Tyler Witmer knew there was a cave on the Duffield land not because he’d heard about it, but because he’d seen it. On the way to see if Dave was still working he’d taken a shortcut across the cow pastures between their houses. But the cows were out that day and that meant the bull was out too. Tyler never minded the cows but the bull gave him a reason enough to cut through the woodline.
He’d seen those woods before from the gravel road he’d take whenever he biked to Dave’s house. But from the pasture side, they didn’t spark his memory and he’d stumbled on the hole in the ground almost by accident. The Pennsylvania sandstone had pushed up from the loam as if a giant groundhog had been digging up the trees.
A log lay over the hole, sporting a scrap of rope. Tyler assumed someone must know the cave was there, but no self-respecting adventurer would have used a rope that thin to climb down the hole. He’d stopped long enough to lean his head in and take a peek. He quickly came to the conclusion that he’d found something worth exploring but would never be allowed to. His parents let him wander all over the local farmlands but they’d draw the line at that.
He left it that day with the firm conviction that he’d come back. The darkness lurking beyond that log and rope burned itself into Tyler’s mind. His heart raced every time he thought of what wonderful mysteries hid themselves in the shroud of emptiness. Horror and wonder wrapped twin fingers around his throat and squeezed at the thought of what could be.
Tyler thought about that hole often. On the bus on the way to school, he’d stare out the window and the barren countryside would blur and then disappear, replaced with visions of that hole in the ground. He’d smile to himself thinking of what waited deep in the earth.
At night he’d lay in bed listening to his dad smash beer bottles against the wall to punctuate shouting matches with his mom. And then he’d think about that hole in the ground. He imagined the creeping darkness of his room was the really the darkness of the cave, and he would lie still and listen. The argument in the next room would fade like the fields out the bus window. He’d hear a drip of water echo in the distance. Feel the stone cold and rough through his t-shirt. Breathe air that had never been inside the lungs of a living being.
There in the darkness he’d be safe. Free of the things he didn’t like in his world. The shouting. The kids who noticed him too often at school. He practiced going to the cave in his mind until he could shift there in a heartbeat. The span of one thump was all it took to shut out the lights and the sound and moving air.
And then one day at lunch Ashleigh Heckman sat down next to him. Tyler had tipped his chocolate milk carton back to drain the last drops and didn’t notice her until her elbow knocked his. She apologized with a small smile and went back to talk to the other girls who’d sat down with her.
Then Tyler realized what he’d done. He’d sat at the wrong table. He looked at his food wondering what to do. Should he stand up and move? Apologize for sitting where he wasn’t supposed to be? Keep eating and pretend he meant to be there?
The decision was made for him when a hulking guy from the wrestling team loomed over his shoulder. Tyler didn’t want to look up, but knew what was going to happen if he stayed put. Keeping his eyes on the ground, he stood up, shuffled around the wrestler, and moved to a table by the windows. Laughter followed him.
Tyler shoved his palms into his eyes. Squeezed the tears back where they’d come from and went to the cave in his mind. Cold stone. Damp air. No sound. No light. No laughter.
The temperature had started to drop when Tyler got off the bus that day. Fall was shouldering its way into the air, and the trees weren’t happy about it. He heard them gossiping above him as he walked to his house. Trees don’t talk in caves, he thought. And then he thought about the cave.
Shouting greeted him through the front door of his house as soon as he set foot on the porch. He paused for a second before walking around to the back of the house and going in through the basement door. He emptied backpack onto the clothes dryer and tossed in a rope and flashlight. Then he wheeled his bike out and onto the road.
Gravel crunched as he peddled into the setting sun. The road was faster than walking through the forest and he wanted to get to Dave’s house with enough time to find the cave before dark. Ten minutes later, he leaned his bike against the tall maple tree behind Dave’s house. Without a word, he sat down next to farmhand who was smoking a cigarette.
“What’re you doing?”
Tyler shifted his weight off of the root underneath his leg. “I’m going to the cave.”
“I told ya, kid. I’ve been through those woods before. There’s no cave.”
“It’s not a really a cave,” Tyler admitted. “It’s just a big hole in the ground.”
“But you keep calling it a cave.”
“And I keep telling you I’ve never seen a cave there before.”
“I don’t know, Dave.” Tyler’s voice pleaded. “It was there. I saw it with my own eyes. There was a rope and everything.”
“We could go look.” Dave flicked the cigarette butt into the air. “My papaw’s got a climbing rope we could use.”
Tyler watched the lean man bang through the screen door at the back of the house. He could see Cedric and Julia Evans sitting at the table in the kitchen listening to the radio. Tyler wasn’t sure why Dave lived with them. But he was always there, working and sleeping and smoking. And sometimes he would let Tyler tag along when he went looking for deer tracks.
Adrenaline started bubbling in Tyler’s gut as the seconds stretched into minutes. He could hear the radio still playing and hoped the two elderly folks downstairs didn’t know he was here. Dave’s papaw didn’t want anyone but family on his property and Tyler was sure he’d would follow through with the threats posted on the no trespassing signs scattered around the farm.
