In the dream, I understood who I was almost immediately: Jeb Casteel. A young boy terrified of his father, and rightly so. The man was a monster. Almost every night, he would stumble in, reeking of rot-gut whiskey and looking to relieve the residual stress of his day by mercilessly beating Jeb. And sometimes worse. Especially after his mom passed away.
They said it was a suicide but Jeb knew better. That particular afternoon had been the final straw, though. I wasn’t quite sure why exactly. All I knew was that I… Jeb… Who the fuck ever couldn’t take it any longer and we decided to run away, once and for all.
Jeb had no real family to speak of other than his father and nobody he could even really call a friend. At school, the gossip surrounding his father’s drinking and his mother’s death had made him a bit of a pariah. But what Jeb did have was one bitchin’ hideout.
It was located near the south end of the lake, which was about a quarter of a mile from Jeb’s backyard. The “hideout” was a repurposed drainage ditch; basically a four foot-wide-by-eight-foot-deep cement lined hole in the ground. The drainage ditches had been a holdover from back before the nearby processing facility started using the lake as a source of irrigation and its average water-level had been a lot higher.
These days (the late 80s from what I could tell), the only water these ditches would be collecting was from the rain. But not Jeb’s hideout; that place was bone dry. About a year ago, when he initially had the idea to convert one of them into a comfortable place to hide from his father, Jeb covered one of the ditches with a piece of plywood he had salvaged from a pile of abandoned scrap located in the woods nearby.
He picked the one with the lowest level of residual rainwater at the bottom; maybe about an inch or so. Once that had drained out through a hole in the center of the ditch’s floor, Jeb used a second smaller piece of plywood to cover the bottom. The opening in the center wasn’t huge but it WAS just big enough for Jeb to fit down if he jumped in longways maybe.
Still, there was really no reason to leave a hazard like that exposed if he didn’t need to. Plus, the plywood beat sitting on dirty cement. The drainage ditch actually narrowed off to about 3 and ½ feet as it neared the bottom because these things were designed to work like giant funnels. You could think of the smaller hole at the bottom as the funnel’s spout. Only the hole went way deeper than it seemed was necessary.
Jeb didn’t really know anything about industrial engineering but when he was bored, he would often lift up the plywood floor and shine his flashlight down into the opening, which appeared to go on forever. This seemingly bottomless pit was the source of several of Jeb’s own nightmares. Though that evening, Jeb approached his hideout to discover that a few bad dreams were currently the least of his problems.
Someone had ransacked his hideout in the two days since Jeb was there last. Whoever it had been, they cleaned him out. All the comic books and gaming magazines he’d stashed down there were missing, along with his manually-rechargeable electric lantern/radio and even the pieces of plywood Jeb had been using as a ceiling and floor.
Though he had been coming to this exact spot almost every day for the past year and Jeb could even see the square outline of the plywood imprinted in the dirt at the bottom, he still checked just to make sure he hadn’t simply approached the wrong ditch on accident. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Jeb was pretty bummed about getting robbed, but it wasn’t enough to outweigh the relief he felt when thinking about how he would never have to see his father again. Jeb stood at the mouth of the exposed ditch and stared down at the hollow remains of his hideout as he reminded himself that as of tonight, he was officially done living in fear.
He carefully mounted the first set of rusted iron ladder rungs jutting from the inside wall and started down into the deep cement ditch, which seemed even deeper now that it was empty again. Jeb told himself he barely noticed that part as he layed down on the dirty cement floor and curled himself into a fetal position. Jeb made a mental note to remember that he was lying only a few inches from the now-exposed spout hole and then, for some reason that he wasn’t entirely sure of, Jeb began to cry…
He awoke from a dreamless sleep a few hours later to find himself suffering from a disorienting lack of vision. Jeb had never been at the ditch this late or at all without his lantern and he’d never experienced true, absolute darkness before that night. This would be an unnerving situation for most adults and, according to my sources, apparently little kids are not huge fans of the dark either.
Naturally, Jeb panicked. He stood and started forward in an effort to somehow orient himself and it wasn’t until he felt the world open up beneath his feet that Jeb finally remembered exactly where he had fallen asleep, but more importantly what he had fallen asleep next to.
