There’s a set of tunnels underneath my school.
They stretch across the housing side of campus, elevators leading to each of the dorms. Stray pathways lead to small shops, my campus post office, the dining hall, and a few rooms dedicated to clubs. They’re not the tidiest, with pipes jutting out of walls and empty, greasy garbage carts smelling up the corridors, but the tunnels aren’t scary. Everything is well-lit and reasonably clean. There’s at least one map per corridor, keeping the labyrinth easy enough to navigate.
I was making a late-night run to one of the campus shops for God knows what. Potato chips, I think. After one in the morning the tunnels always emptied out. Most of the more reasonable students had long since checked in for the night, so I didn’t have any company as I made my way through the halls, lined with event posters and club advertisements.
I’m not sure where or when I took the wrong turn. All I remember is a feeling of unease, which turned into the realization that I’d been walking for too long without reaching the store.
Thinking I’d see some familiar wall mural or advertisement, I tried turning around and retracing my steps. None of the murals made sense. Each mural felt familiar, but I couldn’t remember its place in the labyrinth, what turn or distance it marked. I kept trying to retrace my steps, certain that I’d figure it out eventually.
Instead, the tunnels grew stranger. I started seeing murals I couldn’t remember – sloppy paintings of cartoon characters I didn’t recognize, tributes to bands I’d never heard of. I tried to read an advertisement for what I figured was a chess club. It was printed on that garish neon yellow paper clubs like to use, with a huge photograph of a bishop chess piece in the center. I’m not dyslexic, but looking at the small text on that yellow flyer in the too-bright light of the tunnel, I understood dyslexia. Letters seemed to shift without moving, comprehension escaping me like broth through the tines of a fork.
I started to panic. My legs moved me faster along paths I couldn’t begin to recognize past nonsense murals. When I tried to look at them, my experience with the chess club flyer repeated. I could see the images just fine, but their contents wouldn’t explain themselves, the proper avenues in my brain tangled in traffic.
There was no phone signal this deep, and the campus wi-fi was notoriously shitty down here. I begged for a dead end, praying that I’d come to some landmark or at least an opportunity to start making a map. Instead, my brisk footfalls changed from the hollow smack of shoes on concrete to a thin, wet slap. I looked down and saw the floor had grown damp, with a few tiny puddles scattered around.
Flooding. Good. Great.
Retracing my steps, I just found more flooding. To my distress the puddles behind me seemed even deeper. I headed that way, reasoning that if I could find the source of the flooding, I’d at least have a stable point of reference.
I’d been in the tunnels for about an hour, my shoes soaked through and my socks squelching, when I noticed a coppery tinge in the liquid. By now it was about an inch deep. Any direction I went, it only got deeper. The walls were barren now, the few flyers indecipherable, written in a language I’d never seen. You know those holographic images on cards or posters, where looking at it from a different angle gives you another image, the illusion of movement? That’s kind of what I was dealing with. Tilting my head or moving reshuffled the letters, if they could even be called letters. When I looked at one for too long it overwhelmed me, so I didn’t.
Two hours in. I know because my watch still worked, though it was getting trickier to read. By now the flooding was up to my ankles. I noticed the tunnels change shape – the square corridors rounded out on the edges. I scooted around the edge to avoid the thin red liquid pooling in the center. My feet were still cold and damp from being submerged for so long.
The liquid was at least a foot deep now. It had gone from copper-tinged to a stale peppermint red, violent crimson in the glow of the lights. I wondered at occasional white streaks. I’d assumed it was water, but could it be some more esoteric or dangerous substance? I pushed the thought away – too much to worry about without the paranoia of poison.
At this point I was shivering, trying to stave off tears, still holding on to some thread of hope that I might find my way back. My mind was playing tricks on me, I reasoned; I’d gotten lost in some unused part of the tunnel system that just happened to be open for maintenance. Clearly, a pipe had sprung a leak, spitting metallic water all over this section. Poison control or something would be down here soon, or I’d find a stairwell.
