Simon recounts for his Pop one summer adventure as a child.
According to the Pennacook tribe of the Algonquin-speaking Native Americans, Cocheco meant “rapid, foaming water.” The name Pennacook meant “down hill” so it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the Pennacook probably lived just below the Cocheco River falls. That area is now called Cocheco Hollow. The Pennacook packed up and left soon after English settlers moved in; I’ll bet you the Pennecook were thinking there goes the neighborhood.
The Pennacook may have been smart, pulling up stakes and heading to Canada; I can’t tell you if they faired better or worse for it. I can tell you that Cocheco Hollow became a fair-sized town, trading furs, lumber and a bit of ship-building. The town grew and prospered and even then, I think, the area worked some kind of magic over Hollow folk. Go back two, three hundred years and look at disasters, some natural and some maybe not so. Hollow folk always come together. Always been a connection between Hollow folk. Ayuh, we took care of our own.
I grew up here; Cocheco Hollow’s been home my whole life. Well, excepting when I was doing my part for the war effort. I schooled here, worked here and married here. I’ll die here, and lay next to my missus in the end. Betty, she was a Hollow girl, too. Prettiest one in her class.
Folk from away, they notice that difference, too. They look at us Hollow folk and they’ll tell you, greasing the tongue with a few beers maybe, they’ll tell you we got something different going on. They say you can walk in the Hollow House of Pizza or over to Stan’s Cafe' and pick out us natives, even if we’s sitting alone. It’s a difference you can see and feel, maybe like an electric aura.
I remember a few years back, when my Betty died, my oldest brought his new lady friend to the wake. She went on and on about how it was like the whole damn street was there, (they were), and damned if not less than a hundred students my Betty had in fourth grade showed up to pay respects. And kids who couldn’t come, their parents did. Six hours at the viewing and I still didn’t get to meet everyone. Karen, that was my son’s girl, was gaping and gawking, shaking my arm and saying, “Did you see that woman? She said Betty taught all four of her daughters!”
I still chuckle at that one. She was doing twice-the-gawk a minute later when I told her my missus had the mother in fourth grade, too. Karen watched as her Simon (he’s my oldest) met old friends and carried on like they’d been living next door all they lives. She was floored, that’s her word, just floored at the tight community we showed. Can’t argue with her. Something’s always brought us Hollow folk together.
So now you know a bit about us. Maybe you’ll think it’s good and maybe you won’t but that’s no skin off my nose. Just so’s you have an idea how it goes in the Hollow; could be magic, could be something in the water. That’d be where I’d put my money. Water has been a big part of life and death here in the Hollow. A real big part.
Weren’t about life, though, when those two kids disappeared up to No-Bottom. Two bad deaths that was.
First thing I got to tell you is this ain’t my story. Nope. It’s my Simon’s. He told it to me, told it and more besides. He had all these stories in his head, said that’s what he wanted to do. To write. He was robbed, as is often true in life. But he asked me to help him cheat death a little and what’s a father going to say to his son? I said I’d do my best.
Kids weren’t supposed to come out here, not since two kids disappeared. Norman Sawyer, Aaron Hunter and Jimmy Crudeau hiked in to No-Bottom Pond for a quick dip last summer, but only Jimmy came back. It was hot that summer, hot like beads of water searing on a cast iron skillet, sizzling a last gasp before going up in a snap. Day after day, heat that never quit beat down on the Hollow. If it was outdoors, it withered and crumbled to dust and ash. Well, Jimmy stuck to his story that the three of them had gone skinny-dipping in No-Bottom and all were sucked down by some force. Nothing left but their clothes and sneakers on shore. No bodies were ever found. No one believed Jimmy, but kids still crept around the pond, wondering, daring each other to get close. But we didn’t need that “No Swimming Allowed” sign at the end of the dirt access road to keep us away.
No-Bottom Pond was a magnet to kids. It was this big, black, round pond, maybe eighty yards across and no one knows how deep. No one ever caught fish in it, you didn’t see frogs hopping ‘round it, no ducks paddling across it. There was never any algae growing on it in the summer, and never any ice on it in the winter. No-Bottoms’s level never went down in a dry spell or up in a wet. And it was always the same temperature. We knew this ‘cause Frenchie swiped his mother’s butt thermometer and we tested it. It was always fifty-eight degrees. Maybe that’s why it was such a kid magnet. It was either that, or the legend of Hunter and Sawyer being murdered by a sea monster no one ever saw.
