A man is on his knees, sitting back on his heels.
Is he even still a man? Somewhere far off he believes he is, once upon a time he knew he was. Now, in this moment, he’s not so sure. There isn’t much to corroborate. It is dark around him, cloudy, with a violent swirling that obscures everything beyond, like being inside a sandstorm. Yet, nothing pelts him, the wind isn’t roaring. There is just silence, strange and disconcerting given what his eyes present. It causes him to cast them down, not for the first time, certainly more so recently, and he knows not for the last.
It’s dank in here, stale in the air yet moist on the skin, a clammy uncomfortable that grows with each passing moment, an itch that cannot be reached. His mouth is dry but his eyes water and sting. The stench of decay, slow, progressive, sickly and sweet permeates the tight space inside the vortex, like a second skin draped over everything. Intermingled is the rising aromas of sewage, human waste derived from the expelled contents of a Vegas casino buffet, steaming and ripe. His stomach seizes in pain and turns over and over, already trying to pump and rid itself of anything contained inside. The dry heaves push him forward, nose to the ground. There’s nothing in his cavity, he can’t recall the last time he performed the physical act of eating, let alone taste anything when he did.
The pavement, (is it pavement, he’s not sure) is cool as he places his cheek against it, the realization that he is radiating heat coming from the contrast. Water, no not water, a liquid begins falling in drops, slowly building into steady precipitation. It is warm and heavy as it hits his skin, oily with a syrup-like consistency. Two loud footfalls, like staccato percussion of a base drum, announce a presence a moment before a pair of heavy, black boots laden with buckles and leather straps enter his view. Apprehension grips his body, bullying the nausea and pestering tackiness into nothing more than a lingering presence. The man is suddenly aware of the thundering of his heart, but despite it’s racing, there is no adrenaline pushed out, no instinctual response to guard. His only response, although he resists the urge to do so, is to roll his head and look upwards.
The subway car rocks side to side. It’s crowded and loud, as cars tend to be at this hour of the commute. Sitting next to the door, people are packed all around him. His stomach rumbles and gurgles loudly, drawing a few glances his way and some smirks from the high school girls across from him. His head is leaned back against the map case on the wall of the car, his eyes are shut, and he is somewhere in the limbo of partly asleep but not fully awake. Almost unconsciously he mops a hand over his face, his palm coming away slick with sweat.
The figure standing over him is imposing, simultaneously towering while being claustrophobically oppressive. There are no distinguishing features, just the blacked out silhouette of clothing. Baggy pants, an overcoat, a full mane of long, straggly hair. The man realizes the ends of these strands are the source of the drops, creating the artificial rainfall that showers him. Of the face there is no face, just a blank slate where features should be, yet instead it is a void of the deepest color of night. The figure and the man regard one another, holding sightless stares, the latter distantly wondering what he is witness to, all the while gasping for relief. Fear turns to panic as the figure bursts forth in sudden movement, a broad hand spreading wide to engulf his vision as it reaches down.
The clutch of the figure wraps around his neck as it hauls him upward to his knees again, the pressure of the figure’s grip turning the man’s chin upward, so that he has only the option to look directly into the void or shut his eyes, yet despite the urge to do so he is unable to, nor can he look away. The longer the man looks into the void, the stronger the grip around his throat becomes. The muscles in his neck try fruitlessly to push back against the pressure. The skin aches and burns as his breathing becomes labored.
He groans loudly, and his stomach emits a growl loud enough to rival a pack of hungry dogs. People all around now look at him, as he rocks his head back and forth along the wall of the subway car. Some question whether they should do something, with the inherent indecisiveness of the times. Others grimace with obvious malcontent, annoyed by their fellow passenger’s audacity to add to their already miserable transit. Most ignore him, peering into their screens with general malaise, subject to the ever present zombification of ten second sound bites and kitten memes. That is, until the man unconsciously erupts with flatulence, the sound and smell causing a shockwave that scurries other passengers away from him with cries, laughs, and curses. Still in his state, the man is unaware of what transpires around him.
The power is crushing, the pain intense. His airway all but closes. The capillaries in his face explode into splotches of exertion, his eyes bulge in their sockets. The figure of the void and the darkness of his peripherals begin to mold and combine into one another.
And then there is a snap.
It is his own hands, lashing to the figure’s powerful wrist, but from somewhere deep an almost equal power pushes back. The intensity on his neck lessens somewhat. His eyes clear. He finds himself gritting his teeth, digging further for more air. Spittle flies from his mouth as he pushes and drives himself up to one knee. In what would be nose to nose with the void, he screams a blood-curdling cry of rage and aggression, of determination and ambition, of release and elation. Locked in contest, the two cannot breach the stalemate. In the future one grip may slip, which they do not know, but in this instant the man wordlessly barks into the face of the void, “Not today.”
The car slides to a stop on endlessly screeching brakes. The doors whoosh open allowing the hot summer station air to mix with the poorly circulated conditioning. The passengers of the car are quick to brush past him, waving at their noses, laughing and cursing, shaking their heads to the cliche, only-in-new-york attitude. Someone, what passes for a samaritan in this instance, shakes his shoulder. The man shudders awake, the void no longer present, the smell of his own body’s secretions assailing his nose. He feels his undershirt clinging to his sweat soaked body, and confirms the presence by the look of the yellowed puddles under the armpits of his buttondown. Wiping his face off again, the man makes his way off the train over to the station wall. He hasn’t gone more than a few steps when he suddenly rushes to the nearest trashcan, bowing his head and cascading vomit, his stomach only producing more as the heat resonating off the black plastic bag inside hits his face. As he picks his head up he realizes he is the last man in the tunnel. Left hand wiping his mouth and cradling his belly, right hand against the wall, he limps forward, out and up the stairs.