It’s been a long held fact that you can’t judge a book from its cover. I would disagree with this notion from time to time but the relevance to this discussion is the incredible cover art that perfectly sets the mood for this book. This cover looks like the book was published, ready for John Carpenter to come swooping in to do the film adaptation. And in all seriousness, if this book makes it into the right hands, I can only hope that that adaptation becomes a reality.
I have been a fan of Rich Hawkins from the early days of the Last Plague. He has taken his books in any number of different directions but what I constantly find myself drawn to as a unifying factor in his books is a profoundly ingrained and yet beautiful sense of bleak darkness. There’s an almost nihilistic drive to the writing that, while sad on the surface is also compelling enough to keep me turning the pages and pulling me through the story.
The Cold starts abruptly and while many would call for more information and context, I think this works better. Rich is superb at putting the reader into the story, along with the characters. The book opens on a train and we have about that much time to acclimate before things kick off. It begins to snow and the train stops, stranding the passengers. And hidden within the misty snow and driving wind are creatures that are powerful and terrifying.
I hate retreating back to the tried and true catch phrases like, “Truly no one is safe in…” But in this case, I can say with total accuracy that no one is safe in a Rich Hawkins book. As our characters do what they can to make their way across this nightmarish landscape, new people are quickly introduced. And just as quickly, they are obliterated out of the story in spectacular fashion.
And while you aren’t given a ton of back-story up front, I felt like the protagonist managed to grow in my mind as the book wound its way to the gripping finale. Rich does a great job keeping with what you know and mixing all of that into a great tale, even when there’s more still yet to come.
Rich has some of the most vivid and visually creative descriptions I think I’ve read in some time. So while the book could be seen as maybe a touch plot-heavy, I find that the plot is so great I just don’t care that much. The book could have been twice as long and I would have happily gone along for the entire ride. A meal as good as this one, you don’t never want it to end.
We live in a world in which every day, people seem to be a little bit angrier. For whatever reason, so many people seem all the more invested in finding reasons to take issue with each other. And I’m not putting down the more politically inclined of our society or those who speak up in favor of those who can’t speak for themselves. But there’s no reason why that has to completely take over our lives. It’s also refreshing to be able to pick up a book and take in a really great story. This is a frightening tale that is paced brilliantly and leaves you wanting to immediately know when the next Rich Hawkins book is going to finally hit the shelves.
Or at least wondering when John Carpenter is going to get around to doing an adaptation of this book.
Drag Me To Hell is a film that I enjoyed when it first came out but with so much time having passed since, for the purposes of this review I thought I should re-watch it. And what I found was that I wasn’t enjoying it as much the second time around. And this could be a simple case of a movie not holding up as well for multiple viewings but I tried to mull it over and decide what exactly about it bothered me this time, as opposed to when I first saw it.
And in the end, I think what I can come up with is that this is the kind of movie that is going to depend a lot on what you’re expecting to see as you walk through the door. What style of horror are you expecting and how well does it hold up under those expectations?
Looking at this as a straight horror film, I felt like it came up quite short in the end. And it’s more than just the acting not being great or the cringe-worthy lines of dialog, the likes of, “I beat you, you old bitch” or “That’s the last of my hair you ever get!” For me, it goes down to how the premise of the movie itself is executed, pardon the pun.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I love a good story involving a curse. But in this case, I kind of felt like the movie just goes through the motions of establishing said curse.
The movie opens on a young couple rushing to the aid of a medium. Their son has been marked and made the target for a powerful demon. He has been hearing voices following an incident in which he stole a necklace from a group of gypsies. Always gypsies, right? The parents tried to return the necklace but to no avail. And in the course of the attempted séance, a demon attacks and takes the boy, dooming him to an apparent eternity of suffering.
Right off the bat, I have a problem.
Give me a moment and I’ll come back to explain.
Flash forward some thirty years later and we are with our protagonist, Christine. Christine is a loan officer at a bank who is competing with a sniveling coworker for a promotion and things aren’t looking good for her. On this day, an elderly woman comes to the bank because her home is about to be repossessed. She pleads for leniency, despite already having gotten multiple extensions. Christine goes to her boss who implies pretty strongly that if she hopes for this promotion, she should turn this woman away. But of course it’s her choice.
Christine rejects the woman’s plea for help and in the course of her desperation, she makes somewhat of a scene in the bank, begging on her knees and in the course of a mildly physical confrontation where they kind of get tangled up in each other, Christine calls security, having the woman kicked out. She leaves, scolding Christine for shaming her and I’m pretty sure you can guess where the story goes from there.
