Tunnel, by Wil Stewart

Short Story: The Green Man

Joanna Kowalski bet Davey Harris that he wouldn’t drive through the Green Man’s Tunnel for ten bucks, and I said I’d drive both of them for twenty bucks and a kiss from Joanna. So, the three of us piled into my mom’s station wagon, Joanna beside me, singing along to the oldies station Mom left on and Davey behind us without his seatbelt. The siren to start trick-or-treating blared outside as I backed out of the driveway. My little brother, Mitch, ran down the front steps in a sheet dragging on the ground. His plastic pumpkin basket sailed behind him as he rushed, my dad hot on his tail.
“It’s not dark though yet,” Joanna said, whining from the back of her throat. She sounded a bit like my cat the last time she was in heat, right before she chased the neighbor’s poodle and tried to hump it.
“What’s it gotta be dark for?” I hit the brakes to keep from killing two pirates, a pumpkin, and an angel.
“Are you kidding me?” Davey stuck his head through the two seats. He turned and grinned my way.
I flicked on my signal and turned smoothly onto the main road, the wagon’s engine roaring and clicking.
“Do you even know what we’re doing?”
“Driving through some tunnel out in the park that everyone’s chicken to do.”
Joanna snickered. “You’re telling me,” she said slowly, “that you don’t know what happens when you go out there? To the Green Man’s Tunnel?”
I shared a look with Davey through the rearview mirror. “All I wanted was money for some smokes, and to get out of this trick-or-treating bullshit. I would-a-had to follow Mitch around. Did you see him? Wearing a sheet. Dumbest thing I ever seen.” I also wanted a kiss from Joanna.
She let out a breath like a whistle. “Pull over when we get in the park.”
“Where?” Davey slapped the headrest of my seat, and I jerked the wheel. “Stop it, you jag-off.”
He laughed. “Bet you don’t even know where the tunnel is.”
“Somewhere in the park.” There were lots of tunnels. I had almost hit a pick-up head on driving out of one of them on my way to a church picnic I had to go to. Idiot was going too fast, and I swerved out of the way, driving across some guy’s neatly cut grass. Glad he didn’t see me do it, either. He would-a been pissed if he was anything like my dad. Can’t even look at the grass when he’s done mowing it.
Davey sat back and pulled the strap of his seatbelt and let it go. The metal clanked against the window with a snap. He still didn’t put it on. “Pull over up here at the BMX track.”
I did.
Joanna got out of the car and slid a thin cigarette from the crushed pack in her pocket. “Either of you got a light?”
I flicked her my Zippo over the hood. She fumbled it and the lighter scraped the rocks. “Ah, hell, Joanna.”
“Sorry.” She spoke through the end of the cigarette and cupped it to light. “Go on, Davey. He needs to hear about the Green Man.”
Davey took his time getting out of the car. The gravel crunched. “Those things’ll kill you.”
I rubbed the hair on my forearms. My jacket was shoved at the back of my seat in the car. “Hurry up. It’s friggin’ freezing out here.” The air fogged around my mouth almost as thick as the smoke in front of Joanna’s.
The BMX track sat on the top of a hill at the edge of the park, and next to it was this gravel parking lot that people packed into every Saturday night for the races. An overturned garbage can had rolled next to the boarded-up concession stand, and by the looks of it, dogs or raccoons or something had already gotten to the bag. The torn plastic puked out a few beer cans and what looked like a broken ketchup bottle–or blood. On the other side, behind where I parked, stood a dumpster, and the door to it swung open in the wind, and with every gust flapped against it–plastic against metal in an echoed thud. The lot smelled like the dishwasher before it’s run.
Davey kicked a stone into one of the wagon’s hubcaps. “Okay, so the Green Man’s Tunnel’s this old railroad tunnel on the other side of the park.”
“He means the tracks are above it,” Joanna said quickly. A glowing bit of her cigarette fell to the ground. She stepped on it. “It’s a drive-through tunnel.”
“Do you want to tell this story?”
Joanna held up a hand. “Go ahead. You just gotta do it right.” She leaned on the car and I wanted to tell her not to let the cigarette fall on it. Instead, I opened my door and leaned across to roll up her window. I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car.
“Anyway, the story goes that this cable guy –”
Davey knocked his fist against the car. “Electrician. No, that’s not it–one of those electricity company guys who goes up in those lifts to the top of the poles. He was doing work in the park, you see. Up on the lines, and he was struck by lightning.”
“It made his skin glow green.”
She squeaked, and I laughed when she dropped her cigarette. She stamped the whole thing out and swore. “Sorry.” Her hand swept back through her hair, exposing the long line of her neck.
