THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
A cold breeze blew through the span of twisted trees, stripped of their leaves, and allowed for an abstract view of the night sky, obscured by the veins of skeletal branches. The stars pulsed in the moonless sky, and if one looked hard enough they could see the cloudy strip of the Milky Way.
Crickets performed their orchestra throughout the forest floor covered in dead, wet leaves. An owl accompanied their number with quick hoots! every other minute, almost drowned out by the scratching of the insects’ wings.
Their chirps almost matched that of a slow, processed beat emitting from the speakers of a 2011 Honda Accord sat in the middle of a road that has always been less traveled. Cracks and potholes were scattered along the poorly maintained asphalt that spilled into the throat of a small tunnel. The mouth was outlined in large, square stone that looked almost like teeth covered in green plaque as moss from the hill attempted to hide humanity’s mark. The tunnel stretched for dozens of yards, and was wide enough for only one car to pass through at a time. The starlight was just enough to barely illuminate the other end of the tunnel.
The Accord was decorated in a couple of dents and scratches, probably proudly shown off by the owner of how reckless he can be. Smoke escaped from the windows that were cracked just an inch and slithered up into the sky.
Stephanie leaned against the outside of the passenger door and held her arms crossed as she had dressed poorly for the moist, winter night. Her brunette hair draped over her neck, preventing the chill from wrapping around it like cold hands and dripping down her spine. Her phone sat in her hand and illuminated her soft features. She was definitely one of the more popular girls in school based on her looks alone.
Victor sat in the driver seat with a joint in hand. He hissed in a hit and watched the other end of the joint burn away in glowing embers. The inside of the Accord was hazy with the skunk stench that Stephanie tortured herself in the cold to avoid. Victor sluggishly handed the joint to Taz, uncomfortably sprawled across the back seat but was too high to care. He sucked away at the joint that instigated a coughing fit of smoke, phlegm, and spit that escaped down his windpipe.
“Pussy,” Victor chuckled.
“Gets me higher, bitch,” Taz retorted between coughs.
Stephanie let a frustrated groan escape her lips and stuffed her phone into her pant pocket that wasn’t meant to actually hold anything. She despised these pants solely for that reason, but they made her ass look amazing. She twisted around and crossed her arms, this time impatiently. “Okay, seriously, how much longer do we have to be here?”
“You were the one who wanted to do this,” Victor replied.
“No, I said I would tag along. You two idiots were the ones who heard about this stupid story.”
Taz cranked his window down just enough to avoid losing the hotbox but allowed him to squeeze his hand through, the joint pinched between his fingers with dirt clumped beneath the nails. “How about you take a hit and shut the fuck up.”
“And you wonder why you’re still single, asshole.” She scoffed at the joint and Taz shrugged as he slipped his hand back into the vehicle.
“We still have five more minutes before it’s supposed to happen,” Victor informed, and then took the joint from Taz to take another drag.
“This is stupid,” Stephanie said. “I’m freezing.”
“Then how about getting in the car and we’ll roll up the windows, dipshit,” Taz replied dryly.
Stephanie glared at Taz who only looked back with lazy, red eyes. She yanked the passenger door open and allowed the smoke to escape despite the protest that the two boys belched. After a moment, she dumped herself into the seat with a frustrated sigh and slammed the door shut. Everyone cranked their windows closed.
“It smells disgusting in here,” she whined.
“Then stay outside where you belong,” Taz replied.
Victor twisted the temperature knob to the right and allowed the heat to radiate throughout the car.
Stephanie squirmed in her seat as she got comfortable. “This is exactly how I want to spend my Saturday night,” she said to herself. “Chasing ghosts with fucking Ren and Stimpy.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Taz replied. “Ren and Stimpy were badasses.”
Victor rested his hand on Stephanie’s shoulder and even massaged it a bit. “You know that tonight was the only night that we could do this. Otherwise, we would have to wait until next year on the twenty-fourth anniversary.”
Stephanie shook his hand off. “Oh yes, because the stars have aligned, and the moon is new, and you two are as gullible as fuck.”
“Actually,” Victor started matter-of-factly, “people have claimed it only works the night that it happened.”
“You don’t even know the actual story,” Taz piped up.
Stephanie turned to him. “Like I even care. Some people were driving through this tunnel with their headlights off because they were being idiots, just like the both of you,” she turned her attention to the both of them now, “and ended up crashing head-on with another car, getting themselves and others killed.”
