It begins, each day, with a boy.
On Wednesday the boy’s name was Jenkins. It was either his first name or his last, embroidered into the back of his baseball cap; a ratty red thing with a big white A on the front. Thumbs in his pockets, eyes on the ground, he kicked idly at pebbles. It was in this fashion that Wednesday’s boy reached the wall at the end of Monk’s Head Alley—and stared down into the hole.
Monk’s Head Alley, being blind, led nowhere but into a man-sized hole at the bottom of a thirty-foot-high wall of windowless red brick. The hole led into a complicated system of passages below the city that, if traversed correctly, would lead back out into any of a plethora of other alleys that ended in similar fashions throughout San Diego. That particular Wednesday, seven different boys walked idly down alleys just like this, alleys that stretched for half a mile with no other outlet. No space between buildings, no roads, nothing. But always the feeling that the alley had to lead somewhere, or it wouldn’t exist at all. This is why each day, a number of boys find themselves faced with a choice—turn on heel and make it back round the long way to wherever it was they belonged, or pull out a penlight and brave the hole.
Jenkins, for example. Just twelve years old, he’d convinced his mother to let him take the bus downtown to see a movie. It was a horror flick, something about zombies from outer space, and he’d enjoyed it. Journey half over, he’d stepped into the bus home and, after four or five stops become aware that a group of unruly teenagers was taking an unusual interest in him – and not a favorable one. He didn’t know what they were planning, but his thick-rimmed glasses and scrawny build always seemed to encourage bullies and Jenkins knew better than to let the situation play out.
At the next stop he quietly slipped off the bus and by the time the five hooligans were able to get up and off as well, he’d vanished through the crowded sidewalk and down the first alley he saw. Although he couldn’t possibly have known where the alley headed (or that it even had a name), he figured, as most boys do, that it would come out somewhere, and from there he would find another bus home. It was a simple foregone conclusion and was, just as simply, wrong.
The other boys’ reasons for entering the alleys varied; their destinations differed. They were coming from and going to baseball games, dates with girls, libraries, home. It never seemed to make a difference; the boys who wandered down these dead ends were as random as the alleys themselves. But they were always boys. Every day, one or more of them would choose the hole. On Wednesday, Jenkins was one of these.
Half of it was a circular absence of wall, half of it a sinking depression of the blacktop he stood on. It was dark inside, and he could hear trickling water. A moment after he realized what he was about to do, he imagined his mother’s voice in his head, telling him that if he had any sense at all, he’d turn around right now and march right back out of this alley and right back onto the next available bus, mister.
Jenkins didn’t lack for sense – it was just, well, this was more exciting than maybe being beaten and robbed. He imagined the five boys waiting for him at the end of the alley, laughing that they’d known it was a dead end the whole time, bragging how they’d come up with new and interesting ways to hurt him in the time he’d been gone. In his mind, several of those ways ended up with him in the hospital. He would start through the hole instead, and if it got too scary, he would turn around and go back.
The first canvas-sneakered foot dropped in with a plunk, and the other followed. Jenkins was standing just inside the mouth of what appeared to be a long passage, narrow and stone the whole way round. He took two deep breaths, one as water seeped in cold around his ankles, and another as he flicked the penlight from his keychain on and took his first steps into the tunnel.
“Sorry Mom,” he whispered.
The first thing that struck him was the smell of moldy rot, the damp push of the air against his cheek, the intense wetness of the dark. The second thing that struck him was a rat making for the exit. Jenkins yelped. The rodent ran full smack into Jenkins’ leg and spun off dazed before recovering. The boy’s voice echoed down the hole, off the walls then back at him, distorting his voice until he was sure what he was hearing wasn’t just him. When it got quiet again he waited a whole minute, then laughed nervously at himself and forged on. Several other rats made their way past him without incident, paddling against the current. The water was only two inches deep, but it washed down over his ankles and soaked through his socks. His sneakers began to squench as he made his way, a squench that echoed off the walls and got him accustomed to the acoustic dynamics of the tunnel.
