This story has been circulating around my brain for a while, but I couldn't find the right starting point for it. Finally I asked the good people in the Stealthy Stories Plot Bunny forum for help. They generated lots of ideas, and three days after posing the question I sat down and wrote this fic. All credit goes to Sassy, Tauni, BubblyShell, and Spawn Guy. Without them, this fic never would have gotten off the ground. (Or, more accurately, under the ground.) Thanks, guys.
It had just been one of those days. The girl at the coffee shop couldn't get my order right. Everyone wanted something from me at work. My cell phone died. I missed the homebound train, and had to wait fifteen minutes for the next one.
And then, ten feet from the front door of my apartment building, I dropped my keys.
Down a sewer grate.
"Damn it!" I shouted.
A few people turned to look, but I ignored them. This was New York City, for crying out loud. I could curse in the streets if I wanted to.
Now, while I might be the kind of girl who curses loudly in public places, I am not normally the kind of girl who goes crawling around in sewer drains. But I was already tired, angry, and planning to take a long, hot shower, and so climbing down the grate after my keys seemed like a better idea than calling a locksmith and waiting three hours for him to show up and open my door.
I slipped my purse-backpack onto one shoulder, threw myself to the ground, slid sideways through the grate - see, there are benefits to dieting, I never would have made it six months ago - and dropped to the narrow concrete walkway below.
I looked around in the dim lighting. "Keys, keys..." I muttered to myself, absently pulling my purse back over my other shoulder. "Can't have gone far..."
I started walking slowly along the tunnel, sweeping my feet to increase my chances of actually finding the damn keys.
I heard a little jingle.
But it wasn't coming from my feet.
I peered down the passage, and in the gloom I could just make out a flash, and a little movement.
Why were my keys moving?
I took a few steps forward, trying to force my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
And then the image resolved, as if someone had tweaked the focus on the movie of my life (a comedy, I'm sure - somebody somewhere must be enjoying this), and I saw why my keys were moving.
They were in the possession of a rat.
Like, a huge rat. A foot long, easily. And nasty-looking.
"Okay, you stupid rodent," I said - softly, so the dumb thing wouldn't realize I was threatening it. "Gimme back my keys."
The rat sat up on its hind legs, lifting my keys in its mouth, and tilted its head at me.
"That's right," I said, in the same calm tone. "Drop the keys, Templeton."
The rat half-turned, watching me over its shoulder with its beady eye.
"Don't you dare," I warned it.
"Damn it!" I shouted again. The rat was off and running down the dark passage, and I had no choice but to follow it, sliding and stumbling on the wet concrete.
I tried really hard not to think about what it was wet with.
"Come back here!" I shouted. "You little -"
The rat dodged into a side passage. I skidded around the corner, almost sliding right into the drainage ditch - ew - and tried to get up some traction to continue my pursuit.
"How are you doing that?" I shouted at the four-legged incarnation of Satan, who seemed to be having no trouble at all keeping his footing on the slick surface.
I was tempted to make a dive, but I really did not want to launch myself headfirst into sewer effluent - the likely outcome if I attempted such a stunt - and if I missed, which I probably would, the rat would be long gone by the time I managed to get up again.
I'm sure I looked ridiculous, running with a shortened stride so my feet landed flat and didn't fly out from under me. It was a bizarre kind of goose-stepping jog, and it was barely fast enough for me to not lose sight of the rat.
But heck, I was in a sewer. Who was going to see me?
My eyes were fixed on the rat - I didn't dare to look away from it, for fear I would lose the gray animal in the gray tunnels - and I just prayed that a sudden obstacle would not appear in our path. The hell-rat, with his supernatural agility, would surely be fine, while I would be left drowning in a whirlpool or smashed flat against a wall.
So I didn't see the spot where the concrete walkway abruptly ended. But I did see the rat make a spectacular jump.
I slammed on the brakes, tried to stop...
... and totally failed.
The bad news: I was falling down a narrow shaft to a lower level of New York City's incredibly gross sewer system.
The good news: The rat, in its amazing jump, had dropped my keys, and I had managed to catch them as I fell. See, I'm not totally unathletic.
The other bad news: My fall concluded with an enormous splash. I succeeded in thrashing my way back to the surface of the underground river (that's good news, I guess), but in the process I let go of my keys.
A moment later I caught sight of them again - apparently my stress-ball keytag was buoyant enough to drag the whole thing to the surface every few yards - and I struck out after them.
