“’Course, I’m teasing you: there is no weather, underground. There are no hurricanes, cyclones, or typhoons, underground. There are no blizzards, no snowstorms, no freezing-rain. There’s no hail, no sudden cloud-banks piling upward, with lightning that stretches like skeletons into the dark sky, and cracks of thunder, like a whip, or like the entire earth was a stomach, gurgling. No sudden winds, no tornadoes. Underground, in a cave, the temperature is constant. It feels cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Here, it’s 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Day and night.
“Well, almost no weather: There is a faint breeze, it comes over the shoulder, like a whisper, and seems to flow past, no matter which way you turn. If the water dries out, above, the ceiling will stop dripping, the walls won’t sweat, and if the vents get stopped up, or new ones open, that can change things, too. Or if this had been a walk-in cave, where they’ve widened the entrance so people can come straight in, without stooping, and even push baby strollers in, that changes things. The heat will rise out of the cave, make the upper layers cold. Then, the outside weather will pour relentlessly in.
“Guess it might be why I took to the cave. I mean, liked it so much. Like ancient people did. A cave may be dark, and the rocks may stab downward like giant teeth, and raise up, claws, and cast scary shadows that slip past you, get at you a little. But that’s all. And then you get to feel secure, the cave is solid. It bears up to the weight of the ground piled above it, without a thought. And it bears up your tiny human body strolling in its tunnels, and comforts even in the greatest open hall. Imagine, trying to stand up to the weather in a little house, made of wood.
“Up above, it might seem reasonable, a house sturdy, at least until the winds come. Down in the strength of the cave, the idea is revealed foolish. Two-by-fours might as well be toothpicks, and the great sky a little child stomping them or smashing with a fat, tiny fist. It’s weather that brought me here, to this cave, you know.
“Not in the literal sense, but the tornado may as well have picked me up and put me here. What it did is take Momma and Daddy, whoosh out of the house, and took the house too. They found the bodies, and parts of the house hundreds of yards away.
“Before I learned science, I thought that I had just prayed too hard. Or that for God, maybe His actions weren’t so precise, you know. I’d wished Daddy gone, prayed so hard, so long. Of course, there is no God.
“I had an aunt, she was a half-sister to my mom, and in another state. So that’s where I was shuttled off. She lived in a squat white house with a pale tin roof, in a lot of thicket and crab-apple trees, in a light-green clearing, in some young woods that clung to the soil thirty to a hundred-feet above this here cave. Except she had gone and left. I guess I was to live there with her mom. Maybe nobody cared.
“She was no relation to me, but she wouldn’t have known if she was. She sat in the corner, and rocked a bit, and every morning asked who I was, and I would remind her, that I was her daughter’s half-sister’s son, and my name was Lamar.
“‘Hello,’ she would say. ‘Nice to have some company.’ She was okay, I suppose. You know she’d get up and shuffle to the door, lean a bit, and then make it out, to her big Cadillac. Disappear for a while. Maybe an hour? Hard to tell. Come back with groceries, get them to the table, then that blank look, and back to the chair.
“So I’d unpack the groceries. There was usually enough for both of us, mostly stuff you could heat on the stove.
“I slept on the couch, under three or four layers of blanket I found. Brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink. One day a school bus stopped out front, so I got in. I liked school. Did pretty well. A few times teachers asked why I didn’t have a notebook, or pencils, or anything. Said I forgot. One gave me a whole pack of things. People are pretty nice, you know.
“We went here to the cave, for a school trip that year. You know the entrance was just at the top of the hill from the house, and I never knew!
“Well, anyways, I took to the cave. And used to walk up the hill on my own, so they got to know me. ‘Hey, Lamar!’ they’d say. And I’d say ‘Hey’ back. Wander through the gift shop looking at the rocks in the bins, geodes, you know, that rough dark surface with the glittering cities of crystal hidden within.
“‘Why don’t you take a tour?’ they asked. Of course the fee was pretty steep. A few of the guides used to take me down with groups, pretending I had a ticket, so not to make people mad, who’d paid. A few times, though, Mr. Kinder, you know he’s really very nice, but he shooed me off, and got into something of a fight with Carol, I didn’t stay past the first sharp words. I knew I couldn’t be hanging around there…
“Try to stop me though. ‘You’re drawn to the cave,’ he said. It was the summer I turned 14. ‘I understand. When my dad bought this place,’ he shook his head. ‘But.’ That was all he said. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Come in to my office.’ I was pretty nervous. But it turned out he was offering me a job!
