Work sucked. All she wanted was to go home to her cat and Netflix with Ramen noodles. Too bad. By the end of this night she would have glimpsed visions that make work seem like dozing in a hammock by the beach. Enter the lost tunnel.
The rain came down over the city today.
The kind that clears city streets faster than a plague. Too soon?
I caught the tail end of it as I hurried underground into the subway tunnel.
I shouldn’t have caught any of it. Only here because I decided to walk out on my snake of a boyfriend, ex now, who’s been sticking it to half his graduate students. I can’t wait to write that anonymous letter to his department head.
My flats squelch as I descend the stairs and stale air makes me aware of every drop on my body. I’m dreaming of warm socks as I walk onto the empty platform. Not another person in sight. I like that part.
Not because I hate people. In the city, you learn how to live with hordes.
I just trust them about as far as I can toss them. I’m 5 feet 4 and 80 lbs, you do the math. Even if I’m at the coveted front of the line for the train during rush hour, I take a hearty step back from the edge and let whoever is behind me shoulder forward when I hear the train roar out of the tunnel.
No big deal, that’s natural I hear you say.
No, it isn’t. Observe; no one gives up the front of the line spot, ‘cause everyone’s got somewhere to be. They forget how easy it would be for someone behind you to just bump you forward.
That’s all it takes.
One bump, one push and lights out. You’re done. Everyone feigns, “I wonder where she was going.” No one spares it more than two minutes of thought. That’s all they can afford.
My footsteps throw hollow echoes as I walk on the station’s platform. It’s built near the museum so it’s got the decor to match. Each pillar reps some ancient, long gone culture. Terracotta warriors here and Caesar there. I’m standing by a pillar shaped like King Tut.
The “Lost” station they call it. Not officially and not because of archaic civilizations. Nothing of significance.
It’s an infamous title.
Given because for some reason, the crazies in this town find it hilarious, to shoot up and spray paint the word “Lost” all over the side of the tunnel’s black mouth.
The mouth to the longest tunnel in our subway system.
City’s pretty good about cleaning it up. Crazies are persistent though.
With all the cameras I’m surprised they never caught the person or persons doing it. Rumor goes, it’s some rich kid with a rebellious streak.
I stare down the gaping mouth of the tunnel. There’s big black “Lost” is etched into the wall.
Not drawn or spray painted.
Some nut job took something sharp, carved L-O-S-T into the side of the tunnel and then painted it black.
Like I said, they’re persistent.
Chino purring on my belly while I binge Netflix. That’s all I’m thinking about. My skin prickles as a cool draft blows down the stairwell and makes me whip in a shudder.
Machine gun rain and a crack of thunder echo down the stairs. Yet, over all that, I hear the singing. Slurred and raspy. Getting louder.
Aint…..Ain’t no…Ain’t no grave….
He descended, well stumbled, down the stars and looked right at me.
He looked like he had walked around the streets picking up discarded clothes and trash and wrapped himself with it.
Awful stench. Booze spliced with grime and shit.
I looked away.
But he didn’t.
I could tell from the corner of my eye. I wished my skirt could have been longer. Damn date night.
He walked forward and started singing again.
“Ain’t no grave, can hold my body down…”
“Ain’t no grave…”
I knew that song.
I’d heard it in a show, no, at a pub, or maybe my dad played it while he worked on his Sunbird in our garage…a long time ago. I busied myself with that thought so I’d avoid making eye contact as he walked by me.
He passed and walked down towards the other side. Despite the chill I felt flush from his leer. Never did he stop singing those same two lines.
From the gaping black mouth behind him came two yellow glowing lamps.
I stepped back, out of habit, as the train roared out of the tunnel and screeched to a halt in front of me. The doors hissed and opened. From the corner of my eye, I saw him get on and suddenly I wanted to walk home, across the bridge, through the rain.
Something about being stuck in the same place as him.
This was also, unfortunately, one of those new trains where it’s one long tube instead of separate cars. Warm socks, cup noodles, Chino’s soft fur cupped in my hand and Netflix on my bed.
I thought of all this and stepped in just as the doors clamped shut behind me.
I looked down the long tube. He was down there, way in the distance, eyes fixed on me. Mouth parted to a sly grin. I wished I had waited for the next train.
I silently cursed and took a seat facing him. It gives me motion sickness to sit facing the opposite direction I was going in, but today, I’d stomach it.
I didn’t want to take my eyes of this guy.
Here is the thing about this tunnel- it’s long. Pretty much the worst tunnel you could pick to share an empty train with a guy who looks like he wants to smear the walls with your brain. It goes under the river and comes out on the other side of the city. The side that fresh graduates with crippling student loans like myself can afford.
As it goes under the bay, the black is cut with streaks of ugly white light making it look like the entire train is under a gigantic scanner.
Staring at the back of the train with my stomach already knotting in protest, I traced the white lights until they passed homeless Freddie Krueger on the other end.
He started to sing. And wouldn’t you know it, his voice carried over the din of metal rumbling over tracks.
