“Doesn't it take you back,” Suzi asked, “to like, you know, the beginning?”
“You mean to the womb? Not really,” Drew sluiced back the last of his India Pale Ale, and winked at her as he tossed the red plastic cup aside. “Grab your friend and let’s go for that walk.”
Of course she knew about the underground passages beneath the old Minigolf Playland, just down the street. It remained mostly deserted after hours, ever since that Muldoon kid had been found there, stuffed into a drainage pipe (well, half of him at least—the lower half). Most of the townsfolk regarded the place with suspicion since then. Some with outright superstition.
Drew glanced up at the clock. It was two past midnight. The party raged on under the light of a waning moon. The Ramones blasted from the stereo speakers.
Most people at the party were just too wasted to go for a walk. They gestured farewell with a smile or a slur, sloshing suds from their red plastic cups onto the trashed linoleum floor, dismissing the venture without another thought.
The few who wanted to go were perfectly intoxicated for the idea. Suzi’s long-haired friend Jerry stepped up, quaffed the rest of his beer, and let out an enormous belch. He grinned in self-satisfaction as he dropped the empty cup to the floor, where it rolled in an arc and stopped against another discarded cup. There were dozens littered across the entire apartment.
“We ready, On?” A large-framed black woman in a purple dress stepped out of the crowd, glancing left and right. “Arlene honey, where are you?” she called out, searching among the partygoers.
A middle-aged lady in blue jeans and a loose-fitting yellow T-shirt with a stylized blood-splotched smiley face on it walked in from the kitchen. “Here I am, Tirisha,” she waved at the heavyset lady, smiling sheepishly.
“Let’s do this,” Drew said, and led them out the front door and to the street.
They walked past a couple embracing on the front lawn. On the sidewalk a tattooed jock puked into the gutter, groaning and spitting out bile. A light breeze thankfully carried most of the scent of beer and vomit away from them.
They strolled through the early morning mist. Black puddles reflected moonlight from the asphalt as they passed by. Suzi conversed with Jerry while Drew looked ahead toward the fenced-in miniature golf course. Tirisha spoke in her thick accent to Arlene about the position of Venus. It was hard for Arlene to understand what she was saying.
Drew held up his right hand when they reached the chain-link fence, as if testing the wind. He motioned for them to hold up a minute.
“Stoop down under here—keep low till we get to that first castle.” He indicated an edifice no larger than a kid’s playhouse, looming quietly on the other side of the fence, no more than thirty yards away.
He led them to a spot where the chain links had been twisted and folded out. He leaned over and pulled up a loose flap of fencing, bending it back up so they could crouch down and slip into the lot.
Once inside, they did as instructed, hunched down for fear of being seen, and ran toward a seven-foot high castle replica. Within its faint shadow they felt less exposed.
They began winding their way around various miniature replicas and over kid-sized curved bridges separating the eighteen courses on the lot. For a few minutes they all wandered in silence, each lost in their own separate thoughts. Finally they followed Drew to a scaled-down simulacrum of an old watermill.
Drew crawled through a ground-level archway in its turret, and dropped out of sight into darkness. A moment later, his arm extended out from under the shadowed cupola, beckoning the rest to follow.
Jerry crawled in next, then Suzi crouched and squeezed through. Arlene stepped up, turned around, letting herself in backwards, feet first. Tirisha went last. She barely fit. The purple gown she wore with gold shooting-stars printed on it got smudged with crumbling plaster, and then torn a little as she heaved her hefty frame through the archway.
Once inside with feet firmly placed on the lower concrete level, they began walking down the narrowing, mildewed passageway. Drew was pretty sure this was an underground rain gutter that eventually drained out into the river. He removed a small penlight from his pants pocket and shone it forward, its conical beam fluctuating with each step he took, illuminating the trapezoidal hallway ahead. The floor was wider across than the low, dripping ceiling.
Tirisha cursed unintelligibly, wiping chalky grime and spider webbing from her gown. Jerry peered about in the long hallway lying ahead in darkness. He thought he heard a rat squeak from the shadows. Suzi grabbed his arm while staring into the dim flashlight beam, trying to make out details. Arlene stepped up directly behind Drew.
