Here There Be Monsters


Robert Kengott

Ch 1 - The Crystal Cave

I raced across the Arizona desert as if my life depended on it. It probably did. I wove around thorny bushes and towering, saguaro cactus. Just ahead of me was the safety of a rocky hill. My pounding feet churned up little, red dust clouds as I put on a burst of speed. I leaped onto the bedrock and landed with a solid thunk. That's when the ground gave out from underneath me.

There was a terrifying moment of vertigo as I plummeted into darkness. The slabs of rock underneath me crashed to the floor of a cavern and shattered. An instant later, my body slammed into the rubble, the fall cushioned only by my backpack.

Stars exploded inside my skull and blotted out everything. Blind with pain and choking on dust, I rolled onto all fours. I struggled to stand, but my legs refused to stay under me. I crumpled against the cave wall, kneeling with my hands and face pressed against the cool stone. I waited to catch my breath. Eventually the pain subsided and my ears stopped ringing. Then, braced for the worst, I looked up. Yep, Joe was glaring down.

"Okay, okay, I know it sounded...uh... bad when..." Words failed, so I waved one hand in a vaguely conciliatory fashion while the other clung to the wall. "...when everyone started saying I kissed Connie and asked her homecoming, but there were extenuating..."

He sputtered with incoherent rage. "Dying of thirst is gonna be brutal." Joe's face vanished.

"Well, that could have gone better," I announced to the empty cave.

Twenty feet overhead, sunlight streamed through the newly-made hole and lit a path through the billowing, red dust that filled the air. A thin stream of sand trickled down from the ceiling to collect in a pile on the floor. Eventually, I noticed a jumping cholla, a nasty ball of cactus spines, pinned to my shoe. I'd been in Arizona for four months now, and my mom had insisted that eventually the place would grow on me. As I used a rock to scrape off the cholla, I felt confident that this was not what she had meant.

Unsure what to do next, I yelled at the hole in the ceiling. "Is anyone out there? Come on! Help!"

Unfortunately, I'd left the rest of the Future Archaeologists Club at the dig to go back for my camera. That's when I'd run into Joseph Nez.

Joe is a linebacker on the football team. I'm president of the Archaeology club. He's a junior at Rincon high school. I'm a sophomore in University high school. He's a Navajo Indian. I'm German-Italian. Our schools share the same campus, but we live in different worlds; worlds that would have never crossed if it hadn't been for Connie.

Now, I was trapped in a cave and no one knew where I was except for a jock who wanted me dead. If he really did leave, how was I ever going to get out? When would they realize I was missing? How long would it take them to find me? Would they find me? Ever?!

I jumped at the cave wall. No thought, no plan, I just jumped. I clawed at the rock and held on. Overwhelming need and total determination were enough to climb straight out of the cave. Then the moment passed and I fell to the floor, ripping a fingernail half off.

Sucking my finger to stop the flow of blood, I stared at the hole in the ceiling. I was not getting out that way. Shaking off my backpack, the one I always took on digs, I unzipped it and pulled out the first item destined to save my life; Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, translated into Ancient Greek by Andrew Wilson.

Okay... maybe not.

After that came Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, translated into Latin by Peter Needham. Both were gifts from my dad. That was my dad, always looking out for me. After all, how can you call yourself a learned man until you've got a couple of dead languages under your belt?

After the books came two tennis balls, two water bottles, four granola bars, a notebook, a mechanical pencil and a spray canister of sunblock SPF45. Sunblock?! Trapped in a cave and yes sir ‘e, I have plenty of sunblock. Clearly I was going to be spared from the ravages of skin cancer. The last item was my digital camera, which had miraculously survived the fall.

In my jeans' pockets I found my wallet and keys. Patting down my safari vest, I found my work gloves and sunglasses. That was it. I would have traded it all, along with several teeth, for a working cell phone – make that a satellite phone. Something that works in the middle of nowhere and lets me call the police, so they can haul me out of the cave and Joe off to jail.

Feeling less than cheerful, I started to search the cave. After a dozen steps, a natural shelf came into view. Arranged on the shelf were a set of the dim shapes. I stopped and stared at them, willing my eyes to see in the dark. Then it occurred to me, that while I didn't have a flashlight, I did have the camera. I pulled it out and took a picture. The flash popped and the image burned itself onto my retina as well as into the camera's memory. I couldn't believe what I saw. I stepped closer and took another picture.

