"Hunger" is really about Master Splinter, and the sacrifices he made to teach the Turtles life lessons and morals and the desire to rise above mere survival. I wrote it to tell about the legacy he passed on that is so much more than ninjitsu skills. It's a means of showing how the Turtles succeeded, and carry what he passed on with them for always.
I feel very close to the Splinter character at times. Because I had no father in my own life, he is in many ways a kind of guiding presence I look to. I hope this story does him justice...and that this preface explains the story's ending.
Besides the usual street sludge, she'd had to get through somebody's garbage, scattered across the sidewalk near its torn plastic bag, and through the remnants of several New Year's parties.
New Year's, the woman thought, should be banned in this neighborhood. The people here had no reason to celebrate surviving to see another year.
Her fingers traced the bottle of Miller Lite she'd been nursing, then went to a half-eaten sub she'd rescued from that fallen garbage bag. She drank, settled back against the warm steam vent. Beyond her alley, streetlights winked on.
Their dull yellow glare bounced off of dull yellow snow. They shone on the fenders of a faded, rotting Mustang. They glittered over the windows of a passing Duster, glistened on melting dregs that dribbled into a sewer grate, and there the light slitted the eyes of a rat peeking through the rusted bars. Its fur was a coarse, matted brown, with a thin trace of grey along the tips of its whiskers.
The rat watched the woman in the alley. She was an obstacle. She had already raided the garbage bag which had seemed so promising an opportunity. Now she blocked his access to the grocery's back dumpster. The rat's stomach twisted itself helplessly, and he cringed.
Dark came early in the winter months, which helped his scavenging, but food was scarce and competition fiercer than ever. And this rat sought to quiet the rumblings of more than his own stomach. This rat had charges. He turned, dropped to the bottom of the drain and started west. There was a small restaurant two blocks away whose dumpster usually had fare for those willing - or hungry enough - to dig.
The rat's name was Splinter.
He had not eaten in two days.
Leonardo turned from his vantage point at the junction of two tunnels and sprinted toward a door set in the wall of the sewers. It led right into the maintenance chamber Splinter had claimed for them years ago. His brothers were already scrambling to grab the stubby candles and wax drippings from the floor just inside.
"Master Splinter," Michaelangelo sighed happily. He tossed a candle at Leo to go beside the rusting utility sink near the door. "Wonder what he brought us tonight, I'm starved!"
"You're always starved," Raphael teased, but he was grinning, too.
Donatello grabbed for the warm wax sculpture they'd been using the candle drippings to form. "Careful, don't break the snowman!" he warned.
"Go hide it, quick," Leo told him, shoving Don toward the alcove where the Turtles slept. Leo grabbed the last two candles on the floor and set them back beside their sensei's chair. Raph and Mikey were racing around the rest of the room, replacing the rest of the lights. The Turtles weren't supposed to play with the candles, which were as hard to find as anything else from "Above". But the wax drippings were so much fun... Besides, they'd finished all their exercises, as well as the chores Splinter had assigned them, almost an hour ago.
Leo hurried the others onto the floor beside him, and they were deeply engaged in a first round of Rock-Scissors-Paper when their Master came in.
"Hi Sensei!" Mike shouted, jumping up and running over. "We missed you! Did you find anything special?"
Splinter shook his head, dropping the limp food bag and going right to his chair. He pulled a heavy blanket from its arm and sat back, tucking his feet beneath him for warmth. Mike sent a worried look to his brothers, who got up and went over to their sensei. But Mike paused to pick up the bag and peek in - there were some scraps of dry french bread crusts and a cracked bottle of olives at the bottom. His heart sank even lower and he hurried over to the others.
"It is only the cold. I am fine, my sons. Did you finish your katas, today?"
"Yes, Master Splinter," Leo said. "Chores, too."
"Yeah, that tunnel's almost all blocked up," Raph told him.
Don leaned forward, still excited over the day's discovery. "We found some more old bricks and put them in the back, then let the mud and wet stuff flow down and through them. It all got packed in, and stayed there instead of getting washed away like before. It was great! The new room's gonna be dry in no time!"
Splinter smiled, rubbing at the damp fur on the end of his nose. "We will see, Donatello. Well done. Go on, Michaelangelo, you four can eat. I am sorry there is no more."
The other Turtles tried to hide their disappointment as Mike emptied the bag. There was enough for a meal for any one of them, but to have to split it four ways hurt.
"You already ate, Master?" Leo asked.
"Yes," he lied. "A little."
Raphael took his bread from Mikey and tried to eat the pieces slowly. Master Splinter always said that made it more filling. He watched Don fold a crust over some olives in a sandwich, and grimaced. He hated olives. Raph wished he'd saved more of his bread to hide the taste with. "Master," he asked, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, "is something wrong topside?"
