My name is Tom, and I should be dead.
Maybe you don't believe me. You would believe me if I could show you my reconstructed spine where bones were bolted back together, piece by shattered piece. You'll believe me when you see the scars where foot-long fangs punctured my knee. You'll believe me once you hear my story.
Sometimes I wish I could forget what happened, forget what put me in this wheelchair, forget everything! But I can't forget. I must not. I won't. I tell my story as an act of resistance against forgetting. Resistance against the Sludge. That’s why letting go isn’t an option. Not until you know what I know.
I've seen what the Sludge can do. A whole city wiped out in a day. Fewer than 10 escaped. I was one. My body is a testament to our destruction. But also to our resiliency, to our resistance. I've suffered the worst, and I'm still here. This is my story.
Everywhere Samantha Wiser and her brother Mason looked, back-to-school ads popped up like pesky flies. TV commercials, roadside banners, square yellow signs in department stores screamed SALE SALE SALE. Advertisers were thrilled about back-to-school, but then again, the advertisers weren’t going back to school themselves; Sam and Mason were, and they failed to share the same enthusiasm.
Despite the ad apocalypse predicting summer’s death and homework’s return, Sam and Mason determined to ignore the prospect of school for as long as possible, even when information packets for the upcoming school year arrived in the mail.
Sleeping outdoors was one item that remained on their summer itinerary. Outdoors meant the backyard – Sam’s eczema made going anywhere more outdoors than that difficult. At least they had a tent. Several years ago, the whole family attempted to sleep outdoors. Two mosquitoes, or perhaps one pretending to be two, kept them awake for most of the night. After flailing in the dark, sometimes slapping each other (mostly on accident), they gave up and went inside the house. Shortly after, Mr. Wiser purchased a tent at a neighborhood garage sale.
Despite the family tradition, this year only Sam and Mason were sleeping outside. Their father secured the last corner of the tent to its stake. ‘I’ll leave the back door unlocked in case you need it.’
‘I don’t see why we’d come in,’ said Mason. ‘It’s not like there’s bears around.’
‘But there might be a mosquito or two. If you come in, do it quietly. Your mother needs all the rest she can get; your sister is due any time now. Could even be tonight.’
‘Will June have normal skin, or will it be more like mine?’ Sam asked.
‘We won’t know for sure until she’s born.’
‘Hopefully she’ll get lucky.’
‘I know your skin is a hard thing,’ said Mr. Wiser, ‘but I believe you have something good to offer the world. We all do. You’ll find it someday.’
‘Can I trade whatever it is for better skin?’
‘If June has the same condition when she’s born, we’ll love her all the same.’ They exchanged hugs. ‘I’ll see you in the morning. Or sooner if the mosquitoes get you.’
‘Not a chance!’ said Mason. ‘I’ll bite back.’
‘Gross,’ said Sam.
‘We could be gone to the hospital when you wake up. There’s leftovers in the fridge and oatmeal in the closet. Might need to feed yourselves in the morning.’
Deciding it was too early to sleep yet, Mason opened the tent flap and dragged his bag halfway out to watch the night sky. He clicked his thumb-sized flashlight on and off idly. Sam sat just inside the tent.
Evening spills over earth. Red-blushed light trickles away. The porch light comes on, calling a white moth to dance in its yellow light. The brightest stars appear, porch lights in the sky. Wind rustles the yard.
‘Did you look at the packets from school yet?’ said Mason. ‘I saw seniors do a research paper.’
‘Don’t remind me. I don’t know what I want to do it on, and we choose a topic three weeks in.’ She rubbed her shoulder irritably.
‘You could do it on eczema.’
‘I already have enough eczema. I don’t need to write a paper on it too.’ She slapped her shoulder, unable to satisfy the itch in her skin.
More stars came out, little shining drops floating in the night sky. Mason swatted the air and scrambled back into the tent. They zipped the flap closed.
‘I thought you were going to bite them back.’
‘I changed my mind since I already brushed my teeth.’ They chatted for a while about school and their parents. Mason clicked his flashlight on and off in spastic patterns. Their words became slower and shorter until they fell asleep.
Sam has eczema, a skin rash that is chronic, which means she might have it for life. People suffering from eczema often wake up during the night. The rashes itch in a sharp, fiery way; and the sensation worsens at night, interrupting sleep – so when Sam woke later that night, it was nothing unusual to her. Through the rashes in her legs an itch begging to be scratched rolled up and down like a rollercoaster. Instinctively she reached for her phone to check the time, but she had left it inside the house.
The urge to scratch the rashes on her legs doubled. Her fingers trembled, anticipating, dreading her next action. Scratching eczema triggers an intense response in the nerves where pain and pleasure coalesce. The satisfaction of scratching an itch, but the scratch itself creates another itch. On and on it goes, itch and scratch, until the rash is scraped open and skin bleeds. She struggled against the urge. Her hands moved inside her sleeping bag down to her legs, on their own accord, against her conscious will.
