The Green Tunnel

The Green Tunnel originally appeared in LampLight – Volume 7, Issue 1, edited by Jacob Haddon

 

I leave the Volvo at the Springer Mountain Trailhead, keys underneath the seat. Walking away, new red backpack heavy on my hips, I realize I never want to see the car again. When I come out the other side, I’ll report it stolen, and cash out more of the settlement to buy a new car with fewer seats.

The new boots wrap my feet like second skin. I’d broken them in on day hikes in the winter, testing each bit of gear as it arrived. I made sure I could pitch the tent in the rain, strip the stove to clean each valve, patch the ultralight air mattress in the dark if it sprung a leak. I packed food into parcels — dehydrated meals, rice, and protein bars — and mailed them to post offices along the route. I have no intention of dying on the Appalachian Trail, no matter what my friends assume.

The thrum of cars gives way to the whisper of wind through spring buds and the crunch of snow underfoot. The sweat on my back cools in the morning chill. With the anxiety of planning and preparation behind me, there is only the fixed certainty of the next six months ahead.

I am each step, and then the next, and nothing more. I am the smell of Georgia pines and melting snow. I am sunlight on cold skin. Rising to the peak of Springer Mountain, I descend the other side without stopping to sign the register. On the first day, as I’d hoped, I lose myself in the immediacy. The sounds of rushing air and shearing metal that I’d lived with for a year slides into the background.

When I’d backpacked in my youth, in the coastal mountains of the West, I was never alone. I went with a series of beautiful and dim California boys, the paths of our lives still stretched ahead of us. We stayed awake as stars wheeled overhead, drinking and smoking the night into a blur of firelight and bare skin. We slept late, until the noonday sun roused us. Hiking alone, in silence, is another world.

When I make camp the first night, I pass the lean-to’s already filled with early season thru-hikers, and find a clearing a hundred yards from the trail. According to the GPS unit, screen still covered in a plastic protector, I’ve made 15 miles already.

The sun is down by the time I’ve boiled rice and mixed in a can of tuna. I eat by the light of my headlamp. The forest comes alive and brings a vivid dread, one I haven’t felt in all my years of backpacking. It’s an atavistic, oily sensation. I relish the chill that goes up my spine. Like all things on the trail, it is immediate and pure, and I welcome it. I start a fire. It is weak and pitiful, a small teepee of damp twigs that gives off more smoke than light or heat. But it makes me feel powerful, like a raised bulwark against the darkness.

The fire was a mistake. In the gloom beyond the pale sphere of firelight, I catch the flicker of eyes. Ten yards into the trees, something is pressed low to the ground, watching me. The skin around my neck prickles and my scalp goes cold. It doesn’t move. It’s too low to be a bear, but the eyes are set wide, facing forward like a predator. I try to shout, but the sound catches in my throat like a whimper. There is no movement in the eyes, only reflected flames.

I take two deep breaths, letting the roar of the burst aircraft cabin back in, and expelling the alien dark of the forest. My body trembles with the urge of flight, but the eyes in the dark are now an abstract thing. It is a puzzle to be investigated, checked off the list before I drift to sleep in my new sleeping bag. As the terror subsides, I miss its immediacy. This is why I came out here. But instead, I am back in seat 19C, and nothing else matters.

I rise on stiff legs, and approach the eyes, expecting them to rear up and turn away. But they don’t. They hold my gaze, resolute and still. I fumble for the headlamp, and the too-bright beam washes over the eyes in the dark.

For a moment, the sharp circle of illumination is too much for me to take in. And then I see: they are not eyes. They are glasses. A pair of tortoiseshell glasses with thin, scratched lenses, resting on the gnarled curve of a chestnut oak’s roots. Pointed at me, and my makeshift camp. I consider the glasses for a long while. Somewhere above, a branch creaks, low and sonorous. Not knowing what else to do, I reach out and turn the glasses around to face the darkness.

Sleep doesn’t come easy. The musical shearing of aluminum lingers in my ears, but more and more I find myself thinking about the glasses north of my tent. I wish I’d crushed them, or thrown them deeper into the wood.

