Tunneling, a short story

Down there, below the street, as the sun sets today. Something buried deep is going to sleep, and something different is waking. It is an ageless balance which the engineers for the new subway tunnel have disturbed. Such things should stay asleep, as Philip Rattlekin, subway line 4, will soon discover in the Twilight Zone.

[Heads up, some adult language in this one…]

Philip Rattlekin sat in a dirty puddle of mud, struggling to catch his breath while making as little noise as possible. His body felt numb, not because of the frigid temperature of the water, but because he was the only one still alive.

It had come from nowhere and everywhere and killed everyone.

And now it was coming for him.

2nd_ave_subway_feb2013_16“You have to stop the drilling!”

How many times had Philip heard this in the past two weeks? Usually, his assistant ran interference when the nuts fell off the tree, but he’d just been sent on an errand to deliver some new tunnel schematics to the city planner’s office, and the nuts had managed to corner Philip as he was heading out to get to Evan’s soccer match.

There was at least a dozen this time. More than twice as many kooks as last week. Enough that things could get messy if they got too pushy. Philip was a big guy, a head taller than the tallest kook and firmly packed with muscle that showed he was far from a pencil pushing engineer, but he’d learned in Iraq how quick things could go south and he wasn’t going to scuffle with a mob.

He turned to the main kook – a middle aged man with frizzy Einstein hair and a look nuttier than Doc Brown. “Look, we told you guys last week. We’re on a tight schedule, millions of dollars have been poured into this project, and there’s no way it’s stopping. Why don’t you get back to your university and let us do our job.”

“You don’t understand!” Doc Brown shrieked, pulling out a tablet from a leather bag he wore around his neck. “Our studies have shown that you are causing irreparable harm to the water table, and this will impact our entire city’s water supply!” He stuck the tablet in Philip’s face to show him a bunch of meaningless graphs and numbers.

Philip snorted. Last time they claimed the subway project was disturbing the habitat of some mole or groundhog or something. Now it was the water table. The city had done their own studies, and the water table was in no danger from the extension of line four. Why would he help wreck his own city’s water supply? It made no sense, and he said so.

“Yes, well, be that as it may, you must stop the drilling,” the old kook stammered, with a surprising amount of conviction.

Philip was done.

“If you got a problem with what we’re doing, take it up with the city planner. This is her ballgame.” He stepped up and stared down at the kook, just inches away. The guy smelled like garlic. “Now get out of my way.”

Doc Brown stammered incoherently but wisely stepped aside, letting Philip through so that he could get to his truck. As he pulled himself into the cab, he could hear Doc Brown mumbling something about the water table and disaster and the end of the world.

Stupid hippy environmentalist nutjobs, Philip thought as he pressed the ignition and started up his F-150. Evan was starting today and he didn’t want to be late.

Philip inhaled for four seconds and exhaled for another four while reciting the mantra he’d been taught in Basic. This too shall pass… this too shall pass… this too shall pass… It had saved his life in that back alley in Mosul, maybe it would save his life now.

Feeling his heart rate lower and his breathing come under his control, Philip opened his eyes to take stock of his situation. He still sat in a puddle of dirty tunnel water where he’d stumbled just a few moments before. Work lights flickered in the tunnel several meters away, but all was quiet. No sounds of pursuit.

No sounds of that… whatever it had been. All teeth and tentacles and blood…

Maybe this is just a bad dream, he considered, shaking his head. I’m going to wake up any minute now and have to go and pee.

Just like Evan and his bad dreams. The kid would wake him up in the middle of the night, shrieking in the darkness and claiming to have seen monsters. He’d take him to pee and the then he’d be off to sleep again in no time. Night terrors, the doctor said. Leftovers from daddy’s deployment.

So much blood…

Sitting still gets soldiers killed, Philip thought, another life-saving mantra coming back to him. He raised himself out of the puddle and leaned against the tunnel wall. Everything was darkness where he’d come from.

He took a step towards the flickering lights and nearly fell down again as a sharp pain hit his right foot. Damn it, he grunted as he went down on his left knee, his hand going to his right ankle. He froze as his grunt echoed down the tunnel.

Nothing.

Whatever it was, it apparently didn’t have a keen sense of hearing.

Or it wasn’t hungry any more.

Then he heard the growl.

Damn, he thought. The kooks were right.

“Shutting us down? How the hell are they shutting us down?”

Philip stood at the opening to the tunnel where he could get cell reception, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They’d just broken through a major wall of bedrock, and there was more than enough work to do without this kind of nonsense.

“The mayor got wind of the kook’s concerns and ordered the halt,” his assistant said on the other end. “They tweeted out some infographics about the dangers of the project – I’ll send you the screenshots. Somehow, they managed to get retweeted by Neil DeGrass Tyson or The Science Guy or someone, and now it’s gone political.”

“Politics,” Philip muttered. Every curse word he’d ever learned – before the service and during – came to mind, and it was all he could do to not kill the messenger. “Alright Lou, get back over here and we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go pull out the crew and get the machinery tied down. Situation normal.”