My problem is at the point where it seems like these people drop a curse on someone in the blink of an eye. And while I get that the point is to generate sympathy for the characters, it goes so far as to make the gypsies in the movie just seem like unreasonable assholes. Look at something like Stephen King’s Thinner. In this story, you have a main character who is in an equally sympathetic situation but at least there’s the other side of the coin where you realize he could have been responsible for a death. He is being punished for an act that most of us would consider equally horrible. There’s a balance.
In this? A child is dammed to eternal suffering in hell? For stealing a necklace? That they tried to give back? Could Christine have given the woman a break and given her another extension? Sure. But is it really her fault that the loan is so far behind? Should she be cursed to her own eternity in hell for something like this?
The responses seem all out of proportion with the crime. At some point, you would think that the demon these people are calling up would be like, “Hey, could you stop summoning me every time the checkout clerk at Costco is mean to you?”
I know, I’m taking this aspect of the plot too seriously as obviously this is just intended as a mechanism to put the protagonist into a situation of peril. I just thought they could have done a better job making the main character a bit less sympathetic while still preserving the overall tragedy of the notion of a curse.
All of that aside, I do have to acknowledge some of the better parts of the movie and there are some fantastic moments of gross gore in all of its horrific glory. There are any number of scenes involving the main character and dead bodies and fluids expelling that are pure gold for their entertainment value.
And that brings me to the other side of this coin and what I think settles my mind in terms of seeing the reaction to this movie as being so linked with the attitude you have going in.
I mean, who is this that we are talking about, anyway? Sam Raimi has certainly established himself as a name when it comes to epic, splatter-tastic cult horror films. I mean, that’s what he’s known for AFTER consideration of his epic cameo appearance in Spies Like Us. From the opening moments of Drag Me To Hell when the retro logo for Universal crawls onto the screen, I should have been expecting a throwback to a fantastic era of horror when the experience was just as much about calling friends over right before you ordered the pizza and began stacking up the VHS tapes.
These were not high-brow movies, meant to be taken seriously. This isn’t an experience that is necessarily going to leave you enlightened and more mature. None of it is really meant to be taken on an intellectual level.
Looking through that lens allows me to relax a bit and take in the absurdities of the film as just part of the ride.
The moment of the movie where I think it all crystallized for me had to be the goat sequence. If you aren’t familiar, basically the plan that is hatched by the medium that Christine goes to for help is to summon this demon, trap it within the body of a goat and then kill the goat. Sure, nothing could go wrong. Anyway, the moment when the animatronic goat becomes possessed is one of the more hysterical sequences I think I have seen in any kind of a film, be it horror or comedy or whatever else. How can you not love a movie that has the guts to create a scene as over the top as that?
So I guess my overall diagnosis of the film and how I reacted to it is that I think maybe Raimi was hedging his bets a little too much. The film kind of dips its toes into both sides of the fence but doesn’t seem to commit to one or the other. I think this either needed to be a serious horror film or he had to flip all caution into the wind and go totally over the top. A lot of the movie feels like it’s kind of stutter-stepping in that direction without having the conviction to just do it.
What I’m saying is that if we had slapped on a little more cheese, we might be talking about this film, right alongside the likes of The Evil Dead.
Before the crew had even finished the landing sequence, the delegation of Khaln’aari had emerged from the forest to greet them. Captain Altranor led them down the ramp to meet the party with the crew already in full dress uniform. Theirs was one of the first crews to come to the planet, and it lifted their spirits to find such a warm reception.
The digital network that was streamed through their comm badges was able, albeit slowly, to translate what the Khaln’aari were saying. Before long, the formalities of the reception had lessened somewhat to a more comfortable familiarity. They exchanged gifts, the Captain giving the Khaln’aari a glass figurine of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. The Khaln’aari had given each of the crew necklaces of tiny, but intricately sculpted pieces of brawn’dak stone.
The two groups entertained each other at the reception site with traditional myths native to each others’ cultures. They traded the stories, back and forth, until the sun was starting to set beyond the southern horizon.
The food was by far, the highlight of the evening.
Being nighttime hunters, the Khaln’aari allowed several members of the crew, including the Captain to join them on that evening’s excursion. The crew had been able to achieve several kills, even though all they saw of the animals were dark shapes running through the trees. The Khaln’aari had several dozen kills, and they sent the younger hunters of the tribe to collect the bodies and clean them for the feast.
