His cheeks are sunken in, like plastic bags that once retained water and were hurriedly emptied. His eyes bulge from their sockets, like a fly’s rounded eyes that see everything, except his see no more. His jaw hangs out, dangling like broken clasps clinging to the wall.
I have never seen such a deathly expression. It startles me and I feel lightheaded and dizzy. No one should ever see ghosts such as this. The presence of his death hangs over the crowd, who now wish their curiosity had not been appeased.
I move closer. He smells of smoke and ash. It is the stench of small animals when they die under furniture or in your air vents. His face, altogether too close for comfort, is parallel to mine. This close, it seems as though something has simply sucked out his flesh and left his paper skin as nothing more than a mask.
I try to hold my breath, but my lungs fail me. I exhale. My breath reveals soot almost imperceivably resting on his skin and suit.
I move away and yank at my hair. I remember seeing this man at the subway station every day for two years. Always on the way to work and always with a cup of coffee from Little Teapot, just outside the station.
I had always found him an attractive man. His smooth, silky black hair was always neatly combed back. His green eyes had a spark of life and shone when he looked at people. His shoulders were always drawn back, exuding his confidence. His face was symmetrical; pointed nose but not straight edge, full cheeks, thin lips. He was never gaunt. He never appeared as ragged and lifeless as he does now. Though, with death stealing his spirit away, that would be logical.
I never saw a ring but that never excluded the possibility of a significant other. A man of his appearance, who always seemed a perfect gentleman, couldn’t possibly be single.
Women on the subway always eyed him. They, like myself, shared the idealization of what he represented. He always allowed others to board first, gave up seats for other passengers and assisted elderly patrons on and off the train.
I could never approach him. A plain-Jane, such as myself, would never have had a real opportunity. So, I only watched him from a distance and imagined what it might be like. I pictured myself happy, safe, warm…I envisioned a life.
I’m pulled back to the present. My eyes are drawn to his corpse. It lays mere inches from my feet. His grey suit is pristine, crisp and clean. Though I know the truth of the ash covering the surface.
A scream behind me startles the crowd and a cold shiver runs through my spine as I swallow the fear. The shriek echoes through the tunnels. It continues on as an echo as new sharp cries ebb and flow as I slowly turn. My legs move unwillingly toward the piercing voice.
The hairs on my body stand on point as I approach. I push my way through the new crowd of spectators as I attempt to reach the screaming woman. It is soon drowning out. I am closing in…soon it is the sound of gurgling that I hear.
I stumble around the bend to see a woman in a deep red dress drop ruthlessly, as though she were shoved, into the wall.
Her head bounces off the brick and onto the floor. The red dress flows across the tiled surface, creating an illusion of spilled blood in an elegant, distraught entanglement of body parts and fabric.
I am too far to catch her, but those close enough were too distraught to attempt. Their horror has shaken them to the point that they may awaken from their dreary dreams.
My feet fly quickly before sliding to an abrupt halt only inches shy of her hair. Breathing raggedly, I kneel and rest my fingers on her neck. She too is having the life forcefully drawn from her body.
Her identification card, clipped to the collar of the dress, shows chubby cheeks and plump lips. She has small eyes but is pleasing to look at all the same.
Now, her eyes are enlarged. One has come out and I can see the soft tissue that should be hidden from sight. Her cheeks have hollowed out, like ants burrowing their paths before being stomped on cruelly by a thoughtless child.
A final release of air chokes out of her. It sputters for just a second before all signs of life have entirely faded. Ashes escape her lips and fall softly on the silky skin she wore.
I hold my breath, cover my mouth and step away. She reeks of smoke—not the pine scent of a campfire or a burned pot of water, but a stale, singed hair and rotten meat stench. It was as though she had been set ablaze from the inside.
“Step aside,” a voice booms over an airhorn. It echoes down the hallway from where the man’s body lay. It repeats the phrase over and over as it steadily approaches.
My eyes, however, are glued to the sight of the woman. I can hear murmurs and commands, but I cannot move. I’ve stopped listening. I’m frozen as a statue.
How are these two connected? How do two people, seemingly unrelated, die in the same manner within minutes of each other?
Hands touch my arm and a giant black blob prohibits my view as I am roughly turned around. Slowly, I shift my focus.
“You need to move to the perimeter,” he says firmly but calmly.
“Of course.” I allow him to lead me past yellow tape. When did this go up?
“Do you know her?”
I check the clock; the subway should have long-past boarded. I wish I hadn’t been late. I’d be entirely oblivious to the events of this hour. Until putting the evening news on, at least.
I’m violently shaken. I look at the man again. He is concerned; furrowed brows and curled lips.
“What’s your name?” he asks sternly. “Name?”
I’m unsteady. “Sara.”
“Do you know that woman, Sara?”
“No.” I turn to the red dress.
“Do you know the deceased man?”
I look at the person interrogating me. He appears confused. His eyes tell me he believes I’m lying. I do not know what’s led him to such a conclusion: he thinks I’m a murderer.
“No.” I shake my head. “But he takes the same subway as I do in the morning.”
“Okay.” He bites his lips. I never noticed it before now, but he is also in police uniform. “What’s your—”
Another deafening agonizing scream erupts and cuts him off. Both of us turn our gazes to the stairwell leading to the street.
He sprints toward the screaming and I follow close behind. Strange human behaviour to chase after a terrified soul. To run toward screaming that could wake the deceased is a curiosity of human nature. That curiosity pulls us ever closer to calamity.
I am out of breath as we come upon the base of the stairs. It’s a homeless man this time. He is writhing and squirming and curling in on himself.