Featured prominently on the shelf was the skull of some enormous animal, maybe a cave bear, and around it were woven baskets and clay pots. On the walls above it were cave drawings: handprints, people, animals, and starbursts.

Archaeological sites had dominated my life and now I was about to die in one.

I looked down at the screen on the camera. Staring at the glowing image of the shrine, something occurred to me. "How did they get in and out of the cave?"

A ladder long enough to reach the ceiling would have been twenty feet tall and nothing like that was buried in the rubble pile. So there had to be another exit. I began exploring and photographing every dark corner of the cave.

At opposite ends, I found two passages that had been bricked up; rough stones stacked tight and mortared in place with clay. I picked up a hefty-sized rock and stared at the wall closest to the shrine. I'd spent the last six years of my life in Egypt, helping my parents excavate an 18th dynasty Mastaba. I knew that each archaeological site was an irreplaceable archive of information about the past. However, if I was going to survive, I was going to have to damage one.

"They'll forgive me... someday," I announced. Then I began bashing away. After a bit of pounding and digging, I took a long swallow of water and looked through the hole I'd made.

There was a dim glow of light! Behind me I heard a voice, Joe's voice, yelling through the hole in the ceiling. "Alex, I'm coming for you!"

Freedom was ahead of me. Pain was behind me.

With the hole weakening the wall, I was able to push bricks through the opening, which clattered down on the other side. When the gap was large enough I wiggled through and dropped to the floor. The tunnel was narrow but tall enough for me to walk upright. I was halfway down this tunnel when I realized there was something wrong with the light, it wasn't sunlight. It was too weak and splashed with odd color.

Around a bend, the ceiling sloped down steeply. I crawled forward. The tunnel opened up at the bottom of a chamber lined with crystals. My feet stood on red limestone, but from the knees up, I was inside a world of crystal.

Every surface was covered with milky quartz, some pieces were a foot long, and reflecting in each was an unearthly array of colors. As I moved my head tiny, black spots danced in front of my eyes and my mouth was filled with the taste of lemons. I froze and the sensation passed immediately.

Joe's voice came echoing down the tunnel. "I'm coming!"

The light had driven out all panic about Joe, but his newest threat brought it back, but just as a degree of concern.

Slowly, I looked about the crystal cave and saw the source of light, glowing gas swirling around the ceiling. The colors shifted from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to light purple to dark indigo and then the cycle started over. The room was part geology, part funhouse, and part plasma ball. Smiling like a goon, I spun around taking it all in.

I heard Joe clambering over the brick wall. Reluctantly, I looked away from the gas and saw a dark hole leading out of the crystal cave. As I carefully picked my way across the formations, I realized what I was in, a geode. Laughing, without knowing why or really caring, I crawled out.

The feeble orange light illuminated small, gravel-covered ledge which sloped down steeply. Neither the dancing spots nor the sour taste had followed me out of the geode, but I was still dizzy and giddy. I tripped over my own feet and fell. I spun around and slid towards blackness, laughing as the gravel tore at my hands and knees.

At the top of the slope, I saw Joe crawl out of the hole. He tried to stand up but fell. He sat there giggling. "You should have seen yourself up there, the ground collapsed, but your little legs were still running like crazy, a regular Wile E. Coyote."

Both of us laughed like lunatics.

"Alex, what are you doing?" Joe was still grinning like a fool.

"I'm trying to avoid getting crushed like a grape."

"No, you're about to fall to your death." Joe crawled down the slope towards me and extended a callused hand. "Get back up here."

As he said that I took my first good look at the abyss beyond the edge of the shelf. The darkness went on forever. Utter dread pierced through my light-headed mirth. One mistake and I was dead. I lunged for Joe's hand. The sudden movement startled Joe and cost him his grip. He slid down the slope without slowing, careened into me, and both of us slipped over the edge.

I screamed at the top of my lungs and plunged into blackness.

I hate heights. Nightmares about falling haunt me every time I have a fever. Falling when I couldn't see the bottom... I cannot put my feelings into words. It couldn't have lasted more than a second or two. It felt like an eternity in hell.

