The Ditch

Today, along the side of Willow Road, I noticed the metal gate for the first time in years. Like a giant metal hand, it juts out from behind a fence and curls its fingers down into the sloping walls of a ditch. It covers a tunnel that goes under the road itself, a tunnel I had all but forgotten about before today.

I stopped my car along the side of the road and, lost in thought, begin to recount the events of a summer long ago.

Our friend Josh found the fence opening one day after school. He told us, breathlessly, that it was like another world down there.

The next day, we couldn't wait to get home and all squeeze, single-file through the opening. A dirt path led down onto a slope of dry sandbags. We hopped down the sandbags and found ourselves knee-deep in weeds and garbage. Before I was old enough to know the sour smell of stale beer, before I knew enough to recognize how concrete absorbs human urine, I smelled those odors in the ditch, all around me, and was oblivious and ambivalent to their source.

Josh was right about it being like another world. The four of us - Josh, Stan, Jeff, and me - stood along the bottom of the ditch and looked around. Behind us, the crevice trailed back at least a half a mile. All along the sloped edges of the ditch were tangled weeds and branches, and every so often, a flat panel of dried sandbags like the one we had used. The panels looked like giant grey computer keyboards with all their keys rubbed off.

It was a time just before twilight, when the light obscures detail and the air has the focus sucked out of it. We crept through the weeds, careful not to step on the many broken beer bottles littering the acrid soil beneath us.
I had an odd vision, something about seeing those bottles lying there. In my minds eye, I saw something awful. I can't imagine how it got there, but it played out so vividly I had to stop walking until my friends noticed something was wrong.

Everything I saw played out over my surroundings, and it turned the air a golden color, like an old Polaroid. The blue twilight gave way to amber afternoon, and it was there I saw a shirtless redneck wearing a ball cap dragging a blurry shape down the sandbags. He was saying something about taking someone away. He had a strange voice. He spoke through his nose and everything sounded stuffed and pinched. He had a thick mustache. I saw that the shape was a woman. Her arms were pocked with red marks; she was thin and gaunt, with scraggly hair. Her breasts were spilling out of her top, some small white T with an American Eagle and a truck on the front. Something was very wrong. His voice grew indistinct but I could hear his breath, tight and pinched.

They both held beer bottles in their hands but she could barely hold onto hers. An AM/FM radio, propped up near the fence at the opening, blasted Eddie Money. I could hear the woman then. In a slow, mournful and slurred voice, she said something about taking her back, back to the... and this is where it got indistinct.  Either way, she didn't want to be there.

It all blinked away and I was left standing among my friends in the dark gloom at the bottom of the ditch. No radio. No other people. Stan had found an old faded issue of Penthouse and was flipping through it excitedly. The other two looked at me sideways, but we kept walking.

As if to break through the discomfort, Jeff spoke up. "I know!" he exclaimed. "Let's go through the tunnel!"

"There's a tunnel?" asked Stan, tossing the Penthouse down. "Where?!"

"The other way," I answered. Everyone looked at me as if to say, glad you decided to join us. I jerked my thumb in the other direction. "See? It's not a wall. If you look you can see the dark space. That's the beginning of the tunnel."

Sure enough, there it was: an deep oblong smear along a trapezoidal stretch of concrete. It was at least a quarter mile in the other direction. A breeze swooped down through the ditch just then, and all the weeds between us and the tunnel seemed curled out like man-eating plants in the fading light.

"Let's go!" Josh asserted. He was the heftiest of us, and he harbored no fear about heading into the unknown. After all, he found the ditch, and he was going to explore it to his satisfaction. We followed him, avoiding broken glass at our feet and ducking errant gnat clouds around us. Creeping along the crevice was much like those old World War movies my dad was so fond of, with the soldiers hunched down, safe from enemy fire, cooking canned beans over a flame, playing cards, showing each other pictures of loved ones back home. Every so often the passing headlights of a car up above on street level hit the fence with its vertical slats, and the light cruised along the wall on the other side of the ditch like a speeding train.

The air was deep and dark now. This was before the fence was installed, so the tunnel opening was open to all. No trace of metal or pipe, just a tall oval pipe.

"Sure about this?" asked Stan. "It's kind of dark, guys."

"It's not dark, pussy." retorted Jeff. He punched Stan in the arm and walked forward, expecting Josh to take the lead. Josh didn't move, so Jeff stopped too.

