A Lamb at the Dinner Table by Robert Scotellaro

Ben was back.  Anew.  Which was something of an oxymoron, but he was back dating again, and he was a new man.  The fresh lion passant tattoo roaring half out of his shirt sleeve announced it.

He was with a woman he met online, and they were spelunking a cave in Kentucky.  Something she’d always wanted to do.  Something he never wanted to do.  Told him she liked her men to be “Lambs at the dinner table, and lions in bed.”  And that’s when he rolled up his sleeve the rest of the way.

She was tall and sinewy, and snaked her way easily down one of the narrow cave passages, called for him to follow.  Her headlight slid cross the rocks, his own light, stationary, as he tried to steady his breath.  Tried to slow that locomotive in his chest.  Keep it from jumping the tracks.

“This is great!” she said, as she descended.  “Now I’m glad I didn’t have that extra slice of pizza.  Where are you?”

“I’m here,” he said.  “Right behind you.”  Her light slowly dimmed as she eased further down, his own light fixed on that one section of rock.  The drop seemed angled, yet precipitous.  A kind of anti-birth.  Like entering a stony womb. Holy hell!  he thought.

As a kid, whenever he was anxious, he’d sit in front of that small fish tank in his room.  His tropicals.  It calmed him, watching their slow balletic meanderings.  Limits negotiated with grace.  Their innocuous rise of bubbles.  But this…  This was drowning in stale air.  This was a monolithic straightjacket.  One that caused madness.  He adjusted his headlight, thought: What if it failed?

“Hey!” she called out.  “Where are you?”

“I’m coming,” he said, sweat dripping into his eyes.  He was suffocating.  Was sure of it.  Her light was faintly visible now. Her voice small and distant.

“Wow” she said.  “Fucking wow!”

He attempted to ease his way down the rocky slope.  Felt it vice around him.  Thought for a moment he couldn’t see.  At least not clearly.  That he‘d die in this passageway’s rocky clutches.  And she’d die too.  If he couldn’t get out, she couldn’t get out.  He wanted to think of those bygone tropicals.  That bubbling tank.  Find in himself some calming equivalent.  But felt it was lost to him.  That everything was, or soon would be.

“You can’t believe what it’s like down here,” she said.  “It opens up.  It’s like a grotto.  Hey, you there?”

“You bet,” he called to her, pressing in his shoulders and pushing himself out.  His headgear scraping rock.  His new self, born into his old self.  His new old self.  Uncorking.  Gulping air.  Gulping the bigness of air.

“Hey, what the fuck?” he barely heard her say.  “I can’t see your light.”  But he was headed for a brighter light.  And bigness begot bigness.  And that voice below him was getting smaller and tighter, as if the rocks themselves were speaking in a whisper.  Till they didn’t speak at all, and he was halfway to the mouth of the cave, with all that, whatever that was, behind him.

Robert Scotellaro has published widely in national and international books, journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, The Best Small Fictions anthologies 2016 and 2017. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks and three story collections: Measuring the Distance, Blue Light Press, 2012, What We Know So Far, (winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award), and Bad Motel, Big Table Publishing, 2016.  He has, along with James Thomas, edited an anthology of microfiction, due out by W.W. Norton in 2018.  Robert lives with his wife in San Francisco.

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