Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
I was fourteen when I went into The Tunnels for the first time eleven years ago. It was almost the end of summer vacation, a few weeks before school started. There were five of us, six if you counted Chaz, a junior at Pace Middleton. He was going into his senior year and we were incoming freshmen. One of us, I think it was Rob, had met Chaz at a baseball camp. He told him about The Tunnels, and asked if he wanted to see it. Rob told us about it and that was how we all wound up down there one Saturday morning in August. I remember looking at Chaz as he talked. I had heard the stories about what happened to his friend. I didn’t say anything to him. I never know what to say about stuff like that.
He walked us through the graffiti covered main corridor with its nearly seven foot high clearances. The water pooled in the middle, less than half an inch deep. Pentagrams and weird cryptic symbols I didn’t recognize covered the walls. Real edgy teen stuff. In between the graffiti, the walls were honeycombed with the genesis of other, smaller tunnels that branched off the main. Flashlights pointed down those holes revealed smaller tunnels, with ceilings anywhere from four feet high to ones that required crawling on hands and knees. We trailed behind Chaz in barely concealed awe, while he walked backward like a tour guide, explaining the history.
Chaz said it all stated because he was looking for a place to get stoned. Illswell is a small town and like most small towns, it’s attitude on public drug use by teenagers is hardly progressive. Spurred on by the draconian anti-marihuana policies of our great nation, Chaz wandered off to the south end of town, down by the river and the glass factory, in hopes of finding an isolated area to get high. That was where he noticed an old storm grate that seemed to be askew. Pulling it aside, he lowered himself down a worn path and was astonished to come out into the massive environs of The Tunnels. After a few moments of wandering around the cavernous space, he realized he was not only in a bizarre, empty space, but he was in a bizarre empty space that was completely free of parents, police, or any of the other patrician forces who would care if he smoked a bowl in public.
Which he did. And then the next day. And then the next day after that. Pretty soon, The Tunnels became a home away from home for him. Which is when Chaz started to wonder why a small town like Illswell needed such a massive, intricately linked tunnel system. A series of pipes to take away excess rainwater made sense. What he had discovered made no sense.
There were hundreds of tunnels, fanning in all directions. They followed no plan as far as he could tell. Some looped in circles. Others terminated abruptly. Still others seemed to go off for miles, with no end in sight. It was baffling and it seemed like it shouldn’t have existed. And after Chaz spent a few hours researching the city history, he found out that he was right. It didn’t exist.
At least that’s what the public record said. The Tunnels were not real. On paper the city of Illswell had, as one would suspect, an extremely basic water drainage system. One large pipe ran north to south and ten smaller crisscrossed the rest of the area. The infrastructure had been built in the early fifties and, as far as Chaz could tell, hadn’t been adjusted since.
These facts stood in stark contrast to the reality of what was underneath the town. So much so that Chaz wasn’t sure if he was going crazy. So he began to conduct himself scientifically. He swore Steve and their other friend Ray to secrecy and then enlisted the two in his project, explaining as much as he could while trying to sound as sane as possible. Once all the parties were all on the same page, the three descended into The Tunnels armed with pens, compasses and notebooks. They were going to map the system and find out exactly what was going on.
Almost immediately, bad luck struck. One of them, Ray, was grounded for failing geography (an irony lost on no one) and then there were two weeks of solid rains, rendering The Tunnels impassible. By the time the rains had ceased and everything was dry enough to explore, nearly a month had passed.
Once they got in The Tunnels, the frustration vanished in the face of the their task’s immensity. Beneath Illswell, The Tunnels splayed out in a hundred contradictory directions. The job to map them, the boys realized, was Sisyphean at best. Nevertheless they tried, diligently going after school to wander and sketch starting points and ending points and everything in between, meeting up later as a group to map out the territories as best as they could. Which is when, almost two months into the project, they realized why the area was so large:
new tunnels were appearing.
They didn’t know how it was possible. There was no construction work, no jackhammers, no machines, but somehow new tunnels were coming into existence at a rate of nearly one a week. Ones with ragged edges and the same sort of bizarre graffiti that infected the main corridor. Weird human like shapes but hunched over and with long tails, painted in a strange shining black ink.
Chaz and his friends decided they needed to talk to someone about what they had discovered. Ray’s dad was the unanimous selection. Not only was he a lawyer, he was also friendly with some people in the local government. Out of anyone they could approach, they assumed he was the most likely to be able to help.
