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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Masks

A new short story, based on the Lovecraftian mythos.

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Masks


            I told Grandma Betty that them wooden masks talked to me last night, but she didn’t believe me.
            “Why you tellin’ lies, boy?” she said, her face all pinched-up-like.  “Ain’t no masks talkin’.  You makin’ up stories.”
            “No, Grandma Betty, I ain’t lyin’,” I said.  “That there one, ‘specially.”  I pointed to the mask on the wall next to the cabin door.  It looks like an old man, smiling, but his face is all made of leaves and twigs and such like.  His eyes are closed now, but they wasn’t while he was talking.  That’s how I knew he was gonna say something; his eyes suddenly opened, and looked right at me.
            “Boy, you know lyin’ is of the devil,” Grandma Betty said, and then she gave me a thrashing.  It didn’t hurt because I’m fifteen and strong, and Grandma Betty is old and skinny, and when she hits me it don’t even leave any marks.
            So I didn’t say nothing more about the masks talking that day, or tell her how one of the other ones, the one with a woman’s face but antlers sticking out of her forehead, told me that we wasn’t safe here.  That one scared me plenty.  I was so scared that that later when I woke up in the middle of the night, I peed out the window instead of walking outside to the outhouse.
            The next morning, Grandma Betty went out to feed the chickens, and she left me doing my chores, like going down to the well and pumping up water to cook with and wash the dishes in.  So I hauled buckets of water and filled the sink and the pitchers and the big cooking pot.  I had to make a bunch of trips, and each time I went inside I tried not to look at the masks, one on each of the four walls, all facing into the middle of the room.  But finally, I couldn’t help myself, and I looked up at the one over the sink, the one with a long beak, like a big old bird.
            His eyes opened in his wooden face, and I saw they was gold, and for a moment he just blinked at me, and I just stared back.  I dropped the bucket I was holding, and the water run all over my feet and the floor and down through the cracks in the floorboards, but I didn’t hardly notice that.
            I was about to look away when he talked.  His voice was hard, kinda like a hawk screaming, but with words in it.
            “You ain’t left yet,” he said to me.
            “No, we ain’t,” I said.
            “You better git.  Soon be too late for y’all.  You been warned twice, and you ain’t listenin’.”
            “I’m listenin’ just fine,” I said.  “Grandma Betty’s the one ain’t listenin’.  I tried tellin’ her, but she just gave me a thrashin’.”
            “You gonna wish you was gettin’ a thrashin’ when what’s comin’ gets here,” the mask said.  “You gonna wish you was gettin’ a hundred thrashin’s, ‘stead of what it’s got in mind.”
            “What is it?” I asked.
            “Never you mind that.  All you need to know is that it’s out there in the woods, waitin’ for the right time.  Waitin’ and watchin’.  So you just see that y’all git.  Today, tomorrow the latest.  Ain’t gonna be my fault, what happens if y’all still here after that.”
            And the bird mask shut its eyes and stopped talking, and I picked up the bucket and went back outside to fill it again.
            On the next trip to the well, I passed Grandma Betty, still feeding the chickens.
            “Grandma Betty,” I said.
            “Yeah?” she said.
            “I’s just wonderin’ if maybe we could go visit Uncle Jake and Aunt Emma.  We ain’t seen ‘em in a while.”
            “Uncle Jake and Aunt Emma ain’t got room for us, now’s they got four children.  Lucky they ain’t got one of ‘em sleepin’ in the hen house.”
            “I’d sleep in the hen house,” I said.
            “Don’t be talkin’ nonsense, boy,” she said.
            “I just’d like to go visitin’,” I said.  “It’s been a long time.”
            Grandma Betty’s eyes squinched up, and her lips got all twisted.  “What’s got into you, boy?” she said.  “You actin’ funny lately.”
            I thought about what the bird mask said to me, and I thought, Hell, all she can do is give me another thrashing, and I can take that.  So I said, “One of them masks told me we should leave.  The one looks like a bird, you know, by the sink.”
            She set down the bucket of chicken feed, and come over to me, still scowling.  “Boy, that’s devil’s talk you’re sayin’,” she said.  “Devil talks to you, it’s lyin’ talk.  You got to tell the devil, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ like it says in the Good Book.”  She shook her head, disappointed-like, and says, “I knowed we should try to get over to church to hear Brother Amos preachin’.  But God forgive me, it’s a long way, right acrost Cold Spring Glen.  I tried to do the right thing, readin’ from the Scriptures on Sunday, but devil done got in anyhow.”
            “You so scared of them masks, why you don’t take ‘em down?” I asked.
            “I ain’t scared,” Grandma Betty said, her face all defiant-like.  “Your grandpa said we had to keep them masks where they was, ‘cause they’d keep us safe.  Didn’t keep him safe, the old fool.”  She spat on the ground.
            I almost asked her what happened to him, but every time Grandpa gets mentioned, Grandma Betty gets mad, so I just said, “You could still take ‘em down, couldn’t you, Grandma Betty?  Them masks?”
            And she said, real thoughtful, “Yeah.  Mayhap I could.”  Then she came up to me, and I thought she was gonna tell me to bend over so she could give me another thrashing, but she just clapped her hand on my shoulder and said, “Now pick up that chicken feed and put it away.  We gonna go read from the Bible.”
            So we spent the rest of that day reading from the Bible.  And at night, I peed out the window again.  After what that bird mask told me, no way was I going out in the dark, to where the outhouse stood underneath them dark trees, where anything could be hiding.
