by Tamara Sheehan
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Saul stepped off the bus and the cold, autumn air wind stung his eyes. He whisked away the moisture and set off toward Beach Drive Park.
It was dark under a starless, troubles sky, eerie in the fog. The pale lamps that lit Veterans’ Walk were powerless to cut the gloom beneath the chestnut trees. His feet carried him through the ragged memory of a familiar landscape. Every now and again, the shape of a landmark, the park pagoda, a statue or bridge, leapt out of the fog. The vivid swaths of sprayed graffiti grew more numerous, better contrived as he neared the beach.
The Janion, with one foot wet, was like a spur of stubborn rock on a changing shore. Over the trees toward the ambient light of the city, Saul could see his cream-colored building, could pick out his apartment. Somewhere over the city the wail of a siren rose and fell. The sound made him shiver.
He hunted for the tunnel opening in the darkness, groping at shadows and stepping cautiously over driftwood and heaps of garbage. Suddenly the smell of sea water and pool chemicals assailed him, he turned and in the dull light could see the tunnel.
The mouth of the tunnel stuck out from the shore like a broken bone, white concrete slightly luminous, a stream of dark water trickling into the sand below. Saul pushed aside brush and crawled over driftwood toward it. The grate was iron and old, rusting in the detritus of forgotten storms.
He paused at the entrance of the tunnel, looked around him. Beach Drive was almost empty. The waves rose and fell, bearing brightly colored garbage like garlands up onto the shore. He crouched, looked inside, one hand clutching the concrete above him. How could anyone find sanctuary in the concrete that ran into total darkness. How did Audel’s ring end up down here?
He squeezed between the rusting bars of the grate, his shirt bunched up. Grunting, pulling, Saul sacrificed the skin of his hips and shoulders to the unyielding metal, tearing his ears. He stood, panting and exhilarated on the inside of the grate.
Water, ringing, echoing, splashed around him. The tunnel reeked of water, the sweetness of warm, wet concrete, the organic putrescence of decomposing animals, garbage, sewage running in a sister pipe. He closed his eyes, listened to his breath going in and out and echoing back to him. The sea was a dull, steady roar. The sloping floor conspired to trip him. His boots were all ready wet and squelching.
All around him was sound.
Something moved in the darkness ahead. Sudden, furtive motion that made him freeze. Footsteps, brisk, then silent. He crouched down, breath caught in his chest. God, all I need is to get arrested for trespassing, he thought. Orange streetlight came down in bands through manhole covers. The dark shape slid along the floor, paused, then bolted for the grate. A raccoon.
Giggling, the giggles echoing back at him, Saul got to his feet, turned on the flashlight. Howie’s map was folded to show the tunnel mouth and the network of chambers and halls that connected to it. He passed the ladder that marked the middle of Beach Drive, smelled burgers cooking in one of the ocean-view restaurants. The water around his feet was thick with chlorine, an unwholesome brown foam riding on it.
Concrete met a network of red brick. Saul abandoned the newer tunnel and climbed into the old one. It was smaller, the brick hung with garlands of black moss, streaked with mould. He had changed direction; the dry tunnel was taking him east, along the length of Beach Drive toward the Janion.
He looked down at the map and the ground suddenly opened up beneath him.
Water rushed up and swallowed him. He plunged down, struck the bottom and kicked. The sewer spat him back to the surface. He broke gasping, trashing. The sounds of his struggle rocketed off the walls.
Water was all around him, his pack weighted him down. The beam of the flashlight illuminated garbage, the steep-sided pit, a ladder, a ledge, a hole in the wall. He shouted uselessly for help, went under again.
The taste of the water was in his mouth, his nose. He coughed on the sweet, salty decomposition. He forced his weight upward, the sound of his spluttering echoed in the chamber. A wave of panic; he thought of Howie’s warning, of drowning. The water surged around him, a wave breaking on the shore filled up the space with enough force to throw him against the mould-streaked wall. He flailed toward it, caught the black ladder riveted to the wall, heaved himself up.
The ledge was dry, crumbling with decomposition, suspended above the open pipe. He sagged on the bricks and watched the water surging below him. The reek of the water filled his head. He spat to clear the taste out.
When he stopped shaking, he wiped the water off the plastic bag and shone the flashlight at the map. The ink had run on the western corner, but the map still showed the tunnel let out in a natural cave some distance east of the Janion. A small mark indicated another chamber beyond this one, which could link him to the Janion. He got to his feet and squelched into the darkness, in search of the door.
Copyright © 2006 by Tamara Sheehan