"Don't you mean, 'why isn't there more food', Raphael?"
The other three glared at him and Raph went as red as their headbands, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. "I'm sorry, Master Splinter," he whispered, looking at the crumbs around his toes on the floor.
"You do not have to be, my son. That goes for each of you." Splinter held their gaze quietly. "I do not understand what is going on above. The garbage collection trucks seem to be back on schedule, now that holidays are over. But there is little edible in the bags, and even the dumpsters are more empty. And our competition is back," he said, grinning faintly. "Do not forget that we are not the only ones of this city who go hungry sometimes.
"I will go out again this morning, before dawn. More people will have set out their trash bags by then, I believe. Until then, let us sleep. Breakfast will come all the sooner."
"Thank you, Sensei." Leonardo ate his last olive, rose on his knees, and bowed. At Splinter's tired nod, the Turtles headed for their alcove. Michaelangelo hung up the food bag and went around the larger, main room, blowing out the candle flames. By the time he passed the rat on his way to their pallet of blankets, Splinter was asleep on the chair. Mike frowned, crept back to his sensei, and tucked the blanket a little higher.
Leo shoved over to make room for Mikey, on and under the old blankets. "He's asleep already," Mike told them, crawling in and pulling the warm, worn linens high. It was cold that night, even in their quiet den below the frost line. "Do you think he really ate anything?"
The others didn't answer.
"He'll bring all the food we can eat tomorrow morning," Leo said.
"Maybe he'll find a whole pizza!"
"Or most of one, Donnie. He'd have to steal a whole pizza," Raph corrected. "Master Splinter doesn't steal."
"Well, maybe he should."
The Turtles stared at Michaelangelo in the darkness. He squirmed, then ducked under the blankets. His voice rose muffled from his end of the alcove - "Well, he should. I'd rather make some penthouse rich guy share the wealth than starve to death cause we don't want to steal."
Silence. Leonardo lay awake for a long time, wondering how to put in words what he felt: that theft was wrong, and a dishonor. But if being honorable left you dead, what was the point? Who was right? Mikey or Master Splinter? He listened to his brothers, breathing gently now in sleep. Someone's stomach rumbled, he thought it was Raph's. Leo couldn't hear Splinter. Had the old rat slipped out to seek more food? He knew their sensei worked tirelessly to keep his sons alive through the endless scavenging. Wouldn't stealing be easier, and mean more rest time as well as less hunger?
Leo peeked up, over the faded, yellow-brown quilt, to where the master sat in the weak candlelight. Splinter slept peacefully on. Reassured, Leo closed his eyes and lay back, to wait for breakfast and the morning. Their sensei knew what he was doing. If stealing was wrong, then stealing was wrong. And it wouldn't kill them to stay true to honor. They were all still here, weren't they?
Splinter woke hours before the bitter dawn would come to their city, rising through dreams of his hunger to the nagging subconscious sense that it was time...to make his move.
He shrugged himself out of the comfortable arms of the chair and stretched, working his muscles through the old patterns of Yoshi's morning kata. Two of the three candles he and his sons left shining through the night had burned themselves out as he slept. Strange. He'd have to speak to the Turtles - later. Now, Splinter crossed the room and went to the alcove's opening. The Turtles lay in a jumbled row in the pile of ragged blankets he had managed to scavenge over the years, arms flung over each other in contented sleep.
"Wake up, my sons. It is time for me to leave. Wake up. Michaelangelo?"
"Mmf. Up, sensei." Mike yawned. "Do you have to go?"
Donnie stretched, hitting Raph on the snout. Raph hit back and grumbled something, then rolled to face Leo instead. "Uh, we're awake," Don said.
"There is a list by the door of what I would like you to take care of this morning. And don't forget your katas."
"Of course not, sensei."
"Okay, Master," Michaelangelo slurred, squinting up at the figure framed by candlelight. "An' bring us home something good, this time." Leo kicked him in shock, but Raph and Don joined in.
"Yeah, remember that potato pie thing you found a few weeks ago?" Raphael asked.
"And the popcorn we had at New Year's!" Don remembered. "Do they make that during the rest of the year?"
"Or pizza, Sensei, pizza would - "
The rat was gone.
"I can't believe you guys said all that to Master Splinter!" Leo cried. "We are gonna get in so much trouble!"
"I just wanted him to get something good... I kinda thought I was dreaming..."
"Yeah, sure, Mikey." Angrily, Leo shoved himself out from the blankets. "We better get started on those chores right away. Man, are we gonna get it when he comes back."
Splinter approached the hotel warily, the empty burlap bag clutched in one hand. The sewer and drainage tunnels in this area were cared for regularly. He had only come here through the sewers once before, shortly after their mutation. He had not stolen since that day, a little over eight years ago. He no longer had excuse. Scavenging had always provided enough - sometimes meagerly, but always he and the Turtles had made do. Now, such hunting had betrayed them, and he had no choice but to use his thieving skills again.
