Book: Black Wings

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Philip Haldeman

 
 

Philip Haldeman has written for a wide variety of publications. His fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Silver Web, Weirdbook, and others. His novel Shadow Coast was published in 2007. For ten years he was a classical music critic for American Record Guide. He has been a spokesperson on science vs. superstition for local and national media and has retained a lifelong love of the supernatural in fiction.

 
 
he inside of our 1920s apartment building was intersected with Oriental-carpeted hallways that might have been those of a luxurious mausoleum; except that these particular passages were haunted not by dead souls, but by living ones. I lived there, at the age of six, with my two grandparents and an aunt, but it wasn't the building's faded elegance or its aging tenants that was the focus of my childhood imagination. For some reason, in that peculiar four-story structure, I began to have disturbing, surrealistic dreams. The images were vague at first, then became more distinct, vivid, and aggressive. Over several nights of quiet terror, I came to believe, without any previous associations, that huge white worms were tunneling up from far under the ground beneath the apartment building.

  My grandparents, who had recently moved from Billings, Montana, explained how common such nightmares were in the mind of an imaginative six-year-old. My aunt Evelyn was some what more blunt and disapproving: "Well, you mustn't worry. They can't tunnel up into your room if we're on the fourth floor." My grandmother merely said, "Now go back to bed and don't let such nonsense bother you."

  Grandfather sat in his velvet-flocked overstuffed chair, his head resting against the embroidered antimacassar, listening to Amos 'n' Andy. It was 1950. He had recently been a lumberman in Montana and Minnesota, and it was reputed that he could tell on sight how many board feet of lumber were on a given railroad flat car. But in the late '40s, he decided to come to Seattle, partly to work at another lumber mill, and because he was in the habit of moving from one place to another. His greatest desire was to visit Sogndal, Norway, his birthplace. Grandfather was the sort of person you could depend on for advice.

  "They're real," I said, shifting toward a whine. "If I let my hand out over the edge of the bed they'll bite onto it and pull me under the ground."

  "Don't let your hand dangle over the edge of the bed," said Grandfather.

  In the winter, Grandmother and I had built a snowman in the open courtyard at the front of the gabled apartment building. Mrs. Murphy peered down disapprovingly from her window because we were destroying the coat of virgin snow with our galoshes, rolling snowballs, and acting as if the courtyard were our own private domain. Perhaps because the building was in an old section of the city, it contained no children other than myself, at least none I can recall.

  I remember that the hallway on the fourth floor was carpeted with an intricately patterned, wine-red runner, and it led down the hall to the corner I did not travel beyond. Near the end of the hall was Mr. Worklan's apartment. Mr. Worklan was a journeyman fur worker who spent much of his time in the cool storage vault of Weisman's Clothing on Third Avenue. One day he stared at me for a long time as I went up the main staircase (a dark forest of polished mahogany posts and railings). On the landing between floors, I saw him finally walk down toward his door like a drunken man lost in the depths of a sinking ocean liner, certain that only women and children would be saved.

 
 
Grandmother put her hand gently on my forehead. "Goodnight, David."

  "When will Mother be back?" I asked, as I had asked every night. And Grandmother answered, as she had answered every night, that she didn't know.

  "Where is she?"

  "We're not really sure, dear, but we love you and you'll stay with us. Go to sleep now and I'll leave your door open a crack."

  With the narrow column of light coming from the short hall outside my room, I put my cheek on the cool pillow and began to sleep, and to dream about Mother.

  When Mother and I had moved in, Mother shared a bedroom with my aunt. Father had moved "across town," I was told. We had left him, actually. Since I'd only a nursery-schooler's experience with Father, no one felt obligated to explain our flight and the subsequent divorce. As for my mother, one day she'd been in the apartment helping Grandmother with the ironing; the next day she was gone. Her disappearance was a shock, but after several days of confusion I decided to just wait for her to come back. Each night I would ask about her, and each night I perceived in my grandmother's answer a lingering doubt.

  Mr. Worklan knocked on our door one night that summer. Grandfather let him in, and from my room I could hear their agitated voices. Worklan spoke in low, worried tones, his voice rising in fearful expressions, then subsiding into barely audible whispers. Grandfather spoke calmly; then I heard something like ". . . happened so fast" when the door of my room was closed, blacking out the secure crack of light from the hall. For several minutes I lay awake in the dark. I fell asleep listening to muffled voices.

