James led the officers down the makeshift ladder. He could hear two of them grunting, but Officer Edison followed with a solemn vibe. There was a stench inside the tunnel, but James felt a little grateful because it didn’t make him nauseous again. The officers seemed fine too. Or maybe, he was thinking, the officers were used to worse occurrences than this.
The only luminosity in the pitch blackness of the tunnel came from the officer’s flashlights; the few on the back were scanning the walls and the back end, but Edison kept his flashlight pointed straight ahead like a sniper’s gun waiting for its target. James stole a glance at it as he continued to tread forwards.
“How far ahead?” Edison asked.
“There’s a turn a few feet ahead, the room is to the right,” James said. He was whispering but his words echoed all around. He was never good at talking to others.
The turn came as James said. He heard the last two officers whisper among themselves. He wished he could hear them clearly; they were dropping words like “Ass”, “Killer”, “Psychopath”. James breathed. He clutched his fist. He should have known it didn’t matter whether he killed Aliza or not. It mattered that he knew where her body was. Even if he told the officers that he stumbled on it while he was looking for her, they wouldn’t believe him.
The officers entered the room, it was smaller than they thought, almost like a closet. White lights from their torches crowded like a monotone kaleidoscope, even after they spotted her. She was lying on the ground in the south corner like a white porcelain doll, a dried, clotted slit circled her neck, but her arms were positioned under her and to her side: she looked as though she was just sleeping.
Within seconds, officers encircled the room and the tunnel. Their noises filled the empty tunnel and much bigger lights flung orange light into every inch of the tunnel and the room. Edison and a lady officer had already put on white gloves to examine Aliza’s body. Edison had called for an officer to take James out, but the latter just stood there. His sight scoured her face, as though he was looking for clues. He thought he saw her nose twitch, but she was already dead. Just as an officer put an arm around him and began leading him away from the room, James saw the sweater she was wearing was stained with scarlet pigments. It was that navy blue sweater, plaid with diamonds of blue hues on it. He remembered when she mentioned it was the favorite garment she owned.
Two days, three days, James wondered when the last time he saw her was. No, it was yesterday morning. He had called her and asked if she wanted to get breakfast. He hadn’t slept all night. Aliza had said yes, and asked if they could meet at the café, she lived on the top of. He mocked her, saying she only picked the place because it was downstairs and he would have to walk miles to get there.
“I’m making sure you exercise, so you don’t complain I’m never looking out for you!” she giggled. He liked it, the sound of her laugh. He actually liked that café a lot. It was small and contained, it had enough windows to showcase the outside world, the food was decent and Aliza wouldn’t have had to travel alone just to eat or meet him.
James didn’t come out of the tunnel just yet. He could hear the pandemonium of reporters and crowds encircling the entrance to the tunnel. They would attack him, he was sure. They could differentiate easily between an officer and a civilian. James retreated to a corner, not in the shadows, but one at the far end of the tunnel. It was the spot where the officers could still keep an eye on him and so could his own demons.
When they did meet at the café, the first thing she asked him after ordering her usual - French toast and hot chocolate - was if he had another nightmare the previous night. He said he did. She asked him about it. He told her it was about the tunnel. The same one he was crouched in a corner of in the present.
He had dreamt of the tunnel but the walls had been painted in whites and yellows. When dark, it looked like an incandescent version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Aliza squealed when he mentioned it but then James continued to tell her that the stars then started poking out, like giant eyes watching his every move. He became suffocated by them, their incessant staring at him. He tried to leave, but something grabbed his legs and hauled him into the darkness.
James took a deep breath and saw Aliza had her eyes on him, concern was seeping from them. He smiled at her, “At least there’s one person whose staring doesn’t bother me.” She smiled and shyly turned her attention to her breakfast. As far as his nightmares had gone, this one wasn’t as grim as the others.
He looked around. It was the exact same tunnel as in his nightmares, but the eyes didn’t scare him now. Maybe it was because all of them weren’t glaring at him, or because they were connected to human bodies. His hands weren’t shivering like before. He had never seen the tunnel before; he had been avoiding dark and gloomy places like it.
It was Aliza who showed him the tunnel. She had shown him the place less than two weeks ago. She said she had ‘unearthed’ it; it was her word for the day. She had found it with the help of a local craftsman who lived in the street. It was a makeshift sewage area. Even the entrance resembled a manhole, one that the craftsman designed himself. She was planning to show it to her professor as a prospective art project.
“What do you think?” She squealed.
“It’s dark, gloomy” James shrugged, “It’s the perfect setting for the modern-day Edgar Allen Poe!”
“Not even close. I was thinking of Shelley’s Frankenstein!”
“I’m not kidding.”
“I am! Wait and watch. My class and I are going to turn this place into an oasis of mosaics and murals!”
“I hope you succeed.”
He really did. Even after he tried to go to sleep that very night and saw another nightmare. It was about the tunnel. He didn’t want to remember it. But he saw the man again, his grotesque smile, the bloodied dagger in his hand. He woke up panting, sweat lining his forehead. He wondered if he would still be scared if he was no longer alive.
The next day, like an unspoken commandment, she asked him about the dream and he told her. Speaking about them was always the worst part of his day. He never asked her what pleasure she derived from listening. But he liked it when every morning, she asked “Did you get any sleep last night?” as though his insomnia was more painful for her than it was for him.
In the tunnel, James felt something stroke the back of his neck. He turned; there was neither mouse nor the squeak of any. Maybe it was a gush of air, or some water leaking from pipes above him.
