Urban legends. I think everyone knows a few of those. They are tales about ghastly incidents, frightening creatures, or supernatural things.
In my home area, one such legend persisted for a long time. It was the tale about the so-called ‘hombre lagarto’ or the lizard man.
The part of the city I grew up in was a dump. It wasn’t the slums, but it wasn’t much better.
The people living there were dirt poor. No one could afford video games or home entertainment apart from clunky, old TV sets. I could count the few toys I owned as a kid on one hand and they were old and cheaply made.
That’s why my friends and I spent most of our time outside. When we weren’t playing soccer or riding our bikes, we’d explore our neighborhood. We were often trying to find out which of the many local legends and tales were true.
That’s how we learned about the tale of the lizard man. I don’t know who started talking about it, but it soon became popular. All the local kids and teenagers talked about a humanoid lizard who lived somewhere in our neighborhood.
When we investigated, as we called it, we realized that the story had been around much longer than we thought. Many people around our neighborhood recalled having heard about lizard man.
For my group of friends and me, it was proof enough that the lizard man existed.
Our group comprised five kids. There was me, my best friend Samuel, Gabriel, David and Tomás, who we called Fat Tom.
At first, we only searched the area around our homes, but it was obvious that we’d not find lizard man there. Eventually, we grew braver and our search led us through the entire neighborhood.
It landed us in quite a bit of trouble. One time, as we explored an abandoned building, we even ran into a group of thugs. They were more than a little pissed and clarified that things would get ugly if they ever found us there again.
As I said, it was a dangerous neighborhood.
After the above encounter and not finding any hints about lizard man, my friends were close to giving up. They all said it was most likely nothing but a giant joke. I, however, wasn’t gonna give up.
“Oh, Felipe,” I heard someone call out to me after another one of our fruitless searches. I saw a group of teenagers nearby, sitting together, smoking, and drinking.
“Hello Andrés,” I mumbled a greeting to the one who’d called out to me. Before I could rush off though, he motioned for me to come closer.
“What have you been up to, Felipe? Still hunting lizard man?”
The rest of his group laughed as soon as he’d said that. I bit my tongue not to give a snarky reply. I knew I’d be up for a beating if I’d mouth up against Andrés and his group.
“We have, but we can’t find him anywhere.”
“Oh yeah, where’ve you been looking for him?” one of Andrés’ friends asked.
“Everywhere!” I exclaimed throwing my arms into the air.
The group laughed again. Andrés motioned for them to be quiet, got up, and brought his face close to mine.
“You wanna know where he lives?”
I nodded vehemently.
“He’s down in the old sewers,” he whispered with an enormous grin on his face before he got himself another beer.
“But how do we,” I started but Andrés had already returned to his friends. I stood there awkwardly, not sure if I was supposed to stick around or leave. Finally one of his friends flicked a cigarette butt at me.
“Oi, beat it!” he yelled.
That evening I thought about what Andrés had told me. Now it made sense. If lizard man lived down in the old sewers than of course, we’d not find him up here.
The old sewers had been created back in the day when my city experienced a rapid industrial boom. Dozens of factories and warehouses had been erected only to be abandoned a decade after.
What everyone called the old sewers were the remains of the piping system that had accommodated all the factories. It was a network of dirty tunnels that been dug out without as much as a second thought.
By now they too were abandoned and had been in disuse for years.
It was said that parts of the tunnels had collapsed throughout the years. What remained nowadays was a sprawling underground network.
The adults had declared them off-limits and said it was too dangerous down there. I knew, though, that some older kids had been down there.
The longer I thought about it, the more it made sense that lizard man was living down there.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I lay in bed, thinking about the old sewers and imagined lizard man’s secret lair and the terrible things he did there. When I finally drifted off to sleep, I dreamt about an entire society of humanoid lizards living below our city.
I think I was a bit too excited about the entire thing, but what can I say, I was an eleven-year-old boy.
“That’s dumb!” Samuel complained. “I don’t want to search for stupid lizard man anymore, Felipe.”
“But Andrés told me-“
“You believe his stupid stories? Everyone knows he’s a liar,” he complained.
I gasped when he said this and I took a few glances around to see if anyone might have heard him.
“You can’t say this,” I hushed him.
“Oh yeah, why not? I’m not afraid of him, or anyone else for that matter,” Samuel went on, putting his hands to his hips and pushing his chest out.
He was always a troublemaker and never listened to anything people told him.
“If he hears you say that he’s gonna beat you up.”
“He can try if he wants to!”
When Samuel grinned at me I frowned. I didn’t want to talk about Andrés anymore and I was more than relieved to see Gabriel and Fat Tom arrive.
Gabriel was enthusiastic as always. The moment he saw us he jumped off his bike and rushed towards us.
“What’s the plan for today?” he not only asked, but yelled at us.
Fat Tom was following behind him on his bike. He was exhausted and drenched in sweat. It must’ve been hell for him to keep up with Gabriel.
“We’ll make preparations to go after lizard man again,” I told the two of them. “As soon as David’s here, I’ll tell you what I found out.”
