The Cave
Tom Mahony
Break

They hiked along a creek and stumbled upon a limestone cave tucked into the canyon wall.

"Let's check it out," he said.

She frowned. "I don't know."

"C'mon, just a peek."

He removed a flashlight from his backpack and entered the cave. She protested, but grudgingly followed him inside. It was cool and musty, the ground slick and rutted. Bats darted through the flashlight beam, water dripped from the ceiling. They walked down a corridor until it branched in three directions.

"Okay, we've seen it," she said. "Let's turn around."

He started down the left corridor. "Just a little further."

She toed an arrow in the mud to mark their return path, and followed. The cave splintered into numerous caverns and tunnels. At each junction she marked their path but the return route became increasingly complicated. He walked faster. She struggled to keep pace.

"Wait," she said.

He stopped, impatient. "What?"

"What are you looking for?"

"I don't know."

"This is getting spooky. Let's go back."

"A few more minutes."

As he turned to continue, he stumbled. The flashlight flew from his hands, rolled across the floor, and disappeared down a fissure in the limestone. The cave went black, silent. He dropped to his knees, searching in vain for the flashlight.

"Shit," he said.

"Do you have any matches?"

"No. Let's follow the walls back to the entrance."

They inched forward, the walls gooey with bat guano. Distance was difficult to judge in the darkness. They walked a long time. It felt like they were going in circles. They fought panic.

"We need to stop," she said.

"I think we're getting close."

"We're just getting lost. Let's think it through for a minute."

He reluctantly stopped.

"I knew we should've turned back at that first junction," she said. "What were you thinking?"

He shrugged.

"You've been doing so many reckless things lately. Like you don't care what happens to you, to us."

He grunted. "Let's just focus on getting out of here."

They shuffled down the narrow corridor until it widened and forked. They had no idea where to go. They slumped against the cold damp limestone, listening to the drip, drip, drip of water from the ceiling, the steady labor of their breathing. The intensity of the darkness was unnerving, claustrophobic.

Hours passed. She could smell the sweat on him, that vague funk he'd acquired of late, a symbol of his indifference. Something about that triggered her fury.

"If we survive this, you need to do the dishes more," she said.

The words sounded bizarre in the darkness. He turned to her, a pointless move; there was nothing to see. But he could picture her face: that familiar frown, scrunched forehead, hostile blue eyes. "What?"

"The dishes," she said. "I'm tired of cleaning up after you."

He was sick of her nagging. "What about my lawn care? You've never respected the effort that's gone into it."

"I will, if you respect the importance of hygiene."

"I can't control my body odor. It's a diet thing. I eat a lot of garlic."

"They invented this new thing called a shower."

"Should I wash my feet ten times a day like you do? It's borderline compulsive."

"I've always hated your mother," she said, almost yelling. "She treats me like crap. But I can't say anything to her. You need to stand up to her for once."

"She never liked you either. She warned me not to marry you, but I've always defended you. Always. Maybe I was wrong." They went silent. Drip, drip, drip.

A day passed, two. Several more forays through the cave proved futile. Their food and water ran out, throats raging with thirst. They couldn't find the source of the dripping water. They barely spoke, drifting into their respective states of despair.

She wondered if she'd wasted her life with him. He wondered if he'd married too young. They both wondered how their relationship would change if they survived. It would either flourish or die, but it couldn't stay the same.

They grew weaker and more despondent with each hour.

"Let's give it one last shot," she said.

He nodded, too dejected to speak.

They gathered their strength and crept down the corridor. After perhaps an hour, they stopped.

"Forget it," he said. "We'll never make it out of here."

An awful dread passed between them, a finality about things they could've done differently, the trivialities they'd obsessed on. Why? Boredom? Pent up contempt? Didn't matter now.

"Listen," she said.

"What?"

"Shh. Hear that? It's water."

"We've heard dripping water the whole time."

"Not dripping, flowing. I think it's the creek. We must be near the entrance. Let's keep going."

They followed the walls until a faint glow broke the darkness. They stumbled toward it and emerged in daylight. The smell of pine was overwhelming, the glare punishing. They stood in disbelief, squinting out over the landscape, squinting at each other. The cave had scrubbed away a layer of denial, a hidden truth exposed in sunlight.

A smile spread across her lips. He rubbed his neck and managed a laugh. They trudged to the car and drove home.

He did the dishes that night. She washed her feet only once.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in dozens of online and print publications, including Surfer Magazine, Flashquake, The Rose & Thorn, Pindeldyboz, In Posse Review, DiddleDog, LITnIMAGE, Boston Literary Magazine, 34th Parallel, and Decomp. His short fiction collection, Slow Entropy, was published by Thumbscrews Press in 2009. His first novel, Imperfect Solitude, is forthcoming from Casperian Books in 2011. Visit him at tommahony.net.