This is a new story with new characters. I can't promise that I'll write more with these guys, but I was inspired for this short story. Enjoy!
Shining Rock Caverns
Keith did a quick head count of his tour group. The limit for any tour of the Shining Rock Caverns was fifteen, and he was told his 2pm slot was full.
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen….” He said under his breath. His eyes darted around the room, looking for two more people who might be part of his group. Off to the left, two young men started speed-walking his way from the direction of the bathrooms. Somewhat roguish smiles were on both their faces, and Keith allowed a split second to admire the handsome looks of the men. He assumed they were brothers, considering their similar coloring and apparent camaraderie as they stayed close to one another. That split second was all he allowed though, before completely focusing on his job.
“Hello, everyone!” he greeted with a smile and easy enthusiasm. “If you’re here for the 2 o’clock tour, could you please raise your hand?”
Everyone he’d counted lifted their hands, and he nodded approvingly.
“Excellent. My name is Keith, and I’ll be your guide today. Before we begin the tour, I do need to go over some rules and safety regulations.” He saw more than one person roll their eyes and willingly chuckled. “Yes, I know. It would be much more fun to ignore those, but ‘adulting’ is required during the tour.”
That got a few laughs, and he waited for it to quiet before explaining tour guidelines. “First, when we enter these doors behind me, there will be a rack of hard hats hanging on the wall. Everyone,” he emphasized, “is required to wear one since we will be moving through a few low-hanging areas, and there is always the risk—though slight—of falling rocks. Now, I know some of you are concerned about the sanitation of the hats. Let me assure you that after every tour, each hard hat is washed and then sprayed with a sanitizing solution. Any questions on that?”
No one commented other than a few murmurs to their companions, so Keith continued. “Secondly, once we’re inside the caverns, do not separate from our group. There will be places that you will have time to spread out a little bit and look around, but there will be ropes and wooden barriers to mark your boundaries. Please do not ever cross those lines. It’s not safe to do so and we take our guests’ safety very seriously. There is lighting to mark our route during the tour, but it’s not bright, so pay attention and watch your steps.
“Lastly, I will be giving direction at times on places that you can touch or things you cannot; please don’t ignore that, as we don’t want to do damage to the amazing sights you’re about to see. Also, if you have any questions during the tour, feel free to call out to me, but please don’t shout, as sound waves in a cavern environment can create instability. Don’t fear that though. A normal tone of voice won’t cause any problems.”
Keith was pleased to see that everyone appeared to have listened to this initial speech, so he hoped they would be a group that could be trusted.
“Alright everyone, if there are no questions, then follow me!”
In the room the Shining Rock employees had termed the “foyer”, Keith pointed out the hanging hard hats to his group. As was typical, a few people needed help adjusting and fastening the chin straps, including one of the brothers who had been the last to join the tour. Mischievous eyes seemed to dominate the young man’s face as Keith tightened the strap and fit the hard hat to the closely cropped blonde hair.
“Does that feel alright?” he asked out of habit.
“Perfect,” the guy assured.
When Keith turned away, his peripheral vision caught the brother he hadn’t helped elbowing the other one. He wondered what that was about, but didn’t spend any time pondering it. He returned to his place at the front of the group, quickly confirmed that everyone had a hat one, and then motioned them to follow him into the first cavern.
The tour itself was an hour and a half long, and when done three times a day, had Keith’s feet hurting by the end of it, but he loved his job. The Shining Rock caverns were an amazing natural wonder. They held dozens of different rock types and minerals; one mineral of which contained a luminescent property that caused a surreal glow to the rocks. Even more interesting was that different kinds of rocks glowed different colors. Blue was the predominant one, but green and red were also natural sights in the caverns.
Keith had a masters in geology and was working toward a doctorate, and a perk of his job was that he had access to a lab and the non-tour spots of the caverns to continue his studies. Three days a week, he hosted the tours, and the other two days he was part of the science team that studied and recorded data of the caverns’ holdings.
While he knew that few people held the same interest in rocks and ground layers that he did, Keith was still enthusiastic in the information he shared with his tour groups. His clear passion came through, even in the memorized and over-rehearsed speeches given on every tour, which his managers claimed made him one of the best guides they had.
Keith’s current tour group seemed to have been pulled into his zeal, and as they passed through each room and he explained the sights they were seeing, as well as that luminescent rocks and unique formations the caverns had to offer, many guests offered up questions and observations. He loved that, when people involved themselves in that way.
As he led the group to each designated spot on the tour, habit had Keith constantly counting heads. He’d learned never to move forward unless every person was accounted for, and he took the safety of his groups seriously. There were five caverns open to the public on the tours, each named almost regally for its individual splendor. There was Crystal Hall, the Moon Room, King’s Den, the Empress, and the Grand Ballroom.
The Grand Ballroom was the largest cavern on the tour and the one they were about to enter. Keith did his head count, happy to get to fifteen, and led the way into the splendor of the large cavern. Just a few steps in, and he heard gasps of awe and respectful murmurs of admiration. He turned to face the group in his designated spot and his smile was sincere with his own appreciation.
