Sara wedged herself between two old steam pipes. She’d layered her spot with old blankets and scraps of the clothes she’d once stolen out of a charity bin. It smelled musty and dirty, but she didn’t mind. In fact, she wouldn’t know what to do with clean clothes. Maybe she’d try selling them to Raleigh.
That would mean going back Upside though. Just the thought of it made Sara’s eyes hurt.
She shifted herself until the bundle covered her feet. It was winter Upside, she knew because she’d started being able to see her breath fogging in the air in front of her, even on the upper levels. Some part of her that remembered being in a school room knew that she shouldn’t be able to see three stories underground in an abandoned hospital sub-basement, but she wasn’t prepared to look that particular gift horse in the mouth. She could see in a way that stripped her world of all but blues and blacks, but she could see in the blackness far better than she could on the Upside.
One of the pipes shivered. It wasn’t much, just a tiny vibration, but to Sara it was enough to catapult her out of her half-sleep. She rotated herself onto her feet and then swung from one pipe to another across the room. When she was clear of the steam room floor she dropped down into a crouch and listened.
For a long minute she thought it might have been a false alarm, a rat falling onto a pipe somewhere, but the vibration came through the pipe again.
Too big for a rat.
Walking on her toes, she followed the vibrations along the corridors. She avoided the metal skeletons of ancient hospital beds and went around the piles of rubbish strewn over the floor.
Where she could, she used the pipes on the ceilings and the walls to avoid the floor altogether – no chance of getting stuck by a lurking needle that way, or falling down the rift.
Sara didn’t know what was at the bottom of the rift. It had been there when she’d first found the sub-basement, a huge rend in the fabric of the floor that plunged down so far even Sara couldn’t see where it ended. She sometimes wondered what had caused such a deep rend in the concrete floor, but no answer had ever presented itself.
There was another thump from the pipes, something heavy.
She wondered if a person from Upside had fallen down an elevator shaft again. A while back, a man in almost clean clothes had dropped onto his head in the main shaft. She’d taken the sweatshirt; there hadn’t even been that much blood on it. The jeans were too big for her, but they made good lining for her sleeping spot. And they’d had a pair of sunglasses in one of the pockets.
She loved the sunglasses. When she met Raleigh in the upper basements they made everything dark enough to see.
Sara felt a little bad for the man, not that he’d died – falling on your head was as good and quick a death as you could get – but that he was still there in the shaft. She checked on him sometimes to see if rot had set in, but it was so cold in the shaft that he still looked as good as he had on the day he’d fallen in. Well, most of him did. The rats had had a good go at the soft meat on his throat and cheeks.
She’d found a cellphone on him, and inside one of his shoes was a little square bit of plastic. She didn’t have much plastic, and so she’d kept it as a good luck charm. The cellphone had been broken, and who would she have called anyway? The only person she ever spoke to was Raleigh and even he liked it too bright for her. Still, she brought him things from underground and he brought her food, so it sort of worked out. She’d given him the broken cellphone for a loaf of bread. It had been a good trade.
Her stomach grumbled at the thought. It had been a long time since she’d had the bread.
The vibrations were getting stronger. Coming from the morgue. She liked the morgue, even if one of the drawers for the bodies was always jammed shut. She’d had her sleeping spot there for a while, but it always gave her weird dreams so she’d moved to the steam room.
She used a protruding sprinkler head as a handhold and flung herself around the corner to catch the broken pipe, the one that jutted out from the wall where the sign said MORGUE.
The pipe was gone.
Sara snatched at cold air, then smacked into the floor. She rolled with the momentum of her movement, and it carried her into the morgue itself.
She stopped six inches away from the cause of the vibrations. It stood shorter than her, and hunched over like an ape. Its arms were long and skinny offset by what looked like too-short legs.
“Eh,” said the creature. It bared its teeth at her. The teeth belonged in that creature face, long and sharp and strangely canine.
Sara took a stumbling step back, a scream stuck in her throat. A second creature, much smaller than the first, loped out from behind an open morgue drawer. It cocked its head at Sarah.
“Eh?” said the little one. It shuffled forwards.
The bigger of the creatures stopped the little one with its hand. Its fingers were very long. The extra distance allowed Sara to take in the fact that both creatures were wearing clothes, layered up like hers were. The little one was wearing a wool hat.
“I…I…” She couldn’t get any words out of her mouth. She’d seen some strange things in the Downside, but this was something different.
The big creature made a soft hooting sound. A moment later the little one repeated the sound. From somewhere back in the morgue, from the now open drawer that Sara had always assumed wouldn’t open, came more hooting.
The little one pulled on the big one’s arm. It pointed at Sara. “Eee,” it said. “Eee.” Then it licked its lips.
