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on the nature of surfacing

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The first item on Alex’s Christmas list is going to be a new pair of sneakers.  

Her current ones, which used to be a light blue, are now the same color as her dog – who, incidentally, is the reason she’ll be needing the new shoes. She’s not sure why she’d given in to Relay’s interest in sniffing around the lake’s marshy banks, but she had. Then she’d looked up to admire the yellow leaves on the birch tree above her and down she had gone into the muck, thanks to a squirrel hidden in the bushes. A couple had stopped to check on her, the older woman having no qualms about helping her clean off the mud on the backs of her thighs. Another jogger had wandered by, offering nothing more than a friendly nod, which Alex was thankful for. She didn’t particularly want a crowd of people to help wipe mud off her ass.  

With each wet slap of her shoes, she regrets admiring the trees, though it doesn’t stop her from doing so again as they make their way back home.  

October in Seattle is always her favorite. The trees are dipped in cherry-red and honey-yellow, pale orange and rich magenta. It’s the last month before the serious rainfall starts back up, before she has to dig the heavy-duty, tartan-print rain coat out of the hall closet. For now, October deals out an easy drizzle. It’s enough for her simple rain jacket to handle as she cuts sharp on the path and emerges out into the university’s parking lot. The horticulture buildings are all closed-up for the weekend. Only a few parking spots are taken; Alex would bet most of them are students who parked last night to attend the football game (and the keggers that followed – of which she has several embarrassing memories of attending when she was in college here).  

They make it to her little bungalow in the University District just as the drizzle shifts into a proper downpour. She’s thankful for the covered porch that shelters her as she holds Relay back with her leg.

“Hey, hey, hey, not so fast,” she tells him as he squirms to get inside the house. “Show me those paws, buddy.”  

After a good rub with a towel, he snatches it from her and dances around, shaking the towel at her until she caves to a game of tug-of-war. Ten minutes pass before her phone trills in her pocket. She uses the sudden noise against him, yanking the towel from his mouth.

“Hello there,” she greets, before she’s bowled over by seventy pounds of damp dog.

“Did I catch you at a bad time?” Strand asks, and she realizes how breathy she sounds.

“I’m getting my ass kicked in tug-of-war.”

“Oh. Well, I was wondering if you’d like to join me today. I’m driving down to Olympia to look over a case.”  

Alex gets an arm out and tosses the muddy towel down the hallway, hoping against hope that it doesn’t land on the rug. She stands as Relay snatches the towel up and carries it back over.

“Which one?” she asks.  

“A new one. Ruby forwarded me the info on Thursday. I forgot to mention it to you yesterday.”

Her thoughts immediately drift to yesterday, which involved them digging through the dusty boxes in his living room, and then two bottles of wine, and all conversation was funneled into other (and more fun) activities. “It involves a mystical stretch of road in Olympia that leads to a tunnel, where it’s claimed that people disappear out of thin air.”

“Wow. A mystical road and a spooky tunnel.”

“Supposedly mystical, of course.”

“Well, of course,” she teases and hears that answering chuckle. Putting the phone on speaker, she moves to the short adjoining hallway, stripping off the wet jogging gear as she goes.

“Dress warm.”  

As if she hasn’t been outside in the last week.

“Give me twenty minutes,” she says while she starts the shower. The warm steam is like a salve to her chilled skin, pulling a contented hum out of her.

“What’s that sound?”

“The shower. Which I’m about to get in. Though… my phone is waterproof. I can stay on the line, if you’d like to give me the details. Or we can Facetime.”   

“Oh, no – that’s fine. You can look over the file on the drive down.” She smirks to herself as she imagines him squirming in that executive office chair of his, still surprised how sheepish he can be, despite being whatever they are for a few months. “I’m leaving now. I’ll see you soon.”

