A. M. Symes
No coverage, not even one bar. And my cell phone battery was dead. The sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, or which direction was north or south. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared into more trees. This had been happening a lot lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no coverage, and nobody left to blame.
Jayne rolled her eyes and told me to stop being so dramatic. Plus, no coverage is irrelevant when the battery is dead. We were traveling on Highway 52 with a final destination of Decorah, Iowa. We’d all laughed when we passed the “Welcome to Iowa!” sign and our phones lost service. Jen had told us this would happen. Being a true Minnesotan, she was quick to dish out the Iowa jokes.
Ha ha, Iowa doesn’t have cell service, but my phone had the directions to the Decorah Bed & Breakfast. We guessed where to get off the highway, then found ourselves sitting at the intersection of Highland Drive and Quarry Hill Road. One way went to the forest, one way into lumpy hills. Jayne remembered the B&B website had pictures with lots of trees, so we turned left towards the trees.
I said it was probably the wrong direction since I seemed to be incapable of doing the right thing lately. Jen said if I kept up the pity party she was going to make me sleep in the car. So we drove in silence for a few miles along a road that constantly turned and curved so we could never see what was lurking ahead.
For the love of God, you need to knock this shit off, Jen said. I had a valid point, though: we couldn’t see where we were going. Jayne told us both to shut up and stop the car. I hit the breaks and to our left was an unkept dirt road sliced into the line of trees, like a small plane had landed quickly and unsuccessfully. The B&B was categorized as old fashioned and country, but it had clearly been in town. Jayne pointed to the washed out sign hanging from a chain around a gnarly tree: Ice Cave Ahead – not for children or the infirm.
It’s July, the Ice Cave has to be closed. And I’m claustrophobic, no way am I crawling into a cave of ice. But Jayne had read about this cave. It’s a natural oddity that’s kept cold by a glacier buried under the town. I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that I’m always cold and had no desire to go into a cave of ice, knowing it would be met with a double eye roll from the ladies.
I eased the car down the road and we quickly found ourselves in twilight darkness. The dense trees blocked out what little light filtered through the clouds. We drove less than a mile, rocks scraping the car frame and branches hitting the windows, before we found another washed out sign covered in dead vines. We could make out the same style text from before: Ice Cave Ahead – Beware.
Jen said the signs were probably a gimmick to get tourists to check out the cave. Like how horror movies in the 70’s use to park an ambulance outside the theater in case someone head a heart attack brought on by fright.
We piled out of the car and headed onto the single-track trail. We couldn’t hear anything but our footsteps crunching through layers of dead leaves. There was no traffic noise, no birds, no lawn mowers, nothing. Jen asked if a tree falls in Iowa and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound. Her words hit the trees around us with a thud. We didn’t think it was appropriate to answer.
The trail was longer than seemed possible, given we were in the middle of a city. And there were an unusual number of Red Maple trees, their dark leaves giving the path an eery blood tint. But we kept going because gimmick or not, now we wanted to know what was hidden back here.
Jen was first to yell, being first to fall into the clearing. Two tree trunks had grown together at the roots and again about five feet off the ground, so we had to hurdle through the middle. Jen jumped through, assuming the path would be on the other side, but found three feet of dead air above a mud pool. Jayne would have stopped herself from falling on Jen, avoiding knocking them both into a layer of muck, but I wasn’t looking and bumped her through the tree hole. I’d been looking behind me, wondering why I had a shadow following me when Jen and Jayne’s shadows were no where to be seen.
I tore handfuls of leaves off the trees and tried to wipe mud off Jayne and Jen. They weren’t happy with my melancholy mood before, now they were flat out pissed at me. I wandered off a few feet, to give them space, when I saw the mouth of the cave. It wasn’t in a rock jutting out of the earth as we thought. It was a large black opening, set into the ground, like the pond of mud had started swallowing the cave but hadn’t quite finished it off.
Jen sloshed over to the cave mouth and looked in. Holy hell that’s cool, she said. Jayne and I hurried over, my shoes and pants now covered with as much muck as the others, and in unison we gasped. The black hole wasn’t black; it was absent of light. Black is that corner of your basement that the light from your stairway doesn’t quite reach. This was so dark my eyes shook as they tried to find something to focus on.
Being the ever-prepared hiker, Jayne pulled a flashlight from her bag and clicked it on, then shown it in the middle of the hole. The mouth of the cave didn’t give us any indication of how deep it was or what lay beneath. Jayne snapped a branch off a tree and threw it in the hole. She followed the branch with the flashlight until it disappeared without a sound.
That’s when something glittered from inside. We heard it before we saw it, the noise a sparkler makes when you touch a match to it. Along the walls of the cave, a layer of frost appeared. The frost traveled down maybe ten feet before it turned into spiky ice crystals that glittered with what seemed to be their own light source. And beyond that, there was a solid rock path.
