Author's note: This is my entry for Tewahway's Wheel of Misfortune 2022 story contest. My challenges were (Thematic) Write a story based on a real-life piece of music. ("I Will Fail You" by Demon Hunter) and (Technical) Write a story where the ending is the beginning.
All Jasper could see of the boy by the narrow beam of his helmet light was a pair of low-cut boots and maybe two inches of ankle.
“Ben?” Jasper asked the protruding feet.
He felt a thrill of fear at how very still the young man was. Jasper spent several long moments mentally willing a response before, at last, the boots kicked weakly. Ben was alive, at least for now.
“Really,” observed a voice that Jasper reminded himself was just in his head, “it looks like the rock came alive and swallowed him. Sucked him down in one big gulp. Pretty familiar, huh?”
“My name is Jasper. I’m gonna get you out,” the rescuer spoke to the feet, ignoring the commentary.
“You’re going to fail him,” the voice said, “I’m sure of that. Just like before.”
“That was years ago, John,” Jasper mumbled under his breath, “You’re just a memory. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Then why am I still here with you?” chuckled the phantom voice softly before falling silent. Jasper knew it would return.
It always did.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Ben, just have to go call for some more help. Try as best you can not to move around, you’re like to just wedge yourself in even tighter.”
Ben’s foot waggled gently in what Jasper took as acknowledgment. Jasper carefully eased himself backwards through the cramped tunnel, one excruciatingly calculated movement after the next. The walls were far too narrow to turn around, and it would be nothing short of catastrophe if he got himself trapped too. It took maybe five minutes for Jasper, an experienced cave explorer and rescue worker, to extricate himself back to the main cave from the branch Ben was in. Half a dozen late teen and early twenty-somethings waited for him there, four girls and two boys.
“Did you find Ben, Mr. Grant?”
The girl who asked Jasper the question had large eyes, wet with barely unspent tears, her hands clasped together in front of her so hard they were white. Lizzie, he thought she’d called herself. Jasper took off his helmet and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping the sweat and dirt from his forehead.
“Yeah, he’s in there all right. Got himself stuck real good. I’ve got a satellite phone in my truck to call for some folks to help get him out. You,” he pointed to one of the boys, “what’s your name?”
“G-Greg,” he stuttered.
“Well, Greg, you can come and monitor the phone once I get you set up. The rest of ya wait here and for God’s sake don’t go in that hole after him.”
Jasper grunted at the collection of heads nodding in affirmation, then began moving to the main cave’s entrance, stepping carefully to avoid twisting an ankle. Greg followed closely. The entryway tunnel was tall enough for a grown man to stand in and sloped upward gently for several dozen meters before turning sharply, the last ten feet or so a straight vertical ascent. Just a bit of light from the low setting sun shone through the hole above him as Jasper climbed the rough metal rungs driven into the stone wall to assist spelunkers with entry and exit. Leaving the cave and heading towards his truck, his eyes passed over the bright yellow sign posted next to the entrance. “DANGER!” it warned, “Experienced Caver’s Only!”
“That you lot?” Jasper asked Greg, “You experienced cavers?”
“No, sir,” the young man answered, his head hung sheepishly.
Jasper’s breath hissed through his teeth, “Yeah. Didn’t think so. No lights or other gear clued me in on that real quick. You’re lucky I was passing by, don’t typically come out here this time of day.”
“Is…is my brother ok?” A strong hint of anxiety had entered Greg’s voice,
Jasper lowered the tailgate of his pickup and began searching through boxes in the bed.
“Ben’s fine,” he replied, finding the small case he was looking for and unsnapping it, “But that’s a temporary situation at best. I imagine he’s in quite a bit of pain and, depending how tight he’s wedged, likely having some trouble breathing. That’s double if he starts to panic. The real trouble is how he’s stuck upside down like that. Too long and the blood’ll start to pool and…how long has he been stuck in there?”
“I…I don’t know. A couple hours now maybe. We thought he was playing a joke at first but, then when we tried to pull him out, we couldn’t. We tried calling 911, but no one could get a signal and then we thought about going for help. We couldn’t decide who should go, and we didn’t want to leave him and…”
“Take a breath, kid. I get it. Then I showed up while you were standing around deliberating. Not surprised you couldn't get cell service, we're a little more than fifty miles from the closest ranger station and that's about where the tower is. That's why they gave me this sat phone and...hmm." Jasper paused, looking up at an ominous collection of clouds that had gathered seemingly since he'd first gone to check on Ben. "That ain't good."
