A few days ago I heard about this place called Sorrow’s Cave. I’ve never been there, but supposedly deep within the cave there’s a room. If you find this room, you’ll be granted five minutes with a recently departed loved one. No more, no less. Three months ago the love of my life passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. She passed before I could reveal to her the secret I was keeping the whole time we were together. If there was even half a chance it could be true, I wanted—no, needed—to try it out.
I packed my things and drove the hour it took to get there. The cave lies deep within in a national park. It can’t be found on any map, but there are a few location markers to let you know you’re on the right trail.
1. There is a small creek that breaks off into three different directions. You must follow the stream leading right.
2. Half an hour after the creek ends there is a tiny, crooked tree in the shape of the number ‘3.’
3. Turn left at the crooked tree and twenty minutes later you should see a prickly-pear next to a wavyleaf thistle.
4. Beyond these two plants, a series of canyons will become visible. Entering the canyons from this direction will bring you to the entrance of the cave, hidden on the left-hand side.
After three hours of my life that I’ll never get back I finally found the creek. I followed the stream on the right and just like predicted I found the ‘3’ shaped tree thirty minutes later. Dark clouds had formed while I was in the woods and heavy rain began to fall. I pulled my hood up and crossed my arms as strong winds and rain pelted my face. I could barely see. I just needed to walk straight for twenty minutes and I should find the flowers. I checked my watch. Thirty minutes had passed and no flowers. Had I missed them while trying to shield my face?
I doubled back. If I found the crooked tree and started again, I should be able to find them. It briefly crossed my mind that maybe the flowers no longer existed, but I pushed the thought away. I didn’t come all this way to fail just because someone had plucked a few flowers.
I walked towards the rain, back where I came from. There was no tree. I was completely and utterly lost. There were no distinguishing features in the landscape to identify where I was. I was surrounded by nothing but open prairie, and I was soaked to the bone.
I had two choices. Stand there in the rain and freeze to death while waiting for someone to find me, or pick a direction and walk. Something howled in the distance. I started walking.
There’s a certain feeling that comes over you when you no longer have anything left to lose. When Shelley passed away, it was like the last light in the house turned off. I was surrounded by darkness. Shelley was the reason I was still alive. During my darkest moments, she found me and she saved me, asking for nothing in return. Even so, I had betrayed her. I kept a secret from her and with each passing day, it was eating away at me. The guilt was so violent that some days it was a struggle to wake up, let alone get out of bed. But the more I slept the more nightmares I had. They were consuming me. I needed to let Shelley know, but she was gone. This was my only chance. I needed to find it and I needed it to be real.
The wind howled as the storm raged. It was a struggle to move forward. I fell to my hands and knees, reduced to crawling to make any progress. The chill was deep within my bones but I refused to succumb to it. I put my hand down and pain shot up through my arm. I looked down and laughed. It was a prickly pear. Next to it was a wavyleaf thistle. It was real. I had found the third marker point.
I stood up and pressed forth. A short while later a series of canyons came into view. I had arrived. The entrance to the cave was on the left side. All I had to do now was find it.
Bushes rustled in the wind. Clumps of dirt and rock blew by. A branch hit me in the face but the pain didn’t register. There it was, just ahead of me. A tiny entrance, barely large enough for a full grown man to crawl through. Good thing I wasn’t claustrophobic.
I got down and squeezed into the hole. My shoulders got stuck halfway, but after a little wiggling I made it through. The cave was pitch black. I fumbled around in my pocket and pulled out my lighter. It cast just enough light to see the area before me. I looked around. There was a torch on the wall beside me. I smiled; without a doubt, this was the place.
I took the torch and made my way down the tunnel. The last room of the cave was where I could find Shelley. It got colder the further in I went, but I was too excited to care. There was a single door at the end of the tunnel. Was this it already? I grabbed the handle but my heart was pounding in my throat. I’d been rehearsing what I wanted to say for weeks, but it always sounded too impersonal, or too forced. In the end, I decided to just see where the moment took me. I braced myself for what I might see inside and opened the door.
The room was large, hollow and empty. Looking closer it wasn’t even a room. This was the cave proper. Several tunnels snaked off in different directions, each blacker than the last. Something like a dog’s growl rumbled down the middle tunnel. I jumped. Whatever that was, I didn’t want to be around for it. I took the tunnel on the left, picking up the pace just in case. I walked for about five minutes before I was faced with three doors; one in front of me, one to the left and one to the right. They were nondescript, exact replicas as the one I used to enter. I went through the middle door.
“So, you’re back to ruin even more lives, huh?”
It was the voice of my mother. But that was impossible, my mother died five years ago.
