Abigail is afraid for the safety of her daughter after a neurological event enabled her to hear other people's thoughts and to see the true character of the man her daughter is in love with. She's unsure how to find out the truth about him, knowing only that he glows red and gives off a great heat, and is always around when disaster strikes. She decides to investigate further in an effort to discover the truth.
About the AuthorHugh Sheehy is the author of The Invisibles (University of Georgia). He lives in the Hudson Valley and teaches at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
The Last Days
"I can only bless the–what shall I call it?–the maternal telepathy that sent my mother running headlong from the telephone to the station…"
Angela Carter–"The Bloody Chamber"
Roman’s voice boomed out in the kitchen, piercing the living room’s soft membrane of conversation and jazz. He was describing Pacific islanders killing a saltwater crocodile. Abigail had not known he was in the apartment. She continued to smile while steadying herself on an armchair. Lisa would be here. She lowered her head and moved toward them.
She knew the crocodile story, had heard Roman tell it many times. He was talking about dark-skinned men in a rocking boat, hacking a twenty-foot monster with machetes. Next he would remind listeners the reptile had recently snatched a child from the riverbank. When he finished this one, he might talk about the stoning he had seen in Riyadh, or gang violence in Guatemala City. He spoke with the dark enthusiasm of a radio play host. She came face to face with a woman who said her name and then the words really lovely wine. Abigail nodded her head and pushed on.
Roman said the islanders split open the belly. They climbed in and dug out the dead boy’s gory bones, his pelvis and spine, most of his skull. The mother was on her knees in the mud, wailing, tearing her dress and her skin. At first there were no flies, and then they were everywhere, in your hair, eyes, mouth, between your fingers. The air sizzled with them.
In the dining room, Charles frowned, then turned back to the young investment banker who was talking at him. Beyond the kitchen door a small audience had assembled. Roman’s large red hands floated above their heads, palms out, a magician’s. She could not see his face. She wondered if it would glow red, like molten iron, as it had in the theater. She wondered if he would remember.
Nearby, a short heavyset man in a checkered sports coat leaned toward her cousin Elaine. “That’s Abigail?”
“See?" Elaine said, chewing cracker and cheese. “She was too boring for the afterlife.”
She passed through the doorway. The crowd opened. She stepped in among sturdy-looking bodies and smells of perfume, cologne, alcohol, cigarette smoke. Roman’s large head turned slowly, bright dark eyes locking on listeners, daring each to look away. His broad face and nostrils were flushed from the whiskey in his hand, but even then his coloring was a normal human red. Lisa looked tiny, hanging on his arm, like a young girl clinging to the safety of a father. She had not seen her mother and gazed proudly at the man she would marry.
Though Roman did not glow like a furnace, Abigail felt the opposite of reassured, deprived of some basic sense. There was something about him she could no longer see.
"When I arrived, the guide explained what was happening. Said they’d take me for money."
"He’s a magnet for disaster," Lisa said, her words a drunken tangle. "You don’t happen to be in Kigali when the killing starts. You don’t happen to be in Bosnia when war breaks out. It takes instinct. You have to speak the language of violence."
Roman looked down, trying to gauge how drunk she was. "I feel like you’re implying something. What am I supposed to admit here?”
Now Allegra, Elaine’s daughter, broke in. She had been listening in the corner and could no longer contain herself. "I’m sure they don’t call themselves islanders." A college sophomore with a stooped neck, she welcomed the frowns of the guests who turned to look. She took a deep breath and added, "Isn’t that kind of racist?"
Roman answered before Lisa could open her mouth. "I’m sure my money matters more than my clumsy speech."
Allegra looked around smiling. "Doesn’t he have this, like, assumption of privilege?"
Lisa said, "Shouldn’t you be posting a comment? Hashtag whiny bitch or something?"
"Roman," someone said. "What vaccinations did you need?"
Under the soft thunder of his reply, Abigail saw others look, waiting on her to say something. It had been like this since the doctors sent her home. People expected her to be some kind of oracle. But she had no special message. She was only more afraid now, especially of her future son-in-law.
"Here’s Abigail." He grinned until dark creases swallowed his eyes. He draped a gigantic arm around Lisa and smashed her close. The girl looked at her mother and waved. "She’s the one with the story."
He might have been mocking her. She wondered what he was thinking and blushed. She crossed her arms. People stared. The music drifted far away. "It’s like I just went to sleep," she said "Then I was in the ambulance. Now I’m here."
It began as a change in perspective. She turned from the stage to study Charles, Lisa, and Roman. The men wore dark jackets and ties, her daughter a smart wool dress with contrasting blue scarf. Their faces appeared solemn, faintly dreaming in the faint light from below. Charles’s posture had been worsening for years, and now his chin rested where his collarbone should have been. Lisa clasped Roman’s tremendous hand in her lap, squeezing his thumb and fingers. His fingernails were long for a man’s, curved, making his hand resemble a paw.
She could hear their thoughts. It was as like listening through a wall as they talked in an adjacent room. Charles hugged his belly with long skinny arms, oblivious to the squeaking figures on stage, trying to squeeze away the nausea bubbling up the back of his throat. He remembered a typo from an IRS agent’s recent email, infarction instead of infraction, and he thought, They’re trying to kill me. Sweating feverishly, he smiled at Lisa. My beautiful daughter. My baby girl. He did not think of Abigail, leaning on his other side.
Lisa registered her father’s recent weight gain. I wonder if Daddy would try yoga. Maybe if Roman suggested. She bent forward and rested her hands and chin on the balcony, remembering a long-ago casting call, and the director who’d ruined her confidence. Cat-eyed glasses. Hated me for my body. She knew the type and no longer feared it. She imagined herself on stage and the director in the audience, jealous. Dusty bitch.
In a moment Abigail would awaken blearily under house-lights and Charles and Lisa and many other concerned faces (Roman would be standing in the street, holding up an arm to flag down the ambulance). But she was not ready to return to her body, or to the time that had moved ahead without her. Suspended above the audience of a hundred and thirty-two souls, she saw that one figure glowed bright red, burning with an incandescence somehow overlooked by all who sat around him. Abigail drifted lower, closer, curious. Waves of searing heat rose off the large man. She could not read his mind or heart. Roman looked up, smiling. He had not been thinking anything at all. Now he addressed her: Abigail.
The new high-rise dormitories towered over the older buildings, ruthlessly practical constructions of concrete, steel, and high pressure glass, built to last a thousand years. Abigail had to show her license at the security desk. The university cop, young and grim, stared as she signed her name to a form.
"Is she expecting you?"
"What’s the relation?"
"She’s my cousin’s daughter, but she calls me Aunt. It’s a family quirk."
He showed his eyeballs and sighed, then picked up the phone reluctantly. "You don’t have her cell number. She’s going to be okay with you here?"
"Please," she said, aware she was blushing. "Say Aunt Abigail is here."
He instructed her to wait in one of the chairs by the glass wall. She had a view of campus, the sidewalks and red brick terracing arranged neatly around a dry stone fountain. She knew this space from her own school days, an oasis of civilization in a city crawling with violent strangers. That was how it had been. She had sat on the fountain rim, watching classmates, wondering who they were, where they came from, what would happen to them.
The elevators brought several other students before one brought Allegra. The girl looked sullen and confused. "Oh, it’s you," she said. She was skeletally thin under her baggy pajamas and seemed embarrassed by Abigail’s presence. "Why are you here?"
The security guard raised his head and looked at Abigail skeptically.
"Maybe you have time for breakfast or coffee?"
"I’m kind of in the middle of something." Allegra glanced at the steel elevator doors behind her. "I guess you could come up. My roommate’s kind of messy, though."
Abigail might not have noticed a mess. She was too worried about sounding crazy. In the elevator, she let out a sigh, then saw how Allegra stared at her, expectant still, but with something else, like caution. "The doorman was rude," she said, ashamed of having to explain herself. "He treated me like a criminal."