“Welcome to the Grand Ballroom. This is the largest natural cavern in Shining Rock. All three classifications of rocks are found in this room: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Thus far, the caverns as a whole also are host to over four hundred types of minerals. This room alone contains two-hundred-and-three different minerals that we’ve found so far. As you can see, it also shines with all three luminescent colors. If you’ll notice, there is no artificial lighting in this cavern. What you’re seeing is its natural glow, and right now we’re almost a half mile underground. Isn’t that amazing?” He got a lot of agreement with that statement, and when it quieted again, he continued. “If you’ll look around, there are several natural arches throughout the room, as well as amazing displays of both stalactites and stalagmites. Kids?” he addressed the three members of the tour who were clearly under ten. “Remember how to tell which is which?”
One little boy enthusiastically raised his hand. “The stalactites hand from the ceiling, and they’re called that because they have to hang on tight to keep from falling!”
“Excellent!” Keith praised. He reached into a pouch he always had attached to his belt and took out three specialized coins. “Since you and your brother and sister are paying such good attention, you each get one of these. You can keep them as a souvenir or turn them in at the gift shop for some special rock candy.”
The three kids accepted the coins with enthusiasm. Keith secretly hoped that even one of them might garner an excitement for geology after their experience at the caverns.
“Another unique facet of this room,” he continued to everyone, “is that it is the only one on the tour that has luminescent minerals that shine up through the floor. Every other room has shining rocks only on the walls and ceiling.”
One of the brothers, the one he’d help fasten the hard hat for, raised his hand.
“Yes, sir?” Keith acknowledged.
“Why is that?” the young man asked. “How come the light is in the floor here but not the other rooms?”
“Good question. The Grand Ballroom is the only cavern on the tour that holds Celestine in its floor. Celestine itself has a faint blue glow all on its own, but when in contact with the luminescent mineral we’ve found in these caves, that glow is brighter and does not require any additional light from the sun or artificial resources to maintain that glow. You might also find it interesting to know that Celestine is also a principal source of the element strontium, which is commonly used in fireworks.”
That information clearly impressed several people, including the two brothers. Keith had to admit that it was information he’d always found interesting too, especially as a teen when he’d created some of his own fireworks. They’d gotten him into plenty of trouble at the time, but even to this day he couldn’t say he wouldn’t have done it all over again.
The smile on his face now had more to do with rueful memories of that time than his current job, but his tour group wouldn’t know that. Quickly focusing on his people, he explained a few more unique aspects of the room before bringing up a special opportunity the caverns offered.
“If anyone here is in the planning stages of a wedding or know someone who is, we’d like to let you know that the Grand Ballroom here at Shining Rock Caverns is a venue that can be rented for that special occasion. The ceremony itself would be held right here, with all the natural glory you see surrounding you. Our cavern family also have two spaces in our upper grounds—one outside and one inside—that can be used for a fabulous reception. If anyone is interested in more information, please come and speak to me at the end of the tour.
“Now, you have the opportunity to explore this space without me speeching you all over the place.” The group chuckled and Keith continued. “Please remember not to cross the barriers as you explore.” Unclasping a special light from his belt, Keith held it up for everyone to see, flashing it several times to reveal a red beacon-like beam. “You have fifteen minutes to sightsee, and then I’ll flash this light to ask you to please reconvene right here. Have fun, everyone!”
The group began to disperse and Keith watched the different directions and sights that people headed toward. The arches in this room always drew a lot of attention. Personally, he loved a particular section of stalagmites in one of the few darker corners of the space. The formations were so tall that weaving among them was like moving through stone trees, and he loved the sense of adventure he felt just looking at them. He always gravitated toward them when he gave the group time to explore.
When the fifteen minutes were up, he reluctantly moved back to the meeting place and flashed his light. It usually took several times before everyone noticed the beam, but that was okay. However, after several minutes of waiting and repeatedly flashing the light, he was still only counting thirteen people in his group. For a split second he feared two of the children were missing, but he thankfully spotted them with their parents. It was then he realized it was the two brothers who hadn’t returned. Keeping his voice calm, he addressed those who had gathered.
“It seems the glories of the Ballroom have permanently distracted two of our members. I’m going to take a quick walk around to hurry them back to us. If everyone would please stay here, I’ll rejoin you shortly.”
He hated to do it, but he couldn’t leave two guests behind because they weren’t paying attention. With a steady but careful stride, Keith walked the perimeter of the cavern, taking care to check the places he knew could easily hide people, or that could pose a slight danger. He was two-thirds of the way around when a muffled moan caught his attention. Pausing, he heard it again and feared it meant someone was hurt. However, it didn’t sound like a moan of pain; more like one of…sex?
Frowning, he moved closer to one of the roped off boundaries. On the other side of the rope was a tunnel that was about ten feet in depth, and then turned and had a very dangerous drop-off about three steps after the turn. Heart pounding, he crossed the rope and entered the tunnel, another moan reaching his ears just before his eyes spotted his two missing members. They were locked in an embrace which told Keith that his assumptions they were brothers was clearly untrue.
