The night before, Hall had packed the truck with all the gear he’d need so that he could leave the house well before sunrise. He didn’t want to be seen, but he also wanted to ensure he’d make it to the woods before the sun went down.

Before the stars came out.

The original plan had been for someone else to come along. Hall yearned for a companion who could help with the driving. Who could help him with assessing risk and the decisions he’d have to make. Who could help him feel less lonely. In the end, though, his loneliness was what made what he yearned for a moot point; he had no one to ask.

So he went alone.

The stretch up the interstate was by far the worst part of the drive. The lanes were narrow, the trucks abundant, and the speed was fast, too fast—everyone had to be doing close to eighty—and Hall white-knuckled it the whole way. Sitting behind the wheel of the 4Runner with his heart pounding, his ears ringing, and his whole body aflame with misery, he fought to keep his gaze fixed straight through the windshield and somehow managed to resist the call of the void.

Hall breathed a sigh of relief when he finally turned off the highway in Red Bluff and headed east. Here the traffic thinned, slowed, and the landscape grew more rural. More remote. Hall felt his muscles loosen and his head clear. He even made sure to stop for gas and a bite to eat before heading into the mountains. If his dad had been with him, he might’ve been proud of Hall’s forethought and planning.

Then again, he might not have noticed at all.

On the road again. The elevation crept higher and soon Hall was surrounded by trees. By shadows. It was an unsettling atmosphere, nothing like the crowded roads heading out toward Tahoe or Shasta. The chaotic crest of volcanic mountains forming the Lassen Cascade sat on the very northeastern edge of California, and they were dark, desolate, and largely untraveled. Despite a growing unease simmering in his gut, Hall let himself savor a small twinge of victory when he spotted the unmarked turnoff—he was following a hand-drawn map that included a smattering of landmarks that let him know he was close—and this was a good omen. It meant he was thinking straight.

It meant he was focused on the task at hand.

The truck rattled and dipped, the 4Runner’s tires skidding a little as Hall left pavement for dirt, abandoning comfort and control in order to navigate toward his destination. As far as omens went, this was less reassuring, but Hall kept going, kept pushing ahead, determined with all his heart to chase a premise and promise so unbelievable he had no choice but to believe it.

“For you, Van.” He spoke his dead brother’s name aloud. “I’m doing this for you.”


* * *


Familial duty was a phrase Hall’s parents had used a lot when he was growing up. At sixteen, he knew he still had more growing to do, but over the years, those words had been uttered to justify everything from Sunday school attendance, to corporal punishment, to not letting Hall be seen by the local psychiatrist for his anxiety and academic problems. This last item felt particularly short-sighted, seeing as most of Hall’s anxiety stemmed from his academic struggles. But that didn’t matter. He’d prayed to get better, yet nothing had changed, so Hall had come to believe something was fundamentally wrong with him. Deep down, though, where no one bothered to look.

Over time, Hall also came to resent his parents—their choices, their values, and even the God they worshipped because all of these things seemed to resent him. Yes, it might be his lot in life to be forgettable. To have no talent or discipline. But why was he expected to offer more? Why was the burden on him to demonstrate loyalty to a family and faith for whom he’d always been an understudy?

But perhaps something in his parents’ child-rearing approach had actually worked. Because duty was the precise reason Hall had embarked on this journey. That, along with the fact that he’d made a terrible mistake of late. The worst.

This was what he intended to fix by coming here. It wasn’t a matter of right or wrong or even what he wanted. He was here because he had to be.


* * *


Shit! Hall slammed on the brakes. Up ahead the dirt road ended abruptly and a metal gate blocked any further vehicle access. This hadn’t been on the map and there weren’t any signs warning of the closure. There was also no way to drive around the gate, so Hall did what he could. He parked the truck as far onto the shoulder as possible and grabbed his gear, everything he’d need: backpack, climbing equipment, water purifier, food, flashlight, pickaxe, and the map.

He considered bringing a sleeping bag, but where he was going—deep underground—it seemed doubtful he’d use it. Plus, he wanted to keep weight to a minimum. He was still recovering from the accident that had taken Van’s life three months prior. Hall had been in the rollover with him, and he’d woken up in a Lodi hospital with a shattered pelvis, multiple rib fractures, and no memory of the impact. The pain had yet to leave his body.

