by Maxwell Price
Jamie had been visiting the thing that lived in the culvert for about three weeks now. He spent more time with it than he ever had with anyone his own age, or even anyone outside of immediate family members. Jaime was a curious child, but not particularly social. Friendships existed in the abstract. The companionship of even a strange culvert-dwelling thing was not easily cast aside.
In the last few years, Jamie had developed a fascination with the idea of a world underground. He had checked out a book on cave systems and spelunking from the school library, and had managed to sneak it home and keep it all summer. There were no vast caverns underneath suburbia, but there were storm drains, manhole covers, and culverts: all things that, in some limited way, seemed to suggest the possibility of life far below. These places were common enough around his neighborhood, and he longed to climb down in and curl up inside of them. Half inside, half outside; he would contemplate life and listen to the distant, muffled sound of the world as it rang through the pipes. Having lived all his life in a dull, perfectly coiffed suburban landscape, his restless instincts for exploring had turned inwards. Now he found himself squeezing his way into the cracks and seams that ran through the everyday. He had discovered this particular culvert (or rather, what was inside it) one day while riding his bike. It ran underneath a little one-lane country road that sat on the very edge of the world, or so it seemed to Jamie, who wasn’t allowed to go any farther than a few miles away from home. It was a plain concrete culvert, very narrow, running out either side into a ditch stuffed with leaves and pine needles.
He wasn’t quite sure what the thing looked like, for it was loathe to come out into full daylight. It had a voice that croaked like an old woman’s, and eyes that glittered in the darkness like a cat’s. Once or twice Jamie caught a glimpse of a small, wizened hand, darting out whenever Jamie brought it little things to eat, swiped from his mother’s kitchen. Mostly, Jamie came to sit and listen. It talked about a lot of things that Jamie didn’t really understand, but he was always trying to wrap his mind around them, concentrating more intensely than he ever had at school.
It had once lived in a great cave, but it had left the caves behind to be closer to the world of man. It had lived under grand old stone bridges that had rose over fresh water, back when the towns and roads had first sprung up. But now the only bridges around were bleak structures that soared indifferently over the freeway; white blasted things that would leave the creature stark naked and exposed. The water in the river had slowed to a trickle of sludge that was scarcely any better than sewage, and though the thing was not a creature of the daylight, it couldn’t breathe and drink in poison. And so eventually it became stuck in a culvert barely large enough for an eleven-year-old boy to crawl in, sipping the rainwater from leaves whenever it stormed. They were both trapped, the creature and the boy, with the open road and the wild countryside laying just out of the reach. The rising sun or a roaming policeman were always laying in wait for them, ready to scuttle the journey.
Today Jamie was even more careful than usual. The school year had started a week ago, and he had a good grasp now on how the school year would go for a boy who was seen crawling in and out of holes in the ground. He left his bike behind a big black walnut tree that stood a short walk from the road. He pulled the hood on his sweatshirt tight around his head and face, so tight that the whistling wind was now drowned out by the sound of his own crisp, sharp breathing. Just a short walk to the culvert, and already he was drawing himself up, making a hiding place of his own body. He was learning a lot about hiding, recently, but he was also discovering the thrill of keeping secrets. These were the things they had in common.
Leaves crunched as Jamie ducked into the shallow gully next to the road, slinging his backpack off his shoulder and setting it down beside him. He peered into the cold mouth of the culvert.
Darkness, and the whipping sound of the wind.
“Hey. You there?”
There was a sound somewhere between a yawn and a sigh, echoing lightly off the concrete. Then a stirring of leaves, and what sounded like the clicking of nails.
“Jamie. I am here. Yes, I am always here, you know,” said the thing, clearing its throat as it spoke. “You’ve been away.” It had the tone of an elderly grandparent, chiding the grandson who never visits.
“I have to go to school in the day now. Told you.” Defensive. Still acting as if all his classmates are watching.
“Aah, yes. You’re right. I had forgotten” Resignation. But, also, a mocking edge. No schoolwork down here.
“Sorry. You know I’d rather be out here than over there.” Defenses lowering. “They make me.”
Another yawn, and a raspy laugh, like rough stones scraping.
“I brought you something,” said Jamie, removing a plastic baggie containing a raw steak from his backpack. He scrunched his nose as he opened the bag.
“I left it out in the back yard for a few days, like you said. I had to hide it up in the tree-house so my neighbor’s dog wouldn’t get it.”
