Wearing the Inside Out
I felt as if someone had opened a bottle of weird, peeled back the top of my skull, and drizzled liquid crazy directly into the exposed parts of my brain. The initial shock of seeing duality since Robby had enchanted me was fading. I could still sort of see things both ways if I concentrated, but like, my world seemed to snap closer back to normal since getting some food in my gut. I hadn't realized how low my blood sugar must have fallen after not eating for a day and a half. Or how dehydrated. Musta drank three liters of water and a tall glass of milk before my bladder finally screamed for a "stand and deliver" moment.
By the time I'd come out of the bathroom, the assembled crew had a plan in place. There were stern looks among some of them, most notably Beth, but they were in agreement. I wasn't sure that I liked it, but they were more experienced about such things. And oddly, my part of the plan was about the craziest.
They wanted me to go back inside, find Jack, disable the computer connection to Jack without destroying the computers themselves, and then stay in the house long enough for the police to show up. Simple, they said. But it puts everything on my shoulders, AND I have to put myself in a position where I could get my nuts loped off. I was more than a little skeptical.
And then Kenny started talking and I agreed that I was the best for those jobs. Then the Arab guy, Yoseph, started talking. And it made more sense. Something in the back of my head kept screaming that I was being manipulated and yet somehow the logic was unassailable.
The big plan involved using two tactical advantages that we had. First off, I was missing and lived next door to the place we knew where I had been taken to. That meant we could operate the public and private parts of the plan from a safe place, which meant near my Aunt Sarah's home. The other thing in our favor was how many contacts Kenny and Robby's combined parents had. Apparently, Robby's parents were okay with the whole thing and were rallying people around the city, stirring the pot, as it were.
The idea was simple, too. Catch Stamos red handed, expose him for who he really is, and what he's done. The delicate part was doing so in a way that keeps Jack free. And keeps my balls still attached. And keeps the crazy guy from doing something in a fit of self-destructive revenge.
Yeah, right. Simple.
Sometimes I wish I'd never tried to skate-climb that bridge railing. Part of me wishes I'd just gone into the Mill Stream and drown. I'm weird like that sometimes.
While we were getting ready for our crazy run to rescue Jack, I saw TV reports about me being missing. They showed my skateboard, found at the foot of the steps leading up into the house. That was how they figured I wasn't lost, but taken. They knew I wouldn't just leave it behind somewhere. In a short interview, I saw Mom crying when asked if they thought I'd run away, and Aunt Sarah called the reporter a, and I quote, "Fuckin' Bonehead!" Bleeped for broadcast, to be sure, but with her accent, anyone with even a passing understanding of English would get the message, loud and clear.
I never knew you could smile angry and proud until then.
We loaded up in an SUV with two rows of back seats. Huge vehicle. Robby and Kenny and Juan and Bethy all had seats, I was relegated to the floor between seats. The plan was to get us to a place away from the media and police cordon around my aunt's house and give us access to the Thomas' basement. So that meant I couldn't be seen. It was a little warm for the hoody I had on, but it kept my face well hidden. I'd just had to tough it out and deal with the sweat stink later.
I have a new found respect for car seats. My ass seemed to take every bump in the road as we crossed down South Main Street and over the stone bridge up to the northern bank of the river, into Canterbury proper. The hills going up Main Street were just as rough and I bounced around a lot.
As we passed by 8th Avenue, I was tempted to look up, see what was what. Police lights twisted faint blue and red strobes around in the darkness, light echoes bouncing off the fronts of buildings as we passed. We couldn't actually see the house from here, since it was down the hill and around a corner. No doubt the area was roped off in that thin yellow tape. I wondered if Mom and Aunty were looking out windows, worried sick about me.
It wasn't fair, damnit! I just got her back, and now, losing me like this might lose her all over again. Fuck! Stamos keeps coming into the picture every time someone I love gets hurt.
Hang in there, Mom, I remember thinking, watching as the lights and shadows shifted around in the SUV, moving on to our destination.
Someone in the back of the van farted. And I don't mean just let out a squeaky whisper of gas. A whooper! I couldn't tell who did it because I was laying on the floor and facing up at the roof and the windows, but the sound was loud, deep and fluttering. If it had been me, I'd have worried about seepage.
