Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, October 30, 2006

Down in the Dark

by Jeffrey Savage

In the summer of my thirteenth year I discovered a secret passage to another world. Since then I have continued to search for that passage on and off with most of my efforts in vain.

The year was 1976—when everything from quarters to appliance sales was labeled bicentennial. Our small New Jersey town was gripped tight by a summer heat that usually lasted from mid-June to early-September. The only relief came from the cloudbursts which regularly lashed the countryside with torrents of rain and spectacular lightning. But even then, the rain was warm, hitting the hot sidewalks and streets and immediately steaming back into the atmosphere.

Nights were marginally better. The air was still so heavy and moisture-laden you could taste it as you breathed in and out, but at least the temperature dropped a few degrees and the occasional breeze wafted fireflies to and fro like our own private star show.

From our sleeping bags on the screened-in porch, my younger brother and I waited for our parents’ bedroom light to finally go out. We were both as anxious as if it were Christmas Eve—although our pursuits were of a rather different nature than celebrating the birth of our Savior.

Clutching flashlights to our chests, we conferred in hushed whispers about how soon we could safely slip away.

“You think they’re asleep yet?”
“I don’t hear Dad snoring.”

“Maybe he isn’t going to snore tonight.”

“He always snores.”


Still completely dressed inside our sleeping bags—right down to our shoes—we turned our attention to our planned adventure while we waited for the buzz saw that was our sleeping father.

“What if we get stuck down there?” my brother asked.

“We won’t get stuck. The pipes are too big.”

“What if it rains?” My little brother was ever the pessimist. Perhaps because of experiences with the previous adventures I’d planned.

I, on the other hand, was sure this adventure would come off flawlessly. “It’s not going to rain. And besides, even if it did, we could float out of the drainpipes back to the river like a waterslide. That would be cool huh?”

“I guess,” he said, sounding less than thrilled with the concept. After a moment’s thought he asked, “Are there animals down there?”

“What kind of animals?” I hadn’t considered that possibility the day before when we’d laid out our plans.

“I don’t know.” He turned on his flashlight making a yellow circle inside his bag. “Rats. Or skunks. What about alligators?”

Alligators? Were there alligators in the drain pipes? The idea seemed at once both impossible and utterly believable—the way so many things do to young boys. Sensing my momentum slipping away, I made the executive decision that it was time to leave.

“Come on,” I whispered climbing out of my sleeping bag. “And turn off that light in case Mom and Dad are still awake.”

After a second’s hesitation he turned off his flashlight and we tiptoed across the sagging boards of the back porch, through the kitchen, down the stairs, and out the front door, holding our breath all the way. I pretended I didn’t care whether he came or not, but in truth I’d never have been brave enough to try this on my own. An eleven-year-old brother probably wouldn’t be much help against an alligator, but at least there was a fifty-fifty chance it would go for him first.

The trip to the river—really not much more than a slow moving creek with occasional deeper spots where we sometimes swam—was short and uneventful. We’d been playing there for years. But it wasn’t until a few days before, that it suddenly occurred to me the big concrete pipe, which dribbled out moss-colored water most of the year, probably connected to the pipes which ran beneath the gutters in front of our house.

Theoretically we could enter the drain at the river and follow it all the way home. We never thought to consider how we would exit the pipes once we actually reached our destination.

Gripping the trunks of the willows and saplings that lined the bank, we climbed down to the water’s edge and worked our way upstream to the pipe. By now we both had our flashlights on, casting everything around us into a collage of elongated shadows. As we reached the dark opening, I could feel my stomach tighten. My brother dropped back a few steps.

“It looks kind of scary,” he said.

It did look scary. Much scarier than it had in the light of day. Like a giant blind eye or worse, a large toothless mouth. It looked like the kind of place where a kid might enter and never be seen again. Still, I knew if I showed the slightest hint of fear my brother would turn tail and the entire adventure would be ruined. He’d probably tell our mom too. He had an incredible streak of honesty when it came to getting other people in trouble.

“It’s just a pipe,” I said, shining my light into the dark tunnel. “See. There’s nothing inside but a little water.”

My brother edged up beside me and peered into the pipe. Emboldened by his company, I leaned halfway inside. “Hello!” I shouted. Hel-looo a voice echoed back. It was creepy, but also kind of cool.

“I think you better go first,” I offered. “That way if the pipe gets too small I can pull you out.”

“Huh uh!” He shook his head. “You go first.”

With no way to back out, I took a deep breath and climbed the rest of the way into the pipe. Resting both hands on the smooth cool concrete—my light tucked under one arm—I waited to see if anything would come scuttling out of the darkness further inside. Deciding the coast was clear, I began crawling forward and threw a disgusted look over my shoulder.

“See. It’s easy.”

