Fiction: Underground Tour
By Cecilia Kennedy
The first sting spreads from my palm, an unmistakable sizzling tingle that radiates heat until the sweat drips towards my fingertips. The insides of my stomach flip and churn, and all I’ve done is think about the thing I’m about to do, which is not a big thing, really. It’s something everyone does: go to work. But I imagine it as something as heavy as Atlas’s burden to bear, struggling under the weight, and I’m nothing more than a tour guide.
“Why did you pick this job?” my therapist asks.
I’m pulling a scarf through my hands, wadding it up and threading it through the spaces of my fingers, but the sweat keeps pouring. Springs from the faded orange couch push up against my backside; I shift my body.
“I’m good at it.” My voice is thick, gunk in my throat collects and dries. I pull the scarf through my fingers again, one at a time, while the therapist types.
“What are you good at?”
“I’ve been told I have a good voice.”
“There are other ways to use your voice. Why this one? Why be a tour guide?”
“This one hired me.”
Another clump of mucous lodges in my throat. I swallow it back and look at my watch, turning my wrist as I pull the scarf through again. I have six more hours before my first tour. It’s too early to be this upset, but my legs feel weak and numb.
“Let’s do some breathing exercises . . . ”
I try, but my attempts are shallow. Short breaths catch in my chest. I can’t manage to relax my shoulders.
The underground city tour spans about two miles through a labyrinth of tunnels, just below the sidewalks where people stroll above. I’m supposed to point out the purple glass fused into the concrete as I lead a group—to show where these prisms once served as a light for the buildings and dwellings below. We cross at dusk, when we can still somewhat make them out; then, we enter a large, unassuming door and descend. The pipes above leak rust in heavy droplets. Children and parents cover their heads, and there’s a noticeable stench of urine. Some people on the tour softly mention it, but no one ever asks me about it. Occasionally, a mouse—or a rat—will scurry by. But it’s not these things, exactly, that put me on edge. They don’t help my nerves, true, but it’s the constant presence of the performance—of pleasing the crowd, remembering my lines, and using my voice—ensuring it’s as clear as a windless day.
In a dimly lit corner, I tell the story of the shop boys who lost their fingers and their lives—and how they suffer for eternity, never able to laugh or play. Then, there’s the story of the men who never came home after drinking late in the saloons—most likely hit over the head and dragged off to work on ships. And of women who cobbled together a meager existence of laundering clothes—and prostitution. Sometimes, when I’m telling my stories—and my voice feels just right—I believe the air around me goes still, and I can hear the pulse of a crowd of heartbeats. But the undercurrent of trembles that courses through my veins and stiffens my muscles and quickens my pulse, never leaves—as if I were on the brink of something disastrous.
Out of the corner of my eye, something powdery and light falls from the ceiling above—some kind of plaster or chipped paint. I move forward. Another flake falls past my shoulder, and another. All around us, plaster particles fill the space just above our heads. I try to say my next rehearsed lines about the large family huddled together in one small room, but my voice shakes, catching slightly on the intonation of the word living, and I can’t bring myself to move forward.
All eyes turn upward when we hear the loud noises coming from the surface above. With a shaking hand, I touch a rust-covered wall, bubbled over with wetness and mold, seeping with dankness, and when I do, I can feel uncontrollable static. Pain radiates out from my fingers and into the wall, which begins to move, wavering, threatening to cave in. Terror rises up from the soles of my feet as I run—all of us running through the same door, outside and up the steep, uneven brick path to street level, purple skylight glass now indistinguishable.
My useless tears fall heavy and thick in the therapist’s office. Fear makes me so tired. So deeply sad.
“Why are you afraid?” she asks.
“The whole job is stressful. They rate you. I have to be perfect. My voice can’t shake, and I can’t forget a line.”
“And how much do you make?”
“Fifteen dollars an hour. I only do two one-hour tours three nights a week. I’m living off savings mostly, until I can find something else.”
“They’re hiring other places, you know.”
“Not for me they’re not. And they’re just as scary.”
“Besides the need to be perfect, what makes your job so scary?”
“I didn’t think I’d have to fear the physical space I’d be in. I never thought I was in real danger until now. I think the whole tunnel’s going to collapse. Everything around me. Boom. Over.”
Restless, nervous twinges overtake me earlier on each tour. Tonight, they rise up from the first purple glass square I reach on the sidewalk with my group. It’s almost electric, and I can feel the ground giving way. My sight grows heavy; I feel like I’m falling. Shaking my head, I clear my throat and deliver my opening lines. I’m on a new route with a new script about fires that raged underneath. Hundreds of people were trapped below. Some say their ghosts still wander. This part of the tour covers the same number of miles, but on the east side of the city instead of the west. The rust and urine smells still lurk inside and drip from the ceiling. Rats, even in this part, scatter about. My heart pounds. Phlegm forms and dries in my mouth, and I wonder if I’ll get the intonation right, if I’ll keep a perfect rating.
Just as I step past a plaster beam, a flash of light falls past my left shoulder. And when I look closer, I see that more are falling—and that they appear to be shards of purple glass from the sidewalk above. When the tour is over, I surface with the others, with pieces of glass in my hair.
“People’s energy vibrates at different levels, and I can see yours glowing red, hot, orange—and it can be damaging if you don’t control it,” my therapist says.
“Easier said than done.”
“Did you ever stop to think that the falling plaster—the trembling walls—might actually be the negative effects of your energy?”
When I look up at the dim light shining from the therapist’s desk, and the couch digs into my body once more, I think about what she’s just discovered: It’s my fault that the building around me—and the underground tunnel—feels unstable and might fall. When I stand up to leave, I tell her I won’t be making another appointment. I won’t pay someone to tell me everything is my fault.
My voice is the moon hanging in a cloudless sky tonight—not a thick or wispy strand to strangle it, but the trembling, pulsing that charges up my feet, like static zapping me from the edges of the purple glass on the sidewalk, makes me doubt my steps. A slight edge or tremor hangs on to the word follow when I lead my group, but only I sense it. It’s enough to make my heart stop.
Inside the tunnel, I lower my tone and raise it and lower it again, trying to find the place where the filmy gunk won’t catch in my throat. In the middle of the story about the mother who entombed her baby in a wall, bits of plaster crumble. This time, the ceiling cracks, and all eyes look up. Still, I try to tell the mother’s story—of how they found the baby and subjected the mother to trial and execution. I rush with urgency to distract the crowd from the ceiling, but I have no control. From above, the ceiling widens, and a form like a body falls, arms flailing momentarily, before thudding to the ground, his head split open on the concrete. All eyes fall on me, pleading with me to do something, but my breath is caught in my chest, and I can’t move. My whole body has gone cold, and I feel an incredible desire to move closer to the ground, to get down real low and cover my head. All around me, I hear the voices of the others, crowding around the man, trying to help. I push my fingertips into the damp concrete below me, sending waves resonating like thunder. The ceiling opens, and more bodies from the surface fall through—one right after the other—all shapes and sizes—before crashing. When there’s a lull, the people from the tour who remain, begin to whisper.
“She’s doing this,” they say. “Every time she speaks. Every time she moves.”
The terrors that rage through my veins each day—that tell me that my life, my livelihood depends on perfection—reaches a fevered pitch. My stomach boils with acid, and the bodies fall like boulders. All of the living have gone, searching for the way back up, only to discover, on the surface, that being upright and on solid ground won’t save them.
Through the rumbling I hear a sound of suffering, wailing—a woman struggling to breathe, to sit up, to survive, and I forget about the lines and the job and the ratings because here, someone struggles to survive, and so do I. When I go to her, when I stretch out my hand to her, and leave my spot where I’ve cowered—and tell her I’ll get help, using my own voice, which is barely a whisper, the trembling subsides. My breathing steadies, the ceiling knits itself back together, and the rhythm of footsteps moving with purpose towards the day— shoes softly scraping over the purple prisms on sidewalks above—replace the maddening pulses in my veins.
Cecilia Kennedy (she/her) taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio for over 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has written and published short stories in journals, magazines, and anthologies online and in print in the United States, Canada, England, and Ireland. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. She is also an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine and Running Wild Press, an adult beverages columnist for The Daily Drunk, and she writes for the weekly humor blog Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.