I followed him like a shadow and like a shadow I didn’t speak. But when Liam led me to the cave’s entrance, I just stood and stared. It looked like a wound. Liam grabbed my hand and led me into its opening and the overhanging rocks hung around me like flaps of skin.
‘Jaz,’ Liam said. ‘Don’t ruin today.’
‘Okay,’ I replied, turning on my flashlight.
Already deep in the cave, the tour guide waved us over. We followed him, and he led us to a naturally occurring staircase. In the dark, I leant down and ran my fingers along the cold stones, felt their sharp edges. The wind pulsed. Somewhere outside a tarp was flapping. I shone my flashlight over to Liam and saw his white eyes facing me.
‘Jaz,’ Liam had said, clicking his fingers in front of me. ‘How’s your coffee?’
I remembered being startled and putting my hand over my eyes. The morning sun was beaming through the windows. It was too bright. Too golden.
‘Did you sign the waivers alright?’ Liam asked.
‘Well, how’s your coffee?’
I took a sip. ‘Burnt.’
Liam leant over and tried it himself. ‘The coffee’s fine.’
‘It tastes like every other coffee I’ve had.’
‘It’s still burnt.’
‘I’m not going,’ I said. ‘I don’t need to.’ I looked out the window and saw a stream just beyond a stone path. It flowed muddy and brown over the little pebbles along its bank. ‘The stream’s gross, isn’t it?’
‘I like it. It’s like a snake.’
‘You wouldn’t even know what a snake looks like.’
‘We get snakes in the city too.’
The waiter came over with a lentil salad and an English breakfast. He paused, looked at us, then handed me the salad and Liam the English breakfast.
Once he left, I switched them. ‘Sexist bastard.’
‘It always makes me laugh,’ he said. ‘Why can’t I have a salad?’
I looked back to the stream. ‘It’s pretty gross. Come on, be honest about it.’
‘This is why you need to go. You think everything’s gross and burnt.’
‘If I say the stream’s nice and the coffee’s nice, will you stop talking about it?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘You’ve just changed so much.’
‘I haven’t changed. You just never paid attention.’
‘You’re the one who wanted to go on this trip. Don’t act like this.’
‘You think that if I make an appointment everything will be good and happy?’
‘Yes. I do.’
As we descended, the veins of the cave split into different paths and the tour group split up. White light lined the stone walls and red jackets journeyed off out of sight. The tour guide jumped over to us and told us to be careful and go slow.
When he left, Liam and I made our way down the vein that we decided had the least number of people in it, and quickly the voices faded away. Even the sound of our footsteps, echoing off the stone, seemed to quieten. I felt thin and papery and wanted to lie down. I turned my flashlight over to Liam and saw him smile. It caught onto my stomach like a noose.
‘I can’t believe they’d leave us like this,’ I said.
‘Thank God they left us like this.’
I didn’t respond.
‘Nothing’s going to happen, Jaz.’
He stopped, looked at me, and threw his arms in the air. ‘You’re fucking impossible. You know that?’
‘You only care about yourself.’
‘That’s bullshit. Come on,’ he said, swinging his arms around, ‘I’ve really never seen so many fucking rocks, have you?’
‘Yep, it’s a cave.’
‘It is, and it’s all yours.’
I didn’t respond, and just continued.
‘Slow down,’ he said. ‘Watch out for the rocks, they’re sharp.’
I glanced back to him and moved quicker.
‘Let me lead us,’ he snapped.
I kept moving.
‘Fucking stop,’ he said, grabbing my arm. ‘You always complain that I’m not there for you, but you never tell me anything.’
‘You’re a selfish bitch. This isn’t who you are.’
I couldn’t respond.
The sound of someone’s footsteps echoed towards us.
He squeezed my wrist like inside of it was all of our problems. ‘I bring you all the way out here to fulfil some stupid fucking fantasy of yours and all you do is be miserable. You’re going to see someone. You’re going, or I’m going to fucking drag you there myself.’
I braced, knowing what was coming, but he threw down my arm. I rubbed my eyes and tried to stop but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop.
‘Stop crying,’ he said. ‘Someone’s coming.’