“H-hello?” I stammered, my voice betraying my attempt at confidence.
“You always were good for nothing. Knew it from the moment you were born.” It was the tone she took with me ever since I was a child. I was nothing but a hassle. A time hog. A money drain. A nuisance. I held her back. Kept her from achieving her dreams. For the longest time, I even believed it.
“M-mother, is that you?”
“Well, I certainly ain’t Santa! Not that he ever came to visit a naughty boy like you.” My brother Kyle always received presents. Me? I got the joy of watching him receive them. But where was the voice coming from? How was she here?
“I don’t understand-”
“Of course you don’t. Moron.”
The words stung. I thought I was passed my mother’s words being able to hurt me. It had been five long years now. I’d grown up. I’d moved on. Yet they still hurt.
“How are you here? Why are you here? Where are you?” Aside from my torch, the room was pitch black. What little I could see from the flickering light only showed a large, empty space before me.
“You didn’t think this would be easy, did you? That you wouldn’t be tested? You don’t deserve to be free of your guilt.”
My heart pounded and my chest seized.
“Oh yes, don’t think I don’t know your dirty little secret. I know them all. Every. Single. One.” The words were enunciated slowly and pointedly, but the final words weren’t the voice of my mother. It was something else entirely.
“Who are you?” I screamed. Shadows danced in the corners of the room. It was empty yet I wasn’t alone.
“I know why you’re here.” The voice was deep now. It was no longer pretending to be my dead mother. “You long for release from your guilt. Well, I’m here to give it to you.”
“I-I’m just here to see Shelley.” I didn’t know why I was trying to reason with a disembodied voice, but in my confusion, it was all I could think of.
“You don’t deserve to see Shelley. The only thing you deserve is to die.”
I heard the growl again. It was coming from the other side of the door. I took off running, finding myself down yet another winding tunnel. I heard the click of the door opening as my feet pounded on the rock below. ‘Keep moving,’ I told myself. ‘You just need to keep moving.’
I reached a dead end. There were two doors, once again exact replicas of the ones before. I took the one to my right.
“It’s not gonna be that easy, you know.” It was the voice of my best friend, Terry. Well, former best friend. “All you do is leave a trail of death in your wake.”
“Shut up. Shut up!”
“If it wasn’t for you, my daughter would still have a father. My mother would still have a son.”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
There was nothing to distinguish this room from the one I was just in. For all I knew, it was the exact same one.
“No, it’s never your fault, is it? It’s always everyone else’s but your own. Isn’t that how it goes? Ol’ Johnny boy gets off scot-free while everyone else takes the fall.”
“I always knew he was trouble. From the moment he was born.” It was my mother’s voice. Now they were talking to each other.
“What do you want from me?!”
“To face the truth,” they said in unison.
“You never did tell your mother about what really happened the day I died, did you?”
“Go on, tell her.”
“Yes, go on. Tell me.”
“You’re not even rea-”
“Tell her!” The voice boomed. I covered my ears, but the sound echoed throughout the empty room.
I’d done my best to forget about that day. We were only 19 and looking for a cheap hit. I was 13 when Terry first introduced me to marijuana, ‘to take the edge off,’ and by the time I was 19 we were both full-blown addicts. I spent a long time rehabilitating myself and it was not a period of my life I liked to remember.
“W-we went to the park downtown,” I began, feeling like a child before my mother’s disapproving glare again. “Terry said he knew a guy. We could get some good stuff for cheap.”
As much as I tried to erase them, the images were forever burned into my mind. We arrived and the first thing I saw was Shelley sitting on a bench. The light hit her hair just right and it was like looking at an angel. My heart actually fluttered. Then I saw who she was with; my brother, Kyle. He took a bite out of her ice cream cone. They were on a date. In a single instant my hopes and dreams were crushed. I wasn’t even surprised, not really. Kyle was always the favorite. Kyle did well in school, was popular with both students and teachers, had a solid job and even more solid plans for the future. Me? I was a high school dropout living on my best friend’s couch getting high every day.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
‘What? We just got here!’
‘I don’t feel well. We can come back tomorrow.’
‘You can come back tomorrow. I’m gonna get this shit now.’
I shrugged. ‘Whatever, I’m outta here. Do what you want.’
‘Hey, isn’t that your brother? Who’s the chick he’s with? She’s hot. I’d hit that with the fist of an angry god, if you know what I’m saying. You should ask him for her number, we can invite her over sometime and-’
‘I said I’m outta here.’
