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 named Callie behind the ice cream shop after school. 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 and licked 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 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. He was new to the school, like I was, and wandered around the halls after class looking for a place to fit in. Mother always told me not to give food to strangers. They’ll only end up hurting you, or worse, she warned.
Back in the cave, the guide explains that there hasn’t been a diamond found in years; yet tourists frequently take piles of dirt home with them, even though it’s very unlikely that they’ll discover anything. His voice echoes. It’s a lottery with only losers. Matthew takes home a pile of dirt; the rest of us don’t bother.
In the end, Matthew was just like the others. He doesn’t tear up when a dog dies in a movie. He dresses like the jocks – basketball shoes, muscle shirts, and Nike shorts – and tries to imitate their slang, puffing out his chest to make his tiny frame look bigger. Usually our lunch table is filled with empty chairs, and only whispers of our once-endless conversations remain, begging to be remembered. When I told him at our bus stop on a cold Monday morning that I was going to leave, possibly forever, Matthew merely shrugged. There were bags under his eyes. Doesn’t matter.
Now, I like walking to the park near our new home and sitting on the old swing set, facing the setting sun. I close my eyes and try to imagine all the kids who sat here before me, swinging as high as they could to see if they could 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 to bring 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 off. It’s not your fault, I tell her. My voice echoes. It’s kind of like a lottery.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.