I found the tunnel by pure accident. Another night without an eyeful of sleep made me wander around the neighborhood. It was just before dawn and the streets were quiet. No cars, no people and no noises in general. The streets were mine, which suited my cloudy mind well.
I usually walked past the Millers and continued towards a local park, but for some reason, I felt an urge to turn to the other direction. I was almost disappointed to realize this road contained just another row of picture-perfect houses and green perfectly cut grass. I remember thinking that perhaps I’d find more excitement in the business area, and continued my way forward. A lot of these homeowners worked in the area - it was the Silicon Valley of middle-class families with mortgages and hybrid cars.
I succumbed to the silence and enjoyed the lack of the constant sensory stimulus. Days were bright and warm, but as soon as the sun disappeared in the horizon the air cooled down just a little bit. The breeze blowing through the treetops made me sigh audibly. My wandering led met to an unfamiliar street. I could see the towering buildings in the distance and kept going towards them. Although we moved here a few months ago, my constant panic attacks and the trembling anxiety made sure that I would keep inside and thus didn’t really know my surroundings. It was part of the thrill though, to wander into new areas and find new places. That’s how I found the tunnel. It was an underpass of sorts for the road above. The driveway and the left sidewalk continued under the tunnel. I could see the high towery buildings reach towards the dusky sky in the distance and decided to see how far I could go before I was faced with tall fences and cameras.
The tunnel didn’t look long at first, but as I stepped in I realized that neither the light of the sky nor the streetlights reached the center of it. It was unsettling to come across pure darkness in such a bright summer night. The walls were filled with graffiti. I’m not afraid of the dark, naturally, but what might hide in it. My sister used to tell me that rats slept in those dark parts of the tunnel. She also told me a story about a little boy named Timothy, who crashed his bike into a dark tunnel and vanished. She also strongly suggested that the rats ate poor Timothy. I hadn’t thought about the story since I was eight, but the doubt still loomed in my mind and silently warned me about going further.
Feeling a little ashamed of myself, after all, a boy at my age should not have such fears, I forced myself to keep going. A crackling sound echoed in the tunnel. It was faint at first but grew louder with each step I took. I stopped, thinking that the sound came from my feet crushing little rocks, but even though I stopped the voice didn’t. It was as if small little rocks were being squeezed under car tires. I kept walking and waited for the car to pass me, but it never did. Uneasiness filled me. I was faced with the most unsettling feeling one might obtain when alone - I was sure that someone was watching me. My back tickled, my neck felt electrified and I could feel someone’s eyes on my back. I turned around and expected to be faced with a person in a mask, or a shady car idling closer, but there was nothing. I was so sure that the sound came from next to me, not from the road above. It was too clear to come from somewhere further away. I tried to force myself to keep going, but as soon as I turned my back to walk the sound started again. This time I turned around with a quick spin. There was nothing there. Fuck this, I thought and started jogging back to my house.
My mother was concerned that I was suffering from insomnia, but I fully blame my depression for the sleepless nights. I usually began dozing off when the first rays of the morning sun hit my face. I would occasionally meet my father downstairs - he was about to start his day and I was about to end mine. My anxiety about sleeping was not eased by my mother’s constant worrying. She was ready to try anything; melatonin, herbal tea, yoga, exercising, massages, an ASMR-pillow, sleeping medication, white noise and she even bought me a wooden smiling face that I’m supposed to tell my worries to in order to sleep. She also ordered sage from Canada, from some hippie lady, and forced me to drink it in the form of tea. It didn’t work, but my sister claimed it to help her cramps. I caught her smoking it.
My mother eventually accepted that what I needed, was time. I passed my parents bedroom and watched them sleep for a while, feeling almost jealous of the peace of mind they had. I felt silly for the things I used to worry about. In retrospect, I would take all those things back if in order to sleep normally. I sneaked past them and felt like a thief in the night. I knew that my mother wouldn't like me wandering around at night, but what she doesn't know can't hurt her right?
Out of habit, I began to walk towards the park, but for some unknown reason did a U-turn and started walking towards the tunnel again. Perhaps I did so because I felt ashamed of my escape the night before. I guess I wanted to prove myself that depression hadn’t taken everything away from me. I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid of everything. Running away from a tunnel because of a vague sound made me feel like a failure. I felt enough like a failure on my day to day life. I wanted to succeed in something, even if it was just walking through a tunnel.
