A mystery in Webster tunnel

Siyu Zheng/Staff

Alannah was going to be late. Traffic was backed up way beyond the mouth of the tunnel, and she had left the house with no time to spare. It was days like this that she hated living on an island.

It’s barely an island. A stone’s throw from Oakland, is all.

Alameda gave her just enough distance from the freeways and the city. She loved her little house on a street with a nautical name with its sunny atrium off the kitchen.

Some days she just had to put up with the sea of humanity trying to wedge itself into the Webster Street tunnel all in the same five minutes.

Alannah put on the radio and listened to a helicopter confirm what she was seeing before her own eyes and then to Taylor Swift. She wondered if there was an accident in the tunnel. That’d be the worst possible thing.

Traffic seemed to clear all at once; the car in front of her pulled away so quickly that she wasn’t ready for it. She didn’t look up from her phone until the silver Prius behind her beeped its ineffectual little horn. She hit the gas and rolled forward, catching up.

She was in the tunnel in seconds. White tile bounced orange sodium light between the two lanes of traffic. The sound of engines echoing made her turn up her radio, but it was all static under the bay. The curve of the tunnel made it hard to see whether traffic had stopped up again ahead, so she was a little nervous.

The Prius cut around her, and she thought the driver might have flipped her off. She didn’t look long enough to tell. Something else caught her eye.

Up in the walking path, behind the wrought-iron guard rail, was a man. He seemed much too tall; she told herself it was the distortion of the enclosed space. He wore all black, with long black hair that ran straight down into his collar. She couldn’t see his feet.

She realized she had the pedal all the way down and wasn’t even looking ahead. She hit her brakes just in time.

Just some weirdo walking the tunnel. Get a fucking grip.

In the mirror there was sweat on her upper lip. Traffic had come to a complete stop again. She tried to wait it out calmly, but she watched the rearview constantly, waiting for the walker in black to catch up to her again.

He never did.

She drove the rest of the way to work with Taylor Swift on blast, trying to put him out of her mind.

Alannah’s eight-hour days were long behind her. She had to meet with a client over lunch that turned into three hours of drinking and intense negotiation. She tag-teamed it with her friend Amrusha, but by the end of it, they were both exhausted. They stayed in the office pounding out the contract until long after 10.

Amrusha tied her belted trench and wrapped her thick, glossy hair into a bun. “Well, at least there’s no traffic at this hour. You wanna drop me at BART?”

“Sure, it’s on my way. You sure you wanna take the train? I can just drop you off at home.” Alannah was suddenly nervous about the drive home.

“I’d love that, except that Pradeep thinks that everyone who drives me somewhere, male or female, is fucking me. He’ll pick me up at the station.”

“Oh my god, when is he gonna get over that?”

“When I get pregnant and quit,” Amrusha said, smiling.

“You gonna?” Alannah felt the headache of a mid-day hangover waiting at the back of her neck.

“Nope. He’ll get over that about the same time that my mother does.”

“Good luck with that.”

They walked out of the building together. Alannah dropped her friend off at the Embarcadero and watched her walk underground. She got on the freeway and headed for Oakland.

She turned her thoughts to utterly normal things. Things that would keep her out of that crawly feeling she had when she had seen the tall man in black. She tried to remind herself of the reality of scary things that were more real than something that just spooked her.

Cancer. IRS audits. Industrial accidents. Natural disaster.

As her car rolled down into the Webster tunnel, she accelerated.

Divorce. Bankruptcy. Being homeless.

No other cars were in the tunnel. Alone, she gunned it.

There he was.

The same impossibly tall, hulking figure, walking this time toward the island rather than away. All black and wet, heavily soaked. Long black hair, long black fingers. As she passed, he turned his face toward the blur of her car.

Don’t look don’t look, don’t let him see you looking oh shit he has no face at all

She was driving too fast to be safe and the steering was hard to control. She gripped the wheel with both hands and slowed down, getting over into one lane again.

In the rearview mirror, no one was there. She was alone in the yellow echo of the tunnel.

In the morning, Alannah got up before dawn. She hadn’t been able to sleep all night; she told Jaxson she was up with reflux. She got dressed and her hands shook too badly to button her shirt. She made a cup of coffee and got into her car.

If I see him again, I’ll just stop. I’ll put on my hazards and just stop and stare at him. He’s just a homeless guy. I’ll feel sorry for him, and then I’ll go to work.

She found the tunnel as deserted as it had been the night before. She drove until she was halfway under the bay, waiting. She felt the pressure of the water all around her. She saw nothing. She slowed down.

Alannah came to a stop and put on her hazards, turning off the engine. She craned her neck in every direction, looking for the man in black. She rolled the windows down, listening.

Just as she started to feel crazy, she saw the bouncing red lights of the motorcycle cop coming toward her from the Oakland side. If he ran his siren in here, it would deafen them both.

He pulled up beside her window. He was young and tan, with the look of someone who worked out for vanity alone. She smiled nervously.

“Ma’am, is there something wrong with your vehicle? Do you need assistance?”

“It … it just stalled for a second. But I think it’s OK now.” She had played helpless and dumb for a traffic cop before. She turned the engine back on and it started right up.

“This really isn’t a safe area to — ” His eyes were unreadable behind his aviator sunglasses, but she thought he was looking just past her, to a spot behind her car. “What the hell is that?”

Alannah turned her head to look and the lights went out.

She didn’t scream because she couldn’t draw a breath. She felt like something was crushing her windpipe, keeping her from inhaling. The motorcycle cop’s flashlight beam was on, waving wildly, searching for something behind her. She saw that below it, he held his gun.

He walked behind her car, barking orders to someone, telling them to get on the ground. She couldn’t look. She couldn’t breathe. She heard sounds like when she cracked the bones in a roast chicken, she heard wet gasping breaths. She heard screams the way they sound underwater. She clawed at the window button and couldn’t remember how it worked.

She drove out of the tunnel without turning on her headlights, toward the dim pearly glow of dawn. On the other side, fog drifted over the Oakland harbor. She pulled over near the mouth of the tunnel, gasping raggedly, staring, waiting.

Maybe the cop went back the other way. Maybe he went to the island. To get backup. To get out.

She thought about calling 911, but she couldn’t make herself do it. She watched as the light flickered inside the tunnel and kicked back on. Cars came through in dribs and drabs, but no motorcycle cop.

On the news later she heard that a member of OPD had been reported missing. Saw his tanned face on the screen. She drove 30 miles out of her way that night and took the bridge from the south to get back to Alameda.

She went to the public funeral for the officer when they dragged his bike out of the bay and found enough of his body to know he had died.

Alannah never took the Webster Street tunnel again.


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