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Small Water

by Shlunka 8 months ago in Short Story · updated 7 months ago
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Where the Light Ends

There was a tunnel in West Virginia that ran beneath a train overpass where the light never touched. You could follow a narrow trail through the woods and it would take you there, and along the trail there ran a stream which flowed into the tunnel as well. If you stared at it from afar you might convince yourself that there was an end to it, another side where the light could be found, but you’d be wrong.

In the evenings it grew ominous, with the little splatters of sunlight no longer maintaining enough strength to illuminate the hillside. Children would play in the stream near the opening, and some even mustered the courage to go inside. Many of the ones who did, however, were never seen again. It was the type of place where nobody looked into those things.

“If only someone from the city got swallowed up by it, then they’d look into it,” the locals would say.

“If only it killed someone that mattered.”

In the early 1900s, when flashlights became available to even the backwoods residents, it became a rite of passage. Teenage boys and girls would go into the tunnel, and so long as they didn’t go further than the light reached, they would come back out, scared, but alive. There were those, of course, whose courage would be buffered by the flashlights, those who would venture too far and be lost as all the others had been long before. Those who didn’t go in deep would talk about how loud the water became inside, how they could scarcely hear the screams above the current. The papers would run the stories, and the parents would write letters to prominent members over in the city, asking them for help. The letters went unanswered.

In the 1920s, a young man who had survived WW1 returned to his mountain home. He had gone into the tunnel as a teenager, and the war had convinced him that there was nothing in the world to fear anymore. He went back in with a small group of friends, each of them carrying flashlights while the young man carried a .45 Colt. They were never seen or heard from again, and the few who stood waiting outside the cave heard neither gunshots nor screams. There was, however, blood that flowed out of the tunnel along the stream, even as the stream’s own current should have pushed it back inside.

Later on, in the 20s and 30s, moonshiners would use the tunnel to hide their product, as the trail wasn’t far from the road and they could leave as much as they could carry, for the path inside the tunnel was wide and sturdy. Lawmen never chased after them there, having heard the stories and half of them shared drinks with the moonshiners they were chasing. Only one of the outlaws ever disappeared there, the well-known J.D Garfield, who, as the story goes, thought it would be safer to store his moonshine deep in the tunnel, far back where the light couldn’t reach. He left behind a wife and son.

His only son, John Garfield, would visit the tunnel as a child, and then venture further as a teenager. When he was drafted in the 1940s for the Second World War, he was sent to the Pacific Theater as a tunnel rat. For three weeks, he crawled through tunnels with nothing more than a flashlight, a pistol, and a few hand grenades. When he returned to his home town in the mountains, the tunnel didn’t scare him anymore. He was, after all, stronger than his father had ever been. John Garfield went into the tunnel on August 16th, 1945, and he was never seen again.

In the 1960s, a civil engineer who worked for the railroad came through to look at the tunnel. According to the company, he was killed by an “industrial accident with no one at fault,”. Everyone in the town knew, though, that he’d gone too far inside. The company didn’t bother sending anyone else to check on the tunnel, even as the trains continued to roar over it at regular intervals.

I was born in 1972, and by then the stories were old, and nobody went to the tunnel anymore. When I was a young boy, my father told me about it all, about the friends his own father had lost long before. I knew that if I ever went near the tunnel, that my dad would skin me alive.

I hugged my mother in 1981 to leave the town my family had stayed in for generations and move to Charleston for work. It was a hard transition, exchanging the mountains for the flat streets and the symmetrical buildings. When you grew up in a place like I did, without the frills and without the distractions, all you have are the stories. I held the stories close, even as I worked my way through the ranks at the paper mill, all I could think about was the tunnel. I could still see the mountains from my apartment window.

I started a family of my own in the early 90s, with a woman named Scarlet, if you can believe that. I met her at a bar, if you can believe that too. We had a little girl, and I named her Lorraine after one of the missing kids my father told me about long ago. We bought a small house just outside the city, and I visited my parents every weekend until November of 1997, when my father passed away from leukemia. Mother didn’t hang around long after that, but I don’t blame her. My father was a good man.

In the late 2010s I became old all of a sudden. I didn’t like my job anymore, even though I’d worked my way up the hard way to be factory foreman. Scarlet still loved me, of course, and my daughter was going to college in Maryland. Maryland always seemed like such a small place, and I found it hard to believe they even had colleges up there until I’d seen them in person.

It’s funny, growing old. You start thinking about all the little stories you heard as a kid, and they draw you back in. On an early September morning in 2017, I left Charleston to make the pilgrimage once more to my parents’ home, which had by then been abandoned twenty years and was collapsing long before that. The town had fallen apart as well, having been abandoned throughout the 2000s as the coal industry changed and people either adapted or fell apart with the infrastructure. I sat on the porch of my daddy’s house for hours, but I couldn’t stay there long, not with everything coming to nothing like it was. I left the town by early evening, and saw the gravel pull-off where the old trail led to the tunnel. I stopped and got out of my car.

The walk was shorter than I remembered, but I guess my legs were a lot longer than the kids who had told most of the stories. I saw the tunnel looming in the distance, and the trail wasn’t managed much in the last few hundred yards before the opening. I watched the stream, which was so much smaller than I had imagined it being, twist into the tunnel, its surface glistening and pure with mountain water.

The stories hadn’t exaggerated the noise. The stream’s soft trickle turned into a roar even after only a few steps inside, bouncing around the old stone walls and arched ceiling like screeching bats. I used the flashlight from my phone to guide my way as I went beyond where the light reached, where the only thing I could hear was the water as it roared in my ears. I could see the stream’s surface, still glistening in the complete darkness, as if the light of every soul it had taken still dwelled under the surface.

Further in, I could see the light at the other end of what must have been a mile walk through the mountain. The stream grew quiet, and it dwelled beside me like a well-mannered child until I exited through the other end of the tunnel. It was overgrown, but you could see through the trees and find the distant splatter of all the other mountains forested in autumn leaves.

I believed all those stories growing up, about the ghosts and the demons and about everyone who had died inside the tunnel. I believe them still, and I believe that at one point there was something there. As I stood at the impossible end staring out over the West Virginia mountains, I realized that things fall apart, that the homes and the heritage that we hold so dear can only keep us in one place for so long. I realized that, one day, even ghosts have to move on to some place else, or risk disappearing altogether. I texted my wife that I would be home in time for dinner, and walked back through.


Short Story

About the author


Visual artist and writer working out of a small Virginia town in the Shenandoah Valley.

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