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American Atheist: #11

by  Nelly

Posted: Saturday, June 25, 2005
Word Count: 1755

The ladder rose higher than expected. It ascended the chamber’s wall, its end lost in the high arches and oppressive gloom of the sewer roof. Every inch was covered in thick, olive coloured slime. Rust had eaten away at the rungs. Many were missing, just gaping holes left in their place. Others were jagged metal spikes, jutting out at sharp angles. It shook as Dekel climbed and Unita was loath to follow. The ladder didn’t look safe with Dekel’s weight, add hers, and the whole thing might come tumbling down.

But what was the alternative.

Unita glanced around the chamber, watching the waste of Rome circle in the great sink below. There was, she dully concluded, no other way.

Something moved in one of the smaller tunnels. She caught a glimpse of two thin red eyes and a thick sinewy body, before it vanished back into the shadows. This settled the matter, Unita grabbed hold of the rungs and began to climb, hoping to catch Dekel, who was already half way up.

Slime slid between her fingers and trickled down her arms. She paused to wipe her hand free when something snapped. Part of the ladder -the rung she had only just been standing on - gave way, dropping into the pool of waste below.

She gripped the metal and squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

“Careful,” Dekel warned. “It’s a long way down.”

Unita risked a quick glance and felt the walls shift, as she stared down a drop of fifty feet.

“Oh and another thing,” Dekel added. “Don’t look down.”

Waiting for her nausea to pass, and thinking it sound advice, Unita kept her eyes fixed squarely on the next rung. She kept to this, until they came to a square of roughshod iron, set in the roof of the sewer. Daylight crept through in thin cracks and brown water dripped onto her upturned face.

Dekel set his shoulder to the metal and pushed. With a groan of resentment, the square inched open and the sliver of light became a golden beam, chasing away the shadows and lifting her spirits. She took a deep breath, savouring the moment.

Unita climbed out and found herself in a side street. The main road was a hundred yards further down and filled with people. Dekel dragged the cover over, wincing at the sharp sound it made.

“Why here? “ Unita said, noticing the buildings looked run down and near derelict.

“My family lives nearby,” Dekel said nonchalantly. “You might consider this to be downtown. A kind of ghetto, where the Jewish families live.”

The walls of the buildings were crumbling, nothing looked particularly safe. She edged closer to Dekel and followed him up the centre of the road. As they walked, Unita could make out gaping holes in the sides of houses, large chunks of plaster lay scattered about the floor, intermingled with brick and stone. It seemed as if they had been targeted for demolition and the job only half completed, or, she was forced to consider, they had only been half built.

“You live like this?” She couldn’t keep the disgust from her voice, but Dekel only laughed.

“You fancy somewhere else? You’re always free to try the Vatican, see if they’ve any rooms for you to stay in. I’m sure they’ll accommodate, if you ask nicely.”

“I don’t want to stay,” Unita said stubbornly. “I need to get to the tower, I’ve seen what I needed too.”

Dekel stopped and with extreme patience said, “you’ll have to wait, at least until the sun sets. The entire centre is crawling with people trying to find you. It’s best to wait for evening penance and then go.”

“Evening penance, what’s that?”

“Remember, when you first saw me collecting soup in the car.”

“So that’s what you call it, but yes I remember.”

“Well, twice a day, the people attend church or pray in mass at their homes. We pray for forgiveness, allow God in so He can wash away our sins for the day. But it really acts as a curfew, ensuring like good citizens, we’re all safely tucked away and accountable. In fact, to be found wandering the streets at those times, is a crime in itself.”

“But who would catch you, if everyone is inside praying?”

“The Cardinals.”

A stab of pain wrenched at Unita’s heart.

“Are you feeling well,” Dekel asked, looking concerned. “You’ve come over all pale.”

“I’ll be fine, it’s just the Cardinals, I’ve had some experience with one.” She was sure her answer sounded feeble, her guilt must be plain to see, but Dekel simply nodded in understanding.

“We don’t think they’re human anymore, they sacrifice something of their soul as part of their indoctrination. Out of all Rome’s dark secrets, the Cardinals are the worse. They hunt us.”

“Hunt you. What like animals?”

Dekel face darkened, “I imagine animals would receive better treatment. They come at night, in packs of three, and take the young -usually men.”

She didn’t bother to hide her shock. “What do they do with them.”