“I mean, how the heck can it be the same temperature all year round?” Frenchie said. “Last winter was so cold pipes were busting. My dad had to put cardboard over the car radiator to keep it from freezing.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “My aunt’s pipes busted and flooded her basement. When Dad tried pumping it out, the water just froze in her driveway, making an ice rink.”
“Yeah, that was cool!” Joey said.
It was late July and we’d been in a heat wave for a couple of weeks. Not like the heat the summer before, when Sawyer and Hunter disappeared, but still hot enough to kill. Roofers weren’t working because some guy died after slipping on hot tar and getting stuck in it. He cooked to death before they could get him down.
Me, Frenchie and Joey were hanging out in the sandpit behind the old Service Merchandise, a big concrete-blocked building maybe a half a mile down the dirt road past No-Bottom. Frenchie was Chris French, a kid who lived a couple houses up from me. He was shorter than me, with lighter hair than my dirty blond. Frenchie had that reckless kind of fearlessness that was going to get him killed. Us, too. He’d try anything, no matter how stupid. Frenchie was a little bit of everything; a little smart, a little short, okay at ball. He was real good at stealing. I’d seen him walk out of Seigal’s Department Store with a power drill stuffed down his pants, cord and all. Scary. That was Frenchie.
Joey Crane was my best friend. He was short, built like a tank and I swear was born from a circus contortionist. The kid could bend his body in most every direction, like he was double-jointed all over. And he was fearless, too, but he had a good amount of common sense to go with it. Nothing scared him. Joey liked to tell people I was the brains of us kids and he the muscle. Joe had brains, just not for school. He was smart enough to get home in time for dinner. You never heard his mother screaming across the yards to get his butt home to eat.
Anyway, so there we were, three of us up to no good. Frenchie’d lifted some surgical tubing from somewhere and Joey had cut this huge four-foot sling shot out of a tree. We’d been shooting golf balls at the back of the empty building, breaking a couple of 'em, chipping the cement. We tried some marbles but they completely disintegrated in a spray of deadly glass shrapnel. I’d convinced my dad to cut up a couple of ball bearings and bring them home from work. The bearings were a little smaller than a golf ball so we were excited to see what kind of damage we could do.
“Man, it’s freakin’ hot today. Feels like we’re cookin’ in my mother’s crockpot,” Frenchie said. His hat band and brim were wet from sweat.
“I know what you mean. Man, I could go for a swim.”
Joey didn’t say anything, just nodded, sweat running down his face. He was digging the hole to plant the slingshot. You had to bury the bottom of it in stone, it was so big.
Joey cleared the hole with his dad’s old army shovel and we buried the base of the slingshot, Frenchie tossed the stones over to us. I pulled out the three huge bearings. “So, what do you think? Crack one of the concrete blocks?” I asked, hefting one.
“Nah. Probably just chip a bigger chunk out of the wall than a golf ball did,” Frenchie said, shaking his head. He gave the sling-shot a couple of test pulls, to be sure it was anchored.
“Better watch out for the rebound. My mother will be ripping if I get killed doing this,” Joey said. See what I mean about smart?
“Yeah, I know. My mother would kill me all over again,” I said. Frenchie laughed. The only mother scarier than Joe’s was mine and everyone knew it. She was double the bitch before her first two cigarettes in the morning.
“We ready?” he said. “Let’s do it.”
I put the ball bearing into the leather pouch, held it in place while Frenchie and Joe pulled the surgical bands back on either side. “Release on zero. Counting back from five, four...” I started.
“...Three, two, one, zero!” we said together. The tubing flapped in release and the impact made a sound like a falling brick, cracking. We’d hit the dirt, in case it rebounded; Joey still had a huge welt on one leg from the rocochet of an earlier test.
“Oh man! Direct hit!” Frenchie shouted, jumping up. We ran to the wall. The bearing hadn’t bounced back and the sound of the breaking brick explained why. The bearing hit the block at a hollow spot and it had gone clean through, leaving a fist-sized hole. I looked in; the light from the far display windows was just enough to illuminate the vacant store. A hot, stale breeze wafted from the opening. I spotted the gleam of the steel marble resting about halfway across the floor.
