The two of them had spent time in that hollow, sleeping there, eating whatever they could scrounge from the dumpster behind the Mexican restaurant a few blocks away. But they hadn’t been there for a long time … hadn’t been hungry or even able to eat or drink anything for many weeks.
They hadn’t slept in months.
The firefighters joked that they were in the movie Stand By Me, going down the railroad tracks to see a dead body by the river. But she wasn’t upset by that. How could they know?
She saw his face when they rolled him over. His skin looked like frosting, eyes melted from their sockets.
“Been floating in the water at least four days,” the coroner remarked, looking at what he assumed was water-logging and perhaps the nibbling of tiny fish. But he was wrong. Other things could make your face look like that. And in the end they had.
The coroner’s assistant — a cute young thing like Tandy imagined she herself had once been—carefully examined Tobin’s body as it lay on the muddy bank where the search and rescue raft had towed it and the firefighters pulled it out. Poking through his clothes, she quickly found the small disk-shaped box where Tobin kept his rosary. At first glance it was mistaken for a can of chewing tobacco.
The death wouldn’t cause much of a stir. He had no ID, his odd finger-print patterns would find no match and, of course, he looked older than his age … older by decades. Best he could recall he’d been about twenty-two but could easily have passed for seventy or more. Just another homeless old-man, probably got drunk and fell into the creek and drowned. There wouldn’t even be a story in the paper.
She’d only known him about six months, she thought … maybe a little longer? It was hard to tell. First they stole your flesh, then your memories.
And eventually they stole your eyes.
She opened up the tiny paper, the poem he’d written her two nights before when he realized his sight had begun to leave him:
I am not drowned
I am alive
I am resolved
I am dissolved
I am bound on the outside
And lost on the green railroad track
Something in it, something in there for her, he’d said. He couldn’t remember but he’d thought it might make a difference. Now she could only wonder at his words … an upside-down prophesy, like he’d known what would happen yet cried out in denial. For he was most definitely drowned. He was not alive.
The railroad tracks — not green, but silver and gray and brown with rusted ambivalence — had ultimately led him back here, back to the east side of the river where it snaked through the industrial areas abutting downtown, near their former nest in the cottonwood trees with its myriad of single-use plastic bags and soiled blankets.
I am resolved
She folded the tiny paper and put in her pocket, repeating the words in her mind even as they slipped away from her.
Tobin was in a body-bag now, the firefighters carrying him back up to the tracks on one of those gurneys with the retractable legs … no way wheels would roll down here. The search-and-rescue people picked up their inflatable raft and carried it away. The coroner put Tobin’s rosary into a small plastic bag.
Something turned over beneath her feet. She’d felt it before, but never this close.
The cops were the last ones to leave. They took a few more pictures and then went the way the others had gone.
I am dissolved
It was many hours later when she emerged and long after nightfall. The twin ribbons of track curved away the direction Tobin had been taken, the lights of the city reflecting on their arch. But she turned the other way and moved off into darkness, navigating by wooden ties and gravel, deflected back to the center whenever her stumbling feet veered and contacted steel rail.
She walked all night and the sleeping neighborhoods she passed didn’t awaken. Daylight found her beyond the city at the edge of the foothills and back at the old water tower. She climbed. They were less prevalent up here; she couldn’t feel them as much.
She wondered if she was sad about Tobin. She was pretty sure that was what she was supposed to feel, and she could remember that she had been sad about things before: her grandmother dying, a lost dog—or had it been a cat?
Sad. She knew what it meant. She just couldn’t remember what it felt like.
The boards of the water tower were old and black, broken in some places. Inside were bugs and nests of spiders and other things. She crawled inside and sat amongst them and watched a late morning winter sun pass through the wide spaces between the boards. This tower would not hold water, she thought. It would just spill out.
That made her sad.
She sat inside for the rest of the day and the night. When morning came she could still see light between the boards, but to her eyes it appeared much dimmer than before and she knew her time was growing short. She crawled out of the tower and down the splintery wooden ladder to the ground and with nothing else to do, began walking. Her arms and legs shimmied like the steering wheel of an old car.
The tracks continued on and she followed them for a time, eventually coming to an abandoned spur with weeds growing up between the ties. Feeling an unexplained compulsion she left the main line and followed the spur as it turned west, towards the foothills and across a field. Very soon there were no more ties. Unpinned rails lay directionless and half-buried until they themselves abruptly ended. Something caught her eye, a single sheet of paper tacked to a fence post. It fluttered in the tiny breeze. She moved over to it.
It was a “missing person” flier and it had been there a long time … months. Her eyes were failing. She stretched closer to see. The faded picture was that of a smiling young woman with a pretty face.
bound on the outside
A wrinkled hand moved to her mouth but wasn’t fast enough to stop the scream that descended quickly into a moan.
