Mr Pepper was late to the cabin. Only by seven minutes, which in his mind was probably no time at all, but in my experience I had to hear about it each and every second. If you do the math, that’s 420 of them, plenty of time for mom to get worried, then furious, regretting her life choices, then back to worried and angry.
In her defense, mom’s neuroticism had been cranked to 11; but I get it, her brother died. Or a worse fate, missing indefinitely. There was no way for me to predict a normal reaction to this sort of thing.
She let it all go when he pulled up, ran to his truck, and waved me over.
“Alex! Come here! Yes, this is my daughter. Alex, come meet Randy.”
Randy’s truck smelled like corn chips. He had turned down The Eagles on the radio as I approached, but I could still hear Hotel California hitting it’s haunting chorus. Behind the steering wheel, two fat, hairy arms poked from the sleeveless jean shirt he could barely fit in, dancing to the groove of his rockabye singalong–
“–And you can never leave! Hi Alex! Randy. Randy Pepper.” He waved.
“Randy, are you a doctor?” I asked, maybe because I felt awkward, or because I thought mom would laugh. She didn’t.
“Har, har, haven’t heard that one before. Y’all hop on in, I don’t bite.” His hunting rifle took up the whole rest of the front bench, so mom and I crawled into the two bucket seats in the extended cab. “Just remind me which way to go, Karen, the trails are barely visible out here.”
When we got to the rim of the big sinkhole, we all clambered out and walked to the edge. Randy whistled and said it was deeper than he remembered. His arm-long rifle nearly tipped him over when he peeked, but mom saved him. They both giggled, and it was super creepy.
“I got some rope in the truck,” he said, “y’all hang here and I’ll go down first. Check it out.” I motioned to mom not to argue. Mr Pepper tied one end of the rope to his truck’s grill, and carried the other to us. It was clearly a climbing rope, with big tied knots every 10 feet or so. He tossed it over the edge, and then, kind of like a bubba Indiana Jones, threw the rifle over his shoulder and began his oddly charming descent. The last thing he said before slipping out of view– “You know, I got my doctorate in environmental sciences. If that counts.”
He popped back into view just long enough to scurry under the coiled vines masking the little tunneled entrance. The last thing I saw was when he turned on a large yellow flashlight and disappeared, then I faced mom to make sure she didn’t follow. By some miracle, we both agreed to stay put and wait on him to scout it out. Patiently.
“You were right,” she said, (a rarity,) “he really is Dr Pepper.”
I was ready to rip my own eardrums out by the eleventh “what’s taking so long” scoff, (yes, I counted,) when Dr Pepper returned nearly fifteen minutes later. I assured mom that he was fine after all, and that he didn’t look like he’d been attacked by any bears.
“There’s nothing in there,” he said between huffs, emerging at the rim via the rope. “I went past the fishing hole, nothing. No scat, no bones. Nothing. I bet what you heard was farther back in the woods, and the sounds just got distorted in this big-ass fishbowl we’re standing on.”
It took some convincing, but seeing that he was perfectly fine, and with his environmental doctorate and all, we decided to chance it, based on his thorough evaluation. I just prayed we could find something on uncle Johnny and put an end to this craziness. Could be home by lunch tomorrow. In other words, I was in. Back home, I had a job I was lying to. And a renter’s mortgage. We grabbed two more big flashlights from the truck, and Dr. Pepper led the way.
“Just slide down to each knot,” he called up, to instruct my mom how to descend. “Make sure your have your heels tucked in. Can’t have you fallin’ on me, I’m precious cargo!” (Mom laughed louder than usual, but maybe that was from the exertion.)
The cavern’s tunnel wasn’t nearly as ominous as I imagined. Not very dark either; a crack ran along the top of the tunnel, wide enough to stick my hand through, so we didn’t need the flashlights until the next chamber. There they bounced off wider walls, wet with the trickle of an unseen spring above. Colder too; cold enough to regret not taking mom’s advice about wearing the sweater. Almost.
The water collected into a stream on the left side, widening before turning a sharp left into the next chamber beyond. Onward we trudged, as Dr Pepper commented on the ancient spring which must have carved this cave system, and that what we see now is just a piddly stream remaining.
“Probably dumps into a deep aquaphor” he added. Mom asked if the pillars dripping from the ceiling were called stalactites or stalagmites, but I think it was just to keep him talking. I called it then and there: mom was in heat.
The next chamber was much larger, I’d say about the width of my living room and real long, the ceiling just a bit higher than the last. The stream flowed strong in here, and about halfway in I saw Uncle Johnny’s set-up next to it: two battery operated flood lights, a camping chair and an ice chest, two fishing poles and an open box of tackle. When I tried the flood lights, Dr. Pepper said-
“No luck, kiddo. Tried that earlier. Ice box is empty, too, if you were wantin’ a beer.” I didn’t, but I could tell he probably did.
“What kind of fish did he catch in here?” I asked, trying to imagine how big a cavefish could possibly be.
“He didn’t,” mom said, (another scoff, drenched in that weird judgemental twang of hers,) “I asked him that too, believe me. He says he just likes fishing. He bought 200 acres with four ponds on the damn thing and his favorite fishing hole was all the way in here, go figure. Didn’t even care to catch a fish, how silly is that? Right Randy?”
“Oh, well,” Dr Pepper pondered, stroking a patch of spindly beard he must had forgotten to shave off weeks ago, “going through the motions probably brought him comfort. Brings! I meant brings. After the shit we saw on the gulf…” He looked at the both of us and tipped an invisible hat. “Pardon my French.”
A faint scuffling behind us made me jump, but mom stayed steady and called out–
“Johnny, is that you?” Randy Pepper told her to to stop that; she didn’t. “Johnny, stop playing games, and get out here! Everyone’s been so worried!”
“Mom, it’s probably just a rodent. I don’t know, a possum, or something. Look, it’s already stopped.”
“If you want,” said Dr. Pepper, “I can go a bit further in, take another look.” Mom nodded. “But then I think we should head back out, search elsewhere.”
I was about to echo what Dr Pepper said, but we were all deafened by what sounded like a thousand nails scratching at the walls around us —scriiitchh!!—Scrrrraaattt! The earth shook, and the whole cavern echoed in it’s terrible quake. The scratching intensified, to the point where I couldn’t tell if it was happening inside my head. (Was it scratching? If I didn’t know better, it sounded like the cavern walls were ripping apart at the seams….) Honestly it’s impossible to record how terrifying the noise was, much less describe it.
We huddled together by the camp chair, mom and I doing our best to cover one ear and find the source of this with our flashlights, while poor Dr. Pepper needed both hands on his rifle. As loud as it was, I could still hear her shout–
“It’s bats scratching at the walls, must be!”
“Thought you said there were no bats!” Dr. Pepper and I returned in unison. He fired his rifle at something on the ceiling, but all that did was drop a few small stalagmites. (It’s stalagmites, right?)
When it stopped, mom was the first to rally us to the exit.
“I’m so sorry! Oh my God! Oh my God, Alex, are you behind me? Alex, where’s the exit?”
“Right in front of you mom! What are you talking about?” For whatever reason, my flashlight couldn’t find it.
Dr Pepper ran up behind; his rifle tickled my flashlight and I jumped straight up into a low hanging stalagmite. (Whatever, the pointy things.)
That’s when things got fuzzy… I remember them feeling around for our way out when the noise started up again, this time directly behind us, louder than before, like hell itself was opening up, either to spit uncle Johnny out, or swallow us whole. I wouldn’t have cared, I just wanted it to end. There was a blinding light, then absolute dark.