We stayed with Dee for a while. She proved eager to have the company, and we certainly were in need of the food. The room between the lines was comfortable in a way I had never truly experienced. The service corridor locked at both ends, and we had set up a bell defence system by each door in case of any trouble. The lantern in the corner cast a welcoming orange glow over the whole room, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I allowed myself to relax and feel at home.
Dee seemed happy to have us stay with her, but it took a long time for her to trust us enough to open up. I would ask her about her parents, or her knowledge of the Collector, but she always found a way to dodge the questions.
Finally, on a night where I had once again told Timmy the Little Man story to put him to sleep, she started talking,
“It was my mother who taught me how to survive.”
“My mother. She taught me most of the things I know, like how to find food and water, how to stay quiet in the tunnels.”
“You must miss her,” I said after some time had passed.
“He got her,” she said. I sat in silence and waited for her to continue.
“We were just scavenging in the tunnels when we heard the bell. She thought it might finally be someone coming to tell us that the world had been fixed, that we could go home. I was too excited to think it might be dangerous. I was born down here, I’ve never been up above. But we got there and it was Him.”
We sat in silence for a while before I encouraged her to continue.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He shouted something. I couldn’t hear what, He wears this mask, you know? Something about being ‘impure’. He had this huge bell and… and…”
“Yeah. Hanging from a chain. It was sort of swinging there, you know? Anyway, He’s just shouting stuff about being impure and unclean and next thing I know, He just hits my mother with this bell, and she goes down. I ran, I had no choice. He chased me, but I was small and fast. My mum used to say I could run like a rabbit, whatever they are.”
She paused, lost in thought. I considered encouraging her again, but she carried on before I had the chance.
“I went back, after I was sure He was gone. She was still there, where she dropped, but…”
“I’m so sorry.”
“She used to tell me that I shouldn’t be afraid, because monsters only walk at midnight, but it’s always midnight down here, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said, “But it’s not monsters we need to be afraid of.”
“I miss her. You remind me of her sometimes, the way you are with him,” she said, gesturing towards Timmy, “How did you two meet?”
“He hasn’t told you yet?” I asked, surprised. The two of them had become quite close in the time they had known each other, often playing together in the tunnel outside when it was safe.
“No. I did ask once, but he sort of avoided it.”
“Huh. Well, it was a long time ago, maybe he doesn’t remember very well,” I started to tell the story.
I was just wandering the tunnels back then. Maybe it was shock after what had happened with Little Man, but I was too afraid to settle in one place. As soon as I had slept enough, I would just carry on walking, with no specific destination or direction. I just wanted to avoid the Collector at all costs. Worse than the fear was the loneliness. As wary I had been of Little Man and his intentions, he had still been someone to talk to, and the solitude was getting to me.
I ambled into a station, climbing up off the tracks and aiming for the stairs that would take me to another line. The damage here was especially bad. Many of the tiles that once lined the walls had either fallen or been ripped off, and their shattered remains coated the floor. The pieces broke under my feet; their crunching broke the silence and echoed around the empty platform. I shone my lantern around, looking for a quiet way through the debris, and that was when I saw it. The sign on the wall informing me that I was transferring to the Circle Line.
“Oh no,” I said, almost jumping at the sound of my own voice. I hadn’t spoken in so long. I had also been avoiding the Circle Line ever since Little Man had been killed. Even as I stared at the sign, a familiar feeling of dread started crawling up my spine. Many times I had woken up from a half remembered nightmare, shaking in fear, my body coated in a cold sweat. Even here, the shadows seemed to shift, moving ominously towards me. My lantern flickered as I held it closer to myself, keeping the darkness and what it concealed at bay. Maybe it was residual trauma from what had happened, or just a case of living in a state of solipsism for too long, but I had to force myself to take a step forward.
“Come on Charlotte,” I said, “You can do this.”
