The Tunnel

Something chases him and he runs, desperate for safety, for peace, for the hope he sees on the horizon.

Written by

Randall J. Greene

Published on

Go BackProse, Stories

Running was all he knew. Day, night, dusk, twilight, his legs never stopped churning. He didn’t question why he ran, because he knew: He had to stay ahead of the Form chasing him. He called it a Form because he didn’t know how else to name it. It had no shape, no face, no substance as far as he could tell. It was neither a shadow nor a nightmare. He had considered whether it might be unreal. But real or not, it chased him, and he ran.

His feet pounded endlessly against the floor of his tunnel. At times he could see through cracks in the wall that there were other runners, each on their own path in their own tunnel. The Form chased them – perhaps the same Form that chased him, or perhaps another.

Although he didn’t understand the Form from which he ran, he was certain what he ran toward. At the end of the tunnel, always at the end, glowed a city. It shined through every darkness, every wall, every glass, every turn. Its magnificence drew him, compelled him. The glowing city was hope, salvation, not only for him but for every runner in every tunnel. 

The tunnel was the path away from the Form and toward the glowing city. But the tunnel changed as he ran.

In one section every surface was a mirror. Wherever he looked he saw mutated self-reflections, monstrous, horrifying visions of himself. His feet sprouted from his hands, his ear twisted atop his breast, his body swollen and enlarged, then shriveled and starved. Light glinted off the glass, blinding him before he could throw his hands in front of his face. The mirrors disoriented him and he fell to his feet. He looked up. At least, he thought it was up. His own eyes stared back at him, unblinking and judgmental. The mirrors tempted him to sit and stay, to close his eyes and remain forever. But he remembered the Form chasing him and stood to his feet. The tunnel swirled before him, echoes of himself refracted at every angle. Which way was forward?

He caught sight of the glowing city and ran toward it once more. Focus not on the Form behind, he told himself, but on the destination before. That is the way. And he left the mirrors in the past, running onward.

Another part of the tunnel was filled with words. They were written on the walls, yes, but they also permeated the air, thick, oppressive. When he breathed they filled his nostrils like sludge. They burned his lungs until he gasped for air. They drowned his ears and he could not think, could no longer command his legs to move because the words whelmed him so. He sank into them, immobilized, nothing more than a rasping breath beneath their weight. The Form chased him still, yes, and chased him well, but his will alone was not enough to dispel the crush of the words.

He could not think but he could feel, and what he felt was fear. And when he realized there was power in fear, and the fear was stronger than his mind, stronger than the words oppressing him, he wept and gave himself to it. (The fear did not cause the weeping. No, he wept from the sorrow of giving himself to the fear, for he knew fear was a tyrant and that, once it took control, it might never let go, yet he could see no other way to overcome the weight of those words.) The fear delivered him, and when he next opened his eyes and lungs and ears, everything had changed. The words were now gone in a mass of darkness, the path before him unseeable but for a single thread of all-dark, a strand of void in the midst of midnight, twisting up and down and back around but on, ever on, toward the glowing city which he couldn’t see yet must be at the end of the thread. Through the dark, with a hand tracing the all-dark thread as it weaved, he stumbled onward.

His muscles tired, but less than his mind, for he strained to pierce the darkness with his eyes, his nose, his ears. Fear muted all but the touch of the all-dark thread. He wondered, at that moment, whether the fear filled the tunnel around him or filled his body inside him. He wondered, too, whether the fear could be the Form chasing him, whether it had captured him and consumed him. He could not see the Form, could not sense it, yet he knew not what else to do, so he pressed onward.

After a time he felt that the thread had grown in his hands, though he did not know when the change had begun. No longer thin and winding, it was now thick, straight, rough. It turned up, no longer leading through the tunnel toward the glowing city but toward the sky above. He stopped running, his weary mind breaking with uncertainty of where to go. The way ahead was void, unguided; the way of fear’s thread was clear but senseless. He reached one hand forward, into the void, searching for something, anything he could follow, for he dared not climb fear’s thread into the sky. He stretched out, his other hand anchored to the thread for safety, but found nothing.

One step, he thought, and one step alone, cannot lose me. So he stepped forward, reached with two trepid hands, and felt a stab in his fingertip, then another, then another. He pulled back, tasted iron, blood on his hands, bitter and cold. No way forward, then, so he turned, resigned to return to fear. One step back, but there was no thread there to be found, only more painful pricks on his hands, but then also on his feet, his head. A wall of thorns hedged him on every side. There was no escape, no forward, no back, no up, no down.

This was the end, collapsing in on him. He sank, the desperation of his running fading to melancholy, the apathetic submission to fate one only feels when they have resisted the irresistible for too long, too long. The destruction of his hope for the glowing city. The Form would find him, and if it had not taken him already it surely would now. He supposed this was the way it had to be. There was no escaping the Form. There never had been. Not for him, not for any of the runners in their tunnels.

With his hand off the thread, though, his vision slowly returned, shadows diffusing from midnight to dawn, then onward almost to light. He saw the wall of thorns surrounding him, imprisoning him, and the sight could not help him escape.

Then a hand emerged from beyond the wall of thorns, pressing through it. First one, then another, then more, dozens of hands reaching through the wall, pressing away the thorns until they formed a hole large enough for a person. Into his prison stepped a woman from beyond, another runner, though one he had not seen before. She beckoned. He followed and stepped through the hole, into her tunnel.

Her tunnel was filled with people, far as I could see, not running, not scared, but free. There was no Form in this tunnel, no thorns and no fear. The people smiled and laughed, hugged him and clapped. Their joy was infectious, it was bold, and when it filled me I glowed.

I searched for the woman, the one who had saved me, but she had gone, perhaps to find another soul who was lost. I wanted to thank her, to offer her my life to repay the debt I owed her, but she had slipped away. And somehow I knew what she’d say: It was not I who saved you, you’ll recall, but those courageous friends who pressed their hands through the thorns to make the way for you. Repay not me, but all the lives before, beside, and becoming.