A sharp-nailed hand darted out to snatch up the rancid treat, and then there was a scuffling sound as the thing scooted back away from the sunlight to feed. David sat at the mouth of the culvert and leaned his head back. He traced a crack with his finger as he listened to the sound of the thing sucking on the soft, rotten meat.
The questions began, as always.
“So how old are you?”
“Older than this town and your family’s name, older than anyone you’ll ever know.” The voice had music in it, though the notes were strange and bent, and the meter lopsided.
“You say that every time,” said Jamie. “I mean, really, how old? Like, when were you born?”
“Let’s see,” said the thing, swallowing a thick hunk of spoiled meat, “when the smallest, smoothest pebble in the world was a great mountain range, I was already looking back on centuries. A time before time as you know it.”
Jamie sighed. This was usually how it went. A lot of stuff that Jamie didn’t understand, and the thing seemed to know he didn’t understand, and he felt like it was laughing at him again. An eerie whistle began to curl out of the ground, and Jamie frowned. Sometimes it whistled, and that usually led to singing, or something like singing. And Jamie didn’t like that. The thing’s strange, reedy songs were in some awful language that hadn’t ever taken up residence in human ears before, and they made Jamie uncomfortable. The last time the thing had started singing and trilling like that, Jamie had started feeling dizzy, like he had hung upside down from a tree branch for too long. He tried to keep the conversation going.
“Are you a troll?”
“A troll?” There was the sound of spitting, of a thick wad of phlegm hitting the inside of the culvert.
“Well, I was just thinking, you know, that I had never really asked you if you were a troll or not. It just just seemed like, you kinda live in the ground…”
“Trolls,” came the measured response, “are enormous things, very squat, and very stupid. Or rather, they were, back when they still roamed about. Now they have vanished completely, though not as long ago as you might think.”
“No, I am not a troll, nor a dwarf, a brownie or a changeling. What I am, you see, is a-”
The thing made a sound that sounded like a cough and a raspberry, if it were possible to do both at the same time while also sucking in air. It made Jamie’s stomach turn a little just the hear it spoken aloud.
“Are there any more of you still around?”
“Oh, well,” said the thing, “no way to know, for sure. Could be. Once, I had more brothers than there were leaves in the forests. The sun was not so hot then, nor so bright. There was a beautiful world of ash and cold, and we were born from that ash, and lived freely on the surface. But, the sun wouldn’t stay away, and we took to our hiding places. I suppose there could be one of us under every rock, but we’d not know it. Some of my brothers could hide so well, I might’n even recognize them. Why, its been so long since I’ve seen even my own reflection…”
The voice trailed off. Jamie felt a numbness creeping up his leg, and shifted his weight.
“The tricks. Tell me,” it said, shaking off a bit of melancholy in its voice, “how have the tricks gone?”
“Ok, I guess,” answered Jaime. In all honesty, the tricks that the thing had taught him had gone exactly as described, but something about the methods and rituals made him feel off, like the thing was purposefully trying to embarrass him.
Like when he started to complain about his big sister, and how she was acting like such a b-word now that she had started high school. Jaime just wanted her to shut it, sometimes, and leave him alone when he locked the door to his room. In response, the thing in the culvert had instructed him in just the right words to say, how to pronounce each burr and glottal stop. But first he had to steal a pair of his sister’s panties (though the thing had called them “under-garments,” in a way that assured him that the thing had not been out of its hole in a long, long time), the ones with the weird dark stains that had started showing up in the laundry lately. He had to say the words over them, scatter a bit of ash over them (mom’s ashtray came in handy), and then bury them in the back yard. Under a full moon. After that, big sister had gone a little quiet and timid. She seemed to pass by Jaime without saying a word, like she wasn’t really even seeing him anymore. Maybe even like she was scared of him.
After that he had regretted laying the trick on his sister like that. But he was afraid what he might have to do to un-trick her, so he had just let it slide for a while. Lately though, the glassy eyes and the silent treatment had started to get to Jaime. It was a sketchy thing to do, even to a high-schooler.
“So, can you like, take back a trick?” he asked. “Y’know, make them back like they were before?”
“Oh, oh! Of course you can, my boy. Very simple. The tricks only work so long as they stay secret, so just tell one of your school-mates what you’ve done, spare no detail, and it will break the trick’s hold.” The thing breathed out a dry little laugh.
