It happened so slowly, the falling apart. We got used to it, each frayed stitch, each reduction, each thinning and burning and restriction, called it the new normal, proud of our resilience and adaptability. Then the Plume burned its way up from the south and nothing was ever normal again. The city is a haunted place now, the ghosts of who we used to be dancing gently through disused buildings. In the shadows you can see them looking at torn scraps of colour on advertising hoardings, waiting for trains that will never come, turning on taps that have been dry for years. At dusk you can hear them crying.
My grandmother told me once that the black land beyond the twisted railings used to be a park for children to play in. That made me smile. The same grandmother told me not to take short cuts through the underpass, called this time of day the blue hour, between the hour of the dog and the wolf.
Rust coloured water drips slowly from the roof of the underpass. It soaks into my hair, washes out the cheap red dye, pools into bloody puddles around my feet. The air at the entrance is stale, carries the scent of earth and roots, phantoms of old petrol and bubble gum. A faster route home than picking my way through the pot holed streets above ground though. I zip up my jacket, and it sounds like a body bag. Calculate the distance, work out how fast I can walk before my footsteps sound like running.
I step through the dripping water with its fringe of ferns glowing green in what is left of the light. The silence curls itself around me, squeezes my chest like a fist. Count steps, count my heart beat, think about all the ways we are learning to be in this unpicked, unhinged place. I think about the cans in my backpack, how pleased my grandmother will be. I try not to think about retrieving the keys from the pocket of the shopkeeper. I think I am almost through; my breathing slows a little. There are squares of colour on the walls. Little tiles that once made a whole picture. A mosaic, as irrelevant and heart breaking now as the ruins of Pompeii
I see them as my eyes adjust to the light from the exit. The boys of the Loup Garou. See the long, lean limbs, the deceptive lazy movements as they stretch and lope across the floor. Bile burns into the back of my throat and I press myself into the shadows. The tallest boy lifts his white blond head, sniffs the air and investigates the darkness. He lets out a howl of delight and they move towards me like wind moving through a corn field. The boys of the Loup Garou, the drug that smells of cinnamon and nutmeg, tastes of copper and salt, sold in tiny packets by broken women, another way to adapt. In seconds I am standing in a circle of glowing yellow eyes, a fog of musk and hunger. A hand reaches out to me. The part of me that can still think is surprised by how slender it is, tipped with pearl grey metal shard nails. He is smaller than the rest, eyes a pale lemon rather than the deep gold of the others. New to this. He runs a finger across my cheek and time slows to a crawl, becomes a thing of mucus and slime. A silk thread of blood unspools from the cut he leaves behind, drips into my mouth as the excitement of the pack rises like music. Then falls away. They step back, leaving the young boy exposed in a silver arc of torchlight.
A blade flashes past me and he is looking at his hand on the slick, mossy floor. I explode towards the torchlight like a rabbit sprung from a trap. Behind me the pack have fallen on the bleeding boy. The drug produces strange appetites.
My grandmother and I walk the rest of the way home over ground.
Karen Arnold is a writer and psychotherapist living in Worcestershire.