“Come on, why ya’ slowing down?”
“I’m trying to catch my footing…” Tiny skein flecks and stones like boulders alike skipped down the steep hill upon impact with Ruby’s broad, unfirm steps. Joyce ploddingly planted her sandals into the dirt, circumnavigating the harsh gravel mottling their path.
“But we’re burning daylight!”
“You’re supposed to be behind me! And…does that really matter all that-?” and then it caught her eye.
The opening to Cat’s Cave had been sealed off by a rusting chainlink fence. Even before descending down to the foot of the sloped trail, Ruby had already begun performing a sort of visual calculus upon the scene for potential clues; leaves, dirt, cracked bedrock and silt mottling the ground about their feet and the fence in the distance ominously occluding the scene of the crime instantly captured their imagination. They began scribbling notes of varying degrees of importance into a pad of paper they’d insisted on bringing along without even looking down to make sure any of it were legible—“Fascinating…everything is all around!”. Joyce paced herself more slowly, her petrified gaze fixed beyond the grating of the steel fence and into the black maw of the cave.
Both Joyce Mélange and Ruby Mayweather were so wrapped up in this, that and the other that neither of them noticed a balding, disheveled security guard leaning back in a moldy vinyl fold-up chair propped up on its hind legs against the jagged cliff face exterior surrounding the dark aperture, beefy arms folded and right leg crossed. A black eyepatch covered his left eye, the other off staring into the distance. His blue collared shirt was rife with stains and black denim pants scuffed and torn.
Joyce wrestled her transfixion away from the mouth of Cat’s Cave to look over at Ruby measuring, predicting, telling. Their descent down the hill following the rough-trodden path was awkward, to say the least. When Joyce had first spotted Ruby in the parking lot, with their blue parted hair, corrected-lens bifocals, milk-white button-up shirt tucked confidently into their khakis which didn’t quite match, and boots that hadn’t yet been broken in, she knew right away that was her rookie. Joyce on the other hand knew that on field trips you throw on a cardigan over a t-shirt to put on an air of professionalism and can get away with sweat shorts and flip-flops on less temperate days. Ruby didn’t seem to notice or care about the disparity between their appearances.
“If you’re sellin’ flek, ‘fraid I won’t be buyin’,” barked the gravelly-voiced security guard. He’s balancing precariously on his chair. “Dropped my whole savings on a deal with the wrong types.” He taps his eyepatch. “Shame, it were a good haul, too. Not much coin to be made just doing this—“
This man seemed a rambunctious type. Joyce figured it best to keep a cordial but swift dialogue. She interrupted, “I understand you’ve been expecting us?”
“Expecting, hm? Hmm…” he put his hands behind his head in contemplation and stared upward toward the blue sky, closing his eye to block out the sun.
“Oh! Right. Wait, erm…what sort of take-out place sends two delivery runners on a single go?” The security guard hunches forward, scrutinizing Ruby and Joyce over. “And ay, where’s the food at? ‘Cause if you’ve not brought me my dumplings I don’t want to hear buk about it. ‘Less I’ve got it backwards and it’s coal you’re looking to hit big on, ‘fraid you’re late by around,” he spreads the fingers of his left hand and counts them with his right index, “…four hundred years, I’d say. And didust? A thing of the past. Suggest you drop it all on the stocks; you’re both just tykes. That’s how the smart ones keep the wealth in the family these days.”
Confused, Ruby tilts their head to the side a bit. They reply, “You’ve mixed us up with someone else, wacko.” With a rigidity that signaled how much they’d rehearsed for a moment like this, Ruby proffered a laminated business card from the Clerk for the Commons of U’breta tucked away in their shirt pocket. “The honorable Clerk for the Commons, at your service!” The security guard doesn’t bat an eye. Before Joyce could stop Ruby from whatever they were about to say, Ruby extended their arm forward, pointing straight between the guard’s exposed eye and the patch and shrieked, “Now quit your babbling and let us in! Right now!”
A flock of swallows scattered from the boughs of nearby meranti and red oak trees, dried-up leaves dancing about the thin morning air. The security guard’s eyelids narrow. He’s smirking knowingly at Ruby and Joyce.
“So you say you lot are next on the Clerk’s chopping block, ay?” He stands up out of his chair. Joyce takes a step back; he’s filthy and smells revolting. Ruby takes a step forward, their fist clenched. “And do you carry with proper authorization to seek court with these Deerhoof Tunnels? I can’t be lettin’ just anybody and their mothers in, you see.”
Joyce reaches into her loose pocket and pulls out a symmetrically-folded piece of paper, signed and notarized by the Clerk for the Commons of U’breta, Verlouth and stoically hands it to the security guard. The security guard takes a gander at the document, humming and muttering unintelligible phrasings to himself. Ruby looks around impatiently. Joyce reverts her gaze back to the mouth of the cave, bracing herself in paranoia for a glimpse of a face peering back at her, or a faint whisper.
