The tiny light lit the room like a strobe. It bounced off the hundreds of hanging crystals and reflected around the room.
“Wow.” Barron couldn’t help the comment. He could just imagine how this must have appeared to an early American with torchlight. It was probably even more beautiful with the twining orange and yellow flames. Having the lights go out was pretty damn freaky, but no one else probably got to see the cave like they were in a long, long time.
Mr. Hodge walked through the students crowded together in tight clumps. The storage locker was just to the left of Barron’s group so they were second to receive their light. The teacher handed it to Thavin. “Here, son. Don’t point this up at the ceiling or directly at the crystal sheets, if you can avoid it. Don’t need to go blinding everyone.”
“O-okay.” Thavin flicked on the light. Barron could see the faces of his friends. They stayed in a tight clump, not holding on to each other anymore, but leaning close together. Soon the room was lit up, even brighter than when they’d first come in. Barron tried to keep his eyes down; not everyone was following Mr. Hodge’s directions.
There were more hurried whispers between their tour guide and teacher. Some of the students murmured to each other, and some of the girls were still crying. Barron just wanted to leave. He didn’t know why the lights had gone out, and he didn’t care. Maybe this would finally be the end of their school’s ridiculous routine of making students visit the caves every year.
“Okay, class, attention please.” Mr. Hodge waited for everyone to fall silent. “Mr. Brasher is going to lead us back out of the caves. This will take a while, if the lights have gone out through the entire system. Unfortunately, my reader is no longer working either. That means extra precautions. If someone gets lost we might not be able to find you.” Someone gasped, and one girl wailed. Her friends quickly hushed her, hugging her from both sides.
“Don’t panic!” Mr. Hodge said. “To ensure everyone gets out safely, we’re going to link ourselves in a chain.”
“So we’re all going to h-hold hands?” William asked. “Can we s-sing folk songs too?” His voice was shaky, but he was making jokes. A few guys chuckled.
“No, smartass, I want everyone to use one hand to hold on to the person in front’s shoulder but we will stop every ten minutes to do roll call. Anyone loses their grip, or feels the person behind them stop touching their shoulder, they are to call out. If you get separated, for any reason, do not move an inch. I will come back for you, even without the reader. Does everyone understand?”
Their chorus of yeses was loud compared to the quiet. The silence felt even more oppressive afterward. Mr. Hodge organized everyone into order, sending the guide down the hall a short ways until they could all manage to line up single file. The signal to walk forward or stop was a squeeze on the shoulder.
Ages came and went as they all shuffled out of the deep cave toward the entrance. Barron had no idea how Mr. Hodge was telling the time, but at regular intervals the squeeze came to stop and the teacher would call out the names of everyone in the senior class til they all responded. Barron was sweating through his thin t-shirt before they got back to the gate.
They’d stopped nearly twenty times.
The lights in the larger cavern weren’t on either. The formations and sculptures nature had formed out of the rock over the eons were invisible outside the tiny spheres of their lights. “From here forward there are branches and a lot of open caverns. It is imperative everyone stay together. I know you’re probably tired, hungry, and thirsty. Just be patient, and we’ll get out of here soon.”
The train of students stopped three times after that for people who tripped or lost their grip. At least their system was working, even if it was a slow assed system. They hadn’t lost anyone, and they were halfway to the mouth of the cave.
By the time they were near the mouth, his feet hurt and his hand and arm muscles had cramped. There was sweat dripping down his sides, even in the cool of the caves. “I gotta take a piss,” Creed said in Barron’s ear.
“Tough. Hold it. We’re old enough not to piss ourselves anymore, remember?”
“Ass.” Creed squeezed him. Barron fought the urge to shrug him off.
“We’ll be out soon, and you can use the bathrooms in the gift shop. Just stop whining.” Stiff upper lip and all that. Barron was never sure what that really meant, but like straighten up and fly right, it was another dictum that often echoed through his mind in his father’s voice.
Be a man.
Toe the line, and live up to the expectations placed on you, or else.
College really couldn’t come soon enough.
“Shouldn’t we hear someone by now?” Barron heard someone ahead of him ask.
The only one who knew where they really were was the guide. “I’m sure the cave mouth was evacuated and everyone grouped in a central location until whatever caused the electrical malfunction can be repaired. Don’t worry. One more cavern, and we’ll be out.” He spoke in an overly-hearty voice not nearly as confident as he seemed to think it was.
The mouth of the cave let enough light into the central cavern that the teens could let go of one another. Barron shrugged his shoulders and shook out his hands. The muscles tingled with small, fiery pins as they relaxed.
When the first scream broke the silence...