PROMETHEUS AND CHIRON
copyright 2016 by Robert Elessar. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction of this work by any means is strictly prohibited. Sharing the link to this post is perfectly acceptable, by any media you like.
Tommy first saw the woman at the station in the evening as he waited to catch the train home. He had done some drywalling in a friend of a friend’s house that day, and was tired and sore as he waited.
The job had been off the books, so as not to endanger Tommy’s disability benefits, and it was good to have the extra money. Quite apart from eking out his living expenses, the extra cash helped to pay for his medical needs. Tommy had injured himself some years ago doing a construction job on a three-story building. The fall had not been as serious as it might have been, but three mildly fractured lumbar vertebrae, with the addition of disc herniation and some joint injuries to his knee had left him in chronic pain. He had started taking opiates at first solely to relieve his agony, but after a while he’d found that they also made other aspects of life easier, and his dose had steadily increased.
He’d swallowed two extra blues on his way from the job site, trying to take the edge off the soreness, as well as to assuage his own jitters and need, and to relieve his psychic distress over when his next paycheck might be coming in. He had just achieved a bit of equanimity when he looked across the track and saw, in the electric light that banished the already-thick nighttime, a woman seated on the bench opposite him.
He was near the far end of the station, smoking a cigarette in the designated area. He always made sure to smoke away from anyone who might be bothered, and he also took care to throw his butts in the garbage. Just because he was willfully polluting his own body was no need for him to tarnish the world for others.
Something seemed not quite right about the woman. She was extremely pale, even from across the tracks in the artificial light, and Tommy thought she was trembling and squirming. She didn’t look healthy.
That, however, was not the sole reason for his disquiet. He felt a strange chill go up his spine when he first noticed her presence. It wasn’t a pleasant chill, as he used to get when oxycodone was first getting to a level in his bloodstream. It was a chill such as he would occasionally feel if he turned on the light in his room and saw a cockroach scuttling away across the floor, fleeing from the sudden illumination. He hated roaches, and whenever he saw one by surprise in his house, he couldn’t help imagining that, at any time in the previous few hours, it might have been crawling across his body, violating his sleeping skin, perhaps traversing his torso, his arms, or even his face. An ongoing waking nightmare of his was that, one day, one of them would crawl into his ear, or his mouth, and he knew he would wake up screaming.
Why would glancing at this ill-appearing woman across the track cause such a feeling? She looked poorly kept, her clothes ragged and threadbare, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she were homeless, or at least in dire living circumstances. She did not appear to be a street crazy, though. Her hair was pulled back into a reasonably neat pony tail, and though her clothing was old, it was well matched, and she wore both socks and shoes.
Still, looking at her gave Tommy the creeps. Perversely, that kept him from looking away, as he suppressed his mild disquiet in deference to curiosity.
The more he gazed at the woman, the more he thought she really was ill. She was definitely shivering, though the weather was warm. In seeming contradiction to her shakes, Tommy also thought that a sheen of sweat clung to her exposed skin.
Could she be withdrawing from something? Was that what was happening? Tommy had gone through episodes when he had been unable to get meds, either by legitimate or illicit means, and the process had been horrible and painful. Could this woman be a fellow user of opioids, aching for a fix, unable to get one, suffering the pain, the nausea, and the other rebound effects of no longer having her drug of choice in her system?
When she doubled over as if in response to a stomach cramp, Tommy became surer. She must be in withdrawal from something, and his own experience of opiate deprivation made him think that they were what she lacked.
Part of him wanted to approach her. He even toyed with the thought of offering her one or even two of the Roxies he always carried with him, just to ease her suffering, but that thought was quickly banished. Such a gift would mean fewer meds for Tommy, and he really wasn’t sure how soon he would get more. He’d already had to sell some of his supply just to keep the lights on in his tiny place. Though he felt pity for the woman, he knew that she could avail herself of emergency services and at least get detoxed at the hospital if she were truly in dire straits. Opiate withdrawal, he knew, was very unlikely to kill you. It could, though, make you wish that you were dead.
That thought led him to wonder why no one was offering to help the woman, or for that matter, why she wasn’t asking. He might have thought she was panhandling, given her physical appearance, though that was probably an unkind presumption. Still, he certainly wouldn’t let pride get in the way of asking for a handout if he were withdrawing.
Tommy’s puzzlement grew when he saw a relatively well-dressed man walk right by the woman, not two feet away, without so much as glancing in her direction. He didn’t skirt around her; as far as Tommy could tell, the man did not even cast an eye in the woman’s direction.
That was strange.
Tommy’s shivery spine became chillier, and for some reason, though the electric lamp was bright and clear, he almost thought the woman was wrapped in shadow, an anti-light that defied humanity’s best attempt to dispel the darkness.
Why did he feel that way? She was just a woman sitting on a train station bench, apparently withdrawing from drugs. Why would Tommy have such thoughts, that she was as disturbing and disgusting as a cockroach, that she was cloaked in shadow? Was it because he was projecting himself onto her, seeing how he might be some day if he continued his accelerating use of narcotics and one day failed to obtain them?
He imagined that the shadows he saw were spreading, but they didn’t spread outward, like a glow. Instead they oozed across the floor of the platform, flowing like thick syrup, working their way to the edge. They didn’t seep out randomly, either. They headed directly toward the tracks, and thus, directly toward Tommy.
The woman, who had been hunched over as if in crampy pain, raised her head suddenly, and gazed straight at Tommy, her pale, wide, dilated eyes staring at him in fear or desperation.
The touch of her gaze was a shock, both familiar and utterly bizarre. Tommy felt that her widened pupils were larger than her entire head. He could stumble into those eyes, and within them it would be cold, dark, and endless. He could fall forever in those eyes.
He stifled a scream, and had the absurd urge to panic and run away. So distracted was he by this visual encounter that he didn’t even hear the bells and the whistles of his arriving train, but at that moment, the locomotive passed in front of him, and eye contact was broken.
Immediate relief flooded Tommy, as sweet as the first rush of oxy in the morning. Practically tripping over himself in his hurry, he boarded, almost knocking over a heavyset woman who was trying to exit. He rushed to the first open seat on the near side of the train. As he pulled away from the station, Tommy felt a visceral relief and relaxation, and he was practically giddy for the rest of the evening, as though he had survived some dangerous adventure.
Tommy didn’t ride the train again for almost a month, because the few odd jobs he took to supplement his government benefits were in other directions from where he lived, and closer to his house. Then he got a more enduring spot in a rising shopping center. It would still be off the books—his employer was very understanding about that—but would provide a longer and more secure source of income, as long as Tommy kept coming to work and doing a good job. That was not a problem. Though he was in chronic pain, and used opioids more or less constantly to keep it under control, Tommy was a hard worker. He rarely had complaints, and the few that he did were more personal than professional.
This new job required Tommy to use the same train that he had ridden almost four weeks previously. Though his current quitting time was earlier in the day than for his previous job, the waning year ensured that it was nevertheless dark by the time Tommy got to the station.
Walking to the far end of the platform, Tommy took a pack of Marlboros from his shoulder bag, fished out a cigarette, and put it in his mouth. As be brought his lighter up, preparing to flick its flame into existence, he froze.
There, across from where he stood with his unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, sat the same woman. He had not thought of her for a single waking moment since the last time he had been at the station, but here she was again, sitting under the lamp, more mildly hunched over this time, but just as obviously in pain.
The sheen on her forehead was perhaps a bit glossier, her hair limper, but even that could have been a trick of memory. She wore the same clothes that Tommy remembered from almost a month ago. The idea that she was homeless flitted again through the back of his mind, and that this was her only outfit.
