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Excerpt: A good read for a Saturday from master storyteller Stuart McLean

The CBC radio host and author of Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe weaves a fantastical tale of everyday happenstance that shows anything is possible... if you just believe.

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It was one of those moments that make you wonder if your life is cursed. One of those moments when you start to believe that the universe is not, in fact, a random place, but an intelligent one, and that the universal intelligence is a malevolent intelligence, or it is, at least, when it comes to you.

Dave was standing on the sidewalk, just down the street from his friend Kenny Wong’s café. In fact, he had been in Kenny’s for the last hour or so. Now he was standing on the corner, contemplating what he was going to do next.

His wife, Morley, and his son, Sam, were away for the weekend, so there was no rush to get home. He had three glorious days of solitude ahead of him. He wondered if he should go over to the Lowbeers’ and check on their cat.

The Lowbeers were away too. Dave was feeding the Lowbeers’ cat for the weekend. Now that he thought of it, he wasn’t sure where he had put their keys — whether he had them with him, that is, or whether he had left them at home.

And that is why he dug them out of his pocket; that is how he came to be holding the Lowbeers’ keys as he stood on the corner down the street from Kenny’s café.

Why he dropped them? Who knows. These sorts of things happen. That is the part about the world being cursed.

He pulled the keys out of his pocket and was standing there considering whether he should feed the cat now or later when they slipped out of  his hand and fell towards the ground, in the slow-motiony way that disasters favour.

They hit the sidewalk and bounced into the gutter.

Later Dave would say that you could line up a thousand people and have them drop a thousand sets of keys and nothing more would happen.

He is probably right. Probably if you dropped a thousand sets of keys, not one other set would bounce into the gutter like the Lowbeers’ did; and if they did, they would have lain there on top of the sewer grate.

These didn’t. These landed on the sewer grate, balanced there for a moment, like a golf ball balancing on the lip of a golf hole, and then they slowly, unbelievably, and maybe even deliberately, disappeared.

Vanished.

Dave stared at where they had been in disbelief — at where they had been and weren’t anymore.

“Seriously?” he said.

He got down on his hands and his knees and peered into the sewer. There was nothing but darkness down there.

He pulled at the sewer grate. It didn’t budge.

If he hadn’t been so close to his record store, that probably would have been the end to this. He would have tried to pull the sewer grate free, and he would have failed, and that would have been that.

Unfortunately, he was able to walk back to his store in no time flat. Unfortunately, in no time flat, he was back at the sewer with a flashlight and a crowbar. Unfortunately, five minutes after he had dropped the Lowbeers’ keys down the sewer, he had, with the help of the crowbar, jimmied the sewer cover off and was climbing down the cold steel rungs set into the vertical concrete wall.

Ten minutes after he had dropped the keys, Dave was standing at the bottom of the sewer holding them triumphantly in his hand.

He will never know, for certain, what happened next. But he knows this much for sure — he was standing down there, with the keys in his hand, feeling triumphant, when there was the cold and ominous clang of steel above him. Like a prison door slamming. And the dim sewer was suddenly dimmer.

His best guess is that a city truck came along, and a city worker spotted the grate he had removed and left lying in the gutter. Whatever transpired up there didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was now trapped at the bottom of the sewer with the Lowbeers’ keys, a flashlight and nothing else.

He scurried back up the ladder and pressed his face to the grate.

“Hey!” he called. “I’m down here.”

And then a car rolled over the grate and stopped. Dead. A door opened and someone got out of the car. The door closed and whoever it was, walked away. A few seconds later the car’s horn beeped to confirm the doors were locked. “You’ve got to be kidding,” said Dave.

It was awkward holding onto the ladder at the top the way he was. He climbed back down to the bottom. He was standing there now — his hand on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Let me be clear, this was a storm sewer he was standing in. Not a sewer-sewer. This was where the rainwater went. He was standing at the bottom of the ladder, looking along a concrete pipe, maybe five feet around. He played his flashlight down the tunnel. About fifty yards away, there was a faint pool of light. Another sewer grate, he suspected. Another ladder to freedom.

