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Speleological Truths

a “Dimensional Disturbances” story

Tara agreed with the committee’s decision to close the cave for safety reasons. No one had gotten hurt or trapped yet, and the school was keen to ensure no one ever did. As dazzling as the spelunking was, the cave was a liability.

Tara volunteered to place the warning signs, though, because she wanted one more chance to explore its muddy mystery. Rather than her usual companions, she invited Liam to go along with her. He was the kind of guy who scoffed at warning signs. In fact, he often boasted on their field research trips that nothing was worth doing unless there was some level of danger.

Tara and Liam were both senior geology majors, about to graduate and leave their mountain university, including all the natural wonders of its vast domain. Over the course of their studies, they had taken at least ten classes together, but never hung out socially.

That afternoon, they staked KEEP OUT signs all around the cave’s entrance. The yellow aluminum triangles included notices about the rising water levels that the cave survey team found.

Then, Tara and Liam pulled on brown-red, streaked coveralls, caving helmets and small gear packs around their waists. They waded into the frigid stream that flowed out of the cave mouth. A strong wind blew in their faces, smelling of mud and mineral.

“I thought you were part of the safety survey group,” Liam said as he followed Tara’s lead.

“I was.” Tara scrambled up the small dirt slope that rose above the stream inside the cave. At the top, a long, narrow shaft led deep into the cave’s interior.

“Then why do you want to go back in?”

Tara didn’t expect a guy like Liam to question her. He boasted about scaling rock cliffs without ropes. He told everyone stories about how he’d hike for days, eating off the land. He often shared pictures he took on scuba dives in exotic locations. Tara asked him to join her because she figured, if anyone, he could handle a risky exploration.

Tara crouched at the threshold of the descent, the last spot where outside light could reach. She flicked on her headlamp and said, “I was on the survey team, and the water really is rising. But, I saw something new down there. No one was willing to check it out. It looked like a super-saturated mud wall collapsed and opened up a new passageway. I want to see what’s down there before it’s totally submerged.” Then, she scooted on her butt down the steep entrance to the darkness below.

Liam turned on his headlamp, illuminating Tara’s slide from behind. “Sweet. Let’s do this.”

The university sat on top of a vast limestone deposit, so caves were common. Some were deeper, some drier, many bigger than the one Tara and Liam entered, but this cave was special. It was the first cave new students explored when arriving on the school’s domain. There were many tricky passageways, narrow turns, and claustrophobic rooms, but the final destination of the cave made it worth it.

Tara stayed in front of Liam as they hugged the cave walls, edging deep ravines, winding down into the lower rooms. They were both careful not to put their hands on the damp calcite ribbons, the cave bacon, that draped from the ceiling. Minerals dissolved in the water slowly built up to create the colorful formations, at a rate of about a centimeter a year. The oils from a person’s finger would kill them, blocking the water and arresting their growth. In some places, cavers could be fined or jailed for touching flowstone.

Tara didn’t touch anything, but her mind traced all the memories she made in the cave. While classmates, like Liam, went on to bigger, solo adventures, Tara became a student trip leader. She took hundreds of groups spelunking, climbing and hiking, introducing them to the ancient stories told in the rock layers around the school. She knew this cave so well, she could almost crawl it in the dark. Occasionally she’d even spend the night just inside the mouth of the cave. She felt safer there than on the highway, or at a party, or pretty much any other situation.

After about ten minutes, they reached the hanging rope ladder that dropped into the lower levels of the cave. Tara spoke to Liam for the first time since the threshold, “We should pull this up on the way out, so no one is even tempted to come down again.”

Liam lifted one of the rungs and looked at the worn plastic, “What if WE want to go down again?”

Tara smiled, “Then I’ll have the ladder.”

Liam smiled back, “Damn, Tara. I’ve known you four years and I never took you for the rebel. You’re always Miss Do-Right, honor roll, academic scholarship, lab lead, y’know… safety lady.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Tara climbed down the ladder. With each step, the sound of moving water got louder.

