“Didn’t we pass it? I think that was it.”
The clock blinked 10:07 at us as we searched through darkness for the hole in the ground.
“This is stupid,” someone from the back of the car whined. “Let’s go back. It’s freezing outside.”
“It took us an hour to get here,” Josh looked at me and rolled his eyes as if to say, “Can you believe this guy?”
I stared out the passenger window. A few minutes ago, we could just barely make out the glistening lights of the city along the dark horizon. Now, there was nothing. Just black.
“That’s it,” someone behind me said, pointing toward the dark void ahead of us.
“How can you tell?” Josh asked, pulling himself closer to the steering wheel to peer over the dash.
“I don’t know. It just looks familiar, you know?”
Josh laughed. “Yeah, OK. Let’s go check it out.”
The 11 of us tumbled out of Josh’s eight-seater SUV and breathed in the frosty air. As our eyes adjusted, we could see it: a hole in the ground, 75 feet in diameter. How far down it dropped, I couldn’t see.
“I gotta pee,” someone said. A few men mumbled in agreement and took off somewhere in the dark.
“You’re gonna freeze, you know.” A girl standing just below my shoulders approached me. I recognized her from the ward but had never spoken to her. I looked down at my outfit. Beneath my subzero snow coat, I was wearing three more layers. Underneath my hood, I wore a hat and a scarf. My snow boots weren’t the best, but they were the best Phoenix, Arizona, had to offer. I felt like a marshmallow.
“I’m wearing fleece leggings beneath my jeans,” I said.
She smiled. “Yeah, but it’ll still soak through.”
The more my eyes adjusted, the more clearly I could see her bright purple snow pants, which swooshed with each step as she walked away.
A sharp, abrupt breeze interrupted the still air, and I buried myself deeper into my collar.
“This was a mistake,” I said.
“Ready?” Josh asked after a few minutes. He grabbed my hand, winked and together we headed down the gaping mouth of the earth. The rocks were covered in snow, making it impossible to see which of them were safe, unstable or slick.
The downward climb transitioned as the cave curved to a horizontal angle. With nothing but the lights from our phones helping us see, we climbed across and hobbled around the lava rock as the cave’s walls shrunk around us. The space grew tighter until all we could do was press forward single file.
The walls and ceiling closed in around me, and, before I knew it, I was on all fours. The lava rock beneath my feet had been exchanged for smooth ice. I thought about what it would be like to get stuck in a place like this. I imagined myself trying to find a comfortable enough position to relax while waiting for help to arrive. I pictured the tunnels running out of oxygen. I felt that hypothetical suffocation creep from my mind into reality. I gasped for breath.
“You doing all right, Em?” I heard Josh from behind me.
I let out an ironic laugh.
“Peachy,” I called back.
As the cave began to widen, my breathing steadied. I watched as the others slid around the ice on their bellies like penguins. I envied their ability to feel so free in a place like this.
“Remember that time I slipped on ice and broke my leg?” I asked Josh once the cave widened out to a cavern of ice. The sound here was oddly muted. The frozen walls took our voices and, rather than echoing them back to us, held onto them.
In the middle of the cavern stood a mountain of ice that was ten feet tall. It must have come from the occasional water droplets warm enough to soak through the solid ice and fall from the cave’s ceiling.
Josh smiled. “You’re wearing better shoes now.”
I couldn’t go any further. Everyone raved about the ice slide at the end of the cave, but I knew I couldn’t squeeze through any more tight spaces. Not if I had to come back the same way.
Josh knew he wouldn’t be able to convince me to go further, so he offered to go back with me.
“No, go,” I said. “I’ll just hang out here.”
“In the cavern?” he asked.
I looked around, admiring the ice mountain and icicles the size of me, which told stories from years before us.
“I don’t mind,” I said.
“I’ll stay with her,” I heard someone behind me say. I turned to see the girl in purple pants smiling up at me.
“My butt’s freezing, anyway.”