He bowed his head and splashed off towards the light.

In the next hour or so, Dave covered a mile, maybe more. He climbed a dozen or two ladders. He lost count. For the next hour or so, he lurched along the sewer and shoved his shoulder against grate after grate — but something that required a crowbar from above wasn’t about to give in to a shoulder from below.

He kept going.

He had stumbled into an underground world that he knew existed but had never considered. If it hadn’t been such an astonishing world, he might have been afraid.

From time to time, other pipes joined his like little tributaries. His flashlight bounced against the walls and along the little stream at his feet.

He came across a section where the walls were fashioned of red, water-stained brick. And soon after that, he stepped into an underground brick room with a vaulted twenty-foot ceiling. It was like stumbling upon the ruins of an abandoned church. He looked around the brick chamber in wonder. He could have been in the sewers of London.

And that, strangely, is the moment he had his first whiff of fear. In the beautiful underground brick room. Not coming into it. Coming into it, he had been swept away by its unexpected majesty. The fear came on his way out.

There were three pipes leaving the far end of the chamber. As he stared at them, wondering which he should take, he glanced back the way he had come. He played his flashlight against the far wall and saw that there were three pipes at the other end too. He had no idea which one he had emerged from. He realized, for the first time, he had no idea where he was — and more importantly, that he couldn’t get back to where he had come from. He was lost.

That’s when he felt fear.

Suddenly the sewer seemed darker. The ceiling seemed heavier, the walls closer. Everything was pressing in on him. His breath was becoming shallow and fast.

Nothing had changed, of course. He wasn’t empirically lost. It was more like he had stepped into some parallel universe. He was in the underground. Connected to, yet apart from, the world he knew. It was as if he were a ghost.

He splashed along, but with more urgency now — and a gnawing, fluttery stomach.

It was an hour later that he met the boy. By then he had been down there maybe three hours, wandering along the pipes, both narrow and wide, and through the unexpected rooms, going from ladder to ladder, climbing from grate to grate, calling out — at first into streets with too much traffic for anyone to hear him, and then later, into some preternaturally quiet corner of the city that didn’t even seem to have pedestrians.

The boy caught him completely by surprise. He had climbed up yet another ladder, pressed his face against yet another grate, and called out as he had called out before.

“Hello? Helloo-oo.”

Like all the other times, there was no reply, no acknowledgement of his existence.

“Hello. Is anyone there?”

He was halfway back down the ladder when a tiny voice said, “I’m here.”

Dave, not quite believing he had heard that, wondering if he had imagined that, scrambled back to the top rung.

“What?” he asked. “What did you say?” “I said, ‘I’m here.’ ” Dave pressed his face against the grate and let go of the ladder with one hand so he could lean out and twist around. No matter which way he twisted, all he could see . . . was sky.

Before he could say anything else, the boy spoke.

The boy said, “Are you . . . a monster? Are you a monster who has come to get me?”

Dave laughed.

“No,” he said, “I am not a monster. I’m trapped in the sewer. Where are we?”

The boy said, “At my place. We’re at my place. If you are not a monster, what are you doing in the sewer?”

“Good question,” said Dave. “I know,” said the boy. There was a longish pause while they both considered this.

Dave said, “Are you still there?” The boy said, “Maybe.” Dave said, “You don’t have to be afraid. There aren’t actually monsters, you know.” And the boy said, “That’s what my mother says. My mother says there are no monsters under my bed, and no monsters in my cupboard, and no monsters behind the shower curtain.”

“Is your mother home?” asked Dave.

“I can’t tell you that,” said the boy. “My cousin says the monsters live in the sewer.

“If you are not a monster, are you a Wild Thing? Are you a Wild Thing who has come to take me away in a boat? Is there going to be a rumpus?”

“No,” said Dave. “I am not a Wild Thing.” “That’s too bad,” said the boy. Dave said, “I need your help. I am trapped down here. I got trapped by accident. Can you go and tell your mother there is someone in the sewer?”

