Take The Flay Train | Doug Black

Take the flay train

 
 
 
In my Hell, I’m flayed alive by my mother in a dirty operating theater.

Every time, it goes this way: I’m frozen in a standing position, arms outstretched like I’m bound to an invisible crucifix. Mother’s in surgical scrubs and a mask, so all I see are her eyes, webbed in red, and crow’s feet like the Grand Canyon.

She runs a nicotine-stained finger down my breast, lingers on the nipple, and then down my stomach and over my vagina. I cringe and try to shrink from her contact, but my naked body doesn’t respond.

All her boyfriends, pimps, and dealers watch from the stadium seating, whispering to each other.

Then she steps away, out of sight.

The precious lull before the cutting begins. This is where I always think about Andy, my beautiful bastard of a husband. Somehow, he and his Uncle Leo, they escaped this.

Leo I’m not so mad at.

But I sure miss that husband of mine.

 

*

I should’ve headed north, from my St. Bartholomew’s office to my sister’s in Yonkers, where I was living out of my Samsonite. The daily lunch-time email from Andy, pleading for me to come home, ended with a post-script that he hadn’t heard from his Uncle Leo (my surrogate father-figure) even though he was expected back from travel abroad two days earlier. So I headed into Greenwich from uptown.

I crossed 7th Avenue, pavement dusted with snow, ahead of a beeping taxi. Andy stood outside Leo’s building, unlocking the outer door. I yelled his name and he held it open for me.

I weaved around two giggling boys walking a terrier and trundled up the steps behind him.

“Hey,” he said.

All business-like and avoiding eye contact, I asked if he’d heard from Leo yet while I knocked the snow off my shoulders and loosened my scarf.

“No. He was supposed to fly in two days ago. I figure he’s sleeping it off.” He took a step toward me. I could smell the light orchid fragrance of his daily green tea and the spice of aftershave. “Thanks for coming by. You didn’t have to come all the way out here.”

Those light blue eyes always sapped my willpower, but I fought it. I told him I was here for Leo, not him, and then I tore away from his gaze and walked up the stairs.

Uncle Leo and I had always been close. He made me feel loved, while my mother disappeared for days turning tricks for crack. Leo even helped me—the impoverished high-school sweetheart of his favorite nephew—pay for medical school.

Andy followed me up the tight stairway, fresh white walls awash in dingy fluorescent lighting dotted by the silhouettes of insect carcasses trapped in the plastic covers. We stepped aside at the first landing to make way for an old woman hobbling downstairs.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked.

I took the steps faster.

Andy’s cell phone chirped.

I asked him if that was our friend Cindi.

Cindi with an i.

I didn’t try to suppress the chuckle.

Another chirp. The plastic pitter-patter of his fingers on the screen.

Without stopping or looking back, I told him he might as well go ahead and replace the bogus name in his phone contacts with hers.

Cindi with an i was “Steve Jones” for several weeks until I answered Andy’s phone one night when he was in the shower, thinking it might have been a message from the emergency room where he works.

“I told her we’re done, but she won’t leave me alone.”

My scoff echoed within the stairway.

Silence, except for our footsteps, while we spiraled up the stairs. At every turn I could see Andy in the corner of my eye, head down, slouched, hands in his pockets.

The stale air in the building grew hotter the higher we climbed. The third landing felt like too many people had their radiators on high. At the fourth landing, where Leo lived, the air grew thicker like I was trying to breathe hot water.

I stopped three doors down on the left. Like so many other times up here to visit.

And then that ultimate cage fight of emotions.

The persistent sting of betrayal versus happy, nostalgic memories.

Andy and I walking up here, together, to visit Leo. Coffee and tea with some cheap shortbread cookies while Leo regaled us with stories of his world travels.

“You alright?” he asked.

Sentiment beat out treachery. My face was sticky with tears and sweat.

“Gimme the key,” I said.

Hinges squeaked behind us. The door opposite Leo’s opened to security-chain width and a wrinkled face peered through the gap. Sinatra crooned faint in the background.

“You here to check on him?” asked an old woman. The smell of cinnamon and Ben-Gay wafted into the hallway from the woman’s apartment.

