by Kirby Ray
Jay Scott and her friends take a trek into the cave in search of a mystery...
| Everything felt surreal after the declaration of war: all over the city of Arboleda, people were panicking, hiding, and even looting, as if the Black Star Army was on their doorstep. By the time Jay managed to meet with her friends in St. John Park, the air was eerily silent and still; anyone that would have been out to enjoy the beautiful day was preparing for the worst. Thankfully, Bian and Rosa were far more interested in what their ringleader had to say than hunkering down, as they waited for her underneath a tall oak tree on the outskirts of the nature trail.
“So good to see you guys,” the bespectacled girl greeted her companions as she rode up on her bike. “My mom went out to go get supplies and my dad is swamped at work. How’d you manage?”
“I told them I wanted to practice survival tactics and guerrilla warfare in the woods,” Rosa answered with a shrug. “You know how gung-ho my folks can be; I’m surprised they didn’t give me weapons to train with.”
I said that I wanted to spend some time with you after being gone all summer, Bian texted on her phone.
“Good, that’s good,” Jay nodded as she took off her backpack. “So, I bet you’re wondering why I called you out here instead of just meeting at my house or the Cinemax.”
Rosa crossed her arms and asked, “Is it because those were a bunch of Way Back People?”
The young scholar glanced up in surprise, first at Rosa and then at Bian, as if asking how the chatterbox of their trio knew about the Primogenitors. The Latina explained, “What? You used to talk about them all the time when we were kids. We even used to play games about them: I was the evil Queen Darkheart, Bian was the Princess of Hearts, and you were the Super Knight.”
“’Mega Knight’,” Jay corrected as she withdrew a binder from her backpack. “I guess I forgot how much I used to talk about them when we were younger.”
“How could I forget the reason why you slapping the ugly off of Milton Caine’s face in the third grade?” Rosa chuckled, as did Bian, though the slapper in question shook her head.
“Someone was going to slap him sooner or later, but that’s not the point. The reason I wanted you both out here is because I wanted to show you both something big,” the frizzy-haired girl told her friends. “Check this out.”
She opened up the binder, revealing it to be full of her grandfather’s notes—what she could salvage and what she had reproduced. After flipping through several pages, Jay landed on a photo of a cave drawing, which illustrated a crude approximation of Lord Cosmic, while another photo showed what appeared to be the Saturnight horde as they bore down on a flock of people. The eight-point star, the Kiboreia, Pyramax—they were all in the notes.
“You see? My Pop-Pop was right!” the young scholar declared as she jabbed a finger down on a picture. “The Primogenitors are real, they did exist, and the worst of the worst has just declared war on mankind! Do you know what this means?”
Rosa and Bian glanced to each other before the more talkative of the two answered, “That the crumb bums at Taylor University can stick it?”
That we’re all about to be destroyed by ancient history?
“No, and furthermore, no,” Jay grunted as she crammed her binder back in her bag. “It means that if the King of Black Stars exists, then there must be more Primogenitor material out there! And lucky for us, we happen to have a site right up the trail here.”
Her chatty friend gazed up the trail and asked, “You mean the old cave your grandpa had blocked off?”
“The one and the same,” the young scholar replied eagerly as she made her way to the edge of the woods. “I want to see for myself just what’s up there; surely there’s something my Pop-Pop might have overlooked!”
Bian anxiously looked over her shoulder as she texted out, But what if we get caught trespassing?
“Everyone is so worried about what’s going on in Europe, they’re not going to care about a couple girls breaking the law,” Rosa told her fearful friend. “Come on, it’ll be like an adventure! We might even see a dead body while we’re out there.”
The Vietnamese girl squeaked and ducked behind Jay in a panic. Her human shield sighed and told her morose friend, “We’re not going to find a dead body—maybe a hobo or two, but that’s it. Now, let’s get going; the mysteries of the past aren’t going to solve themselves!”
At the same time the trio were preparing for their trek into the woods, two of their new classmates were about to meet on the other end of the park. Davide was making his way through the park with an old, boxy camera that was easily twice as old as he was, snapping pictures of the serene park. Without all the little kids screaming, joggers and cyclists streaking everywhere, and games being played, the local wildlife had come to fill the gap. So far, he had managed to get a few good shots: two squirrels chasing each other up the playground equipment; a mother duck leading her maturing babies from the pond; a chipmunk digging around underneath a tree. They might not have been National Geographic-worthy, but the young man was proud of them.
“Let’s see, let’s see,” he hummed to himself as he scanned the park for new opportunities. “The nature trail might be good—all that shade ought to make for some cool lighting.”