When he came to the first fork, he went the way that felt most like home, trusting that if this path went dead, he’d find his way back and take the other. But it didn’t die; instead, the passage went on, curving and sloping downward as the tiny stream flowed faster past his feet. He saw rats with decreasing frequency as he descended, which was fine by him because wet they looked like skeletons with hair, and he didn’t like the way their eyes reflected the light from his keychain.
Some minutes later Jenkins came to another fork and felt the unfortunate feeling that perhaps he should go back and try the other path. No, he thought. He’d take another turn, and if he still hadn’t been brought anywhere, he would turn around and find his way back out then. Two turns were easy enough to remember. At the next fork some nine minutes later he went through the same thought process. But three turns were also easy enough to remember and so he chose a path and continued.
The water flowed slower here, he noticed, but at the same level. Odd, because the slope hadn’t slackened—in fact, he was fairly sure he was leaning further back in his stride than he had been a minute ago. The stream crawled along his soles like dark jelly. At first he thought he was walking on a new kind of sludge, but it had rolled off his fingers like water should when he’d tried to scoop some up. It had smelled like water too, and though he wasn’t stupid enough to taste it, Jenkins convinced himself what he was seeing was an optical illusion. He put it out of his mind and kept on.
Two forks further on he realized he was already late—that it was no longer time for games and that if he didn’t want a spanking and some measure of irrational punishment he’d have to hurry, damn it all if the gang of boys saw him.
Jenkins turned back and made the opposite progression of turns, finally coming to the point where he felt he’d find the original tunnel leading back to the alley. A final right and he would be home free. He took a right and ran full out, feet slapping against shallow pooling water then dry stone as he anticipated the entrance at the end of the blind alley to embrace him with open air at any moment.
Instead, his feet sank into the ground, and he fell face forward into a pool of dust and came up choking and rubbing his eyes.
His glasses were gone from his nose.
Jenkins sifted through the dust in front of him with spread fingers. He came up empty. He still had his penlight. He shone his penlight around and squinted through the cloudy air, and though he couldn’t see much he could see he was in a room. He was in a circular room, or almost so, and it had several openings all leading down new lengths of tunnel.
He must have gone the wrong way, taken a wrong turn at some point. Now he’d found a tunnel hub. He’d have to retrace his steps and find the real way out. First, he had to find his glasses. With the light to guide his sifting hands, he plunged deep into the dust and imagined that the next moment would find the spectacles in his grasp. But the next moment passed, as did the next. He looked for what must have been hours and never found them.
“Okay. Okay,” Jenkins finally whispered to himself, “I can get new glasses. It’s just an astigmatism. And nearsightedness. Things will be blurry. But I can get home. I have to be able to get home.”
He picked himself up and turned around, making his way from the room of dust and back into the tunnel.
Jenkins splashed through the tunnels and turned down the forks he’d followed most recently, or what he remembered of them. He kept expecting to see or feel a familiar thing. A patch of moss or trickle of water that would give him his bearings. A rat, even. But nothing was familiar and as he ran on he became certain that he was going deeper, that if he were to ever make it out it would be pure luck. His feet, soaked through, squenched against the rock floor. Then, at last, he was rewarded, as they sunk, once again, into a sea of dust.
Jenkins had found the tunnel hub room again.
This time, after a moment of surprise, he sank to his knees against one of the walls and prayed. He prayed until it had to be dark outside, until his stomach rumbled and his bladder wouldn’t hold any longer. He prayed that he would find his way out, that someone would come (his mother he thought, or the police...someone had to come, although he’d made sure not to let on where he’d gone). He prayed and continued to decide he’d try again, but secretly he feared he’d become even more lost—and besides, which of these openings would he take? It’s not as if he knew which door was the original through which he’d stumbled...and even then he hadn’t found his way out before...and by this time all the praying had wiped the directions from his memory. Besides, the dust was warm. It shielded him from the dampness of the air, the bite of the slow breeze that seemed to come from every opening. He kept vowing to try again, kept praying for salvation, kept sinking further into the dust—until he finally fell asleep.