“Yes, have you seen him lately?” I asked.

“I heard him come in a few nights back, I think. But a lot of ruckus about an hour ago. Please ask him to keep it down.” The door eased shut with a long squeal.

Andy took off his jacket and folded it over his arm. “Geez, hot enough for ya?”

“Radiators are up high, probably. C’mon, open it.”

Andy wiped sweat from his pale forehead. “I don’t know. You don’t look too hot and I feel like shit. Let’s go sit and get a coffee.” He laid his hand on my shoulder. “C’mon, we haven’t talked in days. I’m sure he’s fine.”

My stomach was heaving like I was on a cheap rollercoaster, but I snatched the keys from his hand and found Leo’s on the third try.

I opened the door and a stifling wave of hot air rushed out of the apartment, like a huge hair-dryer. We reeled back, gasping. I could have sworn I heard distant screaming, like a TV on too loud down the hall, but it faded with the heat as it rushed from the room.

“Holy shit. What was that?” said Andy.

Once the heat had dispersed, I stepped back into the apartment.

I thought I’d walked into the wrong one. What was always a meticulously organized bachelor apartment had become unrecognizable. Wrinkled maps and sketches of ancient temples and statues were pinned to every available section of wall. Dirty plates, bowls, and glasses cluttered an antique coffee table while flies buzzed and snacked on the half-eaten remains. A chalk square, about six feet on each edge, had been drawn on the shag carpet. The smell of scorched hair and fried beef lingered, giving the air a greasy feel.

“Ugh. Has he finally gone off the deep end? What the hell is this mess?” I said. I covered my nose and mouth and stepped inside. On the other side of the coffee table, the ass end of Leo’s cat, Mister Whiskers, laid there, sliced in half. The wound was cauterized and perfectly aligned along the chalk outline. No blood.

His shoulders, forward legs, and head—which should have lain inside the square—were gone.

 

*

Another version of my mother, also in surgical attire, picks up a gleaming scalpel from the instrument tray. She presses the blade into me and runs it around my neck.

As many times as I’ve been through this, you’d think by now that the pain would be relative. Being flayed should be cosmically more painful than the first measly incisions, right?

Fuck no.

The first slice of the keen scalpel catches my breath like a smack in the face, and then half way around the shock dissipates and it’s a halo of fire burning around my neck. The arteries pump warmth down my chest, thighs, and then splash onto the floor.

From that first incision, she cuts half way down my back to about my seventh thoracic vertebrae.

The men in the stadium murmur, excited.

The poetic quality strikes me during each iteration of this procedure: Me, a dermatologist, being stabbed in the back and flayed.

 

*

Andy looked over my shoulder at what was left of Mister Whiskers.

“What the hell?” he whispered. He drew out the last word and stared at the corpse with his mouth open. “We need to call the police or something.”

“Jesus, that is horrible.” I stepped into the chalk square. Two lit candles, dripping wax puddles in the saucers underneath, sat in the middle. Between them a book lay open and a tiny marble statue, a snarling gargoyle, held the yellowed pages down. “Where was he, again?” I asked Andy.

Andy stared at the dead cat. “Huh?” He clutched his stomach and stepped behind me.

“Where was he last week?”

“Turkey or Greece, I think. Said he found something to do with Pluto or some shit.”

I picked up the statue, turning the marble over in my palm.

Andy looked over my shoulder at the book. “What does that stuff say?”

I flipped through the musty pages and recognized faded Greek letters. “I don’t know. Not in English.” I shut the book and ran my fingers over the unmarked, leathery cover. “Wow.”

“What is it?”

“Just feels weird. Kind of oily.” I dropped the book and wiped my hands on my jeans. “All of this…really weird. We need to check the police stations and hospitals.”

The statuette, about the size of a saltshaker, was etched with markings in the same arcane language. I picked it up and could see that the base swiveled. I twisted it and it emitted faint clicks while it turned. After turning it a half revolution, the marble turned a glowing orange-red, like a hot charcoal briquette. No heat, though—cold as an ice cube.

