...that was when the tunnel emerged from the darkness ahead, and Isaac found that all of his thoughts had incinerated abruptly. It was a highway underpass, through which the ditch water could run to the far side, and a water line had been eroded and stained onto the concrete where the turgid water would lick in the spring and early summer months. Above everything could be heard the roar of cars passing on the highway overhead, and it seemed like the sounds were coming through a cave, the way they echoed and bounced up and along the walls of the underpass. The eerie noises hit the group standing at the mouth like the high winds of a storm.
Isaac felt real fear in the pit of his stomach upon seeing the tunnel, then the emotion vanished, as evanescent and fleeting as a bad thought, as Lizzie began to talk. “Ali, did you remember to bring a flashlight like I told you?”
Ali didn’t immediately reach for the light, instead, she stared gapingly at the tunnel, her already big eyes made massive and ghostly by her fright. “Liz, you can’t even see the other side, are you sure we should go in there? What if there are homeless people or…”?
Lizzie clucked her tongue, cutting Ali off. “Don't be a pussy, you can see the other end.”
The group stared to where Lizzie pointed and, in the distance, they finally saw the sliver of violet light that Lizzie had seen, where the tunnel curved and dumped out. Isaac felt his stomach twist, as he realized how long the tunnel must be.
“That's really comforting Liz.” Crystal said sarcastically. “Thank God we have you here to judge everything safe for us.”
“It is nice, isn’t it?” Said Lizzie, grinning, and without another word, she began to amble into the dark throat of the underpass.
Reluctantly, the group followed her. Isaac, who was at the back, craned his neck as far back as it could go, to look at the arching ceiling of the tunnel which was covered in sparrows' nests and streaks of moldering droppings. Massive pillars framed the entrance of the tunnel, and Isaac slid his fingers over the decades of faded graffiti which covered the stone on one. The colors might have once been bright, but over time they had faded to darker shades, eroded by the water and the wind in the tunnel.
Ali had scurried up to clutch at Lizzie’s arm and clung to it as if for protection. Lizzie had taken the phone and shone its weak beam up and down the desiccated walls and along the tar-black puddles on the gravel ground. Trash had been stacked in every corner, and although it seemed they were alone, traces of the homeless people that nested there in the fall and winter lined the walls, ashes from fires, shopping carts, tents and sleeping bags, heaps of old clothes. The fetid air of the tunnel smelled of damp stone of mold and leaves, but also a medley of other smells, urine, rotting food and decaying flesh. A horrible thought occurred to Isaac: what if they were to come across a dead body down there, what if his feet would hit the cold and soft flesh of one of the homeless in that tunnel, or if his shoes were to sink deep into a rancid body, and maggots would wind and heave around his ankles. Isaac shuddered, and tried to erase the thought.
The boy focused all his attention now to the fingernail clipping sized light at the end of the underpass, where the tunnel curved to the left and dumped out back on the ditch. That was all he needed to do. The light was growing brighter, and he could distinguish some of the things around his feet, syringes and clothes, plastic bags, and ragged slips of metal. He tried to avoid the sharpest pieces and focused on his feet moving from section to section of gravel, not wanting to be cut.
As the group neared the far end of the underpass, they rounded the final corner, leaving the world at the other end completely open and exposed, as though a curtain had been ripped back. Isaac felt a twinge of abject fear writhing like worms in his chest. On that side of the underpass, framed by the silhouettes of trees and bushes, was the house.
It wasn’t an old house. Not in relation to many of the other houses in Grand Junction, but it wasn’t young either. Still, it looked more lost and forsaken then many of the other houses Crystal had ever explored. It was clear it had been recently abandoned, it still smelled of the old occupants, of medication and death, old food wrappers and bottles of pills still lined the counters and cabinets, and most of the belongings were still intact and present along the walls. But although the house hadn’t yet been ransacked and stripped of its goods, the signs of neglect were evident in every room and object, in the accumulated dust motes and the trash, in the stained carpeting and walls. It had become a vestige of the imposing and mansion-like house it must have once been.
