Bob and his middle school best friend, Joe, wanted some jelly beans and headed out of Joe’s home to the local Seven Eleven only five blocks away.
About a block from their house the rain started and Joe said, "We should get out of this rain."
Bob listened to the rain drops pitter patter on the summer leaves still protecting them from getting wet as they walked on the neighborhood sidewalk. He turned to go back to the house as drops of rain became bigger and more numerous.
"Wait, where are you going?" Joe grabbed Bob's arm.
"I thought you wanted to go back to the house before we get wet. We're only a block away, we might be able to out run it." Bob knew he would get wetter than athletic, Joe. Bob's large frame and too many hamburgers, cookies, ice cream and fries didn't lend itself to running fast. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
Joe pointed to the street and said, "There's another way. We can go underground and the rain won't touch us."
"What do you mean?"
"The storm sewers, idiot. We won't get wet, we'll be underground."
Bob thought about it a moment. The way Joe talked the idea seemed plausible. Yeah, not a bad idea. The rain won't hit us in the storm sewer. "How do we get in?"
Joe pointed toward the street, "There's a drain over here with a missing cover, and I’ve gone in it before. It's kind of neat walking around in there."
They ran over to the spot, their shirts getting wet as they left the cover of the trees. Sure enough the manhole cover was missing and it looked easy enough to enter. Rain splashed on the street not coming down hard enough to cause puddling. Bob looked into the hole, maybe a four foot drop with leaves littering the bottom of the hole.
"Follow me," Joe squeezed into the hole and dropped into the sewer.
Bob looked up the street and thought, do I really want to do this? Something tugged at the back of his mind that this wasn't right. He suspected ethically they weren't supposed to be in there and he could get in trouble if his parents found out. But he really wanted the jelly beans and Joe said it was okay. His parents didn't like for him to play with Joe because sometimes bad things happened when Joe was around.
"Come on!" Joe's voice sounded a little hollow coming from inside the sewer.
The space was tighter for Bob, he sat on the edge of the hole and eased down to the sewer bottom having to release and drop the last foot. The leaves squished when he landed, dry leaves on top smashed into decayed leaves on the bottom. Bob pushed his glasses up. A ripe smell dominated the system and Joe stood hunched over in the cramped, dark space.
"Pretty neat isn't it?" Joe asked. He whooped and the sound echoed eerily in the near dark. "Woo woo woo."
"I don’t know," Bob hunched his shoulders and walked toward Joe. The poor lighting concerned Bob as he looked into the darkness past Joe. A car passed over head, the sound of the tires on the pavement muted in the underground space.
"We better get moving if you don't want to get wet." Joe said.
"Lead the way." A host of problems ran through Bob’s mind. What if they got stuck? Would there be enough light? Are there animals roaming in the darkness?
The cramped passageway caused Bob to walk crab legged and in a half squat. Some light reflected from the hole above allowing him to see Joe's shirt. His eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness. There must be another hole further up the system because he saw light ahead. The air smelled stale with hints of fetid, rotting leaves and maybe other decaying objects.
The boys reached the first drain hole with the sound of rain hitting the streets as water dripped from the tarmac.
Joe said, "See pretty nice in here isn't it?"
"Yeah, at least we're dry. How much further do we have to go?" Bob already felt his legs growing uncomfortable in the squatting position necessary to walk the system.
"I figure this is the crossroads of our second block. So, three blocks and we'll be there and we'll get there nice and dry." Joe led onward.
With a little effort Bob developed a methodology that didn't hurt his legs too much. Four steps, hunch his back and stretch his legs. Four more steps, hunch his back and stretch his legs. Not fast, but it allowed the release of tension in his legs. He noticed a small stream developing in the center of the cylindrical concrete tube. Not much water, nothing to worry about. In the near darkness his sense of smell and hearing seemed to improve. He could almost feel his racing heartbeat.
By the time they reached the next block water poured through the metal grates, the rain came down hard and steady, no more rivulets, a small creek ran into the storm sewer. The water in the storm pipe ran faster and higher.
"Two more blocks to go buddy. Are you doing okay?"
Something in the dark space irritated Bob's asthma and he felt his pocket for an inhaler. No, he left it at home. He could picture it on his room dresser. They were going to play video games, not go walking through a storm sewer. No problem, it won't be much longer. The water in the sewer flowed over his sneakers and a rat chattered ahead in the darkness.
Joe said, "Hey get away. Watch out for this rat up here, he don't look happy about the water." Joe laughed. "Watch out, it's swimming to freedom now."
Bob spread his legs and stood on tip toes as the rat swam beneath his jeans. His pants legs were wet to about his knees. Good luck explaining that to his mother without mentioning the storm sewer. She would never approve. The water continued to rise and he stopped trying to stay out of the stream and just sloshed through, sneakers full of water and socks soaking wet. They reached block four.