Tyler didn’t dislike Dave’s Papaw. He was just scared of him. Despite Dave’s assurances to the contrary, Tyler was convinced that Cedric Evans was just looking for an excuse to drag him by the ear back to his dad. And Tyler didn’t want to give his dad any excuse to hand out another beating.
“Found it,” Dave said as he walked back outside with a purple and red rope looped over his shoulder. He brushed past Tyler on his way toward the road and the woodline. Tyler had to jog to keep up. Once Dave reached the trees, he spun in the gravel and eyed Tyler.
“Where we goin’?”
Tyler pointed. “Over the fence.”
He stepped up and over the aging split rail fence and started moving through the woods. The two had been walking for only a few minutes when Tyler realized finding the cave again would be harder than he’d anticipated. He was looking at the wrong side of the trees. His mental map was marked only with what he’d seen leaving, not coming.
Dave must have sensed Tyler’s hesitation, because he picked up his original line of argument. “I don’t think there’s a cave here, kid. Maybe you just saw a sink hole or something.”
Tyler didn’t respond. Just stopped by a leaning birch tree and looked around. He ran his fingers through his buzzed hair and came away with spider webs clinging to his fingers. He looked up and saw a corn spider dangling inches from his face. He yelped and jumped backwards and the ground disappeared from beneath him.
He caught a branch and managed to keep from falling into the very hole he’d been looking for. He heard Dave laughing.
“So this is the hole?” Dave squatted down to peer past Tyler. “It’s deep.”
Tyler grabbed Dave’s extended hand and climbed to his feet. It was deep. About five feet below the fallen tree a large slab of sandstone jutted across the hole forming a platform. From the top, Tyler couldn’t tell much else, other than the afternoon sunlight disappeared real quick beyond the ledge.
Dave was already tying the rope around the log. Tyler watched him loop the rope in a complex series of twists. “We shoulda brought a flashlight,” he muttered.
“I brought one.” Tyler fished around in his backpack.
Dave finished the knot and took the light from Tyler.
Tyler couldn’t take his eyes off beam of fading sunlight filtering down into the cave. It splashed on the floor a good fifteen feet down where the coil of rope sat waiting.
“Are you going first?”
Tyler looked up. “Uh. Yeah. I will.” He grabbed the rope with both hands as his stomach knotted again. This time it was both excitement and fear. He was going into the cave. The cave. Into the dark. Into everything that waited for him down there.
Tyler wedged his feet against the smooth stone and worked his way down to the ledge below him. He made it easily and stopped to peer into the gloom below him.
“What do you see?” Dave called down. “There anything worth exploring?”
“Yeah. There’s a whole room here.” There was. A tingling started low in Tyler’s gut and spread through his crotch and legs. The cave. A real cave. A grin pulled at his face.
Tyler wasn’t a brave kid. He didn’t talk much in school. He never stood up to his dad. He couldn’t bring himself to say more than a hurried “hi” to Ashleigh when she sat behind him in Mrs. Renfrew’s English class. But something about the darkness called him. It contained all the promises of a different world—one where his dad and Dave’s Papaw and wrestlers didn’t exist.
Tyler didn’t hear Dave calling to him. He just knew he had to get down there. At the bottom. Into the darkness. He felt the rope burn through the soft skin on his palms as he slid over the ledge and into the nothingness below. He felt like he was dropping for an hour, but in seconds his feet hit the dust on the stone floor. Tyler looked up to where Dave was climbing down fifteen feet about him.
Tyler turned to look around and had to grab the rope again as his feet slipped out from under him. He sat down hard on the sloped stone. The floor rolled away from him dozens of feet ahead. The sunlight struggled toward the back of the cave, which seemed to stretch on unnaturally. As if space was different under the earth.
The rope quivered in Tyler’s hands, and he scooted on his butt so Dave could land next to him.
“Whoa. This is crazy.”
Tyler only nodded.
“You were right. This is a cave.”
Another time, Tyler might have savored the pride that came with man’s admission. But not now. His eyes were locked on a crack in the wall to his right. He’d seen it when he moved out of Dave’s way. It was the only remarkable feature in the cavern—as if someone had taken a giant log splitter to the wall. The crack was almost as tall as he was, and only about a foot-and-a-half at its widest. Purest darkness waited inside. And Tyler couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“Hey, we should go back up.” Dave nudged his shoulder. “Meemaw’s gonna wonder where I’m at. I said I’d move the turkey feeders before dinner.”
Tyler nodded again. He was still staring into the velvet darkness on the other side of the wall. What was back there? A million things filled his imagination at the same time. Everything and nothing. He didn’t really notice the pain in his hands. The jagged, darkness-filled line consumed him.
“Hold on a sec. I wanna check out what on the other side of that.”
Dave eyes follow Tyler’s finger. “That? You wanna squeeze through that?”
“Yeah.” Tyler had already started sliding along the sloped floor toward the crack. “It’s probably nothing. Hand me the flashlight.”
“Kid, don’t be stupid.”
