The Haunted Cave

by a contributor

Joe Worthen

My invincible whip broke down Sunday; the alternator shit out and I felt the soul leave the gas pedal in one tragic bloom. When I woke Laura up she thought she was home, blonde hair distorted with sweat, wearing that T-shirt she had with the anthropomorphized tire on it. We thought last night at the Super 8 was gonna be the last stop in our summer romance. But there we were, together, pushing my Buick into the emergency lane.

I smoked a menthol outside the Exxon. I could feel the heat exhaustion. It had traced me through the summer with odd chills and racing pulses. A doctor in Nashville said it was my hypothalamus, said it lost its perspective on my body’s temperature.
Laura came out of the Exxon with a fresh pack and a lemonade. She passed through the gas pumps like a specter, like rust through painted blue steel. She showed me a brochure she found for a place called The Haunted Cave. On the back, under a confederate flag, was a crude map, a diagram that set the cave about ten miles out from us up state Highway 22. We called it a temporary destination and left on foot.

It wasn’t long before the heat dipped and we felt the first drops of frayed rain. We passed derelict properties, one-room trailers submerged in planes of kudzu, Rottweilers chained to the broken frames of trampolines and rusted menageries of threshers, car parts, tractors.

When the rain got harsh we ducked into a half-collapsed black barn, hid in a storage room with horse tranquilizers and huge jars of livestock antibiotics. At first we talked about the Haunted Cave. I said I’d never seen a ghost and Laura said she saw them on television all the time.
Laura left her tire shirt on, wet and clinging. She hung her shorts and panties on the same rusted nail and lay down on the floor of the barn. I focused on the strands of her hair carving damp arcs through dust. The only thunder was distant and soon the rain let up on the roof, narrowed itself into minor drips from broken rafters.

Between the UFO museum and a bed and breakfast we found a shop called Blue Ridge Stone and Gem, which was meant to be a gateway of sorts to The Haunted Cave. Laura zoned out with one hand in a bin of polished pyrite, staring at the skylight through her aviators. I got some free coffee from a push pot and evaluated a birthstone chart. I felt my heartbeat in my fingertips; it rushed in and activated them, set my focus in a strange spiral. It was August of course, the month Laura and I were born, the last month, a month for peridots.
Laura put a geode on her Visa and we waited on the porch for a kid named Leander to come take us to The Haunted Cave, both of us dirty and wet. Laura watched the rain with her eyes half open, self-contained. Her vanity was her central axis, every time she rotated around it she became more beautiful, more effortless, less corporal.

Leander’s poncho was the color of a traffic cone, an emergency shade, easy to follow through the rain. We climbed over lichen-capped rocks. He was ahead of us mostly, sometimes too far, but he’d loop back and we’d see him again in the green/gray haze. We tempted him to stop with a cigarette and then kicked it under a coniferous tree. We asked Leander if the cave was haunted and he said it was. We asked if it was really haunted and he said that it really was. He put out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe.

Leander waited outside while we were in the cave.
We spent about an hour and a half talking to a ghost with our backs against the limestone wall. The ghost said that in death we can see our reincarnations that are obscured in life. He said that he’d been a soldier in Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, an astronaut that flew into space on a silver ship and a soap opera actor who lived on in late night reruns. I asked him what his names were and he said that names are eclipsed by death.
Laura asked if he could see our past lives and he said that reincarnations were refracted, uneven, that one man split into many and that opening his ghostly aperture, even just enough for Laura and I, could lead to a kaleidoscopic event where our overlaps became infinite and impossible to trace.
Laura looked into her geode instead.
The ghost changed the topic; he asked us if we were together.
“In the summer sense,” I said.

Joe Worthen is a graduate candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His fiction can be found in Straight Teeth Zine and Menu 971.

See Joe’s list of 5 Things You Should Read in our ongoing contributors’ series.