lemming drops studio . home . prose . poetry . blog .
. art . comics . lego . store . links .
. lemming drops studio .
. content © robert e g black .

emily

The name's John. John McCormick. I live in Carlton Falls. I've got no wife, no girlfriend, no kids. I work in construction. Carpentry to be specific. I work for a guy by the name of Frank Dorsey, owns Frank Dorsey Construction.

This thing I've got to get out of my head, this thing that's been haunting me--it happened a while back. It's strange, really--I can't quite remember when it actually happened. I can look in back issues of the Carlton Falls Times and see that the events I'm about to describe happened on September 11, 1998, but I can't really remember it too precisely. And, let me say right now that I'm not so old that I've started forgetting things like that. There's just something about what happened that afternoon that wants me to forget all about it. But, for the sake of that little girl, and for the sake of my own sanity, I've got to remember it, remember it until the day I die.

So, here goes.

***

The girl's name, I'd learn later, was Emily, Emily Madison Treadwell. She'd just turned ten in August. She was happy enough, I guess, by most people's standards. But, you know how kids are. They take things the wrong way, they get overly excited or worried about simple things. And, there's not much to be done but let them figure out for themselves that they're overreacting. That afternoon, when I first saw Emily, she was at that in between stage. She was mad enough at her parents to have taken off from her home, and she had not yet realized that things were fine. She hadn't ran back home just yet. She was still playing with the idea of running away for good. Keep in mind, though, that the construction site there on Avon Avenue, where we were finishing up a line of houses, was only three blocks from the Treadwell residence. Emily hadn't gone far, though, from what the paper said the next day, she'd left home several hours earlier.

I was putting finishing touches on a bathroom wall, and trading jokes and tall tales with Bill Abernathy, Dorsey's regular electrician. Bill had just told that old urban legend about the guy who wakes up with his kidney's removed, only this time it was a friend of Bill's cousin who'd been robbed, and that's when I saw Emily.

I'm no pervert, or anything like that. It wasn't as if I was attracted to her, but there was something about her, something entirely beautiful, that made me not want to look away as long as she was in sight. So, I watched her as she walked by the construction site. She stole a few glances at the first two houses in our collection. Those first two were all but complete, nice little homes, where no doubt nice families would live soon enough. Bill and I, and Jose Sanchez, the replacement plumber, were working in the third house in the line. She glanced at us, too, as she passed, but diverted her eyes when she saw me looking back at her.

"Whatcha looking at," Billy asked me.

"Nothing," I told him.

He looked past me and saw her, and from his silence I got the impression that he was as awestruck by this girl as I had been. It was only then that I realized it wasn't just because this girl was beautiful, or even that she was alone, that I couldn't look away. You see, there was something in the way she stole every glance around her, the way she kept looking behind her, as if she thought she might be being followed, the way that she held tightly to the straps of her backpack, which seemed to be packed about as full as it could be, that made her the image of nervousness, the epitome of frightened little kids. She looked scared, frightened, but strangely determined. I don't know how quickly I figured it out in my head, but by the time Bill did say something, I knew that this girl had run away from home. I just knew it.

"Why you lookin' at that girl," Bill asked. I'd been wrong. He didn't see it. He didn't see her as I saw her. To him, she was just some girl, maybe on her way to a friend's house, or on her way home from school. But, I knew better. I could see that she wasn't headed home, or anywhere at all for that matter. She was just headed away. There was a confusion to her that made me sure after just a second more, a confusion that told me that she could only be headed away, because she had no idea where she was going. There was no destination in her mind.

And, isn't that how it always is? I could recall right then, times as a kid, myself, that I'd run away from home, with no destination in mind, no destination other than some place far from where I'd began, only to realize there was nowhere to go, and no real reason to go there.

"No reason," I told Bill. He watched her a minute longer, then went back to wiring the back wall of the bathroom. But, still, I kept watching this girl, wondering how long exactly it would be before she turned back toward home, wherever that was. I wondered if her parents knew how serious she had been to have packed her backpack so full. I wondered if her parents even thought she really thought she was running away for good. Or, did they know what I knew, that soon enough, she would change her mind about whatever had sent her packing and head on home?

As she passed the lot of the third house in the line, the one where Bill, Jose, and I were still working, she stole a few glances back toward us. And, either she didn't realize I was still watching her, or she didn't care anymore. You see, one of those things the kid never remembers when he or she runs away had snuck up on her. There were several things the kid never thinks about beforehand, among them where to stay the night, where to eat, and where to go to the bathroom. It was that last one that had caught up to her. I noticed her eyeing the two B.S.L. Portable Toilets at the corner of the lot. She stole one more glance back at us, then around to see if anybody else was around, then she sprinted the short distance to the toilets, went into the one on the left, and closed the door behind her.

***

Had she gone into the portable toilet on the right, or had I even bothered to think about the two disappearances since we'd started on this row of houses more than I had lately, I might have tried to stop her. But, She went in the one on the left, and I hadn't for several days taken the time to wonder exactly how those toilets could fit into the disappearances of Jacob Brodes, the roofer replaced by Luis Sanchez, and Dick Gannon, the plumber replaced by Jose Sanchez. So, I didn't think much of her using our toilet. From what I've told you so far, I guess you can easily see why it wouldn't matter much. You see, I've left out a few important details to this story, all of them having to do with the disappearances of Jacob Brodes and Dick Gannon.

***

As with Emily later, it's hard to recall exactly when Jacob disappeared. According to back issues of the Times, it was the third of July. He was taking a break from working on the roof of the second house in the line. He went to the toilets, opened the door to the one on the right, and went in. No one thought anything of it. Hell, there was no reason to think anything of it. I mean, weird things do happen in this town, but still, you never assume the weirdest things right off. And, for the first few minutes, we assumed nothing at all. How long a man takes on the toilet, I thought, was his business.

But, after a little while passed, and still none of us had noticed him come back out, maybe we should have thought the worst. It wasn't until Dick Gannon made a joke about Jacob taking longer than Frank--you see, Frank Dorsey, whenever he actually came out to the construction sites, took a long time when using the toilets--we'd once timed one of his movements at about twenty two minutes, I swear. And, believe me, you don't want to go anywhere near those toilets after Frank's been in there. What was I saying? Right, it wasn't until Dick made a joke about him taking longer than Frank, that I even thought that maybe something was wrong. It was Bill that suggested that someone go check on Jacob, go knock on the door to the toilet, ask him if everything's okay. Knowing how annoying it would be if someone came to talk to me if I was in there with a bit of constipation, I didn't like the idea, but somehow I ended up being the one who went to check on him.