The security guard crumples it up and shoves it into his denim pocket.
“Well enough. Get a lot of intrepid types around these days, I’m sure ye’ understand.” The security guard stands up out of his chair, gripping the strap handles of a pair of knapsacks which had been flanking his sides. “Can’t say I envy ye’.”
He limps over to Ruby and Joyce and drops the bags at their feet, his one eye flitting back and forth firmly between them. Ruby briskly crouches down and tears into their bag. Inside was a headlamp, three water bottles, a few different flavors of generic granola bars, some rubbing alcohol, a box of bandages, and a standard issue .380 caliber pistol. Joyce didn’t need to look in her bag to know it was the same.
Ruby places their notepad into the bag and turns to look back at the security guard, their breath uneasy. “Okay, now…now do your, your, opening…job!” Joyce grins and echoes the sentiment to him: “You heard them.”
The guard cracked a jagged, toothy grin, sharp as a razor’s edge. “With pleasure.”
As he walks toward the fenced off opening to Cat’s Cave, he reaches into his backpocket and retrieves a comically large pair of tin snips. With haste, he gets to work cutting into all but the topmost side of the chainlink. The noise made by the snips colliding with the steel fence was unbearably shrill; to Ruby, it were like nails on chalkboard, so they covered their ears and shut their eyes. Joyce’s folded arms tensed.
The guard soon thereafter finished his work and the din ceased. He lifted up the chainlink flap he’d created and gestured the two of them inward. “Don’t twist up ‘bout the fence you busted. Gives me something to pass the time later.”
Ruby lowers their head to go through the hole in the fence. Joyce keeps a solid distance behind. While the two are still within earshot, the security guard grunts: “Which of you is the one called Joyce Mélange?”
Ruby answers for her with a commanding but overcompensatingly reluctant yell: “She’s the one in charge here. You better respect that, or I’m…we’re on good authority to report you!” Joyce grasps their shoulder from behind. “That’s enough. I’m Joyce, as you’ve probably gathered.” The two resume their pacing into the dark.
The guard bats the pack of his palm against the loose chainlink. “Ah! Always the unassuming ones with the flowery names, don’t it be? Whole world’s been waiting with bated breath, Miss Mélange. You sure took your time getting here.” He had read her information off the document. “Say, this man…who is he to you, may I so humbly inquire?”
Without turning to look back at him, she replies coldly, “Garrein Mélange. He’s my brother.”
Stunned, Ruby looks back at her. They quickly turn back forward, feebly trying to pretend not to grasp the unexpected gravity of this situation. “Thought as much. Perhaps you’ll be the one to put the world at ease. Perhaps.”
As they walked, all they could hear was a distant, howling wind, their footsteps bouncing off the wall crags, and staccato, breathy laughs from behind. All they could see was a vast nothing.
“So, I was thinking, if we ever make it to a fork in the road, I’ll take the left path first, while you wait behind so you can rest; if ten minutes pass, I’ll start heading back, then we’ll go down the right path together. That way-“
“That won’t be necessary…sorry, what was your name again?”
“Ruby Mayweather, baccalaureate of the world! You just say the word, Mrs. Mélange, and I’m there like square! Or…like the fair…like whatever you think is best!”
“That won’t be necessary, Mayweather. Preserve your energy, we’ve only barely just begun.”
“Ah, yes, right…that’s a viable, super smart strategy!” And so it were that the two walked alone from each other in solitude.
Ruby had been dreaming of being the one to crack an unsolved mystery of a missing person or a homicide cold case since gorging themself on detective novels by authors from all walks of life as a young blood. One day, maybe they’d catch the brains behind an organized bank heist in a rain-slicked alleyway, he crouching behind a dumpster, with a hostage to up the stakes, they crouched behind a thin garbage bin, one hand covering a near-fatal gunshot wound to prevent bleedout, the other gripping a revolver, its cartridge loaded with one final round they would have to make count. Or maybe they’d fall in love with someone tall, dark and handsome who it turns out was the head of a dangerous crime syndicate; they would be faced with tackling the greatest moral quandary of their life: love, or justice?
This sort of family drama was not exactly what they’d had in mind when they’d enrolled in the police academy all those years ago. After all, with books nothing was personal. Through the power of prose, they could live a thousand lives in a fraction of an instant.
Ruby Mayweather was anxious about broaching this unusual subject they now found themself a part of to their spelunking partner, and it showed in the steadily accelerating speed of their gait through the first few kilometres’ worth of passage. They’d never lost a family member, nor ever really had many worth mourning. This unwelcome proximity to a situation beyond their understanding seemed to them rather unfair, and quickly their anxiety gave way to the pernicious scent of annoyance. After all, they had worked their way through six years of schooling all to make it to a place like this: descending through knotted-up tunnels into an unknown, potentially infinitesimally long abyss; it was a decadent premise for a story to play the lead in, the sort of fantasy they’d come up with as a child for the express purpose of blocking out other peoples’ shit.