The water exploded all around me, enveloped me and dragged me down. I clawed my way up. Icy needles stabbed into my skin. I broke the surface and gulped air in. But I kept on clawing, frantically trying to dogpaddle out of the water. The water clung bitterly to my legs, stealing my warmth and pulling me back into its freezing depths.

My screams filled the air and echoed off the walls. Things brushed up against me in the water. Terror seized my chest and threatened to erase every thought, when I heard something.

"Hang on! Hang on! Hang on!" Joe repeated the two words over and over. It was impossible to tell where his voice came from, but I stopped screaming. There was a click. Light lanced through the darkness, conquering everything in its path.

I stopped flailing and stared at the beam of light. Then I started the breast stroke, swimming towards the source.

"You okay?"

I could make out the dim shape of Joe, clinging to the wall. I treaded water next to him. All I could do was breath and eventually Joe asked again.

"I'm alive," I answered.

Joe nodded, apparently unsure until I'd answered. He played the beam of the flashlight across the walls of the narrow, but deep cave. Floating out in the water was my backpack, a few feet beyond that was a rocky beach. In unspoken agreement, we pushed off the rocks and began swimming. As Joe cut through the water, the light from his flashlight alternately illuminated our destination and then the green water. Our passage stirred up silt and debris. Fish darted in to devour the occasional worm or leech churned up in our wake. As I passed by, I snagged my backpack.

We hauled ourselves onto the narrow limestone beach. Whip scorpions, spiders, and millipedes scurried away. Joe leaped to his feet and began stomping on anything that moved, each boot stomp punctuated by some guttural noise. He didn't pause until every bug on the beach had been smashed.

I sat on the stone, hugged my knees, and shivered uncontrollably. "Am I next?"

Joe stopped, looked at me and the glistening smears he'd created on the beach, and laughed. "No, I was coming back to help you." He started rubbing his arms.

Both of us looked up at the ceiling. The trickle of light from the geode dimly illuminated our stalactite-covered sky. Then I asked the question, the BIG question, "So, you told Meyers? The rest of the club is out there? Aren't they?"

Joe was suddenly furious. "No, they're not! Why would they be? I mean, how hard should it have been to save your scrawny butt?"

"What did you do?" I asked, keeping my voice as calm as possible.

He stared at the ground and kicked at some pebbles. "I grabbed my gloves, a rope, and a flashlight out of my truck and came straight back." He turned to glare at me. "It served you right, thinking you were gonna rot down here for a hundred years."

I nodded. "So, no one knows we're down here?"

Joe sat down next to me. "There's my truck at the parking lot and I tied a rope at the entrance. They'll find us."

A slim chance of survival was much, much better than none. "Okay, then all we have to do is wait until they do find us."

Our voices faded to nothing. For a while, the only sound was dripping water.

"Why did you drive out here?" I asked out loud, but silently I wondered what in hell I thought I was doing.

Joe was a shape in the darkness, defined more by his t-shirt than anything else. "To find you."

"Oh," was the only safe reply I could think of. Safest, of course, would be to shut up completely. "Did you really break Dylan's arm last year?" I heard myself ask.

"Hey, Wile E. Coyote, do you have a death wish?" Joe asked, his question mirroring the one I'd silently asked myself.

That was how the conversation ended, Joe's question echoing off the cave walls and fading to silence. We sat there on the beach, while Joe played the beam of light across the red rock walls and I just shivered.

Ch 2 - Kingdom of Eternal Darkness

The cave was cold, the water was bitter cold, and I was soaked to the skin. "I'm going to freeze to death." I stood up and began walking down the beach, a wall of natural columns and stalagmites on my left and the lake on my right.

"Where are you going?" Joe demanded.

"I'm looking for someplace where I can dry off."

"I've got the flashlight, moron." Joe waved it in one hand. "How far are you gonna get?"

I stopped, turned on my heel, jabbed one finger in his direction and... and nothing. Joe wasn't part of a work crew. He didn't work for my dad. He'd driven fifty miles for the simple pleasure of kicking my teeth in. He had the only flashlight and without it I was dead.

He turned the flashlight in my direction, caught me posed without a comeback, and started to laugh. For one reckless second, I considered rushing him and seeing if I could wipe that smile off his face. Then Joe's laughter choked off and the beam of light shifted away.

