PART 1 – “George”
“Please – Oh, he’s just a boy, he can’t help it if-“
“I don’t want to hear it, Martha. I told you once, I’ll tell you again!”
“No son of mine!”
“I’m taking him now, woman! He’ll learn! Over my dead body will you raise a son that cannot swim!” The man’s mad gaze fell upon the child in question, only to have it returned by a profound complexion of terror on the boys face. The angry father paused for a moment, thoroughly alienated by his sons blatant fear. Perhaps I’ve gone too far, he thought, contemplating letting the matter slide.
“Theodore, please-” his wife began, reuniting the father with his drunken anger. His moment of peace passed and what little compassion the father had drained in an instant. Shoving his wife aside and roaring a string of obscenities, he grabbed the boy by his frail arms and ripped him from his mother’s presence. The woman screamed frantically as the boy was dragged out of the house.
A diesel engine roared to life, drowning the nighttime chorus of frogs with a new symphony – a gasping, choking mess with no apparent rhythm or time. Moonlight fell upon a truck speeding from a suburban driveway; a woman on her knees shrieking and crying doleful streams of tears; a small boy confused and horrified as he was hurtled towards whatever destiny awaited him.
The truck had found a new home alongside a small Ohio lake, the man dragging his son by the arm across a rickety wooden dock over an abyss of water. In daylight the dock was a sickly pallor brown, clearly rotting after decades of abandonment. Night had masked it a dark silhouette, the only thing visible being tattered ribbons of moonlight atop the water’s surface. The man, bringing his son up to the edge of the water, set both of his arms on the child’s shoulders. He brought the boys eyes up to his own, locking gazes and searching the youth’s terrified eyes for some sign of defiance. He was met only with horror.
“Can’t swim eh?” He whispered, applying a visage of kindness over his cruel scowl. The transformation from menacing and enraged to soothing and sallow was in no way subtle, but it had a profound effect on the terrified child. Wrongfully sensing that his father had calmed down, the boy nodded slowly.
“I tried pa, I did but-“
“In the real world there isn’t a try, boy. In the real world it’s live or die!” The father swung his son about and tossed him over the edge of the dock in one fluent motion of betrayal. The boy flailed desperately for a second in the air, eyes wide as his dire situation made itself clear. The gaping, abysmal darkness of the water rushed up towards him; a leviathan of darkness surging upwards with a distinct, tangible fury. He closed his eyes as it swallowed him, the invisible dark jaws of the water enveloping his helpless figure.
The first thing the boy sensed was the bitter, ruthless cold. It surrounded him, leeching his energy. Water filled his lungs. Just above the surface of the water he could make out the lip of the dock, and standing over him the figure of his father, arms crossed and just out of reach. In the distance, dull and menacing: “What’ll it be, boy!”
He fought madly to reach the surface of the black water, his screams muddled underneath the deadly canvas of icy liquid. Recalled to his mind in this desperate moment was a chant from school, a monotonous eerie tradition that his peers would sing as they danced in a circle.
Ring around the rosy; the boy flailed uselessly, his vision clouding. His lungs burned.
Pocket full of posey; the boy passed into violent spasms as his consciousness faded. He was dying.
Ashes, ashes; a sudden will broke out within him; a will to survive; a will to overcome.
We all fall down! The boy’s senses marched themselves out of madness, coordinating in a last second burst of effort. Palms outstretched, legs kicking madly he forced himself out of the water and into the cool nighttime air. Gasping, coughing, crying, he grasped the lip of the dock and pulled himself up beside his kneeling father.
“What did you choose?” The man growled, his eyes steady and motionless. The boy remained silent, heaving for air.
“I’ll throw you back in, boy. What did you choose?” The boy wheezed, trying to form words. The father reached for his shoulder, his gaze unfeeling and ominous. And then, amidst coughs and spasms: “Live. I chose to live.” The father nodded silently, helped the boy to his feet and carried him to the truck. Once again the classical orchestra of frogs was silenced by the invasive jazz melody of a diesel engine. Once again a boy found himself in the front seat of a large truck, an unknown journey set before him as he hurtled forward to some unseen, clouded future.
PART 2 – “The Station”
“Excuse me sir?”
George snapped back to reality, breathing hard and darting his eyes wildly as he adjusted to his surroundings. He cursed himself as he dug his fingertips into the armrests of his chair; how had he let himself slip again?
“Sir, are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m quite fine. Thank you.” George murmured, dismissing the waitress with a small gesture. She was a low threat in this casual restaurant environment, obviously only trying to do her job and would do him no harm, even if she could. At a quick glance he could tell she was carrying weapons and had no hidden intentions. As far as threat level went, this woman was at the bottom of his scale. A low 2, maybe even 1.
“It’s just – well – you were shaking and -” The woman pushed her curly brown hair out of her eyes, obviously uncomfortable at George’s blatant disregard for her presence. He continued to ignore her, choosing instead to glance out the window. After another moment or two of painful silence, the woman left.
Finally alone, George assessed his surroundings, readapting to the interior of the restaurant. There was one glass double-door, several large windows, and he was sure there was a back exit in the kitchen. All viable exit points. There were three security cameras, but George had insured that none of them caught his face on the way in. He was untraceable A ghost.
George glanced down at his black coffee, observing how the shadow of the mug had shortened since he had last looked at it. He checked his watch to confirm what he already knew: it was 9 a.m. Although not being particularly religious, he thanked God that it had only been an hour. He’d received the ornate silver timepiece as a gift from his father, who in turn had received it from his father before him. The watch was perhaps the only gift he had received from the vile man that hadn’t been a bruise or a grim life lesson. He gritted his teeth, trying to stop himself from being swept away in the raging river of his memories. His mind was a dark tomb, and every once in a while he tended to get lost in it. To ground himself he ran his fingers over the small glass surface of the watch, soaking in the texture of it.. The watch strap was a pale, monotonous brown, like tobacco spit, and the face was a simple vanilla white. Twitching beneath the thin glass plate were the usual thin jet-black hands of the clock face, extending outwards to roman numerals of the same style.
On the back of the watch was a compass. The compass wasn’t necessarily a survival tool (George was a natural when it came to direction), but rather a reminder that beneath every luxury, even something as simple as a timepiece, there will always be the raw, human need to survive. Without skipping a beat, George began to drink his lukecold coffee, unflinching at the mundane taste. After eating live camel spiders on an excursion to Taliban-controlled Iran, bad food simply didn’t hold the same resonance that it used to. Besides, he didn’t drink coffee for the taste, he did it for the heightened alertness and it’s innate ability to stave off episodes.
He peered out over his coffee cup at the coffee shops customers, clustered around the small circular tables. He had sat down in a corner, not only because it was a camera blind spot, but also because it meant he didn’t have to watch his back. He surveyed the scene casually, taking note of the various people. A tall serious looking business woman who was clearly only a threat-level 2. Her seriousness was obviously an act to maintain a social status. A massive Asian man wearing a green baseball cap backwards was sitting dormant in the other corner, earbuds in. George doubted the dozing man was violent, but mentally categorized him as a 3.5 anyway. Violent tendencies or not, size does matter (no matter what you might find on an inspirational card). He downed the rest of the coffee, shots style, slamming a crumpled five dollar bill on the table as he rose to his feet. Sliding the dull brown sleeves of his unfashionable (yet practical) trench coat over his arms, George began to leave the restaurant.
Everyone else in the cafe was below a level 6 on George’s mental spectrum of danger, so he didn’t worry about turning his back to them on his way out the door. He stepped out onto the concrete sidewalk and disappeared into the stream of humanity, careful to match the rhythm of the other peoples gaits. To an untrained eye he was one of them; nothing overtly stood out about how he acted. George casually donned a black baseball cap from his back pocket and pulled it low over his eyes, averting his gaze from strangers. Eye contact was the fastest way to create unwanted interaction. George scowled as he realized the time. He was late. His father’s funeral was at 10:30, a couple miles outside the city.
George wouldn’t have attended the old man’s burial simply out of spite, but his mother had pleaded with him to go. She was clinging to memories from some alternate past where the man had been anything more than a drunken monster.