  Again, I dreamed of the big white worms tunneling up from under the ground. Their thick, blind, segmented bodies, unused to light, smelled like water in a limestone cave. Nothing in my humble experience prepared me for their existence, and my repeated nightmare became more terrifying and vivid with each occurrence. To ease my mind, Grandfather described the Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, and how everyone thought Martians had landed in New Jersey. "We may be frightened by strange ideas, but sometimes we have to ignore them."

  The creatures in my dreams were only as real as those Martians, I told myself, and they couldn't find their way into my room.

  The next week, Grandmother, in her brown plaid overcoat, walked with me to Caroline's Bakery on 15th Avenue, where I stared into the long glass cases that contained fresh-baked birthday cakes. The baker often decorated these cakes with small plastic cowboys and Indians. We came for the homemade cinnamon rolls, however, and left quickly, passing Fire Station No. 7 on the way home. The back of our apartment house bordered an alley directly behind the fire station, and the gridded metal fire escape, whose uppermost platform was outside our kitchen window, could be seen winding downward to the alley where the garbage cans were grouped like big aluminum mushrooms near a brick wall. A fireman named John often threw a tennis ball back and forth to me in the alley. He had become a father figure, encouraging me to catch the ball and throw straight.

  "He's learning to be a real ball player," John had told my grandmother.

  At the front of the apartment building, I opened the tall, woodframed glass door to the entry hall. Grandmother took a key out of her purse to check the mailbox.

  That day, as we reached the second floor, Mrs. Schulte came running down the hall. She held my grandmother not so gently by the arm.

  "Mr. Worklan in 8 is moving out!" Her face, not as aged as my grandmother's, nevertheless looked older right then. She might well have been announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

  "Oh?" said Grandmother, looking significantly down at me for a brief moment.

  "Yes . . . he . . . told us this morning. I thought you'd like to know." She backed away. "It's too bad when people want to leave," she said emphatically, and walked back down the hallway.

  The next day, movers began to take furniture out of Mr. Worklan's apartment. Some of the tenants, including my grandfather, gathered on the hot summer sidewalk near the moving van to talk to him. I sneaked into the alley to listen to them from around the corner of the building.

  "No, I won't stay. I won't stay now," said Mr. Worklan angrily.

  "They couldn't have found us so soon," said Mr. Sorensen, an older tenant on the second floor.

  "We've got to do something this time," said Mrs. Schulte in a violent whisper, and I could hear an edge of hysteria in her voice.

  "Look, I know we've kept from meeting each other—since we aren't the only people in this building—but we sure as hell can't meet on the sidewalk," said Sorensen. He stared at Worklan. "The movers are coming out again. Why not go inside and talk? Why couldn't you wait, Worklan?"

  Worklan stood there, stiff and straight, eyeing the apartments, his lips quivering slightly, his gaze scanning the courtyard and the windows as if trying to recall some lost or forgotten memory. He shook his head.

  "Come on, Worklan," said Sorensen. "We should stay together."

  "You're making a mistake," said Worklan. "We've been safe. But all of us should move now."

  The movers came out carrying a mirrored bureau that brilliantly reflected the windows and brick of the apartment house. They brought it down the steps and across the courtyard toward the sidewalk while the small group of tenants made room. A determined Worklan shook hands with Grandfather, then nodded to the others. "Goodbye."

  By sundown, the movers had gone, and Mr. Worklan's apartment at the end of the second-floor hall was empty.

  "He's left, and we might not hear from him again," said Grandfather that night.

  "We won't really know . . . " said Aunt Evelyn.

  "Keep your voices down," said Grandmother. "David might hear."

  "He's asleep," said Aunt Evelyn.

  But instead, I lay awake listening, thinking, wondering anxiously. Was there an essential fact about our lives I didn't know, that no one talked about? Would everyone leave? Where would I go?

  "If we just stick together . . . " said Aunt Evelyn. "We should never have left Billings."

  "You don't mean it, Evelyn," said Grandmother. "We got away."

  "What about Worklan?" said Aunt Evelyn. "There aren't as many of us now. It's not fair."

  "Is it supposed to be fair?" said Grandfather. "For Chrissake!"

  "Please keep it down," said Grandmother. For a moment there was silence, and I thought someone would come to check on whether I was still asleep, but no one did.