"Damn, Juan!" Kenny said, half grinning and half wincing. "You nasty!"
"Better out than in," Juan said back. I could imagine him grinning.
"Awww!" Robby exclaimed, pulling the front of his shirt up over his nose. Kenny quickly followed. "What crawled up your ass and died?"
A second fart sound broke out, longer, louder and undeniably higher in pitch. The boys were giggling immensely and I couldn't help but join in, especially when I heard Bethy shyly say "Excuse me."
"Steady now," Kenny's dad said from the front, quickly quieting us all to a grim, solemn silence. "We've arrived." The SUV pulled to a stop on some crunchy sounding area. I got out of the car last, the guys and Bethy forming a kind of screen for me.
I stepped out onto the gravel parking lot behind Giraldi's Market, a small convenience store on Franklin Street, about two blocks up steep hills from my aunt's home. I knew the place well, I'd often duck inside while skating to pick up something cool to drink, maybe snag a snack. Their selection of Italian ices is fierce.
"How are we getting there from here? I asked.
"There's a drain pipe around back," Kenny said, his eyes closed as if in concentration. "It leads to a sluice."
"Uh, now I feel like the dumbest guy in the room again," I replied.
"Think of it like a storm drain. Helps move snow melt and rain around. There's about thirty of them throughout the town, mostly aiming downhill. Towards the river, ya know?" Juan supplied. "It's a shortcut."
"This particular one," Robby said, gesturing downhill with the flat of his hand, "winds up passing right behind your aunt's house, then goes clear to the river."
"What, in that overgrown vacant lot? The one with all the birch trees at the corner." They looked at me a moment and passed a look around, like I'd passed a test or something. "I skate a lot, you learn to pick out landmarks," I offered in explanation. That seemed to get a second nod from a lot of them. I had the feeling there was something about that vacant lot that needed discussion later.
But that's another story.
"The sluice has a drain cover there. It's fairly well wooded and hidden. We can get you into the Thomas' basement from there without being seen," Kenny's dad said, as he leaned down over one knee. With a sharp, metallic scraping sound, he pulled up a three foot diameter slotted manhole cover. It had to weigh over 300 pounds, all cast iron, looking old and corroded. I noticed he had on heavy work gloves, the gray leather stained with rust. But Mr. Tannagord lifted it like it was easy. Again I saw that shimmery blue giant figure that was his other self.
"So, uh, not to belabor a point, but like, wouldn't it have been easier to just go to the vacant lot and just cross from there?"
They looked at each other for a second before Kenny answered. "Uh, would you believe that there's a monster living across the street from that vacant lot?"
"Oh tell me you're kidding," I replied, wishing they were joking.
"Actually," Juan began, but Bethy cut him off.
"Actually, we don't need to have the car seen by law enforcement or media types. The further away we are, the less likely someone will put two and two together." She looked around furtively before saying, "We all have secrets we protect, Carver. Protecting each other's secrets is a way to respect them."
"Plus, it's how we got you out," Kenny shrugged. Which somehow said it all.
"Follow me, Pathfinder," Robby said and he stepped out into open space, dropping into the hole without a second look. Kenny scrambled for the lip of the hole and took a series of wide bottomed "U-shaped" iron rungs down. I looked at the others and they sort of indicated that I should go next.
"This is where we part ways. Got other parts of the plan to do," Juan grinned. "Good luck."
"Same," I replied, somehow feeling like I was about to really get in over my head, again. Bethy stepped forwards and hugged me. Then she and Juan took off south, down 8th avenue. The adults clapped me on the shoulder and waited while I climbed down the rungs as well. One of them pushed the slotted manhole cover partly back over the hole before they left.
The rungs led down about 50 feet. I could see below a slight bluish glow filling the space below. It was damp in there. Claustrophobic almost. And it stank of mildew and road salt. The walls around me were a combination of poured cement blending into ancient brick.
And stupid me had to go and miss a rung with a foot, slipping off and into open air. Just felt the thing twist and slide under my weight. I must have made some kind of sound because Kenny looked up, saw me falling and he did something totally incredible. He spun on his back foot and kicked Robby right on the hip, propelling both of them to opposite sides of the tube below. Which served to clear the space I was about to crash into. I guess that way only one of us would be hurt when I went splat.
