THE CAVE – My First Novella

I thought I’d write a bit about my first e-novella, THE CAVE.

The Cave

THE CAVE is a coming-of-age type of story told mostly in first person (though I occasionally shift POV’s to show things through the eyes of a couple of bullies, and these sections are told in third person). It’s a technique I’ve seen used a bunch of times in thriller novels, especially those with a strong central character, like Elvis Cole or Alex Delaware. When Jonathan Kellerman shifts away from Delaware’s POV, for example, he also shifts to third person for Milo Sturgis’s sections. I’ve always liked that style, but I know that others don’t care for it. Too late for this one. It’s been in the wild since something like 2015.

I can’t remember when I even started this 83 page novella. I know it was a long time ago. Maybe in the early 2000’s? Maybe even in the late 90’s? I do know I was stalled out on Chapter 7 for a long time. I would come back to it, add a few words, delete them, repeat, repeat. For whatever reason I couldn’t come up with a direction. I didn’t really know where I was going to end up with it.

I think part of it was I had locked myself into thinking of it only in terms of the book that inspired me to write it, Richard Laymon’s THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW. I was trying to follow that story, trying to do what Laymon did.

And it was when I stopped doing that – when enough time had passed between me reading Laymon’s book and working on this story – that I just relaxed and pantsed the rest of the story. I didn’t worry about the end; instead, I just wrote what happened next.

And the end became clear to me as I progressed. That seems to be how it usually works.

I never had a length in mind. I was just writing until it was done. Looking back, I can see lots of avenues to explore further in order to lengthen it from its ~25K words to a full-length novel. Back then I was a short story writer trying to write longer. Now I seem to comfortably fall into the 40-60K range on most of my stories. I have learned to write novels through just doing it.

So getting back to the novella, it is the story of four boys, joined by the “hot” neighborhood girl who everyone has a crush on, as they find and explore a cave. But the cave is not simply a cave. I won’t reveal more about its nature. The kids face off against the challenges of exploring the cave and against neighborhood bullies as they keep their discovery a secret, grand dreams of creating the type of roadside attraction that we’ve all visited on road trips and vacations filling their thoughts.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

Bike riding was boring, but at least it was something to do.

I’d been doing a lot of riding that summer, sometimes by myself, but mostly with my friends. We were like a little gang of four back then. We’d been pretty tight since we were little kids. It was serendipitous that we were all about the same age and in the same grade and lived in the same residential neighborhood. It was almost like destiny that we all should meet and become such good friends.

I remember riding up the street and seeing Donny Schultz playing with his younger sisters in the muddy ditch in front of their house. It was just too good to pass up, and of course I stopped and made friends with him. We were in the same grade and we hit it off pretty quickly. Then the two of us became the three musketeers when, on a different day, Bill Meyers stepped out from around the side of his house and called out, “Hi there!” as we rode our bikes past. Just like that.

Jim Mason came later. His family moved into our neighborhood when we were all around nine years old, and it was immediately apparent that our trio was to become the “Fantastic Four.” We even called ourselves that for a while.

Anyway, we spent a lot of time riding our bikes around the neighborhood. It was what we did for fun back in those days, simpler times when electronics and video games were just not entertainment options that were available for us. Instead, it was baseball on the empty lot, playing army and building forts with scavenged wood, and bike riding.

We rode everywhere, even a bunch of places that if our parents knew where we’d gone, we’d have gotten in a lot of trouble. Mostly, however, we rode on the new bike trails which the city park district had so thoughtfully installed near our neighborhood. The trails were safe and provided a smooth surface for maximum speed. We knew those trails like the backs of our hands.

But as well as we knew the trails and the forested land, we held out for surprises, always hoping to find one around the next curve. And did we ever. Because it was on one of those rides that we found our cave.

I was totally stoked about the discovery, as were Bill and Donny. I mean, how could we not be insanely excited? It was a cave! People paid to get into these things. The wonders we would find down in that hole in the ground!

Jim, who we called Mase, was more stoic about it, but he was like that about nearly everything. Except girls. He’d get excited about girls. Mase was our “chick magnet;” he was tall, handsome, athletic, and a little cocky. In eighth grade (okay, we weren’t there yet, but we’d be starting it in the fall) being a little cocky and sure of yourself went a long way. Not that the rest of us were trolls or anything. I was maybe a little too thin, Donny a little too short, and Bill a little too weird, but we were okay. It was simply taking us longer to come into our own.