"Should we get out of the system now?" Bob asked, "It’s getting deep in here." The rain continued to pound above him.
"Only a block to go, we're almost done."
"I'm sopping wet already, this hasn't saved us from getting wet. Oh what's that smell?"
"It looks like a dead dog." Joe said. "No, maybe a cat, possum, raccoon or fox. I can't really tell. What do you think it is?" He picked the dead animal up by a leg and threw the wet stinking creature at Bob. It came up short and splashed water onto Bob's glasses. Joe laughed.
"Hey stop it." He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his wet shirt. Putting them back on, he looked at the rotting carcass as maggots squirmed and wriggled in the water. "Oh man." Bob stood to one side holding his nose as the carcass floated downstream. He rubbed a number of maggots off his jeans.
The deluge of water from the streets continued into the storm sewer. A hundred holes in streets just like the one Bob lived on cascaded water runoff into the storm sewers preventing the streets from flooding. But something was flooding, the sewer Joe and Bob navigated in the darkened concrete. The clouds above prevented light from entering the system and the tube became oppressive and claustrophobic. Where Bob wasn't wet from the water, sweat oozed and dampened his shirt and brow. The excitement from entering the sewer gave way to hunched, tired shoulders, despite his body being hot from the effort of walking, he felt cold and uncomfortable. His breathing became rapid and wheezy. "Are we getting close?" Bob wheezed.
"Yeah almost there. Are you all right?"
"We need to get out of here soon."
"Scared of the dark?" Joe teased.
"I'm not feeling too good." Bob wanted to scream, get me out of here, his legs cramped and the hunch and stretch didn't help anymore. The water sloshed and bubbled in the tube. Bob tripped on something and landed face down in the water. He rose fast to get the dirty water out of his mouth and hit his head on the ceiling. "Oww." His glasses dropped into the water, but he reached down quick enough to grab them.
Joe yelled, "I think this is the one, we're almost there."
"Thank goodness." Bob smiled, closed his eyes and wheezed, "Hurry let's get out." He rubbed the back of his head.
Joe grabbed hold of the grate and began to squeeze out, but quickly came back in. "Whoa, a car almost ran me over. We'll have to time our exit. It's tough moving against all the water rolling through the gutters, it's raining hard."
Cars passed over head and as Bob breathed, each ragged breath caused a sharp pain in his lungs. He stood hunched with hands supporting his excess weight on his knees as water splashed above his belly button. He felt his throat swell making it more difficult to breathe. He was glad it was dark, because he knew the water on his face came from tears.
"The light just turned red, I'm climbing out. Once I get to a safe spot I'll let you know when it's safe. Here I go." Joe pulled through the thin space his head rubbing on the top of the grate. His hips made it through and then the knees. His shoes got caught forcing his knees back into the tunnel for a moment and then with a twist of his feet he cleared the hole. "Woo hoo!" He yelled. "Stay in there, the light just changed to green. It won't be long."
When Joe stepped away from the curb Bob couldn't see him anymore. Probably standing on the grass away from the road. The adrenaline rushed through Bob's system the joy of knowing he was almost out just wait out the traffic. Cars roared by splashing water across his face. He didn't care about the water as freedom was near. He wheezed while watching the water cascade over the grate lip like a waterfall. He wiped tears and sweat off his face. Freedom. He shook his frame trying to release the tension plying across his body.
"The light is changing to yellow, get ready, you won't have much time to make your move."
Bob put his hands on the edge of the grate, a car raced by splashing and scaring him. He pulled his hands back.
"Now." Joe stood in the street. "Come on." The deluge of rain drained down his hair and face.
Bob placed two hands on the edge of the grate and pushed his head into the opening. It didn't fit.
"Turn your head."
He tried, but the temples of his glasses got in the way. He backed and took off his glasses. But holding them he couldn't use both hands to pull with. "Here, take my glasses." He handed them to Joe.
"Come on the light's gonna change soon." Joe yelled.
Bob pulled on the grate and turned his head. Water splashed over, around and some into his mouth. He could barely breathe with the water gurgling through the gutter. He knew he was going to drown. There was no way he could survive this. His head didn't fit and he backed into the tunnel. Only inches of clear space stood above the flooded tube.
"Try again. You can do it. Hurry. Put your shoulder through first and I can help you."
Bob stuck one arm out and wriggled his shoulder into the road.
Joe grabbed his hand and pulled as Bob tried to make his head fit.
There wasn't enough room for Bob's head. His head was too big. And if his head didn't fit how was the rest of his body going to make it? He wanted to bring his arm back in, but Joe wouldn't let go, he kept pulling. Bob twisted his head a little more and felt movement. But then his ears reached the ceiling of the grate and stuck there.
