The Tunnel

A cold, static mist envelops the platform in a pixelated whiteness of unstable connection. My singular, dark figure slowly walks to the track side and steps into the train waiting there. The eerie silence of the empty compartment is broken up by the stomps of my heavy trekking boots. Making my way to the middle, I settle down on the vacant berth.

On cue, the train sluggishly begins its journey. Within minutes, it picks up speed and enters the countryside. An unbroken line of trees race past me at a rapid pace. Pushing my face against the metal window grills, I can see the vast stretches of golden-brown wheat fields beyond them – shining under the summer sun, swaying gently in the southern gale. This monotonous landscape is occasionally broken up by a few scattered huts.

Five minutes later, a woman enters and sits down on the vacant berth in front of me. I give her a cursory glance without turning my head. She is staring out of the window, the wind blowing into her chestnut brown hair as she unsuccessfully tries to keep them away from her face.

“I can close the window if you want,” I remark as a matter of fact.

She turns towards me and gives the most innocent smile I have seen in a long time. “It is okay. I like the wind. It’s the only reason I use trains.”

Her face is very sharp, with dark grey eyes and a rather small nose. She is wearing a black T shier with an anarchist symbol on it. There is something beautiful about her, not as an Instagram model but rather like someone who can make your heart beat a little faster. I give her a nod and return back to the wheat fields.

“I was disappointed to find this carriage completely empty, but then I saw you sitting here. Traveling alone can be a real bore, don’t you think?” I smile politely in return. Conversing with strangers has never been my strongest suit. “How about you?” her voice breaks my reverie. She is looking at me, expecting an answer, or maybe even a conversation. But I probably take a minute too long to reply, and she starts laughing. It has an almost enchanting quality about it. “I am sorry. You don’t seem like the talking type. It’s fine, we can stay quite.”

‘Well, here goes nothing.’ I give a long sigh. “I prefer traveling alone. Just watch the surroundings as they pass by.”

She looks back in surprise, her face delighted by the fact that I responded. “But aren’t most trains full of people?”

“You can say I have a knack of finding empty routes. Once you have got the hang of the tech, it’s effortless.”

“Wow. That is so amazing.” She is clearly impressed. “I just choose a random route. You could say that I am kind of a tech noob.” Her smile has an infectious charm. ‘I could teach you if you want.’ Someone other than me would have the courage to say those words, but not me.

Sensing my inexperience of small talk, she takes it upon herself to continue. “So, why do you travel on trains?”

Nobody has ever asked me this question, and the fact that it is unexpected and straightforward has a startling effect on me. A floodgate opens in my head, and the deluge of memories conjure up images long forgotten in the deepest recesses of my mind; while she sits there waiting for me to respond. I finally do answer after a full minute has passed. “It is one of my oldest memory. I used to travel to my grandmother’s home every summer on a train, sitting on the window seat and looking at the scenery during the eight-hour-long journey. You could say I do it for……. nostalgia.” I give her a shrug.

She shakes her head in return. “The first time I traveled on a train was when I was sixteen. I had only traveled on flights until then,  but my dad got a job in a small city with no airport. It was a 12-hour long journey, and I hated every second of it. The crowd, the smell, the incessant stoppages, the constant din – it was too much for a big city brat like me. It was the last time I ever stepped into a train.” She pauses to look away and then starts to laugh. “I have lost count of how many times I boarded a flight in the old days, but I can’t remember any of those journeys. But that one train ride; it never seems to get out of my head.”

“The human memory is a strange thing. It is full of mundane recollections which never felt momentous or noteworthy when they were happening, but a few years down the line, they are the ones we cherish the most.” I read it someplace a long time ago.

She is about to say something when there is a loud whistle, and we enter a tunnel. We sit silently in the darkness as the engine’s deafening rattle assaults our ears. But before it becomes unbearable, the entire compartment is filled with bright sunlight as the sereneness of the countryside welcomes us back.

“Okay. Now I know that a tunnel passage is definitely over-hyped.” She wonders aloud, and I can’t help but comment. “You had never encountered a tunnel before in all your travels?”

“It’s not as if I have traveled a lot, unlike you.” I notice the sweat beads on her forehead, out of fear, or maybe excitement. “And the experience was a little frightening, to say the least.”

More memories come flooding back to attention – the pitch-black darkness of the tunnel, the frightening whistle as it swallowed the compartment, the continuous rattle of the engine, the dreadful feeling of having to sit through it for ten long, agonizing moment.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">“There was this one which the train had to cross on the way to my grandmother’s city. It was a long, frightening tunnel, probably the longest one in the country. And every year before I sat on the train, I promised myself that I won’t get the shit scared out of me this time. But no matter how mentally prepared I was for it, no sooner had the train entered this tunnel, than I felt like it was the start of a living nightmare. I would be inches away from crying before we came out of the other end.” There is a small lump in the back of my throat.“There was this one which the train had to cross on the way to my grandmother’s city. It was a long, frightening tunnel, probably the longest one in the country. And every year before I sat on the train, I promised myself that I won’t get the shit scared out of me this time. But no matter how mentally prepared I was for it, no sooner had the train entered this tunnel, than I felt like it was the start of a living nightmare. I would be inches away from crying before we came out of the other end.” There is a small lump in the back of my throat.

“But you never cried?” she asks.

It takes me a few seconds to compose myself. “No. My mother held me whenever we entered the tunnel and didn’t let go till we crossed it completely. And I never cried.”

“Your mother? Is she…” the sentence is left incomplete, and  I shake my head in reply. A somber look comes over her face. After a few minutes, I speak. “I used to hate tunnels when I was a kid. But like you, I can’t seem to get enough of them these days.”

“All the things we hated back then are the ones we miss the most today,” her words hit me like a ten-ton truck. It is the impact of the rude realization that this is the omnipresent tragedy of our day to day life, this is the reason why every survivor is obsessed with nostalgia. Maybe the wounds from the catastrophe are still too deep and too fresh. So we have decided to carry them with us everywhere and ingrain them into every single conversation, invention, or event. The entire history of our existence looms in the shadow of our present, like a ghost that never leaves us alone.

For a long time, both of us stay silent. A small voice inside my head tells me that the blackout will begin in five minutes.

I speak up, “The next update patch will have hawkers on platforms and inside trains.”

“I did not know that.” Her face turns sad. “Tell me, do you really think an update will ever be anything close to what we have lost?”

She isn’t talking about trains anymore, and we both know that. “We haven’t lost anything. It all still exists here.” I point towards her skull.

There is a rueful smile on her face.  “Thank you, I really needed to hear that.”

“You’re welcome.”

An alarm clock starts blaring in the back of my head. I must leave before the blackout begins, or else my simulation will crash. “I need to go.” She nods in understanding. However, before I press the exit button, I decide to take the leap. “By the way, I could teach you how to find….”

“Athena_008”, she cuts me in the middle, “See you on the other side,” and waves me goodbye.

“goose_010. I’ll send you a request.” I smile and press the button.

The next moment, I am back in my dingy apartment near the African corner of Metropolis number one. The blackout signal is blasting at full volume. Disengaging myself from the VR suit, I log out of the simulation. ‘Athena_008’ – I quickly type in the search query. There is only one result – and I hit the ‘Send Request’ button. Almost instantaneously, the siren dies down, and the power goes off. I am drowned in the pitch-black silence of my room.

But for the first time in more than two years, I am not afraid of the darkness.

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