“I was around the corner when I heard the gunshots,” I said to the thing using my mother’s voice. Maybe it really was her. I wouldn’t have put it past her to come back to torture me some more. “I went back and saw Terry running towards me. Turned out his guy was actually an undercover cop, and Terry had his gun. I freaked out. I mean, who wouldn’t? He started running across the road, calling out my name.”
I closed my eyes. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t erase the sounds.
“He called out to me again. He was standing in the middle of the road, calling my name with a gun in his hand. I saw the car coming towards him, but I-”
“But you let me die.” It was Terry’s voice.
“I-I was in shock. I didn’t know what was going on.”
“You knew exactly what was going on. You didn’t just let me die. Go on. Tell your mother what type of son she brought into the world.”
“Yes, boy. Tell me.”
“Tell you what? There’s nothing to tell.” That was a lie. I knew it was a lie and they knew it was a lie. I didn’t just see the car coming for him.
“I… I wanted it to hit him,” I admitted. “He made a comment about Shelley and seeing my brother there with her like that just made me angry. I wanted to take it out on someone. Anyone. It was just for a moment, but it was long enough. The car hit him and he died before he reached the hospital.”
I’d never vocalized my feelings out loud before. I actually felt a little better.
“I should have aborted you when I had the chance. If it wasn’t for your brother-”
She was speaking but her voice wasn’t the only sound in the room. Something was scratching at the other side of the door.
I took off.
“Running like usual,” my mother called after me, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be around for whatever that thing was. I couldn’t let it stop me from finding Shelley. The sound of my feet pounding on the ground below echoed off the cave walls around me. Through endless tunnels and open spaces, I kept moving forward until I was sure I could no longer hear the thing behind me. Before I knew it, I was lost.
“Alright. It’s okay. You can do this.” I put my right hand on the wall and while I waited for my breathing to return to normal I started walking. The further I went into the cave the more doors appeared. They were all exactly the same. I was starting to suspect it didn’t matter which door I took, they all went to the same place regardless. The longer I went without entering a door, the more doors appeared. The cave wanted me to go inside. There was a growl. It echoed down the tunnel. I grabbed the nearest handle and turned.
No. It was the one voice I didn’t want to hear right now.
“Cat got your tongue?”
I couldn’t respond. My body refused.
“Probably weren’t expecting to hear from me today, were you?”
It was my brother, Kyle.
“I have someone with me.”
No. Anything but that. Anyone but her. I dropped to my knees and covered my ears but it was futile.
“Hi, Uncle Johnny.”
“S-sarah? Is that you, sweetie?”
“Daddy says to say hi. We miss you.”
“I miss you too, sweetie. H-how are you?” It was a strange question to ask a dead child, but the entire situation was strange.
“I’m okay, but it’s dark here. Are you going to come visit soon? I asked daddy if we could go and see you but he said no. I wanna play with Rollo again.”
Rollo was my dog. He died a few months before Sarah did.
“M-maybe next time.”
“Don’t lie to my daughter. You’ve lied to everyone else your entire life. Don’t lie to her.”
It was like I was eight years old again, standing in front of my mother being told off for yet another thing I’d managed to screw up while Kyle was out playing with his friends. His reward for being such a ‘good boy.’ Other than my mother, Kyle was the one person who could always make me feel small, no matter what. He was the perfect son and I was the failure.
“Do you really think you can lie to me, John? Me, of all people? Your one and only big brother? I was the only person who ever believed in you, Johnny. Look where that got me.”
I continued staring at the floor. If I raised my head when I was being told off it was an instant beating.
“I hear you finally told mum what really happened with Terry that day.”
“I saw you that day, you know.”
I looked up. “What?”
“That day at the park. The day you got Terry killed. I saw you looking over at us, that look in your eyes that you always got whenever Shelley walked by. You know, I waited a real long time for you to make your move, little brother. But you never did. You weren’t the only one with a crush on her though. I tried to put my feelings aside, I really did. I waited years for you to say something to her, to ask her out, but you never did. But you weren’t the only person on the planet that liked her, Johnny. If you weren’t going to ask her out I wasn’t going to wait forever just on the off-chance you might finally man up and grow some balls.”
I swallowed the lump building in my throat. Kyle never mentioned he had a crush on Shelley, nor that he was waiting for me to make a move. In my drug-fucked depression, I assumed he did it simply to spite me. That’s what our family did, right? Stand on whoever was in the way of what we wanted. Now, ironically, I was the only one left. With how I led my life I should have been the first to die.
“I’m sorry.” It was all I could say.
“Sorry doesn’t bring me or my daughter back to life. Which is why we’re really here, isn’t it?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. I jumped as the thing in the tunnels started scratching at the door again.
“Ah, he’s back. The longer you draw this out the closer he’s gonna get, you know. The doors won’t keep him out forever. They never do.”
