I found the hole in the wall one lazy afternoon, when I was taking the trash out to the alleyway between my family's very respectable restaurant and another family's not-so-respectable bar. Even though it was tucked a bit behind the dumpster, I found it hard to believe it'd slipped my notice every other time I came out here. Did idiotic college students come here sometime in the middle of the night and break a hole in the cement foundation of the bar? That was the most likely reason the hole had come to exist; it wouldn't be the first time some 20-year-olds over at the community college had gotten drunk at the bar next door and vandalized private property.
After tossing the trash bag into the dumpster, I squatted by the opening of the hole and eyed it cautiously. Up close, I could see that it was infinitely deeper and darker than it'd looked from over by the back door. And it clearly went down, down, down, deep beneath the neighbor's bar. Into their basement? Maybe deeper? I wondered how the hell someone could do this. Whoever had would've needed some super strong tools. It would've required more thought and effort than drunk college students would be able to put into it.
"Mom," I called, jumping when my black and white cat appeared out of nowhere to wind his way around my legs. His tail tickled my bare calves. I shot a glare at the stairs to the apartment and the door, which was slightly ajar. No doubt my little sister had decided to let him out, despite the fact that this was a city and he was an indoor cat. She was always talking about how unfair it is to keep cats indoors, because they're wild animals or whatever. "Junimo," I admonished, though it wasn't really his fault. "You shouldn't be out here."
"What?" Mom asked a little late, voice coming from somewhere deep inside the restaurant. She sounded cranky, as usual.
Junimo purred, butting at my leg with his fuzzy head, and I reached down to pet him. As I did, he dodged my hand and darted away, bounding into the hole.
"Shit," I heard myself say. I watched my cat's white tail disappear into the darkness and dropped down onto my hands and knees to try and see if I could still see him. "Shit, shit, shit. Junimo!"
"What?" Mom repeated, sounding closer this time, and I turned to see that she'd come to stand in the doorway. She held the screen door open with one sneaker and crossed her arms over her chest, the universal sign of annoyance.
I didn't feel like explaining everything right now, not with my cat wandering God-knows-where beneath the neighbor's bar, so I gestured to the hole and said, "Junimo went down there."
Mom squinted, face twisted up in a frown as she took in the hole. "What is that?"
I shrugged, pushing myself up so I was standing. "I dunno. Some kind of hole."
"And you said the cat ran in there?"
I nodded, casting another anxious look towards where he'd disappeared. "Should I go in there and try to find him?"
Mom, who'd been glowering up at the apartment door where Sarah was no doubt ignorantly playing inside, imagining she'd done a good deed when she'd left the door open for Junimo, snapped her gaze to me. "Absolutely not, Allie, you don't know where the hell that thing even goes."
"It looks like it's just under the bar, somewhere." I said, desperately. I wasn't leaving Junimo to get lost.
"You're not going in there," Mom said firmly. "Go grab a can of tuna or something and leave it by the entrance; I'm sure he'll come back. I'm going to talk to your sister about letting the cat out. She can't keep doing this."
I nodded, heading inside to the kitchen while Mom stormed up the stairs. When Sarah was younger, Mom wouldn't have been as mad; every kid does something or other that they think is saving the world. Sarah was eleven now, though, and we all knew that if Mom kept being lenient about Sarah's life mission, there would eventually be no more Junimo for her to even let outside.
We had a lot of tuna from our signature tuna-cheese-melt, so I grabbed a can and headed back outside, popping it open. "Junimo," I called, squatting down and dropping it down on the cement by the hole. "Juni, you in there?"
I waited for my cat to come back out, rocking back on my heels and calling, "Junimo!" every now and then. Nothing moved. Eventually Mom stormed back down the stairs and watched me for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shake her head before heading back into the restaurant. I kept waiting.
I don't know how much time had passed before I decided Junimo wasn't coming back out. If a tantalizing can of tuna couldn't draw him back, there's no way in hell anything could. He'd probably wandered far into the back of the hole, looking for somewhere warm and dry to take a nap or something. I had to go in after him.
Glancing behind me to make sure Mom wasn't anywhere nearby to catch me disobeying her directly, I pushed the tuna out of the way and shimmied into the opening. It wasn't a big hole, and I wasn't exactly tiny anymore now that I was pretty much adult-sized, but I managed to squeeze my way into the darkness.
I didn't see Junimo.