“Oh my God! Look at this!, You can see the bearing! Can you see it?” I moved away and Frenchie looked in.
“I don’t--Wait! Oh, wow! Joe, you got to see this!” Frenchie said, moving aside.
Joey stepped up, looked in. He was scanning but didn’t say anything. Then his gaze shifted up. Frenchie and I were high-fiving. “Son of a biscuit, let’s do that again,” he said.
“Freakin’ cool, huh Joe?” I said.
“Hey, you guys see a red light blinking up by the ceiling?”
He moved over and I looked in. “Yeah, I do.” I moved over and Frenchie looked in. He scanned the ceiling, forehead crinkling.
“Yeah, I see it. What the heck is it?” Cue the group shrug session and the stupified looks.
The sound of approaching sirens answered that question quick enough.
“Oh, man, cops! Let’s get the heck out of here!” Joey shouted. He turned to run for the tree-line and the dirt road behind us; Frenchie was two steps ahead of him.
“No, wait! Get the slingshot or we’ll be screwed!” I shouted. They skidded to a halt, sand flying, wheeled around and the three of us dug frantically with our hands. I lifted the slingshot free and Joe took it out of my hands. I grabbed the little army shovel.
“Where do we go?” Joey asked.
“Hey! Hey, you kids, hold it right there!” We turned to see a hand sticking out of the hole in the wall we’d made, pointing at us.
“Jeez, who cares! Let’s get out of here!” I shouted. I’d be worse than dead if the fuzz brought me home. And Joe’s mother would do the same to him.
We climbed the banking and crashed into the underbrush and Joey looked back. A black-and-white was pulling around the side of the building, barreling toward us. It hit the soft sand, tires slipping.
Frenchie turned left then back right. “Let’s take the trail to the Baja and cut across it, come out by the old covered bridge. Cops would have to follow us on foot and we can outrun those tubs.”
“No way, man! The Baja is nothing but open sand and scrub brush for almost a mile. The cops could just circle around and meet us at the bridge and they’ll nail us,” I said.
Joey, easily the bravest of us, shook his head and pointed left. “No-Bottom. We can hide in the swamps and bushes and not even the fuzz with dogs could get in there.”
“Yeah, but will we get out?” I knew Joey spent more time around these woods than I did; him and Frenchie went to Horne Street School down the road. Maybe Joe could get us through this. Maybe. Behind us the police cruiser had mired down in the sand and the engine roared as the idiot cop just dug it in deeper. Maybe he’ll blow the engine.
“I say we take our chances with the Baja. I got no desire to another missing body like Hunter and Sawyer in No-Bottom.” Frenchie was already edging to the right.
Joey took him by the arm. “Listen man, I been all around No-Bottom. There ain’t nothing to be scared of and we ain’t staying, just trying to duck the cops for a while. Then we come strolling out of the woods in a couple of hours, home free. Besides, we gotta ditch the slingshot. There’s no place to hide it on the Baja.”
“Yeah, he’s right, French. We don’t want to get caught carrying this thing around,” I said gesturing to the twenty pound slingshot. Frenchie still looked doubtful. The sound of car doors slamming behind us decided him.
“We’ll never make it to the Baja now. OK Joe, I’ll follow, you lead. But I ain’t got no bathing suit for a quick dip, know what I mean?”
Joey was off at a sprint, lugging the slingshot. I followed with the shovel and Frenchie brought up the rear. Joe led us down the road for about a quarter of a mile, then paused. We were panting like dogs.
“Man, this thing gets heavy,” he said. Sweat poured off his face as he tried to wipe it away from his eyes.
“Here, you take the shovel, French; I’ll take the slingshot. How much further?”
“We’ll head into the brush just up ahead, before that old cemetery. I want to get on the far side because if the cops come out to the pond they’ll have to backtrack to find our trail, and we’ll see ‘em first.”
We could hear voices, telling us to come out, give ourselves up. Frenchie turned pale. “C’mon, we need to book,” I said. Joey led us another fifty or sixty yards up the road and then got down on his hands and knees. He lifted some low brush and motioned for me to crawl under. “Crawl straight on ‘bout twenty yards and wait in the clearing. We’ll be right behind you.” I dropped, pushing the slingshot ahead of me. The bushes were low and thorny and I grunted and swore at the scratches. Frenchie was doing the same. The clearing was little more than the size of a pop-tent but at least we were out of the thorns. Joey crawled in behind us.
