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The Mountain Air

A fortunate day, a consuming view, a mystery.

Photography by Wix

By Tristan Tammaro

Content Creator (Fiction), The Continuist

Tap, tap, tap. A quick shake. The tunnel finally filled with light.

Harry sighed with relief as the flashlight lit up the sewer. He felt a shiver running down his back while submerged in the darkness. The light had gone out with no warning. But it was back, thank god. He continued to walk down again, each step in the inch thick water sent a reverb back and forth down the long tube. He couldn’t say how far he had walked. He must be deep in the mountain now.

When the taxicab dropped him off at the side of a highway, he got assurance from the driver.

“Here on the right is where you’re going,” the cabbie said to Harry, shutting off the meter.

“Are you sure? There’s nothing around here for miles!” It rang up to $36.35. Harry passed forward two twenties to the small man through the glass divider. He looked at the scribbling on the back of the lottery ticket. Chicken scratch.

“Yeah, I’m sure this is the place, friend.”

“I hope you’re right.” With that, Harry stuffed the ticket back into his pocket and shuffled to the passenger side, opened the door and got out. He stepped onto the shoulder of the highway and waved as the cab drove away towards nothing. The lights didn’t fade, but burned bright even miles away.

That had been about an hour ago. He took the ticket out of his breast pocket and inspected it again. The instructions were muddled and confusing. An obscure scavenger hunt. A road map with no clear destination, not knowing where he started or where he would finish. Harry didn’t know exactly what he would find. The clerk who had given it to him was peculiar. The whole day felt like a fever dream.

When he woke up that morning, luck was in the air. He could smell it. Everything was coming up Harry. A bit dewy for early May, he could feel the moisture in the air as soon as he stepped onto his patio for a fresh breath of air. Taking a sip of his dark coffee (black, he had stopped drinking milk about a month ago), Harry stared up at the mountains. He took a deep breath. It was incredibly fresh up in the high altitude. He knew today was going to be a good one. Every day presents new opportunities.

He kissed Ella on his way out. He didn’t know where he was going so he just told her “I’m going out,” as she lay half asleep in bed. She mumbled a response but didn’t lift her head. It was Saturday, so he decided to let her sleep in. She’d had a busy week. Everyone had. It was time for a break.

As he walked down the main drag of Chesterton, he noticed that it was rather empty for such a beautiful day. But when he really thought about it, weren’t the streets usually empty? He’d only been here for about a month (he gave up milk when he moved here). At least, he

thought it was a month. Time seemed to move a little differently here, slower. He didn’t mind it. A sleepy town was exactly what he and Ella had been looking for. He popped into the Locks Cafe to get his second cup of the day.

“Just black drip coffee, please,” he told the barista. She nodded and turned to get the coffee. With a lid on top, she slid it across the counter to him. He reached for his wallet. “No charge,” she said blankly.

“How do you mean?” asked Harry.

“It’s on the house, Harry.” He didn’t think he’d been to the Locks enough to be known by name, but word gets around in a small town. Her name tag read Grace.

“Cheers! But really, I insist.” He tried to hand her a five dollar bill but she just stared at it. There wasn’t a thought behind her eyes. “Grace? Take the bill!” What the hell is wrong with her, he thought. They held eye-contact for what seemed like an hour. He moved the bill to the tip jar, a cute glass cup with penguins in Santa Hats skating around it. It’d been up since Christmas, he assumed. They must have just been too lazy to put it away. He dropped the bill into the cup, it was otherwise empty. The barista was staring straight ahead.

“Thanks for the tip! Hope to see you again sometime!” Just like that she had snapped out of her trance. She smiled intensely. Harry thought of it as nothing more than another small town quirk.

“You’re welcome,” he returned the smile. He turned and walked out. The door jingled behind and shut forcefully. Harry turned around a second later and saw the barista at the door flipping the open sign to closed. He peered at his watch. 10:48 in the morning, it read. Didn’t they just open?

