“Does anyone know why it’s called Goblin’s Den?”
The laughing stops. Everyone looks at me silently as though I had just asked if the moon landing was real, or if Elvis was really dead. I shrug as though it’s no big deal and turn on my flashlight, illuminating their confused faces in the cold, black night.
“Just wondering,” I say quietly. The chatter resumes. I shake my head and walk a few feet away so I can check my backpack again. One or two of the others give me dirty looks, but I ignore them. It had been Carter’s idea to do this, not mine.
I was only coming because Carter would probably get lost or trigger a rockslide without me. Believe you me, the moment I heard that he wanted to explore a cave called “Goblin’s Den,” I nearly just hung up. With some quick talking, though, he convinced me it would be safe. He had already called everyone else — I was the last piece of the puzzle.
A ten-piece, designed-for-two-year-olds, picture-of-the-sky puzzle. Yes, Carter had actually managed to round up eight similarly insane classmates of ours to sneak out in the dead of night and go spelunking in an ominously-named and uncharted cavern. About half of them I don’t even recognize. Most of them are Carter’s friends from the school baseball team. The ones I do know look about as happy about it as I am: Ellen, Wayne, and Jon Jameson are all moping together.
I sling my pack over one shoulder and walk over to them. Jon Jameson flinches a little as I come near, but I decide to think that it was because of the cold and not because of me. Ellen and Wayne, on the other hand, smile warmly at me and hold up their hands for high-fives, which I deliver in rapid succession to the both of them with my free hand.
Carter and I had known Wayne since the fourth grade, and Ellen since the sixth. Jon Jameson was a transfer student who we just met this year, but we brought him into our circle of weirdos pretty quickly. Of course, Carter’s been spending a lot more time with the baseball team lately, but he still finds time to hang with us.
“What did you guys bring?” asks Wayne. He gestures to a frayed burlap sack on the ground full to the brim with what looks like batteries and water bottles. Ellen raises an eyebrow, and he smiles.
“Two things you need underground: batteries for your flashlight, and water if you get stuck.” “Stuck?” asks Jon Jameson, his eyes wide as dinner plates. “I don’t wanna get stuck, man. I thought this cave was safe!”
“You won’t get stuck,” Ellen assures him. I nod in agreement.
“Yeah,” says Wayne. “I heard that they’ve gone almost two weeks without a death in this cave.”
“Wayne!” cries Ellen, slapping him on the shoulder. He grins unapologetically, but I see him pat Jon Jameson gently on the shoulder before walking towards and around the nearest tree. We avert our eyes.
“Don’t listen to him,” says Ellen. “He’s just —”
“Hey,” shouts Carter. “Are we going or are we going?” I raise a finger to make a comment, but am cut off by one of his baseball friends, a short, slim girl with a butch haircut. The girl has a tattoo of a leaf on her neck, just under her jawline.
“Let’s do it!” she cheers. She is quickly shushed by a guy wearing a Ravens jersey, who evidently doesn’t want to wake a poor sleeping squirrel, since no one lives within a mile of here.
“Yay,” I say unenthusiastically. Wayne returns, pouring a little water from one of his eight dozen bottles on his hands. “Can I get a pack of batteries?” I ask, pointing towards his bag. He nods, tucking the bottle away and tossing me a six-pack of plastic-encased Duracells. I almost drop my flashlight trying to catch them, but quickly recover.
“Joey,” says Carter. I look up.
“You come with me, okay?” I hesitate for a moment. “We’re going down in pairs so that no one will get lost,” he continues. “So grab a partner and don’t let go!”
Jon Jameson takes this literally. He latches onto Wayne like a magnet, his knuckles turning white almost immediately. Ellen pairs up with the leaf girl, and the four remaining baseball jocks shove each other around for a few moments before separating into two more groups.
Everyone takes out their flashlights; Leaf-girl has brought a mining helmet, which strikes me as a plea for attention. But, hey, maybe her dad is a miner or something. Maybe she’s into cosplay. She’d probably look good as Rogue, or Catwoman. If she’s into that kind of thing.
