It’s cold here. And dark. Everything is vaguely wet. The air is dank and thick and there’s the slight sound of shoes walking along pavement with a mossy echo. They’re his shoes, his walking.
I can’t remember my name, he thinks. But more important, I can’t remember where I am, he says in his head as he listens to his shoes move against the hard, gritty ground. That sound of small pebbles scraped underneath nice, leather shoes. That shuffling sound. He’s shuffling. He stops and looks around, taking the scene in as best he can, but it’s very dark here. There’s a light, to his right. He looks over at it, but it’s no help, blinding and yet indistinguishably far away. So he looks to his left and there’s nothing at all; a dark void so black that it physically pains him to look at it. The way it can hurt in your chest when you see someone about to get hit by a car and every inch of your body is strained with apprehension and grisly expectation until you don’t realize you haven’t been breathing.
He takes a breath. Then it dawns on him, it’s a tunnel. He looks down at that damp ground. No train tracks, but no traffic paint either. It’s old and cracked. He turns back to go the way he came, but he’s faced with a stone wall. Nowhere to go but left or right. Then something catches his eye on the wall; a framed quotation that reads:
Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me. The Carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality” – Emily Dickenson
What the hell is this? He backs away from the wall as if he’s been punched in the gut. He wants to vomit, but nothing’s in there. Why is this random, framed quotation hanging immaculately in this decrepit tunnel? It just feels wrong, this one thing–but it’s not just one. There’s another one a few feet to the left, towards the light, as well. So he reads that one too:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
Once again he steps back. Oh my God, he thinks, this is it. He looks over towards the light. All his thoughts flood in to one conclusion, Heaven. The rays of white luminosity are almost inviting. He turns and looks to the other side, the darkness. So then this must be hell. Then the man, feeling himself a strange visitor in an even stranger purgatory limbo, notices the tunnel walls are covered from end to end in these framed quotations, every few feet, on both sides. They’re all identical too. The frames, silver perhaps. Though they look as if they could use a good cleaning, tarnished. The paper within, not quite parchment, closer to a large wedding announcement. He stops to read one more, on the right side of the Dickenson:
Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.” – F. Forester Church
Now, wait a second. Now he’s uneasy. If he were apprehensive or scared before, now it’s a panic. This doesn’t make any sense, the voice in his head screams. This doesn’t make any goddamned sense! His head is swimming. He was almost at peace with thinking he had somehow died and just had to ‘head toward the light’ and receive Saint Peter and those Pearly Gates everyone seems to rave about. Almost. But now what? What did he have? Contradictory quotations? What good was that?
More. That would be the answer. So he moves to the other side of the tunnel, at more of a jog now, to see another quote:
I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”
Not even an author. And some good help it is, anyhow. So that’s what he thinks, he thinks these signs aren’t going to help me. But I don’t need them, I can figure this out. He looks again to the light and again to the dark. He holds his hands up, like a conductor priming the orchestra to begin. One hand held back toward the dark, the other reaches out toward the light, his off-cantered step makes him look like a martial artist preparing to fight the ring of foes that surround him in a bad kung fu movie.
But if there is no heaven or hell, he reasons within, then the light could be life and the darkness could be death. “Come into the light,” like a cheesy soap opera. Either way, the choice is to the light, right? And with that he makes his way toward the light.
His steps are not fast; not confident. He looks over his shoulder back toward the dark side of the tunnel. The tunnel itself brightens significantly while he walks toward the powerful ambience ahead. It’s like coming out of a movie theater after a double feature matinee on a bright and sunny day, only your eyes can’t, won’t adjust. The man, this visitor, suddenly stops.
He turns and runs back to the center of the tunnel where he began. Unless the light IS afterlife, he tells himself, in which case the dark is a return to life. He forges on into the dark unknown, this time with the pace of a man with a purpose. Visibility worsens. The darkness creeps in like an other-worldly fog, like a visual representation of the plague that killed the Egyptian’s firstborn when Pharaoh refused to let Moses’ people go, it washes over him until he can’t even see his own feet touching the ground. He’s led no more by sight at this point.