That thought was only tangential, however. Most of Tommy’s mind was preoccupied with resisting the surge of disquiet that flooded him. The creeping revulsion he had experienced upon first seeing her once again filled him, and goosebumps rose on his arms.
As he watched, unable to tear his eyes away, Tommy again had the impression that, despite the pallor of her skin, despite its clammy sheen, and despite the bright light almost directly over her head, the woman was shaded. She seemed in some strange sense farther away than she had been before.
Tommy had felt reasonably well that day; it was his first day on the job, and he was not yet as sore as he would be in the morning. Thus, he had not taken as many oxycodones as he often did when working. Now, as though he feared that the woman’s pain were somehow contagious, he scrambled his hand into his right pocket, stuffing his lighter back into his left at the same time. He pulled out the small, plastic bottle, popping the cap and spilling two pills onto his palm. He almost crushed his cigarette with his pill hand before remembering to take it out and discard it, throwing the small tablets into his mouth. He chewed them before swallowing.
Even as the bitter sensation of the medicine struck Tommy’s tongue, bringing a grimace to his face, the woman’s head snapped upward, and she stared directly across the tracks at him.
How had he though that she seemed far away? Quite the contrary, he could see her vividly, starkly, more real than the metal structure on which she sat. She took up no more space in his visual field than she had before, but he almost could have sworn that if he reached out, he would be able to feel the fabric of her clothing, the dampness of her skin.
What he noticed most, again, was her eyes. Her pupils were unnaturally wide, gaping, as if in rebound from the usual constriction that opioids brought. He almost thought that he should have been able to see a shine behind her pupils, like red-eye in old flash photos, but he discerned nothing but blackness.
A strange, terrible sensation came over Tommy, as if his feet were no longer quite holding him stationary. He’d had similar feelings when standing on high places without a guard-rail, a peculiar notion that he was falling, that he somehow wanted to fall, a fascination with a gaping abyss that was almost an attraction. Though his legs did not move, he felt his feet were sliding along the platform, ever so slowly, inching him toward the tracks.
He looked down, nearly in a panic. He was standing near a line in the pavement, and his sight told him with absolute clarity that he was immobile. Nevertheless, there was a strange, slick, greasy feeling under the soles of his shoes. He felt as if the platform were tilting, a death trap propelling him not onto the track, but across it.
He begin to sweat, though the air was cool. What was going on?
Now he looked back up, and the woman’s face, still vivid, was drawn in anguish, pain clearly searing through her, her arms folded across her abdomen. She opened her mouth, and a whispered croak came out. Tommy shouldn’t have been able to hear her, but her words carried to him clearly.
“Please,” she said. “Help me.”
Tommy’s insides plummeted, though whether in pity, dread, horror, or some combination of the three, he couldn’t have said. The woman’s words rang in his ears, resounding above the ambient noise of the station. Even when Tommy’s train arrived—as it did only moments later—he could almost have sworn that the echoes of the woman’s plea all but drowned out its whistle and the grind of the diesel engine.
As soon as his view of the woman was obscured, Tommy’s sense of immediate fear and revulsion left him, and his body relaxed. When he got onto the train, he again deliberately chose a seat that gave him no view of the opposite side of the station. This time, however, he felt a pang of guilt as he did so. The woman had been asking for help, and he had not merely ignored her, but had fled her presence.
He tried to push the thought from his mind, telling himself that she was obviously not in such dire straits. She had been in the same place for a month, and she looked none the worse for wear—not that that was saying much—so she must at least be in no immediate peril.
Also, there was something wrong with her. The way she made him feel was like nothing he had experienced before, and he had been in Iraq. There was definitely something wrong with her.
Or perhaps there was something wrong with him. Maybe he was the one who was the source of those feelings. Maybe he saw in her the potential outcome of his own increasing use of pain medications, and it was his fear that generated such bizarre impressions. Now that the train was pulling away, and Tommy’s distance from the woman increased, the terrible feelings she had engendered began to fade from his memory, like images from a dream dissolving upon awakening.
Was he just projecting his own fears onto the person of this obviously troubled and addicted young woman? Was he afraid of her because of what she represented? If so, what did that say about the fact that he had fled her presence, even as she had asked for his help? Did that make him a coward? He, a former Marine, who had proudly put his life on the line for God and country…was he just a sniveling little wimp when it came to matters that really impacted him?
These thoughts troubled Tommy all the way home.
That night, Tommy lay in bed, his room defiantly dark despite his life-long fear of cockroaches, and his sleep was disturbed by a sound.
It was distant and quiet at first, so faint that he thought that he was dreaming, but it grew in volume from instant to instant, and resolved itself into a human voice.
“Please,” it said. “Help me.”
Tommy twitched his head, still convinced that he must be asleep. He didn’t open his eyes.
“Oh, God. Please. Please, you have to do something. Please help me.”
The voice was hushed, as if the speaker didn’t want to be overheard, but the urgency it carried was unmistakable.
The despair finally cut through Tommy’s unwillingness to see, and he opened his eyes onto the midnight blackness of his bedroom.
For a moment, he saw nothing at all. Despite the fact that his eyes were adapted to nighttime, the room was utterly inky to his sight. Then, after what must have only been a second or two, he recognized the vague shadows of his desk and his dresser, his ceiling light, and his closet door. They were faint, however, and he noticed them only in passing, for he was distracted by another presence.
In the middle of his room, barely visible in the darkness, revealed almost entirely by the translucent pallor of her skin, was the woman from the train station.
Tommy gasped and sat up in bed, inching away from her. How could she be in his house? How could she be in his room?
“Please,” she repeated. “You’ve got to help me.”
Though she was nearby, her voice sounded as if it were coming from across a vast gulf of time and space.
The woman looked in Tommy’s direction, but he thought that she couldn’t actually see him, as though she knew he was somewhere in that vicinity, but the darkness was deeper for her, and she could make out nothing clearly.
“Please,” she said again, “whoever you are. I know you can hear me. I know you can see me. Please, help me.”
Tommy was unable to reply. This could not be happening. How was this woman in his house? What was she? The shadows she carried once again dimmed even the already-dark room around her, and Tommy again felt a chill.
“Please!” she said again, and her voice was higher now, though still distant and faded, her tone more desperate.
What was wrong with her? What was happening to her? How could she be in his room?
She exhaled a brief shriek and looked down at her legs.
Tommy gave a start in response to her shout, and without volition, he followed the direction of her gaze. At her feet, the shadows which had wrapped her, and which Tommy had earlier thought were oozing across the train platform in his direction, were thickening and coalescing. She looked as though she were standing in tar that had somehow developed a mind of its own, and was oozing about her feet, embracing her ankles, and making its way up her legs.
No, wait, there was something wrong with the way the tar was oozing. It wasn’t moving like a liquid—which was obvious, of course, since liquids didn’t flow uphill—but there was something more to it than that. In the dim light of his bedroom, Tommy thought he saw glints of movement within the liquid, as though lustrous pebbles were immersed in it, being carried along with its flow.
Now it groped past the woman’s knees, making its way under her dress. She stopped producing words and gave little grunts and shrieks as she was increasingly encompassed. It seemed she was unable to move her feet, because though she shook her knees and twisted from side to side, she didn’t so much as shuffle in any direction.
Watching the liquid, Tommy shuddered to think of where it was reaching on her body. He expected her to try to swat at it, but instead she lifted her hands, pulling them away from her body as the liquid shadow began to flow out and around the lower verge of her skirt, apparently having taken over the entire space within.
“No!” she said, finding words again. The material of her skirt shuffled and waved as the shadow encroached upon it, and Tommy’s vision began to clear. He saw, to his horror, that the glints inside the shadow on her skirt were not pebbles at all.
