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Downsidersby Neal Shusterman
High above the windblown city, a drop of falling rain was caught by an icy blast and puffed into a feathery flake of snow. No longer did it plunge through the city, but instead drifted slowly toward the magnificent lights of a New York night.
It sailed past the tip of the Empire State Building, whose upper floors were lit a Christmas green and red. Then, caught in a crosswind, the flake sailed further uptown, spinning around the icicle spire of the Chrysler Building and drifting down toward the late-night traffic of Forty-second Street. At 11:00, from high above, one might think the streets of the city truly were paved with gold, for the roofs of the taxis were like great golden bricks as they sat waiting for the light on Lexington Avenue.
Sheltered from the high winds, the flake wafted undisturbed down the face of Grand Central Station and landed on the tip of the nose of a young man who sat firmly on the bottom rung of life’s ladder.
His name and destiny are of little importance, but he does command some attention here, for the sole reason that his life is about to end.
All of nineteen years old, but with a hopeless weariness that made him seem many years older, he huddled in a stone niche, near the great train station’s entrance. He did not bother to shake out the snow that now speckled his hair.
People ignored him as he sat in the lonely corner. The well-dressed men and women in the city were skilled in looking the other way when they came across a derelict bit of humanity. To the business folk in camel-hair coats and Armani shoes, the bums of the city were unfortunate byproducts of their lives—like the mountains of trash that accumulated each time the sanitation workers went on strike—so they simply turned their noses up and kept on walking.
Tonight the young man did not extend his cup for spare change. He wanted no one’s money anymore, no one’s pity. His will to live was quickly failing him, and by morning his will, and his life, would extinguish in the cold, like a street-light flickering out at dawn.
As he sat there, searching for a reason to be, he caught a pair of eyes watching him from a storm drain across the street. In truth, those eyes had been watching him patiently for more than an hour, studying his actions—or lack of action. Only now, in the headlight glare of a bus changing lanes, did he see those eyes regarding him from beneath the curb across Forty-second Street. The face appeared young— younger than he—but in an instant the bus crossed in front of him and, when it passed, the storm drain was just a dark slit in the curb once more.
With the numbness of his fingers and toes slowly growing into his wrists and ankles, he dug up the will to rise to his feet. Then he shuffled into the warmth of Grand Central Station, still trying to figure out if the face he saw in the drain was truly there or just an image dredged up from his own troubled mind.
There were others like him occupying the warmer corners of the station. Most were older, indigents without a penny to their name who stood little chance of finding their way back into a productive life. Some were drunks. Others were mentally ill. Still others were cast here by unfortunate circumstance and had become resigned to their lot. As the young man passed them, he knew he could not live with that sort of resignation. But neither did he know how to pull himself up. And so he continued down.
He found himself descending the steps of track twenty-five. The platform was deserted and dim in this off-hour, so no one saw him hop down onto the tracks. Or so he thought. In a moment he was stumbling away from the pitiless world above, into a dark tunnel. He made his way through the blackness, not slowing his pace, and he fell many times, shredding his palms on the railroad ties below. Still, he continued on. He wasn’t really sure what he was doing, until the headlights appeared far ahead. They lit the track in front of him and the many other tracks on either side that ran deep under the superstructures of the city. He stopped moving and stood there, staring into the light, until he knew for sure that the train was on his track, zeroing in on him.
If he stood his ground and let the train bear down on him, would anyone ever know? Would anyone ever find him in the mildewed darkness? Or was this the perfect place to disappear for good?
His heart beat a rapid, unnatural rhythm as the ground beneath him rumbled with his approaching end. No horn was blown. Perhaps the conductor wasn’t watching the track. Or perhaps he was purposely looking the other way.
As the young man stood there, he wondered whether this would be an act of bravery or cowardice and, realized that, in the end, he did not care; in ten seconds, the answer to the question wouldn’t matter.
