"It's a forgotten place... A damp, cold place," Avi said, "and a lonely place."
"It's a shit-hole." Abe crossed his arms. Avi dragged the beam of his flashlight all across the walls of the cave, tracing in every direction (in his mind at least) an impossibly complex picture. But, as with the innards of the Vipassana Cave system, Abe looked on and saw only random, meaningless twists and turns. He grabbed Avi's wrist and scolded,
"You're doing it again, professor. Christ man, you have a PHD in this crap, act like it already or I'm leaving."
Abe removed his hand in hopes of Avi tightening his grip on reality. But just like before, and just like every other time he ventured down to chart the cobweb-shaped tunnels of Vipassana with Avi as his chaperone, Abe was disappointed. There was no clear goal to the light's path, as Avi tended to fall on every corner, pit and path of the caves with the same regard. They had ventured a good two hundred yards into it and found that it was not only more of a labyrinth than expected, but purposelessly empty. So, Abe wondered as he quietly watched Avi turn the flashlight about in his hand, what could the professor be searching for? Abe threw his arms up with an aggravated huff and walked in the opposite direction of Avi's attention. He shouted without turning around,
"Fine, professor, if you wanna act like a child, that's just fine. I'll be outside grabbing a smoke. When you actually wanna try and find something worth spending all this time and money on -or ya know, go somewhere where there actually is anything to find- just yell!"
Abe felt righteous in his anger. His insults carried, being thrown like a stone at Avi, passing through the bubble of silence and absorbed fascination he held himself in, then bouncing off the cave walls and returning to him, facing Abe and demanding their existence be justified. He jammed his hands in his pockets and kept stomping up through the cave, even more frustrated to think he could be so easily questioned, as from his perspective he had every reason to be angry. Abe had, in fact, sought Avi out in the first placed, ironically due to his eccentric reputation. It was the final year of Abe's university career and he desired adventure, he desired an experience different from anyone else's, and so Abe found the professor whose antics and expenditures were stranger than anyone else's.
"He really is just a damn loon..."
Abe's frame was tight with anxiety as he complained to the mouth of the cave, standing halfway in the sun, half in the shade, lighting a cigarette. He felt betrayed, both by what he interpreted as Avi's self-advertised abnormality and by his own longing for the bizarre. Abe's degree in archaeology was already decried as useless by many (including his parents), and his compulsion towards adventure called "childish". But to find someone else, someone superficially similar, whose image could be strained to fit a narrative of kinship, and then to find that their fascination lies in a cave which Abe saw as nothing more than a deep, winding pocket of fools' gold... It was enough to give Abe perspective, to make all the negative voices in his life sound right all along. And to make him talk aloud to no one in particular, asking,
"What do I want? What did I want so badly that I was willing to follow that guy? To be different? Well, I certainly am different; everyone else is successful, I'm not. Did I want to be in harm's way? To risk everything and be rewarded in kind? Ha! Well, I'm wiser now. Adventure is for the imagination of witless children. Nothing ventured, everything gained."
It didn't feel good for Abe to say this, and instantly he was struck with a pang of regret, like he had just offended his own mother. But he was young, and the resolve of his blooming cynicism was strong. He shook his head and lit another cigarette to calm down. Just as he took a long drag, a voice came from inside the cave. Abe jumped and turned around to face it, squinting to try and force his vision to penetrate the darkness. The utterance was indistinct, and looking into the pitch black only to see and hear nothing emerge gave Abe an unsettling feeling in his skin. Soon enough, another sound came,
"Abe! Abe, come look at this, I found something incredible!"
It was Avi's voice. Of course it was, Abe reminded himself, feeling twice as foolish as before. There was nothing else in the cave. Adventure was for children. He had it all figured out, he was so sure.
"Hang on, I'm coming..."
But at the same time, he couldn't turn away. It was Avi's deception, the same Abe had fallen for in the first place when Avi had regaled him of the lost minerals, otherworldly caverns and ancient fossils buried deep in Vipassana. His words were charged with a certain conviction, like a sailor calling for land. And just as certainly, Abe looked at Avi's discovery and saw it to be delusion.
