“Hopefully he dies soon. We can’t delay the tunnel anymore and there is less paperwork with a death than a disability. The tunnel must happen.”
Edward Athelard was shocked at the speaker. He just stood in the hospital with his mouth open gawking at her. His Grandmother had taken over the family business after his Grandfather had disappeared. This was before he was born. He had never seen her shed a tear and he knew she could be cold, but this was severe.
“Come on, Edward, let’s go home. There is nothing we can do here,” she turned and walked away without looking back. He instinctively trotted after her, trying to think what to say.
The Athelard family–or what was left of them–owned a large, profitable fishing fleet in Blackpool Bay. Edward’s Great Grandfather had started the business with a single boat and his Grandmother had grown it into a small empire with his help while his brother sat as Mayor of the town. Their parents had both died when they were young, so this was all that they had. It was all that they knew.
The tunnel was going to connect the new, shiny highway through the Old Mountains. You need to know how old the Old Mountains were to be called ‘old’, but they predated pretty much everything and wrapped around Blackpool Bay, isolating it on the coast from the rest of civilization.
Both sides of the new highway had been built. It had been agonizingly slow work cutting through the Old Mountain. Some of the construction crew had started fighting and complaining about strange things, but, eventually, those that remained had completed everything but the tunnel. The final tunnel boring needed to be done through a particularly ragged peak in the middle of the range that would connect the two halves of the highway.
Without the tunnel, there was no highway. And, without the highway, Blackpool Bay’s economy–most fish exports and everything else imports–had to either go by ship to the nearest port or take the Old Road. The journey by ship was slow and expensive while the Old Road was an exceedingly long, single-lane nightmare to the nearest town. Neither were good options, but the highway would change this.
Grandmother was right, Edward thought reluctantly, Not about Jim dying, but about the tunnel being completed. He knew the construction engineer who was lying in the hospital on life-support. It was a small town and they had all grown up together. He felt terrible that Jim had come out of the half-finished tunnel hurt. He still did not understand how it had happened and nothing Jim had said since had made sense. But, he knew he needed to make sure that it did not happen again.
After dropping Grandmother off at their family home at 2 Main Road–she was as cold and silent as ever on the drive back–Edward turned the car around and decided to head out to the construction site himself. He wanted to know what happen or, at least, try to make sure it did not happen again.
It was late when Edward got to the tunnel entrance. All the construction warnings were proudly displayed there. A single guard was on duty to make sure that no one accidentally–or otherwise–wandered into the dangerous, gaping maw of this hole that was half-bored into the mountainside. He briefly wondered how the Old Mountain must be feeling about this, but then dismissed the thought and put on his safety gear.
He nodded at the guard at the entrance, Joey. He had been to his wedding some years back. If he remembered correctly, Joey had a kid on the way soon.
“Ah, Mr Athelard, are you sure–” Joey started, but Edward dismissed him.
“Don’t worry, Joey, I’m just going to check it out. I’ll be careful.”
“No, it’s not that, Mr Athelard,” Joey stumbled a bit over the words, looking sheepish, “It’s just that something feels wrong about things in there. Just, ah, yes, be careful.” He finished lamely.
Edward smiled and nodded, patting Joey on the shoulder as he passed him and entered the tunnel.
The atmosphere changed almost the moment he was inside the tunnel. The distant sound of the ocean fell away and he felt surrounded by a thick, old darkness. The air was damp and his heart began to beat faster.
He clicked on his headlamp and his hand-held flashlight. Their light did not pierce the darkness very far, but he could see that the walls were wet and there was a faint mist in the tunnel. The mist seemed to get thicker deeper in the tunnel. He shivered slightly, it was cold in here.
He took a deep breath and began to walk deeper into the tunnel.
Deep inside the tunnel, the mist was so thick that he could not see both sides at once. The mist seemed to seep out of the very rocks themselves, smothering and consuming everything around it. It even felt like it had a weight, pressing down on him.
He had reached the idle boring machine and the rock face where Jim’s accident had apparently happened. But there was nothing here? It all looked fine as far as he could see. Though, with the mist, he could not see very far.
What was that?
He was sure he had heard someone say something. He swung around and looked, but with the mist he could not be sure. He could not see much beyond a few feet in front of him. He stepped forward and suddenly he could not see either side of the tunnel, nor, in fact, the rock face and idle boring machine. He could be anywhere in this mist. He felt a lump growing in his throat and a primal urge to abandon everything and flee this nightmare.
There! There it was again! What was that?
Now he was sure he had heard something. It sounded so near to him, but he could not make out what it was. It was definitely a voice or something resembling one.
“Hello?” he called out into the mist, “Hello, who is there?” It definitely felt like something was there. The hairs on the back of his neck were prickling.
The mist was getting thicker. He was sure of it. He reached out and he could not find the side of the tunnel. Had it not just been there a moment ago? He wondered if he was still in the tunnel? He suddenly realized that he was struggling to breathe. The mist fell malevolent and brooding, like a predator stalking its prey as he dropped to his knees, gasping for breath, his limbs getting shaky and his heart pounding in his chest.
And then he heard it clearly. It whispering in his ear, or was it directly in his mind? He understood it. He understood the desire. He felt the hunger. Its old, cold claws reached out and touched him, running down his spine and chilling his very blood. He felt his humanity draining out of him. He felt himself growing colder, but he could not move. He was powerless as the mist swirled around him and his eyes slid closed. He was not sure if he was dying or not? He was not sure if he cared or not, anymore.
He now knew what had to be done.
“Ah, Mr Athelard, are you OK?” Joey started as Edward suddenly stepped from the dark tunnel entrance, “You were gone quite a while?”
He looked coldly at his employee and nodded.
“Yes, I am fine,” he said, as he strode right past him. He had somewhere he needed to be.
A little over twenty minutes later, he stepped from his car into the hospital parking lot. It was empty, but that was not strange. It was well past midnight by now and this was a small town.
He walked straight into the hospital. There was a receptionist at the front desk, but she was fast asleep. He walked by her and down the passage to the ICU. There were no guards posted there or even a single soul that was not either dying or fast asleep.
In that hospital at midnight, he felt as alone as he had felt in the mist. It felt exactly like he was in the mist. Had he even left the mist, he wondered? Had he even left the tunnel? He dismissed such fanciful thoughts. He had a job to do.
He stood over Jim’s unconscious form lying quietly in the hospital bed. The life-support system quietly beeped away, its lights blinking on and off. Its machines pushed blood through his veins and inflated and deflated his lungs with the monotonous rhythm of life.
He reached out and touched Jim. His skin was cold and wet. It felt like the mist. He now understood. The mist had touched him too, but not in the same way.
He reached out and turned off the alarms. He and Jim had gone to school together. They had both dated the same girl but in different grades. He turned and pulled the life-support’s plug out from the wall. He watched the flashing monitor go dead, all the light go off and everything fall silent. He had dated the girl first, but he could not remember her name anymore.
Jim’s body spasmed a couple of times and then it fell still.
Edward Athelard did not smile. Nor did he cry. In fact, he barely acknowledged what had just happened, other than to bend down and whisper in Jim’s unhearing ear:
“The tunnel must happen, Jim. It must happen, and you know why. It touched you too.”