“I had to get my working papers. But I could be a guide. First I’d help Riley take groups through the short tour. But maybe I could lead a few tours on my own. Mr. Kinder smiled, but it was kind of like a grimace. Maybe it’s just how big he was, and his side teeth which were sharp like a dog’s. He almost filled the desk, and crouched in this chair in front of it.
“Too happy to speak, I guess, ’cause I sat there dumb.
“‘You’re going to love it,’ he said. ‘But hey, don’t you close your eyes down there, now, or people might not see you.’ He laughed from his belly, ‘Heh, heh, heh.’
“I don’t know what he meant by that. Do you?
“Then, ‘Here,’ he said, and reaching into a drawer, tossed something at me. It was a tube of Speed Stick deodorant. ‘You should probably use this.’ I clutched the thing, and ran out of there. But I knew I needed deodorant, now that I am turning into a man. Was just trying to figure out how to get it.”
Lamar closed his mouth for a bit from the talking, and peering down through the impenetrable darkness, thought he saw Erin sleeping, but he knew he only imagined her face, and intuited that she was sleeping from the sound of her breath, and how she had settled in to his lap. He had never spoken to anyone so long, and so personally, and so fluently. He had only meant to fill the silence, after Chad had stopped groaning, somewhere, below. Perhaps she had been asleep the whole time. When Chad slipped off the ledge, Erin had shrieked piercingly. She screamed, and then fell as though insensible into Lamar. He braced against the rock wall, and then slid into a sitting position, with Erin tense, and hyperventilating in his lap. Chad had screamed too, then groaned, then stopped.
The light from the flashlight Chad had held had ripped across the cavern, and went out the second it hit the ground. And now there was only absolute darkness.
Lamar was glad that Erin probably hadn’t heard the bit about the deodorant.
He put his hand on her hair, which was surprisingly coarse. He had imagined her feeling soft, like a cat.
“Everything is going to be alright,” he said. And then he closed his eyes, and was lulled to sleep by her breathing.
A Monday, in June, there is a scattering of tourists milling in the foyer. Recently Mr. Kinder added a Zoltar machine, which lit up and spit out your fortune on a ticket, and one of those machines that take a penny and flatten it with a design, to get people to come closer to the gift shop entrance, and to see the banquet hall sign. It was these kinds of changes, and he had more planned, he said would fix the balance sheet on this place. Mr. Kinder was in his office, watching the various cameras and taking notes. You have to say “Hi” to the customers as soon as they step into the gift shop. Stand upright and point your body towards things you know they might like. Subconscious cues. Don’t try to sell something to people right away, get a feel for what they want, then only swoop in if they seem to need help to decide. Put the rock candy out in front, right by the checkout.
He put a fake fire in the fireplace, with the log and the gas jets. The fireplace was a big stone affair, but the chimney was completely clogged, and anyway, it was not practical to keep a fire burning. We were approaching the 21st century, you see. He had some aged pine beams put in overhead, though they were not structurally needed. And a big Afghan rug, genuine. As if it were a lodge. At 10 am, the first tour opened, which he had Susan announce on the loudspeaker, though all the ticket-holders were already milling in front of the sign. (There is the air of professionalism to consider.) At his desk, Mr. Kinder had folders with various plans. Cottages for up from the main building, and a zip-line. A big pool, and a water-slide.
In the antechamber, which led to the elevators that sank a hundred feet down, to the cave, there were some black and white photos, and a diorama of the landscape, which was pretty out of date, having been a project of the local historical society maybe forty years ago. Still, it held a strange attraction for people so that even Mr. Kinder was reluctant to discard it. On the sloping, terraced green some plastic cows circled around a small opening by some sponges painted to look like bushes, where cool air vented from the cave. (Incidentally, this was how the cave had, originally, been discovered.)
Somewhat obliviously, off to one side, a small die-cast farmer on a tractor puffed away on a cigarette, which had been painted bright white, with no filter.
“We should do something about the cigarette,” said Mr. Kinder, “you know, for the kids.”
Here would be some animatronics, two robots, the salesman had been last week, showed some videos and talked over the script. Some of the guides were against it, but Mr. Kinder told them it would make their jobs easier. No longer having to tell the whole story, now you’d just press a button, and the story of the cave would come to life in the voices of its discoverer and the man who popularized it. In truth, the guides weren’t reliable in terms of the quality, and if there’s one important thing for a growing business, it’s consistency.
