by Christine Lajewski
When she was only six, Kelsey watched a garter snake in her backyard eat an earthworm. In the eyes of the little girl, the twenty-four-inch snake seemed huge. It flicked its meal with its tongue and then, abruptly, the worm disappeared. The snake swallowed the annelid with the astonishing deft and speed of a magician. Rooted to the spot, little Kelsey screamed and screamed until her Daddy came and comforted her. For weeks, she replayed this scene, the snake making the worm vanish, as if it had never existed. It was more horrifying than that time she saw an African python swallow a baby goat on the nature program she and Daddy always watched together.
Twenty years later, Kelsey had long since shed her fear of squirmy things. But that memory now inexplicably pushed to the forefront of her mind as she struggled to extricate herself from a wrong turn down a constricted cave passage.
Three years earlier, some explorers in the Rising Star cave near Johannesburg stumbled upon a repository of bones that turned out to belong to homo nelidi, newly discovered hominid cousins who possibly used the pit to bury their dead. Kelsey’s anthropology professor, Llewelyn Burns, set out to explore lesser known caves in the area with hopes he might find his own pit of hominid treasure. Kelsey was just over five feet tall, an avid climber and caver. She agreed to join three other diminutive women to take on the challenge of searching for bones in impossibly tight spaces.
Unlike Rising Star, few people had explored this particular cave. No one knew if there were any fossils to find. Llewelyn talked the women into it by promising to spend a week at the Rising Star dig. Over an eight-day period, they mapped miles of unknown chambers and tunnels with nothing to show for it. Now, after yet another fruitless search, Kelsey was ready to tell Llewelyn to put up or shut up.
Kelsey surveyed what lay ahead in the beam of her head lamp while her friend, Sasha, waited in a cavity the size of a small tool shed. All Kelsey could see was a featureless, velvet black unlike the other rock deposits common throughout the cave. Warm gusts of air that smelled faintly of methane blew in her face. If she persisted in crawling forward, she could get stuck in a pocket of gassy air or end up pitching forward into a chasm. She decided it was time to back up.
She wriggled backwards until she had room to curl into a fetal position and turn around. Still prostrate, she pulled herself forward with her forearms until she could hoist herself up to her her hands and knees.
Something glowed green in the arc of her headlamp—something Kelsey had not noticed when she first explored the passage. It quivered like gelatin on the stony walls and ran down to the floor of the tunnel on rivulets of moisture. It pooled under her neoprene gloves and when she tried to move forward, her hands shot forward on the slick. She sprawled flat, her chin making a tooth-jarring bounce off the rocky surface. Then, as if the world had tilted, she lost her grip on everything and slid back down the passage with alarming speed.
Sasha called Kelsey’s name over and over again but Kelsey was focused on getting her pick off her belt and finding some kind of purchase on the slippery surface. She slammed the point down blindly, only noting in passing that the pick sank into something spongy and held while the tunnel floor flexed ever so slightly beneath her.
She didn’t waste time wondering why everything felt so wrong, why she suddenly could no longer hear Sasha calling to her, why her headlamp revealed only black and more black streaked with kelly green mucous. She retrieved her pick and resumed crawling forward.
Suddenly, every part of the tunnel squeezed around her. It was a gentle, rippling movement that started at her head and travelled backwards. It resolutely and firmly pushed her back down the shaft. She inched and undulated her body forward, just like an earthworm might, but with as much speed as she could manage on the slick mucous. The tunnel contracted again and pushed her even farther down the passageway.
It’s like being swallowed, Kelsey thought, and she suddenly understood where she was.
She panted and felt light-headed as she fought a rising swell of panic. She was in a cloud of dank, fetid air and was running out of oxygen. There was insufficient room to swing her pick freely, but she repeatedly hammered it into the spongy floor and used it to pull herself along. The entire tube flexed and twisted and rippled as if in agony. Her lamp revealed the mouth of the tunnel straight ahead and she pushed herself forward with all her strength. Two sharp, polished stalactites that had not been there before flashed into view and a rush of cool air hit her face. She hammered her pick one more time and saw red blood gushing over her gloves. Ahead of her were the familiar grays and browns of dolomite and limestone. She galloped forward on all fours until she was free. She bolted into the chamber and nearly knocked Sasha off her feet.
“We have to run,” Kelsey shouted. Sasha stared at her friend who was covered with blood and green goo and trembled with exhaustion. Kelsey grabbed her by the hand and pulled, crying, “Now! Go now!”
Kelsey dragged her friend to the convoluted passage that would take them to the main chamber. There they could climb their way to the mouth of the cave. Halfway through the passage, Kelsey realized Sasha was not with her.
Kelsey dashed back to the chamber but it was already too late. She found Sasha gazing, fatally mesmerized, into dark eyes the size of head lights. From the sleek head of the gigantic black snake came a long tongue which flicked at Sasha’s face several times, tasting the air, tasting her. And then, like magic, she disappeared.
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Christine Lajewski is a writer, retired alternative high school teacher, Audubon teacher/naturalist and haunt actor. Her first novel, JHATOR, was published in 2014. She had horror stories published by Sanitarium and Dark Tales, as well as poetry in two anthologies. She is currently seeking a publisher for BONEBELLY, a horror novel and is working on a collection of horror stories.