So, he really was blind now. The realization brought the tunnel walls and ceiling in even closer, and the very air around him seemed thicker, harder to drag down into his lungs. He forced himself to take slow, deep breaths, refusing to give in to the racing pulse that urged his legs to break into the same rhythm and run, anywhere, just run…
Trying to feel his way back the way he’d come wasn’t an option because he was no more certain of that path than any other, and Softie and Leadie would eventually turn around to find their way home and more than likely simply trip over him. He could head past the T and on down the sewage tunnel. But it might wander for miles under the city or simply dead end around some corner, and it wasn’t leading him upward, where he needed to go, anyway. Finally he climbed back up the rusted rungs and into the side shaft again, but he hadn’t made it fifty yards along that narrow, low-ceilinged corridor, before surreptitious skittering noises sounded all around. The scurrying of a thousand tiny claws was not one to be forgotten. Being entombed beneath the city of New York seemed a horrible enough final fate to Trace. He really didn’t need rats to turn it into Hell, but there they were.
One of the little beasts brushed against his leg, and skittering nails scritched on stone as the rodent raced away ahead. A thin eeping noise off to his right sounded like one of the vermin laughing.
Ever since he was a kid Trace had hated rats. To most small boys the creatures’ stealthy habits, nasty little claws, worm-like, hairless tails, and oversized incisors, made them seem grotesque, frightening, and larger than life, but Trace had very personal memories of the hairy little beasts that made his skin crawl.
Stifling a shudder he continued on blindly ahead, taking one hesitant step at a time, frightened that any moment he might fall into yet another shaft or be overwhelmed by the rodents. When something nudged his pant cuff again he kicked back, dislodging another squeaking rat. God only knew how many of the nasty little beasts were down here. His free hand rubbed involuntarily across his belly, and he jerked it away.
The scars didn’t hurt. They just reminded him of the pain and his long childhood battle with the vermin that had changed his life.
The rats in the tunnel grew steadily bolder. No longer content to remain just out of reach, eeping and skittering blindly about through the dark passage, he could feel waves of them, swooshing around his legs with every step he took. They moved when he moved, lining the floor of the horizontal shaft in an undulating, verminous river, and his memory–reverberating with the present–threatened to paralyze him with fear.
But these rats didn’t bite or claw. In fact, he had the strangest sensation that they had accepted him as one of them.
I really am going batshit down here.
He couldn’t stop himself from chuckling nervously under his breath at the thought.
That’s all I fucking need now. Bats.
As though conjured by the power of his imagination, leathery wings flapped past his ear, and he cringed.
Bats were little more than rats with wings, and now his mind filled with images of not only the horde of hairy, worm-tailed rodents roaming around and through his legs, but walls and ceilings dripping with upside-down, winged versions. Only bats didn’t have little Alvin the Chipmunk buck teeth. They had rapier-pointed canines. Not to mention the fact that both rats and bats carried who-the-hell knew what-all diseases. Bubonic and pneumonic plague, rabies…cholera and dysentery for all Trace knew. For the first time he noticed the acrid, ammonia odor of guano, and as he trudged forward he could feel the slime, slippery beneath the soles of his shoes.
There had been no rats and no bats in the lower tunnels. And if these vermin weren’t interested in eating him then they must not be that hungry, which meant they were finding something to survive on in the tunnels. Or else they only lived down here, and found sustenance above. That meant they knew a way out. It also occurred to Trace that both creatures were nocturnal, and the bat that had nearly slapped him in the face was headed the other way back down the shaft. The bats were returning to their dark home-world as the sun prepared to rise outside.