All she ever wanted was to find some new street, maybe where the cracked and pothole-ridden concrete faded into brickwork, colorful like a mosaic. Or maybe a street where the houses had been long-forgotten and welcomed ivy in through the doors and windows until the whole foundation shuttered sleepily into the ground. Or maybe it didn’t need to be spectacular and just needed to be new to her: something other than the pristine early-20th century mansions and coffee shops and the Catholic high school and the furiously erupting apartment buildings she passed every evening.
Never once did it occur to her that in order to find this new street, she’d have to depart from the path she always walked. That path was safe and it was familiar and it hardly mattered if she was paying attention to anything other than the cars passing through intersections because she’d always make enough right turns to end up back on the stoop of her own furiously erupting apartment building. Never once until today, this evening, the first night after the clocks changed and she had an extra hour to walk sweetly through the sunshine without her keys clenched in her fist like a weapon. This evening, she got to the end of one familiar street and instead of taking her usual right turn, she went straight.
She walked past rows of modest houses with modest vegetable plants growing in raised beds. She walked past the backsides of university buildings with their mid-century glass exteriors that reflected the setting sun into her eyes. She squinted down into the dirt, pocked with empty liquor bottles and strange weeds that looked both velvet-soft and needle-sharp. She walked until the sidewalk dipped down into the road and disappeared.
She looked ahead and behind for oncoming traffic and stepped out onto the road, staying as close to the edge as she could without twisting her ankles on the crumbling asphalt. She wished she’d worn her better shoes and wondered if the sidewalk would pick back up or if pedestrians simply were not welcome here.
She nearly missed the tunnel, built as it was into a hillside thick with goutweed and knotweed and poison hemlock. It was only when she tripped across the bit of train track that was embedded in the road and followed its trajectory with her eyes that she realized the tunnel was there, its dark and gaping mouth striking a deep yearning within her. If I were still fifteen years old, I’d go in there, she thought, wondering if this change over time represented a loss of bravery or an increased awareness of where one isn’t supposed to be. She shifted her weight from one foot to another and glanced over her shoulder. Surely, there were cameras or security guards staring down upon her from the sun-streaked windows, waiting to see what she was thinking, coming down this far on a road with no sidewalk. It’s suspicious, isn’t it? she thought. A grown woman walking into a train tunnel on a strange street.
Still, she couldn’t help but think of the days when nothing would have kept her from going inside that tunnel. There was the night that she and George snuck out after midnight and drove two hours in search of the abandoned hospital they’d heard rumors about. You had to park two miles away in the vacant lot outside of a small Italian restaurant and jump a chain link fence. You had to stumble down a hill packed with briars that would stick to your shoelaces, impossible to remove, and follow train tracks until you arrived at a tunnel and then you had to flip on flashlights and walk in near darkness and strain your ears for the sound of the train. If the train came, you had to duck into one of the door-shaped alcoves and turn off your flashlight so the conductor didn’t see you and you could scream as loud as you want, and she had. The train had passed and she had screamed and screamed, laughing as the train rattled every bone in her body, clinging to George so she didn’t fall over. Nothing had ever sounded louder to her than that train flying through that tunnel, the rhythmic clunking of metal wheels on metal rails bouncing off of the curved stone ceiling and walls. To think of that loudness now made her shudder with pleasure, her body grasping at memories in search of adrenaline.
She remembered the way the wings of the hospital sloped under the weight of decay, windows bashed in with rocks and baseball bats, doors hanging from rusted hinges. The graffiti on the walls, the single line of spray paint they’d followed down three different hallways only to discover that in the end, it was an arrow pointing to a vulgar image. The way they’d laughed and swung the beams of their flashlights away and wordlessly continued onward. The bats that clung from the ceiling, clustered in corners, wings wrapped tenderly around small brown bodies. The way they’d tested staircases under their feet before deciding that nothing upstairs or below was worth falling through hollowed concrete. She remembered the fatigue that followed them back through the train tunnel hours later, the dopamine haze that had shooed them into George’s car and down the highway.
Maybe I am more practical now, she thought. But I was certainly braver back then. She balled up her fists and readied herself to run into the train tunnel, determined to prove that fifteen years later, she could still behave recklessly, she could still live. Then she shook her head free from her cobwebbed past, reached for the iron door handle of her apartment building, and slipped silently inside. Even having found some new street, she could wander home without realizing she was walking at all.
Molly Andrea-Ryan (she/her) is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. She received her MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University. Her work often centralizes themes of childhood, womanhood, and mental health. Find her on Twitter @mollyandrearyan.