“Okay, Mick,” I said to my partner, “you lead the way.”
We stared into the stygian darkness that overwhelmed the monster that lay before us. Starting beneath the pothole-ridden dead-end of Holly Street and ending a whole three blocks away, the tunnel twisted and turned beneath the earth like a shot rattler in the desert. We knew where it began and where it ended, but only our imagination could speak of the depths of horror in between.
“You gotta be kidding,” Mick said sardonically. “You think I’m stupid?” Since Mick was bigger than me, I decided his question was purely rhetorical.
I bent over to peer into the darkness again, pointlessly. It was no use: Black space, minus the stars. And, just as pointlessly, I shined the flashlight into the murky soup of mystery. Nothing had changed since the last time I’d done it a few minutes ago, or since the first time I’d done it months ago. All that was reflected was a circular wall a few feet down the passage where the tunnel turned sharply to the right. The exit was similar.
Our clues had surfaced months ago when we first stumbled upon the giant rain culvert. Old Man Clark, still delirious from his fighting in World War II, told us there were mushrooms at the dead-end at Holly Street. Instead, we found the kingpin of all mysteries. We immediately fell upon it with such investigative power that any self-declared detective would have been proud, but any clues revealed outside of a flashlight were forever hidden from our eyes. So for the months following, we discovered and rediscovered the same clues over and over, not willing to venture into the tunnel from either opening more than a few feet.
But today was going to be different.
Somehow, we both knew it when we got up. Mick had caught a firefly with his bare fingers the night before and I had smelled sweet honeysuckle immediately after waking up this morning. Sure signs that this day would be magical. Or maybe deadly. We weren’t sure which, because we didn’t know what kind of monsters were waiting in the tunnel to gobble up two eleven-year-olds. But monsters or no monsters, we had to face them defiantly.
“Maybe we should wait until tomorrow,” I said.
“What?” Mick yelled. “This was your idea. You said that today was the day. All the signs had pointed to it!”
“And you said that summer’s almost over so we should do it before it’s too late!”
“And you said that we could be heroes by discovering Atlantis in there or something, and never have to go to school again.”
“So don’t give me any of this ‘Let’s do it tomorrow’ crap. We’re doing it today!”
“Okay, okay, okay,” I said quickly, as Mick took a breath. “It’s just that you looked a little pale, that’s all.”
He stared at me with a face that would have made any monster in the city limits shudder. Timidly, I stared at my shoes and noticed an ant crawling on my loose shoelace. I stepped on him for punishment. I looked into the tunnel again, breezing my eyes past Mick to see what he was doing. He was still staring at me. I think he was trying to figure out what to do. I had stumped him this time. I felt better already. But then he blinked and did the only thing a boy could do.
“Okay, let’s get started,” he said, turning to face the beast. “I’ll lead.”
We looked at each other for possibly the last time while still breathing. With senses that were already razor-sharp, I heard the deep bass thump of energy as we turned our flashlights on; the hum filled my ears like a swarm of bees, as beams of light scared away the black of the unknown.
This was a true passage for us to become men. Somehow, deep within us, we knew that. Upon victoriously emerging from the other side, I was convinced that we would be a little older, a little wiser, maybe even a little taller. If we got to the other side, which was probably miles away.
The tunnel was big enough so that we didn’t have to crawl, but not big enough to fully stand. We waddled our way into it, feeling a bit less dignified. It wasn’t as strong of a position as we’d like to have been in to fulfill our destiny of protecting our hometown. I quickly looked behind me to make sure no one was watching us.
As we walked/crawled/duck-walked in, I heard the random plop! of water dripping from the ceiling. My feet sloshed through thick black coffee-water, turning my dull white shoes dull gray. The smell was familiar, causing me to close my eyes, only for a moment, where I instantly found myself in my basement after a huge rainstorm.
Mick reached the corner and stopped. Desperately crawling almost on top of him, I pried my flashlight around to get a glimpse of the fight ahead of us. Nothing. The weak beam had been eaten by the insides of the beast.
Mick and I said nothing. He just turned and shone his light in my eyes, blinding me, and making me step back for cover. He giggled nervously, turned back around, and kept walking. I bumped into the greasy sides of the tunnel, seeing nothing but a huge round ball floating wherever I looked. If it wouldn’t have been so noisy, I would have tackled him right there.
A few minutes later, some unused muscle in my back began to ache. We had probably already walked like ducks for miles and the fibers that I had learned about in Mrs. Webber’s health class were ripping apart, I was sure. But then I noticed what was behind me and the pain quickly melted.