"It's a pit," the correction got right under Abe's skin. He asked facetiously,
"How is this 'incredible'?"
Abe tossed his cigarette into the abyss. Its shape was immediately enveloped, but the tiny ember at the end was visible for some time. It plummeted down at an anger, further and further until its angle took it as far as the opposite end of the pit, where it scratched against a wall of smooth, concave rock. The tiny fire burst and in a last micro-explosion of luminescence showed the hole to be perfectly round. No sound followed afterwords, even as Abe felt himself crane over the maw as he strained to focus for one. It filled him with a deep sense of vertigo when he realized how much weight he was leaning over the edge of the unguarded pit, and he was quick to retreat. Avi maintained himself though. He said,
"It could be anything down there! A forgotten sewer system, a buried mine-shaft, some strange fellows' home..."
"...More rocks." Abe offered. He shuffled cautiously back over to the edge, standing about a foot apart from Avi, who knelt right up next to the gape in the ground with his head low in contemplation. Abe's caution was not born of fear though; he didn't have a problem with heights in the least, but instead kept a distance out of spite towards Avi. It was insane, Abe knew it, but all at once he felt a yearning towards the depths of that hole. And with that yearning came an echo from outside, the words that he had so hurriedly made into real statements by tossing them out into the real world. He could put his disappointment aside and take one more chance in the name of adventure, but that would be going back on every hostility, big and small, he had sent Avi's way.
"We need tools," Avi said, taking to his feet in a blur, "some kind of rope. Is this the kind of thing they take canaries along for? I feel like it might be..."
Abe was on a cusp, and it made him feel heavy in his shoes. He made a snap decision to turn around and say the first words that came to mind,
"Okay, you have your fun diving into the bottom of a bottomless pit. I'm sure the rocks down there will be oh-so-fascinating. And it will just be rocks."
There it was. More words out in the real world, words Abe felt powerful in throwing out but wasn't strong enough to take back. He walked away, heading out of the cave. It wasn't the first time he had stomped off and left Avi in the dark, contemplating whatever goes on in his head, but it was the first time this happened as he did:
"Wait, Abe." Avi called to him, running to catch up, "Are you really leaving?"
Abe gave him an aggravated glare, "Yeah, professor, I'm really leaving."
"But we're so close to finding-"
"Finding what? We've been at it for two weeks, and all we've found is more cave."
Avi was visibly hurt, turning his voice pleading, "B-but this cave alone is wondrous... It's so intricate, so unexplored, this is everything people like us could want!"
"'People like us'?"
"You know, explorers! People with the spirit of adventure!"
Abe let out a sigh. He had been making an effort to sound as frustrated as possible with every word of the exchange in an attempt to communicate the intensity of his feelings. But when Avi tried to evoke some kinship between them, to grotesquely join Abe's rationale and Avi's childish meandering, Abe's tone suddenly dropped far deeper than it ever could with conscious effort. He growled,
"You squandered that spirit on two hundred yards of cave leading to nowhere. It's not amazing, Avi, not everything can be. Goodbye."
There was a special pit of sadness in Abe's stomach as he drove home. The Vipassana Caves were some ways out from civilization, surrounded by thick forests that swayed slowly and powerfully in the wind, and requiring a trek over a dirt road followed by a long drive on the highway to reach. It was a lot of time and a lot of space, giving more room for deep thought than Abe had ever been given at the university.
The University was a sterile series of structures, an efficient campus of perfectly perpendicular roads bordered and separated by flat, undecorated islands of grass and concrete. Abe drove through the archway that indicated the beginning of the campus proper, its stoney twin pillars each adorned with the silver-over-black school sigil of a book with a single half-blinking eye on it. He recalled the day he first arrived on this campus; it was the middle of spring, with the sun beaming above, trees and flowers in bloom, and birds and insects conversing so noisily as to be heard for miles. Outside the campus it was at least. It could've been the cloudiest, grayest and most deathly quiet day Abe had ever lived outside the campus and it still would've been more lively than the atmosphere within.
