In other news, apologies for any misspellings, random weirdness. It's so cold here my fingers are behaving oddly and so is my brain.
No title as of yet.
Replying to the advert in the paper may have not have been the smartest thing in my life.
Heck, when talking about life decisions NONE of them I’d made recently had exactly been what you’d call ‘employing full capacity of my brain’. Or, consulting my brain at all.
Which is why, when I saw the advert, even though I knew it was a bad idea, it was the only streetlight working on a long dark road – even if it was dodgy, flickering badly and right next door to a rundown cemetery. But even so, what choice did I have to run towards it full pelt?
Especially hearing the noises coming up behind me.
Although, I never would have imagined part of the job description would be trampling through the sewers chasing shadows.
My employer was neither Asian nor spoke any eastern languages. He did, however, own the largest collection of manga I had ever seen.
“Just so I am completely clear. We’re currently wandering through the sewers because, and I quote, ‘the workers have seen some spooky shadows’.
“So, our job is to investigate…urban legends?”
“Oh no, that’s to be left to the professionals. We wouldn’t want to be messing around with things beyond our comprehension.”
“Just what the hell is this job?!”
“Didn’t I explain it in my ad?”
“No, it just said, ‘assistant needed, please apply if strongly gifted, phenomenally lucky or desperate.’”
“Oh. Which one were you again?”
“Well, I firmly believe in on the spot job training – helps sort out the weeds from the chaff you know?”
“I was the only one who applied wasn’t I?”
“Now now, don’t belittle yourself so – the fact that you could even see my ad means you must have some moderate talent of your own.”
Fortunately for sensei, a sharp clawed shadow pealed itself off of the wall at that moment and bit off the top of his torch, plunging us all into darkness and preventing me from doing GBH.
To explain why, exactly, I was running around the sewers with an uncanny crazy man who, annoyingly enough, happened to be exactly right in this circumstance, I would need to trace back a few weeks.
I was walking home one night from the job centre, minding my own business, when this meteorite fell from space and knocked me flying several meters down the street. Only it wasn’t a meteorite. When I came too it had cracked open and the most adorable little red haired, green eyed space toddler was looking back at me.
What else could I do but take him home?
A panic stricken wild dash later Sensei and I were huddled up in a well-lit service room.
“I’m guessing those were the shadows we’re after then.” I won’t lie, my voice wobbled like a jelly wielding toddler on a tightrope.
“That would be them. I was hoping that they might have calmed down after all these years – but perhaps not.”
“What are they?”
“Shadows, remnants – the remains of very unhappy people.” He paused again. “Did you know that this used to be called the ‘perfect city’?”
I snorted. “Lifetimes ago perhaps. Now it’s just a rundown city – we’re lucky it hasn’t turned into some sort of spaghetti western.”
“That may be – but there’s a lot of help out there right?”
I nodded reluctantly. “Yeah, our government might be poor but they do their best. There are shelters all over if you’re down on your luck.”
“Back when this was the perfect city there was nothing like that. The perfect was in name only. Those that had money could survive there quite happily – hence the name ‘perfect’. But if you didn’t have the cash, or the social standing, or the wrong idea you were soon labelled as a ‘rat’ and thus disposed of. You’ve noticed how the sewer walls seem to be warped?”
I nodded. It was weird – it almost looked like there were waves running through them.
“Well, as there was nowhere to run to above the ‘rats’ usually ended up running to the sewers. Hidden away they should have been safe but even this wasn’t enough for the government of that era. One night, in a covert mission, they flooded the sewers with modified magma which they claimed was to ‘clean’ them.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face.
“They murdered them?”
“Trapped them and burned them alive.” Sensei nodded.
“Because their existence contradicted the lie they were spinning. If they wanted to stay on top they had to eliminate everything that could have rocked the boat.” He paused, “quite a few metaphors clashing there but you get the point.”
“How, how many?”
“Probably a few hundred.”
“Monstrous, yes. It proved their undoing however. There was a survivor, of sorts.”
“Did he go to the press and expose them?”
Sensei laughed out loud. “You are surprisingly naïve. The government owned the press – it would have got him instantly killed. Besides, I doubt in the condition it left him in he could have made it that far. Apparently he was only a survivor by a millimetre and hovering at death’s door.”
“Then what happened?”
Sensei tilted his head at me and went, “Ohhhhh, you want to know?”
I miraculously repressed the urge to hit my employer and simply said, “it’s seems to have something to do with the situation at hand so yes, I would like to know.”
I gritted my teeth. “Please Sensei.”
He grinned at me. “Well then, and this is only urban legend mind you – no one knows for sure what happened. No one even knows the identity of the last survivor. My money is on the probability that he was someone who had fallen from grace – how else would he know exactly where to strike?”
