In the summer every kid in my village would hangout above the weir, where the water was deep and slow. Spending long lazy days taking cooling dips in the cold river water. The big kids fixed a rope to a branch of a tree reaching out over the river. They would take turns launching themselves into the air swinging out, letting go at the height if their swing, splashing down in the middle of the river. Some of the biggest kids had it down to a fine art, they would run hard letting go of the rope at just the right point, sending them flying impossibly high in the air, seeming to stall before gracefully dropping into the deep dark water. They would stroke back to the shore under a cloak of hero worship from us lesser mortals.
One day Tommy and his gang came riding down the street on their bikes, all spread out in a V formation like a flock of ducks. Tommy was in the middle with his hair slick with hair gel, sweating in the black leather biker jacket he wore everywhere. A folded playing card pinned to the frame of his bike brushed the spokes and rattled like a machine gun. Soon after they arrived one of the older boys did a huge swing, flipping 180 degrees in the air, entering the water in a dive. Even Tommy was impressed but felt he could do better. Tommy stripped to his swimming trunks and grabbed the rope. He ran but only managed a feeble swing hardly getting him clear of the bank before he let go of the rope. He spun like a fat white starfish and landed with the most painful looking belly flop, ever. Everyone laughed me more than most. Tommy struggled up the bank out of the river glowing red with embarrassment.Tommy stopped in front of me and said. "What are you laughing at Dumbo?"
"You did a belly flop," I said rubbing salt in his open wound.
"You're too scared to even try it," Tommy said with rage in his voice.
"I'm not," I said. "Any one could do what you just did."
"If your such a big man why don't you prove it," he said wrapping himself in a towel to hide his glowing pink belly.
"I will so," I said getting to my feet intending on trying the swing dive.
"That's too easy, get dressed I have something better for you," he said smiling at his group of goons.
Like I said earlier, most of the time I hated Tommy but here was my chance to prove myself. I just had to take it. When we were all dressed we rounded up our bikes and cycled off into the countryside. After nearly an hour, mostly up hill, my legs were getting sore.
"Where are we going, Tommy?" I asked trying to keep the whine out of my voice.
"We're nearly there only a few minutes more," he said smiling over his shoulder at me. I could have sworn he was actually nice. A few minutes later, just like he said, we pulled into a field. We pushed our bikes through the knee-high grass and descended into a glade where a giant stone wall reared out of the ground like the bow of a mighty ship. At the base of this buttress, there was an opening not much bigger than a small hen house. Tommy faced me like a headmaster teaching a class.
"What we're going to show you is top secret," he said. "Only members of our club have ever been inside to see the bones. Do you accept this challenge?"
I was scared but more than anything I wanted my cousin Tommy to like me, I stood taller and said. "I do."
From under a pile of rocks, Tommy scooped a battered biscuit tin. Inside were a dozen candles and a pile of match boxes. Tommy handed each of us a bunch of candles and a box of matches. Following the lead of the others, I put all but one candle into my pockets and lit the one I held, cupping a hand around the flickering flame, protecting it from the gentle summer breeze. Tommy ducked and crawled into the opening, followed by his friends, me in last place.
Under my hands, the rocks were slippy with damp moss. The passage angled down sharply, the stone roof just above my head. I climbed and scrambled over rocks and boulders following the light of the boys strung out in front of me, soon the only light came from the procession of candles. I began to see a little more as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom. I felt, the cave growing around me rather than seeing it. No longer did the sides of the tunnel rub my shoulders, the glow of the candle no longer reflected off glistening rocks, it just died away in the never-ending darkness. Down and down we ventured, mainly in a straight line. We were all walking upright now with lots of room overhead, the floor levelled out and became a smoothly polished grove in the earth. At last, we stood in part of the cave that was as wide and as high, as a church.
Tommy and his friends formed a tight circle around me the flickering of their candles making horror masks of their faces.
"No one has been in this cave for hundreds of years except us," he said.