“W-who is he?”
“Still stammering like you’re five years old and mommy just took out the soup ladle. Tsk tsk. But they call him the Wapiti. It’s probably easier for you to think of him as the guardian of this cave.”
“W-why-” I shook my head. I wasn’t a five-year-old kid anymore. I had to get this under control. “Why is he chasing me?”
“Because you were naughty.” It was Sarah’s voice. “You were naughty and need to be punished.”
It wasn’t Sarah, it couldn’t be, but the words still stung.
“Kyle. Please. You’re my brother. How can I get away from it?”
“Oh, so now that it’s convenient for you I’m your brother? I see how this works.”
“How about you tell Sarah why we’re here in the first place, John. Maybe then we’ll help.”
The scratching at the door was getting more frantic.
“I don’t know what you-”
“Yes, you do!” The voice boomed. “Tell her! Tell my daughter why she’s dead! Tell her why she was ripped away from her mommy!”
It was the day that changed my life. I never spoke about it to anyone, I didn’t even like to think about it myself. I’d never said the words out loud. I wasn’t sure I could.
“He’s not going to wait much longer, Johnny.” The door handle jiggled a few more times and the scratching continued.
“How about I start? Just to get you going. We were in the car, correct?”
“Yes…” I closed my eyes. I could see the flickering lights of the torch through my closed eyelids, but I could also see that day, as though it was just yesterday. I was sitting in the backseat of Kyle’s car with Sarah. They were on their way home from the hospital seeing Shelley, and Kyle had just picked me up to take me to my first job interview in years. I was clean, hadn’t touched a drug for months. I didn’t have any suitable clothes however so Kyle brought me one of his suits. ‘Keep it, I have others,’ he said. I got changed in the back as Sarah slept. I threw my dirty clothes in the front seat and something fell out of my pocket. It was a tiny bag of white powder.
“Don’t sugar coat it,” Kyle’s voice brought me back to the present. “It wasn’t just powder. It was heroin.”
“I didn’t know it was-”
“That’s not the point, John! You brought that shit into my car! My baby girl was sleeping right next to you. I only agreed to meet you again after all those years, let you see your niece again because you said you were clean! You weren’t clean, John! Another lie!”
“But I was!”
There was a scratch at the door so deep it pierced my ears.
“More lies, Johnny.”
I was sitting on a couch, a line of powder and a rolled up piece of paper before me. Over the years I’d tried so hard to justify the acts I’d committed, I’d even told myself so many lies that I didn’t know what was truth and what wasn’t anymore.
“I could see it in your eyes, Johnny. You were high when you got in my car and the only reason I didn’t kick you out right then and there was because Sarah was so happy to see you. Well that was the biggest mistake of my life, wasn’t it?”
I wasn’t clean. I was never clean.
“So go on. Tell my baby what happened next.”
“What happened, Uncle Johnny?”
Sarah’s voice, so young and innocent, was a sword through my heart.
“I… I did something silly, sweetie.” I jumped as there was a bang at the door. It was started to crack. My heart pounded frantically in my chest.
“I lied to your daddy, and I had something I shouldn’t have. I-I tried to get it back.”
Kyle picked up the bag from the seat and held it up while he was driving. ‘What the hell is this? Did you bring fucking drugs into my car?’
‘No, I-’ I tried to snatch the bag away. I was ashamed, but I also didn’t want him taking it away from me. I needed it. I spent a lot of money on it. It was mine.
‘I’m going to take you to this interview,’ he said, his voice level and calm. ‘When you get out you’re never going to contact me again. Do you understand?’
I tried to grab the bag. ‘Kyle. Kyle please.’
‘If you try to contact me or Shelley or Sarah again I will call the police.’
I said nothing. I just stared at the bag of powder in his hand. It was singing to me a siren’s song and it was all I could hear. I leaped forward and grabbed it, pulling it from Kyle’s hand. The steering wheel veered hard to the right. We crashed. Everything went black. When I came to there were sirens approaching in the distance and both Kyle and Sarah were dead.
“Because of you.”
“Because of me.” It was the first time I’d ever said it out loud. The first time I’d ever allowed myself to admit it. I wiped a tear away. Big boys didn’t cry. Only nasty little weak boys did.
Planks in the door started to crack.
“Kyle, if that’s really you, please! I know I don’t have any right to ask you of all people, but I need to see Shelley. How do I find her?”
There was silence. Silence except for the banging at the door. I turned just as one of the panels went flying. Through the light of the torch, I saw claws grasping at either side of the newly created hole. Eyes peered through the gap, glowing like those of a cat in the firelight. Antlers protruded from just above its eyes, and as it rose to full height I saw the body of a man. At least, it looked like a man.
