An announcement startled him awake. “Doors opening on the left…” Frank yawned and sat up straight to free the seat beside him, and a dozen commuters filed onto the train car. He was pleased that no one took him up on his offer, and spread out comfortably between the two seats once again. The name of the station passed by — six more stops.
One of the newcomers, a tall and fleshy man, sighed audibly. He was covered in sweat, and wore a massive duffel bag on his back. He swayed side-to-side between the poles, throwing his head back and gasping as he basked in a post-exercise euphoria.
A seated man frowned at this display. Frank had seen him before — a regular commuter. With a stubbly chin, and often wearing shorts and a safari vest, he looked stereotypically Australian or South African, at least to Frank’s untraveled eye.
The sweaty man swayed on, alternately coughing and smiling, and never still. Small movements by the sweaty man translated into sweeping arcs by the duffel bag, and the seated man had to lean back to avoid contact.
A flash of teeth, and not a smile, from the seated man. The sweaty man continued his vibrations unperturbed. Another sway, and another swing, and contact was made — the duffel bag brushed the face of the seated man.
The reaction was instantaneous — a fist propelled into the lower back of the sweaty man. Frank’s eyes went wide. Who punches a stranger?
With a grunt the sweaty man looked behind him in surprise. “Did you just hit me?” he asked.
“Why don’t you learn to walk?” responded the puncher. His voice was a surprise — high and nasal, accent indeterminate American, when Frank expected a deep, masculine, and foreign lilt.
They locked eyes. Frank leaned forward expectantly, chewing on his lip. “What’s your name?” asked the sweaty man.
The puncher stood up. This is it. Frank tore his eyes away to survey the rest of the train car. No one else seemed interested in the confrontation. How much damage could a brawl do in a train car? It was early for the afternoon rush, so the train was only a quarter full. But there was an older woman just feet away, and a mother with a stroller, and a handful of others who could be injured by a flying elbow or duffel bag.
The would-be combatants stared each other down. Horror and disgust mixed in Frank’s stomach: angry butterflies. What do I do? Just get out of the way? He recalled the red button in the back of each car. That’s it — press the emergency call button. He’d have to get through the brawlers, though, to do so.
The door opened at the next stop. The sweaty man turned and exited the train without a word.
Frank breathed deeply. When he got off to walk home a few stops later, his heart was still pumping. Something was left unresolved. Somehow, he felt cheated.
“Why are your guys fucking me?” Frank’s boss, the project manager, dropped a folder on his desk. He perused the contents, covered in red ink. “This is the third iteration, and it needed to be signed yesterday. What the hell is wrong with your team?”
Maybe if you would accept your own revisions without making more edits every fucking time… “Sorry sir,” Frank answered flatly. “We edited it with your suggestions.”
“I know that. Just fix it.”
Frank imagined crushing his boss’s nose with his forehead. He was close enough to do it — fuming and red-faced over Frank’s desk. Could a man really be killed by having his nose bones thrust into his brain? What movie was that from, anyway? The shocking thought was there one moment and then gone like a wisp.
When the project manager had left, Frank passed off the letter to his team. They grumbled and he joked, but his heart wasn’t in it. He turned on the radio.
“…the most murders in decades, in the third city this month. One councilwoman called for the National Guard…”
“Why’s it gotta be so damn negative all the time…” he muttered, turning it off.
He was waiting outside of the train station. A melancholy old man walked unsteadily from the escalator and sat down against a column, setting a metal case on the concrete. He produced a trumpet and began to play — happy old tunes that Frank recognized from his childhood. The upbeat music was almost clownish when contrasted with the musician’s appearance — pale, livered skin; angry dark marks on his face that could be scabs, could be dirt, or could be something far worse; skinny, bony limbs that paired poorly with the round, balloon-like stomach.
He eyed the lean bodies stepping out into the summer heat through his sunglasses. Is it wrong to leer if no one can see your eyes? Maybe he’d get a chance to walk home with Lindsay, his neighbor. Maybe he’d finally find an opening to ask…
Frank’s thoughts were interrupted when a young man sprinted up the escalator. “Seriously?” said the hurried newcomer, addressing the trumpet player. Frank recalled that the young man had been playing guitar in the tunnel that led to the train platform.