Just sound. The scrape-shuffle of those feet on that pavement, and something else. Something more. A slow, constant, creepy-as-hell, breathy heave seeps in over the otherwise silently echoing hall. The sound increases. It’s louder and more of a huff now. Like some enormous Cyclops had just been running and now leans over the visitor, hands on his hulking knees and puffing for breath. Then the foot-shuffle becomes a run, and in the opposite direction–the man’s feet carry him back into the center of the tunnel with a sort of terrified scrambling until he can see again and slows to regain his composure, out of breath.
The light is probably the way to go, his cowardly lizard-brain tells him. Surely something that unnerving can’t be good, right? So he carries on back into the tunnel toward that bright, staring-into-the-sun, somebody flicks on the lights while you’re in a catatonic sleep, kind of light.
And all the while he passes quote after quote. There has to be hundreds of them, if not thousands. All lined up equidistant from one another, all hanging level and even. Soon the light is blinding, perhaps even literally. His vision is washed out and his eyes burn. They burn like closing your eyes after a day of not sleeping trying to meet some deadline or cram for some final exam or write some long overdue report. There’s that sting when you finally close your eyes, and they begin to water. And so this visitor’s eyes water, but his eyes are closed now and it doesn’t matter. He sees through the skin of his eyelids with that pale-orange glow; veins creeping across this internal field of view.
And now there are sounds on this side too. Not of a breath, but of a wind. It blows slightly towards the light and picks up with each step. Something else is scraping against the pavement, like dead leaves or something being pulled in towards the light. And now he’s being pulled in too. He leans back like a Kansas native on one of the gustier days; passing the street with an umbrella-inverting tailwind. It doesn’t even feel like a push anymore; like there’s no wind from behind, but something sucking at him from the front and into the light. The wind is deafening and his vision has become purple with sun-spots. No! This isn’t right!
He turns to run back away from the light but can’t. His tie is choking him and his suit jacket pulls hard, so he lets it go. He doesn’t want to look like he’s dressed for his own funeral anyhow. But it’s not over. He pushes until his thighs burn and the lactic acid builds up. Those fine leather shoes struggle to grip the floor and he pushes, pushes, pushes until he gains some ground on the void behind him.
Finally free of its grip, he flees back to the common ground of the tunnel and takes some time to catch his breath and regain his sight, but neither is easy.
This isn’t fair, he tells himself, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know anything about this place. He turns towards another quote:
I am ready to meet my maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” – Sir Winston Churchill
“You aren’t helping me, Winston… Churchill!” He screams aloud for the first time. The echoes from the tunnel walls reverberate powerfully and pierce his ears something fierce, but he’s past the point of caring about a thing like that. In a rage he hasn’t known for some time, he takes the frame from the wall and smashes it. The shattering and crashing of the glass pleases him. The anger coursing through him pleases him too. He’s finally doing something; something is in his control. He ignites in a small frenzy and goes for several others. “Or Shakespeare or Epicurus or, or quotation from the TV show Roseanne!”
But the pleasure from the angry burst is short-lived. In a more exasperated tone, he looks to another, “Gandhi.” He wraps his fingers around the silver frame, scraping his fingernails against the stone wall as if to tear it away, but instead just releases the frame in a full-body shrug. “Gandhi…” he lets out in what sounds like a small cry.
He’s done with his show. He’s powerless here and knows it. The visitor just sits on the tunnel floor against the wall and puts his head in his hands. “I just want to wake up. Wake up wake up wake up wake up…” And he’s hit with a flash. An image seared into the retina of his mind’s eye, clear as if he were seeing it. Not quite a memory, and yet something seemingly more real.
He sees himself, in the same suit, but not here. Out on some road at night, being cradled by a woman. He feels this vision too. He’s a little cold, but something warms him and wets him at the same time. His button up is stained scarlet and a car burns in the distance. This woman rocks him like a mother would a child, but she’s his age, beautiful, and crying. She sobs, “wake up wake up wake up wake up,” but he doesn’t understand it.
Freed of the vision, he raises his face from his sweating palms and looks around at the familiar sights. That dream is over, and he’s back. Alone. In the tunnel.