Ezekiel Wilkes shivered at the entrance to the old water runoff system. He stared into the hole as if it might eat him, or as if he wanted it to—because he was having second thoughts about this whole thing. But his third thoughts were insistent. He’d come this far. He only had a few yards to go, through a large tunnel and into a city that had been functionally dead since before he was born.
The lantern in his hand quivered with the chilled shakes of his elbow. In his pocket, a folded, wrinkled map was wadded into a nub. He only carried it as a matter of formality. He knew it by heart.
But there was one thing he didn’t know, and it bothered him greatly.
He didn’t know where his parents had once lived. Not exactly.
His mother had never mentioned an address, but he was sure they’d lived up on Denny Hill, which gave him a place to start looking. The hill itself wasn’t so big, and he knew roughly what the house looked like. At bedtime when he was younger, Zeke’s mother had described it to him as if it’d been a castle. If it still stood, it was lavender and cream, with two full stories and a turret. It had a porch that wrapped around the front of the house; and on that porch was a rocking chair painted to look like it was made of wood.
It was actually made of metal, and fitted with a mechanism that connected to the floor. When a crank was wound, the chair would rock itself for the benefit of anyone who was sitting in it at the time.
Zeke found it almost infuriating how little he knew about the man who’d made it work. But he thought he knew where to look for answers. All he had to do was hike through the tunnel and head up the hill to his immediate left, which ought to be Denny Hill.
He wished he had somebody to ask, but there wasn’t anybody.
There wasn’t anything, except a wafting stink from the heavy fumes of a mysterious gas that still leaked out from the earth inside the wall.
Now was as good a time as any to put on his mask.
He took a deep breath before sliding the harness over his face and securing it. When he exhaled, the interior fogged for a second and then cleared.
The tunnel looked even more distant and unearthly when he viewed it through the mask’s visor. It appeared elongated and strange, and the darkness seemed to wobble and twist when he turned his head. The straps of the mask rubbed itchily where they lay over and under his ears. He slipped a finger up underneath the leather and ran it back and forth.
He checked his lantern for the dozenth time and yes, it was full of oil. He checked his bag and yes, it had all the supplies he’d been able to swipe. He was as ready as he was ever going to be, which was only just ready enough.
Zeke turned up the lantern’s wick to give himself as much light as possible.
He crossed the threshold, forcing himself past the line between mere night and someplace darker. His lantern filled the interior of the brick-lined, man-made cave with a wash of gold.
He’d meant to leave earlier, in the morning after his mother had gone to the Waterworks. But it’d taken all day to get his supplies together, and Rector had been difficult about the details.
So now it was almost dark outside, and perfectly dark inside.
The lantern cast a bubbled halo that carried him forward, into the unknown. He navigated the crumbled spots where the ceiling had dropped itself in pieces and piles; and he dodged the hanging tendrils of moss that was thicker than seaweed; and he ducked beneath the spiderwebs that dangled, waving, from brick to brick.
Here and there he saw signs of prior passage, but he didn’t know if he felt reassured that he was not the first to come this way. On the walls he saw black scuff marks where matches had been struck or cigarettes stubbed out; and he spied tiny, shapeless wads of wax that were too small to work as candles any longer. The initials W.L. were rubbed onto one cluster of bricks. Shards of broken glass glittered between weather-widened cracks.
All he could hear was the rhythmic tap of his footsteps, his muffled breaths, and the rusty hinge of the swinging lantern as it bounced back and forth.
And then there was another sound, one that made him think he was being followed.
He swung the lantern around, but saw no one. And there was no place for anyone to hide—it was a straight shot from the bricks where he stood to the beach. Forward, the way was less clear. As far as he could see, at the very edges of the lantern’s reach, nothing but more emptiness waited.
The grade rose. He was going up, very slightly. The open places above him where the bricks had come away did not show any sky because they were covered by earth. The echoes of the small sounds in the tunnel became more smothered and close. Zeke had expected it, but it made him more uncomfortable than he would’ve thought. He knew that the geography jerked up away from the coast, and that the exposed tunnel wormed a path underneath the city proper.
