PG-13 for war violence

The cave looked hungry, as if it was a great gaping mouth that craved little girls the way Lina craved chocolate. The walls were slick with greenish, oozing slime and the ceiling was only a foot or two above the surface of the river.

Nicholas perched on a rock just outside the cave’s mouth, barefoot. His pants were wet to the knee and too short, since he grew too fast for his clothing ration.

Lina sat next to him, also barefoot, legs dangling in the water.

Nicholas got to his feet in one smooth motion, balancing on the wet rock with an ease that comes only from years of scampering in and around rivers. “Ready, Lina?”

Lina shook her head, glancing quickly at the cave and then looking away.

“We’ll be late for tea,” Nicholas said, sitting back down.

Lina frowned at him. That cave was staring at them, eying them like a starving man, and here Nicholas was worried about his tea.

“You won’t get stuck,” Nicholas said. “I swear.”

“Grandmother says not to,” Lina said primly. “And anyway, how do you know? Maybe it’s got teeth to snag us with.”

Nicholas raised one eyebrow. “She also says not to end sentences with prepositions.”

Lina glared. “Teeth with which to snag us.”

“We go through the cave and come out the other side. That’s all. Trust me.”

Nicholas slipped off the rock into the river, standing with the water past his waist. He held out his hands to Lina.

Lina looked down at his hands. They were large and strong, summer-tanned and glistening wetly. She looked at the cave, ugly and leering. Her chest tightened.

“Lina?”

Lina took Nicholas’s hands and let him pull her into the water with a splash that wetted the ends of her pigtails. The riverbed pebbles under her feet were cold and smooth, like the water. The water felt thin, and slightly warmed by the sun.

Then there was the cave. It loomed suddenly in front of her, much larger now from her vantage point in the river rather than on the rock.

Nicholas stepped forward, into the cave, and Lina stumbled after him on stiff legs.

Nicholas hunched over in the cave, knees bent and shoulders stooped, his mop of curly hair brushing the disgusting slickness layering the cave ceiling. The rock overhead seemed to be shrinking, as if in another minute it would come down to meet the water or the water would rise to meet the rock, and that would be the end. Death by cave was just as dead as death by high explosive bomb.

“It’s going to eat you,” Lina whispered. Her voice echoed in the cave, bouncing off the walls and repeating her last words. Eat you, eat you, eat you, the cave walls told her.

Nicholas laughed. His laugh bounced off the walls, too, and became something scarier, something darker and deeper and older. The laugh of a child-eater, maybe. “No it won’t.”

“Then you’ll be killed anyway,” Lina said. “By the bullets, and the bombs.”

Nicholas didn’t laugh at that. “I won’t be.”

“That’s what Daddy said in his final letter.” Lina didn’t really remember Daddy, because he had been fighting in the RAF since she was five. But still, there was a difference between a daddy who wrote you a letter every week and a daddy who never wrote you anything at all.

Nicholas looked at Lina for a long moment, and Lina had a sudden terror of him walking out through the cave and dying. Just walking out and perhaps running into a Panzer, and getting blown into little bits and pieces. His leg in the river, his arm up on the bank, and perhaps his eye lodged in a tree, blasted into a jigsaw puzzle like Uncle Matthew.

Cold water dripped onto Lina’s head from the cave ceiling. The river water didn’t feel thin, anymore, just clammy.

“Lina,” Nicholas said, getting down on his knees in the river so that his eyes were level with Lina’s. The water lapped up around his shoulders and neck, wetting his collar. “If I di—don’t come back, if tomorrow is the last time you see me, do you want to spend our last day afraid of a little cave that’s just rock and water?”

“Are you afraid of the Nazis, Nicholas?”

Nicholas shook his head firmly. “No. Are you afraid of the cave?”

Lina put her hand up against the side of the cave. The rock was wet and cool beneath her fingers. Just like the river. “No,” she said.

Nicholas gave her a crooked grin, and again offered his hand. Lina put her little hand inside his large one and waded with him through cave. Quartz embedded in the cave ceiling sparkled and twinkled as they caught in the sunlight reflected off the water.

“Look, Nicky,” Lina said, “it’s like the stars.”

Nicholas reached up and ran his fingers over the ceiling. A piece of quartz broke off, and Nicholas grinned.

“Here,” he said, and handed it to Lina. Lina held it tightly in her other hand and then suddenly they were out, standing in the river with the late afternoon sun bearing down on them. Lina looked back toward the cave. Shadow fell over its mouth, softening its lines and angles.

Then Nicholas and Lina dashed back home with wet clothes clinging to their legs, and gathered up their shoes and socks behind the garden, so as not to be late for tea.

The London-bound train left at ten past noon the next day, with Nicholas on board.

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