There are three men standing at the intersection of a sewer. One of them is very lean and very tall. In fact he looks too tall and seems to sway on his feet, as if ready to topple at the whim of a strong gust. He grips a burlap sack in his left hand. The tall man has provided the firepower.
Next to him is a greasy mustache. The mustache belongs to a stocky Mediterranean-looking fellow with shifty eyes. He digs into his backpack with concerned intent. The mustached man has provided the intelligence and the tools. Standing apart from the first two men is the clown. Wrinkled columns of green-yellow-blue, green-yellow-blue support an ashen face of sweat and paint. He wears a white clown glove on each hand. Thick locks of crimson explode from his head, aggravating the sweat. His face is on the verge of melting. The clown has provided the distraction, but he does not look happy.
The three men face a brick wall with a hole in the center. It is less a hole than a black gaping chasm, maybe a couple feet wide and stretching to infinity. Mustache maintains that this will lead them directly beneath the bank.
Clown is not so sure. He questions the men’s collective planning. Tall Man did not bother to load any of the handguns, ensuring them that a show of force will be more than enough. Mustache has apparently forgotten to bring a single flashlight, and curses. And Clown himself wonders why he chose to dress in full clown regalia before venturing into the sewers.
The sewers are filthy, as sewers ought to be. A noxious gas of human excrement floods each nostril with every breath. Layered above this stench is something more, something sickly sweet. Barely noticeable, but there. Green light bounces from the drainage channels as rats and other scurrying things patter along the rim. Clown stumbles on the walkway in over-sized shoes.
Tall Man avoids the sight of Clown. He harbors a lifelong distrust of clowns, a distrust so deep it ventures into the realm of abject fear. To make matters worse, this particular clown’s breath smells like sour milk. It’s nauseating so he keeps his distance. From the corner of his eye he thinks he sees Clown glowering at him. Glowering, or smiling? Tall Man can’t be sure in this dreary dungeon. He, too doubts the wisdom of Mustache’s plan.
Mustache defends the strategy. There were bound to be setbacks, he says, but the hole in the wall still offers the best chance for a clean escape. They will have to enter one by one and crawl on hands and knees to see the other side. Once inside the tunnel, turning around will likely be impossible. Tall Man asks how long it goes. Mustache answers that it should be long, but not too long. Tall Man asks how they are supposed to see anything in the tunnel with no flashlights. Mustache answers that they don’t need to see anything, they just need to crawl. All the same, he does have a book of matches which he offers to Tall Man.
Tall Man interprets this as his cue to go first. Something about the tunnel bothers him, but he would rather get on with it than suffer the continual glares (or smirks?) of Clown. He accepts the matches and faces the hole.
A soft breeze and low howl whisper from the opening. Behind him, Clown stares while Mustache runs some fingers through his oily hair. Tall Man teeters for a moment, turns around, and retrieves three 9mm pistols from the sack in his hand. Easier if you take these now, he says. All three men tuck the weapons into their waistbands. Not weapons, Clown reminds himself. Merely a show of force.
Tall Man turns back around. The bricks in the wall are the color of money. The water flowing through the channels is the color of money. Even the stripes in Clown’s suit are money-colored. Tall Man sees money everywhere, except in that black hole yawning before him. That is the only way to the actual money. Lots and lots of it, the kind you can touch and smell and trade for things that make you happy. Money is the prime motivator for Tall Man, for all of them. It is worth crawling through a slimy stinking hole for, he must tell himself.
Still, he hesitates. The black circle is so sharply defined it seems to hover in front of the wall, detached from its surroundings. Tall Man stoops. And stoops…and stoops some more. He stoops down until the black circle frames his face. He raises a wiry leg until the knee can rest on the lip of the hole. With a push from the other leg he slowly enters.
