Shoulders burning, back seizing, chest tightening, I grab the shovel again. By now it’s a basic instinct; I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I can’t stand, and I dig until the job is done. My palms are slick with a thin mixture of blood and sweat, and I feel a callus rip free as the shaft turns in my hand. Another piece of me falls away. A piece that might be properly replaced, if I were to let it heal. Perhaps I will, when the dig is through with me.
I feel the muscles in my abdomen stretch and contract as I strike the wall of silt before me. Then, scooping up whatever shakes loose, I begin to fill the next bucket. When this one’s full, I’ll bring it out of the tunnel, dump it, and start again. The bucket can only carry so much, and the same goes for me. The limit, therefore, is not its size, or my strength. The limit is patience. If there is anything tunneling has taught me thus far, it is that.
Every yard or so, I set the shovel down. The tunnel is not supposed to be here, so it will not support itself. I haul in sheets of plywood for the ceiling, and pairs of planks to nail up as joists. The break from the awkward physical stress of digging is welcome, I admit. I admit, too, that it’s a little bit harder to pick the shovel back up each time that I do. But I keep going, and I don’t complain. I believe that the trials the tunnel presents will prepare me for what’s next.
When my body finally fails me, around sunset, I hobble over to the spring to bathe. The water is warm and murky milk-white, and turns faintly pink as the blood washes away. I scrub thoroughly beneath my nails and gently across my palms, which have been rubbed raw. As I soak, my thoughts turn inward. I feel soil pulled away from my skin. I feel my pulse dampen. I feel tension turn to steam. I feel, I feel, I feel, in a way that I never did before coming here.
Then I emerge from the spring, and after a decent meal of jerky and apricot, collapse in my teepee. It is the easiest sleep of my life. At dawn I will return to the tunnel, and I will be glad to see it. That’s the nice thing about tomorrow: as long as you’re living right, there’s always less left to do than there was today. By my count, forty-eight days have passed this way. But by the change in the trees, it may have been even longer. I know now that time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun; it flies when you have purpose.
On a clear, normal day, I awake to birdsong and soft yellow light on the horizon. I take a few minutes to inspect the supports. If any joists are loose, I shore them up with additional screws. I won’t risk another collapse for the sake of speed, not at this juncture. I’m close now–I can sense it. With relative peace of mind, I fetch the shovel and begin my work.
Today, however, is not a clear, normal day. Dawn has yet to come, and raindrops trickle through the peak of my teepee, kissing my face. With eyes still crusted shut, I groan, stretch, repeat my mantra, and talk myself into getting up to fix the leak. Before I can act, a voice surrounds me. At once seeming distant and too close, it isn’t loud, but it’s startling. Only after I’ve gathered my wits do I realize what it’s said: “How now?”
I scramble into a seated position. Squinting into the dark triangle at the teepee’s entrance, I see an odd shape, about four-and-a-half feet high and topheavy. As calmly as I can manage, I reach out and grab my hunting knife, pulling it out of its sheath. Instinct tells me my visitor must be an animal of some kind—but then, who was it that spoke to me?
“Who’s there?” I croak.
“Salutations,” the visitor says. They speak in an echoing whisper, such that the sound somehow seems to be coming from inside me. “It has been many years since we saw each other last. Your body is hairy and beginning to wither.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing, and not just because I’m only nineteen. I set the knife down and click on my headlamp, then point it at the visitor. It’s just as I thought: standing in front of me is a small extraterrestrial with translucent sand-colored skin and large, wet, black eyes. A number of half-egg bumps are arranged around its large skull, and the four parallel vertical slits that constitute its nose and mouth open and shut in rhythm. Curiously, it is wearing a red sweater with sleeves that appear far too short. Small wonder: the creature’s skinny arms reach all the way to the ground.
“Kphlet!” I say, tears in my eyes. His name sounds like a sneeze—a fact which still makes me smile just as much as it did when I was eleven years old. “I hope you didn’t come all this way to return my sweater?”
“It is common practice for humans to return gifts?”
“It is not. I was joking.”
“Noted. Come along now. There is an issue I must discuss with you. Let us do so over caffeinated liquids.”
“I’ve been seeing you in dreams lately. Was that you? Visiting me?”
“That is preposterous,” says the alien Kphlet, waddling away from the teepee, arms dragging behind him.
Luckily the rain is pretty light, so I’m able to build a fire and heat up water for tea. Kphlet and I sit on stumps at opposite ends of the pit. He seems upset; his eyes are especially wet and his little legs swing a few inches above the ground. We sip tea in silence for a few minutes, watching the sun rise. Then, suddenly, he sets down his mug and begins to speak.
“I do not know if I can feel worry, but I believe that I am worried about you.”
“Ah. Well, don’t stress.”
“Why do you dig?”
“Why does anybody do anything? It’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“Why do you dig?”
“Did I ever tell you what my dad used to say about destiny?”