“Come on, Tara. Let’s—”

The apartment jumped and bucked, as if an earthquake, when I rotated the statue full circle. Stacks of papers slid off a nearby desk and dishes rattled. I lost my balance while crouched and fell onto my side. The dirty plates clattered to the floor when Andy tried to steady himself on the coffee table.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. “Okay. I’m out of here.” I turned back to the door and stopped. “Dammit! What is going on!?”

“What is it?” Andy asked.

I pointed down at the carpet.

The top half of Mister Whiskers lay on the inside of the square. His swollen, purple tongue lolled and his eyes were wide. The back half of the cat was gone.

“Let’s go.” Andy pulled my arm toward the door but I jerked it away and walked ahead of him out of the apartment. He called out for me to wait up, but I was already heading down the first few steps.

I descended the stairs as fast as I could without tripping or slipping in puddles on the steps. The lights flickered in the stairwell and the walls were dirty and smeared with black-red streaks. A whole handprint in one corner.

I hit the street door like a running back busting through the defensive line, just wanting to be alone in the cold, stagnant air that is Manhattan in winter.

The streetlights emitted a jaundiced glow. And it was quiet. No speeding cabs. No kids walking their dog.

In the city, it’s never that quiet. There’s always a siren, shout, or shattering glass, maybe someone with their radio up loud or a beeping taxi will blow past. That’s New York quiet.

A man with shaggy red hair rounded the corner next to Leo’s apartment building and shuffled toward me. He wore stained, baggy, khakis and held a red and white striped cane, but walked with it straight up and down like he was on a nature hike. Pieces of cardboard duct-taped around his feet scuffed with each lumbering step.

The guy walked right up to me and stopped. I stood on the bottom step, but had to look up into his face and mirrored sunglasses.

Not just big. Pro-basketball center big.

“Can I help you?” I asked with my New York, go-fuck-yourself face on.

In his other hand, the bum shook a silver cup. Coins clattered within.

“Hello,” said the bum, staring straight over my head. “My name is Charlie.” His voice was slow, like a record playing on a low setting. He continued jingling the cup.

Buttons of various sizes adorned the lapels of his military field jacket: I LOVE NY. SHIT HAPPENS. One with a cow eating a human arm that read DON’T GET MAD(COW), GET VEGAN. Another, with a cartoon caricature of a smiling, severed head said to EAT AT JOE’S.

“Hello. My name is Charlie.” Coins still bouncing in the tin cup.

“You wanna back up?” I said.

Andy walked out of the building and stood next to me.

“Hello. My name is Charlie.”

“Back up, man!” yelled Andy. He eased me back and stepped between us.

“Hello. My name is Charlie.” The metallic din of bouncing coins started to pierce my eardrums, like an ice pick shoved into my ears. Maggots crawled through the bum’s crusted beard. “Alms for the poor?” he asked in his deep drawl.

Andy pulled out a handful of change and dropped them into the cup. “There. Now go.”

Charlie looked down and smiled. He raised the cup, sharp, dirty fingernails grasping the wire handle. He looked straight into Andy’s face. His teeth were filed down into perfect white points. “Take the Flay Train, baby.”

“The A train? Get away from here before I call for the cops,” I said.

The bum laughed. It began as a scratchy rumble in his throat, like gargling glass, and then erupting into a full belly laugh. The bum continued laughing while he turned and walked down the empty sidewalk, jingling his cup.

“I think he said flay,” said Andy.

Had I been a Duke Ellington fan, I might’ve gotten it.

 

*

Nurses now, all with my mother’s sunken eyes, step forward. They peel my skin from back to front like they’re taking off a dress that zips down the back.

Imagine setting your hand on a hot stove burner and leaving it there. That’s your whole body when you’re flayed, as every square inch of muscle, nerves, and leftover hypodermis are exposed to the air.

Over twenty square feet of skin, stripped from my back, pulled down my arms and legs, and snapped off from my fingertips and toes like a set of tight latex gloves.

And I can’t yell, not even that quiet scream with your mouth closed. Nothing to ease the pain while cold air blows across the nerve endings and muscles, feeling like low-grit sandpaper.

The nurses leave my skin in a bundle at my feet while my four-ish liters of blood drain onto the dusty concrete floor. The surgical theater empties and I’m left alone with my thoughts and my screaming nerve endings and the sulfurous stink.