Crystal admired every angle of it, looking from the neatly stained columns to the hardwood floors. She hadn’t been in a house that nice in a long time. It was a relic, something that might have once been stately and opulent, where a happy family could have lived. Although the house was close to the highway, no other building could be seen around it, only the layers of farmland, peach, and cherry trees. Through the soiled and smeared windows Crystal could see capacious expanses of grass or alfalfa fields in all directions.
Lizzie had led her little procession through the unlatched screen door and into the anteroom of the house, where the floor was tiled in black stone. Both the polished wood and the obsidian-like tiles had long scratches and deep cuts along it from decades of abuse. They had crept furtively to the end entryway and looked around one corner into the living room of the house. There were many old and overstuffed armchairs and couches, and the walls were lined in dusty picture frames and paintings. All the decorations, from the furniture to the wallpaper were decorated with obsolete gold and vermillion patterns and floral prints. A table had been placed in the room, standing sentry-like in the center. Long gashes and stains covered its glassy surface under the bottles and trash that had accumulated over the decades.
“Damn.” Lizzie said in awe. “I could get used to this.”
Crystal laughed and brushed a clump of hairy dust from the banister of the stairs. “It's so much cleaner than the houses in Mobile City.”
“Should we go see the rest?” Ali asked.
The group agreed and moved to the door on the far end of the living room which led into the kitchen.
Lizzie dug through the food in the fridge, grumbling to herself. “Why do they have so much cheese?” she said, lifting a block of fungus from the top shelf with the tips of her fingernails.
She wrinkled her nose and threw it aside.
“Why are you looking through the fridge? What could possibly be in there that is worth eating?”
Lizzie squinted disapprovingly at Crystal and went back to digging through bags of rancid lettuce and jugs of greying milk. Crystal wished that her friend would close the fridge, the smells of rotting food were making her stomach turn.
“There!” Isaac said, and jumped from the counter. He had been digging through the contents of the cabinets, searching for food, and had finally finished. He tossed some bags of cheap and expired pastries, a box of Oreos, and some Nesquik chocolate powder onto the counter.
“Hold up, I got something too.” Lizzie said, smirked, slamming the blackish-grey milk down. “Anyone want chocolate milk.”
Apollo made a face of unaffected disgust and frowned at the furry mixture. “I’m good, you can have all of that for yourself.”
Crystal was digging through the cabinets behind them and had found stale hard candy, a couple stubs of candles, and a dead mouse. She reached to the back of the cabinet and felt her fingers brush polished wood. She bent her head to see into the gloom, and saw a large, locked box, made of mahogany boards and gold edging. She bent down on her knees and dragged the box out from the cabinet with a dusty creaking as the wood protested the unexpected movement.
“Hey Liz, what's this?”
Lizzie looked down from where she and Isaac had been fighting over the Oreos and saw the box for the first time.
“Where did you find that?”
Crystal pointed toward the cabinet, and Lizzie crouched down to run her fingers over the mahogany of the lid.
“Isaac, do you still have that knife in your bag?” Lizzie asked, not looking up from the box.
“Liz, you're never going to be able to get in there with just my knife.”
Lizzie looked indignantly up at him, but she knew that he was right.
Lizzie stood. “I bet there's some sort of saw in the garage. Crystal, you're coming with me.”
Crystal got lithely to her feet without complaint and followed Lizzie’s bulky frame out of the brightly lit kitchen and down the dim hallway.
They had done a cursory inspection of the whole house already, and Crystal knew that the garage was on the opposite side from the kitchen. They passed back through the dusty living room, by the trashed bathrooms with the bottles of pills and serums scattered over the counters. They walked through another bedroom, and as they neared the garage, Crystal felt the presence of the basement to her left before she even saw it. The group had explored every part of the house, the upper story, the attic, the garage, and all the smaller storage closets along the hall, but there had been one room that every one of them had been frightened of: the basement. Looking down it’s staircase now, Crystal was again gripped by fear, she felt as if some pallid and lumbering form were going to stalk up from the darkness below. Sweat prickled on her brow, and she looked away.
There was no door to the basement, and the opening was left exposed like some grotesque wound. Isaac had been the only one brave enough to reach his hand in and try the light switch, and they had all heard the click as he flipped it, yet there had still been no light. Unanimously, they had decided it would be better to leave that particular room unexplored.