He wished he told Aliza “Me too”. He should have said it. Or maybe something more poetic like the lingo she spoke. He could have said anything which told her that he felt the same way. They had gotten breakfast too the morning of the day, the day when he first saw the tunnel. He had never felt what it was like to have your cheeks turn warm and red when she said to him:
“I like you.”
He smirked; not perceiving what she was saying and stuffing a sandwich into his mouth.
“I’m not joking James” she chuckled, “I really like you.”
Now he looked at her. She was smiling, and he felt something other than the sandwich crawl inside him.
“I like spending time with you. I like talking to you and listening to you. Even when you talk about your nightmares” she tried laughing, but failed, “Call me crazy but I feel important when you tell me something as personal as that. It’s true, people celebrate the good times, but the bad times, the ones where we feel haunted and unloved are the ones people rarely talk about.”
James dragged his eyes back to his plate. He wondered if she was still looking at him. He felt shivers run down his entire body. He was looking for words to say. He felt nervous, more nervous than ever.
“It makes me special that you tell me these things.”
“Because you ask me about them” he finally spoke out. He regretted the words immediately, but she smiled back.
“And you impart them freely.”
He had never thought of it that way. His head had always comprehended the weight of his nightmares – after all, he was the one enduring them – but his mind was blank now. His mind never fretted about her as much.
“You know there is only one explanation for how I feel,” she said. Her words were now fading to a whisper. He wanted her to keep talking, anything that would distract him from the beating of his heart.
He didn’t have any nightmares that night. Actually, he didn’t sleep at all. He was thinking of Aliza. Her words at breakfast were etched into his memory. He wondered if that was really how she felt about him, or how he made her feel. But he said nothing, and today he was sitting in a lighted, crowded tunnel regretting it.
He missed the park. It was crowded too, but the zephyr made the atmosphere comfortable and free. He and Aliza were sitting next to each other on a park bench. That day, it was his turn to show her a favorite place. She loved it. For nearly thirty minutes, they were sitting on the bench without a word and the only sounds that enveloped them were of children playing and people jogging ahead.
Aliza was carrying a newspaper. James didn’t look at it; the front headline was about a body that had been discovered in an alleyway at midnight. He was already having enough nightmares.
“Did you have any more dreams about the man?” Aliza asked. She was always the first one to start their conversations.
James nodded. “Maybe, I should consider finding something else to be scared about.” It was the first time he tried to humor her.
“How about this?” she asked, and then proceeded to contort her face. She scrunched her nose, curved her eyes so wrinkles aligned her forehead. Her mouth curled upwards, her tongue stuck out and she made growling sounds to complete the look. James laughed hard that day. He tried to suppress a giggle as the memory crossed him.
“See” she exclaimed, her face resuming its round, pretty shape, “You should laugh more often! You’ll live longer that way!”
“You know I don’t care about living longer” James returned to his usual self.
“I do, and I need you to stay alive to do it with me!”
The man didn’t visit his nightmares that night either.
He tried to remember her face from their college days. No, he couldn’t piece it. James and Aliza really didn’t spend much time in college. They just knew of the other’s existence, because it was penned on class papers. James wasn’t close with many. In fact, he wasn’t close with anyone until he ran into Aliza months ago.
He was running. His bag had fallen some feet back and he didn’t dare turn to retrieve it. He didn’t even look back to see if the man was still on his trail. Shadows of the night were looming about him, and the air kept smacking his face as he fled. It was cold but sweat dripped from his forehead.
He finally halted at the end of the street. He wheezed for air as the winter fog enveloped him. He jerked his head towards every angle. He wasn’t looking for the man, but people.
He turned in the direction of a street. It wasn’t midnight yet. There would still be hoards of people there. There were, they were roaming about carelessly, and he was still panting. He could’ve gone straight home then, his keys were concealed in his trouser pockets but his feet would not budge. His heart would not stop racing.
He was standing outside the entrance of a bookstore, when Aliza jerked into him, their shoulders knocking against each other sending the two of them onto the glassy pavement. They were both gasping apologies until she saw his face and called his name. It took him a while to recognize her.
He didn’t leave his apartment for the next few days, but she stopped by once in a while, and didn’t take that long for once in a while to turn into every day. Less than a month later, he told her about the night they ran into each other. He was running from a man; a man with a grotesque smile and rusty knife, whose gloved hands had clutched his neck in a dark alleyway.
She caressed his hand when he told her. “Is this why you don’t like meeting anyone at night?” James nodded. It was also the reason why he liked eating with her at the café because it was close to her home.
James was sweating as he thought about it. Officers weren’t looking to isolate the tunnel anytime soon, and reporters were clamoring to get in. He could hear their roars. They targeted an officer who just climbed atop the ladder to exit the tunnel. They asked him if the murder was linked to a past case of a body found in an alleyway.
James didn’t hear the officer’s reply. Edison came and sat next to James, not caring for the rust on the tunnel walls as the back of his jacket brushed against it. James was never the first to start a conversation, but he wondered if Edison was waiting for him.
“The doctor estimated she’s been dead for six or seven hours at most” Edison finally spoke.
James turned his attention to the tunnel walls. There were algae, and charcoal lines forming abstract patterns. Pipes bordered them, and their dripping left water puddles at the ends. There should have been paintings drying on those walls by now, James pondered in his mind.
“How did you know this was the place to look for her?” Edison asked.
James didn’t turn his eyes to Edison. He didn’t know what to say, but he didn’t want to scavenge his mind for an answer. It was right there on his tongue, begging for a chance to escape.
“I saw it in a dream” he answered.