S.E. Greco was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs. He moved to New York’s Hudson Valley region where he spent a career as a physicist and engineer at a major tech company before turning his attention to writing. His fiction has appeared recently in Suspense Magazine, The Dark City Crime and Mystery Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, and Postcard Shorts. Steve currently lives in Connecticut and divides his time between writing and painting.
The four boys gazed at the end of the enormous cement drainage pipe where it emerged from the hillside. To their eight-year-old brains it was like staring at the entrance to a different dimension.
“Holy crap, it’s huge, and they left it open!” said Mike, his innocent eyes wide with amazement.
“Yeah, see, I told ya, but you dorks didn’t believe me. I seen it this morning,” said Dennis.
The pipe had just been installed by the town highway department as part of a new road project, and now the little stream which fed the pond where Harvey, Mike, Charlie, and Dennis swam every summer day was flowing through the pipe. The water trickling out of it ran down the hill into the greenish pond.
Dennis gave the other three his usual goading smirk and asked: “All right, which one o’ you ladies is goin’ in there?” He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and held it out toward the others.
Harvey, Mike, and Charlie looked at each other.
Why did any one of them have to go in the pipe? thought Harvey. But of course the answer was obvious: Because it’s there. The same reason that grown-ups climb Mount Everest.
The end of the pipe would eventually be covered with a heavy metal grate to prevent animals or curious young boys from wandering into it, but the grate now sat on the ground next to the pipe, as if the construction crew had reached quitting time on Friday before they could attach it to the opening.
Mike’s eyes were wide with apprehension. He was the smallest and scrawniest of the group. “What if they come put the grate on while one of us is in there?”
Dennis gave Mike a condescending scowl and said, “It’s Saturday, numb nuts, they don’t work on Saturday. Well, I know Harvey won’t go in there. He's a chickenshit.” Dennis looked directly at Harvey for a reaction and he got one.
Harvey quickly made a fist with his right hand and slammed it into his left palm with a loud smack. "I am not a chickenshit!" he said.
Dennis continued his taunting. “Cmon, Harvey, there’s nothin' to be scared of, anyway. Just water in there. And maybe a few rats.”
Rats? thought Harvey.
“My uncle lived in New York City,” said Charlie. “He said there were lots of rats livin’ in the sewers ‘cause they like dirty water.”
Dennis gave Charlie a slight push, leaving a muddy handprint on his faded T-shirt. “You dufus,” Dennis said. “There’s no rats in there. What are they gonna eat if they live in there?”
Harvey thought, Why am I scared of so many things? Snakes, spiders, ghosts, axe murderers…and rats; They held the place of honor at the top of the list. He’d had many talks with his Dad about dealing with his fears. He could hear his Dad’s words now: Harvey, ninety nine percent of fear is due to a runaway imagination, my boy. And you’ve got a great imagination because you’re an intelligent kid. That’s all, see? Face your fears, Harvey boy, and they’ll go away!
Of course. Harvey’s Dad made it sound so simple. But the only problem was, knowing why he was afraid didn’t make the fear go away.
"I could go in. I just don't want to," Harvey declared.
"You mean you don't want to because you're a chicken," Dennis said.
"Why don't you go?” Harvey asked Dennis.
“Cause I took the last dare, I jumped off Hansen’s rock into Quarry Lake when you guys wouldn't do it. You were too afraid you’d get squished like a bug. Look, this pipe comes out at the corner of the field, right down there, on the other side of them trees.” Dennis pointed. "It ain't far, only a five-minute walk."
Only five minutes? thought Harvey. Heck, I can handle that.
With steely determination he said to Dennis, “Gimme that flashlight.”
A mischievous grin flashed across Dennis’s face, as he handed the light to Harvey. He took it and stepped into the pipe, which was so big that he could stand upright. Harvey’s sneakers splashed in the water, and they' d be soaked for sure when he got out. Probably his Mom wouldn't notice, and even if she did, well, that was the least of his problems right now. He walked forward decisively, determined not to show fear. But his insides were jelly.
"Go for it, Harvey, you can do it!” said little Mike.
Dennis chuckled and called out: “Don’t soil your jockeys in there, Harvey.”
