In the Afterimage
“Can’t you see them around you? Worn and dejected, spirits long ago cast aside by the rest of us—by the rest of you! You are to blame!”
If ever there were a melting pot, the Blue Line was it. Violently careening across aged subway tracks, a snake in the veins of the city, its flickering interior bulbs provided just enough light for passengers to glimpse snapshots of the strange cornucopia around them. At best, you’d find jaded businessmen, buried behind newspapers or PDAs; teens and students, typically drunk or looking to be; and dreamers and junkies, idly staring, their bodies hurtling along the tracks while their minds were far elsewhere. People either kept a distance from everyone or close quarters with their own, crowding together, avoiding contact with those who didn’t meet their own image. Most rode the Line out of convenience, some out of necessity. A few called it home. But no one rode for pleasure or for the view.
“You are blind to the ones who need you! They fade from your view and you forget, living your life, but they will return!”
At worst, you got people like this. The false prophets, fallen messiahs—whatever title they chose, they were always too far gone and beyond reason. Nothing worse than someone deluded enough to think strangers on a subway sought eternal salvation more than urban solitude.
I had seen this one a few times now. No matter your station in life, people tend to fall into a routine. I could count on seeing the same businessmen traveling in the same trolleys on the same days. I could count on the same homeless man, bound to a wheelchair, carting around the same can-filled bags. I could count on this same preacher, like a stain in the corner of the carriage, spattering the same warnings. Stooped in his battered trench coat, a tangle of grey hair covering most of his facial features, he resembled a creature more than a person, like a dog that had been lost for years but still kept barking, hoping someone would guide it home. Every day, the same charade.
“They will haunt you endlessly! There is no escape—not even in dreams!”
At first, I didn’t think much of it. Same trolley as always, same crowd around me, same sea of filth to swim through. All accounted for, except one. The dog was gone.
Maybe he’s found a new audience, I thought. Or maybe the city has finally started cleaning up.
Neither seemed likely.
Enjoying the silence, I slouched back into my seat, finally able to read, undisturbed, during my commute. As notoriously decrepit as the Blue Line may have been, for once, I almost felt comfortable. The screeching din of steel and iron, the deep hum of rusted machinery, the mindless banter between strangers–these were familiar comforts, weaving a blanket of white noise, a subterranean lullaby that allowed me to escape from the distractions and tension of city life. Even if only for a moment.
“It’s nice that loon isn’t here,” I said, turning to the passenger on my right. “Thought we’d never hear the end of it.”
The man barely turned his head, looking at me askance from his paper. He paused for a moment, furrowing his brow, and gave a disapproving harrumph before turning away, back to his paper, the brevity of his response signaling the interaction was over. I thought it better not to disturb him again.
Must be so buried in his paper he doesn’t see the world around him, I thought. That, or he chooses to ignore it all.
I knew I had seen that passenger here a hundred times before, same as with the preaching man. There wasn’t a chance he could have ignored the preacher all this time.
Turning back to my book, I took some advice from today’s neighbor, closing off the world around me, aware of only myself.
It wasn’t long before the dreams began, like a replacement in the absence of the preacher.
They were murky for the first few days after his disappearance, mere dark, twisting vignettes I couldn’t understand. For a while, all I saw were flashes. All I could taste were pieces, like the drippings off a spoon before the meal is finished cooking. It was hard to understand what I was seeing, harder still to understand why, but that tended to be the case with most dreams, as far as I was concerned. Never someone to keep a dream journal, never someone to bite into superstition, I slept like I lived: without too much care for that which had already passed. Didn’t remember most of them, didn’t give them too much thought. Dreams were no more to me than a dog on the street.
But this was a dog that wouldn’t go away. The images infiltrated my waking life, imprinted into my eyelids.
“You’re not looking so good,” a coworker commented one day. “Are you sick? Have you been sleeping?”
