A voice penetrates the silence.
At first, it’s just a string of syllables without meaning. I float in the unending darkness, disoriented and drowsy. The voice calls to me again. Frowning, I try to concentrate. When it comes a third time, I finally understand some of what it’s saying. Wake up.
My eyes fly open.
Darkness surrounds me. The voice reaches out a fourth time, still muffled but easier to comprehend now. Please wake up, it’s pleading. At last I try to answer; the only sound that emerges from my throat is an odd grunt. The beginnings of hysteria stir within me. All right, I think. Be logical. Find out where you are.
Slowly, I work out that I’m lying down. Whatever is against my back and shoulders is plush and foul smelling. I lift my hands, blinking, and touch a smooth ceiling. What is this place? How did I come to be here?
I strain to hear the voice, but it’s gone. Now confusion gives way to fear and my hands become fists. I shove at the ceiling—it doesn’t move. A frenzy overtakes me as I begin hitting it. The grunt has progressed to a hoarse shout. Wherever I am is so quiet, so still that I know I’m alone. Panic burns through my veins and I attempt to roll over in the tiny space, kicking and clawing. Then someone screams, “Let me out!”
It takes a moment to recognize that it’s my own voice, weak and rough. Suddenly a new sound vibrates through the stillness, a thundering crack.
Then I’m falling.
Air rushes past me. Acting on instinct, I spread my limbs out in a wild attempt to save myself, but there’s nothing to latch onto. Faint lights shine below. I blink, too shocked to scream again. The ground—or whatever awaits at the bottom—approaches rapidly. I glance backward and see long hair and a skirt flapping like a sheet in the wind.
There’s no time to notice anything else; I’m seconds away from the ground. Somehow I think through the panic and curl up into a ball to brace for impact. I do so just in time, and as I crash down, the entire world trembles. Earth billows up around me, and a shock goes through my limbs. There’s not as much pain as there should be, though, only a slight disturbance on the skin and bones I landed on.
Trembling, I open one eye and watch the dust settle. A thousand questions churn in my mind as I uncurl and look around.
“Hello? Is s-someone there?” I manage to whisper. The words shake so badly even I can hardly understand them. I’m sitting in what appears to be a narrow alley. Everything is dirt, even the walls on either side. Lit torches appear sporadically, giving this frightening place an orange tint. The small flames sputter every few seconds, and it’s the only sound I detect around me. A faint musty smell fills my nose. I push myself up on unsteady legs and turn in a circle, searching for anything familiar or living. I cup my elbows to protect myself from terror rather than cold.
“Hello?” I call again, louder this time.
There’s movement out of the corner of my eye and I spin toward it. A face peers around the edge of the doorway. One of the torches is directly above it, casting flickering shadows over the little girl’s face. I recoil instinctively, gasping, and the girl vanishes back into the house-like structure made entirely of earth.
But it’s too late. I saw her. I saw the way her eye dangled from its socket and how her skin was half withered away.
I retreat until my back hits the wall behind me. This is a dream, I think faintly. So I squeeze my eyes shut and will myself to wake up. Nothing changes, though. Intending to run from this place and the appalling girl, I slide away from the wall and into the path.
“She won’t hurt you. Doll’s afraid of her own shadow,” a voice drones.
I let out a small cry and stagger back yet again. This time my heel catches on something and I land hard on my bottom. I frantically search for the speaker. The words came from another doorway, one opposite where I spotted the young girl. No one else appears, though, and it takes several attempts to speak again. “Who’s there?” I squeak.
Seconds pass. Then the same voice answers, “No one.”
His tone is so reasonable, so indifferent, that I’m able to gather my thoughts. Perhaps this person can help me? Swallowing, I strain to see in the gloom. “If n-no one’s there, then how are you talking to me?” I challenge, finding a bit of courage.
“Perhaps you’re talking to yourself.”
Instead of responding, I get to my feet. I dare to step closer, and when nothing leaps out or attacks, I take another. There is someone beyond the threshold—the light is just enough that I can make out the details of his appearance. It’s a boy.
He sits in a wooden chair, bent forward, wrists dangling atop his knees. Between two of his fingers is a single, unlit cigar. The holder containing it is lovely, shining white like a pearl, the edges adorned with carvings. As for the boy himself, his features are hidden, but I can see a shock of blue-black hair against the back of his neck and curling over his ear. His profile is lithe and…sad, somehow.
“Who are you?” I whisper, stopping again.
The boy doesn’t react. “Weren’t you listening?” he asks without glancing up, as though he’s carrying on a conversation with the dirt. His accent is distinctly American. “I’m no one. We’re all no one.”
“I’m someone,” I say without thinking. It doesn’t make any sense, because of course I am, but suddenly I need to prove it’s true.
An odd sound escapes him, something that is more bark than laugh. The edges of it are sharp and mocking. “Oh, really? Then what’s your name?” Now his head tilts slightly in my direction, though not completely.
