They say brave men are those who act in spite of fear. The others, the ones that act without it, are just stupid, and yet, both these types of men are what the world wants.
Darvin was neither type of man.
He was a man who had done plenty to appear brave in the eyes of others, but deep inside he knew he was far from it. Try as he might to change his ways, Darvin was a coward, and the only place for cowards in this world was right in the center of brave men…and women.
She had known from the beginning what kind of man he was. When she had chosen to lie with him, she had known. When she had given birth to their daughter, she had known. Mariene had always been aware that she had taken a coward for a man to go with and she had been okay with it because he had hidden it well, and because he had been good to her.
Just because he was craven didn’t mean that he was a bad person. She had understood that, even if no one else did. Yet, he didn’t feel like much of a good person now as he ran as fast as he could through the thick red forest, leaving more distance between himself and his woman and daughter.
He had wanted to help, to appear the hero as he fended off the attackers of their small colony of wanderers, but all that would have accomplished was leaving another body for the Faction to take back to their camp.
If they didn’t kill him first.
The Factions weren’t supposed to traverse through the Road. They pillaged what they could from the other Factions and left the wanderers on their own. They didn’t like risking their warriors on the nightmares that the trees over the Road hid. The wanderers knew how to maneuver their way around once the green in the sky turned dark, but the Factions only knew the desert. If they were out here, it meant they were desperate.
He didn’t want to think about what they would do to Mariene and Reeka, but with every stride he took, the image of his woman’s eyes pleading for his help reappeared into his mind. He should have never approached the camp again when he had heard the screams. He should have known that it was already too late for everyone, but his damn need to be a good man for her had overpowered him momentarily.
“You be goin’ with me now,” she had said as she had taken his hand and placed it over her growing belly. “You need to take care of us from here on. Of Reeka. You understand?”
Those words had been easy to live by when the other men in their group had kept them safe. He had never had to worry about other wanderers poaching their goods or animals, taking their women, none of it. They had been a big enough group to defend their own, and he had never had to lift a finger.
As Darvin had watched the largest man in their colony get his skull cracked open by a Faction warrior’s handaxe and then split apart with his bare hands, those words had become a thing of the past. Nothing he could have done could have saved them, and yet his woman had still pleaded and turned her captor’s attention onto him.
He could hear them chasing after him some distance away. Their cries carried through the leaves as they reveled in the tormenting of their prey. Darvin ran as fast as he could, his fear eliminating any sign of exhaustion. He knew that eventually, no matter what, it would come, and so would they. If he did not find a place to hide by then, they would do worse things to him than any other person in his colony.
This was not a world for cowards.
“Grrrrraaaaaah!” came the howls of the men chasing after him. “We gone get you!”
“Stop runnin’ and I gee you my word I do you nice!”
“He will, but I won’t.”
The laughter of all the men in pursuit pierced like a thousand wolves stampeding over him. Darvin could feel his bladder quivering mid-stride. They would catch him, and death would be the best of outcomes for him.
“Over here!” he heard the hissed whisper over the beating drums in his ears.
“Shut up boy.” A woman’s voice.
He could see a small boy’s torso poking out from over some brush as he waved him over. He was about nine, maybe ten and struggling to keep the heavy hatch open. “Come on!”
He watched the boy get pulled down below the brush, the hatch clanking hard as it came down after him and leaving no sign of anything other than wildlife. Darvin knew where that brush led and it was not a place wanderers went willingly. They were taken down there.
By things other than humans.
Darvin stopped and checked behind him. There were no men he could see, but he could hear their cries coming closer. He knew if he stayed out here, if he tried to keep running, they would take him. They had always been told to stay away from the hatches to the Tunnels, not even under the direst of circumstances should anyone ever enter them. Only the dead and the mutated waited for them down there.
Yet, something worse than death awaited him if he didn’t.
He bolted toward the brush and desperately scrounged through the crimson leaves in search of the handle. He raised the hatch and descended down the ladder, closing it behind him.
“Behind me,” he heard the woman whisper as Darvin panted and tried to regain his breath.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The only things that gave him any light were the lamps over the woman’s and boy’s foreheads. He had to cover his eyes as he tried to look at her. The boy stretched out his neck behind the woman to see the man they had just let in.
Kindnesses were not unheard of, but they were rare, and they most certainly did not happen among strangers. The woman knew that. There was no doubt in his mind that she would have left him out there to his fate. Her boy, however…
He was old enough to know. Old enough to show signs of eventually becoming a brave man. The type of man Darvin would envy, but nonetheless, be thankful of.
The woman hissed at Darvin, immediately shutting him up. He could see the small axe in her hand, her thumb rubbing over the handle as she cooled her nerves. This was a woman who would kill him in a heartbeat and would think nothing of it afterward.
The cries of the men above began to seep through the hatch.
He stretched his palms out toward them and wondered if he had made a mistake by coming down here. He may have gotten further up ahead and found another place to hide, one where neither mutants nor monsters would dwell.
“He’s isn’t gonna do nothin’,” said the boy. “If he try-”
The woman hissed again and they all stood in silence, staring at each other. All Darvin could see was their outlines and the two bright bulbs over their foreheads.
Footsteps began to thump above them. The woman pushed the boy backward, her body never facing away from Darvin. He could see two faint green glows below her lamplight as if her eyes were catching it and reflecting it back. The light over their heads spread enough to illuminate the thick, dark bricks that made up the walls of the chamber.
“We gone fine you!” cooed out one of the men above causing the laughter to grate through the walls.
When the woman and her child hit the wall behind them, they crouched. She raised her axe at Darvin and whispered, “Stay there.”
Darvin nodded until the woman’s axe came down and she took the lamp off the boy’s head and turned it off, her own following suit.
It was pitch black.
It’s amazing how the mind tries to make us think it can still see something, an outline or a figure, movement, a pair of green eyes in the dark, even when we’re sure there is no possible way it can.
Darvin was sure he could still see the woman and her boy but all that played back in his mind was Mariene, holding his daughter, pleading for him to hold his promise true.
“I need me a juice wench!” more laughter echoed as their footsteps thumped louder. They were right above him and Darvin could feel his entire body trembling. He wanted to move but he couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t hear him considering how loud they rang down here. Even if they didn’t, the woman would, and he would have her axe building a real deep connection with his neck.
“Where a fuck he be?”
“He dun be around here somewhere. He gotta!”
“Well, you say you saw ‘im.”
Dust and pieces of brick came down over Darvin as they stomped around above them. He quickly brushed it off his face before he could sneeze.
“He musta just kept runnin’.”
“He ain’t worth our time. We gotta find the bosses woman.”
“Boss’ll get his. I say I want my juice wench. Split up. Find im!”
Their laughter came like cackling hyenas again before their feet started up once more, sending a storm of dust over Darvin.
A long time passed before any of them dared to move. Once they were sure the Faction men were gone, the woman flicked on one of the headlamps and revealed that his mind had truly been imagining his sight. They had crawled without him noticing toward the opposite side of the wall, next to a rundown wooden door.
The woman was struggling to gather all of their equipment, which Darvin could see was clearly too much for two to be lugging around. They had either killed to get it, which by the looks of the woman was possible but unlikely considering her boy, or they had recently endured a loss of company. Darvin doubted that his group had been the first to get hit by the Faction.
“I can help,” said Darvin.
“Then help yoself outta here,” growled the woman.
“I ain’t no harm to y’all. Just trying to survive. Just like y’all.”
The boy watched him curiously as if contemplating whether to believe him or not. Darvin smiled, trying to tilt the balance in his favor.
“Then you better off up there.”
The woman made no sign of entertaining the conversation any longer. She kept rummaging through her bags while her boy stood vigilant.
“They kill me up there. Please,” continued Darvin, no longer pleading with the woman and focusing solely on the boy. If there was anyone he would be able to sway, it would be him. “I ain’t got nothin’ to give but I done promise I carry my own weight.”
Darvin patted his belly, the little amount he had, trying to crack a smile from the boy. When that didn’t work, he reverted back to pleading.
“Whatever it take, I pay you back.”
The boy seemed to be made of stone now, impervious to anything Darvin threw at them. He didn’t even move as the woman reached behind to hand him a mask.
“Please,” said Darvin, feeling the desperation surging through him. He glanced up at the hatch that bore down on him. A reminder of not only the fate that awaited him but also the shame he would endure as they dragged him in front of his colony. Mariene’s eyes cold and full of contempt, letting him know she had been wrong about him the entire time and he deserved everything they would do to him. “Please, y’all can’t let them. Please.”
The woman stood as if she had heard nothing he had said. She fastened a gas mask over her head.
Darvin glanced up to the hatch again, his breathing erratic. He placed his fingers in his greasy hair and sighed heavily. He was done. They would listen no longer. What was he going to do?
Without a gas mask, he would be unable to follow after them. The radiation would likely leave him sick within a few hours, unable to breathe properly or even see, not that it would matter much if he didn’t even have a lamp to light the way. His only option would be to return to the surface where he could only hope to outrun the Faction men and, if he somehow managed, the dogs they would send after him soon after.