"You might be, as far as he’s concerned." Allegra shrugged. "Besides, he’s got to deal with all kinds of uppity white people all day. Can you blame him for being salty?"
"I didn’t come to discuss him," Abigail said. The elevator stopped, and the door opened. "I was hoping to talk about Lisa."
"Lisa," Allegra said, drawing out the second syllable. More relaxed on her floor, she led Abigail down a brightly lighted hallway with high ceilings and various open doors letting out music and TV sounds. "What did you want to ask?"
"It’s not about Lisa specifically," Abigail said. Inside rooms, girls looked up from books, stopped in the middle of speaking or watching computer screens. "It’s about Roman."
"Oh." Allegra drew out the word even longer. She opened a door to a small, bright space with bunks and two desks and a wall papered with posters for on-campus events and photos of intoxicated students clinging blissfully to each other. She went to the desk and closed her laptop. Abigail got a glimpse of the couple on the screen. Allegra pulled out the desk chair and sat on the bottom bunk. "All I know about Roman is he’s a douchebag."
Abigail had had her doubts about Roman in the beginning. But she had been unable to put her feelings into words. It was only in the theater that her fear had taken a peculiar shape. "But why? Because he’s older?"
"What?" Allegra squinted through her glasses. "No. Because he’s a rich prick who travels the world playing Teddy Roosevelt."
"Do you think he poses any danger to Lisa?"
"Danger?" Allegra raised her eyebrows doubtfully. "She probably poses more danger to him. If she gets pregnant, it will be the end of his bromance with himself."
"That’s not what I mean." Abigail looked for phrases the girl might use. "Do you think he’s violent? Does he raise any red flags?"
Allegra crossed her arms tightly. "Any white male with that kind of spending power is a fucking wrecking ball." She blushed and looked down. "Sorry. A freaking wrecking ball."
"But I don’t think he’d, like, hit her. I don’t get that vibe." Allegra sat crossed-legged on the bed and leaned forward. "But I wouldn’t put it past him, you know. He’s a control freak. Guys like that have to have their way. He could wind up killing her and then himself. You can never tell."
"That wasn’t exactly-" Abigail shook her head. She would have to be direct with Allegra. She closed her eyes and said, "In the theater, when I was, you know. During my neurological event. I saw him. He looked different. He glowed bright red."
"Oh. He is pretty red." Allegra frowned on one side of her mouth. "I don’t think we should hold that against him."
"No, he glowed."
"Yeah, well, I don’t know. But I have to study."
Back in the lobby, the security guard smiled, but Abigail noticed too late to smile back. She walked to the edge of the campus, feeling flustered, worrying. How did Roman speak to Lisa when they were alone? She hissed at unwanted images. She brushed away a sodden copper-colored leaf that had attached itself to her sleeve, remembering her daughter woefully drunk at the party, her head hanging forward as she begged, "Mommy, swear you won’t go again." Embarrassed and scared, Abigail had watched Roman fit the girl into her coat. Just before shepherding Lisa out, he looked at her and winked.
She climbed out of the subway onto a quiet residential corner across from an enormous playground, where several mothers and a few nannies–stern West Indian women from the other side of the park–stood watching small children play on brightly colored slides and jungle gyms. She walked up the mostly empty block, following a stunning woman in her thirties who pushed a thousand dollar stroller. Fifteen years ago, this area had been mostly poor people, various races and ethnicities. The new yuppies had driven them out, and now the real estate values were comparable to where she and Charles lived. She did not despise the gentrifiers, like so many people her age, or regard them with contempt, like her husband. Instead, she gazed over the rows of new restaurants and boutiques with a vertiginous sense of the place’s great recklessness. The sea was rising, the banks teetering. The terrorists and cartels were cutting off peoples’ heads.
In the dressmaker’s shop, Lisa leaned on the counter, casually browsing on her phone. To look at her, gazing at the tiny screen even after the door’s electronic chime had rung, you might think no threat to her had ever existed. Abigail moved through lush shadows, her tennies squeaking on the teak floor, past slim spotlights pointing down on soft and silky dresses hung on headless mannequins.