“The trail won’t be so bad now but we got to stay low. The ground slopes up on the other side so we’ll be seen if we try to walk upright. C’mon!” By now we could hear more sirens, probably heading to the access road to No-Bottom. And to us.
He darted into the brush, Frenchie behind him and me bringing up the rear. The cops were still behind us, calling for our surrender. No one in their right mind would run to No-Bottom, right? As the ground started to rise, Joey motioned for us to get low. I was bent double, and the sweat dribbling into my eyes, burning. Suddenly the ground seemed softer and the air cool and wet. Relief didn’t stop my sweat and I reached up to rub my eyes clear. I tripped and went down hard but the ground flexed under me, like a thick waterbed. Just like laying on a ripple.
I got up and moved ahead, trying to catch up with French and Joe when I ran smack into Frenchie, who was crouched down. Over I went again, and crashed to the ground. That same ripple effect happened again, only longer. We all heard the sound of roots tearing; I was getting wet.
“Joe!” I whispered. “What the heck are we on?” Are we on some kind of raft?”
Joey was just crawling back toward me when Frenchie whispered hoarsely.
“Uh, guys? Um, we’re floatin’ on No-Bottom.”
We looked back. True enough, about three feet of water separated us from the foliage covered shore. We had broken off a shelf of living moss, maybe ten inches thick. Frenchie whimpered. I got to my feet but my weight shifted our raft. It tilted and Frenchie screamed as he went over into the water.
Frenchie bobbed to the surface, sputtering and flailing. Joey and I leaned over to grab Frenchie. This was a mistake. Grabbing Frenchie upended our raft and all three of us were in the drink. A very chilled and dark drink with cold corpse hands to pull me under. My imagination took hold of my brain, and fear pumped through me. We were in No-Bottom. Then Frenchie screamed.
My son paused there; he reached over and gripped my arm. Weak as he was, it hurt. And then my own son frightened me. His face brittle paper ashes, his eyes wide as manholes and haunted, so haunted. He looked up to me and Simon said, “It was the water, Pop. I swear, there was was something in that water.”
I looked at my son, cowering. He scared me so’s I actually tried to back away, but Simon, he held me there, pulled me up closer. I asked him, “You mean like a big snake or that sea serpent story you kids liked to spread around?” But my son shook his head.
“No, Pop. It was the water. Like it was alive or possessed or something. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was- it was as if the water were violating me.”
That’s what he said. The water violated him. What a thought that is. Water violating. He went on.
“You know how like you can feel a chill go up your spine and it causes you to shiver? Well, that’s what the water was like. Streams of chills going up your whole body, like someone unleashed a bunch of heebie-jeebies all over you.
He shivered then, and I put my arm around him. I told him to go on, tell the story. After a minute maybe, he did.
Frenchie screamed and then he was gone. His voice cut off as he plunged feet first, straight down. Frenchie’s arms swung up, then hands, and last, the army shovel. It happened so quick I still don’t know how, but Joe twisted, stretched over me, caught the shovel just as it plunged under. I didn’t know what else to do. It must’ve been instinct because I never thought about it; I grabbed at Joey’s leg as it swung past me and together we plunged to the depths of No-Bottom.
It was dark, cold. I thought I could hear sounds, voices. Water swished and swirled around me, past me. Through me. I could feel bubbles against my face, but it was too black to see. Did something have French? Are going to the bottom for a roll like crocodile bait? My ears hurt. My chest burned; I wanted to inhale.
Black, black as I never imagined it could be. I could feel nothing but cold, see nothing. I could still hear voices, high but just beyond my understanding. I knew we were still sinking as the pressure squeezed my eardrums. Water pushed and shoved like gusts of wind slamming against my body. I lost all sense of direction.
I came to realize two things; either I was hallucinating or I was seeing faint, pale green streamers moving around and with us. And someone, probably Frenchie, was screaming. I let out some breath to ease the pressure in my chest.
I don’t know how long we were under or where we were going; I expelled the last of my air and struggled not to inhale. Bursts of orange-yellow light crowded my peripheral vision and I knew I was getting close to blacking out. Something grabbed my wrist, wrenched my hand off Joe’s leg, started pulling me up. I responded by kicking frantically, hoping there would be a surface to reach.