Curious, in spite of the alarming strangeness all around me, I fiddle with my skirts and resist the temptation to move even closer. “It’s…” I begin, then trail off. This shouldn’t be a difficult question. Yet I don’t remember. It’s a sensation similar to fumbling in the dark, reaching for an item that should’ve been there, and finding empty air. How can I not know my own name? Everything has a name. I can tell him what the oceans and continents of the world are called, so why can’t I recall that one word that defines the entirety of my being?
The boy lets me struggle for a few seconds. “See?” He doesn’t sound smug, just resigned. He still doesn’t turn. I want him to see me, to say that this is a terrible nightmare. There’s a bleak feeling spreading through my chest, a sinking sensation, because there can’t possibly be any good answers to the question I’m about to ask.
“Where are we?”
The torch closest to us is dying. It makes a pathetic sound, and I’m so distracted by the dwindling flames that I almost don’t hear the boy. “…one of those, are you? Need to have everything said out loud.” I wait for him to go on, refusing to rise to the bait, and he sighs. He puts the cigar to his nose and takes a long inhale. “You’re dead, darlin’. This isn’t hell, but it’s the next best thing.”
“You’re lying,” I manage, frozen despite everything inside me urging me to run.
His shoulders lift in a careless shrug. “Wish I was.”
“I think I would remember dying.”
“Not in this place, you wouldn’t. No one remembers anything here. Also, why don’t you try finding a heartbeat? Go on. I’ll wait.”
My hands rise of their own volition. The skin they flatten against is cold. Too cold, I think numbly. I stand there, waiting, praying to sense that steady thump, thump, thump.
It feels like my lungs are swelling, horror trapping all the air and protests. In that instant, I realize I’m not breathing. The corset; it must be too tight. Disregarding rules of propriety, I reach behind me to undo the strings. The dress hinders every effort, but I stubbornly keep at it. When the stillness lingers too long, the boy finally looks at me. “You don’t need to breathe…” he starts to say, impatience coloring the words. Our gazes clash.
Every thought I have vanishes. I nearly bolt again. The boy is pale…too pale for someone living. His eyes are a too-light shade of blue and his lips are nearly white. His shirt is buttoned up the front but open at the collar, revealing the raised tissue across his throat and the line of stitches closing it up.
No one would survive a wound like that.
A sound of terror escapes me as I retreat. The boy studies my face, and now there’s obvious interest in his expression.
“Wait—” he starts.
He says something else, but his words are overpowered by the roaring in my ears. There’s no sign of the little girl as I burst out of the alleyway and into another. There are more doorways, more torches, more moving things in the darkness. It’s a maze.
Mindless with terror, I sob and stumble along. “Help! Please, help! Anybody—”
My face slams into a wall.
No, not a wall. “What we ’ave ’ere?” a new, deep voice rumbles above my head. The brogue of someone who works in fields and has calluses on his hands. Fingers catch hold of me, huge and rough, and I scream as I try to yank free. The grip on my arms tightens as though I’m no stronger than a child. The man pins me with one hand and explores my face with his other—I’m so shocked that the next scream catches in my throat. An acrid smell assails every sense. Before I can look up or demand release, he continues. “Aye, dis is a new bake. Boys, come greet our latest arrival! Gracious, you’re a juicy lassie.”
Indignation shines through the terror fogging my mind. “Let go of me!” I finally snap, flattening my fists against the man’s chest to put distance between us. I kick at his shins, and he chuckles. Torches approach from every side, held aloft by hands of all shapes and sizes. My gaze flicks over the people surrounding us, and colored spots mar my vision when I see the various states of decay they’re in. Exposed tissue and gaping teeth and flapping skin.
I shriek yet again, a high and piercing sound. Then I happen to catch a glimpse of my captor’s face, and I go mute with horror.
He might have been a man, once. But what I see now is purely a monster. His skin is charred and peeling, his scalp red and shining. The tips of his fingers and ears and nose are missing, and he has no eyes. Empty sockets leer down at me.
I open my mouth to scream again.
“Let her go, Splinter.”
Through my terror, I recognize that voice—it’s the boy with the unlit cigar. Several moments go by as I search for him in the crowd. Eventually I see his silhouette leaning against one of the dirt buildings close by, hands shoved in his pockets. That cigar dangles from his lips.
“An’ if I don’t?” the hideous Irishman snaps. Seconds tick by, thick with tension. The boy doesn’t say a word; he just stares. Slowly, the steel grip around my middle relents. The man spits on the ground next to my foot. Or, at least, he tries to—nothing leaves his mouth. “Was just a bit o’ fun. Not much else to do round ’ere.” He stomps off.
Some of the creatures still eye me with curiosity. So much pale skin. So many dark eyes. My stomach quakes when I realize there’s nowhere to run.