            The next morning the sun was shining, and when I woke up I thought, Maybe them masks was wrong, here I still am and the sun is out and the birds are singin’ and nothin’ has come out of the woods for me or Grandma Betty.  And Grandma Betty made us some oatmeal for breakfast, and she seemed like she was in a better mood than usual.  I guessed that it was because we spent so long reading Scripture last night, she figured Satan wouldn’t dare come anywhere near us now.
            After breakfast, she went outside to feed the chickens like usual, and she left me to wash up the bowls and then to sweep the floor.  Then I had to chop some firewood, even though it was summer.  She said, “World turns, boy, and winter follows summer.  You’ll freeze if you wait till it’s cold to find wood.”
            I spent all day chopping wood, and it was getting toward sunset.  There was thunder in the distance, and I saw lightning flashes, but it wasn’t raining yet.  Wind was kicking up, and Grandma Betty went down to get the cow into the barn so she wouldn’t spook and run away.  I went inside, and was washing the sweat off, and there was a noise of a branch scraping on the roof.  I looked up, not meaning to look that way, and suddenly there was the fourth mask, the one that was like a beautiful woman with hair made of snakes.  That was the mask that I loved and hated most.  I loved it because she had a beautiful face, and I saw her sometimes when I was dreaming, unrighteous dreams where she took me by the hand and led me off into the woods and we committed fornication together, all under the trees.  And I hated it because the mask of her face scared me, all still and silent, her eyes closed, the wooden snakes twisted all around her.  One snake had a chip of wood missing, so it only had one eye, and I always look at that one because I figure it’s mad because it’s hurt.
            Then her eyes opened, like I knew they would, and the snakes started to move even though they was made of wood.  I saw the snake that had only one eye staring at me, its tongue flicking in and out, and where the chunk of wood was missing there was some blood and the whiteness of bone underneath.
            The woman’s eyes were bright blue, and they looked into my eyes, and then her mouth opened and she licked her lips and I remembered what we done in the forest in my dream, and I couldn’t say nothing, just stood there squirming, trying to look away, but I couldn’t.  And then she said, “Y’all still here, I see.”
            “Yes,” I whispered.
            “Ain’t got much time,” she said.  “Y’all got to git.  Now.”
            “But why?”
            “It’s comin’.  Dark thing, Yog-Sothoth they calls it, ain’t its real name but it’ll do.  Doorway openin’ tonight, y’all get eat up if you stay.”
            “Grandma Betty says that’s devil’s talk, says we should read the Scripture and say ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’”
            “Your Grandma Betty’s wrong.  Yog-Sothoth ain’t get behind nobody, and don’t matter you quotin’ Scripture.  Y’all got to git.  Now.  We four’ve protected y’all long as we can, sinc’t this cabin was built a hundred years ago, but even we ain’t able to stop it this time.”
            “What if you’re the devil speakin’ to me?” I asked.
            “I ain’t never done nothing but what you needed me to do.  What you wanted me to do.”  She smiled a little, and showed teeth, white under her wooden lips.  “I’m tryin’ to help you still, but you got to listen.  Y’all got to get out, clear out of here – out of this cabin, out of Cold Spring Glen.  Only thing holdin’ it back now is us.  After sun’s gone, we ain’t gonna be able to help you any longer.”
            “I’ll do what I can,” I said.
            “See that you do.”
            There was a noise behind me, and Grandma Betty came stomping up behind me.  “Who you talkin’ to?” she hissed, and her voice sounded like the snakes in the mask woman’s hair, only the mask was back to the way it had been, her eyes closed, the snakes back to being carved from wood, one with a chunk missing.  She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, but she shook herself as hard trying to do it, and yelled into my face, “Who you talkin’ to, boy?”
            “The mask!” I said.  “The mask said it!  We’s supposed to leave!  It’s gonna come, and we gotta get out!”
            Grandma Betty put her face right near mine, and said, “Devil’s talk!  Stop it!  Get thee behind me, Satan!”
            “It told me Yog-Sothoth was waitin’, waitin’ to come in…”
            And Grandma Betty slapped me across the face, and the slap came at the same time as a flash of lightning, and she shouted above the thunderclap that followed, “Don’t you say that name!  Sayin’ that name is how your grandpa got eat up, he got eat up out there in the Glen by what he called down, and them lyin’ masks is tryin’ to get you to do what he did…”  And she reached up and grabbed the mask of the woman with the snake hair, and she pulled, and there was a twang as the wire holding it to the wall broke.  Grandma Betty took the mask by the edge, and hit it against the wall, over and over.  At first, only the snakes broke off, and a piece flew up and hit my mouth, and I tasted blood.  Then the mask cracked down the middle – but just before it broke, I saw the snake-woman’s eyes open, a bright blue flash like the lightning outside, before they closed forever as the mask split in two.
            The wood of the wall behind the mask seemed to shift, and to melt, and I saw what looked like bubbles – like great, glowing soap bubbles, slipping through the wall where the mask was.  I heard Grandma Betty scream, but God forgive me, I turned and ran.  Lightning flashes were all around me.  I reached the top of the hill just past the chicken coop, and that was when lightning struck the cabin – but it didn’t burn, it just turned liquid, like spruce tar running in a fire.
            I been running for a couple hours now, and I’m almost out of Cold Spring Glen and up to the road.  Ain’t too much further.  Rain still ain’t let up, and the lightning’s still coming.  I hear sounds behind me, crashing through the trees – I can hear it even over the wind and thunder, looking for me.  I figure if I can make it to the top of the Glen, I’ll be safe, that’s what the snake-woman said.  But I ain’t got her to lead me by the hand any more, so I guess I’m on my own.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hitching a Ride