I put my tools in my tool belt, and took my time walking over to the toilets. I knocked lightly at first, trying to listen at the same time for any sounds from inside the thing. There was no response.

"Jacob, you fall in?" I was trying to make a joke, but my voice come out a little strained, like somewhere inside me I already knew Jacob was gone, and this was no time for joviality.

I knocked again, harder this time. "Jacob, you still in there?"

I was sure that he was dead in there, that he'd had a heart attack, or a stroke, or something. Jacob wasn't too old, but you hear all the time about younger folks having problems like that. It's sad really. And, that's exactly what I was thinking right then.

I don't know what order things happened next. I remember yelling for Bill and Dick to come. I remember telling someone to call the police, or 911, or someone, anyone. I remember getting out my hammer and using it to pry the door to the toilet open, sure that Jacob Brodes' dead body would fall out when the door swung open. I remember getting a look inside finally, and seeing that Jacob was nowhere to be found. And, I remember Frank Dorsey showing up at the site, about the same time his older brother Zeke, a police detective showed up with a couple uniformed officers. I remember one of those officers--P. Ivanjack, his nametag said-- suggesting that we were crazy, or that we'd been drinking. I remember Bill Abernathy volunteering to take a breathalizer test, a lie detector test. I can remember Bill proclaiming our innocence, though I can't quite remember when someone first suggested that we'd killed Jacob.

Needless to say, Jacob was never found. None of us were ever charged with any crime, as there was no body, and thus no murder. Though Jacob's truck was left at the construction site, along with all his tools, and though he had a pretty regular girlfriend that may have soon enough become his wife, the official story, as the Times had it, went something like this: Jacob Brodes, age 36, disappeared from the construction site where he was working, Friday. Friends said he was a quiet man, a gentle man, with a loving fiance [where they heard about an engagement that he never told any of us about, I'll never know]. Police sources say it's likely that Brodes, a Roofer with Frank Dorsey Construction, will turn up somewhere, living a new life, having put the troubles [no explanation of what these so called troubles were, of course] of this one behind him.

It seemed to me like the Carlton Falls PD just wanted to put this thing behind them, like they knew something we didn't, something we couldn't, like they knew we should just be quiet about the whole thing, forget about Jacob Brodes and move on. Strange thing was, in hardly any time at all, it was the same way among us when we went back to work. There was hardly any mention of Jacob, and when there was, it wasn't like we got into the subject of his disappearance. We'd maybe recount a story he'd told us once, and we'd tell it as if we were telling the story of a guy who had just moved to another town, or a guy we might see at a coffeeshop in the morning. It was never as if we were really talking about a guy who had disappeared into thin air, a guy we'd never see again.

***

By the time Dick Gannon disappeared in August, just two days before Emily Treadwell's tenth birthday actually, we were already joking about the disappearance. There was this ongoing thing whenever one of us went to the toilet, a joke of a warning to watch out for the toilet on the right, some joking about never seeing each other again, that sort of thing. Of course, none of us ever went into the toilet on the right. And, of course, we never mentioned this detail to one another. To mention that would have been to admit that we really had strange thoughts about what had happened to Jacob Brodes. To suggest that the toilet on the right was really a dangerous place to go would have been to admit that we were all having nightmares some nights about where Jacob might have gone. All of us, except Luis Sanchez, who had been hired to finish the roofing Jacob wouldn't be around to complete.

Work went on. No one dared suggest what we all thought, that Jacob had actually disappeared inside that toilet, as opposed to the official version--that he exited it while we weren't looking and then the latch just happened to fall back into place when the door was closed on an empty toilet. And, August 14 came, the day Dick Gannon made the mistake of going into the toilet on the right, the day I became convinced that something was really wrong there.

It didn't, as you might suspect, begin with Dick's disappearance, my sureness that something was wrong. It started instead when I was in the toilet on the left that morning. It wasn't too bad an urge to piss that got me there. I just didn't feel like waiting for it to get bad. I put down my tools and headed for the toilets. They were both available, but of course I entered the one on the left.

Inside, it was surprisingly dark. I know there's no windows, but the roof is made so that light can get through. It's never supposed to be dark in one of those things. But, this one was dark. Another surprise: with the door open, I could see that the thing was clean, almost impossibly clean, as if someone had just taken half a dozen hours to scrub every last surface, or as if the thing had come right out of the factory where it was assembled. Had it been the one on the right, that wouldn't have been so surprising, as no one had used it, as far as I knew, since Jacob Brodes. This one was used just about every day, had been through the building of two houses already. And, though I'd say Frank Dorsey's crew was not the dirtiest of crews I've seen in my time, we weren't ones to scrub a portable toilet down like this.

I guess my thought right then was simply that maybe Frank had had the thing cleaned out, or that this wasn't the one that was normally there--you see, it was quite dirty the last time I'd used it. I wondered why he'd bothered to get it cleaned out after so long, when he could have done it a lot earlier. Needless to say, the urge to urinate overcame me about then, and I stopped trying to figure out how or why the thing had been cleaned out, and I stepped inside, shutting the door behind me.

Now, there's some things you just don't do when you're inside one of these portable toilets. One of those things, something you simply never do, unless you really want to make yourself sick, is look into the opening in the toilet, you know, down into the storage tank where everybody's waste goes. There's chemicals in there that are supposed to break stuff down, I guess, but that doesn't make it much more pleasant to see. And so, what do you suppose I did, standing there relieving myself? Of course, I looked down, looked into that tank.

And, there was something moving down there. My first impulse was to think it was just a rat or something, some vermin that had been attracted by the smell, had fallen in, and hadn't drowned yet or been killed by whatever chemicals were in there. But, this was no rat. It was bigger than that, and whatever it was, it was making no effort to remain on the surface, like a rat would have to do to breathe. This thing was below the surface and swimming about rather frantically, especially as I finished my business and just stood there watching. As it moved around a little more, as I found it rather impossible to look away, this thing took on a rather specific shape, a shape I never would have expected and never could have imagined. As it brushed the surface a few times, I could make out what seemed at first to be several smaller parts to it. I counted five, but still didn't suspect what they could be. These five longer, thinner parts, were each attached at one end to a large mass. And, it was the larger mass that was moving, pumping now up and down, diving below the surface then coming back up as if from a greater depth than was possible in this portable toilet.