I felt the venom from each of his fingers tattoo itself around my wrists. I tried to stop but I couldn’t.
I turned my flashlight off and ran into the cave. Liam didn’t follow; I heard him swear. I stumbled over something and felt a sharp pain in my ankle, then caught myself on the wall and kept running. In the darkness, everything was nothing and the cave was overwhelmingly full. I just wanted to get as close to nothing as I could. I tripped over another rock, then there was a whistle, and flashes of the earth rolling around me and the feeling of myself falling into the air like a ghost and the earth coming back to hit me and the snap of my right leg with a sharp shock and the feeling of the earth spinning. I bit my lip and screamed, then, again, the whistling, and the pain rolling across my body.
I turned my flashlight on and saw my leg twisted over itself. I went to vomit but couldn’t. You’ve done it now, I heard. You’ve fucked up again. I looked up to the crevice I’d fallen through and saw a little light from my flashlight, and then darkness. I felt like a bird staring into the jaws of a snake, hoping that it wouldn’t swallow me. I blacked out.
When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t move. The exhaustion was intense. The cave was pale and white in the light, and as I looked at it, I saw it breathing. I saw its pulse.
I closed my eyes and listened. Nothing, and then the echo of my breathing. The decaying sound of my breath bouncing off the stone until it descended into the faintest far away roar, like a wolf howling far off into the night.
I wiped my mouth, saw blood on my hand, saw four fingers and a thumb on my wrist, felt the pain numb, felt everything become peaceful: the stones, the earth, my leg.
With my other hand, I ran my thumb over the marks on my wrist and looked down to see, along the edges of his handprint, my skin turning purple, red, orange: a sunset.
I used the strength I had left to drag myself along the floor. I pulled my body against the wall of the cave, groaned, lifted my head against it, listened. A falling pebble. A sharp thud. The distant sound of someone’s voice.
‘I’m down here!’ I screamed. ‘Help!’
I listened. Nothing. Like two eyelids, I felt the stone walls close in on me with darkness.
I shivered when I awoke; I couldn’t tell the difference between my eyes being opened or closed. You’re pathetic, I heard Liam say. Maybe he was right. I felt my breaths pass with the breathing of the cave. I opened and closed my eyes, trying to decide whether I was asleep or awake, alive or dead, and the smell of salt and fire washed over my nostrils, and the sound of the cave was like the wind over water. With another swell of pain, I remembered the first time I met Liam: he asked me to go fishing. More than anything, I was flattered that someone like him would take an interest in me, so, of course, I said yes. The lake was sharp and white in the light, and as Liam took us out on the boat, I leant my arm over and trailed my fingers through the water. We talked and laughed all morning and started drinking in the afternoon.
‘Have you had whisky before?’ he asked. ‘I’ve brought some.’
‘No. Only beer.’
‘Only beer? You haven’t lived.’
‘Compared to you, I haven’t.’
He went into the boat’s cabin and came back with two wine glasses between his fingers and a bottle of whisky in his hand. We sat next to each other and watched the evening wind blow folds into the water. He opened the bottle and it smelt like he’d started a fire.
‘That’s the smoke,’ he said, seeing the disgust in my face.
‘They can’t get smoke into alcohol. It smells rotten.’
‘I like the smell,’ he said. ‘It reminds me of camping with my dad.’
I didn’t respond but looked inquisitively into the little golden fire that he poured into my glass.
‘You close with your dad?’ he asked.
‘It’s a sad story.’
He took his shoes off and threw them into the cabin. ‘Better take yours off too.’
‘I don’t have any other shoes.’
‘You won’t need them.’
I took my shoes off and took a sip of the liquor. I struggled it down, just stopping myself from spitting it back out.
‘This is the best time of year to drink whisky,’ he said. ‘When it’s just a little chilly. It keeps you warm.’
‘It might set me on fire.’
He smiled, took his jacket off and looked at me. ‘What happened to your dad?’
‘He killed himself.’
‘Jesus.’ He sat back down and looked out across the lake again. The evening light shone orange on the water and long shadows cast across the hills. ‘I’m sorry. How long ago?’