"Cloud cover that thick means this thing might not work either," he replied, consulting a small notepad in his pocket for the number the station had given him to call.
Several minutes of static on the line confirmed Jasper's fear.
Jasper shook his head. "Shoot. Ok, look, I hate to leave you all here, but I'm gonna take my truck over to the ranger station and call for help. If Ben's only been in there a couple hours like you said, it'll be pretty uncomfortable for him, but it's gonna be best to have more professionals on site to make sure we can get him out. Shouldn't take me more than three hours to get a full on rescue party out here. Meantime, I'll leave ya this phone to keep seeing if you can get through and...ah damnit."
A large raindrop had splashed the back of Jasper's hand as he'd been talking. He cast a wary eye up at the clouds.
"Well, this just keeps getting more complicated. You familiar with the weather around here, Greg?"
"N...not really. We're just visiting for spring break."
"Uh huh. Well, it don't rain often, but when it does it rains a whole bunch. Way Ben's situated upside down like he is...any of you have a vehicle, think you can go try to make it to the station and get some more help?”
“No, sir, we hiked out here, just brought some water and energy bars. We…we didn’t think we were going to be going caving. Just saw the sign and thought it would be fun.”
“Ok.” Jasper paused for a moment, biting his lip as he considered the sun becoming more and more obscured by the clouds, a sinking feeling growing in his gut. “Don’t suppose if I gave one of you my truck that you’d be able to take it then get back out here?”
“I don’t think so, sir. Not in the dark.”
“Yeah. If something manages to go even worse, I’d hate to not have it." He sighed and thought for another long moment before heavily arriving at the inevitable decision. "Reckon it’s just up to us then.”
Jasper returned to the truck bed, rummaging through boxes and selecting several large bundles of rope, a small mallet, a drill, carabiners, and several pulleys, piling the gear into Greg’s arms.
“Mr. Grant,” Greg’s voice cracked slightly, his lower lip trembling, “You’ve done something like this before, right? You’ll be able to get Ben out? You’re sure he’ll be ok?”
“I…” Jasper hesitated.
“Well?” the phantom voice spoke up, “You going to tell him the truth?”
The rescuer shook his head to clear it.
“Yeah, kid. Loads of times.”
Jasper stared straight ahead, his hand absently scratching a faded scar that ran the length of his cheek.
“Loads of times…” he repeated, his thoughts going back in time.
“It’ll be ok, John,” Jasper spoke to the pair of feet in front of him as he pounded a piton into the rock wall with small, precise taps, “It’s all gonna be ok.”
He thought the trapped man said something. It certainly sounded like he was talking to someone, anyway, but the dense earth made it difficult to hear.
“Whatever you’re saying, buddy, I can’t hear you too well.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” John said, his voice a bit clearer.
Jasper had been working for the Utah Institutional Trust Lands Administration for almost seven years and rescued more than ten cave climbers in every one of them. Despite that, he didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone quite as stuck as John Edward Jones. The young man and a group of friends had decided the night before Thanksgiving to explore the famous Nutty Putty Cave and, despite having some experience, John had gotten trapped in a precarious position. The Birth Canal tunnel he’d been trying to find was narrow enough, but Ed’s Push, the one John had accidentally gone down, was even smaller. At only about ten inches wide and 18 inches high, the tunnel was so narrow only one person could access John’s feet at a time. The tight confines were further exacerbated by the fact that the tunnel bored almost straight down; any attempt to pull John out would be in almost direct opposition to gravity. After some quick deliberations, the rescue party had determined a series of ropes and pulleys would give the team the best chance of success. One of the most experienced rescuers to arrive, Jasper had volunteered to serve as the primary point man to rig the system.
“Really,” Jasper had thought to himself the first time he set his eyes on John, “it looks like the rock came alive and swallowed him. Sucked him down in one big gulp.”
By the time Jasper started installing the rescue equipment, John had already been stuck for about twenty hours. Jasper worked with a will, drilling holes, driving the pitons into carefully selected positions and threading rope. Despite his efforts, the hard rock made the going slow. He’d been at it for several hours when he felt a hand tap his foot.
“Yeah?” he asked, unable to turn to see who was getting his attention.
“Reach your hand back, Jasper. See if you can get this walkie to where John can talk into it. His wife’s here and she’s six months pregnant. Wants to talk to her husband before we start to pull him out just in case…well.”
“That you, Mark? Come on, man, just let me work, I’m almost done.”
“Two minutes. The girl’s pretty freaked out.”