Each dive seemed like a deeper one, and the waves that came up with it as it came to the surface again got bigger with each one. A couple times, the disgusting, fetid liquid splashed up at me, a few drops landing on the seat, none actually reaching me. But, that didn't keep me from flinching away from each splash. And yet, I made no effort to open the door, no effort at all to leave, as this mass with five smaller, finger like . . . finger like . . . See there it was, that word--finger. Suddenly, inexplicably, I could imagine this mass as only one thing, a rather large hand, it's five fingers in a loose fist, opening a little more each time the hand came to the surface. Some obvious questions, then: How the hell was a giant hand inside this portable toilet? How was it alive? What was it doing? Where the hell did it come from? And, what exactly did this have to do with the disappearance of Jacob Brodes?

Before I could even attempt any answers to any of those questions, or the myriad of other questions that were racing through my head right then, the hand came for the surface again, this time two of the fingers--for now, I was sure that's what they were--breaking the surface. There were no fingernails, nothing that could quite be called claws, but there were hard protuberances at the ends of these two fingers, and as they struck the edge of the toilet seat, they hit hard, cracking it. That's when I finally backed into the door, scrambled to unlatch it, and stumbled out of there.

I fell to the ground, the door swinging shut behind me. I scrambled to my feet, and got as far from the toilet as I could. But, it did nothing. The door remained shut, the hand remained inside. And, as I adjusted to that, I heard laughter from behind me, from the construction site.

"Dismount problems," Bill Abernathy said, laughing. Dick Gannon was too busy laughing to add a comment of his own. Luis, on the other hand, took a moment out of laughing to inform me that I hadn't zipped my pants.

The idea that I'd left myself hanging in the open after finishing in there, with that hand so close, made me sick. I felt the urge to vomit, nearly headed back to the toilet to do so, but stopped myself. Then, the urge to vomit was gone, and I just stood there for a second, now facing the toilet again. I took a moment to look down, and sure enough, I was still unzipped, exposing myself to whoever wanted to see. Fortunately, there was no one in sight except for my fellow workers. I zipped up, then turned toward the three men. They were still laughing.

"Something's in there," I said. For just a second, I could tell they all believed me. There was a very noticeable pause in their laughter. Then, Bill and Dick went back to laughing. Luis was the only one who did not. But, I don't know exactly how much he believed, whether he thought I was crazy, or if he was simply all laughed out.

I saw some stray two by fours on the ground, grabbed one, and returned to the toilet myself without saying anything more. I was hesitant to pull the door open, but I knew I had to do it. I wasn't going to tell the others what I'd seen. And, if I said it was just rat, they'd laugh a whole lot more at how scared I'd no doubt looked as I came stumbling out. I just had to hope the hand could be beaten by a two by four, has to hope I could do that. Then, I could show them what was in there, and I could show the police--it was only right then that I really concluded that this thing, even if it was in the toilet on the left now instead of the one on the right, had somehow taken Jacob Brodes, had killed him, devoured him, or maybe worse if worse were possible. I had to beat it until I could get it up where the others could see it. I wasn't about to try to explain it to them. I'd looked stupid enough for them already. This was my job to do.

So, I opened the door. And, lo and behold, the place looked like it always did, not pristine as it had, not freshly splashed from that horrible thing making so much of a fuss down there. Strangely, enough, I wasn't surprised by this. I think maybe I was a bit relieved. Maybe I thought I had imagined the whole thing. I know now that I did not imagine any of it, but right then, I think that might be what I thought. I'm pretty sure that's what I thought. Just to make sure, I stepped inside, and poked around in the toilet with the two by four. And, sure enough, there was the bottom of the tank just about a foot and a half down. There was no room for any giant hand, hardly even any room for large rats, had there been those. Insanely, I let the door shut on me. And, I jumped when it banged a little harder than I'd expected. Then, a sound from inside the toilet sent me spinning around, grabbing for the handle to get out of there. But, the sound turned out to be nothing, and I forced myself to calm down. There was nothing there, no hand, no rats, nothing at all. I unlatched the door--you see, the police theory that the door could latch on its own wasn't too far off, if the door was slammed just right. Then, I pushed it open and went outside again, threw down the two by four, and walked back to my work.

I said nothing more to Bill, Dick, and Luis. I gave no explanation. Maybe they thought there really was something in there, as I'd said, a rat perhaps, and I had killed it. Whatever they thought, they asked me nothing and I said nothing. In fact, from then until that afternoon, even through our lunch break, hardly anything at all was said, on any subject.

Then, there came that afternoon, and Dick Gannon's turn in the toilet. He was tightening up some pipes for what would eventually be the kitchen sink when the cramps first came upon him. He announced, as he was want to do, that this movement would be a big one, then he put down his tools, and started toward the toilets. He made it to the one on the left, even had his hand on the handle, then looked back at me. I suspect that I was not the only one watching him right then, as he quickly diverted his eyes, pretended he was looking somewhere else. Luis dropped something--I heard it fall--no doubt turning abruptly himself, so as to make it seem he wasn't watching Dick as I was, and as Bill Abernathy no doubt was as well. I didn't look away from Dick and those two portable toilets.

Dick finished looking around, then dared to look back at me again. Over the next month, I would wonder so many times what he was thinking right then. I would wonder just what he thought had happened to Jacob Brodes, just what he thought I'd seen in there, just what he thought might be waiting for him. He took his hand from the handle, went to the toilet on the right, opened it instead, went inside, and closed the door. He would never come back out.

When Zeke Dorsey showed up with his brother again, I didn't mention what had happened earlier. I don't really know why. I guess I just felt better about being a little responsible for the disappearance of Dick Gannon than I did about trying to get this detective to believe what I'd seen. And, Bill and Luis said nothing about it, either. I think they were both a little scared, though neither one would admit it. I was scared, too, but I wasn't about to say as much to them, or to Frank Dorsey, or his brother the detective, or either of the uniformed officers who came this time.

Again, there were no charges to be filed. The official story went a little like the one with Jacob Brodes. Of course, as Dick Gannon was still pretty young, and had no wife, no girlfriend, no kids, kinda like me, the story played a little better this time. Luis' brother Jose came to work for Frank Dorsey a couple days later, taking over where Dick Gannon had left off. One of the first days he was there, I asked he and Luis if they had any more brothers.

