Four hours and 250 miles of barren, desolate country without so much as a pine tree to look at to break up the monotony. It was all plains and dead grass and other cars. Theresa leaned back in the passenger seat and tried to stretch, but the cramped foot space under the dashboard didn’t allow her much opportunity to ease her aching joints.
“How much longer?” seven-year-old Jimmy whined from the back seat. He’d been listening to music on his iPod for the last couple of hours, but the battery had run out thirty minutes ago, and he’d been restless and agitated ever since.
Mandy, his ten-year-old sister, dropped the book she’d been reading and looked up at Theresa. “Yeah. How much longer? I need to go to the bathroom.”
Theresa sighed. This was supposed to be a fun family road trip. A chance to drive across the country and see places none of them had ever been. But so far, other than a less-than-scinitillating stop at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, the trip had turned out to be nothing more than a chance for everyone to get on each other’s nerves.
“How about there?” Theresa’s husband, Mike asked, pointing at a crudely made sign that appeared to be made out of an old pallet. “HUGE CAVE! 2 MILES AHEAD” it proclaimed in shaky letters.
“I don’t know,” Theresa said. She was as desperate to get out of the car as the kids were, but something about the sign gave her the heebie jeebies. She checked the map she’d been using to navigate thanks to a total lack of cell phone signal anywhere in the last two hundred miles. “There should be another rest stop about fifty miles ahead.”
“I can’t wait fifty miles,” Jimmy said, doing the best “I’ve-gotta-pee” dance that his seat belt would allow. “I need to go now. I’m gonna pee my pants.”
Another sign loomed on the horizon. This one was just as shoddily put together as the first. “BATHROOMS, SNACKS, AND A WORLD CLASS MUSEUM INCLUDED WITH ADMISSION.”
“Come on,” Mike urged. “It can’t be that far off the interstate. Besides, what good is a road trip if all we do is drive?”
Theresa glanced at the map and sighed. They still had another hundred and fifty miles to go before they reached their destination for the night. “I guess it won’t hurt to get out for a few minutes,” she said.
Jimmy let out an excited whoop and Mandy grinned as Mike steered the car off the interstate.
The small road that took off to the north was so overgrown with weeds that they almost missed it. If it hadn’t been for another sign – this one was smaller, and simply said cave, with an arrow pointing the direction they needed to go – they would have missed it entirely.
Theresa’s stomach churned, and she looked at Mike. “Are you sure about this? It doesn’t look like anyone’s been out here in forever.”
Mike smiled. “Where’s your sense of adventure? When we first met you would’ve jumped at the chance to do something like this.”
Theresa frowned and sank into her seat. She’d lost her sense of adventure ten years ago when Mandy had been born. Sure, she’d once been that carefree girl that loved skydiving and rock climbing. The girl that would jump off the cliff into the water without thinking twice. That didn’t mind going for mystery drives that might mean getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. Now, she had two kids to worry about keeping safe.
Mike nudged her elbow gently. “I’m just kidding. I’m sure everything will be fine. I just want everyone to have fun.”
“I know,” Theresa said. “I just have a bad feeling about this.”
“That’s probably the chicken salad you had for lunch,” he said with a laugh. And maybe he was right. That diner they’d stopped at didn’t look like it would pass any sort of food safety inspection, but it was the only place to eat for miles, and the kids were “starving.” Mike slid his hand forward, wrapping his fingers through hers. “It’s going to be okay.”
They bumped down the road for another mile and a half before the ramshackle building came into sight. COME SEE THE STATE’S TWELFTH LARGEST CAVE was painted directly on the side.
“That doesn’t seem like much of a claim,” Mandy said, twisting her lips.
“Come on,” Jimmy said, bouncing out of his seat. “It’ll be awesome.”
The smell hit Theresa as soon as she opened the car door. It was overwhelming, but somehow familiar. “What is that?” she asked, looking around for the source of the awful aroma permeating the air. But other than the shack, a couple of vehicles that looked like they’d been broken down since the 1970’s, and endless miles of knee-high dead grass, there was nothing.
Mike gingerly sniffed the air. “I don’t smell anything,” he said. “It’s probably nothing.”
