“All you gotta do is go in and scout around. We’ll be right here.”
The manhole cover lay next to the open hole in the dead-end road, where Bobby and Max had set it. Weird gurgling sounds echoed out of the hole’s depths.
Danny squatted on his haunches, shoved a stick of gum in his mouth, and chewed. “You sure? Momma said not to go sticking my head in the underground.”
Bobby punched Danny square in the shoulder. “You a momma’s-boy? The creepers’ve been spotted ’round here and we need a place to hide if they show up again. Man up and get inside.”
Danny didn’t like the smell, and he didn’t like the sounds, but most of all he didn’t like being called a momma’s-boy. Besides, the creepers weren’t funny. They’d taken kids from around the city, most recently a quiet little red-headed third-grader from his own school, even newer to the neighborhood than he was.
Bobby and Max waited, Bobby’s thumb wedged in his jeans pocket, fingers tapping an impatient rhythm on his thigh. They’d been welcoming when Danny first came to town, but lately he’d gotten the feeling they were tiring of him.
This was a chance to prove himself.
“All right. You two’ll come if I holler?”
Max flashed his I’m an angel smile that got him extra cookies from the lunch lady. “You know it.”
Jaws working the gum hard, Danny levered himself into the hole and made his way hand-over-hand down the cold, damp ladder rungs. Sunlight streamed in through the manhole. A few crisscrossed beams shone down through the storm drains.
“See anything?” called Bobby.
Danny reached the bottom and stepped off onto the slanted concrete floor. A stream ran past at the bottom of it. Red graffiti marked the walls, angular and unreadable. Moisture dripped from the ceiling.
“Ain’t nothing down here.”
“Go on a ways,” Max said. “Gotta be sure there’s nothing further along that’ll come back up.”
Danny munched on the hardening gum. It had already lost its flavor. “What, you think the creepers are hiding in the underground?”
“We ain’t saying anything,” said Bobby. “Just can’t hurt to be careful.”
Danny wished he’d brought a flashlight. Not for the light, so much, but a heavy metal tube in his hand would sure make him feel a lot more bold.
He inched forward along the edge of the stream, careful not to touch the water. Lord knew where it’d been. His pulse thudded in his ears.
The passageway narrowed into a tunnel. Daylight lit the tunnel’s mouth, but faded into a dim void farther ahead. He didn’t like the look of it, but if he got it all scouted before bringing Bobby and Max down, they’d be impressed he’d done it on his own.
Danny curved his back into the rounded wall and scooted forward. After a few steps, he heard a noise in the distance. Sniffles, like someone was crying.
The sniffles stopped. “Who’s there?”
Danny inched his way through the darkness until he came out the end of the tunnel into another pool of filtered daylight. The little red-headed girl from school sat hunched against a wall, hugging her legs. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face wet.
“Jesus.” Danny knelt beside her. “Hey, kid. You’re okay now. I’ll take you out of here.”
She shook her head, but let him pull her to her feet.
“Where’re the creepers now?” he asked, dragging her towards the tunnel.
“Ain’t no creepers.”
She slipped. Danny hauled her upright. “C’mon, watch your feet. Whattya mean, ain’t no creepers? You just like climbing around in sewers and scaring folks half to death?”
They came out into the wider space where Danny had first entered. The light from the manhole was gone, leaving only the dim glow from the storm drains. Danny swallowed his gum. “Bobby! Max! What’re you playing at? Open the cover! I found that girl from school.”
“Too late,” the girl muttered, wringing her hands. “Too late.”
“My left nut, it’s too late,” Danny said, forgetting he shouldn’t be crude. “Wait here.”
He found the ladder and scrambled up. Even if Bobby and Max had left him there for some kind of sick joke, opening a manhole cover shouldn’t be difficult.
He reached the top and shoved with one hand.
He tried again, lowering his head and pushing up with his shoulder, levering with his legs. He grunted. Winced.
“Told you so,” said the girl. “Don’t you think I tried?”
Danny pounded on the lid. “Bobby! Max! This ain’t funny!”
A low rumble shuddered through the thick, damp air.
“Come down,” the girl squeaked. “You gotta hide.”
Danny grasped the outside of the ladder, wrapped his feet around the edges, and slid down, landing hard on the concrete.
The girl grabbed his hand and pulled him into the tunnel. Danny glanced back. The silhouettes of two familiar heads stared in through the storm drains.
An inhuman roar echoed off the concrete.
The girl shoved Danny backward and he stumbled into a dark crevice. She pressed herself in close, setting one finger over his lips. He didn’t need the warning.
Thud-scrape. Thud-scrape. Something vast lumbered down the tunnel, shaking the ground. Danny held his breath, trapping the scent of rot and sulfur in his nose.
Fighting the need to sneeze, he waited, cold sweat sliding down the back of his neck, a metallic taste on his tongue, until the rumbling was gone and the red-headed girl pulled her finger away.
“Ain’t no creepers up above,” she whispered, glancing towards the manhole cover. “Just creeps who feed the underground. I heard ’em say. ‘She’ll keep it full for now.'”
Danny closed his eyes and clenched his fists so hard the nails dug into his palms. He had to be brave for the girl’s sake. “Don’t you worry. We’re gonna be fine.”
He hoped he’d live long enough to get back above-ground. There were worse things than being a momma’s-boy.
Rebecca Birch lives in Seattle, Washington, where it doesn’t really rain every day. Her fiction has appeared in markets including the Grantville Gazette: Universe Annex, Perihelion Science Fiction, and Penumbra eZine.