“Barry, you go on without me. I need to sit and rest a minute,” said Neil.
Barry replied, “We’re stopping a quarter mile up the trail, are you sure you can’t make it that far?”
Neil shook his head and sat down on a large rock. A canopy of green leaves provided shade, and a nearby cave blew fresh air against his overheated body. “Look, I’m out of shape, and I’m not in the best of health. The cool air from that cave feels good. It’s like God gave me an air conditioner out here in the forest. You go on up ahead; I’ll be there shortly.”
Barry’s brow creased, and he answered, “Okay, but if you’re more than 15 minutes late, we’re coming back for you.”
Neil gave Barry a wave of his hand and said, “Fine, just let me catch my breath. I’ll be there soon.”
As Barry walked out of sight, Neil closed his eyes and focused on the cool breeze coming from the dark cave. It mixed with the hot, humid air of a southern July day and met at his body; moderate, dry, and refreshing. Neil focused on slowing his breathing.
A woman’s voice whispered in the wind, “Ahem.”
Neil’s brow furrowed further. He drowsily opened his eyes and looked towards the mouth of the cave. A ravishing auburn-haired woman dressed in tight khaki shorts and a formfitting thin, white T-shirt stood at the mouth of the cave. She wore her thick wavy locks in a loose ponytail, and her aqua eyes seemed to outshine the sunlight. Neil could tell from her legs that she was an avid outdoors person.
He said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there when I got here.”
The woman’s lilting voice seemed to dance upon the wind, “Oh, I was inside the cave. I do apologize if I startled you.”
Neil stood and tried to stifle the grunt from the pain of his strained legs. “There’s no apology necessary. I suppose we surprised each other.”
The woman laughed, and he felt his heart jump.
“My name is Neil Lewis, but you can call me Neil.”
She smiled, and Neil could only think about her rosy full lips and bright white teeth. Her voice danced inside his head, “My name’s Veronica.”
“Are you spelunking?”
Veronica answered, “In a manner of speaking. Would you like to see what I’ve discovered?”
Neil thought about Barry and the rest of the group for a moment. He knew that if he took too long at the cave, they would become worried and start looking for him. Electricity shot up his arm. He blinked and realized Veronica was next to him, holding his hand.
“Come,” she said with a soft voice.
Neil nodded, and the two of them walked into the cave. Light gave way to darkness; the further they went into the cave. Neil stumbled on some loose rocks, but Veronica led him with confidence. He wondered how she could see in the shadows. Soon, light and shadow disappeared altogether. Veronica turned a corner, and dull red lights danced upon the walls of the cavern. To his horror, Neil noticed a ten-foot drop off right in front of them. Candles burned on the dirt floor below, their light reflecting off rubies in the wall of the cave.
Neil asked, “Do you realize what you found?”
Veronica giggled, and Neil’s body tingled.
She turned to face him and pressed her body against his. Her heated breath smelled like lilac. The scent of roses wafted from her hair. Neil no longer cared about the rubies. Her hands pushed his behind his back, and he felt his wedding band press against his pinky. Neil wiggled free and took a step back. Veronica stuck out her bottom lip in a playful pout.
“Did I do something wrong?” She asked.
Neil took in a long slow breath and tried to clear his head.
He finally answered her, “No, it’s nothing you’ve done. You’re so beautiful, and frankly, you smell amazing. I’m sorry to sound so forward, but I want you to understand it’s not you.”
He held up his left hand and showed her his wedding ring. The gold looked dull and reddish in the dancing light of the cave.
Veronica stepped up and wrapped her arms around him and pulled their bodies tight. His head swam, and he felt her lips press against his own, and his eyes closed. Shock waves of pleasure roared through his body. She spun him around and began to walk Neil backward. The memory of the cliff flashed through his mind.
Neil only wanted Veronica. The earth left his feet, and she held on to him tightly. It felt like the two of them were as light as a feather. He never wanted to release her. Neil trembled as she landed gently on top of him and pinned him against the cave floor. The candles heated the air around their bodies.
Excitement grew as he felt her thighs tighten against his hips. Veronica’s kiss stopped. She put her hands on his chest and hovered over him. Neil’s eyelids opened, and to his surprise, he looked into eyes as black as the cave. She gave a wicked smile, and her fingernails dug into his chest. The pain brought Neil great pleasure.