He started to walk down the empty street again. The interaction at the coffee shop was strange, but so was this town. It was one of its quirks that he liked so much about it. Ella too. He couldn’t remember if he found it or she did, or which of them recommended the move out here but he sure loved it. He preferred the quiet. The city gave him headaches and the pollution made him cough. Crossing the street was dangerous and every street corner was covered in trash. The people were rude and the buildings blocked the sun. Rural life was much more his speed. He thought it was Ella’s too. Definitely better for a kid.

He drank his coffee and walked around, enjoying the mountain air. He didn’t think he had ever experienced air so refreshing; it was addicting! Take it away and it’s enough to make a man go crazy. When he really thought about it, he couldn’t remember much about life before Chesterton. Before the fresh, crisp air. How important could it have been if he can’t remember? Not very, he thought. The town tailored to all of his needs. He never had to wait in lines, the fridge was always stocked, and as far as he could tell, the sun never stopped shining. No buildings to block it. This was his little sanctuary outside of the city. He ought to tell some of his friends to move up here. But who? He’d have to think about it.

He was less aggressive, his writing was going well. The escape to Chesterton was inspiring a new story for him to write. He didn’t have a name for it, but it revolved around a man stuck in his own ways. He lived life like a robot, not really living a life at all. Always caught the

8:45 bus, never missed rent, had chicken, rice and green beans for dinner almost every night. On Friday’s he would have a glass of wine. No one to love, the man longed for excitement in his life but was too timid to go out and find it. The people on the street laughed with each other as they passed him. They never laughed at the man but he believed they did. Then, one day, rather than catching the 8:45 bus he stepped in front of it. A sad life. Harry got depressed just thinking about it. He couldn’t imagine being without love. No Ella. He shivered at the thought.

Him and Ella preferred to live a quiet life, though. He wanted to finish his next book, she wanted a kid. He didn’t think much of bringing a kid into the world. Not now, at least. Maybe when Hell freezes and pigs fly. He looked at his watch again. It was already one in the afternoon! Ten past one to be exact. Holy shit, his coffee had just gotten cold. He threw it into the next garbage can he saw.

The air of luck was still burning inside of him. He didn’t know how to get it out. What do you do when you’re feeling lucky? he thought to himself. Filling his lungs with more of the mountain air, he started towards the convenience store on Spruce Avenue.

“May as well really try my luck,” he mused. He thought a lottery ticket should suffice. The door jingled as he walked into another empty store. A grumpy man, with a thin moustache and a gut that rested on the counter huffed when Harry entered. The afternoon rush always peeved the clerk it seemed. It was as if no one had ever bought from this store, let alone been inside of it. Every shelf was in pristine condition. Beautifully organized, chips colour coded along with the bags of candy. Have I even been here before? He walked around the aisles, appreciating the cleanliness and organization of the shop. He circled back and headed towards the front of the store. He reached the counter and it was sparkling clean; you could eat off of it if you really wanted to. The large man at the counter’s name tag read Lionel. The sign behind the counter, to Lionel’s left, had the lottery figures on them. Lucky Jack had a draw for $2.8 million on Thursday night and Multi Max was boasting a $9 million dollar pot to be drawn on Sunday night. Lots of money to be won!

“What do you recommend?” Harry asked Lionel.

Lionel let out another sigh, he was the dirtiest thing in the place. His breath wafted slowly over and reeked of old onions and wet grass. It lingered. The man had teeth as yellow as the sun and a tongue cracked as if by drought. He looked over his shoulder at the interchangeable numbers and then back to Harry. “Doesn’t really matter, does it?” he shrugged.

“I suppose you’re right. You can’t really complain with either,” Harry reached for his wallet and pulled out a twenty. “I’ll take two $10 draws of the Lucky Jack.” “Won’t do you much good if you win,” Lionel took the $20 bill and rang him up. The drawer opened efficiently and then slammed closed. Lionel walked out of sight and came back holding two folded pieces of paper sandwiched neatly together. He handed it discreetly to Harry, as if a nonexistent customer might see something they weren’t supposed to. “Enjoy what you’ve got left,” Lionel said. Harry was about to go but that stopped him. “I beg your pardon?”