  "Worklan could turn up missing like Lars Johnson," said my aunt. "Remember Johnson, the boss on the East River side?"

  "I remember them all," said Grandfather.

  "They run away," said Aunt Evelyn nervously. "Why don't they stay? They run away and eventually they disappear. What happens if . . . "

  "I don't blame them," said Grandfather.

  "Oh, why can't we just get someone to help us?" said Aunt Evelyn. She was crying. Her fretful, harsh sobs drifted through the hall into my room, where this time the door had been accidentally left ajar.

  "We've been through that, too," said Grandmother resignedly.

  "We should find David's father," said my Aunt. "We should get David to his father."

  "He thought we were insane."

  "Please keep it down," said Grandmother.

  "Sorry," said Grandfather in a barely audible voice. "But Evelyn's right. It was fine as long as David was living with his mother and father, but now he's not safe with us, and we're getting too old to move again. We have to make a stand."

  "God," said Aunt Evelyn, "I don't know."

  "This time we'll have to wait," said Grandfather.

  "What will we tell David?" said Aunt Evelyn. There was a long silence, and during the silence I struggled to keep from yelling in terror, rushing into the living room and pleading with them to tell me what was happening to us. Eventually, I fell asleep exhausted. And in my dreams they came again from below in their tunnels— slick, pasty horrors without eyes . . . .

  In the morning I watched Grandfather sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe, occasionally looking toward me where I played grimly with toy horses. His gray features were a cruel poker face. I fought with the determination of a chess player to stay calm. I was afraid to speak.

  When the sun was low one day and the light glared through the front-door glass into the building's entry hall, I sat on the lower step of the staircase. Mrs. Turnbull was cleaning her apartment and had made one or two trips out the back door behind the main staircase, now carrying a grocery bag of garbage that smelled of used coffee grounds. I heard the garbage can lid rattle onto the can in the alley, and from Mrs. Turnbull's open apart ment door I could hear the soap-opera voices of Stella Dallas coming from her radio. I heard the back door close, watched Mrs. Turnbull start back down the long hallway, then turn.

  She suddenly walked back toward me, a hurricane of thick makeup and bright red lipstick. Her face was like a shrunken plaster cast, her pale eyes like marbles of blue and white fire. "Your grandmother hasn't told you anything," she said hastily. "They spoil you." Her left eye twitched slightly in its cavity of dry flesh. "You shouldn't be here. Do you think we're all going to pack up and move again? Tell your grandpa and grandma what I said." She bent down, a frightened caricature. "It doesn't matter because I'm not going to live much longer, you know what I mean? What dying is? Or," she smiled, "haven't they mentioned that little item to you either?" She started to say more, but saw tears in my eyes. She quickly turned, as if from the scene of a crime, and retreated toward her apartment with the soap-opera voices.

  Late that evening, I believe some kind of a meeting was held. After I heard my grandmother, grandfather, and aunt go out and shut the front door, I put on my robe, came out of my room, and went into the outside hall. There was the sound of people treading through the lower hallways and down the stairs to the first floor. There was that feeling, barely comprehensible to me then: I am inside a tomb, here are the dead people moving around. I went back into the living room and sat in Grandfather's overstuffed chair.

  I didn't know how long I slept, but when I awoke, I pictured the downstairs hall in my mind, thought about the first-floor tenants and the front door glass, which must have been a tall dark rectangle at that time of night.

  Aunt Evelyn had said, "How could they come from under the ground if we're on the fourth floor?" I realized how misleading that comment had been, and I remembered Mrs. Turnbull taking out her garbage along the short passage that went past a door that led to the basement. Down there, our storeroom locker was packed with old furniture, boxes of bedding, tools, and other things. The basement room with its rows of wooden foundation posts extended under the entire length of the building and included a big boiler. I had been down there once or twice with Grandfather, but never alone.

  I went out into the hall. It was dark because of a burned-out light bulb, but a flood of light came up the stairwell. I went downstairs to the short hall that led to the alley. Midway along it was the cellar door. Ten feet away was the alley exit door, and through its window I could see a dim illumination of streetlight on the bricks of the old fire station.

  I turned the cold brass of the cellar doorknob. A light was on in the basement; the old stairs descended into dimly lit space. Frightened but curious, I stepped down one at a time.