Something noisy and arrogant lumbers into my campsite past midnight, snuffling around my tent and the ashes of my fire. It circles the clearing, smelling the food I’ve slung from a tree branch inside the bear bag. It avoids the copse of trees where the glasses lie. The branches of the chestnut oak squeals again, and the visitor strides away to the south.

In the morning, after a breakfast of oats and almonds, I leave the glasses behind. I cover another 15 miles. In the next day, almost 20. I try to leave the airplane behind, but it’s never far. In the empty moments, I expect my thoughts to blossom, but instead there is only silence. One foot, then the next, and that is enough.

It’s several weeks before I realize I’m being followed. I pass people every day, going north and south. I cross heavily trafficked roads as the Trail passes out of Georgia and splits Tennessee and North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail is no isolated wilderness, but I still feel sinking disappointment when the path dumps me into the outskirts of a small town. I hurry through these interruptions, picking up my food parcels and speaking to no one. I am fast now; my body was always lean and muscular, but now it hardens like steel quenched in water. I pass hikers everyday, but no one passes me.

One day I catch a clear glimpse of the man. He’s far back, always at the furthest distance before vanishing around the bend. If I turn and stare, there’s nothing to see, as if he’s taken a single step back. But over several more days, I piece together an image of dark slacks, grey flannel, and a small green rucksack. He’s not a thru-hiker, then. He’s keeping up with me, which is commendable, but he can’t maintain for long. I pick up my pace. I hike for an hour after I should’ve stopped. I pick another clearing far from the trail and make no fire. I wait and listen, but there is no sign of him. Sleep has been fitful since the first night, but I need less and less.

The next afternoon, as I stop to eat a protein bar, I catch sight of him again. He’s close. I see tortoiseshell glasses making dark circles on his pale face. I stop and stand my ground, legs planted wide and shoulders thrust upward in silent challenge. I hold the little canister of pepper spray, a gift from my worried sister. But he’s gone again, just a ripple of grey flannel between the trees, and an empty bend in the trail.

“Hey,” I shout, a croak from an unused throat. “Hey, fuck off and stop following me.”

There is murmur of wind through the canopy. The birds ignore my posturing.

“Stop being such a fucking creep,” I yell, finding a confidence in my sharpened edge.

Around the bend, there is movement and crunching footsteps. I plant myself low, braced in preparation, but now I see a figure in blue jeans and a t-shirt, an old, metal-framed aquamarine backpack high on her shoulders. Her short cropped hair is the mottled silver of someone who no longer cares what you think, and she’s grinning behind aviator sunglasses as she trudges up the path.

“What’d I do, sweetie?” she says, a crooked smile showing crooked teeth. “Swear I’m not following you, but the trail only goes the one way.”

I relax, dropping the pepper spray into my pocket.

“Sorry…” I look past her. “There was a guy… he’s been behind me for the last few days, and… Shit.”

Her eyebrows rise, forehead wrinkled in sympathy.

“Ain’t seen anyone all day, darling. You got an admirer back there, he’s squatting in the trees.” She turns around and cups her hands around her mouth. “Hey, pal! The lady said fuck off!” she hollers. She turns back to me, crooked grin even wider. “That about do it, you think?”

The adrenaline evaporates, and flushed shame rushes in behind. I open my mouth, the reflex of apology on my lips, but she waves it away before I can speak.

“Nah, don’t. Bad enough to be worried about mosquitoes and bears without some jackass trying to watch you piss. Look, if you can keep up, we can stick together a bit. Hopefully I’ll scare him away.”

As much as I don’t want company, the raw warmth of her presence is attractive.

“Rose,” she says, jaw thrust out in a greeting.

“Gail,” I reply.

Besides a smattering of pardons as we navigate the thinner stretches of the green tunnel, we don’t speak for the next three hours. When the sun begins to filter in sideways through the trees, Rose clucks her tongue and stops.

“Funny, expected we’d reach a shelter by now.” She turns, peering at me over the mirrored lenses with smoke-grey eyes. “You must have been slowing me down.” There’s the edge of an accusation, almost offset by the crooked grin.

“I… haven’t been sleeping in the shelters,” I admit. “Trying to avoid people, you know?”

