The Cave
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Pick"
Originally featured on 01-11-2007
As part of our series "Phases of a Holiday Meal"

Moments earlier, an antique clock had chimed indicating noon. The blinds clicked slightly against the large window of the office — moved by central air. Behind them a small bonsai plant sat on the ledge swaying slightly. The clicking was augmented by the steady sounds of rain beating against large thick glass of the window.

John sat comfortably in a leather chair. He recognized the smell in the room as the same odor shared by all clinical offices. Alone, he surveyed the room and thought about the lunch date he had cancelled with his wife. He moved his wedding ring slightly on his finger impatiently. John didn’t know why but he took out his wallet and looked at the recent photos of his family. The room was lit only by a small lamp on a table in the corner. John had to bring the photo close to his eyes to see it. Squinting, could only see one face at a time and not the group. He shoved his wallet back into his pocket.

He had received a phone call at his own office only an hour earlier. Mark’s voice on the other end of the phone was nervous. The voice of his best friend. John recognized something in Mark’s tone that made his request to meet impossible to ignore.

John turned to look over his shoulder as the door opened behind him and Mark walked into the office. John smiled but Mark did not.

Mark sat and took a deep breath. John wondered if he always wore a cardigan sweater to work instead of a blazer.

“Nothing in the world would make me happier than to not have this conversation,” Mark said after a pause. John looked at him, confused. Without breaking the intense, head-down stare he had initiated, he continued.

“In thirty-seven years of friendship, I’d never have dreamt that this conversation would happen.” John’s brow furrowed. Mark’s face became pained.

“I hate this. I hate this!” Mark had begun wringing his hands and shifting back and forward in his seat. He got up and walked over to the window. His silhouette seemed to glow in gray light coming in through the spaces between blinds. He pulled the blinds open and touched a leaf of the bonsai.

“Mark, what’s the matter!?”

Mark walked back to his chair and sat. This time he looked at the floor, hands on his head, elbows on his knees.

John began playing nervously with his ring again. He giggled slightly. “Mark, whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”

Mark looked up.

“Do you remember when you gave me that tree?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, is this about Grace?” John asked.

“No, but remember after she ran out on me? You said that you saw the problems that maybe I didn’t see.”

John’s tone became careful. He had learned by helping Mark through his messy breakup that Mark stored everything people said. “I had suspicions,” John said.

“I was completely blindsided. It ripped my world apart.” Mark had stopped moving and began to look intently at John again. John tried to read into his eyes but couldn’t understand.

“Yeah, but Mark it’s been years. I thought you were over all of that.” Mark looked at him sharply.

“I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy,” Mark said sincerely. “Not even on Grace and she did it to me.”

“Okay, Mark. So what did you want me to do? I didn’t know anything. I just could see that things seemed wrong. Ya know, in the way she acted sometimes—when certain things got brought up. If I had known something was going on, I’d have told you.”

“Yeah, I’m not that sure about that, John!” John couldn’t tell if Mark’s tone was accusatory. But he was certainly upset. “Maybe it’s not your job to do that.”

“Hey.” John waited for Mark to look at him. “I wouldn’t have let you get blindsided like that, man.”

Mark began muttering under his breath. “I hate this,” he repeated over and over.

“Hey man, I cancelled lunch with Julia to come over here. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“Fuck. Alright.” He took a breath. “I’m going to give you choice.”

John sat back into the plush chair.

Mark’s face looked as though wheels were spinning in his mind. “You love your life right now. Correct?”

“Yes.” John nodded. He began to feel a tremble in his stomach. John no longer felt like Mark called for help.

Another deep breath. “This is the choice. You can walk out that door right now. And you’ll be back in your life. And you’ll have all the things that you have now exactly as they are. This meeting will change nothing.” Mark stood up and walked to the window as he continued to talk. He touched the bonsai leaf between his forefinger and thumb.

“That’s the first option. The second is that I can tell you something. Something I just learned about. I’m not going to say any more than this information may change everything for you. Your family, your marriage, your house, your job, your relationship to everyone you know including me may change for the worse. Don’t try to infer the information from what I’ve just said. It’s not something you’ll guess. And if I don’t tell you, it’s possible you’ll never find this information out.”

John just looked at Mark. He tried to manage a grin but couldn’t. He couldn’t convince himself that Mark was possibly kidding around. Although he didn’t know why, he became very aware of the tremble in the pit of his stomach. John suddenly realized that it had been there for a long time. He had no idea how long.

Mark paced the room. He sat and looked at John.

“John, I want you to think very seriously about everything I have said to you. And most of all I want you to realize that the first option of walking out of here is just as real as the second. Please don’t feel that I’ll think less of you if you don’t want your life to change.”

John was suddenly unable to sit. He stood and walked along the wall. He looked at the pictures of himself, his wife and Mark hiking at Mt. Hood and the pictures of them at last years Christmas party. For the first time, John became acutely aware of space just to the right or left of Mark in all the photos. It seemed as though in each shot of the three of them, the taker still left a space for Grace. John wondered about Grace from time to time. The foursome had been inseparable once. John thought about his own office and the photos he had hung. There were only photos of his family and photos with Mark. John felt piercing sensation behind his eyes. John didn’t have anything else he cared about. And he was happy. He wondered.

“Pick.” Mark’s voice was gentle but urgent.

“Let me ask you this, Mark?”

“Yes. Go ahead, John. But I’m not going to tell you anything more about what I know unless you choose to know it all.” John nodded.

“If this information was dangerous to me or my children or Julia,” John raised his eyebrows and turned his head, “you would tell then, right? You wouldn’t give the choice if I needed to know, right?” Mark nodded.


John walked along the wall again. He looked at Mark’s degree from VU. John and he had accidentally purchased the same frame for them. Grace had always kidded them about this. After Grace left, John could never bring up any of the funny things she used to say. John came to a picture that Grace was actually in. It was the four of them at the Space Needle. They had gone up for Mark’s birthday. Mark had said it one of the best days of his life. He had taped over Grace’s head and body in the photo so that it looked like Julia, Mark and John were being photographed next to a manila pillar. John touched the glass where Grace’s face would’ve been. Then he touched the glass over Julia’s face, leaving a smudge.

John turned and walked out of the office without looking at Mark.

He walked past the receptionist, grabbed his coat off the rack and walked out into the downpour.

Mark walked to the window of his office. As John walked to his car, he could see Mark’s face and cardigan illuminated with gray light. Mark smiled slightly. To John it seemed plastic. Everything would. He knew that. John’s cell phone began to ring as he got into his car. It was Julia.

Read More By Doug Dean

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