By then though, the opening in the center of the floor had already swallowed him whole. At least, it FELT like being swallowed. He had dropped down into the narrow space so perfectly… both legs at once and with his arms down… that it definitely didn’t feel like an accident.
Much like the ditch above it, the spout also got narrower the deeper it went and Jeb didn’t have to fall very far before he got stuck, arms pinned to his sides by the cramped space and about an inch of room between his nose and the slimy inside wall of the spout. Jeb spent what felt like an eternity wiggling there in the absolute darkness, straining every muscle he had to try and free himself, but it was hopeless.
Down there, hours felt like days and it seemed like a week before the sun finally rose. After it did, Jeb spent most of that next day listening intently and screaming for help whenever he heard the faintest sound or even imagined he had heard one, and sometimes even though he was sure he hadn’t. When the sun eventually began to set once more, Jeb was far too dehydrated to cry, despite how much he wanted too.
That second night felt a lot longer than the first, and not just because he had to spend all of it down there this time or because of how thirsty or hungry he was. All of that was pretty shitty but the most unnerving aspect by far was the sounds Jeb kept hearing beneath him. At first it was just scraping, like something was clawing its way up through the pipe to come get him.
But as the night wore on, Jeb started to hear what sounded like a voice speaking from the endless darkness below his dangling legs. He couldn’t quite decipher the words but whatever they were saying, it sounded like a question.
Day two actually felt even longer than night two. Sure, the scary sounds and voices stopped as soon as dawn broke but that was hardly Jeb’s biggest problem by then. He could see storm clouds forming through the ditch’s exposed opening. And they KEPT forming until that afternoon when it was pretty much the only thing he could see.
The faint bit of sunlight that had managed to filter in through the clouds up to that point was now quickly fading and what little remained seemed incapable of penetrating the ditch above Jeb. He felt encapsulated by the surrounding darkness and it wasn’t long before the voice below started up again. Only Jeb was able to hear it a lot more clearly now than the previous night. Maybe because this time, it was saying his name…
“Jeb? Juh-EB? …Hey, Jeb! I’m talkin’ to you here!”
“Nuh-uh! You’re just a voice in my head!”
The voice began to cackle and it said, “Wouldn’t that be nice!”
The inhuman laughter beneath him was enough to make Jeb literally tremble in fear but he was determined not to let it show in his own voice as he screamed back, “Yes, you are! You’re a fig-mint of my ‘magniation!”
Rain suddenly began to pour down on him and with Jeb’s own body clogging the spout, the water draining in from the ditch above was soon up to his chin. Then it was covering his mouth. Then his nose.
When Jeb was moments from drowning, a small crevice opened in front of him. The water quickly drained away through this narrow opening, leaving a drenched Jeb to dangle there, gasping for air. The voice below him cackled once again.
“Could a figment of your imagination do THAT?”
Jeb didn’t want to answer the question, so instead he asked, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“What, saving you from drowning? There’s a lot more rain where that came from and you have about, oh, 30 seconds before it starts up again. But if you want me to close up that hole, I can…”
The crevice began to close and Jeb’s already-pounding heart was sent into overdrive by the thought of drowning again as his body began to reflexively struggle against the narrow confines holding him in place.
“No! PLEASE…” Jeb’s mind raced with a thousand horrible questions. Though at that moment, there was only one that he could properly convey with words…
“Who are you?”
“That should be obvious,” the voice replied, followed by yet another evil laugh. The crevice in front of Jeb began to widen until he could see into it and he realized the opening was emitting a faint red light, almost pink. Squinting into the light, Jeb could just barely make out the shape of something…
Something that made me, the adult-aged male named Joel, wake up screaming like I was trying to do my best Janet Leigh impression.
Holy titty-fucking shit, WHAT WAS THAT?!
I’ve had a problem with chronic nightmares for most of my life, but this was something altogether new. I checked the clock on my phone and saw that I had been asleep a little more than 3 hours, during which time I had a dream that felt like it lasted the better part of 3 days. I was drenched in sweat and every muscle in my body ached. I felt utterly drained but there was no way I was going back to sleep that night.
I busted out the old laptop and started transferring that day’s files from my voice recorder. I spotted the Helpless Herman launcher on my desktop and everything suddenly clicked as if some subconscious part of my brain had just gone: Duh, dumbass…
Read Part Two Here.