Chapter 1: Subway Metro Tube Train Platform

Molden, not molten, green or brown or orange, or all of ‘em, ‘pendin’ on the location, conglomerations, of mold, hang from the rusted ceiling like miniature stalactites. They drip drops of filth all over the tracks, platform, and unluckiest of New York City’s residents. On the tracks themselves then flows an ever-expanding river of decay, born of the perpetual ceiling semen and common masses of abandoned and leaking garbage. It serves as a baptismal fountain for vermin, too. The tiled grey platform is spotted with black and blue remnants of gum and brown splatters of blood or vomit or shit. Above it, fluorescents flicker in the darkness.

The underground train station plays hosts to patrons oft patronized by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They move about aimlessly, wheezing and groaning at one another with dead eyes and blank, soulless expressions. They resemble reanimated corpses.

One among the undead witnesses light emerge and approach from the abyss at the end of the platform. Now illuminated, the train’s head car, complete with conductor, barely visible through his tiny window at its front, is inching forward, visibly culpable for their wait. The train’s cerebellum followed by a dozen segmented metal body parts snaking their way through the tunnel.

The train’s discoverer glances delighted at the others. Replicated smiles momentarily grace faces in light of promised freedom from their crypt.

The great basilisk rattles by. It never had any intention of stopping. “Not in service” is displayed on its sides, and those who miss this vital detail watch in agony, as the train doesn’t stop. Again and again it advertises false hope: “___ (this stop) to ___ (that stop)” is written and framed in clear plastic and displayed on every other car. The cold gust of wind as it passes, the screeching.

The originator of proposed rapture stares down at his tattered shoes, sullen. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a disapproving glare from an old woman whom he’d led astray. A grey woolen coat and oversized knit hide all but her narrowed eyes as a mound of scuttling fabric. The offending boy’s cheeks redden.

For the second time, light permeates the void to the tune of metal grinding on metal. Chins and ears perk up among the sea of heads, and an array of feet shuffle an inch or so forwards. A few daring bodies will venture onto the dingy yellow strip of paint, set with a grid of small bumps, on the edge of the platform.

A teenage couple, positioned on the strip, stumble backward onto the platform and fall down on top of one another, laughing manically in the grime as the first few train cars pass. The tired locomotive’s brakes shriek in protest and drown out the ecstasy of the downed couple before bringing the train to a halt. With an automated chime, doors on each car slide open. An oncoming horde on their way out, they—the couple—have to get up hurried, lest they be trampled, stepped on, but it doesn’t break their spell, they don’t, they’re unfazed, they get up, they pat themselves off, and they wait for the next one.

Those with a destination in mind bridge the gap between platform and train and step into the belly of the beast. Those without, the vagrants, they continue their lives in the underground, seemingly ignorant to the train’s relevance, never really swallowed by the snake, they always escape.

Chapter 2: Subway Metro Tube Train Car

The train’s innards offer orange plastic seats in which its prey may sit, a hard black floor with mismatched colors of paints where they may stand, and an array of metal poles and railings that they may grasp. Each and every surface is teeming with countless bacteria (the good kind!) writhing beneath the gathered fingerprints, footprints, residue of millions.

An overturned white foam container, housing half-an-order of Chinese take-out, is marinating in a puddle of piss on one of the seats. The smell has intensified over its day of rejection and lingers in the air of the compartment, consistently corrupting any unscathed molecules of oxygen.

Chapter 3: Arthur Curry

A beggar stares through an unclean window at the labyrinth of tunnels rushing past his pupils at sixty miles per hour. He sweats through a variety of plaid shirts and puffy coats and plunges his hands into the exhausted and empty, holey pockets of his jeans. He directs his gaze toward an already angry, but some bored-looking, audience of passengers and clears his throat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse the interruption, but I only need a moment of your time.” escapes the man’s lips in a hollow rasp, but there’s a rehearsed cadence to it. “As many of you have probably already guessed, I am homeless, and am going to ask for any spare change that you may have.”