But something else happened as well. I don't know what sparked the idea, but I tucked into a ball, managed to tumble backwards, ass over elbows, and landed on my feet, still curled up, so that I landed on my toes first. The air whooshed out of me. My legs compressed, muscles acting like shock absorbers. My arms pin-wheeled for a moment, for balance. But then, without any pain, I straightened up.
"You okay?" they said in unison. I felt both of them reaching for my arms to steady me.
"Yeah. Guess I should watch where I'm stepping more." I shook my head and looked about three feet away from me. The whole rung that I had lost footing on was laying partly in a puddle on the brick floor. It had broken loose from the wall under my foot, leading to my fall. The points where it had attached to the wall were rusted through, tapered to almost nothing.
"Holy crap! You musta fallen like 40 feet. Look!" Kenny said, pointing up. About six rungs from the top there was an empty space where the faulty step had been, clearly the only one missing from the whole run.
I suddenly felt their eyes on me.
"Dude!" Kenny said, his eyes and smile shining. "First you blind parry Robby, now you manage to fall 4 stories without getting hurt, and you land on your feet like a cat. That's mad awesome!"
"Whoa!" was all I could say.
"Looks like we're not the only supernatural ones in the sluice tonight, Kay," Robby said, lightly punching my shoulder.
"Yeah well, we'll have to remember about that missing step," I said.
"So you plannin' on comin' back here?" Kenny asked, his smile lighting up the darkness. I must have had that dumb look on my face because he seemed to answer my unasked question. "With any luck, we wont have to come back this way tonight, Jack'll be free and this whole mess will get out in the light. The cops will take it from there."
"Oh," I said, feeling dumb again. "Thought we'd need to remember in case other stuff happened and we needed to use this," I replied. "These sluices are old aren't they?"
"Built back in the old old old days, like when Washington visited," Robby answered. "The rebels used to use these to hide weapons, stockpile stuff, hide from the British and Hessians." I noticed that a faint blue glow seemed to be pulsing from inside Robby's necklace, the source of most of the light in the shaft.
I looked around, getting an idea of where we were. The shaft lead up and down hill, hints of brighter spots in the darkness giving shape and texture to the pebbly concrete. A trail of water, lined by a bed of fuzzy moss, chased down the length of the tunnel, more or less jogging through the center. Here and there along the way were smaller shunts emptying into the tube, adding to the water dripping sounds.
All in all, it woulda been a great place to skateboard, if I didn't have to go break into a mad scientists lair and rescue a boy I had intense feelings for just this moment. I made a note to return when things weren't so desperate.
Which brought a new thought to my head.
"It's all pretty much downhill from here," I said, feeling very serious.
Both of them started cracking up, giggling and trying to cover up the echoes from those tittering sounds. I looked back at them, suddenly realizing that I could see like it was daylight. I guess I was just hyper-focused or something.
"Damn, that was funny," Robby said, grabbing his chest. "Downhill."
"Why do I get the feeling you guys do this kinda thing a lot?"
"Because you're very astute. Welcome to the club, Carver," Kenny said.
"Well, no sense dawdling, fellows," Robby said, his voice sounding suddenly so dramatic, like from some old movie where everyone speaks with a fake accent. "We must forge ahead. Zoom!" he commanded and the blue glow shot down the tube, illuminating the slick and bumpy walls as it went.
Kenny grinned at me like an imp from under his dark bangs and started down the tube as well. Reluctantly, I followed, watching the two shorter boys travel easily. I took the left side of the moss trail and picked up my pace.
We jogged downhill about 800 yards, with me again wishing I had my skateboard or blades. We came to another squared off access space, with a vertical shaft lined with brick. A similar set of metal rungs lead up to another slotted man-hole cover. Robby and Kenny were quiet as thieves, looking up.
"Okay, Pathfinder," Robby goaded softly. "We still on the right trail?"
"Yup. Door's all yours, big guy," Kenny said, indicating up.
"No magic stuff this time?"
"We don't want to tip off the monster," the blonde said, solemnly. "He can sense big magic like hopscotching chunks of iron. Best to let sleeping demons lie."
"Or Nazi mad scientists."
"Those we can handle," Kenny replied.