Flowing within the liquid dimness that now made its way up to the woman’s waist, and which seemed poised to swallow her whole, were thousands upon thousands of hideous, indoor cockroaches. They were somehow alive and moving freely within the viscous shadow, scuttling along the woman’s clothing, along her shoes…and along her skin beneath, everywhere on her body that the shadow had already reached.
She screamed now, and though Tommy did not know whether he was responding to her voice or to what was crawling upon her, almost to her head, her eyes, and her mouth, Tommy screamed also.
The scream awakened him.
His eyes snapped open in his room, which was just as dark as it had seemed to him an instant ago. He felt himself breathing heavily and quickly, and for a moment could not understand why the woman was no longer standing nearby. He scrambled for the bedside lamp, knocking his wallet onto the floor in the process, and had to fumble for a few seconds to get the light on, as he desperately needed to do.
A part of him was certain that the lamp would have burned out, that he would be trapped in darkness, forced to get to his feet and turn on the ceiling light, and that as he walked across the room, he would feel the terrible, moist crunching beneath his bare feet of countless roaches.
His lamp, however, came on as soon as he turned the switch, and it clearly illuminated his entirely bare floor. Not a single insect of any kind was visible in its light.
Tommy’s breathing immediately slowed. It had been a dream. It had just been a dream. The woman had never been in his room; there had never been any roaches. He had been asleep, his mind clearly troubled by the strange figure on the platform and the bizarre sensations he had associated with her.
His back and his leg ached. He reached for the bottle on his table, near the lamp—he had somehow avoided knocking it onto the floor with his wallet—and opened it quickly, swallowing two of the tablets within.
Then he lay back, trying to collect his wits, trying to laugh at himself for being so frightened of a nightmare. The laughter wouldn’t come. All he was able to produce was a sickly sounding cough.
He took slow, deep breaths, waiting for the opiates to take effect and ease his discomfort. Slowly and gradually, he was finally able to get back to sleep.
He left his bedside lamp on for the rest of the night.
The next day at his job was dreadful for Tommy. He had not been in the best condition when starting work, so muscle aches and soreness now assailed him. His chronic pain was flaring, too, triggered and enhanced by the previous day’s activity. In addition, he had slept poorly, and his energy level was not good. This made the pain more prominent, and it also made the struggle through the day more difficult.
He took extra pills on more than one occasion, and as he looked ruefully into the bottle, he realized that he was going to have to buy some extras from somebody. He knew several people to whom he could reach out, and since he was getting paid daily, he would be able to afford it, but he was not happy. He always felt guilty when he took extra medicine. His doctor counseled against such things, warning him about increasing tolerance, the danger of overdose, and the fact that he could get in serious trouble for buying black market meds. Pain, however, was a taskmaster that could not readily be ignored, even by grown men who knew themselves to be tough.
Tommy trudged from the bus to the train station at the end of that difficult day, his body aching despite his meds, and his mind almost a blank. He had started the morning thinking about his nightmare, but it had rapidly faded in response to the demands of labor and discomfort. As he stepped onto the train platform, though, his newly purchased ticket in his hand, he found his eyes immediately drawn across the track, to the far end, to the smoking section.
The woman was there, under her streetlamp, her form pale and emaciated in the broken dark of the early night. Tommy forced himself to continue on his current path, pulling a cigarette from his pack as he reached the end of the platform. He tried not to look at the woman, but could not help paying attention out of the corner of his eye. She was shivering again, and her hands were in fists at her sides, but she was not clasping her gut as she had been before. Perhaps she was getting better, coming to the far end of her withdrawal. She certainly ought to be; it had been going on long enough.
Tommy consciously forced himself to face away from her as he lit his cigarette, though it required a serious effort of will. For some reason, his gaze felt pulled in her direction, but it was not an urge he wanted to indulge.
As he drew his first drag, Tommy berated himself, calling himself a coward. Why was he frightened of a poor, desperate, homeless woman on a train platform? Because he had imagined her wreathed in shadow, a projection of his own fears? Because he had a nightmare about her? It was pathetic. Still, he kept his eyes away from the tracks.
When he was halfway through his cigarette, Tommy gave a slight jump as a voice came on the station loudspeaker, penetrating enough to cut through all conversation. It was a recorded message, a woman’s voice, and it said, “Attention please. All northbound and southbound trains are delayed due to signal problems. Expect delays of thirty to forty-five minutes.”
The message repeated, to groans and grumbles all around the platform. Tommy was displeased as well, but his reaction manifested as a sinking in his gut. He was going to be stuck here at the station, across from the woman on the bench, for what was almost certainly at least forty-five minutes. In his experience, the announcements nearly always underestimated actual delays.
He shook himself. It was ridiculous to feel this way about the woman. She was just a homeless addict, sitting under a lamp on the opposite side of the track. There was nothing sinister about her.
Still, she had been sitting in the same spot, wearing the same clothes, for almost a month now, and though she looked far from well, her clothing did not appear to have become dirtier or more threadbare in that time.
Tommy almost took a look to confirm his assessment, but he restrained himself. Then he berated himself again for his fear, and for his indulgence of it.
He could, of course, just make his way down to the other end of the platform once his cigarette was finished. That would be easy. But it would also be a surrender. He had never been the most heroic man he knew during any deployment, but he was still a Marine. He had been shot at by crazed fanatics, and though he had been frightened, he had not given in to his fear.
Now, however, he felt as though his knees would knock if he didn’t hold his legs stiff.
He clenched his teeth between drags on his cigarette. It was infuriating.
He looked to his left and right. More people had gathered on the platform, passengers who normally would have ridden a later train. Soon all the benches would be full. Some people would lean on posts, others would pace, and more still would sit on the floor of the platform. Tommy generally preferred to stand, but the increasing crowd led him to wonder whether anyone would sit down next to the poor woman across the way, as space became tighter. Most tended to avoid being too near the homeless, especially those that seemed drunk or high, but this was an unusual situation. Perhaps someone would take the other end of the bench with the shivering, shadowy woman. Perhaps that close proximity might even lead them to strike up a conversation, to offer her some kind of help.
That thought, that curiosity, broke though Tommy’s fear, and as he finished his cigarette, squishing it out on the pavement and disposing of the butt in the garbage, he turned to look. There she was, the poor woman, shivering more uncontrollably now, and her arms were once again wrapped around her stomach. She was leaning forward, her head down, facing the pavement.
No one sat near her. No one approached her. The crowd was gathering, there were people doubled up, and occasionally tripled up on the other benches, but the woman was alone. People seemed to avoid even standing too close to her bench. No one leaned on the light post behind her. No one looked at her as they passed. It was not so much that they avoided glancing at the woman, as though embarrassed or uncomfortable. They went by, but their eyes seemed to skim over her as though she did not exist.
Why? Was it because they too could feel the shadow that clung to her or oozed from her, the shadow that, in Tommy’s nightmare, had been populated by cockroaches? That seemed unlikely, for Tommy was all but convinced that the notion of the shadow was born in his own mind, a product of his fear of ending up like the woman. No, he suspected that this was simply a symptom of how far society had gone in marginalizing the desperate.
He saw her look up at a passerby, almost reaching out a hand. She looked as though she were saying something, but this time Tommy couldn’t hear her. The person she addressed did not react at all.
Tommy became angry. Why did that person not so much as glance in the woman’s direction, even to grunt a simple negatory response? Was she that frightening? Was she that threatening?
Shame grew in Tommy. Hadn’t he too been frightened? Hadn’t he even had nightmares about the woman? Was he not as bad as that random passersby? Or was he even worse, since he had some sympathy for her predicament, understood a little of what she must be going through, but was frightened still, and didn’t want to look at her?
