Undercity

All that remained of my life was an obituary probably no one had read and a bloodstain on the street outside a bus stop in Santa Ana. My afterlife didn’t start out any more promising.

I woke up in a room. Or at least it had the makings of a room from what I could tell by feel in the pitch dark. As I reached through the darkness, my fingers slid across smooth stones and a thick, sticky grime that covered them. With some difficulty and a lot of pain, I stood and started making my way along the wall. I held my breath with each step as I searched the floor, my mind filling the dark with bottomless pits or venomous insects, though I never found any, much to my relief.

On the next wall, I ran into a knee-high board and fell sideways, landing softly on a wool mattress and blanket. Straight across from the small bed, the only piece of furniture in the room, was a heavy wooden door. I groped at the rough wood, searching for a handle or knob, and then beat on the thing when I found none. Finally, I found a small window at about eye-level. Bars criss-crossed it, but I managed to slide my lanky arm through, and I still couldn’t find a handle.

I dropped back down to the floor. A tangled mess of brown hair fell over my face as I rested my head in my arms. My limbs, my chest, everywhere ached. For what seemed like hours, I didn’t move from that spot. I barely moved at all, sitting in total dark and total silence. Right about the time I started questioning whether this impenetrable nothingness was Hell, a soft glow came through the window in the door. From somewhere outside my small cell, I could hear the soft drumming of bare feet on a stone floor, and it grew louder as the light grew brighter.

I jumped up and peered through the bars, but stood far enough back to avoid being seen. A young woman carrying a torch walked past my door. The light was too dim to see much of anything else, but she seemed normal enough. She didn’t have any horns, at least, although her dress looked aged by about a century. Her long, dark hair was pulled into a braided bun, and two strands framed her round face. She stopped at a sconce on the other side of the hallway and was trying to rekindle it.

After taking some time to doubt, I tapped on the door. “Hey,” I said, though it sounded more like a croak than a greeting.

Her hand clutched the frills on her dress as she thrusted the torch in my direction. Her green eyes grew wide, but softened quickly when she saw me. “My apologies,” she said quietly before coming closer to me. “I didn’t expect anyone to awaken so soon. You gave me a fright.”

“I didn’t expect to wake up,” I said. “But I’m guessing this isn’t a hospital.”

“Well it is, in a sense, though not the one you’re thinking,” she said. “These rooms are intended to offer safety and rest for spirits who have recently crossed. Some need a safe place to gather their wits, lest they lose them entirely.”

Even though I already knew it, her acknowledgment that I had “crossed,” that I was dead, hit me like a sucker punch to the diaphragm. The darkness had a sudden weight about it that bore down on me. It clawed at my back, through my skin.

“Please don’t fret,” she said, placing her hand on the lower edge of my window. “I’m not any good at this. If you’ll be patient a little while longer, I can find someone who will help.” She turned away quickly and started down the hallway.

“Wait!” My voice cracked, but echoed along the stone walls.

She stopped and doubled back, pressing her finger to her lips to silence me. “Do you want to wake all the others?” she asked in a harsh whisper.

“I wouldn’t want to,” I said. “But if left in this dark, dank room any longer, I might lose my wits all over the place.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Petty threats are not becoming of a young lady.”

“How do you feel about pleading?” I asked. “I just need to get out of here.”

She took a step back as she regarded me closely through the bars. “You really should have more time to adjust, and with someone more suited to the task of helping you adjust than me.”

“Then take—”

She cut me off with a raised hand. “Young spirits are skittish, prone to flight if they become overwhelmed,” she said. “If I allow you to come with me, you must promise to stay by my side until I say otherwise.”

“Pinky swear,” I said, sticking my extended finger through the bars.

She sighed. “I have to get the keys from the end of the hall. It’ll be only a moment.” She watched me over her shoulder for a second before she turned to walk away. My fingers dug into the wood of the door as the light from her torch grew dimmer. Deep grooves, four in a row, had been scratched into the wood under my hand. From some distant place, screams echoed along the stone walls.

10 thoughts on “Undercity

  1. Darrell Pursiful says:

    There’s definitely something I like here. I’m curious where a story that begins like this might end up. I would be interested in reading the cover blurb to see what kind of story this is going to turn out to be. The title is great; it’s why I chose to critique this story.

    That said, there are some places where it seems overly wordy. “Right about the time I started questioning whether this impenetrable nothingness was Hell…” deserves to be more than a dependent clause. I don’t know that I need to know about her brown hair at this point in the story—especially since she is (and the readers are) in total darkness!

    Shorter paragraphs throughout might help with the pacing and the tone. The dialogue is a little stilted in places.

    Other things kind of leave me hanging. Maybe you don’t want to reveal the protagonist’s name right away, but I know very little about her at all—and didn’t know she was a “she” until near the end. What is her personality like? She obviously remembers something about her death. Would it be possible for the reader to get a few lines of explanation about that? Maybe she checks herself for wounds, finds her body is whole, and experiences a jolt at the memory of what had happened?

    The century-old dress doesn’t tell me anything until I can piece together what timeframe the story is set in. I’m guessing the present day, but pinky swearing goes back to the late 1800s, and there aren’t any other cues that I’m picking up on.

