A short story inspired by boredom, video games, and a dark & drizzly day.
A woman walked with purpose turning down street after street eventually leading him to a very specific manhole. Even if he knew where he was in the decaying metropolis, the buildings stretched out in a six block radius around him were all listlessly similar. The crumbling concrete looked sicklier than the putrid color of the spitting clouds above them.
She stood motionless for a moment or two, ears pricked and eyes drifting over the horizon before stooping down to lift the cover. He took a step to help but the rusted metal disc was already sliding over the loose gravel of the road. She disappeared into it, and he followed quickly fearing the wrath of her impatience over anything else.
After an unwelcome splashdown in the sewer, she leaped up a few rungs and closed the manhole cover. Nothing more than her wrists ever left the safety of the tunnel as she slid the cover into place with final echoing thud. Despite the refuge from whatever lay above them, he felt suddenly imprisoned.
The woman led him down the twisting labyrinth of decrepit tunnels. In another life, they might have been described as foul, but there were really no words left, or really speakers left to innovate the words, for this kind of place. And now it was considered daily life. He literally bathed in the squalor.
And in doing so, he was instructed not to look backward. Whatever lay behind him, remained behind him. It was the most comprehensive conversation he’d had since he cared to remember. She wordlessly took him through an unmemorizable maze until they reached an iron grate woven in their way. She whistled an unfamiliar birdsong and instantly fell silent.
Moments passed where nothing happened. To his left the concave wall began to shift, revealing a narrow passage. He didn’t like the looks of it. Then again, he couldn’t think of a moment in the day he did quite enjoy. A man on the other side of the shifting wall gave a warm nod to the woman and then eyed her groupie.
Nervous laughter echoed off the hallway walls. He smelled what might have been considered alcohol at some point in time. Voices grew louder; more discernable, which gave him a feeling he couldn’t quite place as relief. Around the corner, a mangy-bearded man with a bright red face greeted him as though he had been expecting him at any moment. The newcomer was soon forgotten in his drunken daydreams. The drunken man was forgotten similarly.
In and out of carven rooms, ribbons of children kicked up dust that lingered in the stagnant air. The colors they wore made them a forlorn presence in the dank passageways and their oblivious dance was eerily unnatural. Shaggy men threw cards and coins at their respective tables tucked away in cavernous hollows. Their throaty laughter choked the air, though it was only sincere enough to fool those participating in the conversation. Outside of that, only fear filled the otherwise empty echoes.
The manhole cover gave another gravelly groan that rang in his ears. He sprang to his feet, hands in pockets, and sauntered away without a glance back. A whistled tune might have completed the scene, but sweeping the streets had to be on his own terms. He targeted the street corner and bee-lined, his eyes never drifting. On his way to the subway he felt the weight of an imaginary suitcase in his hand and the restricting comfort of a tie around his neck; simpler, much more irrelevant times. He missed the ingratiating whir and leering at sneezing people brushing at his shoulders.
Down the neatly segregated stairs directing invisible traffic, there was nothing. An eerie song wafted through the tunnel, obscured by a deep black fog. The inky abyss swallowed anything more than a few feet inside. And it waited. He took solace in the fact that he found what he was looking for.
A creature sprang forward materializing from the echoing nothingness in the tunnel. The man flinched, but pushed away his briefly over-powering self-preservation. Leathery wings stretched out from a gangly body and crowded his waning visual field. He just stared upward into what he believed was its face exhaling his adrenaline. Every muscle in his body anticipated an agile flight, but somehow there was enough of him left to power through the instinct.
The creature side-winded, circling its prey; measuring it; and knowing full-well the dangers of underestimation. He hated to give it the satisfaction, but anything was better than wandering through the crowds of hollow shells that had once been the self-proclaimed peak of creation. What those prophets didn’t realize was that on the other side of the peak lay a very long down-slope. Back to the beginning. And so he held his breath.