When Dodgy didn’t come back from his scavenger run, I, as his lieutenant, had assumed command of the Young Troop. At first, I had figured that he had been slowed down by the cops. He had gotten his name for being able to evade the pigs like track runners jump hurdles, but he was cautious when he had close calls. After a few days, the Young Troop started to whisper about how the social workers had tracked him down, or worse, how the shadow people might have gotten him. Once a week had passed, I called an assembly, and the Troop and I pricked our fingers and sent blood down the sewer line as a tribute to Dodgy’s memory and as a show of loyalty to the ones who probably scrapped him.
Once in charge, I felt ill all the time. Dodgy had been the scavenger, and I the watcher. He had known the streets long before joining the underground collective and rose quickly because it. But also, Dodgy had had the hook-up with sweets. He would go on scavenger runs every few weeks and show up as a vagabond Santa Clause with a backpack full of candy. That sack would erupt with marshmallow puffs and nutty nougat morsels; lemon-sour lollipops and licorice sticks; toffee-crusted truffles and Taffy pulls; and, of course, chocolate-covered anything. Whatever treat you craved, he had gotten it for you. For me, Dodgy had always brought a specially reserved Reese’s packet. He and I would wait until all the other kids had gorged themselves into sugar-induced naps before splitting the cups. He would then carefully unseal the bright orange sleeve, slip the cardboard frame out, and present the two rounds as if they were prized coins in a vast collection.
“A medal for my best lieutenant!” he’d say with a grin.
Why he had promoted me along with him, I could never say confidently. He would say it was because of my natural talent, that no one noticed me, that I could just meld into clothes and become whatever style of person that outfit portrayed. That night, I wore a jersey that Dodgy had left behind because I needed to be him.
I sat perched on a concrete ledge of an abandoned subway platform, looking out nervously over my sleeping troop. We were the Young Troop by name and demographic; Dodgy had been the oldest at only fourteen. Now, we ranged from seven to twelve with me their preteen leader.
What a shame for them that I was the imposter of the group. These kids had seen trauma—broken children from broken homes—and I had left my home in hopes of damaging myself. I was neither orphaned nor homeless. The state would have titled me a runaway, having been gone for so long, but I had had nothing to run from but the basic expectation that I grow up into a well-adjusted adult. The only abuse I had ever suffered was my parents’ smothering affections. They had loved me too much, I’d argue, such that their unconditional support had never let me learn hardship or fear. However, I had sensed the harsh world I would be entering soon, and I resented that my parents had raised me soft and sensitive like a pet rabbit unaware of a hawk’s silhouette. My folks wanted me to be a bright, bold young woman someday, and I didn’t have the words to tell them that I would never be that.
Down the sewer tunnel, a metal squeal like the turning of a rusty gear echoed from the end of the dark tunnel. More screeching and squealing came, more steel twisting in agony, then a loud bang echoed towards me with a concussive blast. A heavy splash followed. Ripples scurried down the flooded tracks in front of me, trying to outrun the menace that had sent them fleeing. The cold concrete beneath my rump prickled into my warmth. In the direction of the sounds, a few steps splashed in the water—the normal, bipedal kind you would expect from a human—but then a cacophony of sprinting feet on many legs rushed across the water’s surface, an incomprehensible legion sloshing and splattering with chaotic inertia. I could not see that deep into the blackness, but I knew what was coming. I pulled my knees closer to my chin, awaiting unknown orders from my overlords.
That stupid bra had gotten me here. One day, my mother had given me a trainer bra, and I had snapped and locked myself in my room for hours. I had packed two outfits of loose-fitting clothes and then laced up my boots like I was headed out for war. I’d taken a black sharpie and defiled that restrictive garment with a fat middle finger. Then I had snuck out of my window, and I hadn’t missed my parents, yet; at least that is what I had been telling myself. Even in moments of dread, I did not regret leaving, seemingly incapable of wishing to undo what I had done. I remember from one of my mother’s shows—a melodramatic day-time series—a man, chiseled and shiny like the Brawny towel guy, who said all serious-like, “Some people just ain’t cut out to be parents,” before marching out on a hysterical woman kneeling pathetically on the floor. When I started to feel guilty about leaving or scared that I had gone too deep into this Peter-Pan adventure, I would recite my own version of the phrase to myself:
“Some kids just ain’t cut out to be loved by their parents.”
