They all knew about the tunnel. Everyone in town knew about it. Knowing it was there was ordinary, common. Talking about it wasn’t. Going into it – that was insane. Nobody quite remembered when or how the tunnel was built; no one even knew what it was for. It seemed as though it had always been there, an empty metal eye socket staring from the side of a mossy hill in the woods. It was covered in rust and verdigris, eight feet in diameter. The only reason it was still there was that no one wanted to go near it to close it up.
The reason Danny went to the tunnel was just as blurry and unknown. His memory was like a photo that’d had water spilled on it. Considering what happened, forgetting was good. He wanted to forget more.
There were three of them that night – himself, Cameron, and Audrey. Danny didn’t want to go, but Audrey had insisted, and he always listened to her. He could never remember why.
It was June 26, 1987, around 11 at night. Danny’s parents were on vacation. He was sitting like a half-melted candle in front of the television, hovering on the verge of sleep, when Audrey slammed the door in a flurry of staccato blows.
Danny’s head jerked up. He went to the door, as the relentless knocking continued. “We have a bell, you know,” he said.
Audrey was grinning from ear to ear, her black, tangled hair falling in her face. She laughed. “Yeah, but the bell wouldn’t have woken you up. Got the flashlights?” The safety pins covering her intentionally slashed clothes glinted in the porch light.
“Just a minute.” He rubbed his eyes and made his way to the hall closet. “Cam’s coming, too, right?”
“He better be.”
“I’ve only got two with batteries.”
“Whatever. He can use my lighter. Let’s go.” She skipped to the car. Audrey’s vehicle looked comically out of place in the pastel suburban neighborhood, with its scraped paint edged with rust, a plastic skeleton dangling from the rear-view mirror, and one of its tires resting on the curb. Danny chuckled as she revved up the engine.
“You look like Stephen King’s Christmas tree,” he said, glancing at her destroyed jeans and bleach-spattered Ramones shirt.
“Yeah, well, what if that’s how I want to look? Besides, King’s awesome.”
“That’s right. You saw ‘The Shining’ like ten times.”
“It was good, but nothing like the book,” she muttered. “Why does Cam have to live way the hell across town?”
Audrey turned a corner, and parked in front of a gray house with a chain-link fence around the yard.
“You go get him. The dog hates me,” she said.
Danny walked through the overgrown lawn past a huge German shepherd tethered to a post. He rang the bell and waited. Cameron emerged in a tattered T-shirt and jeans, wearing an expression of mixed irritation and amusement.
“You woke me up, man.”
“Sorry. Audrey told you last week, though. We’re going out to the tunnel tonight.”
“Oh, yeah. That. I’m surprised you showed up.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you walked out of ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ and you get really pale when anybody even mentions that movie. You’re doing it right now. You scare easy, Dan.”
“This is different. There’s nothing in that tunnel. Why should I be scared of an empty hole?”
“You sure about that?” Cameron asked, getting into the back seat.
“Don’t do that,” Danny snapped.
“What are you two bickering about?” Audrey asked.
“Apparently,” said Cameron, grinning, “Danny Boy hasn’t heard the stories.”
“Better inform him,” Audrey said, starting the car.
“Okay. So, they say the tunnel was built in the ’60s by a cult, and they used to worship there, underground. A couple years later, they get caught doing stuff. Human sacrifice. All of them got the chair, but it didn’t work right. When they tried to kill ’em, they caught fire, and the whole room stank like sulfur permanently. Soon after the cultists fried, dead kids started turning up in the tunnel, two of them every year. One boy, one girl. Nobody figured it out, and nobody would have anything to do with the tunnel. After a while, the cops just stopped going out there. They got reports every once in a while, people saying the woods around the place smelled like rotten meat, but they just ignore them. All the dead kids are probably still down there, and maybe something else is in there with them.”
“Bull,” Dan spat. Cam laughed hysterically.
“Maybe,” Audrey said, “but it’s pretty entertaining.” She turned on the stereo. The Misfits blared from the speakers.
“Jesus,” Cameron said with a look of mock horror. “Is that even singing?”
“My car, my tapes,” Audrey replied. “Suck it up.” She turned up the volume as they turned onto the highway. Other cars’ headlights provided flashes of fuzzy orange illumination inside the vehicle, like gentle flashes of lightning. The skeleton hanging from the mirror moved like a hypnotist’s pendulum as the rhythm of the wheels sent Dan halfway into a trance.
Fifteen minutes later, the car stopped, and he awoke with no memory of falling asleep.
“He lives!” Cameron said. “Okay, let’s go.”
Danny looked around. The car had stopped in a small clearing. The moon filtered down through a black filigree of branches, and damp leaves coated the ground.
It was cool outside, at almost midnight, and a breeze made the leaves shiver. Dan and Audrey switched on their flashlights, and suddenly, all three of them were staring into the wide, hollow mouth of the tunnel.