Something tumbled toward him over the floor. He looked down at his feet and found a headlamp.
“Whatcu doin’ boy?” growled the woman, grabbing the boy’s collar in her fist. The boy looked scared but refused to allow it to envelop him completely. He adopted an unconvincing defiance to mask it.
Darvin admired the courage in him.
“Da woulda brought him with us,” said the boy.
“An that’s why he ain’t here.”
The boy glared at her, but Darvin could see it was simply so he did not have to cry. Darvin bent down and scooped up the lamp.
“Da wouldn’t have left him,” snarled the boy, never losing eye contact with his mother.
They glared at each other for what felt like ages until the woman finally growled in frustration as she let the boy’s collar go. She stood and dug into one of the bigger bags to withdraw another gas mask, throwing it at Darvin who barely managed to catch it in time.
He took a step forward before the woman’s hiss stopped him in his tracks. “You keep away.”
Darvin gave her a nod before slipping the mask over his face and fastening the belts on the back until it felt like it was trying to suck his face off. He twisted the filter, making sure it was sealed tightly and flicked the cap off of it as he watched the woman help her boy with his own.
The woman lifted two heavy bags over her and strapped them behind her back, wincing and pushing her hand into her side as she did so. The boy struggled with a couple of the smaller bags, fighting against them so they would not overpower him and send him toppling over.
Darvin made to help again only to have the woman snarl at him and raise the axe. “Come close and I done rip your guts.”
The lesser of the two evils, he reminded himself.
She fastened the boy’s mask and opened the rotted wood door before taking a few steps back and using her axe to direct Darvin through it. He was never sure what caused it, and this time was no different. Maybe the lack of knowing what awaited him in the Tunnels, the stale and putrid air inside, or maybe it was just Darvin’s own cowardice spiking his imagination to the worst possible outcomes, but all of the hairs over his body stood on end as his body felt a chill wash over it when he passed through the door that lingered like a terror-filled pulse.
He had heard of people claiming to have visions. Some of the past, of another world where every moment of their lives was not spent trying to find ways to survive. Darvin had chalked those up to be idealists and dreamers refusing to accept reality. They said that the visions, no matter who had them, all seemed to share similarities as if they were all connected somehow. Prophets trying to bring importance to themselves so they aren’t simply discarded by stronger men.
Maybe Darvin should have chosen that route long ago. Maybe he still could, if he survived the Tunnels.
There were others that claimed to feel the future. Never far off, more like omens experienced immediately before an event that would turn into the present. He had seen these men work, believed in their abilities, had seen how good their lives could be for as long as their omens turned true. All of the Factions had their seers and would start wars on their behalf. They were some of the most powerful men past the Road, but Darvin had also seen what would happen to them if ever their omens failed.
He rubbed his forearms as his feet shuffled forward, trying to bring warmth to his body and calm his failing nerves. It was cowardice, that’s all. Darvin was no seer, just a scared little man who second-guessed every decision he ever made.
He turned to make sure the two followed after him. They did but kept a healthy distance. It was clear by the way they moved that they had just as little idea of what to expect down here as Darvin did. It was also clear by how the woman limped that she was injured.
He had heard plenty of stories of the creatures that lurked within the Tunnels. The mutated that preferred to stay in the shadows, breathing the radiation and feeding on the flesh of those that strayed too close to the entrances. There were those that claimed to have trekked through the Tunnels and encountered the mutated. Hairless beasts with multiple mouths over their bodies, teeth and claws sharper than any blade a man could make. Thick, leathery skin that hung like melted wax. Things so horrifying that their dreams had been corrupted forever. They had claimed to have barely survived the monsters but reaffirmed they were real.
Darvin had never fully believed the stories but nonetheless obeyed the cautions and kept far from the hatches. The only monsters he had ever come across were those he shared the surface with. Those who tried to control everything they could and take anything they wanted by force. Those who would rip a man’s innards out and leave him to watch them spill onto the floor just for getting too close.
He would keep his eyes and ears open for any sign of the stories, but he would not hesitate to exploit any advantage he could get over the facts.
He flashed the lamp around, trying to let his mind create an outline of their surroundings as he walked through it. The tunnel was wide, the brick it was made up of darker than the room they had entered through. It stretched out further than the small lamp could reach, leaving him wondering if the next step he took would reveal a terror he could never unsee.
He wished the woman would use her lamp to assist the three of them instead of focusing solely on herself and her boy. He knew she didn’t want him here but she had made the choice of allowing him to come. They were both on the same path now, working toward the same outcome. She didn’t need to like Darvin, or even trust him, only make things easier for them all by illuminating ahead while he carved a path for them to step through without letting their skin touch the puddles of potentially radioactive liquid.
The sound of the crunching concrete under their feet echoed down the long tunnel making Darvin grind his teeth, but it was the loud and rhythmic suction of their breathing through the filters that really put him on edge. His fingers began to tremble, the edges of his light giving it away even as he tried hard to keep it in check.
He hated being such a coward, always so scared of everything. Scared of being yelled at, of being hit, of letting everyone down, of what everyone thought of him. He hated having to pretend to be someone he was not.
“Care here,” he whispered with a shaky voice that he masked by grunting as he came upon a large puddle. He stopped and waved the lamp over the puddle before taking an excessively long step over it.
He turned around and held his hand out to the woman. She had not expected him to stop so abruptly and he found himself close enough to see her eyes through her mask.
Even through the narrowed slits they had become as they dared him to come closer, he could see how striking they were. They glowed bright green in the reflection of the light, capturing his attention and distracting him from the fear that coursed through him. It was likely a mutation she had been born with, but it was one he had never encountered before, one that hypnotized him by its sheer beauty.
He didn’t need to see the rest of her to know how breathtaking she was. Maybe he was a seer after all and the gods had finally blessed him with an omen of what his future held. He found his heart beating rapidly but he was sure it had nothing to do with his cowardice.
She hissed, bringing all his fear crashing down again, and shoved her axe toward him in a manner that mocked his attempt to help.
He stepped back and continued on, eventually hearing the crunch of the loose ground as they stepped over the puddle. Their steps sounded far off, letting him know that his attempt to earn their trust had done the opposite and they were truly using him now as a cushion between them and whatever awaited them beyond the shadows.
As angry as he should feel, he found himself unable to stop picturing the woman’s eyes. He wanted to get lost in them again, for her to lose herself in his, but it wasn’t long before Mariene’s eyes came crawling into his thoughts, breaking the bones of his desire as they replaced the bright green radiance with crippling shame.
They would do unspeakable things to his family. Make a slave of his daughter to be defiled through the ranks, traded, beat, all until she could take it no longer. What type of man was he if he couldn’t even stand up for those he was supposed to love? How could he be thinking of another woman when he had just abandoned the ones he had promised to take care of forever?
“I’m scared,” came the muffled whisper of the boy.
Darvin turned his head and found him clutching his mother’s leg. He could see her straining to move forward, whatever injury she bore was being doubled by not only the weight of the bags she carried on her back but the boy she was being forced to drag along with her. He felt bad for her, for both of them.
For his family.
So be me, kid. He thought as he turned back around and continued.
His light caught a glimpse of what appeared to be some type of thick, black, tar-like substance up ahead. It was lightly littered over the ground at first but soon it covered entire sections. Darvin and the woman could cross alright but the boy would not be able to, not without touching it, and there was no telling what would happen to their skin if they did. He said nothing to the woman, knowing she would just hiss, and instead took a small chunk of brick that had come loose and knelt next to the substance.
The woman stopped some distance back and shone the light over him.
Darvin took the chunk of brick and tried to scoop the substance. Immediately he found his hand unable to move the brick. It cemented to the substance like industrial-grade glue and was slowly sucked from his hand like quicksand. Try as he did to pull it out, the black tar absorbed the brick as if it were an elephant playing tug of war with a dog.
He looked at the woman who looked down at her boy. She was trying to weigh out her options but they all knew there was only one. She would need Darvin’s help to get the boy across safely.
Darvin kept quiet, allowing her to come to the conclusion on her own. He focused on the path ahead, seeking out the empty patches so he could plan out where his steps would go.
He finally stood and found the woman’s eyes glowing back at him. He tried to pretend he hadn’t been thrown off.
“We stick to this side,” he said, stretching his arm behind him to point out the path, “we be okay.”
She placed one of her bags down to free up her hand and withdrew something small that glinted in the light. She bent down and handed it to her son, whispering something that only they could hear as she placed the handaxe where she had withdrawn the object from. The boy watched Darvin and nodded before the woman rummaged through the bag she had placed on the ground and withdrew what appeared to be a long rifle.
She used it to help herself up and winced as she placed the strap of the bag around her shoulder once more. The boy clutched her leg as she limped toward Darvin. The closer she got, the clearer it was that what she had taken out was a rifle, and she made sure to keep it aimed directly at him. He should have been focused on the end of the barrel but he found it impossible to look at anything but her eyes.