A new short story, about an encounter on a lonely highway in Arizona one summer's night.

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Hitching a Ride


            The sun was setting over the southeastern Arizona desert, and I was heading up Highway 80 through rocks and cactus and sagebrush and not a hell of a lot else.  I was on the way to visit my cousin in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and planning on stopping halfway at a hotel in Deming for the night.  I work as a staff geologist for the Freeport Copper Company, and had been down in Bisbee doing some preliminary site work – the idea being that if the place looks promising, I’ll move there semi-permanently.  You never can tell with this sort of job, though.  You think you’ve settled down, and then the higher-ups transfer you to South Bunghole, Nevada, and the next thing you know, you’re packing up everything and moving again.
            In any case, I was just driving through the desert, radio cranked, window open, shirt off – between the thermometer dropping as the sun did the same, and a seventy-mile-an-hour breeze coming in the window, it was a damn sight more comfortable than the 105 degrees it had been at two in the afternoon.  The strange, sculpted rock formations swished past in the half-light, the tan sandstone and pink limestone torched to fiery crimson as the sun reached the horizon.
            It had been twenty miles since I’d passed another car – for all I knew, I was the alone on the road that night.  The only other living things I saw were a couple of hawks, flying high and probably heading toward their roost, and a fox that looked at me out of a gap between two rocks, its eyes glowing green in my headlights.  For ten minutes after the fox there were just rocks, cactus, and sagebrush, fading into shadows in the failing light.
            And that’s when I saw the guy with the yellow t-shirt.
            He was standing on the side of the road, thumb out, wearing a rather foolish-looking grin.  There was nothing else near him – not a backpack, not a broken-down car, nothing.  I had zoomed past him before I registered that he was there, then my eyes jumped upward into my rearview mirror in time to see the whap of my wind-wake blow his unruly blond hair into a snarl.  His head turned, and I saw his eyes meet mine.  I know that sounds ridiculous; I was already a good hundred feet further on, and the light was bad, but I was certain of it; he was looking right at me, still grinning in a goofy, good-natured way, thumb still stuck out.
            I hit the brakes.  I’m honestly not sure why I did.  But I braked to a stop, and put my car into reverse, and still looking into the mirror, I backed up to where he was, and hit the switch that lowered the passenger side window all the way down.
            “You need a ride?”  Okay, I know, dumb question, but I didn’t know what to make of this guy, out here all alone in the middle of the desert at nightfall.
            “Yeah, thanks!” the guy said, and opened the door, and climbed in.
            I gave him a look; he was tall, with fair skin and almost white-blond hair.  His arms and legs were thin, and the t-shirt he wore didn’t seem to fit very well, hanging loosely and fluttering in the breeze as I put the car in gear and started back up the highway.
            “Don’t you have any stuff?” I asked.
            “Nope,” he said, his voice cheerful.
            “How’d you get out here?” I said, trying to make it sound offhand.
            “Oh, I was already out here,” he replied, as if that explained everything.
            “Okay,  then where are you headed?”
            “I just need to get a ways up the road,” he said.  “You don’t need to go out of your way.”
            By this time, it was full dark, and the mountains and dry washes had vanished into a uniform black, only lit up by the twin circles of my headlights.  There was no out-of-my-way to go; there was just the highway, winding its way through the hills, not a cross road for fifty miles.
            “My name is Matt,” I said.  “Matt Childs.”
            “Nice to meet you, Matt,” he said, and I saw his grin flash out again.
            After a few minutes of silence, I couldn’t contain myself.  “Dude,” I said, “c’mon.  What the hell were you doing out there?  How’d you get out there without a car?”
            “You can get places without cars,” he said.
            “That doesn’t answer the question,” I shot back.
            “Nope!” he said, and laughed.  Then his voice got serious.  “Oh, look,” he said.  “Look, but don’t stop the car.”
            I glanced over at where he was pointing, and caught a hint of motion, off the road to the left.  And there, walking along the road, was a boy of perhaps fourteen.  He was dressed in ragged jeans and a sweatshirt, and raised a face that glowed pale in my headlights as I passed him.  Then he was swallowed up in the night.
            “Lucky you found me first, isn’t it?” he asked.  “You might have stopped.”
            “Why is that lucky?” I said.  “He just looks like some poor kid.  But god knows how he got out here, either – I didn’t think there were many towns along this stretch of highway.”
            “There aren’t,” the man said.
            “So why is it lucky?” I repeated.
            “Oh.  Because that was a Black-eyed Child.  You’d probably never have been seen again.”
            The way he said it, so matter-of-factly, sent a shudder up my spine.  “A Black-eyed Child?” I said.  “What are you talking about?”
            “You don’t know about them?” he said, his voice rising a little, as if he found it incredible that I had no idea what he was talking about.  “They’re dangerous.  You stop on the road, or maybe answer your door in the middle of the night, and there’s a kid there.  He looks sad and forlorn, and asks for help – for a ride, to use your telephone, for a drink of water, whatever.  And then you look at him, and you see his eyes are completely black – like drops of ink.  No colored part, no whites.  And you know at that point you’re fucked, but it’s too late by then, of course.”  He gestured with one thin hand at the road slipping beneath my tires.  “They love this stretch of highway.  Not many witnesses, you know.”
            “What….” I started, and then stopped, closed my mouth.  “That’s crazy.”
            “Yeah, it is,” he said, with feeling.
            “But who are they?”
            He shrugged.  “I dunno.  I just avoid ‘em.  And they avoid me.  Mutual respect and fear, you know.”  He laughed.  “And like I said.  Lucky thing you saw me before you saw him.  I bet you’d have stopped, wouldn’t you?”
            “Yeah,” I said.  “I probably would have.”  I shook my head.  “But come on.  How do you know that was a Black-eyed Child?  Looked like a plain old teenager to me.”
            “They always wear ragged clothes.  Usually a sweatshirt and jeans.  I don’t know why.  I suppose they haven’t figured out that it makes them stand out.”  He chuckled again.  “Of course, I don’t really fit in all that well myself, do I?”  He reached up and tugged on the sleeve of his t-shirt.  “Why’d you stop and pick me up, anyway?”
            “I don’t know,” I said.  “You looked harmless.  And I didn’t want to leave someone out in the desert who needed help.  You didn’t even have any water, or a backpack, or anything.”
            “Nope,” he said.
            “So, where are you trying to get to?” I asked, feeling like I needed to change the subject.  The previous one was creeping me right the hell out.
            “Like I said.  A few miles up.  Away from that kid, and any others who might be there with him.   I’d rather not get into a scuffle with them this evening – you know, discretion being the better part of valor, and all.”  I heard the serious note come back into his voice.  “But you know, next few days, you should be careful.  That Black-eyed Child saw me riding with you.  They’ll be gunning for you, least until you can get far enough away, kind of lose yourself in the Great American Wilderness.  But I’m sure they’ll track you for a while.”  He reached out, and touched my shoulder, and I jumped a little.  “If someone knocks on your door at night, don’t answer it, okay?”
            A lot of replies came to mind – knock it off, you’re scaring the shit out of me being the first one – but they all died on my lips.  I looked over at him, at his white, angular face, topped by its shock of blond hair, his eyes wide and luminous in the darkness.  “Okay,” I said, faintly.  “I’ll be careful.”
            His grin flashed out again.  “Good.”  He looked out of the side window, as if trying to see something in the pitch black, and finally said, “Okay, I think this is far enough.  You can let me out, now.”
            “Seriously?” I said.  “We’re still a good sixty miles from I-10, much less near any town.”
            “Yup.  I’ll be fine.  I appreciate the ride.  And like I said; just be careful.”
            I braked the car to a stop, and he opened the door, and climbed out.  After closing the door, he leaned into the open window, and said, “You should get out of here quickly.  I’m guessing they’re pretty much right behind you.”  He smiled, and gave me a cheerful wave, as if he’d just told me nothing more alarming than have a nice evening, and walked off the side of the road, between two clumps of sagebrush, and vanished into the night.
            I put the car in gear and hit the accelerator.  I don’t think I went under eighty miles an hour until the lights of Deming appeared in the distance.
            Only one other thing about that strange evening bears mention.  It was just before two in the morning, and I was sound asleep in room 204 of the La Quinta Motor Inn, and there was a knock on the door.  I sat bolt upright in bed, the sheet slipping from my bare shoulders, my heart pounding.  The knock sounded again – furtive, quiet, persistent.  I felt the sweat break out on my chest, and kept my breathing steady only with an effort.  The knocking continued, intermittently, for over three hours, and only stopped at about 5:30, when the first light of morning was turning the eastern sky to pearl.
            I didn't open the door until nine o'clock.  By then, the corridor was empty.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Poison the Well -- three days till release!

