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Steam Tunnels

In the dark, this town comes alive with hot steam. We lift the heavy grates and drop into the steam tunnels in the dead of night, under a cool blanket of faint smog and stars. We are hungry, we are tired. We’ve settled for the danger of the steam tunnels, never having found love. We are ready to leave this earth, and yet by all accounts, we are still on it. We’ve sat cross-legged on Telegraph all day, as we have for years, and by twilight, our caps are brimming with loose change and dollar bills. We’ve stood at the back door of restaurants and bars to receive alms from softhearted waitstaff. Many—enough—have obliged. Lately, we’ve stolen fruit from the farmers’ market.

None of us have been inside the tunnels before, though we’ve heard about them for years. We have every reason to seek refuge. There has been talk of removing all of us on the streets from the city. From snatches of conversation, we know something dark and deadly is sweeping the country, but we cannot make out what. We are hiding from the police. We are hiding from our parents who were abusive and controlling and neglectful and cruel, who never thought we were enough as we were. We don’t admit it, but we are hiding from ourselves, perhaps most of all.

As we search for open grates on campus, we hear the loud hiss of the sprinklers, the students flirting, the surge of steam coming from underground. We stop by every grate and try to lift each one, but we make it all the way past the libraries to the Life Sciences building without encountering an opening. The Campanile is chiming midnight when the four of us drop into those steam tunnels: Leah and Vedica and Maryam and Jane.

Leah is the tallest and the youngest one, but the softest in her demeanor, the most prone to stooping to make sure she doesn’t threaten you. Notwithstanding her apple cheeks, she knows how to say no in a way that makes all of us quake with fear, and she’s come by that tone honestly. She hitchhiked all the way from Nevada to the coast because her stepfather was a pervert and her mother, a doormat.

Vedica is small and compact and furious. She ran away from her traditional, conservative Telegu parents who live in Orange County somewhere, but won’t get into any details of why she left. Filial duty still runs deep, a river of obligation inside her. What is good about that is she shows us, her chosen family, the same loyalty. She is the best of us at talking to strangers, at convincing them to drop their change. She wouldn’t frighten anyone, it’s true, but she can talk you out of the clothes on your back, and that counts for something where we are together.

Maryam is a ukulele player, uncomfortable with asking for money unless she is busking, too. Like it’s okay to get money for a heartfelt song, but not for just sitting there. She never says why she left home, but maybe it had to do with music. Nor will she specify what her age is, and she might be the oldest. We can see the lines, deep grooves etched under her haunted eyes.

Jane is a tatted-up redhead wearing a leather jacket that’s too bulky for her narrow frame, and we suspect she grew up the wealthiest because she doesn’t know how to manage the money we get when it’s her turn, and she’s angry as a motherfucker on some days, but twice as sweet on most, as if she’s used to getting her way and shocked when she doesn’t.

One by one, we jump through the grating, hitting a stray stepladder someone has left behind, hitting concrete at the bottom. We wipe ourselves off, our asses already wet and dusty from the puddles. There are a few, the residual sprinkle of rain, or perhaps the condensation of steam meeting the outside air in that small swirl of light, directly under. Darkness. We have flashlights in our knapsacks and we turn them on each other like weapons, laughing. Beams of light around the space, zigzags, circles of white light.

Should we really do this? Maryam asks, waving the flashlight at the tunnel ahead, her face a cipher of shadows.

Eh, they’re searching for the people who stole from the farmers’ market and clearing people out of the city, Vedica says. Only a matter of time until they find us, remove us. We can just stay down here a couple days. Her face is utterly dark, so the only thing you can see are the whites of her eyes, which have been sad the entire time we’ve known her, and the occasional sharp flash of her teeth.

Leah says nothing. Sometimes this means she disapproves but isn’t willing to say so.

Jane says, Let’s go, you guys, don’t be a bunch of fucking pussies. Do I have to take charge of everything? And shame—the sound of chastisement in Jane’s voice, the unspoken again, the stride of her combat boots just ahead of us—propels us forward.

We advance deep into the tunnel, further and further, not wanting to lose each other, not wanting to hold hands. At first, the only sound is the sodden rubber soles of our shoes barely scuffling against the damp concrete. Sad, pathetic, lovelorn. We four. But in all that suffocating darkness comes the soft, gentle plucking of the ukulele, Maryam unable to stop playing. She’s played for so long, she doesn’t need light to play; the playing flows without effort, instinctively, like the chirping of a bird. All the old songs, the songs of nostalgia and sorrow and loneliness flood these tunnels, keeping us company, like a fifth person. We keep walking through the tunnel, hardly knowing where we’re going, and when we remember to look back in the dank, thick air, we can’t see where the grate is. There’s no light, no float of dust motes beneath starlight, no sparkle of light against puddling concrete, to illuminate any sort of path to go back up into the land of the living.

You’re always saying shit like that, Vedica says to Jane unexpectedly, belatedly. Her voice breaks through the steam, like she’s walking more purposefully through the tunnels, like she knows where she’s going.

Shit like what?

How you do everything. When we all do stuff to contribute. Even Maryam.

