exciting ever happened in Emily's sleepy Church Hill neighborhood. Just
when she'd come to accept that she lives in probably the most boring
place ever, a giant sinkhole opens up in the middle of the street and
swallows two cars.
Set in Richmond's Church Hill and Shockoe neighborhoods, Underground is a contemporary story of two teen girls determined to investigate a huge sinkhole that mysteriously appears in a traffic circle near their homes. The investigation leads them--quite by accident--to the bottom of the sinkhole and into a maze of tunnels below the city's streets. When the girls encounter a race of strange creatures who call the tunnels home, they find themselves at the center of a battle they never knew was being fought--one that they can resolve if they manage to escape the dark hidden passages beneath their peculiar town.
A Reading Selection From Underground:
From Noon until almost four o'clock, the girls scanned through microfilm records on the library computers. They found at least six more reports of sinkholes that Emily didn't come across on the internet, so they printed records of those and several newspaper articles that gave interesting details about the dozen she had already noted. After carefully tucking the thick stack of copies into her backpack, Emily and Sarah signed out of the archives room. They unlocked their bikes from the rack outside and started the trip home before the afternoon traffic really picked up.
As they walked the last steep blocks before their own, Sarah said, "Hey, since it's still light out, why don't we go see if they pulled out those cars yet?" Emily was curious herself and had no reason not to go along with the suggestion. They got back on their bicycles and rode to the hole.
Both vehicles were still in unnatural positions in the mouth of the pit, and there were no City trucks in sight. It looked as though absolutely no progress had been made to do anything about the mess in the middle of what was once a nice, normal street.
To get a good look at things, Emily and Sarah went to their preferred spot near the big oak. They leaned their bikes against the tree and peered into the sinkhole. Emily said, "Poor Mr. Hinson told my dad last ni-" but let the statement drop when she spotted something moving under Jason's car. "Look!" she pointed.
"What? I saw that two days ago," Sarah replied.
"No! Something was moving over there, I swear it!"
"Seriously? Maybe it's a squirrel or a rat or something," Sarah said.
"It was way bigger than either one. I think someone's in there." Emily held onto Sarah's hand and the two tiptoed off of the curb toward the hole to try and see if maybe it had been an illusion, a trick of the fading light. Sliding slowly closer, they saw something flit through the upside down windows on the car. Both girls startled, and when they did, the hunk of asphalt on which they stood gave a sickening crack.
"Quick, move!" Emily shouted, but it was too late. The road gave way and fell from beneath their feet. They struggled to grab onto the roots of the oak tree as everything seemed to shift into slow motion. Emily saw Sarah a few feet below her, hanging on to a tangle of debris that shifted, snapped, and sent her sliding down the side of the hole, screaming. Before the image could really register, the thin roots Emily had been clinging to began breaking like old strings. She let go with her left hand and reached for a higher grip while trying to dig her toes into the packed soil for support.
Emily took a sharp intake of breath just as the handful of roots in her right hand tore away. She dropped into the pit after Sarah.
Sarah was either having a panic attack or struggling to reclaim the breath that had been knocked out of her from the rough landing she endured. It was even rougher when Emily landed on top of her. They had slid down the steep wall of the pit, fortunate they did not free-fall the entire distance. Emily's backpack had spared her from the ends of broken boards and stones that protruded from the dirt, while Sarah had taken her mother's advice and worn a thick jacket to the library.
The two patted themselves all over, checking for injuries. Emily did not trust her body to tell her the truth, however, as she feared she was either dreaming or going into some strange state of shock. She noticed Sarah feeling around in her hair for head wounds, "Are you okay?" she panted.
"I think so," Sarah answered. "I thought for sure for a minute that I was dead--until you tried to kill me." Emily could always count on Sarah to find the humor in any situation. A laugh broke through Emily's lips and quickly turned into hysterics. She wasn't sure if Sarah's joke had started it or if it just tore down the dam that held back how delighted she was to still be alive after what just happened. Sarah joined in and they laughed until Emily had to wipe tears from her cheeks.
When the gravity of their situation took hold, the moment of joy gave way to one of desperation. "How the heck are we going to get out of here?" Emily asked.
"Maybe if we start yelling, someone will hear us. Someone is sure to notice our bikes and come check it out, right?" Sarah said.
Emily nodded and the girls stood. Pointing their faces towards the fleeting daylight, they called "Help! Down here! Hello!" They shouted until their throats and lungs ached. By then, night had arrived.
Emily remembered that, aside from the addition of the copies she and Sarah made at the library that afternoon, the contents of her backpack were the same as they were two days ago. She wrestled off the pack and dug into it with filthy hands. Emily grabbed her prize, switched it on, and raised it over her head in triumph--a flashlight. Sarah clapped and did a tiny dance of approval. "You don't have a ladder in there, do you?" she laughed.