“Fine,” Jasper sighed. He managed to get his left arm back, hand to his side and could just feel the antenna of a small radio where Mark pressed it into his palm. It took a bit of twisting, but Jasper was able to pull the radio up past his body. He keyed the mic.
“Hello? John, baby, is that you?” a concerned female voice came through from the other end.
“Ah, no, Mrs. Jones. This is Jasper Grant. I’m with your husband. I understand you want to try and talk to him, but I’d like to keep it short because we’re pretty close to getting ready to pull him out. If everything goes the way it should, and it will, you’ll be able to talk to him face to face in no time.”
“A…all right, Mr. Grant. I’ll be brief. But thank you.”
Jasper reached the radio forward and tapped John’s foot.
“John? Hey, can you still hear me? I’ve got a radio here and someone who wants to talk to you.”
“Who’s that?” John’s voice was muffled through the rock, “I’ve already got people talking to me. They don’t want me to leave.”
Jasper shook his head in exasperation. “That’s just the blood pooling around your brain, John. Way you’re wedged upside down, your heart’s gotta work overtime to keep everything flowing right. It’s why we’ve gotta get you out of there, buddy. Here, come on, say hi to your wife.”
He keyed the mic again.
“Emily?” John asked.
“Yes, baby, I’m here,” the young woman replied, the raw emotion in her voice noticeable even through the radio static.
“Love you,” John said, his words taking on a sluggish quality.
“We love you too! We…we’ll see you real soon, ok?” she choked.
Jasper could tell the man was fading. He brought the radio back to his face.
“Mrs. Jones, I’m gonna have to let you go. But I’ll get your husband out to you real soon here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Grant.”
“Mark, you still there?” Jasper called back.
“Yeah, sure am.”
“Ok, head on back. I just want to check this rope around John’s ankles one more time, then I think we’re ready to get him out.”
“Those pitons all secure?”
Jasper rolled his eyes. “Come on man, I’ve done stuff like this a dozen times in the last eighteen months. They’re set. The kid’s fading, we’ve gotta move.”
“All right, all right. I’ve got eight of us back here ready to pull. Hang onto the walkie and give us the word when we’re good to start.”
Jasper carefully checked the knots he’d tied. Satisfied, he spoke to the trapped man again.
“I’ve gotta head back a bit, John, so you have room to slide when they start pulling, but in a minute you’re gonna be out, and I’ll be the first one you see.”
Jasper thought he heard John say something but couldn’t tell what.
“You hang in there, buddy.”
Jasper edged himself back about ten feet to a slightly wider part of the tunnel.
“Ok, Mark,” he spoke into the radio, “Let’s go.”
In the light of his helmet beam, Jasper could see the rope passing through a carabiner near his face go taut as the other rescuers took out the slack and began to pull. He turned his attention to John’s feet.
“Oh, God!” John’s scream was muffled, but Jasper could still make it out.
“Hold on,” Jasper yelled into the walkie talkie, “Stop pulling! What’s going on, John?”
“It hurts,” John whimpered, “It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.”
“I know, buddy, but we got to get you out. You ready to go again?”
John made a soft sound of pain but didn’t say no. Jasper called back into the radio.
“Mark, go again. Nice and easy now.”
The rope went taut, and John began to inch upward again with agonizing slowness.
“Fuck! Let go!” John shrieked again.
“Stop again,” Jasper called into the radio, “John, talk to me, bud, what’s up?”
“They’re holding me. They don’t want me to leave. They want me to stay here.”
“Yeah, that’s just those voices in your head, John. Don’t you listen to them. A little more and we’ll have you out, all right? Keep going, Mark.”
The rope started to pull again and, it must have been Jasper’s imagination, but it seemed as though John didn’t immediately start moving as he had the two previous times. He finally did after a few seconds that drug on for a subjective eternity, but the extrication was somehow even slower than before. Jasper could feel sweat pooling at the back of his neck, but whether from the exertion of installing the pulley system or adrenaline he couldn’t begin to say.
“Almost there, buddy, almost there,” Jasper spoke to himself as much as to John. At long last, John was pulled to where Jasper could just see past the length of his body to his head.
Jasper grinned, “How are you, kid?”
John’s face was red and dirty, but smiling, “It sucks. I’m upside down. I can’t believe I’m upside down. My legs are killing me.”
Then more softly, “I didn’t think they’d let me leave.”
“Just the blood in your head, John. Mark, go real easy now. Keep him coming.”
Jasper reached his hand out towards John’s steadily approaching boot.
“I’ve got you, buddy.”
He tensed his fingers, their tips just brushing John’s ankle. Then, John stopped moving.