It was her. The face on the flier was hers … or what had been hers.
She turned away, mouth gnawing on her withered knuckles, tearless eyes clamped shut. She fell to her knees and shuddered like an unbolted machine. The flier continued to flutter. After a moment she opened her eyes. The raised rail bed, free of wood and steel, bent away towards the foothills, a flat, narrow carpet of weeds and grass bisected by a single foot-path.
the green railroad track
And then she remembered.
Grasshoppers ricocheting from their footfalls as they’d walked, the grass on the rail bed as green as the fields on either side, a few cattle in the distance. It had been their second date, and he’d told her about a place he wanted to take her.
Eventually the fields gave way to forest, the heat of late spring cut with moss and earth, grass replaced by pine needles and leaves. They came to a fence. The no-trespassing sign declared watershed land belonging to the city and that all violators would be prosecuted.
“Won’t we get in trouble?”
“Nah,” he’d told her. “No official people ever come up here. At least I’ve never seen any.”
The further they went the more rugged the land became. They crossed a rocky stream by stepping on undercut concrete footings, canted remnants of a long-vanished bridge that bore the same lichens as the smooth stones around them.
“How long ago did they…?”
“Shut down this line? In the thirties I think, not long after they built the highway over the mountains. Used to be this was the best way over to the coast, unless you wanted to cross a bunch of private properties with toll-roads. That’s what folks used to do in these mountains. Buy some land, build a road and then charge people to use it.”
He found local history fascinating and got very excited when talking about it. It was one of the things she liked about him.
“I meant the tunnel. How long ago did they close it?”
“Oh.” He blushed a little. She liked that too.
“In the fifties. It was the height of the Red Scare and they were afraid communists were going to hold-up in there and take over the country or something.” They both laughed.
The rail bed was becoming less obvious. Large trees grew in the path, and only by comparison with the truly giant ones on either side was it apparent that men had once shaped this land. Steep banks suddenly rose on either side of the trail. They were there.
Moss grew thick on the crumbling portal, at first glance no different than any other outcrop on the abrupt hillside. Then she saw the hole in the side of the mountain. Brooklets born of a wet spring wound down from the headland and dropped in cascades, tiny waterfalls guarding a dark archway.
“It’s smaller than I’d pictured.”
“This was a narrow-gauge railroad. They were cheaper to build, especially in the mountains where there would be a lot of tunnels and bridges. This tunnel was over a mile long.”
“And they just blocked it off?”
“Yeah, blasted it shut. Dynamited it at either end. But it still goes in about fifty feet or so. In high school my friends and I used to ditch class and come hang out here.” He looked at her and blushed again. “Not that I was a total delinquent or anything.”
She smiled at him. He smiled back. They walked into the tunnel.
It was cooler inside. Evidence of generations covered the arched roof above their heads, layers of graffiti and soot, streaked with moss wherever rivulets found passage through the concrete. The air was heavy, laden with silence and the smell of dark earth. He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and turned it on.
“Been a long time,” he said, almost to himself.
The beam of his flashlight moved across the dirt floor, across the walls and finally to the earthen ramp at the far end of the space.
“Is that the…?”
“Where they blasted it, yeah.”
They walked further in. She shivered, folding her arms across her chest and wishing she hadn’t left her sweater in the car.
“If you go up on the hillside directly above this spot, there’s a crater where it all caved-in. We tried to dig in there once from above, because according to legend they left things in the tunnel when they sealed it.”
“According to legend?”
He chuckled. “Uh-huh.”
“For sure old rail cars. But there were rumors that the cars had things in them, like munitions, army equipment, surplus stuff from World War II. And then there were other rumors too, like the cars were filled with radioactive waste or a nuclear bomb.” She had to giggle at that. He laughed with her.
“I know, huh? But it gets even better.” They were at the foot of the ramp now. His flashlight played across it. “There were claims that it was alien technology from an ancient space-ship they dug-up in the desert outside of Roswell, or the body of—”
“Hey … what’s that?” She pointed.
At the very top of the dirt ramp, where it met with the fractured concrete ceiling, was a hole. The beam of his flashlight was a small crescent in its mouth.
“Whoa. Must be an animal burrow.” He paused only for a moment before climbing up the ramp. He reached the hole and pointed his flashlight inside. “It is a burrow or something. It goes back quite a ways. And down.”
“What do you think made it?”
“I don’t know. Badger maybe? It’s almost big enough to crawl in there. I think it’s too tight though. Huh. I think I can see—”
The dirt at the top of the ramp suddenly swelled, puffed-out like it was infused with a static charge. All at once Tobin became translucent. He lit up from the inside and she could see his organs and his bones. He began to scream.