Some time later he awoke, ecstatic at the prospect that it had all been a dream, that he was safe at home. But no: it was real, and the penlight on his keychain was dying. He clicked it off to save the battery and began to sob as he had before, no longer praying. His pleas became a choked and repeated cry for his mother that echoed through the tunnels and, unbeknownst to him, found the ear of another boy, who had been going round and round his own set of tunnels for an indeterminate duration. A few minutes later that boy’s penlight shone on Jenkins, whose sobbing halted as he jerked his head up in surprise.
“Who is that? Are you here to rescue me?” Jenkins hastened to his feet as the other boy turned the light on himself.
“No, see? I’m lost too.” The boy’s face was smudged, a filthy Dodgers cap hanging sideways off a ragged mop of blonde hair. He moved slowly over to Jenkins, putting a hand on the smaller boy’s shoulder.
“My name’s Willy. Willy Pilgrim.” Jenkins sniffled and told the boy his name as well, and they both sank against the wall.
“I’m glad to see someone else down here,” Willy said with a slight cough.
“I was starting to think I was going crazy, that this was all in my mind. But now, you. Can you imagine what sort of coincidence this must be? Two boys lost in the same set of tunnels on the same day. You know, I bet it’s never happened before.” Jenkins wiped at his eyes with a dusty finger and sniffled.
“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty weird. I’m glad to see you too I suppose.” He thought about his home, about what his mother must be thinking, and he quickly added, “But we’ve got to find a way out of here, can’t forget.”
“Sure, sure. You know, it’s not so bad in here, in this room. Almost comforting. Like a beach at night, when the sand is still warm, and the waves lap at the shore like a dog drinking out of a toilet. Nice like that, you know?”
Jenkins sniffled again, remembering how he’d fallen asleep in the dust.
“Still, Willy, we got to leave. Don’t you got a home to get to?”
Willy chuckled. “Ha. Oh, not me. I’m an orphan. Never adopted. Only people gonna miss me are Mr. Tibbs and Gina the Orphan-Beater, and if you ask me, they can both go suck on a rusty nail and die of lockjaw.”
“But...but you want to get out of here, don’t you?”
“Well hell, of course I do. Just...I ain’t sure there is a way back out.”
“What do you mean?” Jenkins’ saliva glands began to pump.
“Well, you see, when you came down here, you probably picked your turns at random and told yourself you’d remember what they were and that you’d just turn back and do the opposite, yeah? When that didn’t work, you just figured you’d screwed up and missed a turn somewhere, yeah? So you’re still pretty sure there is a right way out of here. I think there is too, but me, I don’t think that way is anything for us to find.”
“Why not, Willy?”
“Because when I started in on these tunnels and came to a fork, I chose the right one. At the next fork, I went right again. Again and again I kept going right, and the tunnels kept sloping down, and after a while, I knew I didn’t want to be down here anymore. You see, I figured at some point if I went down far enough I’d have to hit the sewer system, yeah?
“Only I never did.
“I’m not talking about these tunnels like I think they’re any sewer system either—I mean the real sewers. The ones that smell because of the gas that comes off all the crap and makes the air warm, so it steams coming out of the utility holes in the morning.
“Anyway, I started to get worried about how far down I was and if I’d ever see a tunnel leading out again. So I turned around, and this time I went left left left. Twenty lefts. Thirty. More lefts than the rights I remembered taking to get where I was in the first place. The crazy thing wasn’t even that I hadn’t found my way out yet.”
The older boy paused.
“What was it?” Jenkins asked.
“The crazy thing was that the whole time I was taking my lefts, the ground kept sloping downward.” Jenkins let the words hit him. The way he felt then reminded him of the time he’d had his face pushed into the mud by his schoolmates as they told him everything he thought he knew was make-believe.
“No Saint Nicholas, no Easter Rabbit, no Tooth Fairy either.”
The mud had filled the gap in his gums which had started the teasing which had triggered the death of the magic in his life. Now, it seemed, some of the magic had returned—this time replacing reality. An unwelcome intrusion at the most inconvenient of times. The boy beside him sifted through the dust and whispered to himself.