With camera in hand, the young man made his way towards the nature trail, only to stop when he saw Warren sitting beneath a nearby tree. The richest student in school was lost in thought as he perused his phone, but Davide was struck by the way the light broke through the branches and covered the heir in sun and shadows. It was picture-perfect, like something out of a movie—except unlike a movie, the photographer did not take a candid photo. The last thing he needed was to be called a creep by one of his new classmates, even if it turned out to be a lovely picture.
Instead, the massive football star walked over to the oblivious student and tapped him on the shoulder. Before Davide could even get a word in though, Warren jumped in his seat and dropped his phone to the ground. The athlete was quick to apologize and pick up the phone, “My bad, my bad. Let me get that for you.”
“No, no, that’s fine—I’ve got it,” Warren hastily replied as he scrambled for the phone. He managed to snatch it up, but before he could turn it off, Davide got a glimpse of what was on the screen.
“Were you just looking at bikinis?” the athlete asked the apprehensive boy.
After fumbling for the right words, Warren answered, “Yes, but only shopping. I need to get a gift for my, um…my mother.”
The bulkier of the two crossed his arms and dug deeper. “You buy your mom bikinis?”
“Did…did I say my mom? I meant for my cousin!” the heir nervously laughed as he struggled to get his phone back in his pocket. “Yeah, cousin—how weird would it be if I was buying swimsuits for my mom?”
“Pretty dang weird,” Davide replied stoically before ultimately breaking into a chuckle. “I’m just messing with you, man. What you do on your own time with your own phone is none of my business—you do you, all right?”
Warren nervously chuckled but said nothing else in reply, which led to an awkward silence punctuated only by the chirping of cicadas. When he managed to find his voice again, he pointed to his classmate’s camera and asked, “You’re into photography?”
This time, it was Davide’s turn to be flustered as he hastily crammed the old camera into his satchel. He lied, “No, not really. It’s just this thing my mom has me doing—she doesn’t want me to focus on football all the time, so she has me trying out artsy things, y’know? I mean, I’d rather be at practice any day of the week, but she’s always on me to expand my horizons or whatever. You know how moms can be.”
“Oh, totally,” the rich boy fibbed. Generally, it was his dad that was trying to get him to try new things—sports, mostly—while his mother was more focused on her cosmetics business.
After another pregnant silence, the defensive tackle asked, “So, what’re you up to—besides swimsuit shopping for your ‘cousin’, I mean?”
Warren turned a fine pink at the question but replied, “Nothing, really. I didn’t want to go home after they let us out early, so I asked my chauffer to drop me off here for a couple hours.”
“Cool,” Davide nodded. “Cool, cool, cool. You want to maybe hang out? I’m stuck out here until I run out of film, and I could use another pair of eyes.”
“Yeah, sure!” his classmate answered chipperly. “Where were you thinking of going next?”
The athlete pointed towards the trail and explained, “Up the nature trail—there’s this really cool cave I want to check out.”
“Ooh…I’ve always wanted to go spelunking,” Warren remarked as he clapped his hands together. “I only wish I had a flashlight or something with me—I suppose I could have Star drive home to pick up some gear, but that could take a little bit.”
“Let’s just see what we can do with the flash on my camera,” Davide told his new companion as he led the way to the trail. “Besides, what’s the worst that could be down there?”
Not ten minutes into their hike up the trail, Jay was beginning to regret bringing her friends along for this excursion. Maybe it was because she had not seen her all summer, but the young scholar had forgotten how impatient Rosa could be; it was like driving with a toddler in the backseat. If she was not asking how much longer until they reached the cave, she was chatting, whistling, or swinging around random branches and sticks she picked up along the way. It took every ounce of willpower she had to not scream at the chatterbox, but even her patience had its limits. Thankfully, they were about to meet a distraction at the crossroads in the trail.
At the point where all other paths converged, Jay’s group happened upon Davide and Warren as they hiked up the worn paths. Bian immediately froze up at the sight of the two relative unknowns, but Rosa kept her from hiding behind her bespectacled friend. The frizzy-haired girl nodded to the two newcomers and greeted them, “Hey there! Didn’t expect to see anyone out here today.”
“Guess we had the same idea,” Davide replied with a grin, not knowing how right he was. “What’re you all up to?”
“Oh, you know—just wanted to take in a little hike on a nice day,” Jay fibbed, not wanting to spill the beans on the real reason they were out. The less people that knew she was studying the Primogenitors, the better.