A growl disturbed the night, a growl like a trombone chord with all the music wrung out of it: rough and sour. She hadn’t heard it begin. It was as if she had been thrust into a stream of sound that had neither origin or ending point. It could have come from miles away, or from directly outside the tent. Or inside the tent. She sat up. The sound no longer existed and didn’t return when she sank back to the ground.
The itch migrated to her left arm. She rubbed it for a while and drifted back to sleep.
Next she knew she was shaken like a present on Christmas eve. Mason waking her up. His flashlight doused her with eye-splitting light. Her ears still asleep didn’t catch what he said. ‘Hang on,’ he repeated in a whisper. His hands quivered, the flashlight beam bounced against the tent. ‘There’s something here. Something outside. Listen!’ The corner of their tent sagged. Something pushed against it from the other side, then retreated. Sniffing followed, like a wild animal catching a scent, but the sound rasped and gurgled, as if the creature smelling them had no nose.
It bumped against the tent, inspecting the fabric that veiled them. The children froze, waiting for inevitable howls or claws tearing the tent apart. Sam thought she heard the low growl. The sniffing ceased, nothing bumped or pawed the tent again.
Mason swung his light toward the tent zipper. ‘Should I check the yard?’
‘We could yell for dad.’
‘It’s probably just a raccoon mistaking us for a garbage can. No reason to wake them up.’ Mason struggled out of his sleeping bag and undid the zipper holding the tent flap shut. He poked his head out, shining the flashlight over the yard. A shadow darker than the surrounding night swooped over him, swallowing his flashlight. Something caught his arm, something viscous and clammy. The tent was swept away. Sam still half in her sleeping bag was tossed several yards sideways.
To understand, you should step back nine years with me. We are at a nearby city, C12-112, for a Founding Day celebration. We - my father Alber and mother Tain, along with Uncle Kain and his fiancé, Dorn. Mother is the Governor of our own city, C12-117; she’s been invited to 112 to give a Founding Day speech. The rest of us tagged along. It’s a holiday, after all. Since you’re listening to my story, you’re there too.
Founding Day is a celebration of beginnings, an anniversary of accomplishments – a city’s birthday, you might say. It was also the last day where I could walk on my own feet and wasn’t stuck in this chair.
Founding Day is a two-day event like every holiday should be. The first is for resting and festivities, families and friends gathering. The second day is more formal. The city comes together for parades and performances, awards and short speeches.
Here we are, you and I, listening to the Founding Day speeches. Speakers stand on a small stage in the street. A white banner with crinkled edges like a fancy dress hangs over it. Crowds cram the streets; others sit on rooftops, balconies; standing in doorways, thousands and thousands of citizens standing wherever there’s room, and even where there isn’t. 112’s Governor speaks first. His voice streams out of the speakers around the city, echoing off the ceiling. A child cries, she’s hungry.
Mother speaks. My father’s eyes glow with pride; behind his hazel beard a smile wrinkles his cheeks. He lights up whenever Tain gives an official speech like this. If he smiles any brighter, we could use him for a lamp. Dorn is on the other side of me. Uncle Kain went to the watchtowers on the city’s upper platform. He’ll be back soon – too soon and not soon enough.
The fireworks are scheduled for when Tain’s speech is done, but we won’t make it to that point. The alarm – you might want to cover your ears.
I know you haven’t been here before, so let me tell you about the city’s emergency alarms. There’s two you should know. One is for earthquakes. Those are common down here. It’s like a large bell over the speakers – bong bong bong.
The other – it’s a sound that cuts deep, used only for when an attack comes. Think of a horn blaring and a horse screaming together, in three-second-bursts – reeeee reeeee reeeee.
My mother’s speech rings out. The audience cheers in response. But you know what’s coming. Cover your ears.
Reeeee reeeee reeeee. There’s the alarm. No one moves. We should move. We should know what the alarm is for. We do know what the alarm is for, all of us do, even if we wish we didn’t. Even if we wish the alarm was for something else. Attempting to maintain stability, the mind calculates denials, reaching to absurdities for assurance. It’s just a system test. It’s just a system failure and needs rebooting. It’s just our imagination. Over and over the siren stabs its panic-wail into our ears, until we acknowledge what the alarm is for. We’re under attack. It’s the Sludge.
The tent collapsed. Sam kicked out of her sleeping bag and dove through the tent flap. The porch light popped on, casting dim aura over the yard. A shadow clutching Mason’s arm dragged him away, a shadow with form and substance, but a shadow nonetheless. It shimmered like oil slick in the light, but the light failed to illuminate it clearly. Without obvious limb or partition the creature moved, morphing form to suit its environment.
Mason shouted and squirmed. No escape. Sam backpedaled toward the house, but she called out his name: ‘Mason!’
Maybe the creature turned its head, or maybe its eyes traveled through the body – when she shouted Mason’s name, eyes popped open, if eyes they were. Large as baseballs, pale like blank paper; no apparent lid, iris, pupil, or ball; flat discs floating in the shadowed outline.
The shadowy mass became two. Or maybe there had always been two, and she hadn’t noticed. One came toward her. The porch light’s illumination withered away from it. Sense and synergy fled her body. She couldn’t escape. She was a hapless spectator, able only to watch the onrushing shadow. The world tilted, bringing her closer to the monster, and the monster closer to her.