My brother cast a last look toward the river, as though trying to memorize the face of freedom and then followed me into the darkness.

The first five or ten minutes were uneventful. The pipe kept a roughly even course into the darkness and other than an occasional broken toy or candy wrapper, we didn’t come across anything unexpected. Crawling on our hands and knees, arms and legs slightly apart to avoid getting wet, we were able to move quickly and rather easily. The smell—musty with a hint of sour—reminded me of an old basement, and the air down here was much cooler than it had been outside.

We actually became comfortable enough to joke about what we’d do if someone flushed a toilet. Not knowing the difference between storm drains and sewer pipes, that seemed a distinct possibility, but somehow we weren’t bothered by the concept. In fact after the first few hundred yards we started to get a little bored.

“What if we found an opening and we looked through and it was someone’s bathtub?”

“What if there was an old lady in the tub?”

“What if I reached through the opening and pinched her wrinkly behind and shouted, ‘Crab claws?’” We both found the idea highly amusing, and laughed hard at our own joke. Our joking lasted until we reached a fork in the pipe.

“Let’s go right.”

“No. I think we should go left.”

“If we go left we might end up over by the high school.”

“If we go right we might go under the freeway.”

What if we went the wrong way and couldn’t remember how to get back out? In my plan we’d been guided by sewer grates every so often where we could peer out and judge our general direction. So far we hadn’t come across any grates. What if this pipe didn’t connect to the grates? For the first time I began to question the soundness of my idea.

“Right. Definitely right,” I decided at last, and quickly began crawling in that direction.

“I’m not so sure about this,” my brother muttered. But not wanting to be left behind, he followed along. A hundred or so feet further the pipe changed from concrete to corrugated metal and the diameter shrunk so that we had to duck our heads to keep from hitting them.

As we continued through the metal pipe, knocking our knees on the metal bumps, the bottom of the pipe began to fill with dirt and sand, making the diameter of the pipe even tighter.

“I think we should turn around,” my brother said. By this point I did too. My hands and knees were aching and I’d hit the top of my head more than once. But now we couldn’t turn around even if we wanted to. The pipe was too small.

About then we both heard something moving around inside the pipe. At first it was only a scratching like something digging in the dirt. But then echoing through the pipes we heard what sounded like a baby crying. Panicked, we wanted nothing more than to get away from the sound. Only in the confined space we couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Sometimes it seemed to be behind us, other times in front of us.

“Come on,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t about to cry. “It’s probably just a bird or something.” Of course it didn’t sound like any bird I’d ever heard. It sounded for all the world like an infant lost and crying inside the pipes.

For the next ten minutes we crawled like crazy. Shining our lights desperately back and forth. At one point we were sure we heard a man’s voice say, “Who’s down there?”

After what seemed like hours and miles from where we started, I saw a ladder extending up into the darkness. Grabbing the cold metal rungs we climbed quickly up and discovered a metal circle. I pushed as hard as I could and the circle moved. Another shove and the sky opened up before us. I can honestly say I have never been so happy to see haze-dulled stars in my life.

As we climbed up onto the street, a huge sense of relief, freedom, joy, and gratitude washed over us. We were only a few blocks from home. Looking across the street we noticed a boy of seven or eight sitting on the front porch of his house. He was staring wide-eyed at the two boys who crawled up out of the sewers and onto the street.

I looked at my brother, then turned back to the boy and said, “Hello. We’re the sewer rats.”

At my words, he jumped off the porch and ran into the house screaming, “Mom!”

Before he could return with his mother we had pushed the manhole cover back into place and disappeared.

When we returned home, we found we had been gone less than an hour. We never did find out what we’d heard in the pipes, although we did find out later that a man who lived a block away from the manhole had heard something in the pipes and called down to see who was there.

Eventually the fear went away. But the memory never has. The feeling of being in a world completely distant from the one we had left only minutes earlier. The adrenaline rush of thinking something would leap out of the darkness any minute and the relief when we finally managed to escape. I recognize that world in certain authors that I read. I intimately understood the power of Stephen King’s IT.

This is a world I want to create for my readers. But now I just use a different entrance.


At 10/31/2006 10:15 AM, Blogger Eddie said...


At 10/31/2006 1:02 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I couldn't have said it better, eddie! Awesome, indeed.

Jeff, I LOVE this! I'm going to print it out and put it in with the creepy stories I read every Halloween.

At 10/31/2006 1:23 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

What a great, well-written story, Jeff. It's funny how many of us as children lead our friends and siblings into adventures, some not so wise but always emotionally charged, grew up to become writers.

At 10/31/2006 7:22 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Great story, Jeff!

Can't say that I've ever gone traipsing through a storm drain (at NIGHT!) as a kid or an adult! Never could go swimming in the lake at night, either...


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