THE TUNNEL. A 3000 word short story (it’s FREE)

THE TUNNEL

© Clemens Suter-Crazzolara, 2019

Peter came home at eight p.m., determined to solve the issue once and for all. All day long, the voices that he had been hearing over the last weeks had been on his mind, and now he was going to put an end to it.

He placed his keys and wallet on the kitchen table and walked into the garden. It looked inconspicuously enough. About 60 feet deep and 40 feet wide, on the south side bordered by his house (the kitchen to be precise) and on the other three sides by the gardens of his three neighbors. He had inherited the place at a relatively young age, his parents had unexpectedly died in a car crash on the New Jersey turnpike; actually just a few miles away.

At the end of his garden was a small shed in which Peter stored some gardening tools, but he knew the voices didn’t originate from there. He could stand with his back against the shed, or the kitchen, and in both cases he could, with almost absolute certainty, pinpoint the origin of the voices to the center of his plot of land. They either came from beneath the ground… or from his imagination. Had he been living alone for too long, he wondered? Was he going insane?

It was cold out; winter had come early. He could see his breath. Stars speckled the dark sky.

He walked over to the shed, retrieved a spade and carried it to the center of his plot. He listened, but all was quiet. Yesterday evening he had heard the voices: two men talking to one another. Like always he hadn’t been able to understand the words; but they had been there, in deep conversation. One voice seemed to belong to a curious young fellow, asking a lot of questions. There was some uncertainty in his voice. The other sounded elderly, and more experienced, providing answers.

Peter grimaced. It was all too ridiculous! Where could these voices come from? He was smack in the middle of a suburban area; the houses of his neighbors were at least a hundred feet away. He hesitated. Should he return the spade to the shed and make an appointment with a psychologist? Or go to the police? Ha! They would only laugh at him. Peter scowled, and the spade entered the wet soil. He lifted the first load of wet, dark earth and threw it to the side. Another followed, and another and one more. He kept on digging and digging. He didn’t find anything; it was just earth. Soon he was standing in a 3 feet deep hole.

“Ahem,” said the voice of his neighbor, Mr. Schaper. Peter looked up, and saw his neighbor standing on the other side of the fence. “Digging a hole, are we?”

“Well yes,” said Peter. He didn’t interrupt his work and kept on digging.

“Going to make a pool?” asked Mr. Schaper.

“That’s the plan,” said Peter, deciding that this was as good an excuse as any.

“Do you have a permit?” asked Mr. Schaper. Just what was to be expected. The nitpicking Mr. Schaper immediately homed in on a possible complication. Peter hesitated. He didn’t know whether a permit was a prerequisite for digging a pool. He cleared his throat. “Uhum. Well, not yet naturally. I am first checking whether it makes sense to create a pool in this spot. You know, whether the ground allows it.” He realized this didn’t sound very convincing, and as he glanced at Mr. Schaper’s face he could recognize skepticism. He continued digging, but Mr. Schaper didn’t give up. “You will need a permit, that’s for sure. And that must be passed by the neighbors, we have a say into this as well, just that you know it. Anyway, why do this in the dark? You can’t see a damned thing!”

Peter kept on digging, hoping that Mr. Schaper would simply turn around and go inside. Sometimes he did just that, if ignored, but not this time. After a few more minutes, Peter paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. “I say, you could do me a big favor. If you have a spade and some boots, you could perhaps help?”

Mr. Schaper’s face darkened. “No way, old man. No way! I have a hernia, not allowed to do that kind of thing.” With that, Mr. Schaper turned around and went back inside his house.