“No, but I suspect you are about to.”
“He said it’s a noun—a place, person, or thing—with its own gravity. He said you may not fall to it… it may not drag you out of bed… but when you’re headed the right way, you’ll know. I know. And, well, the thing is, I don’t think I’ll really understand why I’m doing what I’m doing until I’m finished. Does that make sense?”
“There is a logic to it. Not one I can say that I follow completely, but there is a logic. How long have you been doing this?”
“Since Dad’s funeral.”
“Yes—of course. I tried to visit you at that time, but your face was wet, and your exaggerated emotions gave me pause. How many days would you say it has been since then?”
“I don’t know. A month or two?”
“Interesting. Would it surprise you to learn that your estimation is rather imprecise?”
“I haven’t been keeping a strict count. I take it you have?”
“Indeed. I have. You realize it is not good for a human to be isolated such as you are?”
“You’re one to talk, Kphlet. You’ve been hiding on Earth alone for how long, now?”
“Irrelevant. My exile was imposed. Yours is chosen. Furthermore, I am as a matter of nature more perceptive and rational. There are things on this planet which your consciousness cannot parse. You ought not try to face them without companionship.”
“‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
“Who is Horatio? I am Kphlet. Are you experiencing an aphasia of some kind? How can I assist?”
“Never mind. Thank you for the unsolicited therapy, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d better get back to work.”
“Hold. What’s that over there?”
I follow Kphlet’s extended finger to an oak tree behind me. There’s nothing out of the ordinary. When I turn back around, Kphlet is gone; I catch a glimpse of him sprinting headlong into the tunnel, arms trailing behind him like scaly brown ribbons in the wind.
To err on the side of caution, I grab my shovel and headlamp before giving chase. As I run, I plead with him to be careful, to not touch anything, to stop. My voice echoes in the tunnel, and it scares me, how scared I sound.
When I finally find Kphlet, he is hunched over near the place I left off. He tells me to be quiet, and then he tells me to plug my ears. I do what he asks, but it doesn’t help much. Standing up straight, he unleashes a deafening screech which feels like a knife in my ears, causes the ground to vibrate, and shakes loose a hell of a lot of dirt. After a moment, Kphlet walks to a spot on the wall and starts digging with his hands. I realize the outburst must have been some sort of echolocation, and join him with the shovel. Before I know it, I've struck something solid.
Once we’ve cleared away the dirt, I can see what’s there: a door. Solid cherry, bronze knob and knocker. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am where I’m supposed to be. I turn the knob and, using my foot as leverage, manage to yank the door open. Inside is the thing I’ve been searching for all this time. I stare at it for a while, afraid that if I blink it might go away. Afraid that if I touch it, it will turn to ash.
“What is it?” I ask, not of Kphlet, but of fate.
Only Kphlet responds: “How should I know?”
“You now have what you wanted. So do it. Ask me how many days it has been.”
“Ask me how many days it has been since you started digging. You don’t know, and you were afraid to ask me before.”
“Alright. How many days has it been?”
“Seven-thousand, six-hundred and seventy.”
The first place I go, upon returning to civilization, is my childhood home.
The second place I go is a hospital. The constant movements, the sterile surfaces, the beeps and blings, they’re all conspiring to drive me insane. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. The nurses won’t let me take my mother home to die in her own bed. Apparently, when you go missing for decades and show hardly any signs of aging, you’re considered suspicious. The bloodwork, though, is pretty difficult to dispute, so while they fumble about and try to figure out who I am, I’m allowed to be with Mom. That’s really all I care about.
On my ninth day at her side she wakes up for just a few hours. While she’s present, she tells me how she loves me ad nauseum, and about the many ways she missed me, and missed pa. Once that’s through, out comes all of the gossip she’s been dying to share with somebody for the last seven-thousand, six-hundred and seventy days. Looking in her eyes, I can tell that her mind is nearly gone, that she's forgotten most of the pain. Twenty-one years are lost to both of us. I’m not sure the strangeness of the situation even registers for her, and perhaps that's mercy.
I tell her about the tunnel, and the spring, and even Kphlet. To the latter of these, she says bless-you.
“I see you’ve still got that great big imagination, honey,” she says. “Promise me you’ll never lose that.”
“Never,” I say, as tears meet my smiling lips.
“Did you find it? Whatever you were looking for?”
“Where is it?”
“Ah… I don’t know, actually. It must have fallen out of my pocket.”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll turn up. You know what your father said, don’t you? Don’t go nowhere in a rush. No matter what you do, you’ll get there when you get there.”
“You’re right, ma.”
I take her hand. “Get some beauty rest.”
She sighs, then speaks her last words to me. “Okay. I love you. But for the love of God, if you’re going to dig a tunnel, don’t do it alone.”
Don’t do it alone. Not because you're incapable, but because when it's all said and done, it'll feel like a waste.