The Lighted Tunnel – a short story
For the first time since I had built it, I found myself outside relaxing on my new deck. It had taken two months of weekends and late nights after work to get it built, and I was finally about to get a chance to enjoy it. I was only about ten minutes into full on relaxation, head back, feet up, when I noticed something on the wood towards the edge of the deck. With an exasperated, and maybe a little melodramatic, sigh I threw my legs back down off the ottoman and got up to investigate. The closer I got the clearer it became that it wasn’t an object sitting on the wood like I had originally assumed, but what appeared to be a hole in the actual timber. “Damn.” I whispered.
Getting down on my hands and knees, I leaned over the gouge that was ruining the beauty of my lounge space. Suddenly, from the dark below I saw something move. I leaned in closer and saw the briefest flash of light. My interest piqued and my frustration almost forgotten, I leaned even closer so that my eye was almost up against the opening. “What the…” I did not get to finish my thought as there was another flash of light. I began gently picking at the sides of the hole. My desire to see more of what was going on under the deck momentarily outweighing reason. The hole appeared mildly rotted around the edges and came apart easily as I touched it.
Without warning the light came back and shone brightly into my face. I fell backwards, startled. Spots clouded my vision from where the too bright light had seared my eyes. Slowly I pushed up from my elbows to a sitting position. Light had begun to glow up through all the slats in the deck’s boards now. Reality came back to me at once. This was weird. The time for curiosity had turned into the time for fear. The glowing light had intensified as it came from the ground. At first it was just warm, but it had become hot, and then scorching as it lit up my bare feet and short clad legs. Screaming in pain I fell down, my whole body now feeling like it was burning up. Then blessedly, there was nothing. The light was gone. The burning was gone.
Time had passed. It was no longer a beautiful fall day, but now a chilly winter night. The sky felt low and menacingly dark. My eyes darted around the porch and out into what I could see of the yard. All the grass was dead and the trees had completely lost their leaves. It looked as if months had passed in those few moments of pain and blindness. Rising, I cautiously looked back to the hole. It was now dark below. I looked around the yard again. It was actually dark above too. The sky was void of stars and even the streetlights remained unlit. For the first time I turned to look at my house. From the end of the deck, in the darkness, the place didn’t just seem empty, it seemed abandoned. Shakily, I walked towards my rear door, but stopped just short of it.
There was another gouge in the deck. For a moment I just stared, afraid that the painful light was going to return and blind me once more. My breath was caught in my throat as I waited for something to happen. When the light didn’t shine after a minute or two I took another step forward. I walked cautiously around the new hole, looking into it the entire time, afraid to look away. The light still didn’t come, so I continued to the door. My hand was only on the knob long enough to feel the cool copper register on my burnt skin before I heard the noise. It interrupted the all too still night air. Looking around, I tried to locate the direction from which it came. As the noise grew I realized that it had actually been there all along, just at a much lower volume.
My heart began to race. Fear once again lifting the fog that was settled over my brain. This was not right. Nothing was right. The porch began to vibrate. It was slight at first but then it picked up. I was reminded of that summer during my childhood when I would walk the train tracks alone behind our trailer park. It felt like a train was coming. I was still facing the door when the light returned. I practically fell into the house trying to save myself from being burned alive. The light was now pouring into the house through the windows. It filled up the entire room like a liquid would. Just as the noise reached its crescendo the frame of the house began to shake. Pictures fell off the walls and furniture vibrated across the floor. I lay there with my hands covering my head, trying to protect my face from the shattering glass. The house and I cried out as one, and then, there was silence.
Tentatively I uncovered my face. When nothing terrifying happened, I sat up. Everything was in shambles. My kitchen table was overturned, the couch was on the other side of the room, and the walls were barren save for a few nails that once held photos. Shaking the glass shards off my shoulders and out of my hair, careful not to cut myself, I walked back to the door. Everything was quiet, even the dull rumble was silenced. My ears were still ringing from the noise of it all and I looked backed out of what was once a window, onto the deck, and into the yard.
It was no longer a cold winter’s night, it now appeared to be a dreary spring morning. It was raining and chilly. The wind blew the smell of fresh flowers into my now dilapidated home. Out on the deck I saw that there were now even more holes, and to my horror, they were bigger. I opened the door and stepped gingerly onto the porch, mindful of the glass in my socks. I stepped further out, still ready to run back in at the first sign of the light. I took a deep breath and took another step outside. The rain blew into my face with every strong gust of wind. It felt good on my seared flesh.
With great trepidation I made my way over to the first hole. I looked into it with squinted eyes. Afraid that the light might come back, hungry for more skin, more destruction, more time. Whatever the light was coming for, whatever it was that the light was eating, I just wanted it to stop. I just wanted back to my warm fall day, lounging peacefully with my feet up on the ottoman. Back to the reality I had known only minutes before (or had it been days… or months). Gradually, a new sound began to rise from below.
I turned to run too late. Instead of getting away from the hole I fell into it. I hit the ground with a thud, jolted all the way down to my bones with the impact. I laid there for a second in the complete darkness, utterly still. I couldn’t move at first. Either fear or pain was keeping me incapacitated. I didn’t care, I no longer wanted to move.
I don’t know how long I laid there on the cold ground with my eyes squeezed shut, wishing myself back into reality. Wishing myself anywhere but here. Before long there came another noise. Not a rumbling, but a moaning. It took me a moment to realize that it was a person and, to my complete astonishment, that it wasn’t me.
