This story is by Karen Barr and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The sky foretold rain and the wind sent clouds of rust colored leaves billowing from the mouth of the cave. It was smaller than he remembered, the top of the opening just above hip height. David Walters was fourteen when his mother and sister died in the car accident. It was the following year he had last stepped foot into these woods, over thirty years ago. By now the cave could be inhabited by wild animals. Maybe there was nothing left. Maybe he should turn around and go home.
He pulled out his flashlight, banged it against the rock, and listened. Only the rustle of the leaves blowing by. He hesitated. There were a dozen reasons to walk away. To forget about the past, to pretend the horrors of those years never happened.
David sat on a boulder next to the entrance. The damp, musty smell brought back memories of the first time he met Simon.
David had been sitting on a stump in the woods, sobbing.
Simon approached and sat beside him in the wet grass.
“Heard about your mom. I’m really sorry.” Simon chewed a blade of grass.
“Me too.” They sat in silence, then David said, “I lost my little sister too. My mom was pregnant. Six months. The doctor told her it was a girl; dad said it was a mistake.”
Simon spat the grass from his lips and turned to David, “My mom said I was a mistake.”
“This is all a mistake; just one big fat hairy stupid mistake!” David put his head in his arms and wept.
Simon tried to comfort him, as best as a boy of twelve could. After a time, he nudged David’s arm, “I know something that will cheer you up. Follow me!”
Simon led him to this cave. At first, David had been hesitant to go inside.
Simon reassured him that it was okay, pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and shone it inside.
The ground had been cleared, there were no cobwebs that he could see. Simon had the place decorated with small trinkets; animal and stick people he’d made out of animal bones, twigs and twine, pieces of scrap metal, and the box.
Two years later, Simon was killed, his brother Henri was arrested for a string of murders and David forgot all about the box.
When David’s father disappeared, he was sent to live with his aunt in Minnesota. He finished school and eventually became a chef, following in his father’s footsteps. He tried to put the past behind him—to accept his father’s desertion–but there was always a sliver of suspicion that his father had never left town, that he was buried somewhere in an unmarked grave, one of Henri’s victims.
Now, thirty years later, David knew he couldn’t walk away without finding what he came for. He flipped on the light and entered the cave.
It was cool and pitch black, just as he remembered it. His flashlight shone a thin beam directly ahead but did nothing to illuminate the darkness. Bending his knees just slightly, he could walk around. Two steps, then three and he stood in what had once been Simon’s hidden world.
In the glow of his flashlight, he saw the child’s folding table and two chairs. He had sat at that table with Simon that first day while Simon talked about his Momma. How he would wake in the middle of the night to see her standing in the doorway of his bedroom, liquor bottle in her hand, puffing on a cigarette. Simon said he always pretended he was asleep.
David took a deep breath and moved the light away trying to shake off the ghosts in his head.
The air was heavy, wet, he could make out the faint scent of moldy books or newspapers. David moved the light along the wall to his right.
Near the floor was a small tattered cot covered with grass, sticks and animal feces. Simon had laid there, cold and hungry. Afraid to go home. Simon said Henri slept in his Momma’s bed. That he had nightmares sometimes and wanted to crawl in her bed too, but Henri wouldn’t have it. Henri would drag him back to his room telling him what a wimp and a loser he was. That Momma couldn’t be bothered with his stupid fears.
They had talked for hours that first night, about how Simon would cover his head with the thick wool blankets, trying to drown out his Momma’s cries. How it had sounded like Henri was hurting her, but when he ran to see if he could help Momma had screamed at him, said that he had no business butting into “the stuff grown-ups do”. After that, Simon started to sleep in his cave. No one could find him here. David had asked if he ever got afraid, being out here alone. Simon told him about the wild animals and how sometimes their screams reminded him of his Momma.
David shook the memory away. His hands trembled and the beam of light vibrated along the wall. Slowly, David shone the light to the floor beneath the cot. There, at the end of the bed, in the corner. He let out a gasp, of fear, of relief.
Of course, it was still here. Who in God’s earth would want it? He kicked acorns and tiny branches away with his toe. He ran his fingers over the lid. He couldn’t open it in here. Not in the dark, not in front of the spirits that he knew must watch over this place.
David grasped the rope handle on the side of the crate, pulled it to the cave entrance, and shoved it out into the daylight.
He flicked off the flashlight and crouched down beside the box. It began to rain and he watched the small dark spots of drizzle hit the crate.
Slowly, almost reverently, he lifted the lid. The box was fuller than the last time he had seen it. He pulled items out, one at a time. First, a small manila envelope. He opened it and shook the contents onto the ground. Three black and white photographs.
The first was of Simon and his brother. It must have been taken about the time he’d met Simon, he looked exactly as he remembered him, except for the knife in his hand. It was a large hunting knife, its blade dripping blood. In his other hand was a gutted raccoon. Henri stood behind him, his hand around Simon’s wrist to help support the weight of the animal. At the bottom written: “First Kill.”
The next photo said “Henri and Momma”. She had her arms around Henri’s neck and Henri was caressing her hair.
The third photo was older, faded and yellowed, the edges frayed. It showed a younger boy with a knife. A wide grin on his face as he held up a skinned cat for the camera.
David’s palms were sweating despite the breeze. He felt his stomach turn, his mouth was dry. He stuffed the pictures back into the envelope.
Next, he removed a small cigar box, heavy for its size. David used his thumbnail to cut through the tape that sealed it and opened the lid. It was full of jewelry. Mostly rings and watches, some ordinary, others quite valuable.
He set the box aside and checked the other contents of the box. There were smaller boxes of various shapes. He laid them all out on the ground in front of him and picked up another manila envelope. It contained dozens of driver’s licenses from nearly every surrounding state, Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Nebraska, Texas. Smiling faces looked back at him, all ages and colors, male and female.
He looked back into the crate. Removed three more manila envelopes.
He pulled out a large butcher’s knife. Its stainless blade still sharp. Below that a yellowed butcher’s coat covered with black stains. He unfolded it and shook it out; the smell of mold mixed with the rain. He smoothed out the front pocket looking for an embroidery mark, but there was none. Damn! David tossed the coat aside and sat back on his heels.
He pulled the crate closer to him and began to replace the smaller boxes. As he laid the first box in the crate he saw a small blue tag stuck in one corner. Blood pumped loudly in his ears. He reached into the crate and pulled out the tag. Embroidered in red script, still visible. “Chef Walters.”