Sunday, January 2, 2011
Into the Sewers
In books and movies, people are constantly going down into sewers. In fact, to judge from popular entertainment, one might think that there were more people living under the streets than on them. Johnny had learned that this was a silly concept. There were many reasons for this. Sewers are hard to get into, first of all: they’re dangerous, so cities make them difficult to enter. Secondly, they’re dangerous, and also disgusting, so there’s no good reason why anyone would want to get into them. Finally, they’re redundant. If you have a burning desire to be underground in the city, there are basements, and there are culverts, and there are subway maintenance tunnels (that particular cinematic image has more truth to it), all of which are much nicer places to hang out than a sewer. Assuming you want to be underground at all, that is, and the only season that you might want that is winter, when being underground might be warmer. Maybe.
So, all in all, nobody lived in the sewers, or traveled through them, or even went there for a quick visit. In all his years on the streets, Johnny had never once been in a sewer, nor ever known anyone who had. And yet, here he was.
The water was lower here, only up to their mid-shins, and the area of Johnny’s body between the previous waterline and the new one was starting to get very cold. The smell wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t really noxious yet: Johnny figured that this was mostly just runoff, although it hadn’t rained in almost two weeks. But Johnny tried not to think too hard about that.
The noises behind them were getting fainter, although no less frenzied. They were walking up a slight uphill grade against a mild current, and trudging through a foot or so of water made that all the more difficult, so they weren’t moving very fast. Johnny was half-supporting Larissa, and trying to place his feet very carefully—he didn’t relish the thought of falling down in this muck—so he wasn’t paying attention to how fast the light from the end of the pipe was fading until he abruptly realized he couldn’t see anything. Larissa straightened up a bit and Johnny heard a small click. The light from the trusty Zippo was small, but welcome. Johnny stopped walking and looked around them.
The surface of the water was dark, and broken occasionally by bits of wood and stray pieces of trash. The pipe itself was huge—Johnny might be able to touch the top of it if he were to stand on tiptoe, but then again maybe not—and perfectly round. Its concrete sides were covered in gunk that Johnny fervently hoped was vegetable matter. The primary sound he could hear was the rushing of the water, on its way down to The Creek. Tuning out the animal screams that still floated up from the channel below, he thought he could make out some smaller skittering noises closer by. For a moment this put him on the edge of panic, but Larissa’s calm voice rang out in the stillness.
“Just rats. They won’t bother us if we don’t bother them. Especially if we keep the lighter lit.”
Johnny looked doubtful. “We can’t run the lighter forever though! We’ll run out of fluid ...”
Larissa gave him her calm, studying look again, and Johnny suddenly realized that the panic he had been on the verge of was less about rats and more just a delayed reaction, but now suddenly everything seemed okay again. “I have extra,” she said. Johnny took a deep breath and tried to still his shaking muscles.
Larissa’s look turned questioning, and Johnny was suddenly sure she was going to ask him how they had gotten through the grate. Instead, she said: “Why did you bring us in here?”
Already trying to come up with an answer to the question he had thought she was going to ask, Johnny was caught unprepared. “I, um ... it was ... we couldn’t just flounder down The Creek, right?” Larissa continued to look at him. Johnny thought back to the confusion at the metal grating. “I think I ... felt something ...”
And now, freed from having to think about keeping Larissa safe or not slipping in the pipe-muck, he found that he could feel it again. It was a curious sensation, not a tugging like with the mist, but a heat. Which wasn’t really right either, but he could feel some sort of brightness up ahead, and his mind automatically translated that to the sensation of feeling the heat coming off a powerful light such as a spotlight. But it wasn’t actually hot on his skin, and it wasn’t even his skin that was feeling it. It was just a knowledge that up ahead, on the right-hand side, there was a beacon of sorts. It didn’t draw him in the way the mist had, but it had piqued his curiosity and drawn him into the pipe. It didn’t feel like a refuge per se, but then it didn’t need to feel very safe to feel safer than what they were leaving behind.
He realized he was looking up ahead, towards where he knew the thing was, and Larissa was following his gaze. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go find it then.”
Twenty mintues later they were sweating and exhausted, and dirty from bits of goop falling on them. The pipe had mostly leveled off, but there was still the current and the depth to fight against. Johnny’s nerves were on edge from the occasional squeaking and splashing of the invisible rats, although this didn’t seem to bother Larissa. There was absolutely no light at this point other than the small, flickering circle provided by the Zippo, which had already had to be refilled once (and that was a harrowing experience, since obviously you can’t keep a lighter lit while you’re refilling it, and sewers give a whole new meaning to the word “dark”). Johnny imagined that the lighter must be getting hot by this point, but Larissa didn’t seem concerned. All in all, the situation ought to be discouraging, but it wasn’t. Johnny knew that the thing, whatever it was, was up there, and by now he knew it was much closer. Larissa just seemed to believe he knew what he was doing. Johnny hoped he did.
And then, out of nowhere, the door. Right where Johnny knew it would be, even though he hadn’t known it was a door. How could he have? There are no doors in the sides of sewer pipes. Besides the completely ridiculous aspect of having a door that opens onto a sewer, there were physical impossibilities to deal with. The pipe was round, which meant the “wall” of the pipe was curved. And the door was not. It was utterly flat, made of a black substance that seemed to be wood, with white markings on it that might have been some sort of faded symbol or might have been random scratches made by giant claws. And it was circular, and its ragged edges glowed with a faint greenish cast, obscuring the impossible join of vertical to concave.
Johnny stood, staring at it. Larissa held the lighter aloft and stared as well.
After a moment, Johnny shrugged. “I suppose this isn’t any weirder than anything else that’s happened lately,” he finally said with a sigh. “Shall we go in?”
Larissa was silent for a long moment. “Is it better in there?” she asked finally.
Johnny wondered what her definition of “better” might encompass at this point. “Well, if you mean is it safer, then I think so. There won’t be any rats, and we won’t run into any actual sewage, and whatever those things were back there with the claws and the teeth won’t be able to get in. If you mean, is it saner, then I suspect absolutely not.”
Larissa considered this. After a time, she nodded. Johnny put his hand on the door.
There was no doorknob, no knocker, no bell pull ... no obvious way that Johnny could see to either open the door or request it be opened by something on the other side. But he knew how to go through it. He just laid his hand flat on the door, felt the skin of his palm adhere to the strange wood, which felt both slick and tacky at the same time, then pulled. The door opened smoothly, swinging outward as if it had hinges on the leftmost edge of its circular form, which it definitely did not. The inside wasn’t dark, but it was so full of that dim green glow that had been leaking out around the edges that it might as well have been. Larissa poked at the strange light with the Zippo, but it just made the flame, and even the whole lighter, turn green. She shrugged and turned to Johnny.
“After me, eh?” he said. Weirdly, he felt a grin on his face. There was something about this new, otherworldly sense that just made him unreasonably happy. “No worries,” he said, which had been a favorite expression of Amiira’s, but which Johnny hadn’t said in years. Just now, though, it felt right. He plunged through the green glow that filled the circular doorway and disappeared.
After a moment, Larissa followed.