We jumped Adam on his way home from school. Nothing too ugly. Ben tripped him, and Kostas ripped away his backpack and threw it into the road. I just gave him a weak push in the side as he tried to get up. Ben and Kostas could see that my heart wasn’t in it. After we ran away and regrouped in Ben’s backyard, catching our breath as we leaned against the roof of Ben’s sister’s playhouse, I said I was going home. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t look at me. I was sure they were headed over to Kostas’s basement, and they no longer needed me around.
The last time we were in Kostas’s basement he showed us the trick with the can of WD-40 and the lighter, and we took turns shooting blowtorches at each other, between the pinball machine and arcade-sized Galaga. I burned off all the hair on the fingers of my right hand. Kostas’s family owned the Greek restaurant across from the 7-11 where I hung out, reading the comics I couldn’t afford off the rack. The cashier didn’t care that I never bought them. It wasn’t her money.
Just a few months before, I’d been Adam’s friend. But that changed after he kicked Ben in the nuts in front of the fifth-grade girls at recess, after Ben tried to play keep-away with one of Adam’s free-lunch tickets. Naturally, I was called upon to demonstrate my loyalty in Ben’s demand for retribution. I considered Adam, and what we played together. The Werewolf and the Hunter out in the forest, or Marvel superheroes, jumping and somersaulting through the neighborhood (me Daredevil, him Spider-Man). I considered Kostas and Ben. Ben, who once slammed me in the back of the head, with a dodgeball, suddenly changing sides after the two of us had gotten everyone else out. His face so dense with freckles I couldn’t tell his actual pigment. Then there was Kostas. All the Galaga and pinball you could play in his basement, and your quarter would just come right back to you in the coin return slot.
So we jumped Adam. The sidewalk was a gravel/asphalt kind of thing, and he tore the knee of his jeans and scratched up his hands when we knocked him down.
The guilt I felt afterward made my claim of illness more plausible the next day, a Friday, and that morning I reread Dragons of Autumn Twilight in bed while my brother, Josh, glared resentfully as he got dressed for school.
“Faker,” he said. “I’m letting this one go. But the next time I’m sick and you tattletale, you’re dead.” With that he gave me two punches, hard, in the arm and left for class.
By noon or so I was hungry, and when I left the close, boy-stink of my room, my grandmother, whom I’d always called Big G, asked if I wanted some chicken noodle soup. At first surprised by the suggestion, I remembered I was supposed to be ill. I told her that while chicken noodle soup sounded okay, for some reason my stomach was pleading for bacon and eggs. This was when Big G could still use the stove, before she forgot what was on and what was off, before she forgot that the eggs were supposed to go back into the refrigerator and the plates in the cupboard, not the other way around.
While she fried the bacon in her mu‘u mu‘u and set it grease-dripping on a paper bag, I drank orange juice and chatted.
“Aunt Ivy still going out with what’s-his-face?” I said.
“Apparently,” Big G said. “That man hasn’t got the brains God gave a goose.”
“He’s not bad. He helped me with my boat for the Cub Scouts regatta that one time. Got second place.”
“Helping make a toy boat is not a lucrative enterprise,” Big G said. “Just as useless as tits on a boar hog.”
My grandmother, a Japanese woman with a southern accent, sat with me and drank reheated coffee as I sopped up the coagulating yellow yolk of my eggs with the edge of my toast. My brother, my sister, and I had been staying with Big G since Pops had shipped us over the previous year. Back at home, Pops was working with our church on Mom’s problem. She’d been going around to everyone in the neighborhood, telling them the gas in their lawnmowers was going to explode.
“You was hungry,” Big G said. “Glad to see your appetite is coming back.”
I did feel that the spiritual blackness generated by my conscience would pass. But when I got comfortable on the couch, Big G across from me on her recliner, and tried to follow the latest betrayal on Santa Barbara, I had to run to the bathroom. The bacon, the eggs, and the orange juice splattered, undigested and unabsorbed, against the walls of the toilet bowl.
Though I was shivering under my blankets when Josh returned from school, he had no compunction about throwing himself on my bed, pinning my arms under his knees, and slapping my face while I tried to twist it away.
“Stop it!” I said. “I’ll scream.”
“I heard what you did, shit-for-brains,” he said. “You think you’re a bad-ass now? Three to one?”
“‘Cause he—‘cause he—” But there hadn’t been any reason to jump Adam. I closed my mouth and let my brother kick my ass. I even provoked him as he was letting up, shoving him lightly when he finally moved off the top of me. He immediately threw his arm around my neck and tightened his muscles against my skull in a headlock, right before he threw me across the room. On my back—the wind transported far from my body and my breath uncatchable—I felt better.
