Matt turned around to see Kim’s flashlight illuminating a naked man standing at seven feet tall with skin of pure white. His skin was taught. Not an ounce muscle or fat, save for a pot belly protruding from the mid-section. Pools of scarlet bore into them from shriveled eye sockets. A crown of brown rat corpses were tangled together by a nest of tails, draped from the dome of his head. There was not a hair on his body save for a small bun given leave to sprout from the top. Those hairs secured the tails of his rats with the application of some haphazard knot. The top lip of his prominent overbite was retracted to reveal a snarling maw of filed canines. And the centerpiece to it all was his nose. Or lack thereof. Two crusty, pear-shaped holes were left in its wake.
It opened its mouth. A low gurgling sound at first. Building. Building. Building. A crescendo of primal squealing. Then a mewling scream from the depths of some tortured animal boiled over and filled the room.
With pain. Horror. Grief. Anger.
They wasted no time. Kim first. Then Matt. They made for a side hallway. The right one. Then a sharp left in the hall. Now down a stairwell. To another hallway. SPLASH. Their pace was slowed by a pool of water up to their knees. A furious campaign of wading was waged. The two struggled to cover the distance to wherever the hallway led. The sound of a SPLASH was heard at their backs.
They didn’t look back. They didn’t look back. They didn’t look back.
Another stairwell at the end had them ascending, relieved of the water. Torrents of it cascaded down from above. They doubled back up a switchback, before being dumped out onto a subway track above. Kim’s momentum was too great. She tripped on a rail and fell, leaving a splash in her wake. Matt stopped to pull her up. He did so. And made the mistake of giving into his curiosity. He pointed the flashlight back down the hallway stairwell to see…
Red eyes on white skin. Coming fast.
He turned right and ran. Kim already had a lead of seconds on him. Every leg muscle went to work. A lightning surge of adrenaline burned every fiber. His hands were too sweaty. CLUNK went his flashlight onto the ground. Flying blind now. His world was reduced to the singular point of Kim’s flashlight.
There were no thoughts. No hopes. No dreams. Just primal desire. To escape. To live.
The track continued. Full range of motion with every step. Full sprint. Matt cried. He cursed. He screamed.
“HELP! SOMEBODY! HELP!”
Splash splash splash
Every minute running was a lifetime. One lifetime. Two lifetimes. Three lifetimes. At four the water had risen to their ankles. At last he saw Kim bound up what looked to be a short ladder that led to the previous platform. He heard a stream of water cascading off it. Absent were the yellow service lights from before. A blackout. He threw the duffel bag onto the track where it slid and rolled several feet ahead. He leapt up and made it.
Only to fall face first onto the wet concrete. His ankle got caught on…
Caught on nothing. It was in the grip of that Thing.
Face down, he looked up to see Kim’s beam of light still bobbing ahead, unaware of her brother’s situation. An involuntary scream burst out from him. He turned his torso, looking back towards the ladder. His eyes hadn’t adjusted for the dark yet. But they made out His ivory white silhouette all the same. And His gleaming maw of teeth
A blinding red bolt of pain shot into Matt from his calf. Another deep bite. Another cry of pain.
“HELP. KIM. SOMEBODY. HELP.”
His body was dragged back towards the ladder. Then the weight of the Thing was suddenly on top. Matt tried to push It off. He was too weak. Some unholy strength drove his predator. Both hands, long fingered and gnarled gripped the sides of Matt’s head. The two exchanged screams into one another’s face. Matt’s of terror. It’s of something dark, primal and alien. A maw of teeth was pressed into Matt’s cheek, lips retracted to reveal a row of incisors. Sniff sniff sniff went the pear-shaped air holes.
Chew. Rend. Chew. Gnash.
Biting and gnawing. Chunks. Bloody chunks torn asunder.
For all the pain and all the horror Matt endured, he couldn’t mistake the shape and feel It’s crown of rat corpses dangling into his eyes. Limp snouts and whiskers and eyes and paws all teasing him like a baby’s mobile.
Chew. Rend. Munch.
Pain. Blinding pain. More screaming.