To suffer is a blessing were the words his grieving mother liked to tell him about the agony he felt most acutely when he was lying in bed, trying to sleep. Despite his resentment, Hall couldn’t be bothered to argue this point. It made about as much sense as anything else in this world. Like the fact that he’d been the one to live and Van hadn’t.

Like the fact that he’d come here to literally resurrect his brother from the dead. 

In the end, Hall left the sleeping bag behind. He locked the 4Runner, slipped the key in his pocket, and set out on foot.


* * *


When Hall was ten and his older brother Van was sixteen, they’d spent an evening together in the backyard of their suburban Elk Grove home. It was autumn—the air crisp, cool, and rich with the scent of wood smoke. It was also the day school progress reports had come home, and Hall had stormed outside to sob helplessly in the wake of his father’s rage and disappointment. Van, always the peacemaker, followed after.

“He’ll get over it,” he told Hall gently. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Hall sobbed harder. He couldn’t help himself. “Everything I do is wrong!”

“That’s not true. You’re a good kid.”

“How come I’m not like you, though?”

“What do you mean?”

Hall lifted his head. Wiped his nose. “You know. Gifted. You’re so smart. You’re the best at everything. Everyone says so.”

Van thought about this. He always took Hall seriously, despite their age difference. Despite Hall’s lack of achievement or general ability. “Well, I’m good at school,” he agreed. “But the way I see it, it’s not much of a gift to only be good at what other people want you to do.”

“Really?” Hall asked.

Van nodded. “Sometimes it feels more like a trap than a virtue.”


“You know what I admire about you, Halsey?”

“What’s that?”

His brother leaned in, slinging an arm around Hall’s neck and pulling him close. “Look, I know it’s hard having Dad come down on you like he does. And Mom’s always going to take his side. That’s just the way it is. But I see how much you try. How much you care about other people’s feelings and making things right. That’s not something school teaches you. Or even values. Which is why when I see it in you, it’s all the more special. Because you’re honest, and honest matters. Don’t ever forget that. Okay?”


* * *


The hike in from the gate was easy enough. It was mostly a matter of knowing where he was going, and Hall had the map to thank for that. He was now standing in a wide meadow that grew lush with long grass and wildflowers. A narrow creek ran north to south and on the southernmost side, three boulders formed a line in descending size, and it was here, at the base of the smallest boulder, that there was an opening into the earth. 

Bending down and peering in, Hall shone his flashlight around and began to formulate his descent plan. He calculated the exact gear he’d need, how he’d have to set his line and to what depth, and how to be sure he could get back out again. Hall let his mind fill with a bubbling range of numbers, calculations, and fail-safe techniques. Anything that kept him from thinking about the cave, about what he’d seen and felt when he’d looked down that narrow hole.

The yawning darkness.

The blast of cold air.

This is a bad idea, his mind whispered. Really, really bad.

But what would Van have done? Hall knew the answer. Van rose to every goddamn occasion. It was just who he was. Or who he had been until that night on the interstate. Hall whimpered, remembering. But he was doing this for Van. Right? That was the point. Hall was timid, scared, and unremarkable. But Van, who’d loved mountain climbing, spelunking, running marathons, paddleboarding, and anything he could get his hands on and master, would never have turned down an opportunity to go into a cave like this one.

Not once.


* * *


The last time Hall and Van were together was the night Van graduated from college. He’d gone to a prestigious university in nearby Stockton and soon he’d be heading off to med school at Johns Hopkins. At first, Hall couldn’t muster the will to be jealous of his brother’s success. He was just so proud. Not only was Van first in his class, but he’d earned all sorts of honors. He even made a speech at the ceremony, an elegant reflection on the nature of faith and science and how both were needed in equal measure in order to sustain hope. People had actually cried.

But both Hall’s pride and will had dimmed as the day wore on, as he sweltered in the Central Valley heat. It wasn’t as if any of Van’s shine had rubbed off on him. If anything, his accomplishments only made Hall look worse in comparison, and the more his parents gushed over his brother—all he’d done and would do in the years ahead—the more Hall longed to drown himself in the nearby canal. In truth, this was a common state of mind for him whether his brother was around or not, because it wasn’t like anyone would care or notice if he were gone.

It was a surprise then, while Hall was moping around at the stupid reception on the lawn of the university president’s house, that Van came over to him and whispered, “Hey, how about you come out with me tonight? There’ll be some good parties we can hit up.”

Hall had stared at him. “Seriously?”


