The Kindling of Bone
“Alright Coby, I’m down here,” Jackson said through his radio, the burly construction worker shining a flashlight in the narrow tunnel that was the sewer of 6th street. It ran some eight feet, with grates high above showing the shining neon lights of the many bars that populated the infamous Austin road. Tonight, like the past three nights, Jackson had come down into the sewers and begun installing cables into the cement so that they could have light in the dismal setting.
With a loop of copper wire wrapped over one arm and a tool belt strapped around his waist, Jackson waited for his supervisor to reply that it was okay to begin the installation. Coby was a new hire from a different firm, very green. He barely knew the right way to hold a hammer let alone how to install wiring for a temporary lighting system. It needed to stretch the entire length of the sewer canal so that Jackson could begin his work cleaning and restoring the drains which led to the main channel. Jackson dropped the coil of wire to the ground and pulled his flashlight from his belt, flicking it on to look around the area, just to get an idea of how much work the drain would need.
“Shit,” he muttered as he saw the rust beneath the grates, each grate spaced out ten feet along the street above. The walls were moist cement, the humidity of the summer making the job all the more difficult, and the smell of the sewage drifting past at the end of the tunnel all the more potent. “I’m gonna have to replace so much metal, this isn’t even funny. When was the last time someone came down here and took a look at this mess?”
The radio crackled to life, Coby’s voice popping and snapping through the mire of stench. “Jackson, measure the tunnel and add in double the wiring, you’re probably going to need lights on both walls.”
“Both walls? What kind of lights are they giving me?” Jackson muttered before holding the radio up to his face. “Yeah, copy that. Make a note that we’ll need some more drainage material down here, the previous amount is corroded to shit.”
“Copy that,” Cody replied.
Jackson holstered the radio and began walking down the tunnel, keeping his light on the ground next to the partially-rusted channel to the left, dry from the lack of rain. Stopping when he saw an actual hole big enough to stick his arm through in the inverted sheet metal, he shook his head and dropped down to a squat. Setting the flashlight down, he pulled out a sharpie and a magnetic measuring tape.
Spending five minutes measuring out the hole he’d have to cut to replace the damaged sheet metal, Jackson scribbled his notes down into a moleskin journal he always kept in the back pocket of his jeans. Tucking the miniature book back into his pocket, he stood back up and continued down his path, looking for serious damage to the chute like he’d just found.
He was startled when he found the corpse of a rat the size of a corgi, heavily decomposed and laying on its side, its belly torn open into a wide spatter of dried brown blood. The stain on the cement was old, likely a few days, but Jackson had never seen a rat this size get taken down by anything other than a homeless person. To them, it was good eats. And the homeless in Austin rarely went so far as to eat rats as they had plenty of homeless shelters and halfway houses they could go to; none of them would squat in a muggy sewer, especially as it would be the last place you would want to be should it be raining.
Nudging the rat with his boot, Jackson whistled as he jostled a slew of maggots and flies free from the opened stomach, rolling it slightly onto its back to where Jackson could see the yellowing bone of the rib cage glisten in the beam of his flashlight.
“Disgusting…” Jackson said as the rat’s corpse made a squelching noise, fluids dribbling out of it in great rivulets. A thin sheen of green shimmered on the inside of the creature’s body, decaying flesh or some other rotting matter that was more liquid than solid. “So sick. I freaking hate finding this shit; makes the whole night go to Hell.”
The smell hit Jackson like a truck, a palpable heat behind the horrid odor. Worse than the smell of sewage flowing down the connecting tunnel that pervaded the air; this smell had a slightly coppery scent to it, with an eye-watering feeling that washed over Jackson in one tumultuous wave. Gagging, he stumbled away from the carcass, covering his mouth with his sleeve as he tried to regain his composure. Reaching into his tool pouch, he pulled out his Vick’s Vapor rub, a small bottle he kept on hand for occasions such as this.
Unscrewing the lid, he rubbed a generous amount of the gray goop onto his gloves index finger and liberally applied it to his upper lip. The stench of the sewer was replaced by the clear and cleansing scent of the medicinal cream. He screwed the top of the jar closed before packing it into his tool belt. His radio crackled to life, Coby saying something that Jackson couldn’t make out. Pulling the radio from his belt, he held the radio up to his mouth, one finger cranking up the volume as he spoke.