George knew that walking to the Ohio countryside was a waste of time and effort, so he had made plans to take a subway across town to a rental car agency, from which he would make the journey in the comfortable seats of a small, compact car. Setting the rental car up was exceedingly difficult, considering he avoided the internet and anything cellular like the plague. He had only ridden the subway a couple times before, but he knew he could manage. He always did. George shoved his hands deep in his pockets and increased his pace down the smogged street, assigning numbers to everyone he saw with a flick of his eyes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a homeless man with an old cardboard sign, a Sharpie message scrawled pitifully on the brown canvas. George only betrayed a mere glance to read the sign, always keeping his attention on the road ahead.
‘Army Vet trying to get home to family. Anything helps.’
George could tell by the mans build and manner that he had most likely been ex-military, suggesting that his capability of violence was higher than that of the average stranger. Although malnourished, the man was desperate, which always added at least two points to George’s mental scale of danger. George noticed the mans grimy fingers twitch from under his blanket. He was a solid seven on the scale. The vet croaked something at him, but George ignored it. He pulled his cap even lower over his eyes and quickly descended into the subway station, his feet gliding down the abyss of stairs.
He had memorized a map of the underground complex using his photographic memory, so he knew exactly where he was going. When he made it to his station, there was 5 minutes left before the next train. There were more homeless vagabonds down here, seeking shelter from the cold. They were all sub fours by the looks of it, but George kept his eyes on them. The homeless were blank pages; they hailed from every corner of society. Such people should always be regarded with high suspicion. There were a few more assorted people, commuters mostly. None of them seemed potentially dangerous, so George deemed them all twos. His head continued to swivel and then it stopped. There was a tall man sitting on the bench, sporting a expensive black italian suit with an open-collar white button down shirt. A velvet blue fedora was pulled over his eyes, masking his appearance in the same way George so commonly did with his baseball cap. To others this man was asleep, but George knew better. It was the telltale muscle tension in his arms that gave him away. He was awake, and prepared to move with devastating speed and any moment. His hands were that of a pianist: slender, smooth and long. His fingers were draped over the gleaming figurehead of his ink-black mahogany cane: a silver skull, brandishing a pair of obsidian marbles for its glaring eyes. The mans threat level was even higher than the vet, an eight by the looks of it.
There was a rumble. The subways headlights flooded the narrow tracks. A squeak as the breaks activated and finally a hiss as it stopped. George never allowed his eyes to waver from the Fedora Man sitting in the corner. He continued watching him through window of the subway until the train started moving. The harsh fluorescent lights cast everything in a greenish tinge, making him feel like a foreigner in an alien world.
There were two teenage boys: one in a red hoodie, his crimson cowl pulled deep over his eyes, and the other in a button down collared shirt and khakis. Based on body language and the look in their respective eyes, the kid in the collared shirt was easily more dangerous. A normal man would shift away from the boy in the worn red hoodie, but George knew better than to sum up a character on appearance alone. The eyes were the window to the soul, after all, and their respective pairs told him all he needed to know. Finally, there was a six year old in a yellow raincoat, who was sitting all alone. George noticed her when he boarded the train too. She had been the only passenger to remain on the subway after it had arrived. The hood of her yellow raincoat was up, pulling back all but a strand of her mousy brown hair. Her dimpled cheeks practically crushed her tiny quivering mouth, and her shimmering, big blue eyes were steadfastly holding back tears as she swung her little booted feet back and forth. George fought back the urge to ask the little girl where her parents were and if she was okay, and instead did what time and experience had taught him was best: he assigned her a 2.5 on his threat spectrum. Though not inclined to violence, she was exhibiting a remarkable amount of emotional strength, considering she was obviously a lost child. Such strength was highly unusual for children, and it made George feel uncomfortable.
The rest of the people were run-of-the-mill commuters, all sub 3’s. George was slightly uneasy about the lack of exits, but was situated closest to the cab, so he could stop the train if necessary and escape. Satisfied, George pulled his cap lower and leaned his head back on the glass, the rocking of the train lulling him. He closed his eyes, he had just coffee so he wouldn’t doze. Besides, George thought as his mind began to slip into darkness, what could one minute hurt?
PART 3 – “The Scout and the Stalker”
The eerie moaning of the metal-on-metal screech echoed throughout the tunnel as a subway car came to a stop at its designated location. George’s eyes shot open, startled as the gentle rocking of the train was interrupted. He glanced about him, checking his surroundings. Everything seemed to be in order – but no. No, something was dreadfully wrong. Normally George was insulted by the tumultuous noise of society, but this new noise was far more dangerous. Far louder and far more terrifying than anything his father had ever said. It was the piercing, screaming, glaring sound of silence. A lack of sound so complete it made George anxious, uncomfortably aware of his own breathing. A silence so perfect he knew it had to have been by design. His heartbeat complimented his steadfastly rising breaths, now pounding like a jackhammer within his ribs. Yes, the subway was empty. Not a single person that previously was aboard the train was present now, but he still felt as if he was in danger. Sometimes the absence of people was more dangerous than the presence of people. City crowds were simply a unique biome to hide in; people were tools to blend with and disappear amongst.
“Hello?” George whispered, the silence gnawing at him. The sound of his own voice eased him amidst the glaring absence of noise on the train. The subway doors slowly urged themselves open in front of him, creaking resentfully as if some unseen resistance was attempting to hold them closed. George stepped out of the train in a hurry, thoroughly alienated by his depressing surroundings. The places anomalous disposition was acutely connected with a strong feeling of foreignness. The station before him was even more of a mystery than the disappearance of the passengers. An armada of fluorescent lights flickered above him, casting spastic shadows across the floor. There was a lonely line of benches decorating the interior, but not a single person present, waiting for the train. Beer bottles littered the ground, heaped high in slumping piles in the corners. It was evidence that the station had been abandoned for quite some time, but the only evidence it had ever been occupied at all. Water dripped ominously from cracks in the ceiling as if there was a body of water above him, which only compounded his growing anxiety. The dripping water added a distinct echo to the station that seemed to only amplify the crushing, gaping silence; the entire area felt much bigger than it should.
Perhaps I’m in the wrong station, he thought, stepping backwards towards the train. George swiveled around, only met by an even more disturbing fact: his single subway car was the only car present on the tracks. The rest of the train was gone, including the pilot car, including the people, including the sound. He was stuck here. Alone. Inexplicably, horrifyingly, and abysmally alone.
“Hello? Anyone there? What’s going on!?” George called out anxiously, a sudden terror rising in his chest. He knew it was stupid to announce himself in a new and potentially hostile environment, but his wits had abandoned him. He hadn’t felt this kind of terror since his childhood. The memories spooking him further, he dashed towards the frozen escalator, hoping to escape the ghastly nightmare he found himself in. He bolted up the stairs, two at a time, with his hands outstretched in front of him into the pitch blackness. He met a hard surface and quickly deduced what it was. The top of the stairwell was blocked by a caved-in wall of rock, as if some unfelt and unreported earthquake had prevented any means of escape. Nevertheless, George began frantically clawing at the concrete stones, trying in vain to dig to the surface. He was wearing down his nails, and bloodying his nail beds in desperation, scraping the skin off his fingers. He had to get out. He had to escape. He thought he could feel the thin vibrations of cars driving about on the streets above. The busy city sounds of people talking and walking and laughing on their various excursions to and fro about the city. He finally quit, realizing the futility of trying to dig out, and sucked on his nail beds to soothe them, bathing them in saliva. The distant honking of cars, the screeching of tires. He looked at his watch face the hands were spinning wildly, he flipped it to the compass to the same scene. This can’t possibly be real. But the water dripping on his head, the air he was breathing, the rock he clawed at, and the scrapes on his fingers were all too real. George slumped face first against the cold stone, shivering. Where am I?
It was as soft and gentle as a mother cradling a child. It was as distant as a ship on a shoreline. A series of unfelt tugs and then – one single jerk that was slightly more frantic than the rest. The break in rhythm was dramatic enough that George finally took notice of it. Something was grabbing at him. In his peripheral vision he could see the small fingers grasping the soft leather of his trenchcoat. George swiveled around, batting the tiny hand away from him. There – a child. A lonesome, single child in a yellow raincoat.