Do you like murder mysteries... with a twist?  My latest novel, Poison the Well, is about a rather unusual private detective agency.  Who is on the case?  There's the brisk, efficient Bethany Hale -- who has precognitive, but often highly symbolic, dreams.  There's the stammering, shy telekinetic, Jeff Kolnikoff.  There's Troy Seligman, who would really rather just be home with his family than solving crimes, but is blessed (or cursed) with an ability to perform astral projection.  There's the odd, reclusive Callista Lee, whose skills as a telepath are off the charts.  Then there's the latest hire -- handsome, swaggering Seth Augustine, who is a brilliant psychometer, but would just as soon use his unusual talent to find a beautiful woman to spend the night with.  And this mismatched band is led by the elegant, enigmatic, silver-haired Mr. Parsifal Snowe, who somehow gets them all to work like a well-oiled machine.

And this time, they'd better.  Because they're working on a new case... trying to find the murderer of a man whose champagne was poisoned at a wedding reception.  The problem is... he has no identification, and everyone at the wedding claims that they have no idea who he was.  Someone obviously did... and that someone had a motive for murder.

Want to try to figure it out before the members of Snowe Agency do?  Then get ready to solve the mystery of the poisoned wedding guest.  Poison the Well will be available on Wednesday, May 16, at Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook).


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tunnel Vision

Here's a new short story that I just finished today.  I'm dedicating it to Maurice Sendak.  I hope he would have liked it.

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Tunnel Vision


            The F subway train, from Queensbridge Station to 34th Street/Herald Square, rattled along the track at 6:30 AM, carrying Adria Haines to her job at Starbuck’s.  Even though she had only lived in New York City for three weeks, Adria was adjusting to city life, and most of her anxiety about having to ride the subway to work had evaporated.  It was already being absorbed into the ordinary parts of day, so familiar that they hardly merit a thought.  This was despite her mother’s dire warnings about “city people” who were almost all amoral, and who would rob you blind if you dropped your guard for a moment.
            “Don’t make eye contact,” Vera Haines had told her daughter, two weeks before her planned move from the rural streets of the little upstate town of Guildford, New York to the crowds and noise of New York City.  “Try not to call attention to yourself.  If you stand out, you’re more likely to be mugged.”
            “Mom,” Adria said, “just yesterday you told me that I should look tough and self-confident, because otherwise people would know I wasn’t from the city and would mug me.”
            “Well, yes,” Vera said.  “Of course.  Self-confident and able to take care of yourself.  But not flashy.  You know what I mean.”
            “Not really,” Adria said.  “I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am.”
            “That’s an odd thing for a theater major to say.  And let me remind you that it wasn’t so long ago that you spent hours pretending you were Athena and Medusa and all of those other mythological women you love so much.”
              Adria rolled her eyes.  “Mom, I’m not a child any more.  And you know what I meant.  I’m not going to get mugged, so you need to stop worrying.”
            “You don’t know what it’s like,” Vera sniffed.  “And those squalid little apartments you’ll be living in… I can’t believe you’re leaving here for that.”
            “If I want to get anywhere in the theater world, I have to live in New York, mom,” Adria said, her voice tired.  This had been a constant refrain for almost six months, since she had announced her decision to move to the Big City, and it was beginning to sound dubious even in her own ears.
            “I just want you to be safe, dear,” Vera said.  “It’s a big, scary place.”
            “It’s just a place, mom,” Adria said.  “Yes, it’s a big place.  But it’s no scarier than anywhere else, and it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.”
            And indeed, in her three weeks of residence, she hadn’t seen anyone more threatening than a drunk homeless guy who sat in the Herald Square subway station, mumbling to himself and (in his moments of greater lucidity) asking for money.
            The train stopped at Roosevelt Island, and then at Lexington and 63rd, and as the train pulled away from Lexington, Adria dozed off, despite the fact that her iPod was blaring Tegan & Sara in her ears.  Her fingers, closed around her backpack strap, relaxed.
            There was a shudder as the train pulled into the curve that began its traverse southward down the center of Manhattan Island, and the train braked.  The tunnel lights, which before had been flying past too quickly to see, slowed to a heartbeat’s pace, and then slower still.  Adria half-woke, and her eyes opened a little to see the walls sliding past the windows, interspersed by dark openings into service corridors.
            And that’s when she saw the figure of a man in the gap outside the train window.
            He had his back to the train; he was clothed in crumpled folds of some dark material, whose color was uncertain in the dim light.  She could make out the lines of the edge of his head, one ear, and saw the curve of his neck where it met the collar of the shapeless garment he was wearing.
            And just as the train squealed to a complete stop, the man moved, turning toward the train window, and she saw that he had no eyes.
            His face was skeletally thin, with skin stretched tight over high cheekbones; long, yellowed teeth were exposed by lips pulled back in a grimace.  Where his eyes should have been were two dark, empty cavities.  Yet he moved toward the window with purpose, and reached out one bony hand toward Adria.
            Then the train gave a lurch and the figure slipped backwards into darkness.
            All of this happened in less than five seconds; it takes longer to tell than it did to occur.  Adria jerked to full wakefulness, suppressing a scream at the last possible moment, and looked around her.  No one else had reacted.  The elderly African American woman sitting across from her had her eyes closed, one hand clutching a purse; the preppy young man next to her was staring at an e-reader of some kind; the middle-aged businessman in the seat next to Adria was perusing a newspaper.
            Adria rode the rest of the way to 34th and Herald trying to convince herself that she’d been dreaming.  By the time she got to Starbuck’s and donned her apron, she had more or less succeeded.

