[a small fire crackles nearby over the clacking of a keyboard]
[paranoid] Hey again,
I’m glad the last update got out before everything fell apart. Please, you’re our only hope. I never made it home… We are not safe, and it’s not just me anymore, I’ve brought my entire family to hell, and we only have one chance to escape.
We need you to call the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana so they can coordinate a military response. The National Guard won’t be enough; we need Seals, Green Berets, Air Force – everything! They should already have an open case, but they’ll never figure out what happened without help.
They need to know my family is here, too… My kids are so young… Milo just had his 8th birthday… Chloe is only six, and my wife… Paula… She’s never going to forgive me… Her words echo in my brain like a nightmare… All day they creep in like parasites nibbling on my very sanity, and soon there won’t be anything left.
[whisper/echo] I hate you…
It was difficult to explain this place to her, but then we had to explain it to the kids…
Chloe still doesn’t fully understand, and Milo treated it like a game until we had a close-call, but I’ll come back to that… He was the only one not suffering from nightmares, but now we’re each lucky to get 3 hours; Paula and I take turns keeping watch… Most of the time, nothing happens; this place is so big it’s almost like running into someone in the middle of the ocean, but – when you inevitably do – you move or die.
[deep sigh] …Bit by bit the illusion fell apart… At first, everything was exactly as it should be. We had contact with the outside world, for fuck’s sake… I mean… We thought we were home… Chloe and Milo’s height marks were still scratched into the wall… Even our pillows smelled the same…
We were so happy… So relieved… But if you read my last post, you know we were having trouble with the police… They were supposed to send officers out to take my statement… Then, they started dicking us around – saying they did go, but nobody was home… We thought it was because they didn’t believe my story… Which was fine – we sure as hell don’t believe it – but we had to tell someone, you know?
We couldn’t just sit on this information – people are dying! People who are assumed dead – who have family members searching for them! They’re trapped here – like us… But when Paula told the officer he must be at the wrong house – he got an attitude, and I realized I would need to go into town to make my statement in person… Which I fully intended to do in the morning, but nothing could have torn me away from home that night.
I’m actually grateful for the decision to wait; learning our fate sooner wouldn’t have changed anything, and it gave us precious time together that may very well turn out to be our final, happy memories… We stayed up late, slept-in, ate a huge breakfast, and loafed around until lunchtime. I planned to go to the police station, make my statement regardless of what people thought; then, I was going to pick up a pizza on the way home… Simple, right? Hah!
[whisper/echo] This is your fault.
In the shock of everything else happening, I forgot my vehicle was still at that Station until I tried to leave, and Paula’s car was the only option. Wondering what I would say on the insurance claim was a renewed source of stress, but now it seems funny to say that. This is actually the first time I’ve thought about it again, because – immediately after – I learned our car didn’t start.
I’m no mechanic but when you live paycheck-to-paycheck – you learn to survive off of YouTube tutorials, so I can do some basic things. The first problem I found was a dead battery, but the car had turned into a total lemon overnight. The back tires were flat, there wasn’t a drop of oil in the engine, and the belt was rotted through. I’m sure there was more to it, but I didn’t see a point in checking.
Next, I tried searching for a tow truck, but – in my heart – I think I already understood what was happening before my phone went completely dead… The electricity and water followed immediately after, and then, the cosmetics began to crumble. We were living in a rundown shack sitting in the middle of a dead forest clearing, and the sky was turning blacker with each passing day.
It was more difficult for Paula to accept; she hadn’t lived through the hell of this place like I had; she didn’t even believe my story at first. She thought I was experiencing some kind of mental break due to extreme trauma – which is fair – but it didn’t make the Backroads any less real. I don’t think she was fully convinced until the Saturday Night Broadcast played through every TV in the house, and she had to see Olivia O’Neal in the flesh.
Tidings Tunnel Traipsers! Are you ready for another Sunday morning run to the Hub? Make sure to stretch those muscles beforehand, and don’t forget to avoid peak hours!
Unless, of course… Are you searching for purpose in your new life but aren’t quite sure where to begin? Well look no further because, now, you can be a Cleaner! No need to apply – simply approach any Tunnel Staffer and say hello! We welcome ages 3+ with no questions asked!
Sirus be with you…
Paula’s entire outlook changed when she heard that; she finally let go of the Bible rapture, and we discussed actual ideas for how to proceed.
