The Tunnels


The Tunnels

Prologue

Seriously? You've never been down there? And you're what, a junior?" Chad shook his head in mock surprise as his eyes lingered over her cleavage.

"No, never." Anna flushed slightly and resisted the temptation to tug at the shirt's bodice. Her roommate had talked her into borrowing it, scoffing, "Nuns show more skin than you do. Men don't dig turtlenecks." She had been right, as always. Within ten minutes Chad Peterson had backed her into a corner by the keg and offered her a refill, even though she'd barely had a sip of the beer in her hand.

"Well, I don't think we can allow you to graduate without at least one late night visit to the chapel. It's a rite of passage, for Christ's sake." He pushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes and smiled down at her, causing her heart to thump uncomfortably hard. She nodded with more assurance than she felt and said, "Let's go."

Chad leaned over to his friend Pete and whispered something. Pete leered at her and clapped Chad on the shoulder. "The tunnels, huh? Right on. We'll come too." With one arm Pete scooped up a tipsy blond and led the way to the rear of the frat house.

"Are you sure she's okay?" Anna asked uncertainly. The girl's feet stumbled and twisted over each other, and her head lolled to one side.

"Gina? She's fine, she always gets like this. The walk will do her good." Pete said.

Chad's lips grazed Anna's hair, sending a thrill down her spine. She swallowed hard and downed the rest of her beer in one gulp. She'd never seen this section of the building. The lighting was dim, their footsteps loud on the wood floors. The alcohol was spreading a pleasurable warmth through her bloodstream. Finally, Pete ducked into a narrow hallway.

"Watch your heads, it's dark in here."

Anna crouched down. The passage was so narrow that her hips almost touched the walls on either side. It was pitch-black. Pete yelped, and the drunk girl giggled. "It's not funny, yo. I hit my head," he murmured.

"Sorry," Gina answered in a stage whisper, then giggled again. Anna fought a rising claustrophobia, closing her eyes to squeeze out some of the darkness and drawing a heavy breath of dusty air. Chad's fingers stroked her back reassuringly, which only served to feed her rising panic. What was she thinking? She barely knew these guys--and here she was heading into the bowels of the building with them.

"Oops...shit, this is it." There was the click of a match being lit, and Gina was suddenly silhouetted in light. Anna peered over her shoulders to see Pete unbolting a heavy door. A tarnished brass knocker hung in the center--was that a goat? A shiver tingled unpleasantly down her spine. Silly superstitions, she thought, trying to shake off the warnings ringing through her head. Those were Old World fears, the kind of thing her father clung to despite all of his education and business acumen. She was in Connecticut now, for God's sake. She'd left all that behind her.

The door groaned slightly as it opened. Pete issued a mock evil laugh and rubbed his hands together.

"Knock it off, Pete." Chad said sternly. He reached around and rubbed Anna's upper arms. "Wow, you've got goose bumps."

She hadn't noticed, but it was true. "I'm cold," she lied.

Pete fumbled around inside the door, cursing under his breath, and suddenly a flashlight sliced a swath through the murk. It was a small token of comfort, she thought, proof that other people had done this before, that they were not the first venturing into uncharted terrain. Everyone had been at least once, according to Chad, and in a school of almost 3,000 students that was saying quite a bit.

"Careful, it's pretty steep." Chad whispered in her ear. Gina disappeared around a bend in the stairs, and Anna hurried to catch up. The temperature dropped as they descended and she rubbed her arms, wishing she had brought a sweater. It was musty, the walls lining the stairwell not dirt as she had imagined but concrete, painted by generations of students with varying levels of skill. Names, swears, and doodles were scrawled in a spectrum of colors. Further down they encountered crude representations of owls, bulls, and other symbols she didn't recognize.

"Did you do any of these?" She asked, snipping her words off at the end, startled by how they took on a life of their own down here, amplified and distorted until she hardly recognized them.

"Not yet. They don't let you, until you graduate." Chad ran his fingers along a stark 'William S, 1923.' "They're running out of room. We might have to start back at the bottom soon, paint over the ones that aren't so great, you know? Some are pretty cool, though. You're an art major, aren't you?"

"Art history." She was secretly stunned, hadn't counted on him knowing her name, never mind her major.

