BY DANA WEBSTER
June 14, 2022
The series of underground drainage tunnels had been dormant for way more years than the twelve that Sarah and Janie had been alive. The gaping maw of the main entrance stood at five feet. It’s concrete circular shape housed only darkness from a few feet inside. The neighbourhood kids knew it was there, deep within Gibson’s Woods, and were warned by parents and teachers alike to never go near. But dire adult warnings were like catnip to curious kids; except for the timid few, most of the students from Springfield Elementary and Middle School had explored the tunnels at least once.
Next door neighbours and best friends since birth, Sarah and Janie were joined at the hip. Their bedroom windows were directly across from one another’s, a twenty foot drop between their houses would have landed them on the shared driveway over which their dads got into squabbles about whose turn it was to shovel the snow after a storm.
When the girls were about seven, they’d devised a coded language that only they could decipher. They printed each code on pieces of construction paper and communicated silently at night from their bedroom windows. How are you? was simply a question mark. What did you have for dinner? had a drawing of a chicken leg, the answers for which required a variety of coded drawings. The most often felt emotions – sad, happy, mad - were coded as faces with matching facial features. Most important of all was the shut it down quickly code which showed a piece of pipe with a hacksaw slicing through it. They used this for intruder emergencies.
Often the girls could be found inside the tunnels. Flashlight in hand, they splashed their way through the shallow murky water that snaked its way downward toward Spring River. At a T intersection where the tunnels veered off in opposite directions, was a 4’x4’ landing pad. Here the concrete was elevated slightly so the inch or so of water passed right by. They could sit in dryness, the sun’s rays sneaking through the checkered metal grate six feet above them.
They made a pact that upon entering the tunnel, all verbal communication would cease. This was a sacred ritual; they were honing their skills at subterfuge should enemy persons come upon them and take them prisoner. Persons like Timmy Riegert or Jimmy Johns, two of the worst bullies in the neighbourhood who were known to prowl Gibson’s Woods with slingshots and heavy sticks for menacing small critters.
Here, the girls practiced their coded language. They took turns coming up with new codes and challenging each other to guess their meaning. Janie had recently added a new code and excitedly shared it with Sarah: in love was heart shaped, coloured with deep red marker and reaching to the very edges of the page. Sarah looked puzzled. Did it mean love? She searched among her other codes and came back with the question mark, as it was the only drawing that could be multi-purposed.
Janie shook her head and silently smiled in a way Sarah hadn’t seen before. Did Janie have a secret Sarah didn’t know about? Sarah felt her stomach clench but she couldn’t have said why. When she still looked confused, Janie began to write on a fresh piece of paper. It wasn’t a code at all. It was just words: I’M IN LOVE!!!!!!! There were about seventeen hundred exclamation marks, as Sarah saw it.
Sarah’s head flooded with questions, her heart with emotions, none of which she could express. So, she smiled and, for emphasis, held up the picture of a happy face. Janie fashioned a heart shape out of her fingers and thumbs and held it in front of her own heart.
Everything changed after that day. Janie was less interested in coding with Sarah. At school, she was polite but distant. Janie started hanging out with a different group of friends, the one that included Janie’s new girlfriend, Bette. Sarah seethed with jealousy whenever she saw Janie and Bette holding hands or speaking in whispers. She wanted to scream, What about me?? A few weeks later, Sarah gathered up her coded messages, tucked them into a shoebox and placed it under her bed.
Alone and lonely, Sarah wandered down to the tunnel’s entrance one rainy Tuesday. She missed Janie so much. She could see how happy Janie was with Bette but she couldn’t feel happiness for her. She’d lost her one true friend. She flicked on the flashlight but stopped before entering. She heard a sound, voices. Was there someone in there already? Sarah wanted to find out so she trudged up the hill under which the tunnel was hidden and walked over to the grate opening. Quietly, she tiptoed as close as she dared and then lay down on her stomach.
“You’re breaking up with me?” she heard Bette’s angry voice.
“I’m not happy anymore. All my friends are your friends. I haven’t talked to Sarah in weeks.” Janie sounded sad.
“That loser? You’re better off without her.”
Sarah inched closer until she could just see into the tunnel below. Janie and Bette were sitting cross-legged on the landing pad.
“She’s not a loser. She’s been my best friend forever.” Janie stood up. “Bye, Bette.”
Bette stood, too, and grabbed hold of Janie’s arm. “If you leave, it’s the end of us, you know that, right? No crawling back.”
Janie tugged her arm away and in so doing she caught a glimpse of Sarah overhead. Spying. Listening. Had she heard the whole thing? Sarah smiled down at her. She stood and made the shape of a heart with her fingers and thumb just as Janie had done the last time they coded together.
Janie hearted Sarah back. “There won’t be any crawling, Bette,” she said. And ran as fast as she could for the tunnel’s entrance where Sarah waited with open arms.
After that day, the only code the best friends needed was heart shaped.