[hateful whisper/echo] We’re only here because of you…
It was progress, anyway… But none of the plans were great. We knew we couldn’t stay, we knew we’d need supplies, and we knew there was no safe way to split up. How would we ever find one another again if they were forced to run? How long would they try to wait if I didn’t return? Maybe Doug had found a way he could live with, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to take the risk. We had to stay together…
Ultimately, we remained in our imaginary house for almost two weeks; we should have left sooner, it’s just… I mean… Where were we gonna go? Doug was right about one thing, though— well, pretty much everything— but he was especially right about not staying in one place…
After that announcement, we spent the next day packing as much as we could carry. You know things are serious when you’re calculating how much weight a six-year-old can handle. We planned to leave the next morning, but we didn’t even make it to nightfall. I was gathering anything that could be utilized as a weapon, and Paula was upstairs with the kids when a gust of wind shook the windows and caused her to look up…
Her scream made my blood run cold… In all our years together, I had never heard her scream that way… I don’t even remember moving; I only remember suddenly being next to her. She was staring out of the window and the children were crying into her waist… I knew whatever she saw meant our time was up.
[hateful whisper/echo] I should have married Aaron…
Did you know there are actually varying degrees of black? Vantablack, for example, is one of the darkest; it absorbs 99.965% of light… At least that’s what I learned on YouTube – I’ve never been exceptionally intelligent so don’t quote me… But that’s all I could think about when I saw this thing. The sky was left as a field of gray clouds except for this sinister black hole with tendrils still feeding it. It was growing, and it felt hungry.
Maybe, it sounds dramatic to call every new instance of terror as “indescribable”, but these things never get easier to explain… It was like someone sucked the darkness from the clouds and condensed it into one super blackhole…
We had to get out… Paula was in shock, but we didn’t have time for that; I turned her away from the window, and we shared a silent look of understanding. There was no “good” way to go; we simply had to pick up our packs and run away – on foot – in the open. Neither of us expected to make it very far, but each pretended for the other’s sake…
We carried the children as if actually running would make a difference, but I think we just wanted to be holding them when the end came. Is it wrong that I hoped to go first? Probably, but – these days – I’m pretty numb to stuff like that…
The second we stepped outside, a blast of wind reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina struck and nearly took us down, but we stayed on our feet and kept moving. Debris flew all around us, and every speck of dirt was like a tiny razor blade sliding across my skin… Hell, maybe they razors; we had a fair few cuts when it was over…
When we made it to the end of our long driveway, the road no longer continued for miles ahead as it had when I first returned. Now, it simply ended – like we were inside a giant warehouse and this was but one room. The tunnels were back – stretching left to right in an endless corridor – exactly the same as when I first ran from the gas station… Man, that feels like years ago, already.
I ushered Paula towards the left just because it seemed closer, and I dared one last look back before our home was out of sight forever. The shingles were being pulled from the roof – into the vortex, and the entire house looked mere seconds from following.
[cruel whisper/echo] I wish you would have died in the Tunnels…
Once behind the Tunnel wall, all wind and sound were cut off completely – as if a giant door was slammed shut… Except it wasn’t a door. The opening was gone and we were left in the dimly lit Backroad maintenance tunnels – exactly where I had left off – but we didn’t find the Hub that week. I taught Paula and the kids how to look for the straight lines to find doorways and warned them of the rotten smells and black slime… But there’s no better teacher than experience, and that came soon enough.
For days, we wandered aimlessly – stopping to spend the night in any room offering the illusion of comfort. When the next Sunday report came, we were in something that resembled a Hollywood movie studio; there were multiple stages set in different scenes – all of it fake. The furniture was cardboard, the food was plastic, and none of the lighting worked, but it wasn’t cold, and that’s come to be good enough.
We’d been lucky in the tunnels up to that point; we hadn’t run into anyone— or thing— since leaving our house behind, but that changed at the Hub. We were only inside for a few minutes when a set of arms shot from an aisle as we passed. Chloe only let out a short screech when the man snatched her away— that’s how frightened she was of being loud. Her tiny hand was ripped from mine, and time froze in the instant my fingers closed onto thin air.