Lisa came around to the center aisle, tall in heels, her shoulders displayed powerfully. It was impossible to see the child she had been. The little girl who used to run to Abigail no longer existed. This woman who had absorbed her put long-fingered hands on her hips and spoke with authority. "Mom, what are you doing here?"
"I was downtown," she said. "I saw your cousin."
"Sorry about your luck."
She crumpled in the crush of her daughter’s arms. She could not remember the name of the latest exercise practice. "No, I meant to see her. I visited her. I wanted to see you," she said, pulling free. She knew better than to say she’d come by subway. "I thought, ‘It’s not so far to come see my daughter.’"
"Yeah," said Lisa, releasing her and standing back. "Only across a major river. Let me call someone to take over while we go to lunch."
"Oh, no, don’t. I can only stay a moment," she said. "Is it safe for you to be here alone?"
Lisa laughed hard, with genuine surprise, showing back molars. A coarse, mean sound. "It’s not a problem."
"I just wanted to talk to you briefly."
Her daughter bobbed her head, peering down into her eyes. She placed her hands on her hips. "Is something bothering you, Mom? Is Daddy okay? He looks big to me."
Abigail looked up at the girl and wondered how to ask. To her, who still felt deathless, it would sound insane. If only there were some way to make the girl hear herself. "I remembered something you said about Roman, and his always being present for…"
"Brutal, awful things?" Lisa’s eyes flashed with excitement. She gave a loud, fake-sounding laugh. "Sure."
"What did you mean by that?"
"Oh, you know. Wherever he goes, horrible things happen. He was in Kathmandu this one time, and he went out on his balcony. Down on the street, these two men started fighting. One took a kukri and popped out the other’s eyeball. He’s got a thousand stories like that."
A thousand stories. It was like a phrase out of a folktale or myth, something associated with a monstrous being who toyed with humans. A devil. Abigail shivered, then looked down at the crushed leaves clinging to the bottoms of one tennie. "Where did you find him?" she said, more to herself than to her daughter.
"Oh, Mom, come on. Like you don’t remember. Besids, you don’t find a guy like Roman. A man like that finds you."
The empty car rattled around her as the train plunged deeper under the city. Outside the window, another train appeared out of the darkness, its bright windows crowded with patient and tired-looking strangers. The train moved gradually upward, its windows passing like frames in a film, until it disappeared and blackness replaced it. Down the speckled floor, a plastic bottle rolled around amid a bunch of soiled napkins. Abigail looked around herself and pulled her purse close, hugging it atop her thighs.
At the back of the car, the stained door slid open, and Roman entered, wearing a long gray trench coat over his business suit. His face, ears, and hands were bright red, nearly incandescent. Abigail felt her arms and legs go limp. He walked easily through the shuddering clattering car and eased down beside her. His body gave off tremendous heat, scorching her cheek, and she strained to avoid touching him, leaning hard into the divider between her shoulder and the doorway. He leaned down to speak, and she cowered in her jacket, her eyes clamped shut.
His breath smelled like burning charcoal, his voice issued from all sides. "Why are you following me?"
She opened her eyes to the sound of a bell. The subway doors opened, and people crowded out onto the platform past others waiting to get on. She was four stops from home. The car was crowded with the usual faces, tourists staring at maps or pretending to, random young white men wearing sunglasses and obscenely tight jeans, brown-skinned people headed farther north than she ever went. She was safe, but she knew nothing that she hadn’t known this morning. The woman beside her glanced over, looked at Abigail’s hair and necklace and suede coat, then went back to staring into her own reflection in the dark window across the car.
"Maybe it’s the age difference."
"So what? I’m that much older than you," Charles said, still looking through his glasses at the presidential biography he had been reading for weeks. "It’s like I’ve always maintained, it makes the man less likely to screw around."
"I don’t think that’s true," she said. She ignored the voice in her mind that guessed how many times he had cheated. At one point, she’d kept a running tally. She no longer remembered when she’d given up on it.
