This story is by Amber Meyer and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
My Father’s Final Wish
It looked like the eye of a lazy Cyclops peering at me as I crested the hill. I froze in my boots for a moment as a chill ran through my soul. I crept with caution down the steep incline, toward, The Gates of Hell. At least, that’s what the locals called it. I’d spent my entire life nestled on a hill not far from its humble location, but I had never dared enter. I forced myself with all the courage I could muster to step inside. All trepidation, I cast aside with my goal set firmly in my mind. I could feel the cave’s cool breath on my skin as I stepped inside that most monstrous of earthly openings. “It’s just a cave,” I said to myself out loud. Just an opening in the earth’s skin. Nothing at all to be afraid of.
Do you think me weak because my heart was pricked with terror at a simple caving expedition? Well, it is with good reason I fear this place. It is where my brother met his untimely end three years prior. He left on a caving adventure and was never heard from again, and my father’s health has deteriorated ever since until he became confined to his bed. Yesterday, he took my hand and presented me this plea. If I could just ascertain my brother’s fate, then and only then, he proclaimed would he be able to die in peace. Rumors still circulate that my brother ran off to seek his fortune elsewhere, and it caused my father unbearable grief.
My mother pleaded for me to stay. She’d lost one son. She shan’t lose another or her poor mother’s heart would not recover. However, I found the calling too strong, and I considered it my duty to grant my father this final wish. It was under these circumstances that I found myself in this eerie place. I switched on my lantern, and it peeled back the darkness in a blanket of light. It was at this moment that I found myself longing for the noises of the busy city, and the comfort that they bring. The only sound now was the tap, tap, tap of my careful footsteps and the beating of my own heart. It was pounding deep within my bosom, and it throbbed in my ears.
Time had no place there, and I lost all concept of it. I could feel the dampness settling onto my skin, and I was starting to tremble at the chill. Just a little further, I told myself. Keep going. It was at this moment that I made a grand error. I let my mind wander for a moment to ponder my miserable state, and I wasn’t paying attention. It was then that I slipped and fell into a crevice and became quite stuck. The lantern on my helmet busted in the fall, and the light was gone. The precious light extinguished forever. Terror wrapped around me like a funeral shroud. I didn’t bring a spare. “Dear God,” I said to myself. “Why didn’t I bring a spare?” Worse still my boot was lodged, and I could not move it. The cave was going to claim another victim. I cried out until my voice was hoarse. There was no point. The cave had been roped off after my brother’s disappearance as it was deemed unsafe. No one was coming to help me.
Hours passed and I found all my energy depleted and my hope all but gone. I accepted my fate and began to ponder it. Was this punishment for the awful condition of my spirit? Deep down, I am a wretched soul that has nursed the most horrible of thoughts. You see. I always hated my brother. Yes, I know that it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, but I hated him. I hated his adventurous nature and all of his good looks. His very existence made me feel small from the time that we were boys. He teased me all the days of our childhood.
“Come along Odd Albert,” he’d say to me at school, and all the other children would laugh as I ran along behind.
“Eat your dinner Oddball,” I’d hear as we sat at the table or “Good night weirdo.”
One night I had a bad dream and crept down the stairs to the study where my father always sat smoking his pipe, and my mother would tend to her sewing. I wanted comfort, as children do, but before I reached the doorway, I heard their voices rise in dispute.
“Albert is never going to amount to anything,” my father said, puffing his old pipe with fury.
“Albert will be fine,” my mother defended. “He just needs encouragement.”
“You coddle him too much,” my father said with a grunt. “It’s not good for a boy to cling to his mother’s skirt all the time. He should be more like his brother.”
I’d heard enough and rushed back to my room, the bad dream long forgotten as a new pain welled up in my chest and it didn’t get much better as I got older. The taunts ceased as we matured, but I always felt like a burden. I watched my brother blossom into a handsome young man. A man whom the girls feigned over. A man who was going places. Much better places. I started to consider him the sole source of all my grief. I would always pale in comparison. I wanted an escape. And with this respite, I could reinvent myself. I started to dream about the man I could be if only delivered from my brother’s cursed grasp.