I swallowed and looked at her mouth. Her lips were chapped, the bottom split in the middle.
Davey cleared his throat, and I snapped back to him. “We have this guy and he gets electrocuted and his buddy leaves him there cause he thinks he’s dead and he’s gotta go call someone to help–this was before cell phones and the storm made the radio not work.”
“Was it storming? Why were they working in a storm?”
“Does it matter?” Joanna blurted.
I put my hand in my pocket and shook my head. But it really did. Green skin from lightning hitting a guy stupid enough to work on an electrical wire in a storm? Dumbass probably deserved it.
“It’s a legend, Tom.” Joanna hugged her sweatshirt to herself. “It don’t have to make sense.”
“Can I keep going?”
“Yeah and hurry up.” It started to get windy. The smell from the dumpster across the lot got stronger. I rubbed my index finger under my nose.
“So the one guy leaves, and the Green Man stumbles around a bit. He finds this tunnel, right? There’s a crick in it too, and the old man is burning–his skin is practically falling off. So he goes to the water and it turns green too. Like nuclear green or some shit. And he just stays in the tunnel then, forever until he dies, and you know he died there ‘cause of the green glow in the water and outside the tunnel.”
“Some people say he didn’t ever die,” Joanna said. She put her palms on the car and leaned across towards us. She spoke with a low tone, like at scout camp when the guys tried to scare each other around the campfire with dumb stories about guys behind trees with axes. “Some people say if you drive into the tunnel at night and turn your car off, the Green Man’ll come out and touch it, but if he does that, he’s got so much left-over electricity in him that you’re not gonna be able to start your car again.”
The hand in my pocket was sweaty, and I rubbed my palm on my thigh. “That’s what you wanna do then?”
Davey clamped his spidery fingers on my shoulder. He leaned in, whispering. “That’s the plan, ain’t it? I got you all covered.” He wiggled his eyebrows and slid into the car.
I scratched my eyebrow and turned back to Joanna. “Right? I do that and I get a kiss?” I winked at her, whose cheeks were red, but probably just from the wind. It pricked the hair at the back of my neck as if I walked under a jagger bush.
“If you’re good. And if you really turn off the car.”
I opened the door. “Why wouldn’t I?” Really, who did she think she was talking to? I strapped duct tape to my feet on my skateboard in ninth grade and got pushed all the way down Route 51 in the middle of the night.
Joanna said she hoped I didn’t wimp out like her cousin did last time she tried this. “We got all the way to it,” she was saying as I cruised deeper into the park. “Oh, turn here.”
I slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel at the same time. Burning rubber came into the air even with the windows closed, but at least it covered the garbage smell that had followed us from the BMX track. “A little warning next time, Jo.”
A sideways glance and she wrinkled her nose cutely. I couldn’t help laughing. She hated when I called her that, she said once. Made her feel like her dad, she said. “Just turn left at the bottom of this hill and keep going.”
“What about your cousin again?” Keep talking, I wanted to say. The park roads weren’t well lit, and the shadows at every turn wanted to come alive. Trees with half their leaves still on lined the street and the dead branches bent low. I felt like I was in the Wizard of Oz, driving through that damn forest with the winged monkeys. The moment these trees started throwing shit and talking though, this car was getting turned around.
I wasn’t scared. It was just some stupid legend. Skin doesn’t glow. Lightning-struck men died and didn’t haunt old tunnels. I just wanted my kiss. Open mouthed, preferably, but I’m not picky.
“We got all the way to the tunnel and the wuss wouldn’t even drive in. She completely froze up, scaredy-cat, and I had to hit the gas myself and she pulled a u-ey and went back. Almost hit a phone pole too. She sideswiped it and the mirror was hanging off.”
I chuckled as unnervously as I could and flipped on the radio. “Why’d she get scared?”
“Dunno. It’s just a tunnel.”
“It’s a one-lane tunnel,” Davey said. “You gotta honk to go through it.”
“You got a flashlight?” Joanna popped open the glove compartment and knocked the tire air pressure gauge to the floor. Papers ruffled around and I figured I’d never be able to find the insurance card again next time I got pulled over.
“What do we need a flashlight for?”
Davey leaned up through the space between me and Joanna. He turned his head upside down. “Never know what you’ll find,” he said, his voice going up in pitch at the end.
I laughed with both of them but didn’t mean it. I didn’t think I’d ever been in the park at night before–oh, unless I counted the one time I came out to the Girl Scout cabin to sneak Shelley McWatt out from her younger sister’s sleep-over and we made out in the backseat of my dad’s car until her mom shined a flashlight in and practically blinded me. Ruined our fun and she cancelled our skating date the next Friday.