Jayne moved the flashlight around the walls and found an old chain ladder, linked to a tree submerged in the mud, and dangling down to the cave floor. Ignoring my protest, Jen grabbed the ladder and pulled hard, but it didn’t budge. This is better than I expected, and spooky as hell, Jayne said as she fell in line behind Jen to climb down the ladder.
My plan was to sulk around the mud pit until they returned. They’d be chipper and talk about the beautiful ice crystals and aren’t they glad we came down for the writing conference a day early. They’d flat out ignore me, not appeasing my need for attention with all the negative things happening in my life. Like losing my job because my boss was also my boyfriend’s wife, and my premature gray hairs, and my long standing issues with my sister’s successful chiropractic business, and obviously the claustrophobia from my swimming accident when I was five so now I’m not able to climb into cool ice caves.
I was practicing my wish-I-could-have-gone-in-the-cave speech for when they returned, so I didn’t hear the footsteps in the mud until they were right behind me. I spun around so fast I lost my footing and fell backward into the cave hole. I caught the ladder with my arm and tried to find my footing in a chain, but ended up sliding the whole way down, ice crystals tearing my skin as I went. The rock floor broke my fall, along with something in my back. The chain ladder came down with me.
It was dark at the bottom, and Jayne and Jen were too far away for the flashlight to illuminate the cave entrance. Lying on my back, I could only see a shadow hovering where I had been standing. Then it evaporated, but not before letting out a howling scream.
The ladies thought it was me screaming and ran back. How the hell did you manage to fall and break the chain, Jen asked. There was no more ladder. Climbing the wall was not an option, which Jayne tried anyway despite the obviousness. Do we yell for help she wondered aloud. I thought it was appropriate to answer with the tree falling in an abandoned forest question.
Jayne broke off a large piece of ice from the wall and rubbed it on the big cut on my leg. There was nothing either of them could do about the jolts of pain running up my spinal cord. Each wave made my stomach lurch.
It was when Jayne broke off a second piece of ice that the mud started seeping into the cave. It trickled down the icy walls at a consistent pace, as if someone was shoving it on us. We circled up, back to back, in the center. The light from the ice was covered in seconds, leaving us in a darker-than-black hole with nothing but a flashlight. Jen asked how old the flashlight batteries were. We both expected an answer along the lines of the flashlight will be dead in minutes. But Jayne had replaced the batteries that morning, so we were good for a long time. She even had granola bars and a water bottle tucked into her bag. Jen said she took back all her jokes about Jayne growing up in the Boy Scouts.
Not wasting time arguing about who’s fault this whole thing was, or screaming into the abyss, we fell in line behind Jayne and walked down the only path. The darkness clung to our skin. It tugged at my hair once and a while, but I did my best to ignore it. Jayne kept the flashlight on the ground a few feet in front of her. There was nothing but a well-worn rock floor running straight ahead.
When Jen asked how my back was, her words echoed as if ten Jen’s had shouted into a humungous cavern. We stopped walking and waited for the echo to stop, holding our breath. It circled around behind me and ended in a whisper in my ear. It didn’t seem safe to speak again, so we walked on silently.
Down the path in front of us, a black myst crept along the floor, freezing the rock as it went. We followed it, because really there was nothing else to do other than collapse on the ground crying, which wouldn’t do any of us any good. We walked after the myst. The frozen rock floor wasn’t slick like an ice rink, it was more like walking on hail.
The jolts of pain were either gone or I’d gone numb to the pain. I tried a small stretch and something popped in my back and slipped down my leg and off behind me, before fluttering up to the ceiling. Jayne shown the flashlight up, following the sound. The ceiling was now much higher overhead then when we’d last looked up. A black object cut through the yellow beam, too quick for Jayne and Jen to really see. But I saw it, my shadow, as it slipped away.
Jayne swung the flashlight around and stopped on a large column of ice that ran floor to ceiling. The light traveled along the column, then spidered across the ceiling, lighting up many smaller columns of ice. And the ceiling was at least 50 feet above us.
The shadows were standing in the center of the room. They were all staring at their feet. Our brains tried to rationalize how one flashlight was reflecting off millions of ice crystals to create the lightness around us.
And who the shadows belonged to.
A shadow in the very middle of the cavern bent over and started scratching at the floor. It did this over and over, more frantic each time. A second shadow did the same, scratching so hard and frantic. When the rest of the shadows started scratching, I closed my eyes. The scratching drilled into my head, waking the pain in my back. Jayne or Jen, I’m not sure which, started whispering oh my god over and over. I felt the room spinning. So I sat down, then laid down and pulled my knees into my chest. The pain moved from my back to my fingers and toes, then seeped out into the floor around me.
