A gust of wind whipped up the stairs that descended to the subway. A distinct odor of urine greeted Fred Gillian’s nose and he breathed out quickly to void the stench. He held his breath and a grimace on his face as he walked past exiting passengers from the station. No one seemed to notice or care about his displeasure. He scooted past a homeless man sitting on the steps who reeked of a sour body odor, and he wondered if this man was the offender.
He let out a loud breath when he reached the bottom of the stairs. The horrid smells had given way to a stale, mildew stench like rancid moss on wet concrete, which was not exactly pleasant but better than tangy urine and body odor compressed in the small space of the stairway.
The crowd thickened noticeably. A train arrived, not his, and unleashed a torrent of harried passengers who bolted for the exits bumping and pushing against him as he went against the tide. His nose, always sensitive, caught a myriad of smells as humanity rushed by him – sweet perfume, over-done cologne, sweat, musk, and many others too subtle to recognize. He caught sight of a comely young woman in a tight dress and watched her vaunt her way through the crowd, hips swaying ever so gently.
His attention diverted, he bumped into a body. A grunt followed, a curse. He apologized, and the crowd swallowed the body before he could focus on a face among the sea of faces heading toward him. He angled his feet to his right and dodged his way to the edge of the crowd waiting for the flow to subside so that he could resume his march to his train.
In that instant, he smelled it again, that distinctively awful body odor from the homeless man he had tip-toed past on the stairs. He scanned the crowd rushing by him, both to and fro, but he could not spot the putrid man in the tattered clothes. He couldn’t remember exactly what he looked like, but he stood in such sharp contrast to many of the people around him, that he knew he’d recognize him in an instant, like finding a colored button in a drawer full of black and white ones.
He shook off the aural recognition and continued on his way. The crowd thinned and his steps became more natural. He pulled out his phone and checked the time. Two minutes. His train would be on the platform soon. He picked up the pace, his heels clicking against the dirty concrete.
With over 90 seconds to spare, he arrived at the platform. Another crowd had amassed on the wide tiled path along the edge of the tracks. He nudged his way to the front and stood a few feet from the bright yellow caution band that capped the platform. A sign etched into the concrete warned him to stay back behind the marked area.
He exhaled again but this time to relax. He had made his train. He’d be home on time tonight and by 9:30 he’d be in his bed ready to sleep away the frustrations that had made his day tortuous. He looked down the platform toward the tunnel. No sign of the train appeared. He shifted in place, hopeful that the train was not delayed. Greta wouldn’t be too understanding if he was late yet again.
In his line of sight, many people with necks bent stared down into their phones. Others chatted with people near them. A few children played near their watchful parents. The noises of the station filled the air and rose above the chatter of the impatient passengers. Shoes squeaked. Heels clicked. An errant horn echoed through the tunnel. A few pigeons fluttered through the air. Fred waited.
A faint breeze rustled across the platform. It slowly gained momentum, and Fred relaxed even more. The train was just a little late. He waited for the headlights to appear in the tunnel, and once he saw them, he could taste being home soon. He just wanted to get away from the cramped confines of the city even if for only another hapless weeknight.
In the instant that the train turned the corner and forced more air down the tunnel, Fred caught the scent of the homeless man again. He turned around and scanned the crowd. He didn’t see the man anywhere among the suits and dresses that surrounded him. The smell made him wince and unsettled his stomach. He stepped closer to the edge of the platform until his toe touched the yellow band. He hoped the homeless man didn’t get on the same car as he did. Being in such a confined space with someone who smelled so bad would be uncomfortable.
He stood on his toes as the train rattled closer to the station. The noise and the breeze engulfed him and swallowed the cacophony of the crowd. It felt as if he were hanging his head out of the train window as it rushed through the countryside. He felt the urgency of the oncoming train and remained poised to board quickly to get a seat before the impending crush of the crowd left him standing.
In an instant as the train charged toward him, he felt hands on his back. The force was so great that his head whipsawed before the weight of his body carried him over the edge of the platform. He had no time to react, nothing to grab onto to save himself. He only caught the blur of someone running away from him, disappearing in a crowd that had parted in horror. Fred screamed, a last gasp of fear as he fell from the platform.
Before he fell to the tracks below, the train caught up with him and impaled him with a blunt force that knocked him unconscious. A crescendo of screams filled the station as witnesses unwillingly watched the last seconds of Fred Gillian’s life flash before them. Many looked away. Others rushed to help him as the train ground its way to a stop. In the chaos that followed, no one noticed the lone figure quickly making its way toward the exit.