I spun around. Ahead of me the limestone beach was sandy, almost level with the water, and a wave washed across the shoreline. Of course, it wasn't a real wave; it was just a swell of water. But I followed the swell and the beam from the flashlight out onto the narrow lake. Something large, really large, was moving lazily under the water. It was heading for Joe.

I ran back and yelled, "Turn out the light!"

He was frozen, staring at the impossible wake. Somehow I avoided wiping out on the slick surface and reached Joe first. I snatched the flashlight out of his hand and we both raced for cover. I squeezed between two stone columns and Joe ducked behind a squat stalagmite. Then I clicked off the flashlight. The cave turned absolutely black. Seconds later, something erupted out of the lake, the noise sounding thunderous in the cave. Unmistakable, even with the splattering water, was the sound of something large slamming onto the limestone beach.

The last of the water rained down and for several long seconds there was silence. Then a deep, rumbling growl began. A noise that could be felt as much as heard. My hair stood on end and every nerve buzzed. I heard the sound of an animal shifting back and forth, gravel grinding into limestone.

Then nothing.

The sounds of the beast died.

All that existed was the rhythmic plunk of dripping water.

Something crawled up my neck. Its hairy legs tickled my ear, but I refused to move.

And then, oh so slowly, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The distant glow of light from the geode wasn't much, but the cave resolved itself into thin, telltale lines that suggested the lake, shelf and walls – a minimalist drawing in scratch board. As it did, I could see that just a few feet in front of me was a sixteen-foot long crocodile.

My grip on each column tightened and I pushed back, trying to push myself away, through the cave wall. Inside my backpack, something shifted and clicked. My throat closed up and I couldn't breathe. I used my grip on the columns to hold myself up.

Then I heard the sound of a body sliding over rock. As I watched, the croc slipped backwards into the water and vanished. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, so I wouldn't make any noise. After a minute of breathing, I went to move.

From behind the stalagmite, Joe whispered, "Wait."

He was right. The crocodile was still out there, waiting in ambush. The thought chilled me more than my soaking clothes did. However, I had to stay put and stay silent. Desperate for anything to focus on, I started counting the drips of water. Just as I reached eighty, I heard the sound of something dragging itself onto sand! The only sand I'd seen was maybe forty feet down the shore!

Before the croc had settled, I slipped out of my hiding spot. I took one step and my gym shoes, still soaked with water, bubbled and wheezed. It had been happening since I'd crawled out of the lake, but up until that moment I hadn't noticed. My attention had been focused on other things. Now, it sounded loud, like someone having an asthma attack.

Balancing against one column, I slowly eased off my sock and shoe. After a moment, I repeated the process for the other foot. With a wet sock and shoe in each hand, I stood on the limestone beach and stared at the ceiling, watching the play of light from the crystal cave. After my heart rate had slowed, I tied the laces of the shoes together and hung them around my neck. Then I silently padded over to Joe.

He already had his boots gripped in one hand.

"We have to get out of here," I whispered.

Joe nodded and then pointed away from the sandy beach and the beast. The crevice that held the lake narrowed that direction, but it was our only choice. I nodded and we began walking at a snail's pace.

It was impossible to gauge how long our hellish stroll down the beach actually took, and I wasn't going to check my watch, but it did teach me one thing. I could get sick of pizza or ice cream. Someday, I might get bored of snorkeling or diving. The joys in life might eventually lose their gleam, but fear, heart-stopping, your-life-is-in-danger fear, never lost its edge.

Ahead, the trickle of light that made its way down failed, the path before us was pitch black. I looked up and back. Stalactites and a rapidly sloping roof blocked the glow from the geode and plunged the path ahead into absolute darkness.

I whispered to Joe, "Wait." Then I edged forward, aimed my watch face at the path and pressed the light button.

My dad is a natural teacher. He loves to provide useless trivia and then use those facts like brushes to paint a picture of how culture, economy, geography, technology and history all interconnect, and he would always do this over dinner. He would start with some trivia about Roald Amundsen's trip to the South Pole. But before he was done he'd have demonstrated that the lessons learned there would influence the way humanity would one day conquer Mars.