The scratching stopped at the same moment Jayne screamed. I opened my eyes, half expecting the shadows to be attacking her. But Jayne and Jen were standing perfectly still, their hands covering their gaping mouths, staring at the now empty room. And the shadows? They were moving under the ice towards us.
Jen ripped me off the floor and shove me backward. Jayne was already twenty steps back up the path. Jen pushed me again and we were all running along the path, ice crushing under our feet.
We ran back to the entrance. The mud that had been seeping down was now a frozen wall of ice blocking our exit. It was clear enough to see through to the other side, to see the cave opening and the broken ladder lying on the ground.
Jayne and Jen punched and kicked and threw themselves at the ice trying to break it. I was the one to slink to the corner, wondering what the point was. Life was always dark to me, so why bother running anymore? The ladies stoped for only a second to look at Jayne’s flashlight, then came to an agreement without actually speaking that they had to use it. Jayne wound up and smashed the handle of the flashlight into the center to the ice wall.
The ice cracked. It was a small hole, so Jayne hit the wall again to the left. The ice cracked between the two holes, then splintered out to the sides of the cave. Jen and Jayne attacked the crack with her fists. They told me to help, but I wanted to stay leaning against the cool wall. Nothing hurt when I pressed up against the cold. But they grabbed me and shoved me into the ice, which put a good sized crack horizontally through the middle. That sent so much pain through me that I cried out, but they didn’t stop. They were focused on getting us out.
Step back, this will kill us if it lands on us, Jayne said. She took a couple quick breaths, then ran a few steps and threw her shoulder into the middle where the most cracking was. She bounced back, holding her shoulder, and watched. We all watched. Small ice chunks began to fall. A piece from the top, a piece from the side, a bigger piece from the other side. Then with a small clink, it all came loose and crashed into us.
It stung and cut, but caused no bigger damage than if you’d been standing outside in a light hail storm. We stepped over the ice mound, using each other to keep balance, and got into the cave opening.
That’s when I saw my shadow on the remaining part of the ice wall. It was distorted a bit, since the wall was thick mud seeping between ice frozen on rock. But it was me. I could see the outline of my curly hair, frazzled from all the running. My shoulders were both hunched, and my arms hung dead at my side. My hips, my legs, even my feet. It was all there, my shadow.
What are you staring at, Jen asked.
I didn’t answer; it was a stupid question. What was I looking at? My shadow! Look at it! It was me, but another me. A me free of restrictions and drama and pain and emotion. I walked up to my shadow, and it grew in size to greet me. I placed a hand on the wall and my shadow’s hand reached up to meet mine. The coolness swept over my body, putting the pain, all the pain, to sleep.
The mud seeped over my hand. Then my forearm, my elbow, my shoulder. But it wasn’t really mud. It was darkness and as it slithered along my skin, I knew I wanted to be in the darkness completely.
This time Jen screamed when the shadow yanked me into the wall. And she screamed loud enough that a farmer passing by on Quarry Hill Road heard and turned her truck towards the abandoned ice cave. Her uncle had created the cave as a gimmick back in the 70’s during the Decorah City Festival. This wasn’t her first rescue at the cave, although it was usually drunk teenagers she pulled out.
Jayne held Jen back. I think she wanted to go into the wall after me. Despite her constant snarky attitude towards me, Jen was the most loyal friend. But Jayne knew I was already gone; I could see it in her eyes.
The farmer threw a rope down the hole, the other end tied to her truck bumper. I watched Jayne and Jen scramble up the rope, clawing at the sides of the walls to hasten their escape. They looked back, and I told them it was okay. My voice didn’t really sound like me anymore, and it came out more as a terrifying scream. The the farmer told them to hurry, the rope she had was old and fraying. So they crawled up and over the edge of the cave and ran.
The farmer took one last look. I couldn’t tell if she was seeing me deep inside the ice, surrounded by the comfort of so many shadows. She did the sign of the cross, pulled up the rope, and left me in peace.
A.M. Symes’s writing is skewed towards suspenseful, ghost-infused fiction and screenplays, with the malicious intent of giving people nightmares. In a quest to summon the writing muses of Shirley Jackson and Rod Serling, Symes earned an MFA in Fiction Writing at Augsburg University, studying under notable writers Benjamin Percy, Cass Dalglish, and Stephan Erik Clark. She dabbles in publishing with the Howling Bird Press and occasionally volunteers as a judge and facilitator for the Minnesota Book Awards. Symes received honorable mention in the ACTC Screenwriting Contest and has been published in Murphy Square Literary and Visual Arts Journal, Crystal Lake Publishing, Flash Fiction Magazine, and WolfSinger Publications anthology, Love ‘em, Shoot ‘em. Symes currently lives in the Twin Cities with her best friend and a banshee.