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By AJ Gentile

She was late.

Macy’s was open till nine after Thanksgiving to accommodate the holiday shoppers, and the lines at the registers had been impossible, never fewer than seven people. She didn't realize it had gotten so late. The big clock hanging outside the entrance said 8:09 as she headed for the subway. Karl would be home by the time she got there. Her husband, Karl. Oh, God, let me cope. She hadn't even started dinner, which meant he would have to go out and get something. That, together with the sight of her saddled down with the packages, she was sure would be more than enough to set him off.

"Well that's too damn bad," she said out loud, and then realized she was talking to herself. When did he expect her to get the Christmas shopping done, anyway? What was he going to do? Wait until the last week when the stores would be so jammed he wouldn't be able to breathe? It had been a madhouse last year, and no way was she going to put up with it again this year. Get the shopping out of the way so you can enjoy the holidays for once. She would have to sit Karl down and make him understand, that’s all. But he never did.

She fished out a token from her pocketbook and, managing as best she could with the packages, slid through the turnstile.

Hearing the air brakes of a train, she hurried down the stairs. When she cleared the overhang, she saw the subway train, its doors open, waiting at the platform.

She wasn’t going to make it.

Determined to try, she broke into a run as soon as she hit the platform. When she heard the hiss of the doors about to close, she bounded toward the nearest car, which happened to be dark. Others ran past her, taking a chance to make the lighted cars. She made it just as the doors whooshed shut behind her.

Her back to the door, she stood there catching her breath as the train lurched forward and made its way out of the station.

She edged toward the front of the car, squinting through the grimy window of the door into the lighted car. She was always scared of crossing between cars, scared of the rickety threshold plates when the train was in motion. And because she was so weighted down with all her bags, the possibility of losing her footing seemed even more frightening. So she took a seat near the conductor’s booth, feeling safer there, arranging her packages so she held them all securely, on guard against the bag openers.

The car was suddenly flooded with light: She caught a fleeting glimpse of the other passengers before the light went off again and it was black. There were only a foolish few. A boy asleep, his head bowed, an open book in his lap; a barrenfaced old woman in a hairnet; two Japanese women seated at the far end of the car; a lawyer type in a suit, his overcoat draped over an attaché case; and a clutch of young black girls, their backs to her, an expensive cassette player wedged between two of them blaring mambo music. The music made her uneasy. They played it so loudly she could hear it clearly above the roar of the train.

The train gathered speed and shot through a local stop. Inside the tunnel her vague uneasiness swelled slowly. She felt she was being watched. She couldn’t see who it was because she couldn’t make out their faces. They were just dim outlines.

She shifted uncomfortably and pretended to read an advertisement above her. She remembered a TA official on radio or TV commenting that New Yorkers were much safer in the subways than on the streets. If that were true, it was a precarious sort of safety. If the subways were safer, she had yet to see it.

She was being watched! She was certain now. She stole a sideways glance. She could make out the boy still asleep, the barren-faced woman, could hear the Japanese women talking and that damn music playing evenly through the rumble of the train. It was still too dark to tell who it was.

Unconsciously she squeezed the packages tighter. She should have waited for the next train. God damn you, Karl.

The train rattled and roared on.

The woman. I was the barren-faced woman staring at her.

Don’t look. Ignore her.

The train jerked. The sleeping boy slumped lower, the open book balanced tentatively on his knees. She was hoping desperately for the book to fall, to slip between the boy’s knees and hit the floor loudly enough to attract the barrenfaced woman’s attention to him, It was ready to tip over on the next lurch.

She forced herself to read the ad on the panel opposite her. “Save at the Dime. Where your savings Grow, Grow, GROW!”

She was still staring. The barrenfaced woman was still staring at her. Don’t look. Ignore her.

But she had to.

It wasn’t the barrenfaced woman at all. She sat sullen, gazing absentmindedly out a window, absorbed in her own private world.

Who, then? She felt the eyes more than ever, huge and staring in the blackness. It wasn’t one of the passengers. It was someone, something, else.

The train bucked, and suddenly the lights were on again. She braced herself against the roll, almost losing her grip on the packages. She knew she ought to pick up her things and cross through to the next car. She knew she should at least try, but she was too terrified to do even that, so she just sat there and stared at the ad.

“Grow, Grow, GROW . . . “

We’ll be at the first stop soon, she told herself. I’ll get out and change cars there.

The train jerked violently. The lights went out again.

The book on the boy’s lap finally fell. She heard it hit and turned and saw the boy topple forward, flopping on the floor. She thought he had lost his balance while stooping to retrieve the book.

The lights flashed on. The second they did, she knew she was wrong.

When the lights went off again she started screaming.

Even though she couldn’t see it now, it didn’t matter. She wouldn’t forget. Couldn’t forget the body of the boy, the bloodsoaked jacket, open, exposing the chest mutilated by three massive Xshaped cuts, the neck slashed so deeply, so raggedly, that the head hung down almost to the elbow, the gaping face peering up stupidly, dead.

The doors slid open.

The woman’s scream swelled in the station. Feet brushing toward it, commotion pitching, no one noticed the hooded figure in the parka steal away from the car. He rushed along the platform without looking back, turned, and mounted the stairs with giant steps, three at a time.

Outside on the street, at the head of the subway entrance, the man on the rollboard sat huddled in the cold, his face tense in expectation.

“It’s done,” the black man said from inside his hood.

A dark elation passed behind the cripple’s eyes. Below them a train whined somewhere in the darkness of a tunnel. All around them the wind was howling.

“Twentyfive,” the man said, counting.

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