Now, my new diet-and-exercise regimen included regular workouts at the local Y, and I had done more laps in their pool than I really cared to remember. I had thought I was a pretty good swimmer. But as I stroked after my floating keys, two very important things occurred to me:
1. The pool at the Y is well-lit.
2. And it does not have a ten-mile-an-hour current.
At the same time remembering my critical error with the rat, viz., watching the progress of my keys and not looking where I was going, I decided at this point to concentrate primarily on not drowning, and if I happened to catch sight of my keys as they bobbed in and out of the rushing waves, so much the better.
The swimming, the trying to breathe, seemed to go on endlessly. Then, suddenly, the river calmed, and I was able to focus on scanning the diminishing ripples for my keys.
I stroked more powerfully, kicked harder, and in a moment I was able to stretch out my arm and loop one finger through the key ring. Immediately I retracted my arm and, bringing my hand to my mouth, clamped a bundle of keys between my teeth.
Yeah, so what? I was pretty sure I had already swallowed a huge mouthful of sewer water when I first fell into it. If I was going to get cholera and die, at least I would do it with a big, key-filled smile on my face.
The current slowed further, and after a few minutes I was able to catch onto an overhanging pipe and pull myself up out of the water. (Those chin-ups I'd rather not count? Also totally worth it.)
I lay there a moment, panting through my fiercely clenched teeth, completely convinced that the pipe was going to break and dump me back in the river. But it didn't, and when I had my breath back I inched along that pipe until I was able to roll off onto a metal-grate walkway along the edge of the tunnel.
And then I lay there. For more than a moment.
Eventually, I made myself get up and confront the next scene of the comedy: I was deep in the sewers of New York City, and I was totally, completely, thoroughly lost.
I unslung my purse-backpack and put my keys in it, congratulating myself again for my savvy choice of personal accessories. A regular purse never would have stuck with me through all that running, falling, and swimming.
"You're a good friend, backpack," I said, as I put it back on.
Then I confronted the problem of my lostness more seriously.
I was cold and wet and extremely dirty. I was without a working phone, assuming that phones would work down here anyway, which I doubted. I was in possession of my keys again, but I didn't know how to get back to my apartment building, aside from a vague sense that I should go up.
I unwound my scarf from my neck and squeezed the water out of it while I thought. The metal walkway I was standing on went in only one direction - downstream. That meant I couldn't go back the way I had come. I didn't know where there might be a ladder, or whether there would be one at all.
"There must be a way to get up and down," I said to myself, draping my soggy scarf back around my neck. "People must come here. This walkway wasn't built by rats."
I had a brief mental picture of huge, hyper-intelligent rats industriously building underground cities and causeways. I shivered.
I started walking.
"Not going to get home by standing there," I said - cheerfully, so I wouldn't realize I was scared.
My clothes dried slowly as I walked. There was a steady breeze blowing down the tunnel, which made me think there must be an exit somewhere, on that level, and the thought lifted my spirits. But after a while I realized the air current was generated by the movement of the water, and, while the water had to be coming from somewhere, I couldn't go back towards its source.
The walkway continued straight and unidirectional, which made me think that it must lead somewhere eventually. I mean, I was already lost, but it was impossible to get any more lost by following the platform.
Which didn't preclude the possibility that this catwalk used to be connected to a way out, but was now sealed off, and I would just walk back and forth on it forever.
"Hello?" I called. My voice echoed sadly off the concrete walls. "Is anybody down here?"
It was pointless, futile. Of course there was nobody down there. It was a sewer. Did I think somebody lived there?
I walked, and every so often I called out. I didn't know what else to do.
I walked for what felt like an hour. A creepy feeling kept building up inside me. I was going to die there. I was going to die, and no one was ever going to find my body.
And then, as I sank into that dark pit of despair, I realized: it wasn't a going to die horribly kind of creepy. It was a being followed kind of creepy.
I stopped. "Hello?"
I listened hard, trying to detect a human presence above the steady roar of the water. Or a rat presence, even. I hadn't seen any kind of living thing since I fell down the shaft, and in that lonely, alien world of the deep sewers I was getting concerned for my own sanity.
"Hello?" I said again. "Is anyone there?"
The water rushed on.
"I'm lost," I said, scared and desperate and probably losing my mind. "I need help."
I listened again, and then I sighed. No one was there. I was on my own. I turned to keep walking.
And then, a voice.
"What are you doing down here?"
I froze. Was it a trick, a hallucination? My brain manufacturing a human voice from the random babble of the river?