  The underground room extended into the dark shadows among the row of foundation posts.

  In this bizarre place, under a dim light bulb near the center of the bare floor, sat my grandmother. She was rocking slowly back and forth in a high-backed rocking chair. Her hands worked a pair of knitting needles, nervously starting and stopping while the chair creaked. I recognized the chair as one that had recently been put in our storage locker next to a pair of old snow tires. She had rocked me in that chair many times.

  I stepped quietly down to the bottom of the stairs. Grandmother wore the brown plaid overcoat she'd used while walking with me. It was cold down here.

  "Grandmother?" I whispered.

  Her hands stopped knitting.

  "Grandmother?"

  The chair stopped, she looked up in surprise and stared in my direction.

  "David?"

  "It's me."

  "Why are you down here?" she said in a dry voice. She started to get up. The knitting fell from her lap onto the concrete floor. She stood up. "Oh . . . you have to go back upstairs. How did you find your way down here?"

  "I didn't know where anyone was."

  "Well, you're supposed to be in bed." Her voice fluttered in an unnatural way. "You'd better go now, right away."

  I turned.

  "Wait," she said. She motioned me to come to her. I walked across the cold floor, and when she sat back down I eased myself onto her lap.

  "It is a long night," she said. "You know, David, I love you. Sit with me for a while, like we used to do."

  We sat there rocking for some time, until I could hear the floorboards creaking slightly overhead with the movement of footsteps while Grandmother looked up in silence.

  "Why are you down here, Grandma?"

  "Well, because it's cool down here after such a hot day. You know how hot it was today, don't you? Well, down here it's cool."

  "Are you coming upstairs now, Grandma?"

  "Not yet, dear. I can't come back upstairs right away. I'm really supposed to be down here for a while. Will you do me a favor, David?"

  "Yes," I said with tearful eyes, knowing that something was wrong.

  "Will you tell your grandfather that I'm all right, and that you were here?"

  "Yes."

  "And remember that we love you."

  I kissed her on the cheek, and she let me off of her lap.

  I went back to our apartment on the fourth floor. A pale yellow light came from the kitchen. Grandfather sat alone at the kitchen table, his elbow on the table, eyes downcast. He looked up at me when I came in and brought a handkerchief out of his deep pants pocket.

  "Grandma says to tell you she's all right," I said.

  Grandfather looked at me with wide eyes. He hadn't expected me to come in by the front door and didn't know I'd been gone.

  He lifted me up and held me tightly on his lap. He spoke calmly and treated me as if by some remote chance, after his words changed the world forever, I would be able to cope. He proceeded slowly at first.

  "You are becoming aware of certain things, David, so it's time you knew that the world isn't exactly what it appears." He shifted me on his lap, trying to get more comfortable.

  "You remember I came on the boat to New York in 1906? Well, about a year later I got a job working on the New York subway system, which was being built then. I had a friend who'd come with me from Norway—Nels Hanson. We worked in the tunnels because, well, we needed the money to pay rent and buy food; so we stayed. We had to work, Hanson and I and the rodmen— Worklan, Turnbull, and Murphy. A fellow named Benson was an engineer—and there was some odd slumping of the ground he didn't expect. A few of the men were afraid because they didn't know how safe we were down there. I was afraid, too, but we were there to do a job—the sand hoggers, drillers, and the bosses, bless their black hearts."

  "Sand hoggers?"

  "That's what they were called." He paused. "Building a tunnel is a big job, David. Things happen, people die, people leave, people go through a lot of trouble. Working underground is like working in a city with no sky—a big, dark, dreary place. It was down near the Hudson Terminal, in one of the two lower tubes, that the bad thing happened.

  "Benson, the engineer, was ahead down the line, checking out the ground problem. This was before the concrete had been poured. There was a lot of water down there, freezing cold, so we all had our heavy clothes and rubber boots on . . . .We heard this terrible scream coming from down the line, but we couldn't get there very fast. Something had happened to Benson . . . .You know, when some people are frightened really bad, they just aren't themselves anymore. That's what happened to Benson. He kind of fell asleep in his mind."

  "Why?" I asked.

  "We didn't know. But later, when he recovered from shock, he said there were strange things in the deepest parts of the tunnel. He said they had been crawling down there and affecting his mind.