“What a colossal frigging coincidence.”
They sat for a long time, talking about things they both knew, about baseball players, and after a while, Jenkins was reminded of where he was and where he should be instead.
“Are you going to go looking for a way out with me?”
The older boy put a hand on Jenkins’ knee.
“Of course I will. If you don’t believe me we can go right now, but I’d rather get some sleep. Aren’t you exhausted?”
Jenkins realized he was. He was scared, too, but he could understand the urge to sleep.
“Okay. But only for a little bit, so we can find our way home.”
“Thank you,” Willy said. Jenkins thought about finding his own way out, but he’d be leaving the other boy to die and ultimately he was unwilling to be alone. It was comforting to be around someone else.
Jenkins settled in beside his new companion and closed his eyes. Soon after, he’d found his way home through wishful dreaming.
Time was fluid in the dust room. Relative to the room, no time at all might have passed. Relative to the ache in Jenkins’ bones as he awoke again, and the rumble in his stomach, he’d passed somewhere near eighteen hours in the darkness.
Willy was sitting cross-legged next to him when Jenkins next awoke, staring into the beam of his own light as it played across his face. When he saw the younger boy was awake, he gave a quick smile and pulled himself to his feet.
“Come with me.”
“You found a way out?”
The light danced away from Willy’s face and down one of the tunnels, but not before Jenkins saw the flash of anger there.
“I told you already; there ain’t no way out.”
“I just thought-”
“We’re going to get some water.”
They walked up into the tunnel. Willy pointed his light at the ground.
“Take a look at this.” He knelt down. Jenkins looked where he was supposed to be looking. All he saw was where wet rock met dry rock.
“What is it?”
“Something is missing from this picture.”
Jenkins squinted. “You know, I can’t see too good without my-”
“Gravity is missing. You see how this tunnel slopes downward into the dust room? How water is flowing down all of the tunnels? How the heck does it stop here? It should be flooding that room. But every tunnel connecting to it has a wet-dry line just like this. Like the streams slowed down and slowed down, and finally the currents were so slow they stopped. What do you make of that?”
Jenkins opened his mouth to tell about how he’d noticed the stream change on his way down, but Willy’s question had apparently been rhetorical.
“Frigging weird, that’s all I’ll say. Here, drink some of this.”
Jenkins put a cupped hand to the lazy liquid and drank.
The next fifty hours (days? years?) passed in the darkness as they tried to save batteries. Jenkins spent most of his time looking for his glasses and cried often, and Willy tried to cheer him up with jokes he knew and games to pass the time. For the most part, it worked, but once the severe hunger had set in the boys mostly just sat quietly.
Jenkins’ coping mechanism was sleep, and so he often dug himself half into the warm dust and let himself drift off. He’d wake dehydrated and lightheaded and would have to drag himself up a tunnel to drink. It was from one of these blocks of sleep that he woke and, as Willy Pilgrim might have put it, something was “missing from this picture.”
That something was Willy himself; the older boy was gone.
“Willy?” he asked, once he’d become aware of the absence, then asked louder, then yelled, but there was no answer but the inhuman roar of his voice returning to him through every corridor connecting to the rounded room. This time he didn’t cry. He put his head against the wall instead and began to doze, his hunger manifesting itself in a variety of surreal fantasies. At the moment he was galloping on the back of a horse made of fried chicken, biting into its shoulder as he spurred it on.
A sharp noise rocked him fully awake. The mouthful of warm honey-glazed bird turned back into the dust it had always been, and he spat it out in a series of sputtering coughs. The sour taste it left made him gag, and soon the mixture of saliva and dust in front of him was covered in bile.
The noise came again, the sound of rock hitting rock. He gasped to catch his breath so he could speak.
“Willy?” Jenkins fumbled for his penlight and flicked it on—the dying beam fell on a hunched figure that was not Willy—was not, at least, that same boy so interested in coincidence and the Dodgers ball team, though it may have looked like him. Jenkins saw now that Willy clutched a stone club almost a meter long, and, realizing Jenkins had seen it, haltingly began trying to explain.