The old man said nothing.
“You’re playing here?” the young man continued. “No, man, you can’t play here. This is my spot. Find somewhere else.” He stepped forward and stared down at the trumpet player.
The old man’s response was to start another tune. The newcomer’s hand shot out for the instrument. The tug of war was brief but frenzied — the old man was stronger than he looked. With a great yank the trumpet finally was free of its owner’s grasp, but the young man fell backwards onto the ground. The old man’s wail was one of great pain, and Frank snapped out of his reverie. He started to reach for his phone, but another bystander was already calling the police. The attacker struggled to his feet, smashed the instrument against the ground, and fled back down the escalator.
The old man groaned again and lurched forward to retrieve the corpse of his horn. Blood droplets sprayed from his torn fingers as he cradled the instrument to his chest. He cried out for help, and Frank went to the pharmacy next door for band-aids. When he returned, the police were taking statements. Frank gave the band-aids to the old man and waited dutifully for his turn to give a statement. One of the officers gave him a funny look — he realized he was smiling and stopped.
His neighbor Lindsay walked by, but he didn’t notice.
Frank was later than usual leaving the office, and it was the height of rush hour. He picked the first train car, all the way at the end of the platform, but even so he had to squeeze in like the proverbial sardine. Something felt different — after a moment, Frank realized it was their eyes. They were looking at him. Despite the unspoken rules of public transportation, and despite the extreme proximity, whenever he looked at someone they met his eyes and looked right back.
The press forced him up to the edge of the doors, beside someone’s wheelchair. At the next stop they didn’t even wait — the exiting commuters had to push through an inrushing sea of people while Frank pasted himself as thin as he could against the wheelchair. There was virtually no room left, but commuters still wanted to board the train. One man called out above the hubbub, “There’s room if you scoot back.”
Frank turned his head. He can’t be fucking serious… he would have to literally stand between the footrests of the wheelchair. He looked back at the commuter. The man gritted his teeth and leaned forward. The doorchime sounded. One push is all it would take…
He stepped back gingerly into the wheelchair’s embrace. He shook his head to himself. That wasn’t right. Not right at all.
The late-boarding commuter stared at the floor; the only one on the train not to meet his gaze.
The blind date had gone well, Frank thought. Alex’s online profile and picture had been accurate, and it turned out they had a lot in common — they both liked to read sci-fi, they both followed politics, and they both liked sushi. He hoped the promise for another date was honest — he figured he’d call in a few days to see.
He had to get off the train one stop early due to maintenance. It was late, but he welcomed it — the weather was nice and the walk would only be twenty minutes or so.
The shops were all closed and there was very little traffic. He looked at his watch — maybe the date had gone even better than he thought, considering how long they had talked after the meal was finished. Maybe next time they’d drive out into the woods and go for a hike. Or maybe a day trip to the beach? He smiled at the thought of Alex in a swimsuit –
Footsteps interrupted his fantasy. He turned his head a quarter to look over his shoulder — two youths were following him. He was still six blocks from home. He picked up his pace. He considered flagging down a taxi — one passed, but it was off duty. His pursuers matched his pace.
Four blocks now. Gotta think, goddamnit. What did he know about confrontation? Choose the terrain, some old lesson from a military history class told him. What was the terrain in these last three blocks? What was the high ground, if any? A flash of reflected streetlight up ahead caught his eye — there was a construction site at the last intersection before his building, up against a high-rise. It would be empty now, and he thought he recalled a sort of alleyway created by the construction gear. That’s where they’ll attack. They’ll push me in the alley.
One block left. Another car passed. Not much traffic, but enough for them to avoid jumping me in the open. Half-a-block. This is it. He turned around, arms out in a wrestling stance.
The youths laughed uproariously and walked past him.