Lizzie flicked on the light in the garage. Rusted and pointy implements lined the concrete walls, hanging from nails and scattered along grimy shelves. It was clear that whoever had passed away in that house, had loved woodworking. They had extensive collections of nails and tools. Half-finished projects still lay forlorn along the walls and across the worktable, never to be finished or touched by anyone.
It only took a couple moments for Lizzie to find the saw that she had been looking for, and to move for the door once more.
“What do you think is in the box?” Crystal asked to break the silence.
“Might be guns, or jewelry. Possibly cash. Whatever it is, it’s probably valuable. And I have a hunch it might be something else as well.”
But when Crystal asked what Lizzie thought it might be, Lizzie only shook her head and kept walking.
By the time they reached the kitchen once more, Ali, Apollo, and Isaac had brought the box onto the island in the center of the kitchen and were clustered around it.
Lizzie moved forward purposefully with the saw in hand. She looked down at the box, and to the heavy latch hanging over the front of it. She inhaled through her mouth in a short sound and began to bring the saw in rigid, back, and forward motions over the lid. Dust flew around her as she worked, and a gap began to form in the polished wood. Lizzie became tired and passed the saw to Isaac, who worked steadily before passing the saw to Crystal, who worked at the box, until the lid fell to the ground with a clatter.
They moved in closely around the hole they had made and peered inside. Crystal gasped and reached in.
“It's all booze!”
Lizzie laughed heartily and reached in as well, pulling out a small glass vial of sours, and a blue ombre bottle of vodka.
“This is about to get interesting.” She said with a devilish grin.
Everyone in the group drank, some slowly, others taking several shots all at once. Crystal was reluctant to take the alcohol after the last drink she had had the night she had been raped, but she sighed and tipped back some of the drink, grimacing at the burning in her gut.
As they waited for the drink to take root in them, they gathered blankets and pillows from the linen closet in the hall and spread them out over the floor and counter in the kitchen. The kitchen seemed the safest room to them, with the yellow glow of shadowy lamps and polished stone counters, and with the locking door, it was one of the only rooms they wanted to sleep in. They shuddered at the windows and all of them climbed up to the counters, so they were sitting in a circle. Once they were all cozy, Ali declared she had an idea.
“We should play truth or dare.” Ali said, clutching a stained pillow to her thin chest.
The girl's brilliant white hair hung in long curtains around her thin face and her pale grey eyes seemed to twinkle with malice.
“What do you think?”
Isaac shrugged and Apollo nodded slowly. Crystal and Lizzie agreed and voted that it should be Ali, the one who had originally proposed the idea, who should be the one to start.
“Truth or dare?” Ali asked Crystal.
Crystal hesitated only a minute before replying. “Truth.”
“What is the worst thing that anyone has ever done to you?”
Crystal was ashamed by the answer, ashamed further by the way that it had sprung immediately to the front of her mind. It was almost as if Ali knew about the rape, almost as if she had wanted Crystal to tell the rest of the group. But how could Ali know? Crystal had no choice but to lie. Her tipsy mind whirled and she frantically tried to formulate a response to replace the truth. An answer arose. “When I was seven, my brother killed my kitten, he trapped it under a bucket and forgot about it.”
Crystal shrugged and hurried to change the subject. Asking the first person she laid eyes on. “Apollo, truth or dare.”
“Who do you like?''
Crystal hadn’t been focusing on the question and didn't care what he said. She hardly noticed as he began to blush and stammer.
“I really don't want to say.”
Lizzie waved her hand and responded for Crystal. “Fine then. Isaac, who do you like?”
Isaac glared at Lizzie.
“Liz, it’s not your turn, and you didn't ask me if I wanted the truth or dare.”
“Fine then, TRUTH or DARE.” Lizzie said testily.
Isaac considered before replying. “Dare.”
Lizzie grinned her malicious grin. “Kiss Ali.”
Isaac blushed and looked at Ali. “On the cheek?”
“No, on the lips, you wuss.”
Isaac leaned forward, his face flaming, and kissed Ali on her delicate, pink lips.
Isaac, having finished, looked back at Lizzie vengefully. “Fine then. Apollo, truth or dare.”
“Dare?” Apollo asked hesitantly, rocking back and forth on his legs.
Both Apollo and Lizzie made faces of disgust, and then looked at each other, cringing.
