The Smell of Cellulose

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When his car pulled up, I was practically vibrating. All the little metal bits of equipment on my backpack were clinking and jingling. The carabiner tinking against my water bottle, and the flashlight patting against the polyester. In an attempt to look a little cooler than I was, I took a couple deep breaths to curb the jitters. Thankfully, it was dark out, and he probably hadn’t seen anything.

As soon as he’d come to a full stop, I braved stepping out into the headlights, barely able to make my way down the path from the porch to the driveway, shielding my eyes with my arm and giving a weak wave to someone I couldn’t yet see.

When I reached the passenger side, the door opened in front of me, and I saw him sitting in the driver’s seat, leaning over the console to let me in.

“Welcome aboard,” he said, a polite smile spreading across his sharp, pointed face.

“Hey! Glad to meet you,” I extended my hand, “er, Prima!”

He extended his, and we shook. “Richter,” he corrected me.

“Richter,” I repeated back. We’d met on the forums. The Parawatch forums, to be specific. He’d started a thread offering up his hometown to see if there was anybody nearby. I know you’re not supposed to give out that information to strangers, but the opportunity was simply too good to pass up. “My name’s Harold. Get it? Owled, Harold, haha. Came up with that when I was 12.”

He chuckled, but I think it was more sympathy than genuine amusement.

“Alright, go sling that backpack in the truck bed and we’ll be off.”

I followed his instruction, and practically had to climb into his big rusty truck. As soon as I was situated, we took off without another word.

The truck smelled like dirt and old newspaper. Reeked of being inherited instead of bought. Still, anything was better than nothing, and I had nothing, which was why he was driving. After some awkward minutes of silence, he spoke:

“I should’ve told you,” he warned, “but that backpack’s probably not gonna fit where we’re going. You’re gonna have to choose what to take and leave behind.”

“What?” I gave him a look, but it was lost in the darkness. “Well, dang. Uhh, the EMF reader can fit in my pocket, flashlight is a must. Walkee-talkees are portable, and we can keep the channel open without saying anything to catch it speaking —”

“It doesn’t communicate that way,” he interrupted me.


For a moment, the only sound was the truck’s tires on asphalt, crackling over the unkept road.

“Plus, we’re not going to be splitting up,” he continued. “Don’t need the radio.”

“Well, alright then. I guess we can take some of the bars and put them in our pockets, but the fruit will stay behind. The notebook is a bit bulky.”

“It’ll be fine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Hey, I thought you were supposed to be the expert here. I did my homework and you should appreciate that.”

“Yeah, well, I do. Thanks. But I am the expert. I’ve done this before, and I can tell you, none of that stuff does anything. So go get your flashlight and some power bars, and we’ll go in. We’re here.”

Richter parked in a small turnout. The pitch black night was crowded with trees that blotted out the stars, the only possible source of illumination. We were essentially in the middle of nowhere. A slight breeze pushed leaves and pine needles up against one another, and I thought I might have heard the sounds of some critters scurrying away when we first parked, but it was otherwise still.

I hopped out of the car as Richter did the same, begrudgingly snagging only the bare necessities from my carefully assembled pack and leaving the rest in the truck bed.

“So, where is it?”

“Down here,” Richter waved me over.

I followed him down the hill, over dead leaves and underbrush, waving a flashlight around to find my way. “This is more secluded than I expected,” I observed.

“If ghosts were okay with publicity they’d come out in the day, too.”

“Can’t argue with that,” I mumbled.

“Look. There.”

He pointed with his flashlight to a concrete pipe, jutting out of the steep incline. It was nested in a small dip, and there was brown discoloration at its rim and along its bottom. Richter gracefully skid down the hill and landed on his feet just in front of it.

“The storm drain you were talking about,” I proposed.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “It’s haunted.”


He flashed me a quick smile. “You want to lead the way? You seem excited.”

“Nervous, more like.”

That stillness returned again. I found myself standing at the top of the incline, not yet brave enough to join him in the mini-canyon that preceded the pipe. Just looking down at him, him and the dead leaves, the fallen pine needles, the dust and dirt, and that cramped opening, the storm drain that dug itself into the earth.

“Guess that means I’ll take the lead. Come down here, it’s a storm drain so there’s only one way to go. If something scary happens, you just turn the other way and run.”