“Oh I know. I see that. You want to keep going, or pitch in a clearing for the night?” She sees my hesitation and raises one hand with a snort. “Nah, don’t worry. I’ll go a few yards away when I set up. I don’t want to bust up this thing you got going. I figure that pervert gave up back when the old broad joined you, you should be clear.”

I unsling my pack from my hips and rest it against a tree. Rose hefts the heavy metal frame of her pack off her shoulders and leans it next to mine. I stiffen, wanting to ask her what she’s doing.

“I’ll be out of your hair in a few seconds. Can I take a look at your gear for a moment? Pitch your tent, just pretend I’m not here.”

I can’t think of a way to tell her no, and a knot of anxiety winds in my chest. I try to tug at the loose threads to calm myself, but the sound of the plane venting meager atmosphere into the night sky comes roaring out. My fingers fumble at the pack. I unfurl the fabric of the tent’s footprint across the meadow floor, then the tent itself. I’m sliding the first of the tent poles into the grommets when I hear Rose whistle.

“Fancy.” She raises a lighter to a loose rolled cigarette tucked between her lips. The acrid smell of pot rises up in a cloud. “How much did all this gear cost you? Ain’t ever seen anything like it. Your bag, too.”

“I have a lot of money right now,” I say, the honest flatness of it feeling like a guilty admission. “I was in an accident.”

“Not bad enough that you can’t walk a few thousand miles I see. Like winning the lottery, huh?” She passes the little joint to me, and I reach out, not sure if I’m going to strike her or take it until my fingers pinch the browning paper. It’s dry and tastes like summer in California.

“No.” I say, with more teeth than I’d meant. “Not like the lottery at all. I lost my family.” I take another drag and hand it back. Her smile remains, but above the mirrored lenses, her brow furrows.

“Ah, fuck me, honey. That was a shitty thing to say, should’ve known better.” I can only nod. “I just… never seen gear like this before, and figured…” She looks off at the treeline and exhales. “You know what, I’m not making it any better, lemme just leave it with I’m real fucking sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I say, clipping plastic hooks around the tent poles and drawing up the small dome. “You didn’t know.”

“You, uh… You want to talk about it?” She offers the joint and I take it, already feeling the fog of intoxication dull the bite of the hungry wind inside the dying plane.

“Not in the slightest,” I say.

“Okay, listen, I’m gonna get outta your hair, you keep that.” She lifts her pack up by the metal bar. “I’ll be right up the trail, holler if you need me. If you’re up and want to walk in the morning, I’ll try to keep my foot out of my mouth. No pressure. I’ll tie an old bandana on a tree so you know where I’m posted, okay?”

I nod, not wanting to see myself in her mirrored eyes.

“Sleep well, Gail,” she says, and disappears down the trail without looking back.

I finish the joint. After that I’m too tired and too sore to even consider cooking. It takes me another 30 minutes to sling my food from a tree; the rope won’t go where I want, and I laugh at the way it spills through the air. By the time the sun sets, I’ve eaten two days supply of dried cranberries and almonds, and entombed myself in the sleeping bag with noise cancelling headphones drowning out any remaining sounds.

I wake up in the dark. No clue what time it is. My headphones are still in, my ear canals ache with the pressure. If I’d taken them out, I might have heard the footsteps approaching. But I only hear the last step, right outside my tent.

The zipper slides open, a buzz of plastic teeth, as the tent parts to release the warm air inside like a dying breath. I try to scream. It’s stillborn in my throat. My arms are pinned by the sleeping bag, and I shrink from the looming darkness above. There’s a silhouette, darker than the moonless sky, an occlusion in the stars, standing in the entrance of my tent. It leans forward and I feel its body heat as the headphones are plucked from my ears.

It’s Rose. She’s weeping, so soft it’s almost silent. Her rough hands encircle my head, caressing my forehead. Even as animal terror gives way to raw, violated fury, I’m aware of how long it’s been since I’ve been touched. The funerals. The stiff hugs. And then nothing… an invisible wall between me and all other flesh. I hadn’t even realized the loss until Rose’s hands stroked my cheeks. I’m crying with her, shuddering sobs of relief mixed with anger, at Rose, at the feeble weakness of aircraft aluminum, at the cruel gravity that pulled my children and husband back to the earth.