Rather quickly the darkness saturating these Deerhoof Tunnels became too much for Joyce and Ruby to handle visually. Ruby, who had reassumed the lead in the dyadic formation between themself and Joyce, in an attempt to preserve battery power “just in case” stubbornly refused to switch on their headlamp. Joyce, as the more senior member of the Clerk for the Commons between the two—though not that senior; she didn’t feel like an old person, yet—thought that she shouldn’t need to be giving such menial orders; at least, not with that paystub, she wouldn’t. So she allowed the charade to fly for a little while. She genuinely grinned as Ruby clumsily fumbled their way forward, down the sometimes smooth, other times precarious declining natural stone steps and headfirst into errant stalagmites clotting the sides of the linear passageway. She would note Ruby’s mistakes in traversing the moist limestone and sandstone formations about the place and simply do the opposite, usually to good effect in preventing her from suffering any scratches or minor welts. When Ruby would get particularly hung up on something, it of course halted their collective progress, so Joyce would switch on her own headlamp to offer a helping hand and point them in the right direction. Once they’d determined a way to circumvent the problem, off the headlamp would go, and the two would continue pressing forward as they had before.
Ruby and Joyce continued this way for what seemed like miles, not talking much except when successful traversal called for it. Droplets of water dropped on their heads from time to time. Thoughts of interjecting at the notion of having been interpolated into a textbook case of family drama against Ruby’s will subsided, and they had decided in their head to just buckle down and walk until they found their quarry. Their brain was so clouded by unease from the proximity to Joyce, the person who was ostensibly their boss for now, that they couldn’t come up with any small talk about the tiny channels of water lining the ground, or the gravel that made it hard to walk steady, or the little lizards that skittered about the striations on the walls as the two of them passed by, or the crunching of their steps, or the mottles of light that would occasionally enter through the ceiling, or even Deerhoof Tunnels’ rich and complicated history of coal and didust mining. Ruby just wanted to be done with this whole thing because it was definitely not what they were expecting, so Ruby walked, for they could do nothing but walk.
“Weird guy, huh?”
Ruby’s fumbling about had become boring to Joyce, who had decided to quell the silence between them to break the routine.
“Oh uh, what’s that, miss?”
“That guy back there. At the fence. Smelled like…muck. Like muck and rot.”
“I barely noticed him, honestly.”
Joyce stopped walking.
“You mean, you couldn’t smell all that?”
Ruby turned around and looked at Joyce. The ambient light from a fissure in the ceiling bounced off the surrounding limestone walls. It was just enough to illuminate their faces to each other. Ruby paused and stared at Joyce blankly.
“What…” Ruby blinks rapidly, their head shaking exasperatingly. “Sorry, what are you doing?” they mouthed off with a droplet of venom.
Joyce was used to recalcitrant subordinates, having been promoted to a senior management role at the Clerk for the Commons a year and a half prior. Unless you were particularly strange, the clerk at U’breta was a place one ended up when you sort of had nowhere else to go: all the red-tape of local government without any of the opportunities for career advancement. So she’d been forced in her time to deal with a lot of people who felt as if they belonged elsewhere in life: fantasies of sipping scotch on the balconies of penthouse suites in Georlu, or diving beneath the crystal-clear waters of Blaîre where the sky was always blue clouding their judgment. In just a year and a half she had heard it all, and so was more than prepared to take complete control of this situation.
“Honestly, I’ve been wondering the same about you.”
The two stare at each other for what felt to Ruby like a minute.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” retorted Ruby Mayweather.
Joyce Mélange took a step forward, her right foot planted in front of her left. “What the hell was all that tough guy stuff about back there? This isn’t a game. We’re at work and your head’s in la-la ga-ga land. This is, what, day one for you?” The look on Joyce’s face hid her enjoyment of this.
Ruby pulled their knapsack off of their back and unzipped its main compartment. They pulled out the headlamp and a bottle of water which had been stored away in it. They took a swig of water from the bottle, set it back in its place in their bag, and donned the headlamp, clicking it on. “Fine, you’re right. I’m sorry.” They turned back around and resumed walking forward. But Joyce wasn’t really having it. She taps Ruby’s shoulder and turned them around, lightly drawing Ruby closer to herself. In her finest corporate dialect: “You didn’t adequately answer my question. I suggest you do so now.”
Ruby switched their headlamp off. They bowed their head, clenched both fists, and began muttering to themself.
“You...this is…just…all, fuckin…dumb. No clues, no blood, no free coffee…”
Joyce strained herself to try and hear what Ruby was on about but couldn’t make out any of it.