Unfortunately, Rosa did not have that hang-up. “We’re going to check out the cave up the trail—Jay’s granddad used to study things like the King of Black Stars and all that.”
Four heads turned to gawk at the talkative teen: Davide and Warren in shock, Bian in disbelief, and Jay in seething frustration. Since no one else was talking, the Latina continued, “Yeah, there’s actually a bunch of hieroglyphs or cave drawings or whatever down there, so we were going to take a look and see what’s up. You want to come with? The more, the merrier!”
“Okay, whoa, time out!” the bespectacled ringleader butted in.
She grabbed Rosa’s arm and yanked her to the other side of the crossroads for a sidebar. Bian, for her part, froze like a deer in headlights; she did not want her anxiety to get the better of her, but she could barely muster looking her classmates in the eye. With fingers twitching, she pulled her phone from her pocket and turned on some music, which helped to cool her nerves. Between that and the heated stage whispering from the other two, the boys wondered if they ought to continue onto the cave by themselves.
“This was just supposed to be a thing for the three of us,” Jay hissed at her talkative friend. “I don’t need everyone in school knowing about this stuff!”
“Dude, everyone already knows—they all saw the news,” her Latina friend contested. “Besides, the big dude’s got a camera; he could take new pictures for your notes.”
Rosa then put her arm around her pal’s shoulders and told her, “Think of this like one of those extraditions your grandfather went on.”
“Expedition,” the young scholar grumbled.
“Same difference,” the chatterbox brushed off. “Your granddad was a smart guy, but even he had other people to help him: people who were careful; people who took good notes; people who were organized—”
“And you are none of those things,” Jay retorted.
“—and people who keep morale high! Just think of this as another expedition, one of your very own. You want to continue your granddad’s work? This is how you do it: by taking your best friends and some perfect strangers out to a cave for the afternoon, take some pictures, make some notes, and have a good time. And hey, if nothing else, you can at least say you made some new friends along the way if you feel like getting sappy about it.”
The bespectacled girl huffed and crossed her arms at the reasoning. Much as she wanted to retort that she neither wanted nor needed any new friends, Rosa made a very good point about having a few extra hands on deck. While she was nonplussed about two outsiders butting in on what was supposed to be time spent with her best friends, at least the one of them had a camera on hand—one that could probably take better pictures than her cell phone. Reluctantly, Jay let her arms fall to her side; whether or not she liked it, their classmates could be helpful.
“Fine, but only because we’re all going there anyway,” the ringleader told her talkative friend. She then turned to Davide and Warren, and told them, “If you’re coming, just make sure you’re careful; if there’re any artifacts there, I don’t want to risk damaging them.”
“We’ll be careful, Mom,” the football player snorted as he rolled his eyes.
“Y-Yeah, we’ll be very careful!” the heir replied earnestly.
Jay shook her head at the situation and proceeded to walk up the trail, leading the motley crew to the cavern. Bian took her place right behind the determined girl, while Rosa hung back and talked on end with the boys; at least that was an upgrade from her bellyaching. Davide was fine hanging back with the chatterbox and Warren, who was only slightly less awkward than the meek girl up front; it helped that his Latina classmate could talk the talk when it came to sports. The rich boy, however, felt uncomfortable having tagged along with the group, so he decided to make amends with the leader, who had not said a word to him since the trek began anew.
“H-Hey, Jay?” the copper-haired student greeted as he trotted up to the front of the line. “Thanks again for letting us come along with you. It sure would be awkward if we had bumped into each other when we got there, right?”
“Sure,” was all the bespectacled girl said in reply.
Fumbling for conversation, Warren asked, “So, your grandfather must be pretty excited about this, right? I mean, unless Rosa was kidding about that too.”
“He can’t be excited,” Jay grumbled, “he died back in June.”
“Oh, um…I’m sorry?”
The rich boy could feel sweat beading on his brow, and he was not sure if it came from the heat or his nerves. Once more, he tried for small talk and remarked, “Well, at least he’ll be remembered for his research, right?”
“All his research was discredited, and he died the laughingstock of Taylor University,” Jay replied tersely. “Would you like me to tell you about his cirrhosis, or the fact that he didn’t have a penny to his name by the end?”
Finally getting the hint, Warren gestured to the back of the group and mumbled, “I think I’m just going to hang back with the others.”
The tense silence made the hike feel much longer than it was, but the group eventually reached the mouth of the cave. It had long been blocked off with a chain link fence, and judging by the barbed wire on top, the city had made some improvements since it was first erected. Jay walked up and down the length of the fence and grunted in frustration when she realized there was not a single weak link to be found.
