Among the hustle and bustle of the subway, the only thing that caught little Johnny’s eye was the flickering fluorescent light in the corner. Though the compartment lit up bright with all the lights, there was something about this faulty one, something that sets apart the broken and twisted from the whole and natural, something that captured the delirious eye. It reminded him of all the scary stories he had heard from his grandmother, all the monsters that hid under his bed after dark and all the infernal strangers about whom his mother had warned him time and again. People got up, people got down, the announcements went on; but there was something about that broken piece of technology. Something that put it in a world of its own.
So little Johnny stared at it as it flickered. Dark, a few desperate efforts to a brief moment of light, then dark again. This imperfection, this break of monotony from the constant glow of the lights scared him. This fear was unknown, as it was uncharted. But he couldn’t take his enthralled eyes off it. So, to overcome his terror, he resorted to his usual life saver– nursery rhymes. He repeated to himself in a low voice:
“Jack and Jill,
Went up the hill-
To fetch a pail of water…”
Suddenly a voice beside him filled in the rest with a cackle:
“Jack fell down
And broke his crown,
While Jill came tumbling after.”
He looked askance and then turned his head at his co-passenger. It was at this moment he realized that the monotony of his world had sublimed. All that was whole, all that was natural now lay silent in the stillness of darkness. Only one light flickered in the compartment. Dark, a few desperate efforts to a brief moment of light, then dark again. This time the whole compartment danced with it, dark, few glimpses of light, then dark.
“You know what really happened to Jack? Don’t you know what the real story is? Don’t you want to know, little boy?” the dry voice asked inquisitively.
Poor Johnny looked around desperately, perhaps for someone who would step up and confront this strange old man, like his mom did to the monsters. He wished grandma was with him, so that he could hide his face in her breast to shut out all the scary poltergeists that he had conjured up in his imagination. He looked frantically among the shoes and bags in his sight and then he looked up at the person standing in front of him. But what looked back, froze him to the spine.
It was not what looked back, rather what did not. For in place of the people who have been getting on and off the train, now stood faceless figures. They had no eyes, their skin extended over the cheeks covering till their brows. Their mouths had been sewn shut with threads of skin running up and down, coiling across their whitened lips. They did not move; they did not talk. They just remained, like cold preserved corpses precariously arranged to simulate passengers in a subway. Some sat with their faces turned towards their phones, some stood with heads towards outside of the window, some leaned over against other’s shoulders. All of them arranged like a diorama of life, yet utterly lifeless.
The boy sat in his place, his senses failed him, his voice betrayed. He couldn’t scream, he couldn’t cry. He just sat in the flickering of the outcast fluorescent. He felt cold, and one more thing- the stares, of all those faceless people. It was as if they did not see, yet they looked back.
The silence was broken by the now familiar yet eternally foreign hoarseness,
“You see, my boy. Jack was a king. A rich and famous king…”
His wrinkled face started melting as he spoke, the skin flowing over the bones, the construction dematerializing, very slowly, but fast enough for eyes to discern.
“But when he failed to fetch the water for his people, they got angry. You know what they did to him then…”
The numbness that had infected the boy withdrew suddenly as he felt a tap on his knees, taking a break from the molting old face, he dared to look down once. It was a hand, but only in the sense it was attached to the old man’s shoulder. For it was thin and grew unnaturally flexible every moment as it made way under the little boy’s arms down into his lap. With its every flailing tortuous maneuver it grew darker in color and more serpentine in texture. It crept in between his legs and its lustful evolving jaws aimed deeper.
The boy was afraid. But more than that he was confused. A new feeling engulfed his body, he did not know what he felt. He did not recognize this emotion. For the first time his body felt so alien to him. He felt helpless. He felt small.
“They cut his head off. A nice clean slice, straight between the shoulders. And his poor poor queen! Her fair little face tumbled just right after.”
He looked up. The face had deformed beyond recognition, but the familiarity remained. And the most conspicuous was a smile. A blood red curve beamed across what remained of the ancient profile. Among the ugly irregularity of the visage, prevailed the perfect geometry of a smile.
The boy lost all his newly acquired senses, there was now no train, no flickering lights, no faceless corpse statues, no snake withering between his legs, no melting faces. Just him and a smile. A beaming red smile.
Breaking through this dam of delirium, a tide of fear hit him. A wave of pure terror that vandalized his trance of newly found emotions. He closed his eyes.
When he gathered courage enough to peep through the half-opened eyelids, there was light. Too much of it. The lights had once again begun their song of monotony and a flickering fluorescent danced to its tediousness. People got up, people got down, the announcements went on. Some were buried deep into their phones, a few stared outside the window lost in thought, a couple leaned against one another. The old man was there next to him. But he was now a regular white-haired person with wrinkled face, dozing off into sleep, to be woken by the bustle of arriving stations, then dozing off, only to be woken again. He could’ve been anyone, even his grandpa. There was something about sleepy old people that always felt familial.
“John! It’s our station. Let’s go,” his mother called from the other end.
Johnny walked over to his mom, then out of the door. Something made him look back, as if the song of monotony and the sound of silence called out to him. It was the same compartment. The bustle of the people, the flickering of the light. Even the seat he occupied was now taken by a woman in a long coat. It would be almost impossible to tell that the little boy had been there, if any of the passengers were ever there, once they got off and got on with their lives.
He looked at the next seat. Through the gap of a closing door he saw the only familiarity in an unfamiliar subway, the only constancy in a dynamic crowd, the only new feeling in an unfeeling world. He saw a smile.