“You wanna repeat any of that? Do you have a death wish or something?”
“I just…this shut up and march business just ain’t my style. Are all Clerk outings like this? I’ve never even met you before! And what’s your brother got to do with all of this anyway!?” Ruby was pretending to not fully grasp what was going on here, plain to see as it were.
Joyce’s face shifted from consternation to lethargy as quickly as one might slip and fall down the stairs. She reached into her bag and pulled out one of the granola bars which had been stored away. Ruby watched as Joyce devoured the snack, bite after bite, like a feral beast.
“Shouldn’t you be saving those for later? We’ve only barely just started.” Ruby could never shake the feeling that Joyce knew something important that they didn’t.
“I’ve got my stuff, you’ve got yours.” She finished the granola bar and threw the wrapper on the ground. “So be it. Let’s talk.” The two lined up horizontally and resumed their descent through the Deerhoof Tunnels. Ruby made a mental note to watch out for the discarded wrapper to clean it up upon their return.
Ruby Mayweather had nothing but questions, and Joyce Mélange had some answers.
“Where are we?”
“Deerhoof Tunnels. Probably ‘bout a kilometer and a half below the earth’s surface by now.”
“Have you ever been here before?”
“No, but as you’re now aware I know some people who have.”
“Right, um…got any kids?”
“So you want kids, then?”
“How far down do the tunnels go?”
“Well, nobody really knows…”
“How can that possibly be?”
For each of Joyce’s terse, exacting answers, Ruby had five or more broad questions already queued up.
“Does anybody live down here?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
Ruby asked everything, and so Joyce told them everything. Garrein Mélange, her brother, was the last person to enter Cat’s Cave in search of its previous patron who’d gone missing somewhere in the Deerhoof Tunnels.
“If you put me next to my brother, you wouldn’t think we were related. My skin’s lighter, for one. Not that I can remember his face all that much; I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. He’d been incarcerated, petty larceny, for about fifteen years not long after being discharged from the navy.”
“Fifteen years!? That seems so long.”
“Well, everyone’s got bills to pay.”
Two months prior, Evangela Bellamy, the daughter of a wealthy oil magnate from Tibil who struck out big on her own when her father shook the right hands to put her in the pictures, was planning to visit U’breta, the slight capital of Verlouth, though nobody was quite sure why. Ruby had remembered reading about her much-anticipated visit in the daily correspondence after a postal mix-up sent the wrong letter to someone more than willing to sell the information therein to whichever publication put up the prettiest penny. Circulation of funds had taken a real hit when a couple years prior the reserves of didust from the shallow parts of the Deerhoof Tunnels that common folks were willing to explore had all dried up. The dearth of exports put into stark relief for many the reality that without the well of didust to dredge up, U’breta and by association all of Verlouth didn’t have much going for it. Evangela, to those struggling to make ends meet within U’bretan city lines, was an attraction, a tourism gold mine.
“We were never very close. People who knew him better tell me he was always wrapped up in this or that. None of it ever seemed like anything I would be better off knowing about. What about you?”
The U’bretan government dedicated all its reserves to making the city seem extravagant and worthy of spending time and money on to those cultured, esteemed individuals of the world such as Evangela Bellamy. Invitations were sent, festivals and fairs were planned, favors were turned in, cured meats and pickled vegetables and antipastos of all different flavor profiles were imported from trade routes no one from U’breta had used in years; streamers, banners and city flags were woven and displayed along streets and on the front doors of homes in a boisterous display of city pride as all awaited her good tidings. Having around the same time completed his sentence, Garrein had caught the Bellamy bug too, though unintentionally. Following his discharge from the Verlouth Correctional Facility just five miles out from U’breta where no one had come to greet him, completely on a whim while making the long trek home he met Evangela who was picking up some things at a convenience store while attempting to conceal her identity. Eager to learn about any and everything as he was, he struck up a conversation with the first person he met there. Compared to Garrein, who behind bars wasn’t even allowed books to read, Evangela, who of her own merits didn’t know much in the ways of the intellect, were like a scholar with a doctorate in worldly going-ons. Smitten by her good looks and ability to recall basic information, he decided then and there that it was with her that he wanted to break free from the Verlouthian chains that bind him and eke out a life together elsewhere in this vast world of freedom.
The two would never speak again, nor did anybody from U’breta ever actually get to meet her. Word got out of Evangela’s disappearance through the security camera footage of any and all residents and businesses which city officials passed a unanimous decree to be afforded access to in an attempt to find and regale her with their love. She had been allowed into Cat’s Cave by routing significant stores of money from her father’s offshore tax shelter to the pockets of the cave’s previous security guard, so allured was she by deliciously tantalizing rumors of previous missing persons lost to the impossible labyrinth of the Deerhoof Tunnels, of which there had been many in the past who’d attempted to be the one to firm the world’s grasp on the seemingly unknowable contours of its chutes, drops, and vaults. With her penchant for danger, Evangela Bellamy simply couldn’t resist.
