This was written for a challenge on Terrible Minds - we were given the title and a day to write 1000 words or less. Enjoy.
It was the quiet that woke him up. He could hear the faint murmur of traffic, the occasional screech of steel wheels on rails, but the familiar and constant rumble was missing. Strange for a Thursday morning, he thought, then remembered it was Christmas. He hated Christmas. Weeks of even more confusion and crowding and shoving, faceless people rushing about, loaded down with parcels, busy trying to out buy each other. Today, Christmas Day, most of the stops on his tight little route would be closed, so he'd have to spend longer up there foraging. His few friends would be at the missions and churches for the free dinners, but he avoided those places, with their sermons and lectures. Many of the workers looked at him askance, too, at his bushy white beard, rosy cheeks, and big belly, and asked why he was there, taking a meal from someone who needed it. It wasn't his fault, as long as he could remember he had looked like this. He did sometimes remember Christmases in the distant past, of himself being busier at them, of kids and toys and laughter, but now he seemed to be pulling in on himself more and more.
He looked around his small, dim room, threw back his tattered blankets, gradually got to his feet, and stretched. The damp was starting to slow him down lately. Or maybe it was yet another night of too much wine. He peered up the air shaft, another grey and cold day, with a few flakes drifting down on his face. He'd need to bundle up, as the quiet tunnels would be even cooler, some staying empty all day. He tidied up his meagre belongings, picked up a shoulder bag, and headed out in search of breakfast. His first priority was coffee, so he climbed a dark set of stairs, carefully slipped out of a door, and headed to a cafe. He gratefully accepted both a coffee and bacon and eggs from the smiling cafe owner. Rosie never judged, never lectured. In return, he cleared the cafe tables as he was leaving, and carried the trash bags down the hall to the garbage. He made his way through the quiet corridors, avoiding the eyes of the few people he saw. He eventually collected enough for a meagre dinner, to go with the bottle of cheap wine he'd saved. By the time he got back home, it was late afternoon. He read the newspaper as he ate, more scandals and name-calling, stories of greed and intolerance. After dinner, he felt the walls and memories crowding in again so he grabbed the wine and a cheap cigar and headed off down the tunnel.
He woke to a very wet kiss. Someone, no, something was licking his face. Bigger than a dog - he opened his eyes and looked up. Hot breath, big eyes, antlers maybe, in the faint light from the tunnel entrance it looked like - a reindeer. Must be from the small downtown zoo he thought, as he pushed it away. It kept nudging him, as he lay half on the tracks, he kept pushing back. He felt dazed and confused from the wine, still. He knew this was an empty line today but the nudges persisted until he gave up protesting and just rolled over against the wall. The animal then leapt for the open tunnel mouth; within seconds he felt a rumble, and a rush of air, and suddenly a train was rushing by, inches above his round belly - a maintenance run - unscheduled. In a few seconds, it was gone, and he lay there - suddenly sober and wide awake. He could feel the breeze from outside the tunnel, feel the gravel under his back, feel his tight shoes. He could hear the distant rattles of other lines, hear the echoes of the recent train, hear the nearby skittering of tunnel mice. He could smell the damp from outside, smell the blend of oil and ozone from the tunnel, smell the spilt wine on his shirt. He could see the tunnel roof stretching back from the entrance to the distant line branches, he could see the years of his life, stretching from the past. And forward to where, he wondered. Perhaps he'd been saved for a reason. He felt like he was standing at some sort of junction, maybe it was time for some new choices.
He went back to his little cave and rummaged in some junk for a string of lights he'd found earlier. He carried them down the tunnel, arranged them on the rough wall, and plugged them into a maintenance outlet. They looked kind of nice, he hoped they would bring a smile to a few of those sad commuter faces. In the meantime, while it was still light he was going to go out and explore a bit, look for some friends, even those staying at the missions. The days would soon start getting longer, then warmer - it felt like it was time to start moving on from his underground life. He might even enjoy Christmas next year, he shook his head and smiled- never could tell. He pulled on his overcoat, grabbed a loaf of day-old bread, and headed for the tunnel entrance. The day was clear and crisp now. He looked again for his new friend but saw nothing, not even tracks in the fresh snow. He scattered chunks of bread over the snow anyway. As he climbed the hill to the street he looked back and thought he could see a faint shape in the shadows by his offering. He turned back up the hill and heard the faint sound of sleigh bells in the cold clear air. Must be a Salvation Army kettle, he thought.