No. He didn’t drown. He managed to somehow crawl out of the water when the drift took him further and helped him catch some kind of buoy. Or wood. Or something. He was too drunk to remember. Two weeks had passed, and he still had bruises all over his stomach and back. At least his face wasn’t as battered as it could have been. The whole experience left a bitter aftertaste and would put him off cocks for a while. Maybe it was for the better. He’d lost a shoe in the Thames and now ended up indebted because he’d needed to quickly buy another one.
The sound of his footsteps echoed in the sewer as he moved along one of the wet walls to gather the rat traps he’d left here two days ago. He hated this place, with its low, rounded ceiling, water that sometimes got into his shoes, and the horrid smell of feces, but most of all, he feared the bloodthirsty creatures creeping in the darkness. On one hand, he preferred not to think about the possibility of meeting one here, but on the other hand, pretending they didn’t exist was plain stupid.
He could say that he missed the olden days, when one could freely travel and live without fear of the undead, but it would have been a lie–he wasn’t old enough to miss that time. He had been six years old when the Plague had begun to spread, and he didn’t remember much of it. Losing his mother, the horror of seeing her spit blood, tremble, die, and rise again with an inhuman paleness to her pupils was all he recalled. He never forgot those eyes. His father couldn’t bring himself to put her down, so they’d locked her in a room and the police had come to deal with her. He never saw his mother again. Not even the body.
For three years, his father had been forced to work two jobs. One as a baker to put food on their table, and the other building the new city walls as community service. The massive fortifications protected London from the undead, or as they started to be called–zombies. Someone had told Reuben that the illness had come to Europe on a ship from the African colonies, and ‘zombie’ was the name that the black people called the undead. Or cursed, as they liked to say. Whichever the name was, it meant one thing to a six year old boy: monsters. And now, they swarmed the world beyond the city walls. He wouldn’t dare travel outside of London. Ever.
He smiled at the sight of a rat in the last trap he had left and quickly came closer, ready to kill it with one blow. Over the years, he’d gotten proficient at finding good places for hunting, and he always returned home with at least a dozen of the rodents that made up a substantial part of his and his father’s diet. He actually liked their meat, which was good, because he wouldn’t be able to afford anything else, anyway. Reuben’s father also used it to make pies, their most expensive product. Officially it was ‘pork’, or ‘duck’, or even ‘pheasant’ when his father felt very fancy. But it was what it was and always tasted the same. Nonetheless, it was meat, and no one liked to be hungry, so customers would come and eagerly order suspiciously cheap ‘pork’ pies. After twenty years in locked up London, they probably didn’t remember what proper pork tasted like anyway.
Even the rats weren’t that easy to catch. Not a lot of people were willing to descend into the sewers, and Reuben knew precisely why. The same reason every loud sound gave him the spooks. It was dark, wet and horrible, but the smell was nothing in comparison to the possibility of finding a stray zombie walking around hungry. As a safety measure, he always kept close to the ladders leading up to the street, but if he wasn’t focused enough, a hunting trip could cost him his life.
But once, he met a zandy, which was how ordinary people of London called zombies who were toffs before they—well—died. If it wasn’t for how much of a coward Reuben was, he would have been rich now. The zandy’s fingers were sprinkled with golden rings. All Reuben would have had to do was kill the thing and slide them off. Instead, he ran for the ladder.
He put the remaining catch into his rucksack and made his way up the nearest ladder. He moved the sewer cover with a crowbar and pulled himself up. The early morning light hurt Reuben’s eyes, but after a moment, he looked around to see if he wasn’t in danger of being trampled and swiftly exited the sewer. Luckily, this entrance was located close to home, which meant he could have breakfast soon.
The fogbound street was empty and quiet, making it easy for him to quickly get to the bakery. His father and the two neighbor boys they paid a few pennies were already hard at work, and now he was supposed to join them. Reuben was far from lazy, but the amount of work his father required him to do would be a strain to anyone. The first days after the assault two weeks ago had been full of pain, especially when he had to lift heavy trays of bread and his father didn’t cut him any slack.
