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Rated: ASR · Fiction · Thriller/Suspense · #2312606
A long day's journey under pressure.

Thum – Bum – Bum!

“Uuhhh,” I inhale sharply as vibrations from an eighteen-wheeler pass through me. The big rig is only thirty-six inches above my sweaty face, and my heart gives a panicky leap when I feel it going overhead. The culvert is too small to allow a real jump. I’m stretched out on my stomach with my arms reaching ahead and my legs trailing behind. If I breathe deeply, my shoulders touch the sides and I almost scream with the fear of getting stuck. It happens every time another truck comes down the busy road. Cars aren’t as bad. I can hear them, but they don’t shake the culvert. I’ve been in here only five minutes, but it feels like hours since I've seen the sun.

Am I at the middle yet?

I'm not sure how far I’ve come or how far I have to go. I can only squirm along like a worm. The rectangular culvert isn’t tall enough to crawl on hands and knees. My nose is only inches above the smell of freshly cured concrete, and my head scrapes against the top. The faint square of daylight in front of me must be a mile away.

Thum – Bum – Bum!

“I dare you,” Danny had taunted. “What are you, chicken?”

“Braver than you, asshole.”

“Yeah? Well, prove it, Joe. Prove it or admit you’re chicken. Awk, pawk, pawk,” he’d jeered.

I knew Danny wouldn’t let it go. He was more bully than friend, but there were only four kids my age to hang out with that summer. Baby-face Bobby was too easy, and Patti was a girl, so I was the natural target for Danny’s jabs. We had an uneasy relationship, out of necessity, but we didn’t really get along. Danny was used to getting his way with size and strength. I was too smart, and too stubborn, to give in to the big, dumb jerk.

Thum – Bum – Bum!

Another truck goes overhead. They never stop. My heart pounds with adrenaline. I need to run, I have to get out, I need to do something, now! But there isn’t enough space. Instead, I have to calm down, stifle the frustrated scream, and advance inch by inch. I’m not going to give in to the gut-wrenching terror. I won’t give Danny the satisfaction.

Could the culvert collapse while I'm in here?

Sweat drips from my nose, but my mouth feels dusty. I thought it would be cool underground, but it’s ninety degrees today, and the July sun has been baking the road for hours. It’s not really hot inside the culvert, but it feels warm to me. My muscles ache from the unfamiliar and awkward squirming motion.

Thum – Bum – Bum!

We'd ridden our bikes from my grandma’s house near the edge of town. The construction equipment from the road widening project was gone, and we wanted to explore the new highway. Four traffic lanes, a center turn lane, and shoulders wide enough for bikes. The speed limit here, just outside of town, was forty-five, but most of the traffic went faster than that. The road was much wider than before and built up over a low spot with concrete instead of asphalt.

“What’s that for?” Patti had asked, pointing at an exposed lip of cement below us.

“Duh,” Danny replied. “It’s a culvert.”

“There’s no water,” Bobby said doubtfully.

“What Danny meant to say, is that it’s for storm drainage,” I said in a superior tone. “You know, in the winter when the ditches overflow.”

Danny scowled and scrambled down the bank to take a closer look.

“Seems kind of small,” he said.

The opening did seem small for a storm drain, only two feet wide and maybe eighteen inches high.

“Oh, that’s plenty big,” I stated confidently, just to disagree.

As usual, Danny and I argued about it while Patti and Bobby watched uncomfortably. One thing led to another, until my big mouth led me under the highway.

Thum – Bum – Bum!

Are there rats in here? Or snakes? What if water comes in?

I want to panic, but there isn’t room. I need to run and scream, but I have to be still and catch my breath instead. There’s a pain in my hip where it scraped against something sharp. It’s too dark to see what, probably just some exposed steel rebar. I hope. It couldn’t be a bite; the culvert is too new for animals. My heart rate rises again, and I push forward frantically.

It can’t be a rat bite!

My arm is cramping up and my hip is rubbed raw, but there’s a whiff of fresher air, and the light is getting brighter. At long last I push out into open space and roll over onto my back. I gulp hot July air as though it were the breath of springtime. I am delivered from hell. I wouldn’t wish this agony on my worst enemy.

My cheeks are streaked with muddy sweat, and my clothes are filthy with concrete dust. There’s a rip in my jeans where my scratched hip seeps blood. Patti and Bobby look at me with concern. Danny looks nervous.

“Your turn,” I say with grim determination.

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