“You mean the lies Andrés told you about,” Samuel said laughing.
I shrugged. “We don’t know if he lied.”
It took almost another half hour before David arrived. He was quiet and kept his head low.
“Hey, David,” I called out to him.
He looked up and gave me a slight smile. I could see his red eyes and a split lip, but I said nothing. The others were quiet too. Seeing him like this had become almost a norm for us. Ever since his mom ran off, his dad did nothing but drink and blamed David for everything.
He greeted us all with a brief nod but said nothing.
“Since everyone’s here now, I’ve got some important news on lizard man!”
The enthusiasm of my friends remained within limits. It was only Gabriel who seemed to be happy to hear about lizard man and he was always happy about anything we did. Samuel had folded his arms and rolled his eyes. Fat Tom shrugged and David kept his head low and was busy kicking tiny stones away.
I frowned as I stared at my friends.
“Well guys, I did some research, and it looks like I found some information on lizard man and where-“
“Liar! You talked to Andrés about it,” chimed in Samuel.
“Be quiet!” I retorted.
I’d lost my momentum and had already half-forgotten the brief speech I’d prepared.
“Eh yeah, so, lizard man’s down in the old sewers,” I finished more or less annoyed.
“Are we going down there to find him?” Gabriel burst out looking at me with a bright smile on his face.
“You betcha,” I answered, giving him a thumbs up.
“Wait, you didn’t tell me he was down in the old sewers!” Samuel burst out in surprise.
“You didn’t let me finish when I was about to tell you.”
“Never mind that, but I’m coming along. I’d always wanted to go down there!” he finally said nodding at me.
“I’m coming along too,” Fat Tom said.
The only one left was David.
“David, are you coming as well?”
He looked up for a moment and mumbled a “Yeah,” before he kicked yet another stone away.
We didn’t enter the old sewers that day. Instead, we strategized our approach for this grand adventure.
We agreed that the best day for ‘operation lizard man’ was Saturday. That way we’d have the entire day to explore the old sewers.
For the rest of the week, we made up scenarios about lizard man, talked about the sewers, and gathered supplies. I spent hours at the old garbage dump, searching for anything that might come in handy. There wasn’t much, but I was lucky enough to find an old, still functioning flashlight, and a used pair of rubber boots.
When Saturday arrived, I rushed out right after breakfast. My mom cursed after me, but I was gone too before she had the chance of catching me. As she yelled after me I hurried away to our secret meeting place where I’d hidden all my supplies. There were the rubber boots and the flashlight, a self-made rain cape, my backpack filled with drinks and snacks, and a large stick.
The rest of my friends arrived one after another. Each one of them had prepared similarly.
Looking back, we were a rag-tag band with an assortment of tools and weapons that were almost completely useless.
During our preparations, we’d found a hidden entrance at the edge of the old industrial area. It was a small overgrown side-tunnel, and we hurried there as fast as possible. If our parents found out what we were up to, we’d be in a lot of trouble.
A few people gave us odd stares as we hurried past them, but they mostly ignored us. Between the other, weird characters that gathered in our neighborhood a bunch of kids like us didn’t stick out too much.
As soon as we’d reached the entrance, we made sure no one was around. Then we descended.
The smell that hit us was almost unbearable. It was a mixture of the rotten smell of stagnant water and old, chemical residue.
“Smells like your room, Tom,” Samuel joked as we entered.
“Yeah, or your mom’s you know what,” Tom retorted.
We all laughed.
“You guys, do you think we’ll actually see him?” Gabriel asked, not able to hide the excitement in his voice.
“If he’s down here, I’m sure we will,” I told him similarly excited.
As we ventured down into the tunnel, we were all cracking jokes, but when darkness engulfed us we grew quieter. The place was creepy, and we were almost in complete darkness. All we had to illuminate the place was the old flashlight I’d found. The noises of rodents were all around us and here and there we saw them scurry away. At one point the beam of the flashlight illuminated a giant muskrat. We all froze, afraid it would attack us. To our relief, it only watched us curiously for a moment before it squeaked and rushed off.
Looking back it’s hard to believe how ill-prepared we were after an entire week of preparation. We brought nothing to mark our way, hadn’t bothered to get our hands on a map, and had no idea where we were even going.
I guess we weren’t the smartest bunch.
We’d been down there for about half an hour when we made our first discovery.
In a side-tunnel, we discovered a small dirty tent propped up against the wall. There was a fireplace nearby and an assortment of tools and other things.
“We found something!” Gabriel exclaimed and his voice echoed through the tunnels.
“Be quiet dumbass,” Samuel shushed him. “We don’t know if anyone’s around.”
“Do you guys think this is lizard man’s home?” I asked in a whisper.
“Could be,” David said in a quiet voice.
“Look, guys, boobies!” Fat Tom exclaimed, holding up a pornographic magazine he’d found next to the fireplace. Gabriel joined him and the two of them oohed and aahed as they went through the pages.
