Not all fights are physical
|About 3000 words
Corbett leaned through the access hatch and eyed the gloomy stretch of pipe. Oh, damn, he hated having to go in there.
“Got everything, kid?” Charles Dawson asked cheerfully as he flaked the rescue rope down beside the hatch. Dawson could afford to be cheerful. With his solid linebacker build and middle-aged spread, he’d never be able to get into that tight hole. Which meant that James “Slim Jim” Corbett was elected to worm his way down the pipe and inspect the frigging valve.
“Yeah,” Corbett grunted as he backed out of the hatch, “and don’t call me ‘kid’.” He grabbed their battered Department of Public Works flashlight, checked it with a quick flick on and off, then set it back beside his leather tool pouch. He grabbed a small roll of tape sealant from the truck and tucked it into his front shirt pocket. “Guess I’ve got everything. Got everything our skinflint of a town manager will allow for the job, anyway. Not happy about having to go, though."
"You're the best option here, kid. Manual inspection is a lot cheaper than a backhoe. Especially when a minimum-wage worker can do the inspection. So in you go."
Corbett snapped the rescue line onto his harness and gave it a firm tug. Although the day was only pleasantly warm, his face felt sweaty and clammy. His stomach felt like he’d swallowed rocks for lunch.
“You sure you’re okay with this, Jimmy? You’re not claustrophobic or anything like that?”
“Nah, I’m okay. I can do the job.” Corbett turned away and made a show of checking the lay of the rescue rope. “What do you think, Charlie, back or belly?”
Dawson pursed his lips in mock consideration. “On your belly, you’re craning your neck to look forward all the time. On your back, you’re craning your neck to look forward all the time. Pick one. But pick quick, you ain't got time to deliberate.”
Corbett took a couple of deep breaths, like a diver going for a record depth. He bent over and inch-wormed his way into the access hatch, belly down, arms outstretched, pushing the flashlight and tool pouch ahead of him. By the time he was in as far as his hips, most of the daylight was blocked, and his heart was pounding. The darkness pressed on him with a weight he could feel. He swallowed convulsively. He held his breath and shut his eyes. It didn’t help.
He turned on the flashlight and opened his eyes again. The bright beam reassured him a little. He rolled onto his left side and bent at the hips to clear the hatch. Once he had struggled all the way into the pipe, he flipped back onto his stomach. The flashlight beam seemed to be absorbed by the darkness only yards ahead.
The pipe darkened again as Dawson leaned in through the hatch. "I'll see you in thirty minutes, okay? You go in, you check the valve, you come out before the treatment plant opens the main." The foreman's voice echoed hollowly in the pipe.
"Yeah, yeah. We got an hour. No problem. But it would have been nice if Skinflint Granger had okayed an hour with a backhoe instead."
He wriggled forwards on knees and forearms. The roll of tape was an uncomfortable pressure on his chest. The snap of his safety harness--the rope was fastened to a ring about at his navel, just above his center of gravity--was digging into his belly. Slag on the weld of the first joint scraped down his shoulders and tore at the harness and his jeans.
He decided that having his butt stuck up wasn’t a good idea, and squirmed over onto his back. He could move by wriggling his shoulders and pushing with his heels. It was slower, but a little more comfortable, as long as he was between joints.
“How’s it going?” Dawson’s voice boomed and echoed. Corbett, startled, banged his head on the pipe.
“It’s the pits," he called back. "Remember when I told you I’m not claustrophobic? I lied.”
It was cool in the pipe. The supply line was clean from years of water flow, but it was old, and the musty damp made him gag. The sides of the pipe were wet and slick, and glistened in the flashlight beam. He forced himself to draw shallow, careful breaths. He wished again that the town would pay for a consultant with an inspection robot. Damned cheapskate town manager effing Granger.
