by Karen Fayeth
“Dad! I can’t; it’s too scary.”
Jack put a comforting hand on David’s shoulder. “I know it’s scary, son, but our options aren’t great.”
David wiped his runny nose on his shirtsleeve and looked at his dad squatting at eye level next to him. “Can’t we just go home?”
“I want to go home too, son, believe me I do. Your mom is cooking up short ribs with baked beans tonight. You know I hate to miss that.”
For a moment David forgot his tears and smiled. Then looked again into the dark mouth of the cave halfway up Little Sawtooth ridge, and his face crumpled, eyes welling up again.
“David, look, out to the west. See that storm? It’s coming in hard and it looks like it’s bringing at least a foot of snow. We’re three, maybe four hours’ hike to the car. We can’t beat that storm, son. It will be on top of us in less than an hour. We have no tent, no blanket, and only a few supplies. This was supposed to be a day hike to the summit, then home for dinner. We have to sleep in this cave tonight to get away from the elements. Son, we could freeze to death out there.”
“But, Dad, there could be bears in there!”
David pointed for emphasis.
“Nope, I already checked, remember?”
“Or snakes or bats or stinging bugs. I just can’t; it’s too scary.”
“Look, I know you are scared, and it’s okay to be scared. When you feel the most frightened is when you also have to be the most calm. Now, take a deep breath.” Together father and son inhaled and exhaled.
“Good. Now let’s weigh our choices. There is a one hundred percent chance we will get caught in that freezing storm if we head toward the car. There is a chance, but much less than one hundred percent, that something dangerous will be sharing that cave with us. We both brought matches, and we have a little food and water. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my chances inside a shelter with a warm fire than risk it out there in the wind and snow. What do you say?”
David nodded, face now stoic as a chilly wind dried his tears.
“Good, now let’s quickly gather up some firewood.”
The memory was clear and strong as David lay back in his bedroll and let his eyes roam the contours of that very same cave. Twenty-five years later it seemed a little smaller but no less daunting.
David had returned to this place to remember. A cardboard box inside his backpack was all that was left of Jack. Tomorrow David would scatter the ashes under Jack’s favorite tree. In that moment, David had never felt more alone, even as less than ten feet away, his beautiful wife Stacy nursed their eight-month-old son Ethan inside a sturdy weatherproof tent.
His eyes felt sandy and lids drifted down when David said, “Hey, babe, close the tent flap if you have the light on.” At least he thought he said that. It sounded real in his dozing mind.
A few hours later David dreamt of his ninth birthday party. His sister threw a handful of confetti in his cake-stained face. He came to consciousness spitting the confetti from his mouth and swiping it from his ears. As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, his brain was confused, until he remembered. He was inside the cave.
He looked at his hands and gasped, taking in confetti and coughing it back from his lungs. Only it wasn’t confetti. David was covered in small flying bugs. Swarms descended from every corner. They were flying at him hard, exoskeletons like tiny pellets from a BB gun.
He gagged trying to swat them away.
Stacy. And Ethan. Where were they? He shook his head hard and looked for the tent. She was inside, their son asleep next to her. He saw a bright battery-powered Colman lantern and the tent flap wide open. She must have fallen asleep with the light still on.
Their tent was overflowing with flying bugs.
Terror washed over David, and he couldn’t breathe. The choice between fight or flight tugged hard. New Forest Service roads meant it was only a hundred yards to his truck. He stopped, heart beating against his ribs.
“What do I do?” he shouted to the cave’s ceiling, feeling terrified, lost, and unsettled in his mind. Jack would have the perfect answer, but he wasn’t there. He would never be there again to put his hand on David’s shoulder and say just the right thing.
Just then, the sun broke through David’s personal hurricane. He whispered, “You have to be calm.”
“David? Help!” Stacy called.
And then his mind became very clear. He knew what he had to do.
Putting the neck of his T-shirt over his mouth, he took a deep breath, willed his heart rate to drop, and dove in.
“Grab what you can, Stace. We’re leaving!”
Stacy didn’t argue. She grabbed her boots, covered the baby with a blanket, and ran from the cave.
David collapsed the tent and picked up what he could carry and followed Stacy out, and they ran. He threw all of their stuff into the back of his pickup truck and slammed the Tonneau cover.
With Ethan in his car seat and Stacy belted in, David hit the gas, still spitting tiny wings from his mouth. He drove fast but safe, wanting to put distance between his family and the swarm. After a few minutes he exhaled and relaxed a little. They were going to be okay.
At a sharp curve, he tapped the brakes, red taillights illuminating the trees and brush behind him. Something in the side mirror caught his eye.
The swarm. It followed the truck.
His eyes went wide, and he punched the accelerator. Stacy had noticed too, and she was starting to cry.
A mile later, the swarm was still in hot pursuit. Fear rose like gorge in his throat. He wanted to panic but instead he slowed the truck and took a deep breath.
“Oh no,” he said quietly.
“We have to go back.”
“Are you crazy? We’re not going back. Drive faster!”
“No, seriously, listen. Last week on some morning radio show, they were talking about a swarm of bees that followed a car for, like, two days because the queen was trapped inside. These bugs, whatever they are, I think they were on the move. The light through the tent flap must have looked like the mouth of the cave. The queen’s in the tent, Stace. We have to let her out or they’ll follow us home.”
David U-turned, as the swarm made a perfect arc behind, and drove back. He found an old bandanna in the truck’s console and tied it around his face, then hopped out. Opening the back of the truck, he yanked out the tent, then ran back inside the cave without hesitation while flying bugs pinged off his face and body.
As the tent flew open, the swarm rushed inside. They had what they wanted and so did he. David ran back to the truck, jumped in, and took off.
This time the flying swarm stayed behind.
David’s eyes now traced the contours of his own bedroom. Lying back in bed with his wife gently snoring and his son asleep in the nearby crib, he couldn’t help but replay the entire crazy night in his head, remembering his own fear, and remembering to stay calm.
He hoped he could teach Ethan the same lesson one day. That when you feel the most frightened is when you have to be the most calm.
The small cardboard box now rested on the nightstand. “Sorry, Pop. Didn’t quite get the job done this weekend. Had to bug out.”
He chuckled at his own terrible pun.
“How about we scatter you at Lake Evans instead? Remember the cove where you caught that monster trout?”
With a yawn, David patted the top of the box, pulled a bandanna over his face, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing