By Lee Weetman
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Foreword: This story is based on some facts from my childhood. The shelter was real and kids loved to explore it. It was extremely dark, there was a washing machine, and there was a locked door. The rest I made up.
We’re all afraid of the dark to some degree. But you don’t know. You don’t know the half of it.
My name is John Finnegan, and I’m a pest controller. I work for a company called, hilariously, Verminate. I’d been called to an old World War Two air raid shelter; local residents had complained of rats. Not a big deal, you might think. In normal circumstances you would be correct, but I know nothing is normal inside this dark place.
Twenty years had passed since I last entered the shelter; the steel door in front of me presented the final barrier. Looking around, the neighbourhood appeared deserted; the streets were silent, save for the odd birdcall or distant car engine.
I wiped my forehead, and on the back of my hand sweat glistened. I’d guess the temperature was approaching ninety degrees. It was the hottest damned summer for years. I pulled down the upper half of my overalls and tied the arms about my waist. A whispering breeze momentarily cooled me, and I yearned for a cold glass of beer to quench nerves, not thirst. As I stared at the door, my memory banks unloaded the sounds and sights of my youth.
I was twelve years old, and summer holidays had arrived again. This year was different, for my neighbourhood was the centre of national attention. An eight-year old girl, Mary Miller, was missing. She disappeared on her birthday after playing with friends in the park. A game of ‘hide and seek’ ended early for Mary when dinnertime meant she had to leave for home. She told her friends that she’d return as soon as she’d finished. It was a short walk to her house, but she never made it. That was a week ago.
The police were clueless and desperate. Pictures of Mary were posted and plastered throughout the district, and the television news always carried a picture on the newscaster’s shoulder. Always the same picture, taken the morning she vanished: Mary, smiling for the camera, proudly wearing a shiny ‘I am 8’ badge.
I don’t know why, maybe it was the onset of puberty or something, but the whole Mary Miller thing bothered me. I was still a kid, and kids pay no heed to the horrors of the world, because the world revolves around them. But, for the first time that I could remember, a tragedy usually reserved for the adult psyche affected me. I found myself lying awake at night, with the image of Mary the birthday girl haunting my head, telling me that she was only eight, and it shouldn’t happen to little girls.
Mary had been heading home; the obvious route would have taken her past the air raid shelter. The police searched it, but nothing was found. Irrespective of this, schoolboy rumours abounded that Mary had gone in and never got out. This kind of myth always attracts the more daring amongst children. I therefore found myself braving the dark of the shelter.
That summer I was mixing with two older boys, Corey and Stan. They were fourteen, going on fifteen. I was much shorter, punier, and naïve than them - something that would prove crucial later.
Corey was a bully, and the toughest boy in school. Tall for his age, and already of formidable frame, I was flattered to hang around with him. When you’re a young boy growing up in a tough area, strong allies are essential. When people got wind that John Finnegan was Corey’s mate, I’d be untouchable.
Corey battered the padlock with a half-brick until it snapped open. He pulled at the door and it opened outward, groaning as if awakened from a deep sleep. Cool air tumbled from the entrance, and when we spoke our voices bounced back at us.
‘Right, John, get your arse in there,’ Corey said, holding the door open.
‘But I haven’t got a torch,’ I said, peering down a corridor that seemed to disappear into a black fog.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Stan said. ‘We’ll be behind you lighting the way.’
Stan was Corey’s sidekick. Leaner and shorter than his master, Stan existed to serve his tougher mentor. When Corey laughed, so too did Stan. When Corey cracked a funny, Stan would find it hilarious. When Corey dished out a beating, Stan would assist with a dirty kick or a sneaky punch.
‘Well, why can’t I carry a touch?’ I asked.
‘We’ve only got two torches. Now stop whinging and get in!’ Corey said, giving me a shove.
Reluctantly, I walked into the shelter.
The walls were bare brick. With Corey and Stan behind, I moved further down the corridor. Torch beams zipped about the floor and ceiling. As we edged warily inward, the blackness grew thicker.
The first passage bent to the right and severed the last of the creeping sunlight. It was cold. A curtain of darkness blocked our path. It seemed I could reach out and throw aside the black drape before me. I had never experienced anything so murky. The first feeling of fear bloomed in my stomach. I stopped and waited. Corey and Stan turned the corner and the torch beams skewered the darkness, revealing a shorter corridor that ended in a steel door.
‘Come on, John. What you waiting for?” Corey said, brushing past me.
‘Not scared, I hope,’ Stan said. ‘We can’t have little girls knocking about with us. Ain’t that right, Corey.’
Corey had walked up to the door; he didn’t give a reply. Stan followed him down.
‘I’m not scared,’ I said, lying. ‘There’s nothing to be scared of.’
‘So don’t stand there like a little puff then. Get down here!’ Stan shouted, flashing the torch beam in my face.
I had to prove myself; my bravery could not be questioned. I was a twelve- year-old boy on trial. I had the chance to become part of Corey’s gang. To my young eyes, that was hitting the big time. I would have nobody to fear. At last I would be someone.
I also became acutely aware of the darkness surrounding me. I felt vulnerable, and for a moment, alone. I hurried after the two older boys.
Stan tried the door handle and pushed. It wasn’t locked. Like the main entrance door its hinges groaned, but within the shelter walls the sound was unnerving. A heavy, metallic moan echoed back at us, seeming to emanate from the blackness beyond. I positioned myself behind Stan and followed him through the doorway; Corey brought up the rear.
‘What a shithole!’ Corey said eloquently.
We were standing in a large chamber cluttered with junk and garbage. All around, the torch beams revealed decades of illegal tipping and squatting. A rotten carpet was half-rolled up and pushed against the far wall. Newspaper littered the floor. In the centre sat an ancient washing machine. Cardboard boxes stuffed with unwanted trash were stacked and strewn everywhere. Grass cuttings and hedge trimmings festered in a corner. Evidence of habitation remained: empty cigarette packets, used matches. A rusty frying pan, an old camping stove. Fossilised food and empty cans of beans and tomatoes. A faint, mildly offensive odour lingered: the last throes of organic decay, wrapped in stale, stagnant air. Once it must have been wretched smelling in there, but time had long since bottled up the stench.
The concrete slab ceiling was low; wooden planked benched lined the walls. The chamber was rectangular, and diagonal to the entrance wall was another passage.
‘Let’s see where that goes.’ Corey said, spotlighting the corridor. He walked toward it, wading through the mess, and Stan followed close behind. I was standing idle as they wandered away, and again that lonesome feeling struck me. When the torchlight faded, the darkness stepped in and threatened to smother me. I hurried after them, trampling over the junk and almost slipping in my haste.
After a kink to the left, the passage opened into a second chamber, almost identical to the first. Garbage cluttered the floor. In the wall to the left was another steel door. Corey was quick to try it.
‘It’s locked,’ he said. ‘Give it a boot, Stan. See if you can open it.’
Stan handed me his torch and I directed it at the door. It looked sturdier than any of the other two we’d passed through. Around the edges were large bolt heads; it seemed the door had been reinforced with steel plates at some time. I wondered why.
Stan kicked at the lock with the sole of his boot; a deep and hollow boom bounced around the chamber and made me jump. Instinctively, I swept the room with torchlight; my nerves were restless, convinced the darkness was hiding something.