Jane snorts.

Why are you picking on me? Maryam asks. The slow calm in her voice, the heat of the steam on our faces are more disturbing than open anger.

I’m sick of it, just so fucking sick of it. She thinks she’s better than us, Vedica says.

You know the legend they used to tell me when I first moved out here? Leah says.

What?

A young philosophy professor dragged a student down here fifty years ago and murdered her. She’d confided in her best friend, the guy this professor was mentoring, over drinks earlier in the evening. She told him they were meeting by the Life Sciences building, that she hoped the professor was in love with her. There were love letters. Handwritten ones. All signed with an initial, never a name, of course. He reported it to the police after he went to check on her and found out from her roommates she never made it back. The professor disappeared after that. They found her body. It was all cut up. Little cuts, a lifetime of little cuts, papercuts and gashes, made in a few hours. She was raped and left to die. They combed these tunnels searching for the professor. Some of the policemen got chemical burns wandering through here. They looked so hard. They kept thinking they saw someone up ahead in the clouds of smoke, but they never caught him.

Fuck, Jane whispers.

And now, there’s probably a monster down here.

But why wouldn’t he leave the tunnels? Fifty years? Why wouldn’t he push up one of the grates and get out? Vedica asks.

Leah’s voice is exasperated. I mean. If you want to be all logical about it. Fuck.

The deeper into the tunnel we travel, the worse it smells. The steam floods the passageways, and under our flashlights we can see the whitish billows, the thick clouds in the long tunnels before us, almost a white wall of it. The stench is terrible, sewage or dirty water offset by a chemical odor, a metallic hum, a light top note in all that steam, but we follow the tunnel without much thought. We take turns leading, lighting the way with our flashlights. As we walk, each of our flashlights loses power. The air is stagnant and everywhere, the smell of things incinerating.

Finally, we spot a cone of light, probably beneath a grate, and move toward it, together, still a single breathing thing exhaling in the steam. Our cheeks are hot and wet. Our clothes are thick and wet, sopping with wet heat, a heat that seems to mean something, since we can’t shake it. All the mysterious things we never did aboveground seem to be in these vast puffs of steam, their billows in the dark.

Hey, how long do you think we’ve been down here? Vedica asks.

Couple of hours, maybe?

There is no ladder and we grope around in the dark for something to poke the grate, to push it up. In the corners of the passageways are items, but no matter how much we shine our flashlights about, we can’t find a stick, just fragments of litter, leaves.

From far away in the tunnel, there’s a break in the steam. Maryam screams first, but she doesn’t move. She’s still and her screams fill the space, some kind of banshee. Toward us through the white limps a figure, straggling, dark, tattered. We stare for a moment, unable to move. He stops moving, as if he’s contemplating what to do.

Run! Jane says in a loud whisper. We grab each other’s hands this time, instinctively, none of us wanting to be first or last—the first might feel guilt at escaping, and the last might be killed, and we do not want to change; we have our dynamic down. We take off down the tunnel through which we came, holding fast to each other’s sweaty fingers. At first, we’re an organism, moving together, navigating the tunnels, our hearts pounding, not sure whose heart we hear pounding. We glance back, and the figure is following us, in his half limp. We think it’s a man, an old man, though we can’t see the details of his face in the dark. He’s wizened but light on his feet, chasing us with the springy vitality of a younger man. He doesn’t make any sound, and we run as fast as we can; we keep running through the tunnels. Perhaps he doesn’t want to catch us, but simply wants to make us afraid, and so he follows as we make our way through the tunnels, backtracking toward the grate where we’d entered.

Up there, Maryam says, pointing at a streak of light. That’s got to lead up to ground level. It looks like where we came from.

We head towards the light, and when we get there, we push with our palms but the grate won’t budge, however strenuously we try.

Here, let me, Jane says.

There’s a stepladder, and she climbs up and kicks the grate so hard, the momentum throws her backward, and she falls down on the concrete. Vedica climbs up and starts to feel along the edges of the grate, like she’s hoping she can somehow peel open the grate like a soda can tab.

The figure has caught up to us, but stays standing there in the white, steam bathing him, watching us attempt to pry the grate open, as if he knows we’ll fail and he’s got all the time in the world.

What do you want? Vedica asks. He doesn’t answer and she repeats the question.

He doesn’t answer, just stands there, looking at us. After a few moments of this, he moves forward again, without speaking.

Run, Jane says again, grabbing for our hands, and we run. We run for what seems like infinity, but is probably just a few hours, fleeing through the tunnels, searching for another beam of light that might signal a grate. We don’t remember these tunnels, or we do remember them, but every tunnel is just like every other tunnel, so the memory is meaningless. Every time we think we’ve gotten to a place we recognize, we realize we don’t know it at all, even if it’s like the last place. Like is not the same, but the likeness makes us think we should respond the same way. There is the heat, there is the sweat on our necks, the dampness of our clothes, clinging to our skin.

There, Vedica says. And we see it ahead, a glimpse of light, lamplight probably. Lemon-tinted, broken into squares, bounded by shadows as it filters through the grate, a glimpse of the future, in which we escape all this darkness.

