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The Humans in the Walls

Mats had been climbing on the gravel rampart with Johanna and Tiffany, now that the trucks had left and there wasn’t anyone there to tell them off, but when they were about to go home, Tiffany said she’d lost her glasses. She’d started wearing them when she was around age five and had already lost one pair, when they were visiting granddad in Kristiansand. A new pair would cost a couple thousand. He followed the girls home, but then he went back to the rampart to see if he could find them before dad got home from work.

The rampart was almost three times his height and lay between the deserted airfield and the conifer forest. Perhaps it had been intended to be part of some construction site, but it had been there for as long as he remembered. A bit of concrete wall that didn’t serve any purpose any more poked out of one end. Someone had sprayed “FEED THE BEAST” across it. He’d chuckled at how scary it sounded. Perhaps it was just the name of an album.

It wasn’t so cold that he had to wear a hat or gloves yet, but it got dark earlier. If he didn’t find them soon it would be too dark to search. On the way here he’d looked in the roadside. He should have asked Tiffany if she remembered where she’d lost them – not where she’d lost them, obviously, but where she’d had them last.

They hadn’t been on most of the tarmac field, so he could eliminate that. He climbed the left end of the rampart. The gravel was brown with damp. It rattled under the soles of his trainers but didn’t slip. They were glass, they would shine from the right angle. He looked along the high bumps and ledges of the rampart. The sky was grey and covered, it looked like the light had already started to go away. Perhaps there wasn’t enough light.

He hadn’t kept an eye on Tiffany all the time, he didn’t know where she’d been. The image of the glasses was so clear on the inside of his eyes, he must have seen them several times in the gravel: frames nail-polish pink with a stylised flower on the side. The fuckers had to be somewhere. If he couldn’t find them tonight he might come back and look tomorrow.

The ground sloped upwards towards the forest, so the back of the rampart wasn’t as tall as the front. They hadn’t been on that side, but he hadn’t had any luck anywhere else.

The glasses weren’t there, but there was a hole into the rampart. It was big enough that a human would be able to crawl in. Some kids might have dug it out, or perhaps it was the lair of some large animal. A badger? Would a badger be able to dig such a large hole? A little dead animal was lying next to the opening, a shrew or something similar, so there was probably some animal living in there.

There was no light that reached here. Inside the hole it was just black. He fumbled a bit inside the opening, in case the glasses had fallen down there. There wasn’t anything. The gravel floor was cold with moisture, but smooth and clean.

He had a pen flashlight with a knurled metal surface in his keyring, a Christmas present from Johanna. He pulled it out and twisted it on. The thin beam came on and stabbed into his eyes until he saw a blue-purple after-image. When he swung it inside the hole, it showed a tunnel of gravel mixed with black soil. It continued for a few metres, then there was a wall where the cone of light moved, but that might have been a bend.

He crawled inside. This was the kind of thing that ended badly in books, teenagers who went into ice caves and the like and couldn’t find the way out, but he was going to crawl back as soon as he got to a crossing or heard anything. The tunnel was wide enough that you could turn around. Perhaps he would come back with a ball of string and unroll it, like in the story of Theseus. If the tunnel collapsed he was only a couple of metres from the opening. Would he be able to dig straight up through the rampart – no. When he was a kid, Tiffany’s age, he’d always wanted to stop by gravel-pits because he’d thought that you’d sink in the heaps of gravel and sand and could swim in them like in a ball pit. He slammed the sleeve of his jacket into the wall. If it collapsed now he would have lost all this, but it was stable, only a couple of grit flakes fell from the place where he’d hit. Perhaps it was humans who had dug it out.

He kept crawling. The cold of the gravel had started seeping through his jeans. He might have to put them in the wash basket when he got home. He got enough air in here. It was dank and maybe not as cold as above ground. He couldn’t hold the flashlight upright while crawling, but there wasn’t a lot to see. There weren’t any sounds.

Once he was about to put his knee in something dark. He snapped his leg away, but it wasn’t alive. It was a piece of raw meat. That was another sign of some animal living here, but he couldn’t hear anything moving. He crawled more carefully after that.

Something was lying in front of him. It looked like a curled-up earthworm, but when he turned the light towards it it was a hair-tie, pale pink – a strange colour down here – with a faded plastic ornament shaped like a butterfly. It was damp when he touched it. Some other little kid had dropped it while playing.

The tunnel turned further ahead, and it looked like it was going down. This had to be the wall he’d seen from the opening. He glanced back before continuing. The opening was a pale square.