His body thrashes left and right and his back arches uncontrollably as he convulses. He gasps for oxygen but nothing seems to get into his lungs. He gurgles sounds but desperate air bubbles escape instead.
He gnashes his teeth and grinds them against each other. Two warring sides. His lips are spread apart. I can see the decay and rot in his gums. A tooth snaps and snags on the gum as others begin to crumble around it.
Then it is over. His movements cease. All signs of life are gone as ash wafts onto his lips. Most escapes through the gaps of what’s left of his teeth. I see the ash, but I mostly see the blood. He hangs down the staircase—a broken puppet to a lifeless master.
“What…” The cop who I’d followed gawks.
“It’s almost—” I shake my head, then pause. My theory is nonsense. He could also use it against me. Prove my guilt.
He turns on his heels and looks at me pointedly. He seems to have forgotten a crowd exists. They are surrounding us, eyes and ears waiting for more screams. I can hear crying echo through the station halls as people come to terms with what’s happening before their eyes.
“I don’t know.” I shrug. “It’s as if they burned from the inside out.”
He snorts, his curiosity abated. He looks at the carcass draped down the staircase. I do not know what he is thinking.
“Daniel,” a voice calls. The man cranes his head.
Another man in full police attire races toward us. He is confused and draws a deep breath as he stops.
“That’s three.” Daniel frowns.
I look at him. That explains the tone and suspicion.
“Take her to the station and put her in my office,” Daniel orders the newcomer.
“Yes sir.” The officer takes a rough grip on my arm and yanks. I can feel my pulse between his fingers. “Both the bodies have been cordoned off. I’ll send more officers this way.”
“You,” Daniel leans in close to me and whispers. “You are the only person who has run toward the screams.”
“No.” I shake my head. “You did too.”
He pushes me and the other officer pulls me away from the scene. My arm is still pulsating and I’ll have a bruise around my flesh tomorrow. My sister will have a multitude of questions.
The people I’m dragged past have confused expressions. Their faces…bodies…words…they all say something.
There is sheer confusion. Horror. Pain. Sadness. Predominantly, they are full of fear. Fear that they’ll be next to die. Fear that they’ll be a target. Fear of the unknown.
They do not know what to think. All they know is the terror that’s enveloping their bodies. When once they may have acted as robots in society, it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend their own emotional states.
Experiencing the bitter truth of death in such a violent, ruthless act will stir an awakening in them. But will they act quickly enough?
People around us begin to flee in all directions. It’s like watching deer retreat as a predator approaches. All in the hope to save their own lives, to not be the weakest and to not be caught.
I watch people mow each other down. Police attempt to contain them, but it is a vain attempt. I feel an elbow jut into my back and I fall forward. The officer drags me back up to my feet and continues to pull me.
He maneuvers us to a wall and braces himself against me as the crowd surges past in an angry stampede. They have no idea where they’re going or where they’ll end up. They simply move with the herd.
“Stan,” a voice, filled with rage, hollers over the crowd. “A little help?”
The officer turns around. “Right.”
He faces me once more and growls. Pulling out his cuffs, he clasps them to my wrist. Without hesitating, he closes the other end to the handrail and takes off.
“You can’t leave me like this,” I shriek in the faint hope he’ll hear me and change his mind.
He doesn’t even turn around. Soon I lose him in the crowd and I sigh. I tug at the handcuffs and look for someway to get out of them. He made it too tight for me to squeeze my hand through—even if I broke my bones.
I attempt to relax and stop thinking.
I can feel fear begin to control my body. My legs quake, my hands shudder and my breath is uneven. Tears threaten to spill over the rims of my eyes as more screams permeate the caverns of the subway station.
It isn’t just revulsion, despair or agony. It is pain and distress and death. They rise and fall with the gurgling gasps for breath. I press farther into the wall, desiring to fit inside its cracks and disappear from all the madness.
The crowd is finally gone and bodies remain slewed across the floor. Most have been trampled; their bones and flesh have been ripped and torn from each other. Blood pools as an ocean before my feet. I suppress vomit. Much of the liquid absorbs into their clothing, creating the illusion of rising and falling waves.
The all-too familiar gurgle echoes toward me. There she is…in her stunning red dress. Ghostly cheeks and giant eyes with cobwebs of blood vessels. Her red dress is swaying with her staggering steps. She is alive. But there is nothing in her eyes.
There is no fear. There is no escape. There appears to be no recollection of who she once was, whoever that may have been. She is not herself.
More screaming fills the empty station. It is bold and terrifying. It pleads for help. It begs for more time. It prays for mercy. The voice is hollow and sad. It is filled with regret.
All too soon I realize it is my own voice wailing and squealing to the vacant, lifeless corridor. It is uselessly calling when there is no one else left who may assist me.
I hold my breath. I missed my train by thirty minutes. If I hadn’t been late there would be no nightmare to go through right now.
Two years and I never took the risk. I never took the chance that maybe I could have been with my one. The person I could spend my life with, however short it now appears to be. Two years…if only I had taken the risk.
A thousand moments strut through my mind. Thoughts I’ve had and new thoughts emerge. How can I consider such trivial things when death is approaching—literally. To envision life with a man I never thought would have me. What worse punishment could I concoct?
His green eyes, clear in my mind, make me smile once more at least.
The woman in the deep red dress stumbles over a body. But her eyes are locked on me. I shake my head. Of all the regrets to finally allow myself to acknowledge…
At least I won’t remember the end of the world. But perhaps his green eyes will stay with me.