Is it the grate we came out of? Vedica asks.

Who cares? We just need to get out of these fucking tunnels, Leah says.

We charge ahead, but the figure pursues us, somehow spry when he wants to be. Perhaps he was holding back just for the pleasure of holding back, knowing he has the advantage, knowing the tunnels better than we know them.

He grabs one of us, we don’t know who, and all of us stop as these little wet fingers slip away from us into an everlasting night. We spin around.

He’s dragging her into the darkness. It’s Maryam and her ukulele. He’s dragging her with what we assume is an arm clenched around her neck, pulling her backwards through the dark, striding into the past. How many has he handled this way? She’s soundless; maybe he’s got her neck clenched too tightly, his force against her windpipe. We hear nothing. At first, it feels inevitable, to all of us. When he paused, it was astonishing, like he could have taken us any of those times, but only now when we’re worn out, panting, exhausted, he takes advantage of this moment, to steal Maryam from us. And only Leah has the fight left to run forward, but the figure keeps moving. We follow. There’s nothing else to do. None of our flashlights work anymore. They have been out of batteries for a long time. Nothing but the sound of clicking, all of us clicking our flashlights, trying to see her, our feet tapping the ground. We chase this figure as hard as we can, but when we speed up, he speeds up. He anticipates us.

One by one we stop, our throats raw and burning, our eyes tearing up, panting, hunched over in the dark, unable to keep fighting what feels inevitable. We collapse on the floor of that tunnel, not holding hands anymore, unable to breathe, breathing too hard and fast to note it as breathing, more like a persistent rasp, a struggling for life. The figure keeps lurching forward, slowing down, now that we have stopped running. Maryam disappears without a sound. It’s just us, sobbing in the dark. Our only family was each other, and now one of us is gone.

Time passes, too much time to feel, and slowly the silence returns, our breathing quiet, more even, reconciled.

Should we try to find a way out again? Vedica asks, tentatively.

We can’t just sit here, crying, can we? Leah jumps up. She’s been knocked down more than any of us, we remember. And so we follow suit, getting up again. And we feel less certain, as we hobble through those tunnels, looking over our shoulders, wondering what might lie behind us.

We walk, and we walk, and we walk. It feels like we walk only a few minutes. It feels like we walk years. Underground, we can’t measure time, except by how tired we are. When we see the light again, that lemon-tinted spectral force, we move towards it as one, desperate now to leave this inner circle of hell. We are trying to push it open, when we hear behind us the figure approaching again. We sense it before we see it. And he’s upon us again. But this time when Jane kicks the grate with the force of terror, we are at her back, holding her up. She pushes through first. Vedica steps on Leah’s hand. We reach down for Leah and pull her up, just as the figure reaches into the light from the darkness. We see his hands, old crepe paper hands, bleached oh so pale by lack of light, as they reach into the circle of lamplight.

Get me out, get me out, Leah is screaming, and we pull her into the light by the Life Sciences building. Through the enormous glass wall, we see its enormous dinosaur bones, a resurrection. We look at each other, at the halo of white light around each of our heads, the light radiating off our hair.

What happened to you?

I don’t know.

What happened to you?

Our clothes are in tatters, our skin is caked in grime, and our hair is white. We look at each other, aghast, uncertain. We have no answers. We are full of questions, and those questions weigh on our hearts. We slowly cover the hole with the grate we pushed aside and begin walking. The dinosaur is still standing, but the campus looks different. The air is syrupy and hot. The grass is old and brown and faded, like there’s been no water for a long time. The sun is coming up, a pale white disk slowly rising in the sky. There are no people, just buildings. We pause by the place where we entered the steam tunnels.

Should we stop at the gym and maybe try to sneak into the showers? Jane asks.

We nod and make our way toward the gym. We don’t pass a single person, and when we try the door to the gym, it opens easily. There is nobody there to stop us. Inside, it is pitch black. We take hold of each other’s hands again and walk through the eerie quietness toward the empty shower stalls. They’re perfectly dry. We feel around in the dark, running our fingers over the tile to find the faucets. We turn each one. They don’t work.

After we leave the silent gym and reach Telegraph Avenue, we look at each other. Nobody on the streets, just one long empty grey street stretching out before us. We walk toward Oakland, looking at each other every once in a while, too frightened to speak.

Where is everyone?

There’s nobody, just this long road stretching out before us. We breathe heavily. Our bones are tired, cracking. The sunlight casts three long shadows. There is one missing. We walk and we walk, never encountering a soul, all the storefronts flooded with sunlight, empty of people, just things deteriorating in the sunlight, like a plague has wiped out the people of the city we loved. We walk for miles without speaking, trying to get our bearings, and then one of us whispers, so soft we could choose to miss it, but don’t.

Did time pass us by?

Is it past our time?

Yes.

Anita Felicelli portrait

Anita Felicelli is the author of the short story collection "Love Songs for a Lost Continent" (Stillhouse Press) and the novel "Chimerica" (WTAW Press). Her nonfiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times’ Modern Love column, Slate, and Catapult. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

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