“Excuse me,” he said sternly, the adrenalin rush of fear he’d initially felt now transferring to anger. The two young men jumped and gasped. “If you’ll kindly return to the tour group with me, I’d appreciate it. I’ll also be reporting your disregard for the boundaries to management. They’ll decide if you’ll be allowed to return to cavern property ever again.”
It wasn’t much of a threat. Most guests only visited the caverns once, usually as a day trip or a family outing, but the two young men looked both devastated and a bit frightened by that statement. The taller of them looked almost teary at that announcement, while the other grabbed his arm in pleading.
“Please, Keith…sir. We’re sorry! We just got caught up. Don’t tell anyone! We won’t do it again.”
“Those boundaries are there for your safety, and you risk yourselves and my job and reputation by going beyond them,” Keith said without compassion, despite feeling some sympathy for the apparent sincerity of the pleas.
“We’re so sorry,” the young man still holding his arm repeated. “Please, we won’t leave your side the rest of the tour!”
Keith stared down both young men, some of his sternness cracking. “We’ll see,” he finally offered, “but I want to talk to you both, privately, when the tour ends.”
“Yes, sir!” the two agreed in unison.
“Get back to the group now. Everyone is waiting for you.”
The two hurried back ahead of him, while Keith rehearsed exactly what he wanted to say to the two when the tour ended.
The last leg of the outing was usually a favorite of Keith’s. A small waterway, with luminescent pebbles throughout it, flowed through certain sections of the caverns. A special battery-operated boat had been positioned for the tour groups at the far end of the Grand Ballroom where part of the waterway flowed. Keith directed his guests into the boat, specifying where people should sit to keep things balanced, and then moved to the bow and started the boat on a slow speed through the water. The water portion of the tour was only fifteen minutes long, but it took the group through two lighted tunnels, including a spot near where they would exit that held ancient markings on the walls, proof that at some point man had dwelt within these walls.
Exiting the boat marked the end of the tour, and Keith thanked his group for their interest and time. He gave some final directions on where to hang their hard-hats, and then showed them the exit that would lead to the caverns’ gift shop, small café, and parking lot.
A separate door in the space led to an employee-only area. Before the two young men could leave, Keith corralled them and led them to the door. Thankfully, no one else was around as they entered, and Keith immediately frowned at his troublemakers.
“Going beyond barriers like you two did was beyond irresponsible and dangerous,” he said severely, his tone in lecture-mode. “That tunnel is off-limits because it contains a sinkhole that you could fall into and we’d never get you out. Your disregard of the rules could have gotten you hurt or killed, not to mention shows a great disrespect for me as your guide, the safety engineers who work to keep the caverns safe, and the caves themselves. Nature is a beautiful thing, but also very dangerous when it isn’t shown the respect it deserves. Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t report you to management and get you banned from the property.”
The young men looked to each other, and then to Keith. The shorter one, who seemed to be the spokesman of them, answered with clear nervousness. “Because the Archers are my family, and I’d get in so much trouble if they knew, especially since Terry was with me.”
Keith felt the moment of shock run through him. The Archers weren’t management. They were the owners of the land on which the caverns were held. George and Rhoda Archer were well into their eighties and had inherited the land and caves from George’s parents. Their oldest son, Milo, and his wife had mostly taken over charge and care of the Shining Rock Caverns and business it brought in. They were big into conservation, which Keith respected.
“How are you related to the Archers?” he asked seriously.
The younger man worried his lowered lip a moment before answering. “George and Rhoda are my grandparents, and Milo and Sydney are my uncle and aunt. I’m Cara’s son, Sean.”
Cara was the youngest of George and Rhoda’s six children, if Keith remembered correctly, and the only girl. He’d never met her, and didn’t think she had any involvement in the caverns. Sean continued in his pleading as Keith recounted this information.
“I’m studying environmental engineering with an emphasis in green technology at college, and Terry is studying geochemistry. We’re both doing an internship at the caverns for the summer, so we can’t be banned!” His look turned even more pleading. “Plus, Gramps and Nana don’t know that Terry and I are…together. They don’t approve,” he admitted, “and it could ruin everything if they find out!”
Keith sighed. Being gay himself, he knew the struggles and fears that went along with it. “Does your aunt and uncle know about the two of you?”
Sean nodded. “Yeah. They don’t have a problem with it, but they know how my grandparents feel, and they won’t say anything, but I can’t let them down when we’ve just arrived. Please don’t tell them! I promise Terry and I will be on our best behavior all summer!”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Keith couldn’t help being sympathetic. Grudgingly, he gave in to Sean’s pleading and Terry’s wide-eyed look of anxiety. “Alright. I won’t report this incident, but you two better exercise extreme good behavior and common sense this summer. I suspect I’ll see you here and there.”
“Yes! Thank you! Thank you so much! We will!”
Both Keith’s hand were grabbed in enthusiastic and grateful handshakes. He returned the grasps and with one more word of warning sent the two men on their way. As he watched them leave he couldn’t help thinking it might be an eventful summer.