At the bottom of the twenty-foot drop, Tara and Liam stood in water that almost covered the tops of their boots. Liam looked at his feet, “Shit. The water’s a lot higher than I remember. I’ve never seen this part wet.”

“I know,” Tara bent down to feel the water rush past her fingers, “the cave’s changing.”

Walking single-file, they followed the water upstream as the walls closed in around them. Soon, the water disappeared under rocks, the floor rose, and their path led them into an even tighter hall. They had to turn sideways to shimmy between the walls. Their helmets occasionally scraped the rock and their eyes were inches from the limestone.

The passage led to another small drop, then a narrow hole in the ground. One at a time, they lowered themselves into the opening, arms above their heads to fit.

Once they both were through and crouching in the small space below, Liam looked at Tara, “Big Belly Woe and The Baby Hole. Done. Now for everyone’s favorite…”

“Pancake Passage.” Tara finished his sentence. The next room was her favorite, but also the place where many novices turned back. When she led student groups through the cave, Tara always had a few who would choose to leave, even though the best part of the cave was just on the other side.

Pancake Passage was twenty yards of crawling through a space just two-feet high. The easiest way through was to lay on your back and slide sideways, sandwiched between the rock layers.

Liam offered to go first, “I’ll clear the way for you.”

“Clear it of what?” Tara never found anything down there, and years of spelunkers’ backs swept the space clean and smooth.

“You know, dead bodies, booby traps, what-have-you.”

“What?”

“Actually, this is my least favorite part. Let me go first. I gotta move fast.”

“I didn’t think you ever got scared. I mean, you dove with sharks.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me.” Liam lay down and disappeared under the low ledge.

 

Tara wedged in after him and slid sideways at her usual pace, but kept bumping into Liam. “I thought you wanted to move fast.”

“Tara, what do you say to students who get scared at this point?”

“Well, I like to tell them where they are in relation to above-ground. But you know all that.”

“Do me a favor. Tell me again.”

“Okay. You’re about five-hundred feet under the university chapel right now. If you took a jackhammer to the chapel floor – if the priest would let you – you’d have to chip away for weeks to reach this space.”

Liam stopped, breathing fast, “How the hell does that help?!”

Tara laughed. “Hey! That’s what all the students say! And I say, if this room collapsed, so would the chapel. It would take a catastrophic earthquake to bring this down. And that’s exceedingly unlikely. No, you’re more likely to drown in a wet cave like this, than to have solid rock crash on you.”

Liam said nothing.

Tara thought for a moment, then said, “I also tell them to imagine they’re hiding under a giant’s bed in a game of hide and seek.”

Liam said nothing.

Finally, Tara elbowed him hard, “Are you falling asleep or something? Just keep moving, fruitcake!”

Liam resumed scooching, “I don’t know how you handle those kids. I’d probably just leave them down here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.”

They slid a few more yards in silence, then Liam asked, “How fast IS the water rising down here?”

“I don’t know, but I’m pretty confident we’re fine. Remember, I’m Miss Do-Right. I wouldn’t risk my life. I just want to see what opened up behind the Sculpture Gallery. We’re really almost there.”

“Yeah, I can smell the mud now.”

“Hey, do you remember the first time we explored this cave?”

“Totally. Freshman Orientation. You wore glasses and they broke.”

“Yeah, that’s when I told my parents I HAD to get contacts. Mostly I remember you telling all of us stories about canoeing through the Everglades, camping near alligators, eating snakes. You had a shark’s tooth necklace from a shark you caught with you dad.”

“Oh god. I was a jerk. Killing sharks and bragging about it. I was scared shitless to meet new people. I remember you trying to calculate the volume of rock in the mountain, and spouting facts about hypothermia and carbon dioxide.”

“I was scared, too. And then when I cracked my glasses and wanted to cry, you offered to hold my hand the whole way out.”

“I really was a jerk, Tara. I just wanted to hold anyone’s hand until I got out safely.”

Tara didn’t respond. She had always held that memory as a magical moment. Boys never liked her. They wanted her for a lab partner, a math tutor, a debate teammate, but never a girlfriend.