“If you’re beating on your brother I’m gonna whip the hell out of you!” Big G yelled up the stairs.
That weekend I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t want to see Kostas or Ben again, and I was yet too ashamed to apologize to Adam. Me staying in was seventh heaven for my sister Sam, whom I hadn’t let into my room in more than a month. She sang commercial jingles about breakfast cereals while I messed around on my Casio keyboard, hammering clavi squelches onto a rhythm and blues programmed backbeat. When I played back the tape I’d recorded on my boombox of the skits and songs we’d done, she giggled uncontrollably at the sound of her voice coming back at her, then sat in rapt silence as she listened to herself recite the ABCs.
Saturday Adam went to the mall with his parents. Sunday—Sunday evening, precisely—his parents told the police that he’d walked down to 7-11, and he never came back.
When it came on the news a few days later, the police had already talked to me. Sure, I’d seen him a couple days ago, walking home from school. No, nothing unusual, nothing different from any other day. He didn’t say anything about leaving, about running away. No, I didn’t notice anyone suspicious driving around. They didn’t ask about that other thing. Adam was no rat.
Summer was starting, and the parents, including Big G wanted the kids close to home since they weren’t going to be in school. At least, they said, until Adam came back. Stuck in our room, my brother, facing me on his opposite bed, told me Adam wasn’t coming back. He must have seen something come over my face because he changed the subject right away.
“Look, Dustin and me got this gang going. The Sewer Rats. If you want, I can ask him to review provisional membership.”
“Just the two of you?”
“Not much of a gang.”
“You want in or what?”
“Okay. What do the Sewer Rats do?” I asked.
“We whitewash fences, dumbass. What the hell do you think we do? We go underground. We explore. A little tagging here and there. You tell Grandma and I’ll give you welts.”
“All right, I’m in. Consider me a member.”
“Provisional member,” My brother said.
“When are we gonna start sewer ratting?”
“When all this stuff blows over,” Josh said. “When—when Adam gets back.”
A few weeks into vacation Big G, who had enough responsibility acting as Sam’s full-time playmate, was sick enough of us to pull back on her close oversight, and my brother, with red-headed, denim-enshrouded Dustin, led me to a large drainage pipe that fed out to a dry creek in the middle of the woods. Though I had belted up with flashlight, canteen, and magnifying glass, my brother was equipped more simply, in his shorts, Dustin with his jean jacket tied at his waist.
“What if we get lost?” I said, entering the half-dark, almost grabbing at my brother’s t-shirt.
“Relax,” Josh said. “Dustin knows these tunnels like the back of his hand.”
We never went as far to be enveloped in complete darkness, but I shone my flashlight anyway. The concrete tunnels were illuminated by some source of light that came from various mouths, or from some opening above, so we walked in what seemed to me circles in this dream-infused half-light, only rarely turning deeper, after inspection by Dustin. It was a dry summer, so the bottoms of these expansive tubes were either caked in dirt or had merely a trickle of water running through, overlaid with sticks or clothes or paperback books that had been washed away. Once every few yards Dustin and Josh would pause to write “Sewer Rats Rule” in permanent marker on the wall.
“If we find treasure,” I said, “Even split, three ways.”
“Not the kind of treasure you’re thinking of,” Dustin said.
I shone the unnecessary flashlight at our feet. A stack of crinkled Playboys Dustin stole from his grandfather and hid in the sewer. The first cover image was of Suzanne Sommers emerging topless from a pool. In silence, Josh and Dustin took seats across from each other, their backs against the sewer walls, and turned the pages of the magazines.
A week or so later Helena and her family moved next door, her father some kind of officer stationed at the army base. Neither Kostas nor Ben were calling me anymore, and my provisional membership in the Sewer Rats had been revoked when my brother overheard me going on and on about the drainage tunnels to Big G, how deep they went, how pulsing, growing mysteries gestated from one turn to the next, and the secret society that, to my mind, could conceivably conduct real business down there. A silent language of flashlight Morse code, a heightened sense of direction more instinctual than relational. Down in that world without stars. I told Big G that if I spent just a few weeks in the tunnels, getting my subterranean bearings, it was guaranteed I’d never be lost. But we got lost anyway, all of us, Big G, too, when the ones who were closest to her became strangers and she would spend mornings sitting on the edge of her bed, muttering to herself until something made sense.
