Exhaling, Shadow sat down on the inbound 1. She swallowed two pills without water – her head fell forward and jerked back up again in the space of a second. Across the aisle from her, a young, bearded man with a tee shirt that read SURVIVOR stood next to a pale pink bicycle.
“Are you a makeup artist?” he asked. His eyes darted from her breasts to her nose-ring.
Shadow did not hear – the drug always affected her hearing first. Her pale skin grew paler, her eyebrows – thin black arches painted over shaved white skin -furrowed, and she nodded out. She held her expensive iPhone, sheathed in its shiny black case, in a death grip: white knuckles, one tattooed with a picture of a black cat. She had long straight hair, dyed lavender, which began at black roots and ended in loose white blonde braids, secured with bread bag ties. Shadow’s skinny frame was covered with various articles of black clothing. Her too-large black leggings drooped and wrinkled off her thighs and calves and disappeared into her black high-top Converse, covering most of her tattoos; the bridge of Shadow’s nose was pierced. Her mismatched earrings were a pair of dice – one showing the face of boxcars, one snake-eyes. Several additional pierced holes in her ears cried out to be filled.
Shadow opened her eyes, slightly lifting the heavily mascaraed lashes, just enough to reveal pinprick pupils surrounded by white. The eyes closed again in a slow, blinking flutter.
The man in the Survivor shirt reacted, reached a hand to shake her shoulder. It was not uncommon these days for people to react quickly and with no apparent boundaries or thought of consequences. Shadow was used to it, and it was not the first time someone had done this exact thing just as she was reaching bliss. The train lurched to a noisy, abrupt halt and Shadow’s eyes opened wide. The man with his hand on Shadow’s shoulder was thrown across the aisle, his pink bike crashing down.
“What is your name?” the guy said.
Shadow’s eyes remained open, and although the pupils were still only visible if you looked really closely, she not only seemed aware, but she was functional.
“I’m Barry,” the guy said, sharp eyes surveying the battered wreck of his bicycle.
“I guess we are fucked, Barry,” Shadow said, looking out the subway window into blackness. “Shadow. My name is Shadow. And I am not a makeup artist – don’t tell anyone – I am a witch.”
She thought she had him, she thought she did. Jesus, it had been a long time, a very long time. Stuck on a broken train, Shadow had no idea whether this was a glitch in the railway system or if it was the end of her life. Maybe it was the end of the world – she was never far from that thought – so it was sure worth a shot.
Shadow dug deep, looked for the right words, and said, “Are you afraid, I mean, about the train?” A good, reasonable question under the circumstances.
Before Barry could answer, a voice came over the train’s intercom, with the words, “Stay seated and remain calm.”
Barry looked toward the black windows and said, “Yeah, right, stay calm. My bicycle is wrecked, the train is wrecked, and you’re a witch.” He laughed, pulled his Survivor shirt up to show his RESIST tattoo.
Because she had him, she knew she had him, she waved her hand in the air a split second after she felt the train starting up again, but she did it with such deftness that she was certain he would think she had put it all in motion, the two-note chime that signaled they would start, the whoosh and whir and chugging of the beginning of the ride, the clacking track rattle and ghostly singing of the train moving the air as they went through the long tunnels toward the City. She looked into those clear blue eyes.
His shirt was still pulled up, his tattoo showing, but he seemed to have forgotten why. At the very least, Shadow suspected, this survivor with the Resist tattoo was aroused, even better enchanted, her hope, in love.
“Honey, your tee shirt,” Shadow whispered, pointing a black lacquered nail.
She looked down at the NO SERVICE notice on her phone and then up at the cardboard advertisements adorning the subway car’s walls. Midway between the two, she saw Barry staring, his lips moving, saying something she didn’t hear. He’d pulled the shirt down, picked up the bicycle. He looked from her to the bike’s broken frame. He ran his hands over the chassis as if the bicycle were a sick animal.
Barry spoke again, directly to Shadow, and again she could not hear, again she saw only his lips moving, and she thought of the time her cousin French kissed her. She had him, this Resist-tattooed, bicycle-caressing man; she wanted to live in a dark room with him.