I looked around and used my flashlight to illuminate the surrounding area.
“Hey Felipe, come over here, do you think lizard man’s a scientist?” Samuel called out to me and waved me over.
What he’d found was a workbench. Various glasses, bowls, and tools cluttered the top and a stack of containers stood next to it. It reminded me of the chemistry lab at school.
“I don’t know, it looks weird,” I whispered to him.
“Hey guys, look at that,” I heard David from behind us.
He’d crawled into the tent to have a look at the stuff inside.
Most of what I saw were dirty clothes, an old sleeping bag and empty bottles of beer. David however had found something else. It was a plastic bag containing some white powder.
“There’s more of those over here, look,” he said.
“No way that looks like the stuff my brother sells,” Samuel said.
Samuel’s brother was older than us, almost twenty and he earned most of his money selling drugs.
Looking back, I don’t know what exactly we found, but I am damned sure it was drugs.
“Give it to me,” Samuel said and ripped the gab from David to have a better look.
While the two of them continued to go through the tent, I wondered if this was really lizard man’s home. I pointed the flashlight here and there, afraid he’d jump us any moment.
Suddenly the sound of a conversation reached me. Whoever was talking though, was still too far away to make out anything.
I darted the beam of the flashlight around and soon illuminated two scraggy guys in dirty clothes. One of them was smoking a cigarette the other was holding a bottle of beer.
The moment they saw me, their conversation ended and their eyes grew wide. A second later their faces grew dark with anger.
“The fuck are you doing here you little shit?” the one with the cigarette screamed at me.
Oh shit, this wasn’t lizard man’s home, it was theirs.
Gabriel and Tom jumped to their feet in an instant and a moment later Samuel and David joined us. Samuel was still holding the strange plastic bag, oblivious to what was going on.
The moment the two guys saw it, they went wild.
“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me!” they screamed up and came towards us.
“Run,” I yelled at my friends and with that, we all hurried back to the main tunnel we’d come from.
“Come back here, you little fuckers!” one of the men screamed after us. Soon his footsteps followed us down the tunnel, as well as the worst series of profanities I’d ever heard in my entire life.
I glanced back only once and in the flashlight’s beam, I saw the guy coming after his. Rage distorted his face, and he was holding a knife in his hand.
We ran as fast as we could, going left and right haphazardly, trying desperately to throw him off, but he didn’t seem to give up.
We were all out of it screaming, crying not even understanding why this guy was coming after us like this.
My heart was beating against my chest, my lungs stung and I felt my legs growing weaker as I continued.
At one point I almost tripped, stumbled forward, and was sure that was it. I cringed, darted around the beam of the flashlight, but at that moment I saw that there was no one behind us anymore. I don’t know if we shook him off or if he’d given up.
Relieved and exhausted I collapsed on the floor.
“Felipe, come on!” Samuel called out to me, but when he saw that we were alone he stopped as well.
Once I’d caught my breath, I held up the flashlight and counted my friends. They were all there. I could see Fat Tom lying on the wet floor, panting. Gabriel was leaning against a wall steadying himself and I could see David, crying nearby.
We were all terrified and utterly exhausted. For a moment I listened, half-expecting to hear the guy’s angry screams nearby. The only sounds I heard though was our ragged breaths and the same sounds of rodents we’d heard before.
“I wanna go home,” David mumbled to himself, sniffing.
I could see Fat Tom, pushing himself to his feet, hands on his knees, huffing and puffing. It was Samuel who finally spoke up.
“So, how do we get out of here? Felipe?”
“I think, maybe,” I started but broke up. I had no clue where the hell we were. We’d run so far and for so long, we could be anywhere in the old sewers by now.
“I don’t know where we are,” I admitted.
The rest had gotten closer by now and they all scanned the surrounding area.
“I want to leave,” David repeated.
“We all want, idiot,” Fat Tom snapped at him.
“But what about lizard man, guys?” Gabriel asked suddenly.
We all turned to him wide-eyed.
“Are you stupid?” Samuel asked, stepping up to him.
“We almost got killed, Gabriel!” I called out.
“That guy, what if he comes back?” Fat Tom asked, looking over his shoulder at the dark tunnel behind us.
Gabriel’s smile vanished as if he only now realized the seriousness of the situation.
“Yeah, all right, I guess,” he mumbled while staring at his feet.
No one made small-talk or chit-chat anymore as we searched for an exit. We all walked, huddled together, listening to every sound around us. None of us cared about lizard man anymore. We all wanted to get out of here, even Gabriel.
I told myself we should’ve never come down here and Andrés had most likely played a trick on me. Maybe he even knew about those guys we’d run into down here. I had to force myself to not start crying.
We’d walked for what seemed like hours and after a while, I realized that the tunnels we were in seemed a little different. The tunnels we walked through seemed even older. More than once did we end up at a dead-end where part of the tunnels had collapsed. By now it felt almost as if we were wandering through a labyrinth. I could hear not only David but also Fat Tom sobbing and sniffing behind us. I too was closed to tears and the thought of being lost down here forever scared me beyond anything.