They had become the true definition of a guilty pleasure.
“You gone take the boy across,” said the woman, snapping him from his gaze and forcing him to look down at the boy. Darvin nodded. “You try one thing, I don’t care what them sound bring. I done shoot you. Follow?”
Darvin nodded again and dropped to one knee.
She nudged her boy on who shuffled forward reluctantly. Darvin tapped his shoulder and smiled even though he knew the boy could not see through the mask. He could only hope the boy could see it in his eyes. When he saw nothing in return, Darvin turned his attention toward the tar, not before stealing a glance at the woman’s eyes.
“Go on,” said the woman softly.
There was a moment of silence before Darvin felt the boy’s hand over his shoulder. He felt the child wrap around his neck, the blade the woman had given her son barely digging into Darvin’s skin, before the boy’s legs wrapped around his abdomen and Darvin was forced to lean forward and place his hand over the ground to keep from falling back. He had expected the boy to be a lot lighter and had to give him credit for carrying as much as he was around.
“Good?” whispered Darvin.
“Good,” said the boy.
Darvin used his hand to help himself up and nodded at the woman who raised her rifle and aimed directly at him in response.
He took a step toward the path he had laid out and heard the woman behind him say, “Stay quiet boy.”
Darvin smiled and gripped the boy’s legs tighter.
It became difficult to reach the next open spaces. Without the added weight it would have been a breeze, but he was being forced to stretch himself out instead of the gentle hops he would have otherwise attempted.
He was growing out of breath, the mask making it harder to suck in oxygen. He looked back at the woman. If he was having this hard a time, her own struggle would be worse. He looked around at the shadowy substance. Standing in the midst of it made it feel as if it were slowly coming in on them. As if it had lured them out in the middle where it knew they would be unable to escape quickly and trapped them until its’ maker came along to feed.
Darvin felt his thoughts growing foggy, anxiety building its web around him. He wanted to turn back but knew if he did so, the woman would shoot him. His only option was forward, but forward seemed so far away. He closed his eyes and gripped the boy’s legs with his trembling fingers.
“I’m scared,” whispered the boy.
Darvin opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He felt his fear coming under control, a desire to keep the boy calm overpowering it. He knew his own fear was contaminating the child, he had done it plenty of times to his own daughter. He knew better than to let anyone see it.
“I be too,” he whispered back, “but we be okay. Few more steps be all.”
He exhaled loudly and hitched the boy up higher on his back. He should have stayed for Mariene. He should have fought for Reeka.
But he hadn’t. He had left them. His own family.
“We be okay,” he said again. He felt the boy wedge his face into the back of Darvin’s neck and nod. The boy squeezed tighter, forcing Darvin to stretch his neck to keep the blade from accidentally biting into his skin.
Darvin stepped onto the next section and the next, forcing himself to focus on what lay ahead.
“She told me I should stick you if you try anything,” whispered the boy.
“You ever stuck a man?”
“No, but I seen it happen,” said the boy, a sadness trailing his words.
“Ain’t nothin’ you wanna do. Ain’t nothin’ I wanna put on you either.”
“So you won’t try nothin’?”
Darvin made his way over the last few patches until the substance had dispersed enough to allow the boy to make his own way. He turned back and watched the woman clutch her side as she stepped through the patches. She had given up on keeping the rifle up.
He thought about going back and helping but it didn’t take long for the thought to be forced out. He was nothing in her eyes, no matter how much he had done or would do for her she would never focus on that. He would forever be the coward. Going back would never change that.
He had to forge on forward.
He signaled to the boy to wait and put some distance between he and them. When she stepped over the final patch, she allowed herself to double over and breathe. He could see the clear of her mask fogging over. She stood and took deep breaths, watching him all the while as her mask slowly cleared.
Darvin nodded to her.
They reached a fork that split into four smaller tunnels. No one knew what the tunnels had been originally built for. Hell, no one knew much of what everyone referred to as the Old World. It was all just speculation. Finding new use for something old, whatever its’ intended purpose.
If Darvin had to guess, the Tunnels had been used as a network of distribution. A way to ferry goods back and forth to different parts of the land without people noticing. Now it was simply a home to those that hid in the dark, and yet, they had seen not a single being other than themselves down here.
Maybe it had been an old wives’ tale to keep children from going into the Tunnels. They didn’t need monsters to make this world dangerous. They already had enough.
He could feel his head beginning to pound. He couldn’t be sure if it was lack of liquid in his body or if the gas mask was somehow responsible. He knew he had fastened it on tight, maybe too tight, but he would gladly endure some temporary pain if it meant keeping his insides safe.
Then again, they couldn’t be sure there was even any radiation down here either.
“Which way?” asked Darvin.
“Pick one,” said the woman.
He watched her closely. It was obvious that she was growing tired.
“We done need rest soon.”
“We rest when we out.”
“We don’t change these soon,” said Darvin, tapping his filter, “won’t matter.”
He tilted his head toward her boy. Darvin also knew that if they didn’t make it out of here soon, they would be forced to take the masks off to eat and drink. Then, it truly wouldn’t matter.
“Pick one,” growled the woman.
Darvin took his lamp to all four tunnels, each causing his hairs to rise. Something awaited at the end of each, but there was no way to tell which would be the right choice.
He hated having to make decisions. There was too much pressure, too much chance of fucking everything up, but he had always pretended like he knew.
He picked the one that he could see no tar through. He couldn’t be sure that there wouldn’t be any later, but at least there would be none now.
A few minutes in, he turned to check on the two. The struggled limping of the woman had grown denser, each step falling like a sack of bricks. She used the rifle as a crutch while the boy tried to provide as much support as he could on her other side. His attempt was pathetic, but admirable nonetheless.
Darvin kept walking until he heard a loud smack echo down the tunnel, causing his nerves to spike. The woman had dropped the rifle and collapsed against the wall. He ground his teeth and flashed down both sides of the tunnel, watching for anything that might have heard them and decided to take opportunity.
Or maybe the opportunity was his and he was deciding which route would fare him best.
He watched the boy struggling to pull his mother back up. Maybe the child might have been able to if they weren’t lugging so much around. It was something Darvin could easily help them with but the woman had wanted it to be just her and the boy after all.
He cursed under his breath as Mariene’s eyes seeped into his mind and the pounding in his head worsened.
He was a true bastard. There was a reason why this world only rewarded the brave and left the rest to die.
It didn’t always have to be the same.
The boy looked up as Darvin made his way to him. He could see the panic through the visor of the boy’s mask as it quickly turned to pleading.
“Let me,” said Darvin to the boy.
The boy stepped aside, causing the woman’s head to tilt up. She glared at Darvin, daring him to come forward.
“There look to be somethin’ in the wall down there.”
“Fuck…” said the woman, unable to get a full breath to finish her thought. “Fuck off.”
Darvin picked up the rifle. The woman shifted quickly, groaning in pain as she pulled her handaxe from her waist, not that it mattered, he had all of the power now. Nothing they could do.
But he had never been a cruel man.
He raised his right hand and extended the rifle to the boy. The woman’s eyes glowed bright, softening as she watched both of Darvin’s hands go up and take a step back. She knew she was too tired to properly defend herself if he tried anything. She also knew that he knew.
“Help her,” pleaded the boy.
Darvin’s eyes shifted from the boy’s to the mother’s. It was a shame the child didn’t carry the mutation. A boy with glowing eyes like that would have made any girl swoon. No need to take anything by force when it’s all offered to you willingly. She looked to be young still, there was still time for them to bless another.
He squeezed his eyes shut, the ache in his head pulsing behind his eyes. He cursed himself over the thoughts. When he opened them he found the woman slipping the axe back in its holster. He lowered his hands, palms still facing her as he stepped. She raised her elbow, her eyes never leaving his as he came toward her, ready to catch any hint of deception.
She cried out as he lifted her but Darvin made no sign of stopping. The initial help she provided him quickly faded as the woman became heavier and heavier, eventually becoming dead weight. He gripped her tight around the waist as he dragged her, hoping he hadn’t been wrong about the crevice in the wall. Her stomach was firm under his hand, with the softness only a woman’s skin has. He tried to ignore it but he couldn’t help the excitement he felt as he envisioned his fingers running over the warmth of her figure.
He leaned against the edge of the wall and flashed the light inside the hole. It was a decent-sized pocket within the wall leading to a small room that would fit the three of them comfortably. He made sure to shine the light over every corner of the room. There was no door, no ladder, no hatch, no wires of any kind inside it like he had seen in some of the ruins above. Just a room that had likely been used as storage during the time of the Old World.
He placed the woman down inside the room, propped against the wall, and told the boy to watch her as he went back out and flashed the light down both sides of the tunnel. He could only hope he had chosen the right one.
“How long since she eat or drink?” said Darvin as he came back to the boy.
The boy shook his head but said nothing.