‘Hey! What’re you doing? Shine that over here,’ Stan said. ‘And keep it there. I don’t wanna break my foot.’
Obediently, I directed the light at the door. He kicked it again and again. I hated the noise. So loud and rampant, it coursed through the chamber and penetrated my whole body. I wanted to look behind, because I could feel the darkness there, like a physical presence, watching. And waiting. My neck crawled as if a cockroach was under the skin. My spine bristled; my heart rate climbed.
Stan pounded the door. I looked over my shoulder and saw only blackness. I continued to glance back, sure something was amidst the dark, sure unseen eyes were glaring at me.
‘Forget it. It ain’t gonna budge,’ Corey finally said. Stan was breathing heavily now. He took the torch back, and I felt like I’d been disarmed.
‘They made that well,’ Stan said, still panting.
‘What do you think is behind there?’ I asked.
‘No idea - probably just an old store room or something.’
‘Why would they armour plate it?’
‘How do we know?’ Corey said. ‘We didn’t build the frigging place.’
I fell quiet. It didn’t pay to upset Corey.
‘So, Stan. What about Plan B, then?’ Corey said.
‘What, now?’ Stan asked. They were pointing the torches at each other. Again I felt isolated standing in the cold dark. I wanted to get out and go home. I didn’t want to carry out Plan B, whatever that was.
‘Can we go now?’ I asked, feeling stupid, like some forlorn little boy.
‘Yeah, this minute,’ Corey said to Stan. They grinned at each other.
Each boy suddenly seized me by an arm and someone’s foot kicked my feet away.
‘What are you doing?’ I screamed. ‘Get off me! Please, get off me!’
They dragged me to the centre of the chamber, grabbed my arms and legs, and swung me between them. I saw the torchlights zipping back and forth across the ceiling; my hair bounced at the crest of each swing; the air whooshed in my ears. On Corey’s command they flung me high and away. My head bashed against the concrete ceiling and sheets of flashing white filled my vision. I landed among a pile of soft and hard junk; cardboard crumpled and glass crunched. I was bent backwards, my head on the floor in something soft and gooey, my legs elevated on a mound of rubbish
Corey and Stan were gone; their laughter faded away to some distant place.
And I was truly alone.
For a while I lay still. A warm trickling ran from my forehead and around my right ear. Staring straight up, I had to blink to confirm my eyes were open. I held my hand in front of my face and then touched my nose. I couldn’t see my fingers. My vision would not have been weakened if I’d spooned out my eyeballs and snipped the thread of optic nerve. Sunlight had not penetrated down here since 1939. This was not like a dark night. This was not like your room at 3am. This was like drowning in a vat of crude oil.
Silence. Cold. Dark.
Only my breathing could I hear. Quick and shallow, it mirrored my heartbeat. Eventually, I mustered enough courage to sit up. I rolled off whatever junk I’d landed on and shoved myself upright. One palm pressed into something thick and slippery, creating a squelch that turned my stomach. I didn’t dare smell my hand; I wiped it on my trouser leg, and briefly thought that my mum would kill me.
I looked around, hoping to detect a hint of light that could guide me out. It was a futile hope. I was so afraid.
I listened. The shelter was in absolute isolation. I clambered slowly to my feet, arms outstretched, reaching for something solid to aid me, but found nothing. I was disorientated; I had to find a wall and the passage that linked back to the first chamber.
Cautiously, my feet inched forward. I was terrified of tripping and falling on some rusty spike or jagged sliver of glass. When my toes encountered a heavy obstruction, I stopped, slowly bent my knees, and felt my way around the obstacle. Gradually, I progressed. I was wading through junk. Glass crunched and tinkled. Metal clanged. Wood snapped. Stuff squelched. The chamber seemed to be huge. I fought hard to suppress panic; it stirred restlessly inside of me, like a lynch mob hammering at my door. I groped around, searching, clamouring for anything solid, something to reassure me of a way out, when I stumbled and fell forward, landing on all fours. Something pierced the palm of my right hand, and I yelped in pain. I stood up and felt the wound. Whatever caused it hadn’t stuck in, but it confirmed the dangers of rushing. My head wound worried me more. I could feel blood soaking the shoulders of my tee shirt. I wondered how long it would take to bleed to death.
Eventually, I reached a wall. My knees knocked against the wooden benching. I cleared a space, sat down, and allowed myself to savour some relief. I looked straight ahead, desperate to see again. My eyeballs bulged from their sockets. I thought something had to be visible: nothing could be so utterly devoid of light. I wondered if the blow to my head had left me temporarily blind. You hear of these things.
I whispered to myself to cool it. If I just rested awhile, kept calm, collected my thoughts, then the solution to my dilemma would emerge.
And it did.
I became aware of somebody sitting next to me.
I stopped breathing. My heart hammered inside. Goosebumps prickled my flesh. I thought of Stan kicking the door, and the feeling I’d had of being watched, and the surety that something was hiding in the dark.
Now that something sat alongside me. I could hear and see nothing, but I could feel its presence. Like the approach of a thunderstorm, the surrounding air felt charged and alive.
My mouth drained of saliva. My fists clenched so tight that the fingernails drew blood.
‘Is there anybody there?’ I asked softly. My own voice terrified me. It seemed lost and helpless.
My head turned slowly to the left, toward the direction of the presence. Of course, I saw nothing, but the feeling of being watched intensified. My entire body tingled; spiders scurried up and down my spine.
‘Is somebody there?’ I asked again.
Only the echo of my voice replied.
‘I know someone’s there. Is it you Corey?’ I knew it couldn’t be, but hope always accompanies desperation.
‘You’re not scaring me, whoever you are,’ I lied, ‘so you might as well talk to me.’
I reached out to touch whoever was sitting beside me, to make them real, to rid myself of the imagined. I expected a hand to suddenly grab mine, and a deep voice to boom out and scare me to death.
But my hand touched nothing solid. It caressed only air. Freezing cold air.
I snatched my arm back and rubbed the hand. It was so numb I struggled to make a fist; I jammed it in my armpit, and it felt like I’d plunged it into a hot water.
I stood up and edged away from whatever I’d touched. My mind screamed at me to get out, to run. Something was in there with me. Something I didn’t understand.
I backed away, but too quickly, and tripped and fell on my backside. Garbage collapsed over me and I panicked, sure the thing had thrown it all. I sprang to my feet and screamed. The cry shrieked back at me, compounding my fear, somehow confirming my mortality. I tried to run, and managed to stumble a few strides before falling. It was useless. There was only way out – the slow way.
Standing and disorientated again, I commenced the gentle edging and groping manoeuvre in search for a wall. But this time I was crying. Tears rolled, and I sobbed into the dark. All the time I could feel eyes, gleeful and sadistic, looking upon me. My misery was their entertainment.
‘Please, somebody, help me!’ I cried through weeping breaths. ‘I just want to go home.’ I could taste snot and salt every time my mouth opened.
‘If there’s anybody there, please stop. You win. Just let me out, please, let me out.’
My hand touched a wall. I felt lower, but found no bench. It was the wall with the locked door. I shimmed left and came across the cold steel. Hope returned. I had my bearings.