On that day, Abe had a mission. He was determined to meet the Dean, to make an impression on him and communicate his enthusiasm for the coming years. At the time, maintaining a youthful, energetic confidence was important to him, as he felt it set him apart from the crowd. Abe had set up a meeting and waited for a half hour in the refrigerator-cold lobby of the Dean's building. Out of respect, he didn't lay a hand on his phone or move from his chair, counting on every minute to be the last before the Dean opened the door and welcomed him in. This time was spent sitting across from a Norman Rockwell painting, his "Peace Corps" piece on President Kennedy's legacy. To Abe though, who only recognized the man at the top, it was a random assortment of expressionless faces.
The Dean had no secretary, and no secretary and kept all his appointments himself. This made the appointment very hard to get in the first place, but added with it a sense of exclusivity, an aura of importance that had Abe's stomach churning between determined fearlessness and hopeless anxiety. All of this boiling up in his throat, until the moment they were cut off by the voice of the Dean,
"Abe, is it? I'm ready for you. Come inside and let's talk."
Everything inside Abe went as cold as his surroundings. But he got a grip and told himself,
"No, this is good. Just remain cool, remain rational. You don't wanna say anything stupid now."
Abe opened the door into the Dean's room and was immediately swallowed into it. There was an ever-so-slight slope to the floor of the room, no more than one degree but still no less present, causing Abe to drop for a brief, sudden moment after taking his first step in. Abe was sure the Dean knew about it- after all, how could he not- but remained confused as to why it was there. Obviously it could've simply been a design oversight, yet this possibility seemed improbable to the haplessly intimidated student, and so he assumed that the Dean was trying to preemptively throw him off his "game", never questioning what that "game" was or why it must be played with the man in charge as his adversary.
The Dean himself was much more relaxed than the coldness of his chambers let him on to be, though by no means slouched. He had no social hang-ups with sitting with his back perfectly straightened against the cushion of his chair and a glass of scotch within arms reach on his desk. Abe sat down across from the Dean and watched him take a small sip of the red liquid, sizing the old-but-not-quite-elderly man up as he waited to see which of them was meant to speak first. The Dean took one look at Abe and turned his head away, grumbling,
"Relax, Abe. You look ready to get up and fight. You don't need to do battle with me to convince me that you want to be here."
The comment confused and worried Abe, which ended up putting him even more on edge. Was the Dean trying to disarm him? Lull him? Trick him? It was the logic-loop of the insecure young man, that any intention towards peace made by someone in power must be a trick, perhaps even the trapdoor that has kept bigger personalities from challenging them. Abe took in a breath and said,
"I am relaxed, sir."
The Dean looked back at him with two unenergetically doubting eyes, then took another sip of scotch before saying,
"If you insist. So tell me Abe, why did you have me arrange this meeting? And be straight with me. You've already been accepted into the university, I see no reason why we should..." the Dean took this moment to sigh as he contemplated the futility of saying this to the subject who say before him, "...act so stiff and proper around each other."
Abe examined the Dean's expression. Abe asked,
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there's nothing to lose here. You're not gonna throw away the chance at some higher honors by slighting me, or even pretending like I don't exist. This is a place of learning, Abe. So forget the pomp and just worry about expanding your horizons."
Abe began to let out a breath. Just as quickly as he was ready to defend himself, he felt remorseful, like he had insulted the Dean by even thinking that he would be so petty. He laughed,
"Oh God, I feel silly..."
"I mean, I was expecting to have to kiss your ring, fetch your slippers, the whole nine yards just to get a good professor."
"Bah, not here, though I'm sure there are places like that."
"Sorry for coming in all defenses-up."
"Oh never mind that. Fancy some scotch?"
