“He better not be down in that cave,” mom said, swerving to dodge an armadillo with a death wish. Uncle Johnny had been missing for weeks, and when the manhunt by Garland County’s finest couldn’t satisfy her grief, we were on the next plane to Arkansas quicker than I could imagine her motives. A mother/daughter adventure into the wild country on one of her kooky quests, which, turned out, was to save him from his own stupidity.
That shouldn’t be surprising, such was typically her goal. Not like she thought she’s better than anyone, but mom was the kind of person who has the answers for everything, ever amazed when no one else does. And she’d been trying to save her brother from his stupidity for a very long time, I learned, over and over and over. The. Whole. Way. There’d be moments when her mouth was moving but all I heard was “let me tell you how no one ever listens to me.”
Like how she had always told her brother that 200 acres was way too much for one person, and if a bear or coyote didn’t eat him, he’d fall in that stupid cavern he found and no one would hear the cries. Mom was always blunt with her advice like that, I think it was her love language. Luckily, I inherited Dad’s more passive temperament, and his button nose; mom’s was as sharp as her “helpful” jabs. Instead, I got her auburn hair and big apple cheekbones.
So we went trucking down his old trails in the back 90, searching, getting stuck sometimes because the grass was growing up and starting to blend in with the fields on either side. Mom, ever the meddler, had advised her brother to gravel these “trippy trails” countless times over. Then I learned–quite unprovoked, because that’s how it usually went– she called them that since every time she came to visit, he’d take her out to see the cavern and she’d keep tripping over all the gnarled roots poking up from the tire tracks. Now that the grass had grown too tall, they were impossible to miss.
The truck made an awful sound as we crunched over a large one unseen; she shook her head and scoffed. Scoffing was another of her languages, and I was the lucky one to be fluent. So blessed. This particular scoff she used daily, an effective way to say “I told you so,” without uttering a single word. At least, no one could fault mom for her efficiency.
She was worried about him, I knew. I was too. But worrying just made her more neurotic. I mean, to the point of needing assistance. I assisted her a lot; after twenty three years, I just came to accept stuff like that. (I went to a therapist who once said “enabling is a coping mechanism.” Never went back.) Another scoff. “No one ever listens to me.”
I hadn’t seen the cavern before. I didn’t know Uncle Johnny very much, but the few times we visited, mom never let me come out here– with good reason I figured, watching a black bear cross the trail about fifty yards ahead into a thicket creeping up on the right. Mom gasped and slammed the brakes; I reminded her that we were in Uncle Johnny’s Mad Max truck for a reason, and that a bear would be splayed across the spiked grill before it ever could get to us. That seemed to make her feel better and she drove on.
—Hey, you paying attention? It took forever for me to write this all down, you know. I almost didn’t, because no one will read it anyway. That’s not to say the story isn’t good– the story’s freakin’ spectacular. Trust me, I’m in it! But, I didn’t write this to be read. I’m not even sure anyone knows how to read anymore. In fact, I might delete the whole thing after I place the last word, none of that stuff matters, I swear.
I’m writing this because I was lost
too. In a way I still am, but back then I couldn’t have recognized it. Too busy guest starring in the “Mom Show”. Going here, doing this. Critiquing that. All the scoffs. When mom was around, I only knew what mom wanted me to know. She was my world, for a very long time. My rock. My normal, as weird as it is to admit that. Now that she’s…
Anyway, I’ve had some precious time to think. To reflect. They say regret is integral for recovery. (I could be wrong about that, don’t fact check me.) You know what I regret? Many things, but most importantly I wish I had never gone near that cave. Someone should have stopped me. But, could they have?
That’s my warning if you’ve found this, and I hope someone does: Stay away from Uncle Johnny’s cavern. It’s off highway 88, just out of Lonsdale. The whole place should be bombed and buried. Forgot. Erased from history. Or like, put a nice big shopping mall on top so that no one ever, ever accidentally descends it’s chilling chasms.
Oh, listen to me babble, I’m getting ahead of myself. I probably sound like a raving lunatic, but, read on. You’ll see. If you’ve found this story, it means you are close. Turn back, now. Go home. There’s good food in the fridge, begging to be cooked. Go.
Still here? Alright. It’s to be expected, you’ve come this far already. Guess you need a bit more explanation. Maybe some relatable context. All the gory details. I get it, I wouldn’t have turned back either. Mom wouldn’t have let me if I tried.
Right, so where was I?
The truck hit a bad pothole, flinging the rearview’s pair of fuzzy camo dice smack into my face. They smelled like cigarettes and cologne. Well, kind of like Uncle Johnny.