The blinding headlights filled his entire mind, and he leaned forward to receive them...but then somewhere deep beneath his desire to leave this world, an instinct for survival kicked in and surged powerfully up his spine, sizzling in every nerve ending. The fear became so intense that he screamed louder than the roar of the train, and leaped out of the way. The train caught the heel of a shoe and spun him around, slamming him against one of the many steel I-beams that held up the city above, and he gripped onto that beam as the underdraft threatened to drag him under the train, to those crushing wheels that were suddenly far less attractive than they had been a moment before.
When the train was gone he put his head into his hands and, for the first time in many years, he cried. He wept long and loud, crying for all the things lost in his life, and for all the things that he would never be.
It was when he paused for breath that he first heard the rats.
No. Not rats. These skittering sounds were too slow, too heavy to be the footfalls of rats. He looked up and around. While his central vision was still blurred by the bright imprint of the train headlights on his retina, he did see rapidly moving shadows in his peripheral vision. They darted from track to track, hiding behind I-beams. They appeared human.
Finally the shadows stopped before him. He could hear them breathing steadily, just a few feet away, and he began to worry.
He knew of the mole-people: the unloved of the city, who banded together in the city’s many tunnels. Some were friendly and accepting of newcomers. Others were dark and dangerous.
“Go away,” he snarled at the three figures before him. “I don’t have anything to steal.”
There was silence for a moment, as if these figures had all the time in the world. Then the one closest to him spoke. “We wish to know your name.”
The voice sounded young. A boy’s voice, still in the process of changing.
“What do you care?” answered the destitute young man, still clearing the tears from his eyes.
Another moment of silence, and then again the statement, calm and controlled. “We wish to know your name.”
The figures before him patiently waited for a response.
“Robert,” he finally spat out. “Robert Gunderson.”
“We’ve been watching you, Robert Gunderson,” said another voice, this one female. “We saw you challenge the train and survive.”
“I didn’t mean to survive,” he told them. “I just lost my nerve.”
“We know this,” said a third voice. Another boy, with a voice much raspier than the other’s. “This is why we’ve made ourselves known.”
“Look at us, Robert Gunderson,” said the boy in front, clearly the leader of the three. The girl then turned on a flashlight, lighting up their faces in shadow-filled relief. Robert gasped at the sight, because it was far from what he’d expected. He’d expected to see three filthy tunnel-rats, held together by hate and mud-stained rags. But there was nothing dirty about this trio. As he sat there wiping his eyes clear, he began to sense that these were not homeless people who took refuge in tunnels. These kids were something entirely different. Their hair was shaved around their ears, but dense and long everywhere else. It hung down their back and about their shoulders. Their clothes were coarse, woven garments, but on closer inspection Robert could see they were made up of tiny patches sewn together from a thousand different fabrics. Each wore wide metallic wristlets and ankle bracelets with intricate designs, and hand-carved hieroglyphics that looked part English, part something else— Arabic or Russian, or Chinese—or maybe a combination of all three. They wore watches on—of all places—their right ankles. The leader, whose hair flowed in thick bronze locks, wore a shining metallic vest that looked like some sort of ancient chain mail. Robert stared at that vest for the longest time, knowing there was something even stranger about it, and the rest of their metallic accessories, but he couldn’t quite say what. Even their flashlight was strange—its face oblong instead of round, and its shaft swirling with red and green patterns. It seemed ancient and almost holy.
“Few Topsiders look upon us and live,” said the leader. This wasn’t a boast or a threat, but a mere statement of fact.
“Then why do I live?” asked Robert.
The leader’s face remained solemn. “You don’t,” he said. Then he reached behind him and he pulled a sword out from a leather patchwork sheath. It wasn’t smooth and mirrored like the swords Robert had seen in movies. This was specked and rough—as if it were made of aluminum foil, pounded and re-formed until it was heavy, sharp, and dangerous. And the sword’s handle—it seemed to be little more than the grip of a gearshift.
It was then Robert realized what was so strange about the metallic objects they wore. The bracelets were forged of discarded tin cans. The chain-mail vest was a thousand soda-can pop-tops strung together. Everything they had, from their patchwork clothes to their relic of a flashlight, was made out of the world’s garbage.
