Tunnel was originally published in Twisted 50 volume 2, a collection of 50 thrilling short stories that is available to buy from Amazon. It is a great collection of many different styles and will delight and disturb in equal measure. The story is reproduced wth permission from the creators of Twisted 50.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
Archie and Annabel fired up for the umpteenth time, filling the already cramped Prius with more tension than was healthy or necessary. The kids smiled to themselves; they loved games, especially this one. They knew it wound Mum and Dad up which was the only reason to do it. How far they could push it was the question.
Karl and Kerry shuddered as the wail bounced around the inside of the car. They still had an hour of driving ahead and the roadworks they were currently limping through at 25mph were likely to make that much longer. Karl’s head pounded; had been since they left home. He wondered, not for the first time, how he ended up with kids, it all happened so fast. It felt like only yesterday that he was making his first, fumbling, moves on Kerry back in university. He did love them though; all three of them and with all of his heart but, jeez, sometimes he wished they would just shut up!
“Archie!” he called sternly over his left shoulder without taking his eyes off the road, “if you and your sister can’t be quiet, I will stop the car and you can walk the rest of the way to Grandma’s.” The anger in Karl’s voice was real, but Archie knew he wasn’t about to make them walk along the side of the motorway. Archie was young, but he wasn’t stupid.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Seriously?” Kerry countered, jumping in before things got out of hand. She cast a worried eye in Karl’s direction as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can’t we just sit quietly for a while? At Grandma’s you can make as much noise as you like.” The combination of Grandma’s military-grade double-glazing and never-quite-right hearing aids meant the kids could run around all day in the back garden and not bother anyone. Well, perhaps the neighbours, but Karl and Kerry didn’t live there and most of them were deaf as well. As long as the kids knackered themselves ready for a night in the Travel Inn, then it was a win-win situation.
“Can’t you play a game?” Karl asked. “I spy?”
“Played it,” replied Archie.
“Car Cricket?” Kerry suggested.
“Several matches,” reported Archie as he held up a small wipe-clean board with a pen clipped to the side of it. Several clumps of crossed tally-marks, like little picket fences, supported his claim.
“And I won them all,” Annabel bragged as Archie dropped the board between them and lightly punched her arm.
“I let you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“You always do!”
“You shut up!”
“Both of you shut up!” screamed Karl, knuckles white on the steering wheel. He turned to face the kids, about to shout again, but the car swerved. Horns blared and he snapped back to face front, relieved the car was moving at a crawl.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” Kerry yelled at her husband as she turned to face the back seat. “Kids, you need to be quiet, don’t distract Daddy while he’s driving.”
The kids went quiet. Archie wouldn’t admit it, but the swerve and horns scared him a little. He was only nine after all and some stuff still scared him, but he had to be brave to look after Annabel. She annoyed the hell out of him most of the time, but she was three years younger than him, and he took his ‘Big Brother’ responsibilities very seriously; as he did now when he saw her bottom lip quiver in that way it always did when she was scared. He reached across from his booster seat and grabbed her hand. She may have accused him of being a cheat at Car Cricket, but the smile she gave him made up for it all.
Kerry’s heart melted as it always did when she watched Archie taking Big Brother duty seriously, and this led to the usual feelings of guilt that attacked her just after she had shouted at the kids. Neither she, nor Karl, would ever go out of their way to hurt the kids, God forbid hit them, but they had both done their fair share of shouting. It was part of being a parent she guessed. No one prepared you for the stresses and strains of being responsible for anyone other than yourself and, sometimes, you just had to shout loudest to remind them who was in charge.
“I’m sorry kids but, you know… Daddy is driving, and we can’t distract him, it’s dangerous.” Her smile asked for some sign that the kids understood but they just stared back in wide-eyed, guilt-tripping fright until Kerry tore her gaze away to look at anything other than those doe eyes. She sat quietly and watched cone after cone drift past the window. As a new sign at the side of the road crept slowly towards the car, she smiled.
“How about a new game?” she asked.
This got the kids’ attention and they nodded, interested to hear as Kerry turned in her seat to face them as much as possible under the restrictions of her seatbelt.
“Tunnels,” whispered Kerry, “are full of monsters.”
The kids listened intently; hooked.
Kerry kept her voice low and soft. “When I was a little girl, my mum played a game with us where we had to hold our breath whenever we drove through a tunnel.” The kids hung on her every word and leant forward against their restraints to hear. “If you didn’t hold your breath,” Kerry continued in a whisper, “the monsters would hear you, and GET YOU!” She shouted the last two words making the kids jump and giggle.
“There’s a tunnel just up ahead, we can play it then. I’ll count 1, 2, 3 and we all have to hold our breath until we come out the other side.”
“Daddy too?” asked Annabel.
Karl rolled his eyes and Kerry nudged him.