Long story short, he wasn’t. First, Ray’s dad told the boys they must have made a mistake. When confronted with the unimpeachable facts of their maps, he grew silent, studying them. Then he cleared his throat and told the three that The Tunnels weren’t a place for kids. That he knew about them, that everyone in charge of Illswell knew about them, and that the boys were putting themselves at a risk going down there. The Tunnels, he explained, weren’t for us.
But he declined to say who they were for.
He made the three swear on a Bible that they wouldn’t talk about it and would certainly never go down there again. After he left the room, the boys stared at each other in Ray’s living room with its nice TV and huge bookshelves and expensive furniture.
“What the fuck was that?” Steve whispered.
Ray, Steve and Chaz decided to ignore Ray’s dad’s advice. They were going to keep going into The Tunnels until they discovered what was going on down there. They planned on starting that night, but the prediction of storms had them put their plans on hold.
The next morning as rain came down in great sloughs, drenching the landscape and turning the world grey and blurry, Steve called Chaz. Ray had disappeared last night. He must have gone into The Tunnels before the storms started.
After he hung up the phone, Chaz rode his bike down to the storm grates, pedaling so fast he crashed twice. When he got there, all he could do was stare at the flooded corridor.
They found Ray’s body a few weeks later, bloated and egg sac white from the unrelenting waters. He was naked, too, but the police ascribed that to the simple process of drowning and the degradation of the elements.
But there was something else. The body was covered in bite marks. Small, tiny bite marks. It was odd in that he hadn’t even been partially consumed. Just almost…nibbled. The bites formed a strange, cryptic pattern that Chaz and Steve immediately recognized, staring at the visible wounds on the neck of their friend’s corpse in his black coffin. When they left the funeral home, they looked at each other.
“Those marks…” Chaz said.
“They’re the same as the ones on the walls of the corridor,” Steve finished.
“And that,” said Chaz, finishing his story as we stared at him, open mouthed and gaping, “was when we decided we needed to find out what was going on in the The Tunnels.”
His words echoed in the suddenly sinister space of the great main corridor in which we stood, our shoes wet in the standing water.
“Why’d you tell us this? Is this a joke or something?” I asked, my voice shaky and weird sounding in the dark.
“We need help. We can’t do this on our own. I don’t want Ray to die over this and then nothing happens. We want to figure this out. You guys want in?”
I believed him. Even if his story sounded so absurd I was worried it was a prank, and I was going to be the incoming freshmen getting punked by the senior, I still believed him. The way he was staring at us, his eyes hollowed out and glowing, made something in me that usually wasn’t there present. I spoke up, my voice ringing in the enormous place.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m in. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Unfortunately I found out.
Chaz was almost thirty, but he looked older than that with his thinning hair and grey stubble. His teeth were bad when he smiled which he didn’t do a lot of, which was sort of a good thing, I guess. I had agreed to see him while I was home for a few days, but I told him I didn’t want to talk about The Tunnels, or what had happened to Steve. He said that would be fine. I got the sense that he was lying.
We met at a fast food Mexican place near my parents. It had opened after I moved out. I had only been back to Iswell twice since turning eighteen — once for Christmas and then for my dad’s funeral. Other than new taco places, it hadn’t changed at all.
Chaz had, which he acknowledged.
“I look different, huh?” He asked as we sat down at a table near the window.
“We all do,” I shrugged. But not like him. He didn’t look different. He looked battered.
“It’s my job,” he said. “They’re kicking my ass all day up there, Timmy.”
“Where do you work?” I wasn’t really that curious. I just was trying to make conversation.
“Mihn hospital. Near Greyson, out on 118?”
“My dad worked there. That’s quite a commute.”
“No jobs here, man. So it’s either a drive or,” he laughed, “you know, no drive.”
“A drive is definitely better, yeah. I hear you.”
“Plus,” he said, in between bites of his soft taco, “I’m pretty sure that the hospital has something to do with The Tunnels.”
I put down my taco and stood up.
“It was good seeing you, Chaz,” I said. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“No, don’t get up, please. Sit down. Please. Ok?”
I stared at him. He looked so desperate, rail thin and ratlike in the dirty fast food light. I sighed and sat down.
“I’m not talking about them, Chaz. I don’t want to think about —”
“I work in the animal labs at the hospital,” he interrupted me. “They do experiments on animals. The neurosurgeons. You know that? They get all this money and they do all these experiment. On all kinds of animals. Cats, monkeys, dogs —”
“I said I’d stay here, but I’m not going to just sit and listen to this. It was nice seeing you.”
“— rats,” he said and he made eye contact with me. He stopped talking and so did I. Above us, the ceiling fan spun lazy circles.
