At first, the bite felt like a mere pinch near his right elbow, how a mosquito might make its presence known to an outside reveler on a sultry summer’s evening. Here and gone as suddenly as it came. Like a mosquito, or perhaps a biting fly or ant, and Helm’s instinct was to brush the creature away. Go bother somebody else outside. But there was always the possibility it was a wasp or a hornet. He’d never been stung before, knock on wood, but pop, God rest his soul, had had to deal with anaphylactic shock, and wasn’t that a genetic thing?
Now Helm wished he had worn a flannel, instead of his fluorescent green DPW shirt. But even though he was probably ten feet underground by now, his boot secure on the cast-iron ladder built into the concrete, cars shuffling by above, it was still hot, the perspiration sticking to the two day’s growth on his cheeks. His helmet felt like an anchor with the flashlight affixed to the top with a thick Kevlar band, and the bitch of it was, the light kept going out, unless Helm shook his head to restart it. That got old fast.
There was another bite. Whatever it was, that sucker hurt, going from a pinch to a dagger and then the sensation of something attempting to rip the flesh from bone, though maybe that was a bit of hyperbole. Helm cursed in the manner of Samuel L. Jackson, lifted his arm and shook it, banging his elbow in the dark on the hole’s concrete sidewall in the process. The pain relented but his helmet flashlight went out, and as he shook his head to get it to turn back on, there was something new. A similar pinch, then a dagger between his right knee and his ankle.
Bees can sting through denim? he thought, as he shook his leg to relieve the pain. His other boot slipped off the rung and for a split second he was dangling in the fetid air underground, only his left hand preventing a fall into the village’s sewer system. If that happened, he’d probably break an ankle, or maybe even an arm, but he’d also smell like shit for a week. It had happened before. Not to him, but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen...
He readjusted himself so that both boots were as firm as they could be on the same rung, then looked up. His helmet flashlight finally came back on, but the tiny bit of incoming sun obscured its light. Always working when you didn’t need it, and vice versa. He was careful to ensure his gloved hand securely held the rung level to his head. Before lifting his right leg, he thought it prudent to announce his arrival upstairs.
“Hey meatball,” Helm fairly shouted. “I’m comin’ up. You better be ready.”
Now the pain of the bite on his leg became a hot coal. It felt as if something was trying to burrow through his jeans to get at his flesh. He heard a scratch-scratch of something tearing a hole in the fabric, so he shook his leg and the pain abruptly subsided, though whatever it was wasn’t an insect. It hit the sewer water with a splash that echoed in the concrete tube.
That was something solid.
Time to go, Helm thought, and as he used his hands and his boots to climb up two sets of rungs at a time, what little sunlight suddenly disappeared in conjunction with the clanking of metal on metal. The sound concluded with an echoing boom. Just before that happened, Helm could have sworn he had heard a car splash through a massive puddle. But it was dry that day.
Somehow, the meatball had moved a two-hundred-pound manhole cover back on its base, killing the light and probably eventually the air, too.
How is that friggin’ possible? More colorful metaphors a la Samuel L. Jackson.
“You’re dead, meatball,” Helm shouted into the abyss, and as he did that, there was the sensation of two bites, one on his left leg above his boot, the other at his midsection, just below his beltline, within dangerous proximity of his nuts. He twisted and twisted some more, but the pain only intensified into hot coals, so he reached down.
Whatever it was had mass, maybe about the size of a baseball or slightly smaller, and fur, and claws. Helm grabbed it with his left hand, his pitching hand, and hurled it into the darkness, eliciting another minor splash. But the bite was replaced by another in virtually the same area, this time even closer to his nuts. He banged his helmet with his right palm, and finally, the flashlight came on, and stayed on.
He looked down.
Two black moles with peach claws were chewing at him. Another was climbing through a crack in the drain’s sidewall, and another behind it.
The job was supposed to have been routine. There was a suspected crack in the drain of the sewer line on East Avenue, a busy thoroughfare in town. The objective was to shimmy down the manhole in the road’s median, near the intersection of East and 47th Street., get confirmation, then return to HQ and report. From there, the decisions about whether to patch it or do a full scope of work, including excavation, were made by people well above Helm’s pay grade, like the director and even the city fathers. His only job was to figure out what was going on, because when sewer water leeches into the soil, that can be a damn stinking mess. The taxpayers wouldn’t stand for that.
The director assigned Helm and the meatball, a lightweight a couple years out of high school named Petraska, to grab a truck, head out to East and 47th, pull the manhole cover and get down there.
