Following this post, I’ll be taking a break from blogging. I’ll still be keeping up with blogs here, and I can also be reached by e-mail, so please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like. I wanted to share one last story with you (for the foreseeable future, at least), and I hope you enjoy it. I also want to thank everyone for all the support you’ve given me since I began this journey. Your encouragement and friendship mean more than I can express.
Graham made a slow circle, his boots scuffling through dead leaves. The trees surrounding him bowed their branches to the wind.
“Why don’t you just admit we’re lost?” Amelia asked. She slumped against an ancient oak, catching bits of lichen on her sweater. “Mom is going to be so pissed.”
“Watch your mouth,” Graham said, but he knew his daughter was right. He had violated the custody agreement by taking Amelia across state lines without his ex-wife’s permission.
He focused on the fading light to the west. Though Graham was no outdoorsman, he realized the night’s falling temperature carried the risk of hypothermia, and he worked to keep his face calm. “I’m pretty sure we came from that direction,” he said, pointing over Amelia’s shoulder. “I think if we head that way, we’ll get back to the road where I left the truck.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Amelia’s voice took on a whine he hadn’t heard since she was a small child prone to tantrums. “Our Phys Ed teacher said if we’re ever lost, we should stay put so it’s easier for the rescuers to find us.”
Graham forced a laugh. “We don’t need rescuers, but I want us off this mountain by nightfall, so let’s keep moving.”
“My feet hurt, and I’m starving.” Amelia pulled the cell phone from her sweater pocket. “Maybe I can get reception now.”
“No,” Graham said, more sharply than he intended. Amelia’s eyes, lined with inexpertly applied makeup, grew wide. “You won’t get reception up here,” he added. “Don’t waste the battery trying.”
He started past her, and she fell into line behind him. He was sure if they walked a little ways, they would find the dirt road where he parked his Ford pickup earlier. Maybe by the time they headed home, they could laugh about their adventure.
The day had started out promising enough. It was the first sunny, mild Saturday after a grueling winter, and with the dogwoods and redbuds about to bloom, Graham suggested a trip to the mountains where he grew up. Amelia was now twelve, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she wanted to spend every weekend with her friends. But today she jumped to her feet, grabbing her sweater and cell phone.
“Should I call Mom?” she asked.
“No need,” Graham replied. “We’ll be back before dark. And this will have to be our secret, Amelia. I’m not supposed to take you out of state without your mom knowing.”
Amelia gave him a conspiratorial smile. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
They left Graham’s house before noon, and during the three-hour drive to the Allegheny Mountains, Amelia chattered about her classes and the latest drama among her friends while forcing him to listen to what her generation considered music.
As Graham’s pickup climbed the mountain roads, Amelia grimaced. “My ears are popping,” she said.
“It’s the higher altitude,” Graham told her. “Try yawning.”
He rounded a curve, and only a guardrail stood between them and a drop of several hundred feet down the mountainside to their right. Amelia gazed at the houses clustered in the hollow below them. “Look how far up we are!” she said.
“When you were little, your mom and I brought you here to see your grandparents a couple of times, before they retired and moved to Florida. Do you remember?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Why didn’t we visit more?”
Graham shrugged. “Your mom said the mountain roads made her carsick.”
Amelia snorted. “That sounds like Mom.”
He glanced at her and grinned. “You know, when I was your age I used to climb the mountains around my house all the time. We didn’t have fancy video games and cell phones to keep us entertained back then. We actually had to go outside.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. “Sounds downright barbaric.”
“One time,” he went on, “my friends and I found a cave in the mountains about a mile from my parents’ property.”
Amelia turned in her seat to face him. “What kind of cave?”
“Not a very big one,” Graham said. “At least, it didn’t look big from the outside. The opening was narrow; you’d have to lie on your belly and slither between the rocks to get inside.”
She grabbed his sleeve. “Did you go in, Dad?”
“Nah,” he said. “I never had the nerve. Neither did my friends, but students from the state university used to explore it. They said the cave was home to rare species of bats and salamanders.”
Amelia clapped her hands in excitement. “I want to see it!”
“Oh, we can’t go there today, honey,” Graham said. “It’s at least a mile-long hike from the road.”
“That’s nothing,” she scoffed. “I bet you still remember the way there.”
Graham visited that cave dozens of times in his youth. When he was a child and closed his eyes at night, images of the trees and rocks, and the stream meandering through the mountains, appeared behind his lids as clearly as a photograph. But that was almost thirty years ago.