“All fucked up.” Lou finished. “You want I should bring you a coffee?”

“Make it Irish and we’ll be moving in the right direction,” Philip chuckled, glad for some levity. “Just get back here so we can clean up this mess.”

His phone buzzed as the screenshots showed up, and so he said goodbye to Lou and stared at the images. The kooks claimed that the tunneling disturbed subterranean life and might endanger species that humanity was yet to encounter. The images were flashy and sensational and absolute bullshit.

Philip found a few extra curse words that he had been saving for a special occasion and muttered them as he headed back down into the tunnel.

It happened in flashes, like a firefight.

He’s giving orders to withdraw when they first hear the growl coming from the tunnel that they’d just finish boring.

They swing over the spotlights.

A ripple of green skin flashes and vanishes in the shadows.

The first scream as Juan, who operates the excavator, is snatched by… something… and yanked into the darkness.

Building hysteria as one by one his workers vanish. The green skin… crashing lights… wrapping tentacles… a mouth as big as a horse… sharp teeth… more screams… and he runs.

And he runs.

Like he did in Mosul, when the firefight had grown too intense, and everything had gone to hell, and he had no choice because he had a kid and a wife, and he wasn’t losing everything for this shithole…

And then… darkness.

Our writing prompt this week was a story based on a Twilight-Zone-ish setup, written by one of the members of the writing group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pint of Stout

stout-lead

I sat in the dark corner of the drab, empty little pub staring at the pint of stout sitting on the grungy table. How long had I been sitting, staring?

“You gonna drink it or not? We’re running out of time.”

Considering that the irritable scowl on the bearded face of the dwarf sitting across from me had grown even more irritable, it must have been a while. He leaned over the table and half spat, half whispered, “I told you I’d get you here, and I did. Now you keep up your end of the bargain.”

He’d been irritable since we’d first met – when he approached me at that other dingy pub in Belfast offering his assistance. “I know where the stout is, and I’ll take you there, but once we get there you’ll use it to help me.”

I’d heard this before – in pubs in Ediburgh, Glasgow, Dublin… the same empty promises and the same wasted time, and lots of lost money. But this time had turned out to be different: the dwarf had actually done it: led me here, to the isle of Inisturk of all places, and now the stout sat before me.

I’d been searching for more than ten years, ever since first reading about it in some obscure Gaelic literature in that nearly abandoned section of the Taylor Library at Oxford. A stout made from the springs of the mythical isle of Brasil, an island that only appears from the mists once every seven years. The stuff of fairy tales, not academia or reality.

But for some reason, the idea latched onto me like a leech, and I persisted. I continued to research, dig through ancient texts, trying to find the truth. My professors laughed at me, as had my classmates. And when I ignored them all and published my research, Professor McDonald said that I had “committed academic suicide.”

“Wasting my time,” I muttered, watching a single drop of condensation make its way down the side of the dirty glass.

“What’s that?” the dwarf asked.

“They all told me I was wasting my time, that I was mad to keep pretending it was more than legend.”

“We don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said, grabbing the shot of whisky that sat before him and downing it in a swift gulp. “See? It’s not hard. Just drink the damned thing! That’s what you came here to do!”

What I came here to do. Right.

I turned my attention back to the stout. I lifted the pint glass, which was surprisingly cold, and held it up to the shaft of light coming from the dingy window over my shoulder. The onyx liquid seemed to absorb the light. But was that just my imagination?

“The Ballad of Ailbe Ailbhe said that the one who drank the stout of the isle of Brasil would receive untold gifts from God, “Beidh súile Dé ag titim air”… The legend of Cu Chulainn says that the stout is what gave him his mighty powers, that he kept a cask nearby as he fought Queen Mebh of Connacht. But all the stories end the same way… there was always a cost…”

A sudden pounding on the rough wooden pub door just to my right brought me out my revelry. With a curse in a language I didn’t recognize, my diminutive associate shot out of the seat and stood before the door, his hands raised and head bowed.

Ciara.

She’d been trailing us every step of the way, but the dwarf had kept us out of her reach. But now, she’d found us.

She wanted the stout for herself.

The irony is, she’d been the only one who’d believed me. I’d opened up everything to her, given her my heart, confessed all my hopes and dreams. She’d listened and absorbed and learned and then betrayed me. First, Ciara went to the dean accusing me of plagiarism, and then after I’d confronted her about it, she went to the dean again accusing me of assault.

All lies, of course.

“Drink the damned drink!” the dwarf cried, his hands now pressed hard against the door. Were they glowing? “I can’t hold them!”

I turned my attention back to the stout. God only knew what Ciara would do if she got her hands on something so powerful. It’s my fate, not hers. It’s my dream, and she – with all of her lies and masks and broken promises – she can go to hell.

My hands shook as I lifted the pint to my lips, and as the glass grew closer, the sounds of the struggle at the door receded until they were nothing more than a buzzing fly or a neighbor playing his music a bit too loud. The glass was cold. So cold. Why would they serve it cold?

