"It takes almost a thousand years for nature to grow a stalactite this size." The tour guide's voice echoes strangely from the high ceiling above us. "Some of the cave formations you're seeing are older than the pyramids in Egypt." She pauses to allow this fact to sink in. "Now, if you'll look to your right..."
Deep in the earth, we kept close to the uniformed Park Service guide, all nine of us. No one wanted to lag behind, no one wanted to risk getting lost. Not this far into the cave.
I didn't have a watch, but it didn't matter. My mom and my brother were in no hurry for me to return, comfortably enjoying their wait in the underground dining room, somewhere way above and way behind us.
"Go on the lower cavern tour? I don't think so, Danny... I've already done it. With your dad, years ago. Why don't you go have a good time, and I'll wait, okay?" Mom didn't like closed-in spaces. "Andy, do you want to go with Danny?"
"Is it dark down there?" asked my brother, all round-eyed. I shrugged. "They probably have electric lights and stuff." He looked at Mom. She nodded. "Danny's right. But the cave's smaller down there than up here near the entrance. And at the far end, they turn out all the lights for one minute." At the words turn out all the lights, Andy began shaking his head. "I don't wanna go." "Well, let's get some Cokes, and sit here and wait on Danny, then... Maybe we'll see what's in the gift shop while we're waiting." My brother's doleful mood brightened visibly. "Cool! Maybe they'll have..."
I tuned Mom's and Andy's voices down to a faraway buzz. It sounded interesting down there. Not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but interesting. Their loss if they didn't want to come. Besides, what could happen?
I left them sitting at the table under the rocky ceiling, went over to the ticket stand. "Is there room on the next tour?" "You bet, son. That'll be three dollars... Just wait over there. They'll be leaving in about five minutes."
I wandered over to the area he'd indicated. A small group of older men and women sat on the benches, quietly talking, obviously long-time friends, visiting here together. A mom in her twenties, and her little girl. And me. No other kids my age. Shoot. Oh, well. It's still gonna be pretty awesome to see all the cave stuff... like stalagtites and stalacnites... or whatever they're called...
I took a seat on the bench near the old folks. They were talking about RV travel, and how steep the grade was into Rocky Mountain National Park. Rocky Mountain National Park sounded interesting, but the RVs didn't. So I looked out across the room, toward the ticket stand.
That must be our tour guide, coming across the room toward the group, stopping to talk to another employee. And behind her, at the ticket stand, I saw someone else. A boy. My age. By himself. And he was buying a ticket.
Don't get your hopes up, Danny. He might not be buying a ticket for the cave tour at all. And if he is, he might be buying it for someone else, or maybe tickets for his whole family. And if he is buying one for himself, he might not be going on this tour. And if he is, he might be a jerk.
And even if he's cool, he might not be... well... you know. He probably isn't. Most boys aren't. I already learned that bitter lesson.
He finished paying, took his ticket, turned around.
Wow. He's cute. My heart beat a little faster.
He's leaving the stand, and he's not looking around for anyone else. He's coming this way. He's coming toward me. He's not looking at me, not right now; he's looking at the elevator entrance to my left. At the big overhead sign that says "Lower Cavern Tours - On the Hour."
Just don't get excited, Danny. You know better. Just keep your feelings to yourself.
He's looking ahead again. He's looking at me.
I looked away. I had to look away. He was so damn cute. And I was afraid my thoughts were going to show, like a road map all over my face.
He came over, sat down on the bench about six feet away, closer to the elevator. He wasn't looking at me now. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, just looking at the floor.
The tour guide finished her conversation with her co-worker, crossed the cave
floor to our group. She's got a clipboard now. "Okay, let's see... looks like
we've got nine signed up. I'll need to call the roll, because we can't risk
leaving anyone behind. Once we get to the lower level, we need to stick very
close together. Um... Ralph Andrews?"
"Here." One of the gray-haired RV guys.
He looks like Kenny. Same dark, almost-black hair. Same nose, upturned at the end. He's a little taller and thinner, and he doesn't have Kenny's earring. And anyway, Kenny's three hundred miles away. Too far away.
"...Josephine O'Malley?" "Here..."
He is sooo cute.
I snapped out of the daydream, abruptly. "Uhh... here."
The tour guide gave me a quick, slightly quizzical glance over the top of her clipboard before continuing. Did I look guilty?
"Here." His voice was low, quiet. Musical. To me, at least.
"Okay, good. Now, let me explain a few things. We're going down in an elevator. And there is an emergency generator, so don't worry about..."
Tyler. His name is Tyler.
Sneaking a glance. He's not looking at our guide, either. He's studying the floor, between us.
"...penalty for anyone who damages..."
Oh. He looked at me. Just now. I saw him glance over, and glance away.