“Didn’t get that, repeat last communication,” He said with a sigh, a slight headache already forming from being down here.
“I said to watch out for anything strange,” Coby replied over the static-ridden radio.
“We’ve had reports of strange noises coming from the sewers over the last few weeks. Don’t want to fill out any worker’s compensation forms because you got lazy and got hurt by some stray rat or something.”
“Gee Coby, tell me how you really feel!” Jackson laughed into the radio before depressing the button and shoving the radio back onto his belt. “Jackass…”
Turning back with his flashlight to look down the tunnel, he paused for a moment when something didn’t appear to be right.
The rat was gone.
“No… No, that’s not possible,” Jackson said, shaking his head. “That thing was practically all rot, no way it got up and moved.”
That meant one thing: there was something down here that had grabbed the rat while Jackson’s back had been turned, something so quiet that it could move undetected in the echoing tunnel… something that didn’t need light to see. Walking over to where the dead rat had been, Jackson waved the light around the gray cement marking the spot where the corpse had been. A runny bit of bloody slime was all that remained of the large rodent, along with a few droplets leading towards the main tunnel where the sewage flowed. The gentle plopping and running of water filled the tunnel as Jackson stared at the smear of blood and bile on the wet cement.
“I really hate my job sometimes…” He finally muttered, shaking his head. “Something probably just nabbed it for a quick meal before scurrying away… after all, I was on the radio, it’s no wonder I didn’t hear anything!”
But in the back of his mind, creep began to spread. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, sweat running from his hair down his collar from the humidity. The thick soup of stench trying to fight through the medicinal cream under Jackson’s nose combined with the humidity of the Texas summer made for an uncomfortable feeling, something that just grew more uncomfortable as his mind made up various things that could have happened to the rotting rat the size of a Corgi.
Resuming his walk down the tunnel, light fixated on the channel where the rainwater funneled into the main drainage trench that ran perpendicular to this tunnel, Jackson kept a wary eye out for any sign of rats or other vermin.
He’d heard stories of what people saw down in the sewers of Austin; he’d dismissed the tall tales when he’d heard them, but when you were in the muggy channel, surrounded by a musky darkness that smothered you from all sides, he could understand where the tales had come from.
Jackson stopped as he thought he heard a metallic rattling, like keys shaking together, echoing from the main tunnel. He strained his ears and could just make out the sound of metal clanking against metal, just over the sound of rushing water and the constant drip of pipes built along the walls.
“What is that?” Jackson asked nobody. He’d been in construction for years, from plumbing to highways, and he’d never heard a noise like that before… resisting the urge to shudder, Jackson pulled the bottle of vapor rub from his tool belt and rubbed more of the goop below his nostrils, inhaling deeply the overpowering medical scent. Walking under the archway out onto the three-foot wide walkway that followed the channel deeper into the sewers, Jackson leaned over the railing and watched the brackish water drift past him for a few moments.
He looked up and moved his flashlight down the tunnel when he heard the rattling of metal again, along with what he would swear was a high keening wheeze, something you’d expect to hear from a dying horse. But the tunnel was just that, a walkway leading down along the river of shit and rainwater towards a central hub where it would be cleaned out. He almost turned back to head into the smaller passageway to gather his wiring when a crumbling bit of stone fell from behind some pipes that ran along the ceiling of the tunnel about fifteen feet in front of him.
The rocks dropped into the water making loud splashing noises. Staring at the disturbed water, Jackson’s eyes turned up to look at the pipes, trying to discern where the stone had come from. Shining his light up, a flash of movement and the rattling of metal-on-metal rang out loud enough to almost drown out the hiss that came from something hiding among the pipes.
Walking forward to where he’d seen the rock chips fall, he gasped at what he saw.
There, behind a large sewage pipe running the length of the street was a burrowed hole into the cement. It was full of faded yellow newspapers and dirty rags, with some greenish ooze dribbling down the wall as if the opening were a wound of some kind, the green slime the pus draining from the cut.
The cement around the hole, which was roughly two feet tall and four feet wide and ten feet off of the ground, was chipped and cracked as if it was repeatedly being struck by a tool of some kind. Shining the light on the hole made the clanking noise of metal sliding on cement echo out and around Jackson.