"Why," Luis asked.

"If another one of us disappears," I said, "someone's got to come do the work." I meant it as a joke, but it didn't work as one. No one laughed. Well, maybe Jose laughed a little, but that's only 'cause he was new. He didn't know. He didn't know what we knew.

And, I might as well tell you, I never did find out if Luis and Jose had any more brothers.

For the next month, or at least until Emily Treadwell showed up on the site, Jose was about the only one who used either of the toilets. Well, him and Frank Dorsey, a couple times when he dropped by to check on us. Luis would hardly go near the things, though he did a few times, and I only went a couple times when the urge to relieve myself was too strong to bother with a drive home or to some other place with a bathroom. Bill Abernathy, on the other hand, would not go anywhere near them. Oddly enough, though, it was Bill that kept Frank Dorsey from getting rid of the cursed things one day when he asked if we were still using them. I got the feeling that Bill only wanted them kept around so he wouldn't have to admit that he was afraid of them. I understood where he was coming from. I didn't want to admit it either.

So, the two portable toilets remained, though mostly unused. It's hard to say exactly what I thought about what I'd seen in there, what I really thought had happened to Jacob Brodes and Dick Gannon. I think at some point or another I was convinced that there was a doorway to some other world, some other dimension, hidden underneath those two toilets. At another point, I was convinced that they were tunnels down into Hell itself. At yet another point, I was convinced that Jacob and Dick had merely disappeared into hidden caves--they've said for years there were a lot of such things underneath Carlton Falls. At another point, I believed what the official stories wanted us to believe, that while we weren't looking, both Jacob and Dick had snuck away, heading out into the world to get out of the lives they'd made for themselves, to start over. I can't count how many times just such an idea had occurred to me, running away from everything I'd known, finding something different, something brand new. Besides, at least in the case of Jacob's disappearance, it wasn't as if we were paying attention the entire time he was in there, using the toilet. But, there was too much wrong with believing the official story. You see, even if I had taken my eyes off the toilets while Dick was in there, even if only for a few seconds, I never really let my attention leave them. I WAS paying attention while Dick was in there. Plus, there was always the thing I'd seen, that hand, or whatever it was. Whatever I believed at any given moment, the most pervasive idea in my head in the time between Dick's disappearance and the introduction of Emily Treadwell into my world was that something was alive underneath those toilets, something was waiting there for its next victim. And, it wasn't taking Jose, though he went in there at least three or four times a day--while he's working, he's always got a drink of some sort close by, and apparently he's got the bladder control of a pregnant woman. And, that made sense. If it wanted to pick its victims, to always be able to get one, it couldn't just take each person who went in there. It had to be picky. It had to bide its time, make sure people didn't believe it existed, or no one would ever go near it.

I should mention here that one afternoon I had an absurd notion that quickly went away but nonetheless is quite interesting. I watched as Jose Sanchez went to use the toilet, kept watching the closed door until he came back out, and a simple thought occurred to me: He was part of it. That made sense. The logic fit. He was part of its ploy. As long as we saw him using the toilet on a regular basis and coming out unscathed, we'd forget about what we thought might happen if we went in there, and we might let down our guard. That's when it would take us. That's when that awful hand would grab us and pull us down into God knows where.

But, something about that didn't seem quite right. You see, Jose was human just like the rest of us. He was Luis' brother, not some pawn of whatever horrible creature was hiding beneath those two B.S.L. Portable Toilets. It was a smart ploy if he was a part of it, but the idea that he was just kinda went out of my head. The idea I had of what might be down there seemed like something too alien, too dark, too downright evil to have included this guy in whatever its plan was. Jose was nice, a good worker, a good guy all around. There was no way he could be a part of it. I include the idea of it now only because I want to demonstrate how much I was thinking about this thing.

In fact, thinking about this thing and what it might be doing was slowing down my work. Hell, it was slowing down all our work. We were behind schedule by several weeks, I believe, by that day in September that Emily Treadwell happened by. But, in the last couple days before her arrival, something had calmed down in each of us. I don't know what caused it. I can't quite explain it. But, you see, when that little girl came by and headed for the toilets, I didn't find it so ominous that she was going there. That she headed for the one on the left, where I had seen that hand but certainly not suffered any injury and certainly hadn't disappeared, and not the one on the right from which Jacob Brodes and Dick gannon had disappeared seemingly into thin air, did make it easier to stomach the idea of her going in there. But, there was something else. Afterward, I would wonder if it was some sort of pheromone emitted by that creature. I would imagine it sitting underneath our construction sight, tucked away in the nooks of those caverns below our fair town, waiting for its next meal, biding its time, and gradually realizing that we knew it was there. And, it could tell that we were keeping quiet about it, and it loved that. Boy, did it love that. And, it had its own way of making us forget, making us stop thinking so much about it and its plans. Just a simple chemical emission and we weren't so worried anymore. That had to be it. Whatever it was, I wasn't thinking about it so much when Emily came.

***

When that little blonde girl wandered by, stealing glance after glance at us working on the site and those two toilets, I thought little of it. Watching her, I was nervous, but it wasn't because of those toilets. It wasn't because of the disappearances of Jacob or Dick. It was simply because I could tell that she was a runaway. I could tell that she had no idea where she was going, no clue as to where she'd be spending that night, no idea where she would be eating her next meal, no idea about anything that was to come for her. Her entire future could be summed up in a question mark, and that idea, though maybe not consciously running through her head, WAS running through mine, and it could also be seen in every wayward glance she made over her shoulder, every stolen glance toward her home. Maybe she didn't know how hard it would be to go through with running away from home, maybe not yet, but she'd know soon enough, and I knew.

When I told Bill Abernathy that there was no reason I was watching that girl, I'd lied. I was sad for her, scared for her. I wanted to help her, I guess, to go find out just what it was that had sent her running away from home, whether it was her parents fighting, problems with siblings, not being allowed to do something she wanted to do. It could have been anything, something big or something small. At age ten, I'm sure everything seems just as important as everything else. I think I remember it being that way when I was that age. The trigger that had sent her packing could have been anything at all. I think I wished Bill and Jose weren't around, so I wouldn't feel too self conscious approaching this girl, asking her what the specific problem was, explaining to her that it wasn't as big a deal as she obviously thought it was. I wanted to send her back home, send her back there before she was gone so long that her life was ruined forever.