I tried to ignore the fact that the lights were still on, bright as ever. In retrospect, I wish it had been darker.
I looked at my watch. Past 3 AM. I sat down on the ground, leaning as far as I could against the curved tunnel wall to avoid the water, and finally broke down. I was so tired. I needed to use the bathroom. I shook out my shoes and socks, hoping it would somehow help. My socks were dyed a deep red, and my already-worn shoes almost fell apart in my hands.
And then a sloshing sound, slow and deliberate, and I froze where I sat.
Something huge cast a shadow on the floor, heading toward me from the tunnel on the right. Trembling in place, I sat terrified and helpless as it waded into view on thick legs.
Imagine a cockroach standing six feet tall at the shoulder. Cover it in a layer of human flesh and a thin coating of skin, occasionally dappled with patches of thin, curly hair.
It had six legs, trunks ending in soft deformed pads rather than feet. A meaty tail hung loosely from its dirty backside.
When it turned its head toward me, a kind of primal panic gripped my spine and twisted hard. Its face was human, and it looked a lot like mine.
“You’re people like me,” it remarked, disinterest in its voice. “Like I used to be.” High-pitched, saccharine-sweet, a child’s words.
“Don’t hurt me,” I squeaked out.
The thing rolled its eyes, a moody teenager. “Not lots like this. Not here.”
It could talk. It was so much larger than me, I’m certain it could have crushed me to death in a second if it wanted to – and maybe I would’ve let it. What did I have left to do at this point other than talk to it? This monster was the only friend I had, the only living thing I’d seen down here since it all went to shit.
“Please,” I whispered. “Help me.”
The thing cocked its head. “What?”
“I need to get out of here. I need… I need to get back to the campus.”
Its eyes lit up at the word. “Campus? Edge?”
“The edge of here? Of the tunnels? Do you know where that is?”
It nodded, a slow, stiff gesture. Up and down with its knotted neck, moving almost without the face’s notice.
I stood up, nearly hitting my head on the side of the tunnel. “Can you tell me where to go?”
The creature frowned. “Can’t explain the way,” it grunted. “From near the edge, it’s really not an explaining thing. Only from the center…”
“Please. Please, I need to get out of here. I need to get back home.”
The creature stared at me for a long moment, unblinking, and my body remembered the menace of its form. What if it decided to attack me? I could flee, if I needed to, but where would that put me? I made a conscious decision to resist the urge to run.
“Through the center. I can take you, maybe through to the edge. Climb on.”
Without a second thought I grabbed a fistful of the creature’s long, dark body hair and pulled myself onto its back. I almost sank into the surplus flesh as I swung one leg over and straddled the thing like an awful pony.
“We can walk now,” the thing said, and we began our little journey.
We moved slowly along the tunnel, heading back the way I came from. The corridor fully rounded out as we moved; any remaining flyers or ads were plastered onto the edges, damp and indecipherable.
“Is there a building?”
I jumped. I hadn’t exactly been expecting small talk. “A building?”
“Maybe two? Maybe three? Maybe more.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. My fingers gripped its lumbering bulk tighter. “There’s a lot of buildings.”
“Oh.” Its voice hid excitement behind a poor mask of indifference. “How long to the building?”
“Never mind.” It shook its head so violently that for a second I thought it would buck me off. “Just want to… Want to get to… class on time, we’re pretty sure.” Class came out like a kidney stone.
I thought I’d ask a question of my own. My voice trembling, I managed to spit out: “What’s your name?”
My companion snorted. No further elaboration.
We walked like that for hours. I can’t tell you how many, because by this time my phone had died and my watch was as unreadable as the posters on the walls.
Disgusting as it was, I was glad for the creature’s company. The liquid, now fully red, rose up well past its huge ankles and almost to mine.