On one occasion my dad had gone into some detail about electroluminescence. So I knew for a fact that the little blue-green backlight on my watch generated 750 times less light than a typical desk lamp. Nevertheless, when the light on my watch came on it might have well as been the divine light of angels to my light-starved eyes.

I heard Joe gasp, before catching himself. Having just seen the shelf in blue-green detail, we moved forward with some assurance for about ten feet and then repeated the process. The shoreline kept creeping closer as the shelf sloped inexorably down. The path before us narrowed and narrowed until it vanished into the black water.

Joe leaned into me and whispered, "We're trapped."

"We have to keep going."

"If they're going to find us, it'll be here." Joe was frantic.

I gestured uselessly for him to quiet down. "Joe, no one is going to realize I'm missing until the end of the day. They won't have time to start a search party. We're stuck down here until tomorrow. Do you really want to wait on that beach the whole time?"

Joe grabbed my shoulder and started to shake. His grip was so tight I almost yelped. Blinking away the pain, I began a short and extremely quiet mantra. "If you make any noise, we're dead. If you make any noise, we're dead."

Eventually, his grip loosened and he let go. "I'm okay."

I don't know if I believed him, but I didn't have a choice. I crept over to the water's edge, aimed my watch, and pressed the button. Black water extended out beyond the range of the light. The ceiling sloped down to meet the lake somewhere in the darkness ahead, but just as the glow was fading, I spotted a narrow hole at the water level.

I forced myself to step out into the icy water, probing gently with my toes. The floor was steeper than ever and coated with grit. Another step and slime oozed up between my toes. I took a few more steps out and flashed my watch. There were only three inches between the surface of the water and the top of the hole.

I knelt down in front of the hole and reached around blindly, there was another ten inches of clearance below the waterline. I bent over until I was eye-level with the opening and hit the watch light. After three feet it opened up into blackness.

I stood up slowly, but was shivering so badly that I had to steady myself against the wall of the cave. Careful not to splash, I walked out of the water. Cupping my hands around Joe's ear, I whispered. "We can get through the hole and there's no way that thing can follow us."

"You're psychotic," he hissed at me.

"Do you want to sit on this rock shelf for twenty-four hours with that thing in the water?"

"If we leave, how will they find us?" he asked.

That stopped me dead. I tried to imagine the course of events that might occur on the surface. At the end of the day Meyers would realize I was missing. He'd also notice that Joe's truck was parked with the others. Sometime tomorrow morning the search would begin. Where would they start? Near the parking lot or the dig? If they start at the parking lot they'll find the rope and the cave tomorrow. If they start at the dig, it might take them three days to find the cave?! What if it takes more than three days? Don't think about it, I told myself firmly. They find the shrine tomorrow. The recent damage to the brick wall leads them to the crystal cave. They experience the same dizziness and see the scuff marks in the gravel at the edge. So, they lower themselves down to the level of the lake where...

I froze and amended the story.

They bring lights and a raft and lots of people and scare that damn thing off. Please let it be scared off, because I can't think of any way to warn them and I'm dead if they don't come. So, they come. They find the shelf and then what?

The answer came to me. They had to find something that proved that Joe and I passed this way. I mentally rummaged through my backpack and remembered the notebook and pencil. If we left a note where they'd find it on the shelf, they'd know where we went. I could even warn them.

"We'll leave them a note," I finally answered.

My pack was many great things, waterproof and durable currently being at the top of my list. However, the zippers were metal and, as it turned out, loud. So, I had to open the pack with agonizing slowness, reach in, remove notebook and pencil, and scribble a message blindly.

We backtracked to a point on the shelf visible from the ledge at the crystal cave. I placed a circle of small stones around the paper and made an arrow pointing in the direction we were going.

Having left the note, we watch-walked back to the hole I'd found. Joe pawed the darkness, found my head, and whispered into my ear. "How do we know there's not another one of those things waiting on the other side of that opening?"

In the darkness it was easy to envision monsters lurking in the water. As my imagination worked overtime, Joe filled the silence with more nightmares. "What if that thing already waiting for us? We get in the water and start wiggling through that hole and it comes up and... Snap!" Fear drove up the volume of his voice.