The big one shook its head. It blinked its big black eyes at her, then pointed to the empty drawers jutting out of the wall. “Wh…”
Sara stopped backpedaling.
“Whr?” said the creature.
“Where?” said Sara. “Where are what? The bodies?”
The creature nodded.
“All gone. No more bodies.” She started backing away again.
The creature hung its head and for the first time she noticed how scrawny it looked. It hooted at the smaller one. The little one gave a squeak of alarm and tugged hard at the big one’s arm.
The big one looked hard at her, and she saw saliva pooling at the edges of its mouth. It took a step towards her. Sara had to force herself not to run. When she’d been a little girl, when she’d still lived on the Upside, a dog had attacked her. She’d been walking home from school, trying to think of a good reason to be late home when the dog had wandered out of an alley in front of her. She’d been too surprised to run at first, and the dog had just looked at her. Then she’d turned and run, and the dog hadn’t been able to resist chasing.
Her mother, never kind, had cleaned out the wound with vodka and told Sara never to run from a dog. Not ever.
“Just back away,” said Sara to herself, echoing her mother’s advice.
The big creature carefully moved the little one back beside the open drawer. It hooted something and the little one nodded. Then without warning the thing snarled and leapt for her. It was fast, incredibly so, but Sara had already been coiled to jump away and the creature’s long fingers caught empty air.
Sara used the wall to push herself back towards the pipes she’d used to swing into the morgue.
The creature came after her, matching her movements. It made no noise, but she could feel the vibrations along the pipes as they moved.
Sara tried a rapid switch in direction, but it followed her flawlessly. She was leading the thing deeper and deeper underground, but she didn’t know where she was going to go once she’d reached the sub-basement. Raleigh had once said to her that the prospect of being shot focused the mind like nothing else. Sara had never faced a bullet but she reckoned being eaten by a slavering monster in the darkness was at least on a par with being blown away by Raleigh’s druggie friends as a motivation for deep thinking.
An idea dawned on her in the dark. She took a sudden left, and felt fingers brush her cheeks. Now that she knew where to go she felt herself moving faster, using as much strength as she could force from her tired muscles to stay ahead of the silent monster behind her.
The elevator shaft loomed ahead of her.
Too close, too close. She slammed into the closed doors.
She got her fingers in place to prise the doors apart and heaved, expecting at any moment to feel the monster’s breath on the back of her neck. The doors stayed closed.
Sara let out a little sob and pulled with every ounce of her strength, but the doors held fast. She felt a hand on her shoulder and saw the long sharp claws that adorned the tip of each finger.
She closed her eyes and waited. The hand moved, but didn’t attack her. She cracked open an eye and saw that the creature had inserted its fingers into the doors. It grinned at her and tore the elevator doors open with a squealing of stuck metal.
The man who had fallen on his head was still there, still preserved by the cold even though he’d gone a funny color.
The monster turned to her and hooted softly. It pointed to the body.
“Eeh?” it said. “Yrs?”
“Yrs?” said Sara, mimicking the creature. “Are you asking if this is mine?”
The creature nodded. “Yrs.” It pointed to the bite marks on the body of the dead man.
Sara put up her hands. “No, not mine. Rats.”
The creature cleared its throat. “Not. Rats.” It spoke each word slowly, forcing its mouth around the words. Each word barked out of its throat in a rough burst of sound.
She shook her head. She hadn’t tried to eat the man…had she? No! It was the rats, the rats in the walls of the hospital. Not that she’d actually seen a rat in forever.
Sara gulped. Please let it have been the rats. She pointed at the creature. “Yours. Yours now.”
The creature bobbed its head. “Thank,” it said. It gripped the dead man’s wrist and pulled the whole body out in one smooth movement.
It started dragging the body down the hallway.
Sara followed, not sure what to do next. “What…are you?”
The creature looked over its shoulder and gave her a huge toothy smile. “Ghul.”
The creature gave a shrug as if to say that was close enough.
Sara stared at it and, still grinning, the monster stared back. “You weren’t chasing me were you? You were following me.”
The ghoul grunted, but it was still smiling. It reached out and touched her on the shoulder; the wicked claws had retracted back into its fingers. Sara saw the glint of a grubby wedding band on its finger.
“Srry,” said the ghoul. “Hungry.”
She reached up and patted the ghoul’s hand. It was cool and covered in fine hairs.
It led her back through the corridors the way they’d come. It wasn’t the fastest way back to the morgue, but it was an exact reversal of the way she’d led it to the dead man.
She contemplated the idea that she’d eaten pieces of the body. She’d been in the dark for so long, it was possible she’d gotten hungry enough. She waited for a wave of revulsion to wash over her, but discovered that she felt oddly detached. A dead human was just meat, after all.
“Do you have a name?”