The park was long and wide, and we’d just passed the old Warner cabin, decked out for the holiday complete with living actors giving haunted house tours. It was old–eighteenth century old–and every holiday the local historical society decorated it and conducted the tours. At Christmastime they sold homemade cookies, and Thanksgiving was taffy-pulling and hot apple cider time. I went once with my mom, but she liked it more than I did.
The classic rock station I liked was staticky, but I kept it on anyway. Joanna and Davey were arguing about what we have to do once we get to the tunnel, and she’d stop mid-sentence to tell me I was gonna miss a turn. Hell if I knew how to get there.
Davey said we had to turn off the headlights in the tunnel too, and I drew the line at that. “You think that’s smart? Some idiot’s gonna come in from the other direction and we’re dead.”
“Then lay on the horn.” Joanna shoved a stick of gum in her mouth and chewed loudly. “You know, so people can hear us.”
“Won’t that scare your green man away?” I slowed at a stop sign and turned to her, grinning. We were deep in the park now, past all the recreational stuff like the tennis courts and bike trails. Down here it was just us and the road and the trees. Occasionally, we’d meet a turn, but Joanna said to keep going on straight down the long hill.
Joanna slapped my arm. “Shut up. You don’t think it’s real anyway.”
“Course I don’t,” I said, turning the car easily. We passed under a streetlight. The road was wet, but it hadn’t been raining. “People don’t glow from lightning strikes. Besides, there’s no such thing–”
Davey hit my shoulder with the back of his hand. “We’re here.”
I hit the brakes so hard that I knocked my elbow off the door. “Do you see that? Do you friggin’ see that?”
Joanna let out a hiss of breath. “Probably just somebody playing a joke. It wasn’t like this last time. Keep going.”
I didn’t want to.
The tunnel was just ahead of us, a black hole in the middle of shadows of trees. The headlights showed a steady mist rising out of the darkness. It was green.
“Probably just food coloring in the crick,” Joanna offered.
“Sure.” But I didn’t take my foot off the brake.
“Such a prick,” Davey grumbled, and he got out of the car.
“What are you doing?” I’d never rolled a window down that fast.
“Going inside. You got a flashlight?” he asked again.
Did I have a flashlight? I shoved my seat back and it clicked into place. I had to stretch my leg out to hold the brake in. Damnit. “Hold on.” I shifted into park.
“What are you doing?” Joanna asked. Her voice was high.
“Finding a flashlight.” My hand hit cold metal and I wrapped it around the heavy Maglight. With it in my hand, I turned off the engine, shoved the keys into my pocket, and climbed out of the car. This time, though, I made sure to get my jacket.
“You turned the car off. I can’t believe you turned the car off.” Joanna was near hysterical as she got out too.
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m not gonna waste gas.”
I lifted the flashlight to her face and she didn’t even squint. Her cheeks were pale. “He’s gonna come. He’ll touch the car and we won’t be able to start it. We’ll be stuck here.”
“It’s just a story,” I said loudly at the same time Davey pointed out we weren’t even in the tunnel. “It doesn’t matter where we parked because it’s not true.”
She pointed and wagged her finger at the tunnel. “Then how do you explain that?”
I swung the beam of light past her and the fog shone bright green, radioactive. It hung in the air in front of the tunnel–a concrete arch painted all over with graffiti. The tunnel itself was a black hole. “You just said it must be kids playing stupid pranks. You said it was food coloring. It’s just food coloring.”
“I don’t know!”
Quiet, wet thuds moved away from us, and I jerked the flashlight to light up Davey’s back just before he disappeared into the tunnel. “Wait.”
Davey shushed loudly.
I followed him, and Joanna grabbed my elbow. “Don’t.”
“Nothing’s gonna happen.” I shrugged her off and jogged after him. She could follow if she didn’t want to be left alone outside. I heard her footsteps behind me on the wet pavement, and soon her hand came down on my wrist. The tunnel dripped, the water drops echoing in the hollowed-out concrete. My nose twitched. Stale gasoline and mildew. Sticky air. It was gross. I touched the wall and found it slimy, like dog slobber.
“Dude, check this out.”
I wanted to shake Joanna’s hand off my arm. She was clamped to it like a dog to a Frisbee. “What is it?”
“The water.” His voice hit the wall and bounced back incomplete, lost in the crinkling of the water. “It’s glowing.”
Joanna squeaked and pressed her face into my jacket sleeve. When I disentangled myself from her, she batted at me and whimpered. I heard the soft rush as she swung her hands but only her palm hit my wrist. “No, come back.”
