The Boy in the Tunnel
Through the scope I see there are six black-clad Skkarn on skirmish craft, with another two officers riding a gunship behind. Abzuz—at least I think that’s what he said his name was; it’s hard to tell what the hell kind of noises are coming out of that goddamn shell—says we have to break their formation, or else we’re done for. They’re like ants or something, a hive mind, and when they’re all working together you can’t beat them. You have to take them on one by one.
“The post on the gunship,” I’m pretty sure I hear Abzuz say. Some kind of communicator or something, is the point. Take that out, they can’t talk to each other. I raise the pulse blaster and draw a bead on the communicator, but before I can fire, the missile hits the factory.
That is, it hits the invisible shield that the fucking Skkarn put up around the factory because they have a goddamn time machine that nobody bothered to tell me about till now. Never mind the fact that time machines were banned six years ago (or 37 years ago; it’s hard to tell with this kind of shit). Fucking Skkarn always gotta be difficult.
We do catch one break, though. When the missile impacts on the shield, it sends a pulse going backward that clips a corner of the gunship and sends it flying wonky. A shot from the pulse blaster and it’s upside-down, sending the two officers down to the lava field. The ship tumbles end-over-end and smacks into a rock, destroying the communicator.
Abzuz finally gets with the program and retracts the shell till it’s just an ugly-ass helmet. “I’ve got the three on the right,” he says, and he leaps right up at the first skirmish craft, kicking the pilot off with his triple-jointed legs and landing backwards on the seat. He rotates his torso till he’s facing front, and he pulls the craft around against the two other Skkarn.
I don’t see what happens next because I’ve got my hands full with their three pals on the left. Seems like Abzuz had the right idea, so I take out the bowgun and launch a grappling hook at the first Skkarn. It catches the front skid and yanks me up, right into the pilot’s disgusting face. “You look my mom,” I say as I kick him to the lava below.
The Skkarn don’t fuck around with the hardware on their ships, so picking off the other two with the twin rotating cannons is a piece of cake. Abzuz has already disposed of his two. I gotta say, the dumb-looking shit can take care of business when he has to.
“Want to go see about that time machine?” he says, and we speed off toward the factory.
As Tim eased into the semester, summer became fall, and the leaves of the oak trees surrounding Wintertree Hall started to turn red and orange and gold, and the days grew imperceptibly shorter until all of a sudden it was dark at .
Fall had always been Tim’s favorite time of year, and being at college only intensified his feelings. Fall was a time of preparation, of adding layers, of bracing yourself for the winter; a time for serious things. As was college, Tim thought. To sink deeper into knowledge and the rigors of studying as the year sank deeper into the dark and cold of winter simply felt right to him. And there was something ineffably collegiate, romantic even, about walking across a quad in the early dusk, the wind blowing brittle leaves about the yellowing grass, a scarf wrapped around your neck and a bag of books at your back. This was how things were supposed to be. This was the beginning, a time of change—all of that—the fall and then the winter and then the spring, when everything would be different.
Summer was a wasteland, a time of staying inside and avoiding the day. Summer was purgatory.
But fall was perfect. The air was cool and bright, like glass, and smelled vaguely of smoke. Tim hiked the spiral sidewalks from dorm to class and back again, breathing that air, working away his summer lethargy. And he found new paths not on the campus map that folded out of the Handbook: the winding stair of railroad ties that led from the Student Union to the Wheeler science building, and the tunnel under the Founders’ Garden that eliminated a quarter-mile from the walk from Thorn to Salley. These shortcuts were, of course, mentioned elsewhere in the Handbook (“Shortcuts, Top-Secret, pg. 214”), but Tim was proud of himself all the same.
Halfway through October, Tim was using the Garden Tunnel to reach his American Lit 1865-Today class with a few minutes to spare (minutes which he hoped to use to finish a Dewey Dell chapter of As I Lay Dying). The tunnel was both narrow and short, just barely clearing Tim’s head and leaving perhaps twelve inches of maneuvering room to either side. This was a potential problem, as halfway through the tunnel he saw a tall, broad-shouldered figure enter from the other side. The figure had to duck its head to fit into the tunnel, and walked toward Tim in a hunched, crabby shuffle.
