“John? Wait up.”
In the cavern, my words echo emptily from the low hanging stalactites, following those crooked shapes the way the water did and disappearing into the mud beneath my feet.
Old mud, old dirt. God knows when it had been last disturbed. God knows the last time anyone had even been here.
Ahead, the harsh glow of his headlamp disappears behind a bend in the rock, and the darkness comes suddenly. For a crippling second, I’m unable to breathe, left gasping for air in this invasive emptiness.
It takes me too long to remember the light on my own helmet, and as soon as I have it turned on, the beam of light permeating the stiff coldness of the air, I scramble forwards.
Down here, it’s hard to remember that I’m not alone.
His breaths rise, pale and frozen, into the winter air. His eyes hold mine and I take the time to examine them.
This face, these eyes, I had known them since we had both been boys of five or six, and yet even on the verge of maturity they are still almost strange to me, determined in a way that I am not, fearless in a way that I am not.
“I dare you,” he says, looking past me into the hills, his grip loose on the plastic toboggan propped against his hip.
“If you come with me,” I reply, and it comes as a surprise to me as well.
That winter. I will forget it by the time the next year starts, and yet it will rise from old memory years later, inexplicably and as fresh as fallen snow, when I follow him into the caves.
Ahead, the suggestion of his figure is outlined by the pale glow of his torch, and he smiles, looking back at me. For a moment, we hold eye contact, and I feel the shaky expression on my face soften, smoothing into something resembling a grin.
It’s been a while since I’d last seen him and I’d forgotten how nice it could be, just the two of us. We’d drifted apart soon after we hit adulthood, our ambitions and interests driving us to different cities, different jobs.
Our new realities had no space for the childhood we’d shared, but when he’d gotten in contact, and asked me if I had any plans over the holidays-
Well, I was so desperate to reconnect. I still am.
Behind us, the howling of the wind is twisted by the cave walls into a near human whisper.
The winter seemed eternal, time lingering wistfully in that distinct way that only came with youth. Youth and memory.
His breath is warm on my shoulder as he leans forwards. The toboggan tips beneath us and I can feel the pull of gravity on it, the potential for falling.
And then we’re skidding forwards at a near vertical angle, faces bitten by a mixture of disturbed snow and freezing air. He’s yelling into my ear, laughing wildly, and through the fear, excitement leaps in my chest and I’m yelling too.
His arm encircles my shoulder, and suddenly I’m hyperaware of him, even beyond the rush of succumbing to gravity.
The cave opens into a chamber, and I breathe for the first time in hours. The broad space is a rare relief from the suffocation of the thin paths that had seemed to descend only into darkness.
It’s only when I move forwards that the pool makes itself known, the light from the headlamps getting trapped in the water before being shattered and reflected back a thousand times. Under this strange light, the cave projects the illusion of brightness, with nothing illuminated and yet light bouncing from all its corners and edges.
John’s standing in the middle on the pool, on a little rise constructed from stone and sand, and the silhouette of him is cast into sharp focus.
I wade forwards to join him, the water pouring into my boots. The path is less tricky than it looks, the track almost familiar and the mud trod firm and flat by the footsteps of some recent traveller who had lingered too long or came back too often.
I understand why they might do that. Standing here, you feel somehow infinite.
We hit a bump and the toboggan goes flying.
In an instant, I am weightless, wondering when I will hit the ground, wondering if I will hit the ground. The world flashes by in a blur of white.
Then I do fall, and the breath is knocked from my lungs. For a moment the pain overwhelms me, bringing with it a childish urge to cry that hasn’t yet been tamped down by time and age. But he starts laughing, a breathless giggle that puffs out between gasps for air.
I start laughing too.
In my mind’s eye, in that little corner of my imagination, I reach out for his hand and he reaches back.
I lose sight of him.
We’d stumbled upon the remains of a camp, days fresh and maybe still in use, and I had lingered for mere seconds, wondering at the possibility of not being alone in the caves. In that time he had slipped away, taking with him all evidence of himself.
I had become too used to the light. Now, without the reflections of the water and without his headlamp, the darkness seems all the more oppressive. It’s at this time that the apprehension returns, the sheer weight of the stone around me making itself known.
The panic rises thick and fast in my throat but there is nothing to do but go forwards.
There is nowhere to go but deeper into the cave.
For a while we just lie there, barely even halfway down the hill, submerged in snow.
I can still feel the effect of gravity on me. I can still feel his arms around me. Only one of those things is real, but in the moment, nothing matters less.
The path winds. It seems to go on forever.
The stones here are sharper than they were before. The damp groundwater had created endless teeth of stalagmites and stalactites, and my coat keeps getting caught on them. This cave must mean to keep me. Can it sense my guilt? Can it smell my terror?
My breath comes harshly and my boots are slipping on the smooth rock. And yet there is still no sign of him anywhere. There is no sign of him. I am moving too slowly. I have to catch up. I don’t see the drop when it comes.
He stands and brushes the snow from his coat. His cheeks are red from the cold and his smile is as soft as goosedown.
I scramble up behind him, dragging the toboggan with me, eyes locked on him.
The strangest feeling overcomes me. The thought that as long as I was with him, I didn’t have anything to worry about. I could do anything.
He’s dead. Isn’t he?
He’s been dead and I’ve been here so many times, leaving footprints, chasing lights.
Here’s the drop he fell from when his rope failed, here’s the mound of stones he rots under. The police have been looking for him for weeks but how can I tell them about this? I didn’t look out for him and now he’s dead. I couldn’t help him and now he’s dead.
Besides, as long as I’m the only one who knows, and as long as I shut up about it then surely he’s as good as alive. I get to keep chasing him through the tunnels, I get to linger in the pools of reflected light. I get to be fearless.
In front of me, beyond the sad and tiny mound, the harsh glow of his headlamp appears behind a bend in the rock.
Gravity, snow, his arms around me. The winter seems to go on forever.
“See you tomorrow,” he says.
Tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.