“Uncle Johnny. You should run now.”
She didn’t need to tell me twice. I threw the torch at the creature as it burst through the door and took off running in the dark. I had no idea where I was going but it didn’t matter. I just needed to get away from that thing. I ran until my lungs burned and my calves ached. Then I ran a little more. Images kept playing over in my head. Kyle getting that car set I wanted instead of me on my sixth birthday. My mother taking out the soup ladle when I came home with an F on my report card. That bully who gave me a bloody nose in the fifth grade, before Kyle broke his. The art teacher in middle school who told me I should look for job alternatives because life as an artist was for those who were truly talented at it. That first puff of marijuana at 13. My first hit of acid at 16. Running from dealers we had no money to pay. Shelley’s smile. The way she looked at me when…
There was a door. Two torches were lit on either side of it. Unlike the others, this was deep red in color, old and heavy looking. There was a noise behind me. I turned around. The creature – the Wapiti – was standing at the other end of the tunnel. I backed into the door, fumbling for the handle. It had to be at least two meters tall, even taller if you took its antlers into account. It was like a minotaur, broad and muscular with a long face like that of an elk. It stood there watching me, unmoving. It would be easy to mistake it for a statue if not for the rise and fall of its chest as it breathed.
I pushed the door handle and went inside.
The room was small and round. Two torches sat on opposing walls and steps carved into the cave stone led to another room above. With each step I took I could feel myself breaking down. All the lies I’d told over the years. All the pain I’d inflicted on others, and the pain I’d inflicted on myself. It washed over me and I waited for it to drown me. Only it didn’t, and as I reached the top step I allowed myself to break down into tears.
It was Shelley.
She was sitting in the middle of the room, as beautiful as I remembered her. I stood up, dusting the dirt off my jeans but unable to stem the flow of tears.
“What’s all that for?” she said. Another sob racked my body. I didn’t trust my voice not to betray me. I took a step, and then another until finally, I was standing before her. She held her hand out. “Here. Come on.” I grabbed it. It was warm.
I fell into her lap and cried. She brushed my hair and waited and when I looked up all I could say was, “I’m sorry.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?”
“I… I lied to you. All this time I lied. I’m sorry.”
She smiled. She didn’t look angry or tell me off like everyone else in my life always did. She just smiled and squeezed my hand. I missed that smile so much.
I took a deep breath. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
I was the only survivor of the crash. As I watched the ambulance take away the dead bodies of my brother and niece I heard the officer asking for my name. Who was I? What was I doing in the car? How had the accident happened?
‘Kyle,’ I replied, in a daze. ‘My name is Kyle.’
‘Can you tell us the names of the other occupants in the car?’ they asked me. ‘My daughter, Sarah, and my brother, John.’
All I could think about was Shelley. Shelley was sick and in the hospital. The loss of both her husband and her daughter would kill her. I couldn’t do anything about Sarah, but Kyle and I were identical twins. I was high. I’d just been in a high-speed crash. I said the first thing that came to mind. ‘My name is Kyle.’
“Did you know?” I asked, searching her eyes. I didn’t deserve such kindness and I couldn’t understand why she was giving it to me even now. “All that time we were together, did you know that I wasn’t really Kyle?”
“I knew.” She squeezed my hand again. “You might be a physical copy of your brother, but I knew. It was the little things. You sat on the left side of the couch instead of the right. You tapped with your feet when you were nervous and not with your fingers. And I saw you sitting up until the small hours of the morning trying to learn your brother’s business so there would be enough money for my hospital care. I knew, Johnny. I knew.”
It was the first time she’d ever said my name. My real name. Another tear ran down my cheek.
“Why… why didn’t you ever say anything?”
She stood up and began to walk around the room, running her fingers along the cave walls. “For the first time in your life, you were trying to do something right. Kyle loved you, you know? He spoke about you a lot but he just didn’t know what to do to get through to you. You were the only family he had left. When I realized that you weren’t him… when I saw you working hard, turning your life around, I wasn’t going to stop that. I was dying. We both knew I was dying. But you still did all you could to make my final months on Earth as pain-free as possible.” She stopped before me and held my face in her hands. “It’s okay, Johnny. You can let go now. Thank you.”
I closed my eyes as the tears flowed. When I opened them she was gone.
I didn’t run into the Wapiti on my way out. There were no more voices and no more doors. As I exited the cave the moon was out and the rain had let up. A wolf howled in the distance but for the first time in my life, I felt relief.
I made my way back towards the car. Back towards the first day of the rest of my life.