The sun burned down from a cloudless sky. It was going to be a great day. Joe glanced up at the sun for a moment. He didn’t believe you could go blind by looking at the sun (but just in case…) Closing his eyes, Joe could still see it through his eyelids. It was this huge pink glow; really bright. Maybe that’s what it was like to be blind. He shut his eyes as tightly as he could, squashing his face into a bunched up grin.
“Stop that,” scolded his brother Michael. “Your face is gonna freeze like that.”
“Bull ‘S’,” said Joe opening his eyes. He knew his face wasn’t going to freeze, but still… there was no reason to take any chances. Michael was eleven, four years older than he was. Michael knew a lot more than he did. The two boys walked side by side, making one short shadow in the grass next to Joe. He tried to mimic Michael’s steps; to keep the shadow together, but his legs weren’t quite long enough and the shadow man kept mutating into some sort of dwarf octopus: four legs kicking out, four arms waving at his sides. Joe stifled a burst of giggles, making a sound like a snore and a sneeze smashed together.
“What’s so funny, Joey?” asked his brother stressing the “ee” at the end of his name. Joe explained in a rush of words, his face threatening to explode into a grin. Michael just looked at him. “That’s stupid,” he said finally. “Everybody knows octopuses don’t really have eight arms.”
“Son of a ‘B’!” cried Joe. He hadn’t known that.
Michael shook his head and cracked a thin smile. “You’re hopeless. I don’t know if this is such a good idea…” Joe went pale.
“Come on, Michael!” he cried. “You promised!” Ever since Michael got into sixth grade, he didn’t want to do anything with Joe. If they weren’t going to explore the sewers today, maybe they never would. Michael looked solemn.
“I don’t know…”
Joe was getting desperate. He’d trade anything in his room. Michael settled for his good flashlight and a week’s allowance. Joe considered himself lucky though he was going to miss his flashlight.
The grass had been growing taller for the last block or two. Now it was several feet over their heads. The sidewalk ended in a bumpy pile of malformed cement. Michael kicked down a swath of the giant swamp grass, creating a thin path. Joe followed his brother into the suburban jungle. Ten steps inside and the houses of the subdivision couldn’t be seen any longer.
“Michael,” Joe asked with a hint of worry. “Has anyone ever got lost in the swamp?”
Michael hid his smile. “Oh sure,” he responded deadpan. “Lots of times.” He turned quickly. “You’re not scared, are you Joey?”
“Son of a ‘B’, I’m no baby.”
Michael just laughed.
The grass ended at the edge of a rocky pit. There was brown water at the bottom with splotches of algae here and there. Michael skittered down the banks, setting off small avalanches. Joe stood still at the foot of the grass, a little excited, a little afraid.
Michael looked up at him from the mouth of the sewer with his hands on his hips.
“What are you waiting for, Joey?” he asked, the ‘Joey’ echoing over and over. Joe swallowed and started down the rocks on all fours. The sewer was about four feet tall and smelled old — like dust and stagnant water. Michael had to duck walk, but Joe could almost stand upright. An inch of greenish slime covered the bottom of the pipe and squished under their shoes. The sound echoed into infinity off the cool cement walls. Joe shivered. This must be like a cave. He began to count their steps. At fifteen, the sewer was almost completely dark. He kept looking back at the bright circle of light that they were leaving behind. ‘Michael didn’t look back, but he wasn’t moving forward very fast either. Ten more steps and Michael turned on Joe’s (now his) flashlight. Everything turned yellow. Huge shadows loomed over them.
“Michael,” Joe’s voice echoing quickly, “is this where stuff goes when you flush the toilet?”
Joe continued, “Would alligators live if you flushed one down the toilet?”
Michael turned and laughed at him, the flashlight making dark shadows under his eyes and over his forehead. The sound was hard in the cramped environment. They walked on awhile longer. Joe was getting worried now. He had lost count of steps after forty or fifty. They must be in miles and miles. Sometimes, he’d heard that people had lived in the sewers. Maybe they lived in the sewers because they could never find their way out. What if their eyes got used to the dark after being inside for so long? Joe wished he had a watch. He tried to count seconds in his head: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, but he kept losing track. All he could think about were alligators. Now he remembered a movie on TV. There was a giant alligator that roamed the sewers looking for people to eat. Michael had thought it was stupid and Joe agreed. The people were always just going into the sewers for no reason without guns or anything.
Just like Michael and he were doing now.
Joe was less than a step behind his brother. He turned around to look at the opening, but it was so small now. All it did was worry him more.
“Michael, how far can sewers go?”
His brother shook his head. “Some go to the river, that’s about thirty miles. Probably some go all the way to the ocean.”
“Son of a ‘B’…”
How long would it take to go thirty miles? Joe tried to remember how far it was to Grandma’s house. About thirty miles he figured. It took a day to get there (and that was in the car!). What if they were under the ground for days? Neither of them had brought any food. There was no sign of light ahead. Michael kept his steady pace through the muck. Joe followed. Everything was going wrong, he thought. This was supposed to be fun and now they were going to die. And no one would ever find them. No one would ever know. Joe blinked back tears.
“Michael,” he whimpered, “let’s go back.” Michael stared at him.
“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded. Joe tried not to cry, but a thin drop ran down his dusty cheek.
“It’s gonna be bad! I know it!” Joe sniffed. Michael turned away in disgust.
“1 can’t believe you’re being such a baby!” he yelled, the last syllables caught in the echo. “We’re only going underneath the street by the swamp!” Joe rubbed his face with one sleeve. He knew Michael was wrong this time. There was something bad ahead. Maybe an alligator. Maybe even worse.
“Come on, Joey,” Michael cried, grabbing his brother’s arm. “Let’s go.” Joe burst into full tears now. His crying rattled inside the culvert and Joe wouldn’t stop no matter how much Michael threatened him. At last there was light ahead. Michael dragged Joe out into the sunlight and pointed all around.
“You see? You see?” he cried. “We’re across the street!” Joe stopped crying. They were standing in a low field. Michael threw down Joe’s hand and stomped towards the sidewalk. “Baby! I can’t believe he’s such a baby!” Michael yelled to himself (and to anyone in the area). Joe didn’t move. He couldn’t move. He was in shock. He looked around at the field, the houses and behind him: the tall grass of the swamp just across the street. Joe couldn’t believe it. He had been so sure in the sewer. He just could not believe it. Joe looked up at the sun and blinked in the harsh sunlight.
“Sun of a bitch…” Joe muttered then headed back home.