“Me? Oh, it’s nothing, really…my folks wanted me to take up the family business. ‘Folks is always in need of a nice garden! Makes a house a home.’ That’s what my mom would always say. I learned about flowers and the trees and birds and even some little fish. I could teach you some stuff, if you wanted.”
“Maybe I’ll take you up on that, sometime,” Joyce replied. Anything to keep her mind occupied.
“Either way, it’s all intended for my ‘next of kin’. Who knows about all that. And then theirs, and then theirs, and so on. That’s what being a Mayweather is. Guess I just wasn’t cut out.”
Upon hearing the news of Evangela’s disappearance, Garrein Mélange gave serious consideration to instigating another twenty behind bars by personally dealing with that irresponsible miscreant who had willingly let her in, and by her lonesome too! He decided instead to let the officials leading the investigation play out their arcane, bureaucratically slow investigative process (the arrest of the security guard had in a backwards way led to Evangela’s father’s arrest for tax evasion, so the city ended up pretty well occupied dealing with all that), but he soon became impatient. Did nobody else care for her as he did or could? Surely not, nor would they ever.
“Okay, but, if fertilizer and mulch isn’t your speed, I’m just wondering, what is? Like, why are you here?” He made the trek to Cat’s Cave. There was nobody there to stop him.
“You’re gonna think it’s dumb.”
Without thinking of it, Ruby and Joyce had crouched down to their all fours to crawl into a low recess burrowed by decades of rainwater pooling in from the outside world, this same stream which had paved a feasible enough path for folks to travel upon. The bottoms of stalactites like carrot harvests forced them to sway their heads left and right as they inched their way forward. The ground was moist, jagged, and uncomfortable.
“Well, that goes without saying.”
“I thought it was kinda obvious, but…I always wanted to be a detective. Mysteries are my thing. I always liked to figure stuff out, by myself. So, that’s why I came here.”
To this, Joyce says nothing. She simply pushes on.
“Hey, mind if I ask you something?”
“You don’t seem all that beaten up about your brother.”
“I said you could ask me something. Let’s switch lights, by the way, just in case.”
Ruby switches off their headlamp and Joyce switches on hers. They continue their squirming. A spider crawls by; Joyce waits for it to pass before catching up with Ruby.
“Right, uh…aren’t you sad about him being missing?”
“Honestly, not so much. In the position I’m in, it doesn’t serve me well to get hung up on things like that. Plus, it’s been so long that, well, it just is what it is.”
Ruby stops to catch her breath, then continues crawling. “Yeah, right, but…I don’t know…”
“Well, think about it this way. You don’t seem all that concerned with living up to what your parents made of you. Instead, you’re lost in a cave with a total stranger looking for another total stranger. To an outsider like me, that says a lot.”
The two of them made it out into a clearing, and Ruby sits up a bit, crossing their legs. They reach into their bag and pull out one of the granola bars, a water bottle, their notepad and a black pen. They switch on their headlamp and start trying to take notes before quickly channeling their manic energy into the fresh sheets of paper through squiggles and loose thoughts scribbled into anywhere free up to take them.
“I thought you were trying to save those.” Joyce Mélange rested her back as comfortably as she could against the damp caprock wall and wiped sweat from her brow with the arm of her cardigan. The humidity was starting to get to her.
Ruby curtly continued eating, eyes closed. “I’m not lost,” they said. A bit smugly, they waited for some sort of reply from Joyce, but none came. After almost a half a minute more of waiting, Ruby was feeling a bit vain; they had wanted to be afforded the space to vent more to someone who would listen about their problems and didn’t appreciate somewhat having the rug pulled away midstream. They turned to Joyce, and asked if something were the matter.
In what little time they’d spent together, Ruby had become used to Joyce’s capricious bouts of taciturnity, but this was something else. Joyce had turned to face the gaping maw ahead of them, her eyes catatonic like clamshells pried open, her head leaning inward, hands dropped to her sides and trembling. A distant wailing permeated her hearing, the bellows bringing about sense memories long shut beneath the cellars of the past.
She broke out in a fervorous sprint into the black. Ruby tried calling out to her, muffled by a mouthful of granola, but only the echoes of their voice called back. In the blink of a second, Joyce was somewhere else.
Ruby desperately clawed their way forward, with only the headlamp to keep them aground, though the shaking of their head precluded any confidence in their loose steps. To progress through the Deerhoof Tunnels, if such a thing were possible, to them meant heading as far downward as was possible. It was as if their legs were acting for them out of desperation to not be broken. They were running so fast that they couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t fathom or consider. All they could do was act and go.