            For the days following the incident, she found herself staring at the gaps in the subway tunnel wall as she rode to and from work, and was especially alert as the train rounded the curve after Lexington.  She didn’t doze on her daily subway ride, and in fact had to force herself to breathe slowly, to try to keep her heart rate normal.  But a week passed, and then two weeks, and gradually her fear faded; the train didn’t slow down again, and she saw no sign of the eyeless man in the tunnel.  The whole experience was mentally filed under “odd dreams I’ve had.”  In fact, she had almost forgotten about the incident, when, three weeks later, it happened again.
            She’d had insomnia the previous night, probably triggered by a late afternoon cup of strong coffee with a friend, and didn’t get to sleep until after 2 AM.  When her alarm went off at 6:30, she felt as if she had just closed her eyes, and she showered and ate breakfast in a sleep-deprived mental fog.  When she boarded the train at a little after 7, she sat down and dozed off almost instantly.
            It wasn’t at the same place; this time the slowdown was just past Roosevelt Island.  The train’s brakes creaked, and an announcement came on, “We are being held in place by the dispatcher for a few moments because of a routing problem on the tracks.  Thank you for your patience.”  Adria stirred a little from her drowsing, and opened her eyes halfway.
            On a concrete ledge next to the track was a child, bound with hempen ropes.
            The child was female, dressed in ragged clothing.  She had unruly dark hair, and wide, staring eyes.  She was standing upright, and the ropes twisted around the body, holding her legs together and her arms to her sides.  A dirty cloth gag was tied across her mouth and around the back of her head.  At this point, the train was still moving slowly, and the image of the tied child slid past and vanished.
            The child’s eyes never left Adria’s the entire time, imploring, terrified.
            Adria’s whole body jerked, and her head rocked back and soundly smacked the window behind her.  This brought her to full wakefulness, and she stared at the dark glass across the aisle, breathing hard.  An athletic-looking teenager, sitting on the same side of the train as she was with a backpack at his feet, looked at her oddly, but then looked away again; other than him, no one else seemed to notice.
            That boy was facing the window, too, Adria thought, trying to regain control over her racing heart.  Surely he must have seen her?
            But he showed no sign of having seen anything odd.  She looked over at him, he met her eyes momentarily, and then looked away again, the thought of, Stop staring at me, crazy chick, clearly readable on his face.
            The announcement repeated, and the train stayed motionless for another minute.  Adria scanned the black gap outside the train window, looking for any sign of a person out there, but there was none.  Then, without warning, the subway creaked into motion again, and soon the walls were whisking by too fast to see. 
            I need to call the police, Adria thought, and opened her backpack, but paused as she reached for her cellphone.  What if it had been a dream?
            She looked over at the teenager, who had resumed staring at the window across from them.  She cleared her throat.
            “Excuse me?” she said.
            The boy looked at her again, a little reluctantly.  “Yeah?”
            “Did you see anything in the window?  When the train stopped?”
            He frowned at her, the expression that said You’re a nutjob deepening.  “No,” he said.
            “Just after the announcement came,” she persisted.  “In one of those gaps.  The service corridors.”
            “No,” he said again.
            “Were you looking that way?”
            He looked around, but the other people on the train were steadfastly ignoring them, were immersed in books and newspapers, listening to iPods.  “Yeah,” the boy said.  “I was looking.  There wasn’t anything there.”  He looked uncomfortable.  She had the impression that if she persisted, he’d get up and move to another seat.
            Adria swallowed, and attempted a smile.  “I guess I must have been dreaming,” she said.
            The boy didn’t respond, except to shake his head a little, and went back to looking at the tunnel lights flashing by in the dark windows.
            Adria was glad to arrive at her stop, to get away from the teenager and the other people in the train, but mostly to ascend the escalator out of the depths and see sunlight again, leaving behind the dark, empty tunnels – inhabited by an eyeless man and a bound child, who were still down there, they were, it couldn’t have been a dream, it was too real…
            Her heart was still pounding when she arrived at work.
            During the lull following the morning Starbuck’s rush, Adria leaned on the counter, recalling the image she’d seen in the window.  Although it had been over in moments, she could recall minute detail – the way the girl’s unkempt hair had fallen across her shoulders, the coarse fibers of the rope that bound her, the horrified look in her large, luminous eyes.   She thought back to the slouching figure of the eyeless man she’d seen three weeks earlier, and shuddered a little.
            “Wake up, Ade,” said her coworker, a multiply-tattooed New York University student named Jonah.
            “I wasn’t asleep,” Adria said, and shuddered again.
            “Out partying late last night?” he asked with a grin.
            “No.  I…”  She stammered, fell silent, closed her mouth, and looked away.  Jonah raised one eyebrow a little, and she could tell what was going through his mind: She’s got guy problems.  She sighed a little, but at that moment a customer came up, and the next five minutes were involved in making a mocha cappuccino.
            “Jonah,” she said, after the customer had taken his coffee away, “have you ever had weird dreams when you’re just dozing?”
            Jonah’s face became animated.  “No, have you?  My psychology professor was just talking about those last week.  Dreams in light sleep.  They’re called hypnogogic experiences.  Only about five percent of people experience them regularly.”
            Adria managed a smile.  “I’ve had a couple of doozies,” she said, and described her visions of the eyeless man and the bound girl, interspersed between interruptions to attend to other customers.
            “Wow,” Jonah said, “that is so cool.”
            “Cool?” Adria said, a little heatedly.  “It wasn’t cool.  It was scary as hell.”
            “Well, yeah,” he said.  “But dreams in light sleep are just pretty unusual.  Most people dream in REM, which is a much deeper stage in the sleep cycle.”
            “Why would it start happening all of a sudden?”
              He shrugged.  “So, you’ve never had them before?”
            She shook her head.  “And why does it just happen on the subway?”
            “I don’t know,” he said.  “I could ask my professor if he has any idea what could be going on.”
            At that point, a cluster of people came into the store, and all conversation was tabled for a time.