It was the sound of Joe’s screaming inhalation that alerted me and opened my mouth to suck in life. I got a mouthful of water that went down the wrong way and I puked. My guts heaved and I tried to get air in. Joey was panting some way off. Between gasps he said, “Frenchie’s...not ...bre...breathing.”
“Heim...heimlich,” was all I could manage.
Joey thrashed somewhere in the dark, thrashed again, then one more time. I heard him, grunting, telling Frenchie, “Breath, dammit! Breath!”
Frenchie sputtered and coughed. I pushed the invisible puke away from me and moved toward the sound of Frenchie’s coughing. Something dragged behind me and I became aware that I was still holding on to the surgical tubing of the slingshot. Without thinking, I pulled the tubing up to my shoulder and paddled on.
French was still alternately coughing and gasping when Joe spoke. “God, what the heck just happened?”
“Don’t know.” Our voices echoed. “Hey!” I shouted, and it echoed louder, farther.
“Underground cavern or something?” Joe asked.
“Maybe. How you doing, French?”
“O-Okay,” he sputtered weakly.
“Oh jeezum crow man, what are we going to do?” Joey asked.
“I don’t know. No one knows where we are and we don’t either. Think the cops will figure out what happened to us?”
“D-Does it m-matter?” Frenchie said. His teeth were chattering. I think he was one step ahead of us, seeing how far up this cold, black creek we were without a paddle.
“We got to get out of the water,” I said. “There’s got to be sides to this cave. Maybe we can find a ledge or something.”
“S-stay together. Can someone take the shovel?”
“Got it,” Joe said. “Here, French, hold onto the shovel and I’ll tow you awhile.”
We moved in silence, a slow journey in the dark. Our breathing sounded loud; the only other sound was an occasional swish of water, not always from us. Time passed. We rested several times. The dark complete, the air chill and stale, the water cold and but not empty. All three of us were chattering uncontrollably. It was French who broke the long silence.
“G-guys, w-what’s that over th-there?”
I swirled around in the water and saw a gray-white reflection, shimmering on the surface, some distance away. It looked like a tiny ghost, laughing, dancing in the distance.
“I-I think it’s light!”
“C’mon!” Joey said, and he started to swim toward it. French and I followed.
We had to halt two more times before we reached the spot where the light shown down on the water. It came from above us. The air was warmer, fetid. I paused at the point of reflection, panting; Frenchie paddled up behind me. Joe continued on ahead of us.
“Jeez, it stinks in here,” Frenchie said. “God, it makes me want to puke.”
“Stinks even worse over here,” came back Joe’s voice. We heard him swim a couple more strokes, then curse in pain. “Oh man, that hurt! But we found it!” he shouted, and the echoes reverberated around us.
We heard a sudden whoosh, then metal scraping on rock. “It’s a platform or something. But man o’ man it stinks to high heaven over here. Something must’ve died around here.”
Both French and I swam over to the platform. We climbed out, and I pulled the slingshot up and left it on the edge. Underfoot felt like scattered gravel and sticks on a smooth concrete surface. Then the smell hit me full on and I gagged.
“God, you’re right. Something must be dead around here somewhere. How big’s this thing?” My eyes had adjusted somewhat; I could make out short line of daylight above my head. Above the light, the ceiling looked smooth. Below my feet our island refuge was still in darkness.
Joey said, “I’ll follow the edge this way. Sim, you follow it that way and French, go straight back. See if you can find the wall.”
Moving on my hands and knees I followed the edge for maybe a dozen feet to a corner and went right. I had moved in that direction about ten feet when my hands found the source of the stench. It brought me up short, retching.
“Oh crud! I found the, the dead-whatever.” Their were some big stick things, and then some kind barrel made of bent sticks. My imagination supplied me with an image. The bones I felt through unseen rotting flesh were probably ribs, and they were big. “Oh, God, this is gross. I mean yuckola. And whatever it was, it was big.” I pulled me hand back and wiped it on the front of my wet shirt.
Frenchie’s voice suddenly echoed with excitement. “A ladder! Guys, I found a ladder built into the wall!”
“Wait there,” Joe said.
I was trying to move toward Frenchie, but still give the carcass I’d found a little room when the cavern walls amplified shrieks of terror from Frenchie. “There’s something alive down here! It just tried to grab me!”