The passage that linked back to the first chamber was on the wall to my right hand, when I reached it, my knees knocked against benching again. Then a deep cold spread into my legs. I arched over, leaned on the wall, and assumed the stance of a police suspect about to be searched. I shuffled along toward the direction of the passage entrance; all along the bench the searing cold touched me. Then I was grabbed; my head jerked forward as my tee shirt was tugged downward. Cold spots dabbed across my face, and I wanted to scream, for they felt like icy fingers.
But I was determined to hold my course, no matter how terrified I became. Along the length of the bench I felt hands grabbing and pulling at me; they touched all over, and by the time the passage entrance was reached, I was colder than a dead penguin.
Finally, thankfully, the wall became a space. The passage. Something still had a hold of my trouser leg; I swatted at the cold and, surprisingly, it seemed to let go. Warmth immediately seeped back into my body. As I moved zombie-like down the passage, a noise from behind startled me: a metallic clunk, followed by a dry, steely groan.
The impenetrable, armour plated, and locked door was opening.
An almost irresistible urge to run came over me. My legs actually twitched in anticipation, but I knew it would be too dangerous to let them loose.
‘Who’s there?’ I called out.
More noise. Squeaking.
A rat scampered over my foot, a big one, too. Its weight pressed on my toes and its body brushed high on my shin. I shrieked in disgust and fright. Then a wave of rats surged past, and the air temperature dropped. My mind’s eye saw the passage floor alive with fur and whiskers. A noise like the frenzied feeding of gulls filled the air. Then came the smell. It was the stench of a blocked drain, and it saturated the air. I gagged, could almost taste the odour, and felt my stomach contents corrode my windpipe.
I had to get out. For the first time, I thought I would actually die in there. I stamped blindly about me, and crushed a rat beneath each stomp. The sensation of their backs breaking disgusted me, and only escalated my panic. They began to bite; painful, sharp nips peppered my lower legs. I yelped at each one, and was soon dancing a jig in the dark.
Then a voice exploded out of nowhere:
‘What are you doing here?’ it screamed. A man’s voice, powerful and booming.
My heart turned to ice. I instinctively looked around, but of course saw nothing. I ignored the pain of the nibbling rats. The owner of the voice sounded furious. And dangerous.
‘Who…who’s there?’ I uttered.
A terrible pause followed; I could only hear the commotion of the rats.
‘The penalty of trespass is death! Here is yours.’
The voice was close and the words triggered a survival reflex. I sensed something rushing out of the dark and jumped up flat against the wall. A swish of air was followed on the floor by a heavy thump. Steel on concrete. I screamed and ran. Rats crunched beneath my feet; cool, black air washed over my face.
‘Trespasser! Come meet your end!’ the voice screamed from behind.
I hurtled into the darkness, my hands outstretched, any fear of falling banished. But on entering the first chamber I stumbled, and my knee smashed into something solid. I squealed, fell to the floor, and instantly the rats attacked. They swarmed over my entire body, biting, eating me alive. I had fur in my mouth, and their chattering filled my ears. I rolled around as if on fire, shaking off and crushing all I could.
Somehow, I managed to stand. I swatted away the most tenacious of the clinging creatures. My knee was badly injured; I was in agony, sure something was broken. I attempted to walk forward, but found my path blocked. I felt the cold, smooth top, of a washing machine – the cause of my injury - and then something smashed into it. The blow missed me, but I felt the repercussion. I staggered backward, metal shrapnel in my hair, a ringing in my ears, and the impression of a bomb in my mind.
I was no longer sure of my bearings, but in the throes of desperation I ran in the direction of instinct. My sprint became a quick limp; my knee felt weak and something was rattling around inside the joint.
I scrambled through and over all garbage that hindered my route. I hit a wall, and my knee struck a bench. I screamed. Then I felt the bitter cold again spread into my thighs, and once more the sensation of cold hands clutching at my body. I quickly shimmied left, and the wall disappeared. It was the passage leading out. I dashed into the void, leaving behind the cacophonous squeaking of a million rats.
I moved fast, but my knee was seizing up; my leg dragged behind as if unwilling to leave. The rats caught up and leapt onto me. I didn’t know rats could jump. They clung to my clothing and bit through; I squealed and staggered onward, but it felt like my jeans were stuffed with stinging bees.
‘Die! Die!’ roared the voice. Another solid thump hit close, and masonry fell to the floor. I was almost dead. Blindly and without judgement, I ran. I was crying again, expecting the next thump to fall squarely between my shoulders. This horrid place would be my tomb.
But then I crashed out into beautiful sunlight.
The brilliance of the day stung my eyes, and the warmth of the sun wrapped around me like a quilt. I fell to the floor, dazed and exhausted. Rolling on to my back I looked at the entrance door, and through a swirl of bright lights I saw it closing; a couple of enormous rats that had spilled out scurried back inside. And for a second I saw a face, veiled in half-light. Mary Miller.
Then the door slammed shut.
I spent the following three days in hospital. My right kneecap had broken in half and needed an operation. My legs were ravaged. The doctors at first assumed I’d been attacked by a dog, and took some persuading to believe the truth. Large patches of skin were missing; small divots of flesh had been torn away; for weeks it felt like I’d been skinned and dipped in vinegar.
I didn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened in the shelter. I admitted going in, but said I was alone. I couldn’t grass on Corey and Stan – they’d kill me. I found it impossible to divulge what I had felt, heard, and seen. The feeling of being watched. The cold hands. The voice. The violence. And Mary Miller.
So my experience remained secret. At times I wanted to blurt out the truth and share with someone the horror of what I’d been through, but my rational mind prevented the disclosure. I tried to convince myself that it hadn’t occurred; the rats were real, the physical evidence was indisputable, but the voice, the icy hands, and Mary were generated by imagination, perhaps caused by Corey and Stan smashing my head against the ceiling. I reassured myself that the police had searched the shelter, and, if Mary was in there, she would have been found.
Or would she?
Over the weeks, months, and years to follow, in the back of my head doubt remained. No matter how convincing the argument against, I could never dismiss my feelings. They were stronger than logic. Somewhere in the dark, Mary Miller was lost, and I knew she wasn’t alone.
I continued to live my life as any other twelve-year-old boy. I went to school, played a lot of sport, mixed with other kids, and generally indulged in mild mischief. Somehow though, whatever I did, wherever I went, Mary came with me. She would often spring into my thoughts, unannounced and unexpected, screaming: ‘But I’m only eight years old!’
Sometimes she would appear in my dreams. Many nights I awoke, sweating, heart pounding, sure the birthday girl was in the room with me. And she would always ask the same thing: ‘Help me. Please come back.’
As I grew older and wiser I tried to analyse the dreams. I put them down to guilt. Mary was conjured up because my feelings said I’d abandoned her. Logic fought this sentiment, ruling that Mary hadn’t been in the shelter, and only rats had accompanied me.
It wasn’t only dreams, everyday life was full of reminders. A subtle prompt, and a dark memory would rear up like some awakened monster. If I saw young girls playing, one of them would always be Mary. I hated the dark. I hated squeaky toys. I jumped at sudden voices. Cold hands repulsed me. The number eight was everywhere. I wondered if was always so ubiquitous before I went into the shelter. It was in my birth date. It was my shoe size. Ice skaters danced the shape. I could never sink the eight ball at pool. It was on the sides of buses and the plates of cars. On the news, eight people would die in an explosion. A baby would weigh eight pounds. A book would be published in 1988. Out of ten, I’d score eight. I need eight hours sleep. I ate my lunch. Eight was no age to die.