Disoriented after minutes of sprinting, Ruby nearly absentmindedly fell into a deep dark ravine, across from which the rest of the passage were blocked by loose rock formations, though they could spot glimpses of further blackness through the negative space in between the loose, fragmented limestone, sandstone and caprock. Reeds of grass miraculously grew out through cracks in the ground and seemed to lead into the hole. They removed their headlamp from their head and held it down into the hole, angling it every direction both their wrists could muster. They saw nothing. They grabbed the pistol from their bag and angrily fired twenty bullets into the hole, waiting with bated breath between reloads for the sounds of the collision of the casings with anything. None came. They tried calling out to Joyce. “Hey! Where are you? Are you in there?” They heard nothing. “I know you’re in there!” Not even the echo of their voice came back to them. “You’re supposed to be my chaperone! That was really fucking irresponsible of you! I will report you, you know!” Nothing.
They considered turning back from whence they came to get help; but who would come to their side? Surely not the security guard, he probably too busy fixing up the gate to accomodate them and their problems. And if they left and didn't return, what exactly were waiting for them back above ground? They pondered the thought, but no answer immediately came to mind.
Ruby grabbed a second water bottle out from their pack and voraciously drank up the entirety of its contents, tightly squeezing the pistol in their right hand, taking a minute to calm their breathing. The headlamp sat on the ground next to them, precariously near the entrance to the hole. When they were finished drinking, they squinted to look down at the bottle through the all-encompassing cavernous gloom, scrutinizing the bottle for errant droplets of water that maybe the headlamp’s light wouldn’t be able to catch, but it was wholly empty. They tossed it aside near the hole’s mouth and picked a reed of grass from the tiny fissures mapping the ground around them. They recognized it instantly; ryegrass, the sort which grew in the lawn of their childhood home. They crushed it in their clenched fist and ate the entire reed. The taste was nothing special; they’d had hundreds just like it. They ate the rest of the grass they could find all around them, humming the vocal melody to a folk standard about a boy who loses sleep when a hen goes missing from his coop, and finally strapped the knapsack to their shoulder, gripping it tightly in one hand and the pistol in the other as they shut both eyes and went feet-first.
There were no correct ways, only suggestions of light and sound. Materials here had no right to classification. She walked, stumbled, and tripped. Many paths showed themselves to her, but she could walk only the one that she were set on. Each step were a proper migraine. Every flash pierced the cracks between her fingers in front of her eyes as if a creditor. The noise was unbearable. Its magnitude flitted in and out in fits and starts but never ceased. All around her, paintings of figures illustrated the walls followed by a signature. There were so many that she wouldn’t in a million years be able to recall the details of any specific one; she might instead take the hair color of one person, the left eye of another, the right eye of one after that, the arms of someone younger, the legs of someone much older, and then in her head make their skin color contingent upon the lighting of a person from some other scene she’d soon thereafter recall.
She could only remember one thing he had ever said to her. It was something that didn’t seem all that important yet in the absence of all could only be an imperative: “I will see you again where the trees meet to play tricks on each other.” He had said this to her in his sleep, and once a year she awoke to the sound of those words being spoken anew to her. But the words lined up together in different orderings, or their constituent letters might shift about; some words would go linearly, some in front, some behind, some curled up around a book, some in the stars, some with the minnows that swim in schools; others beneath her pillow or between giblets of meat in her stews. She heard it spoken in different voicings at octaves people couldn’t reach anymore. It appeared in the harmonies of tones from instruments lost to time. It intonated itself into the crevices of all the futures she were capable of imagining; not the whole but as a spice. Only in the liminal space between dreaming and waking did it reveal its true form, of which there were many. By day it were mute like the mime who tells its story to an empty auditorium; by the gloaming of drunken, debaucherous nights it were like a mallard choking on its own spittle.
Every choice she made came with it ten thousand more to decide between. And the spaces between brought with them choices too. Never were there places to stay, only antechambers and vestibules. Gardens with their own secrets had in them gardens with their own secrets, and they were all laid out before her like banquets to gorge on, and she was very hungry. But doomed was she to not enjoy even a single bite, as she could not cook and did not fancy anything being offered. So she made do and stifled her gag reflexes as dish after dish were presented to her, drowning out her moanings with the stiflingly bitter tastes of charcoal, ash and dust. The bats and the crickets and the mammoths and shrimp tried sampling the table’s feast, but she swatted them away as they approached, sending them back to their rightful places amongst the trees and the brooks between, where no one lives nor wants to, though they would always return eventually. Then she would resume her gluttony. One day, she knew, she would taste that flavor she craved again.
