Drowning. I was drowning.
Back up. I was in darkness. The room I was locked in was empty. Though I could see nothing in there, it didn’t take long to feel my way around. I sat, for the most part. There was nothing else to do. When we had re-entered the tunnels, they had been waiting for us. We went willingly. After years of living day to day with hope, to let go and succumb was strange, but liberating. I worried about Timmy’s safety, and Dee’s, but their expressions of devastation told me everything I needed to know. If we tried to run, they would kill us. Even if we managed to escape, they’d hunt us forever and we no longer had any fight left in us.
We had been led through winding tunnels and maintenance access ways, never allowed to stop, even when we begged for a rest. They rang the bells all the way. After what felt like an eternity of walking, we found ourselves at an old, run down station. The air smelled worse here. I guessed we were close to where the tunnels open out into the city itself. The thought of that world of ash and ruin made me feel sick. I forced it from my mind and focused on where we were being herded. They put us in separate cells at the back of the station. And the lantern fading as the door closed was the last light I saw for days.
By the time the food came, I was weak with hunger. It was the smell that woke me, cooked meat of some kind. Something about it was familiar, but I couldn’t place it until it was too late. It smelled, and tasted, like the meat I’d shared with Little Man all those years ago. I spat out the mouthful I had and left the unfinished plate by the door. When I woke next, it was gone.
This continued in the same fashion. I would wake up to a plateful of meat, leave it, and it would be gone. I had no way of knowing, but I think I was sleeping more often as I got weaker. Then one day, I woke to an open door. Little Man stood there holding a plate. He put it on the floor and slid it towards me with his foot. His face was vacant, and when he spoke, it was in a monotone.
“Eat,” he said. I shook my head at him.
“We have some tinned food if you’d prefer,” he said. I nodded, eager to eat.
“Of course, if you eat the tinned food, there won’t be any left over for your young friend. Timmy, I believe? Whatever will he eat if you refuse this?”
I was weak, but I wasn’t stupid and protecting Timmy was still the most important thing to me. I crawled towards the plate, and ate. I felt sick, but managed to keep it down. I hated myself for every bite. The glazed look left Little Man’s eyes and he regarded me with a sneer.
“Tastes like father, doesn’t it?” he said, gesturing at the meat. I almost spat it out, but I knew what they would do with it.
“If it makes you feel better,” he continued, “That was the one who tried to fuck you.”
“How do you know about that?” I asked.
“He knows many things about you.”
“Who is He? Who was He before He was the Collector, or the Midnight Man?”
“He doesn’t speak of the time before much. Once, the words of god danced across His lips, but when the end came, He was abandoned. His god took in the righteous, but forgot Him.”
“If He was left behind, maybe He wasn’t so ‘righteous’ to begin with,” I said. Little Man slapped me, hard. The crack echoed in the tiny room, and my ear rang.
“Don’t you dare question him!” said Little Man, “We are His salvation and He is ours!”
With that he left, leaving me to sit in the darkness and ponder his words.
I was drowning.
No, not yet. I sat in the darkness, waiting. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for, but I had the feeling that something was coming. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a constant sense of things coming to a close, and soon.
The more I ate, the more I regained my strength. I still slept a lot of the time, but I didn’t feel so sick any more. Occasionally, the meat would be substituted for something tinned. Little Man assured me that Timmy or Dee weren’t being fed it in lieu of me.
I couldn’t guess how much time passed in that room before the scratches started. I followed the sounds to a point on the wall. They seemed to be coming from the other side. I felt along the wall and found a part that felt different, weaker somehow, and I started scratching it away. It took a long time, but it gave me something to focus my attention on in the darkness. It kept me from going mad from boredom. Judging by how often I ate and slept, it took nearly a week to scratch enough of the wall away to get through. Finally, I found myself touching someone else’s fingers through the small hole. There was a gasp, followed by a whisper,
“Timmy?” I asked.
“Yes! Charlotte, is that you?”
“Yes, I’m here. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. It’s really dark in here. Dee stops by every day to bring me food, but she never says anything. It’s like she doesn’t know me anymore.”
“Oh no, they got to Dee as well? Little Man’s the same way. I think He’s done something to change them.”
“Is there any way we can stop Him?”
I paused and considered for a moment. There had to be a way out of these cells.
“Next time Little Man comes to give me food, I’ll try to overpower him, you-”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the voice came from the other side of the door. It opened slowly, revealing Little Man and Dee.
“It looks like you’ve been bad,” said Dee.