Darvin pushed a finger into his side. “What be wrong with her side?”
“She was hurt some time back,” said the boy. “It never heal proper.”
“Is it rotted?”
“No. Don’t think so.”
He pulled the bags off the woman and pushed them aside, leaving only one to lay her head over.
“Ya’ll bring juice?”
The boy nodded and put down one of his own bags. Darvin knew that removing the mask down here would lead to the woman getting sick down the road, but it was better than her dying on them now. The boy pulled out a small canteen with a tiny straw on the lid and offered it to him.
“Paste?” said Darvin, taking the canteen. “Somin we can mix here.”
The boy rummaged through the same bag and withdrew another canteen. Darvin undid the lid for both and mixed the two as quickly as he could, spilling some in the process. He shook the canteen and scooted toward the woman.
“What’s her name?”
The boy stared at him as if scared that if he answered, it would somehow be used against them.
“I’ma need to take ha mask off for ha to drink. Better she do it qui-”
“No!” said the boy as he crawled toward them. He took the canteen from Darvin and wiggled the straw around. “She can drink without takin’ it off.”
The boy stuffed the straw through a small opening on the nose of the mask and tilted the canteen upside down.
“You got one too,” said the boy, lowering his head and tapping his mask in the same spot. He turned toward the woman and gently rapped over her visor.
Darvin fiddled with the opening of his own mask. He had never seen anything like them before. Most of the time, masks were barely kept together. Torn, missing straps, cracked visors. The best were usually masks that had been refurbished, which was more like bandaged together with spare materials that had been left lying around. These were something else entirely.
They appeared to have never been used before. This type of mask would have been snatched from a bunker long ago by one Faction or another. They were the only ones crazy enough to raid through those places, all in the name of gaining an advantage. The mask would have traded ranks, been used, abused, repurposed. The only way this woman and child would have been in possession of them was if they were prior members of a Faction.
Or they had killed members for them.
“You gotta bite down,” the boy said to his mother. When she didn’t answer he began knocking on her visor again, louder, until her eyes flickered open. He waved the canteen, “Bite down.”
Her eyes glowed toward Darvin. He couldn’t tell if she was actually watching him or if there was no focus behind them. He didn’t care, he would gladly gaze into them for as long as he could.
She began to cough. Darvin placed his hand behind her neck and lifted her enough to let her do so freely. She tried to resist but her coughing got worse and she lost her will to fight. Darvin held her, as he had his own woman, while he patted her back.
The boy stuffed the straw through his own tiny mask as he watched Darvin and his mother.
When her coughing came under control she ripped herself from him, straining her side and causing her to cry out. Darvin scooted away, letting her deal with the pain on her own.
He turned his attention toward the boy who was pulling the straw from his mask and offering it to Darvin. Darvin glanced at the woman, who still watched him through narrowed eyes but did nothing else to protest.
He took the canteen and tried to insert the straw through the mask but the boy quickly stood and undid the mechanism on the mask when he saw Darvin struggling.
“Bite down,” said the boy.
Darvin found the interior stem and bit down, allowing a flow of the thick, sweet liquid to sludge his mouth.
When he was done, he pointed to the canteen and the boy took it apart for him.
He felt better, at least his stomach was more at ease than before, but it hadn’t done much for the ache in his head. Maybe once the liquid coursed through his body more it would help.
The woman’s eyes had closed and he found himself alone with the boy.
“She gone be alright,” said Darvin.
The boy nodded and kept staring at Darvin as if expecting him to provide him with the keys to the Vaults.
“What else y’all got in the sacks?” continued Darvin nodding toward the bags.
“Pines, carrier meat, some wild berry,” said the boy.
“I mean like this.” Darvin tapped the mask. The boy’s eyes looked at the woman and back at Darvin before straying down. He shrugged. “I ain’t ever seen nothin’ like em.”
“Just supplies is all.”
There was an innocence to the boy that Darvin envied. Distrustful because he was told to, not because it was in his nature. The woman would do right to ingrain her own distrust deep into his core. If she really wanted the boy to be safe, keeping him naive would do him no good. He should have done the same for Reeka. Taught her to look past the surface and into who her father truly was.
It’s how Darvin had made it so long among the brave. You find the right moment.
“Where y’all find em?” said Darvin.
“They were gifted to us.”
Darvin glanced at the boy’s mother. “By force?”
The boy looked up at him and shook his head.
“Mighty gift to be givin’ out,” said Darvin.
“He wasn’t gonna need it no more.”
“So y’all took it.”
“No! He wanted me and my Da to have it.”
“Of course, I get it. Can’t refuse a dyin’ wish.”
The boy looked away toward his mother, as if embarrassed and begging her to help. There was something the two weren’t telling him. There was a reason why they were willing to risk their lives through the Tunnels. They were likely running from something, like he, but Darvin had the feeling it had something to do with these bags.
“Where be your Da?”
There was a long pause before the boy finally said, “Dead.”
“I sorry,” said Darvin, trying to catch the boy’s gaze. “He be the one you seen get stuck?”
The boy nodded.
“That ain’t easy to live with neither,” said Darvin. “My mama be stuck by a man. Said she done stole some of his stuff. I ain’t get enough time to stop it. Afore I know it, she got a hole through her neck and I’s got my hands round his.”
There’s a truth behind every lie, and this one was no different. His mother had been stabbed to death, and it had been because a man had accused her of stealing, but she had stolen nothing. She’d been a whore, one of the few women intelligent enough to profit from her gift instead of having it taken by force, and a good one at that. She had regulars who would come see her and would gift her enough to take good care of Darvin. She had had no reason to steal, but Darvin had thought otherwise.
To this day he had still not come to terms with why he had done it. He liked to remember a noble cause behind it. A desire to rip his mother from the clutches of the lifestyle that held them hostage, but deep down he knew there had been nothing virtuous about what he had done. He had gotten greedy and assumed he would be protected by the rest. No one would find out, no one would get hurt.
He hadn’t gotten any time to stop it because he had been too busy running. Too scared to turn back and defend her. Convinced himself that the owner or the other whores would help her, and yet, when he had finally come back, there had been no sign of the man. Only the whores to tell him that the man had gutted her and walked off with everything Darvin’s mother had worked for.
“Cruel world it is,” continued Darvin. “Just gotta keep livin’.”
“My Da say people be good inside,” the boy stared down at his mother, “just gotta show ‘em a little kindness to bring it out.”
“I wish that be true, kid,” said Darvin. He tapped the filter to draw the boy’s attention back. “You got more of these, right?”
The boy nodded and began to rummage through one of the bags. He pulled one out and held it out for Darvin to take.
“I change yo mama’s, let the both of you rest and I keep watch.”
The boy stared at him as if he were seeing through Darvin’s soul, reading every cowardly act from his past. Darvin’s eyes began to shift around uncomfortably.
“She ain’t my mama,” said the boy.
Darvin stared at the bags as the two slept. He felt his own body growing weary but knew there was no way his mind would let him join them. Mariene and Reeka dragged their way in through every thought, never letting him forget. He knew they wouldn’t. Not ever. He had looked into their eyes as he had run and burned the image into his memory.
The disappointment. The pain. The guilt.
But what was he to do? He would have never blamed them if it had been he who had been captured. He would have thought them stupid for risking their lives unnecessarily. What he had done should have made them proud that he had chosen life. It had never been an option, and there was no turning back now. He had to make the best of things.
At least now his mother would have others to keep her company.
His eyes strayed to the woman, the rise and fall of her chest forcing his thoughts another direction. Something about knowing that the boy was not her child made her somehow more alluring. It meant she would be more open to his advances. She could help him forget. Not fully, never fully, but at least make it become a distant memory quicker. A story of a different time, a different man.
He had chosen life, and with life comes new opportunity. They needed to understand. He would forge a new man, one that would learn from his mistakes and vow never to make them again. One that would defend the new paradise that he would create.
But how many times had he forged that new man?
He stared at the boy. So innocent, so hopeful. He had been kind to Darvin. Maybe he was right. Maybe this time it would be different.
Darvin felt pulsing all around him, similar to the one he had felt when they had entered the Tunnels, but stronger. Like the wave that courses through the throat, chest, and body, caused by the beating of drums in close proximity. His body shivered uncontrollably as dread began to fill him. He could feel the presence of something close by, growing closer. His mind went blank, unable to think of anything but the fear that gripped him. A second pulse blew through, forcing Darvin’s arms to embrace himself as he began to whimper. A third, his bladder quivered ready to release the trace amount of liquid that it stored.
He held himself tight, rocking back and forth as his lungs dragged in short bursts of air. He was going to cry. At any moment the tears would begin to flow and there would be nothing he could do to stop them. It would all come out the way they had months after his mother. Pour out of him to reveal to the world the craven bastard that he was.
Only back then, there had been no others to witness.
He squeezed his hands tight and blew open his eyes, hoping the two had seen nothing. The boy was unperturbed. The woman, however, groaned as she shifted over, trying to push herself up. Her glowing eyes were only beginning to turn toward him.