Before I could drink, the door exploded in, flinging the dwarf across the room and slamming him against the wall beside my table. He slumped lifelessly to the floor, and then she was there, her da’s pistol pointed at my head, two ugly goons flanking her on either side.

“Put it down, Liam,” she said breathlessly.

“I can’t,” I whispered, the stout just an inch from my lips. “You know I can’t. This is the stout of Brasil! It’s real!”

“It’s not real, Liam,” she whispered, desperation in her voice. “Please put it down and come with me.”

“Or you’ll shoot me?” I asked, laughing at the irony. Just two weeks earlier, we were lying naked in bed playing Fortnite on our phones, and now she’s pointing an actual gun at my head? “You just can’t stand the idea of me getting the power.”

“I want you to get some help,” she said, shaking her head. “Please.”

But I’d come too far. Maybe she would shoot me, maybe she wouldn’t. But if I could take a drink – even just a quick one – then none of it would matter. Her bullets, her rejection, all of the rejection – none of it would matter.

I took a drink.

She fired.

Blackness.

This is a short story written for the Shenzhen Writing Group, Shenzhen, China, September 2018.

Truth

I’d been waiting for that moment for years, dreamed about it, saw how it would happen from beginning to end. I’d waited, patiently, watching him from a distance when he didn’t know that I was there.

It was my only purpose in life, my penance, to watch him and wait. Wait for the right time to tell him his place in things. At least three times I was tempted to be the one to initiate contact, but something would always stop me. At the time, I found it incredibly frustrating, and I would lock myself in my hovel and try to find peace about my waylaid plans. Each time, I would come out understanding that what had happened had been right, because things would have undoubtedly gone wrong if I had overstepped my bounds yet again. That’s the way the universe operates.

Or at least so I was taught.

Then, the opportunity was given to me. I almost told him everything, but I didn’t. He came to me, understand. I didn’t go looking for him, he came looking for me. After years of watching and waiting, he came to me. And I would tell anyone that asked that if there were signs to be sought, they were all there: I had him alone – well, mostly alone. Undistracted. None of his loud friends or busybody relatives bustling about to stop me.

It was perfect. It was time.

He even asked me what had happened. He actually asked me. The conversation had been going exactly as I imagined it would up to that point, and yet when he asked me, the words I had been practicing since I first came to this godforsaken place froze on my lips. It came on me suddenly – a feeling that I still mustn’t tell him. It still wasn’t time, even though everything seemed to be pushing me towards following my original plan.

I saw what would happen if he knew the truth right now. He sat before me, a boy filled with a beautiful optimism and purity, and those qualities would serve him well in life, but they would be his undoing if he knew the truth now. His goodness would make him obsess over the truth, he would go mad thinking that he could somehow make things right. He would run to him – and he wouldn’t be ready. And then all of his admirable qualities would be twisted and manipulated and turned into a dark abomination.

I saw him turn, right in front of me, in my home.  And he whispered that if this happened to him, it would once again be because of my impatience. As I was responsible for his father, I would be responsible for him.

And then I heard words that I had never rehearsed spill from my mouth, and I felt a guiltless guilt as I saw my lie spill over him. I knew that it was the right thing to do, even as I knew how deep his goodness ran, and how deeply he would feel betrayed when he found out the truth.

But he will understand, and he will forgive. That’s the man this boy will grow to be.

And when he’s old enough, he will be ready.

But not today.

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father…”

Lies

 

The sound of her keys jangling sets off an eruption on the other side of the door. It always does, and so she always jangles them a bit louder than necessary to help prime the eruption. Today is no different, and they’re all there when she opens the door, bursting to welcome her home. The twins, who only learned to walk a few months ago, lead the charge. The toddler is close behind, and the corgie is in the midst of it all, adding his barks to the delighted cries of the children.

Behind the young, noisy crowd, he sits on the floor, the big bulky Legos spilled all around him, with a multi-colored house featuring Mickey Mouse’s head the main architectural feat of the day. He looks tired, as he usually does, as anyone would when taking care of three small children all day long. But still, he stands and approaches her, wading through the pool of youth to offer his own particular greeting.

“How was the trip?” he asks, kissing her. He tastes like brownies.

“Same as usual,” she says, kissing him back. The kids are wrapped around her legs, giggling, asking for presents, but she still takes the time to let her embrace communicate that she’d missed him. “Let me get changed, and then you can take a break. Should I start a bath?”

His smile is tinged with relief. “Join me?”

“Is this a group offer?” She asks, gesturing to the giggling children.

She sets her bag down in the closet and takes off her blouse. She’s about to take off her pants when she feels the familiar buzz of her cell phone in the pocket. She pulls it out and reads the message. She smiles, and then freezes. Did she hear someone in the bedroom?

“Honey?” She calls.

No answer.

She turns her attention back to the phone and feels a stirring as she taps out her reply. Then, swiping the screen to close the app, she decides to turn off notifications for incoming messages, just in case.

She finishes changing into her sweats, and pockets her phone as she rejoins her family.

She’s home.

Mostly.