by R. Wren
Sometimes in the summer, when the rain stops and the air smells of concrete, Zoey and I walk out to the train station to dredge it all back up.
We never plan; it’s not like a date. We might meet on the corner like any other weekday, her in her fine scarves and me in my plastic raincoat. The rain might stop, and I’ll hope that Zoey doesn’t notice. The cafés have metal seats the staff wipe dry. If that won’t do, the pub has brandy and a fire to warm our bones. I’ll take Zoey by her narrow wrist, take her fingers in mine and say, “Come on now, the Old Bird might have a booth for us if we hurry.”
I’m always too late. The memories will return, and for a moment, Zoey will pale. She’ll seem worn and hollow, a shade of the girl I used to run with. This is the moment, every time, that I worry she’ll blame me.
It will pass. Then her shoulders will sag, and we will walk to the train station.
We’re a queer sight when we duck under the broken pedestrian barrier; two old women alone in an empty and cracking carpark. She always talks about the same things. She remembers Woodman, and Mr. Perkins, and the mossy, dripping tunnel under the hill. I am always silent.
I never want to go, but I’ll always follow Zoey.
We never understood why Woodman had to do it, but one look made it clear that he wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Zoey said it was because it was almost September, and then he was moving away. That made no sense to me. I’d never known anybody to move away.
‘None of the lads in Saint Michael’s have done it,’ he explained.
He was electrified. He rung his hands as he paced, his lanky, slopping frame all aflutter. Zoey was the picture of innocence then, and the way she looked at him was adoring.
That was something I never understood either—the allure of this restless boy with his awkward summer hair, overgrown and little too long to be pleasing, just like the rest of him. Even his voice had not quite decided where to sit. It rumbled through deep notes in conversation, but set him laughing, and he screeched like an alley-cat.
“There’s a reason none of the lads have done it,” I said plainly. I think I even folded my arms for emphasis. “All the other lads have some sense between their ears.”
Zoey gave me a fretful look, but Woodman laughed easily.
“All the other lads are cowards,” he said. “And superstitious too. What, is Mr. Perkins going to cast a spell on us? Look out Zoey, he’s going to wag his finger at you!”
And then he set to chasing Zoey around in a flailing, straight-legged caricature of the old stationmaster, thrusting a wagging finger ahead of him like a deadly weapon. Zoey shrieked and giggled and fled in circles until she was red as a beet. Woodman took it all in good sport.
There was nothing but sunlight in his head, I always said. He was like a foolish old dog. Nothing I could say would ever chase him off. Foolish boy. Sometimes I wonder whether he ever knew, by the time he died, how I loathed him.
“I’m doing it because I’m leaving,” he shrugged, when I pressed him on the point. “So, when I move away, you two can tell everybody that I did it. Then they’ll know what they’re missing.”
“Only if we stay here too,” Zoey beamed.
She took Woodman’s hand, and in her eyes, I saw her constructing a future. The boy laughed and shrugged her away. I’m sure he thought absolutely nothing of it.
There’s only one way that people have ever left our town. Everybody knows that. That Woodman didn’t realize it is proof, I think, that he never belonged here at all.
Every family has deep roots. The same names repeat down the registry. Every class of schoolchildren rhymes with generation before them. It’s a town still family owned, and in every shopfront and living room, on every hurling team and church pew, the same faces appear as if with the tide. Generations step forward and recede, each shadow-puppets of their parents – everybody, in time, play-acting the same roles.
With that comes the stories. The local lore is sacred. You credit it even above the Priests.
Trains rarely come to our town, and rarer even stop, but just beyond the station, there is a tunnel that pierces right through the hills. What lived in that tunnel was the bogeyman to frighten misbehaving children. It was the campfire story for the brave and the skittish.
Nobody could agree what it looked like – did it have goat’s head and glistening eye, or did it scuttle and hang like a bat? Nobody ever found out. Not with Mr. Perkins patrolling the platform, sweeping away the leaves and gently steering foolish children back towards their homes.
But of course, people were found on the tracks. Sometimes it was a brother, sometimes an Aunt. Then the stories would stop for a while. Then they were no longer fun.