My emotional struggle was compounded when I met Mary’s parents, a full seven years after her disappearance. I’d left school and just finished my training in pest control. I was sent to their house one afternoon after they called to complain about cockroaches in the kitchen. When Mrs Miller answered the door, I was dumbstruck. Suddenly all the memories of that terrible period were revived: flashes of teary TV interviews, sombre news footage, and that photograph blazed in my head.
‘You’re from Verminate, right?’ she asked, eyebrows raised expectantly.
In her I could see Mary. Same eyes, round and bright. Same hair, brown and straight. An older impression of a beautiful little girl.
‘Verminate, yes?’ she enquired again, now looking at me as if I was dumb.
‘Err… yes. Sorry. You complained of cockroaches.’ I stumbled over the words.
She turned away and said, ‘Come on in. They’re in the kitchen.’
I stepped into the house and closed the door. I found myself surprised that she acted so normal. I expected, well, a grieving mother. I admonished myself for being so foolish and followed her through to the kitchen, where I was met by Mr Miller.
‘Hi. Thanks for coming. They’re all under the base units.’
Again, the media circus of seven years before rolled in my head. I saw Mr Miller behind a desk, holding his wife. Alongside sat a uniformed chief constable. Cameras flashed as he tearfully appealed for the safe return of his darling Mary. Please, please don’t hurt her, I could hear him say.
As I went about my work we chatted idly, the usual polite conversation stuff. But I wanted to talk about Mary; trouble was I didn’t have the courage to raise the subject, and I didn’t believe it to be good manners. The urge to say her name aloud fizzed inside me, and I had to ask for the toilet to relieve the pressure in more ways than one.
The toilet was upstairs, on the way to which I passed a bedroom. On the door was a sign, hand made in cardboard and written in glitter-glue, it read: Mary lives here. The temptation was overwhelming. I had to know more about this little girl that I’d abandoned in the dark. Checking to see that no one had followed me, I sneaked into her room.
What I found surprised me. The room was immaculate. I’d wager the décor, layout, and even the bed sheets, were unchanged from the day of Mary’s disappearance. Against the far wall was her bed, covered by a pink ‘Barbie’ duvet. On top of the quilt sat Barbie herself, leaning casually back against the pillow. A small wardrobe bed with an inset mirror and vanity top stood next to the bed; on that was a bright green hairbrush, and hanging off a hook was a plastic, pink beaded necklace. On the floor was a small pair of slippers; against another wall a chest of drawers, upon which stood a family of toy horses, arranged in a circle, head to tail.
I moved cautiously into the room, feeling like a burglar with a conscience. It smelled like it was freshly cleaned. A sunbeam slanted through the window and fell across the horses, making their plastic coats gleam like glass.
I felt uncomfortable, ghoulish. Mary had to be dead, but her parents clung to the hope that she was alive, and her room would be ready for he return, just as she left it. Maybe they couldn’t face the horrible truth. Changing the room would be admitting all hope was lost. My heart ached for them.
I turned to leave before I was missed, but fright stopped me dead.
Mary was standing before me.
‘Jesus!’ I shouted, staggering backwards and rocking the wardrobe. The necklace fell to the floor, and the beads scattered. It was not Mary in the flesh. The image was translucent, and ebbed slowly away. But I could see her mouthing words, the same old words: ‘Help me. Please come back.’
Then she was gone.
Mr and Mrs Miller stormed into the room.
‘What are you doing in here?’ Mr Miller said, his eyes angry.
‘I… I’m sorry. I wasn’t snooping. I thought I heard something.’ It was a lame reason, but the only one available.
‘Get out. Get out of this house.’ Mr Miller said, pointing at the door. I felt like I’d violated them, desecrated their shrine to Mary.
‘Please, Mr Miller, it isn’t how it looks, believe me.’
‘Are you deaf?’ Mrs Miller said, her face red with anger. ‘He said get out. Now do it!’
What could I say? If I tried to explain my real motives they would think me either mad or some twisted pervert getting his kicks. I left the house feeling ashamed and frustrated. It was at that moment, as I felt the stare of Mary’s parents burning the back of my head, I realised some day I would return to the shelter.
I tried to continue with life as normal, but the secret I held weighed heavy, and I soon grew tired. Mary would never leave me. Her visitations grew more frequent. She would appear in the supermarket or at the cinema. If I dined in a restaurant she would be standing across the room, staring, watching me eat. At first I dismissed these sightings as hallucinations but, one afternoon, whilst listening to the radio, an explanation occurred to me. I’d read before that young girls often had some psychic ability, more than any other age or gender. What if, like a radio, Mary was tuning into my head? What if, wherever she was, she could gain access to my mind and project her image? And call for help.
Help. It’s what she had always asked for, but if she needed that, did it mean she was still alive? After all these years? It was almost impossible to believe, and any psychiatrist would have declared me irrational at best. But I knew what I’d experienced as a twelve-year-old boy. Mary was planted in my head the day she disappeared, and she had grown more vivid and emotive ever since. She needed me, she had been telling me for years, but I was too scared to listen.
And so it was my work that led me back to the shelter; a short phone call succeeded where years of torment failed.
Other than a stout, gleaming padlock, the door to the shelter looked unchanged. I carried a torch and a claw hammer. The summer heat drew much sweat, but inside I felt cold. Was Mary behind this door? Had she been waiting all these years for this moment? Was the voice also there, waiting as eagerly as her?
I smashed the padlock with the hammer; three strikes and it snapped open. I thought of Corey battering it with a brick, and suddenly felt more vulnerable, like being a boy again. I pulled the door and it creaked slowly open.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight. A mouth of blackness swallowed the end of corridor. I sank to my knees, breathing heavily, and every muscle trembling. In my head, dormant memories were awakened and howled like ghosts. Vomit trickled from the corners of my mouth. My emotions were in freefall; terror, buried for all those years, was surfacing and resuming control. I leaned against the doorframe and swallowed back spittle and puke, gasping for breath. The cool air of the shelter fell around me and helped to settle my nerves. Looking again into the gloom, I steeled myself and gripped the hammer tight. I would not be beaten.
I cleared the first bend and said goodbye to the sunlight. The torch picked out the door to the first chamber. It was closed. I moved towards it, further into the oily dark. A circle of torchlight on the door grew larger as I walked forward. The corridor seemed narrower than last time, maybe because I was now taller and wider.
I stood at the door and listened. My breath was the only sound. I looked at the handle - stared at it. Corey had used it years ago. In an odd way I wished he were with me. The Great Protector. The toughest boy of my childhood. Last I heard he was doing an eight-stretch for GBH.
The difference between now and then was ignorance. Opening this door as a boy was an adventure, a foray into the unknown. Now I knew what awaited me.
I gripped the steel handle. It was cold, but my hold stayed firm. I counted to three, closed my eyes, and pushed.
