Posted Monday, October 20th, 2008
The Water Cave Part III.
Clyde's Country Store is crowded with racks of dream catchers, Indian princess statuettes, and 'Virginia is for Lovers' T-shirts. A huge jar of hard-boiled eggs, swimming in red liquid, sits on the counter. Not like the Quik-Mart, Lannie thinks. She refills their water bottles at the tap over the rust-stained sink and uses that last of her money to buy saltines.
When she walks back outside, Jeremy is standing straight over his bicycle. He has rolled up the already short sleeves of his t-shirt; his arms are too thin. He looks at Lannie. His glasses slip, but he doesn't right them.
What? she says.
He doesn't answer.
That drawing on the envelope⎯that was me, wasn't it?
Jeremy doesn't look away. He says he draws everybody, all the time.
Lannie and Jeremy both point the noses of their bicycles eastward. East, Lannie thinks, for real. We will bike a mile easy, swim through cool water, bike back and Ray will be waiting. He will have me home before my mom knows I was gone.
Okay. I'm ready. Let's go, she says.
Hills rise before them. Going east, the road narrows and winds through meadows. Black cows congregate under scarce shade trees, looking like shadows. Lannie waits at the top of the hill whenever Jeremy has to walk his bike up. The sound of their breathing mixes with the chirps of insects in the tall grass. Clouds gather and part, gather and part, as if they cannot make up their minds.
Out of nowhere Jeremy's odometer beeps, startling Lannie. A mile exactly, Jeremy chirps excitedly. The two of them slow and stop at the top of the hill. Lannie can only see more hills, more fences, more grass, in every direction. Jeremy takes off his glasses, cleans them on his shirt, puts them back on.
Where is it? He says. The rock? The water?
They bike up the next hill, which is higher, so they can get a better view. Lannie shields her eyes from the glare with her hand. She looks out at the countryside, a bowl around them.
This is weird, Jeremy says. I still don't see any of our landmarks.
I'm a fool, Lannie whispers to herself.
Maybe---Jeremy starts, but Lannie interrupts him. Look: it's not here, okay? she says. The water cave's not here.
Of course it's here, Jeremy says brightly. It's gotta be. This thing is probably just broken, Lannie. He pushes at the buttons. This thing probably just needs to be recalibrated. I should of thought of that beforehand.
No, Lannie says, louder than she means to. But Jeremy is still fidgeting with the odometer, trying to set it right. You don't understand. We have to turn around, go back---
We can't go back.
I'm going back.
Saying this, Lannie voice wavers. She sounds like she is about to cry. She pulls out her cell phone, flips it open. No signal. Hot tears run down her checks.
Jeremy takes a small sip of water, mumbling softly that his bottle is nearly empty. He reaches out to touch her arm, but stops short.
I sure hope it doesn't rain, he says looking up into the sky. His shirt is plastered with sweat to his skin. Lannie can feel him looking at her; he is smiling goofily, revealing his gap, trying like anything to make her smile.
Let's stick together and go just a little farther, he says. I've got a feeling. He laughs a short snort and rubs his shiny forehead with his palm. Lannie tries to laugh too, but it comes out thin and watery sounding.
Twenty minutes later, Lannie sees it: a gray rock the size of a jungle gym coming out of a field of weedy white flowers. There is a pool of water tucked beside it. It looks both ordinary and out of place. They ditch their bikes by the road.
Running up to it, Lannie is surprised by the litter: crushed cans, candy wrappers, and a girl's tank top, muddy and rotting. On the backside, the stone is flat as a chalkboard and scarred up with initials and claims of true love. Both Lannie and Jeremy circle the rock, in opposite directions, ending up in front of the water just as it starts to rain: a few cold, hard drops.
I wasn't sure if it was east or west, she says.
We're here now. Jeremy uses a bottle to push cigarette butts out of the water.
What if we freeze to death and drown? Lannie says.
If we freeze to death, we can't drown.
How would they find our bodies?
C'mon, Jeremy says.
With that, Jeremy starts to shed his t-shirt. His chest is paler than his arms. Beneath his oversized t-shirt, he is thin except for a slouching softness at his middle. Lannie starts to look away as he steps out of his shorts, but he has on a bathing suit bottoms underneath.
You're not planning on wearing all those clothes now are you? he says, looking at Lannie. Clothes are dangerous in the water; they only weigh you down.