Hours later at dinner, the servers brought out pots, steaming from within. The stews, all different, were served to everyone, dark and rich, with the most moist, and flavorful meat any of them had ever eaten. The over-sized glasses of blood-red wine went straight through them, and soon, most were seeing the table through an unsteady haze of pre-intoxication.
The Captain stood to toast the hospitality of their hosts and to thank the Khaln’aari for the feast.
There was a tittering of laughter in response to the toast and for the first time, the Captain looked uncertain. The leader of the Khaln’aari rose and spoke loudly for quite some time, the rest of his delegation chuckling as he went on. It took a minute before the neural network was able to fully translate what was being said, and another minute before the implication of his statement set in.
“That is precisely what the last group of humans who visited here said. I know that you believe you were the first to set foot here, as did they. You were incorrect in that assumption, as were they. They enjoyed their meals as well, that is, before they knew what they were eating, or rather, who they were eating. As great as their anger was at being tricked into hunting their own kind, the humans who had visited here before them, it paled in comparison to the revelation that it was those fellow travelers who they had been dining on.”
The crew all pushed back from the table, meaning to stand, reaching for weapons that the Captain had not let them bring for fear of offending the Khaln’aari. Before they could even rise to their feet, guards stepped forward out of the shadows and held them down in their chairs. The Captain stood frozen in place, unable to move or react. The leader spoke one last time, “I wonder,” he said as he lifted a glass, “how the next crew will feel about hunting you. Do you think they will enjoy the food?”
Read more short stories like this in Chad A. Clark’s collections, A Shade For Every Season and Two Bells At Dawn.
Compliance is a movie that I watched ages ago, back in the days of old of Netflix and bright red envelopes. But the movie recently popped up again on my Amazon prime list so I thought it would be worth paying it a revisit.
Compliance isn’t a horror movie necessarily. It doesn’t have monsters or the supernatural or any kind of ghoulish threat to our main characters. However, the experience of the protagonist in this movie definitely crosses over the border into what anyone in their right mind would consider to be horrific. It’s the kind of story that shines a disturbing light on how easy it can be to get people of strong moral character to do the most depraved and horrible things.
The film is based on actual events which maddeningly could be accurately be described as a series of phone pranks. For the most part the basic details were the same. An individual calls in to a restaurant claiming to be a police officer. He tells the manager that he has just taken a complaint from a customer who claims that a cashier from the restaurant has stolen money from her purse. And because there isn’t an officer available to come to the restaurant, he needs the manager to pull the employee aside, detain her and go through her belongings to try and find this money. Continue Reading
Morris ducked through the archway into the cemetery, trying to stay out of sight. That intern had been at the movie and clearly was interested in conversation that Morris wanted no part of. As soon as the credits started to roll, he jumped up out of his seat and darted out through the rear emergency exit. He thought he had made a clean getaway but still, he heard the sound of dragging footsteps, coming from somewhere behind him. The kid was nothing if not relentless.
A certain amount of hero worship was to be expected when you were a vice president of foreign acquisitions. He was used to that, but the unending barrage of questions and requests was almost enough for him to consider early retirement. He had neither the interest nor the time to be just some renewable resource. Not unless he was getting paid.
Besides, it wasn’t as if there was a career path that he could recommend, based on his vast experience. Granted, climbing the corporate ladder had always been easy for him. What he could never say was that the reason was that people ahead of him on the food chain always seemed to fall victim to convenient accidents. How could he phrase that in the form of a mission statement? Kid, just make sure you’re always in position to step up, if and when someone kicks the bucket. Better yet, make sure you provide the bucket. Continue Reading
A few months ago, I began writing what I thought was going to be a short story. As I got into it, however, I realized that this was likely going to end up being a full novel. For posterity and maybe to motivate myself, I am sharing the first chapter with you now, in all it’s rough-draftiness-glory. I’ve done very little to this, keeping it pretty close to how it sprang out of my mind. I’ve given it a quick read to make it (hopefully) not completely embarrassing. Still, it’s a project that I’ve been intrigued to see what direction it’s going in. Check it out, I hope you enjoy it. It will be some time before this project sees the light of day but it’s from here that it begins.
