He entered the metro and slumped into a molded seat across from my wheelchair. I assumed he was homeless. He looked bad and smelled worse. It was the sort of funk that creeps up on a person — the kind that comes with cartoon tendrils wriggling through the air to push aside your nostrils and caress your nose hairs.
A young woman got on at the next stop. I don’t know what she was thinking. Seat near the door? Preoccupied with work? Regardless, she sat beside the man.
The doors chimed and thunked shut, which is when she noticed. At first she played it cool. A manicured hand pressed discreetly to her face. A small cough. Briefly, she met my gaze, saw the wheelchair strapped to the wall, and looked away. I knew the type. She cared too much about what other people thought to move. So the odor put its arm around her shoulders and drew her in. It teased its way down her throat and curled around her tonsils.
Meanwhile the man appeared to have dozed off. His head sank against his chest as a persistent wheeze-rumble erupted from his mid-section. The young woman’s eyes darted back and forth in panic.
“Move,” I said to myself. “Why won’t you move?”
She finally closed her eyes and breathed through her mouth. After a while she seemed to achieve some kind of self-deluding rhythm. I knew it wasn’t my business, but I couldn’t look away.
Suddenly there was a terrible screech of metal against metal grinding under tremendous strain. The overhead lights flickered and died; all the passengers were thrown backwards. As the car lurched to a stop, its interior was infused with morning light, blue-gray and weak. I straightened and peered out the window but couldn’t see what had happened. We were on a covered bridge; icy river water swirled beneath us.
The floor looked like an orgy gone wrong. Commuter bodies struggled to untangle themselves and stand. Seated passengers leaned over to retrieve briefcases and purses, umbrellas, and shoulder bags. Some rubbed bruised body parts or gingerly tested a boot-covered foot. No one seemed seriously injured.
A muffled voice came over the loudspeaker. It told us we had suffered an electrical short. We would be stopped until the engineer allowed us to continue.
“We apologize for the inconvenience,” the voice said.
A few people groaned. Several pulled out cell phones. Within minutes almost everyone in the car was muttering into their palms they would be late to work, “No, I don’t know how late. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Today of all days. It figures.”
Then I smelled it. The same odor emanating off the homeless man, intensified. I twisted in my chair, straining to see where he had fallen. Whereas before the smell had been a gentle, insidious waft, it was now a full-on fist-punch to the face. I couldn’t help myself; I gagged. And the young woman? Where was she?
The commuter types noticed it too. They sniffed at the air and recoiled. Some looked around for the source.
I saw it before they did.
I pointed at a shapeless heap by the closed doors and said, “There.”
The nearest man — a man of action, I could tell by his pressed slacks — nodded and knelt beside the pile. He grabbed a rolled up newspaper and poked the top of it.
Something skittered in the blue shadows. I couldn’t see clearly, but I could hear it, like nails stagger-tapping against a table top.
The man jumped and slapped at his arm.
“What is it?” asked a female passenger.
“Did I get it off?” He turned to her, eyes wide and crazy. “Did you see it?”
“I… don’t see anything.”
He shivered. “It was on my arm.”
“What?” asked the woman.
The man nudged the pile with his foot.
“Maybe you shouldn’t — ”
The pile exploded into a splash of wriggling, contorted fragments. A new smell leapt from the skittering heap like a blast, this one redolent of mildewed earth, brine and rotten things, decaying, secret things of former flesh. If I’d been standing I would have been forced to the ground.
Then the screams started. Screams of shock and pain. Little insect-like creatures burrowing under business suits, rappelling up trouser legs on thin strands of mandible-produced silk.
Beneath the disintegrating pile I could just make out the young woman. Her pale mouth opened and closed several times. One of the insect shadows circled her lips like a drain and took the plunge.
At first the bugs ignored my withered flesh, but then they grew bold. Although I could not feel them advance, I finally had to admit the strange lumps under my blanket were moving closer. The most agile suit-wearers were having a small success brushing the creatures aside, stomping their little heads to a pulp.
But my wheelchair was strapped to the wall. No matter how many lumps I smashed with my fists, they still came.
There was nowhere to go. No one to help.
So I closed my eyes. I breathed through my mouth. And I waited.
Folly Blaine is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.