(Today's short was fun to write. I usually fall for my characters and the location first and then the suspense element comes to me. This one was inspired by the "alien baby" finds in Mexico and Chile. Enjoy!)
Two of the three backpackers entered the mouth of the cave and studied the thick walls and the dripping ceiling. The third remained back in the sliver of sunlight coming through the canopy of yellow and red leaves above.
“You want to check it out?” Elizabeth asked her sister.
Katie shook her head briskly. “I’ll wait here.”
Elizabeth’s boyfriend chuckled in that infuriating no-neck way that mocked everything around him as being weaker and easily dominated. He didn’t have the brain capacity to realize the cave’s mouth had been covered by a door of interwoven limbs for a reason. Nature didn’t just happen to braid limbs together and make a camouflage and place it smack dab in front of a cave. Someone obviously didn’t want them there.
Katie realized if it were a serious risk, like an unsafe mine shaft, they wouldn’t have used branches to cover it up, they would have boarded it up, perhaps hung a sign. Still, she didn’t like the blast of cool damp air that surrounded the mouth of the structure. She stepped further back into the full sunlight.
“Guys?” She called out, squinting into the black void.
Pacing back and forth, she considered her options should something happen. She had no cell phone. Her sister had it on her. She thought she could remember the way back to the camp, but not back to the car. That was a full day’s hike.
“Come on!” She screamed out, hating that her mind was racing with horrible possible conclusions.
“You gotta see this!” Elizabeth laughed breathlessly from the opening.
“No.” Katie insisted.
“Come on, you big pussy!” Dalton shouted.
“You know, Dalton, that particular name just doesn’t instigate a woman’s wrath like it does a man.”
“What?” He frowned in confusion.
She smiled. If she had to put up with the linebacker for some time with her half sister, she might as well have a little fun mocking him without him even understanding her.
He makes it so easy.
Inside the cave, she looked around. It was one giant chamber. It didn’t seem so threatening as she imagined.
“Back there.” Elizabeth pointed. “There’s a body.”
“A body?” Katie seriously doubted that. She was a fourth year anthropology major and these caves in Kentucky were certainly not a place known for burying bodies in caves in ancient times. She squinted into the corner where her sister was pointing.
“Dalton, make yourself useful and create a torch.” She waved off his huge shadow. She didn’t have the heart to tell Elizabeth that the reason Dalton asked her out in the first place was because he’d pursued Katie all last semester without success and thought that dating her sister would bring her around. He even approached her before they set up camp and asked if he could "do sisters." She cringed at the thought of him and her sister together, but Elizabeth and she were the same age. Their father had a warped sense of timing to get her mother, who was his wife, pregnant at the same time he’d gotten his lover, Elizabeth’s mom, pregnant. Somehow, the women over the years had edged out her father completely and became good friends, vowing to raise their children nearby and letting them split time between the homes. It had worked. It was unconventional, but the women were well and truly sisters.
Dalton somehow managed to make fire, which put him up a notch on the evolutionary scale from where he was only moments ago. He came at them with a stick wrapped in his shirt, smoke coiling up chokingly around them.
“Hold it up above us.” Katie insisted, trying not to look at him flexing his muscles and showing off his shirtless state. Her sister smiled adoringly up at him, still in her bliss at bagging a university football player with an opportunity at the big time. If he didn’t have that going for him, Katie would have badmouthed him, but Elizabeth was dead set on fame by association. She didn’t understand her sister’s superficiality, but she appreciated that not having a father figure or financial security growing up had made her vulnerable inside. At least Katie’s mother was an ER doctor and had remarried soon after the divorce to a wonderful man she called "father."
“You see this? Looks like femur, doesn’t it?” Elizabeth asked.
It certainly did, but it also looked as if it were the femur on a Barbie doll. It was unbelievably small and frail. Katie leaned forward and began to dig at the soft ground, her fingers hooking around a mandible that might have fit a raccoon.
“Is that a jawbone?” Dalton asked.