The Elderly always understood their purpose. I do now, too. If you couldn’t stand the town, you went to the train tracks. That’s how it was. When a family line produced an oddball, somebody who couldn’t stay, sooner or later they found their way out into the darkness.
It was the accepted way; it brought no scandal, unlike a hanging or an overdose.
But Zoey and I belong to this town. Our Mothers had been close. Our children, we used to daydream, would grow up to marry. We’re like intertwining shoots, climbing up from the same damp, dusty soil. I knew I would always hold myself close to her and see that she would never grow astray.
I never dreamed she would want to leave me. Not until Woodman.
She walked ahead with Woodman at her side, shrugging me off like a raincoat now that the sun had appeared. They ambled on, heads titled towards one another, he gesturing and explaining, and Zoey looking most often at her hands.
I could have overtaken them, but I wanted to keep an eye on them both.
The sky shared the colour of the pavement. We passed the shell of a house that somebody had started building and then abandoned. The dust of concrete and plaster filled our lungs.
Zoey picked at a bracelet I made her. She asked Woodman whether there would be girls in his new school, but Woodman didn’t seem to realize what she was asking; his mind was set on the task, and he planned aloud how we might slip by Mr. Perkins. There was a hole in the fence that ringed the carpark, he said, and by pushing through it, we could cross the wild grass behind the Boy’s School and scramble down the ditches, onto the tracks.
“The grass is like razor, it’s like something in the wilds,” Woodman said. His eyes were alive with the adventure he was composing for us. “Some of lads showed me. If they weren’t wearing jeans, they’d be cut to shreds, I’d say.”
He sounded delighted by the danger.
“We’re wearing skirts,” Zoey pointed out.
We stopped on the spot while Woodman scratched his head. He looked back at me. It was as though he was noticing for the first time.
“We’ll have to go another day,” I said.
“But there isn’t another day,” Zoey fretted. “We mightn’t be together again before he moves.”
Woodman never knew what to do when somebody was upset. It was mostly in panic that he put his arm around Zoey, smiled a little bashfully and said, “Ah, don’t worry about the grass. I’ll carry you through it.”
Zoey’s complaints were silenced in an instant. Neither of them asked about me. Perhaps Woodman hoped I would turn back. If he thought that, it only proves the boy was a fool.
Maybe it’s a sin to speak ill of the dead, but he’s been dead long enough.
If he had thin skin, it’s all gone now.
Mr. Perkins’ gleaming black car was the only one which waited outside the station.
Every morning before sunrise – weekday or weekend – Perkins steered the shiny little motor into the furthest possible spot from the door. Exiting, he would lock it behind him and cross the yawning tarmac with swift, scrupulous strides. Before he unlocked the station gate, he always dusted and donned his hat. The ritual had gone uninterrupted for at least forty years. Nobody knew who paid him.
He was a tall, slim man whose hair was the colour of exhaust fumes. He waved to the three of us across the carpark. Only Woodman waved back. The old stationmaster tipped his hat and disappeared into the creaking little station building.
“The monster knows you’re here now,” I huffed. “He’ll tell it. Everyone knows Perkins’ real job is to keep it in the tunnel.”
Zoey tugged on her bracelet.
Woodman laughed and led us on.
The gap in the fence was a tight squeeze. The metal slats had been bent backwards to create a passage, but in one corner, it pointed jaggedly in. Woodman, who crouched through first, pointed out the hazard to Zoey. Nobody bothered to warn me.
The wild grass was pale and coarse, but it was not as sharp as Woodman had warned us. Still, he insisted on carrying Zoey, who yelped as he scooped her up, staggered a few steps into the grass and then, chaotically teetering on the unstable terrain, was forced to set her back down. Both laughed heartily; Woodman’s high cackling made me wince.
“Are you doing okay?” Zoey asked, calling back to me. She must have noticed how I was glaring. “The ground is mucky here – you can lean on me if you need.”
I accepted her help, hoping to reclaim her by touch.
A sickly copse of trees marked the end of the wild grass, and beyond that, the back of Saint Michael’s loomed. Woodman looked wistfully at the tired concrete building. Here, Zoey made a second attempt at her question.
“Do they take girls at the school you’re going to?” she asked.
Woodman laughed and mussed her hair. “Don’t worry, I won’t forget you.”
