NIGHTMARE TUNNEL - by Odin Roark
This was not a night like any other on the A Train, where the usual north to south Manhattan routine was played out 24/7. Tonight, the subway drew to a peculiar stop. The doors opened. "Stand clear of the closing doors, please," came the ever-present digital warning every subway rider learns to ignore, including Gus, whose gnarly cane didn't stay clear. It being New York, wearing khakis, plaid shirt and metal change dispenser around his waist, wouldn't have garnered any particular notice as he stepped aboard--if there had been anyone to notice. The car was empty. Unusual, even for a 2 AM stop at 14th Street.
The doors closed and the train moved on past the end of the platform into the tunnel where a sudden flash of sparks outside the windows momentarily took out the lights inside--a common occurrence. As they came back on accompanied by calliope music-Gus grabbed the pole, his eyes darting left to right. From nowhere, five senior citizens dressed as eight year olds now sat on the benches. Gerad held his cotton candy firm. Samantha gripped her balloons, and Tom worked feverishly to keep his ice cream cone from dripping. Leonard and Daniele hugged their stuffed animals as a voice spoke out from the end of the car. "Familiar, Gus?" said Junior, an old African American whose charming smile was only out ranked by his ageless line-backer build.
Gus spun around. "What are you doing here? What's going on? You're dead." His eyes froze on Junior's black-gloved right hand.
Junior continued scanning his racing form. "Oh, wow. Don't tell me-I really died? Oh, yeah. Seems I remember something... holding onto the bus door while you tried to beat my grip loose. Yeah. I vaguely remember finally giving up and falling under... it was under the right rear wheel, wasn't it? "
Gus looked around again, squinting beneath the dim lights at the other people in the car. He looked at himself in the window reflection. "God. What's going on?" He looked again at the passengers. "Why are they so old? I mean old-dressed like kids with... what's with the carnival prizes and... "
Junior looked up from his form. " Maybe just being kids? My guess is that's why you're here. Having a bad night, are you?"
Gus thought a moment. "I went to bed. I..."
"OK, Gus. Relax. You're just here hoping we'll allow you to wake up..."
"Wake up? Allow?"
"You know, wake up a free man. No more guilt. No more regret. You packaged this dream for sixty something years and finally you let it out. So-look around again, Gus. Look carefully. We're the ones you never let talk, remember." He nodded toward the balloons and cotton candy. "Well, mostly them. Always telling them to shut up. Always punishing them if they didn't. I got off easy, for a while-you sending me to the back of the bus to sit alone. Speaking of punishment, how does it feel to have all your fingers? Don't even have arthritis, do you?" He held up his crooked hand and removed the glove. "Didn't mend too well. Ugly thing isn't it? Doctors weren't as good sixty years ago as they are now, eh Gus? Oh, well, the good Lord supplied us with two, right?" He held up his left hand, every nail manicured, the pinky sporting a diamond and two rubies. "How did you put it to the school's revue board," he said as he pulled the glove back on. "‘I'm terribly sorry. I slipped with my stick.'" He chuckled. "What a day that was, eh, Gus? You slipped with that stick how many times? Hell, I lost count just before I passed out, but damn, Gus, you are a man of tenacity. Finished the job six months later, didn't ya? You have to admit, though, I hung onto that bus door pretty good while you sped up, bouncing over that country road. Must be what bull ridin's like, you know? All because I was ten seconds late getting to the bus stop." He pulled the racing form closer to his bad eyes. "Temper Ghost in the fourth, 6-1. Should I?"
As the train moved through a curve, working the steel rails into a shrieking wail, Gus jumped to the door. "Let me out of here!"
Samantha rearranged her balloons. "You're not going to leave us are you, Gus?"
Gus smacked the door. "Stop the train, Junior. This is just a...
"Bad dream?" said Junior. "Yeah. Might be a very bad dream." Sit down!" he said with the bite of a drill instructor. "Please?"
Gus looked out the window at the tunnel lights speeding past him, and then looked once again at the circus of characters that surrounded him.
"Want some cotton candy, Gus?" said Gerad, carefully winding another dab around his finger.
