back to his house, grabs a lantern, and heads back to where he heard the footsteps. He waits with the lantern and his horse by his side. Sure enough, this chalk-white hand comes out of the darkness towards him. The ghost blows out the lantern and is never heard from again.”
“Yeah,” Steve smiled, “what more do you want?”
Karen shrugged, splashing as she did, watching the light glide within the haze.
“See,” Steve said, “for me, there’s no point to a true ghost story. You just tell it. There’s no moral. Telling it takes on its own life.” He paused to clear his nose. “It goes on and on and on. Somebody else picks it up where the other person left off. Besides,” he sniffled, “it’s never about ghosts.”
As they huddled together, pink flowers floating in a black bath, the footsteps stopped close to them. The air was spacious and cold, the haze spread around them like thin gauze, and small currents and ripples plopped nearby or far away, the sources anonymous in the dark.
“Your hand is so cold on my face,” she said, pulling him closer to her, nuzzling his cheek.
He waited to tell her that it wasn’t his.
William Auten’s first novel is currently under consideration with agents, and his work has appeared in Drunken Boat, failbetter, Hayden Ferry’s Review, Nimrod, Notre Dame Review, Sugar House Review, Terrain, and other publications. Find more at www.williamauten.com.