He played with the straw in his drink while we didn’t talk. Behind him, some guy was ordering a burrito. The place made terrible burritos.
“I clean the cages at in the hospital,” he began after the silence, “it pays nine dollars an hour. That’s the only reason I took the job, I swear. I wasn’t thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it. You think I do?”
I saw a woman at the table next to us look at us. She was with two kids who were petulantly eating nachos. She was trying to look like she wasn’t listening.
“But I took the job there. I didn’t think it would…” He looked away, at the register, at the sign for the bathrooms, then back at me. “I clean the cages. That’s all. But when I went into the rat room, I was by myself. I felt weird. Looking at them. Listening to them. But they weren’t…you know.”
“I know,” I said. My heart was pounding.
“But then, one day, they looked at me. I was by myself. Just me and all of them. And I swear I heard that noise.”
Someone dropped a tray. Both of us jumped. My knees banged the table.
“Are you sure? It was that noise?” I said, settling back down. The kid who had dropped his tray was staring in horror at his tacos splayed across the grey tile floor.
“Do you forget what it sounded like?” Chaz asked.
I shook my head. Sometimes I felt like I could still hear that noise.
“That happened two days ago” he said. He leaned across the table. “I haven’t gone back yet. Called off both days. They think I’m bullshitting them. But I can’t go back. I still go to Ray’s grave once a year. I stopped going to Steve’s. But I worry. I worry about —”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” I shouted and slammed the table. The mom with her kids stared at me. I lowered my voice. “I’m not here to talk about it. You said you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I had to get you here and you wouldn’t come any other way.”
“Why? Why do you need me to —”
“I gave some kids the maps. They’re like, what do you call them? Urban explorers? They had heard about The Tunnels. I think they’re going to go in.”
“What?” I hissed. “You did what? Did you say what happened down there?” The mom with the kids was still staring at me.
“No, I didn’t tell them. You think I want them to think I’m crazy?”
“How could you give them the maps? After what happened?”
“They gave me money,” he said. He looked horrible. Pale and sickly. I remember hearing about what had happened to him. What he had started doing. “I don’t know. I shouldn’t have. I know…”
“When did they go in?”
“Two days ago,” he said. “I think.”
I got up.
“Where are you going?” Chaz asked. “You can’t. It’s been raining and — man, you can’t.”
“You know why,” he said. “They’re still down there.”
“I’m going,” I said, “and you can come if you want.”
“—we’re going in. Tonight,” said Steve the last night I ever talked to him, almost eight years ago. His voice crackled over the phone connection.
“Tonight?” I asked. “It’s been raining.”
“Not that much. Chaz is there already. He said it’s fine.”
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there in, like, twenty minutes.”
The line went dead. Steve was awful at saying goodbye.
I left a note for my mom and dad that I had gone out. My mom was out at dinner with a friend. My dad was at work. He was always at work. After he died, I was startled by how little my life felt changed by his absence. I suppose he had never been there, so his death was merely the continuation of a theme, a running joke that hadn’t been that funny.
Whenever I tried to think of him all I could ever recall was him going to or coming from his job. I barely even knew what he did. Whenever I asked him, all he would is that he was trying to make a better world. My mom told me once I should never marry anyone who mistook their work for their life.
The Tunnels were a fifteen minute bike ride from my house. I loved Illswell because it felt trapped in time: an early eighties Spielberg movie with big rambling houses and cinematic cloud streaked skies. In the fall, leaves fell off of massive trees onto the bright black asphalt of quiet streets besides the sidewalks cracked by dandelions pushing up from the underground. Life is resilient.
That night was the last time I was in The Tunnels, I was seventeen. Out of all my friends who heard Chaz’s speech, I was the only one who had decided to help with their project. The other guys thought the whole thing was stupid at best, dangerous at worst, but I didn’t care. I wanted to learn the secret.
My whole life I had read books about mysterious cities and strange other worlds. The fictional undergrounds of my childhood literature seemed suddenly tangible. Everything was possible. I was on the verge of interrupting a grand mystery. I felt elated.
I also felt a grand, horrific boredom. For as mysterious as The Tunnels were, they were also essentially just big fucking holes. The weird graffiti was baffling, as was the emergence of new tunnels, but none of that ever turned into anything. I thought that maybe it never would.
Until that night.
We went in late, after seven. The streetlights were all on and it had been raining intermittently all day. We thought The Tunnels would be still dry enough to get through without any flooding. We were right about that at least.
