Sour yellow lights flicker over my head, strobing shadows against the brick walls and the concrete floor. I like the shadows. They are my brothers, my family, my only companions in this underground world. I peeled away from the shadows in the corner and hurried to join the people that strode back and forth across the subway station.
The one I wanted wasn’t among them, so I weaved around them, watching as they ignored each other for the anonymous and brightly lit faces of their smartphones or tablets. No one talks to each other anymore. It’s as though all of them have become like me, incapable of human comfort and society. I waited, patiently, at one end of the tunnel for the one I sought. My charge would be here soon; that much Fate decreed. We all have jobs to do, and this is mine.
A train roared from somewhere down the tracks. A garbled voice spoke from some overhead PA system. I knew the words by heart, but the others waiting for the train didn’t hear or understand. They’re like sheep. They follow, but they don’t see the world around them.
The approaching train pulled into the station with the clash of wheels on steel and the squeal of brakes. The wind that reeked of grease, stale urine, and old sweat buffeted over us, and we waited for it to stop. I didn’t join the others as they filed onto the train from the half-deserted platform. The train left with a rush of air that tossed scraps of paper from the littered floor into a frenzied dance that lasted only an instant, but there was beauty in that dance.
The last echoes of the trains passed out of the tunnels, and I turned to watch the entrance to the subway. I stared across at the platform serving southbound trains as another train pulled in, going in the opposite direction. It was three hours past rush hour, but the train was nearly full because there was a popular rock band playing downtown. I don’t know the name of the group. I’m beyond such concerns.
He wasn’t late. They’re never late, at least not on our side of the tunnels. He entered, stopped, stared at me, and then approached on completely silent feet. “Can you see me?”
It was always the same question: “Can you see me? Am I dead? Who are you?”
I don’t answer because I have a schedule. “Come with me,” I said.
“Am I dead?”
I wanted to tell him to stop asking stupid questions. I took his arm and pulled him toward the edge of the platform.
“What’re you doing?”
“We’re taking the next train.”
“You’re crazy. There’s no train.”
I pointed to the south, and his eyes bugged out of his head. A train, as black as midnight in the most bottomless mountain cavern, approached at breakneck speed. No sound issued from the wheels of this train, and no wind disturbed the debris on the platform. No light shone from the cars, which resembled old-style funeral train cars.
“You’re insane if you think I’m getting on that! I don’t know why I’m here. I was walking down the street, minding my own business, and then I’m walking down the stairs to this station. I don’t even ride the subway.
“Get moving,” I directed. “You know exactly why you’re here.”
I pulled him into the nearest train car when it slid to a silent stop. A sullen red glow lit the interior like blood trapped in ice. He wasn’t the only one in the car. There were others like me with seven women and ten other men in their custody.
“Sit,” I commanded.
He sat as the ebony door slid shut silently. The train began to move again, and at a speed that would have thrown us to the ground if we were human, that is. The floors, ceilings, windows were as black as the carapace of a beetle, except for that scarlet light that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The train rushed away down an endless track that began to descend at a steep angle. Down we ran for an eternity of time. The silence had long ceased to unnerve me, but the man in my custody either stared at me or tried gawking out the window. The others around us didn’t speak. They all sat silently and sullenly as if waiting for judgment.
“Where are we going?”
“Shut up,” I commanded. “Stop asking stupid questions.”
He shut up, and I began to enjoy the trip. We continued to travel down at a nearly ninety-degree angle; then, the trail leveled off, and we slowed to a snail’s crawl. The other passengers began to stir. I could see the terror in their eyes. Good. They were about to learn that fear was the least of their worries.
“I don’t want to be here,” said my stubborn and exasperating charge.
“You’re here because you belong here. It’s too late to change now.”
The doors slid open to the infinite darkness that pressed around us like a physical presence. It devoured the scarlet light and swirled around the passengers until they began to scream and to gibber like madmen.
I yanked the man out of the train and onto a platform that no one could see except Him. He was the ultimate shadow, the one that took all the black souls of men into himself and devoured them. Soon, they’d be one with the shadows and indistinguishable from the night – like me.
I returned to the train. We swooped and swayed over infinities of time and space. We climbed back into the embrace of the mortal world to join our brothers. When the train reached my stop, I nodded to the others who’d return to their stations and wait for midnight souls ready for transport to the netherworld.
I left the train and hurried back across the platform to my corner. I closed my eyes and let myself merge back into the shadows. Sound returned, and I could see and hear those that were still among the living.
I have no power over those who go on in the flesh, but I’m okay with that. I’ll wait here, part of the darkness, a shadow face that serves the Ultimate Shadow. I’ll remain in this place until another soul, bound for the train over the River Styx to Hell, arrives.