Written by Aaron Purton.
Ebony skitters through shadows, tail waggling until it stops sharply; then she bolts further into the cave. The bloody torch keeps acting up and giving it a good whack against the rocks does little good. The moon’s light doesn’t reach this far, but that’s ok—what’s a proper adventure without some complications and mystery?
The clatter of nails on stone, and Ebony’s persistent sniffs, draws further out into the echoey expanse. The measly light fizzles and falters in this oppressive darkness, and the steady drip-drip coming from stalactites above is the only melody to break the silence.
This cave is far deeper than I’ve ever dared to explore. How far could the little scamp really get?
Nothing to worry about here. Middle of the night. Rainy mountain trail. Typical Oliver playing cheeky and wandering off a little too far. A dad doesn’t act scared, not on the surface. But I should have heard from him by now, surely? Little fool might have tripped and hit his head. Not the first time. How am I supposed to find him in all this darkness?
Ebony explodes into rapid-fire barking, coursing through my body like electric bolts, my insides a mess. She’s not too far, and I direct my torch toward her howling. There!
Hackles raised, eyes glinting in the sudden light, facing off against … what? Not Oliver. She’d never bark at that beautiful boy. What lives up on these mountains but the occasional wolf pack and grazing elks? We don’t get bears this far …
My light settles on a new figure. Oliver. Deathly pale. Arms locked tight at his side. Eyes corpse-white.
My heart seizes and I madly juggle the torch, just catching it in time to steady it and … where did he go?
‘O-Oliver, hey! It’s me, it’s dad! Don’t run. Please.’
Something brushes against my legs, and my knees buckle.
‘Ebony, girl? That you?’
‘E-Ebony, come here, girl? Hey? Ebony?’
I drop to a crouch, holding my hand out, snapping my fingers.
Quiet. Not even the dri—
A scraping, to the right! I direct my torch in its direction. Nothingness. I swerve it left, trying to listen, to focus, but my heart hammers deafeningly within my chest.
‘Oliver? Enough! Okay. We’re going home. I’m not playing anymore. I … I’m going to leave this cave, you hear me? You don’t want to be lost in here all night, not anymore. Bats and all manner of … of,’ the silence is a crushing cacophony against all my senses, and I find myself stumbling, slipping on the uneven grimy rocks beneath me. I know the cave reaches a steep decline. I’ve just never gotten this far. Call it nerves.
I have to feel my way, testing with my feet so that I don’t take the same tumble he did, a few months ago now. But it’s okay. He just scraped his head. Nothing serious. Kid’s tougher than nails! Always has been.
The ghostly light settles over dust and glistening rock, and the jagged shapes of the cave make for dreadful faces. I’ve always had a crazy active imagination and—
Laying on the rocks ahead, arms twisted into unnatural shapes. A deathly still boy. My boy …
I rush forward, slipping and falling hard on my knee, but I ignore the pain, forcing myself up. I’m running now, towards my son, closer than I’ve ever been. It always plays out like this, and I’m always pretending like the end result will be different. A broken little boy. Dark rocks stained darker by a child’s blood.
The world gone cold and wrong.
I crumple to his side, an agonising wail choked out, and shaking fingers clutch and press at his icy-cold skin, hoping that I can make him warm again. Somehow. Somehow …
I cry, for the longest while. Ebony is silent. She knows this lamentable tune.
A finger—two fingers twitch. I swear it! His eye loses that milky stillness, hardening with colour. He’s moving, he’s alive!
I grab at his tiny hand and …
His head creaks and twists violently, meeting me with that pale white gaze, paralysing me, refusing me to look away and run. Everything in me is screaming to run. Run or die!
This … this isn’t my son!
It smiles. A terrible thing.
Like nothing of this Earth.
Check out the WORDLY ‘Tension‘ edition to find out what happens next . . .