Paula lunged for the man as he darted away with our daughter, and I leapt over her body when she sprawled to the floor. The only sounds made were those of running feet as I gained on the stranger inch by agonizing inch. When I thought he was within reach, I threw myself forward… For one fraction of a second – I held a fistful of the man’s shirt and with it came a euphoric rush of relief – greater than the moment I first saw my family again… But then, my insides disintegrated as the coarse fabric slipped from my grasp, and I crashed to the floor empty-handed…
[disgusted whisper/echo] You’ve killed us all…
I screamed then… Because I knew I wouldn’t catch him… I may have laid there in the middle of the cat food aisle until the Cleaners came had a miracle not occurred. Out of nowhere, two teens came running from the opposite direction and collided with Chloe’s kidnapper. The four bodies became a tangled mass of limbs all struggling to free themselves, and my baby slipped right through.
The two teens were already in a panic before the collision, and the piece of shit who had grinned so disgustingly when he snatched my daughter was now a picture of red rage as he threw his fist into the young boy’s face. The kid’s nose sprayed them both with blood, and his girlfriend – or whoever she was – couldn’t hold her screams back any longer.
In the same instant – the man saw me scoop Chloe into my arms, and he clamped his hand over the young girl’s mouth – cutting her cries off mid-wail. As if deciding to cut his losses, he used the other hand to slam the boy’s head into the ground… The kid went still with the wet-crack it made on impact, and I didn’t stay to see more. I couldn’t help that girl… I couldn’t help my own family.
We ran into Paula and Milo after turning our first corner, but there was no time for a reunion. I wanted to get us all far away from that spot– and that poor kid’s body… We heard the girl scream twice more, but we pretended not to; I’m ashamed to say I only felt relief it wasn’t my daughter. That’s what this place does to you. It takes everything good and rots it from the inside out… Honestly, I’m not even ashamed – I only know I should be…
We collected anything that seemed useful on our way out – but we didn’t stick around to shop; maybe Doug’s method is better after all… But there’s no time to dwell on the concept. It was only a few minutes later when the tunnel lights began to flicker. I moved to check the rooms near us – knowing in my gut this wasn’t a random blackout – and, sure enough, the smell of rotten meat was unmistakable.
The place we entered was rare; it’s the only other “outside” room I’ve seen since the crossroads, and this one was… It was sorta beautiful – even under the circumstances; Paula gasped in disbelief… There was a sky instead of a ceiling, and a crescent moon glowed like a nightlight among millions of shining stars. It was warm, but a gentle breeze kept it at the perfect temperature; the air was fresh and clean instead of stale and damp, Mushrooms of every size and color outnumbered the trees two-to-one; some were tall as a house while others littered the forest floor like patches of clover.
There was also a slightly sinister feel to it— not in appearance – but the atmosphere… The total lack of sound was unnatural for a forest— our brains have default expectations in regards to certain settings, and mine simply couldn’t comprehend the absence of wildlife. Nothing moved in the brush, no birds sang, no crickets chirped— there was only the light breeze.
Stunned as we were by the sights, we couldn’t stop; we moved further in and soon found ourselves at a cool, freshwater stream. To be clear – outdoor scenery might be a rarity – but toxic pools are not. Sometimes, they’re obviously poisoned – like the green and slimy ones… Other times they look completely innocent until the taste of acidic copper fills your mouth, and the burn of 1,000 suns courses through your body. We followed the stream to a lake where morning mist still swirled atop its surface, and that’s when Chloe collapsed.
[angry whisper/echo] You disgust me…
I knelt beside her, and Milo fainted to my left; Paula opened her mouth as if to scream, but her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and she fell forward across Chloe’s small legs. I only had time to be confused for a second before the world began to spin. One moment I was looking at my unconscious family, and – the next – I was flat on my back, and a woman was standing over me; that’s how we met Delphi…
[bored] “Damn, more humans…”
Upon waking, we were inside a small furnished cabin, yet the four of us were lying side-by-side on a hard, wooden floor, and the woman I saw earlier was watching from the corner. I sat up quickly at the memory of collapsing, relieved to find my family was also beginning to stir. I didn’t have to wait for an explanation, either; the woman was eager to get rid of us.
“I’m sorry you got knocked out; the incense will clear any lingering effects momentarily… My mushrooms are like guard dogs; their spores begin seeping into an intruder’s pores the moment they enter the forest; it’s pretty handy. Makes the cleanup much easier… But you guys are humans, so I’ll just ask you to kindly vacate the premises… Kay? Buh-bye, now.”