“No,” said the boy. “Why not?” asked Dave. “Because I would get in trouble for talking to a stranger,” said the boy. Dave said, “I am not a monster. And I am not a Wild Thing. I’m not a stranger. Just get your mother. You won’t get in trouble.” You don’t know my mother,” said the boy. Dave pushed up against the grate. It didn’t budge. If he leaned way out to the left, he could see the boy’s shoes. And his legs up to his knees. The boy was wearing sneakers and jeans. The jeans were rolled at the bottom. He was sitting on the sidewalk, his feet in the gutter.

“Have you seen Vanessa?” asked the boy. “What?” said Dave. The boy said Vanessa was his goldfish. One morning last week, the boy had found Vanessa lying at the bottom of her bowl — on her side.

While he was at school, his mother had taken Vanessa to the vet, and the vet had to keep her in a special tank, but she was happy and had lots of friends. She just couldn’t come home. Ever.

“Why would I see her?” asked Dave.

“Because my cousin said Vanessa didn’t go to the vet at all. My cousin said he saw my mother flush Vanessa down the toilet.

“Where do goldfish go when they die?”

“Sometimes into special tanks at the vets,” said Dave. “Sometimes down the toilet.”

“That’s what I thought,” said the boy. “Are you dead?” “Not yet,” said Dave.

Maybe they talked for fifteen minutes. Maybe it was an hour. It was hard to tell. Dave had lost his sense of time. They talked for a while, anyway, and then the boy said, “I have to go now.”

“What?” said Dave, “Wait a minute!” And the boy said, “I can’t. It’s suppertime.” And he stood up. And Dave said, “Wait!” There was no answer. The boy had gone. Dave shoved his face right up against the sewer grate. “Hey,” he shouted. “I have your goldfish!”

A night in a sewer is not a happy thing. A night in a sewer is dark and damp and you are alone. And as the night goes on, you start hearing things. Scurrying things.

Occasionally, but not often, a car goes by above you, and you see the flash of the headlights. But mostly, it is dark. You fall asleep, but you keep waking up. And when you do, you have no idea if you have been asleep for a long time or a short time. Or maybe you haven’t been asleep at all. All you know for sure is that it is dark. So dark you can’t see your hand when you hold it right in front of your face. And you are hungry. Possibly as hungry as the Lowbeers’ cat.

So there is guilt too. But mostly there is fear, and as the night deepens, desperation.

“Hello, monster?” Dave had fallen asleep again. He was sitting at the bottom of the ladder. His head was on his chest. “Monster? Are you there?” It was still pitch dark. Dave scrambled up the ladder. He could see stars and the glow from a distant street lamp, but he couldn’t see anything else. “I brought you something to eat,” said the boy. The boy was pushing a narrow cellophane-wrapped package through the sewer grate. Dave reached out to take it. The boy let go and jerked his hand back. Whatever it was fell. When it reached the bottom, there was a splash.

And that’s when Dave, overcome with desperation, thought if he could just get the boy a bit closer, he might be able to thrust his hand through the grate and grab him. The boy would scream for help, of course. But someone would hear him screaming, and they would come. His parents would come. And Dave would be saved. It is a testament to the power of solitary confinement to dull a person’s mind that Dave thought this might be a good idea.

“Want to see something?” asked Dave. “You can’t trick me,” said the boy. The boy stood up. He was leaving. “Wait,” said Dave. “Promise you’ll come back.” “After breakfast,” said the boy.

It was Saturday morning. Dave had been in the sewer fourteen hours. The boy was back.

He was kneeling on the sidewalk now. Dave couldn’t see his face, but he could see his striped T-shirt. His skinny arms. “Thank you for the sandwich,” said Dave. “It was good.”

“You’re welcome,” said the boy. “I have to go to swimming,” said the boy. And then ever so slowly, his little hand came through the sewer grate again. He was holding something. It was a tiny yellow dump truck. Dave reached out.

