Gregory and Alley are playing chess again. It amazes me that they can play anywhere, regardless of their circumstances or surroundings. They bring a set whenever they go out together, complete with an up to date diagram of all their moves and the exact layout of the board from the last time they played. I’d seen them sit down at quick lunches, beach outings or, as was now the case, in the lobby of a busy train station. I can only imagine the mad scramble to log their progress and then repackage the pieces that would occur when our boarding was called. And they would only reassemble as soon as the trip was underway. To anyone else it might seem pointless, but these aren’t just any people. These are my best friends.
I myself am not a terrible chess player under ideal conditions. Ideal being a serene room, devoid of hurried individuals chattering in the background, and as much time as I need to calculate as many possible outcomes as I can muster. Months, preferably. Even then my shot of winning against all but the most freshman of opponents is slim. Despite this handicap, I am the third part of this inseparable trio of buddy-hood.
Today I’m glad they have the distraction. It allows me a brief moment to pretend that a cat nap is an adequate substitute for a full night’s rest. I slide down further in my unyielding chair and close my eyes. I do my best to filter out the sounds of loitering strangers unaware that 7:00 AM is not an approved hour of human alertness.
Something in my head flickers, stalls, then flickers again. A lawnmower surging to life. I can’t place exactly what that something is; it creeps under the edges of my brain, blurring my perception, rendering me hardly able to function. It feels as if I’ve dulled my nerves with a fistful of painkillers. I’m finding it nearly impossible to focus, even on internal thoughts. I shiver and roll my cheek to my shoulder, desperately trying to reach for a sliver of sleep. It’s the only seemingly appropriate reaction to whatever it is I am feeling.
I don’t know where he came from. One moment I’m essentially alone; next it’s as though the space near my shoulder is compressed. It’s more than the usual displacement of air and sudden lack of nothing a person senses when an object passes behind them. There is a level wrong, ever so slight, that sweeps over me, clutching at my neck and chest with frantic fingers. I’m engulfed in a wave of inexplicable panic so deep, so intense, that for a moment all I want is a blanket to hide beneath. As if I were at home and this was merely a settling floorboard waking me.
But I’m in public, not at home where I know logically no harm can come to me. I am in a space full of people, any one of them fully capable of atrocious acts of violence usually reserved for prime-time television.
So I open my eyes, carefully, slowly, and try not to start in fear at the sight of the faded linen trousers. I had been expecting something but the expectation makes reality no less chilling. He is the only thing I can see clearly somehow. Everything else is fuzzy and wavering at the borders, but he comes through as crisp and as neat as a staged portrait.
He waits patiently; mysterious and dreadful in threadbare clothing that would have been better suited to a tropical climate. He is old, his doughy, bald head flecked with the rusty spots of age. He isn’t round but his frame is soft, his whole body seeming less like that of a man and more that of an overly wet bowl of porridge. Yet there is nothing weak about him. His smile is lazy but confident, his stance easy but firm. He casually observes my two friends but there is nothing casual about this encounter. There is something dangerously intangible in play.
I start to sit up, but he turns his attention toward me and lifts a finger to his lips. Erring on the side of caution, I pause.
The man steps toward me, a half-slide to the side, bringing himself close enough that I can smell the mustiness of his suit. “They’re good,” he murmurs, so faintly I don’t think that anyone else can hear him.
They are, I want to agree, but the fear is strong enough to clamp my throat closed. Instead, I just nod as the words ring in my head unspoken.
He glances at me, smirking, his left hand disappearing into a pocket. I tense, but find myself drawn into his eyes, unable to look away. They appear slightly too large, but maybe that’s because the sclerae seem too small. The wide pupils are green, a green I have never seen before. Bright and almost neon in spots while dark and dirty, nearly gray, in others. There is something ancient and fathomless inside and a predator swims in their depths, just out of sight. I’m trapped in them.
He removes something from his pants, his movement fluid. It’s a gun, something tiny, matte, and black. It is almost comforting to see that he holds something I recognize and not some ancient talisman. Then I remember it’s a gun.
“What would you do if I just… shot her?” he asks in that quiet purr. He raises the gun level with Alley’s temple. She doesn’t look away from the board. Can’t she sense him? Doesn’t the part of her that used to be prey know when peril lurks nearby? Doesn’t Gregory see?
Images race through my head. Can I snatch it away before he has time to pull the trigger? Or would he intuit my intentions before I have a chance to reach him and fire, lobbing a bullet through the brain of my best friend? Was it possible? Should I take the chance?
It doesn’t matter what I’m capable of under ideal conditions, under these I’m frozen. There will be no heroics from me. My heart sinks a little.