She had seen nothing.
He bit down with his front teeth, trying to bring anger forth. Anything to mask the terror behind his soul.
“You feel it too?” Darvin said in a low, forced voice as he scooted toward her and reached out to help her. As his fingers made contact, her hand swatted them away but it was her glare that pushed him back.
He should have been hurt, offended even, but all Darvin felt was excitement as he watched her sit herself up. She was a strong woman, just like Mariene, just like his mother. Strong women needed to feel powerful, in charge. They needed men like Darvin.
He looked at the boy and wondered if he would be a problem.
“What it be?” came her muffled whisper.
Darvin shrugged and stood. “I think we need be going. Don’t feel safe here.”
She eyed the bags and then watched him carefully until finally turning to the boy and shaking him awake.
Darvin walked toward the tunnel and peeked his head out. Both sides were as dark and desolate as they had left them, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was not as empty as it looked.
He found the boy picking up the two smaller bags as the woman tried to do the same with her own.
“I can help,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“You gone slow us woman.”
“No,” she hissed back, fixing her glare toward him.
Maybe it was fear, maybe it was excitement, or maybe it was both, but his heart thudded in his chest as he gazed into her beautifully mutated, hostile eyes.
“Be smart. You pass out again, I be forced to carry you. You put the boy and yourself in danger,” said Darvin, never breaking eye contact despite his thoughts telling him to leave it. Maybe there was a chance after all. “All a us.”
The woman took a big breath. He was sure that if her mask was not on, she would have spat, right at his feet. She pushed a bag toward him.
Darvin nodded and picked it up. He reached for the other and when she did not move to stop him, threw it over his back.
He turned down the tunnel and began walking.
A smile spread over his face. If there was one thing Darvin had become good at, it was turning people to his side. There was no need for that to change.
“What be your names?” Darvin asked, daring to distract his mind from the insecurities he felt.
They had come to another fork, forcing Darvin to choose a new tunnel again. It had gone straight and then curved for some time until they had reached another fork and Darvin had chosen another tunnel that curved in the opposite direction. He had begun to feel as if they had simply gone in a circle and eventually they would return to the awaiting Faction warriors outside the hatch.
“Fuck off,” growled the woman.
He turned his head enough to see the woman squeezing the boy’s shoulder until he said “Ow!” and slipped his shoulder away.
Darvin smiled and kept walking.
“Ow and fuck off,” Darvin said finally. “Those be a first.”
He heard the boy giggle.
“I be Darvin.”
“You be quiet,” said the woman.
Darvin let out an annoyed breath.
The path ahead became littered with the pieces of brick from the broken sections of the walls. He began to feel the doubt in his mind, telling him he had chosen the wrong tunnel. That it would not be long before the dirt held back by the barrier of bricks would loosen enough to release itself and send the walls crashing down on them.
A few steps further in and he could see in the distance, the outline of something similar that had already occurred. He gritted his teeth and stopped, cursing himself for choosing wrong yet again.
He could see the pileup stacked up high with only a small crevice at the top.
He turned around, ready to tell the two that they needed to turn back when his light caught a lone, dark figure in its distant edges.
His throat clogged and eyes went wide.
Six silver dots at the top of the figure gleamed back. It stood dead still, the silver dots individually vanishing and returning like blinking eyes.
Darvin brought his trembling finger to the front of his mask as if it would somehow stop the loud, dragged breaths. They both stared at him as he slowly lowered the light and waved them toward him. He stepped backward, never letting his eyes stray from the silver dots.
The boy followed obediently but the woman stayed put. She lifted the rifle without making any noise and placed it at the ready. Darvin shook his head slowly, still keeping his focus on the blinking dots. The woman’s own eyes stared at him in defiance, ready to fire at whatever stood behind her.
Darvin kept waving at her, begging her to just run, but it was not her he should have been worried over.
The boy turned suddenly and the figure at the end of the tunnel exploded in a blinding silver light. A pulse blew past him and his entire body stiffened so hard that he felt he would fall like a statue and shatter to pieces. He felt his muscles release and a warmth rushed down his body. He heard a gunshot pierce his ears and take away all sound other than the ringing in his ears.
He blinked quickly and saw the woman shove him backward, her green eyes wide and desperate as they stared into his. Behind her, Darvin saw nothing but black.
Before he would trip, Darvin turned and ran. The ringing in his ears giving way to the thrumming of his organs. He could feel something wet at his feet and hoped he had not stepped in tainted liquid.
The cave-in came closer and closer until Darvin could see that it was not actually a cave in. Not really. Maybe part of it, the small blanket at the bottom, had been. The rest, however, had been layers of brick that had been pulled from the walls and stacked up high to create a sort of barricade.
Who had built it, he did not know, but he could only hope that it had been built from the other side.
He climbed over the bricks and tried to squeeze himself through the crevice but the bags over his back prevented it. He ripped them off and shoved them through ahead of him, tearing some of his skin on jagged edges as he shimmied his way through. He didn’t care, didn’t even feel it. He just needed to get to the other side. He would be safe there.
The first bag dropped through, then the second. It was then that Darvin realized he did not have the lamp.
He stared into nothingness.
“Fuck, fuck,” he said, but heard none of it.
He pushed himself through, dropping hard onto the other side and scraping himself up further. He stood as fast as he fell and tried to look down the path but could see nothing. If only he had held on to the light.
He turned and found the woman’s eyes on the other side. He didn’t understand why they were taking so long.
“Light,” he whispered, but he wasn’t sure if they had heard him. He reached into the crevice and waved his hand. He raised his voice, finally hearing himself. “Light!”
The woman quickly looked back before shoving the light through the crevice and throwing it about a foot from Darvin’s reach. He stuffed his shoulder through and took it, looking down the crevice as the woman helped the boy up.
Darvin turned his light toward the path ahead that led to a wide tunnel like the one they had originally trekked through. It meant they were headed in the right direction. It meant he had chosen the right path. Not too much longer and he would exit into another section and be safe.
All he had to do was just run.
He had everything he needed. He had supplies, two big bags of it likely filled with items he could trade for anything he might need. He had the light to show him the way. He had his life to start over with. He didn’t need anything else.
But Mariene’s eyes burned bright in his mind.
“Fuck,” he said, hearing it faint as it bounced back and forth within the tunnel.
He turned and found the boy dragging himself through with one arm, the other pulling the two bags he had carried. Darvin reached his arm in and held it out for the boy to take.
“Come on kid,”
Darvin had made a decision, and he needed to keep to it.
“Come on!” he said again, taking hold of the boy’s hand and pulling him with all his might. The boy wrapped his arm around Darvin’s neck as he was taken out and placed on the ground.
Darvin grabbed the two bags the boy had left behind and tore them out. He was glad to see that the woman was not far behind. She pushed the rifle out toward him. He took it with one hand and kept the other available for her to take in its stead.
That’s when he saw it.
From behind the last bag she dragged behind her, the pasty grey figure slowly came towards them, its flesh like layers of raw dough, barely able to keep a shape as it sagged down. It was as if its skin had never fully formed and instead fused with intestines and created thick, slimy locks of intestines that melted into itself like wax.
Darvin shoved himself in and took hold of the woman’s hand. He pulled with all his might and she screamed, but she went nowhere. He put his other hand through and tried to help but the woman did not move. He looked in and saw that she held firm to the bag behind her.
“Let go!” he yelled.
He could hear everything inside him telling him to leave her. If she wanted to die over supplies, then so be it. She deserved it.
He watched the doughy skin reach in through the open space around the bag. It stretched as if there were no bones to limit it. It began to ooze out, turning black and covering the brick, revealing impossibly long fingers that reached for the woman’s ankles.
“Let go!” he yelled again.
She did, just in time to let him pull her from the creature’s ever-growing fingers. She groaned as he yanked her out, losing his balance and having her crash down on top of him.
He could see the doughy limb stretching out over the opening, searching.
The woman pushed herself aside and Darvin bolted upright.
The boy had already wrapped the two bags behind himself and held the rifle to his chest. Darvin threw the two bags he had been tasked with over his back.
Through the musty, putrid air already within the place, he began to smell the strong stench of urine. The wetness he had felt at his feet earlier grew cold and he realized that it ran all the way down his leg.
When he looked at the woman, she was up, unsheathing her handaxe, ready to chop at whatever was after them. He took her hand before she could get it out and tugged her away.
She tried to stay planted, tried to rip her hand from his grip and chop away at the horror that followed them. She had no idea what would happen, if the axe would do anything to it at all. She would hack at its legs, its arms, its head, anything that she could make contact with. He had the feeling this woman was the second type of brave. There was no fear that coursed through her, only anger and rage. Only action.
This was the type of person the world wanted. This was the type of person Darvin needed. She might rub off on him over time and allow him to grow into the man he wanted to be. As foolish as he believed her to be, he envied her. He wished he could live without fear, to be willing to give up his life without thought in order to defend what mattered to him.