“Get out of the way Frenchie! Get up the ladder! Get up the ladder! “ shouted Joe. I heard the shovel blade striking cement. I moved back toward the edge where I’d left the slingshot, our only other weapon. Pulling it toward me, I turned in the direction I thought they were at.
“Oh jeez, get it off me! Get it off me! It’s pulling my shoe off!” Thrice more the shovel rang against the concrete, the last time throwing off sparks. This gave me a position and I moved toward it on my knees, raising the heavy slingshot over my head. Joey grunted with one more swing and this one went home, sinking deep into something soft with flesh. I swung the slingshot blindly, connected with something alive. There was a bone crunching squelch and whatever had been stalking Frenchie collapsed audibly.
French was up on the ladder, his breaths coming in shudders. Joey was next to me, repeating over and over between breaths, “We’re okay. We’re okay. We’re okay.” I had to turn to my side as I vomited bile, then dry heaved a couple times. I felt Joe’s hand search my body and grip my shoulder.
Finally, I said, “Everybody okay?” From above Frenchie said he was. I could feel Joe nodding, then he said, “What do you think it was?
French yelled down, “I don’t know and I don’t want to know! I just want to get out of here!”
“I’m for that, Joe. We get out of here and we can come back if we want to later.”
From above, we heard Frenchie ascend the ladder a couple more steps, then light reflected off his face. He yelled down, “It’s a door!” Frenchie started pounding in it. “I think it’s locked from the outside!”
Joey scrambled up the ladder. I heard them talking, some knocking and then some grunting. The light coming in was fading. I was also keeping an ear for any movement from whatever creature had attacked Frenchie.
“Well? What’s the heck’s going on?” I called up.
“Joe’s trying to pry the door open with the shovel. The door’s steel but it might be rusted.” The sound of the shovel ringing against metal reverberated several times before Joe managed to get the head of the shovel between the frame and the door. I heard Joey grunting and then the handle on the shovel splintered.
“What? What’s wrong?” I called.
“Wait,” Joey said. I could ear him grunting and then he said to Frenchie, “Yeah, hold that like that.” There was some more grunting and Joey strained in effort, and the door moved. Not much, but now I could see them both a bit. I could see Joe’s eyes were agleam with the possibility of escape.
“We need more leverage, Simon. Send up the slingshot.”
I climbed the ladder and handed up the slingshot. “Hey, hand me the end of the shovel, in case that thing comes back.” Joe handed it down to me.
Joe and French pounded, grunted, swore. Light continued to fade, though the crack was just a bit wider. After another prolonged series of hammering with the slingshot, Joey paused.
“I can’t swing this thing hard enough with one arm! I just can’t hold the ladder and hammer, too,” he said.
“We are so close, too! I can smell the grass out there!” French had his nose pressed to the crack of the door.
“Well, if we had a couple of belts we could do it like a telephone guy does, leaning back against his strap and belt.” I rubbed my chin. “Maybe we could anyway! What if French holds the shovel head in place and Joe uses the slingshot. I stand behind Joe and be his strap. Think it’ll work?”
My son rolled his head away from me, closed his eyes.
“Pain?” I asked.
“Some. I get tired easily, too.”
Simon lifted an emaciated arm, pressed his palm against his forehead. “Obviously we got out,” he said. “We all got back late for supper and got in trouble, of course. Frenchie got grounded for a week. I don’t remember what punishment I got. And I don’t think you ever believed our story.”
“Nope, your mother and I knew your story stunk to high heaven, as did you as I recall. Saying you was messing around with a snappin’ turtle in some swamps by the Cocheco was a load of hogwash, but you was home safe and that’s what was the important. Though I don’t doubt you’d have smelled as bad if not worse after swimming in the Cocheco.”
Simon rolled his head to look at me. “But that’s just it, Pop. We got home, but we weren’t safe. I think whatever was in that water poisoned us.”
I looked at my son, what was left of him. He was so thin you could see his heart beating through his ribs. He had tubes going in every which way and machines pinging all around. “Why do you say you was poisoned?”
“Think about it, Pop. Not seven years after that summer, Frenchie got some kind of leukemia; I forget what. He was dead in less than a year. Now I got skin cancer and lung cancer and, well, I ain’t got long.” We broke eye contact.