If Rector was right, at the end of the main pathway the route would split four ways. The leftmost one would lead up to the basement of a bakery. The roof of that building would be a semisafe place to get a handle on his surroundings.
Underground and in the dark, the way seemed to curve left, and then right. Zeke didn’t think he’d made a full circle, but he was definitely disoriented. He hoped that he’d still be able to pin down Denny Hill when he broke the surface.
After what felt like miles—but was surely only a fraction of that—the way widened and fractured as Rector had promised. Zeke took the hole on the far left and followed it another hundred feet before it terminated in a total dead end—or so he thought, until he backtracked slightly and found the secondary passage. This new corridor did not appear crafted, but dug. It did not look reinforced or secure. It looked temporary, spontaneous, and ready to fall.
He took it anyway.
The walls were more mud than stone or brick, and they were filthy wet. So was the floor, which was mostly a mash of decomposing sawdust, soil, and plant roots. It bit down on his boots and tried to hold him, but he slogged forward and finally, at the end of another twist and on the other side of another turn, he found a ladder.
With a skip and a jump he extricated himself from the gummy muck and seized the ladder hard. He lifted himself out and up, and into a basement so thickly dusted that even the mice and roaches left tracks on every surface. And there were footprints, too—quite a number of them.
At a rough glance he counted maybe ten sets of feet that had passed this way. He told himself that it was good, that he was glad to see that other people had survived the trip without trouble, but in truth it made him queasy. He’d hoped, and partly plotted, to find an empty city filled with mindless perils. Everybody knew about the rotters. Rector had told Zeke about the quiet societies that kept underground and out of sight, but mostly Zeke hoped to avoid them.
And, footprints… well…
Footprints implied he might run into other people at some point.
As he surveyed the room and determined that it held nothing of value, he resolved to be on his most careful behavior. While he climbed the stairs in the corner, he vowed to stick to the shadows and keep his head down, and his gun ready.
Really, he liked the thought of it. He enjoyed the prospect of being one boy against the universe, on a grand and dangerous adventure—even if it was only going to last a few hours. He would move like a thief in the night. He would be as invisible as a ghost.
On the first floor, all the windows were boarded and covered, reinforced and braced from corner to corner. A counter with a splintered glass cover rotted along the wall, and a set of old striped awnings lay forgotten in a pile. Stacks of rusting pans cluttered a broken-down sink, and a dilapidated cash box was scattered in pieces across the floor.
He found a ladder propped in an empty pantry. At the top of the ladder a trapdoor had been left unlocked. He pushed against it with his hand, his head, and his shoulder, and it opened away from him. In a moment, he was on the roof.
And then there was something cold and hard pressed against the back of his neck.
He froze, one foot still on the ladder’s top step.
Zeke replied, without turning around, “Hello yourself.” He tried to keep it low and growly, but he was scared and it came out at a higher pitch than he’d hoped for. In front of him he saw nothing but the corners of an empty rooftop; as far as the visor and his own peripheral vision could tell him, he was alone except for whomever was behind him with the very cold-barreled gun.
He set the lantern down with all the precision and caution he could muster.
“What are you doing up here, boy?”
He said, “Same as you, I reckon.”
“And what exactly do you think I’m doing?” his interrogator asked.
“Nothing you’d like to get caught at. Look, let me alone, will you? I don’t got any money or anything.” Zeke slowly stepped out of the hole, balancing carefully, with his hands held uselessly aloft.
The cold, circular chill of something hard and dangerous didn’t leave the exposed patch at the base of his skull.
“No money, eh?”
“Not a penny. Can I turn around? I feel stupid standing here like this. You can shoot me just as easy if I’m facing you. I’m not armed or nothing. Come on, let me loose. I didn’t do nothing to you.”
“Let me see your bag.”