Nolan picked up the battered Zippo from the gravel. He took note of his fingers trembling as he wiped the greasy leavings of blood from the tarnished metal. The thing was frail-looking, despite the breadth of time and destruction that it had borne witness to. He wondered at how many fire-fights it had gone through, tucked away in his grandfather’s uniform as he struggled to find warmth in the Ardennes Forest. A battered landscape long since given itself up to the cold of empty death.
Now the thing was no better than a token for drunk rednecks to go bare-knuckles over in the parking lot of a bar that looked like it only served as the last stop before the end of the line. He hawked up the gunk in his throat and spit, feeling something dislodge in the process and watched detachedly as a tooth skittered off towards the sewer. Considering how much the side of his face still burned from where the guy had put the pool que, one tooth was probably getting off easy.
Maybe it was time to call it quits on this town. Put boots to that dusty Iowa road and depart for yet one more point B. It was a bit far to the next town but he could always get a good start now, thumbing his way for the rest. Someone would be willing to pick him up and toss him a ride. Even if it was in the flatbed of a pickup that wheezed and groaned, like it was on the verge of giving up the ghosts. He just had to be patient and put himself in the right position to catch a ride. Continue Reading
And Don’t get me wrong, the language of Mary Shelley is beautiful and it is a book I enjoy a great deal. It’s just that, generationally we are so far removed from that period of time and that language. It’s overly simplistic to accuse a lack of intellect when people have a hard time engaging with classic literature. It’s simply that for many, the process of engaging with a voice so far removed from us just isn’t worth the pay-off of what we get in the narrative. And for as simple as I’m sure many would dismiss books of our current era, I have to think that a hundred years from now, readers would have just as much trouble trying to get at the heart of what was being written. The key I see to my enjoyment of this book is how it manages to dust off the power of Shelly’s work and make it feel less like a literary artifact.
Tune in tomorrow for our review of Jack Wallen’s latest book, Frankenstein Theory. For now, check out this interview we conducted with him as well.
MM : Tell us a little about yourself and what put you on the road to being an author.
JW :I spent the first 30 years of my adult life as a professional actor. I was on the road, traveling across the country, from gig to gig, and finally landed at my current home state, where I performed for one of the largest theater for young audiences in America. During my ten years as a resident actor there, I realized that Actor’s Equity Association’s retirement plan was, in a word, sad. When that hit home, I knew I had to find something that could serve as a retirement.
Flash backward to graduate school (go, Purdue!) and I had a very tight-knit group of friends who played a lot of role playing games. We spent an entire year playing Vampire: The Masquerade. I became so connected with the character I played, I decided I wanted to continue his story. After leaving Purdue, I had no one around me to play with (sad panda), so I decided the best way to keep that character in my mind was to write out his story.
Turns out, I actually had a knack for verbiage. That story never saw the light of day (although I do still have the manuscript), but it kicked off my love for writing.
MM: How would you characterize your writing? Genre? Ideal audience?
JW: To sum up my writing is tough, because I write in so many genres. I tend to allow the Universe to instruct me what to write next, so I never know what genre I’ll be playing in. Outside of that, my writing tends to be intellectual and lyrical. I’ve always felt, as a writer, words are my tool to convey plot, character, relationship, ambiance, mood, style, rhythm … and so much more. And so, I use those words as a composer uses notes, a painter uses paint, or a sculptor uses a chisel and clay. To me, it’s artistic expression on a high level.
MM: A number of your books have connections with music. The Kitty in a Casket series as well as Punk Ass Punk. Music certainly plays a central role in Frankenstein Theory. How does your background as a musician and an actor inform your writing?
JW: It’s one of the things I hold most dear, as it helps me to understand things like point/counterpoint and rhythm. As an artist, one of the things I talk about a lot (when I teach) is a bit of music theory call non-harmonic tones. These are tones which color melody as it passes from phrase to phrase. It’s a bit of a stretch to use it with the written word, but there are ways – as in transitions from beat to beat, or scene to scene. Being able to blend those moments together with tension or resolution really brings the writing to a new level. Those “passing tones” help the characters to navigate the waters of plot with grace, precision, empathy, pain, wit … you name it. Outside of that rather esoteric notion, the use of rhythm is incredibly important to my writing. When I see paragraph after paragraph written as big blocks of text, I immediately see a writer who has no sense or understanding of the role rhythm in the written word. Most humans don’t speak or think in that manner … they think in spurts and sputters, intermixed with long, drawn-out thoughts. Writing should reflect that type of rhythm.
