The Animatronic [3/7]
We found a half-submerged animatronic, dumped in a local pond. My friend thinks it’s alive.
We stick close together as a group, our wet steps echoing all around the damp, curved walls of the pipe, or, tunnel… and guided by the flickering light of Stubs’ torch. I’m trying to keep it steady, but to be honest if I’m called out on it I could probably pass my shaking off as a reaction to the cold. My shirt is still soaked through beneath my hoodie. I’m hoping my body heat will dry it off at least a little.
I hear a small noise from Roxy and I see her wipe her face from the corner of my eye, though I pretend not to notice. I feel for her; Stubs is pretty much all the family she has. Her dad died when they were both really young, and I’m not sure how ‘involved’ their mum is in their lives, exactly. She never seems to be at home.
I think Roxy relies on Stubs more than she lets on.
We’ll find him, girl. I don’t know what’s going on here, exactly, and I’m scared as all fuck, but we’ll find him.
On we walk, through the dark tunnel. Our feet kick up against occasional small gears and parts of damp machinery lay strewn about. Parts of the pipe wall looks like something sharp, or at least of substantial density, has been dragged against it. Long streaks and scratches.
Wakka keeps glancing nervously behind us as the entrance to the tunnel becomes smaller and smaller in the distance. I don’t blame him. If this bad boy looks like it’s going to start filling up with water then I won’t be sticking around, I can tell you now. But thankfully, it does not. Not yet at least.
“Where do you think it leads?” John asks quietly. He’s a soft-spoken guy, despite his frame, and the whisper in his voice echoes around us like a hiss.
“No idea mate”, I reply through gritted teeth. “No idea at all. But I ask you this- if the animatronic DID drag Stubs down here, which we’re assuming it did… how the fuck did it get so far? It’s not like there’s a rail or any cables or anything down here… so how exactly did it move?”
No-one replies. After all, what is there to say?
But we keep going. Splashing through the murky water around our shoes. We keep going until up ahead, the great pipe splits off into three, each tunnel disappearing into the gloom.
“Well, shit”. I mutter, coming to a stop and shining the beam from the first, to the second, to the third. “What the hell are we going to do now? Because we’re not splitting up. Absolutely no way”.
Wakka steps forward, looks each tunnel over and rings his hands. “I guess we should just try the first tunnel then?” He says, “scope it out a bit, then the second and third, and if we still don’t find him... then, then I guess we have to come back another-”
“That won’t be necessary”, says Roxy, looking ahead. “It’s the tunnel on the right”. She makes to set off but I grab her arm and hold her back. We all stare at her.
“…What do you mean it’s the ‘tunnel on the right’? …Roxy, how do you know that?” I ask.
“…Because I’ve been here before”. She whispers.
I don’t know what to say.
“What the FUCK?” Wakka splutters, “How have you been here before?”
“Not in person, but… but I’ve had dreams. I’ve dreamt of this place, these tunnels”, Roxy replies quietly. “The other two just go round in a loop, I think”.
“So you- you recognise this place then?” I ask, flabbergasted. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t want to, in case I was wrong… I didn’t want you to think I was crazy”.
“Oh well you CERTAINLY don’t sound crazy now!” I reply, loudly, throwing up my hands.
“Did anything else happen in the dream, Rox?” John asks her, “do you know what’s up ahead?”
“I’m not sure”, she says hesitantly. “My memories are… hazy. They came back to me suddenly when we looked into the tunnel-”
I recall the little piece of card I found attached to the broken frog. The ripped ticket stub.
“Hey, Roxy”, I interrupt. “Let me see that piece of card again”.
She pauses. “…Why?”
“Just let me see it, Rox”, I reply, angrier now, and she relents, drawing it out of her pocket and showing it to me. I take it and shine the light at it for a closer inspection. It does look like a piece of a ticket, and though it’s torn, some text is still legible across its surface. There are some numbers, which could mean anything, but near the top the following can be read:
“-Ry Lawson”, I read aloud, eyes flashing, heart hammering, showing the others. “Lawson. That’s your surname, Rox. Roxy Lawson. And what was your dad’s name? His first name, I mean?”
“…Harry”, she replies quietly.
The others start muttering, they stare at her, with confusion, anger, fear.
“Alright Roxy what the FUCK is going on here!?” I shout, “what the hell is this!?” And I’m suddenly stricken with a cold and piercing terror. Is this a trick? A trap? Did Roxy bring us down here to get us trapped? Or… killed? Is Stubs in on it too? Thousands of possibilities, each more outlandish and implausible than the last swirl round my head, and perhaps Roxy can read it on my face because she grabs my shoulders and tries to calm me down.
“Ollie, Ollie!” she says, and she looks at each one of us, tries to settle us, “I don’t know what’s going on here, okay? I swear it, I swear to you guys, I have no idea what’s going on and I’m just as scared as you! I just want my brother back! I don’t know why my dad’s name, or, a part of it, is on that piece of card. I don’t know what happened to Eddie and aside from broken fragments of dream I don’t know what’s down here, I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry”.