“Go on.” Isaac said, his eyes glittering with triumph.
They leaned into each other grudgingly, touching their lips together as if each had some contagious disease, and pulled away, each whipping at their lips and spitting.
“Nasty.” Lizzie murmured under her breath.
Apollo looked from one face to another, and eventually his gaze fell onto Crystal as it had in countless classes and on long days as he sat next to her, or walked beside her, the alcohol made him both more bold and more worried at the same time, a combination that left him with little control over what he said or did. “Truth or dare, Crystal?”
Crystal inhaled slowly between her clenched teeth. She didn't have any secrets she wanted to share, nothing good would come of truth. “Dare.” She finally answered.
Apollo looked around the kitchen once more for inspiration, then to the closed door at the far end, and his face came alight. “I dare you to go down into the basement.”
Lizzie inhaled deeply and looked to her feet. She knew that Apollo had crossed some arbitrary line that all of them had known was there but hadn’t acknowledged. The house was scary and forcing Crystal to take herself willingly to the most terrifying place seemed too much. It had been a fun game, they had been enjoying themselves, and now a hint of fear had crawled through their midst. Lizzie was about to tell Crystal that she didn’t have to go, that none of them were going to make her, when Crystal began to speak, her quiet voice steady and unmoved. “Alright, who wants to wait at the top for me?”
“We should all go.” Isaac said and slid from the counter.
Lizzie slid down as well and joined Crystal. “How long does she have to stay down there, Apollo?”
“I don’t care, how about five minutes.”
Crystal pursed her lips and nodded; her delicate fingers poised over the doorknob.
Lizzie followed Crystal down the hall from the kitchen. They crossed through the living room, stirring up great motes of dust as they passed and finally, they entered the mouth of the second hallway.
Lizzie couldn’t see the doorway, she hadn't even reached the section of wall it was on, and yet she could still feel the dark and gaping hole before she saw it. Her eyes roamed along the frame. There was no door, nothing but black, and Lizzie saw hinges with splintered wood, like broken glass at the sides, as if the door had been ripped from its place.
“Are you ready?” Lizzie asked, placing one large hand on Crystal’s shoulder.
Crystal breathed in deeply. Her stoic and brazen attitude had seemed to melt away as she looked down the steps, but she kept still, trying hard to keep her movements fluid, and not to tremble. She placed her feet on the first step and began to descend.
Apollo glanced down to his watch. “The five minutes starts when you reach the bottom.”
Crystal didn't look back, but Lizzie saw as she shook. Lizzie was convinced that some monstrous hand was going to yank Crystal's pale form down, that some creature would writhe through the darkness and ascend the stairs. But despite her fear, nothing happened. Crystal’s form faded completely, and they waited.
Minutes passed and they didn’t speak. There was no sound from Crystal, but Lizzie was convinced that muffled screaming would begin at any moment from the basement. Lizzie felt uncomfortable next to the dark hole in the wall as if she would never be safe beside it. The hallway was poorly lit, and only the first three steps were visible. If it weren't for that, you might have thought a sheet of black paper had been laid over the door frame.
After what felt like an endless expanse of time, Apollo rose shakily and moved to the opening. “Crystal?” He called in a quavering voice. “That's five minutes, you can come up now.”
Apollo hesitated a couple seconds, his eyes flitting around in the black. There was no sound, no sign of movement. Nothing.
“Crystal??” He called once more, his voice cracking.
He took a faltering step toward the opening, his body shaking.
Lizzie heard a faint sound then.
It was a soft sound, hard to place, so quiet that she wondered if she might have imagined it.
Goosebumps sprang up across her arms, and she rubbed at them, trying to make them go.
“Crystal, if you’re trying to trick us, please just come up.”
All sense of humor and happiness had drained from Lizzie, her head felt fogged from the alcohol she had taken, and yet all of the murky haze from the drink seemed to be smashed to pieces by her bright and clear panic.
The hallway had become mute, motionless in the dim lighting, so that if one squinted their eyes, they would have thought that the group were palid statues guarding the doorway. There was no sign of Crystal, no noise, no movement, only the creaking of the old house and the wind howling outside.
It began to dawn on Lizzie that Crystal wasn’t going to come back up.