Jeez. It was worse than he thought. Just the idea of having to admit to rooting through your sister’s underwear drawer made Jaime feel doubly-ashamed, and more than a little tricked himself. But it was good to know, he guessed. Still, here was just more of same: a bunch of junk that messed with his head, left him feeling like a stupid kid. What kind of magic was this? Jaime decided that it was time to get down to the heart of things.
“So I started thinking, like, why can’t you live inside a tree? I mean, like a hollow tree. It’s dark enough.”
The dismissive laugh fluttered around the hard surface of the culvert. “And become prey for the owls and other flighty things. Oh, no no. Mine is the kind that needs to be closest to the earth, or the water. To the blood, and the heartbeat.” This didn’t make much sense to Jaime either, but he pressed on.
“Look, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I can help you.” As he talked, he could hear the thing start on the piece of steak again. Frustration was starting to creep into Jamie’s voice. “I can take my bike. We can find a place out there,” he said, gesturing to the road that winded out into the sticks. “Find a real bridge, over a big river. We could stay there for a while. Maybe keep moving. If you go with me, it’ll be faster than you could ever move on your own. And in return, you could show me how to, y’know, hide and stuff.”
The sound that was almost certainly marrow being slurped from bone stopped in consideration.
“You want to know how to hide?” The music had suddenly gone out of the thing’s voice.
“You want to live under the ground? Hide from the sun, and from all other men?” There was no more music in the thing’s voice, but it sounded like there might be a smile.
“Come closer, then. Closer, boy.” It was too easy.
“Ok,” said Jamie, halfway in the pipe. “I can’t see you very well. Could you hold out your hand?”
The hand with long, jagged nails shot out of the pitch and grabbed Jamie’s forearm, and it began to pull with all the strength in its wiry body. Surprising, alarming strength. But Jamie’s other hand had already reached into his backpack. He had brought the big knife today, stolen from his mother’s kitchen set, the very sharpest he could find. It cut the thin flesh of the thing’s hand down to the bone, and it recoiled, making a most awful sound. Again, the knife flashed and made contact. Jamie was halfway in the pipe now, his eyes adjusting quickly. The thing lashed out with fang and claw, but the boy was larger and quicker, and well-fed, and the thing was old and weak with shock. The blade sunk deep in-between its ribs once, then twice, and it snarled hideously, making foul cries that sounded shrill and metallic in the enclosed space.
But all its rage could do no good, and the knife plunged in with a terrible rhythm, drawing thin blood that didn’t spurt so much as drain pitifully from the thing’s body. Jaime struck out and found a papery lung, then the chewy gristle of a windpipe, and finally the only sounds that could be heard in the culvert were a sour gurgle and the crisp, sharp breaths of a winded boy.
Outside, it began to rain.
Jamie washed the knife off in the trickle of water that was beginning to run through the pipe. He thought he would have to ditch the sweatshirt, maybe, but there was only a little blood on it – barely more than what rose from the scraped knee he now sported. He would pile some big rocks around the body in the culvert – he already had a few nice ones in his backpack – and he would let the water do its work for a little while. He had hidden lots of things in the culverts and drain pipes around town; squirrels, rabbits, even a few stray cats. He would have to be more careful, though. Because nobody batted an eye if a stray or a piece of roadkill happens to wash out in the rain, but this thing…Jamie hoped that it would stay secret, though, until the water and the bugs picked the thing’s skull clean. It would be the gem of his collection, which was getting larger by the day. Maybe too large for the tree house to hold anymore. Because who knows what else Jamie might find, in another culvert, or under a bridge, or maybe running through the park across town. With the thrill running through him like this, he felt like he was ready for anything that might find its way to his collection. But whatever he found, he had to keep it secret. Hidden.
Jamie was good at hiding.
About the Author
Maxwell Price is a writer, musician, audio engineer, and ex-journalist living in the American south. His fiction has been published before by Grey Matter Press in their anthology Savage Beasts.
About the Narrator
Movie directors love to kill Paul Cram. His scrappy characters have died in just about every way imaginable as they’ve tried to make their way through to the end of the movies that macabre writers have penned them into. You can find out a bit about Paul’s films on his site PaulCramActor.com. When not on a movie set or recording booth, Paul can be found deep-frying chicken wings & cream cheese wontons with his older sister, or arguing about pop culture with his little brother around one of the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.