Prose: The Tunnel – Anna Pittenger

The Tunnel
Anna Pittenger

 

We stand outside the entrance of the old railway tunnel, peering inside. The late afternoon light
illuminates only the first few feet of half-rusted track; beyond that, everything is dark.  

“Come on, Aidan,” my cousin whispers, her almond eyes sparkling with excitement. “Let’s
see what’s in there.”  

I hang back as she pulls out the flashlight, still staring intently at the dark tunnel, suddenly uncertain.  
My cousin is a year older, which makes her the leader of our expeditions. Still, as much as exploring
an abandoned railway tunnel had sounded like a cool idea when she mentioned it at home, now that
we’re here I’m suddenly feeling a lot less sure.  

“Tsuki,” I say, reaching out to tug the sleeve of her t-shirt, “let’s go back and play somewhere else. I
don’t like this place.”  

It’s not just that the tunnel is long enough and dark enough that almost anything could be hiding in
there, although that’s part of it. The whole place gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, as
if the very air of the tunnel is thick with danger. Tsuki ignores me, shaking my hand off her sleeve
and switching on the flashlight. The beam cuts a thin line through the darkness, but its light looks
weak and dim in comparison to the darkness in the tunnel.  

“Don’t be such a baby,” Tsuki says, stepping forward into the tunnel. She takes a few steps inside
then turns back to look at me, still standing at the entrance. “Are you coming,” she asks, tossing her
blond hair over her shoulder, “or are you just going to wait out there by yourself until I get back?”  

I wait a few more seconds, still trying to make up my mind. There’s something bad in that tunnel, I
can feel it, and my whole body rebels at the thought of going in there. Still, even worse than the
thought of being attacked by something awful in the tunnel is the thought of Tsuki being attacked by
something awful in the tunnel—something which, unlike me, she cannot even see—while I stand
outside, unable to do anything.  

I take a deep breath. “All right, I’m coming!”  I hurry forward to stand next to her, trying to ignore
the way the darkness closes in around me as I enter the tunnel. As soon as I’ve reached her side,
Tsuki starts walking again.  

“You know, this tunnel is around a hundred years old,” she says as we walk.  

The beam of the flashlight cuts a thin path through the darkness, illuminating the rusty tracks
overgrown with moss and weeds. From time to time, a drop of water falls from the ceiling of the
tunnel, hitting the rails with a tiny ‘ping’ or the ground with a small ‘plop,’ depending on where it
lands, making me jump.  

“It’s just water,” Tsuki says. Her voice echoes strangely as we go deeper into the tunnel. “Stop
being such a baby.”  

I swallow hard. “Sorry,” I whisper. Even though I’m scared, I know I have to do my best to be brave
so Tsuki won’t be sorry she let me come with her.  

“There used to be loads of railroads around here,” Tsuki tells me. “Small ones that ran from
Marshall to Hendersonville, and long ones that ran all the way across the state. This one ran from
Tennesse here, but it’s been closed down for a long time now.”  

I nod, impressed.  Tsuki knows a whole lot of things.  Even though she’s only a year older than I am,
she will be in third grade next month, when I start first grade.  She’s always sharing stuff with me
that she learned in school, or read on her own.  

The darkness deepens as we walk farther into the tunnel, the opening behind us shrinking into a
small circle of light, the other end still far away. The air seems to grow thicker as we go, and the
feeling of danger gets stronger.  I’m sure there must be a big monster in here somewhere, or several
smaller ones, but I don’t know where it is or which direction it might attack from. From the front?
From behind? From the side—right or left? Could it come from above?  

I jump as another drop of water falls from the ceiling and lands on my shoulder. Maybe the monster
might even come from below, rising up through the ground? I try to look around and keep an eye
out on all sides as we walk, but beyond Tsuki and the small stretch of rails illuminated by her
flashlight, I can see only darkness and the faint circles of light that mark the ends of the tunnel.
There could be a hundred monsters hiding in that darkness, and I wouldn’t be able to see them until
they were right on top of us.  