Though I never specifically fingered my brother or the Sewer Rats, my enthusiasm about the endeavor was enough to forbid me from ever coming along again.
So when Helena saw me in the front yard, alone, in desperate hand-to-hand combat against a squadron of invisible ninjas, and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing, I, out of breath with my hair sweat-stuck to my forehead, didn’t ignore her or send her off to play with her stupid dolls. I deliberated a moment on talking points and how to explain the whole damn thing before I told her I was Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.
“Like Evel Knievel?”
“Not a daredevil. Daredevil. I’m blind, but my hearing is so good I can sense shape outlines by their reverberations against sonic vibes.” When she looked at me blankly, I told her, “Hang on a second.”
I ran into the house and brought out a set of binders my brother had made me my last birthday, photocopied entries from nearly the entire collection of Marvel Universe. He’d put the binders together with the only copy machine in school. When he was eventually found out, he got a week of detention. I laid the black and white mimeographs on the lawn, showed Helena a picture of Daredevil—“He looks sad,” she said—and gave her a synopsis of his powers and origin. I told her that she could pick out a character and we could play.
Helena sat cross-legged on the grass and squinted at the bright white sheets, once in a while slapping a mosquito away from her knee. “Ohhh, this guy,” she said. “Galactus. He’s like a hundred feet tall and sucks the energy from planets. I want to be this one.”
I pulled the binder away from her. “Yeah, that doesn’t really fit with a guy who uses a baton and has super hearing. I’m not even that strong. Galactus is like this cosmic death force. I don’t see the angle where these characters cross over.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll just be Spider-Man. Daredevil’s like the poor man’s Spider-Man anyways.”
“Adam’s Spider-Man,” I said.
“He left,” I said. I wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t heard about Adam yet—not even what the kids were saying, that the Greeks had kidnapped him and were serving his flesh in the gyros. It was one of those things people said because the satisfaction of having it cross their lips superseded any collateral damage that would result. As it was, Kostas also didn’t have any friends anymore. But for the wrong reasons. “But he’ll be back soon.”
“Then I’ll be Spider-Woman,” Helena said.
“She’s kind of a token character. Besides, she doesn’t really fit into this continuity.”
“Fine. You just tell me who to be and I’ll be her.”
“Well, there’s Silver Sable,” I said. “She’s kind of into martial arts, but—well, guns and stuff. Or—I know! Elektra!” I flipped to her page in the Marvel Universe and passed the binder to her.
“Looks cool,” Helena said, admiring the single panel illustration. “But this says she’s dead.”
“That’s the thing about comic books. No one’s ever dead.”
Helena threw herself into the role with gusto, and in a week her dad had made her a pair of sai out of scrap pieces of wood screwed together. We tumbled through yards, hopped fences, jumped off doghouses, sweating through our summer clothes as we cleansed the neighborhood of the unseen menace. And when we were spent, and Helena was showing me how to spin the sai in one hand, I explained to her how Adam, as Spider-Man, was under attack by Scorpion somewhere in the woods and needed our help. And the next day found us in the woods, flicking pine cones as ninja stars and tossing rocks as smoke bombs. But each time we just missed saving Spider-Man.
One afternoon we were picking out smooth stones from the red dust of the dried-out creek when I pointed out the entrance of the drainage tunnels my brother and Dustin had shown me. I led Helena to the mouth of the tunnel.
“What’s ‘Sewer Rats?’” she said, looking at my brothers tag while shielding her eyes from the sun.
“An enclave,” I said. “Like a secret group—”
“I know what an enclave is.”
“They’re cool,” I said. “It’s a secret society that gathers under the town to help citizens in need. Somebody needs a little money, they get together, figure out how to get the money to them. Secretly. Lost dogs, bullies. Here, underground, they discuss how to deal with the real problems.”
“So why do they graffiti if it’s supposed to be secret? Why would they want anyone to know?”
“Come on,” I said. “You can ask them yourself.” I thought about freaking Helena out with the Playboys, just to see her reaction. “I know these tunnels like the back of my hand.”
It wasn’t but five or so minutes until all my bearings had left me. I lost track of the Sewer Rats graffiti quickly, taking blind turns that led to long shafts and grates that forced us to reverse course. Panic arrived swiftly, though I said nothing. I simply grew grim and more desperate as I stepped over trash and vegetable debris and rubbed my fingertips raw against the rough concrete walls of our narrow passage.