 

*

“Jesus H, what a day.” I flipped my coat collar up and stepped down onto the sidewalk. The city sky had darkened, like a fresh bruise, from purple to black. More debris blew down the street—newspapers, plastic bags, candy wrappers.

Andy scrambled to keep up with me. “Dammit, would you wait,” he said. He grabbed my arm before I could cross diagonally to the corner subway station. The red globe that marked the descending steps blinked. “Wait up. I don’t want you out here alone.”

“Look, I’ll call you later and we’ll discuss what we’re gonna do about this mess. But I need some space for a while so I can think.” I shrugged his hand off. “Not to mention, we have your missing uncle to think about. I’ll call hospitals and you can check with the police.”

The streetlights were dim, casting a haze at intervals along the sidewalk. Every building and apartment was dark, not a single light shining. He followed me across the street. “I’ll just go down to the trains with you.”

“Fine,” I said. I stopped on the sidewalk and dug into my pockets for my MetroCard.

A warm cloud of steam billowed from the adjacent alley. A light switched on in a second story window above us. A black silhouette emerged, both hands of the shadowy figure raised and pressed against the frosted glass.

Shuffling and giggling echoed from the tops of the four-story buildings that lined the street. The dark shapes of heads, dotted with red eyes, peered down at us.

The steam cleared and revealed someone sitting against the nearest building.

“Let’s go, Andy. I didn’t think the Village was this shady at night.”

Andy stepped closer to the person.

The slumped figure was covered completely in newspapers. The bum sat in a black pool and Andy had stepped in it with the toes of one of his shoes. He took a step back and it sounded like when you’re walking on a sticky floor in a movie theater.

The bum lifted his head. The newspapers covering his face and neck fell, revealing a slit throat.

I grabbed Andy’s sleeve. “Let’s go! Now!”

The bum pushed himself off the ground, his body ripping from the concrete as he rose from the pavement.

I clutched Andy’s sleeve, but just stood there, in that moment of shock where you can’t move.

Andy recovered first and pulled me by the arm down the subway steps. He was whispering to himself, “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.”

Andy pulled me into the dark depths of the uptown tunnel. Rats skittered across our path and rusty water dripped from the crisscrossed pipes above us. We raced down the stairs of the dingy tiled entryway.

The bum’s lurching steps echoed behind us.

Andy’s hair was dripping from sweat and the steamy moisture of the subterranean passage.

The steps opened into the main station and we slowed to a fast walk, checking the stairs over our shoulders. Unlike the standard New York subway stations, there were no MetroCard machines or turnstiles. The dirty tile floor led past a glass booth to the train platform. At the far end, a person in a heavy coat and hood lay on a bench.

No police. Never when you need one.

I pointed ahead at the booth. “Let’s see if someone’s in there.”

We ran around the front of the glass enclosure. “What the…” started Andy.

An old man with dry, gray skin sat with his eyes closed, shriveled hand propping his head up. “Is he dead?” I asked.

The old man’s eyes opened, yellow surrounding black pupils.

“Are there any police in here?” asked Andy.

The old man, still holding his head up, smiled. He pushed two gold tokens through the small change window. “Abandon all hope,” he said in a cracked, high-pitched voice.

I picked up the tokens. “Let’s go.” Andy stood frozen, staring at the old man. “Let’s go!”

He snapped out of the trance and followed me to the platform.

“Have a nice trip! See you next fall!” The old man laughed louder, mouth wide and filled with brown, broken teeth.

We reached the deserted platform. The tokens gleamed, shiny new gold, but were covered in foreign letters. Greek, I think. Like the stuff in Leo’s apartment. “What are we supposed to do with these?”

I looked up from the coins and followed Andy’s gaze to the subway steps. The bum stood at the foot, staring at us. A few of the sheets of newspaper still stuck to his clothes, crusted over with dried blood. Gelatinous strings of plasma hung from his neck wound and spread onto his faded coat. The old man in the glass booth laughed louder, clapping, his corpse-like head tilted back.

The bum lurched toward us. Andy turned to the slumped body on the bench. “Hey! Wake up!”

