by Edward C. Doerr
part 1 of 2
There were three things I noticed about the large man who swaggered into the subway car two stops before I needed to get off. The first was his crop of red hair that fell around his face like a halo of fire; the second was his set of glowing green eyes that glinted like emeralds; and the third was the gun protruding from the waistband of his pants.
I didn’t notice the gun at first. Both his size and stature were hypnotic, but those eyes beckoned to me, begged for me to get lost in their seeming immense ocean of gentle green. He must have weighed close to three hundred pounds but moved with an angelic grace. His white shoes didn’t seem to touch the filthy floor but to kiss it gently from above, as if it weren’t worthy of his steps.
I couldn’t discern the outline of his features beneath his white hood, but I had the unmistakable feeling that his face would be familiar. The train lurched forward, leaving Church Street behind as we twisted through the cavernous bowels of the city.
The man with the red hair straightened. “You better not move,” he yelled over the shrill pierce of the train scraping the tracks, yanking the gun from his pants. He leveled the weapon and scanned the car with it, as if he were watering a garden with a hose.
The only other traveler, an elderly woman on the opposite side of the train, looked up with dawning horror. She reached underneath her sweater and clutched a golden crucifix, muttering indecipherable prayers. He ignored her and turned to face me, pulling down his hood.
I expected to stare into a face contorted with anger and flecked with desperation, but, instead, his eyes danced with pity. He looked at me as a pet lover would a dog that’s just been hit by a car. He sat down beside me, and I noted immediately that he smelled like my grandfather: the pungent aroma of aftershave and stale tobacco.
Even in the midst of this bizarre situation, my thoughts drifted to him, to the tweed jacket with orange patches on the elbows that he wore habitually to Sunday dinner. Those patches didn’t belong there; they betrayed the rest of the jacket, but my grandfather liked to preserve his possessions at any cost.
I could hear his voice in my head, whispering to me softly while mom and grandma busied themselves in the kitchen. He leaned in close and put his arm around my shoulders. Smiling, he told me how important the jacket was, how his father’s father had given it to him on his deathbed. He never told anyone that story, he said.
Straightening in his chair and twirling his white napkin around a willowy finger, my grandfather winked. “This’ll be our little secret, Mikey.”
The man with the fire-speckled hair pressed the gun into my side. The image of my grandfather evaporated like mist from an aerosol can as I winced, turning to look at him. His eyes sparkled, like sheens of green glass catching the sunlight and refracting it into little stars.
Beyond him, I could see the illuminated connecting car was empty.
“This is gonna be a long ride,” he hissed into my ear. For the first time, I smelled his breath. It reminded me of the dankness of a basement a few hours after it’s been flooded, right before the mold starts to creep up the walls like an invasive vine.
The man with the red hair pulled his face away from mine. He blinked once and held up his hand like a crossing guard. With this movement, the train stopped. It didn’t jerk or heave, just simply ceased all movement, a clot of cholesterol clogging up an artery of the city. Panicked, I looked around, as if there were something I could do, some way to control the car, to start it up again.
The man with the fire-flecked halo of hair registered my swelling panic and smiled, ramming the gun further into my side.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“Funny you should ask that,” he said with a smile. “We’re right where we need to be. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
He blinked again. This time, when his eyes opened, the lights in the car sputtered and died. From the other side of the train, the old woman whimpered. A cavalry of frightened horses galloped inside my chest. Basked in darkness, my only source of illumination was the man’s eyes, which now twinkled white.
“What do you want?” I asked. My voice was shaky.
“It’s not what I want. It’s what you already know,” dragging out the sound of the long o. The forceful lilt in his voice sloughed off, replaced by the soothing drawl of a Southerner.
“I don’t understand.”
The man’s eyes burrowed into me. “You were waiting for me,” he said.
My skin crawled with goosebumps. I wanted to tell this man flat out that he was crazy. That I couldn’t have been waiting for him, because I’d never seen him before. I wanted to shout these things, toss them into his face like a bucket of ice water. But a knob of doubt tugged gently, encouraging me to reconsider. Those green eyes. That red hair. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something familiar about the man.
Familiar but frightening.
A deafening whir exploded as the old woman opened the emergency exit door in a desperate attempt to flee to the adjoining car. The man stood up and turned his head in the direction of the noise. The white of his eyes concentrated into cylindrical beams of blinding light. They targeted the woman, who put her hand up to shield the glare. She clutched her purse in one hand, her body half turned toward the escape route.