He watched the other side of the track for a few more moments. All the benches on that side were fully occupied except for the one on which the woman sat. She suffered alone, clenching her sides, alternately hanging her head forward and stretching it back, as if to work out a kink that couldn’t be conquered. She was a pariah, an outcast, and no one even wanted to sit next to her.
Tommy gritted his teeth and grunted aloud. It was intolerable. He was not going to let his own fears lead him to allow this poor woman to sit alone on a bench while everyone else was close, albeit strangers. There might be nothing he could do for her, but he would at least, for a few minutes, give her a bit of company.
He walked to the stairway, and up to the bridge over the tracks, then down the other side. By the time he arrived at the opposite platform, his heart was pounding, and it was not merely because of the exercise. He couldn’t help but think of his dream from the previous night, the shadow that attached itself to and attacked the woman…or that came from within her. He couldn’t help but think of the roaches. The only thing worse than seeing them on her would be seeing them on himself.
He found himself slowing down as he approached the smoking area, and he had to force his legs to keep moving. He had already taken too many extra meds, so he wasn’t going to take any more, but he wished he had them to spare.
He could not see the woman yet through the crowd…but was that shadow on the ground beyond the next gaggle of travelers a normal shadow? Or was it that tarry, active shade that seemed to have sought him out the day before, and which in his dream had begun to devour the woman?
He shook his head. There was no such shadow. It was his imagination, his fear, and probably the effects of his medications, that made him see such things. He knew that opiates weren’t supposed to make a person hallucinate, but scientists didn’t know everything. Maybe in some people, in some situations, they did.
Tommy found that he had stopped walking before clearing the last group of people that blocked his view. Was he being foolish? Maybe what he had seen wasn’t a hallucination after all. Maybe there really was something…wrong about the woman. She was always in the same place, always in the same clothes, always experiencing the same thing. That couldn’t be normal, could it? And the shadow he had seen, what about it? Could it be real?
No, it didn’t make sense. Shadows were just what happened where light was blocked. They weren’t liquid, they didn’t have the ability to move on their own. It was ridiculous.
But what would he do if he came close to the woman and the shadow was still there? What would he do if it began to ooze across the floor of the platform toward him? What would he do if it reached the ground at his feet, and he saw it ooze over his shoes and begin to crawl up his legs, a thousand cockroaches coming along for the ride?
This was insanity. He needed to go back. Marine or not, he was not equipped to deal with such things, even if they were in his own head. God forbid he should break out screaming on a crowded train platform.
Just as Tommy was about to turn and return to the stairs, several people in front of him shifted, and his view of the woman cleared. He heard himself draw in a gasp, expecting to find something horrifying, but all he saw was a thin, frail form, worn beyond her years, shivering and groaning on a bench in a train station. There was no unnatural shadow. The light above her cast her partial silhouette on the ground at her feet, but there was nothing bizarre about it. In places, her skin glinted as if with a sheen of sweat, but in that, likewise, there was nothing unusual.
Tommy let out his breath, and the tension drained from his body. She was just a normal woman, homeless or nearly so, her life brought low by addiction. He might not be able to do much for her—he knew that people in these straits for the most part had to save themselves, and he avoided the question of how much that applied to him—but he could at least show her that she was not completely shunned.
He walked forward again, approaching steadily, keeping his attention sharp for anything uncanny. He gave his fear the concession of walking behind the woman’s bench instead of approaching from the front, and as his own shadow crossed her, he felt a strange shudder, as though the imagined roaches could use that shadow as a bridge to hurl themselves onto Tommy, infesting and infecting him.
No such transfer happened. Tommy reached the far end of the bench, walked around it, hesitated for a moment, then plopped himself down, twitching just a bit as he touched the cool metal.
He glanced to the side. The woman didn’t seem to have noticed his arrival, wrapped up in her cocoon of misery. She shivered and hunched beside him—it was not extreme, and a person unfamiliar with opiate withdrawal might not recognize that she was doing anything other than bracing herself again a slightly chilly breeze. Tommy, however, was fairly sure he knew a bit of what she was experiencing.
She didn’t look at him, so he looked away across the tracks, back to where he had been standing only minutes before. Finally, after a moment’s pause, still not looking at the woman, Tommy spoke.
“Boy, these trains, huh?” he said. “It seems like twice a week they’ve got something going wrong. You’d think that they’d be able to figure out what keeps happening and stop it, wouldn’t you?”
He tried to be jocular in his tone, but he could hear his own anxiety, and it irritated him. In any case, the woman didn’t seem interested in his comments. She simply sat there, shivering slightly and clenching herself. Tommy waited through the uncomfortable silence, and was just about to say some other inane thing, when the woman spoke.
“You really can see me, can’t you?” she said.
Tommy turned his head slowly to face her, and found her looking back at him. He expected to be frightened by her eyes again, but though her pupils were heavily dilated, they looked just like normal eyes. Similarly her skin, though pale and clammy-looking, was not wrapped in shadow nor crawling with any kind of insects. Even her hair, far from neatly-styled, did not look as bad as that of many homeless people Tommy had observed.
“Of course I can see you,” he replied simply.
The woman, still shaking and clearly uncomfortable, shrugged and said, “Almost no one else can.”
Tommy looked away, embarrassed for his fellow human beings, and for his own recent urge not to approach the woman. “I’m sure it can seem like that sometimes,” he said. “People don’t want to admit that there are other people in trouble, who might need help. If they did, they might feel like they ought to do something.”
“No,” the woman said, “I don’t mean that. People don’t just ignore me. They really can’t see me. But I thought that you could. I thought you saw me a while ago…I don’t know how long. And then last night you were back, and I thought you could see me again.”
“Of course I could see you,” Tommy repeated. “And I’m sure that everyone else can, too.”
“No, they can’t,” she responded. “Really, it’s true, no one else can see me.”
Tommy looked at the others on the platform, none of whom seemed to be paying any attention either to the woman or to him. Each waiting traveler seemed wrapped up in his or her own world, many of them with faces turned toward smart-phones, some with earplugs in. A few were engaged in variously heated discussions regarding the inconvenient lateness of trains and how unreliable they were. Tommy sympathized, but he also felt a small degree of contempt for their self-absorption.
He gently shook his head and decided not to contradict the woman. Instead he asked, “Why do you think no one can see you?’
“Because I’m dead,” she replied.
Now Tommy looked at her again, his eyebrow cocked and his head tilted. Was she crazy? She must have been using something other than opiates if she was saying things like that. Or maybe she was psychotic already, and used drugs for comfort. He had heard that there were such people, and that many of the homeless fit into that category.
He tried not to consider the idea that she might be telling the truth.
“What…what exactly do you mean by that?” he asked.
With another shrug, marred by shivers, the woman said, “Exactly what I said. I’m dead. And almost no one else can see me.”
Tommy felt a slight return of his previous chill, but he suppressed his awareness of it, determined not to be sucked into her statement, but not willing simply to deny that she could be correct. He didn’t know what might set someone off who was withdrawing and who thought such things. He asked, “What would make you think that you were dead?”
“The fact that I died,” the woman countered, her statement sounding like a simple, logical conclusion.
Tommy took a deep breath, his disquiet growing. Coming over and speaking to this woman might have been a mistake. Maybe people were right to avoid such encounters. Maybe it was not worth the effort, not worth the risk. Still, he hated the thought of having avoided the woman just because of fear and his own strange impressions, which had formed while he himself was under the influence of pharmaceuticals.
