We swung right on Concession Road 6, skirting the dump. As the streetlights became farther apart and petered out, we were left to navigate by the glow of the moon. My calves were burning by the time Uncle C eased on his brakes and said, “We’ll stash our bikes and walk from here.”
We pushed the bikes down to a sheltering glen. My uncle looped a chain between the frames and around a tree, locking them with a padlock. We set off through the brush. Wind hummed around the bark of the maple trees. I became aware of my raspy breath, filling and emptying my lungs. To the west I spotted a house sitting all by itself at the top of a hill.
Billy, walking in front of me, moved with fluid grace. When we came to a tree that had blown over in a storm, he hurdled it effortlessly. I crawled underneath and came up with cockleburs stuck to my shirt, which Billy picked off. Funny how meaningful those small tender gestures can be: a friend picking burrs off your shirt, the ones you can’t get because they’re stuck in that unreachable spot on your back.
The palm-shaped fronds of a walnut tree brushed my face. The hot hum of crickets in my ears. Soon I lost sight of Billy and my uncle, who were moving east while I continued west. Then even the sound of them was gone. Alone in the woods—what could be worse? I imagined owls peering down at me from the crotches of trees. . . would they mistake my sweaty hair, now gummed into gingery ropes, for luscious worms? Would they take flight from their shadowy perches, flap down in a dusty rustling of wings to peck at me, their beaks punching through my skull to get at the wrinkly pink meat of my brain. . .?
“Jake,” Billy called, “over here.”
I rejoined them, and soon the bushes thinned as we came upon some train tracks. The steel was pitted with rust and nettles grew between the ties.
“An old trunk line,” my uncle said.
The elongated moon lay trapped within the steel, which bore its light to a vanishing point far west—the rails looked like two infinitely long, wickedly sharp razor blades. The wind gusted down the tracks, making a lonely sound like the howl of a trapped animal.
On the other side of the tracks, a hillside cut down to a path. We followed it to a clearing where Lex waited. He dragged on his cigarette—the ember flared stoplight-red in the dusk—and said, “Booga booga.”
“Quit it,” my uncle chastised him. “You’ll spoil the mood.”
We walked to a grove of willows and pushed through their whiplike branches— it was like moving through beaded curtains—until the final leafy drapery parted.
“Welcome to the Screaming Tunnel, boys.”Funny how meaningful those small tender gestures can be: a friend picking burrs off your shirt, the ones you can’t get because they’re stuck in that unreachable spot on your back.
We were standing before Cataract City’s most famous haunted spot. My folks had forbidden me from going there—a common decree of all the adults in my town. Why scare the daylights out of yourself? went the conventional adult thinking. But my uncle Cal wasn’t like most adults.
We faced a tunnel twice as tall as my uncle. With its charred brickwork, its mouth looked like a church’s sweeping front door— a church that had nearly burned to the ground, in this case.
A black church. The church of the Devil.
The tunnel cut through a flat- topped hillside. Metal strips skirted the hilltop—I realized these were the same train tracks we’d crossed earlier. They must bend through the woods to run over the tunnel.
“Let’s get a fire going,” my uncle said. “And I’ll tell you a story.”
Wood was plentiful and before long we had a fire. We sat cross-legged, watching each other over the flames.
“There used to be a house over there.” My uncle pointed a few degrees north of the tunnel. “A wood-frame jobbie with a croft for two beds. Three people lived in it: a mother, a father, a little girl. The girl was the same age as you boys. The man was a fireman for CP Rail—a bakehead, they called those guys. Every week another fireman would show up on a pump trolley on that railroad track up there and take the father to the rail yard off River Road. He’d be gone for days, fighting boxcar fires. I’m told that he . . . ”
Uncle C trailed off. After looking at Billy and me in turn, he said, “Guys, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. You sure you want to hear it?”
It was just like my uncle to lead you halfway down a lonely road, stop, and ask if you wanted to be there at all. By then you had no choice, did you? He’d brought you there, and he was the only one who knew the way back.
