I wanted to write something without anything planned beyond the initial concept of some guy finding a tunnel under his basement and then wanting to explore it with his two friends. I relied on the artificial intelligence to pump out stuff and I adapted to what seemed right. I’m not sure what this ended up becoming.
Both Victoria and Fernando switch on their cameras as I kneel right next to the set of stairs. They descend from the hole in the floor, where I tore out the loose floorboards. I feel again the tension of the unknown, the excitement. I turn to my friends.
“Last time I’m going to ask. Are you both sure you are up for this?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” proclaims Victoria cheerfully.
“Good. Then let’s go.”
As I light up the way with my flashlight, we start down the stairs, which lead us deeper underground. A minute or so later we reach the landing, from which extends a large corridor that reminds me of the tunnels that get built for the highways. The darkness seems endless.
“I know how you described it,” Fernando says, “but I wouldn’t have expected this tunnel to look so well-built. This is like some government shit.”
“Do you think that the previous owner of your house had anything to do with it?” Victoria asks me with an electrified voice.
“No idea. We’re just exploring the place. It could be full of secret passages and traps.”
“Like a dungeon? It would be nice.”
We continue walking along the tunnel. We walk and walk. The path bends slightly to the sides, but never to the extent that it forms corners. We end up walking for a long time, maybe twenty minutes, without any other feature appearing in our path. There’s no hint of anyone ever having walked through here: no signs on the walls, no forgotten tools. Nothing but a perfectly carved corridor in the bedrock.
Fernando, walking behind me, points at the rock to our side.
“You know, this wall is not like the rest. Look at it.”
We look, and sure enough the stone has a different red color, almost pink. In fact, now that I look at it again, this whole corridor had looked slightly different in color from what we had been walking through until now. Not that I’m an expert in such things.
I illuminate the area with my flashlight, but I can’t come to any conclusion. I don’t know shit about geology. I don’t even know if the stone is some artificial material. I don’t know much of anything, really. I’m just a dude that went into a hole in his basement.
“Do you think we’re under a quarry?” Victoria asks.
“I don’t think so,” I reply, scanning the corridor for any possible threats. “Wouldn’t there be signs of digging? I mean, if this is a quarry where they used to get stone, there should be some evidence, right?”
“Have you ever been to a quarry or a mine?” Fernando asks.
Despite his neutral tone, I get annoyed.
“Have you? You have barely gotten out of the city in all these years. I’m surprised you know what a quarry is supposed to be.”
“Let’s stay focused, guys,” Victoria says with a conciliatory tone.
“Yes, let’s,” I agree.
We spend around two hours walking down the corridor. Nature wouldn’t produce a tunnel this perfect, but the precision with which the bedrock is shaped suggests the careful work over many years of dedicated people, far above the kind of work contractors would do for the government.
We haven’t found any possible exit, and Victoria points out that the path is descending subtly into the ground.
“This will make for a hell of a YouTube video, though,” Fernando says.
“A boring one unless we cut it properly. How long has it been?” you answer.
“At least three hours.”
You look for your phone. No signal, of course.
“So, we’ve been walking down this tunnel for three hours, and there’s no exit yet,” Victoria says. “Do you think this place is a natural cavern that people expanded?”
“Can’t say I know anything about caves,” I answer.
“Can you imagine how long it must’ve taken to build all this? When we get out of here, we have to do some research on this place,” Victoria says wistfully.
“How long is your flashlight going to last?” Fernando asks, finally worried.
“I’ll go ahead and save the batteries then,” you reply, clicking it off.
We are now in total darkness. I’ve never been a big fan of the dark. Victoria must have sensed this because she grabs my hand, somewhat comforting me. We walk forward slowly as my eyes adjust to the almost featureless black.
I am not sure why we keep advancing towards the unknown even though we wouldn’t know what waits ahead. I feel compelled to. Maybe it’s a sunk cost thing. We walked so much this way, we would have to walk as much in the opposite direction, but defeated. And Victoria’s hand feels warm in mine. For once she’s eagerly holding on to me instead of relying on Fernando.
“Wait, have you switched off the cameras?” I ask to my friends.