“Especially Daddy. Who’s going to drive if Daddy gets eaten by monsters?” She knew he would play; he was too competitive not to.
“Hey, don’t be feeding me to any monsters.”
“It’s okay Daddy, I’ll protect you,” said Annabel, she liked the sound of this game.
“I’ll be okay poppet,” replied Karl, “I hear they prefer little girls anyway.”
Annabel giggled, but she looked over to Archie for reassurance. He smiled back at her, and she relaxed.
The car continued on its slow tour through what, by now, felt like about a hundred miles of cones, barriers and other, slowly moving cars. Karl felt like he had been on a conveyer belt most of the morning but, with the kids quiet, he could relax. His head was easing, and he thought it was time to have a bit of fun.
“Okay,” he said, “the tunnel is coming up. Get ready.”
The kids adjusted themselves in their seats, heads straining to get a glimpse of the tunnel.
“It’s not a long one, so it’ll be easy,” reassured Kerry as she started to count.
“On ‘Go.’ One! Two! Three… GO!”
A sharp intake of breath from all four players and the car darkened as it vanished from the glare of the morning sun. Kerry hoped she was right about this one being easy. It wasn’t a long tunnel, but the road works had slowed them down enough to make it a little tougher.
Annabel struggled first. Her little lungs didn’t pull in much air when she took her breath, and she could feel that she was going to lose; but she didn’t want the monsters to eat her. She turned her head to Archie who was a lot more relaxed. He looked back at her worried expression and smiled with true, Big Brother love, before he took her left hand in his right. He leant across with his other hand and reassured her with a wink as he picked up the board and pen.
Kerry clamped her lips shut, memories flooding back of her mum playing this game with her as a kid. Long trips out to see her Grammy and Grampy with her Daddy driving, also doing his best to avoid playing along. What goes around comes around she guessed, funny how we all end up being our parents. All those things they say and do that we think we will never, ever say or do ourselves, but always end up doing so.
Karl’s tightly closed mouth curled up slightly at the edges as a plan formed in his mind. As the exit of the tunnel appeared up ahead, a bright spot in the gloom, he slipped down in his chair, disappearing from the view of the kids. Kerry had planted the seed. What would happen if Daddy disappeared, eaten by the monsters he wondered? If he could just get low enough in his seat to disappear from view.
Behind him Annabel and Archie concentrated on each other, not noticing what was going on in the front. Annabel was really struggling now. She held her nose with the hand Archie wasn’t holding, her eyes wide with fear; she wasn’t going to make it to the end of the tunnel.
Archie continued to smile back and held her hand even tighter. Big Brother time, he thought. He grabbed the wipe-clean board and pen, rubbed the picket fences away with his fingers, and began to write. He was glad he was left-handed with Annabel holding his right hand so tightly. He smiled at her as he held the board up.
‘Its ok. monsters not reel. You can breath… ssssh!’ it read.
He knew his spelling was poor, but he was in a rush. He dropped the board and held his index finger up to his mouth in a “sssh” gesture and winked again at Annabel.
Kerry began to hurt as her lungs burned. She dry-swallowed in the way people do when trying to ignore the fact they are not breathing but their brain is telling them it is time to open up and let the air in. Whose stupid idea was this, anyway, she asked herself? She had been crap at it when she played as a kid!
Karl was as low as he could get in his seat while still being able to drive safely. He looked up at Kerry, his mouth shut tight but grinning like an idiot. She looked down at him, smiling back. He can be short-tempered at times, she thought but, mostly, he is a good dad.
Kerry blinked hard in the flash of light as the car breached the end of the tunnel. She breathed out in a sudden explosion of air, dragging it back into her lungs in two sharp breaths of relief. Karl copied her, blinking in the light, but still smiled to himself.
And then the screaming started.
Karl smiled to himself, pleased with his prank. Kerry hit him on the arm. “It’s okay kids,” she reassured them, “Daddy’s still here.”
Karl pushed himself up in his seat as Kerry twisted her head towards the backseat. Karl concentrated on the car in front as he wriggled upright, grinning. What’s the point in fatherhood if you can’t scare your kids from time to time, he thought?
Archie sat on his booster, screaming, and staring at his sister’s car seat. Or at least the space her car seat had occupied when they had entered the tunnel. The seat had vanished, and Annabel was nowhere to be seen; the seatbelt that had secured the seat was still in place, locked into the clasp.
Kerry turned to Archie, a confused look on her face. Archie continued to yell as screams burst from his mother’s throat and threatened to drown his out. They both stared in absolute terror at the no man’s land between the kids’ seats. The wipe-clean board sat on the car seat, Archie’s message still upon it, but now punctuated with red spots that dripped down from Annabel’s severed hand, still clutched tightly in Archie’s Big Brother grip.