"Is this where the bones are? Are they of a bear or even a wolf?" I wondered getting excited about seeing what them. Boys love bones nearly as much as they like bugs and creepy crawlies.
"So where are the bones?" I asked Tommy.
"The only bones in here will be yours if you cant find your way out," he said shoving me to the ground, my candle spilt out of my hand and quenched on the wet floor. The others sprinted away howling and shouting into the darkness like a bunch of apes, taking the light with them. I scrabbled around on my hands and knees rubbing my hands in searching circles across the rugged cold floor. My finger brushed the warm, soft wax of the candle which I grabbed shakily. I dug in my pocket and found the matches only then remembering the spare candles I had all the time. The shouts echoed all around me, they could have been close, or they might have been miles away. In the complete darkness, I couldn't tell where they were coming from. I struck a match and lit my candle again. I turned in circles looking for something I would recognise, but every rock looked like the next.
I thought I could make out the grove of the path, having no other choice I started to follow it. Just then all shouting stopped, not faded out, just stopped. With no idea whether I was going further into the cave or back for the entrance I blundered on. I though I heard voices again, but they were too faint to make out. I thought Tommy and his friends were watching me panic and would soon come get me. Time passed, and no one came. I had to go somewhere, so I continued on pushing through the dark guided by the weak light of my candle. I just wanted out of this place.
Soon my candle burned down and died. I had to light another one. It seemed like I had only just done that when I needed to light my last one. I realized by rushing forward the flame was fluttering in the wind, making the wax melt way faster than if I walked. My last candle was dwindling when I felt the floor begin to slope upwards. I must have found my way back to the entrance, after all, I followed the path climbing over boulders and rocks towards the surface, each step taking me higher. The candle burnt my hand, and I dropped it between the rocks. I felt my way forward on my hands and knees, inching along finding my way by my finger tips.
I felt the walls and roof bare down on me like it had when we first climbed inside the cave. I kept moving forward, bumping my head from time to time. Now and again I lit a match from the box to see what lay ahead, every time it was just darker. I moved further lighting one match after another until a single one remained. The tunnel was no bigger than a barrel at this time. I knew it was not the way we had come in but it still sloped up, that had to be a good thing. It had to come over ground sooner or later. The second last match fizzled and died, I lay crying in the moss and dirt for a long, long time.
At last, I wiped away the water from my face, some was moisture from the cave, but mostly it was tears of a nine-year-old boy, who felt sure ten was never going to come. Rubbing my eyes must have changed them because the black didn't seem as black anymore. I concentrated on the way ahead, I was sure it was brighter. Light must be coming in from somewhere. It had to be a way out. I crawled on, and it was definitely getting brighter, but the walls were closing in all the time. I had to wriggle forward on my belly, the hint of light in the distance grew into a promise, every inch forward the glow got stronger. I could smell the first drafts of a breeze, the first fresh air that I had felt in ages, but cave was now no bigger than a drain pipe. My hands stretched out ahead of me feeling the way, my shoulders squeezed against the rocks all round, I had to wiggle past ones that stuck out, but freedom was in front of me, I could smell it, I could nearly see.
One more push and I would break through, I squirmed hard, but a rock above me shifted pressing on my back. I tried to free myself, but the rock was fixed hard in its new position. I couldn't go forwards nor backwards. I couldn't even take a deep breath, I kicked my feet behind me, and my hands stretched out in front looking for a hand hold. Uncontrollable panic gripped me. I beat my fists against the rocks tearing my skin as I fought with every ounce I had to free myself. Only exhaustion stilled my body and my mind. My fingers touched the match box with the last match inside. Between trembling fingers, I struck the last match, its brilliance lit up my tiny world. Just ahead of me lay a bunch of withered fingers covered in blackened leathery skin tipped with long broken finger nails stretching out towards me. A lifeless skull framed with wisps of wild hair screamed silently in my direction. As the last light, my eyes would ever see faded and died my screams filled the dark.
Like I said, its tough being nine.