After a moment, Charles seemed satisfied she wasn’t talking about him. "He’s probably readier to have kids than guys her age. You want grandchildren in your lifetime, don’t you?"
The thought of Lisa carrying Roman’s claw-footed child in her womb caused Abigail to jerk violently under the heavy comforter.
Charles gave her one of the sighs meant to show she was being unreasonable. "Isn’t it a little late for this? She’s twenty-six."
"What is it with you now? You liked him fine at the beginning."
"I know. But not since, you know, my neurological event. If that’s what it was."
He did another sigh, this time with his eyes closed, then put the book open on his lap and crossed his arms. In the overstuffed bed, propped up on pillow in his pajamas, he looked like an enormous boy refusing to open his mouth for medicine. "All right. Did you see something? Have some great revelation? Is that what this is about? Are you getting religious again all of a sudden?"
"What do you mean?"
"He’s a Catholic, isn’t he? Not practicing, obviously. But his family’s Catholic. Not Roman or Coptic or Orthodox. One I’d never heard of. But he’s not practicing. Is that the issue?"
"You know about his family?"
Charles gaped at her, confused and bothered by the question. "I know what Lisa’s told me. What does it matter? We’re not Rockefellers exactly."
"That’s not what I mean," she said. "He just scares me. That’s all. He’s so big and strange. He’s drawn to terrible things." They all are, she thought, with some alarm, then, You, too.
Charles did not noticed her look. He held his hands before him as if trying to strangle a horse. "Of course he sees terrible things. He works all over the world. The world is a terrible place, Di. The market today is what is really terrifying. We’re a couple of collapses away from the next Dark Ages."
"So." She looked at her husband, sprigs of white hair sticking up through his pajama collar. Splotches surfaced randomly on his pale face, his nose red from too much alcohol. Some of the weight gain, she knew, was from his various medicines. It had been a long time since he had showed her his body, since before this bed, which he’d wanted because it was a decadent sleep trap. She felt his anger growing. Their dead sex life was a fact he would not speak of, not while couples they knew kept going or at least said they did. "He doesn’t scare you?"
“You know, he mentioned you went over to-”
“You saw him?” she said. “When?”
"Today. He called. We chatted. It was nothing.”
“Nothing?” She began to shake her head. She felt tears gathering in her eyes. "Listen to me. I saw him. In the theater. When I had no vital signs. I floating in the air, and he was glowing red, like metal in a foundry."
“He said Lisa saw you in the shop and she said you were upset about something Allegra said.” Charles raised his snowy white eyebrows and held up his hands in a who-cares gesture. “So he’s a little red. So what? My great-grandma had Mongol in her. It’s nothing. To answer your question. Yes. Of course he scares me. That’s why he’s good for my daughter."
When she had no one else to turn to, she called her cousin. Elaine had been waiting for the call. "I heard you bothered Allegra. She thinks you’re nuts, you know. You should have called me."
"I’ve never been so afraid of a person."
"He’s a little different. They all speak the same language of violence, but he understands it." Elaine sounded impatient, but she was listening. "If he scares you, you should investigate him."
"You really believe me? What I said about seeing him turn red like that?"
"If you saw him glow red like a Christmas bulb, he glows red like a Christmas bulb. You have to check him out. Hire someone."
"Charles would want to know where the money went."
"You know where he works, don’t you?"
"I know the building, yes."
"So spend a day or two following him around during his lunch. See where he goes. I’m sure it will set your mind at ease."
"What if he sees me?"
"With all those people around? Who cares? Besides, he might not even recognize you out of the apartment. I don’t mean to be the steel fist that smashes your fantasy, Abigail, but you reach our age, most younger men don’t even look."
"And if he does? If he recognizes me? I have no good reason to be there."
"What’s it to him? Tough shit, that’s what. Own up to it. Tell him you’re checking up on him. If he wants to marry your daughter, he’s going to have live with an amount of discomfort."
