THE tunnel that ran below the railroad tracks seemed like a passage between worlds.
I placed my hand on the chipped-black-painted handrail. I gazed beyond the rusted chain link fence, across the multiple train tracks, spotting the exit on the other side, then peered down the dank staircase. The tunnel had always seemed like a passage to another world; the neighbourhood south of the tracks like its own self-contained village betwixt the railway lines and the escarpment/dump. Below the tracks, the neighbourhood was called by those who lived there as well as those of us who resided here, on the north side. The story happened down there in the tunnel, but it did not start there. It began at a park in my above the tracks neighbourhood.
Like most Saturday mornings, when my friends were busy with their families, and I was escaping minefor a while, I was the sole soul on the playground. I released my grip on the cool links of chain and jumped off the wooden swing seat into the damp sand below. It was when I was walking to the merry-go-round that the boy sauntered into the area.
I cannot recall the preliminary chat – I mean, this all happened decades ago. Eventually this boy and I ended up on a teeter-totter. I remember asking him what grade he was in. I was in fourth, probably a couple of years younger than him, though he seemed much bigger than he should be for his age.
He wouldn’t tell me his grade. He said his school didn’t have grades. I couldn’t understand such a thing and thought he must’ve been lying. Maybe he’d been held back a grade or two and didn’t want to say. I changed the subject and we chit-chatted. Then he started playing rough. He ‘bumped’ the teeter-totter causing me to almost fly off, and then crash back down on the seat. I have mixed memories of asking him to stop, him calling me a stupid girl, and me quickly scrambling off the seat.
I exited the park on the north side with him tagging along. In a moment of poor judgement, I turned south down a laneway. The narrow passage had fenced backyards lining either side, and patches of weeds growing high through the cracked concrete ground.
I don’t recall everything he said, just that it made me feel uncomfortable. I tried to get him talking in a normal way, asking if he had any pets.
‘Oh, yeah,’ he had answered. ‘I have a bunny. But it’s smashed now. I thought since bunnies could hop so high that they could fall easy, but nope.’
I must have looked scared. Because it fed him. It made him smile, and he said, ‘I’m going to send Henry to get you.’
‘He likes to hurt people.’
I knew there was one yard coming up on the righthand side of the laneway, that had no fence. If I could get there ahead of this strange, large boy, I could take off running and make it out to the avenue, then down to the commercial strip where there would be tons of people out doing their Saturday shopping.
‘I’m going to tell Henry to get this girl,’ and he was eyeing me sideways, “who has brown hair, who is tall, who is wearing a blue t-shirt,” he twisted his neck to stare straight at my front, “a blue shirt with a lion on it.”
If I hadn’t thought he was completely mad before, I did then. Who actually thinks a person wears the same clothes all the time? It was a favourite shirt, but it was not a part of my physical description.
The fenceless yard was coming up.
I pointed to the left, to some tall weeds at the side of the lane. “Look, there’s a bunny right there!” The second he paused I took off running. He was kicking at the weeds before he realised what I was doing. Then he gave chase.
I think I ran faster than I ever had before. It wasn’t easy. Long legs don’t always mean speed, but something gave me a bit more motor that day. Fear, I guess. And he was shouting at me. All kinds of senseless and crazy things.
Turning into the yard without a fence, I ran over the lawn even though I immediately saw there was a fence now. It was just set closer to the house than the laneway, and it was new. Thankfully, it was not wooden, and I don’t know how, but I bolted over the chain link obstacle and kept on running.
He followed me right into a shop. There was a lunch counter, and I sat, trying to catch my breath. The counter attendant, I think her name was Dottie, came over. She glanced between me and my pursuer then said, ‘You kids need to take it easy! Running hard?’
I knew my face must have been red, my chest hurt. I was embarrassed about being chased and said nothing other than ordering a cool drink. The big boy stood, just smiling at me. While I gulped my beverage, he turned toward the door. His parting words were, ‘Henry’s going to get you, girl with the lion shirt!’
A few weeks passed, my blue t-shirt with the lion design remained in a bottom drawer. I gazed around, watching with care whenever I was outside. I told no one about the park and the boy who chased me.
I visited a friend who lived below the tracks sometimes. I was with her, Gina, in an Italian bakery, eating square slabs of pizza, when I spotted him. My face must have betrayed my fear and Gina asked me what was wrong.
‘Him,’ I managed.
‘What? Henry? Yeah, he’s weird,’ she whispered and laughed.
‘Henry? He’s Henry?’
Henry’s going to get you, girl with the lion shirt.
I didn’t know anything about alternate personalities, dissociative identity disorder, or anything similar back then. And now that I do, I don’t think he suffered from anything other than evilness, if that even caused him to suffer.
But the odd thing – the good thing, was that he passed right by us, he definitely saw me, but said nothing and didn’t reveal any trace of recognition.
I saw him a few more times while visiting Gina, and so I was sure he didn’t remember me at all. Weird, but a relief.
It was an unusually hot day for October. I headed to Gina’s house after school, wearing jeans, my favourite lion t-shirt rescued from the bottom drawer, but no jacket. I carried a bag with fabric scraps, paints, construction paper, and haberdashery items. Gina and I were going to make our Halloween costumes.
The day was warm but not sunny. The clouds were dark and heavy looking. When I descended into the tunnel a tingle of dread crept up my spine. There were lights placed intermittently along the ceiling of the tunnel, but with daylight seeping down into the passage, they hadn’t yet come on. Even after nightfall the tunnel could be dark, often the lights were broken by the tossed projectiles – bottles or stones – of the rowdy or the bored. Sometimes the lights burnt out, of course. I also believe at times the lights went out for reasons all their own.