He was not having such impressions now. He was right next to the woman, within a few feet of her, and he sensed no oozing shadow that either radiated from her body or simply clung to her. Her pupils, though wide, did not look like black holes that promised to draw him in, never to escape. What frame of mind had he been in to have imagined such things? He could hardly blame this woman—who no doubt had a harder life than he did—for entertaining some very peculiar notions.
Deciding that he would approach her without dismissal, but would also try to be rational, Tommy asked, “If you’re dead, how can you be sitting here?”
The woman bent double for a second and gave a groan. Apparently an abdominal spasm had interrupted the course of the conversation. Tommy was prepared to repeat his question once her cramp passed—which thankfully only took a short moment—but she seemed to have heard and remembered it, because when she was able to sit back up, she spoke with only slight breathlessness.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “I guess it’s…I guess it’s because of how I died…and what I did before I died.”
Morbidly curious despite himself, and still filled with a background tension regarding the woman’s sanity, Tommy asked, “Why? How did you…die?”
Now the woman was gripped by some other pain, and she stretched her head back, extending her neck to a degree that looked almost dangerous, her legs sticking out in front of her, straight at the knees, and tense. Tommy felt a new surge of fear, but his sympathy was stronger. He thought he recognized the signs of a bad back spasm.
The woman groaned and breathed a small sob, tears streaming from the sides of her closed eyes. “Oh, my God!” she said. “I can’t take this anymore.”
Her proclamation was not exactly a shout, but it was certainly not quiet. Yet Tommy noticed, to his surprise, that no one even glanced in her direction, or jumped, or otherwise reacted to the woman’s pain-filled words
How was it that no one so much as started at the woman’s sudden outburst? Were people really that good at minding their own business? That was not Tommy’s experience. He had always known his fellow humans to be unrepentant, if not exactly unashamed, voyeurs. Every accident on the road, every public argument by a couple, every fistfight, every minor disaster, always drew at least a modest crowd of gapers. Morbid curiosity was one of the almost universal attributes of the species.
Yet not a single head turned in the direction of the bench Tommy shared with the woman, not a single surreptitious glance was sent their way. How could that be?
She couldn’t be telling the truth, could she?
It was impossible. Such things didn’t happen. There were no ghosts in the real world. The dead were buried or burned—or occasionally disposed of in other ways—but they did not come to sit on train station benches at night.
He thought of the shadow he had seen, both when awake and when dreaming, the darkness that had clung to the woman and crawled along the ground.
The worst of the woman’s paroxysm seemed to pass, and as she caught her breath, she said, “I abandoned my daughter.”
Tommy, whose thoughts had drifted from his question, asked, “What was that?”
“I abandoned my daughter!” the woman replied, her snappishness born either of pain, of frustration at having to repeat herself, or of the discomfort of the subject. “I left her. I…couldn’t take it any more. She was only four years old, and I’d been trying to get along. But my mom was no help, she never has been, and my boyfriend left me when I got pregnant. I couldn’t keep a job, I was on state assistance, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t take it.”
After her brief, intense flood of words, the woman went silent again, clenching her abdomen once more, groaning.
Tommy, sympathetic and sad, and not sure what to believe—for if a person thought she was dead, how could one discern the truth of her other statements?—nevertheless wanted to find out more about her, what might make her believe she was dead. He tried not to consider the lack of reaction from others, tried not to consider the idea that he might be talking to some form of undead spirit. That attempt was made easier by the fact that the woman looked entirely solid. He thought he could even smell the effluvia of old sweat and urine about her.
Unable to resist the question, he asked, “Were the drugs part of it? Why you couldn’t handle your daughter?”
The woman turned her head and looked sideways up at Tommy from her clenched posture, and for an instant her gaze frightened him in a perfectly banal way. She looked as though he had prodded a sore spot, as though she was going to snap at him like a teased dog. Her expression changed rapidly, though, and new tears sprang forth. “Yes,” she finally moaned. “I was using drugs. I used them all the time. They were the only way I could deal even as much as I could. I was…I was whoring myself out to get money for drugs, and I stole sometimes…and I didn’t buy good things for my girl. She didn’t have anything good. Whenever I could get money, I’d do pills or drugs.
“I was a terrible mother. I knew she’d be better off without me. So one day, I…I had gotten some extra money, and I used it to buy heroin. Not food, and nothing for her. Just smack. And then I told her I had to run out to the grocery store at the corner, but that I’d be back in just a little bit, and I left her playing in the apartment living room. But I didn’t come back. I took the bus here to the train station, and I waited for one of the passenger trains to come—you know, the AmTrack ones, not the commuter ones. I figured I’d try to sneak on, or get some guy to pay for my ticket in return for letting him fuck me. There’s always guys like that, even for women like me. And while I was waiting, I went into the bathroom and shot the heroin. All of it.
“Then I came out here on the bench to wait…but it was more heroin than I thought, or it was better than I thought…or maybe I just figured I didn’t deserve to live. And I didn’t. I died. Right here on this bench.”
Tommy felt his eyebrows raise, but he also felt a disconcerting blend of sympathy and disgust at the woman’s tale. It couldn’t possibly be true, of course. Well…the part where she thought she had died couldn’t be true. The rest of it sounded all too believable. He often wondered why life was arranged so that the self-destructive were so easy to fool, to take advantage of, and most particularly, so fertile. With that thought, he asked, “What ever happened to your daughter?”
“I don’t know!” the woman answered. At first, Tommy thought that her vehemence was born of outrage at his curiosity, but then he realized that she had been stricken with another spasm while she was trying to answer, for even as the words came out, she clenched her entire body and hunched forward again, grunting as she did so. After a moment, when she had regained some form of equilibrium within her pain, she repeated, “I don’t know. I’m here, I’m dead. I’ve been here ever since I died. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t…I don’t even know if she’s alive.”
Tommy, not sure if he was humoring the woman or if some part of him was willing to entertain the reality of her story, asked, “How long ago was that?”
The woman’s spasm seemed to relax, for she straightened up just a bit. “I don’t know,” she said again. “A year? Ten years? A million years?” After an entirely humorless, single exhalation of laughter, she said, “That’s what it feels like. Every night seems like a million years.”
Tommy, horrified at what she was imagining, asked, “Why do you think it happened?” His meaning was twofold. He wanted to know why she believed what she did, of course. But another part of him, the part that had imagined the shadow wreathing her form, the black holes in her pupils, and the hordes of roaches infesting her, took her story seriously.
“I don’t know,” the woman repeated, her voice all but weeping. “I don’t…I mean, does every junkie who abandons her kid and dies have this happen? Is this Hell?” Tommy looked around at the milling souls on the train platform, all so caught up in their minor dramas and traumas, all so self-involved, that they had not spared him or the woman a single passing glance. If not Hell, it could certainly pass for a kind of Purgatory.
The woman seemed to understand his thought, because she immediately said, “I don’t mean the train station. I know it’s just a normal station, and it has real people. Alive people. I mean me. Am I in Hell?”
Tommy, trying not to think of the shadows and the roaches, asked, “Why would you…what is it that would make you think you’re in Hell?”
The woman looked at him incredulously. “Do you see me?” she asked. “Do you see what I’m going through?”
“You…look like you’re withdrawing,” Tommy said.
“Heh,” the woman grunted; she seemed to have, ironically, hit a brief lull in her symptoms. “You can say that again. I’m withdrawing. Every night I’m withdrawing. I start when it gets dark, as if I’d just gone cold turkey and after sundown all the drugs are completely gone from my body…and it gets worse and worse over the night. By midnight I’m starting to puke, and before morning I’ve pissed and shit and puked all over myself. And there’s blood in my puke, and I feel like I must’ve thrown up my own guts, and I can hardly breathe, and everything hurts so much that I want to die. But I’m already dead. Every night it happens.”
