Scotophobia - Fear of the Dark by Alan Donaldson - Read Online
Scotophobia - Fear of the Dark
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Twenty-year old Jess Tennant is scotophobic – afraid of the dark. How does she find herself in a cave, a twisted maze of darkness, fighting for survival?
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ISBN: 9781483510484
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Scotophobia - Fear of the Dark - Alan Donaldson

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Spiralling around dying flames, smoke rose into the starry winter sky leaving behind the glowing shell of a lonely weatherboard farmhouse. A flaming beam of wood from the roof structure collapses into the smouldering ashes sending up a spray of embers, as if purging evil from this place.

Standing silently nearby, a tall, gaunt figure stares into the flames while he clutches a hen, slowly caressing the bird as if it were a pet. Sluggishly, he turns away from the flames, trudging toward the shadows.

You can come with me now – you and your friends. I’ll take care of you, the man says, carrying the hen into the darkness. At least until I have to eat you.

Chapter 1

Holding up her hand as a visor, shielding her eyes from the warm afternoon sun, Jess gazed out over the picturesque rural valley. She kept peeking at Nick and Brent setting up their tent – Nick being the newfound object of her affection. Scarring the picture, charred remains of a farmhouse in the distance kept catching Jess’s eye too, causing her to wonder about the story of its demise.

What’s so fascinating?

Jess’s heart jumped when her friend’s voice unexpectedly sounded from behind her. Gabby’s Brooklyn accent made her intrusive at the best of times.

God, Gabby, don’t sneak up on me like that, said Jess, turning to look over her shoulder at her friend.

Like what? If you’re that jumpy, should you really be thinking about going into a freaking cave?

Jess shrugged dismissively while turning back to the idyllic rural scene only to focus again on the blackened farmhouse remains. She wondered if the man who died there a few weeks ago had suffered in the fire; if he was at peace now.

Gab, said Jess, you know sometimes you’ll be standing at a bus stop or in a store and you sense someone is staring at you? You look up, letting your eyes follow your instincts, and – there they are.

Jess looked back to Gabby with a half-smile. I’m nuts, right?

Not as nutty as you might think. There’s been scientific research into global consciousness. I sense when I’m being gawked at. Still, with you taking in the warm spring sun and the man of your dreams being across the way there – well, your senses are probably hyped up, Gabby said with a cheeky twitch of her eyebrows.

Jess gave a sceptical smile. It seemed pointless to persist airing her concerns to Gabby; there was no substance for them. Perhaps these were simply feelings of unease about the challenges Jess saw lying ahead of her.

Maybe Gab. I can’t help feeling – something, Jess said with a sigh. I thought moving to the city I’d leave the country behind. After only a few weeks, I’m back out in the country for the weekend.

A few months before when Jess turned twenty, her employer fired her – business cash flow problems. Moving to Sydney, she found a hairdresser who would let her continue her apprenticeship. A woman working at the hairdresser knew Gabby was looking for someone to take the spare room in her apartment and share the rent. While Jess was cautious of Gabby’s bravado when they first met, she took the room and the two young women quickly became friends.

Yeah, go figure, said Gabby with a shrug. Enjoying the view is nice, but this isn’t getting our night’s accommodation put up. You helping with the tent or you still admiring the rolling moors or whatever you call ‘em out here’? Gabby slapped Jess playfully on the shoulder. This trip wasn’t my idea, remember!

Gabby had made clear from the start that she was coming camping as a favour. Jess would owe her one.

Oh well, Gab, you know us city girls. Can’t get enough of the country air.

Yeah, right. How about you put some of your suppressed country girl skills to good use and drive in a few tent pegs, huh?

Smiling, Jess picked up a hammer and quickly drove in some pegs. A few minutes later, the two young women stood back admiring their home for the weekend.

Karl at the gym said this one was really easy to put up. For once he was right, said Gabby, picking up her pack and heading inside to stake her claim for a side of the tent.

Reaching for her pack, Jess paused to scan around the surrounding scrub looking for the eyes she could feel on her. She glanced across at Nick and Brent working to prepare a fire for tonight.

Being out here with Nick and no competition is great but… Did he have to ask me to go caving, for God’s sake? thought Jess.

She again doubted her wisdom in coming along on this weekend, barely knowing Nick after all, but still, she found him enchanting.

Fiddling with the tent in the hope that she would not look like she was staring at them, she began to chuckle while watching the two athletic young men playfully pushing at each other, arguing about the strategy for lighting a fire. As Jess was beginning to fantasise that it was her bantering with Nick, Gabby’s head emerged from the tent looking up at Jess.

You coming in to make your nest or you too busy drooling over boy wonder?

