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PREVIEW: Jack in the Box

September 13, 2018

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To Hell, Part One of Two

Friday, September 22, 2017

            Michael wasn’t the smartest man in the world, but that had never bothered him.

            Earning mediocre grades throughout high school, he’d immediately signed up with his uncle’s construction company after graduation, happily accepting the labor-intensive job in lieu of any more schooling. With hard work and patience, he climbed the ranks of the company, eventually claiming the title of foreman just after his thirty-first birthday.

            Due to his cheery attitude and strong work ethic, he was always assigned the most difficult tasks, from clear cutting swamplands to repairing sewage tanks. His newest job was no different, the slow and arduous task of rewiring the older subway tracks of New York. While others balked at the prospect of days alone in the dark catacombs of old New York, Michael took it in stride, inspired largely by the hefty pay the city offered and his wife’s second pregnancy.

            Dropping from the rusted iron-wrought rungs to the slickened stone floor, Michael did a quick inspection of his gear. He had enough coiled wire to string along the long-forgotten walls, as well as a light pick and a few dozen light-weight aluminum pitons to post said wiring up safely. A pair of industrial-strength flashlights dangled from his hip, along with an assortment of tools that could come in handy in any given situation. He also carried a Glock .009, just in case he bumped into anything unsavory.

            It wasn’t unusual to stumble across “Hobo Towns” in the tunnels beneath New York. Great expanses of subway routes had been conquered by the city’s homeless as a place of refuge and solace. While Michael felt no real desire to harm the unfortunate souls, he was often alone in his passive sentiments; the homeless were not known for a forgiving attitude, and rarely gave up their subterranean lairs without a fight. Michael had never encountered one, but he’d heard enough stories to know that it wasn’t merely an urban legend.

            “How’s everything look?” The voice crackled from his handheld radio.

            Michael palmed the hefty device, pulling it from the notch on his belt. “Yeah, the whole place is what we expected. Probably looking at a few months’ worth of work here.”

            The radio crackled and spit, but no reply barked from the other end. Michael shrugged, plugging the radio back into the slot of his belt before beginning his work. This section of subway hadn’t seen use in well over twenty years, something that was clear with just a cursory glance. The stone walls and floor were cracked and imbedded with mold, vast swathes of webbing from spiders spread high overhead, and a perpetual dripping noise echoed from the surrounding darkness.

            Michael tugged hard on the wiring trailing from the higher tunnels, signaling he was ready for a live feed. Moments later the low hum of electricity rang through the air as the insulated wire became live and the few lights Michael had pinned to the walls flickered to life, chasing away the creeping shadows that had begun to consume his weakened flashlight. “Much better,” he mused, looking down each side of the tunnel while trying to decide which way would be best to start with.

            His musings were cut short when he spotted the footprints. The perpetual sludge from countless rainfalls had slowly sunk to the bottom most levels of New York, the bowels of the ever-thriving nexus of human activity. Down one path of the tunnel was a clear set of prints, small and narrow like those of a child.

            “Shit,” Michael mumbled to himself. Today wasn’t going to be that easy after all. “Hey guys, we got a situation down here.”

            The radio crackled in response, but no discernible words came through. Shitty radios, Michael thought with a grimace. If there was a kid down here, he’d need help finding him so they could contact the authorities. No way was it safe for anyone to remain down here, let alone a child.

            “Hello?” He called down the tunnel at the darkness, hoping that maybe the kid would be close enough to hear him. He knew for a fact that these tunnels could go on for miles, the blueprints showing every side tunnel and way station that had been built this deep so many years ago.

            “Fuck. . . I’ll just have to find him as I work.” Michael shrugged. He had a job to do and was on a semi-strict timeline.

            Michael spent the next few hours working his way down the tunnel, measuring out six feet of wire before wrapping them about a piton, firmly hammering them into the crumbling stone walls. Once attached, a small bulb would be attached to an open coupling in the charged wire, allowing the gloom of the musty sepulcher to be forced back ever so slowly.

            As the fourth hour crept to a close, Michael noticed that the tunnel was opening wider. Probably into one of the many old way stations that dotted this underground complex. The tracks at his feet, ruined by lack of maintenance and the damp conditions, were likely a fine example of how the coming bunker would look, more cavern than structure. Edging around a wide puddle (fearing it was deeper than it looked), Michael hastily drove a piton into the wall next to his head, wrapping a new length of charged coil and plugging in a fresh bulb to allow him a better look at what he would be dealing with.

            The sudden light revealed a dozen frozen stares facing him.

            Michael watched the mass of ragged homeless shy away from the brilliant corona of light. All of them looked as if they hadn’t seen the light of day in recent memory, their skin ashen and smudged with grime and mud. Clothes, haphazardly sewn together by a blind seamstress, reeked of filth and urine, a palpable wave of rank wafting away from the crowd like a tangible wall.

            “Umm. . . I’m from the city, just doing some maintenance. No need for alarm.” Michael called out, holding a hand up in nervous greeting.

            They seemed wholly unimpressed, now moving about the large cavern, fascinated with their own designs. The track, now wide enough to fit a pair of trains, was deep set into the ground, with a wide expanse of cracked cement that once served as a waiting area for bored passengers. Small smokeless fires glowed with dying embers, huddled masses of rotting cloth gathered around them like wingless moths in search of hope.