Involuntarily she backed away, just as the ground near her bulged, and she felt it in the small of her back and up her spine. Her bladder let go and then there were thousands of millions of them under her skin like centipedes, crawling and prodding and invading. She felt the moisture sucked from her flesh and then they were in her brain and the world turned inside-out.
They left her hollow.
When she was a little girl, her family raised chickens. She would break open a small pumpkin and feed it to them and they would eat it from the inside, every bit except the very outermost layer of orange skin. She thought it was funny that from the outside it just looked like a pumpkin. But turn it over and you’d see it was only a shell, pecked clean and paper thin. If you weren’t careful when you picked-it up it would break apart.
She lay on her side on the moist earth, scooped bare like an autumn gourd.
Tobin’s flashlight rolled and bounced down the ramp and came to rest near her hands which were curled upon the ground in front of her face. They were the withered hands of an old, old woman … of a corpse.
Now she too had begun to scream.
She thought it must have been seeing her face on the flier, reading her name. Why else would these memories have suddenly returned? Whatever the cause, she didn’t believe they would last. It was still early afternoon but the sun had become a bright coin in a darkening sky. Her eyes would soon be gone too.
She left the small piece of paper fluttering and moved west, up the green railroad track as it crossed the fields towards the foothills, her mind preyed upon by freshly stark memories of the last time she’d been here.
They’d tried to follow the rail bed back but had lost it and spent that first night wandering in the woods. They knew something had happened to them but thoughts came and went like dabs of sunlight reflected off rippling water. Nothing made sense.
With daylight they were able to navigate back to the main railroad line but couldn’t think of what to do next. So they followed the tracks and eventually came to an old water tower. It had a ladder, and they climbed it, thinking that from up high perhaps they’d be able to see something they needed to see.
They stayed in the water tower for three days.
When they finally came down they saw the railroad tracks were still there, so again they followed them and soon found themselves adrift in the crevices of the city, the in-between places where the indigent moved and lived.
Tobin had kept his wallet for a little while. Sometimes he would take it out and try to make sense of it, but it always made him frustrated. Finally he just gave it to a homeless man near the river. The man had been skeptical.
“Where did you get this? Did you steal it?”
“No. It’s mine.”
“Then why are you giving it to me? Why do you have his guy’s ID and stuff?”
“He’s me. I’m him. I’m a young man. Just take it.”
“Right. Are you trying to set me up?” In the end the man took it. “Crazy old coot.” They watched the man ditch all the cards and keep the money. It wasn’t much, about thirty dollars. The man kept the wallet too. It was a nice wallet.
In the end the only thing Tobin had kept was his rosary, and while he rarely took it out of its small case, he never seemed to wonder at its importance, although its meaning continued to elude him.
They would try to talk about the tunnel. Most times they couldn’t. They would begin to remember but their thoughts would be pulled up short like a horse whose reins are tugged. But sometimes, just for a moment, they could get a glimpse.
“It took our memories. I know we weren’t always like this. They take your memories … they take them. That’s how they know what to do next.”
“What do they want to do?”
It. They. Them. There was no distinction; a pure alien existence defined neither by group nor individual.
He seemed to know more than she did. He’d surmised that maybe it was because he had been closer or because he was the first to be taken, but when it had entered him and right before his mind tore loose from its moorings he’d seen things … just flashes, like images from a dream. And that was how he knew something had failed inside the tunnel, something that was meant to contain it. He believed it was a simple failure–a switch or a wire or a cap—something that perhaps could easily be set right.
“Maybe we can fix it.”
But such thoughts always left as quickly as they came, drawn back and lost in a miasma of frustration and apathy.
In places where the invisible people dwell they were now just two more of the many, adrift and dirty. Once when the police were rousting a group of them, an officer had questioned her about where she’d gotten her shirt … seems it matched the description of one worn by a missing girl when she went missing. And some personal items of her companion had been found nearby too, credit cards and things. He also was missing. She didn’t have an answer. She honestly couldn’t remember. The police came around quite a bit at first, but after a time they stopped coming around.
Their hollowness became more and more refined as the months passed.
“I don’t understand,” she would ask. “Are we alive?”
“We have to be. We’re talking.”
“But living things eat. They sleep.”
“We eat. We sleep.”
But they were never hungry. They tried for the longest time, forcing themselves to consume scraps just like the other homeless people living in the filthy river encampments, under bridges and on the bush-covered banks of the freeways. Eventually they gave up.
And they were always tired but sleep came less and less until finally it came no more.