“My camera has night vision,” Fernando says, although he doesn’t sound very confident about it.
“Mine too,” Victoria says.
I turn to look at the screen of her camera. On it, Fernando’s face is illuminated with an otherwordly blue glow.
“What do you think is waiting for us ahead?” Victoria asks, her voice trembling a little.
I try to reassure her, “Probably just a bunch of bones and a treasure chest with some cool items. Look at it this way, we aren’t going to get lost. We would just need to turn around and follow the only path.”
“Let’s head back,” she says, “This is all bullshit. I want to go home.”
“I’m with Victoria on this one,” Fernando says.
I stop and turn towards both of them, even though I can’t see anything in the dark.
“How often do you get to explore a kilometers long tunnel under one of your friends’ houses? Are you bored already? It’s only been a few hours. We’ll be fine.”
I know I sounded way too defensive, but I can’t help but try to recruit them to come with me. I would be quite disappointed if the treasures on the other side don’t motivate them at least a little.
“I know you’re excited, but we can’t keep going if the majority of us is too scared,” Victoria says.
“Yeah. It’s not just that,” Fernando adds. “This corridor has been feeling more and more oppressive the further we go. I think there’s something dangerous ahead.”
“I can’t believe you two,” I say. “You always are up for anything, Victoria, and that nervousness is unbecoming of a tough guy like you, Fernando. It’s just a long tunnel. If we get tired we can lie down and sleep in the dark.”
I turn around and walk on, and my two friends have no choice but to follow me. We continue on in silence except for the few times I try to reassure them that there is nothing to be afraid of.
We walk about another hour, and I begin to hear faint voices. I turn around and say, “Do either of you have anything in your packs that is making noise?”
“No,” they say.
I strain my ears, and the voices become clearer. My heart sinks when I realize that they are muffled voices of children. I’m just about to tell my friends when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn around with my fists up, but I only sense the faint shapes of Victoria and Fernando under the fading light of the guy’s camera screen.
“What is it?” Victoria asks, “Did you hear something?”
“Really? What were they saying?” asks Fernando.
“I couldn’t tell. It sounded like they were muffled, like their mouths were covered with tape.”
“Oh, that’s ridiculous. Why would children be down here?” says Victoria with a tearful voice.
“I don’t know, but I think we should keep going and find out,” I say. “If you guys are too scared, you can wait here.”
“No, we’ll go with you,” says Victoria. “Let’s just keep moving quickly.”
We continue down the corridor, as the voices grow louder. They are indeed children’s voices, but they sound sick and are mixed with the sounds of crying and screaming. The three of us walk for about half an hour when we finally arrive at another set of stairs, but instead of suggesting an exit, the stairs descend further into the ground.
Before I can say anything, Victoria breaks into tears.
“I’m so hungry,” she says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Me too,” says Fernando, “We can’t rely on some exit ahead. Let’s turn around, no matter how much it will take us to get back.”
I’m about to reply when I hear a faint whisper coming from below. I stand in silence, straining to hear what the voice is saying. The words are impossible to make out, but the voice sounds young and sad.
“Do you hear that?” I ask.
“Yes,” Victoria says between sniffles. “That sounds like a little kid.”
“It does sound like a child.”
“Should we keep going?” she asks.
“We have to,” I say, “If we don’t, we’ll regret it… Probably.”
The three of us stare at the dark stairwell for a moment.
“Let’s go,” I say, breaking the silence.
We begin descending further into the earth. The passageway gets colder and darker as we continue. The crying voices are closer now, but still incomprehensible. The tunnel leads us to a room. The cold air pierces through my skin and into my bones, but at the end of the large room hovers a wavering light, like that of a candle. The closer we get to it, the more I feel like something really bad is going to happen.
“Oh no,” Victoria says, stopping in her tracks, “I don’t like this.”
“C’mon! It must be an exit!” I say, pulling on her wrist.
“No!” she says as she rips her arm away from me.
I stare at her in silence. Illuminated by the light at the end of the room, her mascara is running down her face, and her eyes are red and swollen. She looks to the floor, trembling slightly. The crying is very loud now. I hear a new sound, a faint jingling. In the darkness, I can just barely see Fernando unhooking his keys and cell phone from his belt loop.