The years of obsessive exploring hadn’t been good for any of us. I was in high school and everybody thought I was the weird kid who didn’t do anything, didn’t date anyone, and only hung with two shady older dudes. Steve was inarguably the most well adjusted. He worked part time at packing facility, lived in his own little apartment, had even stared seeing some girl. In contest, Chaz had fallen apart. Something about Ray’s death had driven him crazy. He copied down the patterns on the walls and filled notebook after notebook with drawings of them. I think he thought it was an alphabet — like hieroglyphics. Or maybe he believed it was some sort of weird code. No matter what he actually thought it was, his increasing devotion to it, and the subject of The Tunnels in general, was troubling to Steve and I.
Chaz had also started taking acid before he went underground, something he hadn’t told us. I’m not sure how it was even possible, but it slipped by both of us. Later, Chaz told me that the drug’s effects, combined with his nearly psychopathic focus on the area, allowed for an intense quasi-religious experience. He explained that that the dark and the hallucinations made him feel that he was on the verge of discovering some kind of God.
Going into The Tunnels that night something felt strange. My pulse was racing as I walked into the corridor. There was only a little water on the ground. I can still hear my chucks splashing in it.
“Let’s go,” Steve said. “We can finish tunnels 19-24 tonight if everything breaks right.”
The tunnels we were working on that evening were small and cramped. We had to crawl through most of them, which I hated. The trapped claustrophobia of it, the top of the concrete scraping my shoulders, my face almost in the dirty ground, made my body tense. I found it hard to not race out. Panic was always barely below the surface.
For the last couple of trips down, I had been hearing a noise. A strange sort of chittering. I asked the other two and they said they hadn’t heard it. This night, as I crawled into tunnel 21, I heard it again. Louder.
The graffiti in 21 was bizarre. Lots of crude drawings of what almost looked like houses with strange hunched over things standing next to them. Things with long tails.
21 was also one of the narrowest we were able to get in. I could barely fit through some of the smaller sections. I had never been in the one part I was trying to maneuver through. I thought I was trapped at one point — unable to move forward or backward. It was like when you have a ring on your finger that you can’t get off. You pull and you pull but it doesn’t come over the knuckle. You start to sweat and then, magically, it pops off. That’s what I kept trying to think off as i pushed my body as hard as I could, then harder, then …
I broke free and the tunnel expanded significantly. I was able to breath again, which I did. Great gasping gulping breaths of air. So loud I almost didn’t hear the chittering noise until it reached an unholy din.
I swing my flashlight to the darkness before me and gasped.
The tunnel had opened up to nearly three feet high. There along the edges were strange, horrifically primitive drawings of four humans. They were nearly cubist in their approximations of the human form but there was also a horrible familiarity to them.
They were pictures of Steve, Chaz, Ray and me.
The picture of Ray had X’s through his eyes.
The chittering was getting louder. I turned around and wedged myself back into tunnel 21. I was screaming for the other two as I scrambled through the dirty cement hole.
I came out into the corridor. Ray was standing in shock in front of the tunnel he had been in.
“We have to go!” I was screaming at him. “Where is Steve?”
He didn’t say anything. Just pointed behind me.
I turned around.
Steve was at the edge of the corridor. Something was holding a black hand, or maybe a paw, over his mouth. His eyes looked like two moons glowing in the black night. I could tell he was trying to scream.
The dark thing was with other dark things. They were hunched over, almost human but obviously not, even in the darkness. I saw long tails. I heard the chittering. It almost sounded like human speech.
I heard a noise next to me and turned. It was Chaz, running as fast as he could, away from the things and toward the exit. I turned back and saw Steve vanishing into a tunnel.
I wanted to say I tried to save him. But I can’t lie.
I ran, following Chaz, out of The Tunnels for what I thought was forever.
And now, here I was with Chaz, staring at it again.
“Long time, huh?” Chaz asked.
It was past sunset. The sky was all bruised yellow and pass out red colored. Chaz was scratching his arm. I could see scab marks along his veins. I remembered him that night, running out of there with me. When we stopped, what felt like miles later, he told me he was never going back. Ever.
I remember how he got strung out after that. Photo albums of bad scenes on facebook, a selfie of him smiling with blood in his mouth, holding one of his teeth, posted without explanation or caption. I heard he got arrested for possession — meth, oxys, heroin. He did time upstate. I went out of state, went to a small liberal arts school. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t met anyone. I stayed in my room. I drank when no one else was up. Then I started drinking when people were up. Then I stated drinking when I woke up. Anytime, really. Anytime I thought about this place, I drank. And I thought about it all the time.
I looked at Chaz.
