In the Night (2006)

I believe that I wrote this story after watching the documentary Dark Days, about the homeless community who lived in the tunnels beneath New York. It was also a last-minute tale written for my writing group as I had nothing else to supply that month. There’s not much more to say than that.

In the Night

We know they first came for us three nights ago, although we can no longer distinguish between night and day without aid of a watch. None of us ever actually saw the things that came. We know that they were here, though, because we were woken by Hermann’s screams. His shouts shocked the whole band awake and upright, and we clustered around our distressed comrade to discover the source of his distress. He had balled one of his fists around the other and there was blood leaking out. He kept screaming and wouldn’t tell us what had happened, so in the end Suzie grabbed his arms and I forced his hands apart.

The fingers on his left hand were all gone, from the second joint to the tip. Blood flowed thickly and freely from sharp wounds. Poor Hermann sobbed as we stared, our eyes wide and heavy with fish-like lack of understanding.

In the end we tore up half of my best shirt to use as tourniquets. There was no questioning what we’d use; I’m the leader and the elder, and so it is my responsibility to make such a sacrifice. I suspected, somehow, that the rest of the shirt would also be needed to bind future wounds.

There were five of us, then: myself, the leader by default, as my friends were content to follow and to surrender that responsibility. Then there was Hermann, with his poor ruined fingers, and Suzie, a troubled woman with the hollow face of a starving addict. The early days must have been hell for her. The other two are Robert and Jack; a gay couple in their mid-twenties. I never wanted to ask what drove them down to the tunnels. It didn’t really matter any more. The devastation in the cities above was what kept us down here.

We took some time deliberating over what we would do next. Hermann was in no fit state to move or to be moved. In the end Robert and Jack stayed with him whilst Suzie and I went Above to forage for any supplies we could scavenge.

Upon our return, Robert met us with a pale face. I feared the worst. I was soon reassured – Hermann was no worse, and Jack was unhurt – but I too paled when Robert recounted what Hermann had told him. Our friend had woken in the night, disturbed by something. He had said he was immediately unsettled, in that way you are when something inimically out of place catches your attention. For several seconds he had lain still, his body tense, mind and ears sharp and attentive. He heard noises like rustling and slithering. And all of a sudden he awoke again, his hand ablaze with pain and his finger stumps drooling blood.

It sounded like a bad dream – a mild nightmare with only the promise of unseen fears – except that Hermann’s hand really had been mutilated. I stood watching him as Suzie distributed some of the supplies we’d found, and I saw the clamminess of his skin and the fear in his eyes. He refused to meet anyone’s gaze for long. He whimpered a lot. The pain must have been unbearable.

Suzie had taken a risk while we were up top, darting out of the tube station and into a small pharmacy. Brave of her, risking the radiation and airborne toxins. She had returned with a few packets of over-the-counter painkillers; aspirin, paracetemol, ibuprofen. No opiates. We gave Hermann several of each, forcing him to take them with a few spoonfuls of corned beef.

We decided it would be a good idea if we took it in turns to keep watch while the others slept. Naturally, I took the first shift. I gathered up a few pots and pans we carried with us, for use as an alarm to wake the others. I also kept the fire burning – it gets cold underground, and we don’t know how long the mains electricity will keep running for. After this initial activity the remaining hours of my shift passed very slowly and without event. I was glad when it was time to wake Jack; I’d been daydreaming of sleep for a while by that point.

For a second night running, I was woken by screams. This time they were Suzie’s. She was stood away from the fire, a hand over her mouth to muffle her own cries. Something lay on the floor before her which I didn’t recognise at first, as I rushed over to help her.

Suzie wasn’t hurt. Robert was lying on the ground, stretched out on his back and shirtless. The skin over his stomach sagged loosely, dropping into a concave belly as though there were nothing beneath to support it. I gagged and turned away, just as Jack caught sight of his former lover and began to wail.

So much pain. I hoped that Robert had died quickly, or peacefully, or whatever goddamn platitude for the living might apply.

Jack insisted on a burial. An area of the tunnel nearby was uncovered by concrete, but the ground was cold and hard and we lacked tools. In the end we managed to scrape out a shallow depression and cover Robert’s body in loose rags and earth. Jack said some prayers; I stood in silence. Suzie was a few dozen metres away, talking with Hermann and keeping the fire burning. All of us remained watchful.

Once the pathetic funeral was over, we gathered to discuss our problems. They were easily summed up: something was hurting us, and we did not know what it was, nor could we imagine what it was. It had struck twice at our current encampment, though, and we thought it likely that this behaviour would be repeated.