 

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Phantom Pass is a stretch of road that winds along the cliffs of Lake Holston, which sits along Capitol State Forest’s southern edge. In the 1940s, the road was built to replace the old highway that was lost when the government flooded the valley to build Holston Dam. Soil erosion and dwindling budgets halted the road’s construction, though, and by the eighties it was clear that the state was no longer interested in the upkeep. The project was declared complete.  

With only six miles paved out of the planned twenty, the road dead-ends to a tunnel that hikers use for a trailhead and teenagers use for a canvas. And, as with most abandoned structures in small, forgotten towns, there's the urban legend. 

“So, if you drive through the tunnel some mysterious force makes you… what? Disappear?” Alex asks as she skims the documents.

Strand hums. “Or your car stalls halfway through. Or you get sent back to the beginning of the tunnel.”

“Or your car gets teleported to the nearby cliffside and you end up in the lake,” she adds, reading over the police report.

“Back in the sixties, locals used to push junkyard cars off the cliff for fun. When the water level is low you can see them. So, people started making up stories for how they got there. It’s an urban legend,” Strand explains. “Like the one about the ghost children pushing cars over railroad tracks in Texas – it’s a colorful story, but it’s just that. A story.”

The video, when she watches it, isn’t something she would call ‘colorful.’

It starts out inside the cab of a pickup, the camera aimed out the front window. Up ahead, the tunnel is a yawning hole, the weak sunlight only reaching a few feet inside. Trees sprout from above, their branches collecting the dead leaves of autumn’s beginning. More leaves are piled next to the entrance, once orange, but now a muddy brown. The mouth of the tunnel is slick, polished to a shine by the rain. Wipers squeal across the windshield, smearing the glass in time with the rock song that plays on the radio.

C’mon Lucas, let’s get it over with! ” the camera operator shouts, following with an equally loud jeer.  

The video whirls to Lucas, a sandy-haired boy who grins as he revs the engine before letting off the brake. Tires squeal across the wet pavement. The pickup lurches forward, the engine roaring as the darkness of the tunnel closes over them. The headlights can only illuminate a few feet ahead. Graffiti and drawings are just quick glimpses of shapes and letters, everything melting into a blur as the truck blazes past. The pinprick of light at the end stretches as they hoot and holler. Two dots lengthen into people, standing on either side of the exit. The headlights shine against a large piece of graffiti on the ground.  

My brother was such a pussy–

The darkness vanishes suddenly as open sky fills the windshield. The boys scream as the truck tips forward and the video becomes a blur of blue and black and gray, the water and the dashboard and the rocky cliffside all melting together as the video whirls and spins; a loud smack rattles the cab as the pickup slams into the water and metal groans as the cab fills up with water and the boys panic because the doors won’t open and the windows won’t break and the video stutters here, just pixelated blurs and terrified voices before it cuts to black.     

Alex turns her phone over and sucks in a breath.

“How did you get this?”

“The boy filming was streaming it live to social media. His friends saved it and reposted it on various platforms. The parents keep trying to get the video taken down, but once something is on the internet, it’s usually there forever.”

“Are they the ones who contacted you?”

“Yes.” Strand sighs. “Grief makes people do questionable things. They seem to believe the video and the reports from the other two friends.”

“The ones who were standing at the end of the tunnel.”

“Yes.”  

Strand glances over at her in the passenger seat, where the folder bends under her grip as she stares resolutely out the window. Brief stretches of railroad track appear between the spruce trees that line the interstate. They seem to have left the rain behind in Seattle, though clouds still linger above. Reaching across the console, he lays a hand on her arm and brushes his fingers across the soft skin of her wrist. He watches a sigh work its way through her as she shifts and settles.

“Did you send the video to one of your experts?”

“Since the video I was sent couldn’t be verified as the original, they had trouble discerning whether or not it had been tampered with. Still, they lean towards it being altered in some way.”

“That still doesn’t explain how they got that truck down to the cliff.”

“Determined and stupid sometimes go hand-in-hand.”

Alex shakes her head. “I mean, with the terrain and the rocks. From these photos, it looks like you could get an ATV down there, but I don’t see the truck making it down.”