Inside the hole was dark and earthy. Beneath my palms and bare knees, the ground was soft and damp. I shivered at the thought of all the bugs the darkness was hiding, but pushed it out of my mind – I just needed to find my cat. He'd only been outside of the house a handful of time, and every other time we'd managed to grab him before he got too far. He could hurt himself, or at least he'd be a little freaked out. With a deep breath, I reached into the back pocket of my jean shorts, grabbed my phone, and flicked on the flashlight. It was so dark. I swung my phone's flashlight in an ark and the small beam of light barely even cut through the darkness. Then, suddenly, it caught on the bright yellow eyes of Junimo, who was crouching a few feet in front of me in that way that cats do, with his fluffy white tail wrapped neatly over his black paws. When he saw me, he let out a friendly little mroooww?, as if this is all some fun little game.
"Yeah, hilarious, you little shit," I said, too loudly in this crushing darkness. I lowered my voice to something little more than a whisper. "Junimo!" Why hadn't he come for the tuna, if he'd been this close the whole time?
He looked at me for a moment, then, as to be expected from a cat, turned tail and wandered deeper into the dark. "Asshole!" I hissed, shining the light around me once more. I couldn't see much besides the cobwebs, dust, and a few piles of questionable things – rat poop? – but I pressed onwards, wincing as the ground shifted from soft dirt to coarse concrete that scraped at my knees.
God, if I got killed wandering around beneath the bar because I'd chased my cat down here, my ghost would be seriously pissed.
I felt the ground shift to something smooth but gritty, though I barely had a moment to contemplate just what the hell that was because light suddenly erupted around me.
It was like I'd crawled into a different universe; one moment I was surrounded by the dark, earthy, rotting scent of the space beneath the foundation of the bar, the next I was surrounded by light, laughter, and the pungent smell of alcohol. I blinked, slid backwards toward the hole I'd crawled through, but someone's hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet.
"What the hell?" The words bubbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. I squinted into the light and could just make out the figure standing in front of me, a girl maybe 13 or 14 years old, with a forced smile and bright blonde curls.
"Nearly," the girl replied pleasantly.
My eyes adjusted, then, and I realized I was standing in a bar. Was it my neighbor's bar? I wasn't sure what my neighbor's bar looked like, because, being underage, I'd never been allowed inside. I imagined it looked like this, with a rowdy crowd and a hazy, smoky, LED light. But what the hell was this tunnel that lead down to it?
"Welcome to the Hole in the Wall Tavern," the girl in front of me said, when she saw where I was looking. "I'm Maddie, and I'll be your hostess this evening. Would you prefer bar or booth?"
I turned to look at her and saw that she was standing at what looked like a hostess stand, her left hand resting on a small black container full of laminated menus.
"What?" I blurted out, completely confused. That definitely wasn't the name of my neighbor's bar. "Um, I'm only 15." Hell, the girl, Maddie, looked like she was still a kid too, and I was sure it wasn't just that she had a young face.
Maddie just stared at me, plastic smile fixed in place and fingers still hovering over the menus.
"I, uh," I paused, trying to think of what to say.
"Can I help you with anything?" The girl asked, sugary customer service voice slipping to reveal genuine concern. "You seem a little lost."
"I'm looking for my cat?" I said dumbly, the statement coming out as a question. "He's, uh, black and white? Long fur?"
Maddie nodded, brightening. "I saw him run by a few seconds before you got here! I didn't think much of it, but now that I know it's your cat, I'll totally help you track him down."
"How many cats run through here?" Enough for her to not think twice when Junimo ran through?
Maddie shrugged and stared at me, as if waiting for a response to a question I hadn't realized she'd asked.
After a moment of silence, I said, "Uh, I'd like your help?"
"Great!" Maddie slid the greasy plastic menu back into the holder, grinning. "You know, this job sucks ass most of the time; it's not every day that I get to help someone with something this exciting."
"What?" I asked. "Tracking down a lost cat in your bar?"
"Yeah, usually the cats that come through aren't followed." She started into the bar, pointing to a table in the corner with three kids about her age. "We can ask my friends if they've seen anything."
As we walked, I noticed that most of the people here were either 14 to 15, my age, with a few groups of actual, legal adults. This was absolutely bizarre; I'd always known the neighbors bar was lenient about IDs and stuff, but they would definitely never let kids like me in.
Cheers erupted somewhere by the TV's and I had to shout my question at Maddie to be heard over the noise. "Why are there so many people our age in here? Isn't this a bar?"
Maddie shot me a dirty look and said, very primly, "You know, I'm offering to help you because I want to, not because I have to."
I nodded quickly, eyes widening. Was the question offensive or something?
Maddie spun back around with a huff.
We'd only been walking for a moment when, suddenly, a girl playing pool slammed her shoulder against mine and sent me flying into the back of a tall, broad-shouldered man.
"I'm so sorry!" The girl said quickly, then disappeared back into her group of friends.