I sidle up to where Carter is standing and gave him a look that is supposed to say, I hope you know what you’re doing because I sure don’t have any idea. I don’t know if he gets the message, because he just gives me a thumbs-up and starts walking into the cave. I follow him, hoping that we all just come to a dead end so we can go home and forget all about this.
Of course, the exact opposite of that happens. Not five minutes in we arrive in a chamber just tall enough for us to stand up straight in, with seven different tunnels branching off from it in different directions, not including the one we came in by. We wait for everyone to catch up to discuss a plan, which takes another minute. During that minute I attempt a few times to start a conversation with Carter, but the words keep catching in my throat.
Eventually everyone arrives. Leaf-girl is constantly adjusting her helmet as we talk, trying to keep it from falling down over eyes. I stand up and lean against the rough cavern wall, feeling drops of moisture soak into my thin clothes and backpack.
“Uh...” says Carter, apparently dumbfounded at the notion that he has to be the leader for a second time. This is strange. Usually Carter can take charge of any situation and turn it around for the better, but he seems totally tongue-tied. I wonder if I should step in for him when one of the guys, Squirrel-friend’s partner, speaks.
“There are, what, seven tunnels? And there are five groups. We each pick one and go down it. We can meet back here in like, an hour.”
“Does everyone have a phone?” asks Leaf-girl. We all nod.
“Then it’s fine,” says Carter. “Pick your tunnels and go. Save your flashlight batteries when you can.”
“I’ve got extras if anyone wants some,” says Wayne. He doles out a few packages to each pair. Then he and Jon Jameson exit down the rightmost tunnel. Leaf-girl and Ellen head down the central tunnel, directly opposite from the entrance, and Squirrel-friend and his partner go down the one to its left. Carter and I take the tunnel second from the left, so we don’t see where the last group went.
“So,” I say.
“So,” repeats Carter.
We walk in silence for a few moments. I click the flashlight on and off, on and off, until Carter grabs it from me. I frown, but don’t say anything. Something’s obviously wrong with him and I don’t want to make it worse. He may have grown distant in the past year or so, but he’s still been my best friend since kindergarten.
I’ve just worked up the nerve to speak again when Carter stops. I take a few more steps before I realize I’ve left him behind, so I back up until I’m standing next to him. His head is cocked as if he’s listening for something. I try to hear whatever it is he’s hearing, but I don’t catch anything out of the ordinary.
“What is it?” I whisper.
“Can’t you hear it?” he replies, not moving a muscle. I shake my head no.
“What is it?” I repeat. “Did someone shout or what?”
“It’s laughter,” he says. “But it’s weird. It’s distorted or something.”
“Probably just an echo from one of the other groups. Let’s go,” I say, and start to walk forward, but he grabs me by the upper arm and pulls me back.
“No!” he says. “We can’t go forward. We have to leave.”
“What? Leave? We just got here!”
“We have to go. Now.”
I stare at my friend. He’s chickening out on me? I’m more than happy to get out of here, but this isn’t like him at all. I’ve never seen Carter get scared in the slightest, but now I can see full-blown terror in his eyes.
“What about the others? What if they come back and we’re gone?”
“We have to go,” he says again, as if I didn’t say anything.
“Carter,” I begin, “calm down. Take a few deep breaths.”
“Stop it!” he shouts. I’m genuinely worried now. I pat him on the back, but he drops to his knees and covers his ears with his hands.
“Carter, if this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny,” I warn him. He doesn’t respond. “Can’t you hear the laughter?!” he asks, quiet for a moment. Then he slumps to the ground and screams. The reverberation in the small tunnel makes my ears ring. I reach for his hand to pull him up, but then I hear a rumbling noise coming from behind us. I turn towards the way we came and see dust and pebbles falling from the ceiling. I shine the flashlight ahead of us and see the same thing. If every single movie ever is anything to judge by, we’re about to be trapped.
Then a rock falls on my head, and I pass out.