“Let’s go,” he said. “This isn’t going to get any easier.”
The Tunnels were bigger than they used to be. Things usually reduce as you got older. Here my past seemed to expand to swallow me whole.
As we walked in, I heard the chittering. It sounded like a chorus.
“I shouldn’t have given them the maps,” Chaz said. He sounded like he had said that a million times to himself and he was practicing it aloud. “They gave me money…”
“It’s ok,” I said, even if it wasn’t. “Maybe we can find them.”
The rain waters were beginning to trickle into the corridor. Our flashlights glared dull yellow beams on the walls. I didn’t think we were going to find them.
“It’s the same one in your lab?”
“I think,” he said. “It sounds so much like that. The rats in there, they look so weird. They don’t look right. They look smart. Like they know something.”
I thought I heard something moving behind me. I spun around and swung the flashlight. If there was something, I didn’t see it. But there it was. In front of tunnel 43.
An old tennis shoe.
“Do you think that’s one of their shoes?” I asked Chaz. He shrugged.
We decided to try the tunnel. It was a low one, but not so low you had to crawl. I could hear the water starting to splash in the main corridor. We walked hunched over, me behind Chaz.
The tunnel was long, filled with the graffiti. I hadn’t been there in so long that the vivid strangeness of the art grabbed me, but the obvious rage in the work shocked me. It showed people killing, shooting, dying in a world where the sun shone and birds flew and flowers grew, while underneath, the things with tails showed their teeth and wept.
The chittering was getting louder. The weird noise was turning familiar. Something in its pattern? I couldn’t catch it. We turned in the tunnel and Chaz, who was slightly ahead of me, gasped and stopped. I came out from behind him and froze.
In front of us, in a small room, pressed against each other, on top of each other, and suddenly staring at us, were hundreds of rats.
Seeming them up close, I realized they weren’t quite rats. They were too big, standing over two feet tall, and their faces carried too much if what I would want to call humanity in them to be only rats. But their tails, their greasy fur, their long quivering noses: that was rat. That was all and only rat.
I couldn’t scream. All I heard was their chittering. I could smell them, a hot wet smell like garbage in the sun. I felt sick. I thought of Steve, those things biting into him, all of them, chewing and chewing and chewing and —
“It’s one of the kids,” Chaz pointed. He sounded emotionless, like he was pointing out a car on the highway. “They have him on that stone.”
I looked. There was a stone in the front of the space, and tied to it was a dead teenager. His chest had been cut open. A rat stood next to him with bloody paws holding something raw and red.
“They cut out his heart,” Chaz whispered. “This place. It’s a church. Look.”
He was right. The rats were all facing the stone, which was obviously an altar. The walls were painted and their were candles burning giving off a queasy, flickering light. The rat at the stone had some kind of cloth wrapped around its shoulders. Behind him was a drawing, one I immediately recognized.
The way the rats stood, the way the air felt: we had interrupted some sort of religious ceremony. This was prayer.
Chaz looked at me. “Good luck,” he murmured. I was going to ask him what I needed luck for but then he ran, screaming, into the moving brown ocean of rat. I saw him bitten almost immediately. I heard the way his scream transformed from defiance to agony as he was swallowed in a sea of brown fur. I only saw his face once, the way his eyes were closed as tightly as he could close them, a paw reaching into his open mouth and ripping at his lips….
I turned and ran back into the tunnel, running as quickly as I could. He had bought me a few seconds, I remember thinking. I might be able to get out. And then I remember my foot hitting a puddle, a wet spot on the ground. I went into the air thinking this is the way I die. I remember landing and then hitting my head and then everything went away.
I woke up in the hospital. The cops said they found me half drowned, but somehow still alive at the edge of the entrance to the storm sewers. Next to me was one of the missing kids. He hadn’t been so lucky.
I told the cops I heard the kids had gone into The Tunnels and I had gone in trying to rescue them. I don’t know if they believed it or not. Maybe they didn’t care. I got out of the hospital the other day. Nobody answers Chaz’s phone. I don’t think anybody will. I don’t know why they let me out of The Tunnels and not him, or Steve, or anybody else.
I’m worried I think I know why I survived.
I’m worried I found out what my dad was doing, I’m worried I discovered how he was making a better world. I’m worried because he’s dead and I can’t talk to him about what happened.
And I’m worried because I just heard his voice, sounding as strange and as inhuman as his portrait had looked behind the altar of the rats, asking me to leave my room and to come and see the better world he has built, the world that will become a new and great kingdom upon the earth, a world which is about to begin.
Credit: Kevin Sharp