On taking a step back in order to move forwards

Do you know what words terrify me most? Either ‘Prologue’ or ‘Chapter One’. True story. They just sit there for a while, all nice and bold in whatever header font I’ve selected, with the cursor blinking after, and a sea of white below.

They terrify me because after that, I need a first sentence. And it has to be good, doesn’t it? How many of you have read a book and just groaned at an awful first sentence? I know I have many times. And given that, beyond ‘prologue’ or ‘chapter one’ it’s the first thing the reader says. First impressions are everything.

Continue reading

Advertisements

All of Death’s Children: Chapter Four – The Underground Children

Previously: Chapter One, Little Man and the Bell, Chapter Two, Dee of the Tunnels and Chapter Three, Angel and the Midnight Man.

—————————————————————————————

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,
“Hello?”
“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.

All of Death’s Children: Chapter One – Little Man and the Bell

There is nothing as quiet as Death. He creeps silently through the tunnels, constantly hunting us down, constantly keeping us on the run in this subterranean labyrinth. We’ve been forced to make our home here in this sprawling subway system, once a busy transport system for the former inhabitants of this world, now a refuge, lying dormant beneath a shattered city.
“Charlotte?”
I heard the small voice calling me from the other side of the room. It was a tiny space, tucked into a corner of a quiet station on what was once the Piccadilly Line, and it had been home for longer than any of the other places we had settled.
“Charlotte, are you there?” It was Timmy.
“Hang on a second,” I whispered back, “I’m taking a piss.”
I made my way to him, feeling my way through the junk and debris on the floor to the only lit area of the room. In the flickering lantern light, his dirty face peeked out from the top of his thin blanket. Timmy was a lot younger than me, maybe half my age, but with nobody around to keep track of time, it was impossible to know for sure.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“How long are we going to stay here?”
“As long as it’s safe. As long as He doesn’t know where we are.”
I felt Timmy tense in fear at the mere mention of Him.
“He scares me” he admitted eventually.
“I know. And I’ll do whatever I can to protect you from Him.”
“Okay.”
Timmy was silent as he rolled over. I extinguished the lantern and lay next to him. Without the flame, the room was cast into total darkness. In the underground, it was perpetually night. The neon lights of the stations had long gone out, never to come back on. Even with a working light there wasn’t much to see. The stations were all smashed tiles and cracked linoleum, and the tunnels were miles of track, snaking outwards into the black, never to be used again. We still used lanterns and the occasional torch to see by, but carefully, and only when we were awake.
It was not safe to keep the lights on while we were asleep. He’d see it and find us. And Death would follow Him.

“Are you awake?” Timmy piped up again.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I can’t sleep. Can you tell me a story?”
“I guess I can. What story do you want me to tell?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“I want to hear about Little Man,” he responded predictably. In the couple of years or so I had known Timmy, I had told him many stories, but the story of how I met Little Man stuck with him for some reason.
“Alright,” I said, and began the story.

Long before meeting Timmy, I met Little Man. He wasn’t the first other person I encountered in the tunnels, but he was the first I had any real contact with. At the time I wasn’t as experienced with surviving on my own. I’d had some luck to help me through for a while, but it had long run out. I had been living on small scraps of food and water that I had managed to find on my quick forays into various old stations, but by the time I met him, I hadn’t eaten in what I had to assume was days.
I was walking around the Circle Line, trying to find a station that connected to a different line, so I could search there for any kind of supplies, when I found it. It was a train, just parked in the middle of the tunnel. They were not uncommon, and sometimes they had bags with food or drink or clothes in. This one was different however, this one had a light on inside.
Normally, I was careful to avoid any signs of life. It could have been some of the Bandits that lived in the tunnels or worse, it could have been Him. I hadn’t had any run ins with Him at that point, but I’d heard stories as I spied on packs of Bandits from a distance, and if these strong, well-armed adults believed in him enough to be afraid, so did I.
This time was a different story though. I was so hungry I could barely walk, desperate for any kind of food. I couldn’t turn back; there was no food back that way for sure. I had to take the risk. The first carriage of the train had been decorated to look welcoming. It made me think of things half remembered, images trapped in my subconscious, never quite allowed to break the surface. Quick flashes of a home on the surface, before… well, before all of this.
Seats acted as makeshift shelves, with photographs of a family on them, a mother, father, and baby. My hopes soared. If a family lived here, maybe they’d welcome me. Maybe they’d have food. The main source of the light came from the next carriage. I opened the door to find a small, dirty looking boy sat by a fire.

“How old was he?” interrupted Timmy.
“What?” I asked.
“Was he my age?”
“A little older than you probably. You know I have no way of telling how old he was. I don’t know how old you are. Now, do you want to hear the rest?”
“How old are you?”
“I… I’m not sure any more. I stopped counting a long time ago.”
“Okay. Carry on.”
“Fine,” I sighed, “No more interruptions. And you go to sleep straight away when I’m done.”
“Okay.”