“Who…” George began, shocked. The girl stared at him quietly, barely flinching after George had swatted her away. “Who are you?”
“Lost, mister?” The girl asked in a high-pitched whimper. Her enormous, smooth cheeks were caught in an eternal frown and George became uncomfortably aware that she wasn’t staring at him, but rather to the left of his head, as if some other man was embedded in the concrete wall, barring George from the outside.
“Yes.” George finally replied, cautiously. “Do you know the way out of here?” The girl piped up upon hearing the question, her eyes brightening and her mouth almost twisting into a smile.
“Yes. I know the way. The way. The way out.” She turned around briskly, pointing back down the broken escalator. “The way. I know the way.”
George watched in surprise as the girl scurried down the stairs at a brisk pace. She stopped half way down and swiveled back to him, tilting her head as he refused to follow. She pointed back in the direction of the subway car. “The way. Follow.” George cautiously began to follow her, gathering his wits. She continued to run down the stairs, then bolted towards the subway car.
George took off after her, then slid to a stop as he hit the bottom of the stairwell. The child had frozen, staring forward intently. George opened his mouth as if to ask a question, and then locked up as he, too, found what the girl was so intently fixed on. There, in the open door of the subway, stood a man that had not been there before. A man rendered a featureless silhouette by the intense backlighting. He was leaning against the side of the train, a thin black sceptre extending from his palm to the gray concrete floor. After a moment of silence, the tall, slender man stepped forward. He was wearing a simple fedora that cast a dark shadow over his eyes. Two small white specks glittered from within his shadowed features, reflecting the harsh fluorescent light that only partially illuminated his mysterious face.
“Greetings!” The man called out, comically swinging about the black sceptre as he shattered the silence. A long, eerie grin stretched from cheek to cheek across the mans face, but his merriment did not reach his eyes. The face betrayed wild, untapped emotion, but those two snake-like eyes were dead. The pupils were extremely dilated, almost resembling a pair of black marbles set into the pale rubbery flesh of the man’s face. Threat level 8, maybe more.The only two people he had met were both in the station with him when he left, perhaps others shared his predicament. The man spoke.
“I see you are lost, my friend!”
“Where is this place? Who are you?”
The fedora-wearing man laughed hysterically, almost as if drunk. The thought chilled George slightly.
The small girl inched closer to George, her face betraying no emotion but her movements indicating extreme caution, like a gazelle tensing up as it was alerted to the presence of a predator.
“This is the in-between. Not quite accepted and, judging by your presence, not quite abandoned either.” The man’s comical smile grew wider, his lips parting to reveal a gleaming wall of ivory-white teeth.
“How do I get out of here?” George asked, partially distracted by the ornate silver skull decorating the strangers sceptre.
“There is only one way to leave this place, my friend.” The Fedora Man let loose another shrieking laugh, then abruptly stopped to continue. “Death. Death and death only can set us free.” A solemn look poisoned the man’s face, the comical grin draining from his face in an instant. The hairs on George’s neck began to stand upright. The silence that lingered so foully in the dark station before, very quickly became frighteningly blatant again. After a few seconds the Fedora Man began to speak again, moving forward slowly.
“You don’t understand, do you?” George instinctively stepped backwards, his mind racing and contemplating possible escape routes. The blankness in the man’s face that had replaced humor was now in turn changed a sick, eerie expression George had never seen before. Somehow it perfectly matched those snake-like eyes, alien, and cold.
“I’ve been here oh so long. So long yes. We all have. We all want to leave. Do you know what it’s like to be here? Do you know what it’s like to always search, but never find? But I know now. I’ve figured it out. We’re all lost, and Death is the way. Death.” The man accelerated his pace, his strides now betraying some dark eagerness.
George backed up against the wall of the station, coming to the conclusion that there was no escape. In his peripheral vision he could see the small girl standing besides him, but he refused to let his eyes leave the stranger. The atmosphere was tense, the silence becoming overbearing.
“Stop!” George shouted, setting into a combat stance as he realized he was trapped. “What do you want?!” The stranger paused briefly, but did not respond.
“Go away. Please.”
“I’m… going to… help you…” Telltale muscle tension building in the man’s slender legs. A shadow creeping over the mans face. An electric buzz in the air. All signs George was well acquainted with. George dodged sideways as the stranger lunged forward and grasped the sleeve of the little girls raincoat. The girl shrieked as George broke into a frantic sprint, her small rain boots dragging along the concrete floor as she was swept off her feet. The man yelled as his grip was broken.
“I wouldn’t go that way if I were you!”, tearing after George in reckless fury. George leapt onto the subway stations tracks, taking off in the direction he assumed he had come in. The subway tunnel was dark and empty, but fluorescent panels decorating the ceiling provided enough light for him to find his step. His chest pounded. The gait of the stranger was slowly dissipating behind him. The little girl had regained herself and was just keeping up with him, unusual for a child of her age.
“You can’t get rid of me!” A voice cried. “I’ll always be there. We will always be there! Go on! Run! Run! RUN!”
PART 4 – “A Knife in the Dark”
Georges mind ran almost as fast as his feet. How is this possible? He thought. They tore down the tunnel at a ruthless pace until George was practically dragging the little girl behind him. He toyed with the idea of leaving her behind, but rejected the notion upon considering that she seemed to have a better understanding of the situation than he. George slowed to a stop and leaned against the subway tunnel wall, heaving. The girl took a few more hiccupping gasps before quieting. George mirrored her sentiments as his chest rose and fell desperately. In his youth he could sprint for miles, faster than most men could sprint for a hundred yards. He was getting old. He rubbed his salt and pepper stubble as he thought over the situation. The sheer preposterousness of it led him to believe that somehow it was all fake; that he had been set up in some elaborate scheme. He constructed a theory in silence as his heartbeat began to even out and his sore muscles began to relax. Somehow, his train had disconnected during his sleep. Somehow, it had careened off the ordinary tracks and down into some abandoned subcomplex. Somehow, other people had been stranded here as well (and for quite some time, it seemed). Somehow, somehow, somehow. He couldn’t even begin to comprehend how it had all happened during his brief slumber. There was no way. Practically impossible. It couldn’t be real… and yet the exertion was, and the sensation of sweat stinging his eyes was real too. Painfully, horribly, shockingly real.
As his train of thought futilely continued hurtling in a circle, it was interrupted by a familiar tug on his trench coat. The little girl looked up at him with her big blue eyes, and pointed down the tunnel.
“Yeah, yeah I got it,” George smirked. They started walking down the tunnel, casting wary glances behind him as he went.
After what felt like an eternity, they finally emerged from the gloom of the tunnel into an open terminal which, like the first, was empty. There were major differences, however. This was no ordinary subway terminal; this was a hub. The terminal was set several feet above the tracks, almost as high as George’s chest. George gave the little girl a boost, and then climbed up himself.
The terminal was massive. It was a web of parallel and perpendicular tracks, the likes of which George had never seen before. The subway tracks criss-crossed over each other, shooting off into the dark cylindrical abysses of their own tunnels. Retractable footbridges made the complex cross hatching of tracks possible, allowing commuters to navigate the mess of tracks safely (although this made travel easier, it only aided in adding to the confusing visual maze of the hub). The lights were for the most part off, but a slow gleam of energy trickled from several intact lights above. A tug on George’s shoulder. A small childish hand pointing across the terminal. A whimper. George turned around, confused. There was a dark shadow resting against the bottom of a column at the far end of the terminal. At first George thought it was really big trash can, and then he noticed a familiar green baseball cap.
“No way,” he whispered, recognizing the solemn silhouette. It was the asian man from the coffee shop.
He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled, the shrieking echo ricocheting around the hub at a piercing frequency. The massive asian man was unresponsive. George frowned as he noticed the man’s ear buds sitting complacently in his ears. The click-clacking of heels announced the arrival of another familiar face. It was the business woman from the coffee shop, waving her phone around looking for service. She was nowhere near the subway, he would have known if she followed him. What was happening? She navigated her way around the dormant asian man, ignoring George’s obvious presence.