While he went on, the temperature dropped so suddenly that he noticed. It might have been when he passed ground level. It wasn’t an unbearable cold, but the damp was starting to fasten on his hair and seep into his scalp. The walls become more soil, leaf-mould, less gravel. The floor got softer on his knees, but also stickier. He’d already got his jeans dirty, he might as well keep going. He stopped and pulled his collar up so that nothing that crawled in here would fall inside his jacket.

There was something new here, a little soft toy. He poked it. It was a blue cloth elephant with springy stuffing. It was stained and dark with wet and he let go of it. The hair-tie had been lying only a few metres in, but a little kid wouldn’t have been allowed to crawl this far. For a few seconds he was still, listening. He heard something, a distant scritching. It didn’t sound like a human.

“Hello?” he called.

His voice sounded weak as if the tunnel was muffling it. Nobody replied, and the scratching died away.

A smell became stronger the further he got. It wasn’t unpleasant; it reminded him of a nocturnal forest. He couldn’t figure out what it was until the light slid across the wall and shone on an old beam along the tunnel, black and gleaming. He’d smelled the wet wood, but underneath it he felt something else, something rotten. He was starting to lose sensation in his knees.

He stopped and swept the flashlight forward. Up ahead there was only darkness. The walls continued maybe two or three metres, then the void started.

He crawled the last bit and came out in – a cave? It was still too low to stand up, but it was so large he could barely reach the other end with the flashlight. If he said something it might echo, but he didn’t say anything.

Now he ought to get out and tell the papers or the council about this, at least come back with his phone in case something happened. He looked around. Something flat and bright was lying in the left corner, so bright it was almost fluorescent. He crept towards it and the beam went all over the place every time he raised his hand.

“HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

The yell made him flinch and knock his head on the ceiling. He wasn’t dreaming, he was in an underground tunnel and something had screamed. It was gone. It had been so quick, could he have hallucinated it? No, he heard it again. This time it was just screaming. If there were words in it he couldn’t make them out. He started screaming himself.

He had to stop to breathe, but he was still conscious. Cold pebbles cut into his fingers. The thing up ahead was a little pile of bones. He didn’t look at the skull, because then he would see what it had been.

He had to do something. At least it hadn’t sounded like a child.

“You there?” he half-shouted.

It didn’t even sound like his voice.

Some time went by. He listened and couldn’t hear anything except the scratching, then a scurrying of paws, small paws. It had to be rats or something that size. Mice wouldn’t be that loud.

The voice was there again.

“I’m down here… there are holes. Go and get help. I had a phone, but they broke it… just get out of here, for God’s sake!”

It was quieter, he had to make an effort to hear, and they seemed to struggle to control it.

“Where are you?” Mats called, crawling out across the floor.

It had sounded like it came from the other end of the room – it was a room, rectangular, as if it had been a basement. He swept the flashlight around, but there were no people, nothing that moved. Should he tell them to keep talking so he’d have a sound to orient by?

He’d opened his mouth, but something creaked and rustled. The world wobbled. Was he going to pass out? Everything he could see was crisp, it was the floor that was moving under him. He turned and threw himself towards the dark square in the wall, but when he braced against the soil, it cracked under his legs. He fell in a rain of grit and soil.

He didn’t know whether he’d passed out, because it was dark. Perhaps he’d been awake for a long time without knowing. His back and neck hurt, but he could move. He kicked and the earth slid off him. He wasn’t buried.

The screams had gone quiet, but he heard the scratching again. It died away and returned.

“Hello?” he said.

He could hear it, but no-one replied.

He could breathe. The air smelled bad, but it entered his lungs and filled him with cold oxygen. He sat up. It felt like he was tottering, but he couldn’t see anything. He felt a wall of damp soil when he put out his hand. Something touched his back through the jacket. He stretched his arm upwards as high as he could, but he couldn’t feel the ceiling. It might be high enough to stand up straight, but if he stood up he might lose his balance.

The flashlight. He grabbed his pocket and felt the keyring, but not the little cylinder. Of course, he hadn’t had it in his pocket when he fell. He felt his way across the ground. It was muddy, and he could feel rocks and something smooth (bones, probably, but it might be sticks). He’d fallen with it, surely it had ended up here?

He felt the knurled metal under his fingertips. It was cold against the palm of his hand when he gripped it. He twisted it so strongly it felt like it could have snapped, but it lit up. His knees shivered when he got up.