Peter’s spade went into the ground. Clang! He hid something, a piece of metal, located at the side of the hole. What was it? Peter used his spade to free up the object. It was a metal tube, perhaps 2 inches wide, and it came almost to ground level. He freed it further and could see that it went straight down into the ground. At the top was a bend and some sort of mesh, preventing the earth from falling in. Was this the origin of the voices? Peter moved his ear to the mesh and listened. Nothing, no sound. He scratched the back of his head. Perhaps his father had attempted to drill a well, and this was the remnant? To looked inconspicuously enough. Still, this tube was the only tangible possibility for the origin of the voices. Peter decided to carry on. He glanced suspiciously at the houses around him, but all his neighbors appeared to be inside. One, two, three; he removed the earth around the tube. The digging was heavy work, and soon he was sweating hard. He took off his sweater and threw it on the grass. Deeper and deeper he went, and after half an hour or so he had laid bare about seven feet. It seemed to consist of pieces of about three feet each, welded together.

He estimated that he had been digging for about three hours. Should he continue? He had to get up early tomorrow morning, it was a regular workday at the physics lab. He decided to press on. Another hour passed, and one more. The hole was deep by now and the walls very steep; Peter concentrated on freeing as much as possible of the tube, without making the hole overly wide. Again, he paused briefly, and listened. No sounds, no voices. He couldn’t see the houses anymore, only the sky above, littered with stars. It was cold and he scrambled up to get his sweater. He put it on and jumped back into the hole. The ground gave away and he slipped down into the earth. In panic he threw his arms around and hit the tube with his left hand. Ouch! He cursed and slipped further. He feared that he would be buried alive and tried to get a hold of the tube. Earth fell on top of him as the hole collapsed, and the mountains of earth that he had created on the surface slipped in and blocked the hole from above.

A few minutes later, Mr. Schaper came into the garden. With chagrin on his face, he looked over the fence and at the hole. “Building a pool indeed! He doesn’t even manage to dig a decent hole. Glad he decided to go to bed. Young fool.” Mr. Schaper disappeared into his house and turned off the lights. The entire village seemed to sleep. Far away, in the center of town, the church bell clanged the first notes of the star-spangled banner.

Peter dropped through the ground and fell onto a concrete floor. He almost twisted his ankle in the process and limped around in a circle. “Damn, ouch, damn!” Some dirt trickled on his back, but the ceiling seemed to hold. Peter stopped and stared. He found himself in a brightly lid corridor, about five-foot-wide and seven high. The walls were made from concrete, painted white, with a grey stripe three feet from the floor. The corridor turned to the right twenty or so feet away and was joined by another corridor that came from the left. The ceiling consisted of netting and concrete slabs but wasn’t very massive in appearance. Peter closed his mouth slowly. In his mind he tried to connect his house, his neighborhood with this underground tunnel system, but he couldn’t. He had never heard that a subway passed through this American village or that the military had build any facility in the area. There was no heavy industry for miles around!

It was quiet, but he could hear the echo of his own movements resonating in the distance. What to do now? As became obvious after a quick inspection, there was no turning back. The ceiling was too high to reach, and even if he could have reached it, there was a great risk that he would be buried alive underneath his own garden…or the entire neighborhood. He found the metal tube; it entered the corridor along the left wall, made a 90 degree turn and followed the wall for 30 feet, and then disappeared into it, out of sight. Peter speculated that the voices had been carried by that tube to his garden; the voices had most likely not even originated from the spot where he was standing now.

It didn’t make any sense to stay here, he had to return to the surface some way. He could go left or right; he decided on the latter. Quickly, and as silently as possible, he started walking down the tunnel. It didn’t go straight; it had bends and weak curves, sometimes to one side, then to the other. He could never see farther than a few hundred feet. Overall, it did seem to go in a single direction, east he thought. And it went very slowly down.

There were strong lightbulbs overhead, and occasionally he passed doors, all painted grey and locked, without number or any distinguishing marks. Taken together, the tunnel looked very purpose-made, without any frills. This went on for three quarters of an hour, when suddenly, voices became audible. He stopped and listened. Undoubtedly: two men. Peter moved forward, soundlessly. The tunnel curved again, and he entered a large space. It was an intersection of multiple tunnels, four, five, running off in different directions, some going down, others going up. The conversation continued but frustratingly he could not determine from which tunnel it came; it seemed to come from everywhere. He entered one tunnel and followed it for a while: the voices disappeared. He returned to the intersection and tried the next tunnel, with the same effect.

