Dr Göttlich turned in her chair and looked at Ernest as he lay on the bed. Ernest stared at the ceiling; he was only eighteen, he thought, he surely couldn’t be crazy.
“Tell me what happened.” Dr Göttlich spoke softly as she put on her thick rimmed glasses, dated her notes in preparation and clicked record on her Dictaphone. She looked at Ernest and waited. A few moments passed. Ernest took a deep breath, then began.
Usually Kyle’s Dad escorted them, but this was the first year that the group could drive themselves; Ernest had recently gotten his licence and the timing couldn’t have been better. The first weekend in August was always something to look forward to; Kyle’s parents owned a lake house in New Brunswick and allowed Kyle to head there for a weekend with his friends. They’d been friends for years and were a generally well behaved group, so Kyle’s parents were more than happy for them to run wild.
The group consisted of Ernest, Kyle, Bryony and Steve. As this was the first year that Kyle’s Dad didn’t need the fifth seat in the car, Kyle allowed Steve to bring his girlfriend Beth. It was a bit of a squeeze; Ernest’s car was small, but they managed to fit everyone in and even had room for Beth’s unnecessarily large suitcase.
“How much did you bring?” Bryony questioned as Beth wheeled her luminous pink suitcase towards the car. Steve followed behind her with his over the shoulder bag containing what Ernest expected to be a change of underwear, toothbrush, soap and emergency t-shirt. They’d all packed in the same way and were puzzled as to why Beth needed so much for an overnight trip.
“She’s packed enough for a week, at least. Totally unnecessary.” Steve moaned.
“Steve! It’s all essential!” Beth replied. She signalled for Steve to lift her case into the back of the car. He muttered something under his breath as he obliged and Beth squeaked in irritation.
They squeezed themselves into the back seats next to Bryony; Kyle had already called shotgun, and rules were rules. Ernest put the destination into the sat-nav, pulled away from Steve’s house and they made their way to the highway. An hour into the journey and everyone had talked themselves into a comfortable silence; Kyle had fallen asleep in the front seat, Bryony was lost in her book, and Beth and Steve’s incessant arguing seemed to have ceased since Beth had decided her attention was better focused on her magazine.
“Steve, will you do the quiz with me?” Beth whispered “I want to see our astral compatibility.”
Ernest made eye contact with Steve in his rear-view mirror and chuckled. Steve rolled his eyes, groaned and looked at his beloved girlfriend.
“No. I’ve had enough of your voice, Beth. Just shut up for five minutes!”
Beth let out a squeak of frustration. Kyle woke with a start. The bickering had started again and the blissful peace was gone.
“Jesus, do you have to?” Bryony mumbled. Beth squeaked again, reached over and slapped Bryony’s book out of her hands.
“Hey!” Bryony cried. Usually a placid person, Bryony wasn’t easy to upset but Beth’s constant squeaking annoyed her. She balled up the foil from her journey-sandwich and threw it at Beth’s head. Another squeak.
Ernest turned his head to see Steve struggling to keep the two girls apart.
“Guys, can we save it for when we aren’t all squashed into a box travelling at 80?!”
“Ernest, look out!” Kyle shouted.
Ernest turned his head and saw traffic; he slammed on the breaks as they screeched towards the sudden queue. The car came to a stop and there was a brief silence. Ernest’s heart was pounding and he let out a breathy laugh of relief. Beth burst into tears and started slapping Steve’s arm with her magazine.
“This is your fault, Steve!” Beth squeaked.
“Is everyone okay?” Ernest asked.
There were mumbles of affirmation from Ernest’s friends and over-dramatic eye-crying from Beth, which Ernest took as a sign that she wasn’t injured.
“Where did this traffic come from?” Ernest asked himself. He was certain that he hadn’t taken his eyes off the road for long enough to not notice a huge line of traffic ahead of him.
“Re-routing. Turn right.” Ernest’s sat-nav broke the silence.
Ernest looked at the road, and noticed that there was indeed a road to the right hand side that he could take. He had only ever travelled this road as a passenger so it didn’t concern him that he had never seen this road before; Kyle’s Dad always took care of directions. The traffic was at a stand still and he didn’t want to stay in the car for longer than was absolutely necessary. He put the car into drive and steered to the right.
“Woah, what are you doing?” Kyle asked.
“Sat-nav says right. I’m going right.” Ernest said as he steered the car away from the traffic and onto the side road.
“Dad told us to stick to the main road! It takes us closer to the lake house than any other road!” Kyle was a naturally anxious person, so Ernest just ignored him and continued.
Ernest could see no traffic ahead so accelerated.
“Tunnel ahead! Get ready to hold your breath!”