I looked on as my grotesque steed opened its mouth too wide, an enormous tongue emerging, pushing aside folds of flesh. From the end of the tongue protruded a limp penis, covered in sour liquids and threads of throat mucus. My hands tightened around the hair clumps as its penis, like a proboscis, began to sip at the liquid. As the creature drank hungrily the penis grew more erect, until finally, with a loud, echoing moan, it spewed. Streaks of white in the water, was the only thought I could put together.
My companion swam like a sea turtle. Occasionally its back sank a few inches below the surface, sloshing cold liquid all over me. My pants were soaked, my shoes ruined. But I was beyond cleanliness.
Eventually we reached a dead end. The red liquid – by this point I was beginning to think of it as blood, but even now I fear it could’ve been something worse – rose almost to my knees.
“Center,” the creature tittered, and I saw the dead end for what it was – a thin, veiny membrane stretched across the tunnel. Tiny hairs curled out of its surface, writhing. Its surface beat like a thin drum, rattling with the muffled noises of something beyond.
“Is this how we get back to campus?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Okay.” I waited for something to happen, anything to get me out of here.
“You have to break it,” the creature clarified. It swam closer and turned its head around, eyes expectant, my face staring into my face. “Not enough sharp parts on this friend.”
I looked down at my fingernails. Immaculately trimmed, stained with blood and dirt. Without letting myself think about it, I clawed desperately at the membrane. My fingers drew blood. The membrane shivered, a shriek echoing in the distance.
I grabbed damp warm fistfuls until I was sure it was stretched to its limit. No dice. When I pulled on the skin, more seemed to appear around the edges. It was never loose enough to give, and never taut enough to break.
Finally, I decided I’d had enough. The first bite did almost nothing. I kept at it. Sweat glands unloaded into my mouth, their acrid cargo mingling with the taste of copper – something I barely noticed now. Bile climbed my throat, and there was nothing I could do but let it come out. I kept chewing on the membrane, ignoring all sensation, until I felt it give way and let myself fall onto the creature’s back, still coughing up bile and the blood I’d swallowed.
This is how I stayed for five minutes or so, until I weakly sat up and looked over my work. I’d chewed a small hole. My hands reached out, independently of my mind, and ripped it open as far as they could manage.
Skin doesn’t tear the way it does in the movies. It happened quietly, a little wet noise.
Once the hole was large enough, the creature did the rest, sticking its awkwardly large head through the membrane and forcing in its front legs. I ducked as the creature brought me through to the other side, and finally I saw the source of the shrieks and murmurs.
A Bosch painting, overwhelming and brutal. Everything covered in a thin layer of that same membranous skin. It hugged the walls and dangled in sheets down from the lights, casting the tunnel bright red, a flashlight held against a palm in the dark.
On top of the skin, clinging to the walls and the ceiling and swimming in front of me, nightmares spun and danced, moaned and wept. Like lichens, raw muscles and tendons clung to the diorama of living meat. I struggled to take it all in. This new world shoved itself down my throat, an unwanted ideology of flesh and fluid.
To my left something with no eyes and no neck gummed at an asymmetrical wheel of meat with six malformed human heads as spokes. It bit without teeth, uselessly and furiously, a flurry of frustrated noises. Chicken’s feet poked out at odd angles from the sides of its body, steadying its struggling form on the tunnel slope.
Next to it a face protruded from the skin’s surface, a zit in the smoothness. Its uneven eyes stared me down, chalk-white like the skin around them. A huge tongue thrashed out of its thin mouth, ravenously tasting the wall, never looking away from me.
To my right, a mobile joint sprouted two legs and an arm, mechanically torturing and picking at a brightly-lit ball of flesh. I wasn’t close enough to discern anything more. They took their time with it, taking no joy in its shrieks, showing no sign of speeding up or slowing down.
Here and there veins formed valleys and mountains, the landscape of these creatures’ lives. These and too many more bustled around me. Busy, banal terrors.
At the very end of it all, hundreds of feet away, a mouth larger than my companion. Dirty calcium spikes punched through the concrete and skin, floor and ceiling. It swallowed endlessly, a reverse gargoyle, drinking milky gore forever and ever. A tattered cloth banner hung limp from one of its jagged teeth, and I could just barely make out the words clumsily sewn on – the first words I’d read since this began. It said: “AS I AM I AM AS.”