MM: I’m old enough that I can still just remember the end of the era when going to the movies was more of an event, almost on level with going to the theater. I see the Universal Monster Franchise as a great symbol of that era. What drew you to these stories?
JW: First of all, I adore those old black and white films. When I was a child, my favorite memories are watching the horror films of old. I couldn’t get enough of B-Horror and B-Scifi. I think there’s this layer of innocence to those films that allowed people to be so much more frightened of the unknown. These films brought to the celluloid table something no one had ever before seen, so even the original Frankenstein was able to frighten them to nearly fainting. Today, we’ve pretty much witnessed every possible horror and calamity that there is to behold, so there is no longer such thing as innocence in the cinema. The same thing holds true with books.
MM: How did Frankenstein Theory come to be, specifically?
JW: It actually started out as a short story. A gent reached out to me, saying he was going to be doing an anthology of short stories, based on the Universal Monsters. He gave me Frankenstein, and I decided to do a sort of prequel to the film … a sort of “What happened to lead up to Victor reanimating a human?” After submitting the short story, the gent had to abandon the project (for reasons unknown). I loved the story so much, I decided it needed to be fleshed out. That led to me taking on the story with the twist found in Frankenstein Theory.
MM: You seem to engage much more directly the contrast between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. How the morality of the Doctor seems to decrease as the morality of his creation seems to increase. Is this something that was on your mind as you wrote?
JW: Yes. One of the biggest themes in all of my horror writing is turning the mirror back on humankind, to illustrate how, left unchecked, we are the most horrific monster of all time. So I spend a lot of time in much of my work on that theme. Why? It serves as a way to help remind readers that we are only a twitch away from the monstrous … so keep yourself in check. Without keeping tabs on our morality, the human condition wants to spiral down into a rather dark abyss. It is that dance, I find, where so much horror gold can be mined.
MM: There is such a disconnect between Mary Shelly’s book and the way the monster is represented in the films that followed. Have you ever wondered how point A led to point B in this case?
JW: At the time, Hollywood believed Shelly’s book to be too intellectual for the standard audience. They couldn’t offer up a “monster” who was not only intelligent, but worthy of sympathy. The “monster” in the book speaks with an eloquence we don’t find in most villains (save for the likes of Hannibal Lecter). There is no way Hollywood could have placed the burden of sympathy on a character like the “monster” and turn the protagonist into a villain. In the book, the monster says “I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me?” That is far too moralistically confusing for audiences of the period. Because of that, Hollywood opted to strip the monster of eloquence and make him hideous.
MM: Can we expect more from you in this series?
JW: Yes. I am about to release “Dracula Theory”, which does the same thing (for similar reasons) that I did with “Frankenstein Theory”. I also plan on continuing the series with the rest of the Universal Monsters and beyond. I love writing these types of period horror, because their tapestries are so rich and lush.
MM: The landscape out there for authors seems to experience constant tectonic shifts. What advice would you have for authors who are trying to get noticed?
JW: Patience, patience, patience. Back in 2014, it was reported that a new book went live on Amazon every five minutes. I would imagine that number to be exponentially higher now (more like 100+ every five minutes). That translates to a very large number of new books every day, which (in turn) translates to it being harder and harder (with each passing day) for authors to be seen. That means you have to work … hard. At what? Your craft. Make it your goal that the book you’re working on now is better than the book you previously finished. Never. Stop. Pushing. Yourself. Also, don’t adhere to someone’s advice as though it were gospel. Why? Just because it worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you. I have witnessed so many authors fail, simply because they were trying to recreate what succeeded for another. Pave your own way. Know the rules, break the rules, make your own rules. I’ve pretty much lived and died by that mantra, and it pays off.
The beat I march to is my own. Find yours and make it something glorious.
MM: Is there anything coming up for you on the horizon that you would like to share?
JW: As I mentioned, I have “Dracula Theory”, which is my take on Bram Stoker’s fabulous tale. My version is in the same period, but flips the whole narrative on its head. Besides that, I’m working on my first romance novel, called “Beautiful Complication”. This is far from a standard romance, so expect the unexpected. Beyond those two pieces, I have a “to be written” file that’s massive, so there’s never a lack for ideas.