The form didn’t move. An army of roaches emerged from the slumped body, spreading in all directions from the dark crevices of the hood and sleeves.

Screeching and clanking echoed from the tunnel beyond—first a distant rumble, but then it grew into a piercing shriek. We backed up to the yellow safety line, watching the approaching vagrant. Roaches crawled over our toes as they spread out over the tiled floor.

The bum scowled, his face ashy, and reached a gloved hand out toward us. The leg he favored was broken—the jagged edge of his femur poked through his trousers.

A warm blast of air burst through the tunnel behind us. The train rocketed past the platform and its brakes squealed. We backed up as far as we could from the approaching ghoul without being sucked off of the landing by the blur of steel that brushed against our backs.

The bum limped closer, so close I could see a nest of wriggling maggots where his throat had been sliced through.

The train slowed and the last car stopped behind us. A whoosh of air escaped, signaling the imminent opening of the sliding doors. As soon as the gap allowed enough room, we squeezed into the subway. A man’s electronic voice transmitted from speakers above us, in a jolly, cartoonish tone. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” Another whoosh and steel separated us from the walking dead man.

The bum ran into the glass. His teeth clacked together while he pressed his face up against the window. Coagulated blood spread over the glass like thick strawberry jam.

I looked around the train car, my heart galloping. Most of the seats were taken, but the faces of the passengers were all obscured—newspapers, magazines, hoods, and one person was even wearing a Greek tragedy mask.

The train jerked to a start and then accelerated. The bum followed as far as he could along the platform, and then stumbled down onto the tracks. He limped after us, but was soon lost in the gloom as we picked up speed.

Andy pulled me into his chest. “Okay, we’re gone.”

But something wouldn’t let me relax. Some feeling like we had just jumped out of the frying pan and into a boiling cauldron of molten lava, skipping the fire altogether.

We stood there, catching our breath, looking around, arms clasping each other for the first time in months.

The door that connected our car from the next opened. No clear view further into the train, just a black tunnel, but the figure that opened the door stood framed in the portal, giggling with his stubby hand over his mouth.

A dwarf dressed in black and white motley, bells ringing on a jester cap. He laughed and jumped up and down and waved us over.

Andy sighed and squeezed me. “Fuck,” he whispered.

A few of the passengers had lowered their magazines and newspapers. One old man, bald pate covered in liver spots, oozed pus from his eye socket. A young woman sitting next to Andy, ear buds trailing from each side of her head, leaked dark blood and her tongue hung from where her jaw used to be. Both of them stood.

The dwarf twirled a pirouette, bells jingling. “Better hurry. Better hurry,” he sang.

The two mangled passengers approached with shambling steps and we backed toward the laughing jester. Other passengers dropped their hoods and newspapers as we walked backward past them. Each stood, like a grotesque group wave at a sporting event. They stumbled toward us, reached for us. They each suffered from varying stages of decomposition and a variety of wounds. One even sloshed clear fluid from where the top of his skull was sawn off, revealing the pink lobes of his brain.

“Go, go, go,” I yelled. I squeezed Andy’s hand until it was white and followed him through the train door.

The jester slammed the door behind us. The ghouls pressed against the glass, smearing fluids and chunks of skin over it. The dwarf skipped and clapped into the darkness of the compartment.

A flickering, fluorescent staccato, bathed the car in bright white light. What I saw brought the acidic taste of bile up into my throat and my stomach squeezed in protest.

The walls of the train were covered with flayed human bodies. Walls, windows, and even the ceiling—stringy corpses revealing marbled flesh, eyeballs wide and protruding with no lids, lip muscles pulled in grimaces. Only the floor and benches were undecorated with skinned corpses.

Andy’s brow was slimy and he uttered a faint choking sound, a gurgle. His knees jerked and then he staggered forward, but we managed to hold each other, arms around shoulders like two drunk buddies.

They need to add something to wedding vows to cover this—“For better or worse” doesn’t quite cut it.

A gravelly laugh boomed from the front of the train. “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

We tore our eyes from the walls of the car. Charlie sat on a bench at the opposite end. His feet, still covered with cardboard, were propped up across the aisle.

And next to him, an old man in boxers and a white tank top.

