The Willow Society

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Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Lou made it all the way back to the train station without looking back. She walked down the stairs, swiped her MetroCard and went through the turnstile. A few other people occupied the station before her, but they all caught the train which sped off before Lou could board, or went up the stairs, left the station. Lou was annoyed she had missed the train.

She walked past the side of the stairwell between herself and the tracks, below was only a narrow stripe of tiled concrete. A thick jacketed arm wrapped itself around her, pulled her toward the area behind the stairs. Lou experienced a moment of sheer panic, something she had not felt for years. All she wanted to do was scream in terror; bite, claw, or tear her way free. Her MMA reflexes kicked in and her mind saw the unseen man behind her, his shape a target. This is simply another MMA fight. Her mind blanked in focus as her eyes took in everything around: the position of columns near, the distance between herself and the edge of the platform, the tiled walls with advertisements covered in scrawled graffiti, the benches behind the stairwell to her left. All this happened inside of an instant, a map formed in Lou's brain. She gauged the size of the man holding her from the man she had seen in the Street. Surely that's who this is, the jacketed arm is the same color as the man's. She judged his relative strength by struggling lightly against his grip. Her heels slid across the tiled floor as he pulled her backwards. She took a deep breath and her whole body tensed.

Panic was on the edge of her consciousness but she pushed it away.

Don't panic.

Her body tensed.

The man holding her sensed something of what Lou felt; his grip tightened, close to constricting her throat. His other hand came up and covered Lou's eyes. Which was exactly what Lou would have done in his place. Restrict your enemy's airway and blind them so they can't fight you.

As she began to choke, Lou realized: it's working. I'm going to die. Another moment of near panic and she saw spots on her vision. She was about to go unconscious and there was nothing left she could think to do to stop it. Black flecks floated across the subway station before her and beneath the near panic, the hardened part of Lou remained calm, became ragingly angry, focused, primed. No inner voice came from that part of Lou, just a wordless snarl, its rage infectious, opening Lou up to reserves of strength she had not realized she had. The kind of strength only impending death can inspire.

Her stomach tightened, her body tensed and her legs went stiff. She pulled her straightened legs upward in one swift, hard motion, which caused two things to happen at once. First it brought her booted feet into contact with the large man's face, her toes first. The man grunted in pain and Lou heard the sound of his mirrored sunglasses crunching, shattering, as her booted feet crash into them, into his face. She also felt his nose give way as the tips of her steel-toed boots broke it. His hand left her eyes and flew up towards his face. The second thing was Lou's sudden shift completely altered both of their centers-of-gravity, drastically enough the man could not maintain his one-armed hold on Lou. Her backside smacked hard into the concrete floor, but she didn't cry out. As she fell she caught a glimpse of the train tunnel. Light from an oncoming train, distant and glowing was far down the tunnel. The platform would soon fill with people disgorged from a train. In a flash Lou righted herself and ignored the throbbing from her backside. She pushed herself to her feet and leaned forward to run all-out towards the other side of the stairwell behind her.

The large man recovered enough to kick her hard just above her hips, grazed her back and sent a jolt through her kidneys. She grunted in pain.

Tumbling into the wall, Lou barely managed to keep her feet,under her. She was woozy. Her vision swam. But she had inflicted some damage to the man, enough he couldn't immediately shake it off and strike at her again right away. Lou got her bearings, assumed the correct stance: legs spread, shoulder width apart, bouncing on the balls of her feet, both her hands raised to protect her face.

She got her first good look at the man since he had grabbed her. His face was smashed up, blood trickled down from his lumpy nose. He had discarded his sunglasses, or they had just fallen away and there were a host of scratches around his eyes and the bridge of his nose, a few trailed little streams of blood. A large welt, red and getting shiny, was splayed across his forehead. The man's mouth was a thin line of anger and concentration , his crystal blue eyes narrowed and menacing. He might have been handsome in different circumstances.

Taking in Lou's raised hands, her guard up, and her bouncing stance, the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly, but otherwise his face remained expressionless. Not the implacable withholding of emotion Lou practiced, but an emptiness, a void of emotion.

What does that mean? But then she knew. He likes to fight and is pleased to see I'm not easy prey. Her eyes were glued to his now, tracking their movements. His darted to the train tunnel, where he must have seen the light from the approaching train. Lou thought she could see a tiny dot reflected in the man's eyes. How long have we been at it? It can't have been long, a minute at most.

Quicker than Lou thought a man his size could move and without any tell, the large man struck out at her. The sensation of something solid and powerful buzzing past her head, like a large angry insect, was all Lou felt of his first swing, her reflexes had reacted faster than her active thought. She bobbed out of the way of his speeding fist.

A grunt of displeasure escaped the man's lips followed quickly by another wide punch, and a roundhouse kick Lou herself would be hard pressed to emulate just then. She managed to dodge the punch and slap his kick forward, nearly twirling the man around in the process. His foot struck a tiled column and he grunted in displeasure, it didn't sound like pain. Lou had to fight back a smile.

A wave of hot air buffeted Lou from behind, the pressure of the train pushing air before it. Lou, already on the tips of her toes, was thrown off balance by a hair. But it was enough. The large man's next blow, whether by design or chance, was an open-handed slap, not a balled fist, which though it knocked Lou to the ground, did not dislocate her jaw or knock her unconscious, as it would have, had it been closed. As she fell to the ground, Lou's first thought was, I wish I could hit that hard.

On her backside again, she scrabbled away, backwards like a crab, from the man. Towards the empty space at the edge of the platform, above the train tracks. She only had a foot or two at most before she fell off the platform, crashed down into the dark, sooty floor beneath. Her breath came in fast pants now, her side throbbed unmercifully. The vision in her right eye blurred, the slapped-side of her face came furiously alive, as though it wanted to secede from the rest of her head, fly off on its own. The roaring of the train rushed behind the air and into Lou's ears. It would pull into the station in less than half minute, Lou guessed.

