His knees grew damp from the cold dirt under the house, even through the double-thickness of canvas. Good. He must be getting close to the broken line. He'd been crawling around in the near dark for a good half hour, cursing the idiots who'd run a water line through a crawlspace, no matter that it wasn't really a cold climate. Of course the damn thing had broken during a super cold spell. And of course the homeowners were out of town. According to the water company the meter had been spinning like crazy for at least a week. They'd finally gotten hold of the family, and the man had called him from some sunny spot in Florida. Friend of a friend recommendation. Work was slow and he needed the money for the holidays, so he took the job on the promise that they'd pay when they got back in a couple of weeks. He'd leave an invoice in their mailbox when this shit was over.
The handyman craned his neck the best he could, following the lines and ciphering out hot and cold, electrical and gas. The maze was even more complex than usual. Old construction. His right hand splashed down into a wrist deep channel of icy water that flowed sluggishly over his fingers and the flashlight. Fuck. He yanked up, smacking the back of his head hard against the rough cut joists above and spraying himself with mud as he shook the flashlight to dash off the water. It dimmed, glowed bright, dimmed again, then held steady. Thank god for that at least. He looked down at the water, following the stream with his eyes and straining to see where it had come from. It shouldn't have been flowing. He'd turned the water off at the street at least forty-five minutes ago. Didn't matter. He was getting close.
He shifted to the left to avoid the water, wiping his muddy hand on his shirt. Moving forward slowly he realized the stretch of dirt before him was a quagmire of mud just this side of frozen. Ugh. That was going to add a big-ass PITA charge to the bill. Not sure how he'd explain it, but there was no way he was going to crawl through four inches of muck for a stranger and not bill extra. Goddamn it. He'd never make it home in time for the game. He reached back with his left hand and dragged his plumbing toolbox forward, hoping the dented metal was sound enough to keep out most of the mud. He'd hate to have to wash all his tools on top of the rest of this shit. Goddamn it.
He looked up again, slowly shining his light along the glinting pipes. At least they were copper. Switching up from galvanized or god-forbid PVC would have been an even bigger nightmare. Finally he saw the break. It was big, at least four inches long. The pipe had bulged and split like lips where the water inside had frozen. Strange that it was so far under the house, where the cold shouldn't be so bad. Didn't matter. It was a pretty simple fix. Maybe he'd get home in time after all.
The man dragged through the mud on his knees, his boots becoming cumbersome as the ankles filled with slime and the toes grew damp. Fuck a duck. He kept as upright as possible despite the low ceiling, and used his hands only to drag the toolbox and hold the flashlight. Below the hole he sat back on his knees, leaning awkwardly to fit under the low clearance. With the pipe cutter he sliced the copper on either side of the break. He measured and cut a length of fresh pipe then moved into the process of flux, fit, solder. The heat and light from the blowtorch was a welcome respite from the cold that was biting deeper and deeper into his fingers and damp pants. He placed the new pipe and soldered one join. His angle was awkward, and his neck and back were starting to ache from the bend and the cold. He reached upward a final time, feeling the rough wood of the joists combing through his hair as he twisted himself into a good position. Finally he got the last joint done, and turned to place the torch and wire back in the box.
Suddenly his knee sank and sank some more. There was no bottom. Hands full of tools and a flashlight that shouldn't get any more wet, he vainly flung his arms up and to the right, trying desperately to shift his balance. It didn't matter. He prepared himself for a face full of mud, bracing for the chill as it oozed down his collar. Shit. Fuck. Damn! He held up the light as high as possible, hoping to keep it dry. The landing was soft and slow. Shoulder. Elbow. Face. Nose and top of head. But he didn't stop. The mud grabbed him, wrapping icy fingers up into his shirt, down his waistband. It oozed over him as he slid further and further sideways until he was, impossibly, upside-down and the mud thinned and he sank, kicking his feet up, grabbing with his heels at the edge -- what edge?!? -- and still he sank, muscular arms too dense to float. Then the flashlight was under and the dirty water glowed yellow and dim for a moment and he realized that he'd fallen into an abandoned septic tank. And still he sank, twisting desperately to get upright but the light failed and he couldn't tell up from down and his clothes were thick and heavy canvas and cotton and his jacket was good for weather, but not water. His boots sank faster and finally he was upright but still there was no bottom and the mud closed in above his head, a bizarre science experiment of bone dry dirt and water that had flowed and filled for days.
The homeowners were a little puzzled as to why the handyman hadn't turned the water back on at the street, but they figured it was a safety measure. They waited a couple of weeks for the bill and when none came they tried calling, but the voicemail box was full and after a couple of tries they kind of forgot about it. It was his problem, not theirs.