I’d given that motto to myself but also to the pale teenager lurching from the shadows of the tunnel.
Hurley, appearing like a grim reaper, his eyes bloodshot and his blonde hair translucent, was the creepiest general of our underground organization. He slouched like a raggedly old man, formless in his black attire. His movements were odd and unpredictable, but his spindly arms swayed in unnatural unison. Dodgy had once insulted Hurley by comparing him to a puppet on a string. The marionette had responded with a wide-arching backhand, loose and wild, across Dodgy’s face. The smack would have been comical had the hit not knocked out a molar.
I steeled myself and stood to greet him. There seemed to be less of him each time I saw him, a boy’s essence vanishing before my eyes. As he ascended the poorly assembled stairs, I could see he didn’t have a face anymore insomuch as a skull with skin saran-wrapped around it. His eyes sat delicately in the sockets, like orbs of rutilated quartz on display. His frailty should have made him less intimidating, but it made him more otherworldly and disturbing.
“Hello, Froggy,” he greeted me coolly.
Froggy is not my real name. When you join the underground group, you must forsake your identity and any family or items attached to that name. Some boys had cut off their hair, but I had already buzzed mine in rebellion. One kid had gone as far as to slice out his birthmark as dedication, but I had no such mark to flay. The only object I had kept that could prove who I was before was a golden locket from my grandmother. It contained an old photo of my grandparents holding my mother as a baby. Such sentimental gifts would normally gag me, but I had cherished this one. My grandfather posed proudly in his military uniform in it. I had wanted to be a soldier, too, so I had chucked that necklace down a drainage pipe in sacrifice to the underground. In exchange, the troop had given me the moniker when a well-read elementary schooler had attempted to describe me but had confused amphibious as ambiguous.
I nodded at Hurley, standing at attention. We regarded each other from a distance, sleeping boys separating the trench between us. His head bobbed sideways, and he stood straighter with his arms drooping behind his back, his hips thrust forward to counter the weight.
“Ready for your first scavenge?” he asked, not truly wanting an answer. “This week, we need textiles: needles, string, yarn. Go find it.”
My shoulders relaxed, but I squinted suspiciously at him. That’s it? I thought, waiting for more instructions, but Hurley slouched forward and began to descend the stairs to his crypt.
He stopped at the mouth of the tunnel. The darkness separated his lower half from his torso. He leaned awkwardly, staring blankly at the black wall ahead of him. The sound of a horde rattled from the darkness, again. Hurley seemed to trip into the shadows, his arms flying back like someone had pulled him forward with a rope around his waist. His disappearance resulted in neon signs flashing on behind me, beacons for my way out to the surface. The light cast my shadow on the wall across from me. Towering above me, the projection waved at me, wiggling its fingers, before dropping to all fours and scurrying up the trail of bright colors. Something inside me, buried too deeply, screamed, but I turned stoically to follow it up the lighted way.
By that night, I was supposed to pick a watcher, someone to accompany me to the surface and serve as a sentinel, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t. As Dodgy’s watcher, I had guarded the entrance and let him back in when he returned. I’d pace alone for hours, draw cartoons with chalky gravel, practice soccer with empty beer cans, or otherwise entertain myself until the sun rose. It wasn’t dangerous, only boring, and it required a strong-willed kid to resist wandering off or else receive punishment from the underground. Some kid would have to fill my place eventually but not tonight. I could not commit another one of those boys, caring too much for what little innocence they had left, so I had this shadow guide instead.
The trail from the subway platform led us to the ghostly halls of a former underground market. A series of ceiling lamps like a string of UFOs blinked on magically down the hall. The humming and buzzing of the lights made the section sound busy, like a bionic beehive. The iridescence cast opaque shapes on the floor that were vacuumed into the shadow’s blackhole figure as it slithered by.
