Colin was surprised at how heavy the shotgun was. No one was going to understand until it was all over, but he couldn’t just do nothing. He dragged his sister’s wagon into the house and left mud tracks on the dining room’s white carpet. He’d get it for that, but he had to do something.
Mom would have to understand.
“Where are you going?” His mother stopped cleaning the potatoes in the sink and wiped her forehead with the back of her purple gloves.
“You look like a mad scientist with those things on,” Colin said and smiled. “Tom and I are going to skip rocks on the pond.”
Mom nodded. “Stay out of the water, okay?” She tossed the spud and caught it. “And if you’re not back in an hour I’ll come looking for you. Deal?”
“Deal.” The pond was just over the hill in the back yard and Tom’s parents lived next door. She was giving him plenty of time. The last time she’d come looking for him and he wasn’t where he said he was, he’d been grounded for a month. He took her seriously. “Back in an hour.” He set the timer on his plastic watch and held his wrist up to show her.
Mom blew him a kiss and he slid the back door open, closed it then bounded off the porch.
Tom was waiting for him. “Dude,” he said. “Ready?”
“Yep.” Colin slapped his buddy on the shoulder and they set off down the trail to the pond. Which wasn’t really a pond as much as it was a sink where water collected after rains. It was a depression at the edge of a long field that had once grown corn. There was a manmade basin above it where runoff also collected, with culverts that emptied into it. Neither of them understood it much, but Colin’s Mom had told them this at the beginning of summer and they had respected her instructions to not play on the basin or in the culverts.
They climbed the edge of the basin and walked around to their right then turned left to follow the ridge. “This one over here,” Tom said and pointed. “Look at it. Dry as a bone. Just like always.”
The culvert, taller than all the others, was nearly twice Colin’s height, and bone dry while all the others showed traces of water or still draining. Last night’s storm had been a doozy. Mom had dragged Colin and his little sister Maia to the basement at one point. “You think we should go in there?”
“Heck yeah,” Tom said. “I want to know where it leads. Don’t you?”
Their sneakers didn’t make any sounds in the metal tube and Tom’s headlamp (a gift from his grandmother at Christmas) gave enough light that they didn’t have to use the weak light on Colin’s watch to try and see. The tube turned and they followed it. “Look,” Colin said and grabbed Tom’s arm. “There’s light ahead.” He kept his voice down but it was hard.
“Right,” Tom said and turned off the headlamp. He pulled it off and stuck it in his pocket. “We need to let our eyes adjust.”
“Okay.” Colin peered into the murk and saw the light getting brighter, slowly but surely. He checked his watch. Half an hour to go before his deadline. Maybe forty-five minutes before she came looking. There was time. “Let’s go.”
They crept down the tube, both keeping one hand on the side to steady themselves. There was no water anywhere and the tube curved gently to their right. It was getting brighter, too.
“Who’s that trippin’ on my bridge?”
The voice was gravel on gravel, like the orcs in The Two Towers. Colin froze. “We should get out of here,” he said and reached out for Tom.
Who was five, now six, steps ahead of him and walking into the light. He looked over his shoulder at Colin. “You’re not scared are you?” He smiled and continued around the bend.
Petrified with fear, Colin couldn’t move at all. He was rooted.
Then he heard Tom’s yelp and a scream. Then Colin could move.
He ran back the way they’d come as fast as he could.
Daylight blinded him as he climbed out of the culvert, and he could barely catch his breath. “Tom,” he said over and over. “Tom.”
He needed to get help. Mom would know what to do. He ran home.
But no one was there. When he called out there was no answer. He dashed through the house, looked in every room, opened every door. “Crap,” Colin said. He picked up the phone but there was no dial tone. There had been trouble all summer long with this and he’d overheard his parents talking about it over dinner. They argued about doing away completely with a land line but Mom had objections that she never said in front of the kids and Dad always let it drop.
Who knew what was happening to Tom down there? Colin couldn’t leave his friend like that. He had to do something. He knew where Dad’s shotgun was, even how to load it. Dad had shown him and then admonished him to never touch the weapon. “Not until you’re in middle school,” he said. “Then we’ll do the hunter’s safety course and you can learn properly about guns.”
Thinking on it now, though, Dad must’ve known that Colin would need to know how to load the gun. Knew that Colin would get in a fix and need it for some reason. He went to the closet and dug in the back until he felt the soft case Dad stored the shotgun in. He pulled it out, then unzipped the case. There weren’t any shells loaded. Diving back in on the other side of the closet, Colin accomplished his task.
The wagon bounced and jostled along behind him as Colin ran. It tipped over and the gun fell out. He was within sight of the pond, so he took the gun and dragged the barrel on the ground behind him as he ran. When he climbed back into the culvert, the barrel banged on the metal and Colin cringed and kept going. He shouldered the shotgun and used his free hand to follow the tube. His eyes adjusted to the darkness as he walked.
When he saw the light, he stopped and listened. No voice, no sound that might have been Tom drifted down to him. Steeling himself, Colin stepped into the light.
And an empty room.
The ceiling was high, the walls far, far apart. A red door in the opposite wall had chains on the bar. “Tom?” Colin took a dozen steps into the concrete room and looked all around. Nothing. The bare room gave absolutely no indication as to its use. He turned and turned and had no idea what to do.
Colin called out. “Tom!”
“Who’s that trippin’ on my bridge?” The voice echoed off the concrete and Colin looked wildly around – waving the shotgun as he turned – until he saw a tiny speaker in the upper corner of the room. He relaxed.
Tom was standing next to the red door, waving to him to come over. “Colin, this way!”
His friend appeared unhurt. “What happened to you?”
“Come on and I’ll show you.” Tom kept on waving to him. “You won’t believe it.”
Colin lowered the shotgun. “I don’t know. Mom wasn’t home… I’m not sure where Maia is, either. I should go home. You should, too.” Something wasn’t right with Tom.
He walked toward Colin. “It’s okay,” he said. “Your mom will understand.” Tom held out his hands like he was surrendering or something.
“No,” Colin said, narrowing his eyes and raising the shotgun. “No, I don’t think she will.”