“Is there someone up there?” Jackson asked loud enough for his own voice to carry down the tunnel. “Are you alone? I know of a homeless shelter that’ll take you in, I just can’t have you down here in the sewers; we’re about to start a construction project, and we can’t have people lingering around our work site.”
No response came save for the shuffling of metal on cement, along with the rhythmic tapping of something more… organic on the stone. Jackson heaved a sigh and reached for his radio, bringing his flashlight down so that he could watch his step as he began heading back to the turn that led him down his passage.
“Coby, you there?” Jackson said, scratching at the side of his face with his rough gloves.
“Yeah, what do you need Jackson? You done already?” Coby asked, sounding excited.
“Ha, not exactly. I need you to call the police, I think I found a homeless person down here and they’re being stubborn. No way am I setting up these cables while an unknown like that is running around down here.”
“We need that wiring up ASAP Jackson, I don’t care about some sewer rat that refuses to budge!” Coby crackled over the radio.
Jackson fumed. “Hey! This is a human being we’re talking about! If they get hurt down here because of some shit I’m setting up, whose ass do you think is gonna be on the line, mine or yours?”
There was silence from the radio for several seconds, prompting an exhausted sigh from Jackson as he rubbed his left temple. He pressed the button again and, with an even voice, continued.
“Look, just call for a squad car. They handle this shit all the time,” Jackson explained, thinking of how often he’d been forced to call in cops when they’d disturbed crack dens and hidden meth labs. “They’ll come and try to get whoever is up there to come down and go with them. It’ll be quick and easy, and then I can get to work. The longer we argue about this the closer I am to getting overtime, so please hold up the works as long as you please.”
Coby responded almost instantly, saying he would call the non-emergency line for the Austin Police Department telling them of the situation. “Just start the project. Affix some of the wiring to the wall, leaving room for lights to be set up. We won’t run any electricity or anything or have you handle anything dangerous, so you shouldn’t have to worry about hurting some bum, alright?”
“Sure,” Jackson said with a defeated sigh. “I can do that. I’ll set up to the end of the entry passage before I come topside for my break.”
“See that you do,” Coby replied.
Jackson shoved his radio onto his belt, clicking it off. He didn’t want to hear that smarmy pricks voice for a while; if pressed over his radio silence, Jackson would say that there must be interference down in the sewers.
“Heh, little punk would buy that,” Jackson said as he walked over to the rolled up copper wire, squatting down to take one end of the thick cable and unroll it enough to be able to begin his project. Feeding about ten feet out for the control box that’d be put just under the sewer plate, Jackson spent the next half hour bolting cable into the shaft leading up to the surface.
He bumped into Lou, a grizzled older bear of a man who had a great gray bushy beard and a shiny bald head, his eyes covered by goggles as he was constructing the breaker box for what would control the lights for the cables in the sewers.
“How’s it going, Lou?” Jackson asked as he bolted in a U-ring over the cable, leaving a long strand to be fed into the box when Lou was ready. Lou wiped his forehead with his forearm and grunted.
“If that twat Coby were to fall down a deep hole I wouldn’t have a complaint in the world. You know he hadn’t even set up a connection with the electric company before we started this job? They ain’t gonna send anyone out he says,” Lou groused, motioning to the box bolted into the cement. “He’s telling me I’m gonna have to connect it to the grid that the bars run off of.”
“Wouldn’t that kill their electricity for a good hour?” Jackson asked, wracking his brain over the basics of electrical engineering.
“At the very least. Which means I’m having Coby call each bar to tell the management they’ll be out of power between two and four in the morning,” Lou said with a smile.
“They aren’t taking it well.”
Jackson shared a chuckle with Lou over their supervisors problems before returning to their own tasks, promising to meet up the next day off they had for drinks. Jackson finished with the cable leading up the fifteen-foot shaft that the ladder from the sewer entrance to the road above.
Climbing back down, Jackson clicked his flashlight back on and gasped at what he saw.
His coiled copper cable was unspun in a great mess, a great length pulled down the corridor, going around the bend.
“Fuck!” Jackson said, running a hand through his hair in frustration. “Where the Hell are those cops?”
