Cave Spirit, 2024 Second Place (Tie)

By Bruce Bash

School bus #7 rolled toward the loading zone in front of Morgan High School and squealed to a stop. Emma stepped into the aisle and followed a line of students off the bus. Chase was waiting for her on a nearby bench.

“Hi, Chase, how’s your English Lit assignment going? All I’ve done so far is stare at a blank page.”

Chase rubbed his forehead with the palms of his hands. “How are we supposed to write about something we’ve never done without using our phones or the Internet? I think I might bake a cake. At least the directions are on the back of the cake mix.”

“Well, we’d better think of something soon. The assignment’s due by noon Monday.”

“Hey there, school chums. What’s up?”

Emma turned to see Brad Simmons strutting toward them, his whole body swaying as usual.

“You two look worried.”

 “Just discussing our Lit assignment, Brad.” Emma slipped her book bag off her shoulder and let it thump to the bench. “It’s not easy coming up with a decent idea without the Internet.”

“Never fear, groupies. Brad’s here to save the day.”

Brad often used his name when he talked about himself. It drove Emma crazy.

“I heard you plan to bake a cake, Chase? Really? That’s the best you can do?”

Chase squeezed his eyes closed. Saying anything to anyone around school was like announcing it over the office intercom.

Brad was unfazed. “I’ve got a great idea. Either of you ever explore the cave up by St. Anthony? It’s a huge lava tube cave that was going to be used as a bomb shelter back in the sixties. You know, in case Russia dropped a nuke on us.”

“So how do you know about the cave?” Chase cast a doubtful glance at Emma. “Were you born there or something?”

“Real funny.” Brad scrunched up his nose. “My troop hiked in there one weekend back when I was in Scouts. The cave was real cool, but the best part was roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over a campfire when we came out. It was great.”

Emma couldn’t imagine Brad ever being a Boy Scout. “But the assignment is to write about something you’ve never done before.”

Brad shrugged his shoulders. “So what’s the big deal? You two have never been in the cave and Mrs. Davis doesn’t know I was there. Besides, that was a million years ago. Look, we need a topic, right? Why not kill three birds with one stone. Friday is a teacher work day so there’s no school. We could leave here at 9:00, hike into the cave and be back by noon. What could be easier? Unless you’re afraid of the dark—or spirits.”

Now Emma was interested. “Spirits?”

“Yeah, our scout leader told us that back in the early days a Chinese guy went into the cave and never came back out. Some people say his spirit still haunts the cave.”

Emma had to admit, hiking into a haunted cave sounded pretty simple. And she really needed an idea. But with Brad planning the trip, it would definitely be difficult not to worry.

Another bus pulled up and students began to stream past the bench. Jimmy Wang was last to get off.

“Hey, Stumpy, over here.” Brad’s voice boomed; a dozen kids turned and stared.

Jimmy hesitated for a moment looking as if he might sprint toward the school. Instead his body went limp and he trudged toward Brad.

“So, Stumpy, you got a project yet for English Lit?” Brad didn’t give Jimmy a chance to answer. “The three of us are going caving. You wanna come? Maybe you could ride that mini bike of yours into the cave ahead of us to give us some light. You’re so short you wouldn’t have to worry about hitting your head on the ceiling.” Brad laughed at his own lame joke.

Jimmy pushed his glasses higher up on his nose. “I already have a project, but thanks anyway.”

“Okay, but don’t cry when we all ace our assignments. Look, there goes Jasmine. I’ll meet you guys here tomorrow at 9:00.” Brad nodded first at Emma, and then at Chase. “Don’t be late. And bring gas money. Mari-Bell doesn’t run on fumes.”

With Brad gone Emma turned to Jimmy. “Have you really started your assignment already?”

“Naw, I just said that so Brad would get off my back. I hate it when he calls me Stumpy. I’m the tallest one in my family.”

Emma picked up her book bag. “Brad’s a dork. Wish we could help somehow.”

Jimmy’s right foot began to tap the sidewalk furiously. “Maybe you can, during your cave trip I mean. My younger brother explored the cave with his Adventure Group last weekend. Can you both meet me at lunch? I think I have an idea.” 

Emma stared at a billowing white cloud slowly drifting in front of the sun. She was trying not to think about Brad’s driving and all the cars he was passing as they raced north.