Should I answer, or not?
I figured I had nothing to lose. If I was going crazy, then there was no one there to see me spiral into madness. And if I wasn't...
"I fell," I said loudly. "I mean, I dropped my keys, and then... it was all the rat's fault, really." I laughed nervously. "I hate rats, don't you?" I sobered at the hysterical tone of my own voice. Keep it together, girl. "I'm lost. I need help."
The voice was silent for a long time.
That's it, I thought. I'm crazy. I'm done for.
"I can help you."
I just about broke down right then. The voice was loud, clear, human. Either someone really was there, and willing to help me, or I was so far gone that it didn't matter anymore.
I looked around the dark tunnel. "Where are you?" I asked. "I can't see you."
"You - you can't," said the voice. I focused my ears, trying to figure out where it was coming from. "I can help you, but... you have to promise not to look at me."
"What?" I furrowed my brow. I was getting a creepy feeling again, the going to get axe-murdered kind of creepy. "Why?"
"I can't tell you," the voice said. "I won't hurt you, I promise."
"Are you really horrendous-looking or something?" I asked. Sometimes I have a really morbid kind of curiosity. "I don't mind. My uncle had this huge disfiguring scar on his face..."
"It's not that," the voice said quickly. "Please. Let me help you."
I took a deep breath. I wasn't inclined to trust a stranger who called to me from dark corners of a sewer tunnel, but what choice did I have? He might kill me, but if I refused his help I was probably going to die down here anyway.
"Okay," I said.
"Cover your eyes."
I didn't really want to walk all the way back to the surface with my hands over my eyes, so I cast about for something to use as a blindfold. Aha. I lifted my scarf from my shoulders, flipped it forward over my brow, and tied it tightly behind my head. I tugged it into position, making sure it completely blocked my field of view. "Okay," I said again.
The voice didn't answer.
"Hello?" I said.
I startled. He - it definitely sounded like a guy - was suddenly closer. "Don't do that!"
"I'm sorry," he said. I expected a touch on my arm or shoulder, and braced for it, but it didn't come.
"I'm going to put something on your shoulder, okay?" he said after a moment. "You need to hold the end of it."
"What -" I started, but then something light and snake-like touched me, way too close to my neck, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. "Shit!"
"Sorry," he said again. "It's just cloth. It won't hurt you. Here -"
The touch came again, and this time I reached up and grabbed it. It was soft, flat, narrow. A strip of fabric. When I drew my hand down it resisted. I frowned and tugged again.
Then I realized - he was holding the other end of it.
"Don't let go," he said. "Follow me."
I had the sense of someone edging around me - human-size, very solid, but unbelievably light on his feet - and then the strip of fabric went taut and I had to start walking.
"So," he said nonchalantly. "What's this about rats?"
"A rat stole my keys," I said, and I swear I could hear his raised eyebrow.
I recounted the whole story as we walked.
"So?" I said, when I had finished. "What brings you down here?"
I counted thirty paces before he answered. "You shouldn't ask that."
"Why?" I pressed.
"Believe me," he said. "You don't want to know."
I was incredibly tempted, just then, to lift the blindfold and peek.
"Don't look," he said, as though he had read my mind. I had a whole new kind of creepy feeling.
"Fine," I muttered.
We kept walking.
His pace was steady, slow - it was obvious he was moving at the speed of a tired, disoriented, and blindfolded woman - but after a while I couldn't even keep up with that.
"Can we rest?" I asked.
The strip of fabric went slack as he slowed even further. I stopped. The weight of the fabric shifted, and I could tell he had dropped his end.
"It's safe here," he said. "Sit down."
I reached out my hand, found the wall, and carefully worked down it until I was sitting on the metal grating. It was uncomfortable, but I didn't care.
I hung my head, staring sightlessly into my lap. "Is it much further?"
"It's pretty far."
I pressed a hand to my forehead. I thought I was crying, but the scarf was still a little damp from my swim, and it was hard to tell. "Don't leave me," I said thickly.
We sat there, quietly, and after a while I felt a little better. At least, parts of me did.
"I'm hungry," I said softly, ashamed of how weak and dependent I was being.
I heard him shift. "Do you like trail mix?"
"I do now," I said. Pretty much anything would have sounded good at that point.
"Put out your hand."
I did, expecting to feel loose nuts and candies. Instead, a solid bundle settled in my palm.
"The bag is open," he said. "Turn around and lift the bottom of your blindfold."