The door swung open and groaned in its disturbed sleep. The cold of the chamber invaded my flesh. Warm breath condensed in the torchlight. I didn’t understand why. It was far colder than last time, yet a few feet above the sun was scorching the earth. I flashed the torch around and saw a familiar sight. Garbage everywhere. Mountains of the stuff. And sitting in the centre of this junkyard was a washing machine with its top smashed in. I missed a breath when I saw it, and my knee started to tingle.
I waded into the chamber, for straight walking was impossible. It seemed nothing had changed; maybe a little more rubbish had accrued, but I still recognised items from the first expedition. The camping stove and frying pan were still here, so was the half-rolled carpet, looking shabbier than ever. The stench of drains that had arrived with the rats was gone, but the odour of ancient decay remained.
I inspected the washing machine, and saw the top had imploded. A star shaped, ragged hole was all that remained. Then the machine’s door caught my eye: a swatch of denim dangled off the catch. My knee tingled again.
Then a loud boom suddenly resounded through the chamber. I spun around; the torchlight zipped about and fell on the door. It was closed. Then a second, muffled boom sounded. I knew what it was. The entrance door had slammed shut.
The urge to run was great. My heart was hacking at my ribcage, and that old feeling of being watched returned. I fought panic as it tried to overthrow my mind. I held the hammer higher and tighter. I shone the light around and checked for any monsters, but found nothing. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel alone.
I wondered what to do next. Should I carry out my own search for Mary? Should I turn over all the garbage and empty every box in the hope of discovering her remains? No, because that would mean she was dead and, like her parents, I believed her to be alive.
I decided to investigate the second chamber. I shone the torch down the link corridor and hesitated. It looked like the coldest, darkest place on earth. Was the maniac still hiding down there? Was that his shadow?
The sound of my quickening breath and the thumping of my heart warned me to stay away. I almost turned and ran. Every muscle in my body was tense. My palms were sweating and the fear was nauseating. I had to scrape around for the courage to put one foot forward.
This time there would be no retreat.
With the hammer ready to strike, I set off. And as I walked, I felt the electric sensation of many eyes suddenly turn towards me. The feeling increased with every step, as if the voltage was being cranked up. When I entered the room, the charged atmosphere buzzed in my ears, and goose bumps erupted all over my flesh. I swept the torch quickly across the room, expecting an attack, but saw instead a bizarre sight.
Sitting on the benching, all along the walls, were children. The light passed from face to face; they were of different ages, from toddlers to teenagers. All sat back against the cold wall, and all stared up at me. It was a surreal moment.
As the torchlight revealed child after child, their clothing struck me as odd. Some were dressed in contemporary fashion, but the majority wore old-fashioned, anachronistic garments. Some boys wore short trousers; others were in waistcoats. A few girls looked like they had emerged from a Victorian family portrait: full length layered dresses, gloves, and scarves hid most of their flesh. I can only describe one boy’s attire as medieval: tights and a tunic in greens and reds; he reminded me of a jester.
Each child’s face was sorrowful. In their eyes I could see emptiness, a forlorn, hopeless gaze, like the look of a new widow. They were only children. And one of them was Mary.
The torchlight unveiled her; she was standing to my right, the only child on her feet. Her ‘I am 8’ badge gleamed in the torchlight. She was wearing her birthday dress. This was Mary the day she disappeared. The same girl I had seen as a twelve- year-old before the door slammed shut. She walked towards me, but glided through the junk without disturbing any. As she neared I could feel her coldness, like standing next to an iceberg. The torchlight diffused through her and hit the wall behind.
‘You came back. I knew you would,’ Mary said. It was the first time I’d heard her voice. It was sweet.
‘Mary…I’m John.’ I was stuck for words. All this time, all the years I’d endured in her company, and I didn’t know what to say. Maybe it was the strangeness of the situation, or perhaps due to sheer fright, but nothing would issue from my mouth.
‘You must help us. You’re the only one who can,’ she said, her eyes gleaming like glass in the torchlight.
‘What has happened here?’ I finally asked, directing the beam around the walls of children.
‘The Bad Man keeps us here. He won’t let us go.’
‘Who’s the Bad Man? And where is he now?’
‘He’s the man who tried to get you before.’
Get you. The innocent way she described attempted murder reminded me I was talking to a child.
‘So come with me now,’ I said, ‘ all of you. Let’s walk out the door.’
Mary shook her head and said, ‘We can’t. We have to stay here. It’s because of the magic.’
I squatted down to look her in the face. She was the prettiest little girl I’d ever met. Yet she was supposed to have died twenty years ago, that’s why I couldn’t dismiss her use of the word ‘magic’.
‘Mary, what do you mean by “magic”?’
‘He says if we don’t stay in the dark, we’ll die. And we won’t go to heaven.’ She was twirling her hair around a finger as she spoke, as if the words were insignificant.
‘Has anybody ever tried to leave before?’ I asked, noticing my breath condense when it neared her.
‘Yes, but no one can. We’re not the same anymore. I can’t touch things. Except you.’
She reached out quickly and placed her hand against my cheek. I fell onto my backside as a bolt of ice shot through my head. One side of my face was numb and I struggled to articulate my next words.
‘It was you! When I was here before, it was your hands that touched me.’
‘Not just me, silly! It was all of us. We tried to stop you from going, but then the Bad Man came.’
‘So why can you only touch me?’ I asked, thinking of the way she glided through the junk.
‘I don’t know. None of us know.’
Most of the children had risen from their seats and gathered around us. They were of all shapes, heights, race and age. And, it seemed, of different eras.
‘Please help us, mister,’ said one young boy with a cockney accent. He was wearing a school uniform with shorts; I remembered seeing pictures of my dad in his school days dressed in something similar. That was in the Forties.
I looked around and saw expectation in their eyes. For some reason, they believed in me. What did I possess, or what had I done, to elicit such hope?
‘How? How can I help?’
‘Use your power!’ came a pubescent, male voice from the back.
‘Yes!’ cried a girl in Victorian dress, ‘use your power!’
Power? What were they talking about?
I got to my feet and felt like a Goliath amongst Davids. The tallest child’s head reached the underside of my chin, and he stood four inches above the rest. I looked down at Mary, and she looked at me with wide eyes imbued with expectation.
‘Mary, what am I supposed to do? You’re the one with the power. You’re the one who can appear out of nowhere. You’ve been down here for twenty years, for you to still be alive is amazing. But for you to be the same little girl is not right. In fact, it’s scary. If anyone has power, it’s you and your friends.’
Her face scrunched up, as if tackling a difficult maths problem.
‘What do you mean I appear out of nowhere?’ she asked.
‘I’ve seen you lots of times. You just show up anywhere and ask me to come back.’
She seemed to think for a moment then said, ‘Do I say, “Help me. Please come back”?’
‘Yes. Exactly those words.’
The children began chattering amongst themselves. I tried to discern the conversations, but it was like listening to a hundred radios. I brought the torchlight over their faces and saw in each one excitement. They fell silent together, then Mary said:
‘But I never went to you. You always came here. Everybody could see you. You would stand in the middle, over there, and just look at me. That’s when I asked you to come back.’
‘She’s right, mister,’ said a hidden voice, ‘we all thought you were a ghost at first, because we could see straight through you.’
