I was honored to win an award in the Wasatch Writers Fellowship short story competition under the category Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. I will eventually be doing a rewrite and hopefully add it to a collection of short stories I’d like to publish in an anthology, but for now, here is the story as is:
“Remind me why we’re doing this,” Marcy said while Eric and Jake scaled the chain link fence covered in signs that screamed DO NOT ENTER.
“Because we’re graduating next week, and we’ve never done this,” Eric said, leaning against the fence and grinning at her. “Come on, babe. It’s tradition.”
The caves just outside the east side of town were forbidden. Town officials stated the area was too unstable to allow people to explore their depths, and though they posted the signs, many teenagers made it a point in their high school career to hop the fence and walk inside.
Walking for one minute hardly counted, but it still gave you credit. Walking for five minutes was better. People demanded video proof then.
Ten minutes was unusual.
No one walked more than ten minutes. The ones who did were probably the ones that never came back.
The disappearances were mainly tourists; people who were just gassing up and were introduced to a local legend. The Sheriff repeatedly told visitors and locals alike that anyone caught trespassing on the opposite side of the fence would be arrested. The occasional arrest was enough to discourage the teens for a month or two, but eventually they’d forget Sheriff Bates’ threats.
Marcy didn’t want to be here.
She’d sat alone in the car as the others had hiked to the fence, but she’d had the strangest sensation that someone was watching her. The desert lay all around her, and her heart had nearly stopped every time she mistook a cactus for a man or monster. Behind her was too dark to see down the road, and that’s where the feeling came from. Eventually she had lost her nerve and texted Eric to come get her.
“We knew you’d end up coming,” Jake had said, elbowing her lightly. “You do this all the time—say you won’t do something but then there you are doing it.”
There she was.
Amanda turned to her. “You ready?”
“Aw, come on. You afraid you’ll get eaten by the cave?”
“I wouldn’t worry about the cave.” Jake gripped the fence and shook it, making the metal rattle. “I’d worry about the monster.”
“Shut up, you idiot,” Amanda said and began her climb. When she landed on the ground beside him, three pairs of eyes were on Marcy.
Many times before, she stood alone, the only one on her side, while they watched her expectantly, waiting for her to give up and join them. What else was she going to do? She couldn’t stay out here alone.
A coyote howled somewhere in the night. It was usually such a beautiful sound to Marcy, but now her skin erupted in prickly bumps as she heard the haunting sorrow in the note.
The mouth of the cave was narrow, a gash in the side of the mountain. It’d be the tight fit for Jake, who was tall and broad, but he didn’t hesitate to slide himself sideways into the slit, and after some wiggling and grunting, he disappeared into the dark before shining a beam of light towards them. “It opens up once you’re inside. Come on in. The creepy ambiance is fine.”
Even with the flashlights on, Marcy doubted she’d ever seen such darkness. It was like wading in a pool of thick mud. If they turned out the light, Marcy would drown.
Amanda fiddled with her phone. “Okay, guys! Video on. Let’s do this thing!”
Marcy gripped the flashlight tight, hoping no one else could detect the tremor in her hand.
“As you can see,” Amanda narrated, “there’s not too much going on. There’s dirt beneath our feet, and some rocks here and there. Some graffiti. Aw, someone proposed to their girlfriend here. Look.” She paused to focus on the sloppy carving in the stone.
The tunnel led them around a corner and then straight down. “And we’ve reached the minute!” Amanda said.
“Let’s keep going,” Jake suggested. “That was nothing. Unless the girls are scared.”
“Of course not.” Amanda yawned dramatically. “Not much going on.”
“I’m okay if we go back,” Marcy said.
Eric reached out and took her hand. “Come on, babe. We can keep going for a little bit at least. If it starts getting rough, we’ll turn around immediately. I promise.”
Marcy grimaced. And while she never verbally agreed to go on, her feet carried her with them.
“You think there ever was a monster?” Amanda asked.
“Amanda,” Marcy groaned.
“There’s no such thing, but the idea had to come from somewhere, right?” Amanda bumped her side into Jake’s. “Tell the story.”
“Please, don’t,” Marcy begged.
“Your girlfriend’s a baby,” Amanda criticized, but then tossed a teasing smile over her shoulder.
Everyone fell silent. And though she didn’t want it to, the story told itself in Marcy’s mind.
Fifty years ago, the town placed fences at the mouth of the cave and did its best to keep everyone out. And the lack of travelers in the caves drove the creature that lived inside it to a maddening hunger. It hated the light, but when a storm rolled in, it crept from its home and stole two children from theirs.
The second night it came again, and no one could catch it. It took more children.
A third night promised to bring the same terror, but a family of five caught the monster in their house and the neighborhood set fire to it.
Amanda murmured the lines often repeated by kids: “If you look it in the eyes, it takes your sight. If you make a noise, it takes your voice. Let it touch you, and it takes your flesh. Stay out, stay out of the caves.”
“Amanda,” Eric said when Marcy stopped walking. She gripped his hand painfully tight.
“Come on,” Jake said, reaching forward to pull Amanda on. “We’re getting close to being in here for ten minutes. No sweat.”