They walked forward with caution. The passageway came to an end after thirty feet. They stood before the darkened opening of a ten-foot-diameter corrugated pipeline. There was no place to go from there, except back the way they had come—or into the pipe.
Immediately they noticed something fishy in the air. It originated from the yawning pitch of the pipe. Its open hole slowly breathed out a diseased exhalation.
The fish-stink intensified suddenly to an unbearable degree. Drew yanked the hem of his T-shirt up over his nose. Suzi and Arlene gasped and pinched their nostrils shut. Jerry breathed in the noxious fumes and choked.
The smell was acrid and punishing. First burning, then sharpened stabs of pain attacked their sinuses. Drew felt as if a flaming axe had cleaved through his head, shearing off the top, leaving the lower jaw gaping in a smoking, cauterized cross-section. He suddenly felt as if the upper portion of his head had slid forward and off, dropping to hit the floor at his feet with a wet thunk. His hands flew to his face, trembling and feeling the familiar features still there, as if nothing had happened. Suzi slipped in the implied blood puddle forming and fell right on her ass.
Jerry reached out to lend her a hand when a long pink tubular tongue curled out of the dripping pipe’s opening. It encircled his throat with a slippery viscosity. The last word on his lips, the girl’s name, was aborted with a sudden drawn-tight whiplash motion and a muffled crack could be heard from deep within his neck. As everyone registered what they were seeing, Jerry’s head nodded at an off-kilter angle, and he was yanked into the pipe.
Arlene sobbed at the image of his glassy stare as she tried to claw away from there, but what sounded like a mumbling rag-stuffed voice in her head beseeched her to consider otherwise. With each breath emitted from the pipe, the stench intensified. Bizarre scales opened up along the ground beneath her like sharpened dominoes standing up along a ripped-out scar. Screaming, she was rolled up as if into a spiny carpet. After two revolutions, her shrieks were significantly muffled. On the third turn, the scaly rolled-up appendage slithered back into the yawning pipe, taking Arlene’s slack body with it.
Tirisha found herself standing directly on the leathery hide of what appeared to be a large ray or flounder. She calmly stepped off of it. The insensitive creature is a mutation of a poisonous species of Lungfish that lurk deep within the city’s drainage system, she thought to herself.
Tirisha indicated the paler, wider scales she had just stepped off of. “That his stomach, Ondrew,” she indicated. “Both eyes on udder side.”
Drew cursed beneath his breath. “What the fuck’s in the pipe?”
Tirisha shook her head reassuringly. “It full now. I tolled you. She only take two.”
Suzi picked herself up, and slowly backed away from the pipe’s opening. Her eyes shifted between Drew and Tirisha, swiftly calculating their collaboration. She thought she recalled them having whispered together at the party.
Her eyes were radiant. She indicated the flounder-like creature that remained still as a tanned hide before a fireplace. “So it sleeps face down...on its back?” she asked, the whites of her eyes visibly arched.
Tirisha looked at her and nodded.
Drew knew they should never have come. It was just a miniature golf course...this could not be happening to them. He looked over at Tirisha’s bulky outline. Sometimes, she really gave him the creeps.
How could he have anticipated that her stories about the “dreaming tunnels” below the golf course might have anything to them? He still didn’t know what she meant by that. Back at the party laughing, they all thought it was such a great idea to come here.
He began feeling really queasy, as if he were under the effects of a strange new drug. Jerry and Suzi came along on a lark.
He glanced over at Suzi and caught a glimpse of her fingers caressing the sides of her face, exploring the growing, veined shadows there with delicate abandon. The illusion that her hands moved on their own was uncanny.
He reached out for her with longing and his arm extended from his dirty sleeve like an adder leaving its burrow, his smoothly polished hand swaying to and fro, scales glinting from it in the guttering cavern light. Veins along his wrist somehow morphed into the snake’s jawline, a wart on his first knuckle became one of its nostrils, and his arm just slithered away from its sleeve through the air, trailing an X-ray shadow of his knobbed spinal cord along with it. The apparition disappeared into the gloom of the open drain pipe.
Suzi’s skin appeared to peel off her flesh and drift down like dried flakes of onion skin to the ground.