Lannie decides, even so, she will keep her clothes on. She will not, under any circumstances, undress in front of Jeremy Ryder, who is weird, and goofy, and not even her friend. Or at least didn't used to be. She squints at the view of the gray road leading west, leading back.
Lannie starts to undress slowly, in denial. With her back to Jeremy, she takes off socks, shoes, shorts, and finally her t-shirt. She hunches her shoulders to shield herself as she turns to face him in her flowered underwear, and the stretchy cotton bra she didn't even own a month before, her house key sticking at her throat.
Jeremy trains his eyes on her face as if aiming for a target. Color flares up in his face: deep blood red. He fidgets with his backpack, pulling out supplies. He places two flashlights and some clothing into a Ziploc and then a trash-bag. They leave other things---her cell phone, his glasses, their socks and shoes---in his backpack under a shelf of rock.
The rain is coming in earnest now. Raindrops go plunk, bouncing off of the pool of water, which is the size of their arms linked together along with Ray and Sara and the dark-haired girl. Lannie thinks of school starting in just a few days now. She thinks of her mother, saying, Don't you know all that can happen to a girl out there on her own.
Lannie has no idea what might happen. She dips her foot into the water. Goose bumps break out all over her skin.
The pool is deep; the bottom drops quickly. They tread water, drifting under the shelf of rock with just a few feet of space above their heads. In front of them, the mouth of the cave slopes into the icy water.
I can't hardly see anything down there, Jeremy says, shivering; his teeth knocking violently, making new, unnatural syllables in his words.
Lannie's blood inside her feels electric. She is treading, frantic circular movements. The water is so cold it burns. It's here, Lannie says, her voice echoing. She grabs for Jeremy's hand. They gulp hot air and force themselves underneath.
Lannie is kicking fiercely underwater. Her body shudders as she swims. She searches with her free hand, every few strokes, for the top of the channel. Reaching up for the third time, she grazes her knuckle. The water-softened skin scrapes clean away.
How much farther? How much farther, How much? Lannie thinks.
She keeps swimming. More air escapes her mouth and nose. She swims like she is some prehistoric creature making for the first shore, except she needs to breathe in. Behind her, Jeremy is pulling back, digging his nails into her palm.
We're going to die, Lannie thinks. For real. It's too far now, either way.
Air! Lannie thinks. The idea of air pushes every other thought from her head. She swims. She wants to breathe in. Then her hand plunges unexpectedly into openness.
She bursts out of the water first with Jeremy just behind her. They paddle forward, their heads at the surface like turtles, until they can stand. They stand, half out of the water, their inhales vibrating thick, cold darkness.
After a moment, Lannie can hear Jeremy struggling with the garbage bag, the flashlights. A fragile beam of light extends into dark.
They scurry onto a sandy area that rises out of the water and slip on dry t-shirts and shorts that Jeremy has brought; even so Lannie can feel the wetness of her underclothes leaking through at her chest and crotch. Underground the season has shifted; it would be better to have sweaters, long pants, socks and shoes.
Jeremy hands Lannie the second flashlight. Two weak beams bounce around in the dark. Lannie shudders, shocked that this space exists hidden beneath the rock, the field. It is an enormous room with slick mud walls, a maze of tunnels leading a million mysterious ways.
Man oh man, Jeremy says.
They venture forward, each on their own, careful to stay within a few feet of one another. Jeremy's breathing is loud, ragged, so Lannie tries to compensate by quieting her own heart. I'm alive, she thinks, feeling her bare feet mark the cave's muddy floor. Her hand trails along a stretch of wall. She turns her light on the slick surface, half expecting to discover hieroglyphics there.
Instead she sees a cluster of bats on an overhang, small as insects, clinging by their feet. Hey, look at this! she says.
Lannie hears Jeremy coming up close behind her, his raspy breathing. The dry sleeve of his t-shirt brushes against her wet arm. With two fingers, he touches a bare place just below her neck where her key hangs, where the bone juts out. Lannie keeps the dim circle of light on the plain cave wall even as Jeremy Ryder presses his cold wet lips against her cheek. She can tell that he is smiling because she feels the imprint of his teeth and the space between. Something at her throat quickens; something in her stomach and lower wakes and uncoils. No one has ever been here before, she thinks.
She turns towards Jeremy and waits.
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