“Nothing,” I whisper, so imperceptibly I’m sure he can’t hear me. I feel tears in my eyes. “I wouldn’t do anything. Please don’t hurt her.”
So he turns the barrel toward me, still smirking. “And them? What would they do if I shot you?”
I shake my head, sending the tears trickling down my cheeks. I’m trembling, my world fades and focuses on that gun and its menacing shaft. I can’t stop shaking my head. Why did he choose me?
Alley and Gregory finally take notice of us. I sense their distress and confusion.
“Trina…?” Alley asks, her voice tremulous. “What…” There is concern there, fear, and something else. Something I don’t understand that fills me with a special kind of dread I don’t know how to interpret.
“What’s going on?” I think Gregory means to sound combative but he doesn’t. He sounds petrified.
“Well hello!” the man says, including them in our conversation like we were discussing today’s news, not as though I am being held at gunpoint and they were oblivious until a moment ago. “You two are brilliant, just excellent. You must play frequently?”
They are stunned, as speechless as I am. Like me, their instincts kick in, those primal forces that tell us how to keep ourselves alive in the face of a real and true threat. They react to him as they would to a wild bear, moving with the speed of cold molasses. The very act of blinking or swallowing, even breathing, abates.
Idly, almost as an aside, I wonder if anyone else has noticed us. Wonder, if they haven’t, how long it will be before someone does. Surely a strange man pointing a gun at a young woman and her friends won’t go completely unremarked. Right?
Eventually Alley responds, tipping her chin ever so slightly.
“That’s what I thought. People simply don’t get that good without a lot of practice. It’s nice to see that the art of dedication hasn’t been lost.”
Of course, neither of them know how to answer. How can they? This isn’t something common etiquette classes often cover. The only thing people say about a crisis like this is “don’t be a hero.” Before today, before this very moment, I had scoffed at such platitudes; but now, with our lives on the line? I can’t help but hope that no one disregards that advice. If any of them lodge a successful attack against him it’s true, they will save us, but the chances that they’ll be successful… Those aren’t good. And if they fail? No, better to play along with the madman and just hope he lets us go at the end of his little game.
It’s too much to hope for, of course.
“What are you doing?” That comes from a woman somewhere behind me.
“It’s gun!” A man shrieks needlessly to my left.
Chaos erupts around us. But he just stands there, pointing that gun at me. And I continue to sit and stare into its empty void. It’s all that matters; the rest of it, the rest of them, is muted. The colors are drained, the sounds washed out. Like I’m underwater, everything is hollow and echoing as it happens above me. This is what it’s like to drown.
Mostly there’s shouting. People demanding he put the gun down. People asking him to put the gun down. People telling him it isn’t worth it or that we can work it out, that this isn’t what he wants. Through it all he keeps smiling at me. I don’t think the gun even rises when he breathes. He has such steady hands. Do steady hands breed confidence? Because that smirk of his–there’s nothing but confidence behind a smirk like that.
Am I starting to respect him? Is this how Stockholm syndrome starts? Do you get Stockholm syndrome from someone holding you at gunpoint? Or does it only affect kidnapping victims? Either way, I’m clearly losing my mind.
“That’s enough!” It’s the first time he has raised his voice. You would think it would be subdued like everything else he has done thus far, but no. His voice is booming, commanding. It’s almost unreal.
Just like that, there is silence. When the crazy man shouts the world stops to listen. Even the potential heroes.
He’s looking around the room, holding each individual in those eerie green eyes. Do they see him as I do, as shrewd? As monstrous? Do they understand how formidable he truly is? Or is he nothing more than a lunatic who has forced them to take him seriously?
“I’m glad you all could make it.” He addresses the crowd like family gathered for a reunion or a wedding, treating us as though someone has called for a toast. “You cannot guess how wonderful it is to see so many souls here. This is true history. The final check in a long game.”
People begin to mutter amongst themselves. The tone is annoyed. They are dismissing him as crazy. And why shouldn’t they? It isn’t their loved one he is threatening, it’s three strangers. We mean nothing to them, not enough to look deeper. Not enough to hear the sincerity in those words.
“I can hear your thoughts. All of your thoughts. Some of you are plotting to rescue this girl. You are already imagining the glory you’ll receive once you have. Some of you, most of you really, don’t know what to do. You are just so upset by this strange turn of events that you can’t see what’s really happening. And there are even some of you who are sticking around to see this girl die.”
When he says that he jabs the gun at me so that it touches. Cool, impersonal. A faceless monster just doing as it’s told. I realize I’m crying again.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong. Those who wish to be heroes? Look somewhere else. Those who are upset? You shouldn’t be, you’re wasting time. Those here to gawk? She won’t die today.”