I awake to severe pain. I broke both my arms once, and it was nothing compared to this. I’m not even sure why it hurts so much, or where it is that I’m hurting. The only sensation I am aware of besides darkness is pure, unadulterated pain. I try to move my head and get a better look of where exactly it’s coming from, but the slightest movement makes me feel as if my neck is about to be torn apart. I remember that I have hands, and I try to wiggle my fingers. I feel the knuckles of my left hand rapping against the sharp ground of the cave, but when I move my right hand I feel nothing.
I bring my left hand up to my face and feel around for any cuts or serious wounds. If I press very lightly, it doesn’t hurt, but when I touch a bump on my head I nearly pass out from the burst of pain it sends through my body.
I realize that I’m not lying flat on the ground. Something is underneath me, arching my back and making my current position all the more uncomfortable. I twist my left arm around below me to feel what it is, and though there’s a slight ache in my shoulder I realize that I’m squishing my backpack. I can’t feel the straps, so I grab hold of the cloth with my left hand and pull as hard as I can.
The pack gives way and slides out from under me, sending me crashing to the ground. My head explodes with agony, but suddenly I can feel my right arm again. I toss the backpack to the wall and bring my hands together, ignoring the stress on my neck and shoulders.
I brace my forearms against the ground and push myself up, supporting my entire upper body weight on my poor arms. I hear a soft crack from my midsection and a wave of hurt flows through me again. Not willing to continue in this manner, I lower myself back down and let myself be swept away to unconsciousness.
When I wake up for the second time, the torment in my head and torso has subsided. I prop myself up on my elbows and look around, trying to get an understanding of what happened. Now that my vision is three-dimensional once more, it’s obvious: a huge pile of boulders rests atop my right leg, crushing what’s probably already fractured in several places. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming. The collapse couldn’t have gotten everyone. Someone must be okay and can get help.
Speaking of help, I wonder if Verizon gets any service deep in the Earth. With just my left hand, I struggle to unzip the front pocket of my backpack and dig out my phone. I hit the power button and the screen lights up, informing me that it’s now 2:01 a.m. No signal, though. I toss the phone against the wall in despair, wishing I had never agreed to go on this stupid “adventure” with Carter.
I’ve just about resigned myself to a long stay in this 5-star underground resort when I hear the laughter. If I wasn’t so tired, it would probably have sounded like children playing. As it is, the otherworldly noise that seems to emanate from every little crack in the wall is demonic and twisted. It’s more of a cackle than anything else. I imagine that whatever I’m hearing is the sound that the witch made before she tried to eat Hansel and Gretel.
Carter, I remember. Where did he go? He was shouting about laughter just before the cave-in. Was this what he meant?
“It had to be,” I say out loud. The sound of my voice startles me: raspy and dry, as though I haven’t had water in years. The laughter doesn’t stop. It continues, echoing constantly in the tunnel that I will be calling home for a little while. The thought that this place could be called home by anyone almost makes me chuckle, but then I recall another dismal memory from earlier in the night.
Does anyone know why it’s called Goblin’s Den?
My question resonates in my ears along with the laughter until the two are somehow indiscernible from each other. I just want to block out all thought from my head, to shut my eyes and cover my ears and go La la la until whatever it is that’s driving me crazy decides to stop.
Another rumble comes from somewhere in the tunnel. More dirt rains on me and makes me cough. Then the rocks on top of my leg shift an inch, and I’m knocked out by the pain.
For the third and final time that night I awake, but this time, I am completely free of the slightest discomfort. I am lying on the cave floor again, but the rocks piled atop my legs have disappeared. I cautiously stand up, using my hands to balance myself against the wall, and turn around to see a long, winding, empty tunnel. At the very end there’s some kind of white light; the rockslide must have been cleared. It must be morning now. A thought passes in the back of my mind: Why did they leave me here?
I ignore my subconscious and start to walk. My body feels as though I’ve just slept for a full day and eaten a huge meal. I’m completely rested and ready to get out of this scummy cavern. As I get closer to the light, it gets brighter, until I have to shield my eyes lest they be blinded. Right on the other side is freedom and, hopefully, a car waiting to take me home. Right on the other side is escape from this mad, mad network of tunnels.
Right on the other side I can hear children laughing. I step into the light —
And everything goes dark.