“Of your day. It’s getting dark out, not much left anyway,” Lionel pointed outside. He was right, the sun had already set.

“I could have sworn that it was midday. It was light when I came in here,” Harry scratched his chin. He’d shaved this morning (right?) and now he could feel a scruffy five o’clock shadow coming in. His morning coffee seemed like it had been an hour ago. But it was dark now. Ella must be worried sick.

“I don’t know what to tell you. Time always catches up.”

“Y’know, I’ve had this feeling all day that everyone knows something I don’t. Like there’s a big ol’ secret going around town and everyone but Harry gets to be in on it.” “It’s just one of those days, I guess. When you wake up in the morning, you never know what’ll happen before you go to bed.” Lionel had been teasing his nose with his pinky. Now, he stuck his pinky in deep. He was digging for gold.

“Do you always get this philosophical with your customers?” Harry asked.

“Only with you Harry, you know that. I hope to see you again sometime down the road.” Lionel took his pinky out of his nose and inspected it. Seems the well had gone dry. “Sure, somewhere down the road. Take it easy, alright!” He said light heartily as he exited. Everyone wanted to see Harry again, he honestly couldn’t be bothered. When the door closed behind him he turned to see all of the lights off in the store. Lionel was no longer picking his nose behind the counter and he couldn’t see whether or not the shelves were still nicely stocked. He tried the door and it was locked. Time moves pretty fast. The streets outside the store remained empty.

He took the tickets out of his pocket and inspected them. A jumble of twenty numbers divided evenly amongst six rows on each ticket. Him and Ella could use the money. Writing was enough to cover the bills, and had been for as long as he could remember (we’ve been here for a month?), but they lived in a big house now, and the view didn’t pay for itself. Neither of them really had expensive tastes, but if fortune falls in your lap who wouldn’t want to splurge? Then again, who couldn’t use $2.8 million? He turned one of the tickets over and there was a strange scribbling on the back. In black scratch that could’ve been mistaken for hieroglyphics there was a little message. Did Lionel write on this? He couldn’t think of a reason why, but if not him then who? It read: Deep into the heart of the mountain a tunnel runs. Dripping with water and smelling of grime. Under the bridge past Greenwood and Dunn. It all makes sense when you run out of time. A riddle was the last thing he expected with a lottery ticket. His head hurt. Had he even had any water today? The day felt like it had only just begun.

He mulled over the note some more. A couple blocks down, a car turned onto Spruce Avenue and started towards him. A golden chariot. It was the only car he’d seen all day. As the car came closer into sight he noticed it was a taxi. The car pulled up next to Harry and idled there for a while. The window rolled down and the cabbie looked at him.

“You look lost, friend” The cabbie said.

“Do I know you?” Harry didn’t think he had any friends in Chesterton.

“Sure we do, I give you rides all the time! I’d say you got a case of selective memory, friend.” You could say that again. The cabbie shifted in his seat. “Why don’t you get in?” Harry obliged. He opened the back door and shrank into the car, nestling in the middle of the back seat. The car reeked of cigarettes and was polka dotted with indistinguishable stains. Didn’t I use to smoke? but it was just a passing thought.

“Do you know where Greenwood and Dunn is?” asked Harry.

“Of course, friend. It’s on the outskirts of town. Any further and no one would know where you went,” responded the cabbie.

“Is there a bridge nearby?”

“Sure, it’s where the river ends.”

“Take me there.” Everything was coming together now.

He stood in front of the tunnel now. He had dirtied his shoes when trying to get down the muddy slope from the road. Has it rained recently? Nothing but sun in Chesterton, he thought. The raging river tapered off a couple hundred feet before here and shrunk down to a creek that flowed through the tunnel. His head still hurt but not enough to take a sip from this sludge. Could be run off from a nuclear power plant for all he knew. More than six feet tall, the tunnel was just high enough for Harry to walk through. Behind the tunnel were the mountains. Towering, ancient giants looming in the darkness. The tunnel was black; black and endless. He had nothing but the clothing on his back. He felt a draw, though, that everything had led him here. He took in the mountain air for a final time. How did I ever live without this? The tunnel stretched infinitely before him and he entered willingly.