“Yeah, but that don’t mean you got it from No-Bottom. Could be just coincidence, you know.?” But I didn’t believe that, not for a second. Neither did Simon.
“You know about Joe?”
I sighed, nodded, looked out the window. “Lesions. All over.” We didn’t say anything for a while. Sounds of hospital hustle and bustle came and went. The daylight coming in the window was fading. Finally, I got up the courage to ask. I thought I knew the answer but I asked it anyway.
“How come you never said anything? Not one of you three ever let on about this.”
“Can’t you guess?” Simon rolled his head and his eyes, his eyes must’ve seen my thoughts. “You know, don’t you?” It wasn’t a question.
“Maybe. I can put two and two together same as you. But you say it, son. I knowed something been eating at you longer than this cancer. Get it out and be free of it.”
Simon looked up to the ceiling then, and tears rolled off his face. He opened his mouth and closed it again. My son wiped his eyes; I think his shame hurt him more than the cancer. Weren’t nothing I could do for him, neither.
“Me and Joey, we went back to the water works a couple days later. That’s where the door came out, the back side of the water works, up on Page Avenue. You know where I mean? There’s those mounds just at the edge of the woods.”
I nodded. When you walked the trail beyond the end of Page there were these little hills like three large dump trucks dumped their load and made three big mosquito bites just before the tree line.
“We brought flashlights, thinking maybe we’d explore.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No. First thing we noticed when we got there was the bottom of the door had been worn away, like someone had been trying to get out. Then we shined our lights down the ladder.” Simon stopped again, sniffed hard. The tears started coursing down his cheeks.
“Oh God, Pop. We’d killed someone. That thing trying to grab Frenchie, we’d killed it. We were murderers.”
“Now why do you go and call yourselves murderers? Tell me that.”
“It was a person, Pop. It was human and we killed it, me and Joe.”
“You didn’t know, son. In that dark? How could you?”
My son sobbed for some time and I tried to comfort him. It was full on dark out and the supper trays had come and gone when I told him to go on.
“We climbed down and I thought I was going to puke. The stench was worse than the night we climbed out of there. Joey shined his light on him; we thought it was Hunter, the hair color. He was covered in what looked like little rat skins. But he was diseased, Pop. He had these greenish-brown spots all over him and one foot was gone, a couple of fingers, too. I mean they just weren’t there. And there were other bones, Pop. Some big and some little, like rat skeletons. But that skeleton I’d found in the dark, I think that’s what was left of Sawyer. His pelvis and ribcage were there; we never found his whole skull.”
Simon paused there and I seen his chest was heaving. I took his hand, gave it a little squeeze and told him to go on.
“Pop, it must’ve been Hunter and Sawyer, and somehow they survived. Well, at least Hunter did. Until we showed up, anyway. Never mind.” He shook his head.
“It looked like they’d been eating rats to stay alive. There were skeletons of rats all over the platform. But in the end, I guess, Sawyer died. I couldn’t tell you how, but Pop, shining our lights around, looking at the bones and the teeth marks, it got worse. We think Hunter’d been eating him. Sawyer’s jaw had been fractured and there were pieces of him everywhere. And that area on the door that been worn away? Some big bones we found were worn down to knobs like Hunter had been trying to scratch his way out.”
Simon told me the rest, how him and Joe had gone back with shovels and buried them. Didn’t know what else to do he said. Thought they at least deserved a decent burial. I promised I wouldn’t say anything, at least for Joe’s sake. Right up till death took him Simon believed he and Joe’d murdered Hunter. Nothing I said could change his mind.
I walked up to the old water works, hiked around until I found the door they escaped from. The hasp and lock they put on themselves was pretty rusted, but still strong. Just kicking around in the dirt I found that shovel head, rusted and bent. And I think I found where they buried Hunter and Sawyer. The ground around two areas was completely dead. No weeds or grass or bugs, nothing. Diseased maybe. I left them to rest in whatever peace they could find.
We buried my son, and, like for my Betty, there was a good turnout. Us Hollow folk know how to bury people. We take care of our own. And I know it won’t be long until we bury Joe. And maybe that’ll be the end of it, but I don’t think so. Nope. See, our drinking water comes from that very same water works. You could say there’s something fishy going on up in them water works. Excepting there ain’t no fish. But something sure does stink up there. Stinks worse than death.