Mr. Kinder felt his forehead, and his hand came away slick. It was too hot in his office. He made a note to get the air conditioning looked at. Elsewhere was still fine. He looked at the guests on the screen.
There was the couple from Pennsylvania, with two sons, one of them was exceptionally tall, tourists. They all had on sweatshirts with funny slogans. The tallest boy had one with the letters “FBI” and an asterisk, below it said “Female Body Inspector.” There was an older man, who looked off one way and then the next, as if lost, and finally struck up a conversation with the father. He had been through Pennsylvania and stopped at “most” of the caves. Now he was curious about the caves here. Another tourist. Right as the last call came, two teens came laughing through the door. Chad and Emily, locals. She was 15, but he could drive. It was sweltering outside, and he had through to go down in the cave, and kiss in the shadows. And stand on the backlit lucite heart, which had been installed in the cave in a little chamber called the chapel.
The tall boy suddenly shrieked. It was a cry of bottomless horror. His mouth, half-open, a little black tunnel, his eyes, which had peered intelligently left and right, now were vacant like the eyes of the taxidermied buck in the hall. The shriek died in his mouth as his mother put her hand on his shoulder. His living eyes came back. Everyone turned their faces one way and the next, as if you could hold someone’s hand just by looking at them. No one said anything, and Riley beckoned everyone in to the antechamber, and began to tell the story of the cave, in his rehearsed, showy voice.
Lamar stood in the back, shifting on his feet, nervous about his first day, even only as an assistant guide. His job was to lead the group to the elevators when Riley had finished. “This way,” he said. He split them evenly into both elevators, and then he and Riley stepped into their respective ones. The elevator took a few minutes to get to the bottom, and in Lamar’s elevator, the walls seemed too close. As the rock face tumbled by the frosted glass of the elevator window, Lamar thought about Erin. She had been wrapped up with Chad, tall, handsome, about to be a Junior. Lamar didn’t think she recognized him. He put her in the other elevator, just in case.
Erin had thick blond hair, and something about the shape of her mouth and her smell which filled the air around her, had aroused Lamar for what felt like the first time last year, and in class after class he felt like he was unable to escape her. But it all felt foolish. He didn’t even want to look down for fear that something was stirring. He nonchalantly untucked his shirt. At least the light would be dim, soon. A blinding shriek shook everyone in the car. The tall boy had yelled again. This time the shriek trembled out longer, trailing off to a whimper. Some whispering noises from the family, some unheard soothing words. Then the doors opened, with a cool blast, and then the enveloping air underground, a pleasant reprieve from the closeness of the elevator. Everyone gathered in the atrium, a tall room dynamite had carved into a hall the shape of a chamber of the heart.
Riley began, again to talk.
As they moved through the cave, over a walkway with railing that had been put in, water trickled by in a low stream, and bare bulbs half-silvered, cast illumination up onto the walls, or down into the water, over the solid, sheening ripples of stone the drippings from above made. Chad touched the rock, where he shouldn’t have, though a thousand thousand other fingers had, in a notch of some flat stone that had fallen to make a low bridge the tallest had to stoop under. From time to time Lamar traced the cone of his flashlight to highlight a particular feature (“here is the leaning tower, not less magnificent than the one in Italy, eh, and we call this one the bat, why? Watch the shadow fly across the wall.”)
Lamar mouthed the words to himself, convinced he could repeat them after just a few times, though despairing of Riley’s easy manner. Halfway along the low route, which was really a quarter of the tour, they stopped in a large natural room down one entire side of which the ribs of the earth seemed to intertwine. It was called the cathedral, and a floodlight from the ceiling cast three separate colors down the grill of limestone, a blood red, fading into yellow, which at its corner was washed into sickening depths of blue. Riley stepped in front, “You see why we call this the cathedral!” His hair flared in the direct light, fire, while his shadow crept behind him, with the life of an independent being.
After a few minutes of talk, Carol came down from the staircase that came from high-road, where she had been sitting with her flashlight and a book on a camp chair. She rubbed her behind with one hand and slapped Lamar on his ass with the other, gently. No one was watching. She whispered, “You should ditch these sheep and uh, hang with me.” Before Lamar, whose cheeks felt like fire, could reply, she had taken up position behind a camera.