“Dang it, Pop-Pop,” she muttered to herself before looking over her shoulder at the gang. “Don’t worry, guys, I brought some bolt cutters just for such an occasion. Let me just get them out of my bag and—”
Before Jay could finish her thought, there was a metallic crunch as Davide ripped a hole in the chain link as if it were made of paper. The athlete turned back to the others and gestured for them to enter the gap he had created, saying, “Ladies first.”
“Come on, Warbucks,” Rosa told Warren as she grabbed him by the arm and tugged him through the hole in the fence. Bian quickly followed suit, and Jay snuck in right after her. Once everyone was through, Davide crawled through the gap and closed the hole as best he could. To a passerby, the fence would still look intact; only on closer inspection would they find it had been torn asunder.
Thanks to the shade of the trees outside, there was little light to guide the students on their way, and it was not long before Jay had to pull out a flashlight. The cave was warm and dry, and as the ragtag group marched into the depths of the cavern, they found themselves wishing for the comfort of a breeze. Unfortunately, all they had was stale, earthy air to tide them over until they returned outside. Thankfully, it was not a long, arduous journey to the end of the cave, which was probably why the city was okay with blocking it off; it was not impressive enough to be a tourist attraction.
“All right, guys, here we are,” Jay announced as she set her bag on the ground. “Arboleda’s very own Primogenitor site!”
A quick twist of the flashlight converted it into a makeshift lantern that illuminated the cavern walls, revealing ancient illustrations and designs that were covered in graffiti. Cigarette butts, beer cans, and liquor bottles littered the floor, and the cavern had the same unpleasant aroma as a portable toilet. If any of the teens had been expecting a magical experience, those expectations were dashed into a million pieces. No one was as crushed as Jaiyesimi though, who froze up like a deer in headlights at the sight of the vandalized hall of history.
“I’ve seen abandoned buildings that look better than this,” Davide sardonically remarked as he glanced around the cavern in disappointment. So much for his photo-op. “Guess we know why they put up the barbed wire.”
Warren daintily picked up a beer can before dropping it back on the ground in disgust. “They can afford to keep a fence maintained; you would think they could afford to get a clean-up crew down here.”
“They don’t need a clean-up crew,” Rosa retorted as she kicked much of the clutter into a pile of trash. “All this place needs is a few people who give a care and are willing to put in the time. We can make a day out of it: get some trash bags, a bunch of cleaner, and some snacks, and you’ve got yourself a party!”
As the trio talked amongst themselves, Bian was the only one to notice that Jay was still stuck in place. On closer inspection, the shorter girl found the young scholar trembling as hot tears streaked down her cheeks, her hands clenching and unclenching over and over. The sight made the Vietnamese girl panic, for she had never seen her friend this way and had no idea how to handle it.
“Jay?” she meekly whispered. “Are…are you okay?”
Her question was answered with a sharp, piercing scream that echoed off the cavern walls to create a shrill cacophony. Everyone spun around to face the bespectacled girl as she fell to the ground and sobbed into her knees. After weathering her grandfather’s death and funeral, her failure at continuing his research, and the two interlopers butting in on her first afternoon with her friends in weeks, she could take no more; the only Primogenitor site for hundreds of miles being desecrated was the raindrop that broke the floodgates.
Rosa rushed over in a heartbeat, wrapping her arms around Jay and beckoning Bian to do the same thing. Once two had their friend covered on both sides, the Latina hummed, “It’s okay, Jay; it’s really not that bad. We’ll come back some other time and get it cleaned up, like I said.”
The young scholar tried to say something in reply, but every word she spoke was garbled up in her sobs. She spouted out gibberish until she managed to find some sort of composure and cried, “I just wanted this to be fine! I wanted this one place to be just like it was when I was a kid, and look at it! I should have looked after it—I could have come by to clean it up! I…I…I just…”
Her words were lost again as a fit of hiccups silenced her. Jay buried her head in her knees once more, and her friends held tight to her as she let out everything she bottled up for years on end. She had made a promise to herself that even if no one else cared, her Pop-Pop’s legacy would carry on—that his name would not be forgotten and thrown aside as a joke. Now he was gone, his work was a mystery to her, and the one potential lead she had was trashed; some researcher she had turned out to be.
“Sorry…I’m sorry,” the young girl muttered as she reached out and held onto her two friends.
“You don’t need to be sorry,” Rosa whispered while she gently rocked Jay from side to side.
“Agreed,” Bian murmured, not realizing that her friend was not apologizing. She was stating a matter of fact—that she was a sorry excuse of a student.