Her voice breaks and she trembles, and I find myself believing her.
I have to believe her.
This is Roxy, after all. Roxy. I know Roxy.
I look to the others. Wakka raises an eyebrow and John chews his tongue, but they both believe her too, I can see it.
So we take some deep breaths, we squeeze her round the shoulders, and we dutifully carry on along our way.
God help us.
We come up upon a sudden turn in the tunnel, an impending right angle, almost, and Roxy puts out her hand, staring into space. We stop.
“I think”, she begins, hesitantly, “I think there’s… a lake… around here. Don’t freak out, but I remember- water, Lots and lots of dark… dark water”. She finishes lamely. But it’s enough to send a ripple of goosebumps up my back.
“Oh fuck; fucking hell”, Wakka stammers. But credit to the guy, he’s doing his best. He’s only giving voice to what we’re all thinking.
“It’s okay mate, we can do this”, John says to him, patting him on the back. Swallowing, and as the one with the torch, I step forward, and we round the corner together.
And sure enough, the pipe ends. We stand on its edge.It opens into a cavern; the ceiling is made of dripping, wet rock and is not much higher than the pipe, but it is wider. Much, much wider. There is what looks like graffiti scrawled on the rock walls, but it is too small and too far away to make out what it says. The torch was not designed to be used on surfaces so far away. And below us is a rotting, wooden platform. Gently drifting, floating on the surface of a black, reflective underground lake.
“Christ”, I mutter, scanning my eyes across it.
The water is creepy, no doubt about it. But it’s the gently rising bursts of bubbles that give me cause for real fear. Coming up to the surface in little clusters with the same rhythm that Stubs had demonstrated by the pond. Like breathing. In, and out. And there is not just the one group of bubbles down here. There are dozens and dozens. Scattered all around the surface of the lake.
I raise the torch.
It’s hard to tell, but if I squint, I think I can just about see the other side, a grey and rocky bank.
John nudges a gear over the edge of the pipe’s rim with his foot. It bounces off the side of the wooden platform and hits the black water with a thunk, quickly sinking, disappearing down into the depths.
“You don’t have to come with me, guys”. Roxy says softly. “I wouldn’t blame you. I sure as hell don’t want to do this, but he’s my brother. I have to. And I know that he’s still alive, I can’t explain it but… but I can feel it. And this is the way”. She shifts and clenches her fingers.
“It has to be”, she whispers.
I look to the others, and they’re frightened, it’s obvious. But it’s also obvious that we’re all on the same page. We’re in this together, and we’re not turning back. Stubs needs our help. And if Roxy thinks he’s on the other side of this lake then who the hell are we to say otherwise?
So one by one we clamber unsteadily down. Down onto the wooden platform. It’s big enough for all of us, plenty of surface area, but I’m more concerned about whether it’s going to hold our weight. John gets on first and then shifts himself around, using himself to keep the thing roughly balanced as we step aboard, deciding that sitting down cross-legged is probably the best system.
Roxy, the last aboard, settles herself into place, and then with a sudden, load crack that shatters the tension, John pulls up one of the splintery wooden boards, and we all start in alarm.
“Fucking hell John!” Roxy stammers, a hand on her chest, and we stare at him incredulously.
“We need something to paddle with”, he replies simply, then presses the plank against the edge of the pipe, and with a grunt of exertion, pushes as hard as he can. The platform is sent off drifting in the opposite direction, out and over the surface of the dark lake, slowly but steadily towards the other side.
We watch the reflective surface of the lake ripple softly behind us.
And as the platform starts to lose momentum, John begins carefully pushing the plank in and out of the water, paddling gently.
Stay calm Ollie, I tell myself. Don’t freak out. Not here. Not here.
I glance around nervously, scanning the beam of the torch through the dark. The streams of bubbles surround us now. I watch with discomfort as we slowly drift towards a particularly large cluster, and then, right over the top of it.
I can hear Wakka’s breathing getting louder, faster.
“It’s alright mate”, I mutter, feeling his rising panic in myself but doing my best to suppress it. “We’ve got this. We’ve got this”.
I look down through my legs. Between the wooden planks and into the black water beneath. The bubbles stream up noisily directly underneath me, and I shiver.
The bubbles are the only regular sound. A soft, gentle, rhythmic gurgling. They are accompanied by the occasional drip from above, the sound of the wooden paddle eased carefully into the water, and the echoey, whispery, intermittent mutterings of our group.
I wonder, against my sense of better judgement, how deep down the water goes.
I consider, against my sense of better judgement, what horrors may lie in the depths beneath.
And I look, against my sense of better judgement, once again down into the black water to my right.
And right below the surface, only just visible in the darkness, I receive an answer. A gasp of terror escapes my lungs as I stare down into the deep… and one monstrous, cold dead eye stares back.
Written by Darkly Gathers