“Brad, you do know Highway 20 has a speed limit, right? We’re going so fast I think I’m getting a nose bleed.”

“Yeah, man, slow down.” Chase gripped the edge of his seat as if he were on the Zipper ride at the state fair. “This gas-guzzler of yours is going to cost us a fortune.”

“Not to worry, Earthlings.” Brad pressed the accelerator even harder. “Don’t wanna waste time. You guys brought jackets, right? The cave’s pretty cold, even in May.” Mari-Bell veered onto an exit ramp and turned left at the stop sign. “This road turns into the Red Road. Won’t be long now.”

Two vultures took to the air as Mari-bell roared past something dead beside the road. Fifteen miles later the car braked to a hard stop at the junction of a narrow dirt lane.

“Whoa, the sign is gone. I think this is the turn to the cave.”

“You think?” Emma looked hard at Brad. “You mean you’re not sure?”

“Yeah, pretty sure. See that pile of rocks? A sign used to be there.” Brad turned onto the dusty trail trying to avoid the deeper holes and scattered lava rocks in their path. He drove another mile before pulling into a small clearing. “This is it, gang. Grab your stuff. You can leave your phones in the car, there’s no signal in the cave.”

They followed a well-worn path passed sagebrush, boulders and several campfire rings toward a huge cave entrance big enough to drive through in a pickup. A pool of water guarded the entrance.

“You didn’t tell us about the water, Brad.” Emma pointed at her feet. “I’ve got new running shoes on.”

Brad reached into his daypack, pulled out a handful of small trash bags, and passed them around. “Didn’t I say I’d take care of ya? Put these bags on your feet and tie the handles around your knees. The water’s only ankle deep. It’s dry on the other side.”

The cold water sent a shiver up Emma’s back. They waded across the pool and stuffed the bags into a gap in the lava rock. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Brad hand a flashlight to Chase.

“Hey, where’s my flashlight? I can’t see in the dark you know.”

Brad smiled. “Guess you’ll have to hang onto my sweatshirt tail, Little Lady. Chase and I’ll protect ya. We gotta stay in the middle of the cave though. The ceiling dips toward the walls. You don’t want to rip your head open on a lava rock hanging down.”

The sunlight shinning into the cave quickly dimmed as they walked away from the entrance. At the first slight bend in the tunnel the sunlight completely disappeared.

“How far back does the cave go?” Chase asked. “I can’t see a thing outside of the flashlight beam.”

“Yeah, the light gets sucked up by the dark in here.” Brad waved his light beam at the ceiling. “The cave is maybe a half mile long. We won’t go all the way to the end.”

In spite of her jacket, Emma felt the cold seeping in from all sides. She smacked her ankle against a sharp rock and felt a trickle of blood inside her sock. Their feet scraped as they shuffled forward. Emma could see only darkness around her and her new shoes plodding forward on a flashlight-lit trail.

They walked for what seemed like half an hour. When the cave made a sharp bend to the right, Chase let out a loud gasp.

“Hey, you guys, look at the wall over there.”

Two flashlight beams zeroed in on the wall seventy feet ahead. An old-fashioned crank telephone, drawn in thick white chalk, sprang into view. The drawing reflected in the flashlight beams as if it were lit with neon lights.

“Cool, huh.” Brad laughed out loud. “See, if that China man bothers us we can call for help.”

 “Maybe we should take a picture.” Chase handed an old Kodak camera to Brad. “This camera uses film, but it’s got a great flash. I like to develop my own prints.” Chase guided Emma toward a large boulder a dozen steps off the trail. “If we lean against that rock, Brad, you should be able to get us and the telephone in the same shot.”

Brad examined the shutter button on the camera. “Okay, ready, flashlights out.” A moment later a burst of light pierced the darkness. “Wow, you two looked like Zombies in the flash. I’ll take another picture. Smile this time.”

The camera flashed again. Brad nearly choked on his own saliva. “Didn’t work. You still looked like Zombies.”

Brad gave the camera back to Chase. They had just started forward again when Brad’s flashlight began to flicker, then it went out. “Bummer, now we’re down to one flashlight to get out of here. Give me your light, Chase. Maybe I can see what’s wrong with mine.”