"Watch where you're going," the man I'd slammed into snapped, spinning around to glower at me. A gummy worm slick with saliva dangled from his angry, scowling mouth. His eyes swept me up and down, darkening, and he spat the soggy gummy at my sneaker. "Fucking human piece of shit."
I stumbled back, horrified, and shook the chewed gummy worm from the toe of my shoe. He'd said human like it was a bad thing. Like he wasn't.
Maddie grabbed my shoulder and pulled me behind her. She made a gross noise at the back of her throat and spat a glob of spit at the man's foot, which, I was horrified to see, wasn't a human one. Instead of five toes on each, he had three thin, bony claws that stretched out impossibly long. Maddie snarled, "You're a goddamn vulture, Rick," and grabbed my hand, dragging me away.
"Is he actually a vulture?" I asked, because it was the only question my brain could think to ask, and because what kind of person has bird feet?
"Nah," Maddie said. "But his cousin is, and he hates to be compared to him."
Completely unsure of what to say to that, I just shook my head and let Maddie drag me the rest of the way to the table. Looking around, I realized that most of the people here had something off about them – like that Rick guy and his bird feet. I saw someone with literal butterfly wings, and another person with tree bark for skin. Where the hell was I? Maybe I had wandered into another universe.
Her friends stood up when they saw us approaching, letting out loud whoops in greeting. I was relieved to see that they all looked normal and human, like me.
"Hey, guys," Maddie said cheerfully. "This is my new friend," she paused, waiting for me to fill in the blank.
"And I'm helping her find her – black and white, you said? – cat who ran into the bar, like, a minute ago." Looking at me, she pointed to each of her friends and said, "Noah, Emily, Chester."
"Woah!" Noah, the black-haired boy who looked about 14, said to me, sounding impressed. "You actually followed your cat in here?"
I blinked. "Yeah?"
The brown-haired girl, Emily, let out a whistle of appreciation. "You don't see many people doing that, you know?"
A little irritated and very confused, I asked, "And why's that?" Just what was so weird about trying to find my cat? I'd seen a hell of a lot weirder in the less than two minutes I'd been here.
Maddie gave me a pitying smile, as if I were a child who didn't understand anything. "That's just the way things are, Allie." Her gaze swept over her friends, stopping on the last kid, Chester, the boy who hadn't spoken yet. "Chester," she commanded. "Where's the cat?"
Chester blinked at us, blearily, as if he'd just been asleep, then pointed lazily to the left. "Over there."
Maddie put her hands on her hips, scowling. "Or?"
"Over there." He pointed to the right, in the vague direction of a tall, winding staircase in the opposite corner.
Maddie beamed at him. "Great, thanks."
"What?" I blurted. Why were we going one way and not the other? What was wrong with her friend's first suggestion?
Maddie shook her head. "Way things are, Allie. Come on."
I stared helplessly at Noah and Emily, hoping one of them might understand, but neither of them seemed concerned in the slightest about Chester's logic. They both smiled happily.
"Bye, Allie, it was nice meeting you!" Noah said.
"Yeah," Emily added. "Good luck finding your cat."
Maddie grabbed my hand again and pulled me toward the staircase Chester had pointed to. "See," Maddie said as we hurried past a group of drunk people playing pool. "This is Rose's office."
"Who's Rose?" The door was at the top of a tall spiral staircase backed into the corner. It was a dark, tinted glass door with some blob of color painted on the center. I couldn't see what it was supposed to be from the bottom of the stairs.
"She owns the bar," Maddie explained. "She might know where your cat is."
"Oh." I guessed that was sound logic. The owner of the bar would probably be able to help me more than Maddie and her friends could.
"I'm going to wait over here, though," Maddie said, pointing to a dark area a little behind the staircase. "Rose is a bit of a bitch, and we don't get along too well."
"Oh," I repeated, this time frowning a little. "Uh, I guess. Thanks for helping me out, Maddie."
"No problem." Maddie smiled, then backed up until she was leaning against the wall. She waved her hands in a little 'shoo' gesture, then added, "Make sure you fix your hair a little, okay? It's a mess."
I ran a hand over my puffy ponytail, knowing the humidity outside must've given me a halo of frizz on the top of my head. It was just a ponytail, though, and I was in a bar. Hell, that Rick guy hadn't even been wearing shoes; my hair was fine as it was. With a glace back at Maddie, I edged my way up the stairs. They were a little flimsy, and the screws that held the boards creaked with every step.
When I got to the top, I realized what the painting on the glass door was supposed to be: a rose. It looked more like a child's attempt at painting one, but it had the right reds and pinks, and what I thought might be a bright green stem covered in thorns. I turned my attention to the handle, a small brass twist one, then took a deep breath and knocked.