This guy could’ve been on “The Voice” if he did something about his hygiene. At the very least, he could substitute for a PA system somewhere.
“Ain’t no grave, can hold my body down.”
“Ain’t no grave…”
Screw me, it echoed.
Or wait, did it?
Something was off here.
The train wasn’t going as fast as it should.
I turned my head to confirm the passing of the grimy inner walls of the tunnel through the windows.
Streaks of light illuminated black walls fluid like ink. It’s not like I’ve studied these walls during the morning rush hour or brain dead rides home, but they never looked like you could just walk through them. Were we moving?
And when I looked back, he was gone.
I leaned my head to the aisle to spot him, but he wasn’t there. Probably slumped over in his seat – his body quittin’ from whatever he had shot up.
I had started to turn away when I heard the rumble of chains. And his voice, louder than ever, screeched from the distance.
“When I hear that trumpet sound, I’m gonna rise right outta the ground.”
I sprang to my feet expecting him to rush me with chains dangling from his arms. But the train was empty, the tunnel unending.
“There ain’t no grave—“
“–Shut the fuck up” I shouted, surprised at my own tone.
Laughter from the darkness — mocking and joyous — filled the tube.
“Want to see beyond the walls?” he growled sounding almost disembodied.
The smell of booze and rancid meat overwhelmed me.
The lights flickered and turned red.
I turned and stared into his ragged, wart covered face. I thought I screamed then but don’t remember the sound of it.
I felt his arms grab my elbows; grimy black fingernails dug into my skin.
Eyes like dark puddles bore into my being. And that stench. Dead rats. Back alley trash. Gnashed teeth stained dark from bleeding gums.
“Look on yonder Gabriel,” he rasped with hot breath drowning out all sound. I was convinced the tunnel had flooded and we were plunging to the bottom of the bay. Only his voice pierced through.
“Look Gabriel,” he urged and turned me around, his elbow hooked around my neck.
And I should have struggled free; kicked, elbowed and clawed, but my body was a shell. He held me up, easily, and I saw.
The black walls of the tunnel started to run red. I had assumed the inner walls were concrete. In truth, there was nothing.
White light racing across the train turned to lightning flashes. Each flare illuminating land not meant to be looked upon.
And with each flash I found some of my voice.
By the fifth flash I was screaming.
Molten red skies swirled over barren lands. Hills like screaming faces yawning soundlessly to the heavens.
“Look on yonder Gabriel,” he sneered from behind me, “Plant your feet on the land and sea.”
Lands cracked and angry, but not empty. I saw someone. A lone figure silhouetted against the mountains.
A solitary figure amid the screaming fields. Intimately familiar. Screams dulled and eyes went to the lone figure on the field. As I watched it held it’s hand out, reaching, calling me.
Lightning flashed me closer and I saw myself. Alone and forsaken. Asking for help. The weight behind me vanished. There was no train, no tunnel, no boyfriend and no rain. There was just me in that screaming field waiting to be saved. From the screaming fields my hand pierced into the train car, palm up awaiting my clasp. What once stark on horizon, now within my grasp.
And I walked forward to meet it.
In the back of my skull spoke a muffled voice, as soundless as the fields I gazed upon. And yet, approaching and urgent – a train coming to the station. Glowing lamps from the dark with screeches and heated brake shoes screaming the arrival. Perhaps it was instinct, maybe it was habit.
But I stepped back.
And when I did, my doppelganger putrefied and reached forward. That stench of dead rats blasted up my nose. Others emerged, standing behind me amid those screaming fields. Their faces running like candle wax and black mouths as voiceless as the yawning hills behind them.
Lost. Me among them. Air clawed out of my lungs as their hands reached out to pull me through the train.
From the hollow distance came the echo of an angry screech.
We roared out of the tunnel and ugly fluorescent light stung my eyes. I fell back and nothing held me.
The train screeched to a halt at my station. The familiar mechanical voice announced our arrival.
I had to leave.
But my legs protested, I didn’t control them. Only when the alarm for the door to shut sounded did I jump forward and crawl out of the train.
I knelt on the platform trying to reclaim the air I had lost back into my chest. No matter how many gulps I took, the void remained in my chest. It pulsed my being with an overwhelming urge to claw at walls until the tips of my nails scrapped off.
I needed validation. Needed someone to tell me that was real.
Or someone to tell me that I was bugging out. And so I looked for my companion.
He was there, one foot on the ascending stairs and the other on the platform, grinning at me. As I glared, he motioned as if he was blowing a trumpet.
Then, he turned and ran out into the night, flinging the glass doors of the station open so the alien sound of rain cut through the silence.
I was lost. Unaware of where I was coming from and where I was going. Why it even mattered. Every inch of my being told me to go out so the downpour could wash over me. Snap me into a reality of cheating exes, desires for warm socks and soup, a cat purring in my arms.
But all I wanted to do was walk up to the other side of the platform and take the train back the way I came.
To see, one more time, the screaming fields and candle wax faces silently yearning. To know if it was real.
Somewhere in the darkness of the Lost Tunnel.