Ruby Mayweather opened their eyes but couldn’t quite be sure if they were awake or not. Sweat trickled down their face, some into the neck drop of their t-shirt, some slithering into their mouth agape and leaving behind tributary stains. Their eyes watered, and their head furiously pounded as if something were trying to escape. They tried moving their arms, but they figured they must have landed on their left arm and broken it as it wouldn’t budge. They could feel it aching but right now it didn’t seem all that important. With their right arm, they wiped away the perspiration from their brow and thought back to falling off a horse and scraping their knee as a young tyke; their mother could never really forgive herself for letting Ruby’s father bring them along on his daily routes, selling the family’s latest batch of flowers and shrubbery to those lacking a green thumb.
There before had been little doubt in their mind that jumping into the bottomless pit was suicide, yet somehow they were alive in this sprawling darkness. At the very least, they’d gotten to see blood. They achingly stood up into what seemed to them a large rotunda. Squinting to get a clean grasp of their surroundings, they could just make out the ground scattered with buttercups, honeysuckles, dandaelions, and poppies, some tall as their waist; and their shoes crunched upon green ryegrass. No fauna adulterated the plant life in this unlit herbarium which nonetheless they noticed were thriving as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. They reached for the first thing in their bag that they could hold onto. Out came the pad of paper they’d brought along ostensibly to document their journey but never had the proper light or wherewithal to actually do so. They tried looking at what little they had scratched out into it, but recognized nothing, so they left the notepad to frolic in a bundle of lilies.
Any direction they could turn toward was without obstruction. Their vision blurred and lacking conviction, they nudged themself toward a direction and walked.
Each step they took upon all this subterranean flora before them echoed above the sound of their own breathing. One minute they would be headed one way, then like a flustered drunkard they would feel themself heaving toward some other direction entirely. This way grows bamboo thickets, palm fronds and daisies; that way to the lilies, the pampas grass, the bramble bunches and corn. Plants that elsewhere never had the pleasure of each other’s company were here allowed to co-mingle and flourish. Their legs were sore both from the walk into Cat’s Cave and down, around, and all about the Deerhoof Tunnels before they fell. Were that the day before, perhaps? Or last week? Ten minutes ago? They were eager to see what else sprouted through the primordial cracks beneath the botanical gardens of this dark grotto, but every way they went led inside themself, where time didn’t matter much. Ruby was being.
Thoughts passed them by in fractions of a second, so they were never able to internalize any observation or think through any question that struck them. Their wants, their desires, their needs; all were fleeting. One minute they would be desperate to be spirited away from this devilish jurisdiction as a burgeoning claustrophobia ensnared them in its trap, the next they were morbidly drawn to the margins of this umbran realm. They would feel as if a deer in headlights one moment and the next a colossus razing the caput mundi of some distant universe through its vicissitudinous swaying and stomping. They remembered the knapsack on their back which was so light it had for some time seemed as if it were an appendage and pulled from it the third and final water bottle, drinking it all in one swig. They finished off their granola bars, applied the rubbing alcohol to the gash on their left arm and attempted to seal the wound with a bandage, but nothing they did quite satiated. But they weren’t wanting for comfort either.
The brush and the shrubbery parted where no ground remained, but their steps weren’t forced to cease. As they walked as if on thin air, from the all-shadows they heard a voice sputtering in manic whispers. They struggled to make out what this voice was saying but instantly recognized it as belonging to their leader in this fraught expedition, Joyce Mélange. Ruby’s enamored, directionless stride slowed to a torpid crawl. To their ear alone, this did not seem like the Joyce they knew, but it was a Joyce. So thick was the darkness that they figured once they were finally able to see Joyce, the two would be so close so as to be face-to-face. The notion petrified their every fiber. They closed their eyes, hoping against hope that they were merely feeling out the boundaries of their own lucid dream, but in opening them again no such relief came. The voice crackled and popped with tempestuous blight. To Ruby, listening to this cacophony were like stepping barefoot on a mound of fire ants, then onto lit coals, then into a pit of serpents and scorpions, then back the way they came. Still, at the end of the day—were such a thing ever to come—Ms. Mélange was their superior, and Ruby Mayweather her subordinate, and so it were that Ruby felt compelled to trudge forward and face whatever awaited them.
Ruby’s worries were not unfounded. Joyce’s eyes were closed, her eyelids black as tar. Small flecks from her lips shed from her face as she muttered to herself, and a cleft joined her leaking nostrils to her hung-open mouth. She smelled of toxic waste, and her hair appeared as if it had been dipped into a pigsty’s trough. Upon the backs of her hands were black lines which led up to the sleeves of her cardigan. There were gaping holes revealing molting pink skin where wools and fabrics used to be. Her toenails were pried away from their usual spot, others gone entirely; the soles of her flip-flops were peeling away. Blackened knees told Ruby that Joyce had been kneeling recently, though on what they couldn’t be sure. Her entire body was thrashing in place, gestating and throbbing about but never locomoting, as if her feet were nailed to the ground. Her head swiveled vertically and horizontally in irregular rhythms, and Ruby could make out lacerations bisecting her neck.