“But why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“Why do you want me around?”

Van laughed. “What? You want to stay here with them instead?”

Hall spotted their parents with the university chaplain. Their father was clearly going on one of his self-important rants. Probably about the dangers of co-ed dorms or giving women too much self-esteem. “Jesus. No. Let’s get out of here.”


* * *


Pulling off his backpack and unzipping the main compartment, Hall dug around for the rigging and ropes he’d borrowed from his brother. Although not athletically inclined, he’d gone on enough outings with Van growing up to know his way around basic climbing gear and technique. Hall worked slowly, methodically, first setting up the main line and anchoring it around one of the larger boulders. Then he attached the nylon harness to the descender and braking carabiner, taking great care to ensure there were no knots, no frayed strings, that everything was installed correctly, and that all the seams were facing the right way.

“Preparation counts,” Van always said. “That’s the best way I’ve found to avoid mistakes; you make sure not to make them in the first place.”

“I’m trying,” Hall whispered. Preparation didn’t come naturally to him. He reacted better than he acted, which meant he was far more memorable for his fuckups than for the fleeting moments of glory he had to his name.

But the strangest thing happened. After he’d run the rigging through all its tests and double-, triple-checked each point of connection, Hall felt ready. He was actually confident about the preparation he’d put into setting the line and confident about lowering himself into the cave. Was this how Van had always felt? This sense of absolutely surety? The knowledge that the future was his for the taking?

Hall switched on his headlamp and stepped into the climbing harness, pulling it tight across his chest and around his legs, before spinning the carabiners shut and winding the rope through the descender. And it was as he sat on the very edge of the opening, his legs dangling into the abyss, that a fresh swell of guilt washed over him.

Finally, his brother had taught him something valuable.

Or more accurately: he was finally able to learn.


* * *


The graduation party Van took him to was incredible. It was at a huge, sprawling house a group of seniors had shared, and Hall couldn’t believe he was getting a chance to experience it. There was a pool, booze, food, girls, and even a real DJ. Plus no one gave him a second look or bothered to ask what somebody like him was doing in a place like that.

He was quickly separated from Van, and Hall walked around, cruising the property, taking in everything he saw. As he passed by the keg, a guy he didn’t know shoved a beer into his hand. Hall thanked him, took a sip, and made a face. It was awful. The beer was bitter, foamy, and worse, warm. But looking at everyone around him there was clearly some appeal, so Hall forced himself to drink more, gulping down a few tepid mouthfuls.

Van swooped in out of nowhere, reaching to pluck the drink from Hall’s hand.

“Hey!” Hall protested. “What the hell?”

“You know you can’t drink that,” Van scolded.

“I’ve been to parties before. I’m not a baby.”

“I don’t mean your age.” Van lowered his voice. “You can’t mix alcohol with your medication. You know that, right?”

Hall nodded but suddenly felt awful. Van had been supplying him with Ritalin and Xanax as a way to keep his anxiety and focus in check. And he was right; Hall knew he wasn’t supposed to drink.

But he’d done it anyway.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

Van smiled. He’d done some drinking of his own, and his cheeks were flushed and his eyes bleary. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just really glad you’re here, Halsey.”

“Thanks,” Hall said. Then, because the music had grown louder, he shouted, “I’m going to miss you!”

“What was that?”

“I said I’ll miss you!”

Van cupped a hand over his ear, still unable to make out Hall’s words even as the DJ shifted the mood into something more mellow. Hall was on the verge of trying again but then a swarm of Van’s friends were upon them, laughing and pulling his brother into their fold and away from Hall. Van waved sheepishly as he was dragged into the fray. He still had Hall’s beer, and Hall watched as Van raised the cup to his mouth to drain its contents.

“Jesus, what an asshole,” someone behind him said.

Hall whirled around. Sitting on a couch across from him was a young woman he hadn’t noticed before. Had she been there the whole time? She was tall, lean, and lovely, with dark skin, dark hair, and eyes that were framed by the longest lashes Hall had ever seen. The expression she wore was one of sheer challenge. Or maybe spite.

“He’s not an asshole,” Hall replied.

“Oh yeah? What is he then?”  

“My brother.”

Her eyes narrowed. “No shit. How old are you, anyway?”

“Eighteen.” Hall figured this was the oldest he could get away with.

“Sure you are.” The woman took a sip of her drink. “I’m June, by the way.”

“I’m Hall.”