She leans down towards me and kisses my forehead. I twist away, shrinking from her touch, and yet wanting more. The paradox of her transgression boils in my chest, and for a moment, the roar of the dying plane is far away.

“You shouldn’t be here. It’s not fair,” she whispers, a voice like dead leaves creaking beneath the weight of frost. “It’s never fair.”

Then she rears back and strikes me across the jaw, hard enough to blur my vision and fill my mouth with blood. Then she stands like a released spring and bounds away into the darkness. It’s a long time before I stop sobbing, and reach up to close the flap. Longer still until sleep comes.

When the cold sunlight wakes me, I try to convince myself it was a dream, product of exhaustion and intoxication. But between the swollen lip and footprints, there is not much hope. I pack with frenzied focus, considering leaving at the next trailhead and returning home, but I decide to outpace Rose, to leave her behind. I will do 25 miles today, and I will never see her again.

Just up the trail, I see the faded bandanna tied to mark her camp, and my former desire to leave wilts before my desire to knock Rose to the ground. I crash through the woods before I can talk myself out of it, but after just a few steps, my thundering breath is sucked away.

The campsite is ancient. A tent, a skeleton of steel poles with the moldering remains of fabric clinging to it, squats like a corpse next to the bent aluminum frame of an old turquoise backpack. Rose’s backpack. The rot of last autumn’s leaves coats everything like putrid blanket. Behind the tent, behind the trees, deeper into the woods, I see a shape. A tall square of shadow. A house. An impossible house in the trees.

I hit the trail at a run. According to the map and the GPS, there should be a shelter and a trailhead less than three miles away. I can spend tonight in a hotel with a shower and locked door.

After five miles I consult the map, but can find no markers to triangulate, no signposts. The trail has gradually lost its well-worn distinction, and now I seem to be following a deer track. I’ve made a mistake. Gotten off the Appalachian Trail somewhere the day before. The map is wrong. I have to go back.

I turn around and take two steps before I see the house. It is in far better condition than it has any right to be, a proud monolith of fresh-cut and unstained pine. There are two windows on the upper story, lace curtains drawn across them, and a single door, cut from one solid piece of darker wood. The hinges gleam with new brass.

I can’t walk past the house. I don’t know why I know that, but I know it, in the same primal way I know how to breath. So I turn again, down the vanishing path. Forward into the woods.

I pass the house again, two hours later. Then again as the sun sets. I don’t want to stop, don’t want to close myself back up inside the tent. So I keep walking. If I can reach a road crossing, I tell myself, I can leave the woods. But I haven’t seen a trail sign all day. Or any other hikers. I shove those thoughts back into the roar of high altitude air, let them get sucked out of the plane. I will walk through the dark until I am free.

I pass the house again at midnight. There is a light on upstairs, and now the door is cracked open. I cast my eyes down, not wanting to see inside. It slides by me in the dark.

I begin to jog, as best I can with the pack. As I leave the house again, I hear a the crunch of footsteps behind me and slide from panic into hysteria. I spin, headlamp skittering across the treeline, expecting to see the man in the tortoiseshell glasses.

It’s Rose. Her old pack swings as she walks the trail in total darkness, mirrored sunglasses reflecting the beam of my light. I scream, a torrent of sound, unhindered and free.

“What’d I do, sweetie?” she says, a crooked smile showing crooked teeth.

“No!” I scream, an accusing finger lancing out towards her. “What the fuck is going on?”

Her strong shoulders slouch as she stops in front of me.

“Oh shit, hun. We’ve met already, haven’t we?” She looks behind me, over my shoulder and frowns. “I’m sorry, I get confused still. You’re new on the loop, aren’t you. How long since you went inside?”

I follow her gaze. There is no shock at what I see, only a surrendering dread. I see the house. Windows ablaze, but casting no light. Door open and inviting. There is a familiar, far away sound coming from inside.

“I’m not going in there,” I whisper, knowing already it’s a lie.