Katie nodded. “Is the rest of the skull in there?”
Elizabeth excitedly dug at the ground and produced two ribs and then the top of the skull.
“Look at that. Musta been a baby.” Dalton remarked.
“Looks like it.” Katie admitted. The skull was unusually tiny and definitely human-like, but the eye sockets and the shape of the head were grossly abnormal. It would have had to be a newborn perhaps with birth defects.
“Did you hear that?” Dalton swung the torch around anxiously.
“What?” Elizabeth stood up and peered into the corridor he was holding the torch up to.
“There’s something down there.” He whined nervously.
“Well, go check it out, Mr. Linebacker.” Katie gathered up the bones into her hands and nodded to her sister to leave. Elizabeth looked at Dalton’s frightened face and then shrugged and followed her out.
The sunlight blinded her as she spread the bones onto the ground and studied them. They were completely clean of any tissue, likely in there for a very long time.
“You think someone went in there and had a baby and just…left it. You know, like those babies people put in dumpsters?” Elizabeth whispered in fear.
“No. I don’t think that.”
“But someone went to the trouble of making that door thingie out of branches.”
Katie looked at the delicately woven young branches. They were green and thin little stems of saplings, woven densely, leaves still intact to fill in the spaces and make it appear like a mass of plant life. It wasn’t a bad bit of work. She put her fingers into it, imaging how she’d go back weaving something so dense.
“You could bounce a coin off that, couldn’t you.” Elizabeth shook her head. “Well, sis, you always liked puzzles. Puzzle this.” She nodded to the bones.
Katie frowned. Elizabeth’s story didn’t sound too farfetched. If someone had a baby in there and wanted to hide it, this might be the way, at least until the body was unidentifiable. She paced the ground and studied the shimmering autumn trees around her. She came to have some time outdoors, ended up with the meathead and a cave exploration that took her out of her much-adored sunlight.
“No.” She shook her head briskly.
“No what?” Elizabeth asked.
“Who could possibly hike this distance pregnant? And if she did for some reason have the baby in the cave, why not bury it? The ground there’s soft. She wouldn’t have to spend the entire day weaving that.” She waved at the thatched device.
Elizabeth giggled. “He is pretty stupid, isn’t he? Wasn’t that funny when you tried to explain how a compass works? He thought it should point automatically in the direction he wanted to go.” She snorted.
“Then what are you doing with him?” Katie asked.
Elizabeth shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a fun ride. He gets into the great parties and clubs. Everyone treats him like a rock star. I kind of like it. It’s been boring since I broke up with Kenny and I just want to have fun. I’m not going to marry him, for god’s sake.” She laughed.
Katie sighed with relief.
“Oh, and a warning. He mentioned to me yesterday he wouldn’t mind doing us both tonight. If he gets drunk and obnoxious, don’t be surprised to hear him mention it again.”
Katie had a newfound appreciation for Elizabeth’s intelligence. Sometimes she acted stupid, but she had to remember Elizabeth had always been a real survivor and able to think her way out of anything.
“He has been in there a long time.” Elizabeth went back to the mouth of the cave. “Dalton?” She called out.
The faint voice calling from deeper in the cave echoed so much it was unintelligible.
“Be back in a few.” Elizabeth sighed.
Katie wanted to call her back. Every hair on her body stood on end as she studied the bones on the ground. It added up to a very tiny creature, but it wasn’t human. She turned back to stop her sister, but Elizabeth had disappeared into the darkness.
Within seconds, Elizabeth rushed screaming from the cave, Dalton followed soon after, screaming out like a cat whose tail got stepped upon. Elizabeth fluttered breathlessly around Dalton who pushed her away.
“Bats?” Katie assumed.
“Oh God!” Elizabeth cried out.
Katie felt her stomach flip flop. This wasn’t good. Did Dalton hit himself on the cave ceiling? There was blood dripping down his shirt.