Zoey hesitated for a moment; I recognized the signs. Woodman noticed it too. We paused, alone in the field of swaying grass, with the sounds of our town too distant to bother with. Zoey took his hand and clung to it as though she feared he might drift away.
“Maybe I could move, too,” she whispered in a quavering voice. “If I ask, maybe my Dad will let me enroll for next year. We could take our exams together.”
I still remember the way my stomach twisted. I actually pressed my hand to my belly to keep the nausea at bay. We were supposed to be intertwined roots, together in our little patch of earth. I had always told myself that she could not stand without me. For the first time, I wondered whether I could stand without her.
To Woodman, it was a fine joke. Laughing ahead without care or thought, he led us down the hazardous ditch and onto the cold, silent, pebble-lined train tracks. I followed the rails with my eyes. My hands were coiled as tight as barbed wire.
There at the end, piercing through the hills, the Tunnel waited for us.
This is the part we always remember.
Crossing the carpark takes so much longer now. It isn’t just our age. I can see how Zoey’s dull eyes skim across the tarmac, searching for him. She’s looking for the place where he laughed off ahead, looking for the spot where he stopped to look at her with sudden intensity. In her eyes, I’m sure, his ghost is perfect. Still a child, but a child who has grown alongside her. I’m sure he is never stooping, but tall and proud. I’m sure his juvenile giggle has been erased. I know that she looks for him, as though it was his soul that stayed in this town, not just his body.
I’m silent. Of course, I am. She’s safe in the cocoon of a partial memory. She does not blame me. I will not tempt fate by disturbing her.
So, we trundle on, each pulled by invisible chords. Woodman tugs her onwards, gently but inexorably. My guilt holds me back. I strain against it to walk by Zoey’s side.
No, not guilt. Fear. Fear of her remembering too much.
We reach the gates, which are never locked any more. They swing inwards with a long stiletto screech. The posters are peeling. The tracks are rusted and overgrown. The platform is clear; somebody still sweeps away the leaves.
We hear, in our memory, air galloping through the tunnel with blood on its fangs.
Afterwards, Zoey will only remember what she saw, and what I tell her.
We followed the train tracks between the trees. Zoey and I took them for granted, but Woodman had to stop to press his ear against the metal. He screwed shut his eyes and listened, waving us to silence and then blocking the other ear.
He rose with a shrug. It was indecisive.
Passing through the station was meant to be the riskiest point. If Mr. Perkins caught us from the platform, that would be the end of it. There would be no triumph for Woodman. Zoey’s summer with him would end, not on a tearful farewell, but on a sharp rebuke.
But Perkins was not on the platform. The tracks were sunk low; the concrete came up to our shoulders. We scurried through like station mice. The tunnel was a pinprick in the landscape ahead.
In my own memory, the tunnel sometimes grows in proportion to become a dragon’s maw. I imagine vines and hanging branches which sway with its infernal breath. Of course, that couldn’t be so. The tunnel, on that day, was perfectly ordinary—an arch of bland grey brick, a hole punched through the earth, the light fading within.
“How far in do we have to go?” Zoey asked him. “Do you just have to touch the wall?”
“I’m going to walk in until it’s too dark to see,” Woodman boasted. And then, really hearing her, “You don’t have to come.”
“I know,” Zoey said.
We were close enough to feel its breath when the cry came. We all froze, except for Woodman, who readied to flee.
Back on the platform, the tall, stick-figure proportions of Mr. Perkins beckoned to us. He took off his hat and waved it wildly. He raised his hands to his face and shouted again. Only the faintest whisper of his words reached us.
Zoey seized my hand. “What do we do?” she whispered.
Woodman took off at a tear, unwilling to be denied his triumph, certain that the glory would be worth the punishment, and I followed. I followed because I was sure that Zoey would. That she would hesitate for a moment and so start on the back foot, that I would lose her hand in the panic, was not something I expected.
It was like the sudden fright that spooks the herd, that’s as simply as I can explain it. I ran because I had already started running. Zoey ran for the same reason. Woodman charged on ahead, his lanky frame plunging into the swallowing darkness. The rocks and pebbles scattered loudly underfoot.
Then we heard the moan.
