Noises and stench filled the subway tunnel. The sounds of hundreds of people rushing to get somewhere, anywhere else. The roar of the trains that take them away. The smell of the trains’ exhaust. And the odors of those people not rushing anywhere. Not going anywhere at all. It’s their world that the others rush so hard to avoid. People moving so fast so that they don’t get stuck. Stuck here in the subway tunnel.
One of the people that got stuck hunched down against the wall, watching. Watching a small portion of the perpetual motion lives the others led. His clothes, all much too large for his scrawny frame, had seen much better days. So had he. But no one looking at him would have seen any traces of those days.
The point is moot, though, since no one looked at him. Obvious, from both his appearance and his odor, that he hadn’t showered in some time. A thin, unkempt beard hung from his sunken cheeks and worn face. His eyes were little more than slits peering out from the brim of a badly used hat. No one looked at him. But he watched.
He knew someone would come for him. It was just a matter of time. Truth had a way of attracting attention. And he had seen too far into the truth. Someone would notice him and realize the threat he posed.
But for now, they let him be. Occasionally someone would notice him long enough to give him some spare change. He would then buy some food, or, more often, a bottle. Usually, though, people ignored him.
He didn’t care. If someone noticed him, they might find out that he knew things that he shouldn’t. Things no one should know. And if anyone found out, they would come for him. He knew that all too well. So he kept the brim of his hat pulled low and watched, hoping to discern the answers to mysteries in the frantic, living pattern acted out by the people rushing by.
Soon, the rushing people dwindled in number. Fewer and fewer people got on and off the trains. The trains themselves came less frequently as evening wore on into night. He moved around enough to avoid the people who tried to chase him off. They tried to keep him from being around to remind those that were rushing that some people never went anywhere.
When the patterns became slower, fewer answers were likely to reveal themselves. He also knew that there were people, not themselves stuck, but not rushing either, who would try to take the few dollars he had gotten that day. It was time to go back to his hole off the tunnel and take a few hours to think about what he had seen that day. Learning more put him in more danger, but he couldn’t help himself.
As he shuffled out of the last station he had found himself in, a little boy came running up to him and tugged on his coat. He tried to shove the boy away, but the boy was insistent. Tears ran down the boy’s face and words came spilling out of the boy’s mouth. Apparently, the boy’s mother had been mugged. She was unconscious and bleeding from the head. The boy was worried about her and afraid that someone else would hurt her or him. Would the man help?
Why had the boy come to him? He couldn’t afford to get involved. Someone would be sure to notice him then. But the boy hadn’t realized, hadn’t learned, that he was supposed to ignore the people who were stuck. So the boy had come to him for help. The man mumbled that there was nothing he could do, that the boy should ask someone else for help. That the boy had to leave people like him alone. That the boy had to go away. And the man began to stumble away again.
But the boy stayed right behind him, pleading. What was worse was that the mother’s unconscious form lay between him and the small room he had secured for himself down the tunnel. She lay at one end of the platform. He couldn’t get around her unless he lowered himself off the platform down among the rails.
He knew he shouldn’t stop. She and her son might get stuck in his world. They had to rush on. But they couldn’t. And there was no one else on the platform. If he didn’t help, anything could happen to them. And they might get stuck in this world anyway.
The boy was kneeling next to his mother, cradling her head in his lap and crying. He knew he was putting himself in danger, but he found he couldn’t just walk by. So he bent down and picked up the mother in his arms. He hadn’t eaten in a while and was weak, but the woman was not heavy, and he managed to carry her. The boy, still crying softly, hung on to the man’s coat as they walked from the platform into the tunnel.
The ledge above the tracks wasn’t wide, and weakness combined with the awkwardness of carrying the woman threatened to topple him downwards. But he walked slowly and the boy’s clinging actually provided an anchoring weight. Still, it was a long while before they reached his makeshift hovel.
It really wasn’t more than a hole in the wall. There was old clothing which he had arranged in a mat, to provide a place to sleep. A few odds and ends, things that had once caught his eye, were scattered about in a futile attempt to personalize concrete. None of this was visible until he lit a small fire in the center of the room. Paper, scraps of wood from beams, whatever he could find he used to feed the fire. Usually, he didn’t even bother, but he was determined to find out how badly the woman was hurt and get her out of there as quickly as possible.
The boy had stopped crying, though he continued a little sniffling. He looked about the room. He asked where they were and shouldn’t they go to a hospital. But the man just shook his head. It was too dangerous, he knew. But he didn’t bother explaining why. The boy was too young to understand the sort of danger the man was in. If he took the woman to the hospital, too many people would see him.