I do believe this film is an example, not unlike Apocalypse Now, of a director becoming consumed by a project. I have no idea if Friedkin had a Coppola level breakdown, but from what the cast has had to say, he became quite invested in the success of the film. In one heightened incident, after extensive takes of not getting the emotional performance he wanted from an actor, he proceeded to slap him before a take. In the scene, as the priest delivers the last rites, you can see his hand shaking. This wasn’t a result of just his acting craft.
Say what you will about Friedkin’s tactics and behavior, but he managed to take this book and turn it into one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It is a tour de force that employs brilliant suggestion and foreshadowing that leads up to a terrifying confrontation.
I read Blatty’s novel recently and found it excellent as well. There isn’t a ton that strays from the film and I think it pays testament to how effective of an adaptation Friedkin managed to put together. The Exorcist fires on all levels and if by some chance you haven’t seen it, you should make all efforts to rectify that oversight as soon as possible.
In one week, the final chapter in Chad A. Clark’s apocalyptic trilogy will be released. It’s now available for pre-order. Are you curious? Interested in checking it out and don’t want to wait? Machine Mean has for you an exclusive look at the first chapter. Enjoy, and please considering pre-ordering, via the link at the end of this piece.
The dime was what first caught her attention.
As she walked along the street, Roxie caught a flash from the corner of her eye, glancing to her right to see sunlight reflecting off the small piece of metal on the ground. She slowed and veered towards the coin, bending down to pick it up. As she did so, her feet absurdly tangled and her balance began to slip. With a mocking laugh from within, she realized that there would be no way to prevent this as she held out her hands to try and brace herself, with nothing but open air to stop her. Two pedestrians offered their help in the form of deftly stepping out of the way when she fell, grunting as her shoulder hit the ground and possibly in an unconscious attempt to escape from reality, she allowed her momentum to carry her on as she rolled between two newspaper machines.
The world erupted in bright white light.
Roxie squeezed her eyes shut, putting her arms up over her head as a blast of heat flowed over her. There seemed to be a collective outcry as the ground shook, glass breaking all around. Car horns seemed to go off all at once, only to be immediately silenced as if from some higher power and above, tendrils of darkness stretched out into the sky.
“What the fuck?” She looked at the blood on the pavement, rubbing the side of her head at the unexpected warmth. It was like an oven door had been opened next to her head.
It took a moment for her to register the screams.
Ten feet away, two people were on the ground, kneeling and shrieking in clear agony. One woman had clamped hands to her face, blood seeping through clutching fingers. The other was trying to rise to his feet, blinking with bloodshot eyes, looking like they couldn’t draw a focus, screaming as he did so.
“I can’t see! Someone please help me, I can’t see!”
And as she looked up and down the street, there was more of the same. Either prone bodies littered across the ground or people doubled over in pain and confusion. She looked up to City Hall when her breath caught at the sight of the clouds roiling up into the rapidly darkening sky. There was no denying the sight of the mushroom cloud, something she had only previously seen in documentary footage.
The muttered protest was all she could think to do as she averted her gaze from the explosion, thinking of all the people around her who had evidently lost their vision. They writhed on the ground everywhere, plunged into their own pain and confusion. An odor of something burning was in the air and all she could wonder at was how she had managed to avoid being hurt herself. How she had the luck to not be looking into the sky when the detonation had happened. There were more vibrations under her feet and part of her wondered how long it would be before the ground itself split open.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind her as a hand landed firmly on her shoulder to drag her to the ground.
“What…what the hell are you—”
“Shut up and follow me. There isn’t time!” The tall, reedy man darted off through the crowd and as she struggled to keep up, she pulled up at the sight of him pulling on a manhole cover, stepping onto the ladder below. She detected a foul odor as she stepped closer, watching him descend. He snapped at her again, his tone leaving no room for debate. “Come on, we don’t have a lot of time!”
She shook her head at the insanity that somehow, climbing into the sewer with this stranger was almost more crazy than what she had just witnessed. The crashing report of a car colliding with a signpost across the street snapped her back to reality and she stepped onto the ladder.
“Who are you, do you know what’s—” Her question died on her lips as she stepped off the ladder and found her new friend stripping off his clothes and dropping them onto the concrete next to them. “What…the hell are you doing?” she asked him.
He shrugged as he continued to undress. “You know what that was, right? That was a nuclear explosion. That means your clothes are contaminated. You got to get them off. Careful not to get them in the water, though.”
Roxie glanced at the wide, man-made stream flowing past in the trench. She wanted to protest as every instinct screamed how insane it was to simply strip in the presence of this man. Still, if what he said was true, she had to do it. Pulling her clothes off, she looked over as he stood there, down to his bare ass and glancing off to the side as if he was trying not to watch.