“I wouldn’t do that, grandma,” the man said.
And then he coughed, hacking as if from too many cigarettes. The sound was deep and forceful, the grating of metal. As his coughing subsided, the shrieking scrape of metal surrendering to metal filled the car. The shrill noise tore through me with the agonizing precision of a marksman’s rifle shot, and I clamped my hands to my ears. The old woman doubled over, her hands also working as earmuffs.
But the man with the red hair stood statuesquely, his back straight, unaffected by the cacophony. He forced a final cough, a single expulsion of air, and the chaotic shrieking stopped.
Collecting herself, the old woman stood up. She looked at the large man, as if expecting him to come after her, to restrain her. But the man stood as if he were the subject of a Renaissance portrait. The old woman swiveled her head toward her escape route.
The beams of light from the man’s eyes illuminated the dark emptiness beyond the open door. Empty tracks yawned hungrily beyond, as if having swallowed the connecting cars.
I looked over my shoulder. Darkness loomed in that direction, too. The hungry darkness seemed to call out to me. “Come play with me, Mike. I’ve got lots to show you in the shadows.”
My hands began to tremble. It was the darkness, that intangible nothingness, which finally struck me. The cars disconnecting, the cones of light, and the grating cough were things of such foreignness that I did not respond to them. Could not respond to them. I knew I should feel afraid, but the surrealism of these events prevented that reaction. It wasn’t until I gazed into that abyss and felt it wink eagerly back at me that the fear gripped me. I knew about the secrets in the darkness. I knew what waited for me there.
The darkness was real.
As if eavesdropping on my thoughts, the man with the red hair laughed, his voice descending into inhuman ranges. The old woman crumpled with a helpless yelp, doing little to decelerate my quickening pulse. My thoughts erupted into a random tapestry of desperation: I needed to escape. I needed to leave, but the darkness would devour me.
There was nowhere to go. My breath came out in rugged gasps, but I could only sit and think about escaping, paralyzed. The beams receded into the man’s eyes as he turned to look at me, still laughing.
“Mikey, Mikey,” the man said softly, sitting down. I wasn’t as concerned with him knowing my name as I was with my recognition of his voice. He wasn’t speaking in an ambiguous Southern accent as I’d thought. No, there was something very specific about his tone. He sounded like my grandfather. I couldn’t understand how this was possible, but it was true. His words were steeped in a deep bravado. A tone you didn’t argue with, even when he whispered. My grandfather demanded surrender.
“Who are you?” I asked. I struggled to make sense of this situation, tried to remember how it had all started. But I could only recall snippets, random shards of fractured memory. Rather than answer me, the man put his hand on my knee. My heart began to race, and a rope of dread uncoiled in my gut.
“We’re all alone in here, Mikey,” the voice of my grandfather said. “No one to bother us. Not even grandma.”
I swallowed a lump like a rotten apple that had risen in my throat, wincing as it snaked its way down my esophagus. My mouth was arid and sticky, a barren wasteland of silence. The pressure of this man’s hand on my knee transported me immediately back to the basement of my grandparents’ house, with its cold and unforgiving gray slates of cement underfoot and mounds of junk stacked with such randomness that there seemed to be uniformity amidst the chaos.
Grandpa smiled charmingly and told me he had something to show me, something he just knew I would love. He kept it in the small storage closet under the stairs. He winked at me, stoking my curiosity. I had to know what secrets he had hidden in the dark storage closet beneath the stairs.
But even at the age of ten I sensed the deception in his smile. I saw the bestial snarl hiding in wait just beneath his wispy tobacco-stained mustache. I wanted to tell him no, that I just wanted to go outside and play catch with Bobby. Bobby was waiting for me outside, I wanted to tell grandpa. But even if I managed to get the words unstuck from my throat, grandpa wouldn’t listen. You couldn’t argue with grandpa. So I followed him toward the remote storage closet at the far end of the basement.
“This’ll be our little secret, Mikey,” he said, stepping over a coiled garden hose.
“OK, grandpa,” I said, navigating around a pair of deflated car tires.
The man with the fire-tinted hair withdrew his slithering hand, yanking me back to reality. Fear and revulsion coalesced.
Copyright © 2007 by Edward C. Doerr