When Liam took her hand that day freshman year, she hoped he might have liked her. Even though he went on to date a string of beautiful and wealthy sorority girls, Tara nursed a secret fantasy that he might ask her out one day.

For the first time ever in the cave, Tara felt trapped in the small space. Then, Liam let out a happy cry.

“We’re through!”

Liam pushed past the last few inches of the low ceiling and stood up in the cavernous Sculpture Gallery. He turned around to help Tara out, but she pushed his hand away.

“I’m fine. I got it. You don’t have to do anything for me.”

Liam shrugged and turned to shine his light on the thick mud walls where decades of students carved their names and faces and crude drawings and favorite quotations. More talented cavers sculpted faces and animals in the soft clay outcroppings.

The ceiling in the Sculpture Gallery soared to thirty feet, and the room was as wide as thirty yards in some places. For students, it was the end of the tour. They’d have a lunch of soggy power bars, find a blank spot to sign their names, and head back for the sun.

Serious spelunkers, though, found squirrely cracks on the far side of the room and tried to plumb new wonders. Over the years, no one found anything except tight spots.

Liam traced with his finger someone else’s scrawling of his fraternity’s Greek letters. “I forgot how cool this place is. Thanks for asking me back.”

“Uh-huh.” Tara pushed past Liam and made a beeline for the space that drew her back into the cave one last time.

When Tara checked the cave with the safety survey team a few days earlier, she found a fresh opening in a wall behind the most elaborate sculpture in the room.

Liam jogged to catch up with Tara. He stopped as she ducked behind a great red bear, eight feet tall, standing on back feet, arms rising to swat down its imaginary opponent. “How long do you think it took someone to carve this guy?”

“I don’t know. But I do know we should hurry. The water’s higher here than it was last time.” An inch of water covered the whole floor of the room.

“Shit. Maybe we should go back.” Liam started backing away from the bear.

Tara swirled to face Liam, hands on her hips, “SERIOUSLY?!?”

Before they went into the cave, Tara marveled at the way the sun caught in Liam’s golden curls. She loved that he wore only a pair of running shorts under his coveralls, so she could see the strong muscles in his stomach as he zipped up. Now, in her lamplight, she could see the bags under his eyes and the way his mouth hung slack when he wasn’t talking.

Tara shone her headlamp into the new crevice behind the bear. “This is what I came back for, Liam. I need, like, ten minutes to see what’s in there. You can wait out here if you want. Can you handle that?”

Liam stepped back from her tone of voice. “Whoa. I am totally okay with what you need to do. I’m sorry. I’m being a shit. Seriously. My bad. You lead. I’ll follow. Dude. I’m sorry.”

Tara regretted snapping at him. She muttered, “I’m sorry, too. I just… This is my last chance. I’ve been down here dozens of times. I did research projects on this site. There could be something cool in there, maybe just as dazzling as this room. I tried to convince the group to let me look last time, but they all agreed it was too risky. I can’t let it go, though. I want to know. Before it’s too late.”

She leaned her head into the fresh passageway and her headlamp cast long shadows across a large space that appeared to be full of stalagmites. Liam tried to peer around Tara’s shoulder, pressing against her back.

“What. The. Hell,” Liam whispered into Tara’s ear as he saw for himself.

“I know.” Tara found the entrance led directly into a chamber about half the size of the Sculpture Gallery. Rocky formations crowded the floor.

“Do me a favor, Liam. Let’s turn off our lamps for a sec.”

As soon as their lights were out, the room glittered with bioluminescence. The stalagmites shimmered.

 

Liam said, “I didn’t think we had glowworms in this part of the world.”

Tara said, “We don’t. I have no clue what this is.” At the far end of the room, she heard the sound of gently lapping water.

Liam put his hand on Tara’s shoulder, “Wanna go father in?”

“Absolutely.” Tara flicked her headlamp back on and the beam lit up the closest formation. She walked closer to it, intrigued by its shape. “Maybe my brain is scrambled because of the Sculpture Gallery – or carbon dioxide – but doesn’t this form almost look… human?”