“Nice to meet you, Hall.”

“How do you know Van?” he asked.

She considered this. “I guess you could say I know him too well. More than I want to, that’s for sure.”

“What do you mean?”

June leaned forward. “I mean, let’s cut the bullshit, okay? We both know what he really is. All that kindness, that aw-shucks white savior golden boy routine; it’s all an act. An agenda.”

“An agenda?” Hall echoed.

She nodded. Then clarified, “It’s a fucking lie.”


* * *


The rope dangled straight down into what he knew to be a good five-hundred-foot drop. The opening was tight and would require Hall to squeeze a little as he lowered himself into it. But if the map he’d been given was right—and so far it had been—the primary shaft would quickly open into a wider cavern.

He scooted closer to the hole. Then closer still. So close he finally began slipping over the edge, his heart rocketing as his body left solid ground. Hall tipped, pulling his arms in tight to clear the initial opening, and felt himself falling, falling, falling.

But the rope held. And that was it. He was doing it. He was on his way. He worked the descender, releasing slack in such a slow, controlled manner it never felt like he was in danger. It felt like mastery. Like he knew what he was doing.


* * *


Hall hadn’t understood what June meant about Van being a liar. He felt disloyal for not getting up and walking away from her insult, but she was the only person at the party who seemed to notice him and that was worth something. It was worth everything, really. Plus, she was lovely to look at, with her piercing eyes and achingly feminine softness. She had a smile that entranced him, at once both aloof and vulnerable, like she wanted him, and only him, to know her secrets.

Maybe June felt some of this by the way he looked at her. Or maybe she felt what it was he needed, because she came and sat right beside him, the two of them overlooking the pool. It was there that she asked him what it was he wanted in life. What it was that made him happy.

Hall wasn’t sure what she wanted him to say and he told her so.

June frowned. “It’s not a test.”

“Well, I don’t know what makes me happy,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“I guess because I’m not.”

“You’re not happy?”

“That’s right.”

This response made June smile for some reason, although there was sorrow in her expression, at the very same time. She held her cup up as if in celebration. As if to say me too.

“Welcome to the goddamn club.”


* * *


It wasn’t long before Hall’s fingers blistered and cramped from working the descender, releasing chunks of rope through metal, inch by painstaking inch. The deeper he went into the earth, the more lightheaded he felt. The more unstable and unsure. As if the oxygen he needed to live was racing to the surface while he was going in the opposite direction.

When his shoes touched down on rock, he gave a quavering sigh of relief. Twisting his neck, he stared up at where he’d come from, watching bats swoop and dive, alighting from crevices and perches so dark, so distant, he couldn’t make them out. The creatures plumbed the depths of the cavern before soaring higher, their eerie silhouettes lit by surface light and cast against the cave wall. Suddenly Hall’s legs wobbled beneath him and he sat down hard, working swiftly to unclip from the rope and loosen his harness. In an instant, blood was flowing through his extremities again, a grateful rush, and he basked in the release. He was going to be okay. He was going to do this.

When his fingers were up to the task, Hall reached into his bag and pulled out the map. He’d sealed it in a Ziploc bag for safekeeping, which was smart, since he promptly dropped the damn thing. It slipped from his grasp into a dank puddle lined with moss and muck. Hall scooped it up and held the map beneath his headlamp, trying to orient himself.

His ultimate destination was a mystical cavern labeled simply as The Gift Shop. It was accessible only by way of a large cave complex running beneath the Lassen Cascade. The network of tunnels boring through this section of the earth had been formed hundreds of thousands of years earlier by the sheer force of volcanic eruptions and pyroclastic flows.

Hall swung the larger flashlight he’d brought around the cave and saw where he needed to go—toward a wide passageway that angled downward, following the flow of groundwater, and marked by a row of stalagmites lining the cave floor. Hall hurried to gather his gear and headed deeper into the earth with a renewed sense of purpose.

With only his light to guide him, he stumbled eagerly over rocks and splashed through puddles. But as the passageway wound on, it began closing in on him and Hall was forced to crouch lower, and lower, until he was crawling, his knees scraping against stone, his backpack chafing at his shoulders and catching on the rock above him. His breath came in short pants. He couldn’t turn around if he wanted to. There was no room to do anything but continue forward. But it was fine, Hall told himself. This was what he needed to do. After all, to suffer was a blessing, and that meant there could be no redemption without sacrifice.