He couldn’t understand what the men were discussing, it could have been some foreign language. Suddenly the voices became more aggressive. The two men seemed to have entered an argument. Soon they started shouting at each other, and then a struggle seemed to ensue. Gasping, grappling, muffled cries. Peter listened, his anxiety increasing. One of the men seemed to have broken free, his feet pounding on the floor as he started running. The other man started to chase him, cursing. A shot ran out!

To his shock, Peter realized that the sounds were increasing in volume: the men were coming in his direction. Another shot sounded, and loud cursing and hollering. Peter stood in the middle of the intersection, quickly weighing his options. He realized that waiting was not an option. He had to move away from the men, and by choosing any of the five tunnels, he realized that he had a good chance of doing so. He decided to take the tunnel to his left as it ran slightly upwards. He dashed into it, never minding the noise that he made. After about a hundred feet he realized that he had made a terrible mistake, as the tunnel suddenly started to drop down steeply. But he couldn’t turn back; the voices of the men had changed. For a few seconds they stopped running and didn’t shout at one another anymore. Peter guessed that they had heard his movements. And yes, they seemed to orchestrate their actions again, rapidly conversing with one other. Then they ran again, without speaking. No doubt they were in pursuit!

Peter increased his speed, at the same attempting to reduce the sound that he made. Nevertheless, the feet behind him could be hear without interruption and he realized that they had by now entered his tunnel. Peter thanked his guardian angel that he went jogging so often, as at least he could keep this tempo up for some time. If only there would be another intersection! Instead, after about 15 minutes of running, Peter entered a hallway. There was a small platform in the middle, and next to it was a small-track railway, on which stood a low locomotive connected to several train wagons. He now had two options: he could continue running down the corridor or attempt to figure out how the locomotive worked. Peter bent down and looked at the controls: a key in the ignition, what looked like a single handle to adjust speed, and a possible brake pedal; that was it. Quickly he lowered himself into the driver seat and turned the ignition key. Immediately the train lurched forward, and he fell back, hitting his head on the back of the seat. Not a moment too early: a loud bang sounded, and bullet whizzed by, leaving a hole in the side window. The train shot into a dark tunnel that almost immediately started to drop down. The acceleration pulled at his stomach. The ceiling of the tunnel was just above the train, obviously the two had been designed in conjunction. Faster and faster the train went. Wind came in from the sides; but Peter figured out how to pull close the sliding door. It was almost quiet now, although some noise came in through the hole in the window. There was a small light in the front of the locomotive, and he could see the tracks whizzing by.

He didn’t attempt to control the speed. The further he got away from those two maniacs, the better. Besides, he was certain that this dark and straight tunnel would very soon turn towards the surface and reach its destination and would enable him to return home.

But the train traveled on and on, and down and down, by now at a terrific speed. He tried to relax. After a while he got out of his seat. The locomotive had a low flat roof and he had to crawl on all fours towards the back. He opened the door and stared into the next compartment. On the left were cans of food, on the right bottles of mineral water. He couldn’t continue; the stored goods blocked his way. He returned to his seat and investigated the controls. Or the absence of controls: there was no transmitter, no speedometer, or any other indicators. No clock; he had no idea what time it was. Peter sighed. After a while he became tired and his eyes started to close. He fell asleep.