Reaching down and grabbing the cable with one hand, he tugged it back from where it trailed off into the darkness. He pulled a good ten feet before it stopped as if snagged on something. Then it began pulling back! Dropping his flashlight, Jackson grabbed the cable and, with a grunt, began fighting with whatever was pulling the cable. He could hear the clinking of metal-on-metal from the entrance of the corridor, but his flashlight had fallen to where it was pointed close to the wall, creating a shadowy effect that gave Jackson just the barest outline of the figure pulling on the cable.
It looked like a man, bald and thin, playing tug-of-war with the cable as Jackson struggled to maintain his grip. He could hear metal shrieking along with the keening wail of an infant, rattling metal links shivering to the vibrations of the man’s struggle to tug the cable away from Jackson. Jackson growled low in his throat and gave a savage pull, the grinding of metal on cement audible over the infant’s wails.
“Hey! Jackass! The cops are on the way!” Jackson shouted at the homeless man, who continued tugging despite the warning. “That means you should leave before they come and stomp your face in!”
A distinct noise of a blade sliding out rang throughout the corridor, one arm raised with what had to be a machete in his hand. With a solid strike on the cable, the man severed an easy twenty feet of copper cable. He turned and sprinted off, his gait wide and ungainly as if he didn’t have joints.
“This is some bullshit!” Jackson growled. The copper wiring inside the cable was worth a good deal of money and obviously that homeless man knew it! Pulling his U-ring gun from his tool belt he scooped up the flashlight and jogged down the corridor in hot pursuit of the thieving man.
Turning the corner with the flashlight’s powerful beam highlighting the tunnel, Jackson stopped in his tracks as he caught sight of the man he was chasing.
The man, if you could call it that, was a yellowed skeleton, with several larger bones cracked from age. The teeth and fingers had been replaced with thick wire akin to that of a coat hanger, with chains linked to the ribs and looping around the spine. Several chains were connected between larger joints, holding bones together, with thinner wires acting as muscles for the strange creature.
The only organic part of the entire thing was a pulsing, veiny infant the size of a bowling ball, held aloft where the stomach would be by chains with hooks slipped through the soft, dead skin. Hollow sockets shone back at the flashlight a brilliant sapphire while a lipless mouth oozed green slime over pointed teeth. Spread out like a peacock's tail behind the amalgamation of flesh and metal was a fan of spiked chains, each moving of their own accord as they snaked up, running along pipes or the ceiling of the tunnel.
The skeleton was busy devouring the copper cable, sliding it down his open throat where minute chains peeled back the insulating rubber, shredding it like it was paper. The infant stopped wailing for a moment and gurgled, staring at Jackson with sagging, rotten cheeks. It raised one hand and pointed at him.
“Bad man!” It cried out, kicking its swollen feet against the chains that held it aloft over a coiled hammock of thin chains. “He tried to take our food! Bad man!”
“N-no… I didn’t know you needed to eat, see? I just thought you were stealing it to sell it.” Jackson said, still trying to process the abomination that stood before him.
“Liar! Liar, Liar pants on fire!” The infant screeched before breaking into another wordless wail. The skeleton ceased consuming the cable, biting down to sever the remainder for later. It then dropped the remaining cable down to the ground, the inner working of the skeleton still distributing the copper wiring throughout the body, cutting it into varying lengths for various needs.
The skeleton opened it’s mouth wide, the hinged jaw with sharpened bits of wire lining the upper and lower jaws, so close together that a bite would be like a pair of razor blades slicing into your body. The skeleton let out a clanking noise that Jackson could now see to be chains within it rattling, almost as if it was trying to communicate. Only when it moved did Jackson realize it for what it was.
A war cry.
The legs extended, chains stretching out from the joints at the hips, knees and ankles to where the upper torso was close to the ten foot high ceiling, ducking over as the arms stretched in a similar fashion, curled finger bones ending in barbed wire talons, grasping to try and get a hold of Jackson in a terrifying grip. Jackson backed up, holding up his U-ring gun and firing off three shots in rapid succession at the metallic skeleton.
The chains below the rotting infant had coiled up around it to create a distended belly, an armored cocoon for the parasite the skeleton carried. Two U-rings sank into the cocoon, earning a grinding roar from the skeleton while another chipped yellowed bone from the foul creature’s hip.