He crawled on for several dozen yards. His clothes became damp and sticky, making movement distasteful. The sound of his labored breathing was loud, magnified by the acoustics of the pipe. Like being in one chamber of a pipe organ, he thought. Buried alive in a friggin’ pipe organ.
He saw a shadow ahead, as though something were clinging to the top of the pipe. Memories of childhood fears whispered to him. Monster hiding under the bed. Blood-sucking vampire bats shrieking from the depths of a cave. He told himself to stop being silly, but he still shivered in the cool, damp air.
It turned out to be a place where the pipe had been crushed from above. It was pressed in only a few inches out of round, but the distorted area stretched as far as he could see in the weakening beam of the flashlight. Ground swell, he wondered, or frost heave, maybe overhead traffic or tree roots? He examined it critically. Should be passable.
The pipe was crumpled but didn’t appear to be broached, which was a good thing, because a leak would involve excavating and replacing a long section of pipe, something Fat Felix Granger would be loath to authorize.
As he struggled forward into the constriction, with the metal of the distorted pipe passing barely above his nose, he realized that the roll of sealing tape in his front pocket was again digging into his chest. With some difficulty, he wriggled backwards a few feet, carefully snuggled his arm across his chest, removed the tape, and tucked it into the tool pouch. With the flashlight in one hand and the tool pouch in the other, he inched deeper under the obstruction.
“You okay?” Dawson’s voice echoed faintly, hollowly. “Line’s not moving. You hung up?”
“Yeah. Tight spot here. Gimme slack. How's my time?”
"You got fifty minutes. You're fine."
He slithered forwards another few yards until the crushed section of pipe pressed against his chest. It was tighter than he had thought. No way through.
He began to back up but went only a few inches before the chest strap twisted hard against his ribs and the groin straps tightened uncomfortably at his crotch. Damn! The harness must be snagged on a seam or something.
He began to feel the weight of the crushed section of pipe pressing down on his chest. His mind told him this was impossible, but his racing heart paid no heed. He was suddenly drenched in sweat, blinded by sweat. There seemed to be no oxygen in the pipe. He was panting frantically and his lungs had no room to heave. He bit back an urge to scream.
He waited a few minutes until his heart rate had settled and the sweat began to feel cold on his body. With his arms extended ahead of him, he couldn’t bring his hands to his chest to free the harness in this flattened section of pipe. There wasn’t room. He tried to swing the flashlight around to aim it at himself, but between the awkward movement, his sweaty hands, and the tight quarters, he dropped it.
It went out.
After a moment of heart-stopping panic, he filled the sudden darkness with every curse and swear word he could think of, all aimed at the cheapskate who had denied his requisition for new unbreakable LED flashlights.
Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to stillness. He could breathe, however shallowly. There was air in the pipe. He didn’t need a flashlight. He could handle this. He exhaled as deeply as he could, emptying his lungs and pressing himself to the bottom of the pipe. Flattened like a cockroach squeezing into a crack, he tried to ooze down past the obstruction. It didn’t work.
He erupted into frantic effort. Heels scrabbling, elbows pumping, hips rocking, shoulders writhing, he fought to free himself, until the strap crushing his groin brought him to an abrupt halt. Reason returned, and told him that he wasn’t going anywhere.
As he fought to slow his breathing, various pains clamored for attention. His forehead hurt. His elbows hurt. His knees ached. His balls ached. Awkward exploration showed shirtsleeves torn, elbows and forehead slick with what he figured had to be blood.
Sweet Jesus Christ on the Cross, he was stuck in a Goddam town water pipe. The world’s longest coffin, barely wider than his shoulders and a mile long. And wouldn’t folks love it when they turned on the tap and bits of his rotted corpse came swooshing out. He grinned sourly at his own macabre joke.
“Jim, man, answer me! Are you awright, for God’s sake?” The voice came faintly, carried more by the metal wall of the pipe than by the air. He really wasn’t all that far into the pipe, not even half way to the valve. Poor Dawson must have heard him banging and thrashing and wondered what was going on. Now, if the public works department had issued two-way radios, which they had requested six weeks back, old Charlie would know exactly what was going on. Corbett mentally pictured a two-way radio being shoved up Granger’s ass. Sideways. It wasn’t much, but it helped.