“Come on, Dad,” Amelia said. “We’ll be quick about it. I’ve never seen a cave before.” He started to protest, and she set her lips in a hard line. “Don’t be like Mom. She never lets me have any fun.”
They drove on increasingly rough roads toward his parents’ old house. Graham turned onto a dirt lane and passed a sign that read “End State Maintenance.”
Amelia craned her neck, looking around them. “You didn’t have any neighbors?”
“Not on this road,” Graham said. He saw the gravel driveway on the left and slowed the truck. Through trees and thick brush, he could just make out the house. It was still painted white, but not the way he remembered it. The color appeared dingy now, and the roof desperately needed replacing.
“You think anyone still lives there?” Amelia asked.
Graham cleared his throat. “Hard to say.” He eased the truck farther down the road. “Your grandparents would be sad to see the house in that kind of shape. They were always real proud of it.”
He reached the road’s dead end and parked the pickup. “See that little trail through the trees?” he asked, nodding at the woods before them. “It leads to the cave.”
“Cool!” Amelia threw open the door, and Graham had to tell her to wait as he cut the engine and climbed out of the truck.
“Now if we do this, I don’t want you lollygagging,” he said. “We need to be back on the road and headed home by five at the latest.”
“I’m not the one you should be worried about,” Amelia said, and to prove her point, she took long strides. “You won’t be able to keep up with me.”
Graham snickered and followed her, figuring she would begin complaining about the rough hike at any moment, but she surprised him. Even as her blonde hair snagged on spindly tree branches and she tripped over roots protruding from the ground, she kept up her speed and her good-natured prattling, until Graham found himself winded trying to outpace her.
The trail’s outline grew fainter, obscured by years of fallen leaves. He wanted to stop a minute and get his bearings, but Amelia plunged ahead on a path only she seemed able to see, and Graham lagged behind her. Surely they would soon come across the boulder that resembled a giant turtle shell. It stood near the cave’s entrance, and Graham always marveled at it, wondering if it had rolled from the mountaintop centuries before.
“I can’t wait to see the cave,” Amelia said. “I’m going to take pictures to show my friends. Maybe I’ll get extra credit in biology class if I write a report about it.”
“Hey, Amelia, wait up,” Graham said. “Let me make sure we’re going the right way.”
She halted on the trail. “I thought you knew the way.” A hint of alarm crept into her face.
“I do,” he said. “It’s a straight walk from the road, but this doesn’t look familiar. I’m wondering if we got off course at some point.” He put his hands on his hips and surveyed their surroundings. Over the sound of his heavy breathing, he listened for the stream. He could always hear it, even when it was out of sight. But now he heard only the birds chirping into the ceaseless wind.
“I think we should head back,” Graham said.
He expected her to protest, but Amelia stared at the trees stretching out from them in all directions and nodded. “Okay. Maybe we can come back some other weekend, and we’ll bring a map and a compass.”
Graham threw an arm around her shoulders. “Sounds like a plan. Now let’s go. If we get back home too late, your mom will have my hide.”
They walked for hours before Amelia insisted they were lost and should stop. Now she trudged behind Graham again, grumbling that they should have stayed where they were, the way her Phys Ed teacher instructed.
She tugged at the back of his shirt. “It’s getting too dark to see where we’re going, Dad.”
Though a full moon rose over the trees, shadows snaked across the ground, hiding stray limbs and large roots. Graham shivered in the semidarkness. He heard Amelia’s teeth chattering. The light sweater she wore over her long-sleeved shirt did little to keep her warm. Graham shrugged out of his heavier coat and handed it to her.
The wind strengthened and whipped Amelia’s hair around her head. She pointed to a hickory leaning at a forty-five degree angle. “I know we passed that tree before,” she said. “Dad, we’re just going in circles. We’re lost.”
Graham turned his back to her and struggled to keep his voice level. “Let’s just sit and rest a minute, okay?”
Amelia settled against the trunk of a fallen maple, its bark blackened by a lightning strike. “Do you think Mom has tried to call me? If she can’t get an answer, she’ll realize we’re missing, right?”
Graham sat down beside her and patted her knee. “Absolutely,” he said. “Then she’ll go to the police, and they’ll trace your cell phone’s signal. That’s why we’re going to turn it on every so often.” Amelia nestled against him, and he hugged her small frame. “We’ll be okay, honey.”
Soon after dark, the sound of her deep, even breathing told Graham she was asleep. He closed his eyes and dozed alongside her, but the night air seeped through his clothes, and his shivering grew violent enough to wake them both.
