“Go down there. I dare you,” said redheaded Eric.
Deep in the woods the half-dozen boys, fifth-grade classmates, stood contemplating the pit. The fresh sinkhole had opened a new gap nearly four feet across in the upswept bank of Tanner’s Creek, like the socket of a lost tooth. At the boys’ heels, the shallow water burbled, running clear and cold through the shadows of the mossy trees. April breezes bent the sun-dappled branches, shivering the young leaves, tousling the boys’ hair and plucking at their clothes, breathing across the gloomy hole.
“Go on,” Eric challenged. His bully’s nose for distress had singled out Ryan, black-haired and slight, as being skittish around the opening.
“You go on,” Ryan retorted. “I’m not doing something stupid ’cause of you.”
“Chicken. I double-dare you,” Eric sneered, looking ready for any two dares the darker boy could come up with. The others knew not to doubt him. Just the week before, Eric had won a double dare by spray painting his name way up on the town water tower, a windy, exposed climb only the high school kids had braved. Ever since third grade, when his redheaded father had left their family, Eric had become the loudest, pushiest kid around.
Nobody would stand up for Ryan, either. The darker boy had moved to town only that fall, just before school started. No one had even been to his house except for nosy Shaun, once, who called it “boring.” Ryan’s dad was away a lot in the National Guard. During lunch at school, Ryan always sat at the end of a table and studied. Unless they needed his help with their math homework, none of the boys were friends with him much, not even blubbery Jack, who needed friends. Ryan walked home with them because he lived out their way. He usually tried to pretend not to hear Eric’s insults.
Ryan turned deafly away from the sinkhole, studying a mustardy patch of lichen furring the damp rock.
Tall, skinny Wayne, who the others agreed bragged way too much about his smidge of Ojibwe blood, drug a soggy stick from the creek, examined its ragged end, poked it around the stony bank, then pointed it at the hole.
“Look,” he observed solemnly, “ground’s all torn up, and this branch broke off that tree right there. I bet that big storm uncovered this cave. I bet a flash flood washed some of the bank away and made the rest collapse.”
“I bet you’re dumb,” said Shaun.
“Did you ever see it here before?” asked Ryan, shying away from the gap.
“Not till me and him found it yesterday,” claimed Eric, meaning freckle-faced Mackenzie.
Mackenzie added, “And heard it talking.”
“Yeah, it was talking,” Eric confirmed. “You could hear it saying stuff!”
The boys fell silent, listening to the ripple of the creek. The wind rustled; birds trilled, fluttering through the limpid daylight; squirrels scrabbled up hoary bark. The hole gaped, mute.
“You did not,” Shaun said at last.
“Did too!” Eric cried, and Mackenzie’s freckled chin bobbed in support.
“When?” asked Ryan.
“Last night,” said Mackenzie, “way after supper time, ’cause, like, I had to get home.”
“Yeah, almost getting dark,” Eric said.
“You think somebody’s hiding down there?” huffed chubby Jack.
“Like, a homeless guy?” said Wayne.
“Yeah,” said Jack, eyes wide, “a homeless guy who’ll give you drugs and ass-rape you.” Ass-rape being Jack’s favorite word of late, the others weren’t surprised he would find a way to use it.
“No way,” Shaun said. “It’s just a big hole.”
He pitched a rock contemptuously into the opening.
The boys froze. The breeze died down. In the hole, nothing stirred.
Wayne finally murmured, “I bet this is part of the Indian caves on the other side of town.”
Shaun hooted. “They’re way far away!”
“Looks more like one of those sewer pipes under the highway,” said Jack.
“But it goes down,” said Mackenzie, “and there’s no concrete or anything.” His father ran a cement company. Mackenzie’s family lived in the biggest house in their development. Eric never picked on him.
“Double-dare you to go down it,” Eric taunted slender Ryan. “You chicken? Huh? Bawk bawk! Bawk bawk bawk!”
Ryan shook his head. “Just careful. We don’t have a flashlight, plus it looks really deep.”
“I got a flashlight!” Jack rasped, digging in his cargo pockets. “My dad keeps one everywhere. I took it from the glove compartment.”
He produced a Mini Maglite, shining its incandescent bulb right in Wayne’s eye. Wayne batted it away.
“Two for flinching!” Jack howled, pounding Wayne’s shoulder.
“Did not!” shouted Wayne, rounding on the fat boy.
“Give it here!” interrupted Eric, grabbing at Jack’s flashlight hand. “Let me see it!”
“Why? It’s mine,” said Jack, waving it around.
“So I can look in the hole, stupid!” Eric said, catching him and digging his nails into Jack’s fleshy wrist.
Wincing, Jack gave up the flashlight. “Don’t drop it.”