"...stay together at all times..."
It probably doesn't mean anything. Maybe he was looking over my head, at the old folks. Or at the wall, or something.
"...feel faint at any time, or sick, please don't hesitate..."
He did it again. He looked at me. Longer than a glance.
"...large underground waterfall..."
It's probably nothing, Danny. Maybe your hair's sticking out funny. And he's not looking this way any more; he's looking at the opposite wall.
"...amazing colored light display..."
I shot another glance. Ohhh, he's cute.
"...at the end, we'll be turning the lights out for a minute, so you can experience the total blackness of an underground..."
You should be ashamed, Danny. He was just looking at the wall or something. Not at you. And you know how it is. He's probably got a girlfriend back home.
"...about 45 minutes altogether..."
Why am I ashamed? I don't know. Why should I feel ashamed? They don't feel ashamed, thinking that way about girls. Yeah... but I do, anyway. And ashamed of myself for feeling ashamed.
"Now, if you'll all stand up and form a line in front of the elevator, we're ready to go down. Let's see... uh, Tyler? Why don't you go first, since you're closest. Everyone else, get in line behind Tyler."
He stood up, not looking my way, turned, walked the few feet over to the steel doors. I was closest to him. No way to avoid lining up behind him. It would look funny if I deliberately went around and got behind everybody else. I went over to where he stood, stood behind him, a little to one side, not too close. I was still ashamed. I was afraid to look at him. So I concentrated on the elevator doors, waiting for them to open, looking at the shiny steel...
... and I realized that in that shiny steel, I could see his reflection, his face, his eyes...
...and that he was looking at me, at my reflection in the shiny steel.
The doors opened. He went inside, didn't look back or turn. I went in after him; and like you always do in an elevator, I stood over on the opposite side, turned to face forward (not looking at him as I turned), and let the rest of our group fill up the space between us. Our guide got on last, and the doors closed, and we dropped.
All that was about half an hour ago, maybe a little longer. Now, we were listening as our guide talked about the pyramids. She'd told us we would make our way to the far end of the lighted part of the cave, we'd see the waterfall, they'd turn the lights out for a minute, and then we'd head straight back to the elevator. The tour lasted 45 minutes, according to the schedule. We had to be near the end. I could hear the waterfall.
He hadn't looked at me again. Not once. He was ahead of me as we made our way, single file; and he didn't turn around. The 20-something mom and her little girl were between us. The little girl kept pointing and laughing and commenting on everything in the cave passageway, the stalactites and stalagmites (so those were the terms - I felt like a dummy) and the lights and the black side-passages where no tourists went. Between her flashing movements and her mom's steadier pace, I caught glimpses. His tan legs, his rounded butt inside his shorts, his big T-shirt that didn't hide his strong, graceful shoulderblades, the small strand of black hair that hung down the back of his neck like a question mark...
Now, the guide's finished with her pyramids comparison, and we walk under the low natural archway. The waterfall is louder. We go through a short tunnel, and emerge into a huge room - bigger than the upstairs dining room, where Mom and Andy were sipping their Cokes, far away, waiting. The waterfall cascades down the far wall, splashing over multicolored stone into a round pool. The Park Service has installed colored lights in the pool, underwater, and they reflect and shimmer in the moving water, against the white spray.
There's room for us to spread out, the first time since we came down here that we haven't been arrayed single-file. Our guide moves over near the pool's edge; we follow, bunching up. I find myself over on the right side of the group, half-facing the others. There's the old guy with the hearing aid... There's the little girl... Where is he?
"Caves like this one are formed by running water. So when you think about it, doesn't it makes sense that you'd find..." Our guide gestures at the cascading water. The colored lights are pretty. Everybody's listening.
"...dissolving the limestone..."
I don't see him, don't know where he is. Maybe he's behind me? It's the only place I can't see.
"...placing harmless dye in the water to trace the path..."
Yeah. He's behind me. I can tell. I don't know how I can tell, but I can tell. It's like radar, or something. Or like being in space, and feeling the heat of a star.
"...entire underground rivers..."
I could turn around, of course. But I don't want him to catch me looking.
"...fascinating geology. Don't you think?" Our guide points at a formation off to our right. We all turn our heads, following her gesture.
Corner of my eye. Yes, he's back there, behind me. And he's not even looking at the rocks. He's looking at me.
I'm so confused. He's probably not... you know... his girlfriend... So why is he looking? He is, though. I can tell. Heat of a star.