Ruby had fought back their desire to run away to such an extent that they were now so close to Joyce the two could touch, though Ruby feared what might happen were they to chance it. Joyce’s mutterings became louder and more frequent but just as incoherent. Every so often, Ruby thought they could make out an inkling of a word like ‘…you” or “t-the” but they wrote it off as confirmation bias. Joyce’s vigorous shaking were like a suit of armor. Ruby could imagine Joyce’s pupils rapidly darting about the inside of her head, if indeed she still had eyes to show. Ruby closed their eyes and tried shooting Joyce with the last bullet remaining in the pistol, but they couldn’t tell if their frenzied aim were poor or if the casing had gone straight through Joyce’s skin; or perhaps they simply couldn't bring themself to go through with it. The pistol dropped down to somewhere below. They tried yelling to Joyce, recounting the details of their journey toward the mouth of Cat’s Cave, how they met the strange man at the fence, how he chopped away at the chainlink with those metal snips with a particular sort of malice, how Good Weddings Day was so close and that maybe she might find somebody to settle down with, if only she would just open her eyes. But nothing worked, and Ruby didn’t know what could be done for her. Something had taken hold of Joyce Mélange. Her mind was submerged in delirium’s throat, descending down its cloistered esophagus; what remained of her skin melting like butter and pleasing its voracious taste buds, satisfying its whims with her frenzied complacency.
Ruby took three steps back, then four, then five more, and then ten, and as they did Joyce Mélange began to float upward. It was too late. Ruby was trapped; for one after another, any direction they ran, grounded or not the plants and flowers all wilted away as if either in fast-forward or retrograde; the moribund bodies of others made themselves known from the beyond of beyond, their eyes gouged out and molten pus spewing from the apertures leftover, wherein brains wrapped themselves around minds around tongues around torsos, teeth chattering and falling upward, legs and bowels contorting, prostrating, mouths chirping, howling, wailing, and whispering, all skin, no skin, sinews and flesh gestalted, everything nearing, all being: all.
A woman who couldn’t have been younger than her mid-50’s gripping a cane walked with relative ease down a hill to the mouth of a cave, pausing to scrutinize the plywood boarding up the entrance. Beside it, a man sat in a wooden rocking chair backwards onto the brick wall around the plywood, his arms crossed and a cap covering half his face as he slept. The length and width of her coat gave off a certain aura. Her salt-and-pepper hair was put up in a bun and she looked cross, grey-blue bags seeping beneath her eyes. She wore a full suit; she meant business.
“I’m here on official business. Open up, I’ve not all day, you know.”
The man jolted from his sleep. Despite the sedentary nature of his vocation, he seemed exhausted. “Ay, and who ye’ be to interrupt my beauty rest like a bleedin’ klaxon?”
“I’ll not repeat myself.” She presents to him a signed and notarized document. “Verify my credentials, as I know you are to do.” He grabs the paper and stares her up and down. “Well? Get on with it, won’t you?” She tapped her foot twice, and began pacing back and forth.
“Hmph. What a sodding way.” He skimmed the document for the necessary information and began crumpling it up to put in his pocket, before the woman demanded, “Throw that thing away. What use for my information could someone like you possibly have?”
He peered at her with a scowl, then took a bite out of the paper. He lit a cigar, took two hits from it, and used it to ignite what was left of the sheet. Before the flames could reach the tips of his fingers, he dropped the leaf on the ground and stamped it out under his cheap r’ball shoes. As he stood up from his chair, he lifted up a plastic bag by the strap to which the woman interjected, “No need. I won’t be long.”
“Very well.” He groggily bent over and grabbed an axe by the stainless steel of its cheek. Limping over to the fence, he grumbled, “Stand clear, you know what’s best.” With might like oxen and the aimlessness of the blind hunter, he vivisected the bowing plywood, splinters whisking away to prickle the man and the woman’s skin. She wiped the bits away from her tailored suit with irritation; he didn’t seem to notice. Not long after, the man had made mincemeat of the barrier and tossed aside the axe with a recklessness that made the woman detest him further.
By the time he returned to his position and planted his rear back to the rocking chair, charred and destitute from the passing of time, the woman was already sixteen paces inward. He could hear the clomping of her stilettos upon the limestone deposits layering the ground echoing out the cave’s mouth; though like the greyhound who was born under the watchful eye of its owner, these sounds wouldn’t travel far. The jackdaws perched along the branches of trees nearby settled into their nests, isolating their kin from the elements. “Perhaps ye’ will be.” A cold wind blew through, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Dying leaves rustled about, leaving their old resting places for new ones.
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