To keep from being afraid, I think about how I would draw this scene with my crayons. Black for the
darkness, grey or blue for the shadows closer to the flashlight, yellow for the flashlight beam itself,
and yellow for the circle of light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe I could mix yellow and green for
the end of the tunnel, since it’s not exactly the same color as the light from the flashlight. That’s the
biggest problem I’m always running into with my drawings: having to use the same crayon colors for
things that aren’t quite the same color in real life, because I only have eight colors of crayons (black,
brown, blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, and red). Like the way that Tsuki’s hair and the sun look
the same in my drawings, because I have to use the yellow crayon for both, even though they really
aren’t the same color at all. What I really want is one of the crayon boxes with 16 colors like they
have in the art classroom at school, with white, pink, and the in-between colors like red-orange,
yellow-orange, and yellow-green, or maybe even one of the huge boxes with 64 colors, like I saw in
an art store once, with all the colors imaginable. Then maybe I could draw things the way they
really look.  

Tsuki stops talking, and we walk together for a while in silence, the only sounds our footsteps on the
ground—with a faint echo from the walls of the tunnel—and the occasional drip of water. Then I
hear it, so faint that at first I almost mistake it for the voice of my own thoughts, but gradually
growing louder.
Hungry.  I’m hungry.  I shiver and clutch Tsuki’s hand, holding it tightly.  

“Baby,” she mutters, but she doesn’t pull her hand away.  

Hungry.  So hungry.  The voice seems to be growing louder as we move forward, but Tsuki doesn’t
seem to hear it. That means it’s definitely some kind of spirit or monster, what Granny would call a
youkai or ayakashi.  

We need to get out of here. “Tsuki,” I say, “I’m scared. Let’s go back.”  

“Quit being such a scaredy-cat, Aidan,” Tsuki says. “We’re already halfway through.”  

Another drop of water falls, landing on my shoulder, and I jump. The water drips seem to be coming
more frequently now. “I wonder if there’s a leak in the top of the tunnel?” Tsuki says. She tilts her
head up, then rubs her forehead as another drip lands there.  Maybe it’s started raining outside.”

Food. I can feel something moving somewhere in the darkness, the feeling of danger growing.  
It smells good.

I squeeze Tsuki’s hand more tightly.  

“Ouch,” she pulls her hand away. “Stop it.  That hurts.”  The beam of the flashlight shifts wildly as
she rubs her hand where I squeezed it, briefly illuminating random parts of the tunnel walls. Still I
can’t see what could be saying those words.  

A wet glob falls from above and lands on the ground in front of us.  

“Can I have the flashlight?”  I ask. Without waiting for an answer, I grab the flashlight from Tsuki and
shine the beam straight up at the ceiling.  

Hanging from the ceiling right above us is a large creature with a body like a lizard’s, green with
yellow spots. Although it is hanging upside down with all four feet clutching the ceiling, its head is
twisted around so it is looking at us right-side-up. It has a wide mouth filled with rows of big, sharp,
teeth. The mouth is open and spit is dripping out of it in great gobs and falling to the tunnel floor.  
Above the big mouth, the creature has bulging red eyes with pupils like dark slits. 
Dinnertime.

“Aaah!” I jump backwards, dropping the flashlight.  

The flashlight hits the floor of the tunnel, bounces once, rolls and hits a rail, and goes out. Without
the flashlight, the tunnel is completely dark except for the light from each end and, when I look up,
the glowing red eyes of the creature. How did I miss seeing those eyes before?  

“What are you doing?” Tsuki exclaims, her voice cutting through the sudden darkness. “Why did
you drop the flashlight?” I can hear her scrabbling around on the ground, trying to find it.  

“There’s a monster,” I say, my voice shaking.  

“A monster?” For the first time, Tsuki sounds less sure of herself. “Why didn’t you say anything
before?” Tsuki asks. “I thought you were supposed to be able to see things like that.”  

“I can’t see anything if it’s dark!” I say, then add quickly, “It’s a really big monster, and it’s hanging
from the ceiling of the tunnel right above us. Tsuki, we have to get out of here fast.”  

“How did you think we would get out of here without a flashlight?” I hear a small click, then Tsuki
makes a disgusted noise. “The batteries fell out.  Quick, help me find them.”  

I shake my head, then realize that Tsuki probably can’t see what I’m doing. “You do it.” I’m sure
that any moment the monster is going to drop down on our heads. “I’ll try to keep the monster off.”  

