She knows how useless this is, how pointless.
Even if she could remember the exact spot – and as she has repeatedly told everyone, again and again, told herself, again and again, she can’t – the one thing she can remember is that very long moment between his cry and the thump.
So very far away, that thump.
So very far away.
She knows this.
She signs the book anyway, and steps into the darkness, alone.
He would have killed her for that, she knows, though god knew he’d broken his own rule on that more than once. But he’s not here, and that thump had come when they were paired together, talking softly in the dimness, and it doesn’t matter. Not now. Not when the whispers continue to come every night.
Another step, then another. She knows all of these initial passageways by now, if not where all of them lead. It doesn’t really matter, as long as she heads down. The third one, she remembers, has a fairly steep slope; that will work. She ties one end of the thin rope to a stalagmite, another to her belt, and turns off her lamp.
The fingers of her right hand play with the knot on her belt for a moment, before she snatches them back and pushes them against the stone.
It’s never as cold as she expects it to be. Never. It was cold, she’s certain, just before the thump. Very cold. She had been shaking; she spent days thinking she would never be warm again. She is warm now, from walking and feeling her way through the rough stone. She presses her fingers against the stone, to soak in some of the coolness.
I don’t think we’re lost.
The caves are never completely silent. She had spent hours, she thinks, listening to the distant plop plop of water after that thump. Or minutes, maybe; like other things, that is something that she will never remember exactly.
Now, in the darkness, she listens to the light hiss of the wind.
To the words.
Yeah, it’s true.
I didn’t want –
Echoes, she tells herself again. Only echoes. Her fingers brush the rope again.
She is not lost. She is not.
She loses time in the darkness, in the endless whispers of the wind. Only her dry throat stops her. She places her back against the rough passage wall as she unscrews her canteen and sips, just a little.
— you to find out.
Her fingers linger on the rope knotted at her belt, remembering the way her fingers had felt against that other rope, the rope that had tied them together.
Further into the darkness. Further.
Well, I did.
The walls feel damp here. They had speculated that these caves might flood from time to time, even talked about what might happen if water came rushing through, leaving them trapped in these lower levels, in the darkness. She wipes her fingers on her shirt, carefully avoiding the ropes, and continues on. Down, she can tell, but nothing more than that; the passage has twisted, and twisted, and twisted again, and all she can sense now is wet stone and darkness and a whispering wind. Her feet and fingers probe carefully.
An accident, she had assured everyone. An accident. Nothing more than that.
The cave, she had told herself. The cave. Something in the cave had wanted it, wanted something cold and dying. Something she could easily give.
Are we going to be ok?
She realizes she is hungry.
It’s not a good place to stop. The passage is slightly sloped, and damp, and the moment she does stop, the coolness of the cave wraps around her, chilling her skin. She sits anyway, jamming her back against the rough wall, and pulls out some of the food from her backpack. A half of a sandwich. An apple. A pomegranate. She chews slowly, methodically, as the wind continues to whisper. A few seeds drop down. She doesn’t try to pick them up.
Her fingers go back to that knot again, pressing against it.
God. I fucking loved you.
She is not going to untie it. No. Not again. No matter what the cave whispers, no matter what the wind says. She takes a deep breath as she stands, scattering pomegranate seeds, shutting her ears to the screams on the wind. She can leave it behind when she is outside the cave, until, that is, the winter returns, leaving her alone at night with the sound of something falling, very very far down indeed. She can. She can.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Truth be told, Mari Ness has always been a bit terrified of dark, underground places. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Strange Horizons, among other places. For details, see her official blog at marikness.wordpress.com. She lives in central Florida, and you can follow her rambles on Twitter at mari_ness.