"Easy for you to say. He doesn't want to lop off your balls and do weird sciency stuff to them."
"If he knew what we could do, he might," Robby quipped. "But you're right. We gotta do this right."
I climbed up the rungs, about 30 feet this time, and assessed the situation. The grated cover was as corroded and solid as its match at the other access. Only this time I'd have to push it up from underneath. I managed to slip one leg through one rung so I was able to hang more or less under the center of the cover. This gave me some leverage as well. Still I was kinda worried.
I put my hands to the cover and started pushing. It felt kinda stuck, like maybe corroded in place. Who knows the last time this lid was lifted, much less by a scrawny kid from underneath. My fingers slipped easily into the slots that let water rush in, looking for a better way to grab the heavy metal. I had to push some sticks and dead grass out of the way. Part of me worried about bugs for a moment, I'm not a fan, but I had to keep thinking about why I was doing this.
This was for Jack. This was to get back at the weird guy who not only knocked me across the backyard, but also hurt Mom, my Pops, Kenny's dad, all kinds of people around town. But mostly, this was to save my Jack.
I kinda growled a bit and pushed up, gripping the cover tightly, twisting it as I pushed up, thrusting hard from my legs and back, shoulders, chest, hips, everything. I imagined Stamos leaning over my father as a kid, gleefully cutting parts. I remembered that backhand to the cheek, how he mocked everything I loved, how he planned to just use people, people I had feelings for. How he had been using Jack his whole life. How he was going to take Jack away from me.
That anger drove me and I shoved that hatch cover with all of it. If I hadn't been holding onto it with both hands, it probably would have launched clear of the hole and landed several feet away. As it was, I hefted the thing so hard I nearly slipped off the metal rungs.
Still holding the cover, I peeked up over the lip of the drain access. The concrete was a sloped rectangle, bent from the corners to divert water down. This meant that the tall summer grass and scattered trees gave excellent cover. I carefully set the lid to the side, noting the twisting of the metal under my fingers. I wondered for a second just how strong I was. Clearly, I seemed to be getting stronger and tougher, almost each time I stressed myself. Was this part of my altered genetic heritage?
I had to take a moment and get my leg free from the rung and then climb out. The boys climbed up as well and took watching positions to either side as I moved the manhole cover back, keeping it just a bit from completely back in place, like Kenny's dad had done at the other one. Thinking about it now, I didn't really feel like I'd moved it much. For some reason, the 300 plus pound manhole lid seemed somehow light to me.
"Jeeze, Carver!" Robby said, flicking his eyes to the metal cover. "Squeeze that thing any harder and you'll leave permanent fingerprints. And this one looks heavier than the first one."
"Juan would be jealous. He can only bite through stuff he can get in his mouth," Kenny beamed.
"Which way?" I asked, feeling suddenly very driven. Adrenaline, maybe. Plus, my Jack needed me.
"Downhill," Robby snickered. "Your aunt's house is to the left. Jack's house is to the right. You should find a back cellar door. The lock's been disabled for a while, so you shouldn't have too much trouble getting in."
"Jumping the fence shouldn't be much of a problem either. There's a garage in the backyard. Easy hop up for you," Kenny grinned. "Should give you a good view of the backyard and the back windows."
"This is where we split off," Robby said, his voice grim, the blue glow under his shirt now, muted. "We're gonna go make noises to keep the cops looking around the outside of Jack's house so it is easier for them to hear you do whatever you do in there and goad 'em into looking inside."
"Yeah. What am I gonna do in there, though?"
"Whatever you do, we'll be waiting. We'll give you like ten minutes to get inside and start doing things before we start playing with the cops."
"Playing, yeah," was all I could say. "What if I can't do this?"
"What if you don't do this?" Robby asked. "Think about Jack. If you want him, if you love him, then you have to do whatever you can."
And as simple as that, I knew what I had to do.
I started to move off, but Kenny and Robby both put their hands on my shoulders, getting me to look at the shorter boys. One at a time, they both grabbed my right forearm and drew me into a tight bro hug. Kenny slapped my shoulder and wished me luck. I stepped back from them and grinned. Then I turned and bolted through the tall grasses, downhill towards Jack's house and whatever horrors might await inside.
I wasn't alone, but this next bit I had to do myself.
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