His heart was pumping. He thought back to the geography and to the benefit of surprise — if he sprinted through his building, he could overtake the youths and surprise them outside of the back exit. There were two of them, but they were smaller than he was, and he could attack from behind if the door was quiet… he started to sprint to his building –
What the fuck? Why would he want to chase them? Shouldn’t he feel relieved?
His phone rang. It was Alex.
“I just wanted to make sure you made it home okay.”
Frank was still breathing deeply. His heart was still pumping.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for checking on me,” he answered, ending the call. He looked at his watch — a half minute since the youths had fled. He shook his head to himself — he was too late to catch up to them. He cursed himself for losing the chance for a surprise attack.
Frank and his co-workers circled the combatants in the conference room. It quickly became clear that Ted had the upper hand. His youth and reach were too much for the older, paunchy Phil to handle. Frank asked someone what started it — apparently there was some sort of disagreement about travel expenses.
Ted wrapped Phil in a reverse bear hug and dragged him to the ground. A flying elbow from the older man connected with Ted’s temple but he held on, levering his opponent over onto his back with a half-nelson. With his left, Ted fended off Phil’s flailing, and with his right he struck the prone man’s face. Just as Phil’s struggles started to weaken, the project manager called out “Enough! You’ve made your point.” Someone helped Phil into a chair and the office workers began to disperse.
Another argument started in the hallway. “I can’t believe this,” said Carol. “How can you work in a place like this? Grown men fighting? And you cheering it on? What the hell is wrong with you people?”
Through a haze, Frank thought he might understand her point. This wasn’t always how disputes were resolved in the office, was it?
“Oh come on, Carol,” answered Gina. “It’s just a few bruises. What are you worried about? Ted and Phil have been arguing for years!”
That was true, thought Frank. He could recall contentious behavior, especially between those two, since he started working here. Gina’s right, he decided… what was the big deal?
Carol threw her hands up. “This is crazy. You’re all crazy. I can’t work here anymore.” Gina chased after her.
Frank sympathized. Guess this business can get to you… maybe once he worked here as long as Carol, the little things might be too much for him as well. It wasn’t as if he particularly enjoyed his job, after all.
He thought back to the fight, running it through his mind. Ted was fit and wiry, but Frank had a size advantage. If they ever came to it, he thought he’d have an advantage over Ted if he could end it quickly. Blitzkrieg, from the military history class.
Yeah, if it came to it, he could handle Ted.
There were cops everywhere, it seemed. As he walked to the train station Frank recalled that the mayor had asked everyone to stay in their homes, but Frank’s boss had called him and said that the office wasn’t closed and he’d better get to work. One officer glared at him as he stepped on the escalator to the station. Frank glared back but looked away. Maybe I could take one, but there’s too many of ‘em.
He stepped over a pool of blood at the turnstiles. The station manager was cursing softly and rubbing his knuckles while a prone man vomited in the corner. Frank shook his head to himself; getting a bit crazy ‘round here. Awareness is key, he had decided. No more playing games on his phone on the platform, or even on the train — you never know what might happen.
A mostly empty train pulled up. There were a few people at the other end of the car and only one man nearby — a large middle aged man taking up two seats.
Frank frowned. What are you doing, taking up two seats by yourself, you asshole? His eyes bored into him, but the fat man wouldn’t meet his eyes. He silently marked the seated man as a potential enemy.
A young man, a student, perhaps, boarded at the next stop. Frank eyed him subtly. Enemy, or an ally? Their eyes met for a moment, then the youth’s flickered to the fat man accompanied by a sneer. Frank grinned. An ally. They approached the seated man as if they were synchronized.
The fat man’s eyes bulged.
“Stand up,” ordered Frank.
“…what, whaddaya want?” whined the fat man.
“Just stand up, motherfucker,” growled the youth.
As he stood Frank punched him in the solar plexus. It felt good to swing hard into that pillowy mass, like he was expending all of his recent frustrations in a single motion. The fat man went down hard, struggling to breathe. The youth laughed while the man fumbled in his pockets. “…here, take it…” he gasped, scattering his belongings as the train slowed for the next stop.