“I’m told he had a temper,” my uncle said, picking up his story when he met no objection. “More likely a serious mental disorder, which tended to go undiagnosed in those days. His wife rarely left the home. Their girl was deaf, so the mother homeschooled her. I’ve heard this story a lot of times from a lot of different people, but I’ve never heard any names mentioned, just the Man, the Woman, and their daughter, the Girl. Every so often they came to town for groceries but otherwise they were not heard from. Until that night, when they became legends.”
My uncle paused here to sigh, as if he’d just revealed the saddest fact of all. He hunted a flashlight out of his backpack.
“Let’s go take a look, shall we?”
“I’m staying right here,” Lex said, staring at Uncle C for a long moment.
It was cool under the trees, and darker with the moon and stars blotted out. A leathery rustle touched my ears. . . suspended from a low branch, hanging like a quivering black nut, was a bat. It spread its wings—I could see moonglow through their veiny sheerness—and took flight, zizzing past my head, lifting my bangs as it winged past.
We came to a clearing. The mortared outline of an old foundation shone pale blue under the flashlight. Uncle C walked along it, arms out like a performer on a balance beam.
“This is where it happened,” he said. A shiver rippled through him.
“A goose must’ve walked over my grave,” he said, but he wasn’t smiling. “It happened on a night that was probably not much different than tonight. The man came home after a week of battling blazes on the rails, stinking of smoke and sweat, stepping up the front steps. In that silence, seeping through the door, was a sound rarely heard in the house. I guess you could call it. . . canoodling. Breathless little whimpers, giggles, the odd moan.”
Uncle C cocked one eyebrow, as perhaps the husband had done himself all those years ago: a viperish and calculating expression.
“The man stood on the porch, listening long enough to confirm his suspicions. All the while, crazed anger boiled within him. He crept to the window. His feet mustn’t have made a sound. He peeked through a crack in the curtains. Whatever he saw. . . it was all the push he needed.”
Uncle C trained his flashlight thirty yards past the house. “There used to be a toolshed over there. The man grabbed a can of kerosene and some wedges of scrap lumber. Quickly and quietly, he jammed the wedges under the doors, front and back. He splashed kerosene all about, avoiding the windows—by the time his wife and her lover discovered the house was burning, it’d be too late. When he lit the oil, a ring of flame leaped up. The man stood back, watching it turn to ash: his house, his wife, and whoever she was with.”
“He burned them?” Billy’s eyes were fixed on my uncle with a metallic sheen. “His own family?”
“The fire rose up, up, up,” my uncle said. “The night was alive with it. The poor people inside pounded at the door. The man may’ve had a weapon, maybe a pitchfork from the shed. When his wife and her lover tried to escape through the shattered windows he could have been outside waiting to stick them with the tines.”
I could picture it, though it made me sick—an insane man in greasy overalls hovering outside a busted window, jabbing a pitchfork at the hands of his own wife as she scrabbled frantically to survive.“He burned them?” Billy’s eyes were fixed on my uncle with a metallic sheen. “His own family?”
“The house burned, yes,” my uncle went on. “They were so far out of town that nobody would’ve seen. At the height of the blaze the front door flew open and the girl stepped out. Her nightgown was ablaze, her body lit like a paper lantern. She was screaming . . .sometimes people wonder whether a deaf person’s screams are the same as someone who can hear, I suppose on account of deaf people not sounding quite the same when they talk. But there’s no difference. A scream is a primal sound, and all human screams sound the same. The girl ran down the porch cloaked in fire. She dashed through the swale over there, boys, on into the tunnel. In the center of the tunnel she let out a final piercing scream.”
“She died?” said Billy.
“I’m afraid so.”
For all I knew, Uncle C was bullshitting us—no, not bullshitting, because he believed this story. But I struggled to remind myself it was just that: a story. Even back then, I was certain that if I were to go to the Niagara Falls library and scan through foot after foot of microfiche of old town records and newspapers, I wouldn’t find a shred of evidence to prove this terrible crime had happened. But in that moment, the story felt true: the mossy mortared foundation shone phantom blue under my uncle’s flashlight, illuminating the undeniable fact that a home had once stood right there. Closing my eyes, I could hear the delirium-filled breaths as the man observed his wife and her lover through the parted curtains—I could hear his voice, gravelly with rage and holding a tinselly note of madness, right next to my ear.