Dalton wouldn’t let either of them near him as he pressed his hand to his arm. “Something bit me.” He groaned.
“Bit you?” Katie frowned. Bats weren’t likely to bite. “Let me see it.”
He relented with a babyish whimper as she studied his wrist. She expected perhaps to find puncture wounds from a snake, but this wasn’t like that at all. There was a row of very small cut marks, curving tightly. Something was familiar about it, but she couldn’t fixate on what it was because Dalton kept trying to take his arm back.
Pour some of our water on it and wrap it up in your bandana. Katie offered. The two wandered off to their backpacks. Katie studied the cave and turned back to see what progress they were making. She couldn’t continue to do everything for them. Neither had the wits to take care of the bleeding, rushing around hysterically without purpose. She rolled her eyes.
“Did you see what it was?” Katie asked him as Elizabeth babied his injury.
From where he sat, Dalton looked up at her and for the first time since knowing him, his eyes looked serious and grave, not the usual lackadaisical “I don’t give a shit” look. It gave her immediate concern.
“It was little, but it was mean. I was reaching down to move some rocks out of the way so we could go deeper into the cave and this thing came up at me through the rocks and clamped down. It was little and pale. Looked like a skinless…”
“A human?” Katie was highly skeptical of that.
“But tiny, real tiny. It stood up on two legs, put its little hands on my wrist and when its teeth clamped down, I had a helluva a time getting it off.” He groaned as Elizabeth tightened the scarf.
“Did it run away?” She asked.
He shook his head briskly, still trembling from the encounter. He stared off into the dark cave. “I hit it over the head with a rock to make it let me go. I’m sure I killed it.”
“Then, let’s see.” She offered.
“Hell no!” He barked.
“Katie, we’re not going back in there.” Elizabeth assured her.
Katie shrugged and dug through her backpack, picking out her flashlight.
“Don’t go!” Elizabeth called out.
She heard Dalton say something about her being stupid and deserving to get bitten, but she continued her search. There was nothing in the natural world she hadn’t heard of and much of it encountered. Perhaps it was a raccoon with mange causing it to be bald. The did have little hands and stood up on two legs.
Around the second bend in the cave, she found the stack of boulders. Katie studied it cautiously with the flashlight. There were drops of blood, but it could have been Dalton’s. The rock nearby had a spot of blood on it too. She looked down at the ground for footprints and saw a little trail of prints in the soft sandy soil heading further into the cracks between the boulders where a person could never fit. Leaning over and watching the footprints and the droplets of fresh blood, she noticed the prints. They looked to be bipedal and small with what looked like three toes.
She stood up and shook her head in confusion. Well, there would be no identifying it now that it had retreated. Katie smiled to herself when she realized Dalton would need rabies shots.
When she came back to the sight of Elizabeth fawning over Dalton, she bent to pick up her pack and saw the bones nearby. Gathering them up to take with her, she studied the mandible. The curve of the jaw was tight and V-shaped. The row of tiny teeth were fascinating.
“Dalton, take off your bandage.”
“Like hell I will.” He whined.
”Do it.” She insisted. That tone of voice always intimidated him.
When he bandage was removed she held up the mandible. The bite shape, tooth size, angle of the jaw were all a perfect match.
“You don’t think a baby bit him, do you?” Elizabeth asked. She often times spoke without thinking. In a minute, her stupid question would sink in. “Oh.” Elizabeth’s eyes grew round. “That’s not a baby, is it?”
Katie shook her head. “No, I knew it wasn’t human. I just don’t know what the hell it is.”
“Let’s get away from here.” Elizabeth shivered.
Katie couldn’t agree more. Once she had the bones neatly packed into her backpack’s pocket, they took off down the trail, but not before she turned back and studied the cave opening.
“I forgot something, go ahead.” She called to the couple and rushed back to the cave where she picked up the neatly meshed green saplings that made a protective door and shoved it back against the entrance. She gathered up some more twigs and leaves and stuffed them in the holes, allowing them their privacy once again.