    Whatever the attendant may say, I don’t believe this is a safe place. You don’t just put traumatized people in dark, empty rooms with limited sensory inputs. That’s how you torture people. If I’m reading this scene rightly, then the protagonist should be demonstrating greater signs of fear, anxiety, even panic. And if she isn’t, that in itself is remarkable—so please remark about it.

    Thanks for sharing! I hope this is helpful.

    • twiggy says:

      Thanks for the critique!

      I did not even consider that her commenting on her hair being brown would be kind of silly when she’s in a completely dark room, so thanks for pointing that out. 😛

      Sorry to leave you hanging. A lot of the questions you bring up are answered in the next paragraph (after she gets out of the room), but it was just over 1000 words, lol. I debated trying to fit that information in earlier, but I didn’t want to cut out her reaction to waking up alone in a locked room after having died. I might even add more to show more signs of anxiety.

      Also, thanks for pointing out that there’s no indication of timeframe. I think I have an easy fix for that one.

  2. bruinsmap says:

    If I am honest, this comes across as flat. The first paragraph sets that tone and really it isn’t shaken off for me in what follows.

    It is methodical, but too methodical for me.

    You have the English skills, but nothing of you shines through in this. You have the ability to do a lot better. Let yourself go a bit more. Your subject gives you so much opportunity, there are no limits. But that works both ways. The afterlife should present me more surprised and interest.

    You have the technical skills, make a few more steps and show you.

    🙂

  3. packoffeathers says:

    This is interesting. I like your opening lines. In the second paragraph, the first two sentences can be skipped. There are more words than necessary in places similar to this. Also, some visuals don’t work for me, like running into something knee-high and then falling sideways. Wouldn’t you double over that thing?
    I did read it start to end, (compliments!), and so here’s what else I noticed.
    The visuals and timeline sometimes don’t match up as well, as in sitting still for hours before considering this black hole after death may be hell.
    The argument the mc makes here to be taken out doesn’t seem convincing. She’s told the goal is to calm spirits down (which seems a really unhelpful way to go about it, is she being lied to?) and then getting more aggravated gets her out?
    And the “pinky swear” seems out of tone with the rest, to me at least.
    Keep writing!

    • twiggy says:

      Thanks for the critique!

      Skipping the first two sentences – I think I’m going to do exactly that. Thanks!

      Yeah, the falling onto the bed bit is awkward. I’ll go back and rewrite that.

      I disagree a bit with the issues of timeline and wondering about Hell. I don’t think most people would immediately jump to the conclusion that they were in Hell, especially if the place wasn’t similar to the typical “fire and brimstone” imagery of Hell and the person wasn’t really religious.

      She is being misled, yes, and I was going to have a character explain the true nature of the rooms later in the story. But since two people have commented on it now, I’ll add a bit more about her being suspicious to make it clear that she’s being misled.

  4. archie (@causticanatomy) says:

    I LOVED the opening line, and the situation hints at a very interesting premise. I generally enjoyed your voice, and I personally didn’t mind the “pinky swear” at all — the opening lines and the rest of her dialog pretty firmly established her as a nonchalant, sardonic type of person, so I took the ironic childishness of it it as a sort of defense mechanism against the panic.

    I’d love to read more of this. If you’re looking for CPs I’d definitely be interested.

  5. Cherie says:

    Your writing got me hooked! The first line is a tantalizing taste of the character and what’s to come. It confused me that the woman opened the door after arguing that she couldn’t but that adds to the intrigue. What is she up to?

    I like the way you convey the youthfulness (immaturity) of the character with her flippant remarks.

    I don’t have much to say that would improve what you’ve written and I’d like to read more…but I hate things that scare me. This looks to be very scary! Congratulations on a well written piece.

  6. Brett Mumford says:

    Good opening paragraph, certainly opens a number of questions to get answered. I found the next few paragraphs difficult to read through, they came across as ‘dry’ and just blended together for me. I think I would have appreciated a bit more of a reaction from the character, mixed in with her exploring her environment, something to tie her exploring to her personality (is she a little frantic, strangely subdued, methodical in her exploration, etc).

    I do wish you had made more use of periods or commas though. Some sentences could definitely have been ended, and other instances would have benefitted from inserting a comma.

    ‘ With some difficulty and a lot of pain, I stood and started making my way along the wall. I…’ Where is she in pain? If it is a lot, why is she moving at all? There is no indication that she feels compelled to move or search. There is no mention if she hears something that motivates her to move, in spite of the pain. The character might be interesting, but right now, I don’t know.

    Regardless of all that, I found that the story flowed consistently and was an interesting read. I am curious about the world she has found herself in. I hope you have fun writing it.

  7. Jen (Full of Love) (@gluedwithgold) says:

    I’m hooked, and I want to continue reading this.

    As others have said, I think there are places where the wording could be much more concise, and the pacing could stand to be sped up a bit. I also didn’t get a sense of the character until she started speaking with the woman in the hallway – something as simple as including a name – for example you could add the obituary headline in the first sentence – would serve to ground the reader and give a sense of character right away. The second through fourth paragraphs are purely description – which is done well and gives the reader a good sense of the setting – but if that were made more concise it would leave room to add in some ‘headspace’ of the character, relay some of her emotion and personality, and that would go a long way toward letting the reader start learning who this person is, too.

    This was a great read!

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