It did, though. Because clipped in with the police report is a stack of photos that show the aftermath. Portions of the tailgate and bumper stick out of the water, the license plate a white smudge under the surface. There are shots from after the retrieval: the front end a crushed soda can, the metal bent and twisted into mean angles, the windshield gone. Whether that’s from the force of the truck hitting the rocks or from the emergency responders trying to get to the teens, she doesn’t know.

Behind the photographs are a few articles on the wreck, ranging from Authorities identify 2 teens who drowned in Lake Holston to Phantom Pass Curse Strikes Again!!

Both articles feature the same cropped photo of Lucas Miller and Ryan Cabaniss grinning at the camera.   

 

------

 

The tunnel looks much the same as it did in the year-old video. They park in the lot for Phantom Creek Trail and walk to the bollards that span the width of the road, twenty feet in front of the tunnel. Although they would prevent Strand’s car from making it around, any vehicle with four-wheel drive would easily be able to.  

It’s certainly foreboding, staring down the mouth of it, the darkness so thick inside it’s like a wall. It could almost be a painting, and when Alex reaches out to touch it, her hand could meet solid stone. There’s enough daylight passing through the clouds to see the end, but everything between is a blackened mystery. As if on cue, she hears the soft hiss of rain as it moves towards them from the southwest, a flickering blur over the treetops. Strand passes her a flashlight and they head inside.  

The curved walls are decorated in graffiti, a lively spread of peace signs and racial slurs, inverted pentacles and offers for sex. They pass several painted doors, one of which encourages a look into the drawn peephole to see into the other side!  

Alex continues without following the instructions because she doesn’t want to press her face against damp rock for a joke. It’s certainly not because she might actually see something.       

“Looks like your friend Simon has been here,” Strand says, the words echoing down the tunnel. Alex follows to where his light is pointed at the wall. Inside a set of double circles is a pentagram.

“What are those lines inside the center, though?” She lifts a hand and traces the air above the drawing, which seem to shape a deformed letter E.

“I believe that’s the Aquarius constellation.”

“Look who’s brushed up on their astronomy.” She grins at his answering scoff.  

Moving her light from the symbol, she passes over another painted door and finds another symbol, this time of a dagger wrapped in thorns, once again inside a double circle. Another below it looks like a Rubik’s cube, and another off to the right seems to be a pilcrow combined with the flag of an eighth note. As far as her light can illuminate, more and more symbols appear along the walls. A cold breeze filters through the tunnel, replacing the stagnant air with a lingering chill. The hairs on the back of her neck raise in response.

Strand starts taking photos of the drawings, muttering about sending them off to a colleague at Fordham. Alex is too busy searching for more symbols to chastise him for speaking too low for her recorder to catch. She thinks back to the video and the graffiti she’d seen on the pavement for the split second it was illuminated, right before the truck went over the cliff.

Several hundred feet later, her light finally locates the symbol’s edge. Nearly six feet in diameter, the image is set in two circles, and seems to be two crescent moons facing each other. Between the moons are two triangles stacked on top of each other, the top one smaller than the bottom. There’s a soft whistling noise that she attributes to the wind that blows stronger now.

“Does this look familiar to you?” she raises her voice so the question will reach Strand, who is still back where she left him.

The flash of his camera goes off again as he answers her, but the words all slide together into echoing nonsense. She’s about to reply that she can’t understand anything he’s saying, when she realizes that’s probably what he was telling her. Instead, she resorts to flashing her light at him until it catches his attention, and from down the tunnel comes that familiar scoff. Satisfied that he’s heading her way, she turns and hunches down to study the image, reaching out to trace the thick lines.   

The air snaps around her like a rubber band. It’s like someone tore the tunnel away and turned on the overhead light as the world around her becomes an overcast day. She stumbles, dizzy with the sudden change, and steps on some loose stones that slide under her sudden weight and give, skittering across and over the cliffside, where the lake stretches out before her.    