Eric knelt with Mackenzie at the crumbly edge of the hole. The others watched Mackenzie brace himself, holding the back of Eric’s jeans at the waist as Eric ducked headfirst with the flashlight into the hole. His upper body was lost in blackness for a moment, then he was quickly scrabbling back, Mackenzie helping him up.
Brushing dirt from his shirtfront, he said, “It’s not that deep. But it does go sideways, like a tunnel. It goes that way.”
He pointed beyond the hole, into the trees. The boys peered at the wild underbrush, then down into the pit again.
Jack took his flashlight back, but Ryan abruptly held out a hand for it. Surprised, Jack passed it to him. Ryan edged up to the hole and stood shining the beam down for a while. The others waited.
Giving Ryan a shove, Eric finally said, “Are you going down or not? Chicken.”
The dark-haired boy frowned at him but responded evenly, “Are you?”
Eric blinked, looking around at the others, freckly Mackenzie especially, and fat Jack, and Wayne, and smirking Shaun. All were watchful. Eric stuck his chest out, balling his fists.
“Well?” asked Ryan.
“You first, chickenshit,” Eric said.
Gazing into the hole, Ryan said quietly, “Let’s go.”
Holding the end of the flashlight in his mouth, Ryan turned and backed into the hole. Jack and Wayne scrambled to take his thin hands and lower him as far down as they could reach, until both lay flat on the edge of the hole, dangling Ryan down. “Okay,” he called, and they let go. He dropped the last few inches. The light flashed upward. Eric, facing the sunny woods, took a deep breath, then backed his sneakers toward the hole. Shaun helped Mackenzie lower him in until he dropped, landing heavily in a crouch.
Ryan turned the light on the redhead’s flushed face, and then into the tunnel. The cave was just like the pit: a rough hole in the earth, a narrow passage of rock floored in mud, completely dark.
“The Injun caves aren’t like this,” whispered Eric.
“Watch out for snakes. We should get a stick,” Ryan muttered, looking around. Neither boy had much breathing room in the pit.
“You scared? Want to go up?” Eric sneered, half-hopefully.
“Hey, throw down a snake stick!” Ryan shouted.
While the others debated what kinds of snakes were awake in April, Wayne used his Swiss Army knife to trim a forked rod. He dropped it to Ryan, who promptly got down and crawled into the tunnel, taking the light with him. Eric followed hastily, groping along just behind the wavy tread of Ryan’s Nikes. Darkness enfolded them. Each elbow and knee they put forward squished in chilly mud; each sneaker toe pulled loose with a wet sucking sound.
Foot by slimy foot they crept deeper into the blackness, the white circle of the Maglite slipping crazily about the hard tunnel walls. Eric kept so close to the other boy’s shoes that they pinched his fingers into the mud. Every noisy breath drew in the thick smell of the earth.
They had covered quite a few yards, worming forward, when a faint sound made the redhead yank Ryan’s pant cuff hard, pulling the other boy up short.
“What was that?” Eric whispered.
They lay still, listening, Ryan moving the light forward and back, forked stick poised. Something soft brushed the redhead’s face and he shouted, grabbing the other boy’s ankle.
They cried out in unison, breathing hard.
Ryan ran the light over the low ceiling, zeroing in on a wispy fiber.
“Just a root,” he said, turning forward again. “Come on.”
Eric followed the darker boy’s lead, but the shock lingered. As they crawled along each bend of the twisty tunnel, mud gulped at their shoes, invading their socks, plastering the front of them from nose to toe. Only with effort did Eric keep his teeth from starting to chatter in the sunless cold. He wondered how far they had gone. He wished they were chasing around through the woods above instead. With every cold, sticky inch they advanced, every minute they stayed immersed in blackness, the redhead found his senses jangling harder and harder, until he was actually holding his breath, ears straining like they would pop at his own juddering heartbeat. Then, over the other boy’s labored breathing, he heard echoing words.
“Who’s there?” he cried, freezing in his tracks.
Ryan shone the light back at him, and Eric hissed insistently, “Something . . . like, whispering . . . I heard something.”
The darker boy held very still, very quiet, listening, then shook his head.
“It’s just us. Come on. It might not go much farther,” he said, but the redhead wouldn’t budge.
“You chicken?” asked the slender boy crossly, holding the light full in Eric’s face. “Bawk bawk.”
Both of them knew that the other boys were itching to hear who turned back first. Eric squinted angrily and shook his upturned chin, holding back baleful tears. He pushed Ryan on.
The tunnel unfurled until the redhead felt sure they must have left the creek and even the woods far behind. He had lost all sense of how long they’d been lifting hand after foot from the clinging ooze, but now there was heavy mud molded from his armpits to his shins. When the darker boy pulled up short, the redhead skidded up next to him.
“What?” Eric whispered. Ryan pointed down.
At their knuckles a crevice gapped, plunging deep into utter darkness. The fissure was narrow, easy to crawl over. The tunnel went on.