“The man was arrested,” my uncle went on. “Sent off to prison, maybe the funny farm. The wife and her lover, the girl . . . all of them died. And that tunnel,” Uncle C said, “became the Screaming Tunnel. Now the legend is, if you go into the tunnel and strike a match on the stroke of midnight, you’ll see the girl standing right in front of you, watching you. Then the match will go out, even if there’s not a hint of
breeze. Then…it’s just you and her in the dark together.”
“Quit it,” I said.
Uncle C laughed. “Listen, I’m only telling you the legend.”
We walked back to the fire. I cut my eyes at Billy to gauge whether he was as freaked as I was. Now Uncle C was whistling. The sound started low and rose to a high pitch like the scream of a train whistle . . .or of a little girl on fire. I wanted to tell him to stop it, to shut up— SHUT UP, CALVIN!—using his first name to shock him.
Back at the fire Lex had whittled sticks. He skewered a marshmallow on each and passed them around. Our marshmallows bobbed above the wagging flames. Mine caught on fire and the gelatin hissed as it incinerated—unsurprisingly, it sounded as if the marshmallow was screaming.
We ate marshmallows and drank the cans of Pepsi that Lex had brought. Lex opened his cigarette pack and produced a funny looking one. He lit it and inhaled, blowing the smoke away from us. I still caught its scent—the same as the air under the high school football bleachers.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” my uncle said.
Lex’s chin jutted. “You drag me out here in the dead of night—can’t I have any fun at all?”
“Go into the woods, if you insist.”
Lex heaved himself up and slouched off to a stand of elms twenty feet away.
“Go farther,” Uncle C said.
“Go to hell,” Lex said, staying where he was.
While Lex smoked, Uncle C amused Billy and me with an item that had recently come in over the Bat Phone.
“Got word of a fellow down in Rosalita, Texas. A man of a superstitious disposition who drove around with one of those plastic Jesuses stuck to the dashboard of his Chevy Coupe de Ville. Some fellas prefer a hula girl or a bobbly-headed dog, but this guy went with his personal Lord and Savior. He gets into a head-on collision and wouldn’t you know it—that plastic Jesus flies off the dashboard, pierces his chest and kills him dead. And that is why you will never find any religious iconography in my proximity.”
Lex came back radish-eyed and giggly. He began to eat marshmallows directly from the bag with cheerful determination. The night stilled. The industry of the nocturnal creatures diminished, as if they too were aware of the approaching midnight hour. A freshet of water spewed from the pipe projecting from the bricks near the tunnel, releasing a fungal odor.
Uncle C checked his watch. “Time to see if the legend is true.”
He unzipped his backpack and produced a pack of wooden fireplace matches: six inches long with blue phosphorus tips.
Lex said, “Oh, Cal. Really? You’ll scare the bloody daylights out of them.”
“I want to do it,” Billy said.
“What about you, Jake?” Lex said.
When I hesitated, Billy rested his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s called the Ghost Club, Jake. Right?”
Billy’s eyes shone with excitement. They were the eyes of a boy who’d gleefully stick his head into a tiger’s mouth just to breathe in the raw meat on its breath.The sound started low and rose to a high pitch like the scream of a train whistle . . .or of a little girl on fire.
My memory of the following few minutes is troubled. Remembering it now is like trying to re-create a dream. I can remember walking toward the tunnel. My uncle was in the lead, then Lex, then Billy, then me. It seemed as if all the elements of night had concentrated into a knot of impenetrable dark at the mouth of the tunnel, even darker than the blackness between the stars.
Lex said, “Give us some damn light, Cal.”
The flashlight played over a stream of brackish water trickling down to the tunnel opening . . . but the light failed to penetrate into the tunnel itself, which was hung with vaporous shadows. I glanced back at the fire but it seemed a thousand miles away, nothing but a quivering orange dot, and when I turned back toward the dark it was like one of those cinematic smash-zooms—suddenly I was inside the tunnel. The belly of the beast.
Lex said, “Hello-ello-ello . . .ello? Anybody home-ome-ome-ome?”
Our footsteps echoed in the emptiness. My mind circled back to the girl. If she appeared, what would she look like? Young and milky-skinned, or charred like a pot roast left too long in the oven? Maybe just a struggling heap of melted skin and bone? If she still had a face, would she gaze at us forlornly—or smile, grateful for the company? Maybe she’d reach for me, beseeching me to stay with her forever in the dark.