As we kept walking from one tunnel to the next, I illuminated the area all around us. I was trying to find side-tunnels and different directions we’d not tried yet.
That’s when I noticed him. To this day I still remember every last detail of him. It was a humanoid figure, covered in rags that looked straight into our direction. I gasped and at first, I thought it was the madman who’d chased us before. Then I noticed all the terrifying differences.
The entire face was wrong. It was too wide, and the skin looked almost like leather or scales. The hands of the creature ended in long claws and the arms looked twisted. I gasped, opened my mouth, but my voice didn’t function. My friends turned towards me and all I could do was point into at the creature with a shaking arm.
At that point, the creature took a step towards us and I could already see it reaching out for us with its clawed hands.
My friends turned around and I could see their eyes grow wide.
“Lizard man!” Gabriel screamed up.
We almost tumbled over one another as we ran.
Most of what happened afterward is a blur. We’d been exhausted from running away before and what must’ve been hours of searching for an exit.
As we ran, we heard lizard man’s heavy footsteps behind us and every once in a while the creature screeched after us in his inhuman voice. I have no idea how outran the creature, as exhausted as we were. More than once we barely avoided its clutches. It seemed almost as if the creature was herding us somewhere, driving us straight to his ghastly lair.
Then, I saw it. There was daylight coming from somewhere right ahead of us.
“This way!” I yelled at my friends and rushed on.
It was an old sewer exit pipe, leading the bank of a small river near the industrial area.
I threw myself forward, jumped from the edge, and stumbled a few steps before I collapsed on the riverbank. My friends tumbled from the exit only seconds later. I expected lizard man to jump from the tunnel after us, screeching and screaming, to drag us back inside. Instead, all was quiet.
As I lay there in the grass, I realized something. There were only four of us. Gabriel was missing.
We called out for him repeatedly, but there was no trace of him. We considered going back inside to search for him, but we were all too scared.
Eventually, we started on our way back.
“You think lizard man took him?” Samuel spoke up after a lengthy period of silence.
When I didn’t answer he poked me with his elbow. “Oi, Felipe!”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, but deep down I thought that was what had happened.
“Maybe he ran into a different direction,” David added.
“Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine,” Fat Tom started.
“How do you know, fatass?” Samuel cut him off.
“For all we know,” he continued, “he’s already been eaten. We should’ve never gone down there!”
“I know,” I said feeling down. “I just thought,” I started but didn’t know how to continue.
It was me who’d come up with this whole idea about tracing down lizard man. In my excitement I’d never thought about how dangerous it all was.
When we made it back to our neighborhood we stopped, all staring at each other.
“What are we gonna do now?” Fat Tom asked.
No one said a thing.
“Shouldn’t we go tell someone?” I asked.
“No one will believe us anyway,” Samuel said shaking his head.
With that we all returned home, not saying another thing. We all hoped Gabriel would turn up in an hour or two, smiling as he always did and telling everyone about lizard man and our adventure.
As the hours passed, I realized that Gabriel wouldn’t return. When the sun set his parents asked around if anyone had seen him. It wasn’t long before someone remembered seeing us with him in the early morning. When they confronted us, we told everyone what had happened.
At first, we only told them we’d gotten lost in the old sewers but soon enough we told them everything else.
Gabriel’s parents went to the police right away. Not long after an officer arrived and asked me and my friends a handful of questions. He didn’t seem to take the entire thing serious. Before long he told Gabriel’s parents that he’d turn up, eventually.
As the days passed, however, Gabriel stayed missing. Soon his family and many of the neighbors started protesting and screaming at the police to do something. That’s when they agreed to search the old sewers. It was a halfhearted effort. Only a few officers went down, and it took them days before they found Gabriel.
He was alive but in a terrible state. He was malnourished, dehydrated, and suffered from a terrible fever.
The worst was his mental state. He was out of it and tried his hardest to get away from the police when they found him. When they brought him up, he didn’t say a thing and didn’t even recognize his parents.
At first, they thought it was because he’d been lost in the tunnels for so long, but a check-up at the hospital revealed a different story. Gabriel’s body was covered in bruises and signs of abuse, both physical and sexual.
After the check-up, Gabriel was transferred to the mental ward of the hospital and never left it again. He was paranoid, suffered from severe trauma, and hallucinations. He was never the same again and in the few times I went to visit him, his face was empty of all emotions. There was no hint anymore of his ever-bright smile.
The entire case was swept under the carpet. It never even made the news. The police ended up talking to some people, but it was clear they didn’t care about our neighborhood.
A week later they blamed the entire thing on some homeless guy who lived in the old industrial area. They said he’d kidnapped Gabriel while we were down in the tunnels and abused him for an entire week. There was no trial, instead, they just locked him up and with that, the case was done.
I don’t know if it was the guy who’d chased us, but it wasn’t lizard man.
No one believed us when we told them about lizard man. The adults shrugged it off, saying it was nothing but a flight of imagination, while the kids and teenagers called us liars.