“Victoria,” he says softly, “I think we should go back.”
“We can’t go back now!” I say. “You heard the voices. We have to figure out what’s down here.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” Fernando replies.
He’s holding on tight to his set of keys, which are sticking out between the fingers of his fist. Victoria starts crying again.
“I don’t like this place,” she says, “Let’s go back up.”
“We can’t,” I say, “The voices are too loud. If we go back the way we came, the crying will just follow us and get louder. We’re already this far, let’s just go through with it.”
Victoria and Fernando stare at me in silence. The crying is at a fever pitch. I can feel myself getting sucked in. I feel like I am a kid again, laying in my bed after having a nightmare, my mother nowhere to be found.
I start to hear the voices of my parents downstairs as the crying slowly fades. I blink my eyes and look around. I have returned to the darkened room.
“Let’s go back,” Victoria says, her voice quivering.
“No,” I reply, “I came here to find answers, and that’s what I’m going to do. We’ll go through this room, and then we’ll be on the other side. After that, we can stop for the night.”
“The other side of what?” Fernando asks.
“This room,” I say, “We’ve been in here for a long time. The crying is getting louder. We need to keep going.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he says.
I can hear a strange voice in the distance. It’s calling my name, just barely on the edge of audibility.
“We have to go,” I say.
I shine my flashlight around the room. There are paintings hanging on the walls, identical ones: a white canvas with a blood-red handprint in the center. The handprint is moving as if it were a living thing. I stare at it as the crying gets louder.
“Let’s go back!” Victoria says, grabbing my shoulders.
I slap away one of her hands.
“Can’t you say anything else? You’ve been nothing but a crying mess for the last couple of hours. I didn’t take you for such an uncool girl to hang out with.”
She looks at me with a hurt expression on her face. I blink, and she’s gone.
I turn around. My flashlight beam reveals a tall, skinny girl that is staring at me from across the room. Behind her hangs another painting with a blood-red handprint. The girl stares at me with dead eyes, not blinking as she raises one hand towards me.
“Stay away from me,” I say even though the crying drowns everything else out.
The girl continues to raise her hand towards me. I hear the voices of children begging me not to hurt them.
“Go away,” I say.
Tears stream down the girl’s face as blood runs down from her eyes, nose and mouth. She opens her mouth and lets out a scream that floods my ears. The sound is unbearable, and I scream in pain.
“Go away,” I repeat.
The girl disappears, but the sounds of children continue to fill my ears along with her screams. I start to hear sobbing. It’s Victoria, who’s lying on the floor and holding herself in a fetal position.
“Go away,” she sobs.
To my left are a dozen children just standing around me, all of them staring. From behind me come new screams, and when I turn around, more children walk towards me. One of them steps forward. He is a young boy, no older than six years, with long blonde hair and a vacant stare in his black eyes.
“Don’t hurt us,” he says in a flat tone.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“They hurt us. They hurt us all.”
The boy is almost upon me.
“They tied us up,” he says. “Stripped us. Hurt us.”
The boy is almost within arm’s reach.
“They did things to us,” he says, stopping within arm’s reach of me. “Please, don’t hurt us.”
He reaches his arms around my neck and hugs me. My arms find their way around him. He begins to sob into my chest. I can feel his tears streaming down my skin. I look up at the other children, all of them standing still without making a sound. Victoria is rolling on the ground while drool slides down her cheeks.
I have trouble breathing. What started as an embrace is quickly becoming something else. I try to push him away, but he holds on tight. His nails are digging into my skin. He leans in and whispers into my ear.
The children standing behind him begin to laugh. Those behind my back scream as their footsteps sound closer and closer. Dozens of hands grab at my body, dozens of hands push and pull at my clothes and hair. I feel so weak, so tired. So hungry.
The children scream as they continue to pull at my skin, stripping me of my flesh. Blood streams down my face as their hands claw at my features. I spot Victoria standing in the corner, smiling as she tears strips of meat off of her own arm.
I hear my mother’s voice as the children that surround me scream in my ears.
