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The Visitor--an inspirational short story series

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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 12 January 2009 - 3:57pm.

Darkness
Steven G. O'Dell © 2008

The plan had been to take a few days away from the trials and headaches of work and family--to get away from it all and hide somewhere long enough to calm down before he had a breakdown and did something he would regret. Unfortunately, the getting away would turn out to be something that Malachi Trent would regret deeply.

It seemed so simple. Get a flashlight, matches, some rope and warm clothes, including gloves and hiking boots, plus snacks and a tent. He had never explored a cave before, but it was about time to do so. Life was too short to waste in toiling for someone else and never having any time alone. This was just the adventure he needed to unwind. He deserved it.

The campground was a rudimentary one at best. Not that it mattered. It wasn't like he was going to live here for an extended period. He appeared to be alone, which suited him well, as he desired to be alone to unwind. Malachi pitched his tent, made a ring of stones to contain a fire for the nightly meals and went to gather firewood. Fallen branches, twigs, leaves and pine cones were abundant, there being a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees at this altitude. How fortunate, he thought. This would be easier than he had planned--or so he thought.

The fire pit readied, all that was needed was to light it when the time was right. In the meantime, while daylight remained, there was exploring to be done. Malachi grabbed his gear and went to look for the path to the cave. He didn't have to go far to find it and the path was clearly marked and easy to follow. Barely half a mile into the woods he found the opening to the cave. He had heard of it before, grown up with the stories of it, but had never until now been here.

The opening was small enough that he had to duck slightly to enter. As soon as he did, the entry darkened and Malachi had to pause to let his eyes adjust to the diminished light level. Not many steps after that and he had to turn on his flashlight. He had brought with him extra batteries, just in case, and felt confident that he was prepared to handle any obstacle he might encounter. It was noticeably cooler at this point and Malachi was glad he had dressed for it. Further and further into the cave he went. There were no real turns or divisions yet.

About five minutes into the cave, the path took a downturn and Malachi was beginning to wonder exactly how far in he had already gone. Maybe on the way out I should count my steps, he thought. Another fifteen minutes passed, with the trail getting much tougher and with a split to the right being the most navigable. Several times Malachi had bumped his head and wondered why he hadn't thought to bring a hat of some type to protect himself better.

The path became wet a time or two as well as splitting again. No problem, he thought. I can remember two splits in the path and just reverse them on the way out if I have to. They should actually just flow into the exit path naturally anyway. At one of these wet points, Malachi found a watchband on the floor of the cave. It was made of leather and the watch was still hanging on one end of the broken band. It had been there a long time and Malachi wondered how it had come to break and be left where he had found it. There were no engravings to identify the owner, but Malachi placed it in his pocket and proceeded into the cave.

Malachi found that he had to duck lower and lower as he went further. More and more his attention was riveted on the sloping ceiling and less and less on the floor beneath him. That was his downfall--quite literally. Without warning the floor gave way beneath him and he slid rapidly down a wet, steep slope, crashing into a large rock with one leg, which turned him topsy-turvy and sent him head first into another rock pile below.

Malachi woke with a pounding headache, incomplete darkness and unable to find his flashlight. It had perhaps been broken in the fall or the batteries had run down while he was unconscious. The reason mattered little. The real problem was that he was lost in the Stygian blackness, who knew how far beneath the earth, and no one in the world knew where he was.

Panic set in as Malachi began to understand the critical nature of his situation. All he knew was which way was up and nothing more that was of any use to him at this moment. Malachi, you are going to die today. There was no escaping the thought. He hadn't brought his cell phone, although he doubted he would ever get a signal this far below ground. No one knew he was here. They would have no idea where to begin looking. He had told no one where he was going. If another camper found his tent and car, they might not even suspect that he was in trouble. For all they would know, he was just hiking. Maybe no one would ever discover his body. The loneliness scared him more than anything else. He had thought he wanted to be alone for a few days and now he was terrified of the idea of dieing in absolute solitude.

Malachi cried for the first time in ages and prayed for the first time in his life. It was a simple, but sincere prayer--nothing more than Please save me. I don't want to die alone. But he prayed it like he meant it and knew that, if there was a God, he could answer. Malachi had to believe. There was no other option.

"Malachi?"

The voice was muffled and sounded somewhat distant, but it hadn't been imagined. It was real. It had to be.

"Here! Here I am!"

Malachi waited a moment and heard scraping sounds, becoming louder as they approached his position.

"Malachi?"

"Yes! Be careful! There is a slippery fall ahead of you!"

He wondered why he could see no light. In the complete darkness of the cave, any small degree of light would be exaggerated and become immediately noticeable. Yet there was none to be seen.

"I am going to drop a rope to you, Malachi. I want you to feel for it in the dark, okay?"