It surprises me, now, that we talked about our problems so calmly – even Hermann, contributing the odd opinion as he shivered and cradled his ruined hand. Perhaps we had simply been beaten down, like concentration camp inmates, those poor relics of people I remember seeing in photographs. Or perhaps, on some subconscious level, we refused to believe in something that could hollow out a man’s torso and leave his skin unbroken.

In the end we made the only decision we could: to break camp, to move on, and to hope that we wouldn’t be followed. To that end we packed up what little we carried with us, and struck out along the metro lines.

We walked for hours, although we made slow progress with Hermann. I walked ahead of the others, holding up a badly-made burning torch to light the way. Sarah lent Hermann her shoulder, and Jack shouldered our only rucksack. We saw nothing of interest, use or danger on our journey.

Eventually we emerged in a disused station; we climbed up onto the platform and made our way towards the service rooms. Rooms had doors, and doors had locks. We agreed that this would be a good place for Hermann to rest. It was secure, and although it was a risk being so close to the surface, we would not have to travel far to scavenge supplies.

We did what we could to make the rooms comfortable; we moved the assorted equipment to one end of the room, arranged a few chairs, and set up the portable stove – safer than a proper fire in these small rooms. Sarah found a set of circuit breakers and switches in an adjoining room and Jack, desperate for something to occupy himself, set to work trying to get the lights working.

We barricaded the door that led back the way we had come. There was a little window in it, top and centre, with a wire grid set into the glass. We could see back out onto the station platform, although there was little to be seen but gloom.

As before, despite our new fort, we took it in turns to keep watch and sleep. I don’t remember who was first; possibly me. I just remember waking up, later, with the distinct impression that something was watching me. I rolled over in my blanket, looking over at the little window in the door. It reflected a little of the light from the gas stove, but through the meagre illumination I thought I saw something watching me. There was a quick flicker of indistinct movement.

Then I woke up to the most agonising pain. I immediately began to scream. I tried to open my eyes but found that they were the source of the pain. I touched around my face as I wailed and squalled, and I heard the others as they woke and gathered.

‘Oh my god,’ said Sarah, her voice cracking. ‘It took his eyes.’

‘It?’ snapped Jack, but I felt his hand take mine and press some pills into it. I swallowed them dry between screams that were already diminishing to sobs. I wanted to cry more than I ever have in my life.

Sarah, bless her heart, held me close as I sobbed and keened. Every so often I felt something dab at my face, wiping up teardrops of blood. Eventually, we settled back to the same numb silence, no-one sure what to say or do. Eventually, Jack spoke.

‘We should go to the surface,’ he said, in a voice too quiet and measured to be natural.

‘We can’t go above,’ I whispered, my voice hoarse from the screams. ‘The radiation-‘

‘Damn the radiation!’ he screamed, snapping. ‘I’ll take my chances with that poison – better than being toyed with by this bastard fucking thing!’ His last few words were blasted out near-incoherently. I heard him stand and start picking up a few things; rustles and clanks. Sarah said something about sticking together and he shouted at her to shut her face. I heard the noises as he shoved our barricade aside and opened the door.

I hear only the noise of receding footsteps as he leaves. I can’t blame him, but I can’t pity him either. There is still so much pain. Sarah continues to comfort me, and Hermann moves closer too. We huddle together in to stave off the isolation that is suddenly so keenly felt.

Eventually I allow myself, exhausted, to fall into a troubled sleep.

It’s always during the night. Always when we sleep.

They are both gone when I wake up again. I call out but no-one answers. I feel about myself and find, in no particular order, Sarah’s hat, several pieces of the barricade that we had not re-erected, the stove (extinguished), and a human finger.

I hold this last close when I find it, folding my legs and feeling around it with my own digits. It is missing a body from below the second joint.

My head throbs aggressively, as though under intense pressure. I wonder if my brains will erupt through my empty sockets, and I want to cry again.

Although I did not expect it, it did not surprise me that there are monsters down here. We saw the horrors wrought on the landscapes of the surface by our fellow man. There is little that can equal that – yeah, Conrad was on to something alright.

It’s little comfort, knowing and feeling this. But I have lived like a man, and I will die like a man: alone, in the darkness of this godforsaken place, I will wait for whatever it coming for me. I will not cry, I will not whimper. Whatever it comes to take from me, I will be waiting.

Waiting in the heart of goddamn darkness.

[‘In the Night’, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image from Google Image Search.]

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