“Today you die, Robert Gunderson,” said the leader, and with that he raised his trash-hewn sword above his head and swung it toward Robert’s neck in a swift, killing arc.
This was Talon’s favorite part. But although he felt a thrill rush through him as he brought the blade down, he kept his face hard and unrevealing. Before him the nineteen-year-old man who had been named Robert Gunderson closed his eyes and grimaced, waiting for his head to be lopped off by Talon’s blade...but Talon had something else in mind. He stopped his blade just before it touched his skin, then rested the sword heavily on Gunderson’s shoulder. The look of surprise and relief on Gunderson’s face was a fine thing indeed.
Gutta turned her flashlight in Gunderson’s eyes so they could see him—his every move, and the sincerity of his words.
“You have fallen through the bottom of the World,” Talon said, his voice a monotone, almost like a chant. “Say it!”
“I...I have fallen through the bottom of the world,” repeated Gunderson, his eyes darting back and forth, not understanding—not knowing how important this moment in his life was.
“Do you renounce the Topside? All its joys and evils?” asked Talon, trying to find a depth in his voice that had not yet come. “Do you shed all ties that held you there?”
“What is this?” demanded Gunderson.
“Answer the question,” snapped Railborn, his voice raspy and hard, like his father’s. Of the three of them, Railborn had the least patience when it came to catching fallers.
Talon, who was leading today’s mission, threw his friend a warning look, then turned back to the frightened faller sitting in the dust before them.
“Nothing holds me there,” said Gunderson with just the right level of bitterness in his voice to convince Talon that he told the truth.
“Do you swear never to seek the sky again, for as long as you may live?”
Gunderson faltered a bit with this one. Then, as Talon watched, some color came to the lonely faller’s face. He seemed to understand, at least in part, what was happening, what was being asked of him—and what he was being offered. His resistance began to fade, and his falling spirit seemed to open for them to catch.
“Yes, I swear,” he said. And then again, with even more resolve, “Yes, I swear.”
Talon removed the sword from their pledge’s shoulder, and slipped it into the sheath his mother had painstakingly sewn for him from a hundred discarded wallets. “Robert Gunderson is dead,” Talon announced. “Stand from the dirt, faller.”
The man who had been Robert Gunderson stood up, wafting his filthy stench in their direction as they did. His smell was an abomination that would soon be discarded, along with his former self.
“Remove your clothes,” said Gutta, who had her own favorite parts of the ritual.
“Just do it,” snapped Railborn.
Talon sighed at his friend’s impatience. “To come into the Downside,” Talon explained, “you can bring nothing from the Topside but your flesh. You will even leave your name behind.”
“Fallers don’t need names,” said Gutta.
Talon took a step closer and put a reassuring arm on the faller’s shoulder. “You will be given a new name when you have earned it. For now, you must remove your Topside garments and follow us.”
Talon reached over and pushed Gutta’s flashlight down so the faller could disrobe in darkness.
“You’re no fun,” Gutta grumbled at Talon.
When the faller was as bare as the day he had first entered the world, Talon led the way. He could hear the faller’s feet squishing through the midworld muck behind him, while Railborn flailed his sword at some stray pigeons that haunted the train tunnel.
They continued on, veering down a tunnel with rails so seldom used that they didn’t have the polished sheen of more well-worn tracks. At last they stopped at a soot-blackened cinder block wall that could have been there since the very birth of the city.
“What’s wrong?” asked the faller. “Why are we stopping here?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Talon answered simply and he motioned to Railborn, the largest of the three. Railborn leaned against the wall, and it gave inward, leaving a large rectangular opening. Gutta turned off her flashlight to reveal the glow of a single gas lamp within the secret passageway. Its flame cast just enough light to show the set of worn stairs beyond, heading down into darkness.
The faller peered in but did not dare move toward the stairwell. He waited for Talon and the others, but they did not go any further.
“The rest of the journey you must make by yourself,” Talon told him. “No one can lead you there.”
The faller looked apprehensively down the steps, then back at Talon. “No one can lead me where?”
“You’ll find out,” said Gutta.