“Hello?” I croaked. “Hello, is someone down here with me?” I waited for a reply but none came. “Hello?” Pause. “Is anyone down here?” I sounded so pathetic that I couldn’t call out again. It hurt my pride just to hear myself sound that way; the pain, the fear, the confusion. From further away I heard the moaning again. I stood up carefully but my head began to spin anyway. I took a tentative step forward, then two, and pretty soon I was slowly walking towards the new location of the noise. It took about a dozen steps before I heard the noise again. It was much closer this time. Close enough that I felt more comfortable with a whisper, “Hello?” Nothing, “Hello?” I strained my ears as much as I could and I held my breath, waiting.
There was a rustling, almost like fabric on fabric, then there was a click and a blinding light. I cried out automatically, flashbacks of the other light immediately coming to mind. A moment passed and I was still cowered, covering my face, and groaning. The light was still shining but it was a different kind of light. This light was shaky, and it wasn’t burning my skin. Removing my hands from my face I looked directly into it. I felt anger for the first time in, well, I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d fallen through the deck. It had only felt like a few moments but I could tell even in the dark that my nails were longer. My once clean shaven face no longer felt hairless.
The light ahead actually appeared to be from a flashlight that someone was holding. I cleared my throat and with more strength than I thought I still had I spoke hello again.
“What?” A young man answered. “What are you on about?” The man’s voice sounded so young that I should actually have been thinking of him as a boy. He had the light in one hand and the other hand was poised impatiently on his hip. Impatient? Him? With me?
“What is going on here?” I demanded. He took a step back, dropped his hand from his hip, and made a disgusted noise. Then he turned on his feet and took off, the light bobbing away with him as he ran. I tried to run after him but I was already so weak and disoriented that I quickly lost sight of him. “Where are you going?” I cried out “Come back here! Please don’t go!” But the light slowly faded completely from view. I sat back down and put my head in my hands and sobbed openly.
More time passed. Eventually I got back up and began walking. Everything was silent. Not even the sound of my footsteps was audible. I walked with my head down and my shoulders slumped in the dark. I cried softly off and on until I didn’t have any more tears left inside me. Who knew how long had gone by since that warm fall day. My once tightly shorn hair was now down to my shoulders and my nails were long and claw like. I stumbled through the dark, my clothes still surprisingly intact, but socks threadbare across the bottom.
More time passed. I slept. I dreamt. I opened my eyes and it took a moment for my pupils to dilate. At first I thought I had been dreaming again. I looked around, this time my eyes fully adjusted thanks to a bit of murky light. Finally I was able to see the walls of the place that I was in. It appeared that I was in a tunnel. People were walking on either side of me. “Oh my God.” I breathed, “Oh my God.” There were hundreds upon hundreds of people with me in the tunnel. They were all walking straight ahead just as I had been. I spun around looking for help. “Hey?” I said urgently, “Hey!” The man next to me continued to walk with his head down, looking at his feet. Reaching out I gave him a bit of a shove to roust him from his daze. He grunted and looked up at me. His long overgrown hair flapped up and caught the woman next to him in the face. She was staring at me as well.
I looked around and now everyone was looking directly at me. Every face in the crowd had turned towards mine in the few moments since I had called out. Together we all slowed and eventually came to a stop. I took a deep breath and once again tried to engage someone, anyone, in conversation. They all continued to look blankly at me. Then all together they closed their eyes. I stood there, anxiously awaiting whatever was going to come next when they all spoke in union.
“Be quiet. Can you tell we’re thinking?” I jumped at the sound of thousands of voices speaking at once. They all slightly twitched with me. I look a step back and so did everyone else. I turned my head to look behind me and once more they moved in unison. I took a few steps backwards and was mirrored yet again. The back of my neck tightened with the wrongness of it all. Trying to run away, I tripped, and the horde crashed down on top of me. Drowning in the sea of people I screamed. My only answer was the scream of the thousands of people that surrounded me. With every attempt to push people off of me they pushed me down further, “Help me!” I gasped with my last breath.
“Honey, you’re going to burn.” I felt someone’s hands on my shoulder. I sat up with a scream caught in my throat. My heart was racing so fast that my hands were shaking. “Baby, are you okay?” My wife was looking down at me, silhouetted by the high fall sun. Throwing my hand up to shade my eyes I nodded, and tried to catch my breath.
“Bad dream.” I managed. She nodded knowingly and smiled down at me.
“You’ve been out here a little while and you’re not wearing sun screen. I don’t want you to burn.” She looked around the deck then back down at me and smiled warmly. “I’m running out to the store. I’ll be back in a little bit. I just wanted to let you know.” She leaned down and gave me a kiss and then walked back into the house. I could hear her pick her keys up off the kitchen table as she did so. A few minutes later I heard the front door open and close and then in another few moments, the car started.
My heart rate was finally beginning to slow and I leaned head back. This time I didn’t close my eyes. The dream was still too fresh in my mind and I was too afraid to fall back asleep and end up in the dark again. I looked around, taking in the beauty of the day with new more appreciative eyes, and signed deeply full of relief. It was just a dream.
I was about to get up when I noticed something. There was an object over on the far side of the porch. Slowly I swung my feet off of the ottoman and walked towards it. The closer I got the clearer it became that it wasn’t an object at all but a hole in the wood of the deck. Somewhere, from down below, came a rumble…