Wednesday, 21 April 2010
FEAR by A. J. Humpage
Fear. That oppressive clamp around the heart and mind, invading the empty spaces with loathing and spreading like a disease through every cell.
Their fear started to grind every nerve ending, and it clung to the floor like a pervading creeping fog, an invisible vapour that coiled around ankles and chilled the flesh, despite the rising heat.
Evan shifted nervously in his seat, looked up.
Two dark skinned men stared back at him, their eyes moving in silent communication with each other. They had boarded the train two stops ago, shoulders heavy with rucksacks, their expressions deeply coloured and guarded. They grew nervous as more people boarded the train at the next stop.
The train quickly filled up, leaving many people with no choice but to stand in the aisles or take up empty spaces in the corridor by the toilets.
Evan glanced to his right and exchanged tense looks with the two men huddled by the window. He could see dread in their eyes, as though a dark maroon stain had clouded them all. One of them turned away quickly, stared at his reflection in the window.
The countryside flashed by in a green-yellow blur. The air remained oppressive, and it crackled with an imaginary hiss, enough for Evan to hear it above the whispers.
The heavily pregnant woman sitting opposite Evan rubbed her swollen stomach. Her smile was fragile, feigned. Nerves pulsed beneath her pale skin. She’d seen the two men acting suspiciously by the doorway, too.
Evan smiled back, but it was an empty gesture. Movement made him look up.
One of the dark skinned men scratched his beard, whispered to his friend.
Evan watched intently. His eyes narrowed as the constricting rush of fear trickled through his veins. They looked Arab, he decided. Muslim, for sure. And every flick of their eyes smeared Evan’s perceptions with an impenetrable dark cloud, and he was sure that any second now the Muslim would press a button or pull a chord and send the insides of the train catapulting through the grey cloud outside.
Beads of perspiration teetered on his brow. Brain cells gurgled with unbearable pressure.
The two men whispered, looked around anxiously.
Evan’s mind vibrated with imaginary voices and words. Lip reading had never been his forte, but even he could see they were not speaking English.
One of the men moved from the doorway and walked towards the next carriage.
Evan craned is neck to see, but the man quickly disappeared into the throng.
The pregnant woman saw Evan’s face tauten. She sat up.
The young Muslim stared at Evan, his expression cold and hard as though hewn from stone. His eyes were dark, almost black beneath lowered brows. Veiled. He viewed Evan with as much suspicion as Evan cast the young man.
Staring at each other had become a game.
Whispers floated into the strained atmosphere. Evan turned in his seat, heard people talking, their voices lowered. Some pointed at the young Muslim man. It was like a ripple; more pointing, more whispers, more strange looks, all flowing out and coating the inside of the carriage with a layer of thick distrust.
Evan’s heart stuttered within his ribcage. Something dribbled down his face. He wiped his brow, saw perspiration glistening on his fingertips, but in his fevered mind, he imagined blood on his hands.
He blinked, slowly found the young man’s face.
The young Muslim’s features had changed. Something else now squatted in his expression, and he fiddled nervously with the chord dangling from his rucksack, as though it had caught in the zip.
Evan’s gaze focused on the chord.
‘No more stops...’
The sound of her voice brought him to. He looked at the pregnant woman, the soft deep lines in his forehead creasing into a frown.
‘No more stops now until we get into Euston,’ she whispered.
Ample time to blow the packed train to shreds.
A breath caught in Evan’s throat. He swallowed hard, waited a moment for the anxious swill to settle.
The woman looked up at the emergency button on the panelling above them. Pressing it would stop the train, but it wouldn’t stop the men from detonating their bombs.
‘They’ve been acting very nervously since they got on,’ Evan whispered. He glanced at his watch. ‘Almost eleven o’clock. Maybe they’re waiting for the right time.’ He looked at the man sitting beside him. ‘We can take him down, overpower him. There are two of them and dozens of us.’
The man shifted nervously beside Evan, looked away.
‘What’s the matter? You’d rather die than do something about it?’
The man ignored Evan, stared out of the window.
An incredulous cloud descended. ‘Oh I get it...you don’t want to get involved, you’d rather turn a blind eye. Being a selfish coward is better than being a dead hero, right?’ He turned around, looked at the people sitting around him. ‘What’s the matter with you people?’
The cloud dusted their minds with guilt before dissipating, but the carriage remained silent.
The young Muslim heard Evan and stepped back from the growing venom.
Evan saw him, leaned into the aisle, watched as the dark skinned man edged towards the next carriage. He glanced over his shoulder at Evan, eyes clouded.
Evan peered at the others sitting beside him, fear icing their expressions with an arctic hue. They were all cowards. Dead cowards.
He got up, edged his way past those standing in the aisle.
The Muslim saw him. His fingers tightened around the chord.
Evan felt his insides chill, ice crystals frosting up his veins with dread as he moved forward.
The Muslim slapped the button on the compartment door and it slid open. He stepped in, hurried through the carriage as the door closed behind him. Evan watched him through the glass panel. The man looked back briefly.
Evan pressed the button to open the door, followed him.