It was only after the faller had taken the first step into the passageway that Talon told him something to ease his fear. “At the bottom of the steps,” said Talon, “you’ll find a subway tunnel that hasn’t been used for two generations. Walk with the breeze to your back and continue hudward. You’ll get there.”
Railborn looked at him sharply, for Talon was not supposed to offer anything to the faller but a chance. No kind words. No directions. But it was Talon’s call, and this far from home he could do as he pleased.
“Go on before we change our minds,” said Gutta.
The faller took a slow step forward, and another. Then finally he descended, disappearing into the hidden shadows below to seek out the second chance that Talon had placed on his shoulder with the slightest touch of his tinfoil sword.
That should have ended a successful evening’s work for the trio, but Talon had other ideas—and the others were obliged to follow him, if for no other reason than to keep Talon out of trouble.
Still full of energy from the thrill of the catch, Talon led his friends up to a sidewalk grate. The night was nearing its end, but still, through the grate above their heads, they could see the soles of shoes hurrying past, on their way to whatever things those strange surface folk did. Some stepped into the yellow cars Talon knew to be taxis and were whisked away. Others lingered, enjoying the warm updraft the vent offered them in the cold night. No Topsider ever noticed the three just below their feet, for no one ever thought to look down.
Railborn, gnawing on a mushroom chip he had found in his hip pouch, grumbled about the faller they had just caught. “He didn’t deserve it.”
“You always say that,” reminded Gutta, grabbing his chip and eating it herself.
Railborn just pulled out another chip and shrugged. “It’s always true.”
Talon ignored their bickering and kept his eyes turned upward. From where he stood he could see, through the grate, the tops of two tall buildings on the yonkward and batward sides of the street. Their tips seemed almost to touch in the sky above his head, and all around them flakes of snow fell, but none came near the grate—the updraft made sure of that.
“Why are we here?” Gutta asked. “We caught our faller— why can’t we go home?”
“Maybe Talon’s got his heart set on catching another one tonight,” said Railborn with a taunt in his voice. “I actually think Talon likes it.”
Talon only spared him the slightest glance. “And what if I do?”
Railborn crossed his arms, a gesture that always made his broad shoulders even more imposing. “I never thought you’d be so...soft.”
Talon threw him a cool gaze and gently touched the hilt of his sword as a friendly warning for Railborn to watch himself. “You don’t like Catching, Railborn, because you’re no good at it.”
“Catching reeks like sewage,” complained Railborn. “I can’t wait for our next rotation. Maybe we’ll get the Hunt!”
“We won’t get the Hunt,” said Talon. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we flunked Catching.”
Railborn grimaced at the thought. “Why?”
“Because of you,” snapped Gutta.
“Wha’d I do?”
“They’re never going to let us hunt anything until you learn compassion,” said Talon. Railborn just grunted and waved the thought off, but then he paced a bit in the small concrete chamber, knowing it to be true.
Talon reached up to touch the grate above his head. It was cold, in spite of the warm updraft. Cold enough for the chill to run down from his fingertips to his wrist. It felt strange and new, and it reminded Talon how much he wished this rotation could last longer than three months. Their first two rotations—Tapping and Mapping—were nowhere near as exhausting as Catching, but unlike those first rotations, Catching was the first task that brought them to the threshold of the Topside. What they had seen during these nights through storm drains and sewer grates had not impressed Railborn and Gutta, but to Talon, every brief hint of surface life was a wonder: from the sooty smell of the air, to the awful ear-wrenching sounds. Once, he had even seen the slim grin of the moon—tales of which he never believed to be real until he actually saw it through a grate. He didn’t mind the endless hours observing prospective fallers each night, and he teased himself by imagining that he might someday see the dawn and not go blind.
“It’s getting close to daybreak, Talon,” said Gutta, a hint of worry in her voice. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Talon took his eyes from the grate up above and turned to them. The hem of Railborn’s garment fluttered with the draft blowing in from the hole behind him.
“Stand over there,” Talon told him. “You, too, Gutta—up against the wall.”