Liam walked to the other side of it and sucked in his breath, “Hoe. Lee. Shiiiiiiit. Check this out.”

Tara rounded the rock and came face to face with an exact replica of one of her classmates. She started to reach out and touch it, but Liam stopped her.

“If you touch it, you kill it. Right?” Even if it was weird, it was still flowstone.

Tara walked around the room, exploring the other formations and found other faces she recognized. “Oh my god. Here’s Walter… and Anna… Matthew… Haley…”

Liam walked to the other side of the room, “Hey, here’s Tyler… and Beau… William… Franklin…”

Tara stared at her fellow geology majors, all in stone. “This looks like our whole class in here.”

“Everyone except us.”

“We’re here, too.”

“Where?”

“Duh, we’re right here. You and me. Right now.”

“Yeah, but we’re not among the statues.”

“Technically, we are standing among the statues.”

“Dammit, Tara! You know what I mean.”

“Of course I do. I just don’t know what this is. Could someone have sculpted these?”

“When? How? You said this room just opened up.”

“I know, but there must be some logical explanation.”

Liam began running between the rocky replicas, splashing across the floor, calling out, “Where am I?!?”

Tara stopped herself from saying the obvious again. Even though she found his questions hilarious, she was deeply disturbed by her discovery. She tried to think back to the safety survey, to recall anyone else who may have returned in the intervening time. But, she couldn’t imagine someone who could accomplish something like what she saw. And the bioluminesence. How did it get there?

She looked closely at the statues and saw they rose seamlessly from the floor, just like stalagmites. They glistened with moisture, just like any other cave formation. Her brain raced with probabilities and possibilities, rendering her motionless. She didn’t even notice Liam dashing around, calling out the names of classmates he found, then calling for himself – as though his stone version would answer.

The one thing that penetrated Tara’s thoughts was the sound of rushing water. Searching for the logic of their find, she mindlessly walked in the direction of the noise.

Soon, the water rose above her shoes, lapping at her ankles. She looked down and saw a cave salamander scurry out of the light of her headlamp.

She followed the surface of the water with her light and saw it extend far in front of her, reflecting off the ripples of her steps, casting a glow on the ceiling above.

She stood on the edge of an underground lake. Then, her headlamp crossed something rising from the water. She called back to Liam, “Hey! I see something! Spot me!”

Liam ran over, “What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s about fifteen feet out there. See, another stalagmite… or is two?”

Liam waded into the water in front of her, “I’ll check.”

Tara followed close behind, going deeper into the clear water. As they came closer to the formations, their lamps revealed what looked like two statues in an embrace, facing each other. The water was up to their knees, Liam’s, Tara’s, and the stalagmite couple.

Liam and Tara circled the figures, trying to see the faces. Finally, Tara’s light shone on a limestone version of Liam’s face, eyes half-closed. At the same time, Liam saw Tara’s statue face, gazing at the man in her rock arms.

Liam turned to look at the real Tara and she blinked in the glare of his headlamp. “Are we about to kiss?”

Tara looked down and noticed the water was now up to her thighs. The lake was rising rapidly. “No, we’re about to drown!”

“Holy shit! Get out of here!!” Liam spun around and splashed to shallower water. Tara caught up with him, and they dodged the rock doppelgangers of their classmates, sloshing in ankle-deep water.

They reached the entrance of the mysterious room and saw water pouring down the walls, a curtain of water at the door. Liam pushed Tara in front of him and ran through behind her.

Back in the Sculpture Gallery, the water was two inches higher than when they came in. When they got across to the low ceiling of Pancake Passage, they could see water running under the ledge.

Liam froze in terror, “How deep is that?”

“Shallower than it will be in another minute. Get in!!”

“I can’t.” Liam didn’t budge.

“MOVE!” Tara shoved Liam so hard he stumbled to his knees.

He turned to her, eyes wild, “What if we drown in there?”

“We won’t.” Tara didn’t know that, but she knew it was their only way out.