Tobin tried to comprehend the impossibility of it. “We’re like florescent lights,” he once stated, catching some fleeting memory of high-school science class. “I think some of its energy is still sticking to us, like how static electricity can make a tube glow; that’s what is keeping us alive.”
“But it’s going away.”
“Yes, it’s fading.”
Eventually they started seeing others like themselves, hollow people, empty and crumbling. They weren’t surprised by this because more of it was coming out all the time.
They could feel it.
It moved under the ground, through old sewer pipes, abandoned gopher runs, the space between root and dirt, moving and turning, yearning for the time when it would be completely free. Soon it would be able to take anyone from anywhere, not just those who had wandered too close. The night he’d written her the poem the ground beneath them seemed to be writhing eagerly.
I am not drowned … I am alive
Two days later he was gone and his fate made mockery of the words he’d left behind.
It was even darker in the woods. She could still barely see the rail bed, still detect the path and she shambled onward, her body hitching and swaying like a bicycle with all its screws loosened. She found the creek and splashed across, her feet slipping and glancing from the stones the two of them had used to cross it months before. Several times she fell completely but eventually crawled soaking wet up the steep bank on the other side.
“You can’t be here.” The voice croaked the words, as though it hadn’t spoken in a long time.
He lolled near the edge of the bank, legs curled beneath his slumping body. The back of his hands lay in the dirt. He raised his head, and when she saw his withered face, his lost eyes, she knew.
“You can’t be here. I work for the city. You can’t be here.” His button-up shirt was torn, dirty. She could just make out the patch on his shoulder. Water Department, it read.
“You can’t be here. This is city property.”
A small sound escaped her as she choked back a cry. “They took your memories, didn’t they? They took mine too.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
His head swayed like it might drop forward again, but it didn’t. For a moment he just looked confused. Then his eyes suddenly grew wide. “You can’t be here!” This time he shouted it as an epiphany. His sagging features swelled into a bloated smile, a joyful recognition of purpose. He raised one filthy hand and pointed.
“I work for the city! You can’t be here!” He lurched forward, propelling himself towards her like a partially broken wind-up toy. His expression was that of a man in the midst of a spiritual awakening. “I work for the city! You can’t be here!”
With a moan she tried to crawl away but his hand grabbed her leg. She rolled onto her back.
“I work for the city.”
She began kicking his face.
“This is city property.”
Her kicks were weak, but they connected. Still, he made no attempt to stop them. She kicked again and again.
“You can’t be here.”
His face turned to blood and dirt and his words became just muffled sounds, a repeating meaninglessness punctuated by the dull cadence of her foot.
And then he was sliding and rolling down the bank away from her. She heard a splash and the blunt sound of flesh and bone against stone. After that there were no more sounds.
She found herself gazing upwards.
The tops of the trees had become black paper cut-outs, the cloudless late-afternoon sky an opaque dream. She lay on her back, breath rasping through the furnace in her chest. After a time she managed to rise and continued stumbling up the trail.
Very soon she was crawling.
Here she felt them everywhere — inside plant and leaf, wood and stone and earth quivering with rank impatience — and she was gripped with an urgency unknown for many months. For while the watery surface of her thoughts had at last become smooth, she felt the pool itself was quickly draining.
All shapes finally melded together into dark oblivion and she thought she could go no further. Then the sound of waterfalls—only trickles this time of year—were enough to let her know she’d reached the portal.
She dragged herself forward and felt the air in the tunnel as it pressed tight around her ears. After a short distance the ground tilted and then she was clawing her way up the ramp.
Her head contacted crumbling mortar. She pawed at the dirt until at last she found the breach. The ground hummed, and waves of them passed through her to no effect. What more could they take? There wasn’t much of her left, but perhaps there might be just enough.
Tobin had said he didn’t think he could fit into the hole, but she was smaller.
maybe we can fix it
With the last of the failing fumes of her memory she recalled that it had been a dog she had lost. He’d become scared during a lightning storm and ran off and they never found him. His name was Jake.
She was a little girl and had lost her dog. He was a good dog.
Something wet was on her cheek. She thought it might be tears and reached up to feel one moist orb and then the other as they deflated, leaving a puddle and a damp trail that in another life could have passed for sorrow. Dirty fingers investigated the empty sockets and then pulled the lids closed.
It didn’t matter. Where she was going it was sure to be dark.
A retired Fire Captain from a large metropolitan city in central California, Daniel Frank DeLong lives deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his wife and daughter, two dogs, three cats, a couple of pigs and an ever changing number of chickens, at last count 21. When he’s not writing, he spends his time driving his tractor around in the woods, and contemplating the potential collapse of the civilized world … often doing both at the same time.