“All of it,” he said, almost sounding apologetic. Roxie slipped out of her underwear and added it to the pile. Reaching down, he added her clothes to his but as he turned she had a sudden thought.
“Wait!” she cried out. He paused and turned back, clearly agitated, one foot already on the ladder. “Wait, my keys are in my pants pocket.”
He snorted and shook his head. “Kid, you aren’t going to be driving anywhere anytime soon.”
“No, you don’t understand, the key-chain!”
He reached into the pockets until he found the keys and held them up, looking but clearly not understanding.
“The key-chain!” she repeated. “That’s a picture of me and my brother. Please, I can’t lose that. Please give them back.”
He let out a slow breath before nodding and tossing them to her. She had a brief, terrified vision of missing and watching them slide into the water but she managed to catch them cleanly, clutching them to her chest while he scampered up the ladder. He threw the clothes up and out, coming back down after he had disposed of them.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got clothes where we’re going.”
“Christ,” Roxie muttered to herself. The guy acted like he hadn’t heard, leading her down the walkway along the water. At some point, he bent down and picked an object up off the ground. She heard a clicking sound and light emerged from the flashlight he now held. After what seemed like an eternity and as the echoing sounds of explosions above began to fade, he stopped abruptly and reached for a ladder. Her mouth gaped open as he stepped down and began towards the water.
“Don’t worry, it’s only about four feet deep and the current isn’t that strong. Just keep close to the side.”
“You want me to—”
“Come on! I promise we can talk all this over but we need to get to a safer place. Please just shut up and—”
“Okay! I’m coming, for fuck’s sake. Just hold on.”
The water was surprisingly cold as she eased into it. It came nearly up to her armpits but the foothold underneath was more secure than she had been expecting and it was relatively easy to move along the wall without losing control. From above, there were occasional tremors, followed by a shower of dust. All she could cling to was the hope that at any moment she would wake up, having had the most surreal dream.
“Come on. In here.” He stopped and turned into what looked like a small alcove. She could see the top of what looked like an arch of some kind but it seemed to be a solid wall, inset somewhat from the main tunnel.
“Okay,” he said, turning to her. “This is the point you’re going to have the hardest time with and I need you to trust me. Take my hand. Now what we’re going to be doing is going underwater and swimming straight ahead. I know it sounds crazy but just close your eyes, take in a deep breath and stay with me, all right?”
Roxie barely had time to nod before the light clicked off and they were going down. The water swirled up above her as they submerged and the world took on a tinny, hollow echo. They swam forward but the wall she had expected to find before them wasn’t there. Instead, they swam through a secondary tunnel that had been obscured by the water level. She had the vague thought that she wished he had told her how far it was going to be but they were already angling up.
As they broke the surface, she coughed out the moisture that had managed to seep in, looking up into the chamber they had just entered. The water went another ten feet before reaching a dead end. The room itself was shaped like an over-sized horseshoe, with the water at the center. At the very end, another ladder took them up to the platform, at least ten feet above.
“Wait for a minute,” he said as he climbed out of the water. He moved away, out of sight for a moment before returning with a towel, holding it up for her as she climbed. He averted his gaze as she wrapped it around herself and pointed off towards one of the walls. “There’s some clothes over there you can choose from. Sorry I don’t have more but it’s better than nothing.”
Roxie wasn’t interested in clothes, though. She looked around the chamber, seeing that there was no way in or out, other than the submerged tunnel they had just swam in through.
“What is this place?” she asked.
He shrugged in response. “I don’t really know. I found it about a year ago.”
“And you…you’ve been living down here?”
He smiled for the first time. “Beats the alternative at the moment, doesn’t it?”
“So…what the hell just happened? What are we going to do down here? Where are we…” She trailed off as she began to feel her breath running short. The questions flew into her head too quickly to articulate them.
“Let’s take that slowly and start simple, okay? I’m Jeff. What’s your name?”
“Roxie. I…why did you help me?”
It was the only question she could phrase from the stew of confusion brewing within her.
“Honestly, I don’t really know. Everything happened so fast but you had been lucky enough to not be looking into the blast and I…whoa, easy there!”
Before she could speak, she threw up what was left in her stomach, feeling her eyes dropping shut and the last sensation she could mark before darkness rushed in was pitching forward into his outstretched arms.
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