‘A long time.’ I took a sip of the whisky and this time understood why someone might enjoy it. ‘He was a good man. He used to joke that he was always on the lookout for an escape route. I guess he took the only one we really have.’
‘What about your dad?’ I asked.
‘Fine. I guess. It just gets harder to relate to him as I get older, you know?’
I took another sip of his whisky and, from the corner of my eye, I could see him looking at me. ‘Was it hard?’ he asked.
‘Yes. No… It depends.’
‘It’s more common than you’d think.’
I looked away from the lake and into his eyes. He couldn’t look back, but instead looked down to his thumb, which was rubbing the tip of the glass.
‘Liam,’ I said, and then looked into his eyes when he gazed up me.
He smiled and immediately blushed.
I giggled and watched him stand up and take his shirt off.
‘You better take yours off too,’ he said.
‘We’re going for a swim.’
‘In the lake? Gross.’
‘It’ll be worse if you don’t. Wet clothes take a long time to dry in this weather.’
‘I don’t mind getting wet.’
‘Come on then,’ he said as he jumped into the water.
I checked to see if we were alone and took my clothes off. The cool air was wonderful and the water, when I jumped in, nipped at my skin; everything about life seemed suddenly so vibrant and alive. The lake was still and, apart from the thin silhouette of the hills, the sky and the water had become indistinguishable. Liam swam over to me and our lips came together. We spent the rest of the night in the cabin and I felt like everything was right, and that there was nothing in life except for what happened that day and, oh God, was I stupid.
I sat up and felt a shiver across my body and an ache in my leg. It was pitch black, but I swear I could see the frost coming from my breath. I rubbed my temple and wondered how long I’d been down here. More than anything, I needed to calm myself down. I took a long and deliberate breath; I was suffocating. My chest was heaving. ‘Stop it. Stop thinking, Jasmine,’ I said, then felt the stupidity of talking to myself alone at the bottom of a cave. ‘They’ll be here soon. I’ll talk things out with Liam soon.’ He won’t understand. ‘Stop thinking!’ I yelled.
I heard my voice echo back to me. ‘Stop thinking! Stop thinking. Stop thinking.’ The voice was high-pitched. Pathetic. ‘Stop thinking,’ the darkness said again. I started crying, but the sound of that mocked me too. There was nothing in the darkness but me and my muddled wails echoing over each other, morphing themselves into a horribly distorted sound, until, eventually, they became more distant and melodic and sang back through the cave like whale calls. If someone told me I was deep in the ocean, I’d believe them. I was drowning.
My eyes caught flickers of white and red. I pulled myself up. ‘Help!’ I yelled, and like an anchor around my neck, I felt Liam pull me back, and the cave digest me. What was outside anyway? Nothing better.
‘Hello?’ A voice called.
I awoke underneath two paramedics. I sat up, coughing, heaving; took a deep breath and gave the paramedic my name.
The paramedic said something, and I felt myself retreating.
‘Concentrate on us, Jasmine. We’re going to prepare your leg.’
I held my breath, but he shook his head and the two paramedics lifted me into a chair. I saw the light at the end of the cave and let it spit me out like a communion wafer.
I blinked, trying to readjust my eyes to the light and saw Liam running towards me. ‘Jasmine!’ he said, pushing past someone. ‘I did everything I could. I love you.’
I turned away from him.
‘It’s alright, tears are normal,’ the paramedic said, placing me in the back of the ambulance. He put something green in my mouth and held his finger over the top of it. ‘Take in deep breaths. In and out.’
‘You’re doing great,’ the other one said.
I laid flat against the bed and looked out the back of the ambulance. I saw Liam sitting on a bench, crying. He was pathetic; I felt repulsed by him, and then I felt a distant pain, like a horrible memory.
I saw Liam moult, writhe and slip from himself. I saw the light reflect off his new scales, and even though they were more faded than the last, they still lined him like medals. Then he hissed at the smell of old blood, and I just stared and stared. He slithered into the cave, only looking back once to show me his eyes, reflective, like the surface of water.
Chris Holdsworth is an emerging writer currently studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) at QUT.