  "A month later we were down there again, in the lower tunnel, just a few of us: Lars Johnson, our boss—Murphy, McShay, and Sorensen, the man who'd taken over for Benson—and some others, some of the people who live right here in our apartments, David, and who've stuck together for over forty years. I guess there were a half-dozen of us down there on that day.

  "It was like a bad dream, David, like the dream you've been having. McShay and Bailey came running back from below. They said that huge white things were in the ground—worms, they said—and Farley, he was a non-union man but tough-minded; he had a pick ax, McShay said, and he tried to kill one of them but couldn't, and they took hold of Farley with big sucking jaws and dragged him down under the ground. It was horrible. No one could help Farley, and we ran back through the tunnel—and in the days following we had horrible thoughts—thoughts we were told by Benson came from underground, thoughts we couldn't understand because the underground things were blind, yet they lived in a world of sound and vibration, and they could hear us.

  "For days, no one would go back down there, and construction was held up until a new crew could be found. There were some transfers to other parts of the project. There were rumors that a large hole had been filled in, but there were no more strange stories. The men I worked with scattered from job to job until the subway was finished. But none of them who were in the tunnel that day have ever been able to live in one place for long—because of the dreams. Dreams that may not be dreams at all. Or memories either. Some said McShay and Bailey killed Farley themselves because he was a non-union man. But Mr. Worklan, he thinks maybe those blind creatures under the ground permanently locked into our minds because they can't see or talk, and they got to know where we are. We've come up with all kinds of ideas, but the one that sticks is that those things under the ground are trying to find us again. We don't know why.

  "But that's sometimes the way the world is, David. Our idea is that they share our planet but don't know what we are, and maybe no one but us knows about them. So we've been moving around the country, because after each move the dreams stop. We think the dreams mean they are getting close to finding us again, and we don't know what will happen if they do. Most of us decided to band together. We began to study books about a hollow earth, UFOs, and things like that, and we formed a kind of club to delve into these matters. None of it was the truth. I set up the lumber business, first in Minnesota, so we could work and stay together."

  "How can the underground things stay secret?"

  "We don't know—but sometimes you can be near something for a long time and not know it's there. We've been trying to find other people who know about them. Once, we thought we'd found someone. He wrote in a magazine that he'd been exploring a deep cave and had seen moving white things in a grotto, but he wouldn't respond to our letters asking if he'd had strange dreams. We tried to tell him about how the underground world is inhabited by these creatures and how they may threaten us. The world is a confusing place, David, and we alone had discovered the strangest thing about it. The man who wrote the article teaches at a university, and in the article he said he believes that there may be many discoveries yet to come about life underground. But we gave up writing to him."

  Grandfather's voice wavered slightly. "Most of us are tired now, David, like Turnbull's wife, but still afraid. Now and then one of us tried to tell someone else about the creatures, but no one believed—because none of their experiences included what was seen in the tunnel that day. They are right not to believe, David, because what was seen doesn't jibe with what's known. When we began to dream about them again, there was usually time to move, pack up, and run. But we're getting old, and we can't run anymore."

  His voice weakened. "We kept the secret from our children for a long time. Your Aunt Evelyn found out because she came back to live with us. Your mother was lucky because she'd grown up during a time when there weren't any bad dreams. We think the dreams come when the things are near, and they affect those close to us. When the children were growing up, we had to move only once, from Minnesota to Montana. When all our children were old enough, we told them the story, but they didn't know what to think about it. We told your father, too, but he thought we were crazy. He said maybe we had been given drugs in our water supply down in the tunnel."

  "Where's Mother?" I asked. "Why didn't she take me with her?"

  His hands shook slightly. "We haven't heard from her. She was very upset after her divorce from your father. She talked about getting an apartment and finding a job before sending for you. She knew you'd be safe for a while. We couldn't understand why she didn't tell anyone before she left. It was very cruel, David, and we didn't know what to say or do. We're sure she'll come back for you, David. Perhaps she started to have dreams, too."

  Aunt Evelyn came into the kitchen.

  "Most of us decided to stay," Grandfather continued, "to keep watch, and see what happens, though the dreams are strong now." He smiled grimly. "It's early, but I'm going to take your grandmother's watch now. Mr. Sorensen will take my place in two hours. We are going to take turns listening in the basement. Our only chance now is to wait for them."

  "Maybe it's just dreams, Grandfather!"