The thing is though, I know what I saw. I still remember the creature’s leathery skin and his clawed hands. I’ve seen it so many times in my dreams, I can’t believe that it was nothing but a figment of my imagination.
For the past decade, this is where the story ended. In the past week though, a lot of things happened, things that changed everything.
Two weeks ago Gabriel killed himself.
Over the years at the mental ward, he’d multiple suicide attempts. It was his last one that unfortunately succeeded.
By the time it happened, I hadn’t been living in my old neighborhood for several years.
I was one of the few lucky kids who had received a scholarship because of my outstanding academic performance. It allowed me to enroll in college and to leave my home behind. I never looked back.
It was mom who called me out of the blue and told me that my old childhood friend Gabriel had killed himself.
It might sound harsh, but considering his condition, I always knew it was only a matter of time until something like this would happen.
Still, as much as I told myself this, it didn’t help one bit.
I decided instantly to make the lengthy trip back home and attend the funeral. I owed him at least that much. In the years that followed our descent, I’d often blamed myself for what happened back then. If not for for my stupid obsession with an urban legend, he’d still be alive.
The funeral wasn’t big. The only people attending were his parents and a few relatives. None of them gave me much attention, and they probably didn’t even recognize me.
Other than me two other young men attended the funeral. Both of them seemed as lost there as I was.
One was an awkward young man, wearing a cheap, ill-fitting suit. He was nervous and seemed fidgety. When he smiled at me shyly, his hand hanging low, I recognized him.
“David?” I asked as I walked over to him.
He stared at me before he too recognized me and extended a hand to greet me.
“Felipe,” he exclaimed, slurring part of it so it came out more like a “Feip.”
I could tell right away he was far from sober.
The other guy watched us from afar. He was a young muscular man, who carried himself pretty confidently. When he made his way over towards us, I finally recognized him. His jaw dropped. It was Fat Tom, but he wasn’t fat at all anymore.
“Tomás? Is that you? Holy shit, what happened to you?” I greeted him and gave him a big hug.
“Felipe. Good to see you. How long’s it been?”
“Too long,” I answered, smiling.
He nodded and for a moment his eyes wandered to the grave.
“Not the nicest reunion.”
David and I both agreed.
“How about some drinks?” Tomás asked.
After we’d given our condolences to Gabriel’s parents Tomás led us to a small local bar not too far from our old neighborhood. Tomás greeted the owner and the man instantly prepared a beer for each of us.
After a toast, we started to chit-chat and about how life was treating us. I found out that David’s father had drunk himself to death when David was fifteen years old. After that David gave up on school and started to work at one of the local factories.
I watched with a sullen look at how he greedily gulped down his beer but said nothing.
We also gave in to nostalgia for a bit and talked about the times when our little group had been inseparable. It all changed after what happened to Gabriel. We all stayed friends, but it was a reluctant friendship and over the years we slowly drifted apart.
When I asked them about Samuel, their faces turned sour. As he grew older and after I moved away, he hung out with Andrés and his group. He gave up on school and followed into his brother’s footsteps. The two of them talked to him occasionally, but then, one day, he was just gone.
No one knows what happened to him, and they both told me he probably moved on. I nodded, but I knew you don’t just move on in a neighborhood like ours.
We were all quiet for a bit and after I’d taken another sip of my beer, I couldn’t help but stare at Tomás again.
I couldn’t believe how much he’d changed. In my memory, he was still the fat kid in our group, and here he was, in much better shape than me.
“Something the matter?” he asked with a grin on his face.
“It’s just that,” I started but couldn’t find the right words to finish.
“That little Fat Tom isn’t fat anymore?”
I smiled at him and nodded.
“Can’t use that nickname anymore,” he added.
All three of us laughed.
“Terrible what happened to Gabriel,” David suddenly said and brought us back to reality why we were all here.
“Yeah,” I said. “They shouldn’t have done so much more back then,” I continued.
“Like What?” Tomás asked.
“Well the damned cops could’ve sent more people down there, could’ve looked into the whole thing.”
Tomás laughed a little.
“Felipe, none of the cops here give a shit about a kid going missing,” he said and took another sip of his beer before he continued.
“Everybody knew the entire thing was bullshit. The perpetrator, the way they handled it, and what they said had happened.”
“True,” David said nodding.
“I wonder what we saw that day,” I thought out loud.
“You mean that thing that chased us?” Tomás asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, lizard man.”
“You’re still using that name, Felipe?”
“Well, what else should I call it?”
He shrugged. “No clue.”
At this point, David got up from his seat. He quickly downed the rest of his beer before he looked at us with an awkward smile.
“Well, sorry guys, but,” he slurred looking at the clock, “the wife’s gonna be mad if I’m not home and-“
“It’s fine David,” I said. Tomas nodded.
We both gave him a hug that he awkwardly returned. He gave us another nod before he made his way to the door. We could both see he wasn’t able to walk in a straight line anymore. Neither of us said a word. It wasn’t ours to judge him.