Then a burst of light washed over his tormentor. Matt was able to make out the scarlet eyes of that Thing for a moment in time. Those pools of blood paled into pink. What irises lurked beneath the surface dilated to pin points. The man-thing shut its lids in a panic, as if wanting to fuse them together for all time. His wizened, cracked features wrenched themselves into a look of pain and terror. For a moment, the mask of shadow fell to reveal a pale, scared human. Then a glow of red from behind Matt.
“LET HIM GO YOU FUCKING RAT!”
In Kim’s hand was a lit flare. In an underhanded arc, the red hot ember of the torch was stabbed right into its left nostril-hole. The HISS and crackle of the
It stumbled back, fell onto the track and then disappeared into the shadow. In his wake that long, mewling howl filled the tunnel. A predator of old, cowed and humbled before the livestock’s keeper. Its cry rose well above the din of rainwater still filling the tunnel. And it soon receded. Off into some long-forgotten corner.
With her flashlight now dimmed on a lower setting, Kim was by Matt’s side. His right cheek was torn into ribbons of blood and pulp. The impressions of teeth were marked into the skin. Blood cascaded into Matt’s eyes as he lay there, trailing into his hair. The right-facing teeth of his jaw were left exposed in lieu of flesh to cover it.
“Kim… Don’t leave me…” Tears welled up at the corners of his eyes.
“Can you stand?”
Matt tried to put weight on his calves. Pain surged throughout his leg before it buckled and left him on his hands and knees. “No. I’m sorry.”
Kim took the flashlight and bit onto the handle using her jaw as a vice to keep it in place. She got into the starting position for a fireman’s carry, slowly stood up, and started walking. Matt grew faint as blood began pouring out his wounds. Kim, for her part, struggled to handle the weight of her brother. Her calves burned. Her veins coursed with what adrenaline was left. Its reserves had nearly run dry after their flight from the mural.
Tears began to flow from her eyes.
One step. Two steps. Three. Four. Five. Through the black grate of the service door. Into the lobby. No light to be seen. But she remembered where they entered. The source of flowing water was a key indicator.
It became apparent that no streetlights were waiting above. No beacon to guide her through the night. A blackout robbed the city of light.
At last she made it to the stairwell. The gate was…
The water kept coming. Uncompromising torrents of water. Then a sudden cascade from some unseen flood gate. Or the collapse of one. All was channeled down into the subway. The entrance served as a drain for floodwater heeding the pull of gravity. White water rapids swept Kim and Matt off their feet. She reached out to grab a handle bolted into the stairwell wall. The other hand was wrapped around Matt’s torso. The water now came up to her knees.
Tears now boiled over into a deep swell of regret and sorrow. Through her sobbing Kim cried out.
“SOMEBODY. SOMEBODY HELP! PLEASE!” Kim screamed. More sobbing. Her voice went quiet.
“I can’t lose both of you. I can’t. There’s no one left.”
No response from Matt. No response from anybody.
And then the unmistakable sound of footsteps fording through water.
SPLASH SPLASH SPLASH SPLASH
Matt’s eyes took a moment to adjust. It was day. Mid-day. A throbbing sensation in the head caught him off guard. Light flooded the room from a nearby window. The first thing he saw was what looked like the tops of tenement buildings. Harlem, maybe. He scanned his surroundings to find himself lying in a hospital. A decor of white plastics and stainless steel filled the room. Everything looked scoured of contaminants. The sterile scent of bleach was evidence enough. And then he saw Gavin.
Gavin was hunched over in his chair in a drug-rug hoodie and brown corduroy pants. His hair was shaggy, brown and unkempt. A month without shaving left him with a wiry beard sprouting hairs in every direction. Dark bags hung under his eyes, with lids closed.
His brother perked up and blinked in surprise to see Matt up and awake.
“Matt. Oh man. You’re awake.”
As his vision adjusted to the light, Matt realized only one eye was left open. He reached up to touch what felt like a bandage wrapped around his head. Gavin reached out to stop him.
“Don’t. Nurse won’t want you messing with that.”
“What… What happened?”
“She says you got a mild concussion. Hypothermia too. They got you on painkillers for now. No giardia from the floodwater. So that’s good news. And your cheek got torn to shit by…”
Gavin’s voice trailed off. “By that thing.”
Matt positioned himself to sit upright in the bed. He stared at Gavin and then looked around the room for someone missing.