“Hey! George hollered, slightly bothered at the lack of recognition.
The sound drew out two more figures, the kid in the red hoodie sauntered out from behind the column and leaned back on it, one leg folded up with his foot flat to it. The collared shirt kid followed behind him, looking around, observing his surroundings. George finally jogged up to the column, the little girl trailing close behind him.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked the business the woman.
“Do you know where my bars are?” she retorted as a non-answer, still waving her phone about in the air. She wasn’t going to be helpful.
George moved on to the two kids, whom he mentally dubbed Collar and Hoodie in respect to their outfits. He addressed ‘Hoodie’ first.
“Where am I?” George asked demandingly.
The boy glared at him silently, jaw muscles twitching.
“Pardon my brother, he is not one for words.” Collar remarked, putting a hand to his red clad chest. The asian man slowly rose from the ground, turned, and held out his hand. George paused briefly, as if inspecting his fingers, then shook it.
“Thanks,” George said hesitantly. “What’s your name?” he asked the Asian man.
The sumo-wrestler of a man looked down at George quizzically.
“We don’t do that here,” Collar interjected suddenly. “No names. Just moving.”
“Anywhere. We’ve been here too long.”
Collar rotated around in response to the statement and waved his arms at his group, gesturing towards one of the empty tunnels.
“Move!” he yelled.
The business woman rolled her eyes at the command, but started walking towards a bridge anyway. Hoodie bumped George’s shoulder on his way past, George ignored it. Confrontations of male dominance were stupid wastes of time and energy, and were usually initiated by the one who was inferior. Collar followed him, looking at George apologetically.
“Where are we going?” he asked Collar.
“Away from here,” he replied, an annoyed expression beginning to consume his face.
“Why are we going?” George pressured, mining for answers.
“We’re moving to stay ahead of him,” Collar replied matter-of-factly, as if the information was common knowledge.
Collar started to answer but an echoing rumble drowned him out. Vibrations began resonating through George’s leg. A familiar scream of metal-on-metal in the distance.
“What’s that?” George asked cautiously. Collar glanced at him wryly, almost in disappointment.
“We’re in a subway station,” Collar sneered “What do you think that is?” George squinted his eyes at him, slightly annoyed. Of course it was a train. What else could it be?
As they finished crossing, the footbridge began to ascend in a drawbridge-like fashion in response to the coming train.
The asian man attempted to climb the now diagonal platform to cross to the other side, but slid back down upon realizing that he hadn’t moved fast enough. The bridge lifted fully, now a solitary metal rectangle standing vertically in the dim light. The man stood on the other end, staring forward with a lonely frown staining his quiet face.
The rest of the group continued to move on, not bothering to wait for the straggler.
“I’ll hang back for him,” George muttered to no one in particular. Usually George wouldn’t have waited, but the asian man was the only one in the area who’s threat level was sub three. George didn’t want to be alone with a group of potential hostiles. Collar shrugged and walked across the next bridge, and the Asian man nodded to George in acknowledgement. The train roared by, and the mans image flashed and blurred in and out of visibility. Georges line of sight was affected by the rushing and alternating gaps and cars as the train went by. The wind trailing alongside the train slammed into him, tossing his trenchcoat into a spastic dance about his legs.
Then something strange happened. Like a stop motion picture, he watched it unfold. Frame-by-frame, car-by-car. A blurry shadow darted out of the shadows at the Asian man. Train car. A light shkkkt as a blade was drawn, somehow able to heard over the train. Car. The Asian man muttered something as he noticed the stranger in his peripheral. Car. The swift predator embedded a gleaming blade in the Asian man’s neck. Car. The asian man crumpled backwards, gurgling a startled cry. Car. The hostile figure turned, almost taking form. Car. The Asian man’s body hit the floor. Car. The ghostly killer was gone, leaving the haunted terminal empty behind him, save for the body of his victim. George opened his mouth, urging himself to react in any sort of way. To make some kind of noise. For the first time since his childhood, since that night, he was paralyzed with shock and fear. Within those mere fifteen seconds an eternity had passed. The train fled down the tunnel, like an arrow from a bow, and was gone, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.
The asian man was lying on the ground. A flat bottomed black handle protruded from his neck, pointing towards the subway terminals dripping brick roof. He laid limp in a pool of his own blood, eyes glassy. Dead.
PART 5 – “Witness”
The frantic shuffling of feet on concrete resurrected George from his panicked gaze. He whipped around, almost knocking the little girl behind him off her feet. He had forgotten she was there. Looking beyond her pale eyes and monotone face, his eyes fell upon a single, glossy rectangle lying on the ground. The woman’s phone. On the top right-hand corner of the phone, one single bar had finally shone white.
The group had left him. The only people he’d met besides the small girl had abandoned him. His only grasp on his situation. George’s heart began beating frantically.
Forgetting the dead man, forgetting the child, forgetting the group, he jumped down into the tracks, and sprinted after the train. He flew into the darkness of the tunnel… and ran headlong into a rock wall.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he cursed, stumbling back with a hand on his head. He took his hand away; it was shining red with blood.
“Christ,” he whispered. He glanced back at the wall.
The hell? George ran his hand over the rock. But where’d the train go—
George tried to ignore her.
“Wrong way. This way! The way out!”
George swiveled around, clutching the bloody wound on his head. Behind him, barely visible in the darkness of the tunnel, was the little girl. She was pointing in the other direction of the track, the direction the train had come from. The direction of the body. Recollecting himself and keeping a wary eye on the various shadows of the terminal, George followed her. As they passed the asian man’s dead body, George found himself staring into his lifeless eyes.
He picked up the pace as he realized the knife was no longer in man’s neck. Several minutes later, and the tunnel the train came from ended with a single steel door embedded in a rock wall identical to the one he’d ran into moments before. He winced at the memory, but the cut had stopped bleeding. The little girl stopped at the door and swiveled around, eyes twinkling with some sort of expectation. Without even stopping to consider how the train had fit through such a door, or to ponder his own reality, George grasped the glistening silver handle and wrenched it open.
It led into a wide, vast and empty restaurant that seemed to have no walls, and therefore, no end. George’s internal radar immediately spiked. Nothing here was right. Then again, nothing that had happened since he got on that subway seemed right. Each table looked exactly the same: one small wooden chair, a steaming white mug of coffee and an open Time magazine, each to the same page with a blaring headline about the rising issue of alcoholism. Resting on the table not even 10 feet in front of him, were two objects that were not only out of the ordinary, but that George sincerely had hoped not to see again. A fedora, and leaning next to it, a black cane topped with a grinning skull.
A woman cantered into the room, donned in a familiar waitress uniform with a plastic smile cemented onto her features. Ignoring George, she steadily moved to the back of the seemingly endless room. At the edge of George’s vision he could make out another figure sitting at one of the tables. George began to follow the waitress, keeping his eyes out for the fedora-wearing man.
The little girl following George brushed up against a table, reminding him of her presence. She was so silent and ghostly George sometimes completely forgot she was following him.
After walking a ludicrous distance behind the waitress, they came upon yet another familiar character that George recognized. A semi-disfigured old man, wrapped in rags, wearing a camo beret, and sporting a solemn frown. A familiar cardboard sign sitting on the table confirmed that he was, indeed, the army veteran George had crossed paths with earlier that day. Behind the man was a single wall with a steel door, identical to the one George had passed through moments ago.
“Excuse me sir, may I take your order?” The waitress asked the man, with a fake smile.
The man shook his head, lifting the white mug of coffee to his lips and taking a calculated sip. His eyes remained on the magazine laid out on the table before him. The waitress shrugged her shoulders, betraying some impatience, then strutted towards the steel door. George pulled a chair up to the army vet’s table, gesturing for the little girl to do the same. She ignored him and began slurping out of one of the generic white mugs from another table.
“Who are you? How did you get here?” George questioned, trying to get the man’s attention.
“He’s here you know.”
“Can’t run. Can’t run from your past, son. Look at me, I been runnin’ my whole life. And one day you’ll realize you have no idea where the hell you’re running to, and that’s the day when it’ll catch up with you.”