Jess widened her eyes while cocking her head at Gabby, trying to show her contempt for the term ‘drooling’. She grabbed her pack while heading into the tent.

Gab, you can’t exactly throw stones. In the three months we’ve shared the apartment – and not to say that I have been keeping records – you’ve entertained a few more guys in your room than I have in mine.

OK. You applying to be my big sister or my mother? And seeing as your score has been zero, it isn’t a hard one to beat, by the way.

Cocking her head again, Jess pleaded, I’m asking for a little understanding, that’s all. You know how I feel about Nick. I appreciate you coming along this weekend and I want us all to have a good time. Brent is cute. You could do worse.

Oh, I understand Jess, said Gabby, relaxing back onto her pillow. "In fact, I’m relieved you finally have a guy in your sights. I was starting to wonder if there was something, you weren’t telling me. Still, if my experience, and as you’ve noted I do have some, tells me anything, Brent isn’t interested in anything but caving this weekend.

"As for Nick, I don’t agree with all of your heartfelt admirations, but he’s very cute. I’ll warn you again, he’s looking to add a night in the sack with you to his other such clouded memories of previous girls and then move on.

I told you, he’s been really strange since his uncle died up here and after breaking up with Jenny… Gabby looked away; drawing a deep breath while giving a shrug. Sorry kid, but I don’t think he’s looking at you as the mother of his children.

Jess reared. Don’t be stupid, Gab. I mean, I’m not thinking that far ahead.

No? said Gabby with a smile as she fluffed her pillow and placed it at the head of her unfurled sleeping-bag.

Well, maybe a little. He’s so cute, Gab. It was a bit weird what I heard of his uncle’s death. But it did mean Nick inherited this huge property. He has a great job, a BA, he’s learning to fly and plans to be a commercial pilot…

Sounds to me like you’re thinking a little past baking marshmallows in the fire tonight.

About that. You think Nick is expecting to…

Jump your bones? I’d say your only hope of remaining chaste is that Brent’s made it clear he’s up here to see these caves. He might keep Nick on the leash but I wouldn’t count on it if I were you. You did come prepared, right?

Jess had been confident that she could control the situation if Nick became too amorous. She realised she must not have appeared as self-confident as she had hoped when Gabby reached into her pack, pulled out some condoms and threw them across to land in Jess’s lap.

Laughing, Jess looked down at the neatly sealed packages.

Gab, you’re one in a million. You sure come prepared, don’t you?

"I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts, but I’ve known a few Boy Scouts if you know…" Gabby halted, staring at Jess’s hand held out to signal a stop.

Too much information Gab, said Jess shaking her head while slowly lowering her hand.

Gabby laughed. OK, Snow-White, just look out for ya self. OK? I can’t put my finger on it but… Squinting slightly, Gabby stared into space as if lost for words, very rare for Gabby. Let’s say I considered making a play for Nick myself when I first met him; but I didn’t follow through on it. You be careful, and if you want your buddy here, you holler. No matter what.

Graciously accepting the condoms, Jess smiled while tucking them in her pocket, wondering if she really hoped there would be no call for them this weekend. Looking down at her clothes made her sigh.

One thing that might hinder any advances from Nick this weekend is these clothes, Jess said. I don’t think he’s going find me alluring and sexy while I’m dressed like a farm worker.

Gabby smiled. Sugar, you’d sparkle dressed in a potato sack. On that, I know you want to show off that long blonde hair of yours, but you better tie it back if we’re going into the caves. Those big baby blues of yours should still get his attention. Maybe undo another button on the shirt if you want to stoke up his boilers a little.

Jess felt the warmth of a blush in her cheeks as she smiled while pulling her hair back into a ponytail before popping the top button of her shirt. She sat back with her arms outstretched; hands open, waiting for a response.

Ah, ya make me sick. This guy doesn’t see how great an offer he’s getting. Let’s go see what Brentman and The Boy Wonder are doing way out here from Gotham City.

Her humour was often droll but as usual, Jess gave Gabby’s joke a smile as they headed over to where Nick and Brent were unloading gear from the SUV.

Chapter 2

God save me! Aren’t you guys finished yet? asked Gabby. We dragged our feet as much as we could to get out of helping.

Jess gently gritted her teeth, hoping the guys would appreciate Gabby’s sense of humour as much as she did.

Oh really? I assumed you’d gone looking for the ladies room, said Brent as he passed the last bag out to Nick.

Oh ha ha – I often went camping in Vermont with my family. I might not be fitted with external plumbing but I still function in the national park just as well as any guy does.

That’s what I heard, Gabby. That’s why we invited you along, said Nick with a cheeky smile.