She leaned down and whispered in his ear, “You are a wicked boy.”
A sly grin crept across his face, and then he felt her lips against his neck. Veronica’s teeth met his skin, and his thighs tightened. She broke through, and a white flash of pain shot across his eyes. Images of his family, friends, and others filled his mind, and he felt his body growing weaker. He started to weep, and he felt Veronica’s teeth release their grip.
Blood dripped from her lips, and she scowled, “Oh please, I thought you were a real man, my kind of man. If you’re nothing more than a boy, I’ll leave you like the others.”
Neil tried to push her off, but she was too strong. She cackled, and a chill went down Neil’s spine. The candles blew out, and everything went black. Once more, her teeth entered his neck, but this time more painfully. Neil cried out and asked God to help him. He pleaded with Jesus to forgive his lack of commitment.
Veronica’s teeth ripped away from his neck, and a scream shook the ground. White light encompassed his vision. Then the cave went black, and then light, and then black again.
Barry’s familiar voice filled Neil’s ears, “Can you hear me? You need to wake up!”
Neil’s body ached from head to toe. His neck burned, and his chest felt like it was on fire. He mumbled towards the flashlight, “where am I?”
Barry answered with a concerned voice, “Thank goodness, your conscious. What were you thinking?”
“No rope, no flashlight?”
Neil answered with a weak voice, “I don’t know, I thought I heard someone inside the cave and came in to investigate.”
“Well, if somebody was here, they’re gone now,” answered Barry.
An idea popped into Neil’s mind, “Please, do me a favor and shine your light around the cave.”
His light pointed towards a cliff with ropes on it. “Over there is where you fell; you’re lucky you didn’t crack your head open.”
The beam of light fanned around the rest of the cavern. Gray rock and dirt were all Neil could see. There were no candles or precious stones. Neil’s vision blurred, and he squinted to try and focus.
Barry’s voice was anxious, “Stay with us, man. Rescue should be here any minute. The ranger station is only a couple miles away, and they’re bringing help.”
Neil felt pressure against his neck and grabbed the arm next to his head.
Barry responded, “Take it easy, buddy, you have a couple of puncture wounds. Judging from the blood, you must have punctured your neck when you fell. You also have some very nasty scrapes on your chest. All of it looks infected already.”
Barry then raised the gauze off Neil’s chest, showed him the blood mixed with dirt and pus. He swapped it out for a clean bandage.
Unfamiliar voices came from the cliff above, and Neil focused on the rescuers’ headlamps and watched with the group as they lowered the stretcher. The rescuers began working on Neil. They cleaned his wounds and applied pressure bandages to his neck and chest. He winced when the IV needle slipped into his arm.
Cold saline entered his veins, and a short time later, something else seemed to wash through and deaden the pain. They carefully strapped him into the stretcher and raised him to the ledge above. The band of hikers and rescuers began to stow their ropes when the sound of a woman screaming stopped the entire crew.
Barry looked over at one of the rangers, “Wildcat?”
“Something bigger, maybe a cougar,” responded the ranger.
The entire team redoubled their efforts to get their gear stowed. Quickly and carefully, they carried Neil out of the cave and into the bright light of the sun. The hot air now felt good to Neil, and the humidity was like a warm hug from an old friend. The rangers strapped the stretcher to their four-wheeler and gently made their way out of the woods. By the time they reached the ambulance, Neil’s pain was gone, but he felt weak and tired.
A female EMT leaned over his body, fiddled with his IV tube, and dropped a bag of blood on his chest. They lifted him into the ambulance and hung the bag from a hook. She sat down next to Neil, and the vehicle was soon making its way down the road.
The EMT looked down at Neil with kind dark brown eyes.
She said, “You’re a lucky man. Your friends found you just in time. We had dropped off another patient and were still at the hospital when the call came through. Your friend Barry told 911 the blood type you have. Fortunately, it’s a common one. We were able to get a bag and bring it with us.”
Neil could feel his strength returning as the blood made its way into his body, but the pain medicine and the trauma had left him exhausted. He closed his eyes and began to drift off. A soft hand patted his arm, and the woman’s voice sounded distant.
“Rest now. Veronica will take care of you.”