The bakery was located in the local main street, its narrow shape made not just the shop, but also the workspace behind it extremely uncomfortable to use. The baking itself took place in the basement, so all breads, pretzels, pies and buns had to be carried down and then up the stairs. Quality ingredients were too expensive for their neighborhood, so they had to subsidize for at least part of them with cheaper replacements, compromising on taste. Of course, that didn’t stop his father’s ingenuity one bit. If a customer tried to complain about finding some lice in the bread, the old man would say it was cumin. Cumin! They hadn’t seen proper cumin for a few months now.
Reuben sneaked into a narrow alley and went in through the side door, welcomed by hot steam and the sound of his father’s commanding tone. He didn’t envy the boys who worked for them. His father gave them a hard time, especially when Reuben wasn’t there to be pushed around.
“That you, Reuben?” rasped the harsh, permanently hoarse voice. “Where are the pigs?” That was the codename for rats.
“Coming!” Reuben yelled into the downstairs bakery. “Gotta skin them first! Tom! Where are the breads? They should be upstairs by now! People’re gonna come shopping soon!” He went behind a brick wall, so that he could hide what he was doing from prying eyes, and smacked the sack full of rats on the old wooden table.
“It’s ya who’s late!” growled his father. His shout was followed by a loud rumble and sounds of cursing. “Ya idiot! Pick that up and make sure they’re not dirty!”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake! Did they drop the bread? Wait! I’m comin’!” Reuben made his way down the creaking wooden stairs, straight into the dry heat of the baking cellar.
In the dim light inside, he saw Ben, one of their helpers, kneeling among at least a dozen loaves that lay about on the dirty floor. He was frantically collecting them into a wooden box. Reuben’s father stood by the oven, the thin, sagging skin on his chest moving as he took sharp, hoarse breaths, white hair floating in the air.
“What took ya so long?” He hovered over Reuben with a snarl.
Reuben looked at the nervous, red-faced boy and said nothing. A bit of dust wouldn’t hurt bread enriched with woodchips. “You have to be quiet down there,” he muttered, squatting to help gather the hot loaves.
“What, ya complainin’ again?” His father’s lips thinned as he shot him an angry look over his shoulder.
Reuben had had seven siblings, but all of them had died, some even before the Plague. Unfortunately, that didn’t help him bond with his father.
“Stop lookin’ around and get yer ass to work!”
“I know that! Just wanna help the boys so they don’t throw more bread around.” He rolled his eyes and got a faint smile from Tom. “Got time to make the pies.”
“They’re no good for anythin’!” snarled his father, squatting by the oven to use the bellows. “We should knock’em out!” Reuben knew the threat was meant to frighten their young helpers and force them to accept a lower wage. It wouldn’t be the first time his father had used this tactic.
Reuben shook his head. “Just get on with it,” he told Ben.
The boy nodded and ran up the stairs as if it were his life on the line. “It’s not that easy with two different shoes,” Reuben muttered, trying to excuse himself for being late.
“The old pair was only two years old!” His father’s prematurely wrinkled face tensed up like the skin over boiling milk. “Serves ya right if ya can’t take care of ‘em! It’s still my money!”
“I work here, too, ya know!” Reuben bit his lip and lifted a large tray of rolls.
“Yer a lazy rat! That’s what ya are!” His father scowled, making a move as if he wanted to shove him toward the stairs.
Reuben huffed with anger, but kept his mouth shut. Talking back would only make everything worse. Even skinning rats seemed a better prospect than working with his old man. At least it was something he could do on his own in the backyard. Tom ran past him to get another tray to the shop.
“Reuben, is he mad?” Ben picked up the basket to take it upstairs. “We earn less than a hedge whore as it is!”
“You’ll get used to it,” murmured Tom, who had worked for them much longer.
“He’s always mad.” Reuben let out a long sigh.