‘But we knew you were real because we touched you when you came here with your friends,’ said Mary, ‘and you’ve appeared hundreds of times since then. It’s funny watching someone grow up.’
‘But that can’t be true,’ I said, ‘I’m not a psychic or anything like that’
‘Yes you are,’ said the tallest boy, obviously the eldest. ‘You can see in the dark like nobody else.’
I pondered his statement for a second and began to feel the first shoots of understanding. The tall boy continued:
‘How do you think you escaped the Bad Man? We watched and you were too quick for him; you knew he was coming and dodged every swing of his hammer. He kills everybody else. Kills them easily.’
I thought back to the previous encounter with my invisible assailant, and realised the truth in his words. Somehow I’d known when to duck and run.
‘He was really angry when you escaped. No one had ever done that before,’ said the tall boy. ‘And he couldn’t just keep you with us, he knew you were dangerous. He tried his best to kill you.’
‘How many people has he killed?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know. Not many people come in here, so it can’t be many. He doesn’t always come up when someone’s here. We don’t know where he goes, apart from through that door.’ He pointed at the armoured door that had defied Corey and Stan years ago. ‘He’s not the only bad man though. I’ve seen others, in other dark places.’
‘But people can’t just be killed and no questions asked. Where are the bodies?’
‘In the dark, where no one can see them. That’s where we are.’
‘I…I don’t understand.’
‘Switch off your torch. You don’t need it. Switch it off, then you will understand.’
His last sentence enlightened me. The entire situation was implausible, but twenty years of torment was real. His words made sense. I thought of my fear when I was lost in here, the certainty of being watched, and my uncanny ability to avoid death. All this time I had been afraid of the dark, yet it was that which made me special.
I switched off my torch.
For an instant my eyes saw white patches of ghostly torchlight, but then the children gradually appeared. They stood out in the dark, not glowing or shining, but somehow naturally visible, like a portrait with a black background.
They were all smiling.
‘You see!’ said Mary. ‘You can see in the dark.’
Her form had changed; they had all changed. I could no longer see through her; she had substance and solidity.
I looked about and saw on the floor many dead bodies, probably vagrants and drug addicts. Invisible in the torchlight, my eyes revealed the grisly truth of their end. Smashed to death. Shattered heads lay atop battered torsos; shards of skulls were strewn around like pieces of dropped crockery. Faces were pulverised and flattened. Arms and legs were crushed, bent, and mangled. I knew these people did not see their killer, or even have an inkling of his presence.
I held a hand to my mouth, shocked at the carnage. I’d never seen a dead body before, so I was wholly unprepared for a scene of mass murder.
‘Why does the Bad Man keep you here?’ I asked to the crowd. ‘And why only children?’
A bout of shoulder shrugging and conferring ensued, then Mary said, ‘I think I know why.’
The conversations stopped and all ears turned to her. She looked around nervously, as if alone under a stage spotlight.
‘When the Bad Man got me he said I was a “big twig” for his “nest”. At first I didn’t understand, but sometimes, when I really think about it, I do. I remember at my house, in my garden, me and my daddy watched a bird building its nest in a tree. It took ages. It had to keep flying away and fetch more sticks. It was only little, so the sticks were really small, but in the end it built a really big and strong nest. My daddy said it would be its house for all the baby birds.’
‘Get to the point Mary!’ said a voice from the crowd. I gestured at them to keep quiet. Mary was onto something.
‘Well, I think we’re the baby birds. Sometimes the Bad Man comes and takes one of us away, and we never see them again.’
‘And this place is the nest?’
‘Yes. The dark is the Bad Mans nest.’
For a moment everyone considered her words. I staggered over the junk and sat down on the benching to collect my thoughts, massaging my temples as I grappled with a bizarre concept.
Was the darkness key to all this? Did I, did anyone, truly understand what darkness was? When the sun goes down the night takes over. But is it so simple? Could it be one world replacing another? Did reality consist of two fundamental worlds, one in which we were the creatures of the day? Was the night was the haunt of the Bad Men? Could they prey on us, and our children, at will?
It all became so abhorrently clear.
We are instinctively afraid of the dark because our sixth sense tells us we are not alone. We dismiss our instinct as imagination, yet something is with us in the blackness. At night, Bad Men watch all the time, and are able to move among us, unseen and unheard. They stand beside your bed as you curl up to sleep. They’re in your kitchen as you raid the midnight fridge. They walk behind you when the last bus drops you home. They can simply walk out of the darkness, snatch a child from his bed and vanish. And at sunrise, their nest, a perpetually dark place, would be their haven.
I stood up and looked across at the armour-plated door. My heartbeat increased. I heard the echoes of twenty years previous warning of danger. Steel on concrete. Rats on flesh. But I was in no mood to run again.
I ploughed through the junk toward the door, stepping over battered bodies. The children fell in behind me, chatting excitedly. I still carried my torch and hammer, but due to my newly discovered power, I stuffed the redundant light into a long pocket on my overalls. The hammer I gripped tightly.
I tried the handle. It was locked. I yanked hard but the door was solid.
‘Is there a key for this door?’ I asked, without looking around.
‘The door isn’t locked’ someone replied.
I looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Believe me, it’s locked.’
‘In your world it is,’ said the tall boy. ‘ It’s open in the dark. You have to reach over.’
I looked back at the handle. Like the children, it stood out in the blackness. I wrapped my fingers around the steel and concentrated on its feel, its solidity, its reality.
The handle turned from chilly to icy. Cramping cold seeped into my hand and spread through my wrist and forearm. I could feel my skin freezing to the metal. I jerked the handle down and pulled at the door. It swung open.
I looked into a room about half the size of the chamber. Shelves lined the bare brick walls, on which boxes of various shapes and sizes were placed. I stepped inside, but the children stayed behind.
‘We’re not allowed in there,’ said Mary ‘The Bad Man says he’ll kill us if we do.’
‘He’s not a very nice man, is he?’ I replied, perusing the shelves.
‘No. He’s not. Not nice at all.’
I reached for a wooden box, but my fingers grasped only chilly air. Taking a breath, I focused on the case. Its image grew strong in my mind: the wood grain, knots, and nails sharpened into fine detail. Then I reached out, grabbed hold, and pulled it off the shelf. It was so cold my first instinct was to drop it, but on seeing the contents, I tentatively placed it back. It was full of grenades.
Without touching, I peered into the other cases. Grenades and bullets stuffed every box. I was no expert, but the grenades looked like the sort seen in many World War Two movies. The bullets could have been from any era, but from the old style markings on the containers, I thought them also wartime.
‘This place is an ammunition dump,’ I said to no one in particular. ‘ It was for the Home Guard.’
‘What’s the Home Guard,’ asked Mary, peering around the door but daring not to enter.
‘It’s the soldiers who stayed here during the war, so we could still fight if the Germans ever managed to invade.’
I touched one of the boxes again and felt my fingertips freeze. The ammunition had been taken and stored in the dark world, hidden from normal eyes, untouchable to normal hands.
Further into the room was a hole in the floor. It was sited against a wall and large enough to accommodate a man. I peered down into it, but saw only thick blackness. There seemed to be roughly hewn steps spiralling down, but it was almost impossible to see past the first one. I decided to experiment.
