The Ghosts of Emerald Cave
I arrive late to hear the teenagers laughing.
They are all leather and chains.
This is 1961.
Each of the gang has the movie ďThe Wild OnesĒ memorized from repeated viewings at the Montauk Theater in Passaic.
Each one thinks heís James Dean from seeing those movies, too.
None of them is old enough to driver a car yet. So they just pick on smaller kids like me and my friends.
They think they own the old sewer pipe where the brook goes underground for the last mile until it empties in the river just because theyíve spray painted their name over the entrance of the tunnel.
They know we like to hang out there, too.
I listen to them laugh and jangle their chains. I hear their voices echo in the tunnel where they have my friends trapped.
The brook is sacred to us, running from along Currie Park, passed the DPW and the ball fields before turning to the foot of School #11 where some of us go to school.
The underground portion runs under the city streets to the river where the water spills out.
It is a dark and terrible mile, even for the bravest of us to travel.
Iím the only one my age I know who has ever gone all the way through from this end to the other. Iíve even come back the same way.
I know how bad it can get in the middle, where the water gets high and kids have to walk in the slick water. Thatís where the rats live, scurrying ahead like ghosts.
I know none of my friends will dare the rats even with the Emerald Gang threatening to beat them up if they dare come out this end.
So they stay inside.
Waiting and hoping the darkness will come and the teenage werewolves will get bored and head uptown to find other kids to pick on.
I know the gang will never leave, getting their kicks out of keeping these kids scared.
Knowing I canít get in from this end, I run along the streets following the sewer grates until I get to the river end where I climb down and go in.
Iím scared. I hate rats.
But I go in the tunnel anyway, my sneakers squeaking the way rats squeak.
To avoid getting wet, I run hard along the curved wall where the water gets deep, my speed defying gravity until I reach a dryer place ahead.
The tunnel is filled with pieces of junk, each creating eddies of water that captures more junk. Someone Ė God knows who Ė even dragged a shopping cart in here, and this now upside down collects streamers of †sea weed. Further on, I come to a rotting trunk of a tree. Rats jump off it as I come towards them. Beyond that, I stumble over the rusting hulk of a car bumper.
When the water is low enough, I run, hearing the frightened whispers of my friends up ahead. After a while, I can see their dark shapes against the pale glow of the opening near the school. The gang outside taunts my friends mercilessly, calling them every sort of horrible name, telling them other monsters live in the tunnel beside the rats.
My friends are so scared I think theyíll pee in their pants, and then they hear me coming from the other direction, but canít see me because I am charging at them from out of the dark.
They think Iím the Ghost of Emerald Cave every kid had heard rumor of at some point in their lives.
They think I have come to collect their souls.
I call to them.
They panic, caught between fear of being beaten up and fear of something darker and more terrible than even their vivid imaginations can imagine.
I call again. This time by nameĒ Billy, Louis, Dave, Frank.
They scream because the ghost knows who they are and they are convinced they will soon perish.
They yell out at me, begging me not to steal their souls, then curse me when I get close enough for them to clearly make out who I am.
They donít see why I came the way I did since now we are all trapped here together.
They simply refuse to follow me when I offer to lead them out the way I just came, preferring to remain just where they are rather than to chance what they might discover in the dark.
I assure them no ghost will eat them, though I admit I did see some rats.
I wear them down. All of them are sick of standing there. All of them know that they canít wait much longer without risking getting home late, and having their parents ask why.
None dare say they have spent any time anywhere near Emeraldís Cave without risking being grounded forever.
I get them to follow me, slowly at first, then more boldly, each step making them cocky so that they even laugh, and then jump at the echo of their own laughter, only to laugh at that, too.
I keep thinking about those foolish teenagers perched outside behind us, waiting for us to come out, taunting us when nobody is there to hear those taunts.
This is not an easy journey. We stop often when come to high water, and I have to show the others several times how to run hard along the side to keep from getting wet.
Some get wet anyway before they panic half way or donít run fast enough. And yet, they keep coming, as if each new adventure makes them ready for the next adventure. By the time we reach the end where the tunnel spills out into the river, they even look disappointed, asking with their eyes: ďIs that all there is?Ē
Yet when I tease them and ask if they would like to go back in the tunnel with me, each shrinks back to his former size.
We walk along the river for home, and suddenly I realize, we are the ghosts of Emerald Cave, and there is something in this that makes me very, very proud.