Tommy, trying not to imagine the prospect of going through withdrawal nightly, asked what he thought was a rather obvious question. “You said every night…so what happens during the day?”
“I go away,” the woman replied. She sounded breathless, and had begun to shake again.
“Go away?” Tommy asked, trying to suppress his empathy, for her discomfort was almost physically painful to watch.
“I disappear, or go to sleep, or something,” she said. “I guess it can’t happen during the day, so it doesn’t. It can only happen when it’s dark out. So I just fade out during the day, like I’m going to sleep. But then every night, as soon as it’s dark, it starts over again.”
“W…why would that be?” Tommy asked.
He expected the woman not to know—whether she really was a ghost or just a schizophrenic, how could she know the rules of such a punishment? But she at least seemed to have some ideas, and she answered, “Because I don’t think it can come out during the day.”
“It?” Tommy asked, and a memory of shadow passed through his head again. He feared that he ought not pursue his line of inquiry, should not hear more, whether the woman was really dead, or just crazy. Some forms of insanity could be contagious.
“The thing that keeps me here,” she said, and she looked sidelong at him again through her shivers. Her eyes were large and dark, her face haunted by fear. “I don’t know what it is, and whether it works for God or the Devil, or if it’s older than both of them. I think…I think I’m stuck here because I died the way I did, and I did it here. I think maybe it’s this place that made me have this keep happening.”
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked, surveying their surroundings, a shudder running through him.
“I don’t mean the train station,” the woman said, also looking around, even as a grimace crossed her face and she stretched backward again. “I think it’s something that was here from way before the train station, maybe even from before there were people. I think it…it’s bad. It’s horrible. It likes to hurt people…to hurt things, to hurt anything. I think it’s just…bad.”
“It?” Tommy asked against his better judgment. “What is it? What does it look like?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I can’t see it. I can only feel it. It’s the thing that makes me withdraw every night…it’s the thing that keeps me here, even though I’m dead. It’s the reason I can’t go…wherever I’m supposed to go.”
Tommy, intrigued and disquieted, said, “And where are you supposed to go?”
The woman shrugged again, her face clenching as a relatively short-lived spasm seemed to hit her. When she recovered her breath, she went on, “I don’t know. There’s no way for me to know as long as I’m here. But, God, I want to find out.”
Tommy couldn’t blame her, but an inescapable possibility occurred to him, even though he was not sure that he believed her tale, shadows or no shadows. “What if where you’re supposed to go is even worse than here?”
The woman gaped at him in supreme incredulity. “Worse?” she groaned, her eyebrows rising and a new shudder of tension coursing through her. “What could possibly be worse?”
In Tommy’s experience, that was a foolish question indeed. No matter how bad things were, they could always get worse; there was no bottom level of reality. What was more, a simple and obvious possibility presented itself without much thought, and he said, “What if you had to withdraw all day and all night, every day and night, and there wasn’t any time when you…went away, or whatever it is?”
It appeared that such a thought had not occurred to the woman, but she shook it off and grunted, “That’s not all that much worse. And anyway, I’d take my chances. I think there’s more ways for it to be better than for it to be worse.”
Tommy had to caution himself from falling into her delusion, or even worse, from getting too involved, in case it was not a delusion after all. Still, he couldn’t help from asking, “Is there any way for you to get away?”
“I don’t know,” came the immediate reply, exhaled through pain. “I…I’ve been alone here for so long. I can see everyone going by, but no one can see me.”
She paused, tilting her head like a puzzled dog for a moment, and then said, “Well…a few people seem to be able to see me. Every now and then. Someone will look over here, and they’ll seem like they’re not just looking at the bench, or the light, or whatever. They always look…surprised, or scared, and they almost always try to stop looking at me as soon as they can.”
Tommy, recalling the previous times he had seen the woman, could hardly blame them.
As if commenting on Tommy’s thoughts, the woman said, “I remember when you first saw me. It was…a while ago. I don’t know exactly how long.”
“About a month,” Tommy told her.
“Okay,” she said. “A month. You looked over here, and you saw me…and you seemed like you got scared, just like everybody else. But…you didn’t seem quite as scared, maybe. You looked like maybe you were…stronger than the other people who see me.”
Tommy, recalling his own response, and the unmanning trepidation he had felt, could not agree with her. Perhaps his past experiences had just left him better able to cope with fear than most other people were. On the other hand, he had awakened screaming from a dream. That certainly didn’t feel brave to him.
“I thought, for some reason, that maybe you were someone who might be able to help me,” the woman went on. “So I tried to get your attention…but I don’t think it worked.”
“It worked,” Tommy corrected. “I just…I didn’t want it to work.”
The woman nodded glumly, and slowly doubled up again, her shakes and her sweat subtly increasing. “I can’t blame you. How could I?” she said. “I’d do the same thing. But then…then you came back. I think it was last night…was it last night?”
“It was,” Tommy replied.
“Yeah,” she said, “last night. And I knew you could still see me…and you weren’t just scramming down to the other end of the station or anything. You stuck around. And all I could think about was that…that this guy could see me. He could see me, and he wasn’t as scared as everyone else.”
“I was scared,” Tommy said, not sure why he felt it important to clarify her impression.
Shrugging awkwardly through her pain, the woman said, “Not like the other people who’ve seen me. And I thought…if anyone could ever help me, it’d have to be someone who could see me. Someone who wasn’t as afraid. And all night, while I was puking, and shitting, and bleeding, I kept thinking about you. I was almost praying about you. I was begging you to help me, even though you weren’t here.”
Tommy thought back to his dream. Could that vision have been the product of the woman’s constant thought toward and about him? Could her pitiful pleading somehow have reached him, even across the miles to his bedroom as he slept? In a world where a dead woman could go through withdrawals every night at the train station, who could say what might not be possible? Of course, he was fairly sure that none of it was happening at all as she described, that she was simply a mentally ill addict. Yet, his dream had happened, he had seen the shadow that surrounded her. Why was it not there now? Was his own well-meaning presence enough to drive it into hiding? Could the woman be right? Was it actually possible that Tommy could help her in some way?
He had the impulse to ask himself, So what? What if he was somehow able to help her? Why should he do it? What would be the point? It was not he who had put her here, not he who had gotten her addicted to drugs. He was not the one who had abandoned her child and then overdosed and died, if her story was true. Why should he feel responsible for helping her?
He resisted those thoughts, however, as much out of habit as out of intention. He was a former Marine. He had dedicated himself to putting his life on the line for ideals. And though he had never been the most charitable, the most giving person in the world, he had also never ignored someone in flagrant need as far as he could remember, not when there was anything he was able to do to make someone’s life a little easier.
Also, he felt real sympathy and pity for the woman. Whether she was delusional, or whether she really was dead, it was plain that she suffered. He had started on opiates in a very different way than she had—most likely—but the physical effects were still similar. How would he feel if he knew that, every night, he had to go through withdrawal? He had, upon occasion, been forced to go without his pain medications, to go cold turkey, when money was tight, or on one occasion when his meds had been stolen. It was horrible.
“Well…” he finally muttered aloud as the woman fought against what seemed to be the first of a series of dry heaves, “…what do you…what can I do to help you? I mean, would it make any difference for me to call an ambulance?”
The woman gaped at him again, waiting for a gag to pass before she said, “What good would that do? They can’t see me, and I’m already dead.”
“Right, right,” Tommy said, unable to deny the internal logic. “So then, how could I help you?”
The woman’s face was drawn with resisted pain, and she struggled to say, “I think…I think maybe if I could just stand up.”