It might have been the rails shifting under unfamiliar weight. It might have been wind struggling down the tunnel. It might have been anything, but it sounded like the gasp of injured lungs. Zoey screamed and pressed herself against the slimy walls. I lost her hand and called out for her. Her heavy breathing was lost in the arched roof, transported as if by witchcraft to echo out behind me. I searched with open hands and found only concrete. The darkness was absolute, and we were alone.
“Where is he?” Zoey sobbed.
I staggered onwards with wide, unseeing eyes. I traced one hand along the wall. I felt for the rails with my toes. The air had been still and dead before, but now I sensed a growing pressure which made my ears pop.
Woodman’s voice was hoarse and desperate. I used it as my compass. I found my way to his side, and he screamed when I touched him.
“It’s my knee. Don’t touch it. Something tripped me, or…”
I reached out like a blind woman. His face was slick with sweat. Dust coated his shirt. I ignored his advice and felt the legs of his jeans. They were wet, with what I don’t know, because he yelped and pushed me away.
“I don’t know if you can move me,” he moaned. “Is Zoey okay?”
Then we saw it.
It was not the crisp white salvation of daylight. Neither was it the harsh, blinding glare of electricity. It was something else, I’m sure of it; orange and burning, it staggered out of the distant darkness with the wind at its back. The tunnel became like a pressure chamber. I felt like a cork in a bottle. The light shambled towards us, carrying with it the moans of the dead.
It illuminated Woodman for an instant. I saw the rolling whites of his eyes, the sweat-slick fear on his face.
“Help me,” he whispered, offering his hands.
I only ran.
Afterwards, Mr Perkins shook his head back and forth and muttered to nobody in particular about the shame of it all. There was a kettle in his office, from which he offered us tea. Zoey was pale and silent, and when Perkins put his hat on her head in a feeble attempt to make her smile, she pulled it down over her eyes.
The men of the town came to find Woodman’s body. I remember them in their shirtsleeves, grimacing with torches in their hands as they stepped into the tunnel. They found him just a few steps inside.
They wouldn’t let us watch, but I know now that they took him out in bags.
“Just a terrible, terrible thing,” Perkins told the adults. “By the time I saw them, well, it was too late.”
“Couldn’t the train have stopped?” asked my Mother.
Perkins gave her a look full of pity.
We took Zoey home. Mum thought it was best. I don’t think she wanted either of us to be alone, and so Zoey sat beside me in the back seat, staring into nothing. That night, as we slept together in the living room, I rolled over and broke the silence.
“Did you see a train?”
Her answer was the slightest of gestures, but I’m sure that she shook her head.
“It was too late when I found him,” I told her. “His head…”
She found my hand beneath the covers. I went quiet.
I would have years to weave my story.
The station is empty now. The trains have stopped. Zoey stands on the platform with me at her side, letting the reel of her memory run out.
She never could have left, I’m sure of it. It could only ever had led her here.
I say nothing. The cocoon of her memory is soft. It covers all the sharp edges. I built it around her, and I will do nothing to puncture it. What good would it do? We lived our life in this town, always entangled. Now our leaves are curling and dropping off. That’s no time to change the past.
There’s a kettle boiling in Perkins’ old office. The window is cracked and the door is ajar. Somebody still sweeps the leaves away.
They still find bodies just inside the tunnel. Tragic accidents, the Old Folks used to say. Now we say the same, but we know better.
I watch Zoey’s eyes.
In time, the mood will pass. It always does. Then I’ll take her hand and lead her away, concealing my relief, and she will brighten over a brandy in the Old Bird. There are joys in this town for her. She stayed this long. Sometimes, while I was with her, she was almost happy.
But sometimes she tarries at the platform.
I watch her considering the rails. I see how her eye is drawn to the tunnel.
Could we still walk to it, over that crumbling and uneven terrain? I think that Zoey could. I’d like to think that she’s only remembering, but I know better. There are no ghosts in her eyes. I worry that one day she’ll shear us apart.
It’s not only the young that go to the tunnel.
R. Wren (they/them) is an Irish writer of weird tales. They collect and create scrap paper in all its forms. R. Wren’s story “Becoming” appeared in Beyond the Veil: Queer Tales of Supernatural Love, and their twitter can be found at @ro_wren.
∼ Read August’s story, “The Magic Trash Can” by Tom Jolly ∼