These morbid thoughts filtered down from my skull to pollute the rest of my body. I wanted nothing to do with her eternal misery—it seemed invasive and cruel to even seek sight of her, no different from going to a prison to gawp at a wrongly convicted man.
We reached the middle of the tunnel. Water dripped all around us with the clatter of rain-bleached bones. Uncle C removed the matches from his pocket while I held the flashlight.
We huddled in a circle. We could have been at the bottom of the sea.
“Turn off the flashlight,” my uncle commanded.
Halfheartedly, I did. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear the blood-beat in my ears. My uncle’s hand closed over mine, his fingers knitting up with my own.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “She’s as scared as we are.”
The match flared. The air was bathed in its light. In its flickering radius, the darkness trickled away from something hunched a few feet in front of us— it was as if the darkness itself was fleeing from that billowing form—
A shape came together, or so it seemed to my twelve-year-old eyes. The outline of a body draped all in white, the chalky edge of a nightgown fluttering in an unfelt breeze, or no, it was fire, ghostly white fire, stirring along the ground. My eyes rose against their will as if my eyelids had been pierced with fishhooks and dragged upward to behold a face—or so I could’ve sworn—a deathless young-old face with the remnants of bygone prettiness, staring at me with sad yet ancient eyes as she reached a skeletal hand toward my face. . . .
Mine . . .stay, play . . . all mine. . .
A thundering clatter arose from someplace above. The match was snuffed out.
I came to outside the tunnel.
“You fainted,” said Billy.
I stared up at a ring of faces. I couldn’t remember what. . . some sort of apparition, or was it. . .? Apparently my eyes had rolled back in my head as my legs went out from under me. My uncle had caught me in the dark. I retained the sense-memory of his arms enfolding me. He must have carried me out, too, like a sack of flour.
As consciousness seeped back in, so too did my shame . . . how could I be such a baby?
“You okay?” Billy asked.
“Yeah, I. . .I just—”
“I saw her, too,” Billy said.
In silence, we doused the fire and bundled into Lex’s van. Lex stopped a few miles up the road, where Billy and my uncle hopped out to retrieve our bikes, then hopped back in. We drove to town. I had to clench my jaw to avoid bursting into tears—and it was more than the burning shame of fainting dead away. Had we really seen her? Lex claimed he’d witnessed nothing. My uncle copped to glimpsing a pale flicker, nothing definite. The clatter, they said, must have been made by a maintenance train passing over the trestle . . . except we all knew those tracks hadn’t been in use for years.
Lex dropped off Billy at his house. Billy gave me a look of cautious concern and said, “Want to hang out tomorrow?”
I shrugged, noncommittal.
Lex dropped me and Uncle C at my uncle’s house. I got out of the van, zombielike. “You okay, Jacob?” Lex asked.
I smiled stiffly. “I’m fine.”
“You’ll sleep it off,” he assured me.
I pushed my bike up the walk while Lex spoke to my uncle. When he drove off, the tires of his van made a scalded-cat screech. Uncle C caught up to me at the door and offered a strained smile. I couldn’t tell if he was commiserating with me for what had happened, admitting some guilt on his end, or was ashamed of me for fainting but didn’t want me to catch on.
He let us in and switched on the kitchen lights. “Want some warm milk, Jake? Help you sleep.”
I shook my head no.
My uncle stared out the window overlooking his backyard. I followed his gaze. The mulberry tree in the center of the lawn looked like a hooded executioner slouching toward the chopping block.
“I’m sorry if. . .I thought if you and I faced it together. . . ”
“Yeah, really.” But I wasn’t so sure if that was the truth.
“Go on to bed, Jake. I made up the bed with fresh sheets.”
The spare room was cluttered with overstock from the Occultorium: boxes marked SORCERER STUFF and VARIOUS MAJICKS or RUBE JUNK. I crawled under the covers of the bed and stared at the ceiling. Uncle C had drawn designs up there with glow-in-the-dark paint. Symbols my uncle said had protective powers against nightmares and dream-stealing imps.