BAM! The gun goes off and I scream but nothing pierces me. The bullet went skyward. He’d raised his arm with unbelievable speed. Plaster from the magnificent scroll-work comes raining down in a fine mist.
Mine wasn’t the only scream. A hundred voices blend with mine and a thunderous cacophony breaks out. But there is something more.
Something is coming, above our heads. And something is coming, under our feet. I feel it rumbling and shuddering toward us at a colossal speed, its low-pitched roar just barely masked by the pandemonium of humanity scrambling around me. I thought I had known fear just moments before but I was wrong. This is fear. This bowel-clenching, bladder-loosening, chest-tightening feeling that thuds through my head like a drug and makes it hard to concentrate on anything but my impending doom.
Only he had said I wasn’t going to die.
I steal a glance at Alley and Gregory. Their faces are pale, their breathing quick and breezy. They are minimizing their presence. Just like me. Our eyes meet and I see a mirror of myself. Pain, terror, confusion. Their hands hover over their game board, too scared to move. I wish I knew if they could hear whatever is coming, or if it’s only me.
The man begins to laugh. The tendons in his neck strain, his wan face turns a light shade of red, his inhuman eyes crinkle in joy. I think I hear him say “they’re finally here” but I can’t be sure.
Now everyone is starting to comprehend that something is happening. It’s become too loud to ignore. His laughter is insane, a lilting ring that reverberates off of everything around us, somehow filling the station with his presence, blotting out every sound but those damning, thunderous harbingers that gallop closer. Somehow he can erase every wail, cry, and crash, but not that.
Faces contort into various manifestations of horror, submission, and denial. I can’t hear them, but I know. The body language is so unmistakable. I wonder how much of my expression reflects what I am feeling or if my immobility extends to my facial muscles.
When it hits us there is no more time to think. The building rocks a little at first, a test to locate the weak points and confirm the destination. Then the full force slams into the station. Or our city. Or our tectonic plate. There’s a moment where I believe it’s the latter.
Marble splits with a crack, steel groans. People can be heard screaming once again. It’s a haunting sound of purely inescapable destruction, a plea to the universe that goes unheard.
Pebbles and powder rain down on us briefly, a peaceful precursor to a greater havoc. My spell of inaction breaks and I throw my hands over my head, dropping to the floor, pulling myself into a fetal position. I struggle to wedge myself under my unforgiving chair with limited success. I trust Alley and Gregory to do the same. I toy with the idea of reaching out to them, but it’s soon apparent that isn’t possible.
Columns and windowpanes begin to topple, wobbling first one way then the other before tumbling down. Inside the station we had known something was brewing, but to those on the street will it be merely an earthquake until it’s too late? Will it end in this building? On this city block or even in this city? Or will the havoc be more widespread?
The answer that reaches out from my deepest primeval memories is not comforting. No one wants to face their extinction event.
The train station is one of the older buildings in the city and one of the least structurally sound. It has no hope of withstanding this preternatural onslaught. It falls loudly and completely, heaping wood, wire, metal, stone and bits of modern plastic in jagged mounds. The scent of general ruination is undercut with the cloying smell of blood and burning. I hadn’t realized my eyes were closed until it strikes me that I am navigating the scene solely with my nose.
I am sure I have huddled there for aeons, waiting for the vibrating, crashing devastation to end. I don’t know why we’ve been singled out and allowed to live. Because that is exactly what has happened, someone granted us the right and privilege of witnessing this end. Though how anyone, much less myself, could see this as a privilege is something I don’t want to think about.
It finally ceases. Hesitantly, I peel open my eyes. My lids feel heavy with a thick coating of debris, refusing to act as I expect them to. My eyes sting from the assault of filth and fumes.
There is nothing but desolation to be seen. It’s more than the station. As I untangle myself, it becomes sickeningly obvious that there isn’t a man-made structure left. The clock tower, the sports arenas, the turn-of-the-century apartments, all of it. It’s all gone. Nothing remains but a few overturned cars and some broken furniture. I glance back at where I stand, among the rows of antique metal chairs, and I see him again.
He is untouched by the mess I’m sure he has helped create. His clothes are just as tattered and as stained as before, but not even one new speck has landed on him. The only difference is that he has climbed to the top of one of the many banks of rubble and is surveying the wreckage. A cane has materialized from nowhere and he leans against it tranquilly.
Not entirely trusting my legs, I stumble to my feet and lock my gaze on him. If I look at him and nothing else I don’t have to think about the rest of the world that I know once existed. I don’t have to try to reconcile my memories with what’s before me. It’s easier to just tunnel-vision onto him and ignore the rest.