Drew stared in disbelief, seeing her face as a pale grinning skull baring gleeful eyes. Arrowing hisses flowed beneath his own skin and retracted around his heart in a cold clutch, seeming to eliminate all air bubbles in its wrapping compression. For a moment he felt strangely underwater.
Drew clutched at his chest with hands growing black spines as he watched Suzi’s features get tightened back suddenly, as if someone had stepped up from behind her and pulled a sheet of clear plastic wrap over her face. The skull-effect vanished, leaving her usual features impossibly stretched back. An “O”-shaped space over her darkened mouth steamed up against the plastic. Her pupils glinted like obsidian ball bearings in their darkened sockets.
Bark flaked off his knuckles in scabs as Drew seized upon an intangible vision in his head. With eyes shut tight an exploding core of blackness shrank in on itself while its remnants shredded into creation, leaving him gripping his own skull in his hands.
The ringing in his ears suddenly warped and sculpted into a metallic prison of eerie music. Echoing in his skull, a magnetic fluctuation lifted up his eyelids. Wide-open pupils reflected the dark spaces between stars.
Tirisha whispered “And glews were there. So you know Ondrew,” and he gradually came swimming up into focus to meet her carefully articulated pronouncement. She continued intoning in a guttural voice what sounded like “Free to sharpen a coin at the rending of the curtain, Ondrew. You woe not get an other.” She held her wood-transformed hand out to him, tiny branches already growing from various points about her knuckles.
Suzi reached out for a helping hand, and her fingers unraveled in a spilled spiral, then swiveled wide, fanning out in a supplicating gesture. Her tongue unrolled out of her mouth, impossibly lengthening until it fell at her feet into the peach colored dust. It tasted like talcum powder and fizzled slightly against her taste buds.
Their surroundings lit up in an instant, capturing the scenery about them in a strobe-flash of lurid mockery. They were not in an urban drainage system as they had imagined themselves to be, but instead found themselves standing before some sort of translucent maze embedded within a titanic vein of quartz, as if formed inside a glacier. The drainage pipe had transformed into a lambent glass slot-canyon opening.
The vision appeared before their eyes for an instant, revealed as if by lightning flash. Before its lingering imprint faded from their retinas, they made out what appeared to be cultivated herbivorous gardens suspended within the rock crystal mountainside. This engrained arena of flora was stacked in various concentric ringed steppes, like hillocks submerged in the lucent rock. They could be glimpsed murkily arising from a series of upthrust tectonic plates.
Enormous veins of milky translucence crisscrossed over each other within this crystalline inter-leavened structure, like petrified bone marrow preserved beneath the skin of a calcified behemoth.
A wave of dizziness swept over Drew. Nausea overcame Suzi and she dry heaved for a few moments.
“Have you mastered endless focus yet, On?” asked Tirisha.
The feeling of disorientation intensified for Drew. Herbivorous gardens? Looking back over his shoulder, he could discern the vague shape of the archway in the watermill turret, against a gray backdrop of starlight. Through it he could see low hanging clouds passing slowly over the golf course. The puffy apparitions seemed to beckon him to follow.
Without a sound, Drew turned his gaze from the turret archway, and stepped into the pipe opening—only now it was the entrance to a narrow solid quartz canyon, illuminated from within. An eerie silence distilled amid the clouded depths within the natural crystal. Reflected on either side of its naturally formed walls, curious shapes glimmered.
Suzi followed, mesmerized by the incandescent vision around them. She felt immediately vulnerable amid the translucent crystal. The inner illumination let her see clearly about seven or eight feet into the quartz—after that, things got blurrier.
Tirisha sauntered through last. She tread through the fine, peach-colored silt, whispering in a low voice to herself.
The three of them continued deeper into the slot canyon. Tirisha ceased her mumbling. They walked on in silence for seventy more yards.
At certain points, the walls narrowed to within fourteen inches of each other. Drew and Suzi had to turn their shoulders and expel their breath, relaxing their lungs to scoot on through. It did not occur to them to turn back.
Tirisha flowed through with startling ease. One particular narrow segment went on for ninety feet—Drew couldn’t turn his head to get a glimpse of the woman behind him.