The closer I got the more uneasy I felt. The graffitis greeted me with their bright colors and clumsy signatures. The wind blew again and made the branches dance lightly. I walked into the tunnel and squeezed my fingers into a fist. I would walk through it and nothing could stop me. The crackling sound soon began again. It was very faint at first and I wasn’t sure if I heard it, but the further I went the louder the sound got. I started jogging. The crackling grew stronger and stronger until I could actually see the headlights of a car illuminate from behind me. I could hear the car now, clear as day. I stopped and turned around, expecting to see it this time. My breath got stuck in my throat as if all air had escaped and my throat was vacuumed shut. There was just darkness and silence. Then, as faintly as the crackling came, music started playing. It grew louder and louder until I could almost feel it near me. I felt the breeze of something large go by me. Then the sound started to faint away. I could hear the car stop in the distance. I tried to see if there was a car in the parking lot of the business center, but to me, it seemed empty and silent.
Goosebumps filled my arms. I started backing up slowly. The feeling of being watched had now turned into something more dreadful. I felt like someone was in the tunnel with me. I tried to walk away slowly as if nothing was wrong. I managed to do that for a few steps until I heard the crackling again. I jogging and soon my jog turned into a full sprint and I ended up running straight to home without a peek behind.3.
My cousin got married, so we left town for a week. I couldn’t think about anything else but that tunnel. The crackling sound, the music, the feeling of being watched and the light. I knew I would have to go back. It felt like a bad idea, but it also felt like an inevitable outcome. I was too far into whatever was going on to let it be. I felt like I was supposed to find out a buried truth in those visions.
My family didn’t notice me dwell in my thoughts and thus nobody asked me about my absent mind. I wasn’t surprised though. The absent mind, staring into the distance and mumbling as an answer - they were all things I did constantly because of my depression. I don’t remember much about the week, just my dreams about the tunnel. They followed the same script; I came into the tunnel, the crackling began, the hairs on my arms felt electrified and I turned around to face emptiness. The emptiness terrified me because I knew it wasn’t real. There was something there, trying to not be seen.
We came back on Sunday evening. I wanted to go to the tunnel right away, but mom insisted on unpacking and stayed up late. I waited for her to retrieve into the bedroom and fall asleep, but I eventually had to give up. I fell asleep at 2 AM, before my mother. There was something about the anticipation that did it. For the first time in a long time, I had something to wait for, something that I was excited about. I slept till 12 PM, which was also something new. Mom thought that the new herbal tea she bought me was working, and loaded the cabinet with twenty packets of that herbal tea. I let her have the moment and didn’t mention the tunnel.
On Monday evening, mom fell asleep around 11 PM. I browsed some forums and tried my best to spend some time before heading out. Those hours felt like days. I tapped my fingers on the edge of my bed, fidgeted my foot and walked around in my room. At 3 AM my anticipation grew too strong and I couldn’t help myself. I jumped out of bed and headed out. I was the only one awake, just as usual.
I jogged to the tunnel. The scene was familiar. I noticed the graffiti, felt the breeze of the cold night and watched the empty roads around me. Just before I stepped into the tunnel, I realized that the breeze was gone. It hadn’t just died down, it was as if it had been muted. The birds didn't sing anymore. This change happened in a split of a second, but I chalked it up to me being nervous and imagining things. I kept moving. The crackling started soon. Then came the sound of a car accelerating. The light illuminated the road ahead and the music started echoing in the tunnel. The music was clear as day now - I remember hearing the same song on an older movie my father watched often.
This time I didn’t have to turn around. The car sped by me and the music made my ears ring for a moment. My eyes widened. I could finally see the source of the sound. The car was an old convertible. It looked like those 50s cars that I had seen in car museums. The car was massive, at least compared to the cars my neighbors drove. The light blue shining surface was decorated with chrome details. A group of kids in university sweaters laughed and screamed as they drove past me. I didn’t run away this time, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I ran behind them. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I noticed that the graffiti had disappeared. I was too curious to think twice about the change. I expected to see the teenagers crash through the gates of the business center but realized that the buildings were gone. I was suddenly faced with a mall of some kind. The car curved to the parking lot of a burger joint. Right next to it, there was an ice cream bar. I could also see a big building with a ‘dance hall’ sign buzzing above the doors. Neon signs buzzed, music blasted loud and teenagers loitered around.
I turned back to the tunnel. The other side was still the same. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted desperately to continue, but I was doubtful. One of the girls outside the ice cream bar noticed me. Her smile froze. She didn’t exactly stop smiling but it seemed like she had just frozen in her place. As if she tried to stop smiling but couldn’t. She then waved for me to come closer and started smiling even wider. Her eyes didn’t smile.