The teasing made Harvey even more resolute. He trudged on, despite his growing uneasiness. But when the pipe took a slight turn, the other boys faded from sight. Harvey was alone now, as alone as he'd ever been in his life.
It was cool and musty in the pipe. He shivered.
Splish, Splash, Splish.
He intentionally made loud splashing sounds by stamping his feet. This place was a tomb, and the splashing sound, or any sound for that matter, was slightly comforting.
Splish, Splash, Sploosh, Squeak.
Harvey stopped and listened, holding his breath.
That sure sounded like a squeak, but who or what could be squeaking in here? To Harvey it sounded like maybe it came from behind him.
Dennis must be following, making sounds to panic Harvey. Yeah, that was it, thought Harvey with some relief. This was a setup, the whole thing. Dennis wanted me to go into the pipe alone, so he could give me a good scare. The other guys were maybe in on it too, but ... if Dennis is in the pipe, where’s his light?
Harvey looked behind him carefully. There was no sign of a flashlight, only some faint illumination coming from the left, and it wasn't moving. If Dennis was carrying a flashlight, the light would be moving, right?
Anyway, there can’t be any rats in here… because like someone said, there wasn’t anything for them to eat. Harvey knew what their favorite food was…
His mind flashed back to that Saturday morning two years ago when he’d gotten out of bed before his parents and poured himself a big bowl of his favorite breakfast cereal, Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs, and he noticed that they’d added something new to the cereal, little bits of something. It looked to Harvey like seeds, little brownish black seeds of some type. Had the Boomer Fun Foods company of Kalamazoo added a new ingredient, a seed, which is actually a health food, to Harvey's favorite cereal without first asking him, their most excellent customer? Harvey doubted it. This was the same upstanding cereal company that he’d sent a letter to, written painstakingly in his childish scrawl, about him finding a big yellowish toenail in his box of cereal. They’d sent him such a a nice letter back, apologizing profusely and they’d even given him a certificate for a free box of cereal. Harvey had proudly saved the toenail in his special shoebox of coolest things. So they surely wouldn’t have changed the formula for the world’s best chocolate cereal, right?
Harvey poked at one of the seeds and pushed on it... and the seed squished.
Hey, aren't seeds supposed to be hard?
That’s when Harvey’s fourteen-year-old brother looked over Harvey’s shoulder and said,“You little dork, those are rat turds. A rat got into your cereal and you been eatin’ sugar frosted rat shit for a week. Haw, haw, haw….”
For two months after that, Harvey had checked under his bed for that rat every night and slept with his bedroom door locked and the covers pulled over his head and his baseball bat lying next to him. He hadn't seen the rat, but…
Harvey shivered as his mind snapped back to the present. He moved forward about ten more paces, turned off his flashlight, and looked behind him again, squinting his eyes. Nothing. Geez, it was nearly pitch black now, with his light off. He shuddered and snapped the light back on. Should he turn around and head back to the entrance? Just think of the ribbing he'd get! They'd call him chicken again, this time all of them for sure. Maybe he could tell them the pipe was blocked and he couldn’t get through? But then they might want to come into the pipe to see, and they'd know he was a liar. So there was no choice. Harvey swallowed hard and moved forward. Well, it couldn't be that much farther to the end, right? But there was no sign of a light ahead. What if the other end had a locked grate on it? Dennis said it was open but what if he was lying? Then Harvey would have to turn around and walk all the way back. That darn Dennis! When Harvey got back, he'd tell him a thing or two, and...
Oh, double geez.
Harvey's legs were pumping now, and he broke into a run, faster and faster than he ever thought he could run even on his best day.
His foot hit a rock, and he went lunging forward. The flashlight jumped from his hand and pinwheeled in the air, its beam tracing a ghostly arc across the pipe wall as it spun. Harvey watched the light as he fell, as if in slow motion, hypnotized by the oscillating illumination until he hit the ground with a hard thud and rolled in the water. He could hear his pants tearing on something, and then he felt the white hot pain as his knee scraped the cement, and at the same time he heard the tinkle of breaking glass. Then the light was gone and there was only blackness, as black as if he had stuck his head into an ink bottle, so dark he couldn't see his hand when he held it two inches in front of his face.