“Keep it off how?” Tsuki asks. “It’s not like you have a bottle of monster repellant you can spray at it.”

Tsuki’s words spark an idea in my head, and I realize that I actually do have something like monster
repellant. “I have the salt packets I picked up at the restaurant,” I say, already rummaging through
my pants’ pockets to try and find them.  Granny says that salt is good for purification, that bad things
can’t stand to touch it.  In my pocket, my fingers brush something dry and rustling, and I pull out the
paper-wrapped salt packets.  I don’t have much, just two packets that I managed to get before Auntie
noticed what I was doing and told me to stop taking things unless I was going to put them on my food.  

“All right,” Tsuki says. Her voice is still a bit shaky, but she has most of her usual confidence back.
“I’ve got the flashlight, even if I don’t have the batteries, so if that thing gets closer, tell me where it
is and I’ll give it a few whacks.”  

I’m surprised the monster hasn’t dropped down on us already.  Which should I eat first? Should I start
with the one who smells delicious, or should I save the best for last?  

I’m already tearing the top off one of the salt packets, trying to move carefully so I don’t spill any of the salt.  
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, the faint light from the end of the tunnel and the light from the monster’s
glowing eyes partially illuminate the monster’s body, but still not enough for me to clearly seewhat it’s
doing. My fingers fumble with the packet, and I hope I can get it open before the monster jumps.  

Impossible to decide. Why not both at once?  I feel the increase in tension as the monster bends its
legs to jump.  

As the monster leaps down, I squeeze my eyes shut and fling the salt upwards.  I feel a patter on my hair
as some of the salt rains back down, but the monster does not land on top of us, so I know that at least
some of the salt must have hit it.  A scream fills my head and I hear a loud thump which I imagine must
be the monster dropping to the ground behind us.  I open my eyes to see the monster rolling on the floor
of the tunnel, pawing at its tongue, its open mouth foaming with pink-tinged froth.  

“What’s going on?”  Tsuki asks.  

“The monster’s right behind us,” I say. “I got it in the mouth with the salt, but I don’t think I hurt it that
much.”  Once it gets over the surprise it’s probably going to be more angry than anything. “Do you have
the flashlight batteries?”  I ask Tsuki.  

“I have most of them,” she says, “but I can’t find the last one. Help me look.”  

I join Tsuki on the ground, feeling around in the dark for the flashlight battery.  My groping fingers
brush against something small and hard. My hand closes around the cylinder shape. “Here it is,”
I say, nudging Tsuki.  

She takes it, and I can hear a clicking sound as she fits it in the flashlight. “Great. That should be
all of them.”  More tiny clicks as she closes the battery cover, then a louder one which I think must
be the switch for the flashlight.  

I wait for the flashlight beam, but there is nothing. The tunnel stays dark. “Do you think the flashlight
broke when I dropped it?” My whole body is tense with fear. My legs ache to flee, but I know Tsuki is
right; there’s no way we can run in the dark.  We need the flashlight.  

Behind us, I hear the sounds of the monster getting back onto its feet. I turn quickly, opening the other
salt packet and flinging the salt towards the monster, but this time the salt only scatters across its scaly
skin. The monster scratches itself all over, trying to get the salt off, but I know that won’t last for long,
and I don’t have any more salt. I whimper softly, and for once Tsuki doesn’t tell me to be quiet. She’s too
busy focusing on the flashlight.  

“Oh, come on, you stupid thing,” Tsuki says. I can hear the batteries shifting back and forth as she
shakes the flashlight. “Work.”  

I stare at the monster, watching it as closely as I can in the darkness, where it is only a darker shadow
within the shadows of the tunnel, barely a yard behind us. It stops scratching and crouches down.
I can feel its killing intent growing stronger. In my head, its voice is saying
pain, kill.  

Tsuki keeps flicking the switch on the flashlight, faster and faster.  Clickclickclickclickclick. Click.
Suddenly the flashlight flickers into life and a beam of light cuts through the darkness, shining right
into the bulging red eyes of the monster.  

“Aaah!”  We all shriek at the same time, the monster rubbing at its eyes with its massive front feet.  

Tsuki grabs my hand. “Aidan, come on!”  We start running back up the tunnel as fast as we can.
The beam of the flashlight wobbles erratically as we run, illuminating various spots on the ground
ahead in no particular order.  

