Start with light. Headlights, flashlights. Eight total, their beams dancing off the walls of the cavern. It's dark, like the coffee my father used to take to work every morning. We’re not necessarily searching for anything, just admiring how desolate the place is. It’s millions of years old, the guide tells us, and these stalactites have been dripping water for nearly half that time. What’s a stalactite, I whisper to Matthew. Doesn’t matter, he replies. He's gazing at the water, pooling on the ground near his shoe.
Matthew. He’s short and brown but has that silly glint in his eyes, like everything he sees and thinks and smells is funny. Last week he bragged that he’d kissed a girl behind the ice cream shop after school. Callie, he says. He says her lips tasted like cherries, and all he had to do was finish her homework for Mrs. Brill’s class. But we’re only twelve, I told him. Doesn’t matter, he replied. He licks his lips. Earlier, when the tour guide asked if he wanted a headlight or flashlight, Matthew demanded both. Everyone else chose the flashlight. When I gave my headlight to Matthew, he stared at the cavern floor and said nothing.
The guide claims that there are diamonds here. Excavations in this place has failed over the past couple of decades when the price of mining exceeded the value of the diamonds recovered. Now, it’s just a tourist attraction. We’re even allowed to search for diamonds ourselves, and we can keep whatever we find. In the darkness, I see the glint return to Matthew’s eyes. I smile.
A couple years ago, I found him alone in the lunchroom without anything to eat. Sure, maybe all I was to him was a free sandwich and someone to talk to. But he seemed grateful enough. He was new to the school, like I was, and wanders around the halls after class looking for a place to fit in. But Mother always told me not to give food to strangers. They’ll only end up hurting you, or worse, she warned.
There hasn’t been a significant find in years; the last time a diamond was unearthed here was more than a year ago. Yet the tourists frequently take piles of dirt home with them, the guide explains, even though it’s very unlikely that they’ll find anything. His voice echoes. It’s a lottery with only losers. Matthew took home a pile of dirt; the rest of us didn't bother to.
In the end, Matthew was just like the others. He doesn't tear up when a dog dies in a movie. He dresses up like the jocks, basketball shoes and muscle shirts and Nike shorts, and tries to imitate their slang, puffing out his chest to make his tiny frame look bigger. Often times our table at lunch is filled with empty chairs and only the whispers of our once endless conversations remain, begging to be remembered. When I told him I was going to leave, possibly forever, at our bus stop on a cold Monday morning, he merely shrugged. There were bags hanging under his eyes. Doesn’t matter.
Now, I like walking to the park near our new home and sitting on the decrepit swing set facing the setting sun. I close my eyes and try to imagine all the kids who sat here before I did, swinging as high as they could to see if they can make it all the way around the beam, deadening to a stop when they realized they couldn't. This is a new start for us, Mother tells me. She's been trying for years now, to bring forth another child into the world. She tells me she's sorry for being a horrible mom. That it's all her fault, that she feels like s*** when she doesn't hear laughter, only silence, when she returns from work every evening. There’s paint chipping off the swing set. I peel some of it off. It's not your fault, I tell her. My voice echoes. It's kind of like a lottery.