What? The youth scooped up the wallet and ran out as the doors opened. “I don’t want…” Frank started to speak, then saw someone at the callbox at the other end of the train. The doors chimed and Frank dashed out, confused. What was that about?
He shrugged his shoulders and walked to his office.
Frank heard a cheer down the hallway. He looked at his screen — what had he been working on? Whatever it was, it could wait. He walked down the hallway to the corner conference room.
A dozen of his co-workers were crowded around a window. “Check it out,” said Gina, motioning him over. Phil flinched and shrank out of the way to give Frank a spot.
Four floors down, two cops were brawling on the street. The taller, leaner cop seemed to have the advantage over the shorter, stockier one, keeping him at a distance with long kicks and jabs. A few passersby had stopped to watch.
“Twenty bucks on the skinny one!” announced Les, another team leader, adding “Two to one odds!” after no one responded.
Frank pulled out his wallet, watching his co-workers out of the corner of his eye while he flipped through his cash. He put it away and turned back to the brawl. It didn’t look any different than before, but the combatants were moving — slowly, the taller fighter was backing towards a small garden on the sidewalk. He watched the fighters intently, and thought back to his wrestling coach in high school.
“I’ll take that, Les,” said Frank, “if you’ll go up to a hundred, and give me three to one odds.”
The little crowd went silent. The fighters kept edging closer to the garden.
Les smiled. “Absolutely. Your funeral, Frank.” A small cheer went up and all eyes turned back to the street.
The shorter man was really taking a beating — he just didn’t have the reach to get inside the taller cop’s punches and kicks. But he kept leaning forward, and kept attacking, forcing the lean cop backwards. The cheers died down as they got to the edge of the garden, which was protected by a shin-high fence. A tight jab was answered by a slow hook, easily dodged, and the shorter cop went into a tight clinch. No, no, attack! Press forward! Frank shouted from his brain. As if in answer, his chosen warrior charged forward in a burst. The taller cop shifted his stance, perhaps for a roundhouse kick, but suddenly stumbled — his feet had caught the little garden fence. The other cop didn’t miss the opportunity — he dove at the taller man’s hips, wrapped up his legs, and took him down to the pavement hard.
The spectators crowded at the window — close-in, the fight was much more difficult to follow. But it didn’t take long — after a half-minute of frantic struggling, it was over. The stocky cop rose slowly, wiping blood off his face. The other fighter lay motionless as the victor stumbled off down the street.
In the conference room all eyes turned to Les. A brief scowl, and then he looked down at his feet. “All I have is $80,” he said to Frank. “I’ll get you the rest tomorrow.”
Those nearest to he and Les took a step back. Frank eyed his debtor and planted the toe of his right loafer in his balls. Someone laughed as he pulled the wallet from the back pocket of the moaning, prone Les’s. He flipped through it and withdrew a wad of cash.
“Guess you weren’t lying,” he said, counting four crisp twenty dollar bills. “You have until five o’clock today.” He threw the wallet down and walked back towards his office.
On the way he stopped at his team’s shared cubicle.
“How’s the report coming?” he asked, rattling off a tracking number.
“Slowly,” someone answered.
“Slowly? Make it faster, then. We need it by five.” No one answered, so Frank turned around to leave.
“What bullshit,” someone muttered under their breath.
Frank smiled, cracking his knuckles and turning around. This is going to be fun.
He couldn’t sleep. Was it really getting more chaotic at work, or was that just in his head? Sure, he had been butting heads with the project manager for years, but had his team members ever challenged him like that? He rubbed his bruised shoulder at the memory. But he had handled it well, he thought. Elbows and knees could be sharp lessons, and ones Frank doubted they would soon forget.
But why couldn’t he sleep? He paced in his apartment, finally sitting down and turning on the TV. Murders, riots, reserve units, curfews, pandemic… Everything’s so goddamn negative! He turned it off, disgusted.
He needed fresh air, despite the curfew. He told himself he wouldn’t go far, and he’d avoid the big intersections.
The night was brisk and foggy. Good, he thought. Any cops out probably wouldn’t see him unless he stepped on their feet.