No salvation without pain.


* * *


Hall spent the rest of the party talking with June and even trying to flirt a little, although he knew he didn’t have a shot in hell with someone like her. She was too pretty. Too smart. Too everything. Still, she’d brought him a fresh beer and another after that, and he was grateful for her willingness to hang around with him, for not leaving him alone, even if she didn’t seem to like his brother much.

Too soon, it was time to leave. Van stumbled up, looking worse than Hall had ever seen him. Like he might pass out cold on his feet.

“Let’s get out of here.” He slurred his words. “I promised Mom I wouldn’t keep you out all night.”

“Yeah, sure. Okay.” Hall turned to say his goodbyes to June, only to find she wasn’t there. “Hey, where’d she go?”

“Where’d who go?” Van asked.

“The girl I was talking to.”

His brother grinned. “You were talking to a girl? Nice going.”

“Not like that.” Hall felt himself blush. “Her name’s June.”

Van’s grin vanished. Then he shrugged. “Never heard of her.”

“Are you sure? She says she knows you. She’s tall, got dark hair—”

“I said I’ve never heard of her.”

Hall followed Van to his car. Something felt wrong. Not just his brother’s drunkenness, but the way he was acting. “That’s weird, though. I mean, June’s going to med school in the fall. Just like you. You have to know her.”

Van, who had less than an hour to live at that point, turned on him then, his eyes flashing with ire, a wild sort of rage. “Just give it a fucking rest already, Hall. I swear to God, you can be the biggest goddamn idiot sometimes. If I say I don’t know some slut, it means I don’t fucking know her!”

“Okay.” Hall cowered. “I’m sorry.”

 “Get in the fucking car.”


* * *


The air grew frigid as the tunnel Hall was crawling through split and split again and again after that, leading him up and down and through the earth in such a serpentine route he knew he would have no hope of finding his way out on his own. He was navigating a literal maze—a terrifying fact if he dwelled on it—but luckily the map hadn’t failed him yet. At every point of divergence, the route he was meant to take was clearly marked and Hall wasn’t required to make any choices or determine any actions. All he had to do was follow.  

At one point the tunnel widened for a stretch, which was a relief. It expanded until Hall realized he’d reached a room of sorts. It was an underground chamber big enough for him to stand up and turn around in. It was beautiful, too. A spring bubbled up in the center of the room, a deep pool lined with rimstone and teeming with bioluminescence that turned the water’s surface a brilliant, dazzling blue. It was wild. Like looking down into a sunlit ocean.

Hall was mesmerized. He couldn’t believe something like this existed and that he actually got to see it. His aching muscles begged for him to sit awhile, to take a rest, have a snack, maybe even dip his feet in the cool depths of the glowing pool, but he resisted. According to the route he’d been following, he was closing in on his destination. He had to get there.

The map guided him to a vertical shaft on the far side of the blue pool room. Getting through required Hall to climb up and over a smooth section of limestone before sliding into a second chamber on the other side. But it was a tight fit. Not to mention near impossible to climb. Hall shrugged off his backpack and tried jumping, grabbing for a handhold. Only it was useless; gravity worked against him. Despite a last-ditch army crawl flail, Hall lost traction, falling back with a grunt as loose rock and dirt spilled into his face and eyes.

He tried again, this time scaling the stone wall by spreading his limbs and bracing himself above the shaft in order to slide in headfirst and take advantage of the steeper angle. Hall was cautious, making sure to first throw his bag through before twisting his body and stretching out one arm, lowering himself into the stone slot with hopes of corkscrewing his way in. And it worked. Hall’s head and torqued shoulder slipped past the opening and he felt a fluttering breeze on the other side. It was fresh air! According to the map, the Gift Shop vented to the surface by way of thin lava tubes. He had to be closer than he thought. Eagerly pushing off with both feet, he thrust his way in by force, his neck and chest sliding deeper, and it seemed he was on the downside of all that effort when he suddenly stopped.

“Shit.” Hall tried pushing again, but on the other side of the opening, his feet hung in midair. There was nothing to push off from. Instead he reached forward, straining to pull the rest of his body through the hole, using his free arm to grab for the rock in front of him. The movement he made was minimal, but he pulled again, hooking his fingers around stone as tight as he could. He felt give, his weight starting to shift, and he slid forward with a bubble of hope welling in his throat. But his hope was short lived. It disappeared as the movement only served to wedge him in tighter. He gasped; his chest and ribcage filled the opening like a plug and the cave wall pressed down on his lungs.