“And for that you must be punished,” continued Little Man. The door closed again. I heard Timmy’s door open. There were no voices this time, the door just closed again after a few seconds.
“Timmy?” I said, “What did they say?”
All I heard was whimpering.
“Timmy, are you okay?” I asked, “What’s going on?”
Then I heard the unmistakable squeaking. Timmy started to scream,
“Charlotte, help! Charlotte, they’re all over me, help! Help me!”
There was nothing I could do but sit in the darkness and cry. I tried prying away more of the wall, but it was too strong. I just had to listen as the rats crawled all over Timmy, while he screamed for me. He was a few feet away from me, but he had never felt more out of reach. Somehow, I slept. I had restless dreams of Timmy being devoured alive, and of being chased through the darkness. Every time I woke up he was still screaming and crying, and I felt a new wave of despair. There was nothing I could do, and I hated myself for it.
The next time I woke up, Little Man was waiting for me. He stood silhouetted in the doorway. The screams had stopped.
“What did you do with him?” I asked. Little Man said nothing, he just stood there, completely stoic.
“What did you do with Timmy?” I asked again.
“You’ll see him soon enough, don’t worry,” his voice was devoid of emotion, “Come with me, the time has come.”
I stepped out of my cell for the first time since arriving. The hallway was lit by tiny gas lamps, the flickering orange flames revealing the old, worn down bricks. I had never seen a station quite like this. It looked like it had been abandoned even longer than the rest of the underground. A hot breeze blew through the corridor, bringing with it the smell of ash. I was sweating uncomfortably. Little Man gave me a small shove in the back to get me moving. We walked past the open door to Timmy’s cell. I glanced in and he wasn’t there. Before I realised what I was doing, I wheeled on Little Man and threw a hard punch to his face.
“Where is he, you bastard?” I shouted. He looked furious. I turned and ran.
“Timmy! Timmy, where are you?” I kept running past more and more open doors, stopping only to quickly look inside each cell. They were all empty. The corridor forked up ahead. I rounded the corner and almost ran straight into Dee. She looked at me blankly. I turned and ran the other way, I had to find Timmy and get out.
I found him around the next corner with his back to me. His hair had grown longer and looked more unkempt than ever, but it was definitely him. His arms were covered in small bite marks from the rats, but they had been cleaned and weren’t bleeding.
“Timmy,” I said, “Come on, we have to get out of here.”
He slowly turned to face me. He didn’t seem to recognise me; he just stared with the same empty expression as Little Man and Dee. I sank to my knees and cried. All the fight left me in an instant. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Little Man stood over me. Blood streamed down his face. His nose had broken where my fist had caught it, but if it was causing him any pain, he didn’t show it. He wore the same blank expression as the others.
“It’s easier this way,” said Timmy, “He was forgotten by god, and we were too.”
“We’re not all innocent,” Little Man joined in, “But He can forgive us, and we’ll guide Him to his promised land.”
“He’ll take us with Him,” said Dee, “I can see my mother again.”
They led me to a huge chamber. I had seen churches on the surface, so I knew right away what I was looking at. Most of the room was filled with train seats that had been arranged in rows facing the front. The Collector was stood there, waiting for us. I was no longer afraid of him. I knew now that he wasn’t the avatar of death I had once thought of him as, he was just a man who changed when the world ended. I walked to the front and it began. There was a large bowl filled with water at the front of the church. I didn’t hear any of the words that were said, but he eventually pushed my head under the surface.
I was drowning. I didn’t try to fight it at all. I was drowning, and I didn’t care. He pulled me up before I could die, and drew a shape on my forehead in the water. Then I was led back to my cell, and once again left.
I’m sat in nothingness. I’m trying not to forget myself, but it’s been so long. My name is Charlotte. I’m clothed in darkness and silence. I have never heard silence like this. There is nothing a quiet as Death. He used to follow us everywhere, now I’d welcome him with open arms. This is worse. How did I get here? I don’t remember. Was someone with me? A little boy or girl? No, I’m alone. Alone in this emptiness. My name is Charlotte, my name is Charlotte, my name is…
Charlotte, Little Man, Timmy, Dee. Who we were no longer matters. Now we all ring the bells. Now we’re all Death’s children.
As I have mentioned on Twitter already, I will be doing a post-mortem analysis of this story next Monday (August 6th). If you have any questions or comments that you would like me to address, please feel free to drop me a Facebook message, a tweet, a DM, a comment on here, or a carrier pigeon. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story, and thank you for reading and sharing.