The car approached the tunnel and they all inhaled. Ernest looked into the tunnel and suddenly tapped the breaks. The car came to a halt once again.
“What’s the issue now?” moaned Bryony; still vexed by Beth, her patience was growing thinner.
“What about it?”
“Just look at it Bry!”
Ernest could see from the car that inside the tunnel was pitch black; no lights and no sign of an exit. The others looked and all verbally agreed it looked odd.
After turning from the main road they’d been followed by four cars, a broad guy in leathers on a Harley Davidson, and a half full coach of singing fifth graders. They’d all now stopped and Ernest felt awkward for holding the traffic but it was soon clear that the other vehicles had stopped because they too had noticed the tunnel. Some of the passengers started exiting their vehicles, trying to get a closer look.
“That’s freaky” Steve said, “who makes a tunnel that long and dark and doesn’t put lights in there?”
“Are you gonna drive through or not?” said Bryony.
“I don’t know. Everyone else has stopped. Clearly they’re freaked too.”
A loud grumble of engine echoed as the motorcyclist started up his bike and accelerated off into the tunnel. Everyone watched as he entered the tunnel and the darkness enveloped him. They could all hear the loud, low grumble of the motorcycle slowly disappearing into the distance. Ernest took this as a good sign. It was either drive through the tunnel and trust the sat-nav or head back and join the traffic.
“I’m driving through.”
“What about car jackers?” Beth had stopped sobbing, which unnerved him.
“I’ll lock the doors” Ernest said as he pushed the button on his door and locked them all inside the car.
Kyle let out a long anxious groan. Bryony carried on with her book, not at all interested in the tunnel. Ernest put the car into drive and headed into the darkness.
“No exit in sight. Beth, hold your breath until we get through to the other side.”
Beth remained silent, the glare given to Steve was loud enough to make her annoyance known.
Ernest found it difficult to see the road ahead; his headlights had dimmed and he squinted to try and follow the reflective lines on the ground. The others remained silent, which Ernest appreciated. As they drove further away from the entrance the darkness of the tunnel seeped like a heavy fog through the windows of the car; soon Ernest could no longer see his hands on the wheel. A cold dread rose from the pit of his stomach. His breathing became short and quick and he could hear his own heart pounding. The darkness was uncomfortable; Ernest could no longer tell whether his eyelids were open or closed. His heart pounded faster and the cold fear tensed every muscle in his body.
Within moments Ernest could see an exit; a small circle of bright daylight, and Ernest accelerated. As he drove the light began to fill the tunnel and his body relaxed. The car exited the tunnel and Ernest breathed a sigh of relief that he’d managed to make it through without crashing and that they were back on the open road again. Ernest slowly pulled the car to a stop and turned to Kyle in the passenger seat. He wasn’t there. He turned towards the back seats and they were empty too. His friends were gone.
“So how did you feel about that?” Dr Göttlich asked Ernest, who hadn’t removed his eyes from the ceiling throughout the entire story.
“I freaked out! I pulled the car over and I think I called my Dad. I’m pretty sure I blacked out, I don’t remember too much after that. I really don’t know what happened to them. Where are my friends?” Ernest turned to look at Dr Göttlich who just smiled and picked up the phone on her desk.
“I think I have all I need; you can take him now”.
Moments later the door opened and in walked a man. He was bald, and wore a very expensive looking suit. He looked very official; an intimidating kind of official that had always scared Ernest. The man didn’t speak but approached Ernest with his arm outstretched offering him his hand. Ernest looked at Dr Göttlich who just smiled at him and nodded. He took the man’s hand in his own and felt an overwhelming comfort; an instant weight off his shoulders. He stood up, stretched his back and yawned. Still holding his hand, Ernest followed the man in the direction of the door of Dr Göttlich’s office. There was a coffee table by the door, on which lay a freshly folded newspaper. As he walked past Ernest glanced down at the newspaper which displayed the headline:
34 DEAD IN TRAGIC NEW BRUNSWICK COLLISION.
The overwhelming comfort of the man’s hand suppressed any natural urge or emotion that should have followed. He realised that perhaps he hadn’t managed to stop the car in time. Perhaps there had been no right turn off. Perhaps there had been no tunnel. Ernest looked at Dr Göttlich for a final time.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“I know you are,” she replied.
The man opened the door and walked through, leading Ernest through with him and pulling the door closed behind.
Dr Göttlich opened a drawer and removed a rubber stamp and a red ink pad. She turned her Dictaphone off, signed the bottom of her notes and stamped the word ‘Heaven’ on the page. She put the paperwork into a brown envelope and filed it away. She went back to her desk, picked up the phone and spoke again.
“Could you please send the next one in?”