“The accident happened at 11:42 PM,” Victor said. “When it’s time, you flash your headlights three times and wait. Story has it that you see the headlights of the ghost car that they hit on the other end of the tunnel.”
Stephanie stared at him unimpressed. “And then what?”
“We turn our headlights off and drive as fast as we can through the tunnel. Supposedly the ghost car will drive right through ours, and you can even see the spirits of the victims from that fateful night.”
“Oh my God,” Stephanie said as her face dropped with fear, “That’s really scary…”
Victor snuck a glance back at Taz, and they both exchanged devilish smirks as they’ve finally successfully frightened her.
She continued, “So scary that it makes absolutely no fucking sense.” She pulled her phone back out and resumed her attention to her Facebook feed as she snorted, “You two will believe anything.”
Victor put his hand back on her shoulder and this time rubbed it more sensually. “Come on, Steph, just have a suspension of disbelief. It’s fun.”
“Yeah, Staph, it’s fun,” Taz mocked.
Stephanie shot Taz another glare of fire. She turned back at Victor, and then peeked at his hand as it slipped an inch further down her shoulder and near her cleavage that she purposefully showed off for him. She only dressed in a tank top and a light jacket, both articles of clothing that would be easy to remove for Victor in such a cramped space. However, the atrocity that occupied the backseat had ruined ‘date night,’ a last-minute decision made by Victor without consulting her first. She slapped his hand away. Nothing for you tonight, dick, which he possessed a nice one.
The humidity collected on the outside of the windows and encased the car in a fog, obscuring their view from the middle of nowhere that surrounded them. Victor switched the windshield wipers on, and the rubber wipers arched side to side as they wiped the moisture off the glass in front of them. The tunnel lay ahead, a gullet of darkness and the asshole at the end, and it seemed to stretch further than it really did.
Taz cranked his window down a few inches to find a better view of the clear sky. The stars twinkled in his eyes as he became lost in his thoughts, if any even occurred. The joint lazily sat in his fingers, and once more he took a nice, long drag.
Smoke cascaded from his mouth as he continued staring into the universe. He asked, “Do you guys believe in aliens?”
“Shut up, turd,” Stephanie said, annoyed.
“No, I mean, like, what if aliens exist? Like, what if they’re the ones who brought us here?”
“I think you’ve had enough, Taz. Give me the joint,” Victor said to the rearview mirror with his arm outstretched behind him. Taz stuck the joint between Victor’s index finger and thumb, who brought it to his mouth and finished off the last of it. He cranked his window down and flicked the butt into the wilderness.
“I’m serious,” Taz continued. “Like, there are ancient depictions of flying saucers and shit. You know, cave drawings and hieroglyphics of UFOs in the sky.”
“Yeah, but do any of them show them putting people on this planet?” Victor asked.
“Well...no, but it’s just a theory.”
Stephanie retorted, “You can’t even figure out who your own dad is, Taz, what makes you think you discovered the origin of life?”
“You know what, you’re a real fucking bitch, Stephanie. Fuck you.”
“I don’t even want to be here, especially with your high ass back there.”
“Oh sure, the only reason you’re here is so that you can let Victor stick it in you and stir it around a bit—”
“Hey guys…” Victor attempted to interrupt, but the two ignored him as Stephanie turned to face Taz, and the two continued to throw insults at each other. “Guys! Shut up!” He finally shouted. The two quieted down and Stephanie plopped herself angrily back in her seat. Victor turned off the music and looked at the dashboard clock that glowed in green with the rest of the low light in the car. “It’s time.”
Stephanie and Taz joined Victor in his gaze at the clock. 11:42 PM. The three looked up through the windshield that had started to fog again, and Victor popped the lever once more and allowed the wipers to clear their muggy view.
“You guys ready?” Victor said, determined.
“Let’s do this!” Taz exclaimed.
“And get it over with!” Stephanie sarcastically joined in.
Victor pulled the headlight lever toward him, flashing his brights once. Twice. Thrice. And then they remained off.
Crickets continued scraping their songs through the bare forest that surrounded the only other living souls on this empty stretch of road. The tunnel remained an abyss as the three teenagers stared into the blackness.
“This is real exciting, guys,” Stephanie said, unimpressed once again.
Victor hushed her without looking at her. “Just wait.”
She emitted a loud, annoyed sighed and snuggled even further into her seat, crossing her arms as she waited for the inevitable nothing. Taz was now sat up at the edge of the backseat, resting both hands on each front seat in anticipation, though his sluggish, sleepy eyes said otherwise. Victor gripped the steering wheel, tighter and tighter as each second passed.
The crickets chirped loudly, and slowly one by one each song died down. The entire area fell into silence, unnoticed by the three teens as they concentrated fully on the darkness that lay before them.
The quiet of the night was interrupted by a low hum, a bass that almost matched the same as that of the music that had played moments earlier. At the other end of the tunnel, a small glow of light illuminated from the darkness, and then faded away just as quickly as it had appeared, along with the sound of the hum. The three immediately erected their backs in curiosity.
“Did you see that?” Victor asked.
“Holy shit…” Taz could only reply.
Stephanie now sat up even straighter, intrigued. The legend was actually true…
The hum buzzed through the darkness once again and the car vibrated as if it emitted from its speakers. Another small ball of light faded in from the darkness, and then disappeared. It reappeared again, and then disappeared once more. The light continued this performance more and more frequently, and the three teens in the car exclaimed their excitement.
Victor twisted the keys in the ignition and the car sputtered to life. He immediately slammed the gearshift into drive, and the tires squealed as he smashed his foot onto the gas pedal. Smoke billowed out from beneath the rubber, and the car fishtailed along the slick road for a moment before the car disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel as it swallowed them.
The teens were enveloped in black as the Accord zoomed down the tunnel faster and faster. The headlights remained off, and the dashboard lights of the car was the only illumination inside of the tunnel. It was enough light to see the determination painted across Victor’s face, his teeth gritted in a big smile. Fear had washed over Stephanie’s face now, not from the appearance of something supposedly supernatural at the end of the tunnel, but that of Victor’s driving. She quickly strapped the seat belt over her chest. Behind the two, Taz sat unmoved from his previous position with the same thousand-yard stare.
The light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter each time it appeared from the darkness of the night, and the hum increased in intensity as they neared it.
“Victor, slow down!” Stephanie screamed. “I’m not going to get killed because of your dumb ass!”
“Why is there only one light?” Taz asked but was ignored by his friends.
“Relax, Stephanie!” Victor replied excitedly under the increasing brrrmmm of the engine as the car continued to speed faster. “Can you believe this?!”
Stephanie sunk into her seat and gripped the assist handle as the car zoomed faster and faster down the dark tunnel. Victor looked down at his speedometer as the needle ticked past fifty miles per hour. Sixty. Sixty-five.
He howled in excitement. “Someone get their phone out and film this!”
The light exploded into a flash of white, brighter than daylight, and washed out the three teens’ faces. What sounded like the lowest note of a tuba, amplified by a thousand times through unseen speakers, blasted down the tunnel as it accompanied the light. The three screamed inside of the car, almost inaudible underneath the deafening tone.
Victor smashed his foot onto the brake pedal and the tires emitted a squeal that spat smoke behind them. His white knuckles veered the steering wheel to the right as the car swerved down the tunnel, threatening to flip as the tires on the passenger side lifted off the asphalt. Stephanie and Taz threw their hands up against the ceiling as they screamed. It was the only thing they could do as the car skidded toward the light.
The whiteness disappeared suddenly, along with the sound of the brass instrument, and the car spilled out of the other end of the tunnel, twisting around with shrieking tires. Smoke wisped around the vehicle as it came to a stop with muffled screams attempting to escape from inside. The engine grumbled to silence as it died, and soon the screams did too. The car sat still as it faced the tunnel.
Silence once again blanketed the area as if a vacuum sucked it away.
Inside the car, the teens sat frozen in fear. Stephanie’s hands still pressed against the ceiling of the car and she breathed heavily. Her seat belt had popped undone. Taz had now gripped the two front seats just as tightly as Victor still gripped the steering wheel. Minutes inched by as the three sat in the eerie silence before Stephanie turned to Victor and punched him in the arm.
“You fucking idiot!” She screamed. “You could’ve gotten us killed!” She punched him again.
“What the fuck was that?!” He screamed.
“Those weren’t headlights, that’s for sure!” Taz chimed in.
“Shut up, Taz! Victor, you dumb piece of shit, what the fuck is wrong with you?!” Stephanie screamed, her hands clenched in frustrated half-fists.
“I didn’t know it would do that!”
“Is anyone else’s ears ringing?” Taz asked, but was ignored.
“Get us out of here right now,” Stephanie sternly said.
Victor twisted the keys in the ignition, and the engine sputtered as it struggled to rumble back to life. He tried again, and then again, but the engine refused to start. Taz stuck a finger in one of his ears and then looked at the tip. It was covered in blood.
“Jesus, I feel sick,” Stephanie moaned.
“Me too,” Taz said.
Victor continued to turn the keys, “Come on, come on…” But the engine objected.
“Oh, great!” Stephanie threw her hands up. “Did you just get us fucking stranded out here?!”
“Stephanie, stop! I don’t know why it isn’t starting!”
The white light spilled out from inside of the tunnel and washed out the teens and the interior of the car. The three threw their hands to their eyes as they were blinded by the light, and the tuba note nearly ripped their eardrums apart. The car rumbled beneath the sound as if a freight train rumbled past them and blared its horn, and Stephanie squeezed her hands against her ears. The horn carried through the night for several seconds, and then ceased. It echoed through the wilderness, or maybe it was echoing inside of everyone’s heads.
The light continued to shine from within the tunnel. It was the brightest white any of them had ever seen, and they could barely keep their eyes opened as they squinted at the terrifying event unfolding before them.
The interior car lights flickered as they slowly hummed to life, and the radio fizzled as it automatically seeked through every FM station. Each broadcast emitted from the car speakers in a jumbled mess of buzzing static and garbled voices and music.
“I’m too fucking high for this shit, you guys!” Taz cried.
Stephanie sunk as far down into her seat as she possibly could. She wrapped the collar of her jacket around her face in an attempt to hide from the terror that lay before them. Victor stared into the light with wide eyes. His face was absent of emotion.
“Victor…please…get us out of here…” Stephanie pleaded quietly as she continued to stare into the blinding light.
Her head snapped over at Victor the moment she heard the car door click open. He was stuck in a trance, hypnotized by the light, and slowly he pulled himself from the car. He shut the door and stepped away from the car while he continued gazing into the light.
“Victor? Victor?!” She screamed.
He stood for a moment, slowly swaying side to side like a zombie steadying its balance. Then, with one step forward, he began his trek toward the light.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Stephanie cried. “Get back in the fucking car!”
Behind her, another door clicked open as Taz sluggishly climbed out of the backseat. He, too, shut the door and started a hypnotized walk toward the light. They were sleepwalkers, carried by a dream and with no hope of being woken up by Stephanie’s pleads to stay inside of the car. She watched as the light soon silhouetted their bodies into black figures that were eventually gulped up into the whiteness.
And then everything went dark. The tunnel became absent of the light, the interior lights of the car burned out, and the radio zapped into silence.
Stephanie was now alone, surrounded by the stillness of the night with no trace of her friends anywhere. Tears streamed down her face as she remained sunken in her seat. She had once again hid half of her face with her jacket collar squeezed around her cheeks. She stared with watery eyes at the empty tunnel that showed no sign of life.
Common sense suddenly flowed with her blood, and she snatched her phone from her pocket that could barely hold it. It greeted her with a black screen—out of power, even though it was halfway charged only minutes before. She whined in defeat and threw it to the floor, and began to hyperventilate. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rubbed her throat with her hands as a nervous tick. It’s a prank, her brain continued telling herself, and she believed it. Victor and Taz were always doing stupid shit like this, and they would come running out, laughing at her and saying, We got you! You should’ve seen your face!
But they never did.
Another BOOM! blasted from the tunnel as white light crashed out of the mouth like a wave, and Stephanie closed her eyes and screamed. The low, deafening tuba horn crushed the setting beneath its intensity, and she covered her ears in pain, which had started to bleed. Her screams were drowned underneath the horn, and for a moment she believed that the light stole her voice away.
The monstrous sound quit and disappeared into the night, and Stephanie strained her eyes to look at the blinding light.
A dark figure slowly emerged from the whiteness, pencil-thin from the flare of the light, followed by another that walked out from the illuminated tunnel.
“Victor?” She sobbed. “Taz?!”