“What will catch up? What are you rambling about?” George asked, suddenly doubting the man’s credibility. The man slowly brought his eyes up to Georges, the folds and wrinkles in his skin contorting into a look of wonder and, upon closer scrutiny, a bit of skepticism as well.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
George attempted to ask him more questions, but it was useless. The man had tuned him out, his attention solely fixated on the magazine in front of him, robotically lifting his cup to his lips. After several more minutes of agonizing attempts to gain back the mans attention, George gave up. He decided to pursue the waitress, heading towards the steel door he had seen earlier. The little girl didn’t follow, opting instead to watch George silently.
“Fine, that’s fine. Be like everyone else in this godforsaken place, unhelpful and incompetent. I would have thought an ex-military man would be better than this.” The man continued to sip his coffee, unfazed by the remark.
“Fine. Wait here,” George retorted, grasping the cold handle of the door and swinging it open. At the far end of the room the waitress was standing silently, her face was turned to George, but hidden in shadow.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” George called, stepping through. He appeared to be in some sort of unkempt, messy kitchen. Beer bottles decorated the ground in reckless abandon, but about his head were thousands of white mugs packed neatly into an assortment of cupboards.
“Ma’am?” George repeated, taking a step forward. The woman fell straight backward, being consumed by darkness, as if in reply. Behind her, in the shadows, was a pair of gleaming white beads, floating in the blackness. The threat level jumped from 7 to 9 sporadically, due to the lack of details about the figure.
George’s blood ran cold. His heartbeat skyrocketed, but the world around him seemed to slow. Sticking out of the woman’s chest was the shining silver and red colors of a bloodied knife. Her black and white uniform was already beginning to stain red with the bloom of blood. Her eyes were turned to the sky, a perplexed look of horror contorting the paling skin of her face. She was dead before she hit the floor. Holding back the urge to yell, he stared directly into the headlights of the killers’ vision. The antagonists eyes widened in what seemed like shock, and then narrowed with grim intent. In an instant, George’s survival instincts came back to him. Backpedaling furiously he whipped a knife out of one of his trench coat pockets. He always carried at least one blade with him, especially if he didn’t have his concealed carry. Today he hadn’t bothered to bring his gun. A mistake he was already bitterly regretting. Swinging the blade in front of him defensively, George backpedaled out of the room and slammed the steel door shut. He threw the army veteran from his chair and wedged it under the door knob. Almost instantly, a heavy object slammed into the opposite side of the door, shaking the chair violently. George grabbed the little girl by the hand and sprinted in the opposite direction.
“Run you fool!” he yelled at the veteran, who was sprawled on the ground.
“I’m done running.” he murmured stubbornly, then picked his magazine off the ground beside him and continued reading. George groaned in frustration at the obviously senile man, but left him anyway.
He frantically crashed past a table, throwing it down behind him. He could hear the door behind him slam open, the splintering of wood a clear indicator that the chair had given in. He didn’t have time to glance back at the army veteran, the panic rising in his chest drowning out any kind of sympathetic curiosity. With no other option immediately available, he beelined for the steel door he had first entered through. As he ripped it open a sick realization dawned on him: The fedora and cane had not been present on any of the tables. Without glancing back, George threw the little girl over his shoulder and ran down the tunnel at a full sprint. Towards the open terminal. Towards the other body.
PART 6 – “Massacre”
George hurtled out of the tunnel, and into the now brightly lit and bustling terminal. He looked around in disbelief as a myriad of people fumbled about the station, all sporting the same unenthusiastic expression and black clothes. They appeared to be dressed in funeral attire, not a single bright color amongst them.
“Let go of me!” the little girl squealed, pounding on George’s back with her chubby fists.
George set her down on the tracks and caught his breath as he took in his surroundings.
“How?” he whispered to himself defeatedly, almost as if he was tired of saying it.
“Hey! Wanna get out of here?” yelled a voice. An outstretched hand waved at him, the familiar face of Collar accompanying it. George shook his head in resignation to the strageness of his situation, took the hand, and pulled himself up. He grasped the little girls raincoat and yanked her up onto the elevated platform as Collar hastily began pushing his way into the crowd.
“Come on, let’s get back to the others.” Collar yelled, leading him through the dense crowd of commuters.
“How’d they all get here?” George asked, not really expecting a helpful response.
“It’s a subway terminal dude, take a wild guess.” he responded, with another demeaning non-answer. As predicted.
A sudden flash of white and the dropping of a curtain of darkness announced that the lights to the station had gone out. Accompanying the confusion was a blaring alarm siren drowning out the initial frightened cries of the crowd. Red emergency lights on the walls began to churn rhythmically, lighting the crowd for a brief moment before casting it back into darkness. After a while, the commuters calmed down and merely shuffled anxiously. George exchanged timid glances with Collar. The little girl moved closer to him, her hand’s tightening on his coat.
“He’s here.” Collar’s face took an an albino expression, becoming completely pale.
“He must have pulled a fire alarm or something. We need to move,” George said.
“I need to get my brother. Don’t fret, we’ll catch up. Right now you have a head start; the alarm is on the east wall, right next to the tunnel you came out of. There’s an emergency exit on the west wall, that’s where we should head. We’re about in the middle of the terminal, so he’s effectively behind you. Head for the exit and then run like hell.” Collars voice was barely audible over the impatient blaring of the siren.
George nodded, turned, and began shoving his way into the crowd. After a maddening and inefficient few minutes of threading through the mass of people, George’s breath started coming hard and fast. He stopped for a second and bent over gasping, forearms on his knees. He wasn’t used to this. He was vaguely aware of the little girl clutching his coat, trying not to get left behind in the wake of his escape. Very suddenly, his leg brushed against a soft obstacle on the floor. Glancing downwards George found himself staring into the eyes of a dead man, a dark red splotch visible across the deceased’s chest. He quickly regained himself, scanning the crowd in shock. All around him, heads began to drop, as if the killer was everywhere at once. George started to run again, frantically this time, not bothering to find the gaps, and just bowling people over.
Where’s that door?
George tripped on something in the dark, his hands sliding harshly on the concrete floor, ripping the skin from his palms . The emergency lights flared again, revealing another dead body.
What?! He can’t be ahead of me.
George began to realize that his sense of time was compromised, just one more impossible disadvantage in this place.
A hand on George’s shoulder. George whipped out his knife and held it against none other than Collar’s throat. The boys eyes widened and his hands flew into the air. “It’s just me,” he murmured through gritted teeth, eyeing the sharp blade.
“Sorry,” George apologized, sheathing the knife “Adrenaline. We need to move, where’s the woman?”
Hoodie cut in with his first words. “She’s dead,” he muttered bluntly.
“So you do know how to speak,” George chided. Hoodie was unamused, and gestured that they should keep moving.
The four of them began to run, shoving commuters aside in their desperate attempt to breach the mass of humanity. (The little girl stayed close in George’s wake, unable to push people aside with her frail arms.) A few minutes later George looked over to check on the duo accompanying him, but they were gone, like they never had been there in the first place. The only familiar face was the dimpled cheeks of the little girl, staring up into his eyes with shock and horror.
“Crap,” he gasped. He jumped over a few more bodies. The commuters had started to notice the corpses and devolve into a panic. They were screaming and running around the terminal aimlessly, making it 10 times harder for George to get anywhere. At the end of his vision the door appeared.
Bodies were dropping faster now, like a wave overtaking him. The death line gained with every step, 50 yards, 40, 30. He was almost at the door. 20. 10. He threw the door open and crossed the threshold, then whipped his head back around and immediately regretted it.
There were so many bodies he couldn’t see the floor, all twisted and covering as far as he could see. With two more flashes of light he made out two boys, one in a red hoodie, and one in a blue collared shirt. George swallowed hard. So much needless death. A pool of blood rested beneath his feet, clinging tackily to the bottom of his shoes.
A tug on his trench coat.
“This way. Come.”
Georges eyes hardened, and he slammed the door shut.