“Who’s going first?” asked Audrey. “Because it’s sure as hell not gonna be me.”
They glanced at one another. The air was thick and oppressive with lazy nighttime heat.
“You’ve got a flashlight,” Cameron said to Danny. “You and Audrey lead the way. I’ll take up the rear and make sure nothing creeps up on us.”
The last sentence was punctuated by a half-scoff, half-laugh from Audrey. “Okay,” she said. “But if we turn around and you’re not there, I’m not going back for you.”
“Well, if you did, it’d already be too late.” He widened his eyes like a drawing in Tales from the Crypt.
“Whatever. Let’s just go,” Dan muttered.
“All right!” Audrey exclaimed, and followed, Cameron trailing behind them.
The tunnel was far warmer than the open air outside. The floor was caked with mud and packed, wet leaves and declined gradually downward, deeper into the earth. Lukewarm water dripped from the ceiling, splashing and reverberating off the metal walls. A thick stench filled the stagnant air. Dust passed slowly through the flashlight beams.
“Well, this is disappointing,” Dan said.
“We’re not far enough in yet,” Cameron replied.
“How far do you want to go? It smells nasty.”
“Breathe through your mouth.”
“No way. You think I want to taste that?”
“Guys …” Audrey whispered. Neither of them heard her.
“Doesn’t bother me.”
“How could it not? Whole damn place stinks like rotten eggs.”
“Guys!” Audrey repeated, louder. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Danny asked.
Audrey held a finger to her lips. She looked scared. He’d never seen her scared before. The tunnel suddenly felt cold. Cameron’s expression shifted, too, his smirk fading. A moment passed. No one spoke or moved. They heard it.
“Mommy.” It came from far away. Deep in the ground.
“What the hell?” Cameron breathed. “What is that?”
“Mommy, come back.” It was louder this time.
“Audrey, this is some kind of joke, right?” Dan asked. She shook her head.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“Get out of here,” Cameron replied. There was fear on his face. “I saw a gas station on the way here. We can call the cops.”
“It sounds like a kid,” Audrey whispered. “What if we abandon it here, and it dies?”
“I’m not going any further into this creepy-ass hole in the ground,” Cam retorted. “This was your idea. You figure it out.”
“Don’t be like that,” Dan said. “You wanted to come down here more than any of us. You don’t get to bail just because you’re scared. I say we go find the kid.”
The call came again. Cam shivered then nodded.
Hands trembling, the three proceeded cautiously deeper into the tunnel. The voice was crying now, high-pitched infantile whimpers. As the noise reached his ears, Danny had a horrible thought. He remembered the stories he’d read about bush babies in Africa. He remembered how sometimes the primates’ calls sounded like a child weeping. People would hear them and disappear into the wilderness on a futile search for a lost infant. What if it wasn’t a kid calling for its mother? What if it was something else?
He looked down and saw that his flashlight beam was dimming. Audrey’s, too. He shook it slightly, and it flickered. The further they went, the deeper the puddles of brackish water became and the louder the crying got. It was so close that it seemed like the source should be right in front of them. They rounded a corner in the tunnel, and that was when they saw it.
Standing just around the bend was an emaciated, hairless dog. Its skin was pale and waxy. Its eyes were tiny pinpricks of red so deep they looked like twin droplets of deoxygenated blood. Its jaw hung open, revealing jagged teeth and a forked purple tongue.
“Mommy,” it cried.
Audrey screamed. The flashlights went out. The dog’s eyes glowed in the dark with a light that wasn’t light. A color that human eyes weren’t meant to see. Then the creature laughed. The sound was like teeth against a blackboard. They ran, staggering into one another in the dark, all three of them shouting at once.
“Oh my god,” Cameron howled. “What is that thing?”
“It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real,” Audrey was chanting.
All Dan could think about was bush babies, crying in the night. He ran his hand along the wall as he scrambled along in the dark, trying to find his way. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the beast’s eyes, so dark that they glowed.
“Save me, Mommy!” it wailed behind them. “Save me from the monsters!” It laughed again, and Danny felt a warm trickle escape his left ear. He saw a red-tinged light ahead and stumbled toward it.
The next thing Danny remembered was driving Audrey’s car on the highway. Everything between that and the red light was a blank. Sometimes it came back in his nightmares. Images of blood and children burned black and the hollow light of the dog-thing’s soulless eyes.
Audrey and Cameron were reported missing, and Dan was questioned for hours. Finally, the police accepted that he knew nothing and freed him.
One night, years later, he heard the beast calling, in the night. He got up, walked to his window, and opened the curtains. It was standing in his front yard, smiling, its grin stained crimson. He stared at it, looking into its dead eyes. Eyes the color of pain. Leaning closer to the window, he whispered something that he knew it heard.
“Please let me forget.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.