A third figure creeped out from the brightness. Then a fourth. The light didn’t distort their figures at all. In actuality, their bodies were tall and thin. Extremely thin. Inhuman. They swayed as they approached the car, and the foggy windows obscured their dark forms and made them appear unreal.
“Oh my God…” Stephanie’s voice shook.
The creatures grew closer toward the car, and Stephanie managed to find the courage to slam the down the lock on her door. She climbed over into the driver seat and furiously smashed the lock down, and then scrambled into the back seat to lock those two doors.
She dove into the driver seat once again and twisted the keys forward. The engine sputtered and grumbled, but refused to spark to life. She screamed at the dashboard and slammed her fists against the steering wheel out of desperation.
Stephanie begged incoherently between sobs and cries as the creatures surrounded the car, each one standing in front of each door of the vehicle. Their features were a blur of dark shadows behind the fog of the glass.
“What do you want?!” She screamed.
The creatures remained quiet. Motionless.
“Who are you?” Her voice squeaked.
The creature at the front passenger door slowly lifted its arm. With its long, gray index finger, it began to smudge a word into the humid window. To the creature, it wrote the word backward. To Stephanie, she could read it clearly. And it terrified her. Her blood turned ice cold with the air outside. The hairs on her neck pulled at her skin. For a moment, her breath escaped her as she stared at the response before her.
G O D
The tires of the Accord inched forward as the car started to roll toward the tunnel with a mind of its own. No, it was being pulled in. Toward the tunnel.
Toward the light.
Stephanie’s eyes grew wide as she sat in the moving vehicle. “No…” She cried quietly, and as the car drew closer toward the mouth of the tunnel, she panicked. “NO! PLEASE!! STOP!!!” Her foot pressed the brake pedal to the floor, but to no avail. She watched the figures line side by side as they witnessed the car become sucked closer toward the tunnel. “Help!” She screamed. “Somebody! HELP ME!!”
The light grew in intensity as Stephanie neared the horror that awaited her. Her vocal cords became paralyzed, and she was speechless as the brightness washed over her like a ghost. It was blinding, but her eyes were wider than ever, the light more white than that of her eyes, brighter than the sun. As it engulfed her, it was the only thing she could see. It surrounded her.
A blinding light buzzed in Stephanie’s wide, fearful eyes, obscuring her vision before it escaped out of her point of view and revealed the face of a chubby paramedic.
“This one’s still alive!” He screamed to his partners nearby as he turned his flashlight off and set it aside. “Let’s get her out of here!”
Stephanie lay in the middle of the road at the mouth of the tunnel, her face decorated with road rash and large cuts that leaked with blood. She was stoic, save for the thousand-yard stare as she involuntarily stargazed while the paramedics prepared the stretcher next to her.
The chubby paramedic attempted to keep her conscious as he talked to her, and once the stretcher was ready, they very carefully wrapped a brace around her neck. It pushed her chin and cheeks upward, squinting her eyes and dulling her view of the stars. They gently lifted her from the ground and onto the stretcher.
Beyond the mouth of the tunnel was a trail of black tire marks that lead to the wreckage of the Honda Accord. It had rolled over several times and transformed into a twisted trash of metal, landing upright. Smoke seeped from the hood that had crunched inward like a crushed soda can, two tires had popped off and the car sat lopsided, and metal debris was strewn about the asphalt like the foil-wrapped candy from a broken piñata.
The passenger door had ripped away during the roll-over, and Stephanie’s seatbelt had torn in half, tossing her unconscious and limp body across the road like a ragdoll.
Taz’s body was a contorted form of meat as he hung halfway out of the shattered window of the backseat, barely recognizable as the car had rolled over him several times.
Victor lay face-down fifteen feet further from the vehicle. A streak of blood snaked to the side of the road toward the bare forest, and shimmered underneath the flashing lights of the ambulance and police cars. Lumpy, gray-red tissue leaked from his caved-in skull.
Police assessed the scene as they observed the wreckage and interviewed the unfortunate and frantic motorist who happened upon the accident moments after it had occurred. Bright, pink road flares sizzled in the cold air along the road as it followed the wreckage toward the mouth of the tunnel.
The paramedics popped the stretcher upward and rolled Stephanie toward the back of the ambulance. The stretcher collapsed as they slid her into the van, and she continued to gaze at the clear, night sky.
It was full of stars, and nothing else.