He seems pleased with himself and watches as I blunder toward him. Hot tears are falling freely again; I am breaking apart. My sanity and self are crumbling with every step. He might be the catalyst, but I must understand and he’s the only one with answers.
“What did you do?” I whisper when I reach him.
“Me?” He laughs again. “This was you! This all came from you.”
I shake my head. “Me? How did I… I couldn’t… this isn’t something anyone can do.”
“But that’s just it, it’s not something anyone can do. It’s something you can do. Your brain, at least. You should be proud, there aren’t many who can boast a mind capable of all this!” He spreads his arms wide, victorious.
Me? How does he think I did this? “You’re lying.”
He won’t stop laughing. Just won’t shut up. It ticks against me, awakening a shadow of rage. My head is throbbing. I hate that he is the only shred of normalcy left in this world, but he is all I have. “I don’t understand.”
“You can talk to them. Well. You can call them. Or rather, someone can use you to call them if they know the code. A bit like a conch shell and a cellular application in one.”
This turn in the conversation has lost me. I blink away the tears numbly and ask, “They?” What else is there to do?
“Them.” He waves his hands around us flippantly, as though he shouldn’t have to be bothering with this. As though I should already know this part.
I force myself to really see what I am looking at.
The skyscrapers are gone, not even their skeletons are standing. No flexible bones to say “here was once a great vision.” Behind me, a footbridge that had led to the station has fallen, crushing a train with a vicious spike. In front of me, toward the water, are piles of pulverized brick and mortar. They keep the water from my view but I know this is the right direction.
I glance back but he just nods. Not in agreement, an instruction. He’s telling me I haven’t found it yet, look again. I turn again to where the water is, flustered. Then I see it.
The buildings were tall but they weren’t that tall and I was elevated myself. I should have been able to catch a glimpse of choppy gray waves but I didn’t. And the reason why?
My mind balks as it feeds the information to me, refusing to process the sight even as I look right at it.
Steel gray, flecked with mottled black and lighter shades of silver. It’s the only thing before me. My mind fumbles, delaying the message that it’s moving, twisting and twining. It isn’t the same color as the snatches of sky I catch in my peripheral vision, it is… Different. It’s an arm of sorts. An impossibly large appendage.
There are ropes of them, multiple strands lying atop one another like snakes, stretching from horizon to horizon where my view of the waterfront should be.
I gasp and take a step back. And run into him. I stifle a shriek.
“One,” he says as I pull away.
“One?” I repeat. One? As in…?
I start looking around me, tearing my eyes away from that horrific sight. And there are more. Behind me, in the direction of the mountains, are the city’s hills, and I can see the tips of more great limbs. Only brown, spotted with beige, rust-red, and sepia. They seem to come from everywhere, more so than the mass behind me. These spill across the broken streets and tumble down our steep inclines. Impossibly huge. How had I missed them when I first detached myself from the carnage?
“Because you didn’t want to see them. It’s too much for a human mind to accept without revolt,” he says beside me, even though I haven’t spoken my thoughts. I hear disgust in his voice.
Mutely, I shake my head. It seems to be the only answer I have today. It’s too massive a concept to process. My mind continues to war with itself, delivering the information while simultaneously insisting that it isn’t really there.
Is this it? Without prompting I look to the sky. I had heard something there initially…
I don’t know how it hangs there. There is only one, painted in varying shades of blue and spots of white. So large it almost blots out the entire sky, hovering like a flying saucer. Like the others, it roils and twists, coiling about itself, revealing an underbelly of lighter shades.
Too much. Far too much. I retch, my stomach tossing in time with these creeping, searching fingers. I bend double and let loose the contents of my stomach, scattering it across what was once my train station. I heave again, bringing up anything I have left. And again and again until all that comes out is the sour yellow froth of bile. I fall to my knees at some point and it hurts too much to stand again. I don’t know why I should, there is nothing left.
I hear him as he spins to survey the monstrous beings… being? To be honest, I don’t know. Am I seeing three of them? Or do the giant, textured coils belong to one incomprehensibly enormous beast that manages to occupy the land, the sea, and the sky all at once?
The land. The sea. The air. The mythology was wrong; we will not feast on the flesh of the Behemoth, the Leviathan, and the Ziz at the end of days. They’re going to kill us.
My own hysterical laughter burbles to my lips as the tears find me a third time. How do I have any left? Surely I’m dry by now. Then again, how can it be that I experience deeper and deeper levels of terror? How is that possible?
His next words jolt me out of the building fog of lunacy.
“Thank you, really. Thank you.” He pats my head dismissively. Like I am a child. Like I am a dog.