When it came, it came all at once, a feeling of courage that seemed to materialise from nowhere. I used the lantern, channelling its light into myself, feeding off its positive warmth. I put my left foot up on the first stair. Again, the broken tiling crunched, but I barely heard it this time. Onto the second stair then, I slowly began to climb. As I pushed onwards into the narrow stairwell, the shadows receded around me. I was bathed in the lantern’s glow, protected from anything that lay in the surrounding gloom. With each step forward, my pace quickened. There were around thirty stairs, and by the time I reached the top, I was taking them two at a time, revelling in my triumph.
I emerged onto another station. This one was in a much nicer state than the previous. Though the tiles were dirty, they were still attached to the walls, and the floor wasn’t covered in wreckage. It looked lived in, although if it had been a bandit camp, it was abandoned. There didn’t seem to be any supplies left lying around for me to scavenge. I went to check the bathroom, but as soon as I opened the door, I was hit by a stench of stale piss and shit that left me retching. I took a few seconds for another cursory glance around, but if there had been anyone here, they seemed to have abandoned the place. The station’s almost pristine nature left me with a nervous feeling. On the surface, it seemed like a decent place to sleep, at least for a while, but something about it just unsettled me. Who had lived here? Why had they just left it like this?
Then I heard the crying. It was faint, coming from behind a door marked ‘Maintenance Personnel Only’. It had been so long since I had encountered another person, I couldn’t help myself,
Stupid. Of course it wasn’t Little Man, he was dead. The crying sounds stopped. Whoever was behind the door was trying to stay quiet. I tried again,
“Go away,” came the voice of a small boy, “There’s nobody here.”
“Then who’s talking to me?” I asked.
There was no answer. I thought about leaving. The boy’s parents would be back for him, right? He wasn’t my responsibility. But, I couldn’t. I tried once more,
“I won’t hurt you, I promise. I’m here to help you.”
“Really, I promise.”
The door unlatched from the other side, and a thin boy stepped out. He was very young, perhaps a third my age, and worryingly thin. His hair was ragged and matted in places. It looked like it should be a sandy colour, but it was so dirty it looked almost black. Dirt plastered his face too, except for prominent streaks from where he had been crying.
“Hello,” I said, “What’s your name?”
“Timmy,” he replied.
“Hi Timmy, I’m Charlotte. Do you have anyone to look after you?”
“My mummy and daddy.”
“Are they here?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“They said they’d be back, but they’ve been gone a very long time,” he started to cry again, “I don’t think they’re coming back. They just told me to lock the door and not open it for anyone and left me here.”
I’d thought as much. They had taken all their supplies with them when they left. I glanced over Timmy’s shoulder into the room he had been living in. There were one or two empty tins, but they hadn’t left him enough to survive for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” I said, hugging him, “You must be hungry, here.”
I had a bar of something in my pack. It wasn’t much, and it was the last piece of food I had left, but I handed it over anyway. Timmy took it and tore it open, pausing only to thank me when he was halfway through his first mouthful.
“Do you want to stay here?” I asked when he was finished. He shook his head.
“I think you should come with me then. It’s not safe to go alone.”
He paused at the mouth of the tunnel.
“It’s dark,” he said, “I don’t like the dark.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, smiling at him, “I have all the light we need.”
He reached up and took my hand, and we stepped forward into the darkness together.
“Wow, so they just left him there?” asked Dee when I was finished.
“I think so. Or they went to find more supplies and got killed in the process. Either way, they weren’t coming back for him.”
“You’d have probably had an easier time surviving by yourself. You could have left him there too, you know.”
“No,” I said, glancing over to where Timmy was sleeping contentedly, “I really couldn’t.”
“You really are a lot like her.”
“Your mother?” I asked.
“Yeah. You have her same drive to look after people. There was a book she used to read to me. It was full of stories about this man who used to go around and help people. She used to say that if I ever got lost, I should just follow the angels and I’d find my way back to her.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure what she meant.”
“There’s a place called Angel. It’s a station on the Northern Line.”
“Is there?” Dee was suddenly excited.
“Yeah, there is,” I said, “Have you got a map? I can show you.”
“I have, but…” she trailed off.
“But what?” I asked.
Her face went visibly red, and she stammered,
“I… I can’t read. I never learned how. My mother always promised she’d teach me, but she was more concerned with me learning to survive first, and she never got around to it before… before she was taken.”
“It’s okay,” I reassured her, “Here, look. We’re on the Circle Line around here.”
I pointed at the point on the map between Farringdon and Barbican stations. Dee nodded.
“Angel is here,” I pointed at the spot on the Northern Line, “It’s not far. We just have to follow the Circle Line down to Moorgate, find the transfer to the Northern Line, and follow it up. It’s not far at all.”
“Can we go?” asked Dee. She was back to being excited again, her embarrassment forgotten.
“Sure we can,” I said, “I’m not sure it’s what your mother meant, but we can take a look.”
“She used to say the angels would lead me to Heaven’s stairway. Do you think it might be true? Do you think there’s a way out of this place?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I was starting to feel excited myself, “We should get some sleep for tonight though, we can go when we wake up.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I have to step outside a sec to pee, can you get the defence system?”
I put my ear up against the door to the tracks. I couldn’t hear anything out there, but I gave Dee the nod anyway. She pulled on the rope. Nothing happened. For a few seconds, the silence was thick. It seemed to drag on for an eternity. I pressed my ear up against the door again, and there was a sudden, violent bang from the other side. I jumped back and screamed in fright. There was a high pitched laugh, followed by a gruff voice,
“Damn Frank, what the fuck did you do that for?”
“We know you’re in there,” said Frank in his singsong voice, “Come out come out, we’ve got unfinished business, you dirty little whore.”
He started ringing the bell right outside the door, laughing. He kicked at the door again, the impacts shaking dust loose. The barricade wouldn’t hold for long against his onslaught.
“I figured out your system! It was clever, but not clever enough to fool old Frank for long.” The maniacal laugh continued.
“Come on!” he said, “Let your old friend Frank in, we can have some fun!”
“What’s going on?” came Timmy’s voice from behind us. I snapped out of it and composed myself quickly,
I moved fast, grabbing Timmy’s hand as I went, dragging him behind me. I knew it was hurting him, but we had no choice. The banging grew faster and more insistent until the disfigured old lock finally gave in with a shriek of protest and the door exploded open. Frank shot through the opening and darted towards us. By now, we were at the other end of the hallway, and Dee was struggling with the stiff lock. Without turning, I shouted,
“We don’t have all day, Dee!”
The painful screech of metal announced that the lock was very slowly moving, but the door wouldn’t be open fast enough. Frank was very quickly gaining. With nowhere to go, I stood my ground and waited.
“Dee, he’s gonna be on us any second!” I said.
“Hang on. Hang on. Got it!” The door burst open with a rush of cool air. We spilled out into the tunnel, with Frank close behind. I turned to face him, grabbing the torch from my pocket and shone it directly in his eyes.
“Fuck! Ow! The bitch fucking blinded me!” he shouted, as I grabbed Timmy and ran into the darkness. I looked back to make sure Dee was still with us. She’d grabbed hold of Timmy’s other hand, and the three of us ran together, stumbling over the tracks. I chanced a look over my shoulder. Frank’s two friends had caught up to him, but they were slowing him down. Dee knew these tunnels well and led us through shortcuts and into maintenance access ways. Despite all this, we never managed to fully lose them, though we did keep ahead of them. None of us had agreed on where we were headed, but we somehow knew we were aiming for Angel Station. I had no idea what we’d find there, but for the first time in as long as I could remember, I dared to hope.
I wasn’t sure how long we had been running, but by the time we reached Moorgate, my legs hurt enough that I could barely stand and my breath would only come in short gasps. I stopped and shone the torch around, grateful for the opportunity to stop running. No sooner than I had located the entrance to the Northern Line platform however, they were on us again.
“There they are! Let’s fucking get ‘em!”
I switched off the torch, and we ran into the shadowy staircase towards the Northern Line platform. They were behind us all the way, shouting threats and insults, but we continued to push on. After going down what seemed a long way, we emerged onto the Northern Line platform of Moorgate Station.