His fists clenched involuntarily. Alex hadn’t been returning his calls. The first date had gone so well — what had happened in the second date? He tried to think back — a matinee and then dinner. The food was good. Why was it hazy? It was like certain memories were fuzzy — hell, whole lines of thought were fuzzy. He snapped his fingers at a memory — the waiter was a real prick. Was that the problem? Maybe Alex had been in a hurry or something — he recalled that his date seemed awfully upset when Frank waited in the parking lot for the waiter after dinner. That part was clear, anyway — the confrontation in the parking lot. What could Alex have to complain about? He had handled it like –
Footsteps took his mind back to the present. Where was he? In the fog it was hard to tell. He had forgotten his watch — how long had he been walking?
He looked behind him — through the fog, all he could see were silhouettes. There were three of them, walking fast. Three skinny youths — when they were closer he figured he probably weighed nearly as much as any two of them. Before he had time to strategize they had caught up.
“You wanna get high?” offered one of the youths, sneering.
The fog was clearing. By the street signs, Frank recalled where he was — six blocks down and one block over from home. He responded in the negative, turning to make his way back to his street.
The youths followed him. “How about a dollar then? Just one dollar?”
Just one dollar? He started to reach for his wallet but stopped himself. They just want me to pull it out of my pocket. “No,” he said. He didn’t see an opening to attack — they were spread out behind him.
A glass bottle exploded in front of him. Frank’s adrenaline started pumping. He looked frantically around him, but there was no obvious high ground. No cops too, oddly enough. Maybe they were spread too thin. A rock hit him in the back.
He turned around and charged. The youths tried to scatter. Two were quick and one stumbled, almost tripping over his feet. Frank roared as he caught him, wrapping his neck in a headlock under his right arm. It felt like fighting a rag doll, the youth was so small. He ignored the pitiful struggles and delivered a pair of hard punches with his left into the face under the crook of his arm. He let go and the youth flopped to the ground.
“Come on motherfuckers!” he cackled, stomping on the shoulder of the groaning youth. But the others were gone.
He almost screamed in frustration. It’s not over, goddamnit!
He’d need to change tactics, he decided. Bluster and bluff got him one out of three, but the others would require cunning.
Where would they go? It was too late for the trains to run. From the look of the youths, they didn’t live in this area…
A bus went by. That’s it — the buses were running, if at a much reduced schedule. Maybe once an hour or so, he recalled from the radio news. He tried to think of all the bus stops nearby.
He started towards the nearest. The fog had risen completely by this point. His footsteps were too loud on the pavement so he took off his shoes. Lost the fog — gotta be sly and quiet, like a panther.
No luck at the first stop. Three blocks over, no luck at the second, either. He hadn’t heard another bus, but he was starting to worry that maybe they got on the first one he saw. Or maybe they rode bikes.
But the third was paydirt. Frank stayed behind the corner after taking a look. They didn’t see him — at least they showed no sign of it. The youths were nervous, though, looking around them every few moments.
Shit. How would he approach? There was no cover between him and the bus stop, or on the other side.
He needed a distraction. Something to throw. There were no rocks or bottles nearby, unfortunately. But there was something in his pocket, he realized — his phone. He took off the rubber case — this needed to make a clatter.
The phone made a good projectile, hurled like a discus. There was a very satisfying shattering sound on impact, several yards on the other side of the bus stop. The youths turned, and Frank sprinted.
Shoeless, Frank’s steps were still silent. He wanted to call out — to howl, even — but he resisted. There would be time for that later, he decided.
The youths hadn’t even turned around when he crashed into them. His arms were wide and he swept them both to the ground. There was no room — no time — to wind up and swing, so he just grabbed, pulled, stomped, and jabbed his fingers. Something ended up in his mouth and he bit down hard. There was a scream and it was pulled free; Frank laughed and spit blood.
One was trying to scramble to his feet but he grabbed an ankle and twisted, bringing the youth back down. The other was barely moving, clutching his eyes.