Gus quickly took a corner seat and jammed his stick between his legs. Sitting on his shaking hands, he pleaded, his voice trembling, "What's this really all about?"
"You're asking us?" said Junior.
"Of course I'm asking. Is everybody nuts here?"
"Watch it, asshole," said Tom, having gained control over his cone drippings.
Junior turned his form over. "No need for that language, Tommy."
"Well, I can tell he wants it, and he's not getting my cone. Alright?" Turning back to Gus, he sneered, "this is my cone, and don't you forget it, asshole."
Junior shook his head and turned to the next page of his racing form as Gus squeezed himself into the corner. "What the hell's your problem, whatever your name is," Gus whimpered.
"Tom. Junior likes to call me Tommy. Tommy Winslow. You remember little Tommy Winslow, don't ya?" He stood up, lifted his pant legs and reveals scars on both his scrawny calves, then turned back around and sat. He pushed the cone towards Gus, mocking him. "Chocolate peppermint."
Gus's eyes stayed transfixed on Tommy's pant legs.
"Lemme help your memory. Sixty-two years ago. Sixty two," said Tommy, returning to licking his cone. "They don't make this flavor anymore." He took a big lick and winked at Gus.
"I don't like this," said Gus to Junior, his voice now gravely quiet.
"Think about them. Think they like dramatizing your little dream? My guess is they're pissed at you, Gus. Maybe they'd like you to think about all those bus rides while you're visiting with us."
"What do you mean?"
Junior fanned himself with his form and looked at the overhead vents. "Damn, you'd think they could keep the air circulating in here, wouldn't you?" Focusing back to Gus, he leaned forward. "They were on your bus every morning and every afternoon for how long, Gus?"
Gus looked again at the five wrinkled bodies sitting like children at an outing. He shook his head. "I don't' know you."
The five jumped to attention and gave Gus the Hitler salute. "Seig Heil, mein Gustov. Seig Heil!"
Gus slowly lowered his face and turned away.
"I'd joined them a few times, but it got old, very old, didn't it, Gus?" said Junior. "Saluting the bus driver? Not being allowed to say a word for the fifty-three minute ride to and from school? You loved that power didn't you Gus? What was it like holding that great big steering wheel and driving that great big bus full of itsy bitsy kids, huh? Except me." He chuckled. "Nothing itsy bitsy about me, never. Even then I liked two seats, remember?"
"What do you want?" said Gus.
Junior folded his form. "Oh, it's not me. It's them that... well, that's not exactly true . You see, I don't know what I want." He glanced at the group again and grinned. "But, damn. They sure look like they know what they want. You pulled me into this dream for something though, right?"
Gus held the sides of his head. "I'm confused. I'm so..."
Junior stood up and stretched. "I hate nightmares, too. They're a bitch, aren't they?"
"You were always the..." muttered Gus as he massaged his temples.
Junior sauntered his hulk up closer and bent over in front of Gus. "The what?"
"The-the gentle giant. Sorry. I know you don't like..."
Junior leaned back up. "It's OK, Gus. But you know, maybe you need to just get on with it."
"Ah, c'mon. It's just one of those pesky dreams you have over and over and... it's just a new dream you've got to get through."
Gus craned his neck around the tree trunk sized legs of Junior.
Junior noticed his confusion. "Oh, I think they want you to get through it too."
"I... why? I don't understand all this," whined Gus.
The group stood up. Balloons floated to the top of the car and undulated about with the dead air. Stuffed animals were made comfortable, cotton candy wedged in their paws, and Tommy jammed the last remaining bit of his cone in his mouth. From behind their backs, each lifted a short gnarly walking stick, smacking it into their palm like a cop with a baton.
Gus, panic rising through his neck and into his glaring eyes, looked down at his own walking stick and flung it across the floor. "I don't want it anymore. I don't want..."
"Bet you want some of this, don't ya Gussy?" taunted Tommy as he massaged his stick.
Gus's pleading eyes dropped helplessly as Junior shrugged and lumbered back to his seat.
Samantha limped forward, dragging her stick. "You want me to join them, huh?"
Gus began shaking.
"I don't think that's what you really want," said Samantha as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Gus looked back and forth at Gerad, Tom, Leonard and Daniele as they stepped to the center isle. Unable to hold his composure, he broke into a wailing plea. "Please. Please."