A low sound of protest escaped his lips as Jasper fumbled to grasp the trapped man’s foot. He saw the rope strain as the other rescuers pulled from the tunnel entrance, but it was almost like something was striving against their efforts. Jasper watched as, impossibly, John jerked an inch back down the tunnel. In the back of his mind, he heard a metallic snap, then the sound of tearing silk. Something flashed by Jasper’s face, raking hard against his cheek and his head snapped back instinctively, bashing into the tunnel wall. Despite his helmet, everything went black.
When Jasper woke up, the tunnel was filled with dust.
“Jasper? Jasper? What the hell happened?” he heard Mark calling through the radio.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. We just about had him out. He was…” the dust began to clear as Jasper shined his light down the tunnel, only to reveal John’s feet back where they’d started or, possibly, even a little deeper than before.
“He was almost out.”
“Mr. Grant?” Greg’s voice shook Jasper out of his reverie.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, kid. Loads of times. Come on let’s get back.”
Together the two made their way back to the cave carrying the equipment. They carefully lowered it down the makeshift ladder before finally getting to the main cavern. All told, Jasper figured they’d been gone only maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but they’d already lost all but the barest last bit of sunlight and the rain had started to steadily pick up. His helmet light revealed Lizzie and the others waiting for them, clumped together in a miserable looking huddle.
“Everything all right, kids?”
Lizzie’s eyes were wide as she approached him.
“I…I think something’s wrong with Ben, Mr. Grant. We tried calling to him, but he didn’t say anything back.”
“Nah, he’s far enough down, he probably just can’t hear you, darlin’. Don’t worry, we’ll get him out,” Jasper smiled at her, “It might just take a little while.”
Jasper began by selecting a solid anchor point in the main cavern. He bored out a hole with the battery powered drill, then used the hammer to pound in a long piton.
“I’m gonna head down in there and rig a pulley system with a bunch of anchor points. Once I get it all set up, I’ll have to stay in there to monitor things, and it will be on you lot to actually pull him out. You think you can handle that?”
“Yes, sir,” Greg nodded, a look of determination on his face.
“Great. Now, this rock looks like it’s pretty hard, so it might take a while for me to get everything all set. You all do your best to stay warm and be ready to go when I tell you, ok?”
The group nodded collectively.
“All right then.” With a sigh Jasper eyed the hole where he figured he would be spending the foreseeable future, “No time like the present.”
At the back of his mind, the phantom voice chuckled softly.
Jasper sat in a threadbare easy chair in the living room of his dingy apartment. He hadn’t shaved in days and wore nothing under the dirty pink bathrobe wrapped around his thin frame. He held a half empty bottle of bourbon in one hand and a yellowed newspaper clipping in the other. His right cheek was heavily bandaged from where the flying carabiner had split it open. The phone on the small table to his right rang shrilly, and he deliberated a moment between the items he held before setting the clipping down to remove the receiver from its cradle.
“Hello?” Jasper asked into the phone before taking a swig of bourbon.
“Jasper? That you? It’s Mark.”
Jasper blanched through his drunken haze, though from fear or rage he wasn’t quite sure.
“Fuck do you want?”
“Look, man, I’m not calling to fight. Just wanted to check on you. Make sure you were ok.”
“Well, I’m not. Kids dead. His wife’s…”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Jasper stared down at the bottle, “I rigged the system. I rigged it, and it broke.”
“That’s…well, that’s true, but it was the rock, not the system.”
“I PICKED THE FUCKING ROCK, MARK!” Jasper shouted into the phone.
Silence from the other end.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Mark repeated, “There’s nothing you could have done. Thought you’d want to know, they’ve decided to close Nutty Putty Cave, put a cement cap on the end to make sure nobody else goes in.”
“Yeah? They gonna fish John out first?”
“No, they…the board’s decided it’s too dangerous.”
“Goodbye, Mark,” Jasper sneered, “Don’t call again.”
He hung the phone up and just sat there for a moment. Abruptly, an ugly feeling clamping his chest, Jasper hurled the bourbon bottle against the far wall where it shattered into a hundred pieces to the floor, the amber liquid staining the light carpet.
“You know it was your fault, right?” John asked from where he stood in the shadowy corner.
Jasper nodded miserably.
“And now they’re just going to leave me in that God forsaken cave? That’s your fault too.”
Jasper slid from the chair onto the floor, wrapped in the fetal position. His tears came hard and sudden and didn’t stop until long after he’d fallen asleep.
Jasper used his forearm to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He double checked to ensure the piton was properly seated before turning his attention back to where Ben’s feet still protruded. His stomach was wet from a steady stream of water that had begun running past him down the tunnel towards the trapped boy.
