Sludge, p.1
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Sludge


  Sludge

  by Jack Potchen

  Story originally published in Absent Willow Review, 2010, republished with permission.

  Ben Downs took a long drag of his cigarette.  A young woman named Amy Moore sat across from him at the table.  She was a stranger to him.  She was no more than twenty-five but Ben could see the age in her eyes.  The eyes of a woman whose seen too much, he thought.  She carried a notepad, of course, who else besides a reporter would want anything to do with him.  Still, she was the first person to express interest in talking to him in at least ten years, and, unlike any outsider who wanted to talk to him, she requested to see him in private.  Those things alone persuaded him to agree to another interview.

  He took another drag and started: “It’s been a part of the world for countless generations.  I mean, what kid doesn’t have a monster under the bed or in the closet?  Here in America we have The Boogeyman, in Spain El Coco, in Germany Der Schwarze Mann, but they are all one in the same.  They are the unknown, the evil who hide in the shadows and prey on children.  For most it’s a foolish childhood myth, just something to laugh about when they grow up. But sometimes there really is something there, lurking in the darkest corner of their rooms, somewhere just beyond their thin boundaries of reality.  For me and my brother all those years ago, ours was The Sludge Man, and unlike The Boogeyman or El Coco, Der Schwarze Mann or le croque-mitaine, Babay or Bavbav, I swear to you, ours was real.”

  “When did it all start?” Amy asked. Ben tried to read her tired eyes, but he couldn’t deduce anything. He suspected she was sizing him up. Obviously he lost weight in here, became sickly and emaciated and gray. He guessed a pretty young girl like her would make that face if she came across a wreck like him.

  “Well, it started back when I was in the fifth grade and Billy—my brother—was in second.  We shared the same bedroom in the basement.  It was a finished basement, well, at least partly, but it was still a basement, you know.  A basement in a very old, shitty house.  You hear strange things down there sometimes.  We were just kids, and we were scared of the noises down there at night long before anything actually happened.  The night when we finally saw the thing, that came later, but it was around long before that, making noises on the other side of our bedroom door, just to make sure that we knew there was something there.  It . . . I think the fear was more satisfying to it than, you know, the kill . . . it fed off our fear, it had to . . .”

  Ben broke off.  He ground the cigarette in the ashtray and looked at Amy.  “It’s been a while since I talked about it all.  Why should I tell you anyway?  Who do you work for?”

  Amy looked from her notebook. “It’s complicated,” she replied.  “I’m not here to exploit you, Mr. Downs, if that’s what you’re thinking.  I’ve read too many articles about you and the media has squeezed as much as they could out of you already.  I know you’ve told this story before and it’s very hard to keep telling it, but I need to hear it straight from you.”

  She’s not like any reporter I ever met, Ben thought.  She even sounds sincere. “Can I have another cigarette?” he asked.

  “Sure.” Amy reached into her handbag and produced one for each of them.

  “Thanks.”

  “Mr. Downs,” she said, her voice anxious, “please go on.”

  “Alright.  I found out about The Sludge Man during fall of the fifth grade.  I remember because that was when Mrs. Shannon was my teacher.  She was an old bat, a miserable old bitch who loved to make my life miserable.  She used to send me home with notes for my father to sign, how I was failing math or how I was making jokes in the back of the classroom.  That’s when my father started to hit me.  Minor at first, but the notes kept coming.  It was all little stuff, like throwing a pencil or coming back from recess late, but he didn’t take those things lightly.  And after he would ‘set me straight,’ as he would say, he would send me to my room in the basement while Billy was free to do whatever he wanted upstairs or outside.  That’s when The Sludge Man started making noises, or at least when I started noticing them.”

  “So you were the one who first found out about The Sludge Man.  Did Billy hear the noises too?”

  “He did that night . . . and many other nights.  But when it was just me in that room, crying my eyes out because of Mrs. Shannon and my father . . . that’s when it found me . . . found its new home, I guess.

