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The Tunnel Man

~1000 words

In most any major city, there are hundreds of miles of tunnels that run underneath it. These tunnels are often public knowledge, but many are known only to a select few. Sometimes, the few who know about them pass away, leaving their existence erased from history. Secret tunnels for smuggling long forgotten goods, escapes from attacks that took place long ago, and covert travel for reasons lost to time all form the spider web of passages that run under our unsuspecting feet.

But no matter the city, there is one being who always knows these tunnels like the back of his hand, and comes to inhabit them all. Not many have seen him, but those who do all describe him exactly the same way, no matter the time or the place. It has been theorized that he’s the lingering spirit of a poor worker caught in a tunnel collapse, a demon, a misunderstood trickster. These stories are different in every city, and many think that their cities' manifestation of this creature is unique.

Around the world he goes by many names, but here we call him the Tunnel Man. Like everywhere else, he’s not the most well known. Parents of children in dingy inner-city apartments whisper bedtime stories to their children, warning them not to go running about at night, or he’ll reach one long arm out from under a manhole cover and wrap it tightly around their scrawny leg, dragging them down into god-knows-where. Teenagers taking the subways home at night try to scare each other, laughing that the Tunnel Man will get them as they uneasily pass by a rusted utility door they’ve never seen open. A news story might play about someone going missing, and in the back of your mind a dark humor would think, Hah, must have gotten snatched by the Tunnel Man, before being swiftly snuffed by more serious thoughts.

These passing thoughts are just that, passing. Not many think too long or hard about the Tunnel Man or whatever dark domain he may occupy. Even those who have seen him more often than not will brush off the experience as just a shadow of a vagabond, or something similarly mundane. But I don’t think that he’s content with this. I can’t fathom his motives, but I think he wants to be known in some way.

He will often give invitations to those that know him. I know this because I’ve met him, and if you want, you can meet him as well. It's pure chance if you do. You may only get a few chances to do so, and most ignore the signs.

When you’re walking alone on the streets of the city at night, there may come a time where all the faraway echoing sounds of cars, trains, and sirens appear to fade away into complete silence. There are many things that may cause you not to notice this happening. If you normally block the world out with headphones, you may not notice at all. It will only stay this way for a brief moment, maybe a minute at most. This is the Tunnel Man’s invitation.

As soon as you notice the unnatural silence, you must immediately stop what you’re doing. Stop walking, and look around. Confirm that there is absolutely nobody in your sight. If you are well and truly alone, you can call out to him.

Look down at your feet and say something that lets him know you’re there. It doesn’t seem to matter the exact wording so long as you call him by name. Say it at full volume, not a whisper. If you feel the wind pick up, you’ve done it correctly, and there is no turning back.

Now, immediately look around you again and locate the nearest door. You may feel drawn to it innately, like it’s calling out to you to open it. Grab the handle, even if you feel like it should be locked. It will open. You’ll be faced with a staircase heading down underground.

As you go down the stairs, you will encounter a series of long, dimly lit tunnels and staircases that bring you deeper into the earth. These passages won’t be ones you recognize, even if the building you entered happened to be one you’ve been in before. These tunnels may take the form of maintenance ways, sewers, subway tracks, dirt passageways, or pipes that you must crawl through on your belly. You must keep going forward here, even if the path seems difficult. There may be forks in the path. You must always make the choice that leads you further down.

Some think that this is the Tunnel Man’s way of testing your resolve. That said, the consequences for failing whatever this test is are dire. Lingering or doubling back is not advised. Don’t hesitate as you walk down these dark passages, but don’t be too hasty either. Move cautiously, and urgently. Always keep moving forward despite what you may hear behind you or ahead of you.

After some time, you will reach a door. On the other side is the Tunnel Man, his body gray and clothed in rags. When you enter, don’t be afraid of him. His eyes, enlarged from many years in darkness, will look you over. His hands, large and powerful from many years of digging, will reach to you and offer you his blessing. His teeth, sharpened for reasons we can only speculate, will be twisted into a grin.

Place your hand in his. He will whisper something to you, and let you go. Leave through the same way you came, and follow the exact same path you just followed to return to the street.

After this encounter, you will never find yourself lost ever again in your life. Sometimes, you’ll find that doors will unlock themselves when you most need them to be. You may notice that you are innately aware of a faster route between two places, a route unknown to others.

If you deny the Tunnel Man’s gift, or choose the wrong path in your journey to him, you may find yourself lost in these passages, walking through them forever, the way out always out of reach. These tunnels are his domain, and you will never escape them. You will run, stumble, and shamble through these halls until your body begins to decay, and you feel a hollow worming feeling creeping under your skin. After all, what are veins and arteries but tunnels?

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