You can go ahead and read into that whatever you care to read into it. Maybe there were issues I had from when I was that age, a time that I had wanted to run away and had nearly done it perhaps, or something else entirely. Or, maybe there was something in me that yearned for the chance to shape someone's life that way I would my own kid if I had one. Maybe it was simply the human thing to do, to worry when you saw someone in trouble. I'd like to think it's the latter. I'd like to think that under the same circumstances, my fellow man would have done what I did for that girl, risked what I risked. Of course, I know not every man would, as Bill Abernathy and Jose Sanchez were right there and did nothing.

***

With the girl in the toilet on the left, I suppose I could have let my worry die down, never even really think about the thing that I'd seen in there in connection with that girl in there right then, never even really think about Jacob Brodes or Dick Gannon and how easily whatever had taken them could take this little girl. But, you see, she did not remain in the one on the left for long. Maybe the thing was dirtier than she at first thought when she'd opened its door, or maybe she'd seen something in there as I had. Maybe she'd thought it was a rat, as I had originally suspected. Maybe, she didn't like that look of that crack in the seat, or maybe those hideous fingers were reaching up at her, those hard protuberances on the end scraping at her, trying to drag her down. Or maybe she just changed her mind and wanted to use the toilet on the right instead. Who knows? Whatever her reason, she exited the one on the left, pulled open the door to the one on the right, and went in there.

So many times, I'd seen someone go in to use those toilets, so many times they'd come back out safe and sound. Just those two times, plus my little adventure with that hand, had anything else happened. But, seeing this little girl, still too headstrong to be frightened by being out on the streets alone, go in there, I knew that creature would feed again this day. I just knew it was going to take her to wherever it had taken Jacob and Dick. So, I dropped my work, and ran to the toilets. Bill said something to me as I ran, but I ignored it. And, I never took my eyes off the door that girl had just closed behind her.

As quickly as I got there, I'm surprised I could slow down enough to knock so simply at first. As convinced as I was that the creature was taking her right that very moment, I guess I still wanted to hope that she was safe and sound, just using the toilet before she continued wandering the streets for a few more hours at least, or maybe forever, never to go back home. There was no answer. Figuring this little girl might be too startled by someone knocking, I did so again, said, "hello? Everything okay in there?" Still, there was no response.

I'd dropped my hammer, and had no intention of going back for it; I wasn't going to look away from that closed door until it was no longer closed. Without looking down, I fumbled through the few tools I had in my tool belt. Unfortunately, I was wearing the belt with only one small pouch and a couple loops. There were a bunch of nails in the pouch, and the loop where my hammer hung was empty. But, I found something else, a sort of mini crowbar I used to remove stuck nails. Without hesitation, without trying again to get this girl to respond, I jammed the mini crowbar in the crack between the door and its frame, pushed it to the side, and popped the door open rather easily.

Emily Treadwell was not there. No one was. Without thinking twice, I stepped inside and closed the door. I dropped to my knees before the toilet, bent forward over the seat and looked down into it. It was dark down there, and even without seeing anything I could tell it was deeper than it should have been. And, there was movement in there, violent movement. I got to my feet, out of the way of the light coming through the roof, and looked down there again. It was like it always is in movies, when people find a gateway to some other dimension, that swirling vortex, that gaping maw spiraling in on itself. And trust me, when you see it for real, it's not so amazing, not spectacular, but terrifying, especially when it's a swirling mass of waste and chemicals and God knows what else. I couldn't move. Staring into that void at the center of it, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even breathe. All I could do was keep staring.

Then, something came up toward me, slowly at first then faster as it got closer. It was that hand again, those awful fingers spread wide, itching to grab me and pull me in. The arm was visible this time. For some reason, I focused on that, as if everything else didn't matter. I think my mind was just grasping at straws, hoping for something logical to hold on to sanity. And, the idea that this hand was not just a hand but did indeed have an arm and presumably a body was about the most logical thing in front of me right then.

But, I shook that thought away, focused instead on the hand coming toward me, and I forced my body to move, backed into the door, which had latched on its own behind me. Forgetting all about that little girl, I spun around and fumbled at the latch, pushed open the door and fell out onto the ground outside. And, this time, I swear I heard that hand hit the door behind me. It wanted me now. I'd offended it, I'd dared to try to save that girl, I'd let on that I knew it existed.

There was no laughter coming from Bill or Jose. I stole one glance back toward them, saw them both watching me attentively. They knew something had happened. They knew that thing down there was real. They knew everything I knew. Though I'd never ask either of them, I was sure right then that they'd even seen it before just as I had the morning Dick disappeared. But, neither Bill nor Jose made any move to come to help me. They were smarter than I was, you see. They knew better than to get involved.

I got to my feet, turned to face the toilets again, reached out tentatively for the door handle, and pulled it open. Then, imagining the horror of what could have happened to Jacob Brodes and what could have happened to Dick Gannon and what was right that very moment happening to that little girl, I stepped back inside, letting the door close behind me again.

Let that hand come for me, I thought. How else could I save that little girl but to go down there with her?

***

That vortex of waste and chemicals and darkness was still there. But now, everything inside the Portable Toilet seemed to be bending into it, as if it were a giant gravity well, a black hole, warping everything outside of it. Even my own hands, which I put on the toilet seat as I leaned to look down into the void, seemed to stretch a little out of shape, my fingers wanting to join everything else down in that dark place at the bottom.

I leaned out over the vortex, waiting for that arm to come for me again. But, no arm came. I took that as a dare. It knew I was there to save that girl. It knew I was willing to be pulled down. But, what it wasn't so sure about, and what I myself was not so sure about, was whether or not I could leap in on my own.

I stepped onto the toilet seat, closed my eyes, and . . . I couldn't do it. I couldn't go in there. I couldn't go down there with that thing, to that other world, that other dimension, Hell, whatever or wherever it was at the other end of that awful maw. The violence below me increased, spiraling waves crashing up onto the seat, onto my shoes, my jeans. Then, rather abruptly, the spiral died down, all the commotion turning to nothing but stagnant liquid in a tank that hadn't been emptied recently enough. As the last vestiges of movement died away, I knew it was now or never. I could save myself, let that girl be lost as Jacob and Dick had been lost, of I could try to do something. There was no guarantee that I'd accomplish anything, but I knew I had to try. I had to dive into that tank, down into that other place, if there was to be any hope for that little girl.