So you see, I had a right to hate him. I really did. And it was for this reason that the loathing took root in my heart like a nasty vine. I loathed him the way you do, a rat or a snake or some other vermin. My love and all the brotherly affections that I had as a toddler disintegrated. When he went missing, my mother’s heart was broken, and I wept for her sake, but not for my own. I watched my father fade into poor health and old age at the loss of the son, he most treasured.
It was under these aggrieved circumstances that I began to prosper. People were kind to me because of my loss, and I secretly delighted in it. I made friendships at college and began to thrive. With Edgar gone, I was free to take his place. I stood taller. I smiled more, and everything changed. I even managed to obtain a decent post at a law firm right after graduation. My life was infinitely better and yet while facing my own end, I was haunted by nagging guilt. Guilt that my success came at such a hefty price. I began to wonder things I had never dared. If I had been a better man, could I have liked my brother or maybe even loved him? Was he really such a bad fellow or had it all been a product of my private insecurities?
These thoughts preyed upon my mind like vultures and wouldn’t let me rest in what should have been my final hours. The past kept replaying in the landscape of my mind. I could, at last, see the love in my parents’ eyes and my father’s pride at the man I had become. My chest swelled with pain at the thought of letting him down. My father’s final request would be a disaster. This would, no doubt, be the end of him.
So there I was, wedged with no hope of escape, when suddenly I saw a light. A glorious glow from above. I called out with everything I could muster, and suddenly I felt a hand. I could not see his face for the light of his headlamp blinding me and his grip was cold as death, but it filled me with relief, and I held onto it in desperation.
“Thank God you’re here. I’m stuck,” I cried out. “My boot is wedged in tight.”
“Wriggle your foot and see if you can slide it out of the boot,” called the voice. I pulled with all my might, but couldn’t move it.
“It won’t budge,” I said.
“Can you reach the laces,” the man said.
“Shine the light down so I can see,” I replied. I then wiggled back and forth and my arm loosened a little, but I still could not reach my boot.
“Use this,” the man said handing down a walking stick. I gripped the stick, and used it to pinch the end of the lace against the surface of the rock, and I dragged it carefully along. It took at least twenty minutes of careful manipulations, but once they were freed from the hooks that held them around my ankle, I felt the tension on my foot release.
“I think I’ve got it,” I called, handing up the stick and with that, the man pulled me up out of what I had presumed would be my coffin.
“I can’t thank you enough,” I said giving him a hearty pat upon the back.
“I’m glad I could help,” he said pointing down the corridor, back the way I had come hours before. I tried to make out his features, but each time the light blinded me, so I turned my attention to what was ahead of me for fear of another mishap. The man didn’t initiate any conversation. He didn’t give his name or ask what I was doing there. He didn’t explain why he was wandering around in a cave, and I sensed that I shouldn’t ask. I tried to make small talk, but he just nodded, so I prattled on about how grateful I was and about my family, and the girl whom I was seeing all the way to the mouth of the cave.
“There you are Albert,” he said, handing me a flashlight. “Now you are back where you began.”
It was well into the evening and quite dark, and I was grateful for the flashlight. I flicked it on and looked out towards the hill I had made my way down that morning. It was the most glorious sight. I turned to express my gratitude one last time, but he was gone. There wasn’t a sign of him anywhere.
“Where did you go?” I called out, but only my echo answered. The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention, and I shoved it out of my mind, as I went racing up the hill. My one foot ached from walking in only a sock, but adrenaline propelled me forward. I burst into the front door of my parents’ home, and my mother dove on me kissing my face. A policeman stood up to greet me and then excused himself to call off the gathering of a search party. I sat down the flashlight and hugged my mother tight. I launched into an explanation of my ordeal and how I had been rescued by the mysterious stranger.
“I should never have asked you to go,” my father choked out as I walked into his room. I sat upon his sick bed and put my arms around him and wept. I went to sleep a grateful man. It wasn’t until the next morning that I noticed it. I came down the stairs for breakfast, and I glimpsed the flashlight on the table and picked it up to examine it in the daylight. There on the side, scribbled in his familiar penmanship, were the words, ‘Property of Edgar Stalling’. This was my brother’s flashlight. The same one he must have entered the cave with three years prior. A tightness wrapped around my heart as the realization crept down my spine. The question of my brother’s fate was answered. My father could go to his grave in peace.