"Go back in, go back." Joe released Bob's arm and pushed on his shoulder. "The light changed and the cars are coming."
Bob collapsed back into the sewer full with water. Cars pushed more water into the drain as they passed. There was no way out. He couldn't go back to where they entered the system. He would drown before making it back, plus his legs burned from the effort. His head too big to fit through the opening. He touched his ear, scratched when Joe tried to pull him free. He would drown and float through the sewer system to the river and someday into the sea.
"Okay get ready, the light's changing." Joe called from above.
Another burst of adrenaline roared to life in Bob's body. This time I've gotta make it. He didn't know how but get out of here or die. A last chance effort. He bent and maneuvered his body one more time. Joe stood in the street as Bob stuck out his hand and cocked his head to match the opening. It seemed harder as if his head expanded since the last time he tried. As Joe pulled, Bob felt his body moving, his ears scratched, pulled and burned along the grate.
Then something happened. His feet left the floor of the storm sewer. He had nothing to push against. His left arm clutched in Joe's hand. His right arm pinned against the opening. He was stuck. The water rushed through the sewer and pulled his body downhill. Joe pulled and yelled at Bob to keep pushing. Time slowed. Rainwater flowing in the gutters came into his mouth and Bob coughed and choked. He wriggled his feet looking for purchase against the tunnel wall. He felt something and pushed with his legs which forced a little movement, but then the water forced him off again.
Joe yelled, "Come on we gotta get out of the street. The light's gonna change any moment."
Panic flooded through Bob's mind. He didn't think he had the strength to do this all again. An image floated through his mind of being left in this position, half in the tunnel and half in the street, as cars rolled over the top of him. Bent knees allowed him to push against the top of the tunnel and he made more movement. Not much, but enough to get his ears past the opening.
"The light has changed." Joe loosened his grip.
Bob grabbed Joe's hand. "Don't leave me to die."
"Go back in."
"No, I'm getting out of here, now."
“But cars are coming. We'll both die."
"Pull me out." Bob heard the cars as they plowed through the flooded streets, rain splashed along their tires, windshield wipers shunting the rain off the windows. Joe stood in the street and Bob wondered if the driver would see them.
The car slowed and a horn honked.
Joe pulled as Bob pushed his legs at the top of the tunnel. His right arm cleared the grating and allowed him to push against the gutter. Then his hips got stuck. His belt buckle clung to the metal opening. Horns honked as the line of cars backed up behind the first one in line.
"Come on, you can do it." Joe pulled harder.
"I'm stuck. It's my belt buckle."
"Take it off. We got to get out of here." Cars began going around the boys, water splashing over the both of them. The honking continued and drivers went past yelling obscenities.
"No. Not my belt."
"Do you want to stay here forever?"
This is crazy. He reached down and began unbuckling his belt with his right hand. The movement required a little backing back into the tunnel his legs bucked against the rushing water behind. The belt came unbuckled, but trying to remove it was difficult using one hand sliding the belt against his wet pants and wet belt. Pulling it from one side didn't help, it required finesse, get it past one loop, then the next and repeat. The line of cars passed the boys in the second lane as the light turned red. Bob's whole body shook from effort, fear, and cold.
"Hurry." Joe yelled again and he pulled on Bob's arm. "The light's getting ready to change again."
Two more loops and the belt would be free. The belt lay half in the street and portions in the swirling flood behind his body. He fingered the belt through one loop, his fingers aching from the effort.
"Come on the cars are moving again."
Bob looked at the cars coming toward them. A blur in the distance without his glasses. Would they see Joe and him sprawled across the street like this? He manipulated the belt through the last loop and the belt slipped off his pants. He tried to throw the belt into the street, but his hand cramped and the water grabbed it and rushed it into the sewer. What would Mom say when he told her he lost his belt? How could he even explain this whole stupid scheme to her? Dad would give him a spanking for losing his belt. He reached back his hand seeing if he could find it.
"What are you doing? Come on, get out."
"Leave the belt. The cars are coming. They're moving fast, I don't think they see me." Joe tugged on Bob's arm.
Bob squeezed his core muscles and his rotund belly and his pants and hips cleared the opening. He remembered Joe's problem with his feet and Bob turned his feet and slid into the street.
Joe released Bob's hand, "Come on get out of the road." He jumped to the curve.
Bob saw the blur of the car racing toward him. His legs cramped when he tried to stand. He couldn't get a purchase with his feet under him. He crawled to the gutter as fast as he could and then rolled into the grassy barrier between sidewalk and road. The car splashed water on him as he lay gasping in the wet grass.
Joe laughed. "Wasn't that a great adventure?"
Bob shook his head and decided he would listen to Mom and not play with Joe anymore.