Funny: when the whole of his lofty body finally wriggles its way inside, the gentle breeze dies. The low howl changes too. Earlier it was constant, but now it pulses rhythmically in his ears. Low, deep, like a distant generator. The hum-hum-hum tickles Tall Man’s brain. He crawls on.
The ground is cold, chilling to the fingertips. His knees scrape along the smooth surface. His blind hands grope their way over cement and puddles and slime and gloom. All around drip invisible drops. Drip drip, hum hum, scraaape: the only sounds here in the belly of the sewers, intensified by the utter lack of visual stimuli. When that word, belly, comes to mind, Tall Man begins to perceive his environment as a living organism. He feels like an unwelcome virus invading a host…no, more like a piece of chewed meat sliding down a giant’s intestines. Drip drip, hum hum, scraaape: a discordant symphony of endless digestion. He crawls on.
The air grows stale. Tall Man’s knees are wet and aching. He has lost track of time and can’t tell how long he’s been crawling. A good five minutes, at least. Still there is no light at the end of the tunnel. How much further? He needs to rest just a moment. He stops crawling.
The air is heavy, stagnant, waiting. The drips and humming sound muffled now. Tall Man retrieves the matchbook, tears off a match, and tries to light it. Nothing – it’s a dud. So is the second one, and the third. Tall Man starts to panic. He wants a scrap of light, now. He fumbles with the fourth match, anxiously swipes it along the striking surface. A fizz of sulfur spells success. But that magic spark of life reveals something astonishing.
Mere inches from him stares a pallid face, smeared with gruesome makeup. Blood-red worms burst from the head. No…not worms but curls of hair. It is Clown’s face, lurching from the darkness disembodied, every muscle locked in rigor mortis. The eyes are dim and cloudy, but fixed upon his own. The match’s flame throws drunken shadows across the peaks and valleys of the ghostly visage. It alternately smiles and scowls at Tall Man, without really moving at all. Tall Man is stiff with incomprehension. Fear tip-toes down his spine and snuggles into his guts. He feels sick. The two faces stare frozen in silence for a brief eternity.
Suddenly the clown face leans forward and blows out the match. A whiff of sour milk fills the air. The abrupt return to total blackness shocks Tall Man’s senses into operation. He immediately scuttles backward, away from the face in the tunnel. His pants begin to shred at the knees but he doesn’t care. The only thought is retreat. Faster, faster, retreat. Hands and knees splash and scrape against concrete. He imagines the clown head gliding silent through the black tube after him, smiling yet scowling. The splashes and scrapes become a frantic staccato as he goes faster, faster. His knees must be bleeding now but he doesn’t care. Retreat, only retreat matters.
And then Tall Man finds himself falling backward out of the hole in the wall, landing at the feet of Mustache and Clown. Clown, who was in two places at once. They ask what happened, and when Tall Man finally calms down he raises himself on two shaky legs. Teetering, he blurts out his story but the two men do not understand. Mustache laughs while Clown regards Tall Man with suspicion. Impossible, they say, you only spooked yourself and were seeing things that weren’t there. But Tall Man insists there is a second Clown in the sewer tunnel.
Mustache strokes his namesake with two fingers. Fine, fine, he says, I’m going through and I’ll show you there’s no damned clown in there. Tall Man almost protests, wants to tell Mustache not to leave him here with Clown, but keeps quiet.
Backpack hoisted onto both shoulders, Mustache scrambles up and stuffs his body through the opening. He begins crawling. His speed is surprising in these tight quarters. They watch his figure rapidly dissolve in darkness the further he goes. The instant he disappears from view, the sound of his crawling stops short. After a moment of silence, Clown and Tall Man hear a steady scraping, like something heavy being dragged across concrete. The sound quickly fades down the stretch of the tunnel.
Clown got him, clown got him, mutters a wide-eyed Tall Man. Clown is agitated by this and tells him to shut up. Then what the hell was that, squeaks Tall Man, what was that sound? Clown doesn’t answer. The two men wait there in the sewer for any sign of Mustache. None comes.