When Dave’s fingers folded around the small toy, the boy jerked his hand away.

Dave held the truck in his hand. “You can play with that until I come back,” said the boy.

Dave put the truck in his pocket and his fingers through the top of the grate.

“That was very brave,” said Dave. “Yes,” said the boy. “I know.” The boy reached out, ever so tentatively, and touched Dave’s finger, jerking his hand back again almost immediately. “Are you still scared?” asked Dave. “Yes,” said the boy. Then he said, “I have to go now.”

“Wait,” said Dave. “Do you want me to be a monster?” “I am not sure,” said the boy. “I can’t decide.” And he ran away.

And now Dave was standing at the bottom of the ladder. He was starving. And tired. He was damp and dirty. He was itchy. He needed a shave.

Presumably, if he set off and followed the flow of the water in the sewer, it would lead him somewhere. Presumably, if he kept trying sewer grates along the way, someone would eventually hear him.

Or not. Possibly, if he started wandering around, he would just wander around in circles. Possibly no one would hear him at all.

He thought about heading off. He decided to stay. He was waiting when the boy came back. “I am not a monster, you know. I’m just a father. And I got stuck.” “That’s what you say,” said the boy.

The boy came back an hour later with a rope. “I have decided to pull the lid off,” said the boy. He fed one end of the rope through the sewer cover. Dave tied it to the grate, like the boy told him to. The boy tied the other end to his bicycle. Then he knelt down on the grate and said, “I have something you should know. I have Monster Spray here. If you try anything, I will use it.” He held a plastic spray bottle up to the grate. The label was hand lettered. It said Monster Spray. The boy got on his bike. The rope tightened. “Now,” said the boy. Dave threw his shoulder against the grate. “It didn’t budge,” said the boy. “Nope,” said Dave. “But it was a nice try. Where did you get the rope?” “From my mother,” said the boy. “What did you tell her you were doing with it?” “Rescuing a monster from the sewer,” said the boy.

An hour passed. And then another. Dave heard them before he saw them, their voices echoing along the pipe. Then a moment or two later, he saw the beams from their flashlights bouncing along the walls. Two of them — an inspection team. “Lookie, lookie,” said the older guy, when they saw Dave. “I dropped my keys,” said Dave. “I got lost.” The younger one said, “You can come with us.” Dave said, “Can you wait a minute?”

He climbed up the ladder. He pressed his face against the grate. He called out one last time.

“Hello,” he called. “Are you there? I have to go. I’m sorry.”

The boy brought his mother after supper. “We have to be careful,” said the boy. “You hold the spray.” “And what do I do with it?” asked the mother. “If he tries anything funny — spray him,” said the boy. The boy knelt down. “Get ready,” he said. Then he called out. “Monster,” he said. “Monster. Monster. Are you there?” There was no answer. The boy turned around and looked at his mother. She was holding the spray in front of her. She was ready. “It’s okay,” said the boy. “He’s gone.” The boy lay down on his belly and peered in. The mother looked at her watch. “Sweetie,” said the mother, “you know monsters only exist in stories, don’t you? There aren’t any monsters under the bed. And there aren’t any monsters in the sewer, and . . . ” But the boy wasn’t listening. The boy was peering into the sewer. Now he was reaching into it, his skinny arm reaching down. “Look,” he said. The mother knelt beside him, and then she lay down, and they peered together. His yellow dump truck was balanced on the top rung of the ladder. “He left me my truck,” said the boy.

“I can’t reach it,” he said. “You get it.”

The mother reached in and pulled it out for him. She held it up and frowned.

“How did that get there?” she asked. “I told you,” said the boy. “The monster.” He put the truck in his pocket. And they walked back to the house, holding hands. The boy, whose name is Max, and his mother, who twice looked over her shoulder and back at the sewer before they went inside.

This story, “Hello, Monster,” is excerpted from Stuart McLean’s latest book, Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe.

Stuart McLean shares his secret to telling a riveting story.

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