And, what else was there to do but jump?

So, I jumped. I stepped into the opening, which was bigger than it should be, and dropped into the pool of waste and chemicals. There was no more movement in it, only my own movement downward. I passed quickly below the surface, that awful liquid covering over me. The feel of it on my skin, and in my ears, and just an eyelid's width from my eyes, made me sick. I wanted to throw up, but I knew that would involve opening my mouth, which I was not about to do. And, I had to strain to keep my eyes shut.

I kept dropping, far past where the bottom of the Portable Toilet's tank should have stopped. And, my breath ran out. Without meaning to, I opened my mouth, a vain attempt for air, and in poured that horrible mix, excrement, chemicals, and something else, something indescribable. I felt a cramp in my gut, and I think I vomited, though it was hard to tell what was leaving my mouth and what was going in. It all seemed the same awful mix.

It went on. I just kept dropping through this viscous fluid, holding my eyes as tightly shut as I could, trying desperately to expend the stuff from my mouth, eager for any taste but this. I had the time, fortunately, to think about why I was doing this, about that little girl, about saving her life, and I could believe that it could be worth it.

Then, just as I was beginning to believe otherwise again, as I was beginning to feel lightheaded from not breathing, I dropped out of the tank, out of an impossibly inverted liquid surface, a fluid ceiling, into some dark chamber, one of those caverns I'd heard about no doubt.

***

No one was around. Nothing at all was around, though there was a strange sort of light in the cavern, the source of which I could not identify. The air was thick with the smell of that suspended pool of filth just a foot or two above my head. My nostrils, my ears, my mouth still were full with the stuff. Though I expected some horrible creature to come at me at any second, I took the time to pry as much of that stuff out of me as I could. But, I just couldn't get my fingers far enough into my ears or up my nose, or down my throat. The feeling of that sewage just couldn't be cleaned off that easy. My clothes were soaked with it, completely sodden with other peoples' excrement, and maybe a little of my own. My skin was coated with the stuff. And the taste, my God, the taste wouldn't leave me, even after I vomited a couple times.

Giving up finally on getting more off of me, more out of me, I headed into a tunnel into another large cavern. This place was the same as the first, but with a stone ceiling, that strange glow coming from all around, the rock walls themselves imbued with some sort of luminescence. There was one startling difference between this chamber and the first. Near the center of the chamber, splayed out on the floor was what seemed at first to be the skeleton. Upon closer look, though, I saw more than the usual four limbs. This was either something other than a human, or more than one. Whichever, I didn't care to look at it any longer. I hurried into the next chamber.

This one was empty for a pool of even worse smelling liquid than that I had fallen through. Leaving this pool, heading into another tunnel, this one's ceiling so low I had to stoop over to walk through it, were footprints, small footprints. I knew they were hers. I knew they were Emily's. But, there was something wrong with them, something I should have expected. Though I was walking around freely, I should have expected that she would not be. Her steps were oddly spaced, dragging in places, like something was pulling her along. I guess I'd known that this would be no picnic for her, but it wasn't until then that I really got it in my head that I had to hurry, that I had to catch up to her before she reached whatever destination that thing had in mind. I hurried my pace, ducking into that low ceilinged tunnel.

This brought me into another large chamber, this one's walls splattered with more excrement, and something else that could have only been blood, most of it dried. I nearly broke into a run to the next tunnel, but stopped abruptly, seeing that this stuff wasn't just splattered randomly onto the walls. There were patterns, simple geometric shapes, intricate designs, clearcut attempts at artwork, as if someone actually thought that blood and human waste were paint or ink. This thought twisted something in me, really struck a nerve. I broke into a run, ducking into the next tunnel, its ceiling even lower than the one before. Then, I ran past another pile of bones, through another chamber painted with blood and excrement and smelling of bile.

And, I came to a small chamber with no exits. The little girl was not there. At least, that's what I thought at first. I entered the room, spun around, looking all over for another way out. I thought of backtracking, thinking maybe I missed a branching off into some other tunnel. That's when I heard it. Weeping. That girl, crying. Coming from above me.

I looked up.

Sure enough, there she was, pasted to the ceiling, more fecal matter and blood and something else all mixed together into some awful paste, stretched across her like spider webbing or the beginnings of a cocoon. If I hadn't known it was a beautiful little blonde girl that had been dragged down here, I never would have known it looking at her then. Like me, she was covered from head to toe with excrement, her hair thick with the stuff, strands pasted to the side of her face, here ears caked with it, her mouth and nose all but covered over with the stuff, her clothes all but indistinguishable from her skin underneath all that filth.

She didn't know I was there. Her eyes were also caked shut, or maybe she just didn't want to dare open them for fear of what she might see. I said something to her, maybe hello, maybe something else. Whatever it was, I barely heard it, and I know she didn't hear it at all. I reached up to touch her, and she screamed. I pulled my hand back abruptly, then raised it again, touching her lightly, trying to let her know I wasn't the thing that wanted to hurt her. She began to whimper, to shudder a little bit, convinced that I was just readying to yank her down from there and devour her, or worse.

I gently wiped away the filth from her eyes, but she kept her eyes shut. I wiped some away from her mouth and nose. She took a deep breath suddenly. I reached up with both hands now and clawed stuff from her ears. No doubt, I hurt her doing that, but I had no choice. I needed her to be able to hear me, to see me. I needed her to trust me, to know I was there to help, if we were to find a way out.

"I'm not going to hurt you," I said. She stopped crying for a second, then cried even harder than before. I don't know if she believed me or not.

"Open your eyes," I said. She shook her head no. "I'm here to help you. Please open your eyes."

She didn't.

I reached up, got a good hold on her waist, and pulled. That disgusting paste held pretty well. And, she began to scream again. I put all my weight into pulling her down, even lifted up off the floor to make sure. That paste kept holding and kept holding. Then, finally, suddenly, the strand holding her broke, and we both fell to the floor, her on top of me.

When I lifted her up, and got up myself, I saw her eyes were open. She was looking at me, no doubt wondering if she could trust me or if I were just a pawn of whatever had brought her down here. It occurred to me then that there was no creature in sight, not in any of the caverns I'd passed through, not in this one. I looked around for any sign of any creature. The girl looked around as well, taking that moment to dig into her ears with her fingers, flinging clumps of sewage from her hands.