But what mattered more than his life?
Everything was meaningless if he wasn’t alive to experience it.
He yanked at her and caused her to stumble before she picked up stride next to him and all three of them ran through the tunnel. It didn’t take long before Darvin took the lamp from the boy and kept it steady on the path ahead.
They ran until the woman began to slow down, eventually letting go of his hand and clutching at her side as she stumbled forward.
Darvin flashed the light behind them. It flickered and dimmed, but for as far as it would reach, there was nothing following them.
“You okay?” Darvin said to the boy who held his elbow up and was picking at the tiny rocks in his skin. Darvin placed his hand over the child’s shoulder and caused him to look up and nod. He turned to the woman who was doubled over, taking deep breaths.
He put his hand over her back, expecting to have it immediately pushed off, but when it wasn’t he bent to her level and asked, “You?”
It took a moment until her eyes came up from the ground and glowed directly into his. She nodded.
Darvin forced his eyes from hers once he realized he was staring.
“Good,” he said, turning back to the path ahead. “We keep on. Can’t be long.”
“Thank you,” said the woman.
She was looking right at him, Mariene’s eyes scorching through him like hot metal through his heart. He was not deserving of thanks or new opportunities. The only thing he deserved was death.
But the world is a cruel place.
“We thank each other when we be outta here,” said Darvin.
How could he have left Reeka? The only beautiful thing that had ever come from him and he hadn’t even given her thought as he had bolted. All he had thought about was himself, what would happen to him, what would be done to him. Even when he had finally come around to think of them, it had been to justify what he had done and let himself live with the cowardice of his choices.
Nothing could be done. He would have died in vain. They would have done the same. It would have been cruel forcing them to watch what they would do to him.
How many times had he told that little girl how much he loved her? He had built up the world for her. Promised her a better life, a life that would end their constant wandering and never leave them to worry over their meals or being attacked again. But they had been empty words.
He had thought he had meant them, but it all came down to the easy thing. He had loved her, when it was easy. He would’ve given her a better world, when it was easy. He would’ve kept her safe, when it was easy. Darvin didn’t have the slightest idea how to build a better life or show someone love. All he knew how to do was run from everything hard.
“I’m tired,” said the boy.
They had been walking at a brisk pace for some time, Darvin repeatedly checking the tunnel behind them to make sure nothing followed. The light had continued to flicker on and off, each time growing dimmer. They were all tired, none more than Darvin, but if they stopped now they would be stuck down here, forever.
“We almost be out,” promised Darvin. Was it another empty promise he was making? He had no idea where they were headed. They could be hours away from the next exit, maybe even days. He had never been down to the Tunnels, let alone know anything concrete about them or their layout, but what else was he to say?
It was the easy thing.
The lamp flickered, allowing darkness to swallow all light in their path and refusing to allow itself a second serving. Darvin’s panic grew instantly. He tapped the lamp repeatedly against his palm, lightly at first but ever harder as each heartbeat fought against its cage.
When the light finally came back it beamed bright, fighting back all the shadows and revealing dark patches of tar in their path before dimming down to expose only a few feet ahead.
He glanced back at the woman who seemed unfazed by any of it. Her focus was on the path ahead. It didn’t matter that their light would soon be gone or that the tar ahead meant one of those creatures had been through here. She was ready to face it all, and Darvin found her irresistible.
Her confidence, warranted or not, inspired something in him the way Mariene had when they had first gone together. No. Stronger. It made him want to be brave for her. Face anything these tunnels would throw at them and push past them so they could make it out together and Darvin could claim her.
Her eyes would lead their future.
As his feet reached the first patch of discarded flesh, Darvin began to realize that there would be no way for him to plan out their path through it with the fading light. There would be no room for error.
He looked at the child first who watched him as if Darvin would have the answers to everything. The boy had a way of staring that made Darvin uneasy and he found himself shifting his gaze toward the woman to avoid it.
To Darvin’s relief, the woman’s attention was on the substance littering the floor, her eyes squinted hard. Not at the tar at their feet, but the dense clumps of it down the tunnel that their light could no longer catch. If Darvin didn’t know better, he might have thought she had a light only she could see. It was obvious she was trying to guess out their path for them but none of it would matter the moment their lamp finally gave out.
He picked up a couple of loose bricks and walked through the tar, careful not to let his skin touch any of it. When he didn’t hear footsteps behind him, he turned back and found the boy and woman at the edge. He shone the light for them until the woman took one of the child’s bags and nudged him forward.
He waited for the two to come close so they could share the light. Even still, he continued to turn around and check on them, helping them through the stretches he had found difficult. It didn’t take long until they hit a patch not even his legs could reach.
He looked around, hoping his light would catch something his eyes had overlooked. There were two possible routes, only one close enough for his comfort. Darvin took one of the bricks tucked under his arm and bent, ready to toss it as a stepping stone. Before he could, the woman gripped his arm.
As cold as it was down here, her fingers felt warm on his skin. He found himself imagining her hands running over the rest of his body, heating him in more than one way.
She pointed toward the other patch, the one furthest from them.
“It too far,” said Darvin.
“Other one don’t lead nowhere,” said the woman.
He narrowed his eyes and inspected the closest patch, raising the lamp to try and catch more reflections. It took his eyes a moment until he saw what she was talking about. Only black tar surrounded it. It was closest, but it was also a dead end.
He stared down the other path and saw the faint patches without tar further ahead. He didn’t like it, but it was his only choice now. He eyed the distance that he would need to toss the brick, hoping it would bring him some calm but all it did was add another level of insecurity.
What if he threw it too far? What if it landed wrong? What if it sank all the way through the tar? But the one that worried him most, what if the woman had not been there to correct his path?
He felt her watching him. Soon she would catch on and all chances at a different life would be for nothing. She might help him out of here but there would be no more past that. He would be stuck in the past, forced to swim through his memories.
He tossed the brick.
He wasn’t sure if it was a sigh of relief or if they had simply let out their breath right when the brick had landed. Either way, his ears took the whooshing of their masks as reassurance that it had touched down perfectly and he felt himself smiling involuntarily.
He waited until the brick sank no longer and glanced at the woman who nodded her head toward it. He had been hoping it would be one of them that made first use of it. After all, it had been he who had been smart enough to bring the bricks and make this possible for them, not to mention that he was carrying the heaviest bags for them. It’s the least they could do.
He looked at her again and found her eyes narrowing into a glare. This was not a woman who would give in to his cowardly reasoning. She would sooner toss him in and use him as a stepping stone, especially if she caught on.
He bit the inside of his cheek as he convinced himself that everything would be okay. He jerked the bags higher and stretched out his leg, placing his foot carefully over the brick and pushing it down until he was sure it was fastened in place. He hopped over, not letting himself stop at the middle and nearly overshot it.
Once he had found his balance, he turned around and watched the two. He reached out with his hand and waved them over.
They tossed the rifle to him and had the boy follow, struggling to reach the stepping stone even with the help of the woman. Darvin caught him as the child threw himself over and then lit the next patch so he could wait there as Darvin helped the woman.
Once all three were over, Darvin took lead again and trudged through the path.
He could see the patches growing larger, reassuring him that they were nearing the end. He could only hope that, like the last thicket of tar they had made it through, there would be no creature awaiting them at the finish line.
The woman redirected him a couple more times. On both occasions, she had forced them onto a harder path but one that had made Darvin realize he had not been paying enough attention to the task at hand. All he had to do was open his eyes and see past the closest steps.
He had made a choice. Determined that he would become a better man. One that would not recoil at any sign of danger and would fight for what he believed in, other than himself of course. Maybe he would always be a coward at heart, but he was done running. The past would not guide him.
And yet, he could feel the grip over his heart as the sensation of being watched flushed over him. Mariene’s eyes would linger, and maybe it was a good thing. He had left his family to their fate, just as he had left others before them, and he had already managed to tuck them away in a dark place where he would not need to be reminded of the pain he put them through.
He had never considered himself a cruel man, purposely hurting others for his gain, but that was only because he had never seen the pain he had caused. He had never been forced to watch as they had been hurt. Just because it had not been his hand that had done the acts did not mean that he was not as responsible. He was just as cruel, even more so because of the slow torture he had led them down.
The past had never guided him.
Darvin stood in place, taking in the last few empty patches ahead. They had reached the end, and only a blanket of the black, discarded flesh awaited them. He looked around and found nothing but a sea of tar.
Using the last brick, Darvin and the woman might be able to make the jump if they were careful, but the child would never be able to cover the distance.
“Go on,” came the woman’s muffled voice.
Darvin turned to face her. “He ain’t gone make it.”
He could hear the real words. He has to. There is no other choice.
If he doesn’t, he doesn’t.
He made his way to the edge of the last empty patch and eyed the distance. There was no way, but there was no need to dwell over it.
He tossed the last brick and let it sink in.