Andy yelled.

 

*

It can take anywhere from several hours to a few days to die from being skinned alive. But here, of course, that doesn’t apply. Just when a good-old-fashioned human body would expire from this method of execution, a burst of red light explodes behind my eyes, and my skin’s back on my body.

And then my mother. Again.

Andy’s really missing out.

I never really believed in fate or chance. You’re the author of your own story. But I admit, I loved that Fortuna, in Roman mythology, is a goddess.

Fucking bitch.

 

*

Uncle Leo nodded. “Hello, Andrew.” Another nod. “Tara.” Despite his usual air of world traveler and adventurer—a senior citizen Indiana Jones—he sat hunched like a little boy waiting to see the principal.

“What is this? What’s going on?” I asked him.

Charlie laughed. Leo shot an annoyed look at him. “It seems I’ve gone and dabbled in some things I shouldn’t’ve.”

Charlie held a red and white striped bucket and gnawed on what appeared to be a chicken leg, although bigger than any chicken leg I’d ever seen. “C’mon up,” he said. He pointed at the walls with his half-eaten bone of chewed meat. “They won’t bite.” Another chuckle.

The hatch behind us was still crowded by the ghouls. The dwarf did cartwheels around us on top of the empty benches.

“C’mon,” boomed Charlie, louder.

We walked slow, ducking under dangling limbs and staying as far away from the walls as we could.

“Where are we going?” asked Andy.

“To Hell,” said Charlie while he chewed a bite of meat. Grease dribbled into his natty beard.

“No we’re not.” I shook my head, trying to at least convince myself.

“I’m afraid he’s right,” said Leo. “I‘ve been researching the many portals to Hell during my excursions. It seems the so-called Pluto’s Gate in Turkey is the real thing,” he said with a sheepish shrug. He sat up straight and pushed his glasses up his nose. “You see, toxic fumes fill the chamber and I had a vision of a ritual…”

“…that you just had to come home and try out, right?” I finished.

Leo slouched back into his seat.

“Where’s your fare?” Charlie threw the half-eaten bone onto the floor of the train and held out his hand, palm up in a fingerless glove.

“Why are you doing this?” asked Andy. “We didn’t do anything.”

Charlie shrugged. “You could’ve made a hundred different choices today. Ain’t my fault.”

“We’re not dead!” yelled Andy in a quivering voice.

Charlie smiled, filed cannibal teeth flashing. “No,” he nodded toward me, “but I could smell her pain from a mile away.” Charlie stood, looking down at Andy. “You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you?” He shrugged. “It all works out in the end. Now stop bitchin’ and pay your fare.”

“And if I don’t?” asked Andy.

“Good. More commission for me.” He snatched the dwarf by the back of his tunic while he cartwheeled next to him. Charlie lifted him up, face-to-face. The dwarf looked like a doll in Charlie’s enormous hand. “Go tell Willie we got three new arrivals.” He dropped the jester back to the ground.

The dwarf did a comic fall on his rear end, and then jumped up and straightened his uniform. He executed a mock salute and said, “Right away, boss,” in a voice that sounded tinged with helium.

“What do you mean three new arrivals?” I said.

“Well, since you wanna be hardheaded about this, you’ll forfeit your fare and all come together. He looked me. “You won’t need jackets where you’re going, either.”

“Fine, what do you want?” I asked.

Charlie yelled back to the dwarf, who was waddling out of the connector hatch behind Charlie. “Hold up, nit wit.” The dwarf skipped back up to Charlie’s side. “Just your fare.”

I took the two gold coins from my pocket and held them out to Charlie. He pulled his hand back and looked down at the dwarf. “Actually, we should probably start with the old man, huh, shrimp?”

The dwarf cartwheeled in front of Leo and held his palm out. Leo leaned forward and dropped his coin into his hand.

The fool flipped the coin and Charlie snatched it out of the air. He held it between thumb and forefinger in front of Leo’s face. He flipped the shiny coin, caught it, and then smacked it down onto the top of his other gloved hand, like a referee deciding who gets to receive the kickoff. “Heads or tails, Leo?”

“Tails.”