I obeyed him from a weird blend of feelings - because I trusted him, somehow, and because I was terrified that he would abandon me if I made him angry. I rolled up the lower edge of my scarf carefully, incrementally, just enough to uncover my mouth. I fumbled for the opening of the plastic bag, and then I started shoveling handfuls of the rich mixture into my mouth.
Well, nobody ever accused me of being ladylike.
After a while I got my disgusting eating habits under control, enough so that I could talk without spewing pieces of dried fruit everywhere. "Do you know the myth of Orpheus?" I asked conversationally, as I munched on just a few pieces at a time.
Obviously not. I settled sideways against the wall. "Orpheus. He was madly in love with a woman named Eurydice. When she died from a snake-bite, he went to the Underworld to get her back. Hades, the Lord of the Dead, said that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back to the world of light. But if he looked back at her before they reached it, then she would be immediately taken back to the realm of the dead, and she would remain there forever."
"What happened?" he asked.
"Well," I said, "Orpheus was impatient, he looked back, and the attending spirits whisked Eurydice away from him, never to be seen again. He spent the rest of his life pining for her, singing sad beautiful songs to trees and animals."
"That's... a very nice story," he said uncertainly.
"So," I said. "Here you are, leading a blindfolded woman out of the underworld... Are you into postmodern gender-role reversal or something?"
He made a little noise of startlement. "No... ?"
"Too bad," I said. "I like new-age guys." I stuck my hand out behind me, offering back the trail mix. "Here."
The bag lifted from my palm, and he put it back in whatever it is that mysterious sewer guides use to carry their stuff.
I dusted off my hands, and unrolled my scarf so that it thoroughly covered my face again. "I'm good to go."
I heard him stand up, and I used the wall to gain my feet without falling over. I had hung the strip of fabric over my shoulder while I ate, and I pulled it off then, holding that out as well. I felt the end lift.
"Let's go," he said, and we started walking again.
This time, my energy and my patience ran out much faster. "Does this passage ever end?" I complained.
"Yes," he said, and slowed, signalling me to stop. "There's a ladder on your left. Can you climb it?"
"Of course I can," I huffed. After two false attempts to grab a rung - I tried to act like I was missing on purpose, but it's hard to convey that kind of thing when the audience can't see your face - I swung myself up as though I climbed ladders blindfolded all the time.
When I reached the top, I moved carefully away from the shaft, listening to my guide climb almost soundlessly up behind me. It was disturbing, how quietly he moved. It made me trust him a little less.
"Why is it so far?" I asked him, not caring how suspicious I sounded. "It didn't take this long for me to get down here."
"We're going the long way."
I shifted back defensively. "Why?"
"I don't think you could manage the short way," he said simply.
"Hey!" I said indignantly.
"I don't think you could manage the short way blindfolded," he amended. It was a slight increase of generosity, but I still didn't like the implication.
We stood there. I assumed we were having some kind of face-off, but if we were, it was the strangest face-off ever.
"Fine," I said, when I had considered whether being blindfolded meant I automatically won all staring contests, and concluded that it didn't. I thrust out my hand, the fabric went taut again, and we walked on.
We were walking now on concrete, instead of that metal grating. It was quieter here, where the water was a contained trickle instead of a roaring river. But this water was of a more insidious kind, slopping onto the walkway and coating it with a slimy film, instead of rushing over it and draining just as quickly.
"Watch your step," he said, and again I had the feeling he was reading my thoughts.
"Kind of hard," I sniped. Almost immediately I regretted it. Aside from his weird insistence on not being seen, he hadn't done anything to deserve my distrust and resentment. I didn't want to drive him away. "Sorry," I said.
"No harm done," he said mildly.
"Um..." I said awkwardly, casting about for a compliment to make up for my rude remark. "You seem to know these sewers really well."
Two paces. "Yes."
"I have to admit," I said, "I'm really curious..."
He sighed. "It's better if you don't know."
"Why?" I wheedled. I'm really not a wheedler, but this was getting incredibly frustrating.
"I'm... not what you think I am," he said softly. "I don't get to go back to the light."
Let me tell you, whole new levels of creepy right there.
"What are you?" I asked. I don't know why I kept my voice hushed. It's not like there was anyone else to hear us.
It was a few more paces before he answered. "Think of me as... an attending spirit."
I stopped exactly where I was. The fabric jerked in my hand, and then he stopped too. "Okay," I said. "Now you're scaring me."
"Sorry." The line between us slackened as he moved back towards me. "I'm not dead, if that's what you're thinking."