Fear! That's what it all came down to, fear of the unknown. I wasn't sure I could handle it. Was any of this real?! Were the last few months of public high school more real than all the years I spent in Egypt? What if they weren't? What if I had never left Egypt? What if I had hit my head, slipped into a coma, and only dreamed of Arizona? What if I had died and now I wandered aimlessly through Duat, the Egyptian underworld. It wasn't possible for a huge crocodile to survive in the cold and dark of the cave. Wasn't it more likely that Ammit had found me? Ammit, who was part crocodile. Ammit, the goddess who punished the wicked. Ammit, the Devourer of Souls.

Suddenly, I was twelve years old again. A cobra writhed on the ground, the head nearly severed from the body. My father was in front of me, a hand on each of my shoulders. He was talking, but the words were far off and unimportant. The only thing I saw was the cobra. Sand clung to the bloody wound.

My dad shook me. "Are you listening to me?"


"You had a spade in your hand. You could have killed it. Why didn't you?"

I was speechless. My eyes drifted back over to the cobra.

"You were scared, Alex, and that's okay. Everyone gets scared. But you can't let it stop you. If there's another cobra, what do you do?"

"Get away," I answered in a whisper.

My dad nodded. "And if you can't get away, what do you do?"

"I hit it with my spade," I repeated solemnly.

"And if you don't have a spade?"

I stared at him, over at the dying cobra, and finally at the spade in my hand.

"Alex, what do you do?"

"I hit it with my backpack or throw a rock or a hammer."

He hugged me tight. "That's right. When the cobra's coming, you have to act."

But I wasn't in Egypt any longer. I wasn't helping my parents excavate a dig. I was trapped in a cave, in Arizona, in the Kingdom of Eternal Darkness, and there was a crocodile hunting me.

I took Joe's ear. "We have to act. If we stay on this shelf we'll die. I still have your flashlight. I'll shine it through the hole and make sure the coast is clear. Then you crawl through as fast as you can. After that, I'll hand you the backpack and follow."

He nodded.

I stepped slowly forward and reached towards the water.

Four years ago, my parents had taken me on safari in South Africa. From the safety of the jeep, I watched a wildebeest walk up to the edge of a river. As it dipped its head down for a drink a crocodile leaped out of the water. Massive jaws closed around the wildebeest's head and dragged it into the river. The animal kicking and bellowing and fighting, but losing the battle. That was image foremost in my mind as I crept towards the edge of the water. The crocodile grabbing the wildebeest by the head.

I had to act. I had to.

Crouching down, with my arm extended as far as possible, I dipped the tip of Joe's flashlight into the water and pressed the switch. It was like a tiny sun coming on. Blinding. Unbearably bright. I winced and looked away. After few seconds of blinking, I looked back.

The whole end of the cavern was bathed in light. The water was undisturbed and crystal clear. The light reflected off the floor and onto the ceiling. Fish darted wildly in the light, but the water was blissfully empty of crocodiles and Egyptian gods. For a moment all I could do was stare.

Echoing off the walls behind us was the unmistakable sound of something splashing into the lake.

"Hurry!" Joe yelled.

I dashed out into the water and shined the flashlight into the hole. Beyond the throat, it quickly opened up into a small cave. I held the light steady for two seconds. Nothing moved on the other side. "Go!"

Joe dropped into the water, did the back float, and began to pull himself through the hole, his face just above the water. I kept the light focused on the hole so he could see. As he feet vanished, I flashed the light out across the lake. In the distance, at the water level, two red eyes reflected back at me. They were closing fast.

I shoved the backpack into the hole ahead of me. Then I laid face up in the water, held my breath, and pushed myself through the opening. I surfaced half way through, the rock face inches from my own, a narrow margin between me and drowning. I'd flashed the light towards my feet and caught sight of red eyes and a snout in the beam of light. I screamed and kicked off the floor of the cave. Water swelled over my head and up my nose. Something collided into my shoulders.

Joe had my shoulders. He pulled for all he was worth and I kicked out rocketing into the next room. In a flood of water, a snapping head followed me. We threw ourselves backwards, primal instincts driving us.

The flashlight flew and landed facing a section of wall.

I landed on my back, flipped over and ran on all fours until I reached a wall. Spinning around, I saw the crocodile was halfway through the hole.

Buy "Here There Be Monsters" at Amazon

Return to the homepage