"I wish," Emily said. "I think we should try something else."
"Like what? That?" Sarah asked, pointing at the tunnel. The look on Emily's face was completely serious. "No! You're kidding, right? No way I'm going in there."
"What do you suggest? We climb?" Emily said. "I don't think we have any other choice besides sitting here and hoping someone comes in the morning. Do you realize how cold it's been getting at night? Do you realize how many rats hang out around this neighborhood after dark? I certainly don't want to try and sleep with a rat family cozying up to me to keep warm!" Emily felt her cheeks go hot. It was not often she asserted herself with Sarah. Sarah was three years older, and as every teenager knows, your rung on the social ladder is directly connected to your age. This time, Emily felt she had to do something or run the risk of a bad situation taking a turn for the worse. "Listen, I have the flashlight and some extra batteries. If we go in the tunnel and find out it ends just a little ways away, we won't have lost anything. If we go in the tunnel and find a way out, we could save our own butts and get a few more clues about what's been going on down here. I told you my mom and I heard someone talking down here last night--they had to have come through there," Emily said.
Sarah's eyes pointed at the floor and her mouth curved into a grimace. "All right, but you're going first."
The flashlight shone toward the end of the tunnel, only six feet or so away. Sarah grabbed the sleeve of Emily's jacket and they entered the narrow cave on tiptoes. As they approached the end of the tunnel, they noticed a swelling on the wall had concealed a sharp right turn of the corridor.
Emily's stomach was turning and her head felt strangely light. The weird pounding in her ears told her it was nerves that were making her brain turn into some strange primal thing. Every drip of water, every drag of Sarah's shoes, even the light flick of dirt falling down the shaft the two girls had slid down earlier registered in her ears. The old basement smell she had first noticed about the hole days ago faded as she rounded the bend. It was replaced by something different, more like a cross between her mom cooking onions and her brother's dirty laundry.
The tunnel ahead of them went on for at least a city block. There was a slight downward dip at the bottom that made the rest impossible to see at a distance. Emily slid a hand along to cold, granite wall. It was just as it had been in her dream. Instead of panic, she felt like she was outside herself, watching the scene play out from far away. She would likely run screaming for the hole and try to claw her way up and out if she didn't displace herself that way. The eerie deja vu reminded her of old "Twilight Zone" episodes she used to watch with her mom on TV late on Saturday nights.
Mom. Emily wondered what she must be thinking by now. Knowing her, she probably had all of the police department's First Precinct (and maybe a few others) out looking for the girls. Her dad was probably pacing the floor and trying to retrace her steps for the day. She hoped at least one of them would think to look at the sinkhole in the neighborhood and see the bikes beside the tree. The twisting in her stomach was replaced with a lump that felt like it weighed twenty pounds.
She and Sarah walked on, not speaking, for at least the length of five city blocks. Fortunately, the path was straight and they knew how to get back to their starting point if they discovered only a dead end.
The strange mix of smells grew stronger and they heard a faint metallic clanking up ahead. Emily figured they must be getting close to some kind of sewer vent or old steam pipe judging from the sound. The tunnel, which had been gradual decline for the majority of their journey, leveled out for a few hundred feet or so before switching slope and becoming a steep incline. The girls took long strides and deep breaths, hoping that some kind of relief was at the top of the long, dark hill beneath the city.
Emily could see the top of their climb just ahead in the beam of her flashlight. The tunnel appeared to level off again and the bend blocked her view once more. Instead of feeling hopeful, her unease boiled up, making the hairs on her neck stand on end. As they neared the crest, the basement smell wafted down the corridor in a gust.
"What the?" Emily said as she reached the top.
The girls were standing at a crossroads of sorts. The tunnel they had been in for more than a half hour met three others in some kind of large, round room. One of the openings at the convergence was covered by a thick, wooden door on rusty hinges as large as Emily's wrist. Looking up, she noticed the ceiling was much higher here. It was also covered with a network of ancient looking boards. A few looked like they had graffiti on them, but when she looked at the lowest planks up close with the flashlight, the words were so faded she couldn't make out what they said.
"Man. My mom was just saying something about old tunnels under the city. She said she saw one not too long ago. I wish I'd been paying more attention, I can't remember what they were for," Emily said.
"Which way do you think we should go?" Sarah asked.
"I guess we should try the door--it looks pretty official." Emily turned the cold metal latch and tried to pull it open. It would move a bit, but there was clearly a lock or something preventing it from opening on the other side.
"That'll not budge," said a deep, graveled voiced from the shadows at their left.
# # #