            Over the next two weeks Adria tried her hardest to stay awake on the subway.  She also attempted to forget what she’d seen, to dismiss it as bad dreams, but the residual fright of the visions she’d seen stayed with her.  She woke at night, shivering and drenched with sweat, thinking about the hollow cavities in the eyeless man’s face, and the bound girl’s terrified expression.
            She pondered, briefly, if she should try to find an alternate way to get to work.  Adria had no car, and in any case trying to park daily in Manhattan would have eaten the lion’s share of her salary, if it were even possible.  Buses were a possibility, but were costlier than a subway pass and took about five times as long, given the necessity to cross the Queensboro Bridge.  In the end, she resigned herself to taking the subway, but vowed to stay awake the whole time.
            That resolve lasted a week, and was defeated by Benadryl.  The combination of stress and bad dreams finally left her sleep deprived enough that she caught a cold.  She didn’t feel bad enough to justify staying home – and she hadn’t worked long enough to have accrued any sick time – plus, the symptoms could be kept at bay by taking cold medicine.  The antihistamine, however, hit her like a pile driver, and she was asleep five minutes after sitting down on the subway.
            The train jolted to a stop at Roosevelt Island, and after picking up three people (one was the teenager who had given her the odd look the day she’d seen the bound girl), it rattled into life again, and the doors closed.  Adria’s eyes opened slightly, just as the window slid past the end of the station and across a slab of blank concrete.  A few feet further on was a rectangular opening, chest high, with a bleary-looking light giving it dim illumination.
            Crouched in the opening was a twisted grotesque, a figure that was not much taller than a child, but had an aged countenance covered with a fine maze of wrinkles.  The face was asymmetrical, the chin angling to one side, and the left eye far closer to the bridge of the nose than the right one was.  The forehead slanted back, fringed by a thin covering of gray hair.  The creature was leaning forward, its long arms in front of it, hands on the edge of the opening, the fingers splayed out like a frog’s.  She could see the taut muscles in its legs, as if it were about to spring at the train.
            And then it was gone.
            This time Adria did scream.  Everyone in the train turned to look at her.  She stared at the now-empty window, darkness alternating with flickers of light as the train gathered speed, and then she looked from one face to the other of the people who shared the train car with her.  And she burst into tears.

            She had more or less gotten herself back together by the time she arrived at work, but Jonah recognized something was wrong before she’d even hung up her jacket.
            “Damn, Ade, what’s wrong?”  His eyes widened.  “Oh, god, it happened again, didn’t it?”
            She nodded, fought back the tears that were just beneath the surface, and successfully modulated her voice as she answered, “Yeah.  It did.”
            “I won’t ask you to tell me the details,” he said.  “Not till you’re feeling better.  But I did ask my professor about what happened to you.  He said that it’s unusual for hypnogogic experiences to happen consistently in the same place, but other than that, he said what you’re experiencing is ‘classic.’  That’s what he called it.  You feel like you’re awake, but you’re not; and you see something that isn’t real.  You are still aware of where your body really is – your bed, the sofa, or in your case, the subway – but crazy shit happens.  Then you actually wake up, but you still feel like you’re where you were in the dream state, so it really seems like you’ve been awake the whole time.  He said that people find them really disorienting.”
            “That’s the truth,” Adria said.
            Jonah started to fill the coffee maker with grounds.  “He said that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
            “Well, that’s good.  I just want it to stop, though.  It scares the hell out of me every time it happens.”
            “What does?”  Lissa, an even more recent hire than Adria but whose accent showed her to be pure Bronx, leaned against the counter and grinned.  “I like scary stuff.”
            “You wouldn’t like this,” Adria said.
            “Try me.”
            Adria gave a brief description of what she’d seen – leaving out most of the details of the hideous dwarf-figure she’d glimpsed out of the window only a half-hour earlier.  That one was simply too fresh, too real, to bear more than a glancing consideration.
            “Sounds like you saw the Tunnel Monsters,” Lissa said.  She popped her gum and grinned again.
            Jonah rolled his eyes.  “Get to work, Lissa.”
            “You ain’t doing much, yourself, Jonah,” she said.
            “What are the Tunnel Monsters?” Adria said.
            “My uncle told me about ‘em.  My aunt used to tell me to watch out for muggers and rapists on the subway, and my uncle said, ‘Naw, what you gotta look out for is the Tunnel Monsters.’  Then he told me that when they dug the subway, they found out the tunnels was filled with all sorts of creatures.  It’s because New York is such a big city, he said… so many people, and we’re all afraid of so many different things, so to keep all that fear from building up, we just stick our fears down in the subway tunnels.  And that’s where the Tunnel Monsters come from.  Some can hurt you, some can just scare you, but they all sit down there and wait.  And they can tell who is weak, and if you let your guard down, the Tunnel Monsters will catch you and steal your soul.  Then you won’t be afraid any more, because you won’t have nothing to be afraid with.”
            Adria thought about the eyeless man, draped in his folds of cloth, and the bound, terrified child, and the horrible grotesque dwarf that had been about to spring at the train, and then she looked at Lissa, still smiling and chewing her gum, and Adria’s thoughts went into a dizzying spiral, I will not faint.  I will not faint.  I will not…
            She opened her eyes in the back room of the Starbuck’s, with a wet cloth on her forehead, and Jonah looking down at her with concern in his dark eyes.
            “Damn, Adria, that was freaky.  I thought we were going to have to call 911.”
            “I’m…”  She started to sit up, but he put pressure on her shoulders, and she slumped back into the chair again.
            “Uh-uh.  No way.  I’m not catching you again.  You almost hit your head on the counter the first time.”  He gestured angrily toward the door into the main part of the shop.  “I told Lissa she should mind her own goddamn business from now on.  She’ll take your shift – you should just go home and rest.”
            “But… I’d have to get back on the subway.”
            “You could call a cab.”
            “I can’t afford it,” she said weakly.
            He knelt next to her.  “Look, I know this probably won’t help,” he said, “but Lissa is full of shit.  There are no Tunnel Monsters.  You’re just having some weird dreams in light sleep.  It’s something scientists know about, and they’re scary, but they can’t hurt you.”
            “Lissa said they could.”
            Jonah rested one hand on her shoulder, and looked into her eyes.  “Adria, you know what is real.  It’s what’s around you.  These visions, whatever they are, are not real.  They are lies, created by some subconscious part of your mind.  They’re only able to scare you if you let them.”  He looked at her, his forehead creasing with worry.  “Do you believe me?”
            She didn’t respond for a moment, but finally just nodded.
            “Good.  Now go home, get some rest.  And if it happens again, just remember what I told you; you know what reality is, and where it is.  You’ll be okay.”