“That’s what I always tell myself,” Rose says. She’s in front of me now, at the threshold of the house looking in, the ghost light of the windows failing to illuminate her. She turns back to me, tears streaming from behind the mirrored sunglasses.

“Why do I always look?” she asks like a wounded child. “I don’t want to, but I always do. We always go inside.”

She’s inside the doorway, and the dark wooden door pulls her into an embrace.

“Maybe you can still-” she begins, but then the door is closed and she is gone. It swings open again, and I see something impossible in the hallway. I turn to run, but the man in the tortoiseshell glasses is striding out of the gloom, slicked with blood and fingers caked in gore. He’s screeching and weeping, hands outstretched to embrace me.

I run. The bobbing light of the headlamp dances through the woods, illuminating the trees like a grasping, many-fingered hand. I hear his footsteps behind me, a manic howling. I can hear Rose whispering from the woods with a dozen other voices. Sad and sunken eyes watch my panicked flight with mute sympathy. The house glides by again and again, until the woods on the eastern side of the trail are an endless row of identical structures, limned in starlight. The trail is only the suggestion of trampled vegetation. Soon it will be nothing but the trees, the house, and me. I turn, perpendicular to the fraying trail, put the house behind me and crash into the black wilderness.

Iron branches split my skin and tear my clothes, but I lurch onward. At some point I shed my backpack, letting it fall to the forest floor but I feel no lighter. Something tears the headlamp from me, sending a beam of light cascading through the canopy, but when I look back, there is only the dark silhouette of trees and a cruel sliver of the moon above the house to mark the horizon.

I try to run, but without the light I keep crashing to the ground. The only sounds are the hammer-fall of my heart, the raw gasping of my frenzied breath, and the screams of my children being flung into the clouds.

Something crashes through the canopy. Something that glints in the starlight as it shatters branches like a meteor and slams into the rotten leaves below. Aluminum and paint. Bright clean lines where the plane sheared apart. Another impact. Another. Broken bits of the plane rain down into the forest. Bodies follow. They thud, wet and pliable, into the earth with a sound like tearing bedsheets. I cover my eyes so I will not see. I claw at my face, desperate to block out the riot of memory and violence that tears the forest apart.

I stumble and fall, gasping for breath that won’t come and begging for an ending. The white-noise squall of falling metal and flesh fills the world. I add my own ragged voice to the choir.

I know what I’ve been too afraid to hear in the phantom sounds for so long. I am jealous of the oblivion of the frozen high-altitude night. I want to cease the illusion of choice. I want the callous clockwork of the world to decide for me.

The raining horrors around me vanish. I am alone, shrieking in the dark woods. My skin is bleeding and broken, and my body is raw with thirst, exhausted and failing. But I was this way long before the house. This path was set when a flimsy strap of nylon and steel held me in my seat while my family took flight.

I sleep where I fall, in the roots of some great tree. When the sun rises, I try to stand but slip back, too tired to go on. When I open my eyes, the sun is on the other side of the sky, dimming and red, and I am flushed with gratitude that I do not have to choose. Tomorrow. One more day, and I will try to stand.

The frigid grip of midnight brings me a moment of clarity. I’m dying. Malnourished and exposed, I’ve confused the grief inside me for malice outside. I’m lost in the woods. If I want to live, I have to stand. But I’m too weak. I’ve surrendered, and it’s too late to change my mind.

Then I see the light. A rhythmic pulse that fills me with hope. Red. Then blue. A siren. An ambulance. They’ve come for me. I’m going to be okay. I wait to hear approaching footsteps.

“I’m here,” I croak through cracked lips.

But no one comes. There is no sound of a motor. Only the pulsing siren lights. With a last lunge of effort, I roll to one side, raise myself on my arms and look.

I lie before the house. The windows in the top floor pulse silent light down on me like baleful eyes. Red. Then blue. Red. Blue. Like laughter.

Hands hold me aloft, cold and smooth. I do not see the man with the tortoiseshell glasses, but I feel him. I smell Rose. There are more of them. Everyone the house has swallowed and spat back up, dislocated and lost. There is no cruelty in what they do, because there is no choice. The house swallows all pretense of agency.