“What the fuck?” Alex blurts out as she scrambles back from the cliffside.

Brambles snag at her coat as she shoves through a thicket and over a rocky outcropping. Rain drips from the branches above her, the heels of her boots sinking into the soft earth. The pressure in her head and the fine layer of sweat on her skin could be blamed on the impromptu climb, but there’s also the issue that she doesn’t remember how she got down to the cliff.

The last thing she does remember is looking at that symbol on the ground and then – well, then.

From far above comes her name. Her head snaps up to scan the tree line high above. Between a cluster of pines is a flash of gray that she races towards, calling Strand’s name until he steps out from behind the trees.

“I look away for ten seconds and you disappear on me. What are you doing down here?” he asks as she approaches.  

Her chest is tight from the climb, but she continues up the hill until she reaches him. Taking in her condition, Strand loops an arm around her waist and settles her down on a nearby log. Crouching in front of her, he takes her hands in between his own and rubs warmth back into them.  

“What were you doing down there?” he asks again, his brows drawn down.    

“I have no idea,” Alex admits, holding his gaze, her hackles rising when he raises one of those brows. “I don’t. The last thing I remember is being in the tunnel, waiting on you to come look at that symbol I found, and then I was down at the cliffs.” She shifts against the log and scans the woods to avoid his gaze. “It’s almost like… like I teleported there or something.”

“Alex–” he starts but she waves at him to hush.

“My recorder – I had it running when we were in the tunnel. Maybe…” she trails off as she stops the recorder and rewinds.

“Does this look familiar to you?” comes her own voice, followed by her footsteps as she shuffles around the symbol. There’s a soft rumble where Strand replied to her, her soft chuckle when he scoffed at her flashlight. The audio crackles and Alex wonders if her hand brushed against it.

“What the fuck?” comes her voice again. Her breath catches. She rewinds again to watch the elapsed time tick by, her hand starting to shake when only eight seconds separate her chuckle and her exclamation at the cliff. She shows the proof to Strand, who explains it away with a software malfunction.

“I don’t know what’s more concerning,” he continues. “The fact that you probably blacked out and don’t remember walking down to the cliff, or that you believe in this preposterous story.”

Yanking her hands from his grip, she stands abruptly.

“Come on, then,” she orders as she heads up the hill, Strand at her heels.

“I’m just concerned–”

“You can be concerned later, after we’ve tested my theory.”

“Your theory?”

“You’re a man of science,” Alex snaps as they break through the tree line and reach the asphalt patches where the road ends, the tunnel looming ahead of them. “We’re going to conduct an experiment.”

“Alex–” he starts again, biting off his words when she heads for the tunnel’s mouth. He obediently follows until they reach the large symbol that’s been painted on the ground, the one he barely gave more than a cursory glance at earlier when he realized Alex had disappeared on him. It was like being in that dark hallway at Prestwick all over again, calling for her, endlessly waiting on a response that never came.

“Stay there,” she instructs, pointing to a few feet away from the symbol. “Now, keep your eyes on me.”  

His gaze is fixed on hers as she steps backward onto the image. There’s that tingle at the base of her neck that she felt before and blamed on the chill of the tunnel. Strand shifts his shoulders and she can tell he’s about to make some smartass remark. She opens her mouth to cut him off when the world falls away again, replaced by the cliffside view of the lake.

It stretches out before her, still and quiet, as if it’s been drawn onto the earth with graphite. She takes a few steps back from the edge, watching the ground for any more loose rocks when she sees it. Covered in a fine layer of pine needles and pebbles is the same symbol in the same pair of circles, drawn onto the rough limestone. Leaning down, she brushes the debris from it and puts her fingers to it. That same tingle travels up her fingers, dancing along the tendons in her wrist, as if they were violin strings being plucked. Shadows fold over her as she blinks to readjust her vision to the tunnel’s interior. Standing a few feet away is Strand, who stares at her, his eyes stretched wide behind his glasses.

