At night they come for us. We hide in the tunnels, in maintenance shafts, in holes carved out of concrete. We pull pieces of plywood over us as we squat and listen to the scrape of their claws, the rattle of their fangs, and their wheezing breath. They howl and grunt and speak in violent tongues as we cover our mouths with rags to muffle our exhalations. When they leave there are always a few dead. We take the remains and pile them up in great bonfires, basking in the heat and light. No one has seen the surface in fifty years. My brother's eyes are as big and white as mother's fine china, and he does not have to squint in the darkness. My hands are my gift. My fingers are long and taper into claws, and I can feel minute differences between textures, between sand and grain and dirt and stone. I know what is radioactive and what is safe to eat. It does not have to glow for me to know.
Rupert claims that they were once rats before the fallout. He says they grew tired of eating our scraps and decided to eat us. Jeremiah says that they were dogs without homes, and that they were once our very best friends. He says we cuddled them and doled out kindnesses like they were our children, precious and loving. He says that they just wish to love us but they've forgotten how in their hunger and their torment. Little is left for them up there, he says. There is no oxygen and no vegetation and therefore little meat, so they come down into our subway system to see what their former masters have for them. We have nothing, so they eat us. He says we should have taken them with us into the tunnels instead of leaving them up top to die. They are ghosts, he insists, though this is not true, for we have killed them with firearms and blunt objects. I know what he means, though.
My mother had a dog named Fluffy. I can just remember her. She was Yorkshire terrier, and mother paid four-hundred dollars for her. I used to carry her around when I was a child. I had to be very careful with Fluffy because she was fragile. I couldn't drop her or toss her around like a stuffed toy. When the sirens went off we left her in the living room. Mother cried and cried. Father said they didn't allow dogs because oxygen and rations were limited, but still Mother wanted to hide her in her purse. I think we left a twenty-pound bag of dog food opened on the floor, the kibble spilling out. Fluffy yipped at us when we went out the door.
I wonder if Fluffy devoured Levi Stevens, leaving nothing but the head for us to burn. That dog food wouldn't have lasted forever. More than likely, Fluffy was eaten by a larger animal. That's what I like to think, at least.
I tell Rupert that it wouldn't be so bad to be eaten. I tell him that they probably kill you quickly, seeing how their claws and teeth are so large and sharp. Animals don't mess around, I say. They go straight for the jugular, and you probably pass out without feeling a thing. He always shakes his head and spits when I tell him that. He says they keep you alive as long as possible because they like their meat living and warm. I tell him he's full of shit, which he is. This is a shantytown, I say. We cover ourselves in rags and shit in the corner. We cough and wheeze in the smoke. What light we have is produced by the burning of dead flesh. What food we eat is scavenged. We are victims, I say, and we are consumed as such. They have no reason to make us suffer further.
Rupert, sunny optimist that he is, claims that there are other cities out there below the earth. It's mathematics, he says, and I don't know what he means. He means to set out someday to look for others. He wants to steal a gun from the armory as well as some canned food, a gas mask, and a headlamp, and map out the subway. I tell him he wouldn't last a minute. Rupert is fresh meat, weak meat, and he's quiet and slow, easy prey for any monster. Rupert says he's a man, and that after he maps out the subway, he'll return and make me marry him. I laugh at him when he says this, for I can't see why he'd want to marry me or anyone else. I am old and mutated, though less than most, and my desire has long ago faded with my memories of the surface. I don't know if I can have children, and I don't want to try. I wouldn't want to bring anyone into a world of tunnels and darkness.
Jeremiah says he saw his dead wife the last time they came. He took up a position in the battery, and as they fired at the monsters his wife walked unharmed, beautiful and clad in a white dress. Her hair was as black as obsidian, he says, and her eyes as green as the ooze which flows through the splintered cracks of our foundation. He stopped firing when he saw her. The monsters moved around her, foaming at the mouth, but his wife lingered oblivious. She was an angel, he says, and he regrets that he did not join her. No monster would have touched him, he says. No bullet would have pierced his flesh.
No one wants to talk about it, but I see what's happening. They are changing. I saw my mother amongst them. She was happy and smiling, wearing that apron she always used to wear when she did work around the house. She had a feather duster in her right hand, and she was using it on the railway. I didn't say anything, but I look at others and know that they see the same. They see their loved ones when the monsters come.
Are they ghosts? Are they hallucinations born of the radioactive fallout? Are they projections created by the monsters? Have they tapped into our memories to use them against us?
I was afraid that they would shoot Rupert when he tried to break into the armory, so I told the station chief of his plans. They arrested him and threw him in a cell. He won't talk to me anymore, but at least he's alive. I know he draws pictures with chalk on his prison walls. He sings old hymns and talks like the future never came to pass. He shall be released, he says. He has faith.
I don't know why Rupert is like he is. He has grey skin like an elephant, cracking and covered in sores, and his teeth are almost all gone, yet he pretends he's a human being. I ask him about the ghosts and he doesn't respond. I think faith requires a certain disconnection from reality. It requires an imagination.
The next time they come I do not hide and cower in a hole. I stand in the tunnel, a bright light before me, and I watch as they pass. They cannot see me; they will not touch me, and I feel the heat of their enormous bodies as they lumber toward the station, looking for food. I want to reach out and touch one, but here comes Fluffy, hairless, vertebrae protruding like spikes from her back. It's the eyes that let me know that it's her. The eyes are heartbroken—they ask "Why did you leave me?" and I start blabbering about oxygen and rations and government rules while the monster crawls up to me, shaking in the light. "I was a child, Fluffy," I say. "I couldn't do anything but follow everyone else." The eyes tell me that my explanation is not good enough. I didn't think a few words would excuse a deformed lifetime. But hell, what else was I to say?