Note: This story will appear in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and that’s why I’m posting this teaser. However, it has already been published in “Kindle” format, and there is a link to that below, in case you cannot wait for The Cabinet to be published.
PROMETHEUS AND CHIRON
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 his disability benefits, and it was good to have the extra money; quite apart from eking out basic living expenses, the supplemental cash helped pay for his medical needs.
Tommy had injured himself some years before, during a construction job on a three-story building. The fall had not been as serious as it might have been, but three fractured lumbar vertebrae, with the addition of disc herniations and joint injuries to his right knee had left him in chronic pain. He’d begun taking prescription opiates at first solely to relieve his agony; the extent of his MRI-revealed injuries had at least ensured that he never had to fight much to convince doctors that his pain was real. After a while, though, he’d found that the meds also made other aspects of life easier, and his dose had slowly but steadily increased.
Tommy stood at the far end of the station, smoking a cigarette in the designated area. He had swallowed two extra blues on his way from the job, trying to take the edge off his soreness, to assuage his own jitters, and to relieve his psychic distress over when his next paying job might be coming. He had just achieved a bit of equanimity when he looked across the track and saw, in the electric light that locally banished the already-thick nighttime, a woman seated on one of the benches.
Something didn’t seem right about her. She was extremely pale, Tommy could see that even from across the tracks in the artificial light, and she was visibly trembling and squirming. She didn’t look healthy.
That, however, was not the main reason for Tommy’s disquiet. He felt a strange chill go up his spine immediately upon noticing the woman. It wasn’t a pleasant chill, such as he used to get when Oxycodone had just reached a good level in his bloodstream. It was, rather, the kind of chill he would occasionally feel if he turned on his bedside light and saw a cockroach scuttling away across the floor, fleeing from the sudden illumination.
Tommy hated roaches. Whenever he saw one in his room, 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 that he would wake up screaming.
Why would glancing at this ill-appearing woman across the track arouse such a feeling? She did look poorly kept, it was true, and her clothes were ragged and threadbare; Tommy wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that she was homeless, or at least in dire living circumstances. She didn’t look like a street crazy, though. Her hair was pulled back into a reasonably neat ponytail, 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, and perversely, that kept him from looking away, as he suppressed his disquiet in deference to curiosity.
The more he gazed at the woman, the more he thought she really was ill. She was clearly 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 stretches when he’d been unable to get meds, by legitimate or illicit means, and the experience had always been horrible and painful. Could this woman be a fellow user of opioids, aching for a fix but 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 bent forward with her arms across her belly, as if in response to a stomach cramp, Tommy became surer. She must be in withdrawal from something, and his personal experience with opiate deprivation made him think that they were what she lacked.
Maybe he was being uncharitable; she might just have a case of food poisoning. But why would someone with food poisoning be anywhere but in the bathroom? No, he was probably right the first time; she was withdrawing from drugs.
Part of him wanted to approach her. He even toyed with the thought of offering her one or 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 him, and he 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 home. Though he did feel pity for the woman, he knew that she could avail herself of emergency services and at least get detoxed at the hospital if she was truly in dire straits. Opiate withdrawal, he knew, was very unlikely to kill you.
It could, though, make you wish that you were dead.
Tommy wondered why no one else, no one close by, was offering to help the woman, or for that matter, why she wasn’t asking. He might have expected to see her panhandling, given her physical appearance and clear discomfort. He certainly wouldn’t let pride get in the way of asking for a handout if he were in withdrawal.
His puzzlement grew when he saw a relatively well-dressed man walk by the woman, not two feet away, without so much as glancing in her direction. The man didn’t skirt around her or regard her with disdain or disgust; as far as Tommy could tell, he didn’t even cast an eye in the woman’s direction.
That was strange.
Tommy’s shivering spine became chillier, and oddly—though the electric lamp was bright and clear—a strange idea arose in him: that the woman was wrapped in shadow, an anti-light that defied humanity’s best attempts at illumination.
Why would he feel that way? She was just a woman sitting on a train station bench, apparently withdrawing from drugs. Why would he think that she was as disturbing and disgusting as a cockroach, or that she was cloaked in shadow? Was he projecting himself onto her, seeing what he might become someday if he continued his accelerating use of narcotics and then one day failed to obtain them?
He imagined now that the shadow was spreading, but it didn’t expand outward, like an inverse glow. Instead, it oozed across the floor of the platform, flowing like thick syrup, working its way to the edge. Nor did it seep out randomly or uniformly. It 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, and Tommy had the disturbing impression 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 shout of surprise and felt a panicky urge to 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. Then the engine 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. Almost tripping over himself in his hurry, hampered slightly by his permanent limp, he boarded the train, all but knocking over a heavyset woman who was trying to exit. He rushed to the first open seat on the near side, groaning unconsciously as he lowered himself into it. When the train pulled away from the station, Tommy felt a visceral release of tension, and he was almost giddy for the rest of the evening, as though he had survived some dangerous adventure.