“Charlie, I’m stuck,” he called. The sound didn’t echo like it had when the pipe was more open. Chuck probably couldn’t even hear him. He groped for the tool pouch, fumbled out a wrench, and did his best to give three solid whacks against the side of the pipe – the trouble signal that directed Chuck to pull on the rescue line. Why in blazes hadn’t he thought of that first?
One muffled bang in answer. Thank God.
He felt the line tighten at his waist. The pressure of the groin straps eased, and the shoulder straps began digging. He slipped a little bit towards the exit. Now he could be pulled out of this bottleneck.
But his progress stalled, and the shoulder straps began cutting painfully into his flesh. “Charlie! Stop pulling. Stop!” He banged once on the pipe, and the pressure eased. He lay there, resting, panting, trying to control his breathing and his fear. How long had he been in here? Thirty minutes? Forty?
The chest strap still dug into his sternum, making it hard to breathe. Dang, he wished he could roll over and get the sweat out of his eyes.
Now what? He had lost the flashlight, but still had the tool pouch in one hand and the wrench in the other. He fumbled the pouch open and went through the tools one by one. Screwdrivers. Wrenches. Vice-grips. Socket set. Side cutters. Slip-joint pliers. It was hard working with his hands up above his head, and his shoulders protested, as did his banged up elbows and knees. He rested again.
“Jimmy boy, what’s happening?” Dawson’s voice was a little clearer now that Corbett wasn’t stuck tight.
“Dunno, Chuck. I’m snagged on something. Harness is caught, I think.”
“Can you undo it and slip out?”
“No way, can’t get my hands down to the buckle.”
“Hang on, buddy. I’ll call the water plant and keep them shut down. Then I'll call Granger and get a backhoe. We can dig you out in a couple of hours.”
“Oh, yeah, thanks a heap. That bedbug Granger would tell you to just wait for a few days. Once I lose enough weight, I can slip out easy as can be." Squirt down the pipe like spitting a watermelon seed. "Just hang on. Let’s see what we can come up with.”
“Well we sure can’t wait long. Town office will close soon and if we can’t track down Fat Felix, you’ll wind up spending the night in there. You hang tight, I'll radio the water plant and then I'll be back.”
Corbett rested again, exhausted by the effort of shouting. He did his best to ignore the panic that lurked beside him in the pipe, flicking its black tail, licking its chops and waiting to gnaw at his heart.
"Kid, we got us a little problem. Truck radio ain't working and I don't have my cell phone. I can't raise the treatment plant or the office. Forty minutes, they're gonna turn the water back on."
"Well, shit." Thank you, Cheapskate Granger, for the lowest-bid truck radios.
"I can be at the office in fifteen, call the plant from there."
"No, hey, don't go. Not yet. Stay and help me." Stay and watch me shoot down this pipe like a turd down a toilet.
He was holding the two last tools to come out of the pouch – a pair of linesman's pliers and a pair of sidecutters – and idly working the pliers with his hand. It occurred to him that the side cutters might be strong enough to cut through the harness webbing. If he could reach the chest strap, maybe he could clip it and slide free. Dropping the pliers, he transferred the cutters to his right hand and began contorting his arm, struggling to reach his chest. His elbow kept banging against the pipe, and the only way he could get the cutters even close was to reach over his head. He could feel the left shoulder strap with his fingers, but the chest strap was out of reach.
As he was groping around the shoulder strap, he realized that the back of his shirt was sopping wet. There was a half inch or so of water on the floor of the pipe. He had been damp and cool since he had entered the pipe, but now his back was soaked.