Five lines of barbed wire sliced across Jackson’s face, the thin razors cutting deep gashes into his face, a hunk of his nose being torn off as the arm whipped back like a venomous serpent. The infant’s wails were muffled by the chains and then outdone by Jackson’s screams, his hand dropping the flashlight onto the walkway to clutch at his ruined face.
The skeleton pressed its advantage, whipping its other arm at Jackson, the distended limb partially coiling around Jackson’s side to grip the back of his work jacket, the barbs hooking into the denim with ease.
The limb yanked back hard, twirling Jackson, slamming him into the wall where the air was knocked out of him. Hot blood leaked down his face and over his lips, the salty flavor of his own fluids reminding him he needed to move if he wanted to live.
The light from the flashlight was still facing the animate skeleton, chains waving around it in a sick parody of tentacles as it clambered along the pipes on the ceiling, using its legs to propel itself quickly along the walkway, the wrapped chains acting as a sort of railway for the body to attack from. Barbed hands lashed, hammering at Jackson and tearing at his clothes and exposed flesh with bent fish hooks and rusty razor wire, all to the harmony of rattling chains and the demonic laughter of some bloated leech-child resting in its metal womb.
Jackson screeched as his right arm was pulled out of the socket, the bony hand pinching him tightly as the coiled wires looped around his bicep, spinning and squeezing as they tore through his jacket and cut into his bare flesh and muscle. Blood was spilling everywhere as the sound of grating metal on ancient bone clacked and clanked about, the skeleton hovering over Jackson’s prone form, both extended arms digging into him with a passion only the mad would know. Jackson assumed this would be it, that all that was left for him was a small obituary and a gathering of friends to mourn him.
But then the screeching of metal, the clattering of chains, and the laughter of that hideous child gave way to the most beautiful noise Jackson had ever heard in his life.
Several, in fact.
Rolling his head back, Jackson could look through his one good eye up at two officers, burly men holding out pistols, dressed in their smart blue uniforms. The skeleton screeched as it yanked the wires from Jackson’s arm, shrinking back to its’ normal size instead of the elongated limbs it had been using. The tentacles on it’s back reared up and formed a tight cocoon in front of it, protecting the monstrous child in it’s makeshift womb.
“Freeze motherfucker!” One of the officers called out, smoke rising in the air from the end of his gun’s barrel. “I don’t know what the fuck you are, but I’m damn sure not going to let you rough up somebody on my turf. You’re going downtown son.”
The skeleton, hiding beneath the canopy of chains, shrieked out a high-pitched scraping of metal on metal before turning and leaping into the fast-moving fetid water, a large splash answering the unasked question of whether or not the creature weighed a lot. Both officers fired multiple rounds into the water before the one standing in front of Jackson, an older Hispanic man who had graying hair at his temples, held up a hand for his partner to halt.
“You think we got it?” His partner, a younger Caucasian with the makings of a mustache asked, looking at the brackish water wearily. “That was… what was that?”
“Beats me, but we have someone who’s all cut to shit and bleeding out on us,” the Hispanic officer said, bending down to wrap an arm around Jackson’s waist. “Can you walk sir?”
“I think I can, but not very well…” Jackson slurred, his upper lip torn in half from the vicious slice to his face.
“Well we just need to get you up top, we have an ambulance waiting. Your supervisor said we should’ve expected a homeless man, so we came prepared for someone who might be needing medical care. Looks like we were right!”
Jackson chuckled before coughing, blood spattering over his glove-covered fist held in front of his mouth. “I am so filing worker’s compensation for this,” Jackson said.
“Damn man, I would.” The Caucasian officer said, snorting once as he stared at the water.
The two officers helped Jackson to the surface where Lou and Cody were waiting. The skinny prick that he was, Cody said he’d have the forms ready to be filled out once Jackson was better. Jackson merely nodded as the officer’s marched him to the waiting ambulance. The EMT’s immediately took over, laying him down on a gurney and cleaning out his wounds before wrapping them in gauze.
Amidst all of the flashing red and blue lights and chatter from the crowd of drunken college kids pouring out of the bars, Jackson looked over from the gurney, his one good eye peering down the grate into the sewers.
He could just barely hear, over the chaos around him, the rattling of chains and the hideous, diabolic laughter of the monstrous fetus.