Charlie lifted his hand. The coin displayed the prow of a wooden barge, manned by a skeletal captain. “Tails it is.” He flipped the coin over to the dwarf, who caught it and then jumped and clicked his heels. “Interesting. The meddling old man lives to see another day.” He held out his hand again. “Next.”

I dropped one of the two coins into his palm.

Charlie flipped the coin again and smacked it down on top of his hand. He looked at Andy. “Call it, stud.”

Andy scratched his chin. His hand shook. “Heads.”

Charlie lifted his hand. A skull peered up from the face of the coin. “Hm. Two in a row. Congratulations.” He flipped the coin down to the dwarf.

The jester shouted “Huzzah!” in his nasally voice.

I tossed Charlie the last coin.

“Well, little lady, let’s see if you all can go three for three today.” He flipped the coin and smacked it onto the top of his hand. “Call it, beautiful.”

“Tails.”

Charlie lifted his hand.

The skull.

My heart stopped, and then beat harder into my sternum.

Charlie looked down at the dwarf. “Go tell Willie we’re dropping two at Washington Park and we’ll be plus one for home sweet home.” The dwarf skipped out of the connector hatch behind Charlie.

“Wait,” yelled Andy. “Switch us. Let her go.” Andy looked at me, his jaw clenched.

Too bad it took eternal damnation to bring back the romance.

“It don’t work that way, my friend.”

The train’s brakes squealed and we pitched forward.

Andy grabbed my arm and leaned into my ear. “I love you,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Charlie chuckled. “Just deal with it, my man. It’s better this way.”

Outside the train, the West 4th Street station slowed into view. A few sleepy-eyed commuters leaned against the pillars along the platform. They scowled and sipped coffee—New Yorkers, not ghouls.

Leo walked forward, head down, tears flowing.

Lidless eyes of the flayed corpses flanking the train doors focused on me. Arms and legs twitched and their jaws worked open and closed.

The waiting commuters conducted their morning rituals while waiting for their train, oblivious to the subway that stood in front of them.

The doors whooshed open.

“Get off!” Andy shoved me toward the open doors. Without any hesitation, he drove his shoulder into Charlie and pushed him back into the bench. The bucket of chicken legs spilled onto the floor.

Andy’s shove would’ve propelled me right off the train, but the corpses next to the doors reached out, grabbed my arms, and pulled me back into the train. I screamed.

Andy held Charlie down on the bench, straddling his enormous frame. It looked absurd, like a child pinning down a pro-wrestler. Charlie didn’t resist. He only laughed.

I swung my arms with everything I had in me, but the grips of the flayed bodies were solid and unyielding.

I screamed for help to the people on the platform.

The commuters read and sipped and waited.

Another group of bodies lining the walls behind Charlie reached forward and grabbed Andy. The bodies passed him corpse to corpse, assisted by the cadavers attached to the ceiling of the car, and pulled him back to the train doors. Leo followed in the same manner, struggling with his flabby arms against the muscled limbs that detained him.

“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

Other skinned bodies passed me away from the doors. An evil group hug that held me tight.

A death grip.

I screamed Andy’s name. He reached for me. Andy was passed to the doors and managed to grab my fingers, but he was ripped away and tossed out onto the platform.

Andy landed on his back and his head slapped the tile floor of the station. Leo fell sprawled next to him. An old Hispanic man dropped his coffee cup, splattering hot java on Andy’s face. A young woman screamed and cowered against the pillar she was leaning against. Andy and Leo must’ve seemed to appear flying out of nowhere.

Charlie sat on his bench and waved to them. The train picked up speed and departed, disappearing into the tunnel while the darkness swallowed us.

 

*

So here I am. My mother and her greasy touch. My skin removed in blinding pain over and over and over.

I know. He tried to save me. I’m standing here in Hell enduring endless pain but I’m still holding Cindi with an i over his head.

It’s just hard to forget that kind of thing.

Part of me hopes he catches another ride on the Flay Train.

I love that son-of-a-bitch.

 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Doug Black

Doug Black is serving in the United States Marines and has recently completed his second deployment to Afghanistan. His fiction is upcoming in James Ward Kirk’s Demonic Possession Anthology and Plan B Magazine.

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