"Then you'll appreciate this."

It felt like they descended for hours, though it was probably only ten minutes. Pete jumped the last few stairs with both feet, landing with a clank on a metal plate. "Yeeeee-haaw!" He yelled. The call thundered down the tunnel ahead of him and rushed back like a train, almost taking her breath away as it swirled around her head before diminishing.

This was it, she thought, staring past the flashlight's illuminated coil into the depths beyond. The infamous tunnels.

It had been a rumor at first, one confirmed by so many disparate sources that she had acknowledged their existence without any firsthand experience. Varying explanations of their origins were debated heatedly in dorm rooms and dining halls; some claimed the tunnels were built in the 1950's when many of the dorms were redone, to facilitate travel around campus during the snowy winter months. Others argued that they pre-dated the university itself, built during the days of the Underground Railroad, later used by the university's first presidents to store illegal contraband. One rumor claimed that you could even get to the waterfront if you followed the right shaft. Anna ran her fingers along the whirls and grooves of the cement, feeling the slickness of condensation under her fingertips. Not the sixties, certainly, she thought to herself as her eyes marched along a string of dates from the 1800s. Moss carpeted sections of the floor, the sponginess pushing back against her thin sandals. A line of dark steel beams vaulted the ceiling, some dangling strands of lichen that danced on drafts of air. Gina stumbled, caught herself, then bent double. "Are you okay?" Anna asked with concern, taking her elbow. The girl tilted her head to look at her, eyes struggling to focus. She pointed past her at something on the wall and said, "Look."

Anna followed her finger and caught her breath. An enormous painting glared down at them. It spanned the space from floor to ceiling, streaked dark brown, disquieting in its intensity. Chad squinted over her shoulder. "What the fuck? No one's supposed to paint this section, it's the oldest. Yo, Pete! You know who did this?"

Gina suddenly heaved, spraying the floor with sudsy beer. They jumped back.

"Oh, man! What the fuck! I told you not to get sick down here! Jesus Christ-- I'm gonna have to clean this up now, you know that?" The flashlight's beam jerked and bounced along the walls as Pete gesticulated, making the leering face on the wall appear to dance. "For fuck's sake. All right, let's head back."

"Dude, I promised to take her to the chapel." Chad argued, head cocked to the side.

"It's okay, really." Anna said through her fingers, covering her mouth in an attempt to filter the smell. "Some other time."

"Seriously, though, all you've got to do is get a little water..." Chad guided Pete down the tunnel away from them. Their voices became muted, the whispers curling eerily around the still air. Gina was still on her knees, hair swung in front of her face like a drape.

"Are you okay?" Anna asked tentatively.

In response, Gina nodded and sniffled.

"Here, let's get you up." Anna bent to help her.

Gina lifted a tear-streaked face and half-smiled. "Thanks. I'm an idiot."

"Shhh...no, it happens to everyone. Seriously. We've all been there. It's not your fault." Anna stroked her back reassuringly.

"All right, let's go." Chad reappeared at her side. He had the flashlight now, and Pete pulled Gina to her feet behind him.

"We don't have to, really."

"No," he said firmly. "I don't want this to be your last memory of the tunnels. They're too cool. Trust me, when we get to the chapel, it'll be worth it. I promise."

Anna sighed. If nothing else, the incident had quelled any residual fears. They were just tunnels, no more, no less, built up in students' imaginations by generations of tall tales. And the face--well, that was just some fraternity prank. "All right. But I have to get up early to study, so let's make it quick."

Ten minutes later they clambered out a hatch in the chapel floor just behind the pulpit. Chad held his hand around the mouth of the flashlight, providing just enough light for them to see. "Public Safety officers," he whispered. "They make rounds every night. If I get caught again, I'm expelled."

Again? she thought, miffed, but didn't say anything.

After the dank closeness of the tunnel the chapel felt enormous, bathed blue by the patches of moonlight seeping through the windows. The ceiling hovered above them in criss-crossed arches, the pews stood silently watchful. Chad was right, she thought. It was wonderful, and romantic.