He was stuck.


* * *


Hall had seen June only one other time, at the funeral. A miserable occasion that was delayed until he’d been released from the hospital. Even then, Hall was only able to attend seated in a wheelchair and doped out of his mind. The church was packed and the service far too serious. Their parents’ pastor favored the fire and brimstone depiction of the afterlife. It was everything Van would’ve hated. It was everything he wasn’t.

Maybe this is for me then, Hall thought. After all, what he was going through felt like its own kind of death, but a waking kind, and all the crueler for that.

June sat with him later, back at the house. Hall wasn’t sure she was real at first. He’d taken another painkiller, because screw praying away this level of pain, and everything around him felt spongy. Surreal. But June was a light in so much darkness, nearly aglow in the salve her presence offered. She was also as lovely as ever. She wore a wine-colored dress, her dark curls were pinned off her neck, and her eyes were so very sad.

“Oh, Hall,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“What’re you doing here?” he asked.

“What kind of question is that?”

His mind fluttered back to the night of the party. “Van said he didn’t know you.”

June’s jaw tensed. “He really said that?”


“I told you he was an asshole.”

“He was lying, I think. He got mad when I asked about you. He said…he said…” Hall trailed off. He couldn’t remember the words.

June softened. “Well, maybe I came to see you, then.”

“Oh.” Hall dipped his head. “You shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Look around. No one gives a shit that I’m here. They’re only sad Van’s gone. He was the one with promise. A future.”

“That’s not true,” she said.

“It is.”

“Then I don’t think you knew your brother as well as you thought.”

“How’s that?” he asked.

“Just that people like him—people who have everything—usually don’t get it by chance.”

“You mean they earned it?”

“That’s not what I mean at all.”

“I don’t understand,” Hall said, although he realized he probably did. Hadn’t he always known that people often took what they believed they were owed? That that was the danger of superiority? Why would Van be any different? “You want to know a secret? About that night? It’s something I haven’t told anybody.”

“Sure,” June said with a weary sigh. “Tell me your secret.”

So he did.

After, she wiped his tears away and whispered. “And you feel bad about this?”

“It’s unbearable.”

“The guilt? Or the secret?”

Hall let out a sob. “Knowing that it should’ve been me. That I’m meant to be dead!”

June’s eyes sparked with newfound life. Newfound interest. “What if I told you death wasn’t the end? Or that it didn’t have to be? Would you feel better then?”

Hall shook his head. His vision had gone blurry. He could barely see June through all the haze and pain. “The guy in the church already told us about that.”

“No,” she insisted. “What if I told you there was a place on Earth where anything is possible? Right now.”


* * *


Hall fought against instinct.

Where his nature had always been to go, to react and not choose, it was also his nature that got him into this situation. That got him stuck. And he couldn’t even conceive what Van would have done because on the rare occasions Van ever screwed up and got caught, he could always smooth talk his way out of trouble. He could always tell people what they wanted to hear and coerce their forgiveness. Or else convince them that whatever had happened had been their fault in the first place. Hall had no idea how to do any of that, so he tried going backwards, to undo his mistake, bucking and writhing his way from the edge of no return by sheer force.

It wasn’t a choice, exactly, because it was the only option, but Hall fought for his life with everything he had. He braced his free hand against the cave wall and twisted, pushing his way back out of the shaft. His skin tore, his muscles howled in anguish, but Hall didn’t stop. Soaked with sweat, slick with blood, he fought and fought. Until finally he broke free, sliding back into the blue pool room, collapsing onto the ground in a puddle of exhaustion.

But his relief quickly turned again to panic. And regret.

Oh fuck, he realized. His bag. The map. The pickaxe.

Everything was on the other side.


* * *


Two weeks after the funeral a package came in the mail. It was from June, it had to be, although there was no name on the return label. It was addressed to Hall and when he tore it open he found a hand-drawn map and a note card. The card read:


There’s a way to right wrongs

When what was meant to be has not come to bear.

Trust me when I say that not everyone is invited to the Gift Shop.

Not everyone is welcome here.

But you are, Hall.

There’s a way to be with your brother again, 

There’s a way to absolve your sins,

But you have to want it; you have to be willing. And then

All dreams can be true.