“At least shine the light in there for me. Just don’t leave.”
Tyler reach the wall and stopped to peer into the darkness. He caught a few glimpses into the room beyond as the flashlight beam bounced in Dave’s hand. It steadied as Dave reached the wall and the room on the other side of the crack sparked into focus.
“There’s definitely something in there.”
Tyler nodded as he reached his right hand into the crevice. The split stone was wide enough for him to slide his shoulder in sideways. He quickly realized that the space wasn’t wide enough to get his head through at the same time, though, and he popped back out.
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think you can fit.” Dave had craned his neck to peer into the crack. “We should go back.”
“Let me try it a different way. You’ll have to push my feet.”
“I’m going in head first. Push my feet.”
Tyler reached into the darkness again, but this time buried his face into his right shoulder and pushed both into the hole. It fit. Leveraging his feet against the floor, he was able to get his other shoulder into the gap. But then he stopped. Wedged in between solid stone, he couldn’t push any more.
“Hey! Dave! Push my feet!” Tyler yelled into his shoulder. The fabric bunched up and pushed into his mouth. “Quick!”
Tyler heard feet scraping and then felt his legs lift into the air. The change in angle freed his head and he popped through to the other side. But now his body filled the whole crack. He couldn’t see. Anything.
Dave shoved his feet again and Tyler felt his face collide with the stone floor. Suddenly he was through, laying on slippery rock. Light filtered through until Dave pressed his face to the stone.
“What’s it like in there?”
“Cramped. It’s just a small room. Hand me the flashlight.”
“We have to go.”
“Just hand it through.”
Tyler blinked as the flashlight punched through the crevice. He grabbed it from Dave and swung the beam around. The floor was just as slopped here, but the ceiling much lower. Tyler hadn’t hit the floor with his face but the rock above. There wasn’t even enough room to sit up fully.
He followed the floor with the flashlight and saw a sheer wall at the bottom of the room. It rose about two feet before it opened into yet another slit. This one was just was just tall enough roll a bowling ball through and wide enough to fit himself in. The flashlight struggled to penetrate the darkness below.
“There’s another tunnel!”
“Kid, don’t go through it. We have to go.” Dave’s voice had taken on a strange edge.
The words hardly registered in Tyler’s brain. He’d come this far. He couldn’t leave. Not now. Not knowing there was something else down here. He had to know.
“Please, Tyler. Let’s go. I’ll pull you back out.”
But Tyler was already moving toward the tunnel. Already pushing the light ahead of him as he slithered on his belly into the narrow space. He kept his head turned to the side, buried once more into his shoulder so he could fit.
Wet stone slid past his face, some of it sparkling in the brief flashes of light.
From behind, Dave’s voice sounded shrill. “Kid! We’ve gotta go. Where are you? Tyler!”
He was going to stop. To turn back. But the sound of water dripping suddenly pinged off the walls from up ahead. Big walls. There had to be another room down here. Tyler made a decision.
The flashlight clicked as it bounced the rest of the way down the sloped tunnel. With one last blinding flash it disappeared into the dark, dropping off some ledge ahead. Then Tyler heard a splash. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Hoped they would. After three heartbeats, it was still dark. Behind him, the still weakening sunlight couldn’t make it this far into the cave. And ahead of him, the flashlight had drowned.
Then Tyler noticed the quiet. Dave was no longer shouting for him. The only sound was the drip drip drip of water hammering on his eardrums. The air was still and smelled like mildew and mud. Tyler’s cheek was growing colder as the stone pressed up into his face. He tried to shift backwards—to move back up the tunnel and away from the water waiting for him up ahead.
But he couldn’t. The tunnel sloped too much and he couldn’t get enough leverage smashed flat as he was. So he tried to turn to the side, hoping that he could climb back up head first. He moved his left hand forward and his right hand back. Tried to shift his shoulders up and around in a quick heave.
Suddenly the wet stone let go and Tyler slid. His heart raced and the sound of water jumped a full foot closer. Adrenaline surged in his throat and tears sprang to his eyes. It was betraying him. The cave had lied. The darkness pressed his eyes into their sockets and the stone squeezed his chest and back. Why did he want to know where the water sounds came from? All Tyler wanted now was to get away from the incessant dripping.
A sob tore out of Tyler’s mouth, muffled by his shirt. He tried to turn his head but the tunnel was too tight. He felt the skin of his chin tear as he twisted his neck. He wanted to be free. Why wouldn’t the cave let go? Why wouldn’t it help him? He just wanted something else. Anything other than this.
Tyler’s fingers tingled with panic’s electricity and his scream bounced off the walls. It echoed into the small room above him and out through the crack. Up through the hole in the ground and into the twilight over the Duffield farmland. Autumn wind carried it through the trees and past the headlights of two four-wheelers racing toward woods carrying an old farmer and farmhand smoking a cigarette.
And then the scream faded.
Tyler Witmer knew there was a cave on the Duffield land not because he’d heard about it, but because he’d seen it.
Cover photo by Ian Chen.