“You are hungry!”
“You are so hungry.”
“Please, please, no more.”
I open my eyes. I’m lying on the cold floor. No more children surround me. The fading cone of light of my flashlight is illuminating Victoria, who seems to be sleeping. I am covered in dirt and grime from lying on the damp ground, but otherwise unhurt. I turn off the flashlight and try to move. I don’t feel my legs. They are completely numb. I force myself to move my knees, and then my ankles, and then my feet. I feel the pins and needles as the blood returns to them. I stand up slowly, and then make my way towards Victoria. She is panting heavily as she sleeps, her underwear pulled down to her thighs. I take off my shirt and pull it over her. I’m sure she will hate me for this when she wakes up, but right now she needs her rest. I walk back to the base of the stairs, and take out my cellphone. It’s dead.
Victoria starts yelling behind me. Her body contorts and twists in strange ways. She lets out a blood-curdling scream as she looks at me, pure terror in her eyes. Her back is arched completely and her legs are pulled up to her chest.
“Please! No more!”
She screams these words over and over again as I stand there unable to help her. She sobs as I take a few steps towards her, and she flinches as I reach towards her. Her lips move. I realize she’s muttering Fernando’s name as if calling out to him. She always thought of him first.
“He left us,” I say, bitter. “He’s an eternity away.”
Tears are streaming down her face. Tears stream down mine as I nod. She covers her face with her hands and rocks back and forth. I sit down beside Victoria and put an arm around her. I don’t know how I can comfort her, but I feel that if she keeps crying, my tears will never end.
“I… want to go home…” she says between sobs. “I miss my family.”
The darkness closes in on us as we cry together on the room’s floor. I hold her close to me, and she leans her head on my shoulder. She sniffles as I stroke her hair and whisper, “I know. I know.”
I try to focus on the good memories. The feel of her skin, the sound of her laugh, the way she smiles. I keep those thoughts in my head for as long as I can.
We stay like this for a few minutes, a few hours, a day, a week. Before long, I can’t feel my legs. I try to move them, but there’s no way to do so. Victoria’s head rests on my shoulder. Her tears have stopped. A smile stretches across her face. I reach an arm around to hold her, but my arm falls through her body. Her face morphs into a ghoulish grin.
Her body is transforming into a rotting corpse, maggots crawling out of the sides of her mouth, her eye sockets empty. I want to turn my head, but I can’t. I can’t do anything but watch as she melts before my eyes.
“You can’t save her.”
My head twitches as I slowly turn around. A figure stands behind me, a woman with long black hair and a gaunt face.
“Who are you?” I ask, even though I know she’s not really there.
“We’ve met many times before,” she says in a monotone voice.
“I am the monster in your closet, in the shadows beneath your bed, the creature that hides under your skin.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I say.
She continues as if I haven’t spoken, “I am the fear that begets fear, the source of nightmares, the declaration of death.”
The world fades to black around us. Now there’s nothing but her and I.
“You can’t hurt me,” I say.
“I already have.”
I fall into the darkness. It swallows me whole. I fall through the cracks of existence. I scream, but there’s nobody to hear me. I’m all alone.
The flames cover my body, burning away my flesh. I scream in pain as they cook my nerves, charring my organs, searing my soul. I beg for death, but it doesn’t come. The flames caress my skin as they melt away my body. My nerve endings are raw as I feel the liquefying of my eyeballs, the sizzling of my muscles, the boiling of my blood. And still the pain persists.
“No,” I say, “Make it stop.”
“This is the pain you have inflicted on others. Now it is your turn to suffer.”
My mind slips. Paranoia creeps in through the back door of my subconscious as I’m forced to watch my own torture. Guilt and fear gradually overwhelm me. It doesn’t matter how many times I repeat it to myself, trying to convince myself that I’m innocent. It doesn’t matter how much I beg for a chance to go back and change things. They’re already done. And it’s too late for me to take them back.
And as the flames slowly char my skin, as the pain slowly consumes my flesh and reaches deep into my soul, I realize that she’s right. This is what I deserve. She’s not to blame. It’s me.
I deserve this pain.