PART 7 – “Running in Blind”
George wasn’t accustomed to running blind, he was used to quickly adapting to surroundings that he could sense, even the dark. However, this darkness he was running in was different, not just a lack of light, but the complete absence of it. Even with his uncanny knack for night vision, George could only really see three to five feet ahead of him. It was complete sensory deprivation. Each stride was long and arduous, gradually becoming more painful as he continued to upkeep a vicious pace. The little girls footsteps were clearly audible behind him, pitter-pattering like raindrops upon an umbrella. He was impressed with her constant pace; her undying resolve to keep up with him. He doubted he could have done the same as a child, even with the never-failing, always-present, painful motivation of his fathers belt driving him onwards.
After several minutes, he stumbled into a smaller, normal terminal with only one rail line, which was on the left wall. Inside was another crowd of aimless, blank-faced commuters. All were dressed similarly to the crowd before: funeral-like attire and glaring, dull faces. The right wall was lined with benches, and only had a single, faint light source. The flickering glow-strip barely illuminated the interior, leaving even Georges adept eyes constantly straining just for silhouettes. The commuters shuffled back and forth in the midst of the narrow tunnel, feeling their way through the darkness. George shoved his way through them, gripping the small hand of the child behind him and trying to conceal his exhausted gasps. He didn’t know how far ahead of the killer he was, if he even was ahead, but the dense crowd forced him to slow down.. He recalled an old saying: “Strength in numbers.” George wasn’t sure of the validity of this statement, or where he had heard it. He was much more accustomed to surviving on his own, but in the midst of the situation, he knew that sticking with more people may be the best choice. The last time he had been in a crowd it had been a complete massacre, and the threat had been moving fast enough to kill commuters ahead and behind him undetectably. Whoever the murderer was, they were inhumanely skillful in the art of death. After feeling his way through the crowd for sometime, the darkness began to lift. A series of lights were visible ahead, outlining what most likely was another terminal.
“Careful,” George whispered, partly to the small girl , partly to himself, “There may be a wolf hidden among these sheep.” The little girl narrowed her eyes, nodded, and moved closer to him, keeping a steady watch on the mass of drifting people. They seemed lost, unable to find their way through the darkness. Unable to escape the horrifying complex of tunnels. Unable to outrun or outmaneuver the menace of the underground. They were confused and anguished, but yet, completely silent.
Pushing aside a woman, he noticed a small flash of light ahead of him, unmissable in the near blackness of the room. The unmistakable outline of a steel shape. Glare from the strip was reflecting on the perfect chrome finish of what could only be an axehead. George halted, his eyes wide and his breaths escaping him in ragged gasps that he hoped were subtle enough to be hidden by the shuffling of the crowd. As he looked onwards, the axehead rose above the heads around him, the edge gleaming in the weak light. He ducked sideways just before the pandemonium erupted with the sickening crunch as the blade broke skull. Again, the threat level of the unknown assailant jumped around the high numbers, due to a lack of information. Commuters began screeching wildly as what had happened dawned on them. Glancing backwards he could make out the repeated rising and falling of the tool, a dull thump thump accompanying the ceaseless hacking of the axehead. Apparently this time killer was not concerned with being undetectable. Blatantly proved with each calculated strike, the wooden handle of the axe adjusting perfectly to land mortal blow after mortal blow on the many people of the crowd.
“That way. The way out. There.” George whipped around to look at his quiet companion. She was pointing down room, towards the next terminal. George nodded, slung her onto his back, then shoved his way past a few more frantic men and women. He pushed them out of the way, tuning the screaming out of his mind and focusing solely on his destination.
“Run.” she whispered in his ear.
Run, he thought. His legs obeyed, once again speeding up to a brisk sprint. He broke out of the crowd of screaming people, tearing down the tunnel as fast as his feet could carry him.
“Stop!”a familiar, old voice called, George skidded to a stop, turned, and addressed the elderly army veteran. The man stood solidly solitary in the middle of the entrance to the tunnel, a determined sparkle in his eyes. “Face it!” he shouted.
“Run you fool!” George shouted back, his previous words to the man echoing with the ones he had just uttered. The old man shrugged just as before, his eyes displaying a sudden and steady resolve.
“I told you this already; I’m done running. The past is the past, George. We all need to move on. Improve. Grow. We need to forget what has been done, move on and make new memories. We need to leave the past behind us.” The man smiled as several commuters pushed past him, eyes wide and mouths open in silent screams, all of them running.
“You’re going to die!” George yelled, trying to nail some kind of sense into the man’s head.
“Stop running, Geo—” The man was interrupted as the foul swoop of an axe-head tore down behind him, burying itself in his back. There was a sickening crunch; the man’s eyes widened abruptly as his fate overcame him.
“Be… at… Peace.” The man wheezed a final breath, a serene smile lighting up his face. His eyes glazed over, then he fell face forward onto the concrete, the axe sticking stiffly from in his back. In the back of his mind, George wondered how the vet possibly knew his name. The curiosity was almost instantly extinguished when he made eye contact. George could make out the thin white lights of the killers eyes in the darkness beyond; and even farther back another endless mass of barely visible corpses. The tension escalated rapidly as George ran his eyes over the tall, shadow, desperate for any insight, any detail. A menacing shiiiiikt as an unseen blade was drawn.
Almost in sync the hunter and the hunted broke into a maddened sprint. Crazed and adrenaline-fueled, George swiveled about and raced down the tunnel. The killer was right on his tail, almost breathing down George’s neck. With each stride he was painfully aware that his enemy was closing in. He could tell that their paces were hardly different, but he could also perceive that he was slightly outmatched in terms of speed by brief deviations in the sound of his pursuers gait. The little girl on his back was digging her nails into his shoulders, her small clenched hands a fearful pale white.
“Run” she whispered.
There were lights now. The path before him was illuminated and bright. Now he knew where he was going.
It was just a matter of how long it would take him to get there.
PART 8 – “The Unspeakable”
George grunted, grabbing some of the fire in his gut, in his soul, and wielding it to increase the pace of what was already a dead sprint. The fire that he lit that night at the lake; the fire that made him a survivor; the fire that defined him. His impossibly increased pace began to put distance between him and his pursuer, even with the girl on his back. Knowing he couldn’t run forever (especially considering he was already fatigued), George started looking for alternate options to his frantic, endless escape. He turned a corner, boot slipping on a puddle of water. As he ran, George became increasingly aware of the subtle acoustic of rushing water. George panted heavily as he swerved around a right corner, the little girls warm body weighing him down. As he turned the tunnel widened and he drew up parallel to a brackish river of water, which was gushing out of a large, rusty grate. The ghastly smell told him that somehow, impossibly, he’d accessed the sewers from the subway. George ignored the incredulous itching in his brain; he’d learned that in this place, it was best to abandon all logical assumptions. The waterway bent and he turned with it. As he did he heard his pursuers footsteps become muted, indicating he had not turned the corner, and therefor had no line of sight. George’s eyes flew around wildly, locking on a doorway.
He ducked through it and closed the door behind him. He put his ear to the extremely oversized keyhole, the footsteps got louder, and then started to fade as he passed by. George let the girl down and sighed in relief. He allowed himself exactly 5 seconds of indulgence in relaxation, before pulling on the chain dangling from a single hanging light bulb and assessing his situation. They were in a small room, more of a closet than anything. Tacked up on the wall was a map of the subway and the sewers, with red X’s and red dotted lines throughout. An uncapped red sharpie swung on a yarn tied to the tack on the top right corner. There was an X in two small terminals, two in a big one, an X in a side room, and lines connected them all. George struggled to control his heart rate as his eyes followed the dotted red lines, their path interrupted with menacing red X’s.He fought back panic as realized what the red stains represented. His eyes started roving his surroundings frantically, to allow himself any illusion of understanding. Shelves that he somehow hadn’t noticed upon entering were stocked with firearms, from standard handguns to military-grade fully automatic rifles, all equipped with advanced silencers. On top of the shelves, a line of 20 black handled blades all stood, in order of size, in a perfect row. On the left was the biggest, a wicked machete-sized blade, down to the smallest on the far right, which was virtually a needle. One of the blades was stained a brownish red; George assumed it had been used to kill the asian man. Based on the consistent spacing of the knives, George could tell two were missing. One just to the left of the needle-sized blade, and one just to the right of the machete. George deduced from the size of the bloodstain on her shirt, the larger missing knife killed the waitress. Which had to mean the killer was carrying a knife that couldn’t have been larger than a scalpel, which made no sense for his obvious purposes.