Darkness closed in upon me like a thick, suffocating, velvet curtain. Suddenly, I could barely breathe. I threw my beam into the heart of it, but it did nothing but flow around it and continue towards me. It was like syrup. If I dared, I could have reached out and actually touched it—I smelled it approaching. Abruptly, I was convinced that bringing up the rear of our crusade was a definite mistake. I was about ready to tell Mick that I wanted to lead when he screamed out and fell back into me, sending me headfirst into the black soup, causing me to drop my light. His light was off too, and I felt the darkness attack us, black nothing filling our mouth, throat, stomach, intestines, nose, windpipe, lungs, blood, brain.
Mick’s heavy breathing had joined the plop! of water.
“Mick, what is it?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “Something touched my face.”
My stomach tightened. I found my light and held it like a sword in front of me. Holding my breath, I clicked it on.
Wispy tendrils of an antique cobweb hung from the ceiling, gently waving in the cool draft of air coming from the monster’s lungs. My heart stopped banging in my ears and I shone my light on Mick. He really was pale now. I thought I had better lead.
“I think we’re about under the school now,” I said, admiring my echo. “Echo!” Nothing now. Something had gobbled it up.
“Nope, we’re going in the wrong direction to be under the school. We’re close to the Catholic church.” Which would be even better, because everyone knew of the secret passages that wove beneath the church. Mr. Popovich, the school janitor, had said they used to put people in the dungeon down there, and every Halloween, those that had died would come out and walk through the church, looking for the priest.
I was suddenly very aware of how safe Mick must have felt way back there behind me. Peering blindly into the silent emptiness ahead of me, I felt quite uneasy. The cobweb had probably been planned so I would be in front now. Mick just didn’t want to lead. Without turning around, I could feel his wide grin hitting the back of my head. But I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to lead, anymore. If something came shooting out of the darkness, I’d be hit first. Maybe I could move quickly enough so that it’d miss me and hit Mick. No, I knew that whatever it would be would move too fast to dodge. I would get it first. I’d get no warning. Just a brief glimpse of light and then it would be over. My back started aching again and I began to sweat, even though the insides of the tunnel was cool. Maybe there were bats in the monster’s stomach. If there were, I’d never know about it until they were biting for my neck. I watched the tip of the fading light beam, trying to get the first glimpse of anything.
I licked my lips and saw nothing. Mick bumped into me and I almost screamed.
If there were spiders in here to make a web, then there could also be bats. Or even snakes. Water moccasins. I threw the light down at my feet, half-submerged in water, but saw nothing. And if there were snakes, then there were probably rats, as well.
“Did you hear something?” I asked softly.
“No, did you?”
I started wobbling forward again until my light splayed upon the curved ribs of the beast ahead: The tunnel turned again, to the left this time. I duck walked up to the corner and stuck my light out, just to scare anything off. Or was it to let them know we were here so they could attack? I wasn’t sure. But as I looked at my hand dangling out around the corner so precariously, I suddenly became aware of how tempting that would be for the beast to bite it right off. I pulled my hand back and swallowed hard.
I looked at Mick again and saw him picking his nose, oblivious to the dangers ahead. I shined my light in his eyes and giggled nervously, as he reeled backward. Boldly moving ahead, I turned the corner and was directly face-to-face with the beast: It was like looking into the face of Hell. Eyes on fire, tongue a serpent, body a blue, acidic vapor. I screamed, dropped the light, and the monster laughed an evil, hissing vibration. Darkness danced with its body in eerie, ungodly movements and it roared brimstone and hurricanes, plastering the hair against my scalp.
Screaming, I turned and pushed Mick down until I was over him and crawling/hobbling/running/wobbling into the darkness, slamming into tunnel, scraping back on ceiling, water splashing on legs, breath hot and thick. Mick was right behind me, trying to outrun the monster on our tails. I saw the red glow of his eyes on the tunnel walls and smell acid in its every breath.
We’re not gonna make it, we’re not gonna make it, we’re not gonna make it, I thought.
I struck my head on the ribbed tunnel and almost passed out. At least then, I wouldn’t feel anything when the beast put me in its mouth. Any minute I expected to feel a rush of air as Mick was plucked out of his shoes and drug back into the depths. But we kept running until--
We dove out of the tunnel and landed on a heap in the dry, dusty sunshine. We made it! We were alive! We checked each other’s limbs to make sure everything was attached and I felt blood trickle down the back of my neck where I’d hit my head. Battle wound. I looked back into the tunnel and heard what sounded like a low rumble of hunger and anger. And then I saw, ever so slightly, wafting out of the black entrance, a thin, sky-blue puff of vapor that disappeared quickly in the heat. Evidence. It was evidence. I quickly looked at Mick and knew he hadn’t seen it. But I had.
For us, going into the tunnel and out the other side was going to have been our ultimate challenge. But manhood would have to wait.