I took out the torch from my pocket, switched it on and pointed it at the hole. The beam did not penetrate the opening, instead a circle of light formed in apparent mid-air. I stared at the light and concentrated my thoughts on what it was hitting. Gradually the hole dissolved away, and was replaced by the dusty concrete of the real world. I flicked off the light and the hole instantly reappeared.
‘I presume the Bad Man can be found down there, wherever there is,’ I said pointing at the opening.
‘That’s where he comes from,’ said Mary, ‘And so do the rats.’
‘I’d almost forgotten about them. Thanks for reminding me.’
I dropped to my knees to examine the hole closer; a chilly air enveloped my face as I peered down. I dipped my entire arm into the murky space and felt the cold clamp around my limb like a crocodile’s jaws. I pulled it back sharply and tried to warm it again with my other hand. How could I even think of going down? I’d freeze to death in minutes.
‘I can’t go down there. I’m sorry.’
‘You must,’ said Mary, still waiting by the door. Her eyes were looking panicky. ‘Now that you’ve come back you have to help us. If you don’t do it now you never will.’
Looking at her in the doorway, I saw her shiny birthday badge still pinned to her dress. It immediately evoked old memories and emotions. I saw her grieving parents. The old news footage. The posters. The guilt. The dreams. The visitations. She was the reason I was here. And now all the other children needed my help. It would be impossible to abandon her again.
I stood up, hammer in hand, and stepped into the hole.
It was like plunging into a frozen lake. The deep, arctic cold attacked every muscle and joint. My testicles screamed and tried to crawl up my body. The darkness here was somehow thicker, almost palpable. I could see only a few yards ahead. Steps cut into the earth wound down in a tight spiral. If I met the Bad Man coming up, there would be no room to manoeuvre. I started downwards, edging over each step, attempting to peer around the curve of the staircase. I held the hammer high and ready to strike.
Then the cold truly set in. My teeth began to chatter; my muscles shivered and ached. The hammerhead quivered in the gloom. Freezing air iced my lungs and my breathing turned rapid and shallow. I tried to quicken my decent; I could feel panic breaking out. The darkness seemed to swirl around my head like black mist, adding confusion to growing hysteria.
I forced my weary legs to run, to bulldoze through the cold. My ears filled with the sound of pumping blood. I felt like a mole in an iceberg, burrowing, probing for a way out.
The steps seemed endless. It was a bottomless staircase in which I would freeze to death. Down and down I went, gasping, aching for an end. I began to lose control of my body. I ran into the mud walls; I slipped and stumbled; I dropped the hammer. I heard voices and saw ghosts. Hypothermia was killing me.
Then I fell to the floor. A relatively warm floor. Face down and spread like a star, I savoured its comforting heat for a while. It was relaxing, and I felt I could lie there content for hours. The ground was wet; water trickled around me. I was back in my own world. Warmth seeped into my body. Eventually, feeling returned to my outer regions. I wiggled my toes and fingers to encourage circulation; my hurried breathing settled down as my lungs thawed out.
Taking deeper breaths awakened another sense. Wherever I was lying stunk. It was the same stench of years before: blocked drains. It was another lightless zone, but my all-seeing eyes revealed the origin of the smell: a sewer.
Disgusted, I leapt to my feet. My clothing was soaked in thick, black, and foul smelling slurry. My cheeks were smeared in the stuff; I spat until my mouth ran dry and the filth was off my lips, then gagged and spluttered bile. I couldn’t wipe myself clean as my hands were caked in the stinking gunge.
I was standing in the centre of a huge, arched Victorian sewer. It was large enough to run a train through. To my right, cut into the brick wall, was the entrance I’d fallen from. Watery sounds, dripping and trickling, resonated in the dark.
I could see about ten yards ahead. The front and rear views offered much the same, so I advanced forward. The slippery floor meant walking slowly, but I didn’t walk for long.
The first rat scurried toward me, straight down the centre of the sewer as if fixed on a hidden rail. It looked as big as a cat. Maybe it was a scout rat, because it seemed to be alone. Nevertheless, it wasn’t afraid. The critter had nothing but attack programmed into its little brain. It leapt at me but I anticipated the move. I sidestepped, watched it hit the floor, then snapped its spine beneath my boot. It screamed. The damned thing let out the weirdest and loudest squeal that must have carried through the entire sewer system. Motionless, with the rat under my foot, I listened and waited. From the vast darkness I expected a wave of rats to charge, but only silence came. They were close, though, I sensed it.
I moved forward again. My footfalls produced a light squelching noise that was amplified by the cavernous sewer. I slipped on a couple of occasions but managed to avoid another face full of crap. With every step, the sensation of being watched, the same feeling I’d experienced in the shelter, increased. I wished I’d returned to find the hammer. My heartbeat quickened. I could hear squeaking. Out there, beyond eyes reach, multitudes of rats were waiting. Unperturbed, I forged forward. The sound intensified with each step, growing from a whisper to a roar.
Then I saw it. I froze and stopped breathing. I was virtually on top of it.
The entire floor of the sewer bristled with rats. They formed a neat, disciplined line, linking wall to wall. It was a living, stinking, raft of fur. The noise, so sharp and spiky, scratched at my eardrums. A rat broke rank and leapt onto my leg, sinking its teeth up to the gums. I ripped the rodent away and hurled it far into the gloom
I waited at the edge of the rats’ line. Occasionally a stray would attack me, but I killed them easily. A few yards from me I saw the reason for this mass of vermin.
The baby birds
A child lay among the rats, wrapped in a translucent sac lined with blood vessels. Small hands pushed at the cocoon, desperately trying to break free; but it was stretchy, and the child’s arms were too short to force a tear. The rats scurried to and fro over the squirming sac, and tenderly licked and nibbled it as if preening one of their own. Behind the filmy skin an indistinct face screamed a soundless scream.
I waded into the rats, stomping and kicking every one I could. They attacked from all sides. Many teeth stabbed into my legs and lower body. I roared in pain and anger. Blood warmed my shins and ankles. Their attack was frenzied and voracious. I reached down, grabbed hold of the sac, and was instantly buried beneath a wave of fur. My ears, neck, and back were all bitten; it was more like piranha than rats.
They’re defending their baby bird, I thought, as I ripped away the sac.
The naked boy immediately sat bolt upright, and screamed. Then I screamed.
He was maybe seven years old, but something abominable had altered him. His face was grotesque. The lower jaw was elongated and curved to the side, distorting his lips and baring all teeth. An eye was missing. His hair was falling out in clumps. His scream rasped and rattled as if his lungs were full of fluid. But he was no monster, for he reached out to me with both hands, beseeching my help. Before I could act, a familiar voice spoke:
‘ You should have stayed away! Only Death is here for you.’
I sensed the attack before seeing it. A large steel hammerhead swung toward my face, but I managed to duck in time. The Bad Man was thrown off balance by the force of the missed swing.
I skittered backwards, pushing my legs and sliding my backside across the slimy floor, then jumped to my feet, swatting off tenacious rats. The boy-thing was quickly silenced beneath a mass of vermin.