I backed up. The excitement disappeared and fear gripped me again. My instincts told me to go back home. I turned around and sprinted. Right after the dark part of the tunnel, I could see graffiti again. I looked back to see if the girl was still there, but the mall was gone. The familiar, grey and tall buildings stood still on the other side.
I ran back home. I felt like a thief again, watching my home from the outside. The hallway light was on, which meant that someone was awake. I was afraid to go inside - if my mom found out that I had been outside this late, she would have a full-blown panic. I tried to think rationally - if she would've known that I was gone, there would be a line of cop cars and the whole house would be lighted up like a Christmas tree.
I opened the door slowly, trying to keep it from creaking. My father peaked out from the kitchen and signed for me to come in. I kicked my sneakers off and tiptoed into the kitchen. My father closed the kitchen door and poured hot chocolate into a cup.
“I know how you feel like. Partially at least,” my father admitted. He shook his head with a bashful smile on his face, “I was messed up because of a girl though. My concept of an 'end of the world' was very naive back then.” I snickered and sat down. It was hard to imagine my father being torn up about a girl. Mom was the dramatic parent in the house.
“How did you get through it?” I asked with great curiosity, but stopped to warn him, “if the answer is herbal tea, I will destroy you.” Dad laughed and looked towards the tea cabinet. We both knew it was filled with those herbal tea packets.
“No, the answer is far more simple and dull - it's time. Time always does it. No matter what the question is, time is the answer.” I lowered my gaze and spun the spoon in the cup, afraid to face the look on my dad’s face as I asked, “will you tell mom that I was out?”
Dad studied my face and sighed, “I know that these strolls help you get your mind clear, but I feel uneasy having you outside alone this late. You never know who you might bump into.” Or what you might bump into, I thought and shivered.
“Besides,” dad smiled, “I’d be like captain Needa to your mother’s Darth Vader. I’m not going to reach into the lion’s mouth, you’re on your own. You can keep going when I’m awake. I have to do some late night work couple nights a week, or I can wake up during the dawn to let you out.”
“Great dad, I sound like a dog.”
Dad tapped me on the shoulder, “what up dawg?”
I rolled my eyes and decided to try sleeping.
I didn’t want to lie. I knew that dad trusted me. That’s why he wasn’t waiting for me the next night. He trusted me to keep my word and he trusted me so much that he just peacefully went to sleep. I was usually worth my word and I thought that I would keep my promise the next night, but I just had to try one more time. I just wanted to walk through the tunnel and see the mall. One more time.
In retrospect, I know it wasn’t just an urge. I was summoned, enchanted and lured with each crackling sound. I started to jog towards the tunnel. I even had real jogging shoes on that dad bought me. I wasn’t running for the euphoria though, I ran because I needed to be fast in case my father would wake up.
The closer I got the more I felt like I wasn’t alone. I didn’t feel like someone was watching me, but rather that something was. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt like the tunnel itself was watching me. The tunnel had no nervous system, it wasn’t breathing and it had no brain - but it wasn’t just an object. It was alive and pulsating. The closer I got the more vivid the sensation became. I ran through the darkness without stopping.
I came to the other side. My eyes lit up. I overcame my fears. The girl was still there, sitting in the same place as she was the night before. She smiled to at me first, but as she saw me coming closer her smile froze. It didn’t make me stop. Nothing could’ve stopped me at that point. I was too invested in finding out what was on the other side that I completely ignored the warning signs. I walked up to her. She kept smiling, but her smile looked almost painful. I smiled back at her.
“You came through,” she breathed out. Her voice trembled with every word.
“Wasn't I supposed to?” I backed up a bit. She sounded fearful. I should’ve realized it at that point, but I didn’t. I was under their spell. A male voice greeted me with excitement.
“Of course you were! We have been waiting for you. Not a lot of people have the privilege of crossing the lines of time and space!”
“You have been waiting for me?” I repeated with a confused look on my face. The girl sat still and didn’t smile anymore. The guy started leading me towards the ice cream bar. His hand rested on my back. I wanted to go back to the girl but didn’t muster up the courage to turn around.
“As I said, you are privileged. Now let’s get some ice cream - that’s why you’re here right?” He slammed his hand against my back and laughed. His laugh sounded off. It was distorted. As if it was coming from next to me, but also through levels of material. I can’t really explain it. I wasn’t terrified yet, but the enchantment was slowly crumbling down. The buzz of the neon sign was sharp now. I kept thinking about the girl outside.