With the flashlight beam pinned on the crack, Ryan waved Eric ahead. Eric bit his lips and slid gingerly forward, reaching one knee across before moving the other up. The limestone walls were moist, the ceiling a little higher, pimpled with young stalactites. Eric sighed as he sat up. Ryan joined him past the gap, and they knelt together for a moment, breathing hard and shining the light around, until the darker boy aimed it up the tunnel again, drawing them on.
Eric’s teeth had begun chattering outright. He was sure he was hearing things—muttering in the dark, slithering in the mud—but he refused to stop. Echoes, he told himself. Stupid tricks. But he couldn’t believe it. It sounded more like somebody else was down there with them, close by.
When something closed on his bare forearm, Eric screamed. And when the darker boy turned the light on him, Eric saw it was the two-pronged stick that Ryan was holding him back with. The redhead’s eyes bulged wide in the dark. Ryan stared back.
From the darkness ahead gasped a voice, feeble and remote. “Kid?” it said. “Hey. Hey, kid?”
Ryan spun the light around the wider space about them until it glinted on something, an object of metal and glass resting off to one side. Taking the stick with him, he crawled toward it, digging in his pocket as he went. Eric rubbed at his forearm where the stake had driven a splinter in. A match head flared in the dark, struck from a box in Ryan’s hand, and then a blue tongue of fire glowed in a heavy camping lantern.
They had reached a room in the earth, a moist, rocky hollow where the long tunnel fractured into myriad fissures. All around hung sheets and columns of glistening stalactites, like strings of knobby, accusing fingers, and scattered beneath stood squat, lumpy stalagmites, like limbless torsos. The floor ended in a broad crevasse.
“Kid!” a voice rose from the fissure. “Is that you? You hear me? Down here!”
“Who are you?” Eric called, crawling uncertainly toward the rift. Ryan sat by the lantern, lighting matches, letting them flutter like flaming moths to the slick stone.
“That’s Aaron,” Ryan said. “He’s in ninth grade. He lives next door to me.”
“Kid,” the voice from below wheezed desperately, “kid!”
“He can never remember my name,” Ryan complained.
Kneeling at the edge of the drop, Eric said, “Bring that light here!”
Ryan rolled the flashlight to him; Eric swept its beam along the fissure. Shockingly far below, he picked out an older boy’s grimy face blinking back, shading his eyes with one hand. Eric couldn’t see either of the boy’s legs. “Hello?” the trapped boy called.
“Hey!” said Eric, trying to keep the light steady. “Hey! We’re here! You okay?”
Aaron’s lips curled from his teeth in agony. “No. It hurts, a lot. I can’t move,” he called, then after a moment added, “I’m really hungry!”
The lantern spurted fitfully beside Ryan, casting long shadows of the slender boy over the gleaming walls.
“What happened?” Eric demanded.
Glancing up, Ryan said, “We found the sinkhole first. Day before yesterday.”
“Hey!” Aaron’s voice cried from below. “Hey, you still there? Hello? Don’t leave me!”
“Don’t worry!” the redhead called, shining the light down at him again. “We won’t leave you alone.”
“Not now,” agreed the darker boy. Eric looked up. Ryan was standing over him. With one hard swing, the smaller boy drove the cleft stick up under the redhead’s chin and shoved him backward. Eric grabbed the stick just as Ryan pushed it away and let go. Eric’s arms wheeled frantically for balance, then he slipped screaming off the edge, the flashlight beam tumbling end over end through the darkness with him all the way down to where the fissure narrowed. His body jammed into the crack close to where the other injured boy lay shouting. Pain seared Eric’s wedged arm and his fingers lost hold of the flashlight, letting it slide past his shoulder to rattle away into the depths.
Bringing the lantern close to the fissure’s lip, Ryan sat down, dangling his muddy legs over the precipice, and lit more matches, watching them spiral down one by one into the dark. Quietly but distinctly, so the boys wouldn’t miss a word, he said, “My dad took me spelunking last summer. He says I have to do more stuff like that to toughen up. He says you always have to have partners. One time, this guy was alone, and he got his arm caught under a rock, and he had to cut it off with a butter knife from his camp set.”
When the last match vanished, Ryan got up. Gazing down at the groaning figures, he called encouragingly, “The others will come, too. I’ll triple-dare them if I have to. I’ll tell them we found buried Indian treasure. Then I’ll never tell anyone else where it is.”
“Wait,” the voices below shrieked, “wait! Help us!”
But the sputtering light had already gone.
A native of southern Wisconsin, Jason Newport is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His short fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in The Nassau Review, Word Riot, moonShine review, Zero Ducats, Constellation, and Potomac Review. His nonfiction is currently featured in Sans Serif and has appeared in C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag, and Chautauqua, where he is a contributing editor. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection.