I pulled up at the Wells’ house and ripped on the handbrake, eager to stretch my legs after the long drive. I opened the car door and was met with a blast of dry, hot air. Squawks from bickering galas carried across the countryside.
The Wells’ house must have been a small, hardwood cottage once, but it had since sprouted fibro tumors and been encircled with a veranda in a vain attempt to add symmetry. The white monstrosity rose from a sea of neatly mown lawn, which was surrounded by parched paddocks, sparsely inhabited with sheep. The place smelled of shit and dirt.
I followed a cement path towards the veranda and found the Wells’ sitting at a table on the deck. They both stood as I approached. Mr. Wells was a squat man with grey hair. His glasses magnified his eyes so they appeared unnaturally large. Mrs. Wells was a tall, blonde woman. She had probably been pretty once, but age had marred her.
“Dana, thanks for coming,” said Mr. Wells, as I stepped onto the deck. “I’m Martin and this is Heather.”
“Pleased to meet you both.”
Martin extended his right hand. I placed mine in his and tried not to wince as he squeezed it painfully.
“Please, take a seat.”
A rustic table supported a teapot and a plate of homemade cakes.
“Tea, Dana?” Heather asked.
Martin sat at the head of the table and motioned for me to sit to his left while Heather poured tea. Once she was finished, she sat across from me.
The scene seemed well-rehearsed, like they did this every afternoon. Yet there was tension — something unspoken in the air. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something about the way Heather focused on her tea, never Martin.
Heather broke the silence.
“So how do we begin? I spoke to a Morris on the phone –“
“My boss, yes. Morris gave me a rundown of your situation, but I would find it useful if you could explain it to me in your own words.”
Martin sipped his tea loudly. Heather smiled a sad smile and nodded. A magpie warbled from nearby.
“Ok. It’s our little girl, Molly. We’ve been worried about her for some time. At first we were convinced she was seeing things, but — “
Heather paused. I watched her search for the right words.
“Molly tends to fixate on things. She’s been obsessed with puzzles, and then Peppa Pig. So when she became fascinated by her wardrobe, we initially dismissed it as a new, if slightly odd, obsession. That was until she told us what she was seeing. It frightened us, so we took her to a doctor.
“We’ve seen two psychiatrists and both have told us she is a normal girl with an active imagination.”
“And what makes you think this isn’t her imagination?”
Heather paused. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Finally she spoke.
“Since then I’ve found … well … I now see the tunnel too.”
Heather averted her gaze, so I turned to Martin who was staring at his tea. He shook his head. I sensed he was not completely at ease with my presence.
Martin cleared his throat and then looked at me with those large eyes.
“Something’s wrong, Dana. Something we can’t explain. If we let her, Molly would stare at her wardrobe all day. Heather’s seeing things. None of this is normal. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to believe and I don’t know what to make of your company, but we’re desperate. And, well, I guess I’ll try anything if it helps things return to normal.”
He seemed genuinely concerned about his daughter and yet, I didn’t get the sense he completely believed her or his wife. So why was I here? To prove it was all in their heads? I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done that.
“And Molly, is she here today?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s playing out back.”
“Would it be possible to have her show me the wardrobe?”
Heather looked to Martin, who nodded.
Martin fumbled with the lock on the old bedroom door as Molly — a gorgeous girl with blonde hair and blue eyes — held tightly onto Heather’s hand. I was curious as to why the room was locked, which Heather must have read from my face.
“We moved Molly to the guest bedroom after I saw the tunnel was real,” she explained.
We stood in a long, dark hallway in the original section of the house. Molly’s bedroom was about halfway down. Next to her room stood a grandfather clock — its ‘ticks’ and ‘clunks’ echoed throughout the house.
Martin gave a satisfied grunt as he finally managed to open the door. It swung inwards with a creak. Molly wriggled free of Heather’s grip and skipped across the room. She opened the wardrobe and then sat down, her legs folded under her and her hands on her knees. Smiling, she stared intently into her wardrobe. She looked happy, a contrast with the sense of unease generated by Martin and Heather next to me.
The bedroom was dark — the only window was frosted and led to another room, not outside. And it was hot. It had been painted pink years ago, but it needed another coat now. The bed was cast iron and large — too big for a little girl’s room, I thought.
“May I talk to her?”
I stepped over a stuffed bear that had fallen from the bed and approached Molly. I sat down beside her, but she didn’t acknowledge me. She smelled of lavender soap.
I followed Molly’s gaze into the wardrobe. Dresses, shirts and pants hung from a rail above a rack of shoes. But that was all I could see. No tunnel.
“Hi, Molly. Your Mum and Dad tell me you’ve found something in your closet.”
Molly turned slowly and looked me up and down. She gave me a hesitant smile. It reminded me of her mother’s.
“And what are you looking at, sweetie?”
“There’s a hole there,” Molly said, turning back to the wardrobe. I glanced in again, but found the same scene as before.
“Why is the hole so interesting, Molly?”
“The hole’s not interesting. It’s just a hole.”
“Then how come you stare at it?”
“For my friend to come back.”
I swallowed. I shifted my gaze back to Heather and Martin. Martin was staring above my head and Heather was wringing her hands. I turned back to Molly.
“And who is your friend?”
“Oh, I don’t know its name. But sometimes, when I look in the hole, I see two yellow eyes and a mouth.”
“And does it talk to you, Molly?”
“No, it doesn’t talk. It has too many teeth.”
Jesus, I thought. I’d be recommending a psychiatrist if I didn’t know they had already pursued that path.
“What does it do?”
“It just stares. And I stare back. It’s a game, but I never win because I always blink first.”
I licked my lips. Suddenly, Molly leaned in close.
“Can I tell you a secret, Dana?” she whispered.
“When it visits, Mummy and Daddy don’t fight.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I remained mute. Molly straightened and turned back to the wardrobe. Maybe this was all about attention, I mused. Maybe Heather and Martin weren’t happy and this was Molly’s way of getting them to notice her? But if it was a ploy, why did Heather claim to have seen the tunnel?
“Ok, honey. I’m going to go and get some special equipment from my car, which will help tell me some things about the tunnel, ok?”
I rose to my feet and took a step towards Martin and Heather, but then stopped. I turned back to Molly.
“Is the creature here now?”
“No, Dana. Just the hole. But I hope it’s back soon.”
I repressed a shiver. The room suddenly felt claustrophobic. Like being couped up in hospital with a sick grandparent. I needed air. And I definitely needed my equipment. Something that I could hold in front of me that would give me an objective assessment.
“I’ll grab my gear and make a couple of readings,” I said to Martin and Heather as I squeezed past them and escaped from the hot room.
I sat on the bed in my dated hotel room, back in Gunnedah. The television droned softly from across the room. The news was on but I wasn’t watching. A half-eaten hamburger sat on a tray on the bedside table.
I picked up my phone and dialed Morris. It buzzed in my ear, once, twice, three times.
“Go for Morris.”
God, he had an obnoxious way of answering the phone.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Hi me, what did you find?”
“You’ve probably become used to my reports containing the words ‘fuck’ and ‘all’.”
I cleared my throat.
“You’ve got something don’t you? I knew it. I knew this was the one.”
The TV suddenly grew louder as it began showing a commercial. I picked up the remote and muted it, then I flipped the cover of my note book open.
“There’s no visual signatures, no temporal disturbances, no gravitational anomalies. But …”
“But, there is magnetic interference and … well, there’s just something about the Wells’. They aren’t the attention seekers and nutters we usually attract.”
“So is it just the little girl that can see this thing?”
“No, the mother — Heather — she claims to see it too.”
“That’s it, I’m booking a flight.”
“Hold on, Morris. I haven’t even had a second consultation. Plus there are no flights to Gunnedah.”
“Ok, I’ll drive. How long does it take?”
I shook my head and smiled. He was in a world of his own. I knew there was no dissuading him.
“You don’t drive anywhere.”
“Exceptions, my girl. I’ll pack my driving gloves and a mix tape.”
“And Google Maps, hopefully. It’s about eight hours with a couple of stops. But knowing you I’d allow twelve, to account for your slow driving and poor sense of direction.”
“Ha. See you tomorrow.”
Then he was gone. I looked back over my notes and felt uneasy. I don’t know why. So far, I had very little to confirm the story. But something about the idea of it — a little girl, waiting for something with yellow eyes and teeth. If she had been coached, she was a good actor.
I dropped the notepad on the bed. Right now, I needed a shower.
I arrived at the Wells’ at nine. On exiting the car, I was met with stupefying hot air that carried the muffled sounds of an argument from the house.
I hesitated, one foot on baked dirt, the other in the relative cool of the car. It wasn’t out and out screaming, but the voices were elevated and angry. I was propelled back to childhood for an unpleasant moment and I had the strong desire to get back in the car and leave. I shook it off. I was here to do a job. I’d just have to interrupt them, I thought.
I grabbed my bag from the car and slammed the door, hoping the noise would alert the Wells’ to my arrival. But it didn’t work. I locked the car on reflex, walked to the front door and knocked as hard as I could.
The rolling cacophony of the fight ceased and for a brief moment, the world around me seemed to hold its breath. The eerie silence was broken by the sound of the back door of the house slamming. Then a quadrunner roared to life and Martin rode away from the house with dust streaming behind him.
It was another full minute before the front door swung open, revealing Heather, whose eyes were red and puffy.
“Hi, Dana. Please come in. Would you like a cup of tea?”
There was no admission of what I had overheard, so I played along.
“Thanks, Heather. That would be great.”
I followed her to the kitchen where she began preparing tea. I tried to think of what to say. I wanted to ask her if she was all right. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do. But that all felt nosy, so I returned to the job at hand.
“I’ve spoken to my boss. He’s very interested in your case. In fact, he’s decided to join me out here. I’m expecting him later this evening.”
Heather nodded, then passed me a cup. God this was awkward.
“Is Molly here today?”
Heather removed the tea bag from her cup and threw it in the bin.
“No, not today. She’s at her grandmother’s.”
“I’ve decided Molly should stay in town with my mother until you finish your tests and we work out if the tunnel is dangerous.”
I noted the use of ‘I’ and wondered if her fight with Martin had been about Molly.
“Fair enough. Anyway, I was just here to take a few more readings …”
My phone rang. It was Morris.
“Sorry, Heather. It’s my boss.”
She motioned that it was no bother, then she turned from me and opened a cupboard above the stove. As she reached for a packet of Tim Tams, her blouse rode up just above her waist exposing yellowed skin stained with a deep purple bruise.
I paused, the phone halfway to my ear. She turned back, holding the biscuits, and gave me a quizzical look. I looked away hurriedly, then answered my phone.
“Dana. God, I thought you were going to ignore me.”
“I should have,” I said, glancing at Heather again. Maybe it wasn’t what I thought. She lived on a farm after all. Plenty of things to bump into.
“Where are you?”
“The Wells’. When are you leaving?”
“I left hours ago. In fact, I’ve just driven through a town called Mullaley about twenty minutes from Gunnedah.”
“Jesus, what time did you leave?”
“Couldn’t sleep, my girl, so I thought I’d start the trip. Six coffees kept me going. I’m coming straight there. I want to see this thing for myself and talk to the girl.”
“Molly,” I offered.
“That’s the one. So give me directions.”
“She’s not here at the moment.”
“Why not? Morris is coming. Morris the detective. Morris the scientist. Morris the hero.”
I chuckled. “I’ll check with Heather, but I doubt Molly will be available in the next half hour. Why don’t you check in at the motel and I’ll talk to Heather about organizing a time for you to interview her. You could probably do with a nap.”
“Too wired to nap. But ok. Give me an update when you book a time.”
Then he was gone.
Heather was looking at me, frowning.
“I gather he wants to see Molly.”
“Yes, sorry. But it is important for our investigation.”
“I’ll get her from Mum’s around three, but she’ll be going back into town before dark.”
“That would be great.”
I sensed Heather was tired with the forced conversation.
“Ok, I better get to work. I think I know the way.”
I placed my cup in the sink and left Heather. I returned to the hall and walked to the dark bedroom in the middle of the house, eager to run my tests and return to town.
Morris had left a message for me at the motel. He’d decided to try a sleep after all, so I walked into town and ate alone at a small café.
At two thirty, I woke Morris and we drove to the Wells’. When we pulled up, he threw the door open and leapt out like a spring loaded snake from a novelty can of peanuts. I grabbed the bag as Morris bounded up the steps and rapped on the door.
I was surprised when Martin answered. After the morning’s argument, I thought he might have avoided us. But there he was, smiling. Morris vigorously pumped his hand. I joined Morris and Martin.
“… so you own the company?” Martin finished asking.
“Yes, Mr. Wells. This operation is mine. I’ve had a keen interest in the unexplainable since I was young. And I am very glad I could make the trip to help you with your phenomenon. Sounds horrific. Must be a terrible worry for you.”
“I just want to help my little girl. If you can provide some way to … resolve this, then I’d be very grateful.”
Martin turned to me and smiled, but I didn’t like it. It was condescending.
“Now Martin, I understand you are a busy man, so please, lead the way,” Morris said.
Martin motioned for us to follow. He seemed somewhat friendlier around Morris. But I shouldn’t be surprised, I’d known Morris for a long time and he seemed to have a way with people, despite his quirks.
I followed both of them down the hall. Martin unlocked and opened the door next to the grandfather clock. The room was hot, stuffy and dark.
Martin led us to the wardrobe and opened both doors. Morris peered inside, eyes wide. I expected him to be disappointed when he found nothing, but I was wrong. He buzzed with more energy, if anything.
“Yes, this is the spot,” he said, “Dana, can you bring the … the, you know, the magnetic thingy.”
I withdrew the magnetometer from the bag. He took it from me and began to wave the probe around the wardrobe.
“I see what you mean, Dana. Fascinating, fascinating. We’ve definitely got a strong magnetic field here. So, Martin, do you know exactly where the phenomenon is situated in the wardrobe?”
“No, but I can get Molly to direct you if you would like.”
“Yes, thank you. I would like that immensely.”
Martin retired from the room. His footsteps echoed down the hall. While he went to find Molly, Morris passed the magnetometer back to me.
“You can’t see it, can you?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“No. But when I first looked, I swear the air was refracted at the bottom of the wardrobe. It was a bit like looking through a rain drenched windscreen just before the wipers clear it.”
“You know that could just be wishful thinking. And that magnetic field could be faulty wiring.”
Before Morris responded, Martin returned with Molly and Heather.
“Oh my, what a beautiful young girl. You must be Molly.”
“And I can see you take after your Mother.”
I groaned inwardly, but Heather beamed.
“Morris, this is my wife, Heather.”
“Charmed to meet you, Heather. Now, young lady,” Morris said to Molly, “would you be kind enough to come over here with us and show us the tunnel?”
Molly joined us at the wardrobe. The grandfather clock ‘clicked’ and ‘clunked’ from just outside the room. Martin and Heather held their position at the door.
Molly lowered herself to the ground, tucking her legs under her once again. I don’t know why, but she whispered then.
“There, Morris — just above the ground, and just below that pink dress.”
Morris dropped to his hands and knees and crawled closer to the wardrobe.
“From here,” he said, extending his arm into the wardrobe and holding it steady, just below Molly’s pink dress. Molly nodded.
“To here?” he asked, lowering his hand to about an inch shy of the floor. Molly nodded again.
I looked at Molly. She appeared trancelike.
“Molly,” I said. “Is the creature here now?”
She turned and smiled.
“Yes, Dana.” She turned back to the wardrobe and waved. My arms tingled as goose bumps formed. I heard movement and turned to find Heather striding across the room. She dropped to her knees, embraced Molly from behind and pulled her close.
“Come back a bit honey, you know I don’t like –-“
“It’s ok, Mummy. I told you, it’s friendly.”
Heather had grown pale. She looked like what she really wanted to do was to pick Molly up and rush her from the house. But she held her position, encircling Molly with a tight, protective hug.
“Her pupils are enlarged, like her gaze is unfocussed,” Morris said. “Heather, how do you see the tunnel?”
It took her a moment to respond. Finally, she tore her eyes from the wardrobe and turned to Morris.
“Ah, Molly told me to look at the shoe rack, and then look through it. I guess, I, ah, lose focus.”
Morris spun around to face the wardrobe, crossed his legs under him and then stared. I could see his pupils focussing then relaxing, shrinking then growing large.
At first he was very still. Then he began to fidget and, slowly, the corners of his mouth bent into a grin.
“I see it,” he hissed, “I see it. Dana, quick, get me something to gather a sample.”
I stole another glance into the wardrobe, but it remained just a wardrobe. I did as asked and rummaged in the bag. I found a silver extension pole and connected a sticky pad and handed it to Morris. Morris leaned forward and extended the white pad towards the back of the wardrobe. He pushed it slowly, very slowly, until I watched the end of the pole disappear about a foot into the closet.
My intake of breath was a sharp hiss in my ears. I tried to make sense of what I was seeing, but couldn’t. Three quarters of the pole was visible, the quarter holding the pad was gone. Other than that, the wardrobe appeared as before.
But while it looked the same, something was new.
“Can you hear that?” I asked, but no one responded. I was certain the wardrobe was making a very faint sound. Something only just audible. A grinding, clicking noise. I used to play jacks as a kid with real sheep knucklebones that my Dad had had since he was young. When I shook the knuckles in my hands they would scrape and click. The wardrobe sounded like that.
“What are you doing?” Molly asked, briefly distracting me. I turned to her. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes anxious. “It doesn’t like that, don’t … don’t touch it.”
Morris ignored her and continued to push the pole forward. I turned back to watch. More and more of the pole was disappearing and the irritating clicking sound had grown in strength.
My eye was drawn to the point where the pole disappeared. Looking carefully, I now noticed a slight haze. It was almost imperceptible, yet I was sure there was a slight blurriness in the air around the pole. And through the blurriness, I could almost see something substantial. Almost. There was a thin rim of blackness around the pole.
Then my world adjusted focus. The haze dispersed and I found myself staring into a dark tunnel about a meter in diameter. About five feet in, nestled comfortably in the middle of the tunnel, were two jaundiced eyes, like a cat’s, hovering above a maze of teeth that vibrated. The sound, I realized, was the grinding of its teeth.
The silver pole was tracking a course towards the thing’s face.
“Please stop. It doesn’t like it,” Molly pleaded. She reached for Morris’ arm. He jabbed the pole forward and I saw the pad brush against the thing’s teeth. It scuttled, like a spider, on unseen legs backwards a foot, just out of reach. It blinked, and moved its gaze to me. It looked through me and my stomach lurched.
“Holy shit,” Morris exclaimed. I tore my gaze from the tunnel to find Molly pulling Morris’ arm and the pole away from the tunnel. When I turned back to the hole, the creature was gone, replaced by concentrated darkness.
“Why did you do that?” Molly implored. “You scared it. Why?” She began to sob. “Everyone was happy and you ruined it.”
Heather scooped Molly up in her arms. Molly rested her head on Heather’s shoulder and began to cry.
“Come on honey, its ok. Dana and Morris are just trying to help. Let’s get you back to Grandma’s.”
“I don’t want to go. I want to stay until it comes back.”
“Sorry, honey. You can see it another time. Tonight, you’re staying at Grandma’s.”
“She can stay here if she wants,” Martin interjected. Looking at him, I couldn’t say what it was, but his eyes seemed larger than before, and cold.
Heather hesitated. Morris was busy next to me, placing the pad in a plastic bag and sealing and labelling it.
“Please, Martin,” she said, glancing at me and then Morris, “we discussed this. I think it’s best that she goes to Mum’s.”
“No. She’s best with us.”
I stood and took a step towards Heather. I placed an unsteady hand on her shoulder. She was trembling. Molly continued to cry quietly, her tears seeping into Heather’s blouse.
“Martin, we don’t know what we are dealing with here. Maybe it’s best if you listen to Heather and make sure your daughter is safe, where that … thing isn’t,” I said.
He turned his icy gaze on me. Jesus, I regretted speaking. There was real anger there, something that made me feel small and weak. But he didn’t say anything. Heather took her chance and walked slowly from the room. As she reached the doorway, she turned so she did not touch Martin on her way out. Morris, oblivious to the exchange, was happily packing the bag.
“Wow. That was amazing. Sorry about the swearing back there, Martin. But what a find. We’ll look into this and be back tomorrow to provide some thoughts and a way forward.”
“Oh, thanks,” Martin said, turning his gaze from me for the first time since I had crossed him.
Morris shouldered our bag and walked past me and then Martin. I cursed him silently for not waiting. With Martin now focussed on me again, I walked towards the door, trying to stand tall, trying to pretend his gaze was not disconcerting. As I drew level with him, he grabbed my wrist tightly. I froze. I felt all of his power, all of his threat. I felt all of the claustrophobia of my childhood gripping my heart and squeezing.
Martin leaned in uncomfortably close.
“Don’t you ever contradict me in front of my family again, you cunt.” Then he let go and stormed down the hallway before disappearing into the kitchen.
I stood where I was, fighting the urge to piss myself. I felt nauseous. I needed air. I needed to go, but my body wasn’t responding. I took a deep breath, then another. I forced the air in and out, and then I made myself walk, one step after the other until I had regained some control.
I joined Morris in the car, who was busily playing with his phone. I wanted to tell him what had happened, but I knew I wouldn’t. I wanted to go home, but I knew I couldn’t. The tunnel was real and Molly and Heather needed our help. So I started the car and drove off in silence.
The next day, I woke late. I checked my phone, but there were no messages from Morris or the Wells’. I exhaled slowly, relieved. Half a day away from the tunnel, from that house and Martin. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, rose from the bed and ran a shower.
Afterwards, I ordered room service and then rang a couple of colleagues at the Australian National University and the CSIRO. We discussed string theory, wormholes and multiverses, and the work of CERN scientists trying to prove these theories using the Large Hadron Collider. Could the Wells’ tunnel be some kind of door to a parallel universe?
I’d just got off the phone when there was a knock at the door. Room service, I hoped. I opened the door and found Morris. He had a backpack slung over a shoulder, a silver tray in his hands and a slice of stolen toast hanging from his mouth.
“Je-us,” he mumbled through my food, “I ought you’d be eady aye now.” He walked into the room and placed the tray on the bedside table. He removed the toast from his mouth.
“Come on, lass. Dress, eat and then get the car.” He took a large bite from the toast and chewed slowly.
“Help yourself,” I said, shaking my head. I grabbed a piece of bacon from the tray and retired to the bathroom to change.
As I brushed my hair, I tried to relay my recent discussions through the bathroom door to Morris. He occasionally responded with a grunt, but I wasn’t sure if he was paying attention as I could hear him rummaging around outside.
“So, what do you think?” I asked. “Does any of that help us with trying to close the tunnel?”
“Close it? We can’t do that.”
I threw open the door.
“We can’t close it? Then what are they paying us for?”
“Come on, get the car. I’ll show you when we get there.”
Morris had an idiotic grin on his face as he sat before Molly’s wardrobe. From his backpack, he withdrew rope, a torch, five flares, two walkie talkies and an SLR camera. I sat, staring at him incredulously. Heather stood by the door, watching. Molly was at her grandmother’s and Martin, thankfully, was out working.
“You’re kidding,” I hissed under my breath. I didn’t want Heather to hear me. “We’re here to help and … and this is crazy.”
“This is why I got into this work, my girl. This tunnel is phenomenal. I have to explore it.” Morris’ eyes gleamed as he unraveled the rope. He tied one end around his waist.
“You’re not really interested in helping, are you?”
“Of course I am. But Molly is safe, far away from here. That’s how we’ve helped. Now we explore. I know all you ever wanted was to rationalize these things. But I never did. You know that. I want the world to be nonsensical. I want to be dazzled and shocked. I need to see this.”
Morris tied the other end of the rope to the bed. He pulled on it a couple of times. The bed groaned and shifted slightly. It was hardly an anchor, but I supposed the rope would allow him to navigate back. I looked into the tunnel. It was dark and uninviting, but uninhabited.
“And what about it?”
“Molly said it was friendly. I’m hoping she’s right. But if not …”
Morris withdrew a large knife from the backpack. He twisted it, catching the light, then deposited it, along with the flares and camera, back in the bag. He swung the backpack over his shoulder and picked up the torch and the walkie talkies.
“Is this safe?” Heather asked. I opened my mouth to say no. To explain we knew nothing of the tunnel, its physics, its layout or its creature. But Morris beat me.
“Perfectly safe, Heather. I’m a professional.”
He winked at me. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t stop him. And part of me didn’t want to make a fuss in front of Heather. So I just glared. Oblivious, he handed me one of the walkie talkies. I took it without thinking, then he dropped to all fours and began to crawl towards the tunnel.
On the precipice, he switched the torch on and held it aloft. The darkness in the tunnel receded. What had appeared sheer emptiness had form once enlightened. The tunnel was sculpted from ash colored mud. About three meters in, it turned to the right and disappeared.
Other than the ‘clunks’ and ‘clicks’ of the clock in the hallway, the room was silent. I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled loudly. Morris turned and smiled nervously. Then he pushed his right hand, which held the torch, into the tunnel.
Blood pulsed in my temples. I waited for the worst, for Morris to pull his hand back sharply, for him to scream in pain, for anything. But nothing changed. Morris placed his left hand into the tunnel, where it squelched in the mud. The sound was of raw chicken dropped on the floor.
“Uh,” Morris grunted. “It’s cold.”
He continued moving. His head disappeared. His body squeezed in, which blocked most of the torch light. Soon, all I could see was his skinny rump wiggling as he edged forward. As his legs entered, the mud squelched again. I could see the white soles of his shoes, but soon they were fading into darkness. Morris eased around the bend and then was gone from sight, the only sign he still existed was a fading ‘squelch, squelch, squelch.’
God it was hot in here. I wiped sweat from my brow.
“You there?” the radio crackled.
Startled, I nearly dropped the thing, juggling it three times before I caught it.
“After the bend, the tunnel continues relatively straight, but it’s sloping down, deeper into the earth.”
The squelching continued through the radio. There was also a soft scraping noise nearby. I turned and saw loops of rope uncoiling on the floor and disappearing into the tunnel.
“I’m not sure what this substance is. It’s getting wetter. It’s like mud, but somehow foreign. It’s very cool, very slippery. Quite unpleasant really.”
‘Squelch, squelch, squelch.’
“Ok, I seem to be sliding a bit. The slope is becoming more pronounced.”
I cleared my throat.
“And the tunnel is still going straight?”
“Yes … ah, hang on.”
“I’ve found a shaft.”
The squelching stopped. I heard rustling and then a sharp ‘fizz’.
“I’ve just dropped a flare. The shaft isn’t too deep. Maybe ten feet.”
More rustling, then ‘click, click, click’. The camera, I thought. I had a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow.
“Ok, I’m going to lower myself down.”
There was grunting, squelching and then silence. Suddenly, fifteen feet of rope whirred across the floor and into the tunnel.
“Morris, are you all right?”
“Shit, yes. I’m ok. I just slipped. I’ve got a sore arse and I burnt my jeans on the flare.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. I heard a chuckle behind me and turned to find Heather laughing as well. I had completely forgotten she was there. She was very good at disappearing into the scenery. Was that how she dealt with Martin?
“Ok, the tunnel continues here. It’s pretty straight, roughly the same direction as the tunnel above, and it appears to be sloping down even further.”
‘Click, click, click’. More photos. The rope began to slide again. Over half of the coil was gone.
“Ok, I’m moving again. Got to hold on a bit tighter here to stop from sliding. I’m about …”
Static replaced Morris’ voice.
“Morris?” I waited patiently, but there was no response. “Morris?” I shook the radio, but the crackling continued. “Morris?” Nothing.
I dropped the radio with a clatter, and took hold of the rope and pulled. I expected to wind in a bit of slack and then for it to jerk as it grew tight around Morris’ waist. But there was no jerk. I pulled faster, coiling the rope at my feet. Twenty feet, thirty feet, forty feet, and then the end of the rope, frayed and loose, slithered through the grey mud and out onto the bedroom floor. I dropped the rope. My hands, now covered in filthy mud, were trembling uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. What could I do?
Then, over the crackle of the radio, I heard grinding.
“What does that mean?” Heather asked. I could hear the shock in her voice. I turned to answer her, when a screen door squeaked open and then slammed with a ‘bang’. Heather grew pale.
I heard the ‘pad, pad, pad’ of socked feet in the hall and I was suddenly conscious of the pounding of my heart.
Martin appeared in the doorway. Heather moved aside as he entered the room. Those big eyes, which filled his glasses, were calm and cold. The hair on his thick arms was covered in straw and dust, and flecks of mud clung to his calves.
The three of us stood there for a while, staring, not saying anything. Heather broke the silence.
“He … Morris, he went in after it. He’s gone.”
Martin turned his cold gaze on his wife and I felt momentary relief.
“Morris went into the tunnel. Something happened. He’s gone.”
We were silent again. Outside, the grandfather clock chimed twice.
“You stupid woman. I should have trusted my gut. This is a scam. This whole damn thing. They’ll be after more money now.”
“Martin, that’s not true –“
“Shut up. Just shut up.” He turned that gaze on me. “Get out.” I wanted to argue. To beg him for time to … to, I don’t know. I had no idea what to do. Morris was gone, but should I go after him? Should I call the police? I had no idea. So I untied the rope from the bed, bundled it up, picked up the radio and walked past Morris and Heather. Heather pleaded with her eyes for me to stay. But I didn’t.
I could feel Martin’s glare boring into the back of my head as I left the room and walked to the front door.
“Tomorrow,” I heard him say behind me, “we’ll take Molly back to the doctor. And you’re going too.”
Outside, flies buzzed in the heat and dust. When I got into the car, the uncertainty and uselessness I felt welled up into the back of my throat. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. So I let it all out in great wracking sobs. With tears streaming down my face, I started the engine and drove away.
Back at the motel, I began packing. I kept seeing the slack rope and Martin’s eyes. I needed to leave this stifling town. And when I was somewhere cool and familiar, then I’d call the police and try and explain.
My plan was to pay my bill and drive as soon as I finished. But when my bag was full, I was struck by a deep fatigue. The adrenaline had left my system, leaving me exhausted. Maybe, I thought, I’d rest my eyes for half an hour and then regroup. I curled up on the bed and disappeared into the comfort of sleep.
The phone woke me. The room was dark. It felt late. I picked up my mobile and shook the sleep from my head. It was Heather. I hesitated, phone in hand, ready to ignore the call. But I couldn’t. I answered.
“MOLLY’S GONE,” Heather screamed.
“She’s gone. After you left, Martin went and got her. He wouldn’t listen. He … he was so angry. He locked her in her room. Then he went to the neighbours’ to drink. When he left, I … unlocked the door and … and she was gone and the wardrobe was open. Oh, God.” Heather dissolved into sobs.
“How long has she been gone?”
“I don’t know, half an hour, maybe an hour. I don’t know.”
“And Martin, when’s he coming back?”
“Once he starts a session with Roger, he’ll be gone half the night.”
I couldn’t leave. My earlier thinking had been wishful. That poor little girl in the tunnel. And Morris, he might still be in there.
“Ok, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
The house was quiet. I followed Heather to Molly’s room and the only noise was the staccato tapping of our shoes on the hardwood floor. When I drew closer to the room, I saw that the grandfather clock stood open, with the weights and pendulum lying on the floor, mid-clean.
In Molly’s bedroom, Heather opened the wardrobe.
“You’ll bring her back, won’t you?” Heather asked. Her tone lacked conviction.
I withdrew a torch and my phone from my bag.
“I’ve no idea if the phone will work in there, but we’ll try,” I said, before pushing the phone into my front pocket.
I needed to move, before doubt and fear convinced me to stay. I dropped to all fours and crawled towards the tunnel. At the edge, I hesitated. I switched on the torch and swung it from side to side with my left hand, lighting up the grey walls. I took a deep breath, and then began.
My right hand sank into a phlegm-like substance as I crossed the threshold. I edged forward and soon my knees where cold and wet. The mud was slippery, and I found it hard to grip anything. I continued to crawl forward, leading with my right hand then carefully sliding my left knee forward, then the right. Soon, I was at the bend.
Hesitantly, I used the torch to peer around the curve. The next part of the tunnel was empty. And just like Morris had described, it sloped down into the earth.
At this point, I could still go back, I thought. I took a deep breath and pushed the idea away.
The grey mud sluiced against my shirt as I squeezed around the bend. The mud was cold on my ribs and it smelled. The scent triggered a memory of holding the family dog as our vet drained a cyst on its leg. I fought the urge to gag.
As the tunnel fell away it also grew narrower. I pushed ahead, scanning from side to side with the torch, looking for signs of Molly and Morris. What would I do if I found it? I thought. Or worse, if it found me? My breathing grew faster and harsher.
I continued forward. Right hand, left knee, then right knee. One slow shuffle at a time. All the while, I swung the torch, side to side and up and down. But the scenery remained monotonous, grey, and earthy — like a tomb.
I knew the shaft couldn’t be far away, so I stopped for a moment to see if I could spy it in the distance. I was leaning heavily on my right hand, focusing on the moving beam of torchlight, when my hand slipped from under me. Shit. I slammed face first into the mud, then began to slide slowly. I tried to push myself back up on all fours, but I couldn’t get a grip. I twisted onto my side, but gained speed. The tunnel walls began to fly past. Frantically, I kicked and clawed at the walls, but the mud was so slick. I tried to roll back to my stomach, but I’d lost control.
“SHIT,” I yelled.
And then there was nothing beneath me. I had a moment of clarity where I realised I had slid into the shaft. I dropped the torch, flailing with hands and feet, attempting to slow my fall. But nothing gripped. I slammed into the ground, back first, and expelled the wind from my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. I clawed at my neck, trying to will air back in. God, I thought, it felt like I was drowning.
“Huh, huh, huh.”
Finally, small amounts of air crept back in, then more and more, until I started to feel normal again. Once my lungs had expanded again, I noticed the electric pain in my ribs. Had I broken them? I sat up, and my right side screamed in protest. I fished around in the muck and found the torch, realizing I had landed on it. I hit the switch. Nothing. I fought back panic. I shook the torch hard, then flipped the switch a couple more times. On the third go, it lit up the tunnel.
God, what would I have done if that hadn’t worked? Relief became a manic desire to laugh. I fought the instinct, trying desperately to maintain control. To distract myself, I held the torch aloft and surveyed the new section of tunnel. Behind me was grey mud cul-de-sac. In front of me, the tunnel continued relatively straight, but it descended even more sharply into the earth.
My phone rang. I nearly dropped the torch again. Breathing heavily, I withdrew my phone and answered it.
“Are you all right? I heard yelling,” Heather said.
“Yeah, I’ll live.”
“Thank goodness. Have you seen signs of Molly?”
I took a deep breath, which sent pain through my ribs.
“Not yet, I’ll keep going.”
The tunnel was tighter down here. I could barely fit on all fours, so I dropped to my stomach and began to commando crawl. Every time I moved my right elbow, pain shot through my neck and shoulder and down to my hip. But I pushed on, holding the phone in my right hand and the torch in my left. I kept flat to the ground, spreading my elbows and knees to ensure I didn’t slip again.
I knew I was approaching the spot where Morris disappeared. God only knows what I was going to do when — no, I admonished myself — if, I saw it. On the next sweep of the torch, I saw something up ahead. Something familiar and comforting in this foreign world of grey mud.
“Hang on, Heather,” I said. I lowered the torch. “I’ve just found Morris’ backpack.” I wedged the torch in the mud and pulled the bag to me. Inside, I found the knife, four flares and the camera. I removed the camera and tried the power button, but it didn’t work. The batteries were dead, like they had had the life sucked out of them by this strange place.
“Ok, I’ll keep going –“
Through the phone, I heard a ‘bang’ and a clatter in the house.
“Oh shit,” Heather said. “He’s back.”
Martin’s distant yell carried through my phone.
His voice was raw and slurred.
“Heather,” I whispered, “it’s ok, just …” But what advice could I give her? I continued anyway. “He can’t see the tunnel, he probably doesn’t know I’m here. It’s fine. Just handle him like you always do.”
“But your car,” Heather whispered. “I didn’t get you to move it. It was out front.” She began sobbing quietly. I could tell she was trying hard to contain herself.
“HEATHER, WHERE ARE YOU AND THAT FUCKING NOSY BITCH?”
I hated Martin then. Even without seeing him, I knew he was drunk, and angry, and itching for a fight.
“I’ll come back.”
“No,” Heather snapped. She took a deep breath. “No, you’re right. I’ll handle him.”
“Just find Molly, please. I’m his wife. I know how to calm him and, if not, well I’ll just have to wait until he’s run out of steam.”
Oh God, I thought. What if he doesn’t though? I knew what he was. I knew it when I saw the bruise on Heather’s back. What if he beats her to death and I do nothing?
I heard another ‘bang’, and soft footsteps. Then, from much closer to the phone, Martin spoke:
“There you are, honey.”
The phone went dead.
“Heather,” I hissed.
There was a soft buzz coming from the phone. Was Heather still on the line or was that static? Neither, I realized. The sound wasn’t the phone. It was grinding. I swung the torch frantically from side to side. But the tunnel was still empty.
I pushed the phone back in my jeans pocket and then ripped the knife from the backpack with an unsteady hand. Should I continue forwards or backwards? I wanted to go back, desperately, but I fought the panic and edged forward, holding the knife out before me.
The grinding sound strengthened. I could also hear the blood in my temples pulsing as loudly as my ragged breath. I kept going. One elbow after the other. Each lurch forward revealed another empty section of tunnel under the torch’s glare. There was nothing in front of me and yet, the sound persisted. In fact, it was growing louder and louder. The sound was everywhere and yet all I could see in front of me was this damn empty tunnel.
In front of me, I realized with panic. I tried to turn, but the tunnel was so tight. The best I could do was look under my left arm.
I screamed when I spied yellow eyes and teeth racing towards me on tendrils of grey smoke.
I woke in a familiar bedroom.
It was pink, and a clown on a trapeze hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a toy chest, next to a white wardrobe. The bedspread had a princess on it. This was the bedroom I grew up in. But it hadn’t looked like this for twenty years.
I sat up and realised how big the bed appeared. My side hurt, but I couldn’t recall why. I raised my hands before me. Jesus, they were tiny. I jumped to the ground and was shocked at the perspective I had. This wasn’t me. I raced to the wardrobe and swung open the door where I knew there was a mirror. Staring back at me was my six year old self. My golden hair was back. My skin was clear, with only hints of freckling. And I wore a pink, frilly dress. I hesitantly touched my face. I was so shocked by the image in the mirror that it took me a moment to realise I wasn’t alone.
With a start, I noticed Molly hiding in my closet.
“Oh Molly, thank God. It’s me, Dana. Your Mum sent me to find you …” The memories came flooding back — the tunnel, Martin returning home, the thing attacking me. So how did we get here? And where was here?
“You look different,” Molly said.
“Yes, a lot. But it is me. Take my hand and let’s see if we can find a way out of here.”
I extended my hand to Molly, but she shied away and shrunk back further into the closet.
“I can’t. The tall man said I’d get the strap if I moved.”
My mouth was suddenly very dry, so I licked my lips. I’d hidden in this wardrobe many times before, like Molly now.
“What man?” I asked.
“He said to call him Poppy John.”
I swallowed. I knew that was impossible. My stepfather had died when I was eight. But then, I knew this was all impossible. I opened my mouth to reassure Molly when the bedroom door swung open. I turned, and there he was. Tall and wiry with slick, black hair. He held a piece of electrical cord loosely in one hand and he closed the door behind him with the other.
I raised a finger to my lips, then closed the wardrobe.
“I had to finish your chores again, Dana,” he said, calmly. He never lost control. I hated that the most. I used to think if he had been angry when he punished me, it might have made sense.
“I had to finish my homework,” I said, not knowing why I said it.
“Homework, chores, dinner, bed. Your mother told me you watched television after homework.” He took the electrical cord in both hands and snapped it tight.
“Only for a little while.” God what was I doing? This wasn’t me. Well, not anymore.
He stepped closer. Tears welled in my eyes.
“You know the drill. Turn around, hands on the bed. Ten with the strap for not doing your chores.”
“Please, don’t,” I blubbered, but my body moved without conscious direction. I turned my back to him and bent slightly at the waist, placing my hands on the bed. He began to twirl the strap. It whirred and then, ‘crack’.
A lightning bolt lit up my backside. The pain spread up my back and down to my hamstrings. I was bawling freely now.
‘Whir, whir, crack.’
This time the bolt was across my upper thighs. I screamed out.
“Whir, whir, crack.”
Again, the upper thighs. My legs demanded that I run from the pain. So why wasn’t I? Why was I just taking this? I wasn’t six any more.
I stood tall and turned around.
He swung at me again, but I threw out my right arm and deflected the blow. My wrist collected the force of the cord and howled in protest, but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of crying out again.
“That didn’t count. Seven to go.”
My body was trying to turn back to the bed again, but I resisted. I fought tears and screamed the first thing that came to mind.
Poppy John froze. His eyes registered shock and then, to my surprise, grew angry.
“How dare you. That’s another ten.”
But I wasn’t buying it. I realized I was no longer looking up at him. I was me again. I stepped towards him.
“No,” I said. “Your days terrorizing little girls are done.”
I stepped closer again. The anger in his eyes changed to fear. I reached out to snatch the cable from him, but it disappeared. Shocked, I looked back at Poppy John, but it was no longer him. Martin now stood before me, his bulbous eyes filling every millimeter of his glasses.
He lunged at me, grabbed both of my arms and slammed me against the wardrobe.
“WHERE IS SHE?” he roared.
I heard the door next to me squeak. No, Molly, stay put, I thought. But she emerged anyway. Martin looked from me to her.
“You’re coming with me, honey.”
“It’s ok, Dana. He wants me, not you.”
“That’s right, honey,” Martin said, almost with affection. “Come with me and we’ll go somewhere safe.”
His grip loosened on my wrists. I lurched forward, pushing Martin away from me. As he stumbled, I searched frantically for something, anything, with which to defend me and Molly. But Martin recovered quickly. He rushed at me and slapped me hard across the face, knocking me to the floor.
At first I couldn’t see anything but shooting lights or hear anything but rushing water. Then my head began to clear and I found myself looking up at Martin who was standing over me, grinning. His eyes were wild and yellow. A jaundiced yellow. And his teeth — there were too many. I knew then. This thing before me was both Martin and it. Its ugliness, its horror, was Martin’s.
Martin finally turned from me and he grabbed Molly’s hand. Then he led her towards the door.
Defeated, I looked away. As I blinked the tears from my eyes, I found that I was staring under my old bed at a strange object — rectangular and black. At first I could not decipher what I was looking at. But then I realized. It was Morris’ radio. I reached out and took hold of it and pulled it to my chest. It had good weight, I thought. I rose unsteadily to my feet, holding the radio firmly.
Martin was at the door. He reached for the handle as Molly looked back over her shoulder at me with wide eyes. He yanked her forward, oblivious to me in that moment. He was trailed by tendrils of smoke. What had Molly said again? She liked when the creature was in her wardrobe, because Daddy and Mummy did not fight. In Martin, I realized, it was a different beast.
I charged at Martin and swung the radio as hard as I could, my ribs screaming in pain as I did. Martin heard me at the end. He turned at the last moment, causing the radio to explode on the side of his head, just above his yellow, right eye. Martin hit the floor with a ‘thud’. Blood flowed from the gash above his eye and Molly screamed. She looked up at me fearfully and I felt intensely guilty — he was her father after all.
I didn’t know what to say and when I did speak, it sounded shallow.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
Molly turned back to Martin. Then she bent down and brushed his face gently with the back of her hand.
I took a deep breath.
“Molly, we need to go home to your Mum,” I said, extending a hand to her and hoping desperately she would take it.
She stood there for a moment, shaking. Finally, she reached out and grasped my hand.
Now what? I thought. I had no idea how I had come to be in this place, so I had no clear idea as to how to escape. But trying something had to be better than nothing, right?
I opened the bedroom door and found that it led into darkness. Was it another room? The tunnel? Or somewhere else entirely? It was thoroughly uninviting, but what were my options?
“Molly, I need you to be brave, ok?”
“Ok,” she mumbled.
I squeezed her hand, then stepped through the bedroom door. As soon as I did, the world turned upside down. My head began to spin and knuckle bones rattled loudly. I gripped Molly’s hand tightly. The spinning became a disorienting maelstrom, so I closed my eyes. But I could not block out the grinding in my ears. It increased in pitch from a hum, to a buzz, to a brain frying scream.
Then it was gone. The world was silent, except for the tinnitus receding in my ears. I still held Molly’s hand. I opened my eyes and found the spinning had stopped. But it was dark. For a moment, I feared we were back in the tunnel or somewhere worse, but then a door swung open and Molly shrieked.
She ran to Heather who embraced her. Molly, like me, was covered in mud. We were back in the wardrobe and the tunnel was gone.
Heather looked at me from over the top of Molly’s head. I covered my mouth in shock. Her right eye was purple and swollen shut and blood flowed from a gash in her bottom lip. She held Molly’s head tightly to her breast. She rocked her gently, and then she began to shuffle in a semi-circle, placing her body between Molly and the door. I saw why then.
Martin lay in the doorway, his legs in the hall, his head in Molly’s room. It was caved in around the eyes and lying next to it was the bloodied pendulum from the grandfather clock.
Heather appeared calm, almost serene. Perhaps it was the shock. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was always how it was going to end, with one of them dead.
She nodded towards the door. I rose and pulled the bedspread from Molly’s bed. Before I covered Martin, I checked his pulse, but felt nothing. I looked into his open eyes staring out from behind cracked lenses. They were green. I covered Martin. As I did, Heather scooped Molly up and carried her out of the house. I followed them outside and onto the lawn, where we all slumped to the ground. The night air was cool, crickets whirred and the spiky lawn felt wonderful compared to my memories of mud. Molly was whimpering quietly but, I thought, she would soon sleep.
“Thank you, Dana,” Heather whispered.
I nodded and exhaled slowly.
“So, what now?” I asked.
Heather did not answer immediately. She rocked Molly until she began to snore.
“I was going to leave him, I was,” Heather said.
We sat there quietly for a while, listening to the night and Molly sleeping. Finally, I spoke.
“Shall I make the call?”
Heather sighed, then nodded, hugging Molly tighter to her chest.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the police.