The fire cast shadows on the walls that seemed to dance, but what truly had my attention was the large skewer of meat that was slowly cooking over the flames. My mouth watered, I couldn’t help it. I hadn’t seen or smelled meat in longer than I could hope to remember, and it had been even longer since I had eaten any. The second thing I noticed was that the small boy was pointing a gun at me.
“Who’re you?” he asked, “And what the fuck do you want?”
“I… I… I’m sorry,” I broke down in tears.
“Sorry? What kind of a name is Sorry?”
“M-m-my name is Charlotte,” I managed to choke out between sobs, “I’m so hungry, I haven’t eaten in so long.”
“Sit,” he gestured to a cushion opposite him, putting the gun down.
I obeyed, thankful for the chance to rest comfortably. I couldn’t let my guard down entirely, but I felt much safer in here than I did in the tunnels. There were several minutes of awkward silence as we sat and ate together, which I broke.
“What’s your name?” I asked him through mouthfuls of succulent meat.
He seemed to consider his answer for a long time before responding,
“I dunno. My dad used to call me Little Man. I guess that’s my name.”
“Was that them in the pictures in the other room?”
“Yeah, that was them.”
“Where are they now? Are you alone here?”
“They used to fight all the time. Used to keep me up, always fucking shouting at each other. ‘Yer slowin’ us down, you worthless cunt’ dad would always say. It was mum’s idea to settle down here, she was so tired of travelling all the time. Couldn’t admit it though, fucking bitch used me as an excuse. ‘Can’t you see how hard this is on him?’ she’d always say. So we set up here. One night, they’re going at it, full force, screaming. Next thing I know, I hear a thump and a scream and a bang. Dad knocked her right the fuck out. I hear him drag her out and down the tunnel. Then a gunshot. ‘Good news,’ he says the next day, ‘I found us some meat, we ain’t gonna starve.’”
Shocked, I asked,
“And what happened to him? Is he out scavenging?”
Little Man fingered the gun uncomfortably and gestured towards the meat roasting over the fire. I’d have thrown up if I wasn’t starving.
“Couldn’t trust him after that,” he said, “I’d have been next.”

“This part always grosses me out,” said Timmy.
“What did I say about interrupting?” I said, more sharply than intended. I always hated this part of the story.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It was hard back then. A lot harder than it is now. There were Bandits all over, most of them armed and all of them unfriendly. Food was hard to find, it was either eat what I could get my hands on or starve to death. And dying appeals to me a lot less than eating someone I’ve never met.”
“Can you tell the part with the Bandits now?”
“Okay.”

I wasn’t sure why I stayed there with Little Man. I knew I couldn’t trust him. As soon as supplies ran out, I figured he’d have no problem shooting me and using me for food, so I set about making myself as useful as I could. I helped map out the tunnels and stations around the train, and even made a few excursions to stations on separate lines to grab any supplies I could find. We lived there for a long time, months perhaps, before the Bandits came.
In a way, the Bandits were like us. They were people who had changed when the world changed. Formerly good people, reduced to doing whatever they could to survive. This particular group had seen the fire from down the tunnel, and managed to sneak up on us. There were ten of them, most armed with bats or pipes, and they managed to surround the train before we noticed them. By the time we crept out of the kitchen area, one had entered the living room. He was huge, brandishing a length of piping with a massive chunk of concrete still firmly attached at the one end. I doubted I’d have ever been able to pick it up, let alone swing it. This man had no problem whatsoever. He lifted it over his head, and I saw the look of glee in his eyes as he readied himself to end my life.
Without even hesitating, Little Man cocked his gun and put a bullet into his grime smeared face, hitting him right between the eyes. Carried by his own immense weight, the Bandit fell backwards, crashing to the floor of the carriage, and causing the world to shake around me. The ceiling and walls were coated in blood and fragments of shattered skull, and there was a crimson hole where the man’s face had just been.
I wasn’t sad about abandoning what had been a home. I had always been waiting for something to go wrong. Of course, I had expected the threat to come from within, but for that moment at least, Little Man and I were united in our purpose. We had to survive.
I was afraid. I had always managed to sneak around the other Bandits. I had certainly never been under direct attack.
Little Man put his fingers to his lips and gestured for me to follow him. I stepped over the body of the dead Bandit, trying not to look at the mangled remains of his face. Another rounded the corner at the doorway of the train, investigating what had happened to his friend. Little Man had produced a knife from somewhere and exploded from the train car, screaming like a savage animal. The Bandit was taken completely by surprise, and before he could react, Little Man had buried the knife deep in his neck. He fell to his knees and tried to scream, but his voice turned to liquid as he drowned in his own blood.
We ran out of the train, into the noise and confusion of the tunnel. Bandits shouted as we bolted past them, making our escape. Little Man fired three more shots back into the tunnel. I risked a glance back. He had caught one in the shoulder and another in the kneecap, but there were several still chasing, and gaining slowly.
“Why have you stopped?” I shouted, “Keep firing!”
“I only had four fucking bullets!”
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”
We carried on running, not even caring about which direction we went. We used service doors and other shortcuts we had discovered in our forays out from the train. Occasionally the shouts would fade into the distance, but they would catch our trail again eventually, and we never quite managed to lose them.
Then we heard it. A single bell, ringing in the distance. Neither of us had any idea what it was, but we ran towards it anyway. We had no choice. More significantly, the scavengers ran the other way, one with an exclamation of “oh, fuck that!”
Then He was there, in all His horrific glory. In one hand He held a lantern dangling from a chain, in the other a bell. His face was invisible behind an old world gas mask. He wore long robes that obscured how large His body was, and He was shouting something that I couldn’t hear through my fear.
That was the first time I came face to face with Him. The avatar of Death himself. The Collector.

“I turned and ran, I don’t know where. I hid in small maintenance corridors so the Bandits wouldn’t find me. I ran for what felt like days. I couldn’t get Little Man’s screams of terror out of my head. That was the last time I ever saw him.”
My story finished, I turned to Timmy. He was finally asleep. I rolled over and tried to sleep myself, but I wouldn’t be able to. The bell always haunted my dreams, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it haunted my waking hours too.

—————————————————————————————

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. As anyone who knows me will attest, being a writer is very important to me, so if you enjoyed this, or know someone who would enjoy it, please pass the link along. Constructive criticism and feedback is also very welcome, either in the blog comments, comments on the Facebook post, a Twitter reply, a reply in the Reddit thread, a letter, a carrier pigeon, or even an angry phone call if you feel the need to shout at me.

Next: Chapter Two, Dee of the Tunnels.