"Okay, if there are no questions, now we want to give you a little idea of what it's like to be in total darkness. Of course, you've all been in dark rooms, or outside at night. But those environments always have a little bit of light - maybe starlight, maybe even just a tiny bit of light that comes in under the crack in the door, if you're inside. But here, we're a mile underground. And all that rock above us is a pretty solid barrier. So, if you're ready, I'll count to three; and on 'three', I'll pull this switch, and you'll be in the most complete darkness of your entire lives. It might seem like a long time, but don't worry - it will only be one minute, exactly. At five seconds till, I'll count down to zero, and then the lights will come back on. Everybody ready? One... two... Three!"
And the lights go out.
Momentarily, I forget everything else. Wow. It is really black in here. I'm holding my hand up in front of my face, waving it around, and I can't see anything at all.
The waterfall is loud. Somebody coughs, invisible in the blackness. Somebody else shuffles his feet.
And then I feel a touch. On my upper arm. It's so light. The noise of the waterfall submerges my little gasp. And then I feel a fingertip, softly tracing the length of my spine, through my T-shirt, from my neck to my waist. And then I feel warm breath in the little hollow spot between my shoulder and my neck, and then his lips, there. And I feel his arms come around, circling my waist, squeezing me, so gently.
I'm so dizzy. I'm going to faint. No, I'm not. It just feels that way.
He's holding me. He's not letting go. He would, if I moved. I don't even dare breathe.
Her voice makes me jump. His right hand squeezes me, involuntarily. It made him jump, too.
Another squeeze. This one's deliberate. I find his hand, put mine over it.
For an instant, he's pressed up against my butt, now. Ohhhh.
And then, suddenly - nothing. He's let go. He's stepped back. He's gone.
He's gone. It was so quick.
And the lights go on.
It's not all at once; they bring the lights up slowly, so nobody gets blinded. But I'm blinking, like I've been dragged out of a dream into the sour everyday light.
"Well, I hope you enjoyed your little glimpse of cave-darkness. It's amazing what can happen when it's that dark, isn't it? Did any of you see things, like little pinpoint lights flashing? Those are the nerve cells in your retinas, firing randomly. Some people compare it to stars, twinkling in the sky..."
I'm afraid to turn around.
"Did anyone feel anything?... Sometimes, cave explorers who stay underground for long periods of time report that they feel sensations, like spiderwebs brushing their skin..."
So why be afraid, Danny? He wasn't. Why?
"Okay, it's time to head back. We won't be stopping along the way, so if you'll all line up again, single-file, we'll go straight back to the elevator." She turns, walks across the stone floor to my left, toward the tunnel entrance. The old folks follow. The mom and little girl are right in front of me again. I'm next to last. He's behind me.
Maybe it never happened. Maybe it wasn't him.
No. It was a boy. It was him. Tyler. His name is Tyler.
Our guide isn't wasting time. We're walking back at a steady pace. No time to linger. No time to drop back a little from the rest. Even if I wanted, even if I dared. I don't. But I can feel his eyes on me, the whole way back. He's not looking away from me now. I can tell. Heat.
We reach the elevator, still waiting for us, its doors open. We crowd in. I'm next to last. I turn to face the front, and he gets on, right next to me. He's not looking at me now at all. The doors close and we rise, swiftly, toward the upper cave.
I won't see him again. Ridiculous to even wonder. Stars, twinkling in the sky. Once in a lifetime, you might see a star explode, going nova, changing the heavens in fiery brilliance. If you're incredibly lucky. But a star only goes nova once.
The elevator's full. We're all bunched together - not quite touching, but close. Everybody's looking straight ahead. Like you always do on an elevator.
You never get a second chance to see a nova. Never.
A moment to swallow. Then I reach down in the dimness, find his hand, squeeze it, it's a soft squeeze, but I'm not letting go; and he's squeezing back.
As fleeting as a spiderweb. But it's fiery brilliant, inside me.
The elevator slows, stops. We let go. The doors open. He steps off, walks out into the big room, looking straight ahead, heads off toward the gift shop and the exit beyond. He doesn't look back. I get off after him, slowly, watching. His tan legs, his rounded butt, that small strand of black hair that hangs down the back of his neck like a question mark.
A bunch of middle-aged ladies walks across my line of vision, talking, in no hurry. And when they're out of the way, the corridor is empty. He's gone.
I head back to the dining room, slowly, not looking at anything in particular. What happens when a nova burns out? I can't remember.
Mom and Andy are sitting at the table where I'd left them, their Coke cups nearly empty. Andy jumps up when he sees me: "Hey, Danny! Was it cool? Did you get scared? Was it dark? What happened?" I just look at him. Mom speaks: "Andy, it's one of those things you just have to experience for yourself. Believe me. Danny can't possibly tell you what it's like... can you, Danny?"
I can't speak, just shake my head. The room looks blurry.
Mom stood up. "Well, let's go, you two. We haven't gone to the gift shop yet. We probably won't come back this way again. And I'd like to buy you both a souvenir, so later you can look back, and remember. It's so easy to forget."