A stream ran through the side of the tunnel, blocked from the road by a small concrete wall, and Davey stood beside it and looked down. The air above the water was a brighter green than in the tunnel, and it was because the water itself was really neon-green slime that swirled around and over the rocks. It looked like those DNA slides we saw in science class.
“Why’s it doing that?”
“Food coloring, didn’t you say?” Take it back to that.
Davey jumped over the wall and landed with a half-splash, half-thud. “It’s thick. Give me the light.”
“We should go,” Joanna said, jerkily, breathlessly.
“Not yet.” Davey sloshed around below, and I held the light steady in a spotlight over him. “It’s hot.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch it.”
“It’s not hurting me.” He squatted next to the water and dipped his hand completely into the greenness. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“It’s not normal.” Joanna hiccupped. She whipped her head around and her fingernails dug into the skin through my jacket. “What was that?”
I didn’t hear anything. “What was what?”
All I heard was the constant drip-drip-drip of water from the ceiling and the rush of the creek. There was nothing else. Davey splashed. A hollow clunk behind us, and I lit up the tunnel, seeing nothing but the mutilated concrete on the other side. Joanna poked her nose to my arm. “It’s nothing,” I said, relieved to find that I was still breathing. Another clunk, like a heavy footstep, louder this time. “Davey, let’s go. Let’s get out of here.”
Davey tossed a rock and it splashed then splattered.
“Come on,” Joanna pleaded, and she was pulling on me, pulling me until I had to step towards her. “I don’t wanna stay here.”
“You wanted to come.” I shook her hand off. My flashlight was dimming. I hit the side with the heel of my hand and it went out, something metal and small clanging along inside the metal.
“It went out. Oh my God, it went out.” Joanna’s breath came in harsh sputterings, and she hit me over and over again.
I dropped the flashlight on my foot, and it stung, and I took her by the shoulders. “You need to calm down. Nothing’s going to happen. We’re alright.”
She shook her head. “It’s not real.”
I ran my hand down her arm and interlocked our fingers. “Exactly. It’s not real.” I bumped my knees against the concrete wall. “Davey, now.”
But he wasn’t down there anymore. All I could hear was the steady rush of the water and the constant clunk getting closer and closer.
“Shit, guys, come on,” Davey said loudly. He was already at the car.
Joanna pulled me, whining, whimpering, away from the sound of Davey’s voice.
“What are you doing?”
“We need to go to the car.” She had both hands on mine now, and her sneakers squeaked on the road as she pulled at me. “Please.”
“That’s the wrong way.” But even as I said it, I wasn’t sure. It was dark. I could barely make out her outline, and she glowed green too, like the water and the air. Which side of the tunnel had the creek? Where did I stop the car? The entire tunnel glowed green now. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Below us, the water filled the rocks like lightning bolts cutting, and Joanna still pulled on me, saying we had to go, we had to go. She wanted to go in the wrong direction.
Davey was the other way. The car was the other way. “This way.” I yanked her hand and she protested as she stumbled against me. Soon we were tripping through the tunnel. The air was hot and it pounded against my head. I couldn’t hear Joanna breathing anymore, but I knew she was beside me because her nails were clawing into my palm. All I could hear was those clunking, heavy footsteps louder now, chasing us.
The moon seemed to illuminate only the car and Davey who stood beside it, jiggling the door handle. “I can’t get the damn door open.” He was shaking the whole car. We stopped, and he looked at us, his gaze behind me, back into the tunnel. “Open the door.”
I almost dropped the keys as I pulled them out, and I missed the keyhole three times, the metal tip leaving scratches in the paint. My breath fogged the window.
“Hurry.” Davey slapped the door.
Once I opened the door and we all rushed in, I started the car. Or rather, I tried to. Nothing happened, not even a puttering. Nothing.
Joanna hyperventilated, her hands pressed hard into the dashboard. She repeated, “Oh, my God,” over and over again, her eyes screwed tightly shut.
“Go,” Davey yelled in my ear.
“I can’t. The car won’t start.” I tried the other key.
“Holy shit.” Davey slammed against the seat and kicked at mine as he banged on the door. “Let’s go! Get out of here. Outta the car.” He beat his palm against the glass. It rattled.
I craned my neck around the headrest. “Stop that. You’ll break the window.”
Beside me, Joanna’s breathing turned quickly from normal to short, wheezing puffs.
I jammed the heel of my hand against the unlock button. The keys clattered into the cup holders under the radio as I swung myself out the open door.
Davey leapt out a moment later, and he slammed his door. “I don’t wanna be in that car, man.”
“What the hell do you think we should do?”