He took a moment to reassure himself and hopped onto it, balancing himself over it with the ball of his foot. He felt his heart pounding, each beat pushing him off the tiny platform. He knew he would tire out if he didn’t move but the black flesh gripped him without even needing to touch him. It seemed to grow, making the final jump appear longer and longer.
Darvin pushed off with all his might. It felt like he went nowhere but as quickly as his foot had left the brick, it made contact with the ground. He stumbled forward, stopping himself abruptly and nearly falling once the weight of the bags joined him.
His hands trembled and he placed them behind his head, breathing out heavy. He felt relief. His part was over with.
But that had been the easy part.
He turned around as the boy removed the bag over his back and handed it to the woman.
There was no way he would make it.
The boy could remove everything that weighed him down and he would still never make it. Even if he managed to get through the first, he would get dragged down by the rest. No point in Darvin removing his bags or trying to help, they all knew.
Even so, he found himself removing them anyway. Small kindnesses.
“Come on, kid,” Darvin said as he put the two bags down and aimed the light directly at the stepping stone. “You done got this.”
The boy turned toward the woman who nodded. Was it more cruel, what they were doing? Giving empty hope to a child. The truth might be more humane.
The child leaped forward. Darvin’s stomach sank for him as he saw him fly through the air. The boy’s foot landed over the tiny platform and his arms waved around like propeller blades as he tried hard to keep from toppling.
Darvin let out a huge sigh. He stared in disbelief, a grin spreading over his face. The child could make it, especially with his help. It was not so empty after all.
He inched himself close to the tar.
“Come on,” said Darvin, waving the boy over. He could see the rise and fall of the boy’s abdomen, both of them sharing the same fear. “Come on.”
The boy pushed off and once again flew over the flesh. Darvin reached out with both arms. He closed his eyes as he braced himself to get crashed into and felt the boy’s arms wrap around his neck. Darvin smiled as he lifted as high as he could.
But high never came.
It felt as if the boy had tripled in weight and try as Darvin did to pull him up, the boy would not move.
“No,” he heard the boy whimper.
Darvin opened his eyes. The child had managed to get everything but his back foot onto the tarless patch. Darvin felt his own mind repeating the boy’s word continuously.
He let go and stepped back, his heart beating rapidly.
“Stay,” he told the boy. “Don’t let nothin’ else touch it.”
“No,” sobbed the boy. He began to drag through quiet, uncontrollable cries distorted by the mask into a sound that ripped through Darvin’s heart. “No.”
Darvin turned around, unable to look at the child. He looked down at the bags as he listened to the boy whimper behind him. He wanted to yell at him to stop.
“We gone figure this out!” came the woman’s cry from the other side.
Darvin turned toward her, clenching his jaw and purposely keeping his gaze from the child. She raised one of the bags over her head and before Darvin had time to process, the bag was being tossed at him.
He grabbed it before it hit the ground and placed it with the other two.
Each one of the child’s whimpers turned his sadness into rage. He felt for the boy, sure, but it was as if with each sob the boy was blaming Darvin. It’s not as if he hadn’t tried. He had. He already felt bad enough. There was no need to deepen the wound.
The second bag came, followed by the rifle. Before Darvin even had the chance to turn around, the woman had already made it to the first platform as if there was no fear in her whatsoever. If there had ever been any, all of it had left her the moment she had seen the child’s need.
“Move,” she growled as Darvin neared the border to help her.
He stepped back and she came soaring past him, dropping hard to her knees. She groaned and clutched her side as she stood up.
“He stuck,” Darvin said.
She shoved past him and knelt next to the crying boy.
“Quit whinin’ boy,” she growled as she inspected the tar around the child’s bare foot.
Darvin felt relief as the boy’s sobs slowed. He eyed the bags behind them.
“Bring me somein’ to dig-” started the woman.
“Ain’t nothin’ you gone be able to do,” said Darvin, letting his eyes trail down toward the axe at her waist. “Not unless you ready to carry him.”
“I said,” growled the woman as she turned toward Darvin. Her eyes glowed brighter than their lamp. “Bring me somein’!”
Darvin felt frozen. He swallowed the clog at his throat and began to rummage through one of the bags. The number of valuables inside were incredible. There was equipment he had only ever heard of, supplies to last them months. It was no wonder the woman had been so guarded with them.
He pulled a short walking stick and handed it to her. There was no thanks, no acknowledgment. The woman took the stick and broke it over her leg before taking one of the ends and inserting it into the tar next to the boy’s foot. She tried to scoop it out but only managed to get the piece of wood cemented next to it.
She tugged at the wood, her frustration building with each attempt as well as the boy’s panic. The boy began to cry again.
“Quiet,” she hissed as she inserted the second broken half on the other side of the boy’s foot and tried the same thing.
The boy held back his sobs as much as he could. The woman continued to use all her force on the wood but it only made it more obvious to everyone that there was no getting him out.
“We gone run outta light,” whispered Darvin as he leaned close enough for the woman to hear him.
She ignored him and tried to pull the wood harder, causing one of the ends to break off in her hand and send her back on her ass.
“Fuck!” she hissed, immediately sitting up and digging the broken piece into another side.
Darvin could see her fingers trembling. He watched her struggle with the other piece until that too cracked and she stared at it with shaky hands.
“We gotta go,” whispered Darvin. “It ain’t right, but if you ain’t ready for that then there ain’t nothin’ else.”
“No,” she said, as she shoved the wood into the tar. It seemed as if the boy’s foot lifted for a moment, but there was no prying anything loose from the grip of a spider’s web.
“Is okay,” he said, placing his hand over her shoulder gently. “We all know the risk.”
“I ain’t leavin’ ‘im,” she said as she looked at him over her shoulder.
“No,” sobbed the boy. “You can’t.”
“He ain’t even yo boy. Ain’t no point in all us dyin’.”
“You can’t!” said the child.
“Come on woman. Come with me.”
“I ain’t leavin’ ‘im,” she growled.
Darvin bent down next to her, never letting go of her shoulder. He looked directly into her mask.
“Come with me,” he said. “It ain’t easy, but we gone put this behind us. Start anew. It’ll be okay. I take care us.”
She glared at him, her eyes growing bright. She shrugged his hand off and focused on the boy.
“We ain’t gettin’ him out,” continued Darvin. He placed his hand on her shoulder once again. “Better we go before the light-”
Her elbow smashed into his face with so much force that it sent Darvin falling on his back. He felt a sting over his nose and when he opened his eyes he could see the cracks over his visor. He placed his hand over it as if it would somehow help repair it.
She stood over him like a predator over prey. “I said I ain’t leavin’ ‘im you fuckin’ coward. You too fuckin’ scared, then go. But I promise ye, you’ll get what’s comin’ to ye.”
He stared back into her glare, blinking repeatedly. He could feel the shame building in him. She was right, he was a coward. There was no changing it. He would forever be one. There was no need for him to struggle with trying to become something he wasn’t. All he could do was embrace it and use it to his advantage.
This world wasn’t meant for cowards. Not the dumb ones.
But Darvin had never been dumb.
The woman turned her head toward the path they had come from and stared into the darkness. “Fuck,” she whispered, before turning toward the boy and desperately working at the broken pieces of wood again.
Darvin sat up and stared down the tunnel.
He raised the lamp and saw the six silver dots reflect back.
He sprung up to his feet. If she wanted to stay and die for the boy, that was her decision. There was no shame in being scared. There was no shame in surviving.
He grabbed all four bags and lugged them over him. No point in wasting good supplies.
He took hold of the rifle, ready to go, but the boy’s sobs tugged at his heart. He was a coward, but he was not a cruel man. The boy did not deserve this, any of it, but life had dealt him shit anyway.
Darvin dropped the rifle next to the woman. “Don’t let ‘im suffer.”
He took off before she had time to answer.
The mask was done for, he was sure of that. Each time he dragged a breath he could feel air seeping through the cracks on the visor. All the more reason to make it out of here quickly.
He might have made faster progress if he left the bags behind but that was not an option for Darvin. With all four bags, he’d be able to go beyond the Road into Faction territory and trade enough supplies to give himself a good life. He’d have to be careful, of course. Never more than one bag at a time, always a different, unoccupied, colony, always go in armed, and never, ever, show fear.
Just a traveling merchant who came up on some good wares.
Maybe, just maybe, he could still find a way to give Reeka the better life he had promised.
It would take some time. By then she would have been taken through the meat of it all. She would not be the same Reeka he remembered, just a tortured soul. She might be thankful, sure, but she would hold resentment in her heart. So much of it that Darvin would likely have to sleep with one eye open at all times or risk a blade at his back. By then, she would have become just like the rest of them.
Not to mention it would require for him to break rules and search through occupied colonies. A risk only a brave man would be willing to take.
A loud gunshot echoed through the tunnel, forcing Darvin to stop. He gritted his teeth. He hadn’t wanted it to go this way. He really had tried. At least the woman had taken care of things.