The ghoul stopped dead and held up a hand. Sara heard the noise half a moment later, the shuffling vibration of someone trying to walk quietly and failing.
The ghoul started moving quickly, and Sara found herself lifting the dead man’s feet of off the floor so they could get the body quickly and quietly back to the morgue. The ghoul gave her a curt nod when it noticed what she was doing.
Ahead of them the door that separated her level from the second sub-basement banged open. “Sara!” Raleigh’s voice split and echoed down the pipes.
She didn’t respond.
“Dammit, Sara, this is important!” Raleigh’s voice was higher than normal.
A second voice came through the gloom. It was deeper the Raleigh’s, angrier. “This girl better not be a figment of your imagination.”
“She’s here, Caleb, I swear, she’s just doesn’t like strangers.”
Caleb grunted by way of a response.
They almost made it. Sara and the ghoul rounded the corner to the morgue itself when a beam of light sliced through the darkness. The ghoul howled and leapt away into the shadows.
Pain spiked through her eyes, gouging its way into her brain. She screamed and fell to the floor, trying to block out the light, but it felt like a living thing twisting behind her eyelids.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Raleigh. “Sara, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Heavy footsteps followed behind the light and stood next to Raleigh. A big boot prodded her in the ribs. “Where’d your friend go?” The voice was full of cigarettes and late night whiskey.
This must be Caleb, she thought.
Sara felt herself shaking as she clamped down on the nausea in her gut. Little spots of light danced in the darkness behind her eyelids, but even those were too bright. She said nothing.
The boot nudged her again, harder this time.
“I don’t have friends,” said Sara.
“Yeah I’ll bet, you little freak, but I saw someone else. Where are they?”
“Turn off the lights, I can’t think,” said Sara.
Raleigh clicked off his torch and a moment later so did Caleb. They sat there in the dark and quiet until Sara could just about see the shapes of the two big men against the wall.
She forced herself to stop shaking, clenching her hands until her fingernails punched into her palm.
Leaning on Raleigh, she levered herself back to her feet. “There’s no one else here.” She felt better once she was standing, but she still couldn’t see properly and the pain had taken up residence in the back of her head, thumping in time with her heartbeat. “Must’ve been a shadow.”
Caleb stepped forward and smashed her in the face with the butt of his torch. The world slid sideways and suddenly she was looking up at the two men from the floor.
“I don’t have time for this,” said Caleb.
Raleigh placed a hand on the big man’s chest “Jesus man, let me ask her, okay?”
Caleb snorted, but he didn’t cock his arm for another blow.
Raleigh crouched down next to Sara. “I’m sorry, Sara, but we really need to know what you’re doing with Eddie.” He waved a hand at the corpse. “He had something on him that we need.” He waited until Sara nodded. “Why’d you move him?”
Sara didn’t say anything.
Caleb shone his torch down into her eyes. She squealed and tried to shield her face, but Raleigh held her arms flat.
“I was just going to get you to show us how to get us to the shaft, Sara. Then you could have just gone and I’d have brought you some new clothes. Everyone would’ve been happy,” said Raleigh. “Now I see you moving Eddie with some guy I’ve never seen before and you won’t even tell me who he is?”
Sara shook her head. The light was a hot lance through her eyelids. She wondered if she was dying.
“She looks like some sort of mutant,” said Caleb. “Can she even understand what you’re saying?”
Raleigh’s voice was flat. Cold. “She understands.”
“What do you want?” Sara forced the words past her lips.
“I wanted to get Eddie back so I could check his shoes. Now it seems like I have a bigger problem. A lot of people know Eddie was here and now you’ve seen me and your friend has too.” Caleb sighed. “Raleigh, search Eddie. He hid shit in his shoes all the time so it’ll be there if it’s anywhere.”
There was a rustle of cloth, then the chick-chack of a pistol being cocked. Even after so long underground there was no mistaking that sound.
Sara felt the pressure release on her arms as Raleigh started pulling at Eddie’s shoes. She remembered the little bit of plastic that she’d found in the dead man’s left shoe. Was that what they wanted?
She groped around in her coat looking for the square and found the dark glasses that had been in Eddie the corpse’s pocket. Slowly she unfolded them and put them on.
Sara bit her lip, hard, then opened her eyes.
The pain was still there, but it was dimmed. Through the glasses the men in the torchlight were shadow shapes, but at least she could see enough to function.
She checked in her other pockets and found Eddie’s plastic square, her good luck charm. She took it out and held it up to Caleb. “I found this,” she said. “Take it.”
The big man reached down and plucked it from her grasp. He shone the torch away from her face and onto the square. “Well, huh. You find this on him?”
Caleb huffed out a breath. “That’s something at least. Raleigh, I got it man. You can stop searching.”
Raleigh stopped and walked over, shining his torch on Caleb’s hand. He whistled. “That’s a relief.” He looked down at Sara. “All this shit over a flash card you can buy for a buck on eBay.”