Apparently he made the same estimation because he leapt at Lou, caution to the wind, determined to incapacitate her, haul her off to wherever he intended to take her. Or just kill her, before anyone could get in the way. Lou knew she had to act, had to think of something, and quick, but that thought was cut off when he flew towards her, arms outstretched like an angry zombie. His face split horrifically into a mask of anger, somehow empty, blank, and cold; made grotesque by the streams of drying blood on his face.

Lou did the almost unthinkable. She knew she couldn't win this fight, and she had the sudden feeling people streaming out of the train would not be enough to keep him from killing her. She rolled to her knees and off the platform and let herself fall to the inky void which housed the train tracks. Rolled into the path of the oncoming subway train. Luckily, Lou managed to miss landing on the metal third rail of the tracks, instead she landed between the track and the wall, which was slightly recessed from the platform above. It formed a lip above her head. Before she registered pain from the impact of falling five odd feet to the hard concrete floor, she rolled to her right, under the lip of the platform, away from the tracks and the train. Only seconds before the roar of noise, air and crunching metal thundered past her, erasing the sensation of anything other than the passing train. Her only company darkness and the pain of her fall.

The train didn't stop. It's a damn express train! That meant she had only the time it took the train to pass before the large man could, would, jump down. He would come at her again, and there would be no one to intercede, no crowd. Lou forced down the near panic again and desire to indulge in her anger, to curse and gnash her teeth. Her focus came back strong and she did her best to take in the surroundings, blot out the roar of the train and flashing lines it produced in her vision. Turning away from the lines, she saw there was actually a lot of room under the platform, room enough for her to crawl further under it - with who knew what kind of garbage, probably rats, too. It smelled awful. Dark and dank, it stank like the toilets in Juvie. There was no telling how far underneath the platform the space went, or where it would lead. She did know one thing for sure: there was no way the huge man would able to fit under the platform, she could barely manage herself.

But he might be able to lay down and aim a gun at her. He's almost certainly packing. A very disturbing thought, although Lou wondered why he hadn't shot at her yet. She swallowed her fear. It's the only available option.

Under the platform was a sooty sea of refuse: old cans, trash bags, food wrappers, batteries, and cigarette butts everywhere, even pantyhose and a backpack or two, some discarded and foul-smelling clothing and shockingly, a cell phone. As Lou stared at the cell phone, thanks to the darkness, she realized it was on. It has power! It couldn't have been down there very long. Lou didn't have her phone, she rarely did. She had never gotten used to having one, had never felt comfortable being constantly available to others. It was a frequent bone of contention between her, Myth, and Izzy, and on rare occasions - Isabel or Sue-Ann. The others constantly pressured her to change. Right then, Lou swore she would never again be without her phone, it seemed ridiculous now to not have it. She grabbed the abandoned phone, promised her dead parents she would never leave her apartment without her own again. She dialed 911.

The call went through. The faint sound of a tinny voice said, barely audible above the torrent of rushing air, “911, emergency response, what is your emergency?“

Lou screamed into the phone, “I'm being attacked at the Bleecker St station, uptown platform!“ She made sure her voice carried over the sound of the train, which pulled past her, and was gone from the station as the words left her mouth, sucking a blast of air with it, obscuring the response from the 911 operator.

“Help me!“ Lou screamed. She heard a pair of feet hit the ground, the large man had jumped down to the tracks. Lou looked down and saw the phone had died. She couldn't tell if it had died before or after she had gotten her message through. She swore and threw it among the refuse, tried to crawl further back, and felt ashamed. She had never run from a fight in her entire life, had never wanted to, even against larger men, such as Grimes back at Elspeth's. Her eyes stayed looking forward as she inched backward, watched his feet come closer.

A pair of knees materialized as the man bent down and a pair of shoulders and his bloody, smashed up face. His mouth was a thin line, his face blank. Empty.

“I will shoot you.“ The man said. His voice was deep, confident, and like his face, void of expression. The man reached inside his bloodstained, sooty, and dusty blazer for his gun.

Something distracted him and his face disappeared upward. He bounced on his feet for a moment, his feet turned away from her, and he was running, gone. Lou counted to twenty and shimmied her way out from the recess under the platform, looked around furiously for man. Gone. By the time she was standing she heard what he must have heard, the sound of footsteps and shouts. Men's shouts.

“Metro Police! Metro Police! Is anyone down there?“ a man's voice yelled. Suddenly there was a face looking down at Lou from the platform. When he saw Lou he let out a yell behind him and jumped down, like a hero in training.

“Are you OK, um, Miss?“ the man asked, looking around quickly. When he took Lou in, he stepped away, confused.

Lou looked at herself and realized she was filthy, sooty and battered. And with her short her probably looked like a boy. He thinks I'm some kind of homeless kid or punk. Lou scrubbed at her face. The Metro officer still looked around, confused. “It's gonna be OK, Miss. You're safe now.“

Lou wanted to laugh. Safe? As if. She realized something. Something dire. The backpack she had been wearing when she left school to follow Parker and Lil J and Taylor was gone. It had been on her shoulders when she entered the station. Her laugh wasn't pleasant and the officer looked taken aback.

“Are you sure you're OK?“ He asked tremulously.

Lou managed a nod. The large man could have her backpack. He'll know my name. Thankfully there wasn't much else; some textbooks, a notebook, and workout gear, along with her student ID. Despite her laugh, her face stayed without emotion. The Metro officer gave her a standard are you crazy? look.

“There's nothing to afraid of, um, young lady. We're the good guys.“

Her joy at being safe curdled.

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