Lady of the Tunnels

I leave my duffel bag at Peri’s apartment. If I’m walking the tracks, I don’t want to be weighed down. I take Peri’s map of the subway system, though, tucked into my back pocket with a small flashlight. In my front pocket are my subway tokens and a piece of sea glass from Peri’s kitchen table. One token goes into the turnstile and the sea glass goes on the altar, near her clawed feet.

I approach the platform edge and peer down the tracks. No trains coming, just pitch black tunnel with train tracks fading away into the blackness. I take a deep breath and steel myself to jump down onto the tracks.

“You thinking of walking the tunnels?” a voice says, and I turn to see a figure standing in the shadows at the edge of the platform.

“Maybe,” I reply, already feeling like my single piece of sea glass was not enough of an offering.

The man steps out of the shadows, and I get a good look at him. He has brown skin and close-cropped dark hair, but his eyes are a striking blue.

“You can walk the tunnels if you walk on the tracks,” he says. “But one step off and a wire swings down from the ceiling. Cuts your head clean off. The next train will make mincemeat of you. They’ve all got an apparatus on the front that’s meant to rip you to shreds. You’re a jumble of body parts by the time the train gets to the next station.”

“Oh,” I reply. “Good to know.”

“The city booby-trapped the tunnels,” he explains. “Cheaper than cops to keep people off the tracks. Lot nastier too, but since when has the city cared about that?”

“What do you mean?”

He shakes his head. “There were days when the cops swarmed down here. Then the day came where the city couldn’t afford a police presence in the system anymore. We came down here and there were no more cops. It was glorious at first, jumping the turnstile, the brave ones running into the tunnels with their paints. Until the screams began.”

“I left an offering,” I say. “So I should be safe from… from her.” I gesture vaguely at the altar behind us.

“No offering can safe you from this city.” The man folds his arms. “And you know she isn’t real, right? You know she’s a bogeyman.”

“But the stories—”

“There is something in these tunnels to be afraid of. Something that can kill. But it isn’t a god, or a devil, or anything like that. It’s the city itself. It’s the fact that you’re cheaper to them dead than in a jail cell, where they have to take care of you.”

I sigh. “I think my sister went down there looking for her. She’s a photographer. I think she wanted to get a picture of… her.”

“She’s damn brave for that. Every depiction of the deity is meant to scare off people like your sister.” The man leans against the wall of the subway station and runs a hand through his dark hair. “The altars were erected a few weeks after the cops disappeared from the subway system. People needed to believe that something was responsible for the horror it all. Your sister believes the way the rest of this damn city does.”

My words catch in my throat. “She’s been missing for a few weeks. And the police said there wasn’t anything they could do.”

“Sorry to break it to you, man, but there’s nothing you can do either. If she went into the tunnels, there’s no way she’s alive.”

“What if she walked on the tracks?” I swallow the sob that’s building in my throat. “Peri is… she’s smart. She would know better.”

The man sighs gently. “I’m sorry, man. I know you want your sister to be okay, but you have to recognize how unlikely it is that the tunnels didn’t chew her up and spit her out.”

“I’m still going to go looking for her.”

“And what, get yourself killed too?”

“I’ll walk on the tracks,” I say, projecting an air of confidence that I know I lack.

He looks at me critically, a strange respect in his blue eyes. “Let me come with you.”


“You’ve seen the graffiti in the tunnels. How do you think it got there?”

The next train rolls into the station, and I try to ignore the maroon stains that coat the sides of the train cars. It’s just rust, I tell myself. The crowds on the platform move toward the opening doors, but the stranger and I stay in the shadows, waiting for the train to move on. Waiting for our opening.

“I’m Clinton, by the way.”


Clinton offers me his hand, and I shake it. His grip is firm and his hand is warm. As I let go, I realize my hands are trembling.

The train’s brakes squeal as they disengage. I watch the train depart until the taillights disappear around the corner of the tunnels. Then I look down at the tracks, swallowing my fear and letting it settle in my chest.

“Let’s go.” Clinton sits down on the edge of the platform and smoothly lowers himself onto the tracks. His feet land on the rail, delicately balancing on his toes. He looks up at me expectantly. “Come on, we have to be quick. We only have fifteen minutes until the next train.”

Peri did this, I remind myself. Peri did what I’m about to do. And where is she now? The thought creeps into my mind before I can stop it. Peri did this and she never came back. Peri did this and she never came back. Peri did this and—

I lower myself onto the subway tracks. It’s less graceful than Clinton’s descent, but he grabs my arm to steady me. Then he looks into my eyes with his brilliant blue ones. “Let’s go. Feet stay on the rail. Don’t fall.”