Chuckling, it was easy to pass them off and play along, giving them a noncommittal excuse to move the conversation along, allowing me time to retreat to the safety of my own cubicle. Or, in this case, the restroom. This was a practiced routine; I used similar excuses for countless hungover mornings prior.
The difference was that this time, they were right. This wasn’t a headache I could sleep off. The weight under my eyes grew heavier by the day, my skin more pallid. I had been sleeping past my alarm, darting awake with moments to spare, dragging myself to work without a chance to eat properly or shave. It had yet to affect my work performance, but my appearance and social life were tell-tale signs that I was playing catch-up. To what, exactly, I wasn’t sure. But it felt like nights were battles between my body and mind. One wanted slumber, but the other was determined to catch more than just glimpses and to see the whole picture.
That night, I saw him, clear as an image on television. He looked exactly as I remembered him, as if stuck in the passage of time, waiting. Around him, tendrils of darkness swirled, little fingers of shadow reaching out toward us, grasping, yearning. He was shouting, arms raised at half-mast just like on the subway, somehow projecting an image of both defeat and proclamation. It was as if his voice was the only thing keeping the shadows at bay, offering a bubble of light against their darkness. For some reason, I couldn’t hear a sound, even though I stood no further away than I typically would be on the subway. Worse yet, I was outside of his protective dome.
I began making my way toward the man, partly hoping to shatter the illusion and to finally sleep in peace, partly hoping that I could maybe be granted some answers. But the shadows around us intensified as I inched closer toward him. They were heavy, like great clouds of ink, and pooled outward in all directions. I struggled to trudge through them, and they tightened their grip. Before long, the shadows threatened to overtake my entire field of vision. The frayed edges of the stranger’s trench coat had already disappeared, and the trail of his beard was fading fast. He was nearly obscured by darkness and, when I rose my hand in front of my face, I was fading, too. The only way to reach him would be to blindly plunge into the unknown.
He returned the following morning. Standing in the same corner as always, he rocked back and forth, the momentum of the Blue Line giving a ghost of motion to what would otherwise be a statue. He was silent. For the first time, I approached him.
“You okay?” I asked. I waited, but there was no answer. “Where’ve you been?”
Standing there, I felt my vision begin to swim, like when you’ve stood too quickly or when dehydration begins to set in. Fortunately, there were no pools of darkness this time. Grabbing a nearby pole to steady myself, I redoubled my efforts to speak with the man. But the situation remained the same. No matter what I said, he offered only silence, standing and undulating like a body floating in the tide. My stomach churned, and it was only by the grace of the metallic beam clutched in my hand that I was able to stay standing.
Continuing to question the man, I tried repeating his own sermons back to him, hoping to stir some recognition, to awaken some dormant memory. I turned to look at others around me, hoping someone would encourage or at least acknowledge my efforts.
“Will you shut up?”
It was the same man I had asked about the stranger, the preacher, the dog, only a few days—or was it weeks?—ago. The other occupants of our subway cart were silent and, to my surprise, staring directly at me. I tried to respond, stammering. Only a whimper came out, like a wounded animal.
“Every day, standing there, you shout to yourself. Can you please stop?”
One week down, fifty-one to go. If you’ve read this far, hopefully it means that you’re enjoying what you see. If not, well, I commend you for sticking it through. I hope to make better use of your time in the future.
This story was borne of a writing prompt found online. I’m not in love with it, but it feels good to get words on a page. In particular, I’m not a fan of opening with dialogue, but my schedule prevents further revision. I have a few other stories I’m currently tossing around, all in various stages between drafting and completion. Some are on the back burner, some are being shared in private writing groups with trusted friends, and some seem like they’re always inching toward the finish line but never quite able to reach the end.
Another short story, titled “Bumper Fiction,” was recently accepted for publication in Longshot Island. I’ll post a link to that once it’s live, both here on my website as well as in the weekly/monthly email for those of you who subscribe.
I’m also currently working through some episodes of a podcast, but that’s at least another month from going live. More on that at a later date.
As always, feedback is appreciated. Thanks for reading.