Elray was under the house, the part of it that had no basement, lying on her belly in the cramped and musty crawlspace with her face pressed against the dirt. It had been three days since her as yet uncelebrated sixth birthday. Three days since the accident. Two hours since the still, almost airless moment when her parents, Barkley and Jack, had disappeared forever into the quiet and unremarkable ground of Washington’s Montrose Cemetery.
Overhead people were moving, clacking their shoes across the floors in dotted lines like the paths that chart explorers’ routes on maps. Elray took a deep breath of the stale crawlspace air. It was good air, old air. The same air that had been there when Elray and Barkley and Jack had looped their own footsteps through the open spaces of the house, garlanding the rooms with the private patterns of their family dance. The same hard earth had been there too. Elray shifted her weight and opened her mouth slightly so that the bitterness of that earth could creep at the edges of her taste. Then she tried to whisper to them: “Mama, Daddy. Barkley, Jack.” No sound came, of course. She had forgotten–she kept forgetting–about her dead voice. Elray slid her tongue forward for a quick rude scoop of dirt and mimed the names one last time as the bitterness blossomed. “Barkley. Jack.”
Soon someone would miss her, and come looking. Elray knew that. But she would hear them calling first, and she would have time to scuttle out of the crawlspace back into the sunlight, and act like she had just stepped outside to throw a peach pit into the hedge where it belonged. These people upstairs were pretty slow. They didn’t notice much, didn’t remember much. Not one of them had remembered her sixth birthday party, or noticed the bright ziggurat of presents stashed in the hall closet. Elray had discovered the presents, of course, and she’d seen the colorful paper plates with matching cups and napkins that were still sitting in the pantry in their plastic wrapping. She had been painfully aware of the big chocolate cake on top of the refrigerator, getting stale in its white box. Last night when no one was near she had even climbed up on the counter to peer in at the cake. She had admired the little miniature merry-go-round and tiny Ferris wheel and toy clowns pressed into its chocolate top, and the way her own name, ELRAY, had been scripted in big letters that erupted into clusters of pink roses with the beginning E and the ending Y.
Barkley and Jack had had everything ready. They had remembered her birthday. But now they were gone and only all the other people, the ones who didn’t remember or notice, were upstairs. It was not a handsome crowd. Grown people turned into monsters when they cried; their faces went rubbery, and their eyes bulged as if they were eggs about to hatch more little sad rubbery monsters. Nearly everyone had been a cry-monster at some point today. Even Elray’s Auntie Ajax, usually so full of energy and jokes, had looked at her from across the room with shimmery eyes, and then had let loose a long sad hiccup.
Elray wiped her tongue on her sleeve. The dirt had lost its good bitter flavor and was just bad grit in her mouth. Some ginger ale might be nice. Perhaps she should go upstairs and get a little drink in one of those pretty party cups, and walk around and try to make one of the dumb grown people take the hint. She could hold the cup up and wave it, as if to say: “Do I have to save all of these cups for my BIRTHDAY PARTY, or can I have some ginger ale in one now?” She would find her Uncle Harwood. She hadn’t seen him crying. He wasn’t his normal silly self, he hadn’t walked on his hands and said the alphabet backward for her yet. But at least he wasn’t weepy. He was wearing the camera, taking pictures, the way he always did. If Barkley had been there, Elray knew what she would have done. She would have laughed at Harwood and said, “Oh cut it out, you old shutterbug.”
This vision, the picture of Barkley and the sound of her voice scolding Harwood, came to Elray so clearly she decided to rewind it and run it again. It was nice to have Barkley around, even in a mind movie. “Oh cut it out Harwood, you old shutterbug,” Barkley said, and then she tilted her head back and gave her brookwater laugh. Uncle Harwood’s camera flashed right back at her and then, for just a second, there were magic blue pinwheels of light twirling on Barkley’s teeth and in her eyes.
Elray had been going full tilt on the mind movies lately. All sorts of things had been coming and going on screen, but the story that kept coming back and starting itself over and over was the story of Thursday morning, her birthday morning, just three days ago. It was a good movie. It always began the same way, inside her head, with the sunlight melting on her face and making patterns like tree branches on the insides of her eyelids. Then the lids lifted, slid upward the way shades on airplane windows do, and the day with all its special birthday potential came slowly, deliciously into focus. The October air was apple-clean, and carried the promise of breakfast bacon. The sunlight was brassy and loud, and danced around Elray’s bedroom as if impatient for her to rise.
In the movie Elray thawed from sleep into consciousness of all this and hit the ground running, her bare feet slapping across the cold wood floors with loud thwacks, her child’s voice rising from a tickle in her chest and sailing forth with the hearty acquisitive flush of one who is ready to receive.
“Mama! Daddy!” She called for them. It was her birthday. She had called her parents and there they both were, in the kitchen and hard at work. Barkley was pouring hot water over the coffee grounds, moving carefully around the edges of the inverted pyramid, washing the coffee down the slopes. Jack was turning the bacon, intently. They both looked up and grinned.
“It’s a Birthday Thing!” said Barkley.
“It’s a Birthday Thing with no slippers!” said Jack.
“Happy birthday, Birthday Thing!” They said it together, and then they swooped down in a whirl of arms and faces and squeals that left Elray breathless, seated at the breakfast table before a large pink package with a gray ribbon. Elray stared at the package, and the package, it seemed, began to grow. The longer she stared, the larger the package grew and the pinker it turned, until it was shaking and rattling before her, straining at its restrictive gray ribbon with the groaning song of a big boat under sail. Then BOOM–the package exploded in a cloud of pink dust. When the storm of cardboard and paper settled, there sat a pair of black high-top sneakers. Brand new, in Elray’s size.
The sneakers were a perfect fit and made an auspicious birthday beginning. Elray had wanted them badly and now, as she lay stretched across the backseat of the car, riding to her surprise birthday outing with Barkley and Jack, she propped her feet on the window ledge so that she could admire the way the shoes punctuated the ends of her legs. The little white crescent moons across their toes made the sneakers look happy to be there too.
In the front seat, Barkley and Jack were dropping hints, trying to make Elray guess where they might be headed.
“Is it the beer factory again?” Elray asked, remembering her birthday outing the year before. The three of them had walked in the cool shadow of big vats that stood on top of tall pipes like metal trees, surrounded by a pungent thick smell that made Elray want to grab the air and squeeze it into shapes. Her favorite part had been when the bottles filed past like soldiers to get their cap hats.
Barkley looked across at Jack with narrow eyes. “No,” she said. “Last year was your daddy’s pick. This year is my turn. Keep guessing, Kumquat. This is something really exciting.” Barkley slid Jack another slit-eyed look. ‘something really exciting for CHILDREN.”
“The zoo?” Elray tried to hide the sadness that lives in that word, but it came out pretty flat anyway. So she tried it again. “The zoooooo?” This time it came out like a crazy train whistle. Still not a happy sound, but luckily Barkley was already shaking her head and wrinkling her nose and saying, “No, no, no. Keep guessing.”
Not the beer factory, not the zoo. Oh God. “The Bay Bridge?” Elray’s father had a theory about one of the exact-change booths on the big Bay Bridge that led across the Chesapeake toward the beaches. The spirit of his dead mother, Elray’s Granny Mayhew, sometimes inhabited a certain booth there, he said, and on a good day you could get a hot tip on which horse to play at the Laurel Racetrack if you counted the seconds between when you dropped the money in the basket and when the automated gateway lifted to let you through. Once Elray and Barkley had suffered through seven and a half round trips over the bridge in the course of an hour and a half because Jack claimed to be piecing together information on the whereabouts of some family silver that had mysteriously disappeared about the time of Granny Mayhew’s death.
“Is it the Bay Bridge?” In the mind movie, Elray usually repeated her question in a tiny pushed-away voice. Partly because the car was already slowing and turning, lurching downward and to the left, kicking up a drumroll of gravel that seemed to signify arrival somewhere–somewhere that was much too soon to be the Bay Bridge. But her voice was also pushed away because it was right about here that this particular mind movie, in the three days it had been running, always started to unravel on Elray. The picture began to stutter and flicker and finally faded away altogether.
But not on that long-ago now famous afternoon, it didn’t. Not as Elray lay in the crawlspace. This time the reel kept rolling. The colors brightened, if anything, and the focus grew sharper as the car turned down a driveway toward what appeared to be a cluster of castles. Flags were flying from turrets and towers in every direction. To the left was a wild, looping railroad built high on stilts. The air was full of tinny music and sugary smells and disembodied screams.
“It’s called Glen Echo,” said Barkley. “It’s an amusement park. Happy birthday.”
First they all sat in a giant teacup, like three giant sugar cubes, as it whirled around and around. “Hold on, Crumpet,” said Jack.
“You,” Elray said back at him. Then she stretched out a foot and poked at his knees with a new high-top to check if his sugar-cube legs were starting to dissolve yet.
“Goodness,” said Barkley, clutching at a purple scarf that the wind was trying to steal. “Pretty wild teacup, this one.”
Next they visited a booth where they were outfitted with little fishing rods. When they cast the rods over the counter, the woman in charge bent over and left her bottom in the air for a long time. Finally, just as there was a mighty tug on Elray’s line, the woman reappeared, red-faced and yelling, “Hey! Youse got something!” Sure enough, when Elray worked her reel to take in the slack a little plastic monkey came dangling into view.
They rode the merry-go-round, with its bobbing bored beasts, and they went fishing again, this time by aiming Ping-Pong balls at the narrow necks of little glass globes that held real live goldfish. They had to lean way over the barrier fence to aim, and even so the Ping-Pong balls kept bouncing maddeningly to the ground. But finally Jack got it right, and a ball bobbed on the surface above a startled fish.
“What will you name him?” Jack asked as he handed the little glass globe to Elray.
“What day is it?” Elray squinted through the glass at her prize. “And how do you know it’s a him?”
“It’s Thursday, and I don’t.”
“Then I’ll call him Friday,” Elray said. “Lily says Friday is fish day.”
“What’s next?” asked Barkley. She had just bought a beehive of blue cotton candy, and Jack and Elray paused to watch her eat it and to consider her question.
“Hey, little family.” A tall elderly woman in a long gray flannel coat took advantage of their momentary indecision to approach them with a Polaroid camera. “Can I snap a quick picture? You look so happy today. Quel beau poisson!” the woman said, admiring Friday. ‘may I?” she asked, holding up her camera. “I’ll take two–one for me and one for you?”
They huddled together, Elray holding Friday up in front and Barkley holding her cotton candy behind her back, while the woman took two Polaroids. A moment later Elray watched as the image of her family, newly expanded by the addition of Friday, came into bloom against an empty white background. She stared at the photograph the woman offered her and then stuffed it into her coat pocket.
“What’s next, Elray?” Barkley asked again as she returned to her cotton candy.
“This one,” Elray announced as she grabbed Barkley and Jack by their knees and pulled them toward a dark stone cottage set into the hill. A pretty blue light, like angels’ hair, shone from the door of the cottage.
“That’s a grown-up one. Tunnel of Love,” said Jack. “You won’t like it.”
“This one,” Elray insisted. It was her birthday, her day to call the shots.
Inside the cottage a line of wooden boats bobbed in a narrow canal. The boats were twirled at the ends like elves’ shoes, and bumped against each other gently, like livestock.
“Hi-ho! A gondola for the lovely trio of lovebirds,” cried a small man who looked like a big version of Elray’s plastic monkey. He jumped down from a seat high along one wall and gave a little bow as they entered. “Here we go. The finest in my fleet.” He helped Barkley and Elray and Jack into the front seat of the boat, and then carefully settled Friday in his glass globe on the back seat. “Bon voyage,” he called as he climbed back to his high seat and waved a grimy monkey hand. The gondola lurched forward with a grinding, creaking groan and splashed down a ramp and into the canal. “Hey, you devils,” the voice of the little monkey man echoed after them as the boat slipped away from the harbor of light inside the cottage and into the dark underworld of the Tunnel of Love. “Now don’t you do anything I wouldn’t do.”
At first the only sound around them was the silken swoosh of water parting, the only sight in the darkness the almost indistinguishable darker mass of the curled bow some six feet ahead. But then the boat tilted sharply to the right, and a bright light flashed on a big black and white cow as it rolled down a grass mound toward the boat. Loud cackling and a frenzied ‘moooooo! Mooooo!” exploded the silence. Moments later, as suddenly as it had appeared, the cow was gone. They were back in the dark with only quiet water sounds.
“Tunnel of Love?” Barkley hissed.
Elray felt Jack’s shoulders shrugging a response on her right. “Tunnel of Weird. Whatever,” he whispered. “The black and white cows are called Holsteins, Elray. They’re very gentle, usually dairy cows–that is, they give us milk.”
“I know,” Elray said as she let the darkness and water noises wash over her. “I bet this is what it feels like to be an eel.”
The boat had begun to climb some sort of hill. It labored noisily upward, occasionally slipping backward for an ominous few inches before catching and moving on, until finally it leveled off and lights sprang on all around to reveal a range of pointed mountaintops on either side of the canal. Goats as big as the mountains grazed on some of the peaks, and in one valley a little girl who would surely grow up to be a giantess rocked mechanically up and down on the handle of a huge butter churn. As they neared the girl the lower half of her frozen smile dropped and a loud yodeling reverberated through the tunnel: “Yo-Da-Lay-Eee-HOO, Yo-Da-Lay-EEE-Hoo!”
Elray flinched at the noise and turned to Barkley. “Is that Heidi?” she asked.
“I guess so.”
‘she’s big, isn’t she?”
“Yes she is.” Barkley glanced through the half-light toward Jack. “The mountain air must be good for her. She seems to be doing monstrously well.”
“I’ll say,” said Jack. “Heidistein.”
But the boat was already leaving the mountains behind now, heading downhill and back into the inky eel-dark, and as the yodeling faded away the water noises seemed almost friendly, like welcoming kisses from a dog. Or was it that there were new water noises? Closer water noises?