After we’d gotten ourselves another beer, Tomás told me that Gabriel’s story wasn’t that uncommon. Many cases are never solved and are swept under the carpet.
“How’d you know-“ I started but was cut off when he put a police badge on the table.
For a moment I was even more surprised and stared at him with wide eyes.
“Guess no one expected Fat Tom to join the force, right?” he said with an even bigger grin.
“Hey, I didn’t mean what I said before, you know.”
He waved his hand, showing me it was fine.
“Don’t worry about it. You weren’t wrong.”
“How’d you end up becoming a cop?”
I never remembered him talking about it. He’d always talked about becoming a baker, a chef, or a restaurant owner, anything related to food.
“Well, after the entire thing with Gabriel, I couldn’t help but blame myself, you know Felipe?”
I nodded in agreement. I had my own, inner demons because of it.
“I couldn’t forget about it and go on living as if it never happened, or move away as you did.”
His tone had become more reproachful, but I shrugged it off. He had a point.
“I wanted to do something, you know?” he pressed out.
“Yeah, I get what you mean.”
For a moment he eyed me, to see if I was just saying it, but then he nodded.
“Tell you what, I think they never got the guy who did it. As I said, it was all bullshit. Recently another adolescent girl was found, no older than fourteen. The same happened to her. Dragged off into those tunnels, abused and brutally raped. Only for her, it was too late.”
I stayed quiet, but I could see that Tomás was getting angry.
“It happens all the fucking time, but no one gives a shit. They all suffer,” he broke up, shook his head, and ordered himself another beer.
Time went on. We kept talking and as it got beer was replaced by shots.
I don’t remember how we came up with the idea, but we made plans to go down into the sewers to find lizard man again.
When I woke up the next morning my head was pounding and felt like total shit. I didn’t even remember how I’d made it back to my parent’s place but was relieved that I still had all my belongings with me.
After I’d flushed down a couple of pain killers, the pounding in my head subsided.
I’d barely made myself some coffee when my phone rang. It was an unknown number, but when I answered it I heard a familiar voice.
“Is the plan still up, Felipe?”
It took me a few moments to realize that the voice belonged to Tomás and a few more to remember what we’d been talking about.
I heard the determination in his voice and finally, my curiosity got the better of me.
“Yeah, I’m in,” I heard myself say.
We met up soon after at our old meeting place. It felt nostalgic to be back there. As I scanned the area, I could almost see my friends in front of me.
I was surprised when I saw a police car pull in and more so when Tomás waved me over.
Together the two of us set out to the pipe exit at the riverbank.
I felt a shiver running down my spine when I saw it.
This time we came prepared. Tomás had gotten his hands on a map of the old sewers, two police flashlights, and a handful of other things, including a gun.
As we stood in front of the entry, he handed me a flashlight and made eye contact with me. For a moment I wasn’t so sure anymore, but then I thought about Gabriel and nodded.
The smell hit us right away. It was far worse than I remembered.
“Jesus,” I cursed and put my hand over my nose.
Tomás walked in front of me, completely unfazed by it.
“How can you just… with this smell?”
“I’ve smelled worse,” he answered shrugging.
I didn’t ask what he meant. Ever since I’d moved away, I’d heard all the horror stories about my neighborhood. Stories about rape and murder, poverty and prostitution as well as child crime. I guess, when you’re growing in the middle of it, you don’t see things for what they really are.
As we venture deeper into the older sewers, a sense of Déjà vu washed over me. The daylight grew weaker and weaker before it vanished completely. I felt the hair on my arms stand up as we turned on our flashlights.
Step by step the memory of over a decade ago came back to me. It’s surprising how deep certain images can be buried inside of your mind.
Tomás showed me the map and pointed at a specific area.
“That’s where we’re at right now. It’s the first couple of tunnels they dug out in the day. If that bastard lived here back then, chances are he’s still around now.”
As we made our way through the tunnels, the sound of our footsteps echoed through the darkness ahead of us. The only other sound was the familiar noise of rodents. They were always close by, but we saw none of them. It felt almost like I was eleven-years-old again, as I hurried after Tomás.
We’d been down there for almost two hours when Tomás cursed.
“Fucking hell. There’s no hint of anything.”
“What if we continue over there?”
He turned to look at me.
“We’ve been through the entire sewers twice already.”
“Wait, are you serious?”
He nodded and held up the map that was now covered in dots and marks.
“Marked every little turn and dead-end. Twice.”
“So, that’s it then?”
Tomás spit on the ground. He illuminated the area around us one last time before he nodded.
“Guess I should’ve known better,” he mumbled to himself.
On our way back, I started doing the same thing he’d done. I illuminated every nook and cranny of the surrounding area.
At one point I noticed a small ditch to our right where the water was dripping down somewhere.
“What’s that?” I asked and put my hand on Tomás shoulder. The moment he saw it he hurried over.
I’d thought it was nothing more than a small hole, but it turned out to be some sort of tunnel. When we illuminated it, we saw that there was a passageway.
