The man who staggered out of the shadows looked an awful lot like Rasputin.
He shambled towards them, hands raised in a zombie’s posture.
The man had grey and tatty clothes, little more than rags, which hung from his bones. He wore no shoes, and his feet scraped across the concrete, naked and raw. Beard long and bedraggled, hair matted and wild. His eyes shined like black coals in his pale, wrinkled face.
Steve glanced at Mary. “What the hell is he? Mary, is he real? Is—” he wet his lips “—is this one actually there?”
They’d retreated as far as they could without ascending the stairs once more. Their backs were, in a very literal sense, against the wall.
All around them, machinery continued to hum and screech — hidden beneath the concrete. Steve couldn’t tell if he heard the air raid siren any more.
Mary wrinkled her face. She shook her head. “I-I don’t know.”
He looked up the basement stairs, dark and cold. “Shall we make a break for it? I can’t hear them up there anymore.”
“But what if he’s real?”
“What if he’s real? If he’s real, we should get the hell out of here!”
Mary looked at Steve sideways. “But what if he knows what’s going on here? What if he can give us some answers?”
Steve shook his head, a denial. “I think the only answers this guy can give us are about imperial Russia.”
The man stopped and stood there. The blackness hovered over his shoulder. He swayed like a drunk. His black eyes darted from Steve to Mary, back and forth. And then he grinned. He had discoloured teeth, several missing.
“Fresh arrivals, I see.” His accent was odd, hard to place. His voice was low, husky. Like sandpaper. It sounded as if he needed to clear his throat. “How we doing so far?” He chuckled, deep and husky. “Losin’ our marbles yet?” He smiled again, black teeth dull and rotted.
Mary stepped forward. “Fresh arrivals? What are you talking about?”
The man pointed to the ceiling of the basement. He wore gloved with the fingers cut off. “You already met ‘em. Have they not spoken to you, yet?” He whistled. “Whew, are we lucky?” He glanced away and his eyes rolled in their sockets.
Steve thought he looked, without a shadow of a doubt, to be insane.
He whistled again. “Who’s a pretty boy then, ey? Ey?” He laughed again — the sound reverberated off the concrete floors.
Steve frowned. He swallowed, a click in his throat. “Mary, I think we outta…” His voice trailed off.
But Mary didn’t listen. “Who’s they? Who are you? What’s your name?”
The man recoiled and shook his head. He avoided eye contact. “Shothi, Shothi, wants a frothy coffee.”
“What?” Steve squinted at him, every movement observed. He scrunched his face up when Mary took a step towards the lunatic.
“I don’t—” she shook her head. “I don’t understand. Can anyone here help us?”
The man’s eyes opened wide. They darted toward Mary. He smiled his toothless smile. “Help, help! Help, HELP!”
“Mary, he’s messing with us,” Steve said. He tried to not move his mouth. “I think we should get outta here.”
“My friend,” Mary gestured in Steve’s direction, “and I… we’ve been in an accident, and we need help—”
“Help, HELP!” The man clasped his hands together and his voice rose in pitch. “Oh, won’t somebody save me?” He then pretended to swoon.
Undeterred, Mary continued. “We need medical attention. My friend — Steve — has hurt his arm. I’ve hit my head.” She raised a hand to the dried blood, which covered half of her features. “We couldn’t find anyone upstairs — is there anyone there? Where is everyone?”
The man’s beady glare shot to Mary. His voice dropped in volume and pitch. “Shothi, Shothi, memories are brothy,” he said. A moody grumble. And then, absurd as it was, he began to sing. “How long has he been here? He’s been here quite a while. Why doesn’t he leave here? Look at his tortured smile.”
An icy ripple washed over Steve.
“Shothi? Who is Shothi?” Either Mary didn’t hear the song, or she chose to ignore it.
Steve cleared his throat. “Mary, we’re wasting our time, here. Let’s get outta here. I think they’ve gone from up—”
Mary waved him away. Didn’t even glance in his direction.
The man lowered his head. His ratty beard spilled over his chest. His eyes glowered. He looked, in Steve’s opinion, like an angry toddler. “Shothi, Shothi, traps us, doth he.”
“Traps us? I don’t understand.”
He raised his head, eyes wide. “She killed herself, you know.” He nodded and pulled a face that seemed to say, Yes — it’s true! “Killed herself. Couldn’t deal with it. Couldn’t hack it. All she had to do was look inside, but no, she couldn’t do that. And me—” the man pulled at his shirt “—hmph. Still here, ain’t I? Still here. Of course, of course, I could have followed her, could have followed her, could have followed her.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Y’need to find your reasons. Hear me. Find your reasons. Or you’ll be here forever.” He flashed his rotten teeth. “Just like me.”
Mary shook her head and raised her shoulders, exasperated. “Our reasons? What reasons? There are no reasons, we just crashed and now we’re here, looking for help, why can’t you see that? Why won’t you help us?” She took a step forward out of frustration.
Steve winced. He took a half-shuffle. “Ah, I wouldn’t do that, Mare — he doesn’t look all that… there.”
As soon as Steve spoke, the man fixed him with a glare. Steve’s insides shrivelled. “I am very much here, thank you. That’s the problem.”
“Uh, yeah. Clearly. Sorry, my bad.”
The man pouted, lower lip stuck out. “Your bad what?”
“Never mind. Mary — shouldn’t we be off? Gotta see a man. About a thing.”
“Lots of men. Lots of things. Lots to see. An entire lifetime. An entire history. All here. The Shothi. All connected. All intertwined. We have to find our reasons. The ones we didn’t see.”
“What reasons? I don’t understand.” Mary sounded to be on the verge of tears, and still, she wouldn’t come.
Steve put a hand on her shoulder. “Mary? I think we ought to—”
“DO NOT SEEK TO HIDE YOUR REASONS!”
The man’s voice boomed. Mary let out a tiny scream, and Steve jumped backwards — a little.
“YOU WILL TRAP YOURSELVES IN THE PITS OF DESPAIR!” The man extended his hands towards the basement walls, in a Jesuslike pose. “THE SHOTHI SEE ALL. THEY KNOW WHAT’S BEST FOR US — BETTER THAN WE KNOW OURSELVES.”
Steve pulled Mary with him, back towards the stairwell. “Come on, Mare, let’s get away from this freak.”
“What’s the reason? Who’re the Shothi?” Steve couldn’t see her face, but he was sure the tears now flowed.
“The Shothi see all,” whispered the man. The drop in volume reminded Steve of a Pixies song. “They need the reasons. You need the reasons. Do not try to escape — trust me.”
“Yeah, right,” said Steve between pants of breath. Mary didn’t come of her own accord. He had to drag her. “C’mon, I think it’s all quiet up there.” And then, quieter: “I hope.”
“Escape? Escape from what? Escape how?”
“Do not try,” said the man from the shadows. “It doesn’t work. Seek your reasons.”
Steve pulled Mary up the stairs. He hoped he was right. He wasn’t sure what he’d know what to do if more of those ghost soldiers came out of the mists. Mustard gas behind them, gas masks pulled tight.
“Forever,” whispered the man. “Reasons. No escape.”
The lunatic didn’t follow them. Relief flooded through Steve — he hoped it wasn’t premature. Was there a reason why he didn’t chase? Did he mean no danger, or was there something up there he feared?
In the tinny echoes of the hospital basement, the man sent three more words after them.
“My reason died.”