"It's gone," I said.

She shook her head, looked at me again.

"I don't see it around here," I said.

She began to cry again suddenly. I grabbed her and put my arms around her, told her, "it's okay, everything'll be okay." She just shook her head and cried some more, and she held onto me.

There was a sound behind me, a heavy shuffling sound. I turned around, picking the girl up in my arms. Nothing was there. Nothing at all. Just a wall of dirt and stone, decorated with more excrement, blood, and some other fluid I couldn't identify. The girl was crying again rather loudly in my ear. Her arms and legs were wrapped around me now. "It's okay," I whispered. "It's okay."

I didn't put her down, made no effort at all to do so. I just held her and turned back toward the tunnel by which I'd come in. There was another noise behind me, a gurgling sound, then something else, something like a growl. I didn't turn back, I didn't look. The girl, her head on my shoulder, looked up, saw whatever was there, whatever was making that noise. She screamed again, and did not stop screaming until I was sprinting out of there, ducking low through the tunnel out.

I ran through tunnel after tunnel, chamber after chamber, each one decorated with blood and excrement, skeletons sporadically strewn about in various ones. Coming in, I hadn't paid too much attention to specific details, but nothing seemed familiar. They seemed like whole new tunnels, whole new chambers, not the ones through which I'd come before.

I began to slow down, tried to say something, anything, that would calm the girl, who was whimpering again and shaking in my arms, her arms and legs trying to hold on tighter than was possible. A low grumbling, that growl, that gurgling, and a new sound, a strange dripping sound, all came from behind us. I did not look back. And, with my hand I kept the girl's head down on my shoulder so she would not look. A sort of harsh breathing sound, a raspy but moist sound, added itself to the horrible cacophony behind us. I still did not look. I kept going, slower now, but still moving.

Finally, we came to something that looked familiar. It was the first chamber, the one with the liquid ceiling.

The glow around us dimmed. That sounds behind us grew louder, and I swear there was laughter among those sounds now. I looked around for something, anything that might be usable as a weapon. But, the chamber was empty. I didn't even have my mini crowbar. I'd left that up above in the Portable Toilet.

I looked up, saw that ceiling, and wondered how far down I'd come. I'd almost run out of air coming down. The idea occurred to me that maybe I could swim back up, if that were possible. But, with this girl holding onto me, and now pretty tired from running around all these tunnels, I wasn't so sure I could make it, if I could even stay conscious the whole time, that is if I didn't run out of air. And, of course, that all depended on the possibility of going back into that tank of sewage from this side. I didn't even know if that was possible. I didn't know anything.

Those terrible sounds behind us again made up my mind. There were only two ways out. There was going back into all those caverns, finding out wherever the creature had come in, or going up through all that waste and chemicals, risking the loss of air, making a swim for it. And, of course, there was just waiting around to die, letting that thing, whatever it was, get us, letting it consume us whole, or tear us apart, or glue us to the ceiling, save us for later, maybe let us starve to death in this dark, disgusting place, maybe keep us here forever, torture us, digest us slowly. I looked up again, decided there was no choice.

"Hold on tight," I said. "And, when I say, take a deep breath and hold it in as long as you can."

The girl looked up, knew what I was planning. She shook her head, then tried to push away from me.

"You'd rather stay down here?"

She stopped pushing away but kept shaking her head.

"It's the only way out," I said.

She looked at me, looked up, then closed her eyes, put her head on my shoulder again, and held on tight.

I went to the wall of the chamber, stepped up onto a small rocky outcropping a couple feet up. Now, I was high enough that had I stood straight, my head would have been in that liquid above me. But, I stayed stopped over a bit longer. I knew it wouldn't just pull me up. And, I couldn't jump up into it with the girl's weight combined with my own. I raised up a little, though, making sure I could break the surface from this underside.

I could.

So, I stepped up onto a higher outcropping, having to stoop over quite a bit now to stay out from under the sewage above. "Ready," I said. The girl nodded. "Okay--"

Something swiped at us at high speed. A growl took center stage over the other sounds behind us. The girl screamed. This scream was different. I looked at her, and saw she was bleeding between her neck and shoulder. Whatever had just happened, the creature had cut her. Somewhere behind us, something laughed.

I jumped down to the floor of the chamber, set the girl down, peeled her backpack off of her, and rather clumsily unzipped it and dumped out the contents. Out dropped clothes and books, a hairbrush, a small wallet, an extra pair of shoes, and various other things, most of the stuff still pretty clean. I grabbed a green sweater and, lifting the girl's arm, tied it tightly around her shoulder, under her armpit, covering the gash the creature had given her. I tied it a second time, making sure it wouldn't come undone. Then, picked her up again, leaving her backpack and its contents behind.

I moved toward the wall again, and stole one glance behind me. Something was standing there, watching us. It seemed like a man, but different, it's body bigger, it's skin horribly disfigured--purposeful disfigurement, decorations in the skin, brands, cuts, tatoos--it's limbs longer than they should have been. And, there was no head. Where the head should have been, there was only darkness, which seemed to melt away into the ceiling of sewage and into the walls of excrement and blood and rock and dirt.

Suddenly, I was sure of why there was no other entrance or exit. We were inside this creature. This manlike thing there before me was just a part of it, just something there to toy with us. This whole place, the stone, the dirt, the blood, the excrement, the sewage, the chemicals, the bile, that awful paste-- all of it was this creature. We were inside it's stomach, down its throat, down where it could digest us. That was why it was not trying any harder to get us; it already had us.

The manlike thing changed a little, its image shifting into something else, something more beastlike. I turned away, stepped up onto the first outcropping. The rock moved out from under my foot, and I fell to the floor again. I didn't drop the girl. I held her tight.

I looked for another outcropping, then looked for where my second step up would be before proceeding. If I was to do this, I had to do it fast enough that my support could not be removed like that again. I whispered to the girl, "now." I kissed her cheek, not caring that her cheek and my lips still both had coatings of excrement. Afterall, we were about to go into that tank of it again. I took a deep breath as she did. Then, I stepped up on one outcropping, then to another just as the first disappeared from under me. Then, I took a third step, into the sewage. I stopped holding onto the girl, leaving that to her alone, and leapt up with all my might.