“You can go first,” Helm joked to the meatball, which wasn’t much of a joke because of the latter’s fear of tight spaces. Claustrophobia, he called it, something he had had since as far back as he could remember. Once he was stuffed in a locker at the village’s high school and had been so unglued by the experience that he spent a few days in a looney bin. Or so he had said in the low tone of one once terrified. Who knew whether these kids were telling the truth or exaggerating to get sympathy? The world was a mess.
Meatball was roughly five-foot-nine, thin as a fencepost, with a thatch of wavy, toast-brown hair. He wore around his neck and outside of his own fluorescent DPW shirt a gaudy silver link chain with a cross, sans Christ Himself. That had irritated Helm as well. Don’t bring your religion to work, kid, it’s not good for your career, and what if the director sees? Helm had told him this, but the meatball didn’t listen. He just got around humming unfamiliar tunes and needed help lifting bags of sod and mulch during the spring and shoveling halite in the winter so the plows could get out and clear the roads after a full-out dump.
He was a cold fish, like Helm’s dad used to say, but his eyes belied something deeper. Helm would often turn and suddenly would be involved in a staring match with a pair of eyes that seemed to be either dark brown or even black marbles. He’d chuckle as Helm would turn away, feeling the warmth of embarrassment creeping up his neck. More than once Helm had considered the possibility that the meatball was really a pansy. But he couldn’t, because if his religion, right?
They had arrived onsite at East and 47th at 10:34 a.m., which Helm dutifully logged in his notebook in the silver Ford F-150 with the village logo on the doors. Meatball set up the yellow-and-black guard barrier at the manhole, along with a few orange cones to ward off the cars going northbound on East. Helm inserted a metal crowbar-like lever on the manhole cover, heaved and budged it, pulling it left so it slid on the pavement still damp from an overnight storm. The thought of someone, meatball or whomever, sliding the cover back in its original position made Helm wince. It was tough enough for a guy like Helm who lifted weights in his off-time.
“You know the drill,” Helm said to meatball, slipping the flashlight and its band over his white helmet before donning his leather gloves. “I’ll go down, take some pics with my phone if there’s a crack or anything else, and then come up. Now don’t go wandering off.” Not that the meatball would, he hadn’t before, but again, who knew what kids with short attention spans might do.
He looked down at the now-gaping hole, then looked up and there it was, an instant staring contest. Meatball’s eyelids were furrowed, maybe because of the sunlight, but maybe because he was trying to get a good look at Helm before he disappeared below. For what reason, he didn’t know. Maybe he really was a pansy. Time to get to work.
Helm knelt on the damp pavement, sat on his ass, then slid his legs so they dangled in the manhole. He could feel the first rung of the internal ladder, which was a good sign. He wouldn’t have to use the temporary ladder he had thrown into the bed of the F-150 before departing HQ. Those could be problematic. He had heard a horror story of a DPW guy in Syracuse—or was it Albany? Somewhere in upper New York state—where the temporary ladder somehow fell into the manhole and the poor guy was stuck there in knee-high sewage for several hours before they could somehow fish him out.
Of course, Helm had heard this guy was working alone and had forgotten his phone up top, which was stupid. You always go on a job like this with two men, just in case. A wing man, Helm had heard it called. He thought about those words as he turned to the meatball, who was still staring into his retinas, forcing him to blink, then look down. This time, the meatball had a half-smile, the kind where you wonder what someone is really thinking about you, while he fingered the cross around his neck. That, and his eyes, did nothing to instill confidence in Helm that he could be rescued if something unfortunate did happen.
But what was going to happen? There was a cast-iron ladder built into the concrete, for Christ’s sake. Helm had his helmet, a flashlight, and his phone. Besides, there was nothing down there but dirty water.
Helm looked up one last time. Now the meatball was staring out into space.
“Hey stupid, you want to pay attention?” he said, and when there was no response, he said in a sing-songy voice, “Helllloooo?”
Instantly, meatball swung his eyes to meet Helm’s. The cockeyed smile was still there.
“Good luck, Mr. Helm,” he said.
They kept coming, the moles, piling out of the crack in the drain’s sidewall, which was seemingly growing, all of them appearing to leap toward Helm. Some missed and splashed into the sewage below, but others, perhaps a dozen now, maybe more, had latched themselves onto him and were clawing their way toward the exposed skin on his arms and neck. One tittered along his right shoulder and Helm instinctively used his left hand to try to block its path toward his jugular. But that just created opportunity for another to attempted to enter his shirt via the exposed sleeve.
