I thought I was just making another Friday night commute home. I had no idea I was about to dance with the devil.
I stood in the subway station hoping my train would come soon. When I moved from the Ozarks for my new job at the Chicago Tribune, I learned something I really didn’t want to know. I discovered that urine smells different the longer it ages on the poles, cement, and benches of a public transit system. Also, I came to realize a revolting truth. The more people live in an area, the more disgusting they become. We never had public transportation anywhere I lived, so nothing prepared me for the stinking mass of humanity in a big city. Yuck. When I first moved here, I was afraid. These days I’m not so much afraid as disgusted.
Talking with someone would pass the time nicer than playing What’s That Smell. The woman standing next to me had the most amazingly sleek black hair wound into some fancy braid on top of her head. It wasn’t a normal one like you would do with a horse’s tail. I couldn’t help but stare and try to figure out how it was done. It looked like she pulled up a little bit of hair at a time and twisted it into some from another part of her head. Disgustingly thin, she wore Reeboks and an expensive-looking business suit, in typical Chicago commuter fashion. Her black leather purse had more bangles than a parade horse. Must be a designer bag. Probably helped hold her skinny self to the ground in the city’s famous gusts of wind.
I have no idea why decked-out horses came to mind with this woman. No, wait, I do. It’s because she reminds me of a high-spirited mare from when I was a young’un. Sass belonged to the Herschends, the family that owns half the town. I always desperately wanted to braid that horse’s tail. I couldn’t take my eyes off Sass when she pranced at festivals.
My hair, in stark contrast, had been blown every which way in the wind. It looked and felt like I went clear through a tornado and came out the other side a mess. I stuffed my unruly Chicago-blown tangle into the collar of my ski jacket. Maybe I should find out how to do my hair like Miss Fancy’s.
She must’ve noticed me staring. She cast a wary eye on me and sized me up from head to toe, as if memorizing my features for the police report she was going to make. Oh come on Miss Fancy, I can’t look that bad. Sure, my hair’s a mess, but I’m clean and dressed nicely. I’m obviously not a hobo. Better say something.
“Your hair is beautiful. Where did you have it styled?”
“I did it myself.” She backed up a step and fished a Vogue Magazine out of her bling bag. She pretended to read while keeping her eye on me. Now that was just plain rude. I should remember not to talk to people in the subway. And she would be reading Vogue, of all things. I didn’t think any normal person read such a pretentious publication, but, well, maybe she’s not all that normal.
I keep forgetting how people act here. Nobody talks to anyone they don’t know. That’s something else about Chicago. You can’t just talk to a stranger without them getting all suspicious. Back home everyone talks to everyone else whenever they want, and nobody thinks anything of it. You wave to people passing in cars, talk to everyone in the store, and visit with folks at other tables in restaurants whether you know them or not. That’s just how things are. Most folks in the Ozarks are friendly to anyone, and if they aren’t, you wonder if they ate lemons for breakfast.
I always get this way in the subway. If I were above ground and not on public transit, I’d feel much better about the city. There are some great parks, a terrific free zoo and terrific food, but I am definitely a fish out of water here. I doubt I’ll ever love big city living.
The rumble of an approaching train vibrated the tunnel. As it got closer, I felt it all through my body. Then a wall of sound overtook everything else as our ride whooshed into the station. Please be my train. Please, please, please. Travelers hurriedly folded their newspapers and stuffed them under their arms or into bags. They pushed closer to the platform edge, some elbowing others aside to gain the perfect position, predators ready to pounce as soon as the doors whooshed open.
The roar and gust of wind of the arriving train used to scare me half to death. I still don’t like it, but I’m used to it I guess. Okay, more used to it. I’ve faced down raging geese, angry roosters and mad bulls more than once, but my first experience of the approaching train was almost enough to make me head for the hills.
The wind of arrival blew back my hair and rocked me onto my heels. I’m a big girl, and I can only imagine the force it must create. Do the trains break the sound barrier? They sure seem like it. The metal monster’s mouths squealed open. It devoured commuters and spat others back out onto the platform. Not my train. Great. More time in the stinky station.
My cell phone vibrated. I looked down at the display. Julie, probably having another crying jag and wanting consolation. I sighed and answered.