We ran. We ran towards Angel Station, towards our last hope. We ran through the pain and the fear. We ran because we had to. We ran to survive.
We passed Old Street Station with barely a backwards glance. There was a turn coming up in the tunnel, and we knew Angel Station was around it. By now I was using the torch constantly. We were falling over too much not to. As we rounded the corner, I could hear Frank laughing maniacally and ringing the bell. I barely noticed when it was joined by another from the tunnel ahead. Then a third.
It was Dee who stopped us, just short of the station.
“Listen!” she urged us. There were definitely three distinct bell sounds.
“Is it an echo?” asked Timmy.
“No,” I said, shining the torch down the tunnel.
That was when I saw a ghost. He’d grown a bit, but I recognised those eyes, even in their current vacant state. Little Man just stood there staring at us, ringing a bell. Another larger figure emerged from the darkness behind him. He was exactly as I remembered. The mask on his face betrayed none of his emotions, wide empty circles where his eyes should have been. The robes made him look giant, his imposing form casting shadows that stretched endlessly back into the tunnel. He also rang a bell, his other hand holding the chain with the lantern hanging from the end. It pendulumed back and forth, casting its flickering glow on everything.
“It’s him, it’s the Midnight Man!” Dee gasped.
The three bandits ran up behind us and stopped short.
“Oh fuck!” said Frank.
We were momentarily forgotten by both sides. I squeezed Timmy’s hand and reached out for Dee’s, and before I knew what we were doing, I was running for the platform. Frank shouted and made to run after us, but then the Collector was there. I wasn’t sure how someone that big could move that fast, but he was suddenly in front of us, blocking our escape. I ducked around him, the sound of bells deafening in my ears. I couldn’t help it, I looked back. The Collector hit Frank, catching him in the temple with that heavy bell. The sound of the impact was drowned out by the bell, but the sickening crunch as his head hit the ground was all too loud, reverberating through the tunnels.
Then we were on the stairway, and they were out of sight. Little Man stepped into view at the bottom of the stairs, but didn’t follow. He just stared up at us, still ringing his bell. I forced myself to turn away, still refusing to believe he was alive. I’d seen the Collector kill him, hadn’t I?
The staircase seemed to stretch forever. I wasn’t sure how long we were climbing for, and I lost count of the number of steps quickly. I wasn’t sure what the stairway to heaven was supposed to look like. These stairs were black, and the tunnel a reflective silver. Occasionally, there were frames on the walls with tattered, faded posters. I stopped to see if I could read one of them, but it was too damaged. Dee urged me onwards, her excitement palpable. The sonorous tones of the bells were faint behind us. We continued to ascend.
By the time we arrived at the top, we were all panting and sweating. The air seemed warmer up here, and thicker. It was difficult to breathe, but I attributed that to the constant running since we left our hideout. Dee skipped on ahead, Timmy and I following behind when we had caught our breath as much as we could. Ahead of us was another set of stairs, and Dee disappeared from our view. We followed her up, ready to see her mother’s heaven.
And emerged into hell.
The city was desolate. Everything had been burned. The blackened husks of buildings stretched up around us into a twilight sky. The mottled clouds cast a grey shroud over London. There was no heaven here, just the ashes of a dead world. We had followed the angels and they had led us to nothing. Timmy cried silently, Dee’s angry screams echoed through the empty streets,
“She lied! She fucking lied! The whole thing was a fucking lie!”
She pulled a small book from her pocket and threw it, sinking to her knees on the pavement and sobbing.
A memory came flooding back to me then, a cottage by the sea in a place called Cornwall. I remembered the soft sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the sweet salty smell of the air. It was all gone now, the sea air choked out in effluvial dusk.
There was nothing here for us but a burned husk of a world. Timmy began to cough, and tugged at my top to get my attention. I knew he was right, we had to get back underground. He grabbed Dee’s hand, dragging her to her feet. I led them back into the subway and we descended in silence. We knew what awaited us in the darkness, but we didn’t care. Our last hope had been broken, we were defeated.
With every step, the bells got louder.
As usual, feedback is appreciated.