I fiddled with the end of the fabric between my fingers. "You haven't let me touch you."
He shifted. "I..."
"Why not?" I asked, when it was obvious he wasn't going to say any more. "What are you afraid of? What do you think I'll do?"
"You don't understand," he said.
"Gee," I replied, lading my voice with as much sarcasm as I could fit into it. "I wonder why."
At his silence, I relented. "Please. I just want to know who I'm following."
A long moment. I could feel it stretching between us, as real and palpable as the strip of cloth.
"All right," he said finally, then quickly added: "But you have to promise, only where I say."
I nodded, and cautiously raised my empty hand.
Apparently that was enough for him. "I'm going to move my arm to your hand," he said. "Stay still."
I waited like a statue. Then something very solid touched my palm, and I closed my fingers around it.
I heard him draw a breath, but he didn't pull away. I concentrated on feeling what he had offered me, moving my fingers against his skin but not sliding my hand up or down his arm.
He wasn't warm the way I expected, not the way a human usually is. But he wasn't cold either, not at all like a dead thing. The shape under my fingers was the tapering cylinder of a forearm, but much bigger than I could wrap my hand around, and unyielding, muscle wrapped in layers around the bone. His skin had a subtle pebbled texture, and it felt thick and strong, like a knife wouldn't go through it.
"Enough," he said, and immediately I drew back.
"Thank you," I said. He didn't reply. My hand was still hanging in mid-air, and I dropped it to my side, not wanting to look like I was asking for more. "That was... You didn't like it, did you?"
"We should keep going," he said.
The fabric tautened again, and I followed in the wake of his sure, steady steps.
As I walked, I wondered if maybe he did like it.
But, for some reason, one more mysterious why in the many enigmas of my unseen guide, he felt he couldn't let himself like it.
I sensed the tunnel sloping upwards, and I took care to place each foot securely, so that I wouldn't slide backwards. My guide, like the rat, seemed to have no trouble keeping his footing.
The line in my hand pulled sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, and I followed my guide through the underground passages, trusting that he would lead me out. As we walked, he began to speak.
"I'm not usually in that part of the tunnels," he said, slowly at first, but gaining rhythm and confidence as he went. "I was... looking for something. You're lucky I was coming back just then. It could have been weeks before somebody passed through that way."
I shivered. I had felt the empty space of every turn-off we hadn't taken, and I was beginning to realize just how vast and maze-like the sewers were. "I'm really glad you came," I said. "I wouldn't have found the way out on my own."
Very clearly, I could hear him not saying No, you wouldn't.
"These sewers are very dangerous," he said instead. "You could've gotten badly hurt on the way down."
"Well," I said, reflecting on how my luck had been running that day, and how fortunate I really was to be safe and on my way home, "some things have to go right for me."
He didn't reply to that.
"Did you find it?" I asked. "What you were looking for?"
A thoughtful pause. "Yes," he said. "I think I did."
That gave me a feeling inside that I couldn't even put a name to.
Don't be stupid, I told myself. He's not talking about YOU.
Still, I didn't ask what he had been looking for.
"Are you in the sewers often?" I asked, though, from his obvious knowledge of them, I assumed he was. "Looking for things?"
"Frequently," he said.
"I... hope you find everything you're looking for," I offered lamely.
"Me too," he said softly. Then he slowed, and we stopped.
"Why are we stopping?" I asked.
"We're here," he said. He dropped his end of the fabric, and I felt it dangling loosely from my hand. "There's a ladder to your right. It will take you up to street level."
"Where?" I asked. "I mean, which street?"
"It's Dyckman and Broadway," he said. "Uptown."
"I know it," I said quickly.
"You can get home from here?"
"Good luck, then," he said. "I... I hope you also find what you're looking for." His voice was further away. "Goodbye, Eurydice."
I smiled. "Goodbye, Orpheus." I reached for the ladder, and then I realized what was still in my hand. "Oh! Your -"
His voice was already fading. "Keep it."
I hesitated. Then, swiftly, I balled up the strip of fabric inside my fist. Only when the cloth was hidden in my fingers did I remove my blindfold and climb the ladder.
I didn't look while I was walking home. I didn't look when I went into my apartment building. I didn't look when I pulled my keys from my backpack and unlocked the front door.
I locked the door behind me. I put my keys in a safe place. I sat heavily in my old armchair, not caring whether it got dirty.
And then I looked at what I was carrying.
It was blue, and it had two holes in it.