I grew up in Kentucky about fifteen minutes from the Red River Gorge, a network of canyons and geographical curiosities of enticing perplexity. While many of my friends spent their summers playing Atari and Nintendo, I preferred exploring the Gorge with my closest friend Ernie. My mother didn’t mind too much, as long as we went together and were back before dinner.
It wasn’t uncommon for us to stumble upon caves amidst the rocks. And as children with few concerns of danger or mortality, we readily climbed inside armed with nothing more than flashlights and sticks; sticks which sometimes acted as magical wands and other times machine guns depending on that day’s adventure.
It was a summer day in mid August when we found one such cave, it was nestled deep in a crevice that would have certainly gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for Ernie’s unnerving interest in searching for snakes. The entrance was smooth but narrow, too narrow for anyone but a child. We squeezed through, our chests and shoulders tight to the walls of rock, our heads turned so our ears pressed against the earth below and rock above. It was a four-foot squeeze before the cavern opened up, first to crawling and ultimately walking height.
We joked and shouted, enjoying the loud echoes bouncing off the walls. Our flashlights cast lanky shadows across the floor. Cool air rushed through the cavity, a release from the stiff humid air of the August day. Ernie and I clambered forward, too young to have any concerns. The cave floor and walls were mostly smooth. A more experience spelunker may have recognized this as a water passage, we simply marveled at the darkness of our secret discovery.
Onward we walked though the passage. It widened further until it was easily fifteen feet across. It was then that we came across a door.
For the first time in our adventure, Ernie and I exchanged nervous looks. Now it seemed that we weren’t exploring uncharted lands, it felt as if we were trespassing on someone else’s secret. Like walking in on another’s intimate conversation, Ernie and I paused not knowing if we should barge in or retreat.
After minutes that felt like hours, Ernie reached for the door handle. He turned and pulled. With a quiet creaking the door opened to darkness. Ernie let go of the handle and walked through the door – his flashlight reaching unanswered into the darkness. Where his hand had touched the cold metal door handle, ghostly fingerprints remained. Ernie faded from view.
“Ernie?” I said again. My flashlight searched the open door, revealing nothing but depth. I realized the cave was cold. Very cold. My arms shivered.
“Ernie!” my exclamation bounced around the cavern behind me.
As quick as his image had faded from view, Ernie reappeared, his face white. “let’s go.”
We raced to back towards the entrance
“What was in there? What was it?” I asked, the cave echo repeating back my pleading questions
“nothing okay! it was nothing.”
This time the cave swallowed his words. This time, there was no echo.