“Oh yuk!” Barkley jumped on Elray’s left. “Jack, there’s a leak in this boat! I’ve got water all around my ankles.”
‘me too.” Jack was splashing his toes up and down noisily. “It all sloshed forward when we headed down the mountain, I guess. Must be the spring thaw.”
“Jack, really. Don’t joke. We could catch pneumonia, or capsize and drown,” Barkley scolded. She was slapping her toes up and down in the water now too, but she paused to check on Elray. “Kumquat, you keep your feet up high and dry.”
Elray snatched her knees to her chin and felt her new high-tops. Whew. Dry as a bone. She patted them and tucked them underneath her.
“Ah, the Tunnel of Love,” Jack said with a sigh. He was reaching behind Elray to find the back of Barkley’s head. ‘don’t worry, my sweet,” he said. “We seem to be heading for the warm dry tropics now.”
It was true. Exotic birdcalls had begun to sound from the darkness ahead of them, and a faint rosy glow was spreading from around the next bend. But the boat seemed to be slowing down. Yes, it was definitely slowing down, and Elray was becoming worried that it might come to a halt, might never make it around the bend to the land of birds and light and who knew what other surprises.
Or was it the boat that was losing steam? The story had been playing so vividly, for so long, that Elray had forgotten that it was only a mind movie. She couldn’t bear for it to stop–not now, with such a tantalizing adventure shimmering around the next corner, not with Barkley and Jack waiting there in the movie, waiting for her. Elray shut her eyes against the crawlspace shadows, against everything outside her head, and tried to pull the movie back. She concentrated on the slap slap swoosh of the water against the sides of the boat. She let the dank, sweet smell of the tunnel flow through her nostrils into her head and down deep to her lungs. She felt the awkward lump of her high-tops tucked snugly underneath her, and the slight hum of warmth against each shoulder that let her know Barkley and Jack were there.
Creeeeeak. The boat was moving again, slowly but steadily, gaining on the warm halo of light up ahead. The birds were hooting and cawing just inches from their ears now, and then the boat tilted abruptly again as it headed into another tight turn and WHOOSH!
They had splattered down a short ramp and landed in a pink and green and orange world that could only be Paradise. Palm trees lined the shores on either side of them and lifted their thick green fronds upward gracefully in a welcoming arch overhead. Big-beaked birds of all colors populated the trees, and little grinning monkeys hung by their tails here and there. Wrapped around the trunk of one tree was a bright snake with a big smile–the friendliest snake smile Elray had ever seen, for it had squared-off people teeth, not the pointed fangs most other snakes had. Twinkly sounds, as if from whole armies of wind bells like the one that hung on Elray’s own back porch, made a pretty background chorus. And in a midnight-blue patch of sky there blazed the brightest, most beautiful moon Elray had ever seen. It was a crescent moon, with soft pinks and blues in it, and it was swinging lightheartedly in the night sky, somersaulting playfully in a most unmoonlike manner.
“Ah, Eden at last,” said Jack, pointing to the snake. “Do you like this garden, Elray?”
“I love it,” Elray said, staring upward, transfixed. “Look at the moon. It’s dancing.”
But Jack had turned to Barkley. “How about a little original sin, Eve,” he whispered as he leaned toward her. And at that moment, as Barkley and Jack exchanged a loud kiss behind her head, Elray’s moon did a spectacular flip in the sky and began to descend toward her, as if it too wanted a kiss.
“Oh Moon.” Elray leaned forward and reached up to catch the cuddly mass of soft cottony light. “Come here, Moon!” It was almost there, almost in her arms, when Elray felt the flash of pain against her right arm. This moon was not soft; it was burning hot and hard. And it was a rude moon. It had sailed right through her open embrace to the bottom of the boat.
And then it happened–the whole world exploded. Everything–the moon, Barkley, Jack, the boat, the mind movie and even Elray herself, the real Elray who had been in the crawlspace watching the mind movie–everything exploded and was consumed by a rushing, searing fire that burned without sound or light but with violent perversions of each. Its blaze was blindingly loud, deafeningly bright, everywhere and nowhere at once. It raged and it roared in a way that had to end but that obviously could never stop.
For the longest time Elray, like everything else, was simply obliterated. But then slowly, slowly some faraway remnant of something inside her began first to catch at a rhythm and then to superimpose logic. Finally Elray thought she understood what had happened. The entire world had become a train. A runaway train; a runaway train on fire; a runaway train on fire rushing rushing rushing through a tunnel. A runaway train on fire rushing rushing rushing through a tunnel and she, Elray, was a part of it all. She was a part of the rhythmic pounding of the wheels on the track, a part of the infernal heat of internal combustion gone awry and, most of all, a part of the hollow wail of the train’s whistle that came streaking now, like a long sad banner, above everything else.
© 2003 by Leslie Marshall. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.