How is she possibly fitting, he wondered. He could hear her breathing easily just behind him.
Suzi stopped with one ear pressed against a faceted crystal wall, “Shhh—” she insisted. The smooth surface of the crystal was equivalent to her own body temperature. After a few moments, she held up her right hand in the peace symbol, palm out, last two fingers tucked under her thumb, as if signifying everything was okay.
She swooned against the smooth, warm crystal walls, and shut her eyes. She felt as if she were crawling back into the womb. She looked up and reached above with her left hand extended, beseeching. Overhead, the luminous walls of the slot canyon met at an impossible distance.
Down at their own level, deep within the translucent walls of the mountain, inner visions blemished into a surreal, haunting suspension of vaguely beckoning formations.
There were tall bulky shapes captured inside the crystal. They appeared to flicker slowly, like syrupy constellations twinkling in and out of focus. Hung in suspension inside, livid whorls and malformations defined unnerving Rorschach images.
Drew thought he could make out a harbinger destroying the sky. He tried shaking the image from his head. There were weird, blurred, hirsute humps floating at random intervals, fixed deep within the crystal.
A few times, Drew was certain the squamous, shaggy humps moved, but every time he stared directly at them, they appeared motionless again. Violet neuron clusters bloomed out, resembling the stark silhouettes of elm trees.
Ambient music floated up into his ear canals from within the formless depths of his mind. A strange fruition began taking root. A long and rising ululation, not unlike the songs of whales, made itself apparent. Drew wasn’t sure if anyone else could hear it. Chords of intoned decay arose in waves, framed by the spectral glow surrounding them.
All three kept walking. The peculiar glittering within the blurred depths passed by on either side of them. No one continued to say a thing.
Drew shambled forth, helplessly leading. After passing a cleave in the crystal slot canyon, Tirisha stopped for a moment, and bade them listen.
They heard nothing. She encouraged them to hush up, and listen to the crystal. “Hear it breathe. Listen to its song, and soon enough you will see,” she urged.
Drew stopped and listened. The yawning throat in the mountain seemed to breathe along with them. It became evident then that they were each caught, so to speak, in the mountain’s jaws. It was imperative for each one of them to proceed. Drew thought crazily I hope the mountain doesn’t sneeze.
Suzi realized that even if they managed to escape—to wherever this preternatural slot canyon led—it would not release them anywhere familiar. She was certain of that much.
Suzi looked over at Tirisha, who still had her ear pressed to a wall. “What do you hear it say?” she asked.
Tirisha replied “I am afraid it want us all.”
Drew stood stock still and quietly cried.
Suzi had enough of Tirisha’s strange commentary. She grabbed Drew by the wrist and led them both onward.
“Fuck this place,” she said. After another twenty feet, the slot canyon made a hairpin turn to the right, and they walked around it.
Taking several more steps, they saw the shape immersed in the solid crystal directly to their right, like something trapped in amber. Caught within the frosted depth, a large purplish mound streaked with blurred orange spots hung suspended and motionless.
Suzi turned to ask Tirisha what it was, but the large lady wasn’t behind them anymore. She whispered to Drew “Hold on, I’m going back for her,” and backtracked to the sharp bend, peering left around the corner, but Tirisha wasn’t anywhere to be seen. That was odd. It seemed as if she had simply disappeared. Or had she merely turned back the way they had come? Why didn’t we think of that—?
She said flatly “She’s gone Drew,” and sidled back up next to him.
He was still staring at the purple bulk embedded in the crystal to their right.
Drew jarred himself out of his reverie. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go back,” he said, and turned to face her. She nodded in silent assent, although the look in her eye expressed doubt.
They both took several steps back in the direction they had come, back towards the hairpin turn.
At the sharp bend, Suzi collided against a sweltering quartz wall. Drew bumped into her from behind. Suzi’s hands scrabbled against the glowing crystal, feeling desperately for the corner. There was none.
She turned around then, and the two embraced.
Behind Drew, more crystal formed, like new layers of strange warm ice filmed in stop-motion.
The pellucid slot canyon was sealing up around them from both ends. They embraced within a shrinking vacuole for a few more moments. Finally the living quartz compressed around them in an airtight seal.