  “It started with a gurgling noise, almost inaudible in my room.  It was outside the door, somewhere else in the basement, behind damp boxes and loose pieces of old furniture and my father’s old work clothes, a place in our home long ignored, taken over by the stuff we don’t want but won’t throw away.  Everything coated in dust.  There was no light back there.  There was no need for one.  The flashlights were upstairs, but I definitely wasn’t going up there, where my father sat in front of the TV in his boxers and stained work shirt, drinking too much.”

  “Did you go back there?”

  “Yes, in the dark.  Well, there was still a little bit of moonlight coming in through the basement window.  I remember that.  It made the basement look so strange.  I saw that heap of mess every day but that night it looked so different.  It looked . . . it looked like it was hiding something.  I know it sounds crazy and I know a lot of people think it’s crazy, but that’s what I thought.”

  Once again Amy, that mysterious creature from civilized society, gave Ben a look he couldn’t decipher. Maybe my people skills have gone down the shitter, he thought.

  “I was scared but I didn’t know why.  I went anyway.  The noise was louder, it sounded wet, like water going down a drain.  You know that sound?  That’s what it was like.  Before I could process what I was doing I was climbing over heaps of dusty trash, struggling over boxes of BETA tapes and magazines.  An old bike that was once mine, then Billy’s.  An old filing cabinet my father swiped from a job.  Behind all this stuff, almost hidden in the shadows, was a drain, a drain in the concrete floor.”

  “A drain?”

  “Yeah.  It was a drainage pipe, in case the basement ever flooded.  I never even knew it existed.  I bent down to look closer, and as my eyes adjusted, I saw . . . stuff, thick gray pulpy stuff.  I know what you are thinking.  It wasn’t sewage.  I know what sewage smells like, but this smelled like . . . like garbage on fire.  The smell was overpowering, I could feel it in my nose.  In my brain.  You may think I am disgusting, but I was a kid, you know.  Wanna know what I did?  I actually touched the sludge, rubbed it in between my fingers.  It felt hot and made my skin sting.

  “I wanted to run and hide, but I was frozen in place.  The gurgling stopped, and I heard something else. The sound I heard was The Sludge Man.”

  “Did it talk to you?”

  “Yeah, I think so, if I can even call it that.  To me it was a low rumbling and clicking noise, but I think it was talking.  It was just on the other side of the drain, inches away from me but out of sight, its body compressed in that pipe beyond understanding.  And it was talking!  Maybe it was the language of the sewer, maybe a language from much lower than the sewer.  But it was talking, and for the life of me I didn’t know what the fuck to do.  All I heard was the click click growl click click click . . .”

  Amy was making notes.  She didn’t look up.

  “I have no idea how long I stayed there, but there was a point when that basement got really dark, like the moon all of a sudden went out completely.  And when I was blinded, that’s when it reached up and grabbed me.

  “It managed to reach a mucky hand through the drain and grab my arm.  The stench was unbearable.  I’m not sure if I screamed, I was probably even too scared to manage a cry.  It grabbed my arm and it stung where it held me, like it’s hand was coated with barbed wire,
but I knew it was just the feel of the sludge.  I pulled with everything in me but it didn’t budge.

  “Then, it let me go.  The moon came back, and the hand was gone.  Now that the attack was over, that’s when I know I screamed.  I bolted upright and fell backwards into a pile of junk, knocking over the filing cabinet, boxes of old toys, dozens of loose papers.  I looked up and my father was there, standing over me with his swelled beer belly between me and his face.

  “The beating I got for the mess was bad, but my father did save my life.  If he wasn’t there, The Sludge Man would’ve ripped my arm off, maybe it would have even found a way to pull all of me through that small drain . . .”

  Amy looked up sympathetically.  “Mr. Downs?”

  “I’m okay.”

  “Another cigarette?”

  “Please.”

  She lit his cigarette for him. “Please go on, Mr. Downs.”

  “Okay . . . my father was a very angry man.  He didn’t look at my blackened and bruised arm, he didn’t listen to what I had to say.  And after the beating, he told me if I came upstairs for any reason besides the bathroom he would hit me harder.  So that night, Sludge Man and all, I stayed in the basement.  It’s
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