“Couldn’t someone have asked him?”
“Ha! Not really. What came up from the sewers that night was no longer what you could call human. You know I said those shadows before were remnants?”
I nodded. Trying to ignore the scratching on the other side of the door. Sensei had yet to reveal his escape plan from this one-door underground room.
“Well, they’re pretty much what’s left of the burned rats – all their resentment and hopelessness and evil death smeared across the sewers. Rumour has it that they came across the broken and dying survivor and offered him a deal. He was dying but he still had corporeal form – the remnants were somewhat ‘alive’ but they were trapped by their very nature – their ‘shadowiness’ wouldn’t last long in the world above. So they came to him and said that they would enter his body and the small pieces of their individual energy (remember there were hundreds of them) would be enough to, well, finish the job. After all, they both had the same goal in mind- vengeance.”
“Apparently so. After that night there was talk of an assassin who was ‘as black as night with burning eyes.’ This guy went after the mayor and all high ranking officials. Not only did he kill them but left evidence of their dirty dealings strewn all over the room. After a while, it got harder and harder to cover up – other outside investigative agencies began to get involved and from then the whole edifice began to crumble. Eventually, we were left with what we have now.”
I said nothing.
“Oh, you think it would have been better if he had done nothing and simply died in the sewers like a good rat?”
“No!” I retorted. “But you can hardly call this current state of affairs ‘perfect’. This city is filled with the homeless and criminals.”
“Which makes it no different than the time of the rats. Only now we are forced to see what is in front of us instead of having it hidden with pretty lies. ‘Perfection’ is an absolute, unchanging. Which makes it stagnant and eventually it will rot. Besides, what he wanted was revenge – which does not pay attention to what comes next. Was he wrong to seek vengeance for the crimes committed?”
“No, but, it hardly made anything easier for the rest of us.”
“perhaps if the ‘rest of us’ had been paying better attention, than the original situation wouldn’t have occurred in the first place and we could all now be living happily.”
I shot him a disbelieving look – even if I thought he had a point.
He simply smiled. “It’s something to aim for, no? I think he did do us a great service – but forcing us to confront our dirty laundry, perhaps he made us think of a way to get it clean? Or at least prevent the dirt from building up like that again.”
I sat in thought.
“So what do you think happened to him, the assassin?”
Sensei shrugged. “After everything was uncovered he simply vanished. Perhaps he went abroad, perhaps he moved on to another city that needed his help.”
“But what do you think happened?”
“I think he died.” Sensei said flatly. “I think once his vengeance was complete there was nothing holding him to this world anymore.”
“But what about the shadows – the people who cast them had already died.”
“As you can see, they are still here, in the sewers. After all this time.”
I blinked, trying to chase away the tears that had unexpectedly welled up. “But that’s so sad.”
“They are only shadows.”
“But to be trapped here, where they experienced so much suffering. Don’t they want to leave?”
Sensei smiled. “Why don’t you ask them yourself?”
As if in a dream I felt myself rise and move towards the door, which was vibrating on its hinges, the scratching reaching an almost unbearable crescendo. As I opened the door and watched the black wave crash over me, I asked;
“Don’t you want to see the sunlight?”
The last of the shadows dissolved like mist from my skin in the late afternoon sunlight, spiralling up into the wide blue sky.
My skin was my own again.
A gentle cough drew my attention and Sensei held out a clean white handkerchief to me.
Seriously, who uses handkerchiefs in this day and age? But I took it anyway and dabbed at the tears trickling down my face.
“So Sensei, are you finally going to tell me what this job is?” I was pleased that, although my voice was rough, it came out steady.
Sensei smiled at me and then, oddly, bowed.
“I,” he stated proudly, “am a funeral director. I deal with awkward burials.”
“Ah, those who won’t, or can’t, pass on in the normal way. Or have no one left to do their rites for them.”
I thought about it. “So you’re an exorcist?”
“No, no, no!” He looked appalled. “Exorcists deal with the living. I deal only with the dead. I create a bridge to the otherside for those that are lost here. Besides, exorcists are a crude and rough lot. All my funerals are performed with grace. A proper farewell.”
“And you need an assistant?”
“There is only me – and the dead are legion.” He paused. “Admittedly they can be a bit peculiar when it comes to payment but it’s more than enough to get by on. And as you performed your first funeral beautifully, I would be more than happy to hire you.”
I gave him a hard stare. “The job comes with lodgings and board?”
He blinked. “Ah, yes.”
“Then I’ll need to swing by my place to pick up some things and I’ll move in today – boss.”