Of course he didn’t smell anything. Mike suffered from chronic allergies, and lived in a constant state of congestion. He hadn’t smelled the rice he’d burned last week either, even after it had set off the smoke alarms. But Mandy and Jimmy had already climbed out of the car, and they were running around laughing. The smell didn’t seem to bother them at all. And since they had driven all the way out here, they should at least use the bathroom.
Suddenly, a loud scream broke through the silence. Theresa dashed over to the kids and grabbed them by the hands. “Come on,” she said. “We’re leaving.”
The shriek pierced the air again, followed by the rustling of wings. A peacock strutted out from the grass next to the car, its tail feathers held high. It shrieked again.
“It’s just a peacock, Mom,” Jimmy said, laughing. “I don’t think it’s going to eat us.”
“It’s so pretty,” Mandy said, dropping into a crouch and offering her hand to the bird. It stuck its head in the air and walked right past her, like it didn’t even see her.
Mike moved next to Theresa and squeezed her gently. “Are you okay?”
She smiled and nodded as she watched the peacock head toward the building. “Yeah. I’m sorry. It just scared me.”
Mike narrowed his eyes and tried to look mean. “You don’t need to worry about anything. You know I won’t let anything hurt you.”
A broken cobblestone path lined the way from the parking area to the building. The kids walked along, gathering fallen peacock feathers along the way and babbling excitedly about what they thought they cave would be like. Mike kept a firm grip on Theresa’s hand. “We won’t stay long,” he promised.
She leaned her head on his shoulder as they walked. “Just promise me we’ll get the hell out of here if we hear banjos start playing.”
“Cross my heart,” he replied.
They stepped inside the building to find a pleasant looking woman sitting on a couch, watching a TV. She looked up at them and smiled. “Here to see the cave?”
Mike nodded. “We thought it sounded fun. Can you tell us a little bit about it?”
“Sure thing.” She stood up and made her way to a small counter covered with pamphlets. She grabbed one, shook the dust off of it, and handed it to Mike. “The cave you’re about to enter is an old lava tube. The entire thing runs about a mile long, but for safety reasons, we’ve got it roped off about half a mile in.”
“What kind of safety reasons?” Theresa asked, swallowing hard as she pictured the entire cave collapsing on top of them.
The woman giggled and waved her hand dismissively. “Nothing serious as long as you stay on the path. At it’s deepest point, the cave’s about seventy-feet high. I’ve got some propane lanterns you can take down with you.” She eyed the family in their shorts and flip-flops. “I’ve got a couple extra coats you can borrow too. It keeps pretty chilly down there.”
Mike shook his head and extracted a handful of bills from his wallet. “I think we’ll be okay.”
Ignoring him, the woman rummaged around under the counter and pulled out of a box of coats. “Trust me. You’ll be wantin’ these.”
Theresa stared at the bright colors and variety of fabrics. “Where do you get all those?” she asked.
“Here and there,” the woman replied with a shrug. She extracted four coats and thrust them across the counter. “There ya go,” she said, smiling. “Let me get those lanterns for you.”
She lit two lanterns and led the family to a small door on the back of the building. “Have fun,” she said, handing Theresa and Mike the lanterns as the family filed through the door. “But whatever you do, don’t stray from the path.” Her voice was low and ominous, but when Theresa turned to ask her what she meant, the woman just smiled and closed the door.
The twisting feeling hadn’t left Theresa’s gut, and another strange smell she couldn’t place seemed to be coming off the jacket she was wearing, but before she could say anything to Mike, the kids took off down the pathway, excitedly pointing out the wide array of animals that called the place home: llamas, emus, a shaggy miniature donkey, and even a potbellied pig.
They finally reached the cave entrance, and Mike offered to go first, holding his lantern high to light the way as they made their way down the steep stone path. It wasn’t long before the long cavern twisted away from the cave opening, leaving their lanterns the only source of light. Water dripped down the stone walls, and it was at least thirty degrees colder than the seventy it had been outside.
“This is so cool,” Jimmy said, from somewhere near Theresa’s hip, the thick stone walls deadening the sound of his voice.