The young man exited the carriage, moved into the next one, heading towards the busiest, crowded part of the train.
Another kind of fear lodged in Evan’s stomach then and it made him move faster, pushing people aside as he broke into a trot.
Ahead lay the toilets. The young man made for the compartment door.
Evan couldn’t let him get to the crammed front carriages. ‘Stop him!’ He scrambled over people and piles of bags stacked in the narrow aisle. ‘Stop the son of a bitch. He’s got a bomb!’
These words. Like a blunt needle into the skin, delivering a cold poison.
Evan’s face flooded with heat as the carriage erupted into cries and shouts. He pointed. ‘He’s got a bomb, stop him!’
Confusion and terror began to congeal within the confined carriage, studding the atmosphere with a strange electrical charge that surged through the train like a sound wave.
The young man ran into the corridor by the toilets. The people who had been sitting on the floor scattered like frightened animals to escape the melee.
Evan raced forward, but then stopped suddenly. He looked down to his right, saw a child cowering in her mother’s arms. On the table in front of her, he saw a pile of magazines and a pair of scissors that she’d used to cut out pictures.
The strange look on the child’s face made his insides shudder. She seemed afraid of him.
He grabbed the scissors, quickly followed the Muslim towards the corridor.
The compartment door closed and the ticket inspector stood by the door, saw Evan running towards him. ‘Hold it there...what the hell is going on?’
Evan grabbed the man by the collar and threw him in the corner. ‘Out of the damn way!’ He punched the button, almost physically pulled the doors open.
The young man stood by the compartment doors, cornered. Dread poured from his skin, streaked his face. He faced Evan, chest heaving, one hand outstretched and the other tightly gripping the chord.
Evan inched forward, fingers tight around the scissors. ‘Don’t you dare pull it, you bastard.’
The young man’s brow furrowed slightly. He spoke softly in Arabic, shook his head.
Evan had no idea what the man was saying. He pointed. ‘Put the bag down.’
Faces in the carriage compartment either side of them pressed against the glass door panels, watched them.
The young man muttered something else, kept on shaking his head.
Evan stepped forward. ‘Let go of the chord!’
The man kept repeating the same words over and over. He stooped as though his legs had given way.
‘Let go of the fucking chord!’
The air hissed and cracked around them. The sounds seemed loud in Evan’s brain, like cracks of thunder. He slapped his hand against the emergency stop button, and a moment later the train stuttered. The sound of grinding metal rumbled and reverberated beneath them.
The young man’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the chord. But his eyes frightened Evan, wide, full with intent. Or was it fear?
Evan knew any second now the man would pull the tiny chord dangling from the rucksack, and they, the carriage, and everything he ever knew would be ripped apart by the blast, leaving the skin of the train peeled open and spilling its guts onto the rails. He thought then of the pregnant woman, her unborn baby ripped from her womb, the little girl in her mother’s arms, both stripped of flesh by the force of shockwave. Their imagined screams tormented him, clawed at his senses, shredded his nerves
the whispers urged him to end this. End it. Stop the bomb.
Evan blinked against the salty fluid dribbling into his eyes. His heartbeat felt like a tin drum.
The young Muslim looked down at the chord in his hand.
A split second. That’s all Evan had, all it took, as he threw himself forward.
The scissors sank into the man’s neck. Instantly he let go of the chord, screamed and stumbled back before slumping to the floor.
Evan bent down and withdrew the scissor blade. Blood bubbled and spilled from the wound.
The Muslim gurgled, fingers scrambled to find the chord.
Evan stabbed him in the chest, plunged the scissor blade as deep as it would go, then again, heard the metal scrape against one of the ribs.
The young man’s wide eyes locked onto Evan’s face, the veins in his eyeballs swelling with blood. A mixture of fear and disbelief etched across the man’s contorted face.
The sweat from Evan’s brow splashed onto the young man’s skin, spread like a stain.
The grimace on the young man’s face slowly faded until eventually he slumped back, still.
The train finally came to a stop.
Evan looked down at the dark coloured chord poking from the rucksack. He reached over, carefully unzipped the bag and peered inside. There were several books, all in Arabic, and at the bottom of the bag, he saw a rectangular instrument. Curiosity made him reach in and pick it up.
His heart juddered. Silence crowded him.
Faces pressed against the glass.
He held up the box, read the letters across the top of it: PERSONAL ATTACK ALARM.
He stared for a long time, as though wresting the letters from the surface of the box, but somehow his brain wouldn’t translate, numbed instead into open-mouthed disbelief.
The door opened. The ticket inspector stood in the doorway, saw Evan sitting astride the dead man, holding a box in one hand and a pair of opened scissors in the other.
Evan looked up. ‘I...I thought he had a bomb...I thought he was going to blow up the train.’ He looked around at the faces staring back at him. Their silence thundered through his senses. ‘I thought he was going to kill us...I was sure...’ He looked down at the Muslim’s blood smeared across his hands, thick, and still warm.
‘I was so sure...’
AJ Humpage works full-time for a local authority, but in her spare time she writes articles for local business magazines, short stories and poetry, and she has just completed her first novel.