My flashlight barely cuts through the darkness of the tunnels. The subway has no lamps lighting the way. Another expense that you can cut out when no one walks the tunnels. No one but us, balancing on the metal rail as the dark swallows us.

Clinton’s watch glows blue. “I’ve set a timer for seven minutes. When it goes off, we need to turn around and get back to the station before the train comes. It’s loud, so don’t be startled. Remember, don’t fall. You fall, we both die.”

I swing my flashlight beam from side to side as we walk, studying the ground. A rat that skitters away from the light, its eyes uniquely attuned to the darkness. A discarded can of white spray paint. A flashlight with a shattered bulb. I nearly fall off the rail when my flashlight catches the delicate bones of a human hand, picked clean by rats. “Oh, God.”

“What?” Clinton looks back at me, then at the hand bones. He doesn’t flinch. “It’s not your sister’s. You said she’d been missing for a few weeks. That’s been here for far longer.”

“Oh.” I swallow. “That… doesn’t exactly make me feel better.”

“Keep moving. Don’t fall.”

Peri did this and she never came back, I think, and I follow Clinton further into the tunnels.

We walk for what feels like an eternity, but I know it must be less than seven minutes. My light swings from side to side, illuminating rats and the occasional piece of debris lying on the loose gravel. Right as my breathing begins to steady, I find something that makes my blood run cold.

“Clinton,” I choke out.

“What?” He turns toward me, and I can’t say another word. I can only point and what my flashlight beam has found. “Is that—”

A camera.

I can barely even whisper. My words are lost in the hum of the tunnels. “I think it’s—”

Peri’s camera.

Clinton approaches the camera gingerly, crouches, and picks it up. For a moment, he cradles it like it’s a precious object. Then he looks up at me. “I’m so sorry, Leo.”

I’m numb, but I feel myself reach out and take the camera from Clinton. I feel my fingers tracing the circle of the lens, trying to imagine what Peri was looking for.

“What was your sister’s name?” Clinton asks.

“Peri,” I whisper, not looking up.

“Her full name.”

“Peri Elizabeth Willoughby.”

My cold hands fumble for the camera’s power button. It turns on with a soft click. Without thinking about it, I navigate to the last photo.

A grainy image, green with the shades of night vision. Subway tracks lead away into the darkness. Nothing stares back from the depths of the tunnels. No sign of an angry god.

The beeping of Clinton’s watch cuts through my reverie. Seven minutes. I look up at him as he finishes spray painting the initials P. E. W. on the tunnel wall.

“This is what I do,” he says, pocketing the spray can. “I make sure people like your sister aren’t just meat for the grinder.”

My heart throbs in my numb chest.

“It’s time to go back.”

“I don’t want to go,” I whisper.

“We have to go.” Clinton puts a hand on my shoulder. “We have to remember Peri. We have to remember everyone who’s died because of this godforsaken city.” When I don’t move, he squeezes my shoulder, hard. “You think you’re the only one who’s lost someone in the tunnels? You think you’re the only one who will?”

“No,” I manage.

“Then let’s go. Get up. Don’t fall.”

I force myself to stand up. I force myself to balance on the rail and walk to the station. I force myself to climb onto the platform as the rush of air from the oncoming train raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

It’s not until I’m safely sitting on the platform next to Clinton that I break down in tears. “You knew. You knew she was gone.”

“Yes.” Clinton’s eyes are distant; he watches the train roll into the station.

“Why did you let me go in after her anyway?”

“Because someone has to remember them, Leo. The casualties of a system that eats them alive and then forgets it’s eaten them.” He gestures at the train, at the maroon stains that I now know aren’t rust. “You said yourself that the cops won’t help you. Someone has to give them a tombstone. Otherwise they’re just sacrifices to some fake deity, nameless and meaningless.”

I glance over my shoulder at the station’s altar, at the statue that sits among her sea of offerings. My piece of sea glass is in the center. It’s the same blue as Clinton’s eyes.

“It’s all nameless and meaningless.” Clinton clambers to his feet. He offers me a hand. “Let me buy you lunch. Tell me about Peri.”


“Because remembering is an act of resistance.”

The train rumbles out of the station. I look at my shoes, filthy from the tunnels. I weigh Peri’s camera in my hands. I think about her bravery, about her desire to photograph an evil god. I think about her initials on the tunnel wall.

I take Clinton’s hand. Still firm, still warm. He pulls me to my feet, but he doesn’t let go of my hand once I’m standing. We walk out of the station together, into a ruthless city that will never remember my sister as anything more than a victim of the tunnels.



Erica Leslie Weidner

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.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, April 26, 2023 - 20:18