‘It looks like a toad!’ I laughed at Gina’s attempt at painting a paper plate like an alien face. She howled at my equally poor effort to create the face of a fairy. We ended up goofing around and not making any costume cool enough to dawn on the spookiest night of the year. We might as well buy cheap ready-made get ups from one of the shops we decided.
Heading home and nearing the block I would turn onto to reach the tunnel entrance, he saw me. And he knew me.
‘Hi, girl with the lion shirt,’ he sneered.
I was stunned. Had he really not recognized me for months, but now, because of the shirt—
‘Leave me alone,’ I muttered. Bad move. His face darkened and he smiled.
Not this again. But I took off running once more. It was already getting dark, and I dreaded the upcoming trip through the tunnel.
I managed to get quite a lead on him. I thought maybe he hadn’t seen me run up the street of the tunnel, and when I was halfway through that dank and smelly passage I turned to look. But he was there, silhouetted against the last light of the day, running down the concrete steps. Not a single tunnel light was working.
I could keep running; I had kept a lead on him thus far, but he might catch up, and it was dark and isolated here. More isolated than the laneway had been on the day we had met. Besides, if I ran, he would see me when I ascended the stairs where light from streetlamps shone down, and then he would continue his pursuit. I leaned against the wall, thinking if I kept silent maybe he wouldn’t see me.
‘Oh, girl with the lion shirt…,’ he sing-songed.
There was just enough light reaching into that end of the tunnel for me to see him stretch his arms out to either side. He was feeling his way along the dark walls. Which meant he would feel when reached me.
There was nowhere to go but down. First crouching, then lying down, I felt confident he would not sense my presence. I lay on my side with my back to the cold tunnel wall. I lay in debris and in smells – odours of stale urine and rotted food drifting up from the damp. I managed not to squeal when I felt something scurry over my ankle and heard it scamper alongside the tunnel wall. I pressed myself harder into the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut.
The sound of his footsteps stopped. I saw the lights had miraculously come on even before my eyes fully opened. He stood just in front of where I lay, but he did not react to my being there. Instead, he was mumbling and looking back and forth between the two tunnel staircases.
‘WHERE ARE YOU??’
‘GIRL WITH THE LION SHIRT! WHERE’D YOU GO?’
I was frozen, not understanding why he couldn’t see me. He made up his mind which direction to go and headed back to the stairs he had moments before descended. He must have thought I hadn’t gone into the tunnel at all.
It took a few moments for me to really believe he was gone. I stood up, wiping the mess from my pant legs and t-shirt. My peripheral vision caught something behind me. Behind me – something more than just the tunnel wall.
I turned and saw not the wall, but another tunnel running parallel to the one I had entered. And another tunnel beyond that. And so on, for at least six tunnels deep.
Aghast at this sight I wanted to step forward. I wanted to explore and understand this strange marvel. But there was darkness there. And smells.
The scent that permeated the air was not the same as the dirty smells that had assaulted me while I lay on the tunnel floor. This smell was …well, if grey had a smell that is what it would smell like. That was my thought – grey, the midpoint between light and dark.
The tunnels before me were dark with slight casts of eerie lights. Some of the lights were a swampy green, some fiery red and orange, one was brilliant white.
There was the smell of grey, the strange lights, and then the sounds: forlorn calls that echoed through those other tunnels. Screeches and far away howls.
I turned back to ‘my’ tunnel, stepped away from the wall and turned back to examine the sight. It was only a wall again. A dirty wall scrawled with graffiti over the white paint, with garbage strewn along the bottom. I ran. I ran home.
It all happened decades ago, as I have said. My mind forced me to forget. The foggy memories resurfaced only once, when I learned that a man named Henry Archinbach had been shot and killed by police during a hostage situation at a local bank. I saw his photo on the news website and he looked the same, only older, and more deranged. He had dark, dark eyes and that smirk.
Now, my hand grazed the handrail as I descended the concrete steps. I was relieved to see a full set of ceiling lights – all alight even though it was midday. I suppose the powers that be finally saw the dangers of having a darkish tunnel during daylight hours. The lights were encased in what looked like hard plastic – not so easily broken anymore. The once dirty scrawled upon walls were now freshly painted white adorned with what could be called street art rather than graffiti. I made my way to where I estimated it had happened.
There was a large eye painted at the spot; a blue iris, black sclera, and hot pink lashes. Lilac petals dripped from the corner of the eye – pale purple tears painted down to the tunnel floor.
I knocked my fist on the eye image and all around the area. Only solid wall. I scraped at the wall with a key I withdrew from my pocket. Only a bit of paint came off.
Whatever happened all those years ago, I knew it had been real. There was no other explanation of why Henry Archinbach, in his murderous rage, couldn’t see me right before him. I never told anyone about it. How could I?
Now they were all gone – my family that is. Few friends remained in the old neighbourhood, above or below the tracks. Since I was alone in this world now – both my only child and only spouse tragically deceased, I came home. I knew that if real trouble came my way again, I had a place to which I could run. It wouldn’t be much of a run these days, a bit slow I suppose. The tunnel had saved me once, and I knew it would do so again. I should never have left the area. If I had not moved so far away perhaps all the tragedy in my life could have been averted. But I was here now, I had a two-year lease on a flat only steps from the house in which I was raised.
I will explore those worlds in the parallel tunnels if I get the chance. As for now, I’m off to te very real ‘other world’ below the tracks in search of that fabulous pizza at the old Italian bakery.