As we proceeded to the usual route, a bit of orange light glowed weakly in the distance. The shadow jumped into my field of vision like an eraser obliterating the space before me. I stopped, my heart seizing. Then I heard deep voices in the distance, and my heart pounded desperately in my chest. A man bellowed a laugh and then spoke gleefully with his companion. I gulped, ready for anything. I did not know what my guide would do to these men, but I had heard of what other shadows would do to adults who wandered too far into the old subway line. The obscurity before me stood rigid and unmoving, thinking, I suppose, calculating. I started to tremble, but the creature collapsed into a puddle and drifted into the darkness behind me. I stared over my shoulder into the emptiness, unconvinced the shadow would turn back. A dark, spidery finger crept into the faint glow behind my feet. A talon tip dragged against the concrete purposefully, carving a thin line into the stone. Its excavation released a sound like chalk on slate as the hand faded into the shadows. Message received, I followed the creature back into the market.
We did not go back towards the platform, though. The shadow led me through a maze of unfamiliar turn-offs and corridors. After crossing two lines of rail tracks, hopping from one maintenance access to another, the underground world began to dampen and sour. We reached a point where there were no lights, and I could no longer see. I could feel the damp wall on my left, the nothingness on my right. Still, I sensed my dark shepherd close by, its chilly drafts ushering me through the darkness. As we advanced, a putrid smell, impossible to ignore, walloped my nostrils. I gagged and covered my face with my elbow. The sound of running water cascaded in the distance.
My eyes latched on to the first appearance of light on the floor. Dark, vertical lines sliced up the crisp white circle of light. The slots flickered like primitive motion pictures when the shadow flew across them. The creature used the light to point at the bars blocking the way, and I stepped in front of the glow to investigate the new path. I could see that the bars were a gate with loose hinges, and beyond the door, down a long circular tunnel, was another gate, covered in algal grime. I gripped the rusty, clammy bars and shook them, half-expecting the door to snap. The bars pivoted with a metallic grunt, and I shoved the gate open enough that I could slip past the barricade. The shadow slunk ahead and unlocked the gate at the exit. The door drifted open, unassisted.
Algae had made the tunnel too slippery; I could hardly take a step without sliding. I managed to skate across the goop, flailing my way to the gate, but I could not stop myself fully against the bars. My feet skidded under me, and I crashed my bottom into the sloshy muck. Cold, earthy liquid invaded my jeans, staining them puke-green forever. I groaned, feeling a hurt in my tailbone and pride. Resigned to get dirty, I scooched to the mouth of the tunnel, squelching through the sludge, and let my legs dangle over the edge. I peeked at the drop below me, which was a few feet. The pipe had caked the ground with black, muculent discharge from the pipe. I took a deep breath and pushed off the edge to fall into the muck below me.
I hit the ground hard and collapsed onto my side into the stinky gruel. The viscous slurry smelled like wet dog. A droplet of water from the sewer access gate splashed onto my temple and I was reminded of the dank smell of a long-lost pet turtle. I leaned up and looked around for my shadow.
The dark figure had been waiting by a nearby streetlight. When I saw it, it slithered up the lamppost, and like licked fingers pinching out a candle flame, the shadow’s vacuum extinguished the burning bulb rapidly, its transient brightness spotting my vision like cigarette burns. I dropped my eyes to the ground, instinctively trying to protect them, and that’s when I noticed the strange nature of the muck surrounding me.
The sludge was more than mud and algae; it had wads of mushy paper and knots of hair thickening the mixture, like a batter of dislodged clogs from bathroom drains. I retched, horrified that I might be in human waste. Then I noticed the personal items—watches, keychains, student ID cards—floating in the mud like chunks in a swampy stew. A photo ID nearest me had the face of a curly-headed boy with a tooth missing. I froze then shuddered, my mind disrupted like an infected computer; I recognized him. I swallowed and reached for the card, suddenly unphased by the disgusting liquid. The boy in the photo was younger but not much younger than when he had joined the troop two weeks prior. The photo showed Studs or, as this card identified him, Edward, probably Eddie. I began to shake, not with fear but anger. Here was a pit of sacrifices, of personal mementos, the boys had offered to the underground, and here they all rotted in crap dumped from the sewer, never to be touched or appreciated by anyone or anything.
The lights still shut off one-by-one ahead of me. I began to dig furiously through the muck, slopping it aside in piles, pushing deeper into the pit with a sense of something on the other side. I shoved my fingers through histories of items from kids who had come and gone. I had never asked what happened to them. As a good soldier, I carried on, assuming the person had rotated to another group, or simply had left elsewhere, having decided to grow up. Dread crept over me as if the feeling had been injured and could barely crawl from a hidden spot within me. Those boys didn’t go elsewhere, I realized. They didn’t go anywhere. I thought of Hurley with his sunken eyes and wasting figure. I felt sympathy for him for the first time. The boy who was Hurley was no longer; Dodgy had been right.
My fingers connected with a thin metal chain that created a scratching sound as I pressed it into the concrete. Electricity shot through my body. The delicate braid, as it scooped into my hand, made me feel hollow, instantly aware of how much of me had been scooped out and dumped down the sewers. I sensed a longing building in me, an absence. The sensation disturbed me. At first, it felt like sleep deprivation, then it levered with a twisting knot in my gut. A memory floated to my mind, one long lost from me. The face of my mother, gleeful, fitting me into a Batman suit. I missed her.
A shadow loomed over me. My pulse quickened. I slipped the necklace into the jeans pocket facing away from the shadow and struggled myself upward. I was covered in filth, smellier than a sewer rat. The obscurity hovered over me, its blanketing presence pressing down on me. It noticed my erratic tracks and the items littering the goo. The shadow circled me twice, dusting me with imperceivable ash. I relaxed, feeling peaceful, forgetting what I had seen. The shadow nudged me forward to a ladder out of the drainage pit.
We had only gone a few blocks down the darkened path when a porky rat the size of a cinder block hurried past me. The shadow pounced agilely on the creature, snuffing it out with an envelope of darkness. The rat squeaked out a short plea before going silent. As the shadow ravaged the rodent, I stared, sedated.
Now is your chance, whispered a distant voice inside me, its source a deep, cold well.
My chance to what? I wondered idly, as if sluggish from waking. I peeked around the crouching shadow, the creature slurping and gurgling. Black nails forked out slimy innards from a furry clutch. Casually, I slipped my hands into my jean’s pockets, the fingers wiggling down deeper, until my middle fingertip, pushing aside loose strings and frayed cotton, slightly brushed a slimy metal. The connection sparked, and that distant voice rushed upward like a geyser.
I gasped and stumbled backward, my senses unchained, but the creature did not move. Several memories returned, including the pile of discarded sacrifices I had found. Horror dawned on me.
Why was I here? I panicked. Why had I followed this thing?
I looked behind me and edged away from the feasting figure, my footwork on a tightrope, until I disappeared behind a closed newsstand. Trembling, I exhaled and sucked in as much air as I could. I examined the street names and remembered the signs were labeled in numerical order from north to south. I took off towards the higher numbers, hoping I headed in the right direction.
After sprinting past several streets, skyscraper spindles peaked just above the building skyline on my right, and an intuition veered me down an alley towards them. Each stride banged determinedly against the sewer grates beneath my feet, their frames clattering like dropped percussions. I barely heard the whispers steaming upward from below, their harsh slurs seeking me out. I only saw the end of the alley, its opening a portal of hope. People passed on the sidewalk in front of the frame, unaware of their blessed safety, their chatter drowning out the screaming wind scouring for me. Pain stitched up my side, but I persisted. If I could reach the crowd, break through the barrier separating the light and the dark—
I tripped, my chin banging hard to the ground. I tasted blood on my tongue. The tips of my fingers reached out to barely graze the light before me.
“No!” I shouted, as something that had wrapped around my ankle pulled me deeper into the alley, grating my body on the abrasive concrete. I flipped myself over and attempted to dredge with my backpack and elbows, my palms flat, pushing and peddling away in distress. My shadow had me; its needle-point fingers, burning like stingers, shredded into the fabric of my pants. It had no face but a void that somehow glared at me, through me, with rage pulsing through its claws. The horde charged not far behind it.
“Look here!” a disembodied voice exclaimed.
Like a summoned angel, a bright flash burst through the alley, stunning the creatures. My shadow let go, and I scuttled backward out of the alley into a pair of young women having their photo taken. They tumbled over, their skirts flipping above their bottoms. I freed myself from the dog-pile, struggling upward, gripping a nearby pedestrian to steady myself. The person shoved me deeper into the crowd. I faltered, nearly toppling into the road, but I managed to regain my footing only to look face-to-face with the cold, plastic eyes of a monster. I yelped and raced across the road. Headlights blared at me from nowhere. Obscene words shot through the air. I leapt onto the paved center where tourists sat at fold-out café tables, having lackadaisical conversations.