They started to kiss, lips grazing each other lightly as he eased her back onto the carpet. Tomorrow morning, she thought with barely repressed glee, Father John will be standing right here, delivering the mass. Her parents believed she still attended, figuring it wasn't Greek Orthodox but it was better than nothing. It had been a simple lie, one she told them initially to gain more study time, then because she no longer believed in the fairy tale of good and evil that was dished up on a weekly basis.

She jerked upright, pulled back from her thoughts by the hand under her shirt.

"What?" Chad whispered.

"Nothing." She felt her cheeks flush. "It's just that I want to go kind of slow, okay?"

Chad shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Whatever."

They started to kiss again. This time she focused on his mouth, the slightly bitter taste of beer lingering on his tongue. He was a good kisser. What the hell, she thought as she let his hand make its way up her back, feeling for the clasp on her bra. What the hell. You can't stay a virgin forever.

Footsteps, suddenly. They both froze, pulling apart to listen. It sounded like someone was in the apse behind them. Who would be here this late? she wondered. Father John? Closer now, purposeful strides echoed from behind the curtains where the priest made his entrance every Sunday.

"C'mon," Chad whispered in her ear, all the smoothness gone from his voice. He yanked her up sharply, almost making her cry out, then pushed her down the iron ladder in front of him, slamming the trapdoor shut over their heads. "We gotta run for it, before they get a look at us. Let's go, let's go!" He prodded her forward.

"The flashlight," she mumbled, but he didn't seem to hear her. I'm going to twist an ankle in here, she thought. I'm going to fall and break my leg, all so this guy doesn't get some bullshit citation from Public Safety. They're not the police, they don't even have any power...but she stayed quiet and pushed ahead.

At the bottom he squeezed past and grabbed her hand. "This way!"

She jerked along behind him, the darkness smothering her, her breath coming in gasps and gulps. I can't breathe, she thought. There's not enough oxygen. She tripped on something and heard a squeal, repressed the urge to scream herself. Rats, of course there were rats down here. It was like the subway, nothing but rats and graffiti. She tripped again and landed on one knee. Her hand slipped from Chad's grasp.

"C'mon!" He whispered.

"I--I think I'm hurt!" She eased back on her haunches, rubbing the knee, feeling it throb in response. "Chad?"

He was gone.

It took her a second to fully believe it, that he would leave her down here with no light, no map, no clue as to which of the corridors wound back to the frat house. She kicked herself for not paying attention. They had hit forks twice along the way, but he was obviously so familiar with the route she had just followed blindly along.

"Chad?" She called out plaintively. "Anyone?" She eased herself to her feet, groping for the wall with both hands. She heaved a sigh of relief when after an eternity her fingertips scraped against the gravelly surface. She should have taken the flashlight, should have demanded it. Well, these tunnels all led somewhere, she thought. If she just kept going, eventually she'd find a stairwell that led up into one of the buildings. What the hell, she mused with a grim smile. It wasn't like the university would kick her out. Considering who her father was, she probably couldn't get expelled if she tried.

Footsteps again, from somewhere in front of her. "Chad?" She called hopefully. He wasn't a bad guy, he was coming back for her; he had probably turned around as soon as he realized she was gone. "I'm down here, this way! Chad?"

He was closer now, moving slowly, probably trying to pinpoint which direction her voice was coming from. She listened hard, straining her ears towards the echoes. She edged along the wall, pieces of the cement coming loose in her hands. "Hello? Who's there?"

With a jolt she remembered something: her keys! There was a mini-LCD light on her keychain, a stocking stuffer from her father last Christmas. She dug them out of her pockets, sifted through until she felt the soft plastic case, and squeezed. She caught her breath, then giggled nervously. On the wall facing her was another face, identical to the one they had seen earlier, but even larger and darker. And freshly painted, she realized--drops were still running down it, dark streaks dripping from the beard to the floor. Once again, a feeling of foreboding trickled down her spine, and she had to suppress the inclination to run. She took a deep, shuddery breath, stepped back from the image, and turned in a slow circle. There was something there, just beyond the reach of the light. Anna squinted and took a tentative step towards it. "Are you..." she started to ask, then her eyes widened and she screamed, fingers releasing the keychain. It fell to the floor with a clatter. Darkness descended once again.


ABOUT THE BOOK
THE TUNNELS Q & A
BOOK GROUP QUESTIONS