            In the end, she decided to take the subway home.
            Jonah is right, she thought.  These are just weird nightmares.  They’re frightening, but I don’t have to let them freak me out completely.  She shuddered a little.  And I’m going to get home, and crawl into my warm, safe bed, and sleep for the rest of the day.
            Sleep…  The antihistamine was still coursing through her veins, and before she got to Lexington and 63rd she was already fighting to stay awake.  As the subway creaked its way around the eastward turn, her eyelids were sagging, however desperately she struggled to keep them open.  But she wouldn’t sleep… she wouldn’t…
            This time, the pause was only momentary; the train didn’t even come to a complete stop.  The openings into the service corridors crawled by slowly enough to see the damp walls, the yellow light bulbs that seemed to illuminate almost nothing.  And in one of the openings, there was a smoky, shadowy figure, so dark that it seemed to absorb every photon of light that struck it.  Adria looked toward it, horrorstruck, thinking, Oh, god, it’s happening again…  The thing seemed to register her presence at the same time as she did its; it turned toward her, its face shifting and flowing like clouds in a windstorm.  Two eyes, black as pitch and visible only because their glossiness made them shine against the dull slate gray of the creature’s face, regarded her with curiosity.
            A dream.  Only a dream.  They can’t hurt me.  Not real.
            And that’s when there was the sound of shattering glass, and the thing thrust both hands right through the subway window, grabbed Adria by the shoulders, and yanked her out of her seat and out into the dank, still space of the service corridor.
            She tried to scream, but nothing came out but a strangled squeak.  She felt her shoes dragging against damp concrete, and smelled mold and a faint whiff of ozone, axle grease, and sewage.  Then she was unceremoniously dropped, and fell, arms splayed, to the cold cement surface beneath her.
            Adria looked up, and saw the Cloud Man looking down at her, his face undulating and roiling, glittering black eyes staring at her with malign intensity.  But he wasn’t alone; she was surrounded by a crowd of dark figures, moving and jostling each other to get a look at the prey that the Cloud Man had captured.  She saw the skeletal form of the Eyeless Man, and the twisted, asymmetrical face of the Dwarf, his mouth open in a grimace of soundless laughter.  The Bound Girl was standing in the corner, the gag still across her mouth; but her luminous eyes no longer seemed fearful, they were filled with a triumphant mirth at Adria’s capture.  Nearer, she saw other nightmare creatures.  There was a pale man, nearly as thin as a stick-figure, clothed in black; it had no facial features, its head as smooth as an egg, incongruously topped by a silk top hat.  There was a dog with a man’s face, leering up at her, tail wagging.  When she looked at it, one eye closed in a salacious wink.  A white-faced woman nearby, dressed in a nightshirt, had the wild, savage expression of an actress in a mad scene – a Lucia di Lammermoor, an Elvira, an Ophelia.  Nearer was a tall, powerful figure, wearing nothing but a loincloth; its rippling, muscular torso was human, but it was crowned by the head of a cat.  The cat’s head looked at her, the ears turned in her direction, and the dark pupils in its golden eyes narrowed to slits.
            “Look at what I caught,” the Cloud Man said, his voice hoarse and airy.
            “We could eat her,” the Dog said, licking its human lips with a long, red tongue and smiling at her.
            The Madwoman opened her eyes even wider, and she gave a wild peal of laughter.  “No!” she said.  “Let’s keep her.  We can keep her here forever!”
            “You can’t,” Adria said, her voice high and tight with terror.  “You have to let me go!”
            “Have to?” the Eyeless Man said, his long, thin fingers reaching toward her, and the dark folds of cloth that draped him rustling softly.  “We don’t have to do anything.”
            “Nothing we don’t want to,” said the Madwoman.
            “What are you going to do to me?” Adria said.  In her mind she could hear Jonah’s voice, solid and reassuring: These visions, whatever they are, are not real.  But the Dwarf came up to her, his warped face tilting as he looked at her.  He prodded her with one foot.  “Get up,” he said, in a rough voice.
            Jonah was wrong, they’re real… Adria thought, her heart giving a painful little gallop.  That dwarf-thing touched me.  They’re real.
            She struggled to her knees, and then to her feet.
            “You’re one of us, now,” the Cat Man said, in a rumbling bass that was a little like a growl.
            “I’m not a monster,” Adria breathed.
            There was a stir among the assembled figures.  “Monster?” the Dwarf said, his voice mocking.  “Monsters, she said.  Well, maybe you’re a monster, too, girl.”  And the voices of the others, hundreds of others receding back into the darkness of the tunnel, echoed, Monsters monsters monsters monsters
            “If she’s not now,” the Dog said, “she will be soon.”
            “Please, let me go,” she said.  “Why are you doing this to me?”
            The Dwarf glanced up at the Madwoman, and his asymmetrical mouth gaped open in a grin, revealing a few broken and jagged teeth.  “Why not?”  The Madwoman cackled laughter.
            The Cat Man looked at Adria, and his long whiskers twitched.  “Perhaps we’d let you go if you could win against us in a game.  We like games.  There hasn’t been anyone down here to play in a very long time.”
            “Yes!” the Madwoman shrieked.  “A game!”
            And the echoes started up, A game a game a game a game
            The Dwarf reached out and touched her leg; Adria whimpered and backed away, and brushed against the folds of the Eyeless Man’s clothing.  She recoiled, but then forced herself to stand still, thinking, It won’t do me any good if I fall onto the tracks.  Maybe if I can just stall them, another train will come along, and someone will see me and rescue me.