He woke up with a shock. He was certain that he had slept long and deep. He felt hungry. The train continued its path, uninterrupted and at neck breaking speed. He went to the back and got some food and a bottle of water.  He inspected the train again: it was spotlessly clean, and futuristic looking. Although; that was the wrong phrase: it looked different and unusual, with its curved surfaces and beige plastic. No design that he had seen resembled this. Time went by. Without anything to do, he just sat in his chair and slept a little. At some point he considered to try the brake but decided against it. The narrow tunnel was just wide enough for the train. He didn’t see any exits, the walls of the tunnel appeared uninterrupted. If the train stopped, where could he go? He shuddered at the thought of being stuck in this seemingly endless and claustrophobic tube and being forced to continue on foot. Where to? He fell asleep and had a nightmare: he felt as if he was submerged in liquid, his lungs filling with water. Shoals of fish chased him, and a kraken tried to catch and crush him with its giant tentacles.

Time and place merged, his brain grew more and more confused. Then, at some time, he noticed a difference. The train appeared to be climbing – or was it just his confused mind? Oh, Peter, he said to himself, oh Peter, why can’t you never develop a plan – or do something drastic? But in his delirious state, the thought slipped away, and never returned. He slept some more and had some food. There was a small toilet behind his seat that he used. He freshened up by throwing some water in his face.

Then, much later, a loud screeching! Suddenly, the train decelerated. The force pushed him forward, he had to hold on to the chair. Finally, the locomotive came to a halt. Peter listened for a few seconds, and when he heard nothing but silence, he opened the door. The lights of the train dimmed, then went out. He let himself slip into the darkness and down to the ground. With his hands outstretched he took a few steps. Slowly his eyes became adjusted to the dark. He was at a small station, but not the same one as where he had started out. He searched the platform with his hands, it was wet and slippery, sawdust and an oily substance. After a while he found a box. He rummaged through it. Some cloths, some tools. He got hold of a lighter, pulled it out and flicked it on. The light didn’t reach the walls; the hall was apparently very large. He inspected the contents of the box: no electric torch alas. But he found a metal bar, and some oil. He sat down on the ground and tore some of the rags to pieces and twisted them around the bar. He poured the oil over the rags and ignited them. Now he had enough light to investigate the hall. It was mostly empty, a few crates in a corner.

He didn’t know how it happened, but some sparks from the flame must have fallen on the ground, as suddenly the sawdust and oily residue caught fire. Peter cursed. The flames spread at a very disturbing speed: either somebody had spilled some highly ignitable substance between the crates, or a container had leaked. Peter pulled away from the hungry flames, and they chased him towards a corner. The flames licked at his clothing and suddenly his trousers started burning. He ripped them off and pulled his burning shirt over his head. By the light of the flames he could recognize a man-high tunnel in the opposite wall. He jumped across the fire, the flames liking at his naked body. He entered the tunnel and ran forward. His biggest fear was to suffocate in the smoke; the main risk of any fire. He hurried on for several minutes. Smoke started to fill the passage.

It was dark, and unexpectedly he ran into a wall. He groped around and fell a metal ladder, embedded in the wall. He got a hold of the bars and started climbing up, as quickly as he could. It was hard work. He climbed and climbed, bar after bar. The metal started hurting his hands and bare feet, but he was so afraid for the fire overtaking him that he pressed on.

Then: sounds! He could hear voices above him, and cars, traffic. He climbed faster. Suddenly he hit his head against a solid object above him. It dizzied him for a second and he almost let go of the bars. He rested a moment, trying to catch his breath. Then, with his last power, he slung his arms over a bar and pulled himself up. With one hand he felt above him. On the sides: concrete, but just above him a circle of cool, heavy metal. Peter climbed up one more bar and pushed against the metal with his shoulder. Yes, it was a lid, a duct cover! He was able to push it up. Bright daylight gushed into the hole, blinding his eyes. With his last remaining power, Peter climbed out of the hole and onto the pavement of a busy street, naked. Pedestrians looked at him in shock, but continued their way, passing by, staring back at him. The street was lined by sycamore trees, and shops and cafes with red canopies. In the distance: the Eiffel tower. This was Paris.

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Read more of my fantasy novels here: www.clemenssuter.com/books

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