Zeke said, “No.”
The pressure came harder against his neck. “Yes.”
“It’s just papers. Maps. Nothing worth anything. But I can show you something neat if you’ll let me.”
“Look,” Zeke said, trying to wriggle himself away by inches and not succeeding very well. “Look,” he said again, trying to buy time. “I’m a peace-abiding man, myself,” he exaggerated. “I keep Maynard’s peace. I keep it, and I don’t want any trouble.”
“You know a bit about Maynard, do you?”
“Well, I ought to,” he grumbled. “He was my granddad.”
“Get out,” said the voice behind him, and it sounded more honestly impressed than dubious. “No, you ain’t. I’d have heard about you, if you were.”
“No, it’s true. I can prove it. My mom, she was—”
The interrogator interrupted, “The Widow Blue? Now, come to think of it, she did have a boy, didn’t she?” He fell silent.
“Yeah. She had me.”
Zeke felt the cold circle against his neck slide, so he took a chance and stepped away—still keeping his hands in the air. He turned around slowly, and then dropped his hands with an exasperated yelp. “You were going to shoot me with a bottle?”
“No.” The man shrugged. It was a glass bottle with the remnants of a black-and-white label stuck raggedly to its side. “I never heard of anyone getting shot with a bottle. I just wanted to make sure.”
“Make sure of what?”
“That you understood,” he said vaguely, and sat down against the wall with a sliding, slumping motion that implied he was reinstating the position he’d held when Zeke had interrupted him.
The man was masked as a matter of necessity, and he was wearing at least one fatly knitted sweater and two coats—the outer one of which was a very dark blue, or maybe black. A row of buttons pocked the front, and a pair of dark, oversized pants lurked beneath it. His boots were mismatched: One was tall and brown; the other was shorter and black. At his feet lay an oddly shaped cane. He picked it up and gave it a twist, then set it in his lap.
“What’s wrong with you?” Zeke demanded. “Why’d you scare me like that?”
“Because you were there,” he said, and there didn’t seem to be any smirk or smugness behind it. “And why were you, anyway?”
“Why was I what?”
“Why were you there? I mean, why are you here? This ain’t no place for a boy, even if you are Maynard’s. Shit, it might be a worse place for you, if you run around firing off claims like that, whether they’re true or not. You’re lucky, I guess,” the man said.
“Lucky? How you figure?”
“You’re lucky it’s me who found you, and not somebody else.”
“How was that lucky?” Zeke asked.
He wiggled the bottle that still swung from his hand. “I didn’t stick you up with anything that’d hurt you.”
Zeke didn’t see anything on the man that might have actually hurt him, but he didn’t mention it. He picked up his lantern again, adjusted his bag, and scowled. “It’s a good thing for you I didn’t have my gun out.”
“You’ve got a gun?”
“Yeah, I do,” he said, standing up straighter.
“Where is it?”
Zeke patted the bag.
“You’re an idiot,” said the seated man with the bottle and the bulky clothes. Then he brought the mouth of the bottle up to the edge of his mouth, where it knocked loudly against his gas mask.
He gazed sadly at the bottle and swirled its last few drops around in the bottom.
“I’m an idiot? My momma has an expression about a pot and a kettle, you jackass.”
The man looked as if he were about to say something ungallant about Zeke’s mother, but he didn’t. He said, “I don’t think I caught your name, kid.”
“I didn’t offer it.”
“Do so now,” he said. There was a hint of menace underlying the command.
Zeke didn’t like it. “No. You tell me yours first, and I’ll think about telling you mine. I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you’re doing here. And I…” He fumbled with his bag until he’d pulled his grandfather’s old revolver out. It took about twenty seconds, during which the man on the roof didn’t bother to budge. “I have a gun.”
“So you do,” the man said. But he didn’t sound impressed this time. “And now you’ve got it in your hands, at least. Ain’t you got a belt? A holster?”
“Don’t need one.”
“Fine,” he said. “Now what’s your name?”