There would be no room for either of them to pass when they met. Tim saw this, and, as he was the smaller party, tried to squeeze against the wall to allow the other figure to pass. But as she came closer—and it was she, Tim now saw, and more than that, it was the girl from the bus, Joanie—it became apparent that the tunnel was still too small for both of them to pass. Tim did the only thing he could do. He backed up, his eyes never leaving Joanie as she half-walked, half-slid toward him, like a mad scientist’s assistant stalking a fresh subject in the lab.
They emerged into the light on the Thorn Hall side
of the tunnel, blinking in the afternoon sun. Joanie
stood up to her full height, and Tim realized she was more like 6’6”, at least
a foot taller than him. With her long legs, thin arms and short blonde hair
sticking up at crazy angles from her head, Tim thought she looked like one of
the gangly water birds he had seen on a trip to
“You’re Joanie,” Tim said.
Joanie did not seem surprised. “You’re Tim,” she said. Tim was surprised at this. Guessing at his next question, Joanie opened her Handbook to page 28 and held it up for him to read:
THE BOY IN THE TUNNEL
His name is Tim. Let him be the one to back up.
“You were on a bus,” said Tim.
“You were in the tunnel,” said Joanie.
“I was in the tunnel.”
Unlike Tim, Drew had decided that a tactical alliance with Chet and Dick would be to his advantage, with regards to coming and going from 79A as he pleased, and so he had resolved to spend a small but not insignificant amount of time each week hanging out with his down-ladder neighbors. This was proving to be a greater challenge than he had anticipated; for example this exchange from the day Tim met Joanie in the tunnel:
“Chet. Dick. What’s going on?”
“Fuck off, Noah.”
The Biblical character-themed nicknames had been Chet’s idea, and over the course of the past two months they had run through most of the names one would expect two lapsed Baptists to remember, though they had only touched on six of the Apostles and hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to call Drew Jesus. Drew was not amused, though he noted with some small measure of satisfaction that Chet and Dick had started rummaging through a Gideon Bible for more potential nicknames. When God closes a door, etc.
“You guys mind if I hang for a while?”
“Hang for a while? Like Jesus?” Dick spread his arms wide and lolled his head back.
Drew reached for the nearest object—a shot glass with the legend “COLLEGE—5 OR 6 OF THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE” and hurled it at Dick. It hit Dick in the forehead, knocking him out of his chair.
“What the fuck, asshole?” Dick rolled to his feet and lunged at Drew, but Drew scampered up a few rungs of the ladder, putting Dick’s now-bleeding forehead in kicking range. Chet remained on the bed, his hands on a Nintendo 64 controller, passively watching the fight.
“Say you’re sorry, Dick. God will forgive you.”
“Fuck you.” Dick reached for Drew’s leg, and Drew kicked, clipping Dick on the shoulder. Dick grunted in pain. “Fuck! Get the fuck out of my room!”
“Our room, Dick,” said Chet.
“Get the fuck out of our room.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you, Dick. See? If you truly repent, God will forgive. God even forgave my dad for letting himself die, so a jerk like you is nothing.”
“That’s it, Noah. This door is locked to you from now on. You better decide now whether you want to spend the rest of the year in or out.”
“You better decide whether you’re prepared to spend the rest of eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Think about that. It smells.”
Tim heard all this from outside the door to 79B. He knew Joanie could hear it too, and he wondered what she was thinking, but all he could see was her shoulder, solid and muscular under the thin fleece of her varsity volleyball jacket. He wanted to touch that shoulder, to run his hand under the fleece and warm it against his skin, to feel the bones and muscles underneath. He wanted to take her entire shoulder in his mouth. He had no idea what he wanted to do. He wanted Drew and Chet and Dick to disappear, to vaporize. He wanted them to stay right there and keep him from being alone with her. He wanted them to see her.
“I should go,” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Goddamn it I’m trying to teach you about the power of the fucking Lord. Jesus loves you even if you hate him,” said Drew from behind the closed door.
© 2005 Gardner Linn