Headphones enter the ears of the apathetic. Everyone’s suddenly studying a book or newspaper with fervent interest.

“But before I do, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, I want to assure you that this money is not for me. No, it is not for me, ladies and gentlemen, it’s for my daughter.”

The man withdraws a small Polaroid of a girl from his coat pocket. The picture’s pristine condition distracts a curious few from the mud-laced hands holding it. Idle conversations quiet.

“This photograph is a picture of my daughter in the fifth grade. The fifth grade. It was taken by me three years ago today, on her birthday, and I haven’t seen her since.”

A precocious toddler turns up to look at her mother. She asks, concerned, “Why not?”

“Shhhh,” insists her mother hasty.

“Why not?” the man the man mutters. “Why not!?” he repeats, louder. Rare. “I’ll tell you why not!” he roars. “Every child has a mommy and a daddy. Every one.” Quieter now, “And me and my girl’s mommy, we, we—didn’t get along. We never got along. We tried to get along, but we couldn’t. And when two people can’t get along, it makes them unhappy, you know?” he asked. He continued, “I was so unhappy, that I started drinking, something no one should ever do, no one should ever do, and I swore that I’d never do it again…I swear, something that I won’t ever do again—” Arthur’s losing track.

“What were you drinking?” asks the little girl.

Her mom is horrified. The vagrant understands.

“I was drinking a magical potion!” he says, moving towards them. “And what that magical potion did was—it made me invisible!

Arthur’s bald spot shines when he bends down to address the girl. But his voice is softer now; he isn’t speaking to the crowd anymore. His grey beard reigns in some of his breath,  which reeks, but of what the girl doesn’t know yet.

“I was invisible so that I could hide from my daughter’s mother,” he said with regret, “but this potion, it’s also a poison—and those side effects made it hard for me to think. Soon I was so invisible nobody could see me: not my wife, not my daughter, no one.” With hope now, “But I’ll tell you what: after lots of adventures, battles with evil monsters, I learned a secret that helped cure me! What I learned is, what I learned is that I had my own powers all along, and that I never needed the potion at all.”

He floored himself. He’s wide-eyed; so iss she. He’s down on one knee.

Chapter 4: Penny

Freedom from subjected drama via stop. Exiting passengers hustle to stampede around Arthur. He gets shoved a little. The little girl’s mother is so relieved that she puts five dollars in his sweaty palm.

“Thank you.” he says, engaging in a moment of direct eye contact with the woman. In exchange for the money, he offers her his name. “I’m Arthur.” he says, “Arthur Curry,” extending his hand.

Without a word, she exits, clutching the hand of her daughter. The girl’s head is still turned in attention toward the storyteller.

Arthur ambles out last into the chaos, a sheer mess of bodies and fabrics and electronics and plastic all trying to either extract self from or rather propel self into the heaving throng, and he still manages to slip into the following car before the doors shut. ____, the most recent stop, was one of the busiest in New York City and so the boa is now bursting at its seams with clones in transit. Their collective body heat elevates the humidity. Beads of sweat drip from multiple sources onto the floor like putrid raindrops cascading from porous skin-covered clouds. Some find themselves without possibility to reach for a handhold and careen against human buffers whenever the train suddenly jerks, which it does often.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” begins Arthur.

The train’s incessant rattling mutes out everything with a pulse, and no being makes any indication of acknowledgement.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” shouts Arthur. “Yes, it’s true, I am here to ask you for money. But when I say money, all I mean is whatever you can spare.”

He sounds a little too cheerful. The train’s rattling is so violent now. Five dollars on his mind, squeezing in-between people.

“Even a penny might change things for me! And I’m not begging you for change for myself, but for my daughter!”

He produces the photograph from his coat, the same routine, navigating the field of flesh in front of him. Bodies are brushed aside with a glance and unspoken “excuse me.”

