/ Fiction /
Kayla usually started and ended each shift with a lemon cookie. She wasn’t sure if Lucy started baking and selling them in the cafe because Kayla told her that they had been her brother’s favorite or if it was unrelated. She had been working as a tour guide at the Button Caverns for four years now and knew them better than almost anyone. While most guides and all visitors stuck to the well-developed parts of the caverns, with cement walkways and smooth metal railings, Kayla preferred the rougher, more natural areas.
It took a year of searching during every lunch break and last-minute tour cancellation, but Kayla finally found her spot. She tried not to spend too much time down there, but the allure was too strong. It was the only place where she felt connected to Jamie. Her boss, Ron, had to come drag her out some nights. She found it extra hard to leave in the evenings because the buttons glowed beautifully at night.
At the end of the summer, Kayla was moving out of state to start her psychology degree so she could become a counselor someday. It was high time to escape the sadness this town held trapped for her in every corner. And yet she knew she would miss her corner down in the Button Caverns and must savor every moment she had left.
* * *
The 7 o’clock tour was the most popular time slot because of the eerie glow that emanated from the caverns in the evening. Tour groups were limited to no more than ten people so the caverns maintained some of their natural tranquility, though tonight’s group seemed rowdy. Kayla smelled whiskey on their breath. She knew she could not do a thing about it except try to keep the men from hurting themselves.
Kayla started her spiel: “Please use caution for the duration of your visit to the caverns. There are handrails on your right. Walk slowly as we descend and watch your head.”
“What are we gonna see down here?” a smirking man asked.
Why did he even come on this tour? She thought to herself. She knew why, though. Guys like him were skeptical on the surface, but they wouldn’t come if they weren’t curious. If they didn’t hope that the stories were true.
Kayla walked backwards, slowly, a headlamp strapped to her forehead.
“Well, sir, you’ve probably heard the legends! What you will see once we reach the cavern floor is more buttons than you’ve ever laid eyes on. They cover every surface–walls and ceilings and floor–and stretch through a fifteen square mile labyrinth underground. Dull old buttons and shiny new ones. Square buttons and round buttons. Red and purple and gold. Thousands of them. It’s magnificent. I haven’t gotten tired of them yet.”
“And how’d they get here?” his friend asked. She knew he already knew this, too.
“Every time someone dies during the winter in this town, a button pops off their coat and ends up here,” she explained patiently. The crowd chuckled. Kayla remained silent, teeth gritted, as they trudged downstairs. One of the worst parts of her job was not being believed.
When they finished their descent of 212 steps, the group spread out. Their laughs were snuffed out by a blanket of awe. The men whispered oohs and aahs as they absorbed the marvels of the Button Caverns.
Kayla looked up and basked in it once more. The buttons gleamed tonight, some sections brighter than others. There was no rhyme or reason to the way they appeared; just a rainbow of pinks and greens and blacks and pearls, swirling and arcing across the surfaces of the cave, creating an ever-changing mosaic. As Kayla gaped at them, awed as ever, a woman appeared by her side and tapped her shoulder.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there,” Kayla said.
“I’ve been with the group all along,” the woman whispered. “I just have one question.”
“What makes them glow?”
Most people knew the stories but liked hearing them again. Especially if it was their first time visiting.
“Well, the research shows that the buttons glow when someone is thinking of the lost loved one who a button belongs to. There’s always more activity in the evenings. We also see flare-ups on rainy days. And at the holidays, it glows so bright it’s hard to look directly at it.”
The woman smiled tightly. The men chatted and were restless to go back up. They had seen enough.
“Is it possible to locate a button that belonged to someone you loved?” the woman asked.
“Sorry for your loss, Ma’am. We don’t have a Button Directory at this time. We worked on one for ages, but with so many new buttons being added and the way their locations shift seasonally, it was impossible to keep up.”
The woman nodded. “Do we have much longer?”
“We’ll be returning to the surface soon. I’m going to gather the group.”
The woman headed to the far side of the public section of the cavern and leaned over the railing. Below was a lake, shimmering with buttons bobbing on the surface. A small waterfall cascaded in from above, bringing a trickle of new buttons that plinked pleasantly as they dropped down onto the others.
“Alright, folks!” Kayla called. “Time to head up! When we reach the surface, the gift shop will be open for another thirty minutes. They carry the perfect assortment of souvenirs so you can remember your trip to the Button Caverns! We’ve got button necklaces, button bookmarks, scarves, t-shirts, and more. You can even press a penny with the image of a button. And in the cafe, we serve some of the best lemon cookies in the world! All proceeds go to support the upkeep of the Button Caverns.” She could recite this speech in her sleep (and sometimes did).
The group began to file up the stairs, voices rising and falling, laughter returning. She could really go for a lemon cookie. She climbed faster.
* * *
Under the fluorescent light of the gift shop, Kayla munched her lemon cookie and counted her group members while they browsed.
Crumbs fell from her lips. The shop bell dinged as she raced out the door to plunge back into the caverns. The woman was missing.
* * *
Kayla radioed back to the receptionist.
“Hey! Could you tell me the name of the woman that was on my seven o’clock tour?”
The metal thumped and vibrated as Kayla thundered down the steps.
She hit the floor hard and felt the shocks flash up through her knees. She heard sniffling to the right.
“Eliza? Is that you?” She left the cement walkway and realized she was heading towards her own secret corner. This was where she came to visit her brother Jamie’s worn blue button. It had stars around the edges and bite marks from where their dog chewed it. She had searched the caverns for hours, month after month, to find Jamie’s button. When they were kids, there had been an accident involving a reckless leap from the treehouse into snow that wasn’t as soft as it seemed--a crash and crunch of neckbones snapping.
Crumpled on the ground, Eliza’s body curled up like a question mark. Her eyes were locked on a red button above that shone like the sun.
Kayla rushed to her side and wrapped an arm around her like she wasn’t a random customer from her tour group.
“Who was it?”
Eliza raised her eyes to meet Kayla’s.
“My sister. Seven months ago. Car accident, New Year’s Eve.” Her shoulders shook. Kayla stroked her back gently. This is why her boss said she went above and beyond on the job.
“I know it hurts. Do you want to talk about it? What was she like?”
“Bright--she sparkled when she laughed. She was so funny. She was soft. No matter what happened, she never let the world harden her edges. She always went out of her way to help other people.” Kayla nodded silently and opened her thermos. Eliza was trembling. Kayla passed her ginger tea over, hoping it would warm her.
Eliza seemed so put together. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun, she wore black point toed flats with a chic dress. She looked polished, like she had just come from a productive day at the office. Her pristine appearance masked the grief that tore through her mind like a fierce wind. Loss was all around. You never knew who, or what, it was just...there. Everywhere.
Kayla passed Eliza a button-shaped keychain from the gift shop. She always kept a couple in her pocket; they came in handy.
“Here. To remember her by.”
Eliza wiped her eyes with a tissue, murmured thanks.
“I’d tell you to take her button off the wall and bring it home, but it’ll be back here by morning if you do. I’ve tried.”
“That’s okay. This is enough. I’m not even sure if that one’s really hers, it just feels right.”
“That blue button there, across from your sister’s? That’s from my brother, Jamie. He was six.”
They leaned back together, dazzled by the glowing wall of buttons, grasping each other’s hands tightly as the waves of loss crashed and broke on their stony shores.