I knocked again, this time a little louder, but still everything was silent. Craning my neck, I tried to see where Maddie was below the platform, but it was too hazy and dark. "Rose?" I called, knocking once more. Figuring it would be best to just find my cat and get the hell out of here, I twisted the handle and pushed the door open.
The inside of the office was small and just as dusty as the rest of the bar had been. Books upon books upon books were stacked in the old, bowing bookshelves lining the walls, and a large oak desk towards the back room filled most of the space. Standing by the desk, an older woman, Rose, I assumed, was slowly trying to lower a playing card onto a rather tall, rather impressive house of cards. Her bright red lips were twisted in concentration, her breath held, and I found myself holding my breath, too.
Slowly, slowly, Rose placed the card onto the house and inched her way backwards. Her gaze was locked on her work.
It was then that I saw Junimo poke his head out from around the side of the desk. He looked from Rose to me, then settled on Rose. Before I could think of anything I could do to stop him, Junimo let out a little mrow and jumped forward to rub his little head against the pant leg of the woman's black jeans.
Rose jumped, jerked backwards. She gasped, the air from her breath blowing the stacked cards down without warning. Her gaze swept down to my friendly cat, who was purring loudly and rubbing the side of his face against her leg. After a moment, Rose sucked in a ragged breath and glanced up at me then back at Junimo, eyes wild with rage.
"What the fuck is your problem?" She snarled at Junimo.
"Don't-" I started.
"You knocked over my cards!" Rose snapped, voice rising in pitch every other word. "Do you know how long I've been working on that? For days!"
"I'm sorry-" I started, because I really was. Junimo obviously didn't know he'd done something wrong, but he was my cat so I figured he was my responsibility.
"This horrible little animal ruined it!" Rose interrupted.
"It wasn't his fault!" I protested, but Rose didn't seem to care. She snapped her fiery glare back up to me, eyes narrowed. I swallowed the rest of my protest. Rose shifted her gaze back to my cat at her feet.
Junimo had been having the time of his life rubbing against her leg, but he seemed to suddenly have a change of heart on Rose's character. He pulled away and ran toward me, just as Rose's left foot came down where he'd been standing.
"Stand still, you little shit!" Rose screamed.
Junimo bolted toward me and I quickly scooped him up, praying he'd be good and sit still in my arms for once.
"Bring that little bastard back here!"
"Leave him alone!" I yelled. I spun around, realizing I needed to get out of here. I burst out the door and scrambled down the stairs, stumbling under the heavy weight of the wriggling cat in my arms. Rose stomped down after me, screaming wordlessly at the top of her lungs.
"You found him," Maddie commented when she saw us, raising her voice over the music. She seemed entirely unfazed by Rose's screaming, but I didn't feel the same. I shot Maddie a yeah, no shit look and took off. How the hell did I get out of here?
The bar was still busy, and I had to stop for a moment to try to right myself and figure out just where the hole – my exit – was. Through the crowd of people playing games or wandering around, I spotted the hostess stand. As I started pushing my way through, I noticed that no one spared more than a quick look at the screaming owner of the bar, and even less people glanced at me.
"That little rat's gonna pay!" Rose screamed from behind me.
"Oh, shut up," Maddie said back, sounding annoyed. I risked a glace over my shoulder, just in time to catch her sticking her foot out and tripping Rose onto the floor. Maddie really hated her job, didn't she?
"Thank you!" I yelled over my shoulder, dodging a man with four arms and a girl with giraffe ossicones on her head. Junimo wriggled a little more in my arms and I tightened my hold, hugging him close to my chest. He wasn't too happy with me, but who knew what that woman would do if she managed to get her hands on him? She'd already tried to kick him, so I wasn't going to let her come close enough to try again.
I dropped down onto my knees and started to shimmy into the hole – it was more difficult than I'd though it would be, thanks to the cat in my arms. Junimo hissed and, startled, I released him. He didn't waste any time in leaping from my arms and bounding into the tunnel. From somewhere back in the bar, Rose let out a wordless scream of rage. I hurried blindly after Junimo.
The moment I crawled into the hole, all light and noise ceased. The laugher, the music, the TV, and the crazy screaming from Rose were replaced by a deafening silence. I fumbled in the dark for a moment, trying to grab my phone from my back pocket. Shivering, I flicked on the light and swept it around to try to find Junimo. He was crouched similar to how he'd been when I'd first found him inside the hole, head cocked to the side and eyes eerily reflecting the light back at me.
"You okay, buddy?" I asked, more to fill the sudden silence than anything.
Junimo stared at me, then stood up and trotted off into the dark. Towards home.
"Good idea," I agreed, crawling quickly after him. "Let's go home."