  Grandfather eased me off his lap. He bent forward and hugged me with his lumberman's strength.

  Then he brushed by Aunt Evelyn and went out through the living room. I started to run after him, but my aunt grabbed me and held onto me.

  Grandfather left to go downstairs.

  My mind, half numb, groped for whatever reality I could cling to in my now disassembled universe: the horrible creatures, Grandfather's story. Might there not have been some other explanation for the dreams?

  I went into the living room and sat on the sofa. Finally I said, "We have to get help!"

  "Yes," said my aunt, "when the time comes." She reached out and gripped me gently by the shoulder.

  I got up, broke angrily free of her grip, and ran out of the apartment into the hall. I hurried down the main stairs and to the cellar door.

  I went down into the basement. Grandfather rocked peacefully in the chair. He was holding a book, and looked up at me slowly. Grandmother turned to leave, then also saw me.

  "David. My God, what are you . . . down here again! Listen to me! Get upstairs right now!" Her voice echoed among the foundation posts.

  "I . . . can't," I said. "Not until you come."

  Grandfather got up from the chair, took me firmly by the hand, and they both led me up the basement stairs.

  "Come on, David!" said Grandmother.

  "I'd better stay," said Grandfather.

  "No!" I yelled.

  "Better help me get him upstairs," said Grandmother. "It won't take but a few seconds."

  We three came out of the basement and rounded the landing halfway to the second floor while I slid my hand miserably along the railing.

  I was put to bed. The room was black except for a bit of light that shafted under the door, illuminating a few floorboards. I listened intently for my grandparents, wishing the time forward. I fought to keep from calling out, and the window shade next to my bureau seemed to symbolize what had been kept from me. After a time, I fell asleep.

  Our ability to confirm the memories of childhood is often based upon cruel or doubtful reconstructions, but it was in the confusion that followed that I learned how tenuous our grip on reality can be.

  I was awakened by a frightening noise.

  A thunder sound, coming up from far below, tore at my senses. I'd never heard a sound like it—or was I dreaming?—the sound of thick concrete cracking deep down in the basement. The building shook slightly, as if in an earthquake.

  I jumped out of bed and rushed into the living room, where my aunt grabbed onto me. Ripping my pajama top, I wrenched free of her and ran out into the upper hall. I had to find Grandfather. I heard his familiar voice coming up from the stairwell.

  "Timing!" he yelled angrily, his voice distinguishable amid the noises of people shouting and running in the hallways.

  I ran barefoot down the stairs, my aunt yelling after me. I got to the first floor. My grandfather was standing at the entrance to the cellar door. Huge cracking sounds, as of thick concrete snapping, wooden supports breaking, came from below. Mr. Sorensen was handing Grandfather cans of gasoline that he then poured down the cellar stairs. The other people in the entry hall, including my grandmother, began to run back up the stairs or out through the front door. People were yelling "Fire!" They ran through near or far exits of the building. Mrs. Schulte stayed behind. She was holding two unlit torches. One of these she passed to Grandfather, who tensely lit it with a cigarette lighter and then threw it down into the cellar. Flames quickly roared up through the cellar door as Grandfather and Mrs. Schulte backed away. Grandfather turned, saw me standing there, ran toward me, picked me up in his huge hands, and, without seeming to think, bounded back up the stairs with me in his arms.

  He set me down on the second-floor landing.

  "Stay here!" he yelled at me. "I was supposed to be on the first floor!"

  I grabbed onto him. "No!"

  He got loose from me and stumbled back down the stairs to the entry hall. The hot flames burst across the downstairs ceiling and licked up into the stairwell. I heard a commotion. I looked up, and there were other tenants, the familiar faces I knew, peering down from the various landings toward Grandfather, who yelled up at them from below. "Get to the fire escapes!" Then he turned his attention to a red-framed glass box on the wall. I'd seen it many times before. He grabbed the little hammer and smashed the glass. The alarm, which was attached to our apartment house, rang fiendishly in the alley out by the garbage cans. Now Mr. Sorensen, holding two more cans of gasoline, rushed by me on the landing. Grandfather came up the stairs to meet him, and together they poured the gasoline, which sloshed down the stairs, splashing onto the walls and railing.

