Boy and Cave and Man and Night

Fiction by Chloe N. Clark

At eight o’ clock on a Saturday night, the sky opens up so subtly that no one will notice for a few more hours. It’s just a splash of extra-dark across the night, some stars excised, but they’d been dead for years anyway. When Alex notices it, he thinks it is a floater in his vision, just a trick of pain.

An eye doctor once told him that migraines were the leading cause of strokes in young people. And Alex had said, “what can I do about them?” And the doctor had shrugged. When Alex sees the hole in the sky, he blinks, shifts his eyes to look somewhere else. But the extra-dark is still there. He covers one eye with a hand and then the other.

Once, when he was a child, he climbed into a cave on his parents’ land. It was in the woods behind the house, set into the side of a bluff. The opening was wide and he thought maybe something cool lived there. A bear or a badger. And he was young enough to think running into one would be cool and not scary. He hadn’t yet learned that nature could hold the edge of its blade to your throat. He climbed into the cave, and realized the ceiling was low enough that he needed to crawl, so he got on his knees and started to move forward into the dark. He didn’t notice the earth growing narrower and narrower around him. Not until the bright sun from outside was almost gone, and he was in darkness, and the cold of the earth was so close to him. And he was in darkness.

Alex watches the sky and it watches him, as skies so often do. It opens more, a subtle shift that wipes away galaxies but that Alex registers as a mouth opening just a little wider than it should. He thinks to call someone, ask them if they see it, too, if it’s just a migraine or if there really is something wrong with the night. But his phone is in his backpack, and he doesn’t want to take his eyes off the dark.

In the cave, there was only dark ahead and he couldn’t see the light behind him. He started to crawl back, but in his panic, in the ground, in the scrunching up of his clothes as he crawled, he realized he was stuck.

And who would he call. He’s walking home after work, a shift that ran long and then longer still, until his feet ached and his back ached and he wondered what would happen if he just went home and slept for days. He’d call his mother, but the home turned off her phone after dinner. He’d call his brother, but his brother hasn’t picked up in years, hasn’t been alive in years. His photo is on a memorial wall somewhere but Alex never went to see it. He’d call.

In the cave, he yelled out for his father. Yelled and yelled. But he knew, he just knew, that no one could hear him. He was tucked inside the dark, inside the earth, like when a snake swallowed something whole and you couldn’t hear it once it was inside that scaled belly. He didn’t want to panic but he felt it all over him, that creep of dread. Like he’d once watched his closet door slowly swing open one night and he was so scared, so sure that something bad was in his closet, was about to come out to see him. But there was only the dark, the empty.

And the opening of the sky was so empty, so filled with absence, that it was blanker space even than his floaters. No light, no sense of something he was missing. It was just the sky opening up into before it had ever existed. There is no knowing what came before the universe, just the believing that there had to be something. Alex stared and saw stars disappear, saw everything returning to blankness.

In the cave, he’d closed his eyes. He’d listened to his heart beating. So hard and fast, boots stomping against the ground. He’d begun to inch back, slow, slow, easy. Kept his eyes closed, as tight as he could, until he opened them and there was light again. He felt the earth opening out around him.

He thinks, I should call someone. Someone else should see this. But he doesn’t reach for his phone. It’s all so close. He could just reach out and touch the absence. What is it like to feel an undoing, he wonders.

But he doesn’t wonder for long.

Chloe N. Clark

Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Escaping the Body, and more. Her story collection Patterns of Orbit is forthcoming from Baobab Press in 2023. She can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.