Riley told the groups to get together for photos they could, but were not required, to buy upstairs. It took a while to get everyone organized, and Carol took a few shots of each, ending with Erin and Chad, who waited until the last second then Frenched for the camera, before jogging off after the rest of the group around the bend. Lamar looked back at Carol as he followed, and she winked, and then looking to Chad, she made a cupping motion with her hand towards his rear, and looking to Erin, made a gesture with her hand and her tongue, which Lamar did not understand. “Jeez,” he said, leaving.
The cave curved around tightly for a bit, then opened. In the distance, the sound of a waterfall grew louder, it wasn’t a high falls, but the small stream had grown into something navigable by flat bottomed boats thanks to a dam, and the middle part of the tour was done in the boats, which an earlier owner had felt, truly, made the experience more dramatic (and upped the ticket charge). At the “dock,” Riley started to board people, then said “Shit,” and got Lamar over.
“Weren’t you watching in the back?” he said.
“Those two kids are gone.” Lamar looked around. Riley was right.
“Chad and Erin,” Lamar said.
“Whatever,” said Riley, “they can’t be wandering around alone. Head back, there’s only a few places they could have gone to, and when you’ve found them, take those idiots back to Carol, and I’ll meet you on the way back.”
The water made blooping noises as people stepped into the boat, which echoed back through the low cavern. Lamar wandered back, his first time completely alone in the cave. He walked slowly, feeling a deep sense of exaltation. Everything about the cave, without other people, was lovely to him. The silence except for himself, which above ground oppressed, here was liberating. He stopped to look down at the water, clear, fresh, flowing. He wondered what lived in it, whether deeper there were those blind, albino crustaceans, pale indifferent fish free of predation,— he remembered his purpose. He suddenly thought he caught Erin’s scent. He started to jog along.
There was a passageway near, which led up by a back route to the “chapel” where the glowing heart was. Lamar reckoned this was their most likely deviation, and followed it. He began to go faster, until he emerged, and found them. Chad was kissing her neck, and had one of his hands over her shirt, on her breast. Lamar turned away, but by they saw him, and for a second they stayed together, before separating.
Lamar said, “Hey—” and then everything seemed to loosen in him, in the earth, all at once.
When the rolling of the ceiling and the ground stopped, and the noise had gone and everything, there they were, all three still in one piece. Except two passages had collapsed completely, and a third, which had been small, now opened tall enough to crouch through to a passage on the other side, although there were stones fallen everywhere. Lamar had a cut on his cheek, which showed bright red. The heart had a huge crack in it. Then the light in the heart, which was the only one left, flickered, and was gone.
Lamar pulled out his flashlight. Chad was crouched and something, perspiration, tears, on his face was wet, and the rest was coated with dust.
“We have to get out of here,” Chad said. He came at Lamar, growing brighter, while his shadow splashed over the way out. He snatched the flashlight, and grabbed Erin. “Come on,” he said. Lamar followed the two of them, it was the only thing to do. It looked like the worst of the damage was behind them, and that, going forward, things were more calm. Lamar wondered how long the flashlight would last them.
They went for an hour, along the only path they could take. Chad pushed on, natural that he should lead. Then on a ledge in a large cavern, two dozen feet above a sloping ground that bristled with thousands of stalagmites, he slipped, almost soundlessly. Until the landing from which Lamar had looked away.
Asleep, he had dreamed of the way out.
On the map he’d long studied, which showed the entire cave network, not just the part for tourists that Mr. Kinder owned, but a rootlike weaving, one long arm branched out, bulging and then fingering off into a few passages, the last of which curved almost up to the side of a rough quarry which had carved away the hill for limestone blocks, where in one spot the cave was so close to the ground that some entranceways had been marked out and blocked. They could crouch around the side of this chamber, then crawl along the last of the way without any danger at all. When they got to the exit, the blue sky would poke through some boards, and Lamar would see the light on Erin’s face. Then they would push the boards out, together, and fall into a green patch. Was it morning? It would be impossibly bright.
Lamar opened his eyes, or wondered if he had.
“I know how to get us out!” he said.
Benjamin Harnett, born 1981 in Cooperstown, NY, is a fiction writer, poet, historian, and digital engineer. His essays, poems, translations, and short stories have appeared in Brooklyn Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Wag’s Revue, the Columbia Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Dead King Magazine, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He holds an MA in Classics from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Toni, and their pets. In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. He currently works at The New York Times.