A steady drip began to splash into his eyes. His earlier wild struggle must have disturbed the already damaged section of pipe. At the thought of hydraulic pressure on a weakened section of pipe right above him, terror again threatened to overwhelm him.
There wasn’t a lot of water, really. Just a trickle. It would take days to fill the pipe uphill of him, he told himself. He pictured the slope of the pipe and realized that the water wouldn’t have to fill the whole pipe. It would only have to cover the cork in the bottleneck. Which meant that even if Dawson got hold of the treatment plant, he might still be under water in a matter of hours.
"Jimmy, listen, you only got twenty minutes. I gotta head for the office!"
"No, Charlie, hang on, don't go!"
It suddenly occurred to him that Felix Granger was really a very minor nuisance. A puffed up frog. A pissant. That thought calmed him, strangely enough, but also spurred him to action.
Working desperately, he used the sidecutters to chew through the first shoulder strap. It cost him some deep and painful nicks. Cursing, writhing and splashing, he straightened his arms, transferred the side cutters to his left hand, and tried to repeat the job on the other side. His coordination was not as good with that hand, and he kept dropping the cutters. Water was dribbling onto his face continuously now and he had to sputter and snort to keep breathing.
The water was up to his ears, and he could feel the stream trickling past his body.
"Jimmy, what the blazes is going on? I got muddy water trickling through the pipe. They ain't supposed to turn on the water for another fifteen minutes, but kid, get the Hell outa there!" Dawson sounded like he was almost bawling.
"Yeah, yeah. Hang on to that rescue line!"
He hunched his right shoulder out of the water for better access. He suddenly found his mouth and nose underwater. Coughing and spluttering, he twisted his neck and lifted his head to breathe.
After numerous fumbles, he managed to hack through the second soggy strap, his work shirt, and considerable skin. Well, maybe blood is a good lubricant. He could only hope.
“Okay, Charlie, give a slow steady haul. Don’t jerk, just pull”
“Gotcha. Here goes.”
The line tightened. Without the shoulder straps, the angle of the chest strap had changed enough that the harness gave way. As he humped his shoulders and buttocks, the harness slid over his body , though it scraped painfully all the way down his sternum and belly and damned near emasculated him.
When he heard the harness clanking and splashing away down the pipe, he wriggled after it. Once free of the obstruction, he flipped onto his belly for better speed and crawled backwards towards the exit. He realized that he'd left the dead flashlight. Granger would charge him for the lost equipment. Well, screw it, and Granger too--he wasn't going back.
The walls of the pipe began to vibrate with a deep thrum. The air pressure increased sharply and his ears popped.
"Jimmy, move it! Damn, they've opened the main valve! Get out of there, kid!"
Knees and elbows pumping, he crawled for his life, pushed by the wind driven by the coming water. Finally the darkness eased as he approached the outlet.
"I gotcha, I gotcha!" Charlie grabbed Corbett's feet and helped him as he was almost blown out of the pipe. The whoosh of air ended with a clank as Dawson forced the access hatch closed. Panting from the struggle, he dogged the hatch against the growing roar of rushing water.
Dawson groaned as he pushed away from the hatch lock. "Kid, you near gave me a heart attack."
Corbett lay on his back, cold and soggy, gulping huge lungfuls of fresh air. After the dark pipe, his eyes were dazzled by afternoon sunshine, and he would have sworn that Dawson, bending over him anxiously, had a halo.
“Oh, man, look at you. You want I should call an ambulance or something?”
“Naw. I’m okay.” He looked at his blood-soaked shirt and changed his mind. “Uh, yeah, maybe I’ll need a couple of stitches and a good cleanup.”
“Jimmy, boy, you are some kind of mess. Gawd, kid, you look like you took on the whole room at a bar fight.”
I was in a fight, Corbett thought, and I won. He accepted Dawson’s offered hand, hauled himself to his feet, and stood dripping and shivering in the light breeze.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “Granger’s not so tough!” He grinned at Dawson’s bewilderment.