            And she said, “All right, I’ll play.”
            The Cat Man smiled a little, revealing long, pointed canine teeth, and his ears swiveled toward her with interest.  “Very well.  We will ask you three questions.  If you answer them all correctly, we will let you go.”
            “Okay,” Adria said.  “Go ahead.”
            The Eyeless Man turned toward her, the dark, empty sockets seeming to look into her mind, and his long fingers caressed the air.  “It is the commonest thing the universe.  As long as it reigns, the bravest man cannot utter a sound.  And yet it can be destroyed by a gentle breeze.  What is it?”
            Adria looked at the Eyeless Man.  It’s a riddle game, she thought.  Just like in all of the myths and folk tales I used to read when I was a kid.  She forced her mind to become still, to stop the whirling chatter of fear that was swamping her; and as her thoughts fell silent, that very act gave her the answer.
            “It’s silence,” she said.
            There was a murmur of surprise from the crowd of nightmares around her.
            “Well, she has a brain!” the Madwoman said, and giggled.  “Let me have a chance.”  She pushed her way forward, and got very close to her.  One clawlike hand reached out and clutched Adria’s shoulder.  “Try your little mind at this one:  It is the substance that fills the space between one day and the next; the poor have it, and the rich need it; you can fill a glass with it, but cannot pour it out; and if you eat it, you will die.”  She released her grip on Adria, and looked around, eyes shining in triumph.
            Adria looked down, frantically thinking of all of the evil substances she had ever heard of, but none of them seemed to fit the other pieces of the riddle.  “What do the poor have?” Adria whispered out loud, and someone nearby – she thought it was the Dwarf – laughed at her, a cackling, harsh sound in that chill and cheerless place.  “And what is between one day and the next?”  Adria suddenly looked up.  “Nothing!” she said, and her voice rang from the dripping walls.  “If you eat nothing, you will die!  The rich need nothing, the poor have nothing, and a glass can be filled with nothing, but you couldn’t pour it out!”
            The Madwoman took a step back, and her grin turned to a snarl.  Her eyes glittered dangerously.  Then she stepped forward, her long-nailed fingers came up, as if she intended to slash at Adria’s face.
            But the Cat Man pushed her aside with one powerful arm, and said, “No.”  He stood in front of her, towering over her, his furred ears almost brushing the ceiling of the tunnel.  He crossed his arms over his massive bare chest, and said, “Well enough.  But answer this one.  Where are your fears before you were afraid of them, and where do they go after you are no longer afraid?”
            Adria looked up at his feline face, the golden eyes narrowing at they stared down at her; and she thought, Here is the most dangerous one.  The others want to play with me, or keep me here; he wants to destroy me.
            But then she remembered Lissa, cracking gum in her mouth and smiling as she told Adria her uncle’s tales, and the answer rose up in front of her, like a blindingly bright beacon.  And down there, in the dark tunnel under the city, surrounded by monsters, she said, “Where are my fears before I was afraid, and where are they after I’m no longer afraid?  They’re here.  They’re right here.”
            And the Cat Man’s lips pulled back, and his mouth opened, and he gave a deep, guttural hiss, but said nothing.
            “And now, you have to let me go,” Adria said.  “I answered your three questions.  Now you have to let me go.”  But nothing happened, and none of the creatures moved.
            “I told you,” the Eyeless Man said.  “We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do.”
            “But that isn’t fair,” Adria said, her voice trembling.  “You said you would.  You gave your word.”
            “Maybe we lied,” the Madwoman said, her fierce grin returning.
            “You can’t lie!” Adria shouted.  “That’s not how the game is played!”
            The Cat Man said, his voice nearly a purr, “We made the game; we make the rules.  We lie if we choose to.”
            And Adria thought:  Lies.  It’s all lies.  That’s what Jonah said; not real.  He told me to just remember that they’re all lies, and that I know what reality is.  And then she thought:  It’s another riddle, isn’t it?  She looked up at the snarling figure of the Cat Man, and said, “Now, I have a riddle for you all.  See if you know the answer.  When everyone around you is lying, and nothing around you is real, where do you find the truth?”
            None of them answered; she looked from grotesque face to grotesque face, and they all regarded her with fear and hatred and impotent anger, but no one spoke.
            “And I know the answer to that, too,” she said.  “The truth is right behind you, where it’s been all along.”  And she turned her back on the Tunnel Monsters, and there, still moving slowly, was the subway train.  She saw, just for a moment, her own body sitting facing the window, her eyes wide open in a horrified stare; then, like a rock from a slingshot, she was flung toward the train.  She felt a momentary jolt, and heard the creatures behind her screeching their frustration in defeat.
            Then she was once again facing forward, looking out of the dark window of the F train, which gave a shudder as it picked up speed.  She took a deep, uneven breath, and looked around her.  No one in the train was looking at her; everyone was in exactly the same place as they had been the moment before the Cloud Man grabbed her.
            She reached up, and touched her face, and thought, This is real.  I know that.  Jonah was right; lies and dreams can only hurt you if you let them.  And her eyes closed, and she drifted off to sleep, and only woke up when the train stopped at Queensbridge Station, and the doors opened to let her out.