He was standing in a pit. The bottom was small, he wouldn’t have had room to lie stretched out, but it was deeper than he was tall. He swept the flashlight upwards.

Something lay across the opening. It couldn’t be soil, there was nothing holding it up. It was something firm, a lid. The light gleamed on wet beams. They weren’t tight, there were dark gaps between them that might be open up to the cave, but he couldn’t see through them.

Bones were lying on the bottom. One of them was a small human skull. He picked it up as if this might still be a joke, joke items from a toyshop, but it was too heavy to be plastic. How long could it have been lying here? It hadn’t yellowed. The surface was irregular from little tooth-marks, like chisel blows. He dropped it and wiped his hand on the nylon of his jacket. There was another skull. At first he thought it was deformed, but it was from some animal, maybe a fox, long and with a fanged snout.

He clawed onto the earth wall and tried to climb. He had to dig in his fingers and the sides of his trainers, and now he sensed how many things were crawling in the soil. The first time he slipped and fell when the soil crumbled. The second time he got up. He held on with one hand and hit the lid. It didn’t move. He grabbed the nearest gap – irregularly angled – and tried to move the wood, but he couldn’t budge it. He lost his grip and almost twisted his ankle on a bowl next to the wall. He looked at it, because it was something different. It was in blue glaze, alien to this place, and there was a bit of dark water inside.

He searched his pockets. The only things he had were the keyring, the leather wallet, a couple of coins, the note with the phone number for Dad’s work, nothing hard or sharp.

Now he could hear something squeaking, fine squeaks like a disease on the outermost layer of the brain. Then it was rats.

He tried shouting. It took a while, but then the other voice replied. Perhaps he hadn’t heard it before, it was indistinct with distance. It might have been a woman.

“You’re down here too, then?” she called.

“Yeah?”

It nearly turned into a scream. He struggled against it as if it was something physical.

So much time went by that he didn’t know whether she’d heard.

“People are going to come looking for us,” he called. “My parents are going to wonder where I am, and then they’ll come here and get us out of here.”

It felt better when he said it, as if just those words could shape something in the world.

“You know, I don’t want to talk any more now,” she said. “It’s better…”

The voice faded away, but perhaps she said more that he couldn’t hear.

“But who are they?” he shouted. “If we can talk to them…”

“You mean you don’t get it?”

The most terrifying thing: it sounded like she was about to laugh. She didn’t say anything more.

Something scraped on the lid. When he looked up, a rat poked its head through a hole and turned it back and forth. He swung the flashlight towards it. It blinked and scrunched up its nose, but kept looking at him. Its fur glittered tan and its forepaws gripped around the edge of the hole like narrow hands. Was it brown or black rats that had spread the plague? It pulled its head back up in the darkness. A moment later something smacked into the mud next to him. At first he thought it was the rat that had fallen, but it didn’t move. It was a piece of a dead animal, its skin was still attached on one side. Something landed next to it, half a loaf of sliced bread. The plastic was still wrapped around it, but it would be green with mould if he picked it up. He pulled his jacket tighter.

They didn’t throw anything more at him, but he kept hold of the jacket to stop it sliding open. It warmed, his upper body was still as warm as if he was back in the terraced flat, but if he pulled the collar up over his nose and mouth he could feel the smell of home. It hurt now.

The walls were just earth and rocks. If he scraped away enough of the wall, the lid might fall in. He stood up and tottered to avoid stepping on the meat.

He held the flashlight in his left hand while he clawed high on the wall. He didn’t reach all the way, so he took one of the longest bones. It was clean, and even if he caught some disease off it he would be out. He wedged the flashlight into the floor-dirt to have both hands free. It was nice tearing down the earth, as if he was destroying the flesh of the ones who had locked him up here. Perhaps she heard it too and realised that he was on his way. He was about to shout, but someone might hear.

The earth fell away and something bright showed through it. At first he thought it was more bones – it could have been anything – but it was mortar.

A rat landed on the dirt floor, and another followed. At first he shielded his head with his arms, but it was just rats. One of them crouched in front of the flashlight.

He stamped his foot. The rat was still there. He feinted a kick, but it picked up the flashlight between its paws and ran with it. He threw himself after it and got a grip, but it twisted out of his hands. The little light whirled up the walls as they scurried up. He saw it blinking through the hole one last time.

He curled up, edging backwards until he felt the wall against his back. The dirt was going to seep into his jacket. He screamed a few times until he got dizzy from the lack of oxygen.

Perhaps he would wake up soon.

THE END

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Fiction, Horror

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