Over spring break in 1997, a divorced land surveyor from Maitland, Florida, arranged a vacation with his sons, ten and twelve years old. He loved to explore caverns, was a newsletter-receiving member of regional speleological societies, and had taken the boys to the lacework of caves near Mouth-of-Seneca the summer before. They were fascinated by the mineral darkness and their father’s excitement—they didn’t know him so well. A divorced father must build on the rickety scaffolding of past success, and so in the middle of that trip he promised them another before the mutual flush of happiness could pass. The second destination was obscure, Trout Cave, on private property forty miles further south, known for a demanding section called The Maze. The father flew into Reagan National, rented a car, and drove his sons the four hours to West Virginia, startled again at its outlandishly thin population. Who lived here? What could they do for money? Trout Cave extended hundreds of feet below a puffball of a hill that locals call The Footstool, though the father’s Xeroxed maps didn’t reflect that convention. The lonesomeness of a country place: they parked on a gravel turnaround, took a last backward glance at the car and a lone house across the way, then crossed a pipe cattle guard that rang beneath their steps. It bridged a small stream fed by the cave’s spring, no more than a ditch of willows. This was a sudden decision—the father had planned to check in at the campground and leave caving for tomorrow, but couldn’t resist a taste of it. At the mouth, the three drew on gloves and heavy boots, kneepads and hard-hats fitted with carbide lamps. The journey began with promise. Less than an hour in, they found the Big Room and ate trail food from the father’s knapsack, which also had extra carbide and items of emergency, such as a candle and a cigarette lighter. They squeezed through the next passage. Not much further, he found an eight-foot drop that was unmarked on his map. He hesitated. He didn’t want to snag his knapsack on the way down. He had one rope—the rest were in the car. Deciding to leave his knapsack on the ledge in a prominent spot, he lowered himself sliding and held out arms to his sons, who shimmied on down. “We’ll just go a bit further. We’ve got five days to spend, we need to set up camp.” They had, he believed, another half-hour’s worth of carbide. Ten minutes later, two hundred feet down, his lamp began to sputter; then it was out. They turned immediately. The eldest son’s light battered like a moth and died. The father moved quickly, jerking his head back and forth—the boys could tell he was lost. No one spoke. They began to perspire. The father paused, wedged there in the passage, knowing he had taken the wrong fork. All went dark—the final lamp failed. This was a place of drops where one could not even recline, and to survive they needed to find a level floor. By touch, he broke open the lamps and harvested two or three unused pellets. He wet them with his own urine, setting off the acetylene. Light! They raced along, cutting hands, bruising hips, the father in the back whipping them on till they found a level before the carbide gave out, just enough room to curl together like dogs. Eyes burned from the give-and-take of light. “Someone will see the car,” the father murmured, remembering that lone house. The eldest: “Do you think anybody still lives there?” “Of course!” the father said, but he felt the void open beneath: so many abandoned houses along these roads. The temperature was a steady fifty-one degrees. Soon the damp and the shivering set in. They were dressed for motion, not rest. The boys talked about the knapsack bulky with water and food. “Shut up!” said the father. “It might as well be in China.” They protested. No, he said, he knew better than to scramble after it in the dark, that’s how you break a leg. Then, for hours on end, nothing but the drip of water. The boys licked the walls despite his warning, making their throats cottony and coarse. They stretched their limbs to fight the cramps. Batwings rustled and beat. “Maybe we should follow them?” the youngest said, but no one took him seriously and the bats were gone. The father scolded them not to cry, then he cried. In time, they prayed to the god they seldom considered in their other lives. “Someone will see the car,” came the refrain, “someone will see the car.” On the second day, the hallucinations began. The eldest boy saw a vending machine that glowed a ghastly red. The youngest was sitting in the recliner at their mother’s, punching the remote control, but the channel would not change, offering up a bright dish of static and then a face that seemed to be his but different, grimacing, cruel. From the leavings of a saltpeter mine, the magnesium carbon dust began to work upon their lungs. On the third and the fourth days, the sons told their father how much they hated him, always had. Their breathing grew irregular. Was it day or night? There was the faintest glow. The glow, now, a shining light. The father began to argue senselessly with the rescuers who turned his body. Cheers went up when the stretchers broke into the sun, sun that seared eyes with a wash of white. The volunteers assumed they’d be recovering bodies—a neighbor had called the police, complaining about a car parked across from his house for days on end. The rush of humid green life outside startled the father and brought him to half-consciousness. “Can you smell that?” Trees, leaves, flowers. The eldest son could not. One of his lungs had collapsed.
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MATTHEW NEILL NULL is author of the novel Honey from the Lion and the story collection Allegheny Front. A writer from West Virginia, he is recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and, from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Oxford American, Lit Hub, Guernica, Catapult, and other journals. His books have recently been translated into French and Italian.