“I’m not sure, kill them, or worse, you hear all kind of strange tales coming from the Vatican. They say they have breeding tanks down there, and scientists that can make dead things live again.”

The concept was utterly abhorrent to Unita. The dead couldn’t walk again, it was intrinsically wrong and she felt her anger rise. “It shouldn’t be allowed,” she said, voicing her displeasure.

“It is against God.”

For once, Unita was in complete agreement. “How do you know, have you seen anyone…brought back?” She asked, uncertain if she wanted to know the answer.

Dekel shook his head. “No, not personally, I don’t know where the rumours start from, it might be that’s all they are, just rumours.”

Movement through the crumbling walls caught her attention. A large lady dressed in a long black gown had lit a stove and placed a kettle to boil. Three children, barely toddlers ran around in circles by her feet. Across the road, an older man leant into a moth eaten armchair and opened a newspaper. Above him, several men appeared carrying a large canvas bag, which they used to cover one of the greater holes in the roof.

“Why is it so run down?”

“Partly because we’re not allowed homes of our own, we have to belong either to the Church sponsored sites, which are just a recruitment centre for their armed forces, or the Nightime Flyers loose a spare bomb now and again.” He smiled. “Just to keep us on our toes, you understand.”

His dry tone wasn’t lost on Unita. “Isn’t there anything you can do. You’re human beings, they can’t treat you like this!”

“At least they allow us to remain here, unlike Russia or your illustrious nation.”

Unita left the jibe unchallenged. America refused the Jewish community access when the great exodus from Russia began, and again ten years ago, when the Nazi party gained control of Germany.

She remembered reading about the Jews trying to get in by boat close to New York. Most had been systematically shot out of the water, by the U.S.S Alabama, a first class destroyer, which had been anchored off shore for such an eventuality. The crew had been meticulous in ensuring American soil remained free from the taint of religion. But even so, some managed to make it onto the beaches, before they too were killed. Thirty men and twenty women -the morning papers had kept a tally- there had been no mention of children. The Nonfather’s headed the land defences; there was even a Speech about it the following day. Nonfather Fletcher talked about the religious incursion, how it was meant to try the people and would mould the community into better human beings. She had actually felt glad the Jews failed, slinking back to Europe with their tails between their legs.

Now she just felt sick.

She followed Dekel into one of the ruined buildings, through what might have been a living room, but was now the home of thick green vines, that snaked up from the floor and curled around the rafters. They stepped into a narrow hallway, which was carpeted and smelled vaguely of jasmine. On the walls were several photographs, grey and faded with age. They depicted a family, a gangly group that Dekel shared more than a passing resemblance with.

Dekel stopped at the foot of a staircase and said, “I have to clear you staying with my family, before you can come up.”

“I don’t want to stay with your family, cant I just wait around here?”

“The other families might ask questions, if you’re left alone for to long, they might kick you out, best we stick to the original plan and you stay with me, until nightfall, then I can at least point you in the right direction.”

“I didn’t realise we had a plan.”

“For someone who’s just been rescued, you’re not very appreciative,” Dekel said sullenly.

“Sorry, I guess I’m still on the defensive,” Unita sighed. “You’re right I’ll wait here.” She reached out and touched his arm. “I’m glad I met you, if I didn’t…” Her voice trailed away.

Dekel smiled and patted her hand, “But I did find you and here we are.” He climbed the stairs and was lost from sight. A door opened above, and a number of voices rose in greeting, then the door shut and silence fell.

Unita sat on the bottom step and waited. She watched daylight pool into the corridor and sparkle from the glass frames of the pictures. She yawned and lent against the wall, allowing her mind to wander. Dekel was nice enough, open and honest in a way she hadn’t been used to. It was reassuring to meet a man like him; it eased the pressure of the last two days.

She allowed her eyes to close, resting them gently and listened to the faint creak of floorboards somewhere above. Far away the low murmur of traffic formed a gentle backdrop of noise and she stifled another yawn.

Dream like images rolled lazily before her mind: The village sweltering in the summer heat, the old farm with its windows thrown wide open, large bumble bees moving through the gardens. Ashanti hanging laundry to dry, the soft fragrance of the sheets, wafting in with a gentle breeze, if she tried hard enough, she might just be able to smell them…

With a deep pleasant smile, Unita fell asleep