The shadow loomed over her. From between its eyes an arm-like protrusion reached out, grown in the moment, and growing. The end unfurled a dozen fingers to grab her.
Something thudded in the middle of the yard. The eyes submerged into the shadow to look a different direction, away from Sam. She could move again – she clambered up onto the back porch. Her senses returned.
The living shadow-mass, seen in the porch light, took on definition. Its front end: a blob with the rigidity of gelatin, four feet tall and half as wide. The rest of its body trailed behind like a snake several yards long. No skin, no scale, no fur; it was more like a slug than anything, a mass of corporal slime.
Something else entered the yard. Someone else. Three of them surrounded the entity that grabbed Mason. The newcomers were no taller than the blobs, but moved with two arms and two legs. One pulled Mason away from the shadow; the arm clutching Mason stretched out and out, like an endless vine, refusing to let go. One newcomer drew out a knife and slashed apart the arm, freeing Mason.
Two others attacked the creature that charged Sam. The creature changed sides – that is, its blobby front had been on one end of its body while its tail dragged behind, but now the front seemed to wriggle along its body to the end that had been its tail. Eyes popped into place.
The newcomers hacked at it with antiquated tools: axes, swords. Writhing away, the two creatures darted into the darkness, gliding over the grass, slithering over the fence at the end of the yard. Their bits and pieces slashed off lay on the ground like frayed string.
The newcomers helped Mason up. ‘Ow! I feel like I was squeezed by a thousand bears.’
‘Consider yourself lucky.’ One newcomer spoke with a voice like a bassoon. Both children were taller than he was, but a beard as orange as orange juice and as bristly as a pine tree exploded from his chin, with matching eyebrows. A leather cap covered his head, with goggles pushed snuggly over it. A vest with many pockets hung over his shoulders. He carried a short sword. ‘Consider yourself lucky.’
‘Lucky!’ said Mason. ‘My arm almost got pulled off!’
‘Better than being eaten.’ The newcomer glared at them. His eyes glowed, orange like his hair; his beard bristled, his eyebrows nearly touched. ‘You would’ve been a midnight snack.’
‘But there aren’t any dangerous animals around here.’
‘Really?’ The newcomers grumbled in disappointment. ‘Couldn’t you see it? That was no animal.’
‘What was it then?’ said Sam. ‘Where did it come from? Who are you?’
‘That was the Sludge.’
‘The Sludge?’ said Mason, but Sam grabbed his arm. ‘Ow! I’ve been grabbed enough tonight.’
‘This doesn’t make sense. Let’s get dad.’
‘Wait,’ said the newcomers, but Sam went through the back door. The kitchen light was on. She grabbed her phone from the counter where she had left it. Her father texted her twenty minutes ago, according to the time stamp, to say he was taking their mother to the hospital, expecting delivery tonight.
She sighed and returned to the back door. Two newcomers examined Mason’s arm under the porchlight. The hair and beard of one was blue. Not blue from dye, but blue as if each strand had been pulled from the fabric of a clear afternoon’s sky; and not very well combed. The color of his eyes matched his hair. When he spoke or moved, his bright hair bobbed and swayed with him, as thick and bushy as a juniper hedge.
The other’s hair and eyes were bright silver. The porchlight showed their faces better. Their checks were rough and warty, their skin shades of pale dirt. He removed his cap; his ears stuck out like cauliflowers, too large for his head.
Utility belts lined with tools and gadgets girdled their waists, holding up baggy pants with wide pockets. Their vests were integrated with a backpack; their weapons folded down for easier carrying. Their clothing, their faces, their beards, their manners indicated they were fully grown, but the newcomers were short. They had to look up at Mason’s arm. ‘Wait,’ said Sam, as she stared from the porch. ‘You’re dwarfs, aren’t you?’
The silver-haired one shook his head. ‘You Toppers always call us that, but it’s not right. We call ourselves Tenants.’
‘But you look like dwarfs to me!’
‘We’re normal size, you’re just too large. But why give names to people based on their looks? Being taller doesn’t make you wiser. We’re Tenants. We understand we live on this earth, but it doesn’t belong to us. We belong to it. Call us Tenants, not dwarfs.’
‘But that’s impossible!’ said Sam. ‘You’re impossible. Whatever you call yourselves, you’re not supposed to be real.’
‘Hold still,’ the Tenant said to Mason while he examined the boy’s arm. ‘You’ll have a month’s worth of bruises, but you’re not punctured. You’ll be ok.’ He released Mason’s arm. ‘Let me introduce myself. My name is Bunkle, this is my brother Dunkle. Kain was right when he said you were lucky to escape the Sludge.’
‘The what?’ The children looked at each other.
Dunkle rolled his bright blue eyes. ‘Typical Toppers, not knowing about the Sludge.’
‘That’s what we call you big folk who live up top on the Surface,’ Bunkle answered. ‘We live below you – underground, below the Surface. We’re from City C12-117.’