“Alex,” mom said. Her voice was trembling, which terrified me. “Johnny’s not dead. I know it. I can’t say how I know it, but, we have to find him. We have to.”
“We will.” My turn to be the strong one. We always kind of bounced back and forth like that, after so many years where it was just us. After dad and grandma died, there was no one left. Well, except for Uncle Johnny, but verdict was still out on him. (Personally, I was betting alien abduction.)
“There it is,” she said, pointing to a steep drop-off ahead. Didn’t look like a cavern to me, more like a rocky sink-hole, but the worried look flushing over mom’s face told me she was right. I braced myself for what we might see; if Uncle Johnny did fall in, I hoped to God he at least had the dangley parts covered. Lord knows what old hippies do out here alone in— BLLEEEEEPPPP!! Mom’s hand lifted from the horn, “that was to scare any wildlife away,” she said, and got out.
I had to be standing right over the edge to see what she meant by cavern– hard to do with her screaming for me to step back. It did look like a deep sinkhole, but at the very bottom, facing west, a short tunnel poked out from the earthy basement, almost like a horizontal stumpy pipe-line of red clay and limestone, its craggy opening laced with roots and waxy vines. It wasn’t very windy, but the vines were blowing. I heard water, a stream maybe, babbling within. When a few pebbles slipped from under my foot, tumbling down, mom screamed louder.
“I will look!” She grabbed my sleeve to pull me back. “Just stay and watch for bears, ok? God, I told him to put a fence around this thing!”
It’s fine, I let mom do her looking. She was the kind of person to do everything herself, even before dad was gone. “It’s just easier that way”, she’d always say. And usually I’d ignore those sentiments, but when she returned and concluded that she did not see her brother at the bottom of the pit, and that she was going down and into the tunnel, I lost it.
“MOM! Are you crazy? No! Hell no, you are not going down there. I can’t believe you right now. The police already searched down there, I’m sure! Just let the professionals do their job, like I’ve been telling you this whole time!
Shit, that sounded too much like her.
“No, officer Perry told me he had to get a permit from the archeology association to set foot in that cave, ever since Johnny reported some pottery or something he found.”
“Wait, what?” I was floored, no one told me any of this stuff! “No, it doesn’t matter. They’ll get that permit, and we are going to get in the truck and we’ll be back to the motel before sundown. I bet we can still catch Leno if we leave right now.”
“I didn’t come all this way to–“
“What is that?” I pointed to her hands. Since she had returned she was carrying a little metallic black box, but I was too busy being pissed to notice. (Usually how things went when we were together.)
“I don’t know, it was hanging off the ridge. Maybe it’s Johnny’s. There’s a button here…”
Pressing it made it glow purple in thin lines around the edges. It hummed, and thrummed, and gave a few melodic chirps like my GameCube does when it’s starting up.
[VOICE AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED!] it said, in a voice like a peppy game show host. Not Pat Sajak, more like the guy who announces that Price is Right show. Mom’s hands started shaking but I couldn’t tell if she thought she won something, or if the thing was vibrating that fiercely.
“Uh,” she said. Her voice was undulating, like when you talk directly into a fan. “Alex, what the hell is this thing?” Before I could answer, the box said [NOT APPROVED!] and shut off.
“That was weird,” I said.
“Well, if it’s Johnny’s, probably needs his voice, right? Why would he get something so stu–“
A growl cut her off. No, not a growl, a roar, echoing around us like a tornado, up from the dusty, funneled sinkhole. Not a bear. A bobcat? No… It sounded like no animal I had heard before, or rather, like all of them. Shrieking… roaring… wailing. Mom dropped the box, clasped her ears and stumbled back; I caught her in time but that only spooked us worse.
“We need to go,” I said. “Right now.” The hair she pulled back from her face was much longer than mine; the waning sun highlighted the specks of gray I too would someday wear. “We’ll find him, ok? But we shouldn’t be here alone. We need people with guns.”
“There’s a gun in Johnny’s cabin up about fifteen acres.”
“People that know how to use guns, mom.”
“Right. Ok. Yeah, we’ll go back and I’ll make a few calls.”
Mom wore the rotary dial out before the little black motel phone put her on with someone who listened. Happy that she seemed happy, I slipped out the door and to the lobby, to search the internet for wild animals native to Arkansas. I wondered if you could type “haunting roar that sounds like every animal combined” into yahoo’s search bar. Turns out you can, but the results were mostly about ghosts and chimeras.