            “You just gonn’ stand there-a gawkin or ya gonna move on in?” Rasped an old man at Michael’s elbow, causing him to jump in surprise. The man, bent and crooked with age and dressed in what was once a fine-looking coat, hacked and laughed at Michaels expression, slapping his knee with mirth. “Wowee, you ain’t gonn’ last long down here with that yella bit o’ spine, fella!”

            Gasping for breath, Michael glared at the old bum, clearing his throat. “I’m here to-”

            “-fix up tha tunnel, yeah we hear ya.” The old man finished, grinning with a mouthful of brown teeth and blackened gums. “Jus’ move on through, we won’t pay ya no mind.”

            Michael, surprised at how nonchalant the beggar was, merely nodded. “Well. . . thanks, I guess.”

            “Just don’ go down tha’ there path,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger across the way station to a darkened hole in the wall, clearly something that had occurred years after the construction of the area.

            “Why?” Michael asked, eyes locked onto the shadowy entrance of the hole in the wall.

            The old man merely smiled before shuffling away, his steps rustling noisily due to the plastic bags wrapped around his feet. None of the other homeless even so much as looked at him, merely sitting or standing in abject silence, staring at their small fires or into empty space. Michael couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, couldn’t help but feel ashamed at the small welling bit of fear he had of them. These were merely people who’d had a bad string of luck, he told himself. No reason to be afraid of them.

            Despite his own assurances, he made sure to click the safety off his pistol as discreetly as possible. None within the crowd seemed to notice, or if they did they didn’t seem to care.

            Michael carefully spent the next few minutes unrolling a more wire, taking a few quick measurements of the area to try and guess at how long he would have to work around the eerily silent crowd. His first few attempts at placing the lights along the wall were clumsy at best, his fear of turning his back to the crowd making his work shoddy and rushed.

            But after the third light flickering to life, Michael began to fall back into his habitual motions, keeping a sideways glance on his shuffling companions, each shying further away from him as he added more light to the darkened chamber. The wall he chose to follow, a long expanse of cement that had held up well over the years, was sadly the wall that was bringing Michael ever closer to the gaping darkness of the cave entrance.

            Once the light of a freshly powered bulb sprayed down into the darkened maw, Michael could only shudder at the roughly hewn passage lying before him. Unlike the rest of the tunnels and stations he had studied from weathered schematics, this was a completely unmarked pass that had obviously been added by unskilled hands. Thin layers of cool moisture hung to the sloping walls, fetid puddles of water pooling along the passages floor, rife with mold and flies. The entire tunnel itself felt colder than the rest of the way station, the shadows seemingly lashing back from the presence of the light, as if offended.

            The passage went deeper into the earth, some twenty feet over a gradual slope before turning sharply, the rest of the darkness now out of sight. Thin coatings of mildew and mold hung from the walls like sagging flesh, the color of the recently deceased. Altogether, a wholly unwelcoming place.

            Sadly, Michael had been given strict orders by his superiors to document all damage that the tunnels may have endured during the interim years since their construction. Heaving a sigh, Michael sheathed his hammer, put his most recent piton pack into a holster; he had to look in the cave, no matter how uninviting it appeared.

            His first step into the tunnel, marked with a sickening squishing noise akin to gelatin being chewed upon by a particularly rude eater, brought the haunting voice of the old man over the silent crowd. “Don’ say I dinnae warn ya boy.”

            Michael didn’t even bother to look back at the speaker, choosing instead to merely push through this job as quickly as possible. While he was proud of his work ethic, he was truly beginning to regret his decision to take this job. With the thoughts of his beautiful wife to bring him comfort, he trudged onward through the muck and the grime, the brilliant beam of his flashlight slicing through the heavy veil of inky blackness clogging the shaft.

            The tunnel continued to spiral and descend, sometimes gradually in a gentle slope, while others forced Michael to carefully climb down a sudden drop. His thick coat and padded jeans, while normally stifling and hot in the New York heat, seemed too thin now that he was descending into the bowels of the earth. His fingers went numb from the biting cold.

            “How far does this hellhole go anyway?” He grumbled to himself, stumbling over some loose rubble for what seemed like the fortieth time. “I must be at least a hundred feet deeper than the sub-system.”

            The tunnel opened into a wide ramp of gravel and mud, leading into a wide open cavern the likes of which Michael had only ever heard about. His high-powered flashlight, advertised as being the strongest on the market, could do little to the overwhelming darkness of the apparently never-ending night that Michael had wandered into. The ceiling, too high for his light to reach, covered the entire cavern in a fine, cool mist.

Michael walked deeper into the chill of the cave, rubbing at his arms to try and warm himself. His thoughts were interrupted with the sounds of splashing, of floundering; something else was in the area, in the cave, and emerging from the water.

            “Who’s there!” Michael called, whirling his flashlight in a wide arc in search of the noise, his other hand reaching for his pistol. The splashing continued, echoing from all around, from above and below, from the crushing darkness moving all round him. Spinning to make way for the exit, Michael was horrified to discover that his explorations had led him further from the entrance than he thought.

            Michael was lost.

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