“Chocolate?” The guy pointed at me with finger guns. His smile looked painful too. It reached from his left ear to his right. I smiled back, but my smile embodied disgust more than excitement. “Sure,” I tried to sound excited. The guy smiled even wider if that was even possible. I turned back to look at the girl but she was gone. The laughing echoing in the ice cream bar made me feel dizzy. Everything seemed normal at first glance, but the more I watched the more distorted it all became. The floor was a black and white tile with a shining clean surface. Then, when I looked at it a little longer, it looked grey and dirty. Everyone was smiling and laughing, but I realized they were also staring at me with wide eyes. As if they were only laughing for the background noise. All the laughs looked painful and forced - my sister looked the same on her long shifts in the supermarket. I didn’t understand what was going on.
The guy pushed me down to a chair and went to order for us. I looked around and realized that all the talking and laughing had stopped. Everyone was still smiling at me, but the scene felt frozen. As if they were waiting for me to do something. I stood up and started to panic. I finally woke up from the spell. My brain was telling me to run, giving me all the warning signs at the same time, as if something had delayed them. I tried to see the tunnel, but the bright light of the neon sign covered the windows.
“You’re not leaving yet.” I could hear that the guy tried his best to sound relaxed, but it wasn’t a suggestion that he was giving me. It was an order. He didn’t smile anymore. I nodded and laughed, pretending to start sitting down slowly. As soon as he sat down, I straightened my back and turned around to run. The door flung open. The bell above the door flung off for the force of the movement. The girl stood in the door frame. She looked at me with fear in her eyes. Her sweater was full of blood.
“You have to go before they close the tunnel! Run, just run!” She begged. I wanted to ask what was going on. I wanted to take her away and tried to take her hand, but she stepped back. Her eyes widened. She was trembling and staring at something behind me. I could hear the crackling again. The girl started to shake visibly. She squeezed my hand and whispered once more, “run.”
I came to my senses and turned around to see what she was looking at. I could suddenly see through those smiles of the teenagers and screamed. The excited guy’s face was peeled off. His eyes were just two big balls resting on muscle. The teenagers were nothing but blue skin, broken bones, and blood. Everyone looked malnourished or beaten up. Like life had been sucked out from them. The scene looked distorted - switching between a beautiful and a grotesque scene. I turned around and ran. I could hear the steps and the crackling sound behind me. They had no intention of letting me go. I ran so fast that I forgot to breathe. The tunnel was right in front of me. I could see the graffiti on the other side. I got closer fast, but the closer I got the faster the graffiti started to disappear. If I had walked through a hole in time or space, it was now closing in front of me. I tried to run faster but I could only muster more tears. My legs felt like jello. I got inside the tunnel and almost broke down crying but forced myself to keep going. I could hear the birds on the other side. I could feel the breeze.
I heard the crackling again. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t heard a car before. I could see it, that thing, in the corner of the tunnel. I gasped and backed up in fear. It tried to hide in the dark part of the tunnel, but I could still see it. The eyes were big, almost as big as its head. It looked like a lizard, of which skin was made of human skin that had been turned upside down. It hung in the corner with its sticky nails sunk into the concrete walls. A batch of vomit tried to come up, but I forced myself to keep going. A foul smell pushed in through my nostrils. I felt dizzy. The crackling started again - I knew that it was coming after me. I was so close, just about the get out when it reached for me one more time. I jumped forward - and came to the other side.
If you’re reading this letter in a tunnel, I want you to turn around and never come back. I didn’t get out. I thought that I got out on the other side but as soon as I did, I was back in the mall again. I had run through a loop. It was too late.
I haven’t seen the girl. She was gone when I came back to the mall. The ones who try to warn the new ones, disappear. I’ve seen her pictures though. There are a lot of ‘missing’ posters about her. I found ‘missing’ posters about me too. We’re all missing. I’m not sure what those big-eyed things are, but I know that they can move in between layers of time and space. Time is not linear to them, just levels of layers on top of each other. The mall is not another wold, but a nest they lay close to the worlds they feed on.
They feed on humans, at least for the time being. Sometimes they just suck whatever will of life is inside us. Sometimes they peel our skin like it’s a crusty little snack. You must wonder why I haven’t killed myself, but I tried to. Many times. They don’t let us die. No matter what I do, I don’t die. I don't know if the girl died. Nobody knows, so we all keep playing this sick little pretend to be.
I saw the tunnel open two days ago. I was sitting where the girl sat when I first came through the tunnel. They want someone new. I saw you standing there, looking towards the mall. You saw me. I kept smiling because the ones that don’t smile, end up being peeled inch by inch. It’s too late for me now, but it’s not too late for you. You don’t have to become a ‘missing’ poster. If I have learned anything and if there’s anything important to sacrifice my life for it’s this: don’t go through the tunnel.
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