He continues on, “I haven’t been able to see my daughter in three years! Three years to this day I’ve gone without seeing this face! Today, the same day I took this picture is my little girl’s birthday and I—”

A girl’s outstretched hand very much intentionally blocks his path. The hand harbors a single penny. It glints in the gloom. Arthur’s eyes trace the length of the pale fingers, then palm, wrist, and then arm to find a thirteen-year-old girl, accompanied by several friends on the way to her birthday celebration. Tears are evacuating the girl’s eyes without restraint, but her upper lip remains taught, defiant, learned.

“I—”

She shakes her head from side to side too fast.

At a loss, Arthur reaches for the penny in her hand, but it closes. It morphs into a fist.

“Penny, I—”

She just looks down.

Silence couples tension. Silence on a packed train in the dead wake of rush hour, near-serene if not for it being so sad. Enveloped onlookers breathlessly await a response; the train beats them to it, makes it to its next stop. Before Arthur can even begin to formulate to convince or something, his daughter bolts for the doors, winged by a vanguard of friends.

Chapter 5: Marcus Garvey

He doesn’t know how many times the train has stopped since he got to see his daughter. He doesn’t know, or care how many people have seen him hunched over as a foetus, weeping on a seat in the corner of the car. He has no idea what time it is, or what day it is, when he got on the train, or when he plans on getting off. His eyes have been buried and burned in his palms and his attention’s confined to despairing.

The train stops. He relocates to the next car back, having finally convinced himself that a change in his circumstance would be okay. Only one other man exits the train at this stop and only one more gets on.

Arthur’s newly chosen car’s residents include himself, a fat old man, and two children dressed in matching purple jackets asleep on a seat in its middle. The car reeks of urine. Urine and szechuan.

Arthur positions himself in the same location as he’d occupied in the previous car, on a two-person seat in its corner, furthest away from the stench’s origin. He watches the two children enjoy the luxury of undisturbed rest, and envies their peace.

Once close-to arriving at the next, in tandem with feeling the train’s noticeable decrease in speed, the old man stands up slowly. Bones groan and crack, and soon after, the train’s breaks cry, the locomotive halts, the doors beep and slide open, and the man starts hobbling towards them, aided and abetted by a wooden cane.

“Excuse me, aren’t those your grandchildren?” asks Arthur before the man can escape.

“No,” he replies before too disappearing behind the closing doors.

The train reengages its perpetual circuit around New York, undulating toward the tunnel at the end of the platform.

“Oh my God,” exclaims Arthur.

He hurries over to the two children. He places his hand gently on the shoulder of the one with hands in his pockets. He jostles them awake.

“Where are we?” cries the child immediately. The one he woke up, suspicious.

“You’re on the train,” replies Arthur, lengths toward becoming calm.

“Where’s our Dad?” the sister of Suspicious asks.

Arthur is taken aback, but he has to think on his feet. “Well, your Dad had to go on a very special mission. But he’s gonna come back to see you and I both as soon as he can.”

“Should we wait here?” asks the same child who asked about her dad, meek now, wide-eyed.

Suspicious is suspicious, silent.

“No. The—the train is not a place for children to be on their own. You live at home with your Mom and Dad, right?”

Suspicious says, “Our mom doesn’t live at our house anymore.”

“Do you know where she lives now?”

They both shake their heads.

“What about grandparents, or aunts or uncles, do you know if you have any other family in the city?”

One child shakes her head, but the other nods and says, “We have cousins that live close to our old house.”

“And do you know where that is, what the street’s called?” asks Arthur.

“Near Marcus Harvey Boulevard,” one jumps.

They’re sensing exasperation, maybe.

“You mean Marcus Garvey?”

The girl nods.

Curry smiles. He breathes a little, his heart had been pounding, and he says, “Alright then, let’s get you to your cousins. Stay calm. You can wait for your dad there.” At least a plan is something.