Tommy felt himself cock his head. “Stand up?” he repeated. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I…I can’t even seem to stand up from where I am,” she replied. “I’m…I can’t stand up, I can’t lie down. I’m just stuck, sitting here where I am, while I go through everything, every night. I can lean forward and…and lean back. I can stick my legs out or curl them…under. But I can’t get my stupid ass up from the seat.”
Tommy, unable to resist, asked, “Why?”
“How the hell should I know?” the woman replied with some heat. “Maybe because I died sitting here? I don’t know. But I can’t lift up.”
“So…you think if you were able to stand up, you might be able to just…walk away? Is that it?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. Maybe the thing that’s holding me here needs me to be sitting down. I don’t think it can move from where it is.”
“Why?” Tommy asked again.
“I don’t know!” the woman said, and this time Tommy felt her vehemence was purely due to frustration. “I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why it keeps me here. It just does. And it doesn’t seem to be able to go anywhere else.”
Tommy, who had seen shadow oozing across the floor, heading toward him, was not any too certain that she was right in that assessment, but he let it slide. She had more experience in this than he, and in any case, that shadow was not in evidence at the moment.
Also, if she was in the midst of a delusion, and if she were able to break the constraints that she imagined upon herself, then maybe it would free her in some other sense. He didn’t think it would cure her—that was ridiculous—but it at least might let her feel that she could go and seek help.
“Okay,” he said with a sigh, feeling as though he had agreed to undertake a herculean task, “what do you need me to do?”
“Just…just help me try to stand up,” she said.
“How do you want me to do that?” Tommy asked. “Do want me to, like…push you, or something?”
“No,” she said, stretching back again, her neck twisting painfully. “No, if I…if I just fell onto the floor I might…I might not be able to get up from there. That could be even worse. Could you…could you maybe help just to…to pull me up? Like from in front?”
Tommy, for some reason more nervous about touching the woman’s hands than he was about pushing at her back, nevertheless nodded, and he rose to his feet, his own back groaning in protest. As he reached his full height, he asked, “What if I can’t touch you? What if I can only see you? I mean, if you really are dead…”
He saw a flicker of fear and doubt cross the woman’s expression, but she shook her head and said, “It won’t matter. I think…I think because you can see me, you’ll be able to touch me.”
Tommy shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out, huh?” He walked to the front of the woman, glancing down the tracks in both directions as he did. He could see no lights of any approaching trains, so there was no rush for him to get to the other side again.
“Right,” the woman said. Then, her arms trembling and her face drawn in pain and worry, as well as the faintest trace of hope, she stretched out her emaciated hands.
Tommy stared at those hands. They certainly looked solid. He saw no light passing through them, and similarly, he saw no shadow enwrapping them, or radiating from them, or oozing around them. The ground below was not populated by any form of insect, and certainly no roaches. Nevertheless, he was afraid to touch the woman.
He glanced back up into her eyes, which were already gazing at his face. The pupils were wide, but they did not have the bottomless, event horizon feel that they had seemed to possess from across the tracks the first two times he had seen her, and the time she had appeared in his dream. Her expression was one of flagrant suffering and need. Yet still he feared to touch her.
She seemed to guess his reluctance, and perhaps its source, for she whispered, “Please. Don’t just leave me here.”
Tommy could not ignore her pain. He was a Marine, damn it. He had been shot at by men who wanted to kill him, had seen friends severely injured by IEDs, and had seen comrades and enemies die violently. How could he let his fear of a withdrawing, homeless woman prevent him from performing a simple task that she thought would help her?
Though he did so slowly, he reached out his hands. Hers were held palms down, so he met them with his own palms up, and—expecting at some level to see his fingers pass through hers like a projected image—he took hold of her.
Her hands were cold, clammy, and bony, but they were solid. Though she looked weak and frail, her grip was tight. Perhaps she was so desperate that she was able to exert all the force in her body through the digits of her hands, but her clasp on Tommy was almost painfully strong.
Looking back up into her face, Tommy saw an expression of relief, tinged, oddly enough, with sadness.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.” Then, in a tone so low that it was almost a whisper, she added, “I’m sorry.”
Tommy almost had time to ask, “Sorry for what?” before his concentration was interrupted.
The shadow that he had seen the night before in his dream, and the evening before, and the month before at the station, sprang abruptly from the woman’s arms and hands, rocketing forth as if from her very skin, suffusing her entire form. This time, however, it did not cling to her. It flowed, more quickly than he had seen it oozing across the floor; it leapt across the contact between Tommy’s hands and the woman’s, and it flowed up his arms.
Tommy looked briefly at her eyes in shock and horror. What was happening, what had she done? Her pupils were black pools of infinite depth again, but this time the blackness wasn’t staying behind her irises. It jumped out of them and across the space between their gazes. Tommy felt it penetrate his own eyes, and though he could still see everything beyond as clearly as ever, the world nevertheless seemed suffused with a dim haze.
The woman’s expression was both relieved and sorrowful as she rose to her feet, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please…I just couldn’t stand it any more.”
The shadow spread up Tommy’s arms to his shoulders, and he couldn’t so much as try to release the woman’s grip as she turned him in place, easily moving his much larger frame. Like dancers, they rotated around one another.
“What are…what is this?” Tommy asked. As the shadow spread down his chest and up into his neck, he realized that it didn’t feel like a liquid. It felt like tens of thousands of tiny, skittering insect feet, crawling over every square millimeter of his skin. It swept under his shirt and downward, into the tops of his pants, and he thought he could just make out, within it, the dim shapes of countless, horrible, dark-brown, long bodies, whip-like antennae waving as they invaded Tommy’s surface.
He opened his mouth to scream, but the shadow flowed over his lips, clearing his teeth, engulfing his tongue, then the crawling, phantom roaches flowed down his throat toward his stomach and lungs.
He gagged violently, wanting to expel the invading substance or horde, but physical reflexes were no impediment to the ooze that was engulfing him.
He felt the woman finish turning him, seating him—almost gently—onto the bench where she had been. He looked up at her in betrayed, horrified disbelief.
Her face, far healthier than it had been before, was drawn with conflicting joy and shame as she said again, “I’m sorry.” Then she let go of Tommy’s hands.
When she did, the shadow redoubled, giving an almost a silly-putty like snap as it broke away from the woman and finished engulfing Tommy. It was now all over his body, from his toes to the top of his head, and he could feel the roaches crawling through his hair.
Tommy could no longer see the woman, could no longer really see the train station, but he didn’t care. He had to get rid of the roaches, of the shadow.
He tried to scream, but could take in no breath. He gagged. His back flared into pain as he tried to wrestle the shadow off his body. He scraped at his skin with his fingernails, as though to clear it of mud, but they passed through the ooze without changing it at all.
He tried to rise, but his legs were weak. He tried again to scream, but his gagging was unstoppable. He couldn’t breathe. He felt he was drowning in insect bodies, sure that he could feel the legs of cockroaches crawling along his airways, into his stomach and intestines. His nose was blocked by oval, chitinous bodies.
He tried to articulate his emotions, his outrage, his betrayal, his fear…but nothing came out. He was inundated.
The shadow took over his vision, and everything else dimmed. Beyond it, he could just vaguely see that people were looking in his direction. Concern, fear, and disgust were the primary emotions her saw.
He thought that he actually vomited, spewing rancid, bilious liquid onto his own chest, but that feeling was irrelevant to the sense of the roach-ridden shadow, and it did nothing to relieve it.
He thought he heard someone asking him if he needed help, but he couldn’t answer.
The darkness overtook his vision. In pain, in fear, in suffocation, but above all in revulsion, Tommy lost all awareness.