Anyway, back to our cave. We found it when Donny had to take a leak during one of our rides. He pulled off the path, dumped his bike behind a tree in the tall weeds, and wandered off into the forest preserve to do his thing. Bill, Mase and I circled back, parking our bikes. We watched the path for a while, but no one was coming up it. During the week, it was often very quiet like this.

Bill’s face broke into an evil grin, and he signaled to us that we should sneak up on Donny. It wasn’t the first time we’d done that sort of thing to each other, so I knew exactly what he wanted to do, and so did Mase. We ditched our bikes next to Donny’s bike and crept back into the woods. We didn’t know exactly where he was, but figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find him.

And there he was. But he wasn’t pissing on a tree, like we expected. He was bent over the ground, digging at it with his hands.

“Aaargh!” Bill shouted, practically throwing his stocky frame into the small clearing with enough force to make the ground shake just a little. Mase and I grinned at each other and stepped out of the woods.

Donny hardly noticed, until Bill tapped him. He jumped, startled, and looked at us as if he didn’t know where we had come from.

“Geez, Donny, didn’t you hear me yell when we came out of the woods?” asked Bill.

Donny didn’t answer directly. Instead he said, “Look at this! Look what I found!”

We looked. Donny was pointing at a hole in the ground. When we got closer, we could feel cool air rushing out of it.

“A cave!” I exclaimed. “How cool is that?”

Donny turned back to it, pulling at the dirt around the opening. “I can’t see down too far, but listen to this,” he said, dropping a golf ball-sized rock into the opening. We listened intently to the sound of the rock hitting something…then going on, and on, and on, until we could no longer hear it. I could visualize it bouncing down an incline.

“Sounds deep,” said Bill. “We gotta check this out.”

“How are we gonna do that?” asked Mase. “That hole’s not big enough for a person to get into. Even for Donny.”

“We’ll dig it out,” said Bill. “We’ll come back later with shovels. And rope. Lots of rope. Then we’ll go down and see what’s in there.” He lay down next to the hole, and reached his arm into it. “Feels like dirt as far as I can feel – oh!” His body moved into the hole, his arm disappearing into it up to the shoulder.

“Geez! Something’s got him!” Mase exclaimed. He grabbed Bill and started to pull. Donny and I started to join him but I noticed Bill laughing.

“Here,” I said. “Let’s shove him in there. Give whatever’s got him some help.” Mase looked at me like I was nuts, but a glance at Bill’s face told him that Bill was jacking around. I grabbed his feet and tipped him up toward the hole. Mase grabbed on to help, pushing a bit harder than I would have.

“Hey!” shouted Bill. “Stop it, you’re forcing my face into the dirt!”

“Well, we thought whatever was pulling on your arm would pull it off if we didn’t shove you through that hole,” I said. “Before it starts pulling our legs.” That was one of my mom’s favorite expressions – “pulling my leg” – she always said it when someone was kidding her. The others knew it well.

“Okay, I give. Lemme up!” he said. We released him, and he pulled his arm out of the hole and scrambled to his feet. “Gotcha though,” he said, brushing himself off. His blond hair was longer than any of ours, and he rubbed his hands through the unruly mop, just filling it with more dirt.

“Just Mase. I saw you snickering,” I said. “Your hair’s full of dirt now! You look like a zombie or something that crawled out of a grave.”

Bill shook his head like a dog, and bits and pieces of grainy soil flew out, hitting me in the face. “Well, let’s go home and get shovels. We can start digging today!” he said, so excited by our discovery that a little crud in his hair wasn’t going to bother him.

So that’s what we did. We rode as fast as we could back to Bill’s house, and absconded with a spade, a regular shovel, a pickaxe, and a couple of smaller garden shovels. Then we rode swiftly back toward our discovery. Who’d pay attention to a bunch of boys with digging tools, especially ones riding into a forest preserve? Apparently no one, fortunately for us.

We began digging, most of the dirt falling into the hole. By the time we had to leave to get home for dinner we had a pretty good-sized hole opened into the ground.

Donny was the last one to quit working on it. When he stood up, he looked like he was all camouflaged up for war games, what with all the dirt around his face and hands. With his military-style haircut, I could imagine him as the tough sergeant that he always pretended to be when we played army. I wondered if we all looked as dirty as he was.

He pointed at the hole. “Should we cover it up?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Mase said. He dusted himself off and checked his hands and arms for signs of too much grime.