Catching my breath, I looked back, horrified at what I might see: an army of darkness amassing, my shadow ripping through humans to get at me. Instead, I saw only the girls I had tripped, finally getting to their feet, and the stream of indifferent people parting around them. The monster had been a fuzzy mascot advertising for a nearby store. No one looked my way.
I gazed upward at the brilliance of color flashing overhead. Beautiful animations beckoned me to try, to drink, to drive, to love their products. I surveyed the block and headed north along the boulevard.
It felt strange to be in the city again. I had only been on the streets by myself a week or so before I joined the collective, and I had never gotten a sense of the city. Here, the air smelt of piss and burnt popcorn, worse than the musky, abandoned tunnel where I had slept. Signs had quixotic symbols in calligraphy. It must have been the middle of the night, but there were hundreds of people out. Many had their heads down, gazing into the hypnotic blue light of their mobiles. Some were stumbling, hunched over and wobbly like how Hurley walked. One man sat on the sidewalk yelling, maybe just to see if someone would look at him. He must have had the same ability as me because no one paid him any attention.
I turned in circles, amazed and confused and scared, the man’s nonsensical shouts heightening my confusion. I did not know where to go, what to do. My plan had gotten me away, but I had no idea where to go next. Then something I thought would never happen, did. I cried. My tears, locked away for months, exploded as hideous, snorting sobs. My crying startled the yelling man into silence, but he did not move away. A kindred soul, he must of thought, as he stood by the chaos, my chaos, and watched intrigued and unafraid. My breakdown tore through me like fire, and from that scorched earth emerged something important, something forgotten. I remembered where I lived.
I bolted away from the man, offering no explanation, and headed for the subway entrance. I knew I was insane to go below the surface, but I would have sworn on my life that the functioning subway would be lit and occupied. The square was busy. There would be dozens of people waiting for their train. I would not be alone. The shadow people would not be so reckless as to come after me there. I zig-zagged down the stairs past a crowd exiting the underground. I jumped the turnstile not caring who saw. No one shouted after me as I raced to the platform for the outbound train. I saw people; I swear I did. Their presence gave me comfort and bravery. I felt like a thief about to get away with a heist. I bounded downstairs, skipping two at a time. The smell of burning tires and stripped metal flooded my nose, and I inhaled, joyful. Another memory. Riding the subway with my parents.
I pulled the mud-crusted locket from my pocket, its golden sheen sparkling under the harsh lights. I rubbed the jewelry with my fingers and the unspoilt part of the jersey, releasing more and more of its splendor from its muddy shell. I slipped it proudly over my head and admired the oval locket containing my family.
The cleaning distracted me. I lost sight of the people around me. The queued riders had evaporated. Where did the young man on the bench go? The one hunched over like he was … like he was a puppet.
My eyes widened in panic at the revelation that I had been tricked, that I was alone. The floor began to vibrate beneath me, the sound of a behemoth roaring through the tunnel. At first, I hoped it was the train barreling down the tracks, but then I heard the separate sound of feet stampeding, a legion of darkness rumbling over the metal tracks. The lights began to blink. Fear swept me up the stairs, but I tripped over my tattered jeans’ leg and banged my head against the railing. I crumbled into a crooked heap, strung over the steps, their ledges jabbing my side. My vision swirled into muddy puddles of color like children’s finger paints. My head was pounding, the feet of an army pounding. The thunderous knocking surrounded me. Hopelessly, I looked backward. Shadows poured from the tunnel, crawling along the walls like ants scattering from a broken anthill. Those subterranean soldiers had been charged to attack, to kill the enemy. The lights flittered out in sequence, a tsunami of shade coming to wipe me away from this world.
I should have known. How could I outrun something meant to follow me everywhere? I gripped the locket with my fist, closed my eyes, and let every childish, helpless feeling I had suppressed for months rip from me in a shrill cry for help.
Then, silence. The darkness had swallowed me. Oblivion settled in. There was nothing. I floated, untethered, waiting to be digested or annihilated. Then came a sound; a sound so sweet it could soothe all who heard it:
A mother’s heartbeat to surround and elate the silence.
“Hey, kid,” someone yelled.