The sound of our quick breathing, our feet thumping against the floor of the tunnel, and the
pounding of my heart in my chest as we run drowns out the sound of the monster’s voice, but
I know it must be just behind us.  Shining the flashlight in its eyes might have confused it
for a moment, especially since its large eyes are made for seeing in the darkness, but I’m sure
that wouldn’t stop something this powerful for very long.  

Tsuki, with her longer legs, is a much faster runner than I am, and soon her grip on my hand feels
less comforting and more like I’m being dragged.  My arm feels like it’s being pulled out of its socket.
Still, I don’t dare let go for fear of being left behind. I don’t think I’ve ever run this fast before.
Not when I’ve run races with Tsuki, or when I’ve played tag with the other kids on the school
playground, and not even in P.E., when we did the hundred-yard dash.  At those times, I thought
I was running fast, but now I’m running even faster. I know that if I fall behind, even a little bit,
I’ll be eaten.  

Ahead of us, the tunnel opening is growing slowly larger, but I know the monster must be close
behind us.  My legs ache from running, I have a stitch in my side, and my lungs are burning as
I gasp for air.  

I feel the monster’s breath warm on the back of my neck. I thought I was running as fast as I
could, but I push my aching legs to go even faster, trying to get away.
 The darkness of the tunnel
starts fading from night-dark to twilight to evening, the block of light that marks the entrance
expanding, until we are only a few yards away.  

We’re almost at the entrance when I feel a sharp pain as something catches hold of my arm.

Food.  

I lose my grip on Tsuki’s hand as I am pulled backwards, and I get a clear view of the monster’s
large, sharp teeth as I am dragged towards its mouth, my arm caught tight in its clawed grasp.  

“Oh no you don’t!”  Tsuki shouts. She hits the monster with the flashlight, hard, right between
its red eyes. The monster drops me, surprised, and Tsuki grabs hold of my hand again and pulls
me forward, the two of us running hard until we burst out of the tunnel and into the sunlight at last.    

We keep running even after we leave the tunnel, sprinting down the grassy, tree-dotted, hill,
trying to get as far away as we can from the hungry monster behind us.  

“Aaah!”  I trip over a tree-root and fall to the ground, sprawling on grass. Tsuki drops my hand
just in time to avoid falling as well.  

“Come on Aidan,” she says, turning back impatiently, then stops. “I don’t think it followed us
out of the tunnel. Do you?”  

I stop trying to push myself up and listen. I can hear only the sound of Tsuki’s and my panting
and the ever-present hum of cicadas.  A bird chirps somewhere in the distance. Looking around,
I see only the grass-covered hillside spotted with trees and the overgrown tunnel entrance.
There is no sign of the monster.  I nod, still too busy catching my breath to speak. “Yeah.
 I think it’s gone.”  

“That was really scary,” Tsuki says after a moment.  

I nod.  “Yeah.”  

“You know,” Tsuki says, after another pause, “for a baby who sleeps with a nightlight,
you aren’t so bad when it really counts.”  

“Thanks.” Coming from Tsuki, that’s a pretty good compliment.  

We sit for a few moments in silence, resting on the grass and catching our breath. While
we were in the tunnel, it had been impossible to tell how much time was passing.  Now that
we are outside, I am surprised to see how late it has gotten.  

“Could you see the monster back there, in the tunnel?”  I ask Tsuki once I catch my breath a bit.  

She shakes her head. “Not well.”  

“But you hit it with the flashlight.”  I rub my arm where the monster’s claws caught it. I only
have a rip in the sleeve, and a small scratch, but I shiver when I think of how close the monster’s
mouth was, and how full of sharp teeth.  

Tsuki shrugs.  “I could see enough of it, when it landed behind us,” she says.  “Glowing red eyes and
gleaming sharp teeth.”  She shivers a little, then looks at me, her eyes shining with curiosity.  
“What did it look like to you?”  

“It looked sort of like a lizard,” I say slowly, trying to come up with the words to describe it.
I shake my head.  “I’ll draw it for you when we get back home.”  My hands itch for my crayons.
In my mind, I’m already thinking of what colors I’ll need to draw it.  Green, yellow, red, and black.