They were early for the first tour of the cave and waited outside at a picnic table, where her son ate granola bars and her stomach roiled from weak hotel coffee. It was high tick season, but she didn’t notice the black dots crawling from the wood onto their thighs for at least ten minutes and she tried to not panic about disease while plucking the pests from their bodies. Her husband’s leg hair made the task difficult.
Once they were inside the cave, she couldn’t imagine leaving its relief from the sweat and screaming cicadas. They wound along pathways once carved by water and her son whispered he didn’t think the larger family behind them would fit through some of the narrower formations. She told him he was being mean. Long before he was born, she had lived in a much larger body. She did worry the last family would fall behind and get lost in one of the hundreds of passageways beyond the ropes the guide had warned them to not explore. Darkness lapped at her elbows and ankles. Up ahead, her husband did not seem worried about anything. She imagined all the ticks they missed nestling into his hair.
In areas with low overhead, people had marked the ceiling with things like Eleanor and John 1868 and Tommy 1934. Her son said they were all fake. He was ten and believed in nothing. He said there was no way to know someone hadn’t climbed up yesterday and marked everything with a piece of coal to make it look old, and he picked a rock off the sandy floor and started to demonstrate until her husband snatched it away. The guide showed them the infamous Jesse James’ hiding place and talked about enslaved people who had taken refuge in the tunnels. A man who owned the land for a time put his young daughter’s remains in a copper cylinder and hid it in the cave, hoping to study petrification.
Why did he want her to turn into a rock? her son asked. She pressed her forehead against a wall and did not tell him because parents sometimes want their children to be still.
At its end the tour fed them into a giftshop where her son bounced from the slingshots and popguns to the rock collections and the stuffed animals. He wanted them all. She told him to pick one thing that was not a gun, but he really wanted a gun. He agreed to a large plush snake and a velvet bag of rocks and gems she would find years later scattered at the bottom of the drawer where they kept sandwich bags for packed lunches. She explained these would be his only souvenirs for the cross-country vacation. While she paid the cashier, her husband got the call with his test results and mouthed to her it was the doctor, which was a bad sign, and he briskly went out into the heat for privacy, leaving her and their son with the polished rocks and sequined snakes under the bright shop lights. She clenched her change and wondered if they should wait for him to return or join him out in the brighter light and the screaming. Could they have more time to adjust?
At one point in the cave the guide had led them into a larger opening dissected by a tiny creek, part of the Mississippi watershed. He turned off the fixed lanterns with a switch and nothingness enveloped them before she had time to stand closer to her husband and son and when she reached for their hands there was nothing—she was soft and bodyless and floating in the black and the sound of the water echoed gently against the walls like the chorus of a song without a satisfying resolution. No one spoke and nothing was fake or real and instead of staying still and turning to stone she spun in slow circles as she had as a child to make herself dizzy and she etched her name in her mind until it was nothing too.
Kate Gehan’s debut short story collection, The Girl and The Fox Pirate, was published by Mojave River Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, Literary Mama, and Cheap Pop, among others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her work at kategehan.com.
Photography by Jeremy Bishop (@jeremybishop)