The train stopped again, and this time Shadow did not hear the sound. This time there was not much of a lurch, more of a sighing letting go, a small creaking anticlimax. This time they were at a station, this time the doors opened. This time Barry started to leave the train, picking up his poor sick animal in one hand, waving with the other.
Shadow knew she had him, she opened her mouth to ask him to stay, to please stay.
Barry’s eyes were on Shadow as he exited the train, and she saw him screwing up his forehead, opening his hands wide, and saying words she couldn’t hear. A man stretched out across three cracked plastic subway seats seemed moved by this – he jumped up and inserted himself between the doors. “Stand clear of the closing doors,” came over the train’s speaker system.
Shadow jumped up.
“Thank you,” she said to the man as she turned sideways to get between him and the open door, aware in some part of her sensory system that he smelled like pineapple. She watched from the corner of her eye as he stepped back inside the train and flopped down on the same orange plastic seats in a movement worthy of a circus performer before the doors were halfway closed and the train started up again.
Barry stood alone next to the platform, still gripping his pink bike, apparently waiting for Shadow. She looked at the shiny mosaic sign that told her they had travelled to 116th street. Together.
The train platform was slick with ice and wind trumpeted down from the sidewalk above, making it difficult to climb the stairs. Shadow and Barry cut a slanted path, like the bishop on the chessboard, Shadow with her cellphone and Barry with the ruined bicycle.
The tall buildings looked like giant grave markers, the signs gone dark and a couple of windows blown out. There were pizza boxes, plastic bags, Styrofoam cups strewn everywhere, an umbrella was turned inside out and stuffed in a trash can, its spokes broken like crushed grasshopper legs. A pink pussy hat lay trampled, drowned in mud in the gutter.
The rain changed to sleet to snow and back again in the space of 40 seconds. They were pelted horizontally one moment, vertically the next, diagonally the next. Their shoes became soggy. The wind took their voices.
Shadow nearly tripped over a homeless woman, a weathered bag lady who sat between a grocery cart piled with her belongings stuffed in huge black plastic bags and an ancient coin-operated kiddy horsie ride, graffitied with gang insignia in neon green spray paint. The woman was impossibly smoking a cigarette in the wind and sleet. The woman’s shoulders were hunched up to her ears and her head snaked out in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.
Shadow’s black nail polish was chipping, coming off in sheets. She stood, hemmed in by acres of detritus, picking at her nails. She reached for her fanny pack. The pills had spilled from the bottle and were mashed to powder – she licked up what she could.
Over the next few hours, the rain tapered into mist, matching the rhythm of Shadow’s withdrawal, with reverse intensity. The wind came sporadically, in sneaky, unpredictable gusts. The front wheel of Barry’s bike kept twisting back on itself and banging into Shadow’s knee, tearing a hole in her pants and giving her a bruise the color of her black lipstick. When she had last spoken, she had said, “My lipstick is waterproof.” Now the lipstick was smeared all over her chin and upper lip.
After some days, there were little things – dirt under finger nails, dirt that seemed embedded for life, as if in a millennium an archeologist at a dig would think her fingers were that many centimeters longer, that the dirt was part of them; and other things – the inner layer of their clothing stuck to armpits which smelled sour, like eucalyptus.
Barry picked up Shadow’s hand. Cold air stung their wet nostrils; Shadow’s nose began to run and Barry lifted his shirt to it, exposing RESIST. She laughed, a rough, faint, gurgling noise. It sounded like a truck driving through running water, rough and splashing and bubbling. Shadow opened her eyes very wide and prayed her hands. Barry smiled and wiped her nose again. She took one earring out, offered it solemnly to him, hands stiffly cupped. With a question on his face, he took it from her palms. She lifted her hand, as she had to start the subway moving.
Isabel is thrilled to have another story in TRAJECTORY, after having published “Moon Dancer” in the Fall 2015 issue and the cover photo of the Fall 2016. She has also had photography published in OLENTANGY REVIEW, poetry in WALK WRITE UP and BEAR CREEK HAIKU, and fiction in PATERSON REVIEW and THE LISTENING EYE, among others. Her TV writing credits include SMALL WONDER and HEAD OF THE CLASS.