I was not a great swimmer, and this was not water but something thicker, warmer, more disgusting against the skin. And, that first leap had made me lose just about all my air for some reason. But, there was no turning back. I pushed upward with all my strength, kicking with my legs and stroking with my arms, forcing us upward. Of course, it was hard to tell which way was upward. I just tried my best not to change directions, tried to keep the direction of that initial leap.

The pressure change wasn't too obvious at first, then suddenly it was painfully clear that the liquid was either getting thicker, more solid, or something was squeezing in on us. The image that came to mind and still seems to fit so well was that we were inside a throat, a throat filled with sewage but a throat nonetheless, and it was trying to swallow us again, trying to force us down by constricting itself in on us. It was harder to swim, with the girl clinging onto me as best she could, and the throat squeezing on us, but I was more determined than ever to get out, to survive.

Then, something was clawing at me, grabbing at my legs, not that horrible hand from before, but smaller ones, dozens of them. One hand clawed flesh from my leg, and I couldn't resist the urge to scream. But, of course, all that happened when I opened my mouth was that it filled with waste--human excrement, urine, blood (I was sure), chemicals, and bile, that creature's saliva. I kept swimming, though there was no air left inside me. I felt lightheaded, but I couldn't stop. I couldn't give up. I just knew I was almost to the surface, almost free.

I kept kicking, my feet hitting against numerous clawing hands with each kick. We kept going upward. Then, though my ears were stuffed again with sewage, I could hear a loud grumbling from beneath us. The pressure around us got worse. Had my eyes been open, had the liquid been transparent, I'm sure I would have seen the opening above us closing to a pinpoint, the entire throat crushing in on us. But, my eyes were closed tight, the liquid was thick, impossible to see through. But, I knew that was what was happening. I just knew it. I kicked with more force than I thought I could muster. The burden of that little girl was almost unbearable, the lack of air in my lungs was painful now. They were filling with that horrible liquid now. I was sure that, even if I made it to the surface, I would still die. All those chemicals would digest me from the inside out.

Suddenly, the girl was no longer holding onto me. Those hands had grabbed her, torn her away.

Of course, I thought, why would it have let us even try to escape if escape were possible?

It was a defeatist thought, I know, but I couldn't help it. Under the circumstances, no one could.

I thought of swimming on, getting out of there with my own life while I still could. But, I'd come for the girl. I'd done all this for her, for this girl I didn't even know, this scared little girl, this little girl who had now seen that horrible creature below and knew exactly what was dragging her down this time. I'd risked everything for her. I couldn't let it take her without more of a fight. I couldn't give up. I couldn't leave without her. I could never live with myself if I did that.

Really, it would have been so easy to leave without her. I was sure I was near the surface. And, briefly, I thought of going to the surface, getting some air, then diving in again, but I knew as soon as I broke the surface I would never come back, little girl or not. I had to get her before I could go or I would never get her.

It took all the energy I thought I had left to turn around and head downward. Had the creature thought I might come after the girl, I'm sure it could have pulled her out of reach so easily, but it clearly didn't expect me to do so. I found her almost immediately. It took a bit of a struggle, expending energy I shouldn't have had, that remarkable adrenalin rush everybody always talks about but most people haven't actually experienced, but I got her away from those hands, and holding her flimsily by one hand, I kicked upward again.

A horrible scream came from below us. The walls of the throat were close enough for us to feel them around us now. But, I kept kicking, and I held onto her hand as well as I could. Then, when there was no energy left, all my air long gone, the throat crushing in on us both, we broke the surface. We clawed at the toilet seat, and the girl climbed out first. Hands tore at my legs and the throat was closing on my feet, but I managed to pull myself up and out.

***

We both fumbled for the door latch, then stumbled out and fell onto the ground, exhausted. Vomiting all that filth out of my throat seemed to take as much energy out of me as the swim had. My reserves were tapped. I felt like I HAD died.

Bill and Jose came to help. Neither one said anything. After a minute, Jose went to call for help.

The girl, who I only then learned was named Emily Treadwell, and I were taken to Carlton Falls General. We'd both be fine. at least, that's what the doctors had to say about it. With no real explanation as to what had happened, the police couldn't say much. Jose and Bill were quiet about. It was up to Emily and I to really get past this. I knew I could.

But, the girl, Emily Treadwell, was a different matter altogether. The cuts on my legs were not so bad, and though the doctors were not too sure about the chemical burns all over my skin, I was discharged not too long after being admitted. I went to see Emily, who was worse off, having lost a lot of blood from her shoulder. She didn't look well. And, she said nothing. When she opened her eyes and saw me, she wept, but she said nothing.

***

Late that night, I went to the construction site. I took a can of gasoline with me. I splashed it onto both Portable Toilets, then lit them. As I watched them burn, I swear I heard screams somewhere beneath me. I hoped they were screams from that creature, screams of pain, screams from its mouth burning.

***

I visited Emily in the hospital regularly after that. And, after she went home, I dropped by her house just about every day. Her parents got tired of me, their thankfulness killed off by my visits constantly reminding them that their daughter would never be the same as she was. I didn't know what to tell them. I had told the police that I couldn't remember any of it. God how I wished that were the truth.

But, I did remember it. And, so did Emily. Every time I went to see her, I could see in her eyes that something inside her was ruined forever. It was that glance she'd stolen at the creature just after I picked her up--I knew that was it. She'd seen something more than I had, maybe the Devil himself, maybe all her nightmares rolled into one horribly real thing, maybe something worse. Whatever, it had broken something in her mind. She'd never be the same. She'd never be remotely normal.

I'd saved her life. But, most of the time, I wonder what it was for. Why'd God or whatever allow me to save her if she'd end up like this, never talking again, never smiling, never enjoying life, never really living.

But, other times, I think maybe even this is better than being left down there with that creature. I wonder what Jacob Brodes and Dick Gannon went through, how much pain and suffering, how much horror they must have experienced. I think maybe it WAS worth it. It's so hard to think that way, though, seeing Emily the way she is.

But, sometimes, just sometimes, I think maybe she'll be fine. All it will take is a little time. Just the other day, when I came to see her, she smiled at me. It wasn't much of smile, but it was a smile. I can't help but want to believe that it's a sign that she'll indeed be okay. I've got to believe that.

Otherwise, what was the point?

March 3, 1999 - March 6, 1999
Pasadena, CA