Graham stood and reached for her hand. “We need to move around. It will raise our body temperatures.”
Her chin drooped against her chest. “I just want to sleep.”
“That’s why you need to keep moving.” He hauled Amelia to her feet. “I know you’re tired, but walk with me for a bit.” Looping an arm around her waist, he led her in small circles. The wind struck their faces like hard slaps.
Graham recalled the last weather forecast he heard. Back home, the temperature would dip to forty degrees overnight. It was at least ten degrees colder in these mountains, and the wind chill would make the air feel frigid.
“Come on, let’s jog in place,” he said.
Amelia groaned. “Dad, I’m exhausted. Just leave me alone.”
Graham gave her a shake. “You have to keep moving,” he said, the words garbled by his trembling lips. “It’s the only way you’ll stay warm.”
They jogged for several minutes before she stopped and reached into her pocket. “I’m going to turn the phone on again.” Her entire body quaked, and she punched at the phone with clumsy fingers. “Even if we had reception, I don’t think I could dial the number now.” Amelia looked up at him and tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a wail.
“Turn the phone off, Amelia.” He swallowed past what felt like a fistful of tears lodged in his throat.
She did as he said and returned the phone to her pocket. Then she stared at him, her eyes dull.
He fumbled with the buttons of his flannel shirt. It seemed to take hours for him to unfasten each one, but he finally wriggled out of it and removed the undershirt he wore.
“Dad, what are you doing?” Amelia asked as he pulled off his boots and socks.
“You need more layers of clothing, or you’ll get hypothermia.” Though his bare skin ached from the cold, he stepped out of his jeans and stood wearing only his boxers. “Come on, Amelia,” he said. “Put these clothes on.”
She shook her head. “You’ll freeze to death.”
“No, I won’t. I’m going to run while I look for the truck, and that will keep me warm. I’m taking the keys.” He held them up for her to see. “When I find the truck, I’ll drive to the nearest house and call for help. But you have to keep moving. Do whatever you can to stay alert so you’ll remember to turn your phone on every few hours.”
Graham helped Amelia out of his coat and her sweater, and then he tugged his undershirt over her head. He worked her arms into the sleeves of his flannel shirt and fastened the buttons, and as she leaned on him, he took off her sneakers and pulled his jeans over her leggings. He made her sit on the ground while he covered her socks with his own.
Graham laughed as he laced up the large boots on her feet. “Oh, if you could see yourself now.” He helped her stand and cinched his belt around her waist to secure the drooping pair of jeans. Then he replaced the sweater and coat. “Keep your hands in your pockets, out of the wind.”
She nodded. “Dad, you need to hurry. You’re going to freeze out here.”
He pulled her to him. “Keep running in place,” he said. “Turn your cell phone on and off throughout the night. Do not fall asleep.” The cold gnawed at his hands until he wanted to cry out from the pain.
Graham knew he had to leave her. He didn’t want her to see him succumb to exposure. His teeth chattered with enough force to bite through his tongue, and he was afraid to keep talking, but he kissed his daughter’s forehead and whispered, “I’m sorry. I only wanted us to have a nice day together.”
Amelia slipped a hand from her pocket and squeezed his fingers. “We did, Dad,” she said, sounding as though her mouth was numbed with Novocain. “I’ve had better nights, though.” She gave him one of her grins, and he longed to burn that final image of her into his mind’s eye.
Graham turned from her and tried to run, but his awkward gait made him stumble. He plodded through the trees, refusing to slow his pace until he was out of her sight.
His thoughts grew sluggish, and when his useless fingers released the truck keys, he didn’t bother to retrieve them. He was on the verge of collapse when he spotted a looming figure to his right. Peering through the shadows, Graham shook his head. It couldn’t be. But he recognized that hulking shape, the smooth boulder with the curve of a turtle shell.
Graham fell to his hands and knees and heaved his body over the ground. He didn’t feel the hard stones jabbing his skin. The cave—it was just beyond that boulder. The sound of a rushing stream filled his ears.
He crawled past the boulder and raised his head. The cave’s narrow mouth grinned at him, beckoning like an old friend. Graham dragged himself to its entrance and inhaled the musty odor, similar to that of a damp basement. Lying flat on his stomach, he poked his head in the cave, wishing to announce his presence. A word drifted through his mind, but he no longer knew its meaning. Still he parted his raw lips and called out his daughter’s name. As the echo of his voice faded from the cave walls, he took a deep breath and burrowed into the darkness.