I watched the banner flutter, in and out, hot sweaty breaths that created clots of condensation all around the tunnel, pulpy droplets that became rivulets and fed the river. A cycle of blood. Evaporation, condensation, precipitation – second grade lessons rushed my addled brain.
I laughed, and laughed more – second grade? – as the tears stung my cheeks and the world around me echoed. Hundreds of twisted beings, no two alike, answered with cackling and howling and soft sensual giggling. Flesh rubbed on flesh. Skin tore, and healed, and fed the river. We all laughed together, me and the ferryman and all our friends. The ones who didn’t have mouths bobbed along, not knowing, but feeling.
My veins throbbed with a new language, an academia of soft meats and stringy gristle – a language always known, but never translated. My friends knew this language; they had known for a very long time. It crushed them into pigments and painted a new picture, one that reveled in all the forms flesh could know.
As I laughed without purpose, soggy and fluent and aimless, floating toward the mouth, I recalled a trace of my old languages, and an epiphany entered my already bursting head. All the faces down here were familiar to me. Each one belonged to someone I knew, whether I’d just seen them around campus or they’d taught my classes. I turned left and stared straight into the eyes of my former statistics professor, a shambling wreck beyond help.
I had done pretty well so far, all things considered, but this? It was just too much. Something in my brain folded in on itself, and, my fingers still burrowing deep in the ferryman’s back, I blacked out.
When I came to, the floor beneath me was dry, aside from the filth dripping from my clothes. I scrambled to my feet, slipping on my own seepage, and immediately recognized my surroundings: the tunnels I knew, leading straight to the stairs up to my dorm. I almost screamed with relief, tears streaming down my face, and then I saw my ferryman.
He was crying too, but his eyes held no joy. He seemed almost painted onto the wall, a damper and rounder tunnel stretching behind him, fluorescent lights and smatterings of flesh tracing eternity. I looked at this horse-sized thing, all legs and lumps and beads of sweat, and could not muster disgust – only pity, overwhelming my heart like the grotesqueries of flesh had overwhelmed my senses.
“Payment?” the creature asked through its tears.
“Something for this friend to keep.”
Of course. It wanted some token of our interaction. This poor, pathetic thing wanted something to remember me by.
Slowly I removed both my shoes, now little more than damp wads of deteriorating cloth, and placed them in front of my savior where he could reach them. He reached a stunted, soft-knuckled foot out of the wall and pulled what was left of my shoes in through to his side, the barrier rippling.
Skin started to grow in from all sides, and concrete followed, the wall learning how to be a wall again. Whatever gash had been carved in the surface of this world and let me into that place was healing.
As the space closed over, the creature gave me one last glance, its face wet, its eyes wide and thankful. It opened its cracked lips to say something, but before it could start, the skin and concrete closed, and my ferryman was gone.
Without my pitiful new friend to worry about I quickly remembered the situation I’d just been in and made a mad, clumsy dash up the stairs, entering the dorm code and rushing into the hall, smelly and familiar and beautiful. I kept running, bile rising in my throat, tears staining my cheeks, stomping past the lounge, confusing a few late-night tabletop gamers. Out the window I glimpsed the edge of a sunrise.
I threw open the bathroom door and, unable to make it to a toilet, vomited in the sink. My eyes shut themselves to keep from getting splashed. I coughed up strings of bile and small chunks of food for two full minutes, the awful taste grounding me in this new, old reality.
When I opened my eyes, there was a bit of blood in the sink, along with a few teeth and a chunk of something that I couldn’t identify. I panicked and felt around my mouth with my tongue. Aside from being coated in foul stomach juices, nothing was amiss. All my teeth were accounted for, nothing was bleeding.
And as I looked at the sink, dirtied with my cargo, I could swear that for just a moment it looked like something else; something that was trying its best to look like a sink.