Liam, on his hands and knees, stayed stuck. Finally, Tara lay down in the water and started to slide under the rock until just her hand was sticking out. “Just hold my hand, Liam!”

Liam tentatively reached out for her fingers and she yanked him under with her.

The water lapped at their ears as they scurried on their backs. Tara started talking, “C’mon, Liam, this is adventure. You survived that glacier, you biked that desert, you dove in those reefs…”

“I lied.”

“What??”

“I went to those places, but I mostly drank and dropped acid. I pulled photos off the Internet and said I took them. I made up a lot of stuff. I lied.”

Tara didn’t say anything. She just kept moving, her hand clenching Liam’s. The water rose to halfway up her cheeks and she heard Liam hyper-ventilating.

“A little math. We’re about halfway, ten yards, thirty feet. Each time we scoot, we cover a yard. Just ten scoots to go! Keep scooting!!”

The water level creeped higher toward Tara’s mouth. “Unhook your helmet! We’ll lose the lights, but you’ll get more room to the ceiling. The water’s helping now, we can float it.”

They moved beyond the glow of their abandoned helmets, deeper into total darkness. Tara felt like she was dragging a rag doll as she slid the last few feet of Pancake Passage. Liam was rigid.

“Breathe, Liam! While you can!!” Tara had to tilt her head back until the water touched her eyebrows to keep her nose above water. She heard him sputter and spout, but at least she knew he wasn’t drowning.

Tara was surprised when her head stopped scraping the ceiling. With only the faintest glow from the helmets back under the rock, she looked up into the vertical tunnel of the Baby Hole. She pulled Liam in behind her and felt his hands grab her tightly.

 

“Liam, you gotta stand up.” He silently obeyed and as he did, a wave of water rushed into the space, rising up their hips.

“Crap! We’re running out of time!! Give me a boost and I’ll reach back for you. Don’t freak out, we’re doing this.” But, Liam didn’t give her a boost. He stood with his arms pressed to his sides.  Tara jumped up, hands on his shoulder, and wedged her feet against the wall so she could climb up on his shoulders. She managed to just squeeze out the top of the Baby Hole.

She knelt back over the hole, “Okay, just raise your arms! That’s all. I’ll get you.” Tara reached down, but only felt Liam’s curls. He was locked in panic.

Tara could hear the water rushing. She knew it was probably up to his waist. She took a slow breath, reached down again and caressed his hair, “Liam, do you know why I asked you to come with me today?”

She felt him shake his head.

“One. For safety reasons, we never cave alone. Two. I knew I would be breaking the rules to come down here one last time. From all your stories I thought you were comfortable breaking rules. So your stories were lies? Nothing to do about that now but make a true story. Right here. Right now. Let’s get out and tell everyone how awesome we are.” She waited for Liam to jump back into action. He didn’t.

“Alright! Fine!! What’s the real reason I asked you? I like you. I’m… attracted to you. You’re hot and sexy and before I graduated to a life of celibate science I thought maybe, just maybe, I could at least hold your hand like when we were freshmen. Maybe down here you’d admit you always had a crush on me. I don’t know. I had so many logical reasons to ask you I didn’t feel the need to admit I hoped you’d take me in your muddy arms and kiss me. So, for fuck’s sake, get out of the Baby Hole before you die down there and I never get to see your hunky body again!!!”

With that, Liam reached up for her hand and climbed up into the darkness of Big Belly Woe. Tara could hear him breathing heavily, but he didn’t say anything.

“Liam, we have this tight squeeze and it dips back down toward water level. It may be high down there. My gear is totally soaked. Useless. We have to find the ladder in the dark. Don’t let go of my hand. We don’t have time to lose each other.”

Together, they squeezed through the narrow hall and back into water that reached their hips. As the walls opened up, Tara felt something bump her thigh. “It’s the ladder!”

Tara pulled rung after rung, expecting to follow it back to its anchor point. Instead, as she kept pulling and pulling with no tension, she realized the ladder somehow came unhitched. There was no way up.