After many minutes pass, Clown has grown eager and starts to fidget. Enough of this, he says. He must be on the other side waiting for us – I’m going through. The lust for money and a penchant for rational thought have clouded his intuition. He remembers he is mildly claustrophobic, but this fact also gets swept aside by the power of greed. Tall Man pleads with Clown not to go, says they should call the whole thing off and leave now. Don’t be ridiculous, replies Clown. I’m going through and you better not lag far behind me. He grabs the matchbook and faces the wall with the hole. He struggles with his big shoes but finally gets a good grip and hoists himself through. Tall Man does not follow. What greets Clown in the hole are drippy wet echoes, a hum-hum-humming, and an uninterrupted dark. Clown crawls on. The humming and dripping are a hypnotic beat in his ears. The blackness is disturbingly uniform. It is a blackness smothered in blackness ad infinitum. It tugs and tugs at the eyeball that would try to pierce it, coaxes it from the socket with false hopes of a murky shape just ahead. The only respite is to close one’s eyes, for at least then smoky phantasms float beneath the lids. This blackness is a solid wall upon which nothing floats. So he closes his eyes as he moves forward.
Clown wonders if he might indeed meet his doppelganger in this strange subterranean place. He hopes not and crawls on. Gradually he becomes aware that the drips and humming have changed. They sound duller, muffled. The air has changed too. It hangs with the dead weight of a dozen corpses and sticks to his skin. He crawls on. Clown’s white-gloved fingers detect a third change. The ground no longer feels like solid concrete. It is softer, putty-like. His fingertips seem to sink in ever so slightly.
When he thinks he hears a faraway scraping sound, Clown’s eyes snap back open. They throb in their sockets with anticipation, starving for some speck of light to materialize in the distance, but it never comes. As his bloodshot eyes go hungry, his mind wanders.
He thinks of hordes of rats carrying a lifeless, mustached body down the tube before him. He thinks of thousands of little teeth gnashing into greasy flesh. He thinks of soiled clown suits clogging sewer drains. He thinks…he thinks he needs to stop thinking and start crawling. But he can’t. He advances no more than two feet before hitting an obstruction. It feels like a wall. He fishes the matchbook from a striped pocket and tears off a stick. Three failed swipes later, he tears off another. It ignites on the second attempt and shows him a solid brick wall blocking the way. This isn’t supposed to be here. How is it possible he never ran into Mustache? The sight of the bricks is unnerving. Clown bangs his fist against them, tries to wriggle one loose. They do not budge. They stand there in the orange glow quietly mocking his proud logic, daring an explanation. Clown has no explanation. The match is almost spent so he drops it and moves backward. It is the only thing he can do.
Progress is slow and awkward. The ground is more malleable than he remembers. It feels like his knees are leaving small impressions behind. He crawls as the tunnel drips and hums at him. When his feet touch another wall, Clown gasps. He draws another match, lights it, twists his head around to look. What he sees isn’t a blocked path but an intersection. Two new passages branch off to the left and right, where before there was only one straight tunnel.
It makes no sense. Then incoherence. Anger. Most of all, indecision. Clown must choose a path. But which one? Which one? The right. It’s as good as the left. The match dies as he scoots back to face the new chasm, then crawls ahead. The dripping, the humming, the putty floor, the breathing…the breathing? Yes. Clown swears the tunnel is breathing now. He can feel the gentle inhalation, exhalation all around him. Somewhere far-off the scraping sound comes again. He crawls, and crawls, and hits his head against another wall. Another match, another intersection revealed. This one looks smaller. He squeezes his way into another right turn.
The breathing changes now. Longer and slower. And there’s the scraping again, a little closer this time. He crawls. His body sinks into the gummy floor. A few paces forward, and another intersection, another match, another right turn. A few paces more, and another. The junctions keep coming, and soon Clown runs out of matches. He always chooses to go right, but it keeps getting smaller. At one intersection Clown turns around to retrace his path and try to find a wider opening. The maze does not care. It continues to breathe and compress. As Clown crawls blind through the network of tubes, the roof begins to scratch his back. It matches every movement with a downward push, regardless of his direction.
