Lady of the Tunnels
I step off the airport monorail and stare at the skyline. A thin layer of smog lies between me and the city, but even from this distance, I can see the glittering neon signs that adorn the sides of the buildings. Beyond the city, grey haze barely conceals a column of black smoke rising from the refinery.
Somewhere in that concrete jungle lies the reason Peri hasn’t taken my calls for the last three weeks. I adjust my duffel bag on my shoulder and try not to assume the worst. I’ve read all about the rising waves of crime in the city, the deaths in the subway system, the mysterious disappearances. But my sister was smarter than that.
I’m smarter than that, I remind myself as I make my way toward the subway.
The subway station is dingy, and all the token-dispensing screens are smashed except one. I buy a roll of ten tokens for twenty-five credits. The city crest, a serpent wrapped around a skyscraper, is neatly emblazoned on both sides of each token. I deposit a token in the turnstile and progress into the station. What I see next stops me.
An altar stands between me and the subway tracks. On a raised dais sits a statue of a woman with the head of a snake. Her slitted eyes are carefully painted dark red. Her mouth is open in a fearsome snarl, with her forked tongue dangling between her bare breasts. Her hands, resting in her lap, end in three claws instead of fingers. Around her, the altar is covered in trinkets of varying value. Old coins, polished stones, ribbons, a small bottle of vodka, a boarding pass for a flight that departed six months ago.
I remember reading about altars like these while I waded through news articles about crime in the subway system, hoping not to see a description of Peri. The city’s residents, regardless of their religion aboveground, leave offerings for a nameless deity that rules the subways. They leave offerings for her out of fear that she’ll slaughter them in the subway tunnels.
I don’t want to believe that she exists, but I’ve read too many news articles. The subway system is a dangerous place; horrible things happen in these tunnels. You can’t be too careful these days. I reach into my pocket for something to leave at the altar. A bottle cap from a drink I had last time Peri visited me. An offering for both of us, just in case she’s in the subway system too.
The train arrives. I sit down on the bench and stare out the window, my eyes still drawn to the altar. I watch it until the train is swallowed by the tunnel.
Graffiti is sparse on the tunnel walls, but I catch a glimpse of a few drawings as the train shuttles along the track. Initials. Skulls and crossbones. Depictions of the deity, some cruder than others. Drawings that consist of nothing but lines tangled together. Then, deeper into the tunnels, no graffiti at all. Just blank, black walls that seem to suffocate the train car.
I change trains twice to get to Peri’s apartment. I’m relieved to exit through the turnstile and leave the subway system, but dread pools in my stomach like a pit of vipers as I walk up the five flights to Peri’s floor. It builds to a crescendo when I knock on her door.
“Peri?” I call out. “Peri, it’s Leo.”
I dig the spare key out of my duffel bag. Something she gave me for just in case situations. But Peri was thinking just in case I’d need somewhere to crash, not just in case she dropped out of contact. Still, I fit my key in the lock and ease the door open.
“Peri, it’s Leo, I’m coming in,” I call again.
It’s a messy apartment. A blanket sprawls across the couch; a pillow lies on the floor. A dead succulent perches on the windowsill. The smell of rotting milk hits me as I step into the kitchen. Peri’s left a carton of milk out on the counter. Holding my nose, I turn the carton around and peer at the expiration date. Two weeks ago.
“Fuck,” I whisper.
Peri’s tablet is on the kitchen table. I start keying in passcodes. Her birthday, my birthday, the day our mom died, one two three four. You’ve tried to input a passcode too many times, the tablet informs me. Try again in five minutes.
The apartment doesn’t have room for a desk, so the kitchen table pulls double duty. I look around at the papers. Bills, receipts, a flier for a local nightclub. A printed map of the subway system. A sticky note that reads DON’T FORGET! in Peri’s handwriting, stuck to the side of a wooden bowl containing mixed pieces of sea glass.
I tuck the tablet in my duffel bag, then look around the kitchen. Photos are stuck to the refrigerator with magnets. Peri’s an avid photographer, so I almost don’t spare the fridge a second glance. Then something catches my eye, and I gasp.
The right half of the fridge is covered in photos of altars. The subway deity snarls at me from six different angles. In one of the photos, her eyes are bright red instead of deep maroon. In another, her breasts appear to be leaking blood. The left half of the fridge has photos of abandoned places. An empty building near the refinery, a water tower streaked with rust, and, most chillingly, a subway tunnel with broken tracks.
“Peri, tell me you didn’t go down there,” I mutter to myself.
My eyes flick back to the photos of altars, thinking of the nameless deity that rules the city’s underground. I hope that Peri never crossed paths with that thing, though something tells me that she wanted to. That she went looking for it with her camera in her hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of something none of us are meant to see.
I search the entire apartment and I can’t find Peri’s camera.
Erica Leslie Weidner is based in New York City. She is the most avid defender of the G train, the city's most maligned subway line. Her work has appeared in Decoded Pride Anthology and Delicate Friend and is forthcoming in Divinations Magazine and Scrawl Place. She is currently in school to become a librarian, and she just started her first lit mag, underscore_magazine. Erica recommends the Lesbian Herstory Archives.