Cracks in the World: Prologue
Xander shivered as he scrambled down the steep, grassy banking and turned into the shadows under the last arch of the old stone railway bridge. He couldn’t say why he shivered. It wasn’t exactly cold, and the heavy plaid over-shirt he wore would keep him warm, whatever the weather. If pressed, he would admit that he always shivered at this point in his daily journey. He had been doing it for so long that the climb down the banking, and the almost imperceptible pause on the edge of the shadows, had become his own personal Pavlovian bell. If he prodded the thought a bit further, he would also admit that the shiver came and went in the space of a heartbeat, as if his body was reminding him that ‘here be dragons’, before his brain whispered that the dragons knew he was there.
The sidewalk on other side of the archway, on the path that led back into town, was still blocked off so pedestrians didn’t trip over the broken paving slabs that had been dug up by city hall nearly three weeks before, but he didn’t need to go that far. Half way through the archway, he turned right and approached a narrow, dark door that sat far back in the curve of the wall under the banking. He looked around quickly before walking into the gloom beyond the door, plunging out of the fading warmth of the late summer evening and into the tunnels - into a world that only a few people knew was there.
In his childhood he had walked the old railroad tracks above his head. Balancing from one rail to another as he’d followed the path of a thousand ghostly trains that had travelled the line to the steel mill that had once flourished on the edge of town. But the mill had closed years before. All that remained were the rusty remnants of tracks, and decaying railroad ties that were overgrown and abandoned. The first time he’d scrambled off the tracks and down the banking he’d been ten and had followed a small, grey cat, lured on by the sound of a tiny bell and the plaintive mew of a creature in need, just as he had been himself. But his quarry had disappeared under the arches and left no trace behind. He realised later that the cat had had entrée into a world he hadn’t known existed then. Looking back, he understood that the tunnels had been there all the time, unchanging through the years, as if they’d been waiting for him to leave childhood behind and come home.
He ran his hand along the damp stonework, the result of decades of leakage from the bridge and the banking above, and the scrape of his fingers sounded loud in his head - percussion in the quiet gloom. His feet splashed through small puddles left from the previous night’s unseasonal rain, where it had seeped through the cracks in the arched ceiling. Moss clung to the wall; he could smell it, green and damp, evidence that life was possible, even in the most desolate places.
Trudging on, his footsteps echoed in the empty tunnel, running counterpoint to the sound of his finger nails running along the stone. Gradually, it became less magnified, less self conscious, as other noises joined in the sudden symphony of sound - a dog barked, a small child laughed and a ball thumped, thumped, thumped as it was thrown against a wall. They were familiar sounds, comforting in their normality and a hundred different versions of them had kept him company on his daily journey for the past four years. The tunnel suddenly turned sharply to the left and opened out into a wider, circular space and he paused to warm his hands at the bonfire that always burned there. He catalogued the origins of the sounds – the dog was sniffing at the wood stacked up to feed the bonfire, a small girl, dressed in a bright red jacket and shiny black boots was standing in the corner, facing the wall, and he caught glimpses of a small green ball, going in and out of view as it hit the old stone and bounced up and back, up and back, up and back.
Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was one minute to six. Most people were safe at home, their doors locked, lights on and dinner on the table. But here in the tunnels that followed the line of the old railway, in the cracks in the world, Xander wasn’t most people and it was time for him to go to work.