“The way out.” the little girl urged. “It’s almost here.”
George turned around, the little girl was crouched down, looking through the keyhole.
George’s gaze moved above the girls yellow covered frame and onto a single, empty peg on the door. Almost like a hat hanger.
“Hey we need to get ou-”
A shriek from the little girl cut him off. And she toppled backward, the black handle of a knife protruding from where her eye should have been.
Even with the blade in her brain, she still pushed out a few last words as her body began to spasm in death throes.
“This is the way.” she gasped “The way out.”
All of her muscles tensed in unison, as she took her final, tiny breath. Then the light left her eye as she exhaled, and all her muscles went slack.
His guide, his only ally, an innocent little girl, was dead.
PART 9 – “Endgame”
George checked for a pulse in her neck, and was brutally, mercilessly unsurprised when he found none. His shaky hand drew back and curled into a fist. He rose to his feet slowly, his eyes flint, teeth clenched so hard they’d cracked. George cast aside all logic and approached the menacing door. Lifting his leg, he jabbed his full unrelenting force into the wooden frame. The door was ripped off its hinges, buckling inwards under George’s adrenalized rage.
“A BLOODY CHILD?!” he screamed over the rushing water.
He whipped his head back and forth, just in time to see the heel of a dress shoe disappear around a corner. George growled as he took off after the assailant. “YOU PIECE OF-” . The dripping from the ceiling seemed to be increasing, it was now almost a light rain. A fact George became well aware of as he slipped and slammed into the concrete floor, cutting himself off. He grunted and scrambled back to his feet, sprinting after the slim shadow in the distance. After what seemed like an eternity George tackled the Fedora Man from behind. George wrenched the man face up, and pulled his knife out from his trench coat with vengeance in his heart. But his attack was stopped by a silver skull striking his temple. George’s grip loosened, woozy, and the Fedora Man bucked him off, then spun gracefully to his feet.
“You’ve almost done it George, you’re almost out.” The man grinned, a sick smile stretching across his face. George released an animal roar as he lunged at the man, knife slashing across the tendon in his knee, an anatomically crippling blow. But the Fedora Man was unfazed, his only reaction was in his eyes, glinting with a cold, mad light.
“Stop fighting your escape!” he screamed, spittle flying, kicking George viciously in the ribs. It was painfully clear that he was emotionally, as well as mentally, unstable. His threat level went up a peg with this newest revelation. George would take a collected yet tyrannic individual with a nuclear arsenal over an asylum escapee with a handgun any day. At least then he could understand his opponent.
“You’re the only one here who can actually leave! Let me deliver you!” he yelled.
George tuned out his mad ravings, and scrambled to his feet, holding his knife to the psychopath’s chest. The Fedora Man held his hands up in surrender with a smile. Just as George moved to pierce his chest, Fedora grabbed it by the blade with impossible speed and started biting his hand. George yelled out in pain and reared the knife back with a curse, whipping the Fedora Man’s blood into the air. The man ignored the gash in his palm and quickly slapped the knife out of George’s hand. George roared again and punched Fedora in the nose, breaking it with a crack.
“Good!” the Fedora Man cackled, bearing his bloodstained teeth. “That’s the spirit!”
He shot his hand out and ripped the tender scab off of the wound on Georges head, releasing a river of blood. Georges howl of pain was cut short as the Fedora Man jabbed the tip of his cane into Georges jugular with inhuman speed and accuracy.
George gagged and stumbled backwards, blood stinging his eyes and blurring his vision.
The rain was coming down in torrents now, breaking up the already dim, wavering light; spreading the blood over the two opponents respective faces rapidly. With a savage growl George leapt at the man yet again, wrenching the cane out of his hand. He swung it at the Fedora Man’s skull, making contact with a vicious crunch, then snapped it over his knee, discarding the halves. George pounced onto the Fedora Man, and started pounding his face relentlessly with clenched fists. The day’s horrors all flashing in his mind in between blows.
Boom! The asian man, with the knife in his neck, abandoned. The Fedora Man started to laugh. Boom! The waitress, attacked from behind, never knowing what hit her. His laughs grew louder. George clenched his jaw. Boom! Collar and Hoodie; the Business woman lying alongside hundreds of the other dead. Water streamed off of Georges coat, in chaotic rivulets Boom! Boom!
“You know nothing!!” the Fedora Man laughed, baring his bloody teeth. “Nothing!”
George bared his teeth in frustration as the Fedora Man’s laugh rose to screeching pitches. All of the innocent commuters, lying twisted on the ground. Boom! Boom! Boom!
The little girl in between spasms, a knife embedded in her brain. Boom! Boom! BOom! BOOm! BOOM! George sat back, panting. His split knuckles mixing his blood with Fedora’s. George struggled to his feet with a groan, and scooped up his knife.
The Fedora Man slowly, fluidly, straightened himself to a stand, a bloody smile still on his misshapen face.
“What the devil?” George whispered.
“No,” The Fedora Man cackled through gritted teeth. “He’s much worse. He’s personal.”
“Don’t talk about yourself in the third person, you’re crazy enough as it is!” George retorted, rather incoherent with confusion and rage “You’re not even real! None of this is! I just can’t prove it!” he yelled at him, turning away from his grisly image.
“I’m just as real and just as crazy as you are,” Fedora grinned sadistically. “And there’s another thing you should know.”
George sensed the man coming closer, but he didn’t care, he screwed his eyes shut as the Fedora Man whispered in his ear.
“I wasn’t talking about me.” his whisper echoing.
George slowly turned around.
“What do you me-”
The Fedora Man was gone, and so were the parts of his cane. George had to bite his tongue to keep himself from screaming in frustration. He ripped off his black cap and chucked it in the water instead, which was rapidly rising in level. What was left of his hair was plastered to his forehead by the downpour from the ceiling, painfully sticking in his wound, reminding him of his injuries; which were previously forgotten in his adrenaline. George took stock of his physical state. A few nasty bruises, cracked ribs, split knuckles, the wound on his head, and probably a mild concussion, not bad enough to stop him from moving. Sighing, he held out his knife and crept silently around the corner, expecting an attack from the Fedora Man. What he found was much worse. George stopped dead in his tracks and retched. The Fedora Man’s cane stood once again whole and perfectly balanced, straight up on the ground. Where the miniature silver skull should have been on top, was the Fedora Man’s severed head. Still wearing the fedora, and still wearing a ghastly, bloody smile.
“It was never him.” George whispered in quiet reverence; the tone that came with utter shock and disbelief, the tone that came with the execution of his last hope of understanding.
It was never him. And then George fully grasped the gravity of what that fact meant, and he took a shuddering gasp.
He could sense a shadow lurking in the darkness beyond.
It was someone else all along.
It was something, else.
PART 10 – “Live or Die”
A curtain of dust. The long-forgotten settlers of a long-forgotten tunnel. A round, cylindrical concrete structure that stretched endlessly into a darkness as black as pitch. This was the dusts’ birthplace; it’s homeland. It’s quiet haven. An undisturbed, silent, solitary structure of stone. Occasionally an overhead pipe would choke out a small droplet of water, disturbing a small section of dust, temporarily creating a patch of mud. But today, the tunnel was silent. A cold, dark sentinel. The dust appreciated the silence, the stillness. Appreciated its cold, emptiness. The never-moving, never-changing void of the tunnel.
Bam bam bam…
An echo rippled through the tunnel, distant and unruly with no apparent rhythm to its beat. The dust struggled to maintain its form, its fragile and precious structure. What was this foreign unknown? This anarchic rebel of noise and change?
Bam bam bam bam…
Louder. More distinct. Small patches of dust were ripped from their resting places, screaming silently into the dark as they scattered into the void.
Bam bam bam bam bam…
The overhead pipe began leaking water at a pace the dust had never seen before. A small puddle began to gather on the floor. Dust collapsed in massive heaps with the frightening and random changes.