The water rose to her waist. She grabbed Liam’s arm, “Please tell me you can swim.” She felt him move, but not speak. She put her hands on his head and he nodded.

“Okay, that’s a little good news.” The water rose up to her chest.

“For the first time, I hope the water keeps rising. With any luck, we can swim it up to the top of the shaft. If we keep treading, we can ride it.”

Finally, Liam spoke in a tiny voice, “I think we’re about to die in here.” The water reached his shoulders, Tara’s neck.

Tara wrapped her arms around Liam, “Don’t be silly. We’re just about to make it.” As she said that, the water rose above their heads and they started to swim up.

As the water lifted them foot by foot, Tara began to worry the water might suddenly stop rising, that whatever caused the flood might retreat as quickly as it started. She reached out for the walls, as high as she could, hoping to grab the lip of the drop. When her hand landed on the upper floor of the cave, she grabbed Liam’s arm, “Let’s start crawling now, don’t wait for the water!”

They both pulled themselves out of the pool and lay, panting, on the cave floor. Tara waited for the water to spill over them, but it didn’t. Like she had feared, in fact, the water burbled as it started to recede.

Tara started crawling, hugging the wall, just as she had on the way down, “Hug the rock, and you won’t fall. I know this part and I know I we just wind our way up. Stay on your hands and knees behind me. We can go slow.”

After many agonizing minutes of creeping, Tara looked up and could see sun pouring in through the threshold to the cave. They only had a small incline to go before they were out. “C’mon, we’re almost there! Don’t think, just go to the light!”

They scampered the last few yards until they reached the ridge. Then, just as when they entered the cave, they waded through the stream until they emerged in the blazing afternoon sunshine. They collapsed on the bank, under the trees.

Liam looked at Tara and smiled, “Thanks.”

Before Tara could say anything, she heard someone calling her name. It was Haley, from class. Behind her was William, then Tyler and Beau. Walter and Anna came from another direction of the woods.

Haley said, “Oh my god, Tara, we’ve all been looking for you. We came to talk about sealing the entrance to the cave and saw your car and then the signs, and we thought maybe you’d gone on a walk or something.”

Franklin ran up from another direction and stumbled when he saw Tara and Liam, soaked and muddy, “Did you guys go down in the cave? Oh shit! I figured you forgot about pulling up the ladder… so I unhooked it to make sure… no one… got in…” As Franklin realized what must have happened, he sank to the ground.

Anna crouched down in front of Tara, “You were on the survey team. You KNEW it was dangerous. Why did you go back?”

Tara stared back at Anna, the real Anna, and all she could think about was her stone twin, swimming in a subterranean lake. Then, Liam cleared his throat.

“It’s my fault. I came to help Tara, and I couldn’t resist one last trip. For old time’s sake.”

Beau pointed at Liam, “Dude, that’s sick. It’s okay to take risks with your own life, but you could have gotten Tara killed. You’re damn lucky, man. Damn. Lucky.”

Tara stood up, “Really, it’s okay. We’re safe now. And, the cave is flooded. So, no one’s going back down there. Ever.”

After a few more minutes of lecturing and reassurances that they had car keys and would get straight back to campus, their classmates left Tara and Liam alone in the forest.

Liam turned to Tara, “Why didn’t you tell them what we found?”

“Why? We’re all trained in science. With no evidence, no theory, no rational explanation, and no way to even go back, they’d call us crazy. Maybe we didn’t see anything. Maybe it was just too much carbon dioxide. Maybe it was all our imagination.”

“I hope not.”

“Why?”

“Because I want it to come true.”

“You want us all to turn to stone?”

“No. I want to hold you in my arms.”

“That’s just the trauma talking.”

“Maybe. But now you’ve seen me at my worst. And I saw you at your best. You’re awesome.”

“Thanks.”

Liam said, “Can I hold your hand? Just because… I like you?”

Tara recalled a research study that showed relationships that begin in emergency situations rarely last. She agreed with it. But, she held out her hand anyway.

Tara and Liam walked out of the woods together, ready to explore another life mystery, one no less risky than the cave.