I opened my eyes, my heartbeat drumming in my ears. Before me knelt a police officer. He looked irritated but concerned, like a father worried about their misbehaving child. The lights were all on, functioning properly. The train had pulled up, awaiting no one’s onboarding. A few sleepy passengers dozed in the cars. A blonde-headed teenager looked up, maybe to see if anyone would get on the train, take up more of his space. We made eye contact, and Hurley smirked at me with paper-thin lips, his eyes cruel and confident. I looked back at the officer and wrapped my dirty arms around his neck, pulling him in for safety. The officer tensed and reached for his belt, but when I sank into him, he relaxed and patted my arm.
“Thank you!” I muttered repeatedly, salty tears transferring from my cheeks to his neck.
I calmed down, and he escorted me to the surface. We got into his cruiser, and I gave him my parents’ address. I asked him to turn the police lights on, which he did after a long, questioning look. He radioed someone, explaining the situation and his destination, and then we drove for I don’t know how long. Before we got to my house, the sun began to rise, and I vaguely remembered waiting under an underpass for Dodgy. The patrol car pulled in front of a corner townhome with lush landscaping and a soccer ball out front. I struggled to remember if I had a sibling. The officer opened the backseat, and I ran toward the front door, smashing my finger relentlessly into the doorbell button. My mom came to the door, wiping sleep from her eyes. She had her work clothes on but unkempt hair and no make-up on her face. She looked down at me, confused.
“Jennifer, what are you–?” she asked, stopping short when she saw the officer.
“I’m so sorry!” I bawled, reaching around her waist, squeezing tightly as though she might drift off or I might be dragged away. “I’m so sorry I ran away!”
My mom knelt to my eye level, her eyes searching me for answers.
“What are you talking about, Jen?” she questioned, confused. “I just checked in on you a moment ago to tell you. . . How did you get so dirty?”
Horror pulsed more adrenaline through me. I pushed past my mom to rush to my room, ready for anything. The bedroom door was cracked, and I shoved it open dramatically, looking in fear at my bed. The covers had a lump in them. I grabbed a trophy from a dresser and approached the bed cautiously, looking at every shadow cast in the room with distrust, anticipating its attack. I swallowed my fear, reared back the trophy, and flung off the sheets. Beneath hid no one but not entirely nothing. An outline of someone sleeping lay molded into the mattress. I touched the depression and felt unsettling warmth come from it. I looked up at the pillow which was also caved in. In the valley, about where the neck would rest, was a v-shaped marking, sizzled into the cotton.
My parents—my father having awakened—and the officer sat at the kitchen table together as I tried to explain to them both that I must have been gone for months. My mother said that I had run away for a couple of weeks a while back, but she insisted I had been present the whole time since. The officer repeated that he had picked me up in a subway station far away in downtown. My father eyed my soiled clothing suspiciously and asked about it. I told them about the sewers, about the jersey being my friend Dodgy’s, but I could barely remember the kids. I said something about children like I wasn’t sure, and the officer, growing impatient, asked how many. When I recalled the Young Troop, one by one their sleeping bodies blurred and faded from memory. I told the man I could not remember but offered him the number of the few I could. He then asked if I could show them where I was, and I nearly vomited when I did not know. I felt a sinking feeling as all the adults in the room looked pitifully at me, their grown-up minds convinced I was either lying or confused. I gave in to their assumptions and let them explain away my nightmare as if it was an ordinary one of sleep.
That was all this morning. My mom let me stay home from school today, as if I could have gone in the state that I had arrived. I’ve been recording as much as I can. This, and my filthy clothes and scratched up skin, is all I have left of my time as a runaway. I do not remember how I found the underground nor why I thought it reasonable to join. I think of how many kids I had met and no longer remember. I don’t know why I’m forgetting, but I’m guessing it’s the same reason why I could hardly remember my past while I was serving the underground. I’m losing my memories quickly. I can barely describe Dodgy. I want to save those kids, bring them candy, but I cannot even remember which part of town I was in before escaping to the square. I write this hoping that someday, I’ll walk by our hideaway and remember. That I’ll rescue those kids. However, I also write this fearing, perhaps knowing, that the shadows will come to get me. One day, the power will go out, and the candles lit will bring forth powerful shapes with a vendetta against me. I’ll disappear and be replaced by another imposter, some sort of changeling. My parents won’t know or understand, but maybe they’ll read this and try to find me. I’ll be long gone, but my parents—someone!—must save those kids..