The darkness is so complete it feels suffocating. Hot, slightly acidic air burns my throat with each gasp. Icy liquid flows gently around my ankles. I pant heavier than a marathon runner as he nears the finish line.
I lean forward and try to catch my breath. Soon my breathing returns to normal, but I begin to shiver. Whatever I am standing in is cold. Numbing. The wall at my back is also cold. I spread my hands across the surface of the wall. It is rough and moist with condensation. Pushing it accomplishes nothing and I conclude that it is a slab of rock.
I slide my hands up, the rock curves gently. Inching away from the wall I follow it up, but it goes too high for me to touch. Nevertheless I continue to edge backward and after several feet the rock gently kisses my fingertips, and I slide them down the wall and into the liquid. A quick taste confirms that it is icy water. For some reason I am in a man-made or natural tunnel formation.
How did I arrive in this place? The last thing I remember is feeling terrible pain and something scorching my throat and chest. I search for something else but nothing comes to mind and that frightens me. It seems my memories have been erased! A sudden thought urges me to lower my hand down to my genital area. I am male.
“But who am I?” My voice echoes away from me. It sounds like the tunnel goes on forever. Suddenly I hear something. Tilting my head to the side I listen intently, trying to decipher the sound. Whatever it is travels quickly. Before I can react, the sound bellows over me.
With a scream I throw my hands over my ears. My scream rushes away growing fainter with every beat of my heart. Then I hear another sound from behind me. I strain to hear it but it is upon me so swiftly.
This time I clamp my mouth shut. For some reason my echo came back to me from the opposite direction. Not only that, it became explosively loud. The only way that could happen is if the tunnel formed a complete circle and as the sound hit a certain place it was catapulted forward. The only problem with this scenario is the echo should just keep going endlessly, but once it reached me it stopped.
“Hello!” My voice travels away from me. A minute later I hear it coming back. I wait till the last minute then run forward several feet. All remains quiet, peaceful.
I start walking slowly forward. “So if I continue to walk and speak the echo of my voice will never reach me because I am moving away from the point of origin.” I stop and listen.
Origin, origin . . .rigin. . . . . . .igin. . . . . . . . . .gin . . . . . . . . . . .in
I wait it out, naturally it comes back. Still I do not move. In fact I clasp my hands flush against my ears. The word ‘origin’ thunders above me. With my ears still covered I take another step backward and the word ‘of’ is repeated. Another step and ‘point’ thunders around me.
Strange. What does it mean?
I rummage through my pockets and find a lighter and some papers. I strike a flame, fortunately it illuminates several feet of the tunnel. The walls are black, dotted with clear crystal. The first piece of paper is a sales receipt for two dollars and seventy-nine cents. No store name is printed on it. The second paper was ripped off of a bigger sheet and has a phone number scribbled on it with red ink, 555-5843. On the reverse side is several lines of a letter or poem.
In my back pocket I pull out a nylon wallet and tear the Velcro strips apart. In the money slot I count three crisp one hundred dollar bills. I search the wallet’s small compartments and find a dollar worth of change and a picture. The photograph is of a heavyset man in a brown suit. His salt and pepper hair is cropped close to his head. An oxygen cup rests over his nose and mouth. I have no idea who the man is.
I tuck the photo back into its proper spot and slip the wallet in my pocket. Not finding anything about me or who I am disturbs me. I try thinking of my life, of who I am, but there is nothing. Not even a small memory tucked into a hidden corner. Yet, I can think in words and I know what the words mean. I know what grass is and how it smells, there is just no association to the grass and me.
I need to find a way out. Besides, the water is cold, my feet are going numb. The choice of direction is simple, I move forward. At least now I have some form of light.
Unfortunately I cannot burn the lighter constantly, both for fear of using its precious fluid and because it gets too hot to hold. I walk most of the time in darkness, with my left hand touching the wall for guidance. As I walk, I wonder what kind of person I am. I wonder what I look like and how others viewed me. My thoughts, though, always return to the man in the picture. Who is he to me?
Many hours pass. My earlier fear has diminished into gnawing worry. Suddenly my hand touches air. Startled, I stop, flicking the lighter to life. An opening appears before me. It is one step higher than the one I’m in, and it looks dry. I peek inside.
“Now what?” My voice echos in both tunnels simultaneously. I hold my ears, waiting for the thunder of my voice, but it never arrives. Instead a strange voice speaks from the cloak of darkness.
“Every path is made of many choices. Life is the same way. Some paths may lead into darkness, and others will lead into the light and still other’s will transverse both. Only you can know which path to choose by searching deep in your heart.”
My heart literally stops. “Who said that!”
All remains quiet. “Hello?”
The minutes tick by but the voice doesn’t return. Thinking of what the voice said, I close my eyes and take several deep breaths. With each exhale I feel my tension and fear leave me with sweet release. I search my heart and mind. I fear this new path, but feel compelled to enter it.
I step up into this new tunnel and relight the lighter. I can go either left or right. The right tunnel seems to raise gradually while the left dips down into black water. I choose the right path as it is dry.
The path is difficult to transverse by feel alone and I am forced into using the lighter more than I anticipated. Up ahead I see the flash of a red light, then darkness. A few seconds later the tunnel is bathed in red once again.
My pace quickens, after several minutes I come to a steep incline. The light continues to pulse above, except now there are red, blue and white flashes. I climb as fast as I can. Once at the top I look down on the other side. My breath hitches in my throat. I close my eyes, feeling suddenly weak. A memory explodes in my mind.
I remember driving to the recycle center in my neighborhood. For these garbage trips I use an old Ford F-250 pickup truck. The road I travel ends at a T-junction. A farmer is burning his old crop and the air is filled with gray, wispy smoke. It mixes with the light morning fog. Visibility drops to fifty feet.
I bring the truck to a stop and look both ways. The new road is quiet. I accelerate into the lane to make a left and immediately see a logging truck barreling toward me. There is no time for me to do anything except watch the grill of the truck fill my vision. Impact happens a second later! My body is engulfed in pain. My truck is lifted off the ground and thrown off the road. Something explodes and the air becomes hot. The truck tips over and begins to roll down the embankment.
A vision shoves itself to the forefront of my mind. I see my dog, Biscuit. Her young body is curled in the back of the cage. She lifts her head and whimpers. I know she sees me, and I am filled with profound remorse, as I was only planning on being gone for ten minutes, I did not leave her any food or water. Will someone rescue her in time?
The truck completes an entire roll, the roof crumbles and presses into my head. All I see is blackness.
Now, I approach the scene in a dream state. The fire department is using the jaws-of-life to try and extract my body from the truck. Even if they get me out, there is no way they will save me.
A hand clasps my shoulder and I turn to see the man in the photo, my grandfather. “It’s time to go.” He says. Behind him a large dark tunnel materializes and I can see a bright white light at its end. “What’s wrong?” He asks.
“There is so much I haven’t done, people I haven’t been able to say goodbye to!” I cry. “What about my puppy?”
Grandpa smiles at me. “Biscuit will be fine and so will you.” He grabs my hand. “Come along and leave the regret behind. You have accomplished what you were destined to accomplish. It’s time to move on. Besides, they have the best chocolate mocha coffee here.”
Despite my sorrow I smile and clasp his hand. Together we enter the tunnel.