“I’m never going to get outta here. I don’t wanna starve to death, but I’m just so hungry I can’t hardly stand it. I just...I just needa eat so I can live long enough to figure a way out...or a way to end it. I just needa...eat.”
Willy raised the club over his head. Jenkins realized the thing Willy intended to eat was him, and that he was probably about to die.
The penlight’s beam flickered and died, and they were both plunged into darkness.
Jenkins heard the other boy’s frustrated cry and his feet pounding against the dust as he charged. Desperately Jenkins rolled aside, and Willy’s battle-cry and the club met the wall.
Jenkins sat huddled in a mound of dust, idly clicking the switch on his penlight, hoping that for just a second he could see what had happened to the boy he’d at first thought his friend. Eventually, the bulb flickered on for a moment before dying forever, and the scrawny boy got his snapshot. It seemed the club had split in two upon hitting the wall and the newly sharpened edge had been driven like a spear into Willy’s throat.
Jenkins backed away while Willy gasped and gurgled, staggering around the room, grasping for him. He put his back to the wall and sidestepped around the room until Willy bled out.
Then there was a sputter and a gulp, and a dying boy whispering in the dark.
“I guess that’s it then. If you ever see him, tell Mr. Tibbs he can…tell him he can suck a rusty nail…and tell Gina she’s a…lush.”
Jenkins stepped on something sharp and cold.
His glasses. The glasses were only slightly bent, and it felt like both of the lenses were intact. Jenkins was more hopeful than ever then; he’d felt useless without his glasses, and now that he’d found them he might even find the way out. But he’d have to be smart. And he’d need light, or the only thing he’d accomplish was seeing the dark a little clearer.
Jenkins felt forward until he could feel the boy’s body, and confirmed all malice, all potential was stripped of it.
“Good Willy. Dead Willy. You had a penlight too, didn’t you? It’s dark.”
He found it in Dead Willy’s pocket.
From then on, every effort Jenkins made was to leave the dust room behind and rejoin the land of the living.
He started by unraveling Dead Willy’s pants with his teeth. He tied all the threads together and wrapped one end of the new thread around his waist and the other around the dead boy’s neck. Then he walked the tunnels, measuring and marking the forks and writing directions on the wall of the tunnel hub room with dust.
Jenkins marked off the tunnels he’d already tried and continued probing into each one, looking for a path that led up and out. He did this for what felt like several days. He drank the water from the tunnel floors, but hunger had all but beaten the life out of him, so he ate the only eatable thing. He silently thanked the dead orphan for the idea.
He chose Willy’s upper thigh as it had the most meat and, besides, he imagined if he were going to be eaten he’d want whoever was eating him to start at the legs.
Jenkins tried not to think too much about taste or texture—he just chewed until he could swallow. With the strength Dead Willy gave him Jenkins soldiered on, working at his goal with the fervor of someone afraid of going crazy with any moment of inaction, although he needed to sleep at regular intervals. That part of it became the worst, the cruelest, as his dreams tortured him with images of his parents, his house, and his schoolmates.
Whenever he woke up he felt like crying, but never did anymore—mostly he just crawled over to Dead Willy and had a bite or two to eat. He’d had to switch legs, then move on to the arms, because the exposed meat decomposed quicker than if it was still covered with skin. But even that meat was starting to taste rotten. The penlight kept getting dimmer, and his expeditions became more frantic.
Finally, he awoke for the last time in the dust room. The penlight was dead, and Dead Willy rotted half away. Jenkins felt as if he’d lived a month in the room, but perhaps it had only been two weeks. Perhaps even less. It was the end of his time in the dust room. When Jenkins shuffled down the corridor he’d chosen, he left the string and the light behind.
He never returned.
In the dust room beneath the city, the boy Willy’s body decomposed as all bodies do, leaving behind in the eventual way only a skeleton, and in the even more eventual way only dust, adding to the previous accumulation. Hundreds of millions of years might have passed in the room, but to any entity unstuck in time, it might only have been a few hours; an afternoon. Soon enough the cycle would begin again, and the room would go on collecting pilgrims, and the dust they became.