Just this once, he promised himself, until the luck turns.
A warm scent of baking bread and frying oils wafted through the must of the sewer. Had he imagined it? He followed the ghost scent, focusing on the rough pipe wall and the frost patterns that formed on the rusted steel. His hunger could not be allowed to distract him. Already the pain in his stomach was nearly overpowering, coming in waves that left him unsteady and shivering.
He should be below the kitchens now, but there was no way for him to reach them from the water and sewage drains. There was a junction ahead, however, which should still have a ladder leading to a grate in the hotel's rear parking lot. From the lot he could cross over and access the air duct system within the building itself. Splinter muttered a Japanese prayer he had learned from Shen, and hurried on.
Two minutes later he was clinging to the brick facing of the hotel's back wall, just above the shadows of a low hedge. His rear claws dug into the lines of mortar below an air conditioning vent. Gritting his teeth, Splinter turned one claw carefully in the threads of the upper right screw. It loosened, spun more easily, he twisted it with his fingertips now, then it dropped to the frosted pine chips below. Eight to go. The parking lot's tall orange lights seemed to sear his exposed back. If only he had brought some tools!
The heavy vent screen eventually swung from its last screw, dangling at a skewed angle that pointed its upper right corner to the ground. Splinter peered nervously into the blackness of the aluminum hole it had covered.
He had grown, since those first weeks of mutation. It would be a squeeze. He sighed. He probably wouldn't have been able to manage the crawl a few months ago. Perhaps the winter hunger had its advantages, after all. Clenching the folded food bag in his teeth, Splinter pulled himself up and pointed his thin body into the narrow, square space. The fur along his back and sides pressed flat against his skin where his old cloak was torn. At least it was warmer in here, with the heating pipes just on the other side of the slim metal sheets. He pushed himself slowly along, claws scrabbling for purchase. Every foot or so there was a groove between the plate sections. His claws just fit in them. Pulling himself forward with these, Splinter felt the ducts open on either side of his face. A T-junction. Twisting and scrunching into the narrow space, Splinter took a guess and aimed himself left. His legs squeezed through the turn, and then the junction was behind him. After a pause to catch his breath, he started off again, crawling to find some sort of opening that would lead him to the kitchens...
"...wash down the walls; scrub off the pipes in the chamber; air out our blankets and clean the alcove; and continue blocking off the second room's drain tunnel. Wow. That is a lot. Master Splinter wasn't kidding."
"I don't believe you," Raphael challenged, after the incredulous pause. "Gimme that." Leo handed the paper over. Raph raised his eyes, then shrugged and tossed the list toward their sensei's chair. "Let's get started," he grumbled.
Don glanced toward the tunnel door. Did their master really expect them to finish all of that, as well as katas, before he returned with breakfast? He saw his own question reflected in Mikey's eyes.
"Donnie, you take the pipes. You're tallest," ordered Leo. "Mikey, you take care of the blankets, me and Raph'll clean the alcove. We can all do the walls together. Then katas. If we split the workout time with working on the drain block, we'll get done faster."
"But that's still gonna take us straight through lunchtime," Mikey complained.
Raphael shrugged. "Sensei probably decided to go farther than usual today."
"But I'm too hungry to work...and you know the extra food shelf doesn't have anything in it. How are we supposed to work on empty tummies?"
"Maybe it's a test," Don said. "We're supposed to be true ninja, performing a mission in enemy territory, no way to get food - "
"Hey, yeah!" Michaelangelo jumped up on Splinter's chair. "We're warriors infiltrating the Dragon Warlord's palace. Posing as servants, we do the cleaning. But if we eat anything, we'll fall under his evil spell!"
Leo grinned, and leaned forward, hissing. "Mi-ge Lo Samurai, take yourself down from the Warlord's throne! Should he return, your head would roll!"
"Of course, my brothers." Mikey slid to the floor and peered about warily. "I do not see the magic scepter - perhaps he has taken it to the temple to channel the torii's power and make it his own! Come on!" he cried, running the few steps to the alcove.
His brothers shared a smile and started grabbing cleaning supplies. "Wait for us, Mi-ge!" Donatello called. "You don't want to take on the Dragon Lord all by yourself, do ya?"
Finally. The kitchens. Thank the gods, they were just as he remembered - the air shaft dropped straight for several feet, opening in a back corner near the ovens. Heat rose through the shaft and met him like a wind, stirring his whiskers and the tips of his fur.
Splinter listened. The activity below warned of at least four people working the early morning breakfast shift. Smells of coffee, rolls, donuts, tea and chocolate rose to the rat like torture. Tears of hunger pangs and desire rose in his eyes. How his sons needed the food below!