I lived in one of the roughest parts of town – rent was cheap and the gangs were too busy over turf wars to really hassle one woman alone. Ironically, I would have been at more risk in one of the more affluential areas – where the crime was more organised and thus had more time on its hand to be bored. The devil makes work for idle thumbs after all.
Sensei was following me, taking in the run down surroundings with great interest.
Had it just been me alone I might have been tempted to just commute – I knew my territory after all and I felt safe here.
But I was not alone. There were now other things to consider. Despite what sensei said about the dead being sporadic payers, he lived in a far posher part of town, where the sidewalks were clean, they had things like cafes and you could actually see policemen patrolling. It was a far healthier environment for a child.
Besides, had I been alone, I never would have applied for this job in the first place.
“Here we are.” I sung out, hoping my nervousness didn’t show. I really hadn’t wanted Sensei to come back with me – I’d wanted to turn up on his doorstep as a fait accompli. But no such luck. He’d insisted on being a gentleman and helping me move my stuff.
Even when I said I didn’t have a lot of stuff.
“Do you want to wait down here? I’ll only be a minute.” Trying to put off the inevitable.
“No, no, I’ll come up and help.”
We climbed the concrete stairs, the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the broken windows like golden syrup, transmuting the grey of the stairwell.
I undid the locks, took a deep breath and opened the door.
My darling little one was sitting in the middle of the otherwise immaculate floor, chewing on a dead rat. Half the body was already devoured and when he saw me he let out a big smile, perfectly showing off his blood-stained, razor-sharp teeth.
“Mama.” He said.
When in doubt, I always took my aunts advice.
Brazen it out.
“Oh sweetie, you’ve got blood on you again. Good thing I thought to put your bib on hey?” I bustled over, neatly plucking the dead rat off of him and swinging him into my arms.
“Again….?” I heard Sensei’s weak voice behind me but I decided to ignore the panic in it for now.
“Yes, I have no idea how he gets hold of the rats – I’m always so careful to keep the flat clean but in an area like this – well, it’s hard you know.”
I turned away and started fiercely folding and packing our clothes into a battered carrying bag. I hadn’t been lying when I said we didn’t have much. Once again Luke had gotten the rat out of my hands and was chewing on it. I decided to leave him to it this time.
I felt Sensei’s eyes rove round the small bedsit – noting the broken windows covered with polythene, the rickety furniture, what little there was of it, and lastly, little Luke, sitting on the floor eating a rat.
“I wouldn’t have thought you were old enough to have a child.” Sensei’s voice sounded mild.
“He’s adopted. He sort of – fell into my lap out of the blue and I couldn’t just abandon him.”
“I see. Do they not have daycares round here?”
I was surprised at the sudden question but understood the meaning. “No, nothing formal at least. Normally I’m here all the time – but today, I asked one of the other mums to drop by and look in on him from time to time. Trust me, it was far from my ideal situation but no one will take him in to babysit. It was hard enough to get them to do that.” My hands clenched in the cloth. “Just because he looks a little different.”
“I assume you mean the teeth.”
I nodded. “He’s far better behaved than any of the other children out there. Much better.” I felt my shoulders start to sag.
“But none of them will play with him. It’s not even like he bites.”
“Hmmm.” Sensei’s obviously thoughtful pause brought me back to the urgency of the situation. I spun to face him, my back straight.
“I’ll not leave him behind.”
“Good God no.” He said, startled. “I was just wondering if there is a more suitable employment for you as this one does have its risks…” he trailed off when he saw my expression. “Which I am sure you have already considered.”
I continued to stare at him.
“Fine, pack your stuff. We’ll all go – although God knows what the neighbours will think of me bringing home a young girl and child.”
“I’ll work hard enough for the two of us, I promise!”
“Yes, yes.” Sensei brushed away my comments away. “There’s no need for that – and you being so grateful is kind of creepy. Besides, I’m sure little, err.”
“Little Luke will be a great help in keeping down the rats.”
I swung Luke back into my arms and started dancing round the room.
“You hear that sweetie – you’ll have a great and wonderful life ahead of you, just like mummy promised.” I hugged him.
“You do realise my mental image of you is getting totally destroyed.” Sensei remarked. “Anyway, are you ready?”
“Pretty much. I just need to throw these things in and – done!” I shut the bag with a satisfying clunk.
“Already? Then give it here.” Sensei plucked the bag from my grasp and headed towards the door. “Have you got hold of the little ratter?”
“In my arms.” I said. “And don’t call him a little ratter.”
“Now there’s my scary assistant.”
“I am not scary.”
“You followed me into infested sewers without even batting an eyelid. Definitely scary.”
“I am not”
With Luke in my arms, I followed Sensei’s laughter out the door.