Leaves are streaming from the trees and the long nights are drawing in. At this time of year the weather keeps us indoors, our mood becomes more introspective and our taste for the macabre grows. It’s in this spirit (👻) that I offer this chilling tale.
The Cave Diver
The pumpkin curdles on the porch. Its innards are cooked by candle heat, its rind-crown open to the autumn air. Trees crack and groan behind the garden fence. I remember the story Dad told us in our gloomy garage one Halloween about his friend: the cave diver whose buddy line went slack. Like everything Dad said, it was given to us as true. A master story-teller, he’d chosen the garage as the coldest, darkest, eeriest place in our suburban home. We were surrounded by the spare parts of our lives: an unused treadmill, punctured footballs, broken action figures and drawers of tools, cables and half-dead batteries with too much charge to throw away. Satisfied with this claustrophobic setting, my father began to tell the story as it was told to him.
I can’t recall exactly how the two divers were separated, however. There was a sharp tug on the line and then nothing. These submerged catacombs were not much wider than a man and Dad’s friend, who was the lead diver, had no way of turning or wriggling backwards. It was only when he emerged into a larger chamber that the line came free and the cave diver realised his friend was gone. Had he gotten into difficulty and cut the line to make a break for the exit? Or had it snagged on razor-edged rocks? He retraced their route. Bubbles stirred a cloud of sediment everytime he exhaled. His oxygen tank clinked and boomed on stalactites as he squeezed through ever narrower spaces. Then, while exploring one of the side tunnels his torch lit up a discarded weight belt. His friend was lost and running out of air.
Suddenly a beam of diluted light shone through a hole in the rock wall no bigger than a fist. The cave diver flashed his torch through the gap and, on the other side, the lost man gestured to his air gauge with slow hands and wild eyes. So the diver passed his regulator through the gap, holding his breath while the lost man clamped down on the mouthpiece and breathed the air withheld from him. The cave diver held his breath until the lost man returned the mouthpiece. Then – in a cruel twist – the other’s torch blinked out. The cave diver pointed the way out as he remembered it, and passed his own torch through the gap. The beam caught his lost friend shaking his head, pupils shrinking in its light. He was in a separate tunnel system. They’d both had the same air, had both been down for the same time but the lost man had panicked and used up more oxygen. The cave diver struggled to stay calm. He had to get to the surface now or they’d both drown. They shook hands through the gap in the wall and parted.
Grim minutes passed under the permanent granite night. The cave diver felt his way through the forest of rocks with palms, elbows and knees. At last, he was birthed into open water and able to breathe stale dregs of air that expanded in the cylinder as he rose. Then the last fumes were gone. Having pulled himself, exhausted, onto land, he waited for ten minutes at the edge. The lost man’s air had run out long ago. He knew that his friend was drowned – until a cloud of dim torchlight and bubbles broke the surface. The lost man clambered out, dumping his tanks and torch in the mud. He staggered to his jeep and drove away without a word. The cave diver checked the abandoned cylinders where the torch beam still shone into the rain. The air gauge read empty.
“Was it a ghost?” We asked, sitting in the dark garage at home.
Dad lowered his voice, “Who’s to say? No one ever heard from him again.” Then, with one sudden movement, he whipped a flashlight from behind his back, lighting it under his chin. He grinned like a pumpkin filled with candlelight and cackled, “But I still have his torch!”