As night fell, two voices could be heard nearby, conversing.
“Dude, do you know when the train’s gonna get here?” the first voice, a man’s, asked.
The second voice, also male, replied, “It’s gonna be…about twenty minutes.”
“Shit,” the first voice said. “I hate taking this stupid frikking train home. I’ve gotta get a car.”
“I hear you,” said the second. “But car insurance is so fuckin’ expensive, you know?” After a pause it added, “Do you wanna sit down?”
“Not there, I don’t,” the first voice replied.
After a pause, apparently born of puzzlement, the second voice asked, “Why not there?”
“’Cause last night someone died there,” was the reply.
“Really?” the second asked.
“Yep,” said the first. “The guy just sat down and started convulsing, and throwing up on himself, and everything. By the time EMS got here, he was already dead. Pissed and shit on himself, too.”
“Holy shit,” the second voice exclaimed. “What happened, did he have a heart attack, or a seizure or something?”
“Nah,” his conversation partner replied. “I think it was a drug overdose…at least that’s what the EMTs were saying. I guess his pupils were like, tiny, when they found him. I don’t know.
“Holy shit,” the second voice repeated. “Why would someone do drugs on a train platform?”
“Who knows?” the first voice responded. “I guess if you’re an addict, you’ll do it anywhere. But anyway, I don’t wanna sit where that guy was. Who knows what kinda diseases he had, and he puked and shit all over the place.”
“Wow, yeah,” the other said, “I don’t blame you.”
As nightfall became complete, Tommy came to full awareness, and his vision returned. He was able to make out with sight the sources of the two voices he had only been able to hear until then. They were two young men—clearly not executive types, by their clothing—who each carried battered bags and stood a few feet away from him, between the bench and the tracks.
He looked around, confused for a moment, surprised to find himself seated at the train station. His memory was hazy. He could not recall how he had come to be where he was.
A groan went through him, as he realized that his body felt stiff and sore. He had worked the previous day, he thought he could remember that much, and as was usual, it took a serious toll on his chronically injured body. He reached into his pocket, intending to get out the pill bottle—legal, and appropriately labeled—that he carried with him,
His pocket was empty. There was not so much as a bit of spare change within it.
“Oh, shit,” he muttered out loud. He scrambled to check his other pocket, but it too was empty of all but lint. Where were his pills? Where was his wallet, for Christ’s sake? He was already in pain, and he knew that if he didn’t take something soon, it was going to get much, much worse.
He made a move to stand up, to see if somehow he had moved his pills and his wallet to his back pockets, though he never carried them there. When he tried to rise from the bench, though, he found that he could not do so. His legs worked, his arms worked, he was able to push against the surface upon which he sat, but he felt as if he were glued to the seat, not by the surface of his pants, but by his skin itself—or perhaps it was more as though he were held there magnetically. He could not lift himself so much as a millimeter from the spot.
He looked down to see what was holding him in place, and all thought of his pills left him.
Surrounding his lower body—and his upper body as well, for all he could tell—was a thin, hazy cocoon of shadow, oozing and flowing around the surface of his skin, seeping through his clothes to caress him. Within it, where the light from the lamp behind him struck most strongly, Tommy thought he could see the occasional shapes of cockroaches.
He let out an involuntary yell, nearly a shriek, of surprise, and he scrambled even more aggressively to get to his feet, to get away. He made no more progress than before.
He swatted at the shadow, but it was unaffected by his movements. He scraped at it, as though trying to remove grease from his skin, but though his pant legs caught in his fingernails, the shadow was unperturbed.
Tommy shrieked now, more loudly than before, and he looked up at the young men nearby. Their conversation continued, but Tommy paid it no mind. They were looking at each other, and around the platform, but they were not giving any attention to him. They did not even seem to have noticed his noises of alarm.
“Please!” Tommy yelled to them. “Please, I can’t get up! I can’t get up! Help me! I’ve gotta get this stuff off of me!” He looked down at the shadow, crawling all over his body.
The two young men did not so much twitch.
“Please!” Tommy shouted. “Please, call someone! I can’t move, I can’t stand up! You’ve got to help me!’
He got no more response than before. In fact no one anywhere around him seemed even to cast an eye in his direction.
Tommy’s body ached as his pain rapidly increased. He felt fidgety and tense, quite apart from the stress of his finding himself covered in shadow and unable to stand. He recognized the sensation of having missed his pain meds. How long had it been since he had taken his last dose? How long had he been sitting here?
He felt the first twinge of a spasm in his gut.
Oh, no, that wasn’t good. That wasn’t good at all.
He tried to stretch, to work out the kinks in his back and legs, but his seated posture wouldn’t let him. He knew that if he could just get up and walk around, it would at least be a little better, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t rise an inch from his seat.
Soon the train came. The two young men who had been standing in front of him got on board, and others got off.
“Excuse me,” he said, trying to sound calm and nonthreatening. “Please. Can someone help me?” He hated himself, fearing that he sounded like a homeless person panhandling, but he needn’t have worried. None of the disembarking passengers so much as glanced at him.
“Hello!” he yelled, struggling to get up, straining to catch anyone’s attention, anyone’s at all. A guard walked by, and he yelled, “Excuse me! Please, can you help me? I need help! I can’t get up!”
No one noticed. No one said a word.
The pain in his back worsened, and cramping began in earnest, both there and in his stomach.
“Oh, shit…” he muttered. He was withdrawing…and it was happening much too quickly, much too aggressively. He had heard of people being given medicines that blocked opiate effects completely to counteract an overdose. He had been told what a horrible feeling that was for one who was physically dependent on narcotics. Could he have been given that somehow? What was happening?
His pain worsened, and his bowels began to clench and churn severely; it was harder for him to think. He almost forgot about the shadow and the roaches as his pain worsened, forgot about how impossible it was that he should be stuck where he was.
Eventually the pain was so great that he openly wept. By eleven p.m., when the trains stopped running, he was writhing and bawling like a child. Why was no one helping him? He couldn’t get up. He couldn’t get to a restroom or even to the bushes near the station, which he knew he would need before long.
It was only in the middle of the night, when his bowels had given out and he had been forced to evacuate into his pants, now wrapped in stink as well as in shadow, that he realized what must have happened.
The woman from before, the homeless woman, the addict going through withdrawal who had claimed to be dead, had tricked him. She had relied on the fact that he could see her, had used the fact that he cared and didn’t want to see her suffering. Somehow, she had gotten him to take her place. He had helped her to escape, but only at the cost of being trapped in her prison himself.
He cursed her inwardly, even as he vomited on himself, wishing that the symptoms he was experiencing would kill him soon, but knowing that they would not. He hoped that she had escaped only to be consigned to Hell, to burn forever as a reward for doing this to someone who had tried to help her.
As the night drew on, the shadow grew darker, and even as his pain, his spasms, and his vomiting and diarrhea made him feel that his own organs were surely being ripped to pieces, Tommy more prominently felt the skittering, tickling horror of the legs of ten thousand roaches crawling over him, and even working their way inside his body from above and below.
As morning approached, and his vomit was mixed with blood, as he felt his consciousness beginning to fade, Tommy knew—despite his horrible anger at the woman’s treachery—that it would only be a matter of time before he would try to use the same escape she had used. He would scan the platform in the evening. He would try to find someone among the many people who were waiting for trains, or were exiting trains, who could see him, someone who was addicted to or at least dependent upon opiates. He would try to find someone who was sympathetic enough to want to help him.
And when he did—God have mercy on his soul—he would try to get them to take his place.
Then morning came, and he faded away into nothingness until night fell once again.