"Yes. Okay." He waited a moment and heard a rope drop beside him on his right. Feeling for it, he found the rope and grabbed hold eagerly. "What should I do now?"

"Tie it securely around your waist. I don't want you to lose your lifeline in the dark."

"Okay." He began immediately to obey. It never occurred to Malachi to wonder who was helping him. All that mattered was getting out of this dark underworld and back into the light above. The desire consumed him.

"I am going to pull you up now. I will go slowly so you can maintain your footing and not backslide, do you hear?"

"Yes. Thank you."

The rope began to tighten and soon Malachi was digging his feet into the wet slope as best he could, making slow but appreciable headway in his climb to freedom and daylight. The progress seemed to take forever, but he was more grateful than he had been for years. There was now hope--a thing which he had under-rated for so long. Now it was all that mattered to him.

"You are almost to the top now. Take the last few steps carefully. That is where it will be the toughest." The voice was reassuring and calm. There was still no light visible, but Malachi put that out of his mind. He was getting out!

At last he was gaining a more level surface and he ducked instinctively in the darkness to clear the low ceiling that he recalled having caused him such trouble before.

"Thank you. Thank you so much. You've saved my life."

"You are quite welcome. I want you to keep gentle tension on the rope and follow me out, do you hear?"

"Where is your light? We'll need a light to find the way out."

"Just do as I say and you'll be alright."

What sort of man needs no light to get him out of a cave like this?

"Alright, keep your head low and move slowly. I will tell you when you need to turn or slow down. I will guide you all the way out. Just trust me."

Malachi was beginning to doubt now, but what choice did he have? The man had found him in the dark and was able to get him out of the hole that had him trapped and threatened his life. He must have faith that this man could take him the rest of the way to the surface.

The way was slow--agonizingly so. Each step, which he had neglected to count, was just one more movement in the dark. There was no way to judge progress. His hands felt rock walls that still bound him claustrophobically and his head and back remained hunched over for so long that he thought he would have trouble ever standing upright again. His muscles ached to stand straight. But he was live and someone was taking him out of his trouble. Just concentrate on getting out, Malachi. Nothing else matters.

"Malachi, we are about to see sunlight now. Your eyes will not be used to it and it will hurt at first. We will need to go slowly at this stage, but you can stand up straight now."

The words were like honey to him. Thank God. I am almost there!

Ahead of him he could see a faint glow and some back and forth movement of a silhouette that led him to freedom. The intensity of the light began to grow gradually and Malachi asked to stop a moment to adjust. He knew he would be squinting and pausing in the opening of the cave before walking into full sunlight again. After a moment the rope became taut again and Malachi followed silently and without complaint.

Another time or two he paused to adjust to the light until it stopped hurting and he could proceed. The last time was the worst. It hurt and hurt badly. He had been in the dark too long to walk into the full intensity of the sun without adjusting to it again.

Malachi didn't notice that the rope had gone totally slack. He just averted his eyes from the harsh and intruding light that poured through the opening. When he looked up again and could withstand the levels, he saw no sign of the man who had taken him out of the cave. Malachi stepped forward and blinked and squinted, searching desperately for the man. There was no one . The rope lay slack on the ground, one end still about Malachi's waist, but that was all. No one else was there.

Malachi stumbled weakly back to his campsite. The sun, which had seemed so intense, was actually quite low in the sky at this point. With each step Malachi thanked God for saving him. And with each step wondered who had been the instrument of God's choosing to accomplish the deed.

Malachi lit the fire and prepared the dinner had planned. Every bite tasted incredibly good to him. Each breath of air was a blessing. Even the smoke of the fire held a new level of wonder for him. Malachi laughed to think he would enjoy the smell of the smoke, but the fact remained. He slept the peaceful sleep of the grateful that night. He had changed as a person.

The next day, after Malachi had broken camp and returned to his car, he found on the windshield a handwritten note. It read simply, Malachi, ponder upon and retain all the lessons you have learned. There is more than meets the eye in this day's experience. It was signed John, a servant of God.

The lessons didn't become apparent all at once, but they did come in time. Malachi was grateful for his life in a way he had never been. All things were new and rich to him. Simple things were now to be cherished. Trials no longer seemed so daunting to him. He appreciated small accomplishments that would previously have escaped him as being such. And he loved people more than ever before. His family now beckoned to him in his heart.

And there was more, on a deeper level--a life-altering level. He had learned to trust, to follow in faith, even when he couldn't see where the next step was going to take him. He had learned that it was better to stay in the light, so to speak, than to stray and have to become accustomed to it all over again. One might get hurt in the darkness, but to leave the light for too long could also cause hurt when one tried to return to it. There was a powerful lesson in that symbolism. Malachi wasn't afraid of the darkness, but he certainly had learned to have a greater respect for it. A newfound respect that he thanked God for.

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