Sweating, Helm fought like hell against the furry invaders, but by then, they covered his legs, his chest and parts of his arms. It felt like they pulling him down, as if they were trying to get him off the ladder. One moved from his left shoulder blade to his right, stopping at the base of his skull and administering a dagger bite that caused Helm’s howl to echo up, and then down into the sewage below.
And then the light on his helmet failed again, plunging the drain into total darkness.
Suddenly blind, it occurred to helm that moles were blind, spending virtually their entire lives underground.
Under the ground.
He doubted they could swim. There were probably a whole bunch of moles thrashing below, and drowning.
But maybe that was it.
Use their blindness against them.
Get down the latter ASAP, and into the sewage. Brush these bastards off of him and into the water, where they would suffer. Heck, maybe the sewage was poisonous to them, who knew?
With great thrashing and ferocity, Helm shook his right arm, and the faint sound of furry flesh meeting unforgiving concrete with resultant squeaks filled the space that seemed to be closing in on him. He grabbed his iPhone, slid the top menu down revealing the flashlight icon, and turned it on. He whirled the device around, and realized that the moles had now apparently doubled their efforts, four or five at a time emerging from the crack.
Time to get downstairs.
His body stinging and his shoulder blades hunched so the moles couldn’t get to his neck and thus his carotid artery, Helm started stepping down the ladder. This resulted in most of the creatures falling past him and into the sewage below, though some managed to latch on to him. But between moving downward and thrashing around, taking care not to fall, the pain in his legs, arms and chest was beginning to subside.
If this was a competition, he might now be winning.
But this was a zero-sum game. There would be a winner, and there would be a loser.
Helm was now about ten feet from the water line and a mole was biting the palm of his left hand, in the soft spot between his thumb and forefinger. He thought of little league, where he was a southpaw pitcher, and he drew his arm back, smacking it against the concrete sidewall, yelped and hurled the mole into the waters, joining by now dozens of his dying compadres.
The hell with them.
Then another thought.
How was he going to write a report to the director about all of this, assuming he survived?
Amazing what one thinks about under pressure.
Helm had managed to clear the moles from his body, save three near his boots, and he shook his leg, but they wouldn’t give. He stuffed the iPhone in his back pocket, flashlight still on, and one by one grabbed the moles and dropped them into the mire.
For the first time in several minutes, his body was clear of moles. Helm remembered the Catholicism from his youth.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
He pulled the iPhone out of his pocket and pointed it up toward the crack.
All right, baby!
But then the light hit the manhole cover. Meatball was on the other side, probably with that stupid grin, enjoying this.
And this guy was a holy roller?
He was dead. Legally, but possibly even physically.
The sewage came up from below so fast that Helm didn’t have time to react. In mere seconds, a torrent of filthy water filled his nose and mouth, dead and dying moles pounding all sides of his body. The terrifying thought of drowning in a sea of shit because of the actions of some kid who thought he was being funny filled his head.
There would be no retribution. There would be no escape.
Unless he could make it to the surface. He could pound the manhole cover and maybe meatball would realize something was wrong. If he wasn’t a totally heartless son of a bitch, he’d find someone to help him open it up. Maybe Helm would even be lenient.
Of course not. Meatball was dead meat.
One by one, Helm ascended the ladder, praying.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
One little, two little, three little rungs.
Four little, five little, six little rungs.
Helm sang this song in monotone in his mind until his face burst through the surface of the sewage, just under the manhole cover. The water seemed to have stopped just short of it.
In fact, it even seemed as if it was receding, which allowed him to raise his right arm and hit the very center of the cover. Flesh meeting iron isn’t a pleasant experience, and like an aluminum baseball bat in the cold spring, his arm stung all the way to his shoulder blade.
“Lemme out, you bastard!” he screamed, hitting the cover again, and then \again, the pain cresting. He heard a crack and figured he had broken bones in his hand.
Just then, there was movement, the scrunch of metal shifting across metal.
The manhole cover. It was opening.
Praise the Lord!
But it wasn’t sun that entered the space.
It was water. Gallons and gallons of water
Storm water, with little seeds of asphalt from the street.
Then there was an arm.
The meatball’s arm reached down.
Helm grabbed it and pulled, expecting resistance from above that would pull him to freedom.
But there was none. The arm entered the manhole up to the meatball’s shoulder blade, and his face appeared, the eyes swollen open, that stupid half-grin on his face, as if he was laughing at Helm even in death.
How am I going to write a report about this, Helm thought as he convulsively swallowed water.