She seemed annoyed by our presence – as if we were there by choice… Her face was young— too young for the knowing glare behind her eyes; it felt like she was reading my mind, but I couldn’t back down.
I was too groggy to comprehend everything, but I understood she was asking the impossible. My own head felt like a freight train was blowing through it, and Paula looked… I’ll just say she looked the same…
[low, spiteful/echo] You did this to us…
Tears streamed down Milo and Chloe’s face— the art of silent crying is among the first lessons taught in the Tunnels— yet this woman spoke as if we were bible salesmen! It was infuriating! Not wanting to frighten the kids even more, I tried to keep my voice steady, but my entire body shook as I struggled to my feet.
“Who are you?! Where do you expect us to go? I have a family! What’s with you people down here?! How are you all so perfectly okay with throwing other humans to the wolves?! We’re all trapped down here! If everyone worked together and formed a community – maybe we could actually find a way out! Did you ever consider that?!”
I must have sounded ridiculous; I was out of breath, my knees were trembling, and I could tell my words had no effect on her. She never blinked, never flinched… I wanted to make her feel ashamed, but there wasn’t a drop of feeling left inside her human shell.
[half amused/ half bored] “Oh my… Someone’s clearly never seen The Walking Dead… Look, if you must address me, you may use the name Delphi, but – barring the fact that you’re wrong about the results of teamwork – you’re wrong about everything else. This is my home, and you’re trespassing. Again, I understand it wasn’t intentional, but – the fact remains – it’s time to go. Don’t worry, I’ll escort you past the other traps.”
Her home?! Can you believe she said this place was her home?!
“Fancy mushrooms or not – it’s too dangerous to stay in one place! We all need to go; I knew this room was too good to be true; there’s no such thing as ‘home’ down here! Are you new? We ran in here to get away from a demon! It probably followed us inside; we have to go now!”
I tried to estimate how long we were unconscious— how long we had been in there— where did the demon go?! Wouldn’t it have found us already? Was the room large enough that it could have passed us by? And why was the woman not reacting to the danger?
[laughing] “Oh man… You still don’t get it…”
[condescending] “That demon is already dead. The mushrooms knocked it out. I cleaned up the mess. … Me, witch. You, human. … I live here. You are in my literal home. I don’t entertain guests, and I’m not looking for roommates – just solitude!”
[nicer] “Look, you seem like a decent bunch, but this just isn’t the kind of place you make friends, okay? It’s easier— and safer —to be alone. If you fear the Tunnels so much, just go back to the Paved Streets.”
“And how exactly are we supposed to do that?! It’s impossible!”
[obviously] “… The same way you got here… Duh… Are you serious? Did you really not think to just go back into the Station once the Cleaners were gone?! …”
[pity] “Come on, man, you got a family; think for fuck’s sake… Isn’t that what you’re always saying? ‘Fuck’s sake?’ It’s racing through your mind like a mantra…. Poor silly man… Your gender is so pitiful when they feel helpless…”
I felt like the dumbest man alive… It seemed so obvious when she said it… Especially how she said it…
If we could lay low while the Cleaners did their thing – we should be able to sneak inside after they leave… Even if we can only get back to the Paved Streets – it would be safer… If I can manage that much, I’ll figure out the rest when we get there…
Suddenly, I was in a hurry to leave, but how long was left in the day… Did we have time? “Can you point us towards the nearest Station? Help us inside, and you’ll never see us again!”
“Ha, no thanks; I’m already never going to see you again… Besides, you slept all day – it’s already too late; you’ll need to try next week. Now, come on, time moves differently here. Some rooms have closer ties to the real world, and this is one of them; that’s why the clocks work and why I can use the internet. They’re exceedingly rare and practically worthless to humans; the demons call them Honey Traps, and they’re checked often. If you find one – it’s usually the last.”
If I had a soul left to sell, I would have traded it on the spot; maybe I’m a soul slut, but I prefer the term “desperate.” Who wouldn’t be? I hate myself for even thinking about it, but part of me wondered if Paula would offer her own. It’s not that I wanted her too… I just… I wanted to get the kids out so bad… But when she actually said it… Can you imagine taking the hand of the person you love most and dragging them to hell? Because that’s what I’ve done.