I force saliva into my mouth, I really work to find it, and spit. I try to spray him with the taste of stomach acid.
“Thank you?” I growl. “Thank you? For this?”
“This isn’t my fault.” My voice is stronger than I expect; there is an edge of fury I don’t recognize.
“Fault? Without you none of this could be possible. True, I tapped your potential, but you left your mind unprotected and wide open for the taking. There is no one else half as responsible for this as you.” He sounds so pompous.
My fingers tighten, clenching into fists that dig into the ridge of rubbish I’m crouched on. I brush against something smooth and cool and tiny and I latch onto it, pulling it free. It’s a black chess piece, a queen. As familiar to me as my two best friends. Gregory and Alley. I start shaking uncontrollably. So hard the queen falls from my fingers and hides again.
“It’s not my fault,” I repeat, turning my head to look at him. I’m cracking. “It’s not my doing. I didn’t want this. You did this! You used me.”
He regards me impassively, obviously disappointed with this reaction. “I suppose you could look at it that way. But it’s such a waste. If that’s your only take on the matter I’m not quite sure why I let you live.”
I snap, it’s an almost a physical sensation, and I’m like an animal. I throw myself into him shoulder first, catching him, and myself, off guard.
He doesn’t object, doesn’t even toss his hands up to protect himself as my whole body knocks him to the ground. I push myself up faster than he does, sure he is going to fight back but he doesn’t. So I punch him. I grab him by his shoulders and I slam him back into the ground until he’s bleeding. I hit him over and over. I have found an easily tangible focus to unleash all this turmoil upon and it feels so good. I’m not normally a violent person but it’s cathartic. I hope he’s feeling a tiny portion of what he’s made me feel.
“Trina!” It’s Alley’s voice, she’s shouting at me. I hear footsteps, uneven and as fast as they can be on this terrain.
“Trina!” They’re both yelling at me now.
Then they’re pulling at me. Two sets of hands struggling to pull me off him.
“Isn’t this enough?” Gregory demands over and over.
“He’s already hurt!” Alley is sobbing at the same time.
“No!” I insist as they pry me away. “No! You don’t understand. He did this! He did this!”
“All these people are dead, Trina!” Alley shouts. “I don’t know why you feel like he has to die too, I don’t know what’s happened to you, but please! This is enough! There is enough going on right now without you beating a poor deaf man to death!”
Something she says gets through to me. I stop struggling and let them carry me away. Gregory restrains me as Alley scrambles back to check on him.
“Poor deaf man?” I ask.
“Where did you even get that gun?” Gregory demands, ignoring my question. He isn’t even listening to me. “Since when have you owned one of those? And why him?”
“I don’t understand…” I plead in growing dread, staring at the bleeding man that Alley is helping sit up. He looks at me, his mouth torn and smeared with blood.
And he smiles. “They can’t hear me,” he says. So simple. So smug. He’s won.
I blink. “What?”
“You. You’re crazy!” Gregory is crying as he hugs me. He looks over to Alley for support.
“You don’t remember?” she demands.
I can’t take my eyes off the strange white man with the green, green eyes. “No,” I whisper. “That’s not what happened. You don’t, you don’t… It’s his fault, not mine. I didn’t do it.”
“They can’t hear me,” he repeats. “I told you that you have a remarkable mind and yet somehow you expect that your reality is going to match up with theirs? You really aren’t worth the trouble.”
I get it. “No,” I say to my friends, louder now. I want him to stop talking. I want for this to not be happening. I want this to be a dream. I want to wake up now. “You don’t understand. He drew the gun on Alley.”
“What? And you wrestled it away from him?” Alley says derisively. She groans and tugs her hair and says something about the inconvenience of losing my mind now.
“We should let the authorities sort this out,” Gregory says to her as I sag in his grasp.
The horrible man starts laughing again. Louder than before. Like a movie villain. My friends pay no mind to him just as they pay no mind to the monsters that thrash through the city. They are holding me as a crazed criminal for a police force that will never come.
It’s the end of the world and my own friends think I’m mad. But the worst part is that I’m starting to think they may be right.
Jenna M. Pitman‘s first work was published in a monthly zine local to Seattle where it ran for nearly a year, garnering a fair amount of popularity. Since then she has had a number of stories and articles published in a variety of locations. Before moving to Los Angeles, CA in 2013 she was a well known member of the Pacific Northwest convention community. Currently she is a happy resident of sunny Southern California where she hikes, dances, and practices yoga daily in addition to working as a full time writer. For more information please visit her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/JennaMPitman
If you enjoyed this story, let Jenna know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Dominic Black.