“Kass, oh my…news…”
“Hold on, hon. I’m in the subway.” I couldn’t believe the phone even rang down here, where reception wasn’t worth spit.
The bellow of the train and the blurry, canned voice announcing the stop drowned out the call. Once it blew up its tail wind and left, I put the phone back up to my ear. Julie hadn’t stopped talking. She sounded like popcorn bursting with enough enthusiasm to blow the lid clear off the pot, but her voice came out with the same vague vowels as the recorded announcement.
“Sorry Jules, I can’t hear you, but I’m glad something went your way. Talk to you when I get home.”
I could hardly wait to leave the bowels of the city. A few long minutes later, my train blew in with an extended screech of overworked brakes. A pair of green eyes caught mine. They belonged to a hottie squeezing his way off the train. He looked so familiar, but I couldn’t imagine who he might be. He obviously spent time in the gym and was having a terrific day.
My cheeks flushed as I remembered my hair was a windblown mess and my lipstick was probably long gone since I hadn’t freshened it up before leaving work.
Mr. Hottie wore a black suit. Looked like a government agent, maybe FBI. Its starkness clashed with his warmth. His duds looked much too stiff and formal for him, in my opinion. I imagined him in swim trunks and diving into a pool. I’d sure love to rub warm suntan lotion all over him. Who could blame me for daydreaming of summer on a cold November day? My own body obviously liked what my mind dreamed up, because my lady parts got all excited.
Smiling back at me, Mr. Hottie paused to put on the leather coat he had draped over his arm, and then his eyes drank in the whole scene as if he were someplace delightful. I should know better by now, but as he passed me, I couldn’t resist complimenting him.
“You have a great smile.”
Miracle of miracles, he answered me, even making eye contact.
“Thanks.” His smile grew. He looked into my eyes and my stomach fluttered.
Can we please go back in time five minutes so I can whip out my hairbrush and lipstick before this encounter?
Mr. Hottie knew me too. Or maybe my overactive imagination played with me? His expression wore that I Know You from Somewhere look. Then the moment passed as he dashed toward the stairs and up into the blustery night.
Several of us squeezed onto the train and looked for a seat. The only kind left were the ones that make you sit sideways. I never like riding this way, but after a long day of dashing here and there for interviews and errands for the more experienced staffers, I was ready to sit for a while.
At every stop, people anxious to get onto the train crowded the platform, leaving little room for those exiting. Just another typical commute. I considered opening the novel waiting patiently in my bag, but too many thoughts fought for attention, so I decided on people watching. A headline in the newspaper the guy across from me held caught my attention. “I Surrender All in Chicago Tonight.”
Well, now, that headline should have had quotes around the first three words. “I Surrender All” must be the name of a Christian band or ministry group. A lump clogged my throat. Pa’s favorite song. First time in years I’d thought of him. As the subway train sped along, the song played unbidden in my head.
“I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee my blessed savior, I surrender all.”
A tear welled in the corner of my eye. Time to give up people watching. I dug in my purse for the novel and pretended to read through the watery veil poised at the brink of my lashes. What was the matter with me today? Why was I thinking of Pa?
The doors opened at the next stop and a chill shivered my spine. Then my hands got hot and tingly. Oh no. Not this again. My own personal alert system hadn’t gone off since my pa kicked me out. Please not again. I can’t.
A passenger brushed past me and plopped heavily into the empty seat beside me. I took in his details in a glance, automatically using the skills being a busybody turned writer had honed. He looked like so many other men, wearing a suit, wind-blown hair like everyone else in Chicago, tie askew, hollow eyes, slouching in his seat, but one detail made me want to get off the train as fast as possible. I could catch the next one heading my way in a few minutes. I dashed for the exit too late. The doors smacked shut right in front of my nose, mocking me. The rude ol’ train squealed and lurched into action. I resisted the urge to rub my burning, tingling hands against my legs. Nothing I did would stop the sensation. I instead gripped the pole, so I wouldn’t fall as the train rocked and rushed along the track.
Did I really see a creature attached to him? I glanced over at the man again to be sure. Yep. I did. A wave of nausea roiled in my stomach. A pair of hard black eyes stared at me from the nasty thing. The shiny red snake-like being on the man’s shoulder pulled needle sharp fangs out of the back of his neck and leaned toward me. I would bet nobody else saw it, but I felt sure it knew I could see it.
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