I awoke at the witching hour. Down the hallway, in some other part of the house, I heard weeping. It was Uncle C. After a while, his thick cries trailed into a guttural sob. I’d never heard anyone make a sound like that. It was a noise more animal than human.Apparently my eyes had rolled back in my head as my legs went out from under me. My uncle had caught me in the dark.
I got out of bed. After spending many nights in my uncle’s house, I knew the boards that creaked and all the dead spots on the floor. I crept silently down the hall to the kitchen, where my uncle sat at the table. Moonlight fell through the window, scalloping his heaving chest. There was a sheaf of paper on the table, and charcoal pencils like the ones I used in art class. He was doing something with his hands, which lay trapped in the moonlight—miming the movement of letting someone’s hair fall through his fingers, again and again.
“Where did it go?”
Those words, piercingly clear, were spoken in a voice so unlike my uncle’s that I thought someone else must be sitting in that kitchen chair: my uncle’s ruined doppelgänger.
“Where did it all go?”
I stood in the hallway, unable to offer my uncle any comfort for his wretched need. I understand now that I was just a kid, at that stage where we’re good at forcing others to deal with our own outbursts but less adept when dealing with the painful emotions of others. I had no idea how to help, and . . . and I was so scared.
There it was again, that animal sob. I pictured dozens of tiny mouths over every square inch of my uncle’s skin, mouths puckering on his arms and legs and chest, all of them twisted open and wailing.
I snuck back to my bed, where I lay shaking. Eventually I drifted off, but woke again to glimpse my uncle in the darkness of the room. His head floated like a disembodied oracle in the doorway, his eyes unfocused while his jaw worked around words he could not speak… . Now, all these years later, I choose to remember that as only another dream.
In the morning, I got dressed and walked past my uncle’s bedroom. He was fast asleep. His big pelican-like feet jutted off the bed, his toes furred with babyish blond hair.
Sunlight filled the kitchen. The drawings my uncle had done in the dead of night were spread on the table. Knowing it was invasive but unable to help myself, I leafed through them.
First was a woman’s face. Her features were indistinct, trapped in shadows created with subtle strokes of charcoal. It was almost as if he’d sketched her from the bottom of a lake, peering up through the water to capture the face as it danced above the surface.
The next drawing was more concrete. The interplay of white and black along the top of the page gave the impression of trees: closely knit pines arrayed like the teeth on a saw. A box at the bottom right represented a dwelling. The trees were scaled back to an eerie polar whiteness in the center of the frame. There, a skeletal and famished shape hunched toward the house: some creature breaching the shadowy recesses of the woods to forge boldly into the light. I thought of the thing Billy talked about, the Windiigog. Wendigo. Eater of human flesh.
I flipped the sheaf over to the last sketch. . . .
The leering, hate-filled face of a demon. It filled the page. Its features were rendered in brutal slashes, and its teeth were glints of busted glass crowded into its mouth. Its eyes just black pits—my uncle’s frenzied strokes had ripped coin-sized holes where the irises should have been.
This is from the Void, was my thought. Wherever the USS Eldridge had disappeared into.
The face belonged to a creature that could only exist in a gap between worlds—the same gap as the one the doomed destroyer had slipped inside. It belonged to something that lurked in the green mists, waiting for its prey to stumble along so it could steal their sanity and soul. An even more worrisome thought branched off this one: perhaps it wasn’t the face of a demon at all. Maybe I was looking at a man who’d been stuck in that gap for too long. Who had surrendered his elemental humanity, whose mouth hung open in an endless scream.
Fingers shaking, I pulled a clean sheet of paper over that hideous face. Walking to the mud room, I pulled my shoes on and slipped out the door without waking my uncle.
Years later, I can see how things might have ended there, if only I had put one of those drawings in my pocket and showed it to my parents. But at the time, I couldn’t allow myself to do that. These drawings were the product of my uncle’s secret heart. In my own naïveté, I felt that to take one would have been to snatch part of his soul.
I would think about my uncle’s drawings when I saw the paintings of my young patient: Gunther and Camphor, robot and druid, were the fruits of her own secret heart. The girl had found them—two pulsing blips of familiar, loving light—within the dimming corridors of her brain. Found them, or summoned them at the time of greatest need. They stood as proof that her memories were still there, very faint, but persistent.