He kicked something on his first step. It sputtered and rolled a couple feet ahead with a metallic clang. Harry immediately dropped to his knees, soaking his pants. It didn’t matter to him. He crawled slowly forward tapping every square inch of pipe with his bare hands. He splashed water all over the walls and his face, not that he could see it. He fumbled around until his palm landed on a long cylinder. He felt along the object until he found a button. Harry’s face lit up with a bright light and he squinted against the shine. In his hand he held a standard police flashlight, long and sleek. It was heavy, too. Had someone left this for me? Someone probably just forgot it when they left. That would be too many coincidences for one day.

Now, over an hour after the cab had dropped Harry off, with the flashlight malfunctioning once (I don’t want to be in the dark again), he continued down the tube. When he had first started walking, every once in a while he would turn around to see how far he had come. Eventually, though, it became impossible to distinguish the dark of the outside with the dark of the tunnel. He was expecting graffiti to be on the walls, this seemed like a perfect spot for young artists to tag. The walls, however, were spotless, like this had just been recently installed. That was another thing; what was the point of this tunnel? The small stream of water continued the entire length, but there seemed to be no end in sight.

Was there music coming from up ahead? Or was that maybe coming from the outside? Sound was apt to travel down something like this with nothing to stop it. It could just be droplets

of water falling here, there and everywhere. His feet were sore, his mouth was dry. He missed Ella.

“I should’ve called her,” he thought out loud. Not like anyone would hear him anyway. She must be worried sick.

He walked on. He lost track of how long he had been going. He thought it was close to a couple of hours, but it may have been only 10 minutes. If he turned around now would he be able to get out? He didn’t want to get out. He had to know where this led. He was deep in the mountain. The air didn’t smell nearly as good in here. It smelled of body odor and dead animals. A pile of wet laundry next to a dumpster.

Up ahead, close but still far, Harry thought he saw a door. A green door made of a rich wood with a golden door knob. A brass knocker hung in the middle. This can’t be real he thought, rubbing his eyes. But the closer he got, the more he realized this was no trick. The door stood, somehow fitting the curve of the tunnel. A hundred feet, ninety, eighty, and then he was there. He used the knocker twice. No answer.

“Hello?” Knock, Knock, Who’s there? “Anyone home?”

The door didn’t move. The water stopped at the door as well, not pouring in under the crack but perfectly tapering off. At the bottom of the door, he saw lights illuminating out of the half inch crack. Every colour of the rainbow, switching quickly from one to another. He tried the door knob and it turned with ease. They must be expecting me.

It was the nicest room Henry (isn’t it Harry?) had ever seen. A library filled with book shelves along each wall. A beautiful chaise lounge lay in the corner with a gramophone next to it playing a classical song he had never heard. Persian rugs were scattered across the floor. He assumed most of the fixtures along the wall were gold but it was impossible to tell. The colour of the room kept switching at rapid fire pace. Red, green, blue, pink, purple, orange and colours he had never even dreamed of before. Colours beyond recognition. At the far end of the room, there was a window with the curtains drawn. They were royal curtains, too, billowing at the ends, as if a great play had just ended or was about to begin. He walked to the curtains. Standing before them, he took in their grandeur. The existence of the room never baffled him, Harry knew it was supposed to be here. Why question something that made perfect sense?

His hands were on the curtains now. It had all led to this. A kiss goodbye to Ella, a second cup of coffee, the pull of the convenience store, a ride to the bridge on the outskirts of town. The light continued to change rapidly while the classical music continued on. It was a piece with a large string section. He always wished he’d learn how to play the violin. In one grand move, he threw the curtains to each side of their track and looked through the window. Immediately he eyes shot open with awe. How did they know? He knew why winning the lottery ticket didn’t really matter, anyhow. A tear slowly fell down his face. A great white light came from the window filling the entire room, drowning out the pinks and the reds and the blues and the greens. There was only the white light. It took over the room and the long tunnel, soon it would reach the end of the infinite tube and meet the night sky. It consumed everything. Ella would love it here, he thought.


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