One year later they’re the Miracle Boys again, lined up on the Campbells’ family room couch like they were in the hospital the day after the rescue. No questions allowed then, only a single photograph, the five of them laid out on their white cots like pale fish on ice.
“Do you ever think back to those days in the cave?” The interviewer extends her microphone, scanning their faces one by one, a camera hovering behind her. Lucas, son of the Campbells, speaks first.
“It’s kind of a blur. The days and nights all ran together.”
The others chime in. The cold. Huddling together for warmth like bears. Mr. H. making a lesson of it, explaining the physiology of hibernation. Doling out the food they’d brought for the Stone Age picnic Mr. H. promised, dividing it until it was gone. Their flashlights making holes in the dark until light was rationed too. Passing the hours with ghost stories they used to tell around a campfire. Games they’d played on car trips. I spy with my little eye was the only one Will could think of—except they couldn’t see much, and even with the flash, there wasn’t anything to spy except rock and more rock. After a while there was only one game: First Thing I’m Going to Eat When I Get Out.
“So you kept calm by entertaining each other?”
Until the air thinned.
The interviewer is very shiny. Will has noticed this about people since being back. Her hair and lips and fingernails, her polished skin glowing like Christmas. She makes him want to squint. Her voice is shiny too, and sharp, poking, poking, with that forced brightness people use when asking about his “experience.” She is already turning toward him, the silent one, preparing to charm a few words from him. He arranges the front of his body to signal that he will give her what she wants. The rest of him retreats to the ledge.
The ledge is shrinking. He can still keep his seating, but it’s harder and harder to balance his weight, he’s always being pulled away.
“You guys have been sharing adventures for a long time, but you couldn’t have anticipated one like this. Now that life is normal again, are you still close?”
Will can tell by the way she relaxes into her chair with a smile that she is proud of her question, waiting for him to shake off his shyness and confide. He licks his lips.
“We don’t always hang out,” he says, “but we still … know each other.”
They were not the popular boys. Their classmates had long outgrown Scouts by the time they were fourteen, if they had ever joined. They would have been humiliated to be among this band of nerds, going off on weekend excursions with Mr. Hendershot—Mr. H. —science teacher and eternal Eagle Scout, lamest of the lame. Widely suspected of being a perv, though he was always talking about his wife Emily and their golden lab, Gingko.
They might be outsiders, but they weren’t really friends. Singly, they were very different. Lucas, of all of them, teetered on the edge of passing for one of the Oblivious Horde, as Max called anyone who wasn’t them. He was good-looking, glib, son of a former astronaut who worked for NASA, but a pleaser who tried too hard; people were impressed, then decided they didn’t like him. Bulky Jason never had that option. His family had moved here just before he started middle school; for weeks, wherever he sat in the cafeteria a dead zone spread around him, withering all animate life. Until they took pity on him. Max had, because Max didn’t care what people thought; scorn was his shield and his superhero cape, beneath which his satellite, Darrell, hovered—Darrell who had no opinions that weren’t Max’s first, who was simply grateful for the shelter. A certain amount of groveling was required: Max was small and dark, Darrell gangling and pasty, a pale moon to Max’s sunless Pluto. Darrell had joined the group because Max said they should; he mocked it because Max did, but together they showed up for every activity, hanging back and talking behind their hands, casting a double shadow.
And Will. He spoke little, listened carefully, observed them without judgment. In a way they couldn’t have put into words, he held them together.
It was Will who gave them their name. Once they were in high school, the rituals of scouting, which had turned them into a troop, embarrassed them. Wilderness was in short supply, even in their rural corner of New Jersey; toasting s’mores over a fire after hiking to a lumpy campground had lost its thrill. But they weren’t ready to leave each other, or to abandon the one thing they all shared: a craving for crevices in the world yet to be explored. They might have transferred their longing to girls or one another, lost themselves in more accessible caverns. But for this, too, they were not ready. Who were they then and what should they call themselves?
“Spelunkers,” Will said. “We’re spelunkers.”
They learned about the caves in class. The Earth Sciences unit, Mr. H’s favorite. He loved to talk about the layers beneath them, eons of history under their feet. How lucky they were to live in one of the few counties in Jersey that hadn’t been paved over or built on, where the topography hadn’t changed much since the days when Paleo Indians roamed the land, hunting for game and sheltering in rock houses. “We’re small, but we’re deep,” Mr. H. said. (Snickers here from those who were already planning their escape.) How many of them knew about the cave systems—“labyrinths of limestone!” —that veined the region?
A few raised hands, tentative.
“Caves are museums of the past. Some of our greatest treasures have been found in them.”
On the board, in crooked capitals, he chalked LASCAUX. A group of boys from a town in France as small as Beamerville, bored, looking for excitement, chasing rumors of a secret cavern filled with hidden treasure. Mr. H. raised his eyebrows. “Where have we heard that story before?”
The leader of the group followed his dog down a hole and found him digging at a smaller hole. Returned with friends to widen the second hole and slithered down headfirst before inviting the others to join him. They inched their way through a narrow passage, guided by the light of a primitive home-made lamp. One of the boys cried out. The walls were alive with horses and bulls!
“Bright as the day they were painted. Oh, 17,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.” He gazed at the ceiling as if he were doing the calculation in his head. “Now I want you to think about that as distance. Say your grandparents were born between the World Wars, sixty, seventy-odd years ago. How far is that from where we are in 1984? About as far as New York City is from Beamerville, New Jersey. So where would you end up if you went back 17,000 years?”
Mr. H. was prone to awe attacks. He was having one now. His head jutted forward. One hand clawed at his receding hairline while the other reached out, imploring them to feel what he was feeling, the wonder of it.
The class was silent, absorbing the enormity of the number, the only sound the snapping gum.
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