Tomás checked the map to see if there’d been a tunnel here once that had collapsed but he couldn’t find anything on the map.
“Might be nothing,” he started, but I nodded right away. I knew what he was about to say.
We almost had to crouch as we followed the small tunnel downwards.
It soon grew wider, and we realized we were in a natural cave. I carefully took one step at a time and listened to the surrounding sounds.
“What in the,” I started, but Tomás turned around and put a finger over his mouth. Then he walked into the darkness ahead of me.
It wasn’t long before we found the first signs of human activity. There were some old clothes here, a fireplace there, and I even saw some old, dirty books on the ground next to it.
As we illuminated the surrounding area, we soon discovered a tent propped up against one of the cave’s walls. Next to it, we found stacks of food, much of it still in edible condition.
Tomás nodded at me and got his gun out. Someone was living down here and I knew he wouldn’t take any chances. He moved his flashlight around, carefully scanning the area.
When he illuminated a figure standing ahead of me, I gasped. I recognized the skin and the clawed hands instantly.
“Don’t move,” Tomás yelled at the figure, pointing his gun at it.
To my surprise, I saw it nod and raise his hands. I was completely perplexed. I recognized every detail about lizard man and a ‘holy shit’ escaped my mouth.
Once I got a closer look though, I noticed the hanging shoulders, the deep wrinkles, and the bushes of grey hair that sprouted from the head. Tired eyes stared at us and looked first at Tomás, then at me and then back to Tomás and the gun in his hand. Suddenly I heard a voice.
“You can put the gun down, boy, you’re not in danger.”
I jerked the flashlight around, trying to find the speaker. Then it hit me, the voice was coming from lizard man himself.
“What did you say?” Tomás asked, turning to me for a moment. I didn’t get to give him an answer because right at this moment lizard man spoke up again.
“Not going to do anything to you, boys?”
“The fuck you are, freak?” Tomás asked.
The creature in front of us laughed, at least if you can call it that. It was a sickly, thin sound that reminded you more of a whistle.
“You’re right, I’m exactly that, a freak,” he went on. “Still a human being though, even if it’s hard to believe, looking like this.”
“Why the hell are you looking like that?” I burst out.
Lizard man explained that he was suffering from a rare skin condition. It starts as a rash, but soon it transforms your skin into something resembling leather or scales. I couldn’t believe it. The creature I’d thought of as lizard man for so long, was a human being, just like us.
Tomás mumbled something before he lowered his gun, but kept it in his hand, at the ready. The weird old man in front of us seemed to relax a bit.
I’m not sure how much of his story was true, but he went on to tell us how he was ostracized by society.
“Used to be normal. Looked just like you, had a job, friends, a family, a home, all that. Once this started though,” he pointed at his face.
“Got kicked out of work, said I was contagious. After that things went down quickly. Friends ignored me, found no other job, and lost my home. That’s how I ended up in the streets, but that made it even worse. Got beaten up, was regarded as a monster. Called me leather face, lizard man and god knows what else.”
I felt sorry for the old man standing in front of us.
“Was in my forties when I went down here. Had enough of everyone up there and no desire to go back anymore. Must’ve been down here a good twenty years by now. More than enough time to get used to this life,” he said laughing.
“How do you know how long it’s been?” Tomás asked.
“Well boy, can’t get food down here. Have to get up every once in a while. There are newspapers in the trash and at the garbage dump.”
“Why don’t you go back up? By now there’s probably a cure. You could-“
He raised a hand to stop me.
“There’s nothing up there for me anymore. No friends, no family, nothing. Most important though,” he began and I could see his face turn sad. “There’s no compassion up there.”
He shook his head.
“Down here, at least I’m all by myself.”
Tomás had gotten impatient, and he’d given me a few angry side-glance as I kept talking to the old man. As soon as he finished this time, it was Tomás who spoke up.
“All right old man, I’ve got a few questions for you.”
Lizard man gave him a questioning look.
“There were five of us, eleven years old. We came down here one day, about a decade ago, saw you and one of our friends got lost… or was taken.”
Instead of answering lizard man laughed.
“I might live alone down here boy, but you’d surprised how many people come down here. There’s no way I’d remember all of them.”
At first, I thought that was all he was about to say, but then something seemed to come to his mind.
“A decade ago, you said? Back then, it wasn’t just me who was down here. There was this group of other guys. Sure they looked the part, but they weren’t homeless. They were here for an entirely different reason.”
“Drugs,” Tomás whispered knowingly. “Common thing back in the day. No one cared about a few crazed hobos living down here.”
Lizard man nodded.
“Used to be a dangerous place down here, boy.”
“I’m sure you’d remember a group of kids,” Tomás started and as he continued, his voice became strained. “Especially if you chased them.”
“Never chased no one, boy. Most who see me run away. Surprised you two didn’t do the same thing,” he defended himself.
“What happened to our friend, old man?” Tomás asked, starting to get angry. “He got lost down here, right after we ran away from you, as you call it.”
The old man’s eyes grew wide. “Don’t tell me,” he started.
I looked up.