Brad grabbed for the flashlight, but knocked it out of Chase’s hand. The flashlight lens shattered on the lava floor. The cave turned totally black.

“You idiot, Brad.” Emma’s voice raised to a high-pitch, panicked. “How are we going to get out of here now? I can’t even see which way to go.”

The lava walls echoed with Brad’s obnoxious laugh. “You guys are so gullible.” His flashlight turned back on. “Just having a little fun.” He handed an extra flashlight from his pack to Chase.

“I’m not going any farther.” Emma sounded close to tears.

“Ah, come on. I was just teasing. We’re not far from the end.”

“Then you can go without me.” Emma turned and nudged Chase with her arm. “Give me a flashlight, I’m going back. I hope the China man gets you, Brad.”

“Come on, guys. I was just funin’ ya.”

The sunlight seemed blinding as they approached the cave entrance and stepped into their plastic bags. Chase and Emma crossed the water while Brad struggled with his pack.

“You knew I had my own flashlight, didn’t you?” Chase asked in a whisper.

“Just one?” Emma smiled. “I have two in my jacket pocket. I knew Brad would try to pull something.”

Brad finally joined them on the other side of the water. They walked back toward the car past the boulders and fire rings.

“Man, we should have brought hotdogs and chips.” Brad’s stomach let out a loud growl. “I’m starving.”

Monday morning came quickly. Chase waited for Emma at the bus stop bench. When she stepped off the bus she gave him a quick wave.

“Hi Chase. How did the pictures turn out?”

Chase pulled a couple prints from a large envelope. “Look at this one first.”

“Yikes.” Emma clenched her teeth. “That bright flash did make us look like out-of-focus Zombies just like Brad said. How about the second–”

“Greetings, cave buddies. What cha looking at?” Brad sauntered toward the bench, leaned against Emma and peered over her shoulder. “Great picture. I told ya you looked like Zombies. Wow, the chalk phone reflected almost like it’s lit with electric lights.”

“Yeah, we know.” Chase flipped to the second picture. “But look at this one.”

Brad smirked. “Well, at least you look like smiling Zombies in that shot.”

“Look at the phone, Brad.” Emma pointed to the right side of the picture. “Something’s blocking the phone drawing except a bit around the edges. It looks like…like a blob or a small person with white circles where there should be eyes.”

Brad grabbed the picture and held it close to his face. His usual cheerful expression drained.

“Sure looks like someone’s standing there, way back by the cave wall,” Chase said. “It’s kind of creepy.”

“Maybe we should drive back up there next Saturday and figure out what was in the cave with us.” Emma glanced at Chase. “Maybe that China Man rumor isn’t a rumor after all.”

Brad handed the picture back to Chase and began to back away. “Can’t. I-I’ve got to change the oil in Mari-Bell Saturday. And rotate her tires. I’ll catch you guys later.” Brad made a dash for the front doors.

Emma laughed. “Gee, I’ve never seen Brad so anxious to get to class before.”

Another bus pulled up. Jimmy stumbled down the last step and hurried over to the bench. “How did the pictures turn out?”

Chase handed the prints to Jimmy and pointed to the picture with the missing phone. “So how did you block the phone drawing? We can’t even see your face. That was you standing by the wall wasn’t it?”

Jimmy plopped down on the bench, his cheeks spreading wide. “Black clothes. And a cork.”


“When I was young my grandma would use a burnt cork to blacken my face for Halloween. It works great and doesn’t reflect light.”

“But what about the bright circles?” Emma asked.

“White shoe polish.” Jimmy chuckled. “When I got to the cave I thought about riding my motorbike inside, but I was afraid the exhaust fumes would linger. So I hid my bike behind some sagebrush.”

Chase shook his head. “Maybe you are related to that lost China Man. You almost had me believing he was standing there.”

The first bell rang and they headed for the main doors.

“I was hoping Brad would stop calling me Stumpy after his cave experience.”

Emma dropped her pen and stopped to pick it up. “Just tell him we showed you the pictures and you think he should take us back up to the cave again to look for the China Man. He seemed pretty spooked by the missing phone.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” Jimmy swiped a lock of hair out of his eyes. “But there’s something else I should probably tell Brad. According to one of the old legends, some people called the China man Stumpy.”

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