“Check that out,” Mandy said, rushing forward and pointing to a panel of cave drawings. A small hand-painted sign identified them as being left by early Native American inhabitants. She glanced back at Theresa, smiling. “Can you believe that Native Americans once stood here?”
“Let me see,” Jimmy said, pushing forward. He leaned against the cable that was strung across the pathway, preventing people from touching the rock art. “Eww, that one guy looks like he’s being eaten by a monster.”
Theresa squinted. It was hard to make it out in the dim light of the propane lantern. “I’m sure that’s not what’s happening,” she said. But even as the words thudded against the stone walls of the cave, the image came into focus. A monster that looked like a giant bear hovered over a drawing of a man that looked like he’d been split in two.
“Gross,” Mandy said, sticking her tongue out. “Let’s keep going.”
“Maybe we should just go back to the car,” Theresa suggested. “We’ve seen the cave. I’m sure it doesn’t look much different down there than it does up here.”
Mike turned toward her, the light of the lantern casting an eerie glow on his features. “It’s not much farther,” he said. “We already paid our money. We might as well see what all the fuss is about.”
Theresa hoisted her lantern and set her jaw. She was being ridiculous. It was just a cave. So what if it smelled bad and there were terrifyingly graphic ancient paintings on the wall? Someone had come down here and installed the ropes and cables to keep paying customers on the path. And it wasn’t like she really thought monsters existed. But the woman’s words of warning came back to her, echoing in her ears. There had been something about the way she’d told them to stay on the path that had bothered Theresa.
Theresa’s thoughts were interrupted by the rest of the family gushing excitedly over reaching the end of the trail. A very large – and admittedly impressive – cavern opened up in front of them. Even the light from the lanterns couldn’t reach all of the walls at once. “This is so cool,” Mandy said.
Mike looped his arm around Theresa’s waist and gave her a quick kiss. “See? This was totally worth coming down here for, right?”
“It’s pretty awesome,” Theresa agreed, snuggling against him.
“Hey, what’s that?” Jimmy asked. Before Theresa could stop him, he’d ducked under the single length of rope that marked the end of the trail and darted into the shadows.
“Jimmy, stop!” Theresa ran after him, the heel of her flip-flop clipping one of the lanterns as she went. The lantern fell on its side, the light flickering out. Theresa darted under the rope and grabbed Jimmy. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I saw someone,” he said, his eyes wide and fixed on a shape that was too dark to make out. “A little kid.”
“No one is down here but us,” Theresa said, soothingly. She put an arm around his shoulder and guided him back under the tope to Mandy and Mike, and the comforting light of the lantern.
Mike gave Jimmy a stern look. “That wasn’t safe,” he scolded. “You know better than that. There’s a reason that part of the cave is roped off. It might not be stable.”
Jimmy hung his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, sniffling slightly. “I thought it was a kid. And he was lost.”
Theresa looked back over her shoulder. The shape that Jimmy had pointed out was gone. She shook her head, trying to will away the goose bumps that had prickled up all over. It was just a trick of the light. No one else was down here. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, stooping to pick up the dead lantern.
As they turned to leave, the light in Mike’s lantern flickered. Then it went out completely, plunging the cave into darkness. Mandy and Jimmy both shrieked. Theresa wanted to scream too, but she knew it would only scare the kids more. “Follow my voice,” she said. “I’m right here.”
“Mom, I’m scared,” Mandy said, her voice shaking.
“We’re okay,” Theresa said. “There’s only one way out of this cave. We’ll be fine.” She kept talking until both kids had their arms wrapped around her. “Mike, you have your cell phone, right?” she asked.
He didn’t respond.
The smell from outside was back. Only now it was stronger. And Theresa suddenly remembered why the scent was so familiar. She’d only smelled it once before. When she and her grandfather had come across a decaying deer in the woods. It was the stench of death. Decay.
Then something screamed, and Theresa knew deep down, in the very marrow of her bones, that it wasn’t a peacock.
*Disclaimer- This short story is my first attempt at writing horror. It’s not a genre I’m overly familiar with, but after visiting a cave very similar to this one while on a road trip with my family, I felt compelled to write something. I hope you enjoyed reading it. And if you did, please share.