Oh, my God.
Okay, Don’t panic.
Maybe if he could find the flashlight he could get it to work again, maybe something just came loose on it, maybe it opened up when it hit and the batteries popped out, and maybe only the glass face had broken. Lots of maybes. He moved forward on his hands and knees in the direction he thought the breaking glass sound had come from, feeling around, fighting the panic and trying to ignore the burning pain from the cut on his knee. Where was the darn flashlight? He felt nothing except the water, some scattered pebbles, and the cold hard cement. After a minute of searching without luck, he stopped and took a few deep breaths to try and calm himself.
All right now, I've had some training for situations like this. I'm a Cub Scout after all, and I've even earned my outdoors-man activity badge, so I'm trained to survive, right? Now what would the Cub Scout manual say for a situation like this? Harvey thought hard but couldn't recall a chapter that even made a passing mention of getting stuck without a light in an underground drainage pipe. Cub Scouting had trained him very well indeed in making napkin holders out of popsicle sticks. He could fashion a table centerpiece out of toilet paper tubes, macaroni, and uncooked lima beans that would amaze the relatives on Thanksgiving. And if his life depended on making a hand puppet out of an old sock, a few buttons, and some scraps of yarn, he had that one covered too, no problem. But this drainage pipe situation had apparently not been anticipated by his den leader.
Harvey picked himself up quickly. He knew he had to keep moving, or... or what? He sprang forward because he knew whatever it was, it was coming up from behind him now, and coming fast.
Harvey was sure of it now, he’d heard a sound just like this before, in the kitchen, from the rat that ate his cereal!
Panic took over again, and Harvey broke into a run, guiding himself in the total darkness as best he could by listening to his sneakers slap the water. He lifted his feet high to avoid rocks or other debris, and prayed the pipe didn't make any sharp turn, and that he didn't run smack into the side of it.
Please, God, I'll say a million Hail Marys if you'll get me out of this one alive.
All right, make it a zillion Hail Marys! But I'm not gonna make it, those sharp teeth will be in my neck in a second, and...
"Hey Harvey, are you there?"
An angel! It must be an angel I just heard, because I see a heavenly light ahead. Don't they say that when you're dead you see a light, and aren’t you supposed to walk toward the light, and...
"Harvey, is that you?"
Still running, Harvey looked closer and saw this was no heavenly light up ahead, it was the end of the pipe! And there was enough light coming from the opening now to see the walls and the water again, and there was a person standing in the opening, a person who was rapidly becoming bigger as Harvey sped toward the light. It was his friend Mike.
"Harvey, you did it!" said Mike with excitement, as Harvey reached him at the end of the pipe.
"Nothin' to it," replied Harvey, trying his best to act cool, while inside he was thinking, I'm saved, I'm saved! But … how long will it take to say those zillion Hail Marys?
Dennis spitefully waved both hands to dismiss Harvey’s victory, and said, “Aw, so what? My arthritic Grandma coulda' made it through that pipe without her cane and her dentures.”
"Harvey, did you see anything in there?" asked Mike, his eyes wide with wonder.
“Uh, no… it was pretty dark," said Harvey.
"Did ya hear anything?” asked Charlie.
Did I? thought Harvey. Could I have imagined the whole thing? Did I hear something that came out of my own imagination like my Dad said? Some sound made inside my head by my own worst fears? Yeah, that was it! There was no rat chasing me. Rats don't chase people, for God's sake.
"Rat!" cried Mike, as a cat sized black rodent jumped from the drainage pipe onto Harvey's shoulder from behind, its long slimy tail whipping Harvey in the face as it landed.
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!" screamed all four of them in unison, and in one swift, panicked motion Harvey ripped his shirt open, tearing the buttonholes in the front, and dropped it onto the ground, and the huge rat, the greasy black creature from hell, dropped with it.
The four boys ran and didn’t look back.
As Harvey’s furiously pumping legs propelled him past the others, he thought, Okay, question for Dad when I see him tonight—Does fear have a purpose? Can it keep you safe? Cause sometimes, you know, these things you’re afraid of…sometimes they’re real.