Marcy gulped as they continued on, their light growing smaller and then fading as they rounded another corner.
“I want to go,” she told Eric. “Please.”
“I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you,” Eric said. “Guys, wait for us!”
“What?” Amanda shouted back.
“Please.” Marcy’s eyes burned with tears. “I don’t want to be here.”
Eric sighed and kissed her on the forehead. “Okay. Hey, guys?”
“What?” Amanda shouted again.
“I’m walking back with Marcy!”
There wasn’t a reply.
“I’ll just text them, if they can’t hear me.” Eric tried to reach for his pocket, but Marcy wouldn’t let go. He frowned at her.
Amanda was suddenly there, running at them, grabbing them. Marcy and Eric lifted their flashlights to show her face, drained of all color.
“What happened?” Eric yanked his hand from Marcy’s to put it on Amanda’s shoulder.
Her mouth worked soundlessly. She pushed them.
“Hey, what’s going on? Where’s Jake?”
Amanda’s mouth gaped open wide, as if she was screaming. Marcy began to move backwards.
“Eric, we should go…”
“Knock it off!” Eric snapped at Amanda. “This isn’t a joke! Where’s Jake?”
“What?” Amanda said.
Except Amanda didn’t say it.
Her mouth didn’t match the word. And the voice came from around the corner.
Marcy fled immediately.
Eric shouted after her. And then he turned back towards Amanda, wishing he could smack her and Jake. They probably had a recording for this prank.
He expected a laugh, or at least a mischievous smile, but her expression hadn’t changed. And from behind her, two pale orbs peeked around the corner. Milky white, gleaming.
The flashlight was in his hand. The metal was warm from his palm, which now began to sweat. But that was the only evidence of it now, for he saw nothing.
Amanda gripped his hand and tugged, and he was stumbling, moving with her, but not fast enough. Something snagged the back of his shirt and he was torn away. Her hand didn’t find his again. He fell to the ground, groping around blindly.
The only sound he could hear was a deep inhale somewhere above him. He was still holding the flashlight. He felt the switch, moved it back and forth as if it would recover his vision.
Warm air tickled his neck. Sickly sweet breath.
Later, Amanda told herself. She could hate herself later.
When Eric had called to them, Amanda had answered once. When her voice had spoken a second time, Jake had stared at her before there was movement behind him. He’d turned and then was on the ground, his flashlight cracking against the rocks.
There had been strange gurgling noises. And Amanda hadn’t even turned her light on him to see what was happening.
She hadn’t wanted to know.
Eric was screaming now.
Amanda would have let her voice rip her throat apart along with him if it was still hers, but she could only run, hot tears on her cheeks.
She nearly bowled Marcy over. At Eric’s cries, Marcy had stopped. But Amanda didn’t have time to encourage her to keep going. She dodged Marcy and headed for the exit.
Marcy, heart thudding painfully in her chest, couldn’t do anything. The tunnels had gone quiet. She knew it was too late, and she knew that even if it wasn’t, she’d get herself killed trying to save a dead man. And so she caught up to Amanda, and the girls unconsciously raced against one another. The slowest and weakest would be the next prey—if the hunter was still up for the chase.
The exit was coming up. They slowed long enough to get their bearings, were relieved to see familiar graffiti on the walls, and threw what remained of their energy into a desperate charge. After squeezing back out, they just had to climb the fence and get to the car.
There was the crack in the wall. The exit.
But something was in the way.
Amanda got there first, smacking her hand on it and the blockage gave a metallic clang.
They angled their bodies so that they could both push, and they gritted their teeth, sweating profusely as they shoved as hard as they could. And the block didn’t budge.
“No!” Marcy kicked it.
“Babe,” Eric said.
Amanda pressed her back against the rough stone and closed her eyes tight.
Marcy’s fingers slid through hers. She heard Marcy’s sharp intake of breath and realized, I never liked her. Not really. But now I hope she doesn’t let go.
“I’m here,” Eric said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Sheriff Bates had waited for the four kids to enter the cave and had put the steel barrier in place, bracing it with his truck. And he’d climbed into his waiting deputy’s car.
“Pull over,” he said suddenly. The deputy obeyed without question.
Bates threw the door open and vomited stomach acid on the desert sand. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his uniform and lifted his eyes to the desert at night. It was cool, calm, and somewhere a coyote howled. Bates’ stomach hollowed out with a loneliness no amount of company could remedy.
“You had to,” the deputy said. “The kids choose to go in. You just make sure they stay.”
Fifty years ago, the mayor and sheriff then attempted to starve the creature. And it not only stole a few children, but it couldn’t be killed or trapped, and it always came back with a vengeance.
So it had to be fed.
Those kids used their free will to put themselves in harm’s way. A mistake on their part. Bates just made sure their mistake had a good consequence for everyone else.
“Hate it when they’re people we know,” the deputy said. “That’s the hardest. The local deaths.”
Bates almost envied them. They didn’t have the live out the remainder of the years carrying this crushing weight.
Their agony was brief. Or so he told himself.