Chapter 6: Geronimo Sunset!

Arthur guides the children off the train, up the stairs, through the turnstiles, and above ground at the next train station.

* I’m ignoring most subterranean detail because we’re being optimistic.

An orange and purple sky heralding dusk bathes Brooklyn in praise. The too-few-accustomed-to-greatness, in love with the struggle New Yorkers bustle toward the train, but there’s a lady walking her dog. After a dozen or so failed attempts, Arthur’s outstretched and aching arm successfully bids a taxi pull over.

“Marcus Harvey…Garvey Boulevard, please,” he says—well, grunts to the driver after closing the door.

“Where on Marcus Garvey?” asks the driver in a different accent, a New Jersey one.

“I’m not sure, start at the top and just drive down,” answers Arthur.

“Who’s eh, who’s kids are those?” says the driver, a little aggressive. He’s still in park.

Arthur understood but resented the posture: “They fell asleep on the train, so I’m getting them to their family.

“Alright, pal, no funny business in my cab.”

later

“Alrighty. We’re here on Marcus Garvey,” says the driver.

“Great.” Arthur, gruff, his focus finally averted from the cab’s meter’s LEDs, fed by circuit to read the amount in money that represented fare-for-the-ride that had kidnapped, held captive, and then tortured his attention for the last 15 or so minutes.

Arthur kindly shakes the two children awake. They’d passed out a block or so back. Suspicious was no longer suspicious.

“Yo, we’re here.”

They stirred slowly and then rose to stare out the car’s window.

“Which house is it?” Arthur asks.

The cab is creeping down the block. The now-known-to-Arthur to be older sibling points out a brownstone about a quarter of the way down the street.

“Stop here,” says Arthur in time.

He gets out and opens the door for the girls, then ushers them off the pavement onto the sidewalk. The cab is making that beeping noise because the door’s open. The kids cross the sidewalk and go up the stoop’s steps to their cousin’s front door. After promising his return, telling the driver that he has to see the kids off safely, Arthur shuts the car door to reenter the morning quiet. Then the doorbell. Arthur rings it, the crowd of three standing still as time passes only as it does when it’s pristinely early, and then, just in time, the door opens. It’s answered by a man in a red and black flannel, with molasses eyes, who smiles when he sees the kids, no matter how early it is.

“What are you doing here?”

His warmth doesn’t extend to Arthur. He looks at him angrily and furrows his brow.

“Who’s this man?” Agitated.

“I’m Arthur Curry. I found these kids.”

The man’s not moved.

“Th—the girls were alone on the train, and told me that they’d lost their Dad. I asked if they knew anyone else in the city, and they told me that their cousins lived here. You’re one of them, I’m guessing. Right?”

The man nodded.

“And you’ll be able to take care of them, right? You know, I don’t exactly know where their dad went.” Suspicious heard that. “You know you have to make sure that they’re okay. If you don’t make sure then something could happen. I actually saw one of…”

He was rambling. He was nervous and he didn’t know it; he wasn’t used to a day like today, or an ending like this, or people at all, really.

“Thank you for bringing them back,” the man cuts in. “Girls, get inside.”

Though they did both said goodbye before going away, inside the house.

“You will be able to take care of them, right?” Arthur keeps asking.

The man doesn’t want to tell Arthur thank you, but he tells him, firmly, with no pity, but soundly and resoundingly, that Arthur should leave immediately and go back home or to wherever he stays. He cut off Arthur when he tried to speak and told him that there’s a homeless shelter in the neighborhood, but he doesn’t ever want to see Arthur hanging around his house. He gave him a handshake; more like he forced it on him: a way to get the door closed faster:

The door closed and Arthur turned around; the cab was gone. Downtrodden, but still, Arthur knows what a good person feels like.

***

For all installments from 30 Birds, click here.

Previous installments

  1. “Velvet” by the Bloody Eyes
  2. “Subtle” by Yukio Mishima