Thursday, August 16, 2012


It was such a pleasant surprise, one that brought a twinge of excitement to what might have otherwise been a boring Wednesday. Kelsey’s mother had told her at breakfast that morning. Somehow, through some miraculous combination of conflicting events, neither of her parents were to be home when she came back from school that day. Her father would be back by five, her mother assured, but Kelsey was hardly paying attention to details by that point; there were exploits to be planned.
Like many children her age, Kelsey always strove to make the best of parentless periods. Unlike some of her friends--whom her parents described as “latch-key” in their private discussions to each other--Kelsey was relentlessly supervised. She didn’t have a particularly dangerous rebel streak, but moments of freedom were few and far between and, therefore, to be treasured and spent well.

When the bus pulled up to her house that Wednesday afternoon, she walked down the steps casually and strolled toward the front door. For reasons she couldn’t quite articulate, it seemed vitally important that no adult anywhere sense that she might be excited about anything. Once she had closed the door behind her, however, she was darting across the house at full speed, bouncing from room to room to assemble the necessary equipment for the afternoon’s escapade.

Several minutes later, she performed one last inventory check as she walked into the woods behind her house. She had the flashlight and had assured that its batteries were fresh. She had her parents’ dumpy-but-capable digital camera around her neck. Its SD card was nearly full; she hadn’t had the time the back any up on the computer, and deletion might serve as evidence of her covert escapade. Nonetheless, she guessed there was room for another dozen or so pictures, plenty.

And lastly, she had her father’s flashgun and three flashbulbs from his mammoth collection carefully packed in the satchel around her shoulder. Three, she estimated, was the smallest number of bulbs she could bring and be sure to get at least one good picture, and the largest number she could take without their absence being detected. Flashbulbs, though a bit outdated, are crucial for cave photography, her father had explained to her more times than once. “After all,” he’d say, “these are pocket explosions, your own personal stars.”

She’d been to the cave with her father many times and she knew it well, well enough to shrug off the dangers of venturing into its tunnels and chambers alone. Unlike many of her friends, she felt at home in the dark, blanketed by it. And while this cave wasn’t a new, or strictly forbidden location, it somehow called out to her, begging for a private rendezvous. Who was she to refuse?

Arriving at the cave’s mouth, she turned on the flashlight and shook it a few times to ensure it wouldn’t flake out on her. The beam held steady, and she pointed it deep into the cave’s gaping mouth. With hardly a second thought, she walked forward into the darkness, making her way towards the caves modest, but still impressive inner chamber.

Despite the cave’s looming, labyrinthine feel, the chamber she was headed for was only three or four minutes from the entrance. There were numerous twists and turns and one or two forks, but before she knew it, Kelsey had reached the cave’s central chamber, at least, the most central and largest one she knew of. She had no intention of breaking new ground today. She slowly, carefully made her to the caves far side, and began to set up shop.

When she had the camera just right, perched on a nearby boulder, and the flashlight unobtrusively pointed at the wall behind her, she triggered the first of the three minute explosives she’d brought along with her. The chamber was immediately bathed in a bright, harsh light. Its surprisingly high ceiling loomed above almost ominously. It almost seemed as if the cave could be upset by being so thoroughly revealed.

Just as the camera’s own flash triggered, dwarfed by the bulb that had ignited milliseconds before, Kelsey saw--or thought she saw--a vague, quick movement off to her left. It wasn’t a bat or animal of some sort, because there was no sound. And in the silence, the fleeting shadow seemed impossibly dark, impossibly thick. She quickly jerked to grab the flashlight and shine it on the phantasm, immediately. Quickly doing anything was a bad idea, she realized. Still, her body was in motion and almost before it happened, she could feel the flashlight slipping out of her hands.

No matter how many times you’ve experienced it, total darkness is always staggering. Kelsey was no stranger to the odd sensation, but still, she stood paralyzed for a moment, as her senses failed to acclimate. It was as if the darkness was actually pouring into her eyes, filling her ears and nose and mouth, crawling up her legs, soaking her hair.

She felt her way around the bag in front of her, frantically but still cautiously extracting a flashbulb from the satchel and screwing it, by feel, into the gun she still she still held in her off-hand. As soon as it was ready, she triggered it out of fear, with no real plans as to her next step. In the brief blast of light, she was able to make out the flashlight in the distance, its end-cap and two DD batteries lying mercifully close to it. And then the tide of blackness returned.

She loaded up the third and last bulb, sobbing despite herself as she screwed it in. The darkness seemed to morph in front of her as her eyes tried to make sense of this utter lack of input, and she saw what appeared to be a human form walking towards her, though she knew should couldn’t be “seeing” anything. She triggered the last blast, vanquishing the illusion, and once again showing the disabled flashlight just a few feet beyond. In the split second of light, she turned herself in its direction, and dove with a wordless prayer.

She ran her hands across the cave floor’s uneven muddy surface with a slightly unhinged intensity. In the back of her mind, she was afraid at what she might brush in her search, but her desire, her craving for more light triumphed over her fear. Piece by piece she found the flashlight. First its case, then the first battery, then the end cap. Finally, she brushed the second battery, sending it rolling towards the center of the cavern, but not fast enough to escape her frenzied grasps.

As she turned the flashlight back on, she felt her panic recede, replaced by something less intense, but still fairly classified as terror. She panned the flashlight’s beam around the chamber several times, as if cleaning off accumulated layers of darkness, before collecting the rest of her implements, and trotting back towards the caves mouth at a speed just ever-so-slightly too fast to be safe.

As she stepped outside to see the sun low in the sky, she felt her shoulders relax, her teeth ungrit, and her tear ducts open freely. Suddenly remembering the purpose of her excursion, she grabbed at the camera still hanging loosely around her neck. She pulled the picture she’d taken up for display to see that, complications aside, the adventure had produced a clear and crisp shot, one that she could call her own.

But at second glance, she noticed something she’d missed before. A deep, dark cloud marred the bottom-left corner of the shot, and towards the bottom of its otherwise uniform darkness, appeared to be a slight reddish crescent, what looked like a smile.

She made it home in record time.


For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, SAM gave me this prompt: There were fifteen pictures left and spare flashbulbs in her pocket.. I gave Cheney this prompt: That's exactly what I've been trying to tell you.' (No need to use that verbatim, in fact, please don't.)