He began to walk again until a second shot took hold of his legs. It wasn’t fair, any of it, but it was life. Maybe he should have done it for her, at least he would have been able to live with it.
He said his thanks and kept on.
He was sure it wasn’t much further. It couldn’t be. Any moment now, he would find the door that would let him escape from this hell and reenter the one up above.
But instead, all Darvin found was the light of his lamp growing more and more dim.
He forced his legs to work harder. He could barely see five feet ahead. Every few steps he took, the light would disappear until Darvin hit it against his body and it would return as a fraction of what it had just been.
He thought he heard shuffling behind him and flashed the light toward its direction but the lamp would reveal nothing other than his feet. If there was something there, Darvin would never see it until it was already too close.
He placed his hand against the wall, ready to have it guide him in case the light gave for good. A few steps further and it flickered off.
This time, no matter how hard Darvin hit it against his leg, the light did not return.
Panic began to set in. It was easy to stay on the path when he knew the light would return to guide him, but here, now, he could only hope he would not miss the door.
Cold as it was down here, sweat began to bead over his head. He began to drag his feet, too scared to let them leave the ground. His trembling fingers scraped against the wall as his eyes tried to open painfully wide, hoping they would somehow see something from nothing.
A scraping sound came from behind him. He turned toward it instinctively and stood in place, staying as quiet as he could as he let his ears try to create his surroundings.
He swallowed and kept shuffling forward. He tapped the lamp against himself repeatedly but stopped when he realized he was simply doing it out of nervousness.
The scraping and shuffling around him kept coming. It dragged from behind, next to him, ahead. The whimpering of the child made fresh in his mind. It was as if he were being intentionally tortured by some unseen force. A force that he would only ever see in reflections.
It had to be the echoes of his own movements, yet they still clawed at him. Held him down and dug deep into him. Ripped out the memories of long past and turned them fresh as the ones recent.
It went on like this for what felt like hours. His body aching, stomach growling, eyes burning. His mind, breaking.
He deserved every moment of it, and yet, he could not give up. He had to keep going. He had to find a way out. He kept telling himself it was the only way he could ever get Marienne and Reeka back. It was the only way he could make it up to them.
He heard a faint squeal ahead, like a rusty door. He waited, listening for anything else. When nothing came, he shuffled faster toward it. Hope began to fill him again. He thought he could feel the rushing of air pass over him. He placed both of his trembling hands over the wall, feeling as much as he could until his foot snagged on something and he came crashing down face first.
He could feel something running down his cheek. Blood most likely, but he could not discard tears either. He wanted out. He needed out.
He ran his fingers over the visor, wincing as the broken shards cut into his skin. It was useless now and he should have just tossed it, but he decided to keep it on and get himself up. No need to waste a perfectly salvageable mask that could be traded.
He spat into it and crawled.
He crawled until his hands stopped feeling the ridges of brick and instead felt the smooth, cold surface of metal.
Sobs of joy escaped him.
He took a moment to regain himself and felt around until he found the handle. He used it to lift himself to his feet and pulled on the heavy door, hearing the squeal as it opened and feeling the whoosh of air rush past him.
His skin crawled.
He tried to widen his eyes, focus all around the room. There was something in there with him, he could feel it. There was no way that door would have opened on its own, it was too heavy.
Something had to have opened it.
He waited by the door, seeing nothing but the blinding black. Hearing nothing but his own heavy breaths.
Or maybe something had simply been through here, to hunt, out there.
He took a shaky step forward, his hands waving out ahead as they tried to feel for something. Another step. Another until his hand hit something hard and caused him to jump back.
He braced himself to touch it again and realized it was a metal rod. He felt around it more, letting his hands create the image of the ladder he had used to get down here within his mind.
He gripped the thin bar that ran across and let his foot feel for the one close to the floor. Once he found it, he readjusted the bags before pulling himself up one at a time. He began to picture the hatch, even thought that he could see its outline, his own hands as they gripped the next bar. He kept going until his knuckles hit metal and he began to feel around the hatch with his fingers.
He felt something cold pressed against his Achilles tendon. Before he had a chance to kick back, he heard a snap. It felt like someone kicked him in the back of his leg and he lost all balance, causing him to drop down. Once he hit the ground, he felt the full brunt of the pain.
He shrieked as his calf rolled up, spasming violently with nothing able to keep it in place. He tried to kick off with his feet, distance himself from whatever had got him, but only one foot listened now. The other flopped about painfully, each time sending a searing signal his entire body endured.
He thrashed with his hands, desperate to pull himself away. The bags felt like he was lugging boulders on his back. His nails tried to dig over the concrete, his good leg plant itself over anything that would help him move.
He could hear the dragged steps of whatever followed as it hovered over him. Darvin tried to flip himself over and face the creature but, as if it were expecting it, something sharp dug into the hamstring of his good leg.
He screamed, feeling it bite deep into the muscle. He tried to reach back with his hand only to have it sawed out, tearing everything it hadn’t at the entrance. An immense weight was placed at his torn ankle and he felt the bite sink into his other hamstring.
He sobbed uncontrollably.
He continued to try and drag himself away with his arms, jolts of pain shooting over him each time the teeth sank into him and unwedged themselves. He could hear its growls as each bite came down, as if an indicator that Darvin should brace himself. Eventually, the creature took the weight from Darvin’s ankle and came down hard over his back.
It began ripping the bags off of him, as if it knew that the real meat could be found underneath. Darvin tried to turn again, slapping around with one of his arms until he felt the teeth dig deep into his forearm. He heard the bones snap as it pulled away, pulling with it all of Darvin’s ability to fight.
He lay face down, sobbing. From what nerves still functioned in his legs, he could feel the blood pumping out of his opened skin.
It was cruel. To let him get all the way. To feel his escape only to have him torn apart in front of it. He didn’t deserve this.
He would have built a better life for them. He would have gone back for them. Taken back his family and kept his promises.
The last bag was taken off of him and Darvin felt something warm grip his good arm. It dragged him over the cement, his mask scraping against it and creating a horrible sound. He heard the door squeal open and the dragging continued until he was sure that he was being taken back into the Tunnels.
He was dropped onto the ground and pushed against the wall.
“Look at me,” he heard the familiar growl of the woman and felt his mask ripped off.
He turned his head and saw the bright green glow of her eyes.
“You deserve worse than what be comin’ to you,” she continued.
He watched her eyes rise up and he desperately reached out with his good arm. He cried as something smashed against his fingers and broke them back. A second blow split over his jaw and destroyed any desire to touch her again.
Blood and tears dribbled off his face.
“Please,” he mumbled out as her footsteps echoed away. “Please! Don’t leave me.”
He heard the door clank as it was shut and Darvin was left all alone.
He didn’t know how long he was there for. Minutes, maybe hours. He sobbed until there was nothing else left. He was cold, weak. Every moment that passed only made it worse. He had stopped feeling the pain after a while, feeling as if it had all blended into one collective norm of discomfort only to have it return in occasional excruciating waves of shivers.
It felt as if his body was no longer his.
Even when he had tried to drag himself toward the door, his broken fingers had only managed to drop his torso to the ground. He was left twisted and defenseless, as he had left everyone else.
The woman was right. He deserved the worst, but it didn’t mean he didn’t deserve a second chance. Or third. Fifth?
It didn’t matter, there was always time.
He should have tried his luck as a Seer. Who cares if he had it in him or not. They would have believed him for as long as he had been right. He would have had a good life and it wouldn’t have mattered that he was a coward. He would have been protected.
He heard what sounded like a rock tumbling echo down the tunnel. He could see nothing, yet his eyes were still painfully wide, taking in all the darkness. His ears continued to hear the occasional tumbling until it became a continuous squelching as if a drenched rag were being dragged and slapped over the floor. Closer.
Darvin stretched his elbow and tried to use it to pull himself toward the door only to have the pain return worse.
He tried again only to puke as the shiver ran through him.
Closer. The six bright dots opened and closed. They grew brighter until a blinding light escaped the mutant and pulsed past him.
Terror gripped him.
When his eyes returned the silver eyes glowed a few feet from him, repeatedly blinking as it dragged itself closer. A second light emanated from the creature revealing it’s disfigured body like fat and intestines dangling without flesh to keep them together. When the pulse reached him he felt blinded by the terror once again and he lost all control of his bowels.
Even if he wanted to move, to drag himself away, stand up and run, his injuries wouldn’t have been what prevented it. It was the dread the creature sent through him that made him lose all control. His entire body shook violently until the pulsing began to wear off and his eyesight returned.
The silver eyes were right above him, taking their turns blinking. Darvin whimpered worse than the child. He didn’t need the pulse to turn him into a fear-filled coward.
He felt something drip over him, like hot wax.
The eyes grew bright, followed by the mutant’s body and Darvin saw the exterior guts of the creature split open to reveal a gaping maw lined with bone and teeth as it dripped flesh all over him. Darvin’s body shook uncontrollably as the pulse hit him.
He felt the hot wax envelop him.