They press me towards the door with gentle grace, and the dark wood slab swings open. At last, I see inside. I see my hallway that awaits.

There are rows of seats on either side of a narrow carpeted walkway, lit by tiny orange lights. There are overhead compartments, shuddering in silent turbulence. A nervous stewardess walks past me, into the open door, heading for the front of the plane with practiced calm that tells me how scared I should be. My husband turns back from the seat in front of me, to tell me it’s going to be okay. He’s reaching for me even as he consoles our crying children, my girls.

We couldn’t fit together on the same row. We had to go separately. The world shudders. The roof opens like a flower. A silent fountain of bodies and seat cushions and luggage lurches towards the black and yawning sky. Wind scours my flesh and I watch them go. Again. First Nadia, and then Astrid, seconds later, as the hole in the world swallows the row of seats.

Albert’s hand slips from mine, but the frozen air clouds my eyes and I see nothing.

This time, it’s different. This time I reach down, and undo the nylon belt that’s been holding me back from the sky. I release myself, and enter the house. The door closes behind me.

***

The next day, she’s sitting around a campfire. Then she’s back on the trail. Sometimes Rose is there, sometimes she’s not. There’s food, but she doesn’t need it. Fires hold no warmth. She’s an echo. Some days she knows that. Some days she sees the house, some days she looks inside, but it wants little else from her. It doesn’t follow her anymore than a predator stalks a bleached skull.

The man with the tortoiseshell glasses comes to her. Some nights he weeps and begs forgiveness, a hollow echo of guilt. Some days he trails her through the woods as she walks the endless trail of the green tunnel. Some nights he cuts a hole in her tent and drags her screaming into the gloom, splitting her skin. Some nights she fights back, but there is no passion in it for either of them. They are only echoes.

They will fade in time. She’s seen the shades, the ones she can no longer hear or look straight at, with clothes from a century ago. They are almost gone.

Some days she passes people still on the narrow trails of their own lives. She doesn’t always recognize the difference. Some days she understands: none of them have a choice, just like she never had. Now that she’s been plucked from her own trail, devoured and thrown back to wander, she sees. We are all fixed on our paths, facing backwards. We see so clear where we have come from, but we can never turn to see what comes. Never see that the path forward is equally fixed.

She and the other echoes, plucked from their paths, they all see that now. It helps. Makes this life easier. Maybe they are the only motes of free will in the world. Maybe the house gave them one last gift in exchange for whatever it took. They do as they please, even if they have lost themselves.

One night the man with the tortoiseshell glasses leaps on her back as she’s sitting on the roots of a chestnut oak, sleep long ago forgotten. She’s been ready, a sharp curve of stone in one hand. Once she batters him to the ground, she hooks one hand under his broken jaw and drags him to his feet. She runs a loop of rope around his neck, tosses the other end over a branch. Just how she used to store her food. She hauls him up into the canopy, his echo weight a meaningless resistance. There is no expression on his face. This moment will pass like any other, and they will do this again until one or the other fades away.

His glasses fall from above. She sets them on the roots of the tree, facing the small meadow. She finds this act unaccountably funny and meaningful, but has no clue why.

She tells you all these things as you meet her on the trail one day, this hollow looking woman with the shiny new gear. She knows you won’t believe her, so she tells you everything, simply to speak the words. You do your best to pretend not to see her, to speed up and leave this mad woman behind. She can keep pace with you, and once she sees your fear, she pads close at your heels, silent and menacing. Then she demands that you see her, shouts at you to look, but you keep your head fixed on the trail ahead, legs burning with exertion. After a while, you bore her, and with a bark of a laugh, she goes crashing off into the undergrowth, mumbling to herself.

You pass two more people going the other way, a man with tortoiseshell glasses and an older woman with mirrored aviators and a metal frame pack. They smile at you, all trail etiquette and politeness, but you are too shaken from the strange woman babbling nonsense to return the gesture. You press on, knowing a shelter and safety of the herd waits for you down your trail.

The raw wooden house looms at the tree line. You don’t see it yet. Not yet. It’s still in front of you. And right now, you can only see behind you. But you will.

You always do.

 

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