She sat more than three hours on the stone bench in the plaza, using her large umbrella during stretches of chilly rain. The weather was mild and pedestrian traffic remained heavy, a constant wall of strangers passing on the broad sidewalk, blocking her view of the noisier traffic on the street. The sounds of engines, car horns, sirens, and voices echoed between the buildings up and down the street, and she found herself oddly at peace, feeling invisible in the day-to-day pandemonium. She had a clear view of the front doors, which were the most convenient to the subway he would take to get here, or the streets by which a cab would bring him. Eventually, she stopped shivering and began to feel at home. Then Roman appeared, exiting the building behind a group of other businessmen in suits. Abigail was immediately tempted to abandon her plan.
Out in the downpour, he glowed bright red, bleeding a faint aura of light that trailed faintly, passing over the people around him, though none of them seemed to feel or see it. Unbothered by the rain, he began to walk rapidly toward Abigail’s bench, looking straight ahead, so that she knew he saw her. She held her breath as he approached, terrified even in public, trying to remember the words Elaine had told her to use.
He walked directly past, his skin lighted as if by a flashlight on the inside, black shoes clapping onto the wet pavement mere inches from the toes of her walking shoes. Then he was moving quickly down the crowded sidewalk, riding the current of the crowd.
As she resumed breathing and her heart pounded more slowly, Abigail knew she would never come back, not if she did not follow him now. She could see her future self, remembering what she had just seen, and choosing always to stay home, to live with what she knew, despite the fact that there was nothing to tell. She stood and began to walk after the glaring light that was Roman moving through the crowd ahead. She tried to go quickly, saw him gaining on his lead, and dropped her umbrella. She hurried on, pulling her coat more tightly around herself.
He turned a corner past water spilling form a gutter, and she broke into a jog, ignoring the pains in her hips and ankles. She came around the turn breathless and was stunned to see him only a few yards ahead, standing at the edge of a street vendor’s awning, under the edge where the water gathered and dripped down onto the pavement. She smiled at the vendor and pretended to look over the shelves of fruit and the rolls in his smudged case.
Roman was on his phone, his voice obscured by the echoing traffic sounds and splatter of falling water. She moved closer and closer to his high, broad back, concentrating on his loud voice. He sounded angry and rushed, and she realized, on hearing him say a string of words, that he was not speaking English. Nor was he speaking in any language she recognized, not one bit, after all of her years in the city. Hebrew? she thought. Greek? Arabic? No, it was none of those. She had heard them many times, been to countries where people spoke them. This sounded different, older somehow. Then he was finished with his call, putting his phone into his pocket, continuing into the mist.
She smiled in apology at the vendor and continued onward, allowing Roman to get a couple of dozen paces ahead of her. Watching his figure move purposefully along the side street, she imagined various scenarios that might explain his speech into the phone back there. They were ridiculous, the things that came to her mind, visions of terrorism and demonic conspiracy, but each gave her a taste of deep comfort. If she could only know one of them was real, then she would be at peace.
At the next intersection, he moved swiftly to a subway entrance on the corner, where he descended the dripping stairwell between the two green globes. Abigail followed him, glad to enter the hot damp breath of the underground station, though she raised her hand against the sulfurous stench that issued from the dark tunnels on either side of the crowded platform. This afternoon there were many people down here, most wearing coats and holding closed umbrellas. The gazed at phones or stood on either side of the platform gazing down toward the dark caverns from which their trains would eventually come. Down below, rats crawled over the garbage in the puddles around the tracks.
Roman walked on the yellow line on the platform’s left edge, making his way past strangers who ignored his luminous figure to go on waiting for their train to arrive. As Abigail followed him, saying Excuse me whenever she brushed against someone, these same people showed her the same disinterest, which she found relieving–if one of them had confronted her, she would have run, making a scene, calling attention to herself. When she got home, she told herself, she would have a long bath and pot of tea, maybe eat one of those small, rich lemon cakes from the patisserie on the corner.