During heavy downpours, rain would seep through the walls. Under one particularly large crack, the man had placed a bucket to collect water. He dipped a rag from his bed into the bucket and wiped some of the blood off the woman’s head. He had no idea whether it would help her, but he really didn’t know what else he might do.
As he was cleaning her wound, she began to moan a little, but she remained unconscious. Nothing other than the gash in her head was visibly wrong with her. Whether she survived the night was out of his hands now. He had done what he could.
Moving her over a little, he made room for the boy to lie down next to her. Once he had snuggled up to her, the man placed a tattered blanket over both of them. He sat down across the fire from the bed of clothes. The fire wouldn’t last through the night, but he was determined to keep it going as long as he could. He did, however, save a few scraps of wood so that he could start another fire in the morning to see how the woman was.
The fire lasted for awhile, but eventually it died. The man sat in the dark, listening to the sounds that the tunnels brought to his ears. After a time, the darkness in the room became the darkness of sleep. Dreams came to interrupt, but he had learned to ignore them.
Noises of stirring woke him. It wasn’t the woman, though, but her son. The boy was hungry and distressed that his mother was still unconscious. The man started the fire going again, but he knew it wouldn’t last more than an hour or so. The woman was still alive, and she looked better than the night before. But she was still unconscious.
He told the boy to stay with his mother, keep her warm and try to keep the fire going. He would be back with some food and some more wood. Then he left them to go back to the tunnels.
He still had some change in his pocket from the previous day. It had been meant for a bottle of whatever, but bread seemed the better purchase. There was a little store just outside the subway station. The owner would sometimes sell him stale bread cheaply. The real advantage, of course, is that he didn’t have to be out in the open for very long.
The platform was again busy with people rushing about their lives. No one noticed him as he made his way to the exit. A steady drizzle dominated the outside. A wind sent a chill through his badly used clothes. He managed to buy two loaves of bread and then returned to the subway. At least he and the boy could eat. If the woman woke up, she would need something to regain a little strength.
The people rushing still ignored him. But one of the others had noticed him. He came up to the man, and noticed that he had been moving around a lot. The man didn’t want to explain his actions and so ignored the other.
The man slipped from the platform without any other encounters. Everyone else was perfectly content to ignore the disheveled individual in their midst. After all, none of them could see the truth he held in his heart.
He made his way through the tunnel once more. It was much easier without the weight and awkwardness of the woman in his arms. However, trains were more frequent during the day, and it was disconcerting to have one go roaring by only inches away. He did manage to pick up a few pieces of wood along the way.
His room was just around a corner when he heard noises other than the trains. Laughter. Not a sound that was often heard near the tunnel. Worse, though, this was a sinister sounding laugh.
He turned the corner, and, in the dim light of the dying fire, he saw two forms. One held the boy tightly. The other had a hand clapped over the woman’s face and was bending over her. She was awake, and the man could see fear in her eyes.
The man never stopped to consider what to do. He had hidden himself down here, away from those who rush. Away from those who might be threatened by the truth. But he could not deny truth forever. And it drove him to act now.
Dropping the sack of bread, he smashed the pieces of wood into the head of the one holding the boy. The form crumpled immediately. Then he grabbed the other form by the collar and threw it against the wall. He never wondered where he got the strength for such actions. He just did what was necessary.
The second one did not stay down. It rose up again and brought its forearm down against the man’s chest. He fell to the floor and heard a masculine voice tell him to stay down. It then went back over to the mat of clothes.
He didn’t listen, though. He had brought her and her boy to this place. He had risked them getting stuck here. He couldn’t allow this. If he did, it would make everything he believed false.
So he rose up and straightened his back. He grabbed the other off the bed with one hand and began to beat it with his other. Finally, it went limp in his grasp, and he dropped it.
The boy was crying on the floor. The woman was huddled into the far corner of the mat. He picked the boy up and put him next to the woman. She hugged him and looked, not a little frightened, at him. It was obvious that she wanted to know who he was and what he would do next.
But he didn’t bother answering her unspoken question. He simply told them to get up and follow him. The two might wake up. Or perhaps others would come to try to take his truth from him. And they were dangerously close to getting stuck.
He led them out to the tunnel and back to the station where he had found them the previous night. It was then a simple matter of losing them in all the crowds of rushing people. He stayed close enough to see them find a police officer who led them away.
Then he shambled back to a wall and hunched down against it. The other who had talked to him earlier came over and sat down next to him.
“No one’s coming, you know. They won’t come for you. They don’t care about your truth.”
The man simply nodded and started watching the rushing people once more.