The two men looked at each other, and she saw the shadow that was Caleb move his hand towards her. It was his gun hand.
A whistle burst out of the darkness. Both men jumped and swung their torches around towards the sound, revealing that the little ghoul had walked up close to them. It made another low whistle, like the one Raleigh had made moments before, then it licked its lips.
“What the f-“ Caleb began, lifting his pistol towards the tiny creature.
In the same moment Sara’s brain caught up with the fact that the light was no longer pointed at her and she could move again. With a wordless cry, she launched herself at Caleb, bringing her fist down on his gun hand with all her strength. There was a wet crack of breaking bone, and the gun clattered away into the dark.
Caleb screamed and tried to hit her with his torch but she was already moving, launching herself up onto the pipes.
Raleigh ran after her, swinging the torch as he chased her. She led him away from Caleb, away from the little ghoul.
“What did you do, you little bitch?” Raleigh screamed. He’d drawn his own gun.
There was a loud bang and she felt something whistle past her ear. Her own heartbeat roared in her ears as she bounced and rolled and swung her way as fast as she could out of his reach, but Raleigh kept the light on her and no matter how fast she went she couldn’t get far enough ahead of him to get out of his sight.
An idea dawned through the fear. All at once she knew where she was going.
The crack of a second gunshot sounded behind her, and she felt the bullet gouge out a chunk of her leg. She heard herself gasp, but she didn’t stop. Just a little further.
She threw herself across a gap between pipes, catching on by the tips of her fingers. There was nothing ahead of her except the steam room and her sleeping spot.
Raleigh yelled something behind her but the gunshots had left her deafened.
She heard him scream though.
Sara turned around in time to see his torchlight vanish into the rift in the floor. He’d been focusing on her so much that he hadn’t seen it until it was too late. By the time she’d got back to the edge, the light was a pinprick in the darkness. Then it was gone.
The sunglasses fell off her face and followed Raleigh down into the dark.
Panting in deep ragged gasps, Sara slowly made her way back to the morgue. Her arms were tired and she could feel blood dribbling out of the wound in her leg. She stopped for a moment and was surprised to see the wound was barely a graze, it had felt like a piece of flesh been hacked out by a hot knife. Smiling to herself, she passed over the spot where Caleb and dead Eddie had been, but all that was left there was a smear of blood on the floor. Caleb’s torch was in pieces a little further on.
She got into the morgue proper and dropped down onto her good leg. She peered into the open drawer and glimpsed the top of Caleb’s head vanishing into the tunnel. A hooting whistle came out of the tunnel, and then deeper in another hoot answered it.
“Thank,” said a voice behind her. The big ghoul had come in so quietly she hadn’t noticed. The little one sat in its arms, enthusiastically chewing on a severed human finger.
The ghoul had blood on its chin, and she had a sudden vivid mental image of what had happened to Caleb while she was dealing with Raleigh.
The big ghoul took the small one over to the tunnel and put the tiny creature inside. It scampered into the darkness.
“Where are you going to go?” asked Sara.
The ghoul turned back to her. “Home.” The creature wriggled into the tunnel, then poked its face back out. “Thank,” it said again. It tapped its forehead. Then reached out to close the morgue drawer behind itself.
“Wait,” said Sara. The ghoul raised its eyebrows at her. “Can I come too?” she asked.
The ghoul shook its head. “Bad place.” It pointed at her.
“For me? Because I’m not a ghoul?”
The creature shrugged. “Not yet.” A hoot came from down below. The ghoul whistled a response. “Home make you ghoul. No Upworld, no words. Just dark.”
“You still speak though.”
“Remember..” The ghoul clicked its tongue. “You come home, you forget.”
Sara looked back into the darkness of the hospital. “What if I was okay with that?”
The ghoul was still for a few moments, then it shifted itself so there was room to get into the tunnel beside it. “Sure?”
Sara took its hand and pulled herself inside. The tunnel was wider than she’d thought, and after a few moments she could see it reached down deep into the earth. Hoots and whistles came out of the dark.
Her stomach gurgled. “I’m hungry.”
The ghoul grinned at her as it reached back to close the drawer behind them. “We have meat.”
Sara licked her lips. “I know.”
Andrew Jack lives with his wife in Christchurch New Zealand and has been misusing the written word for most of his life. He got his first rejection letter from Random House at the age of four, who kindly suggested he learn to read and write before resubmitting. A life long martial arts enthusiast, Andrew spends his time getting beaten up by his friends, writing like he’ll starve if he doesn’t and trying to stop his cats from destroying his house. He runs the Lovecraft inspired webcomic Cthulhu Slippers and gives out unsolicited writing advice at Andrew Jack Writing.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.