“What are you doing?” Joanna leaned across my seat, the collar of her sweatshirt falling. I could see right down it. The seatbelt cut against her neck. “What are you doing? We need to leave.”
“The car won’t start,” I snapped.
“What are you gonna do then?” She struggled with the seatbelt, and it tightened, trapping her. “I don’t wanna stay here alone.” She squirmed out of the seatbelt. The car swayed as she barreled out.
“I’m going to look for help,” Davey said. He jogged backwards, then turned and hurried down the street, his shadow casting long and wide under the streetlight.
I shivered.
“We can’t just stay here,” Joanna said, and she curled her hand around my forearm. Her nails were painted red and chipping. “I don’t want to stay here.”
“Calm down.” I turned to face her, hands on her shoulders. “Just–relax. I’ll think of something.”
She was looking past me, and she dug her fingers down hard. Her lips parted in a gasp of breath.
“What is it?” I spun slowly.
A cloaked man crept out of the trees. I couldn’t see his face, but his clunky work boots left glowing green streaks on the wet pavement. He dragged a baseball bat. Each time he limped forward, the bat fell onto the pavement heavily. He grunted, low, bear-like. His hands, half-hidden by the dark trenchcoat hugging him, glowed too.
I thought it was just a legend. I wiggled the door handle. Locked. Who locked my car? The keys weren’t on the floor. “– the hell? Joanna!” I beat my foot on the underside of the car and it clanged, staying in the wet air. I curved my arm protectively around Joanna when she pressed her warm, shaky body into mine. I should have been turned on, but I couldn’t stop looking at the Green Man. I backed up until I hit the car. The door handle dug into my lower back.
Joanna panted against my chest, and as the man raised his bat over his head, she tipped her face under my arm in a squeak.
What am I supposed to say to some creepy ghost guy who’s about to whack us both with a baseball bat? “Go away.” I said it with as much confidence as I could muster. Like a simple command like that would really get a ghost to leave. “You can’t hurt us.”
He grunted and swung the bat. He let out a sound like a howl and the bat came down, full-force, about a foot from me and Joanna. Another inch or so and he would have taken out a window.
I felt the hollow vibrations through the pavement.
Joanna heaved into my armpit and I pushed her behind me, against the car. She wrapped her arms so tightly around my waist I thought she might squeeze up my lunch. “Get away from us!”
He did. Hell, he actually listened to me. He jerked his head to the woods behind him and limped away. With every step he grunted, sounding constipated.
Once I couldn’t see him anymore, I stepped away and pulled Joanna against my chest. “It’s okay,” I said, awkwardly petting her sweat-stuck hair. It wasn’t so cold out anymore. “He’s gone.”
“But it was real.” She was hoarse. She hadn’t screamed, had she? When she pulled back and tipped her chin up, her cheeks glistened. “He was here.”
I was never good with crying girls. I wiped her cheeks with my thumb. “Yeah, but he’s gone now.”
She sagged against me again and pressed her mouth sloppily against my mouth.
Davey pounded up the pavement at us.
Joanna dropped her cheek to my shoulder, her coloring a pleasant, flustered shade.
“Where the hell did you go?”
He stopped a foot away and put his gloved hand on the window. “Went to find help. No houses nearby or nothing. We should go.”
Joanna nodded. “Yeah. I want to go.” She cast her eyes at the ground and shuffled around to the other side of the car. “Now.”
I tried to door again. “Can’t. Door’s locked.”
Davey tossed me my keys with a wink. He leaned in next to me. “Just tie the wires together and you’re set.” He slapped my back and crawled into the backseat, the laces on his work boots untied and dangling. The soles were wet.
I coulda sworn he’d been wearing sneakers. I stared at him through the window for a full minute.
“Tom, come on, it’s cold.” Joanna bounced, hugging herself, on the other side of the car.
I fumbled the keys and unlocked the door. “Right, right. Sorry.” I got in and hit the button for her. “Davey, you know you coulda let the girl in,” I teased.
He hooted in laughter. “Not me. It’s your night, dude. It’s all you.”
I ducked down below the ignition and fiddled with the wires.
“What are you doing?” Joanna leaned over me and sniffled loudly.
I looped the wires and tied them off haphazardly. “Trying to get the car to start. You want to leave, right?”
She huffed like my mother and crossed her arms. She looked out the windshield.
I grinned and shimmied back into my seat and pulled the belt across. “All set to go then.”
“So,” Davey said, nudging my shoulder with his whole fist. “Anything exciting happen while I was gone? I saw you two practically making out.” He stuck his head between the two seats and turned to look back and forth between us, grinning, as I shoved the keys into the ignition.
After a moment’s hesitation the car started.

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