I wasn’t quick to comply, but I did. I steadily lowered myself down the way, and ended up standing right next to him. The entrance was even more foreboding from this angle. A claustrophobic maw. I had a pit form in my stomach, and a knot form in my chest. I had to remind myself that ghosts were scary but nonlethal. Not usually, anyways.

Richter wasted no time. He crouched down and stepped into the tunnel with confidence and just kept going. I made sure to follow a couple steps behind. The sound of wind quickly became nonexistent. I shivered as the temperature dropped some degrees, and I found my single jacket uncomfortable.

“Run you say,” I muttered, “looks more like ‘crawl really fast.’”

“Sure, but that doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“It really doesn’t.” There was a pause as I tried to discover the most comfortable way to crawl through the tunnel. “So… will talking keep it from appearing?”

“Not in my experience.”

For a moment, the only sound was the friction our shoes made with the damp concrete.

“Have you seen it?”

He stopped walking for just a second. He turned back to look at me. “Yes.”

Then he turned around and kept moving.

“Wow. How often?”

“I hear it more than I see it.”

“Well… how often do you hear it?”

“Every time.”

I stopped moving. It was getting really cold. He only stopped when he noticed I wasn’t following.

“Getting cold feet?”

“Sorry, I thought ghosts were hard to find. That’s why, y’know, we’re all trying to prove their existence or something.”

“Not if you know where to look.”

He let me have my moment for a second, but waved me forward, and I slowly but steadily got back up to pace, crouching low to keep my back from scraping the rough ceiling.

“How often do you come down here?”

“Once a week.”

“To do what?”

“Just to make sure it’s still here.”

“And you’ve never gotten a picture?”

“Well, that’s why you’re here, right?” I was about to respond, but: “Look.”

Richter moved his flashlight to show an opening in the concrete wall. It looked like something had burst through the pipe, and there was a tiny earthen cubby, just big enough that when Richter waved me in, we could both sit down as long as we kept our heads low.

I paused for him to explain himself, but there was only silence instead. So I asked him:

“What do we do now?”


“W-wait for what?”

“For what else? It. The ghost.”

I hadn't realized just how still the tunnel was, but as soon as we had sat down, all sound had ceased. Without our footsteps to echo, the loudest sound was the ringing in my heart and the blood pumping through my body. I desperately wanted to fill the silence.

“What do we do when it gets here?”

He didn't respond.

“How… how’d you find it?”

Richter sighed. “I’ve always sort of known it was here. A friend and I were playing, when we were really little. We were playing pretend, and we were pretending that one of us was this monster, right? We called it the tunnel monster. Well, the tunnel monster would hang out in these tunnels.” He motioned to the storm drain. “One of us would try to escape, and the other would try to drag us in.”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. That sound — there was a sound coming from the storm drain. Something pained and loud. A wailing.

“I-is that it!?”

Richter held a finger up to his lips to shush me, and then powered on with his story as that far-away wailing continued to echo through the pipe. “We had gotten into a kind of argument, though. About who won the game. It was so stupid, because there wasn’t ever supposed to be a winner. It was just supposed to go on forever. Except that kid’s games can’t go on forever.”

The wailing grew louder. It was torturous, overwhelming. I’d never heard anything like it in my life.

“And that’s when we found it.”


“Well. Not here, not exactly.”

The specter shrieked.

“Wh-what do we do? What do we do when it gets close? We’re stuck in a hole, should we run? Should we—?”

“Shhh,” he held his finger to his lips again, and then looked to his right as if listening only for the proximity of the thing. “It doesn’t usually get this close.”

I spoke at a lower volume: “I-if you’ve already seen it, and you’ve known it was here, then, then why, why am I here?”

“Can’t I just want to show someone?”

I didn’t lower the intensity of my gaze as another screech came from the tunnel.

He relented. “It doesn’t like me.”

“Doesn’t like you?”

He shook his head. “It won’t get close to me anymore.”


“What’s a ghost?”


“What’s a ghost to you?”

I was struggling to think straight. The only things keeping me in place were how difficult it was to move and the thought that I might actually prove the existence of the supernatural, but my resolve was waning fast.

“Uh, umm it’s someone who has died, it’s their spirit.”

“Mmm, close. Not quite. It’s the spirit of someone who doesn’t exist anymore.”

“What’s the d-difference?”