I faced the Bad Man. He stared at me through one eye. Where his left eye should have been was a gaping, black hole the size of a fist. A lipless mouth slavered and exposed a full set of twisted, malformed teeth. He was tall and thin, and his arms seemed of extraordinary length. Resting by his side, clamped in a bony-knuckled hand, was a giant sledgehammer. The huge steel head was on the floor, yet the wooden shaft extended up to his armpit. He lifted the weapon like it weighed nothing, and stepped toward me.
‘Think you have power down here?’ he said, spitting out the words. ‘Only I have dominion here. You will die in the dark like the rest!’
He came at me and swung the hammer overhead. I dived to the side and felt the floor shake as the steel pounded concrete. An echo boomed through the sewer. I was smeared in shit again. The rats, the entire raft it seemed, broke their line and teemed across the floor towards me. I sprang up, turned and ran. The floor was too slippery and I fell, rose, and fell again. The rats smothered me. Fighting beneath a carpet of gnashing fur I somehow still knew the sledgehammer was bearing down on my head, and managed to roll away before it struck. Sparks fizzed from the impact with the concrete. I swept my leg at his feet in attempt to bring him down, but my foot passed straight through, momentarily freezing.
For a moment I was confused, then I thought of the door handle and grenade boxes. I had to reach over. That’s what the Bad Man was doing.
I leapt up and jogged away before the sledgehammer could be raised again. I slapped at the rats and stomped their backs and heads as I ran. I looked behind and saw the Bad Man striding after me. Rats were everywhere. My speed of escape was agonisingly slow, but jogging was maximum velocity on such a perilous floor.
‘Come meet your end!’ he screamed. ‘Your kind will never rule the dark!’
He was gaining. His strides were long, lumbering, and, I noticed, splash free. He moved in his world. At the final moment he would reach over and cross into mine to strike the killer blow. As I ran, this thought suddenly gave me strength. Was my world as inhospitable to him as his icy kingdom to me?
He swung again as I glanced back, and I saw his lead foot splash down as he crossed over. The hammerhead caught the heel of my boot and tore it clean off, sending me sprawling. I fell in front of the staircase back to the shelter. I leapt up and dashed inside, ignoring the cold and charged up the stairs. I was in his world now, and had to stay well ahead.
The icy air soon invaded my lungs and muscles, and the extra exertion to drive up the stairs slowed me further. The Bad Man was screaming from somewhere close below, and his footfalls seemed to shake the earth. I closed my mind to the pain in my flesh and forced my legs to keep running. The image of the massive sledgehammer smashing open my skull was like a booster rocket, and carried me tirelessly upwards.
I finally burst free of the frosty staircase and staggered into my own world. I was back in the armoury, and it took a moment to regain my bearings. The door was still open, and the children were still gathered around and peering in.
‘He’s coming!’ I said, trying to catch my breath. ‘Run!’
But they didn’t run, they simply backed away from the door. Unlike me, they had nowhere to run to.
The first of the rats brimmed over the hole’s edge. I waited not a second more. I rushed to the shelves, glared at a box of grenades, reached over and picked one out. It was heavy and like a nugget of ice. My fingers started to freeze so I stuffed it into my pocket. The floor was filling with ferocious rats, so I backed away into the main chamber, stamping and kicking at all I could. The hideous head of the Bad Man suddenly surfaced from the opening, and his long body glided smoothly up and out. He held the wicked sledgehammer in one hand, and slammed it into the walls as he advanced towards me.
‘ Now you’ll die! Now you’ll suffer!’ he screamed, his teeth gnashing at the words. His one eye seemed to bulge, and I truly thought it would burst.
‘You’re a freak of the light, trespasser. And all freaks should die.’
I stood my ground at the armoury entrance I had a plan, but had no idea if it would work.
‘Move away, John. He’ll kill you!’ Mary screamed in a shrill voice. The other children squealed in agreement.
I fixed my stare on the Bad Man, who raised the sledgehammer ready to pulverise my skull. I held off my move, the moment had to be exact. He strode toward me, rage glaring from his one eye. I watched his footfalls cross but not disturb the dusty floor, until the final lunge, when a puff of dust betrayed him.
I dived forward, under the arc of the swinging hammer and rammed his midriff with my shoulder. He was not expecting my action. He reeled backwards; I wrapped my arms around him and held tight, forcing him to the floor. I heard the hammer’s shaft hit the concrete.
‘Get off me, freak!’ he screamed.
He writhed and wriggled in my grip, and I could feel he was trying to return to his world, but I held him in mine. A tug-of-war ensued, he tried to drag me over into the dark, but I had the strength to resist. And in my arms, the Bad Man was heating up. I could feel his temperature rising; the heat radiated through my own clothes. He attempted to push me off with hands like hot plates, and was strong, even in my world. We wrestled, and slowly he managed to turn me over, but I still held him close. He was burning up. The longer I held him the more he suffered.
‘Take your stinking hands off!’ he cried, but with fear hiding in his voice. Then he did something I didn’t expect – he bit me. Teeth like hot tines sunk into my shoulder. I cried out in pain and momentarily relaxed my hold. He seized his chance and broke my grip; straddling me, he reached down and wrapped his hands around my throat. His countenance twisted and snarled, and his burning saliva drooled onto my face. Rats chewed at my ears and scalp. I couldn’t breathe. I could feel my head swelling as it groped for oxygen. I had a handhold on his upper arm, my fingers buried into his burning flesh. All the time I could feel him pulling, trying to return to the dark. How long could he survive in this world? Longer than I could without air, it seemed.
My left hand slipped into my pocket and tugged out the hand grenade. In a swift movement the pin was in my teeth and yanked out. The Bad Man was too slow. I rammed the grenade into the stark, black hole of his eye socket; surprised, he released his grip and tried to pull out the wedged explosive. I sucked in air and kicked him away, then dived through the door into the main chamber. Behind me, the grenade detonated. Minor shrapnel blasted out and embedded in my back, but I was glad of it. It meant the explosion had happened in this world.
I turned to look at the damage, and saw a dust filled room with the Bad Man’s headless torso lying on the floor. By his side was the sledgehammer. The rats were gone. For a moment, I enjoyed the silence. Then Mary’s voice called out.
‘John, where are you. I can’t see.’
‘Nor me,’ said another voice
‘I can’t. what’s happened?’ I recognised the tall boy’s voice.
I could see them all. Sitting on the benching they looked blind, all eyes searched for light and focus. I walked over to Mary and took her hand.
‘I’m here, Mary. The magic is gone. The Bad Man is gone.’ I looked down at her face, and she looked back, but her eyes looked somewhere past my shoulder. She was smiling.
‘Does that mean I can go home now?’
‘Yes. And I know your Mum and Dad are waiting for you. And Barbie’
Her face turned into one big smile, and she stood and hugged me.
‘Everybody hold the hand of the one sitting next you, we’re leaving now,’ I said. All the children linked hands and chattered excitedly.
‘Be careful where you tread, there a lot of nasty things in here,’ I said, looking at the human remains scattered about. At least these people could now be found and given a proper funeral.
So I walked for the final time out of the shelter, trailing a line of children, some with homes to go to, but some in a different age. I wondered how they would cope. Feeling like the Pied Piper I walked into the heat of the summer, and immediately heard the call of others, trapped in other dark places, by other Bad Men. I realised then what path my life was going to take. I knew why I was really here. And I knew I would always be afraid of the dark.