Incoherence. Anger. Most of all, claustrophobia. Before long Clown finds himself sliding on his belly. He slithers through endless corridors even as they threaten to crush his body. He has to keep going. Keep going, it makes no sense but keep going and get out. Hopeless. The ground is sticky and holds him in place as the walls close in from every side. Clown grits his teeth.
Tall Man stands alone at the intersection. He gazes at the black hole in the wall, transfixed. Every muscle quivers with expectancy. Yet he sees nothing and hears nothing save for a low steady howl. He blinks. Shakes his head. Looks up toward a grate in the high ceiling. A dying sun casts down shimmering motes of dust which drift in odd patterns. Tall Man sways on his feet, covered in filth and bleeding at the knees. That sickly sweet scent from before is stronger now. He turns and bolts out of the sewers. He does not look back.
The story doesn’t end there. In the next several years Tall Man will abandon his life of crime. At first he will try to make sense of the events in the sewer. He will research a variety of paranormal topics: everything from ghosts and cryptozoology, to bilocation, to the hypothetical existence of “hot spots” on Earth where alternate dimensions are said to bleed into one another. The search for answers will yield nothing but a growing sense of hopelessness.
In a strange twist of fate, Tall Man will eventually get a job at the very bank he once tried to rob. Before closing one day he’ll be asked to fetch some old documents that are kept in the basement. He will walk down the rickety stairs and search through boxes of poorly-kept files. Amid his searches he is going to find a rusted iron trapdoor hiding under a box. Curious, he will lift the squeaky door and discover a ladder descending into a small concrete room. He will feel compelled to climb down to this space where the basement light struggles to reach.
Once there, he’ll find a bricked-over hole in the wall opposite the ladder. The implications will come in a flurry of breathless recognition. My God, he’ll whisper. At last, the other side. The mortar will be crumbling, the bricks loose. Without quite knowing why, Tall Man will begin to remove them, exposing the black hole little by little.
The fear will be gone, replaced by his long-lost thirst for answers. Tall Man will be surprised to find himself crawling through the tunnel with nothing but a Zippo lighter to guide the way. He won’t remember climbing in. It will be like a dream, with the dripping and humming ringing in his ears as before, asking him how he can be sure he ever left at all. He will crawl on.
Only when the air in the tunnel becomes leaden, only when the sounds deaden, only when the sour milk wafts through his nostrils will the creeping chill return. Then the lighter’s timid flame is going be snuffed out with a sudden rush of wind. Peals of crazed laughter will erupt from somewhere in the dark and rattle through his skull, so loud he’ll have to cover both ears. It’s so completely unexpected that he won’t be sure the shrieks weren’t his own, or an outright hallucination. Nonetheless, it will be enough to send him scurrying backwards.
The tunnel will seem different – sticky, sighing, angry. Tall Man will feel it contracting around him as he moves in reverse. Faster, faster, as before, as in a dream. Looking behind, he will finally see the dim light of the aperture. It will be closing.
At this point Tall Man’s memory will muddle. He’ll vaguely recall his escape from the writhing hole. It will feel more like being disgorged than anything. A regurgitated piece of meat, he’ll think. Tall Man will run to the ladder, turn around for one last look, and see something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Witnesses will later tell him that he ran from the bank screaming a blood-curdling scream unlike anything they’d ever heard. He won’t remember that part.
He’ll pray that what he saw was the product of temporary insanity. He’ll try to forget the whole thing ever happened. But every time he closes his eyes, every time he dreams, the same image will come to him with terrible clarity: the hole in the wall shrunken to the size of a quarter, from which a single white-gloved finger pokes, squirms, points – and beckons.