“Well, are you the same Harold from four years ago? Haven’t a lot of things happened between now and then? So, if you’re a different Harold, then where’d the last one go? What remains of it?

“I-I…” I could hear footsteps, I could hear the heavy wet footsteps of something coming down the tunnel, something coming towards he and I, something lumbering and screaming and awful.

“This spirit? It’s my ghost. And we’re here to exorcise it. You want to run, right?”

I barely even processed the insanity of his last statement, instead frantically nodding my head.

“Okay, good.”

He forcefully grabbed me by the shoulders and wrestled me, kicking and yelling, out into the tunnel. Then he gave me one command: “Run.”

I moved my flashlight to the right and —

And then I was scrambling down the tunnel in the other direction, out the way I came, going as fast as I could on my hands and feet, the adrenaline sometimes interfering with coordination, hitting my head into the ceiling, scraping my arms along the concrete, doing everything I possibly could to put as much distance between me and the thing.

The thing that was screaming, wailing, closing the distance faster than anything of its size should be able to in a tunnel this cramped. A stench of mold and wet paper was slowly suffocating me as it got closer, so strong as to make me cough and gag. But I couldn’t look back. I couldn’t do anything that wasn’t scampering towards the exit, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, sweat barreling down my forehead, my breaths quick and shallow and loud.

And I screamed as I felt it. It grabbed my calf and dragged me backwards, my knees scraping on the pipe floor. I tried to kick it to get it off, but it redoubled its grip, grabbing my left leg with its other hand. And it wailed and yelled, and I wailed and yelled with it. As it pulled me closer to it, its head making it up to my stomach, I began to bash it with my flashlight.

It didn’t resist. In fact, its head nearly came apart. Mold and soiled paper crumpled out of one corner of its cardboard box head, spilling foul-smelling water onto the ground. But that didn’t stop it. It kept pulling and groping and yelling until it was completely on top of me, my light sometimes illuminating the vague impression of a face drawn in sharpie that had been warped by time, water, mold, and rot.

It screamed.

I screamed.

And then it got pulled off of me. I skittered backwards, my flashlight catching as Richter plunged a boxcutter into the thing’s chest over and over and over again. Flailing limbs, sprays of water from the soaked cardboard, and there I was, frozen in place, watching as Richter “exorcised” the ghost.

I nearly regained my senses and went to his aid when it thrust a hand through his chest.

And I screamed again, and halfway through that scream the reason changed. At first, I was merely watching someone die. But then, I noticed the texture of it. Richter’s chest separated into sheafs, blood-soaked stacks of paper, of newspaper. His chest cavity opened, and out spilled print instead of organs.

I twisted my body around and retreated. I had no cohesive thoughts. I just knew I needed to escape. The tunnel, the ghost, the — Richter, all of it. I had to leave. I had to get out of here. I had to go.

I made it to the exit of the tunnel, launched myself from the storm drain, and rolled into the dead leaves and pine needles. I shot to a standing position, and froze while my horrified psyche tried to remember how to get back to the car through the layers of stress and fear. And in that moment of stillness, the blood rushing in my ears somehow didn’t block me from noticing that it was silent.

Other than the wind in the leaves, there was nothing. No wailing, no yelling, no screaming. Nothing. Just me, the wind, my heartbeat, and my heavy breathing.

I moved my flashlight to the tunnel. It didn’t extend far, and it revealed nothing. I thought for a moment whether I should get a closer look. I took one cautious step towards the storm drain, then another, and then —

No. No, no. I climbed up the hill. No. I didn’t care. There was nothing that could make me go back. No. I made it up, into the turnout on the road, and saw the truck. I grabbed my backpack, and started down the road. My adrenaline would keep me awake for the hours it took to walk back.

That week, I didn’t sleep. I barely ate. I almost went back to the forums, almost. A couple times. But I didn’t.

What happened that night? Was that really a ghost? What was it, if not? Was Richter human? Was Richter a ghost? What was he, if not? What was the thing about to do to me? What was Richter about to do to it?

I don’t know. I don’t know any of these things. And now, I don’t want to know. I haven’t ever gone back to the forums. I haven’t ever looked him up. I haven’t ever gone back, and I never will. I used to ghost hunt in pursuit of knowledge. But if that’s what there is to know, then I can say with confidence that life is better in the dark.

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