"Who's the pussy?" sneered Stan, who then, without warning, sprung off ahead and disappeared into the tunnel. "Ho ho here I go!" we heard him scream. With a mixture of fear and bravado, Josh followed, then Jeff, then myself. Among us, we didn't have so much as a flashlight between us, but we headed in anyway.

The dark overcame us. Nothing was visible. It was like closing our eyes completely. The air was still and cool and vaguely pleasant, if a little damp. Even the sour air outside seemed to hesitate outside the entrance, afraid to come in. I took baby steps. I was careful to listen for the sound of the others' breathing. We whispered to each other to keep going.

The tunnel, as my feet could tell, sloped down for another ten or fifteen meters, then slanted left. I waited for my eyesight to adjust and expected to see trace textures of metal or water or even sludge. Unfortunately, the dark stayed and the cool turned cold. I took another step and my foot jerked up. Cold water. Shit. Then, sudden splashing all around me as the others stepped in it too. The tunnel seemed to angle right at that point, and it was right there, at that junction, that we heard it.

When you hold a seashell to your ear, you hear a distant sound, tidal force that sounds far off but it just the sound of blood coursing through your brain. So, at once, it's far off and close, and all around. That's what we heard, but not all we heard.

"Stop stop stop stop!" I heard Josh cry. "Shut the fuck up guys!" he was genuinely freaked. I'd never heard him like that before. It took Stan the longest to shut up - he kept whispering 'what?' over and over again. We all shushed each other into submission and stood still, listening. Presumably, they were all close by, since I could hear their breathing. I remember this moment really well, because these guys were okay friends, but in those moments I felt closer to them than I ever had before. I needed them nearby.

Through the far off static, far off ahead in the tunnel, we heard speaking. A distant voice. It rose up and got really distinct, then trailed down and faded, leaving me wondering whether it was just the sound of a creaking pipe from a car passing overheard.

"It's just.. what? What is that?" Josh hissed.

We weren't fixed to the spot any longer. We backed away, and spun in the direction from which we came, grabbing each others' arms for support. The sound came again as took the sudden left turn in the pipe, a voice came from just a few yard behind us.

"Hey! Hey hey hey hey hey hey get back here HEY!!!" it said, very quickly, very loud. It was a human voice, a male's, pinched and fearful.

All decorum flew aside, and we ran, free agents unaware of each other, all scrambling for a way out. A massive series of chills flew up my back and neck, threatening to paralyze my legs into not moving, but I pushed on. The voice followed me up the incline. A heavy, ceaseless clacking ensued and echoed up through the pipe. I could still hear his voice behind me, whoever it was, rising and falling like a record being played backward with someone's fingers: warbled, pitchy and slurred.

"I need HeLP help HELP helP." the pinched voice got lower, and in a heavy drawl, it played with me, the words turning sing-song. "Help help help help HELP!!!" it sang, almost laughing. The vibration from the clacking hadn't stopped. Over my fear, I felt anger, and had half the mind to spin around and lash out, but there was that sliver of a chance that he had a knife, or worse, and my self-preservation overrode everything.

I darted along the final stretch gasping for air, crying with each heave. I broke out into the purple dusk and saw Stan and Josh and Jeff clamoring up along the giant sandbag keypads. I hadn't reached them yet but had to get out, so I ran straight up a concrete embankment, parkour-style, then along the side, until I reached the fence.

I was too scared to look back at the entrance to the tunnel, and it was probably too ensconced in darkness at that point to be visible. We were already past the fence and running down the asphalt toward home, but in my mind I caught a fury of sight and sound: the sound of scuffling, a furious kicking of dirt and weed, and spiteful cursing, and the sight of broken glass and blood.

Josh and the others didn't have much to say to me or one another as we parted ways. We were all in a hurry to get home. There was a kind of unspoken sense between us, that whatever had happened either wasn't real, or would have to gestate for a long time before it got spoken about again. I was okay with that.

I never ventured down into the ditch again. In fact, my friendship with the other guys never withstood Middle School's cruel gauntlet. Two summers after our fateful trip, long after we'd stopped speaking, the County sealed the entrance with that dark metal gate, that curled skeleton hand I stared at from my car today. As far as I know, the beer bottles were all swept out and the ditch itself flushed clean every season.

Today, as I sat idling at the side of the road, I noticed an odd sight in the ivy-choked fence blocking access from the road to the ditch  The leaves wind up from the soil. I must have been caught up in memories, but the leaves appeared, at least to me, to form the startlingly clear image of a face, cadaverous, drooping, and sad.


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