“You – you disappeared.” He swallows, opens his mouth to say something else, then swallows again.

Alex drags in a slow breath, trying to calm her racing heart. “I know.”   

“That’s impossible.”

“I know,” she repeats as she steps back from the symbol. They both watch as it fades from the cracked pavement.

“This must be a – a trick of some kind.”  

They hold each other’s gaze for a beat.   

“I think I need to make a phone call.”

 

------

 

Ignoring Strand’s protests, Alex leaves the voicemail. She doesn’t state the exact reason for her call. The voicemail is more bait than anything, to see if Simon will respond to the cryptic message. And if the number is registered with someone else, she’ll just sound like a friend with a juicy secret to tell.

“I don’t see how garnering the opinion from a mentally ill person – who, by the way, believes that playing a special tune will let people see demons – will help your case that what happened back there was supernatural.”

Despite the afternoon traffic, Strand remains firmly on his apophenia-branded soapbox through the entire drive from Olympia back to her house. Eager to get inside and get on her laptop, she avoids taking the bait and hops out of the car when he pulls up to the curb. Following her inside, he sees to making tea while she sinks her teeth into Google.

Twenty-three tabs later, a cup of tea is placed next to her on the side table.

She hears Strand talking in low tones to Relay, hears the jingle of the leash as he clips it on, the squeal of the front door as they head out for a walk. They return at some point between tab eleven and tab fifteen, smelling of fresh rain and chicken saagwala. The latter appears on a plate at her elbow, which she eats as she transfers three library books to her Kindle and scans through a website on liminal spaces. An interactive map at the bottom shows places they’ve been reported: a truck stop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; a back alley in Boca Raton, Florida; a tunnel in Kingsport, Tennessee; a defunct theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A sister website declares Washington as ‘the land of a thousand liminal spaces,’ where the veil between worlds is thin and stretchy.  

“I have that eight-a.m. class tomorrow,” Strand reminds her at some point, after he’s turned off the television and urged Relay off his lap. “But I want you to wake me if Simon wants to meet with you tonight.”

She glances up from the laptop screen, surprised to see that evening has fallen. Her living room is lit only by the corner lamp and what light pours in from the kitchen. A glance at the front windows shows that the blinds have been shut – something she always tries to do before night comes, ever since she had that nightmare about the skeletal creatures in her yard. The same nightmare Strand had to coax her to wake up from last month.

Her facial expression must betray her inner impulsive journalist because he repeats the request in his no-nonsense voice (though she’s chosen to ignore it several times throughout their partnership). “I’m serious,” he says, as if reading her thoughts, before he disappears into the bedroom.

Later, when her dry eyes and throbbing wrists force her to call it a night, she slips into bed beside him. Watching him for a moment, she rests a hand on his arm and runs her fingers over the soft fabric of his shirt, the one she reorganized the dresser for so he could have his own drawer.  

It’s certainly surprised her, how easily they fell into this part-time co-habitation together. She always pictured him as a lone wolf, shying away from companionship; the king left to his lonesome tower, surrounded by his moat of dusty boxes and childhood trauma.    

He snuffles in his sleep, twisting his body like a cat in the sun. His hand comes up, fingers clumsily catching at hers.

“’dee call?”

“No,” she whispers back, the hour too late for anything else. “He didn’t call. Go back to sleep.”

“’m sorry that I,” his grip tightens around hers as he sighs, “that I can’t believe like you do.”

Alex mulls over how she wants to reply to that, knowing that they’re no longer talking about the phone call. Strand keeps quiet and patiently waits. His thumb makes gentle brushes over her fingers, the movement stuttering in the dips of her knuckles as sleep threatens to pull him back under.

“I understand.”

“I know you do.”  

The bed dips and whines as he rolls on his side to face her, to run sleepy fingers through her hair and press a kiss against her hairline. She gives in and tucks herself into his chest. Sleep is a string that tugs at her until she relents, feeling him breathe steadily against her as she closes her eyes against the dark.