A man dressed in white, complete with an apron and a ridiculous hat, came and stood beneath the air shaft. He opened the oven door below Splinter, and the warm scent of baking cinnamon bread came like a blow to the rat. He curled back from the opening, wrapping around the hunger that tore at his stomach like claws. Splinter squeezed his eyes shut, and the quiet darkness behind his vision beckoned...
"Chet! Chet, come 'ere. Lookit dis." Sunrise lit the top of the hotel already, but the lights of the parking lot continued to give off their ugly orange glare. The two security guards still needed their flashlights to see the ground floor wall above the bushes. "Here. Looks like somebody was tryin' to find a way in."
Chet stabbed his flashlight down the opened air passage his partner had found. "No way anyone could fit down that."
"A kid could."
"What would a kid be doing crawling around a hotel air duct?"
"Chet. Dis is New York. Could be a stink bomb. Could be somebody lookin' to steal towels without payin' for a room. Could be a drug pass. Dealers'll do anythin', use kids, you know that. C'mon, we better report."
Chet hesitated. "A kid? Using the air ducts for a drug deal?"
"I seen weirder." The guard aimed his flashlight at the ground beneath the duct. "But before we go..."
"Gimme a hand wit dese screws."
Splinter woke nearly an hour later. Now the activity below him sounded like a circus. The clatter of dishes was nearly deafening. Steam rose in billowing clouds from the stoves, eggs hissed in splatters of butter, slices of bread leapt from huge toasters, twelve at a time. Skillets curled bacon. Hash browns and orange juice were crammed together on white-clothed trolleys and wheeled away. He was too late. There would be no chance to sneak any food out until much later, at night. Splinter began inching back from the kitchen opening, feeling his fur being rucked back against the aluminum. His mouth was watering around the empty food bag.
But there was no choice. He had to leave the wealth of the hotel's kitchens behind and scavenge now, search through the garbage bags left along the streets - if there were any left by the time hhe made it outside and out of this neighborhood. If it was even still dark enough outside for search. Splinter had no idea how long he'd been out. A salty scent of ham drifted to him, and the tears that had threatened earlier began to flow. He was so hungry! It wasn't fair.
Suddenly, Splinter missed Yoshi intensely, as though the man he had called master had been lost only a few days before. There had been a vow. "I will avenge you, Master." He thought of the Turtles, so eagerly waiting for his return. They would not care if he didn't bring a feast. All he had to do was make sure they survived to fulfill the vow to his sensei.
He pushed himself backward, wincing as his fur caught in the lines of the ducts. He thought of banana peels with half the fruit still inside, not yet rotted. He thought of crusts of sandwiches, with meat and lettuce dripping from the sides. He thought of juice boxes, the cardboard tearing open to reveal sweet, amber liquids stirring in the bottom. No. His sons did not care if what he brought home to them was not the food the rich and the lucky enjoyed.
It was just as well that the kitchens were too busy, Splinter thought, sliding past the first turn he needed to take without noticing it. A just punishment for choosing to steal. Perhaps Yoshi still watched over and guided him, from the spirit realm.
And his disappointment was a simple matter to remedy, really. He would simply retrace his steps - crawls, rather - slip out of the hotel, and exercise ninjitsu in retrieving what he and the Turtles needed. Not necessarily what they wanted...
Here. This must be the first turn.
Don strolled over to stand beside Mikey, who was leaning against the alcove's entrance, watching their brothers finish scrubbing the floor along the walls.
"You know, you guys could help," Leonardo muttered.
"Hey, you're the one who handed out jobs," Don told him, glancing at the pile of blankets behind him. "Just cause Mikey and me are all done with ours doesn't mean we gotta help you two slowpokes out."
Raph glared and started to his feet. "Grr. Come here and say that again - "
"Chill out, Raph," Leo said. "Remember what Sensei says about teamwork, you two? The sooner this gets done, the sooner we'll all be able to start practicing our katas. And if we finish before Splinter comes back, we can do whatever we want - like jump kicks and sparring and stuff. So why don't you come give us a hand?"
"Well, we could start looking for spiders on the walls, instead..." he suggested.
"Not much else to do, then," Don sighed. There went his chance to gloat. Talking about fun stuff always seemed to take the fun right out of it. He told himself to never talk about going to see the Fourth of July fireworks, as Mikey picked up a damp cloth and fell in behind Leo. Just in case the fun went out of that, too.
His stomach rumbled. Don decided that he didn't care about getting to do jump kicks. He just wanted Master Splinter to come back with their meal.
A wet towel suddenly smacked against his face and slid down his front shell. "Get moving, Mr. 'Slowpokes'," Raph grinned.
And the sooner, the better.