In the lull Frank got to his feet. He was tired — exhausted even, he realized. But one of the youths was still moving — still a threat. Ignoring the prone youth, Frank hauled the other to his feet, slamming him against the bus stop glass. This one was as tired as he was, and his struggles were weak. Forearm to his neck held up to the glass, Frank wound up and punched him once, twice, three times in the gut.
A bus pulled up. Frank let go of the youth, who collapsed bonelessly. Something snapped in his mind. These are just kids who want to get home. He shouted at the bus driver to wait, gathering up each of the youths and shoving them into the bus. He used his own farecard to pay their fares and started back home.
He felt amazing. His muscles ached gloriously. He shouted for joy, responding to the dogs that started to bark with barks of his own. He thought back to his worries about his date — but what was there to worry about? If Alex didn’t want him there were plenty of others who would. They’d want to be with a winner — with someone with a good job, with confidence, who didn’t back down.
What a wonderful night. He wanted to celebrate, late as it was. Maybe he’d call one of his buddies. He reached for his pocket — but where was his phone? Must’ve left it at home, he thought.
The office was less than half-strength. It didn’t seem to matter much, though, since their customers were similarly understaffed. Frank was glad that his boss was one of the absentees, and had been gone for days — the only other serious competition to Frank for seniority left were Ted and Les. And Les will never challenge me again.
He knew he would have to face off with Ted before long — he could sense it any time they were in the same room. Frank was a bigger, but Ted was fitter. He would have to wait for the right moment.
Frank chided himself. He couldn’t just attack a co-worker, even if he knew Ted had it in for him. No, there has to be a reason. A provocation. What was the phrase from his old military history class? He smiled grimly. Casus belli.
He could find one, he was certain. Thinking back through the haze was hard, but he recalled that Ted had poor discipline — he tended to write whatever was on his mind in his emails. Good task for my team.
He called in his only remaining subordinate and told him to combine all of Ted’s emails into one file. He nodded silently and shuffled out.
Frank started to search through old emails but his attention wandered. So damn hard to stay focused. He turned on the radio.
“…this message will repeat. This message will repeat. Please stand by for a message from the acting President of the United States…” The voice changed from male to female. “This is Secretary Maria Chang. Due to the incapacitation and of the President and Vice President, the disappearance of the Speaker of the House, and the deaths of several Senators and some of my fellow cabinet members, I have been sworn in as Acting President of the United States.
“If you are listening to this message, please go to the following website, or call the following phone number…”
Frank dutifully copied down the website and number.
“If you have no connectivity, please go to your local police department, or…”
He shut off the radio and leaned back. “Huh,” he grunted. Acting president? Sounds important. He brought up the website. The violence is not natural, stated bold letters across the top of the page. Crime has exploded. Do you feel differently? Have you been involved in physical altercations lately? Have the people around you threatened you? Have you been attacked? Have you attacked someone with little or no provocation? Do you have trouble focusing, or remembering past events? THIS IS NOT NORMAL. THIS IS NOT NATURAL.
There was more, far more text, along with videos and statistical data. Frank leaned back and scratched his head. It was too much at once. He didn’t think he felt differently. It’s always been contentious at work. He looked back over the questions on the website. Sure, he’d been attacked. But this was the big city. This was America — violence on the streets was just something you lived with.
He wasn’t sure if he was convincing himself. He tried to think back, hard as it was.
He clicked a big hyperlink on the site marked “What to do now?”. It had a map of the country, divided into regions. He clicked on his region, and his city.
There is hope. At least one in twenty are unaffected, and many others may be able to be helped. Please go to the following address as soon as you can:
His computer shut off. He looked up — standing in his office doorway, Ted had pulled the plug of the power strip.
Frank’s fists clenched involuntarily. “I know what you’re doing,” said Ted. “It’s not going to work.”
It doesn’t need to work, thought Frank. He smiled grimly — why was he worried about this? Why was he trying to put it off?
It didn’t matter. This was it — this was his victory. He scrambled over his desk and leapt at his foe.
Andy Crawford is an author who hopes one day to quit his day job and write full time. His work can be found at the following links:
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