After another moment, the boy shoves off the wall, pocketing his cigar. The moment he approaches, the crowd begins to disperse, taking their torches with them. Like black iron, they meld with the darkness. One of them hesitates, though, and glances back at me. A man in rags who’s less rotten than the others. The hair at his temples is a distinguished gray and there’s a slight limp to his step. Our gazes meet for an instant, and then he’s gone.
The boy reaches my side and touches my elbow. “Are you all right?”
It’s too soon after being assaulted by that monster. I jerk away. “Don’t touch me!”
He eases back and puts some distance between us. “Are you all right?” he repeats carefully.
I push my hair out of my face, shaking so badly that there’s no way to hide it. “Yes, I’m fine. Just fine.” No matter how many times I say the words, they don’t become true. He waits, giving me a chance to regain my composure. Eventually I can think again, and the need for answers intensifies. “You said this is hell?” I whisper, keeping my focus on the direction the creatures disappeared.
Now I believe it.
I can feel the boy looking at me as he answers. “Well, we call it Under.”
At this, I frown. “Why—”
Obeying, I arch my neck back. Instead of sky, there’s a ceiling, of sorts. More dirt and what appear to be tree roots. Scattered among these roots are splotches of shadow, though it’s too far away to tell their purpose or origin. “What are those?”
“Those are the holes each of us fell through. Our graves are right over them.”
The word graves jars something within me, and suddenly everything makes sense. Opening my eyes in that dark, soft space. The closeness of those smooth walls, the muffled noises above. Something cracking beneath me. Then soaring through open air and hitting the ground.
It was a grave. My grave.
He’s telling the truth.
If I had any food in my stomach, it would be surging up right now.
Tearing away from the sight of those holes, I face the boy. I know I should thank him for saving me from Splinter, but there are too many questions to ask. “So this is it? This is the afterlife?” My voice is faint. I want him to lie to me. I want him to tell me there’s something more, something better. Whoever I was in life must have spent time in a church, because I find the thought of wooden pews and stained-glass windows comforting.
But he only shrugs again. “For some, I suppose. Judging from the size of the graveyard and the number of holes above us, there are many who don’t fall.”
“If that’s true, why did we?”
“Who knows? Maybe it’s unfinished business. Or it only takes a particularly loud noise. Or we’re just too stupid to stay dead.” He begins to walk, and after a brief hesitation, I hurry to follow. Splinter might come back, or some other creature from a nightmare, and this boy has proven to be an excellent protector. His long-legged strides make me break into a run to keep up. The space is so narrow that our arms brush.
Neither of us attempts conversation, and I realize this place isn’t as quiet as it seemed in the beginning. There are sounds echoing through the giant cavern. A laugh, a hiss, a whisper. A reminder there are monsters here. How can I know that this boy isn’t one of them? He did save you, a tiny voice reminds me.
Glancing at him sidelong, I find his profile is appealing. His eyelashes are long and dark. He has a generous mouth. Upon our first meeting, I remember with some shame, I’d been too horrified by the wound across his throat to notice anything else. “What’s your name?” I blurt. He raises a thick brow at me, and I bite my lip. “I mean, what do they call you here?”
After a long moment, he murmurs, “Smoke.”
I’m about to reply when I recognize where we are. We’ve reached the location where I fell; the indent my body made is in the dirt. There are the doorways where Doll peered out and I first encountered Smoke.
Now that I’m not running from something, there’s more time to absorb this place. In every direction, there are crude houses of dirt with no spaces between them, as if the occupants were trying to create a city. There are no cobblestones or carriages, no trees or signs. Just passages that end in darkness and these earthen homes. But if I squint just so, it’s easy to imagine a sky beyond the line of roofs, the faint colors of dawn.
Eventually I realize not all of the structures are the same—some of them have square openings next to the doorways, crude imitations of windows. Of course there’s no glass, though. There must be torches inside a few of the dwellings, because shadows dance on the ground, cast by gentle flickers from within. In a way, it’s almost comforting.
While I examine our surroundings, my eyes feeling so huge they might as well swallow the rest of my face, Smoke watches me. “You’ll have to pick one of your own, you know,” he says. “A name, I mean. Usually we just use whatever we fell into Under with. Splinter, Smoke, Doll.”
Something we fell into Under with? Unconsciously, I run my hands over my stomach and sides and thighs, searching for any kind of pocket. His eyes track the movements, an odd tightness to his mouth. My hands halt and I wonder if it’s possible for the dead to blush. But now I know there’s nothing else on my person besides the dress.
For the first time, I notice a weight against my skin, near the center of my chest. I reach for it…and my fingers collide with something curved and hard. It hangs from a chain around my neck and glints gold in the firelight.
Smoke smiles, a ghost of what a smile should be. “Nice to meet you, Key. Welcome to Under.”