Would they find us? How would they know? How long until they saw we were gone? Suppertime? Bedtime? The next morning? When would the rodent people emerge from the shadows to feed? When they did find us, would we be skeletons, clutched together in cold starvation?
“Let’s climb up here,” Helena said, pointing up at a rusted set of iron rungs leading to a closed manhole cover. She pulled herself up, climbed effortlessly to the top. Hanging on with one hand, with the other, she pushed the cover.
“Is it moving?” I asked from below, my voice high with encroaching hysterics.
“It’s heavy, but,” she pushed again. “It’s moving.”
“Think Spider-Man,” I said.
“Oh, I get to be Spider-Man now?”
From under her, I saw her tense her thin muscles as she switched handholds and pushed the manhole cover again. “Won’t work that way,” she said, and she climbed another rung and set her shoulder against the cover.
I heard the reverberations of the iron against the asphalt. “Damn it!” she yelled, and I saw her legs lock, her arms pull tighter, and my eyes were then blinded by the hot white blue of daylight through the uncovered aperture.
“We’re over by the library,” she said, looking down after she’d scanned the surroundings above. “Hurry up before a car comes!”
I did not pull myself up with the same ease as Helena, but eventually I was able to begin the ascent, smelling rust of the thick rungs, which landed on my tongue through my nose like the taste of pennies. My hysterics hadn’t dissipated completely—instead of worrying about dying undiscovered in the sewers I thought that yes, this is where Adam must have gone. In the tunnels. He’d been lost, just like me. But not for forever. I was going to tell everyone—the police, Big G, Adam’s parents—that he was down in the tunnels, that they’d been looking in all the wrong places. He was safe. And if Adam was safe, that meant we were all safe.
The top rung caught me square on the nose as I climbed, absorbed in my revelation. I would have fallen had not Helena grabbed one of my wrists. It wasn’t until I felt her hand grab me that the loosening fingers of my other hand gripped the slippery rung hard. I blinked as I hung in place, trying to dispel the sharp strikes of lightning behind my eyeballs. I could taste the iron of my blood drowning the taste of old coins on my tongue. Blood flowed past my lips, down my chin and neck into my shirt. I blew the blood against the concrete and the asphalt as I pulled myself up through the hole and onto the road.
Helena kicked the manhole cover back into place while I wiped my nose with the end of my t-shirt. The panic had departed, even the pain. I didn’t feel anything.
“We could maybe get you cleaned up in the library,” Helena said.
“Why don’t I just walk you home,” I said, struggling to dislodge a bloody snot clog from my nostril.
It turned out to be the other way around. Helena held onto my arm as she led me back. The faces of the drivers in passing cars were horrified—I’d smeared the drying blood all over the lower half of my face—but Helena waved them on as they slowed down. When we got to my house, Helena simply let me go.
Big G didn’t notice me at first. She was at the kitchen sink, watching her blooming jalapeno peppers as she rinsed the cereal bowl. I stood behind her and the water ran, Big G thinking over her peppers. When she finally turned around, I was bawling, tears moistening the dried blood as I buried my face in her mu‘u mu‘u.
These days, I have a recurring dream where I find myself in a strange city, vaguely European, and I am on a narrow road between a bell tower, which is behind me, and a tall wooden cross, which stands at the top of a hill in front of me. Invariably I am compelled to walk toward the cross. At the end of the road, a stone stairway climbs the hill to the wide base of the cross, and before I take my first step, I am arrested by Adam, sitting at the bottom of the stairs. He’s going through his football cards. He’s neither young nor old. And though he doesn’t always look like Adam, I know it’s him. I don’t want to ask him where he’s been all this time. I just want to know if he’s held on to his rookie Bo Jackson.
“What happened?” Big G said, at first trying to push me away so she could see my wrecked face. A few moments later, she allowed me to cling. What could I tell her? I couldn’t say that I knew, though I didn’t really know then, that Adam wasn’t in the sewers, that he wasn’t safe at all, that they’d find his defiled body in a forest the next state over. I couldn’t tell her that we’d blown it. We couldn’t even take care of each other.
My sister came in at some point, put her hand on my back, asked over and over again, “What’s wrong?” I couldn’t tell them anything. I didn’t see my brother come in, but he made a glass of chocolate milk and left it on the table. I only heard the refrigerator open, and a few seconds later, the spoon ringing against the glass as it stirred the powder into the milk. I thought it would ring forever.
Jeffery Ryan Long is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His last short story collection, University and King, was published by Aignos press in 2014. His work has been featured in Hawai’i Review and Bamboo Ridge.