“Kim’s fine. She’s in the next room over. In better shape than you.”
“Can we see her?”
“Better not. She needs the rest. Practically collapsed in the ambulance heading over.”
“Yeah.” Matt rested his head back and stared up at the ceiling. “That makes sense.”
“She saved your life.”
“Yeah. I know.” Matt turned to narrow his one eye at Gavin. “I should be pissed at you… But you did save her.”
“That’s fair.” Gavin nodded in agreement while averting his eyes from Matt. “I wouldn’t blame you if you were.”
“So…” Matt spoke with his strength returning. Now that he was in a room. With Gavin. With the reason for him and Kim being there in the first place. With the reason they almost died.
“Where were you?”
Gavin recounted the hours since he’d left the station. He meant to find them. Looked everywhere. Knowing they’d do the same for him. Up the block and back again. He would have stayed below if it weren’t for… that thing. Whatever it was. And so he made the trip back up, from another station five blocks North, to find that the whole world had gone to shit. He stumbled around the neighborhood, braving the elements. He tried to take a hit from a joint. To decompress. No luck. The lighter was waterlogged. And the water began to rise. More and more. He thought about leaving all together. Maybe climb up the nearest fire escape. The city was stormed on all fronts. Cars were floating downtown. Trees were downed. Gavin was wading in ankle high water by the time the sun set. He tried to light up again. No luck. Lighter still wet. Panic.
The timing was… unfortunate.
“And then I heard Kim… I was so relieved at first. Then I saw you. And the condition you were in… She told me about the duffel bag and the flairs. I ran down to grab everything. Shit. Thank god those flairs. In a waterproof container too. Smart. Helped us flag down a patrol car. One stupid enough to hang around.”
Matt laid back onto the bed and looked up to the ceiling.
“Yeah… The flairs.” He whispered to himself. “Gavin, what was that thing?”
Gavin shook his head. “I honestly can’t say.”
A cool breeze blew into the window. Matt could make out the distant commotion of the city rebuilding itself. Inside, the minute hand of a clock provided a metronomic rhythm to steady his mind. He lay there and breathed deep.
“When I was in the ambulance, going in and out of consciousness, I was thinking about that mural you did.”
Matt stared up at no point in particular. Just what his mind’s eye conjured up.
“The rats… The pattern. How it was all symmetrical. It reminded me of this field trip I took in fifth grade. To some town upstate. I think it was where they put Woodstock in the 60’s? Or… the town’s called Woodstock. I think. Maybe they had it there. I don’t know. Anyway there’s this Buddhist monastery up in the mountains near there. I mean, like, an actual monastery. With monks in robes and all that. It was tight. Anyway, these monks, they were wrapping up this crazy design. Big and symmetrical like yours, but it’s on the floor. They were bent over it with these vials of sand. Lots of colors. And they were using them to make these crazy intricate patterns. All interwoven with eachother. And they were makin’ it with sand. Sand. Like… how long you think that took them? A year? Crazy.”
Gavin remained silent.
“And then… Right after they were done they took these brooms and straight-up just wiped the thing away. Like they were sweeping the floors. Didn’t take a photo or anything. It was there one second and then… gone. I don’t know. Teacher said they were trying to demonstrate how you shouldn’t get attached to anything. Like, how you can’t afford to get invested in something. Cause’ god only knows when it’s all gonna get washed away. And so, a piece of you ends up going with it. Washed away. But I don’t know about all that. Some things are worth getting invested in. Or, that’s what I think. So I saw your mural and… I don’t know. I just felt this… confidence. Like, there it was. On concrete. It wasn’t going anywhere. I mean, someday, maybe. Sure. But for now, it was safe and secure, underground. And it made me feel… safe. And with the rats… they were all tied together by their tails. They were bound together. They were going every direction but weren’t getting anywhere. Cause’ they were part of something. A kind of connection. And they were too busy running away from each other to see it.”
Matt nodded to himself, as if the weight of some crown was placed upon his head by the ghost of Plato himself.
“That’s what it was about, wasn’t it?” Matt looked to Gavin and interlocked his fingers with one another like a teepee. “Connection.”
“Uh…” Gavin furrowed his eyebrows and pursed his lips. Then shrugged. “Close enough.”