He looked to Jess, giving her a smirk and a quick wink. When Jess had first told him Gabby was coming, he laughed, saying it would be interesting to see how she and Brent got on. Jess tried to think of something clever to say finally deciding a smile was the best she could do.

Hey Gabby, said Nick, it’s a tradition out here that whoever unpacks the gear doesn’t cook dinner. So I guess cooking’ll be up to you two, eh?

Yeah, right, said Gabby.

Enough of all that, said Brent. We all know we’re starting into all the boy-girl crap and that’s not what we’re out here for. You girls check out the caving gear on the table. Go through the gear with Jess, will you Gabby?

Gabby paused, only for a second, as if confirming to herself it would not be too submissive for her to accept a directive from Brent.

Sure. Come on, Jess, said Gabby turning to lead Jess to the foldout table.

Jess found a helmet with chinstrap, which looked serviceable but as if it had seen better days. In the helmet were three small battery-powered lights, two on a strap that would go around the helmet mounting the light at the front. There was also a webbing belt with a canteen of water and small pack attached to it.

Pretty basic stuff, Jess – not much to show, Gabby said. You need to keep the spare flashlights handy so if your helmet lamp fails you can have light again quickly. The webbing belt is easier to put on and take off in the cave if we’re somewhere tight. Don’t drink your water quickly. We may be planning to be in the cave only an hour but if something unexpected happens, it could be longer and you’ll need water.

As Gabby looked up from the table, deep concern showed in her eyes. While Gabby had been explaining the equipment, Jess felt fear building inside herself; but she was certain she was hiding it. At least until she saw that look in Gabby’s eyes.

Leaning closer to Jess, Gabby said quietly, Jess, honey, if you’re that scared, should you go in a cave? You freak out in there and we’ll all be in trouble. I think you better come clean with Nick – no pun intended. Just keep him warm tonight and he won’t care about caving. You can wait here at the camp. Maybe cook supper? Or I’ll even stay with you. Brent doesn’t want me along. Those two can go off and play in the cave by themselves.

Jess swallowed hard. Obviously, her brave face didn’t appear as brave from the outside.

I can’t. I told him I loved caving, she said miserably. He invited us along because some regulation says all cave entries must be a minimum of four people. It’ll muck up the whole weekend, especially for Brent. If I tell the truth now Nick will see me as desperate and a liar to boot. Help me, Gab. I can do this. I suffer scotophobia not claustrophobia. I can go anywhere so long as I have light.

Gabby looked down at the table while scratching her neck with her left hand. She frowned, looking at the equipment as if trying to think of a better answer to Jess’s plea, but finally she sighed while looking back into Jess’s eyes.

Sugar, I’ll be right beside you all the way, you know that. But, I gotta tell ya, I don’t think you’re gonna make it.

Make what? said Brent’s voice from behind them.

Gabby swung around, almost in defensive surprise, quickly recovering her bearings and taking an assertive pose.

Pot Roast and gravy for supper, big ears. You did bring one, right? A pot roast I mean, said Gabby.

Brent replied with a concerned expression, making clear he was not happy with Gabby’s dismissive reply. Then he smirked, tilting his head and shoulder in a shrug before speaking in an authoritative tone.

OK. This afternoon Nick is going to take us into the cave and show us the first few caverns he explored with his uncle, which he has gone to great pains to make clear is the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’, mainly around the entrance. From what he tells me, this should be an easy trip. Gabby, you’ve clowned around a lot about what your caving experience really is, but I need to know – you a spelunker or not?

Looking to Jess, Gabby smiled before saying, Brent, I don’t even know what a ‘spelunker’ is, but it doesn’t sound like something I tried out for in high school.

Nick began shaking his head while looking at Gabby. It’s American speak for caver, Gabby, and you know that. Don’t bullshit, Gab. Brent takes all this a bit serious, but he’s leading the trip so just co-operate, eh? Nick said before turning to Brent. That said Brent; let’s keep the buzz words down. We’re on a fun weekend, not starting a formal cave survey for the ASF.

OK, said Brent, but I’m here to explore this cave you’ve been telling me about for years. I’m not here for jokes and a romantic romp in the country, said Brent.

Jess was not sure what that flash she saw in Gabby’s eyes meant, but when Gabby spoke; her tone was quick and sharp.

Unless you have your blow-up friend with you Brenty boy, there’s not much chance of that. Oh, unless you guys haven’t told us something about your relationship with each other…

His cheeks turning red, Brent looked to Nick who smiled and shook his head before saying, You asked for that one, Brent. It’s time to call the scores a draw and get some exercise. As long as everyone is sure they’ve had enough lunch and they don’t need some time behind a tree, grab your gear. Brent, you grab the spares pack, and let’s go. You can make your caver’s speech on the way up the hill.