Ahead, he had reached the end of the platform. He went right on walking into the tunnel, using the narrow walkway designated for the transit authority employees. He continued to glow faintly in the tunnel’s darkness, marking the way ahead. After hesitating at the tunnel entrance beside the white sign with red letters prohibiting unauthorized entrance, she followed, increasing her speed to keep up with him, and holding out a hand to the rough, wet wall to keep her balance.
Shortly their tunnel forked away from another, and they reached a crew of five men in orange hardhats and yellow reflective vests working on the tracks, kneeling and standing around stretches of rail in the glow of construction lamps. The workers wore noise-canceling headphones, and one man operated a jackhammer, creating a thundering racket that caused shattering sensations to ring out in her ears, over and over, and made the shake under her hand. A man looked up as Roman passed on the ledge above them, hesitated for a moment, then turned back to observe the work occurring before him. He did not look up as Abigail passed.
From this tunnel, Roman led Abigail into a danker, musty smelling space that was dripping loudly with water and the multitudinous squeakings of what could only be a colony of rats. They have a language, she realized. Of course they do. They’ve been around much longer than we have. Her stomach clenched with disgust, but she held her hand over her mouth, prepared to heave over the side of the ledge if she was going to be sick. She refused to cry out and make herself a victim in all of this, not now, she felt, when she was so close to learning his secret. She distracted herself by concentrating keeping a pace with the red glow moving steadily ahead of her, trying to imagine where he might be taking her. She had no doubt now that Roman knew she was following and would lead her to what she wished to know, provided that she could keep up with him.
She became aware of water pouring down around her, spilling down from a great height in the darkness above her. A draft moved through the air, like wind passing through an open cathedral. In the shadows she could make out strange hieroglyphs on the walls above the platform, sphinxes facing each other across the gaping expression of pharaoh heads. An entryway was caved in, its doorway a heap of brick and rubble. This had been a station at one point, long before she could remember. She looked ahead into the darkness and found she was alone.
A loud clanking shuttled toward her. A vividly blinding light rushed out of the cavern, its growing circle a bright white star lighting the walls, flooding her sight with a screeching and clattering roar that shook her earlobes and the roots of her teeth. She cried out and then could not be sure she was making any noise at all. Light and sound and shuddering filled her mind until there was nothing more than the brilliance of daylight.
Above the skyscrapers, clouds came apart in big cottony tears, leaving the sky behind them wide open and blue. He stood several feet from the edge of the crowd, the bitter smell of the rain hanging in his nostrils. Hot bars of light spread along the pavement, raising a faint mist. Around him, the onlookers had begun to disperse. The paramedics, a thin black man and a sturdily built white woman, pushed the gurney slowly, talking casually over the wheels’ little shrieks, no longer concerned with haste and resting up for the next call that would come inevitably. They brought the gurney to ambulance’s back doors and loaded it carefully, their faces solemn with respect for the stranger under the white sheet. A few remaining bystanders were telling stories about similar incidents they had witnessed or heard about.
"I wonder how long she sat here," a man wearing a baseball cap said. "Dying on a bench. Not how I want to go out."
"Happens," a woman in a long transparent raincoat said. "They come out when they no longer tell the difference between their apartments and what’s outside.”
“Least she looked peaceful, I guess.”
“Probably a shut-in. Sad."
He knew better, of course, but he wasn’t about to say so, to tell these strangers he knew the woman. It would only raise questions, a feeling of further strangeness, and, possibly, further complications. There would be enough of that in the days to come. He wished he had come out for lunch for sooner, before someone realized she had died sitting on the stone bench. He would never have seen her, not in this crowd. He might have had a few more hours of believing things were more or less the same.
He put his forehead in his hand and sighed, aware that the man in the baseball cap and the woman were turning to look at him. Were looking now, showing him their odd little smiles. He closed his eyes and retreated into soothing darkness. She had been afraid of him, that much he knew. And everyone else had known it, too. It had been plain to see on her face when she looked at him, plain to hear in her voice when she said his name. There would be questions, he knew, then weeks of agonized discussion, nights of listening to her cry. He would say what he had to say. Then he would go back to being alone.