The cave was dark. Well, it was a cave, after all, Grace told herself. Dark was practically part of the definition. A light cave would be something else. A hole in the ground. A quarry, maybe. Maybe there was a nice quarry around that they could explore instead of the black passageway that loomed before them.
“It’s awfully dark,” her sister murmured.
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Grace said with relief.
“This is going to be so much fun.” Joy gave a full-body shiver of delight.
So, so, so not what Grace had been thinking. But she bit back the words that wanted to escape — it wasn’t polite to ask your favorite sister if she was insane, especially not on her birthday when you had promised to do whatever she wanted to do, and what she wanted to do was… well, insane.
“Do you think we need a rope?” Joy asked.
Grace would have liked ropes, headlamps, a paid guide, and possibly some safety equipment. Maybe a nice railing while they were at it. “That’s probably a very good idea.”
“Too bad we don’t have one.” Joy pulled two flashlights out of her coat pocket and handed one to Grace. “I brought you a flashlight. I figured you wouldn’t have one.”
Way to state the obvious. But Grace took the flashlight without rolling her eyes. Too much, anyway.
Grace had thought maybe mani-pedis. Not Joy’s usual style, maybe, but a nice sisterly thing to do on a birthday. A spa day would have been out of the ordinary for both of them, but a novel new experience. Maybe with a massage or a facial? Shopping was traditional, of course; they could have gone into the city, hit up some of the big department stores, come home with some nice new shoes and maybe a blouse or two.
Of course, she knew her sister better than that. Any of the above would have been what she wanted on her birthday. Joy wasn’t like her. But Grace had expected Joy to want to go biking. Or hiking. Or kayaking. Or rafting. Or skiing. Or any of plenty of outdoor options. But not cave exploring.
“It has a name, doesn’t it?” she asked.
“The cave? I don’t think so,” Joy said. “I told you, no one seems to know anything about this place.”
“No, I meant exploring caves. Isn’t there a name for that? Like, for the act of crawling around inside tunnels and stuff?”
“Spelunking.” Joy threw a bright smile over her shoulder. “So let’s go spelunking.” Flipping on her flashlight, she stepped into the blackness. It seemed to swallow her up.
Grace’s throat felt tight but she turned on her own flashlight and followed Joy. “It can’t be totally unknown, though,” she said, as she trailed behind her sister into the dark passageway. “We’re not exactly in an unexplored region of the world. Some people must know about this place. You just didn’t find anyone who did.”
“I asked around a lot. No one in my hiking group knew what I was I talking about. None of the backpackers had ever noticed it. I couldn’t find anything online about it. The library didn’t have any info. I really tried.”
“Isn’t that strange, though? Caves don’t just appear.”
“Maybe the opening was hidden by something,” Joy suggested. Her light bobbed ahead of her, a dim glow barely breaking through the shadows.
The darkness felt heavy. Maybe it was just that it was so very quiet. As they moved into the darkness, all the sounds of the forest they’d hiked through to get here fell away. No more rustling leaves, no more wind, no more squirrels chasing through the branches, no more birds chirping. Just Joy’s voice and after she finished speaking, her breath and her footsteps. And beyond her, silence.
Grace strained to hear something, anything. Dripping water? Air whistling over cracks? But there was nothing. The passageway was sloping downward. The ground was remarkably even, like the path had been worn smooth by hundreds, thousands of feet. That couldn’t be, though. Could it have been shaped by water, maybe? She shone her flashlight on the walls and ceiling front of them. They were smooth, too. Like the stone had been softened or melted somehow.
“Joy?” Her voice was hushed.
“Shouldn’t caves have, like, things, hanging down and sticking up? You know, like, icicles made of stone?”
“Stalactites and stalagmites. Really, Grace, don’t you know anything?” Joy sounded impatient.
Grace didn’t answer her. No, she didn’t know anything about caves. Why should she? She wasn’t the cave-exploring — spelunking — type. She’d rather go to a movie. But she’d seen a lot of movies and this cave… it felt wrong.
It smelled wrong, too. Not that she knew how caves should smell from the movies, but it was dark and sort of underground and made of stone. She wanted it to smell musty or damp or at the very least like dirt. They were walking in a hole in the ground, after all. Instead, it smelled like lemon. Tangy. Astringent.
“Joy?” She kept her voice even quieter.
“What?” Joy’s voice in response was tight, like she was throttling back annoyance.
Grace stopped walking. She didn’t know how to put into words the sense of dread that was rising within her. She didn’t like this cave. Not at all.
And it wasn’t because she’d rather have a manicure than be outside, although she would. And it wasn’t because she was scared of the dark, although kind of she was. And it wasn’t even that no one knew anything about the cave, as if maybe it had just appeared one day, instead of having been formed over centuries the way caves ought to form.
Joy kept walking.
“Joy, stop,” Grace said.
“Come on, Grace. It’s my birthday. You promised.” Joy didn’t stop.
“This isn’t a good place.” Grace called after her.
“You’re being silly. Places aren’t good or bad, they just are.”