* * *


Instinct took over. Frantic, with only his headlamp to guide him, Hall fled back the same way he’d come in—squeezing, scrambling, crawling his way through the cave system in search of an exit. A way out. A way somewhere.

Only he didn’t remember all the splits and turnoffs. He couldn’t. So he just kept going, kept moving through the winding underground miles in as methodical a manner as he could think of in hopes of making it back to the original cavern. The rope should still be there, and even if he didn’t have the gear to climb out, someone might find him. His truck was close and surely people would come looking. Wouldn’t they? He had to believe that. He had to believe in something as he shot down tunnel after tunnel, wedging his way through crumbling rock and clambering over gaping shafts to explore every fracture and break before repeatedly hitting dead ends and having to turn back. Exhausted, starving, and growing weaker by the hour, Hall dutifully marked his routes with cairns and chalky rock drawings as he did his best to navigate by sheer trial and error.

Then his headlamp went out.

In the darkness, Hall began to shiver. His teeth chattered. His bones shook. This was it, wasn’t it? This was hopeless. Beyond hopeless. He had no way of knowing where he’d been.

Or where he might be going.

Or anything.

Still, he kept moving forward until he tumbled into a larger chamber, one lit in its center by an ethereal aquatic glow. It was the blue pool room, which meant he’d come full circle after all that work. Staggering from the glow’s warmth, Hall found his way by feel to the section of the cave where he’d gotten stuck. Where everything had gone wrong. Hall didn’t dare try to go through again, but remembering the brush of fresh air, he stood huddled against the stone wall and strained to listen to the sounds coming from the other side. He thought he heard wind gusting, whistling down from the surface, followed by what sounded like the tinkle of chimes. Then finally, a woman singing. Her voice was low, lulling, and with a tenderness he couldn’t see or even begin to imagine, she began to serenade him with a melody that was rich and reverent and steeped in nostalgia. Like a lullaby. Like vespers. 

Like she was calling him home. 

Hall’s heart broke then, shattering not just for himself and the knowledge that he was going to die down here, but for the Gift Shop he’d never reach. For all the dreams he’d never had but nevertheless would now fail to come to fruition. Not because he was lost, but because he deserved nothing more. Hadn’t he always known this would be his fate? To disappear?

To vanish. 

The last words Hall had spoken to his brother that night were to tell Van to give him the damn keys so that he could drive, even though he’d been drinking too. Even though he knew better. But later, when he’d woken in the hospital, everyone assumed Van had been the one driving. It was his car, after all, and Van’s blood alcohol content and the illegal drugs in his system were seen as proof positive of his recklessness. 

Hall hadn’t known why or how this mix-up had happened, but he also didn’t do anything to correct it and so it seemed he only valued honesty in theory. The truth was, he’d felt relieved to be overlooked. Giddy almost, because for once, being invisible had its merits. No one blamed him or told him he was a bad person, and like a coward, he’d let everyone go on believing the accident was Van’s fault. He’d even gone so far as to lament his brother’s poor choices to anyone who asked because they always responded with pity. Besides, Hall discovered, when you told a lie often enough, it had a way of starting to feel like the truth. 

Like what was meant to be. 

But what of June, Hall wondered bleakly. She knew his secret, told in a moment of weakness, but had her Gift Shop and its promise of rebirth and repair ever been real? Was it truly waiting for him on the other side and out of reach on account of his own impulsive nature? Or had she seen in him what everyone else had?

That he was far from gifted.

That he could be so easily manipulated, so willingly sent into the bowels of the earth as a sacrificial proxy for the sins of his brother who’d already died for Hall’s.

That he’d never know June’s act of giving wasn’t meant for him. Rather, it was born from her own familial duty—the sisterly sort—and as such, was intended as an offering to the earth herself, a cosmic way of righting wrongs and taming fault lines, of easing the tension that lived and breathed both above and below these winding miles of volcanic friction and frisson.

That, all along and always, there’d been a beauty to his truth: he was the gift.




A favorite theme of mine is fatalism, more specifically the type of fatalism that highlights human frailty and the limits of our ability to understand ourselves and our place in this world. With “Gifted,” I initially wanted to write a story about a place that was able to lure people to it, which used people and their suffering in such a way that the people caught up in it were all sure—very, very sure—that they were the ones doing the using. The story evolved from there, however, and as I got to know Hall, I came to realize that the place I thought I was writing about actually lived inside of him.

{ Edited by Denise Conejo. }