“So you were THAT group,” he said himself.
“What are you talking about?” I cute in and landed another angry glance from Tomás.
“Still remember it, was in the tunnels, planning to get some food. Noticed that those drug guys were searching for someone. Ran into you kids later and knew they were after you. Wanted to warn you, tell you to get out, but you ran away. Couldn’t blame you. Tried to calm you down, to help you, called out to you, but you wouldn’t listen. Tried my best to drive you to the exit, but then one of you rushed off into one of the side-tunnels.”
“And what did you do to him?” Tomás asked, raising his gun once more.
“Couldn’t do a damn thing. Ran after him, but he was too fast and before you know it, he stumbled right into them.”
I spoke up and told lizard man what had happened to Gabriel and why we’d come down here. He shook his head and then looked straight at me.
“Is that the world you want me to go back to, boy? One in which kids are abused and mutilated?”
After a while, I couldn’t look at him anymore.
It was at this point that Tomás had wandered off and had a look at lizard man’s belongings. He rummaged through the heap of clothes before he pulled something out from it.
“Care to tell me what those are, old man?”
At first, I didn’t understand what Tomás was doing, but then he illuminated a piece of woman’s underwear.”
“What do you think those are, boy? Its rags, things I found at the garbage dump, and took down here.”
Tomás pointed his gun at the man. I remembered what he’d told me last night, about the adolescent girl who’d been raped and killed. He gave the old man a hard look.
I’d expected lizard man to be scared or to make excuses. Instead, he laughed again.
“Of course it’s me, right? Who else but lizard man could’ve done it? Crawled from the sewers in the middle of the night and dragged the girl down here.”
Tomás didn’t say a thing but kept his gun pointed at him.
“Don’t make a fool of yourself, boy! Those there are woman’s things, right? You think I did something to a woman?”
He laughed once more.
“Couldn’t have been me. Want to see the proof? Want to see it?”
The old man was angry now and a second later he pushed one of his hands below the rags covering his body. At this moment Tomás pulled the trigger.
I was standing there in complete and utter shock, pressing my hands to my ears as the sound of the gunshot reverberated through the cave.
“Why’d you do that?” I screamed at Tomás over the ringing in my ears. It took some time until I could understand his words.
“He might have had a gun.”
I stared over at lizard man and then stepped up to his body. For a moment the thought he might be an actual monster and would come back to life crossed my mind. Nothing like that happened. The old man was dead.
I illuminated the body with the flashlight, trying to see if he’d been carrying a gun. Only when I moved the rags aside, did I realize what he’d wanted to show us. It was his crotch. The entire area was nothing but overgrown scar tissue, leathery skin, and scales.
“Holy fucking shit,” I pressed out.
I turned to Tomás.
“There’s no way he could’ve raped the girl,” I called out to him.
That’s when the full irony of the name lizard man hit me. The man we’d called that for all those years didn’t even have a tail.
“You didn’t know, it’s not your fault,” I said as Tomás walked up to me. He said nothing. Instead, he shrugged and turned away.
“Whatever, no one needs to know about that.”
“Wait, what do you mean?”
“All that people need to know is that he did the girl so we can close the damned case.”
I stared at him. My mouth opened, but then I closed it again. There wasn’t a single thing I could say to that.
We left the sewers soon after. The moment we were out Tomás called the station and informed them he’d found the suspect. Me, I simply walked away without saying so much as a word to him.
There was never an article about the case or lizard man. The entire thing was swept under the carpet. It was the same as what happened with Gabriel’s case back then. If I wouldn’t have met up with Tomás, I’d never even heard about the case or that it was now closed.
That same night, when I couldn’t sleep, I sat at the window of my old room and stared at my old neighborhood. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened today.
Finally, I got out my phone and dialed Tomás number.
“What do you want, Felipe? It’s late.”
“The fuck was that today?”
I heard him sigh, but he gave me no answer.
“I know the truth, Tomás. The old guy was innocent.”
Once more he said nothing.
“What if I come down to the station tomorrow, Tomás?” I confronted him.
“And then what?” he finally asked.
“So we can reopen the case? So the parents know that the guy who did that to their little girl is still out there? So we can continue to search for someone we won’t find? No one gives a shit about the case, anyway. Not the girl, not her parents, not lizard man. If you go to the station tomorrow, you know what they’ll do? Not a damn thing, that’s what! What the hell do you even know?”
“I know that you shot an-“ I started, but Tomás cut me off right away.
“You don’t know a damn thing, Felipe! No one gives a shit here!”
Then his rage went away, and I heard him continue in a quivering voice.
“You have to realize, Felipe. No one gives a shit about any of this, not the people, not the case. Not one. Not here.”
With that, he hung up, and the phone was quiet.
I told myself to go to the station and tell them the truth about what Tomás had done. But I never went.
It wasn’t because I had my doubts about lizard man’s story. It wasn’t because of what Tomás had told me.
No, it was the way his voice had sounded, quivering, broken, defeated, and because I knew why he hung up so quickly.