And as quick as a whip, Abe was drinking amber scotch out of the Dean's cup. He closed his eyes and let the smooth grain flow into him, unhinging ever apprehensive muscle he was made of. Abe didn't drink it all, but he certainly helped himself. He came up for air beaming with confidence, delighted to find his expectations turned halfway around and upside down with just this one meeting. Except that was not what he found. Across from him was the Dean, but without the scotch glass the man's hands clasped together sinisterly, and his face seemed to have an extra ten pounds and twenty years dragging it down. There was a cold chill all over Abe's body, like he had felt when he glided through the economically lifeless campus, but amplified by ten, as the icy domain above was nothing compared to its stoic ruler.
"Is it possible that you can both meet my expectations and disappoint me at the same time, Abe?"
Abe set the scotch glass down and averted his eyes from the Dean's stare. He wasn't trying to hide the terror he felt for his future from the Dean, instead focusing on keeping the scotch from being thrown up, as he suspected the old man had quite an inkling of the effect his trick had on a young man's innards.
"Your application indicates you are about twenty years old about now, correct? Did you think of that when you drank that alcohol, Abe?"
Abe mumbled at his hands in his lap, "No, sir," completely defeated.
"I thought not. It's the curse of youth, to believe one's actions above examination. Because if it pleases you, then who cares what the consequences are? Isn't that right?"
The question was worded to be difficult to answer. Abe was still on point enough to realize though that it wasn't a yes-or-no question. He responded,
"We should always think about the consequences."
The Dean nodded. If he was pleased with the effect his treacherous temperament had, he kept it hidden. The Dean dragged the scotch back across the table and took another drink, after which he let a long silence hang between them as he contemplated his next words. The process took long enough that Abe found the courage to raise his head and look at the Dean as the gears in the old man's head turned. The image of the Dean in this state etched itself into Abe's mind, against his will though fully aware, his body prepared to remember the face of this man for as long as it took to return him for this cruelty. Finally, the Dean found the words,
"There were one-hundred and twenty rapes reported in the year before I took over this institution, Abe."
These words certainly struck Abe outright, but not with the same chill as before. He was not inclined to hide so quickly from this statement, nervous as it made him. The Dean continued,
"One in three rapes get reported, so that means that there could've been as many as three-hundred and sixty rapes in actuality that year. That's almost a rape per day. Per day, Abe. And I only found out once I was given this job. Students, children, like you, they come here expecting to be given tools to utilize their intellect in a profession. That's what a university is, isn't it? That's what it's supposed to be."
The Dean's eyes were no longer on Abe, but on some far-off memory that seemed to have manifested slightly to the side of Abe, completely invisible to him. The Dean gripped his glass and took another, longer drink and said,
"It should not be a place where one child a day is raped, nor should it be a place where one other child is allowed to rape without consequence. And it will not be so long as I am Dean." He took a ragged breath and stood up, "Come with me, Abe, I want to show you something."
The Dean placed the glass on the desk and stomped powerfully over to a far wall. Abe was quick to follow, whereupon the Dean opened a wide drawer. It was four feet across and so long that the pair had to take several steps back to allow the drawer to fully extricate itself. Once it did, another painting bore itself before Abe, one far more gruesome than the comparatively quaint Norman Rockwell piece outside.
"It is Ivan the Terrible, a piece by Ilya Repin. At a dinner one night, he complained to his son and heir that the wife was dressed too provocatively. The son defended his wife, naturally, and in a rage, Ivan beat the boy with his cane. Only after did he realize what he was doing. Do you see the revelation in his eyes? Look at them, Abe. Look at them. He acted without thinking, Abe. This is what such behavior truly looks like, without the filter of youth to excuse it. The university has not been the same since I allowed knowledge of the frequency of sexual assault on campus to go public. Everybody lives in fear, thinking I won't allow the slightest bit of fun to be had. Good. I will not excuse behavior such as this, not every day for a year, not any day, and not from anyone. Do you understand, child?"
It was impossible to hate him, but just as impossible to like him. Abe drove past the Dean's building silently on his way to the dorms, considering how he would condemn Avi in the eyes of the older man. Such thoughts were horribly tiring though, and it was well after time for dinner. Abe appraised his slightly inconvenient hunger to be a blessed, insurmountable obstacle in the way of making eye contact with the Dean and decided to worry about such a meeting the next day.