They began the steady climb up a grass-covered slope toward a rocky outcrop. Jess tried to calm herself by looking around at the yellow grass meadows with patches of green trees, brown dams and the occasional rocky formation. A creek ran down through the valley before vanishing into a larger outcrop of trees. Behind the creek, tall suspension towers carried high-tension power cables across the valley – a mar on the landscape but somehow they were consoling to Jess. Similar towers stood on her family’s property where she grew up. As a child, she had pretended they were robot guards sent to protect her. At the foot of the hills, she focused again on the charred remains of the property farmhouse, its surrounding yards and orchards so green and lush in stark comparison to the lifeless, burned-out shell.

Nick and Brent led the way up the track with Jess and Gabby a few paces behind.

Jess, I’m realise you’re a rookie so, here’s the rules. They’re non–negotiable, said Brent loudly enough for Jess and Gabby to hear without him turning around or slowing down.

"Number one, leave everything as you found it. If you have to excrete, use a bag. That means one and two. We have plenty of sealable plastic bags in the spares pack. If you eat something that came wrapped, the wrapping goes in your pack. If you’re going to drop crumbs, catch them. If you don’t finish all of what you’re eating, the leftovers go back in your pack. What you take in, you take out – down to the crumb – no exceptions.

"Number two, don’t walk over limestone formations. Try not to touch them. Watch where Nick and I put our feet and copy that. Nick tells me his uncle made a lot of tracks and even stairs so it probably won’t be a problem, still – don’t wander off. These are limestone caves so we might come across a flowstone benche. That’s sort of a false floor that might seem solid in dull light but may only be a few centimetres thick. Step on it and you could go straight through.

"Number three, be conscious we are about to enter a microbiological environment that, according to Nick, has had minimum interruption for thousands, perhaps millions of years. Be mindful of that and be careful of what you touch and how you touch it.

Number four, if we see bats –

Bats! said Jess and Gabby together while coming to a halt. Jess looked at Gabby while clenching her teeth and squinting. All of Brent’s demands seemed reasonable but the idea of flying rodents swooping on her from the darkness turned her blood to ice.

Yes, bats. If we encounter them be very careful, said Brent.

I see bats, buddy, they better be careful, said Gabby, reaching out her hand in comfort to Jess. God help me. I forgot all about bats. They better not come near me.

You have it the wrong way round, Gabby. You have to be careful not to go near the bats or even to breathe on them. You could kill them.

Who cares? said Jess squinting in repulsion while still looking at Gabby for support. They’re only rodents aren’t they?

Brent and Nick had slowed their walk when Jess and Gabby had stopped, but now Brent stopped and turned back to them looking like a stern schoolmaster.

"No, Jess, they’re not only rodents, actually. They’re mammals, just like you," he said.

Looking to Gabby, Jess gave a dismissive shrug. As far she was concerned, she was not referring to their biological classification but to the image they presented in her mind – and that was of dirty, disease carrying little rodents. Gabby smiled back and nodded in comfort or agreement, maybe both.

There’re a few bats, but not where we’re going, said Nick.

Gabby threw her arms in the air as if determined to change the subject.

OK, OK. Not a bad speech, tour leader, said Gabby as she took Jess’s hand and began to walk again, leading Jess behind her. Not to be picky, but we are entering an environment that is highly sensitive at a microbiological level. We aren’t entering the microbiological environment itself.

Nick and Brent had already turned and started walking again. Jess could not see their faces, but she did see Brent’s head turn toward Nick and Nick lower and shake his head as if telling Brent to leave it alone.

Pulling her hand from Gabby’s grip, Jess quickened her pace to catch up, feeling peculiarly nauseas on hearing Nick’s next words.

The cave entrance is just above those rocks, he said, pointing to a rock outcrop a short distance ahead.

Skin on Jess’s neck began to tingle with fear as her heart began pounding against her ribs. Walking up the hill was strenuous, but being fit and young, she knew her pounding heart was not simply the result of exercise. Holding her fingers at the base of her chest, her lungs felt starved of air and began to insist on deeper breaths.

Gabby took her hand again and Jess glanced at her seeing concern and understanding in her eyes. Her hand felt soft and warm, reminding Jess of childhood feelings of her mother’s comforting touch. It gave her strength, but Jess was beginning to doubt it would be enough. Gabby stopped walking and gently tugged on Jess’s hand to signal she should stop with her.

Tell ’em you’re sick, Gabby whispered. They won’t know.

Jess wished she could take her friend’s advice but again, that would make Jess seem like she was a quitter, no fun, and a burden. Not