I agreed. “If we cover it over and someone falls in, it’d really be our fault. I don’t know if I want to have to worry all night about that happening.”

Bill wasn’t so sure. “If we leave it uncovered, someone else will find it,” he said.

Donny sided with Mase and me. “It’s late, and we haven’t seen anyone back in here. I think it’s better to just leave it open.” He looked into the hole. “Sounded real deep, too. If we cover it up, it’d be like one of those punji pits, but without the sharp sticks.”

“I think if someone falls in there, they won’t need sharp sticks impaling them to be seriously hurt. We need to leave it open,” Mase said. His tone implied that his was the last word on that particular subject.

“I’m thinking we can get through that opening now,” said Bill, looking down into the orifice. “A little more picking at the sides and we won’t even get real dirty.”

“Rope, and some old blankets or a plastic tarp,” I said. “That’s what we need tomorrow. That way we can loop the rope around that big ol’ tree right there,” I pointed to the biggest tree at the edge of the clearing, “and drape the blankets over the sides of the hole. Then we can slide right down without ruining our clothes. And it’s rocky, once we get past this topsoil.”

“Flashlights, too,” said Donny. “And maybe some candles. Or a torch.”

“A torch is out,” said Mase. “How do we make one that would stay lit? But my dad has this really powerful lantern-type light we use when we go camping at our club. I’ll grab that if I can. It’s got a big battery.”

“Someone should stay up top,” I said. “Just in case we need to send them for help. Who’s it gonna be?”

“Not me,” said Donny, knowing that usually we’d work things so he would be the odd man out. “I found it.”

“What about Rick?” said Bill. Rick was his younger brother. “Maybe he’d agree to stay up top if we promise to let him come down later.”

“Okay by me,” I said. “That way it won’t have to be Mase.”

“Me? Why me?” said Mase.

“Well, you’re the coolest of us four. If something happens we wouldn’t want the coolest guy to be down there in trouble with us. We’d want you up top so you can get all the chicks later.”

“Ha ha,” Mase said. “I’m going down in there too.”

“How much dirt do I have on me?” I asked, standing up and holding out my arms.

“A little,” Donny said. “How about me?”

“Same as usual. You look like that character in the Snoopy cartoons, but you always look like that,” I teased. “Doesn’t your mom give you hell about how dirty you get?”

“Nope,” he said. “She just figures we’re building something in the woods or whatever.”

We located our bikes and mounted up for the ride home. Four guys, riding along the streets, mostly hands-free except on the steepest part of the hill and on the corners, that was us.

“Guess it’s obvious, but hey…no one’s gonna tell their parents about this, right?” I asked.

“Not a chance,” Bill said. “I’ll threaten Rick with death if he says a word.”

“No way,” Donny agreed.

“I know mine would freak if they knew I was going spelunking,” Mase said.

“Spe-what?” Bill asked.

“Cave-exploring,” I clarified. Mase gave me a look that I interpreted as, you don’t always have to be the smartest one of us. I shut up.

“Spelunking. New word,” Bill said. “After we spelunk the cave,” he started, pointing with his free hand to Mase, “we’ll have to set up a stand and sell tickets. We’ll make a fortune.”

“Yeah,” agreed Donny. “But we’ll have to, like, build some catwalks and string lights down in there and such. Build some stairs going down.” Donny was practically salivating at the idea of building all that stuff. You could see it in his eyes. The wheels were turning. The ideas were flowing and he’d probably have schematics drawn up by tomorrow.

I didn’t want to throw a wet blanket over the talk, but I had to ask. “How do we get the electricity down there?”

“A generator, probably,” Donny said. “I’ll swipe some wood from those houses they’re building.” I nodded. That was how Donny got the wood for most of his projects. Our forts were mostly built with stolen lumber.

“We’ll be the guides, right?” Mase asked. “I mean, every cave tour I’ve ever been on has had a guide.”

None of us either thought of, or brought up, the fact that we didn’t own the land, and we didn’t have a spare generator. Nor did we know anything about insurance or safety issues, or dealing with the government. We had a cave, and we wanted to exploit it. Who cared about reality?

My own excitement was bubbling over. I thought that I’d hardly sleep that night knowing that the next day we’d go back and begin our exploration.

If you like it, the only place to buy it currently as an ebook on Amazon. It’s priced to sell at $0.99. Here’s the link: THE CAVE.

Thanks for reading!