I didn’t even speak… I just sat quietly and watched it happen; it was like knowing you’re having a nightmare but not being able to wake up… Except this time it was real…
“Tell me, witch… Do you deal in souls as well? They seem to be the standard form of currency down here, and though my— [disgust] husband —already spent his on the pleasure of our company… I happen to still possess mine. Is there a bargain we can strike?”
[interest peaked] “Now her – I like. You would do alright in this world— alone, I mean… He’s dragging you down, sister. You have the mind for this life, but… Well, nevermind. Hmm… Let me think…”
[mutters to self] “I don’t need souls in the traditional sense… But they do come in handy every now and then… And it has been centuries since I–”
[excited] “You know what? Yes! Perhaps we can make a deal… Come – follow me downstairs; it’s been a while since I’ve bottled a soul – probably best I consult the ole Book of Shadows first… Oh… Your partner can stay here with the young ones; don’t worry, we shan’t be long!”
The way Paula looked at me before following the witch downstairs was… It was unlike any pain I’ve endured – before or since. It felt like someone sliced my chest open and stabbed ten-thousand barbed needles into my heart one-by-one. It’s a pain that never fades; the nerve endings are too raw to go numb, and everyday serves as a reminder she’ll never love me again.
When we first met, it took over a year to get out of the Friend Zone; I thought that was the worst pain imaginable— and granted – it’s pretty close… But having the person who called you their soulmate look at you the way she looks at me now – that’s the stuff that’ll kill you… To know what you had and then lose it anyway.
I don’t know what happened in that basement; she won’t tell me. The kids and I stared at the door in silence. They wanted to know what was happening, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak anymore than they could bring themselves to ask… When Paula did emerge from the basement, she refused to meet my eyes. Instead, she comforted the children, and they believed she was ok… But I know when her smile is fake…
The witch walked past us without speaking, and Paula followed her silently with the children in tow. I was left to bring up the rear – marching in silent wonder over what my life had become in such a short time. I don’t even remember what I was doing the day I drove into the Backroads. It was just a regular day… There was nothing special about it – no reason for it to stick out among the others… By all rights, it should have been lost to time… But now it’s me who’s lost.
“It was a pleasure doing business; Sirus be with you!”
Within minutes we were standing before a giant mushroom with a red door in its stalk, and I followed my family back into the Tunnels without so much as a backwards glance at what had seemed to be our only hope…
[seething whisper/echo] I lost everything because of you…
I may never know what happened in that basement, but I did learn the result. When we finally settled into a dank cellar and got the kids to sleep, Paula removed a waded piece of parchment from her blouse; it wasn’t paper, though… It was more like leather – too thick to tear but soft enough to fold. It appeared blank as she flattened it onto the floor, but then lines began to appear; they weren’t forming words, but shapes… It was a map!
Apparently Paula possessed just enough magic to make it work… If anyone else tries to use it – nothing happens. I guess that was the trade– that bit of magic… There are no labels – not exactly. The Tunnels are just skinny lines, and the rooms are blank squares, but the Stations are supposed to glow yellow, and the Hub is a bright green. Likewise – Honey Traps are blood red… But that also means resources…
Which is why I took this chance to be in one tonight – one week later… It’s a really nice library, actually… It has computers and an internet connection unlike the last two Traps…
Anyway, We can’t stay down here another night. The things we’ve endured these last few days alone… Well… If we didn’t have this chance to escape, let’s just say I’m not sure what I’d do. There comes a point when you begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be kinder to–
[shuddered sigh] Did you know that when wars were fought in the past – some rulers would poison their children before the enemy overtook the castle? It was a kinder death… Kinder than what the soldiers would do… But that doesn’t matter because we’re leaving in a few hours.
[demonic whisper/echo] I could kill you myself…
I needed to get word out ahead of us. We’re going to make it back to the Paved Roads – I know it in my bones… But there’s one problem I haven’t told Paula about… We don’t have a vehicle, and I can’t count on finding one… So that means we can never leave the Station without becoming Stranded… Which means we’ll be right back where we started in exactly one week, and we’ll have to do this all over again…
Please. I’m begging you; I can’t– we just can’t– not again! Someone, please, find a way to save us before next Sunday… I’m– we’re– counting on you…
Credit: Page Turner
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