“How you doing down there, Ben?”
The boy’s foot moved gently.
“Ok. We’re almost good here. Just have to get the rope situated, then one last check and we’ll be pulling you out.”
Jasper looped the rope around the boy’s ankles, tying no-slip knots the way he had thousands of times before. Truth is, he could do this with his eyes closed and his hands behind his back, but he never took anything for granted. Not anymore.
“All right, buddy. I’m gonna go give your friends some instructions, but then I’ll be back to make sure you get out nice and smooth, ok?”
“He doesn’t want me to leave,” Ben’s voice was muffled in reply.
“Those voices are just the blood stuck pooling in your head, kid, it’s…wait, he?” Jasper asked, perplexed.
“He says his name is John."
“I think you should take the job. All these memories of the pain and your imagined sins, I think this will help you get over them,” Dr. Feagles said from behind her desk.
Jasper turned his head from where he lay on the therapist’s couch.
“I dunno, doc. I just…I don’t know if I’m ready.”
“Jasper, you’ve been coming to see me for the better part of ten years, ever since your friend Mark bodily dragged you out of your apartment. This is just a roving park job. It’s not rescue work, per se, almost the opposite. You’ll be doing preventative action, keeping idiot tourists away from dangerous sites.”
“Ok, but what if I find one that’s stuck?”
“Then you call for help. You call for help, and that help will get them out, and you’ll be a hero, and you’ll finally be able to put these ghosts to rest.”
“Just one ghost, doc. It’s only John that talks to me.”
“Jasper, we’ve gone over this and over this. It isn’t John. John is dead, and ghosts aren’t actually real. That’s just a figure of speech, a metaphor. Any voice you hear is just your guilty conscience which, as we’ve also discussed, is completely unnecessary. By unanimous perspective, nothing that happened in Nutty Putty Cave was your fault. Everyone’s faith in you is fully restored, except perhaps your own. Do this for a little while and maybe you’ll even convince yourself.”
“Right, doc,” Jasper nodded, “I know. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Liar,” John whispered in his ear.
Jasper was in position and gave two tugs on the rope, the signal he’d given to Greg, Lizzie, and the others.
“Here we go, Ben, nice and easy,” he called down to the trapped boy.
The rope went taut and began sliding through the system of carabiners back towards the cave entrance. The knots tightened around his ankles and Ben’s feet slowly, agonizingly inched closer to where Jasper lay, wedged uncomfortably, ready to grab hold as soon as the boy got close enough.
“Here we go, buddy, almost there.”
“He doesn’t want me to go,” Ben whined.
“He’s not real, kid, that’s…it’s just the blood in your head,” Jasper choked.
“Not real?” the phantom voice chuckled, “Such a liar. ‘We’re going to get you out.’ ‘It’s going to be ok.’ ‘It’s not my fault.’ Is anything you say not a lie?”
The rope slid, the boy inched closer.
“It hurts,” Ben gasped, “He’s holding me! He doesn’t want me to go!”
“Just the blood,” Jasper breathed.
Closer and closer Ben’s foot came. Jasper stretched out his hand to the utmost, clutching, straining to grab onto the boy’s ankle.
“Just the blood.”
The tunnel widened just enough that Jasper could glimpse Ben’s face past his body. His eyes were closed in a rictus of pain, arms stretched over his head, his shirt soaked in rainwater almost to the shoulders. And just beyond the boy, grasping his outstretched arms, Jasper could barely make out another figure, one he recognized. John’s face was red and dirty but smiling.
Ben’s eyes snapped open, rolling in fear.
“He won’t let me go,” he whispered.
The boy jerked abruptly downward, and Jasper heard a metallic snap followed by the sound of tearing silk. Something flew by his face and the tunnel was filled with dust despite the water.
Jasper coughed, choking, unable to see anything.
“Mr. Grant?” he heard someone calling frantically from the main cave, “Mr. Grant, something happened to the rope!”
“Greg,” he thought to himself.
“Is everything all right, Mr. Grant?” someone else called, “Is Ben all right?”
“Lizzie,” Jasper thought.
As the dust cleared, he looked back down the tunnel towards where Ben had disappeared.
All Jasper could see of the boy by the narrow beam of his helmet light was a pair of low-cut boots and maybe two inches of ankle.
“Ben?” Jasper asked the protruding feet.
He felt a thrill of fear at how very still the young man was. Jasper spent several long moments mentally willing a response. And then several more.
Written by Shadowswimmer77