Fine, guess I’ll ask Mr. Jeeves.
He just directed me to zoo websites. Useless. I went back to Yahoo and asked about metallic boxes that talk.
Empty handed I returned to our room. Mom was still on the phone with that guy… Randy Pepper, I think she called him. According to what bits of the conversation I heard earlier, Mr Pepper knew Uncle Johnny back in the Gulf War, and mom knew Mr. Pepper because the three of them used to picket for humane causes ever since that war, the reason why her and uncle Johnny met up here annually after dad died, even though we lived several states away. They’d meet up here and fly to D.C. I remembered that time well, remember warming up her homemade frozen dinners nightly, for several days at a time. They were delicious, but lonely meals.
On the TV counter was the weird cube thing mom found, her bottle of Xanax nearing dangerously low counts, and the latest issue of Nintendo Power Magazine I’d been saving for this road trip. I wanted to mess around with the cube more, that’s why I made sure to bring it with us, but grabbed the magazine instead, hopped eagle-spread onto the bed, and flipped straight to the issue’s comic strip. In it, Mario and Princess Peach were exploring an underground cavern, searching for their friend Toad who’d been kidnapped by a rogue goomba. Those were the little angry mushroom people Mario would squish in the video game.
Mario was more than the best game series ever made, it was how I got to know my dad. Like really know him: his values, his aspirations, his favorite curse words. You learn a lot while waiting on the controller of a Nintendo 64. With regret, I ignored way more than I should; I mean, who knew that complications from stuff he was exposed to in the army would return to claim him in a blink? I never even got to ask who his favorite character was, but I’m sure it was Mario. Dad would get so upset when that little red man died…
The princess was my favorite, even if she was always getting captured. I often imagined what she was doing in evil Bowser’s castle, waiting to be rescued. Like, where does she go potty? Does Bowser supply her with all the basic feminine hygiene products? Does she ever try to escape, or just like sit there and trust in her acrobatic savior? Girl gotta know.
“Randy, it has nothing to do with that. Listen, I told you they’ve left us alone. He’s down in that cave, I’m sure of it. Remember when he joked about camping in there by the water? He had enough prepper’s food to last months. But I think there’s something in there, something big. He could be trapped in there, you know? Like this animal is keeping him from running out. Does that makes sense?”
Meanwhile in the comic, Toad was tied to a flagpole screeching for help as Mario performed some anger management on a line of turtles, giving Princess Peach the chance to jump ahead. I just loved her, always the glamorous underdog. Dad never got to see the end of the game, so every time I replayed Mario 64, I finished it in his honor. Alcohol was introduced to this celebration when I turned 19 (… as far as mom is concerned, I was 21.)
“I promise we’ll be in and out. Me and Alex, we’ll carry flashlights. And you bring your big gun, I just need to look around. When he took me in there, his fishing spot was a few chambers in, where it starts to open up….No, I never saw an animal in there at all! Not even a bat, I think it’s just a bear that’s wondered in. We could probably wait for feeding time and let it wander out first….. Yeah, that makes sense to me. Yeah, a bear wouldn’t charge on three of us, and when we find Johnny, that’ll make four….. Ok great, we’ll meet you at the hunting cabin at nine sharp. That’ll give us time to rest and get some breakfast….. Ok bye… Thanks so much, Randy Pepper. Ok, bye.” She hung up and sat on her bed. She must have seen the grotesque look on my face because she scoffed and said, “What?”
“Neither of us are going down there. This is crazy. I don’t care if ‘Dr. Pepper’ has a big gun or not, did you hear the same creature I did? That sounded nothing like a bear.” I didn’t have the guts to say it, but her logic was awfully skewed.
Granted, it was often a little off-kelter, but this was bad. I got that she loved her brother, and missed him. I completely understood why she’d want to search his property herself, as some sort of closure to their story. I hoped that she’d find a letter, or a keepsake to bring home with her and continue grieving. I entertained these ideas of driving around and to the cave; perhaps I was a bit too supportive. I just wanted her to find relief. I said,
“What did you mean by ‘they’re leaving you alone now?'” Mom waved it away,
“Nothing. You just have to know how to speak to that man. That’s all.”
“Well, I’ll go back there again, but we aren’t going down in any cave. If Dr. Pepper wants to go spelunking, let him. At least he can check it out first, then we’ll decide.”
Mom sighed. She agreed, and made sure I knew that it’s “Mr” Pepper, the man’s not a doctor, as far as she knew, and that comics were for kids. I kept reading anyway, but poor Toad was never saved. The last frame said–
To be continued…