BAM BAM BAM—
Breathing in the dark. Frantic, uncontrolled breathing. Clouds of dust cascading from the tunnel walls. The footsteps were louder than ever. The water pouring from the pipe in a constant stream, the puddle now an inch deep, drowning dust motes by the thousands. The peace of the tunnel was now but a memory. A passing moment. A forgotten empire of silence razed to the ground by this new terror. Dust was flung into the unforgiving unknown. A man burst through the darkness, his feet tearing through the puddle, crashing through the water. His eyes were wide with fear and desperation. His arms pumped back and forth as he planted each leg into the ground, throwing himself forward at an unimaginably intense sprint.
By now, George was more than accustomed to sprinting in the darkness. Clouds of dust tore from the ceiling about him, sticking to his tongue and mouth as he sprinted through them. Occasional puddles of water appeared in his path, steadily growing deeper and deeper as he ventured further into the dark tunnel. He couldn’t hear his pursuers gait, but every time he passed through a puddle he could hear the ominous splashing of another man behind him. After several minutes of running, George could feel his legs finally, non-negotiably, beginning to give. His heart was sore. His muscles were on fire. He didn’t have the will, the same will that had steeled him through his father’s beatings, and even more brutal and important, gotten him through life in general. It was that iron and unbreakable will that was faltering, barely convincing him to keep going, even with the killer right on his tail. The tunnel began to open up into yet another terminal, though this one was significantly smaller than the supercomplex he had encountered before. Without a break in his gait, he leapt up from the tracks onto the terminal deck, resuming his sprint immediately. He had given up on the chase. Either this terminal was the exit or he was going to die. For the first time in his life, his survival instinct, the fire in his belly, had dimmed; had surrendered. His vision was blackening at the edges as a result of his weakening flame, and he could feel his body urging to pass out into a violent spasm of vomiting. He tore up a broken escalators steps, heaving for air, but still denying oxygen for his cells. Instead of a wall of rock where the exit should be, there was but a single door. It was odd compared to his previous experiences, but George didn’t have time to think about what was odd and what wasn’t. Being in the tunnels this long had blurred the distinction between abnormality and normality so completely that George had forgotten what normal truly was. He crashed through the door, tumbled to the ground in pain, then regained his feet frantically. He stopped running, opting instead to slam the door and stand against it, holding it shut while he regained his breath. There was no attempt from the other side to open it. George stood there for several moments, confused. The killer had been right behind him. He was sure of it. After regaining his breath, George vomited. He upheaved blood, spittle, and pieces of food he didn’t remember eating. He was starved and dehydrated as hell. It was miracle he was still conscious. After taking another moment to recover, he absorbed input from his surroundings. The door had opened up to a single wide hall. At the end of the hallway was a pedestal, graced by a pallet of lit candles.
George slowly, reluctantly let go of the door, edging his way down the hall. Water began dripping from the ceiling in frantic streams, splashing against the ground with reckless abandon. George ignored it, entranced by the centerpiece of the room. Somewhere on the edge of his perception he could make out the epic ringing of a church choir, though it seemed vastly more eerie amongst the aesthetic of the dripping water. Almost unholy, rather than the intended latter. The streams of water leaking from the ceiling had thickened in size, now gushing small rivers from between the concrete slabs. George waded through a two-inch puddle of water that seemed to cover the entire floor. He ignored the fact that it was rising slowly and approached the pedestal with a determined, almost hypnotized gait. There was something on it, nestled within the dancing candles. A small book. George edged closer, his instincts telling him to find refuge elsewhere but his mind ignoring all common sense. The water continued to rise, now just below his knees. Small waterfalls gushed out of the walls around him. The choir inside his head raised in volume along with the crashing of the water. It was no church choir, he suddenly realized. Unseen voices were chanting a popular children’s rhyme in Gregorian fashion. An epic rendering of an otherwise meaningless string of words. Ring around the Rosy, he realized. Each time the choir sang “We all fall down!,” the rhyme would loop and begin again, every time slightly louder. The water had just risen above George’s knees. He was now directly in front of the pedestal. Looking down, he finally made out what the book was, surrounded by a graveyard of candle stumps that had been recently extinguished in the gushing water, wisps of smoke curling up from their still warm corpses.
It was a photo album of his family. His mother’s sweet but troubled smile. His father’s grim face, staring into the camera with a determined sense of dominance. George’s boyish, innocent eyes. The water was now up to George’s waist. George flipped through the pages like a man possessed, in a frenzy. His first steps. His eighth birthday. His first BB rifle. The time his mother had taught him to sow. His father hadn’t approved; she had taught him in secret. He’d used the skill to stitch wounds for himself before, the scars wouldn’t let him forget. The moment was never photographed, but there he was, needle in hand. His heart beat accelerated as his life flashed before him, moment after moment. The photobook ended abruptly, with a picture of his mother and him attending his father’s funeral. That hadn’t happened yet, but it felt distinctly familiar to him. As if it had transpired years ago. George was now gasping for breath again, but he was emotionally terrorized, not physically, which was arguably worse. There were no other pictures in the book, just a handful of blank pages. Memories not yet forged. George scattered through them, then slammed the small album shut. He stood over the pedestal, water now rising up to his heaving chest. The book was swept away in the water, out of his grasp. He remained silent, contemplating in shocked reverence what he had seen. Then, in front of him, a figure stepped out of the dark. Lean, muscular, tall. Broad shoulders. Disciplinary eyes. The killer in the dark.
It was his father.
The man waded through the water towards him, grabbed George’s shoulders, and before he could react, plunged him backwards into the water. George tried resisting, gnashing his teeth beneath the dark waves. He could make out his father standing over him, the man’s eyes calm and determined. He began to spasm, the water filling his lungs. His father was going to kill him, like he did all the others.
Ring around the Rosie, George thrashed about, screaming underneath the dark waves.
Pocket full of Posies, George’s eyes widened as he felt his vision fading. In an act of desperation he tried to pull his emergency knife from the side of his boot. The small handle of the Swiss blade was just beyond his reach. He could feel it pressing into his shin. So. Close.
Ashes, ashes, George yearned for air. Yearned for life. He went into a cataclysm of spasms, trying with all his might to break free. Hopelessness began to overtake him. Where was his fire? His will? His iron, unbreakable will?
We all fall DOWN! George realized with a shock that he had no will. His fire had been drowned under the ebony waves. No traumatic memory to propel his unfailing determination to survive. He was free. He had found the way. The way out.
Darkness consumed him immediately, the last thing he would see being the dark brown rings surrounding the pupils of his fathers deep eyes.
Silence as he became one with the water. As his vision fully faded. As his mind ceased to writhe with thoughts.
George, had died.
“Excuse me sir?”
George snapped his eyes open, gasping for air and frantically attempting to register his surroundings. No. Not again, he berated himself as he recognized the interior of the subway train. He had slipped back into another one of his PTSD visions. One of his traumatic episodes.
“Sir, are you okay?”
“I’m… fine, thank you.” George smiled at the woman, waving her away with a small polite gesture of the hand. The subway doors screeched open, revealing a bustling station. A boy in a collared shirt and a boy in a red hoodie pushed past him into the terminal of commuters, laughing together over some private joke. A man in a fedora nodded to George with a friendly smile as he stepped off the train, his previous air of suspicion completely gone. A little girl in a yellow raincoat was swept up in the arms of a worried mother, reprimanding her for straying from her presence. George found himself the last person in the car, and wandered out of the train slowly, taking in his surroundings in awe. Something inside of him was different. This hadn’t been just another trauma induced hallucination. This had been more. It had been much worse and more vivid than any he had previously experienced… and yet, at the same time… better somehow. He felt refreshed. Peaceful. Prepared.
Without the urge to hide his face with his cap, or look over his shoulder, he found himself enjoying the crisp air of the terminal. Men and women pushed past him and onto the train, but George didn’t mind them. He didn’t assign a single commuter a threat-level. He was free. He was found. With a determined complexion and a new, unbreakable sense of belonging, George began climbing the escalator out of the subway station. His father’s funeral was in twenty minutes.
He wouldn’t miss it for the world.