The two looked at one another, uncertain. When they didn’t move, Talon reached out and pushed them gently against the wall. “I said, stand there!”
Still, Railborn resisted, his stance reminding Talon that although Talon might be the oldest of the three, Railborn was the largest.
“I want you to block the air coming in from below,” he explained.
Railborn furrowed his dark eyebrows. “But then the Top-side air will come down on us. It’ll get cold....”
Gutta was quick to cooperate once she saw Talon’s smile. She positioned herself so as to take up as much room in the opening as possible and pulled Railborn in with her, squeezing against him to fill all the available space. This time it was Railborn’s turn to smile. He offered no further resistance, enjoying the moment and trying to hide the sudden redness in his cheeks.
In a moment the cool air dropped over them like a sheet, and then a sudden gust of wind swooped down, kicking up dust and giving them all a harsh taste of winter.
“I don’t like it,” said Railborn, shrinking away from the cold. “It’s...unnatural.”
“Why would Topsiders want to live with that cold?” asked Gutta.
“Because they’re too stupid to know any better,” answered Railborn.
But Talon wasn’t so quick to pass judgment. Talon thought that if he could feel what the Topsiders felt, he would understand the mystery of why they were what they were. “The Champ says you can’t appreciate being warm until you truly know the cold.”
Railborn snorted his disapproval. “The Champ says this, The Champ says that—if everything The Champ says is so wise, why don’t you just move in with him and spare us from having to hear you talk about him?” But even as Rail-born spoke, there was fear in his voice—because he knew, just as Talon did, that The Champ was a force to be reckoned with; a man whose words had profundity none of them would dare challenge.
“If people knew you were talking with him, there’d be trouble,” warned Railborn.
“He’s not really a Topsider,” said Gutta.
“Why do you always side with Talon?”
“Quiet!” Talon raised a hand, refusing to listen to Railborn’s warnings. Instead, he concentrated on the icy wind swirling around him, filling him with gooseflesh.
The cold was by no means a pleasant sensation—but it wasn’t as awful as Railborn made it sound.
Talon waited a moment longer, hoping, and watched the space above the vent. And then what he was waiting for finally came. The snow! The wind above had stopped for a moment, and as soon as it did, thick tufts of the stuff drifted down through the grate, settling on the ground around them and disappearing. Talon focused on a single flake as it wafted down toward him. To Talon the tiny thing was like a messenger from a strange world that lay just out of reach. What an amazing existence this speck of frozen sky had had! Falling from the distant heavens, drifting between sky-piercing towers, just to end its life here before his eyes. Talon held his hand up, and the snowflake landed on the back of his knuckle. He could feel its cold, gentle touch on his skin.
He brought it down to observe it, so gently resting there, already beginning to melt. He wanted so much to keep it— and then realized there was a way that he could. He began to bring the snowflake on the back of his hand toward his mouth.
“Talon, no!” said Gutta. “What if it’s poison?!”
“You don’t believe those stories, do you?” Then Talon licked the snowflake away, feeling the tiny, almost imperceptible chill as it dissolved on the tip of his tongue.
Gutta and Railborn unwedged themselves from the space they clogged. There were a few moments when the cold and warm air fought each other for control—but finally the cold drained away, and the warm updraft kept the snow away once more.
“What did it taste like?” asked Gutta.
“I don’t know,” answered Talon.
“It didn’t taste like anything...but...”
Talon tried to put the feeling into words, but the sensation had passed so quickly, he was already forgetting it. He wished he could have a second taste, but the hour was late and they were expected home. “Let’s go—dawn will be coming soon.”
“How would you know?” snapped Railborn. “Have you ever seen it?”
“I’ve heard it’s blue,” Gutta offered, letting her eyes drift to the grate again and the dark sky beyond. “I’ve heard that the dawn paints all things a deep royal blue, before the sun comes and burns it away out of anger.”
“The sun isn’t angry,” said Talon. “It just...is.” Then he turned from the grate and headed down, toward home, hoping that tomorrow night might bring a fresh fall of snow to the tip of his tongue.
© 1999 Neal Shusterman
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