“Zeke. Zeke Wilkes. And what’s yours?” he demanded.
Inside his mask, the man grinned, presumably because he’d gotten the boy’s name before giving away his own. Zeke could only see the smile because of the way his eyes crinkled behind the visor. “Zeke. Wilkes, even. Can’t say I blame you for dropping the color, kid.” And before Zeke could complain or retort, he added, “I’m Alistair Mayhem Osterude, but you can join the rest of the world in calling me Rudy, if you want.”
“Your middle name is Mayhem?”
“It is if I say it is. And if you don’t mind my asking, Zeke Wilkes, what the hell are you doing inside this place? Shouldn’t you be in school, or at work, or something? And better yet, does your momma know you’re here? I hear she’s a real firecracker of a lady. I bet she wouldn’t like it if she knew you done took off.”
“My mother’s working. She won’t be home for hours, and I’ll be home by then. What she don’t know won’t hurt her,” he said. “And I’m wasting time here talking to you, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.“
He stuffed the gun back into his bag and turned his back on Rudy. He breathed slowly and evenly through his mask’s filters and tried to remember exactly where he was, and exactly where he was trying to go.
Rudy asked, from his spot up against the wall, “Where you going?”
“None of your business.”
“Fair, and all right. But if you tell me what you’re looking for, I might be able to tell you how to get there.”
Zeke walked to the edge and looked down, but he didn’t see anything through the thick, sticky air. His lantern revealed nothing except more of the tainted fog in all directions. He said, “You could tell me how to get to Denny Hill.”
And Rudy said, “I could, yeah.” Then he asked, “But where on Denny Hill? It wraps around this whole area. Oh. I get it. You’re trying to go home.”
Before he could think to argue or be vague, Zeke said, “It ain’t home. It never was. I never saw it.”
“I did,” Rudy told him. “It was a nice house.”
“Was? Is it gone now?”
He shook his head, “No, I don’t think so. As far as I know it’s still standing. I only meant that it’s not nice no more. Nothing inside here is. The Blight eats up paint and fixings, and makes everything go yellow-brown.”
“But you know where it is?”
“Roughly.” Rudy untangled his legs and stood, leaning on his cane and wobbling. “I could get you there, easily. If that’s where you want to go.”
“That’s where I want to go.” He nodded. “But what do you want for helping me?”
Rudy considered his response, or maybe he only waited for his head to clear. He said, “I want to go looking through that house. Your pa was a rich man, and I don’t know if it’s been cleaned out good or not, yet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” Rudy almost snapped. “These houses, and these businesses—nobody owns them no more, or at least nobody’s coming back inside after them. Half the people who used to live here are dead, anyhow. So those of us who are left, we…” He hunted for a word that sounded less direct than the truth. “Scavenge. Or we salvage, anyway. We ain’t got much choice.”
Something about the logic sounded wrong, but Zeke couldn’t put his finger on it. Rudy was looking to bargain, but Zeke didn’t have anything to counter with. This might be the perfect opportunity, if he played it right. He said, “I guess that’s fair. If you take me to the house, you could take some of the things you find left there.”
Rudy snorted. “I’m glad to have your permission, young Mr. Wilkes. That’s mighty big of you.”
Zeke knew when he was being made fun of, and he didn’t care for it. “Fine, then. If you’re going to act like that, maybe I don’t need a guide at all. Maybe I can find it on my own. I told you, I’ve got maps.”
“And a gun, yes. I believe you mentioned it. That makes you a big man ready to take on the Blight, and the rotters, and all the other outlaws like myself. I’d say you’re all ready to go.” He sat down on the roof’s edge as if he’d changed his mind.
“I can find it on my own!” Zeke insisted, too loudly.
Rudy made a hushing motion with his hands and said, “Keep it low, boy. I’m telling you for your own good, and for mine. Keep your voice low. There are worse things out here than me by a long shot, and you don’t want to meet any of them, I promise.”