There are monsters under the city, says Corina's dead mother’s voice, a ghost of an echo that seeps into her mind across time and memory. These words, brimming with portent, have coalesced into reality, made flesh in the form of a homeless man now sitting across from Corina on the subway, somewhere in the underbelly of Lower Manhattan.
Under the fluorescent lights, the homeless man’s eyes are two moon craters, his hair an ink smudge around facial bones that protrude like poles in a tent. His fingers poke through holes in his gloves and are long enough to encircle a woman’s throat. Corina wants to turn away, but her neck muscles stiffen and, like the rest of her body, refuse to move.
That is, until he looks at her.
Then her entire body recoils and presses itself hard against the window to evade the threat painted on that face. Yet there it is again, his countenance reflected on the glass, its eyes piercing through her. Corina shuts her eyelids and hopes, as a child might, to shun the monster away by hiding deep under the covers of her bed. The darkness behind her closed eyes conceals the threat, but only to give way to a memory:
Six-year-old Corina and Mom rush toward the open door of a train, deep underground. They have failed to outrun the three homeless men pursuing them and suddenly Mom shoves Corina into the empty train car. The three vagrants close upon Mom, their hands dragging her back. By the time Corina gets up, the doors have closed. Her fists bang painfully against the window as the train screeches forward, Mom’s final struggle a shadow receding from sight, never to be seen again as if the denizens of the underground had swallowed her whole.
“Next stop: Spring Street.” The recorded voice breaks the spell of recollection.
Corina’s eyes snap open now, twenty years of pain burning off briefly under the glare of artificial light, but when the train stops, she recalls the homeless man and turns to the reflection on the glass. His seat is empty. Fear and hope wrestle in her mind as she watches all the other passengers exit the train, his face not among them. The car empties, the doors close, and the train spasms back to life.
“Lose something?” A voice says somewhere behind her.
Corina turns around with a jolt. In a dark corner of the train, where most lights have gone out, sits the homeless man. She can see those eyes, two holes that swallow and suffocate. She runs toward the opposite side of the car and collapses into a seat, thinking of calling 911 but soon realizing that her cellphone is in her purse, back in her original seat, where she forgot it.
“Next stop: Canal Street.”
Two more stops, she thinks, but fear threatens to smother even that fraction of hope. Corina remembers the bag of pomegranate seeds, her go-to snack for panic attacks, in her coat pocket. Reaching for it, she almost smiles when she sees the red bag, already feeling the tug of darkness weakening slightly. She tears the bag open and drops a handful of seeds in her mouth. They crack and pop between her teeth and push fear toward the margins of thought for a moment.
As the train stops, the homeless man is suddenly on the move. Afraid to look up, Corina only sees the man’s sneakers stepping in her direction. Bitterness fights the sweetness of the pomegranate seeds, but she relaxes minutely when the man walks past her seat and stops by the train doors. She hopes—prays—that this is his stop, but when the doors close again, he remains. Corina lets out a small cry, drowned by the hum of the train coming back to life.
“Next stop: Brooklyn—“
Suddenly the lights go out, cutting off the announcement. Only the tunnel illumination remains, piercing through the gloom in quick flashes. Corina stops chewing, fancying she hears his footsteps approaching. Pomegranate seeds sit sourly on her tongue as she realizes that in the dance of the outside lights she cannot tell him apart from the other shadows.
“What are you afraid of?” His voice whispers mockingly, suddenly next to her ear.
Her jaw clenches; her breathing sputters in and out, quick and shallow, and then it stops altogether as a pomegranate seed lodges in her throat.
Corina lunges forward but collapses as the train negotiates a tight turn. As she hits the floor, she tries to scream but the air cannot make it out of her lungs. She crawls toward the door, which now glows dimly as they approach the next station. The lights inside the car explode back on, blindingly, and reveal the man’s form in the act of kneeling before her.
“What’s wrong?” He asks as he lifts her chin, all mocking gone from his voice, brow scrunched in concern.
When she does not respond, he reaches under her armpits and starts pulling her upward with sudden urgency.
Corina lets herself be lifted, sure that she is as good as saved—but not for long. This close to him, the stench of his homelessness, along with his cracked and dirty hands as they wrap around her middle, the tears and stains in his rags, engulfs all else. She is that six-year old again and this is exactly how they took Mom away, dragging her into the blackness of the tunnels like a scrap of food for hungry rats.
Something visceral shifts inside her.
With a violent shudder, driven by an impulse that is as much disgust as it is primal fear, Corina shoves the homeless man away from her and, without support, crumples to the ground.
Spots of darkness dance in her vision when she looks up at him, only to see the initial surprise in his expression slowly transmute into understanding and then into something more palpable: hate. Corina panics, realizing her mistake. She rises and points at her throat, hoping he will reconsider, well knowing that her chances of survival are now counted in seconds rather than in minutes.
All traces of concern are gone from the homeless man’s face. Instead, he mocks her with a grotesque imitation of her gesture and walks away.
The train stops.
He disappears into the glare of the open door, which is quickly diminishing into a point of light in her vision, at the far end of a long tunnel whose walls are closing in.
There are monsters under the city, whispers Mom’s voice in Corina’s head as the doors close and the train charges into the void.
Wrong, Corina’s mind cries as she collapses, skull bones cracking against the floor, her brain consuming the last molecules of oxygen for one final thought: they dwell within ourselves.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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