Junior motioned and Gus agonized as the group formed a gauntlet, continuing to slap the sticks into their palms. "It only takes a few seconds, Gus. Remember how you used to console us? ‘Just a few seconds children for you disobedience.' Remember?"
Gus pulled himself up as tears started running down his cheeks.
"Want me to work his teeth, Junior?" said Tommy.
Junior paused a moment staring at the pathetic body now slumped at the end of the car waiting, crying. "Not necessary. Just do what you got to do."
"Yeah!" wailed Gus through his tears as if he were about to lead a charge into Hell. "Yeah, just do what you gotta do."
Gerad screamed out, "‘Five will get you ten,' remember that, asshole?"
"Gerad! You too. Enough with the bad language," bellowed Junior.
"‘Five seconds with the stick will get you ten bonuses.' Remember that little speech? You creep." Gerad stepped up to Gus and prodded him like a cow to the slaughter. "Come and get it," he whispered in his ear.
Gus wailed and pleaded. "Please! Please! Please!" Suddenly, he tried to run as fast as he could through their beating, but they tripped and dragged him back, beating him savagely, their sticks swinging and crashing across his legs, his back, his buttocks, and finally his neck and head, bringing him to his knees. Finally, he fell face forward onto the floor, his body continuing to twitch and writhe with pain.
Junior looked up from his racing form, then back. "Is that it, Gus? ‘Cause you're really dragging this out."
"I... I don't think so," muttered Gus painfully.
"Say what?" said Junior, putting his form down and rising to his feet.
"I..." Gus turned over and looked up and the angry faces peering down at him. "You're not going to let me end this, are you?"
The heads all shook slowly. "Are we becoming your worst nightmare, asshole?" said Gerad.
"Yes. Yes, you are. Does that make you feel better? My worst fucking nightmare!"
Suddenly, Junior's big shoe pressed down on Gus's neck. "No, Gus. I'm your worst fucking nightmare ‘cause I'm going to let you go-kinda." He reached down and grabbed Gus's hair, lifting him to his feet. "Let's see how good you can hold on."
"Junior. God Damn it! Let me wake up. Please!"
As the train slowed down, Junior shoved him toward the center of the car.
"What are you going to do, God Damn it?"
"Oh, Gus. You have to try and curb the taking of the Lords name in vain, you know?" Suddenly, Junior pulled a strand of rope from his back pocket and tied Gus's wrists to his gnarly stick. As the train came to a stop, the doors opened to the platform.
"You're letting me go?" Gus smiled joyfully.
Junior pushed him toward the other side of the car where the doors were closed.
Gus looked at the closed doors, then back over his shoulder to the open doors to the platform. "The open doors are on the other side, you crazy son-of-a-bitch!"
Junior hit the closed doors with his fist and smiled as they opened. "Ah, the magic of dreams."
The group cheered.
"Now, don't you pay no mind to the I-Beams holding up this tunnel. They strong," said Junior. "You're not gonna cause them any problems." He chuckled. "Damn, they might even get rid of this awful nightmare you've been holding off for so long." Amidst more cheering, he kicked him out the door, holding the gnarly stick tied to his wrists. As Gus screamed for mercy, Junior nodded and smiled. "You're lucky, Gus. This gnarly Cherry wood stays strong forever. No way you're gonna fall under the wheels." The doors shut, but opened back up. They shut again, and again they opened up. The recording came over the loudspeaker, "Stand clear of the closing doors, please."
"Oh, please," said Junior as he ripped the speaker out of the ceiling. Continuing to hold the stick firm as Gus dangled below, he smiled and said, "Now... you get your worst nightmare." With his twisted gloved right hand, he pulled the doors shut on Gus's wrists, the stick wedged like a giant lynchpin. The train started down the platform. Gus's hands twisted and yanked the gnarly stick, but the tie was strong... the stick sturdy... the doors secure.
Beneath the screeching of the rails and the rhythmic thumping along the I-Beams, Junior was sure he could here the strains of Tom Waits singing "We're all mad here." But, what the hell, he thought, I'm probably dreaming.