  The cans were almost empty when we heard what sounded like the floor below breaking all along the length of the building. We heard people yelling "Fire!" and banging on doors in the distance. Mrs. Schulte, from a few steps up, handed Mr. Sorensen the second handmade torch, this time already lit. Grandfather tossed it down onto the stairs where the gasoline pooled and dripped into the soaking carpet. The stairwell exploded in a tempest of heat and flames. The walls, carpet, and woodwork caught fire all at once. While I was dragged up to the fourth floor, I looked down into the roaring conflagration. People die in fires, I thought. Die!

  An acrid smell filled the air. In the flames and smoke I saw something alive. Something monstrously white was writhing in or behind the waves of heat, fire, and smoke roaring up the stairwell. A second one appeared. Then up into the mid-air blackness, screaming, I was lifted and carried into our apartment. Grandmother, Grandfather, Aunt Evelyn, and I made our exit through the big double-hung kitchen window and out onto the fire escape. We descended amid the sounds of the fire station alarm and the apartment alarm. Other tenants did the same. A fire engine roared around to the front of the apartment building while we huddled on the lower escape landing. Grandfather lowered a metal ladder—an object I'd always failed to see because it had been part of the metal grid. We climbed down to the pavement.

  The old people gathered near the fire station wall. They whispered to each other in the darkness; then, in a group, they moved down the alley and out to the street in front of the old apartment building.

  I watched the firemen point their brass-nozzle hoses toward the orange flames that beat out of the second-story windows like tattered rags in a harsh wind. People were talking, shouting, while the alarms continued to sound. I stood on the cool pavement while the fire spread upward.

  That building, which on the outside looked like one of Poe's haunted mansions and on the inside like a tomb, was now engulfed in flames. The firefighters had been right next door, but the fire had started so quickly and spread so fast that even the advantage of location was minimized, and in the glow of the fire people were expressing astonishment all around me, now pointing toward the burning roof. The alley was soon blocked by policemen, and I could only stand with my bare feet on the pavement and gaze at the tall brick walls. High up, at the fire escape landing, smoke poured through our broken kitchen window. I heard the sounds of breaking glass and hissing steam; and finally, as the fire was at last extinguished in that huge sooty building, the survivors remained huddled together, the crowd thinned out, and within the hour I could hear the lonely sound of dripping water.

  There was the familiar face of John, the fireman, from Station No. 7, standing next to us, looking upward at the black windows, annoyed and bewildered. He looked at the dozen anxious wrinkled faces in the darkness.

  When he spoke, some unaccountable fragment of confusion clung to his words. "How'd it start?" he asked quietly.

  Grandfather looked at John for a few seconds, watching his youthful face, seeming to ponder an act of trust that I later realized might have been planned, but in the end he said nothing.

  John removed his helmet and ran his hand through a tangle of thick brown hair. He was uneasy, frightened, looking back at my grandfather's silent expression, visions perhaps of something incredible retreating in the flames. He looked at the old faces.

  "What in God's name were they?" he asked.

 
 
It was swept into the past, all the unacceptable facts or fantasies, but I stayed the rest of that night and all the next day in the fire station. Our dark blue 1940 Ford miraculously contained family treasures—photo albums, jewelry, clothing, a few books, some phonograph records, and even some of my toys—all the important things that had been placed in it by Grandmother and Aunt.

  My mother found out about the fire. She returned and took me away to the suburbs, where I went to grade school. No one ever admitted starting the fire, so it was attributed to persons unknown. Aunt Evelyn eventually moved to Boise, Idaho, while my grandparents went south to California.

  My mother tried to make me forget what she called a cult of delusion and the fantasies told by my grandfather of his days in the Hudson tubes. It was a story concocted to scare off non-union workers, she said—and in time I might have begun to question the reality of my dreams and the accuracy of my memories.

  Yet, even as she spoke, the Seattle papers printed the story of unexplained tunnels under the old apartment building, nearly vertical tunnels that had collapsed into unaccountable depths.

  City officials chose not to speculate as to the origin of the passages, the men of Fire Station No. 7 declined comment, and the mysterious holes were eventually filled by many tons of earth and rock.

  My grandparents passed away, and Aunt Evelyn, now eightysix, has not reported any bad dreams. Yet I wonder if workers in some underground project will make a new report. Has some shift in habitat or consciousness started to bring the worms to the surface? Given what I have seen, and what we know of their tiny brethren on our planet, their number may be too horrifying to contemplate.

 
 

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