Shadow of No Man

Iris squinted skywards, noticing a lone red balloon floating between two high-rise buildings. The midday sun shimmered off the glassy exterior of the high rises, sending the harsh light directly into her eyes. She steadied herself against a light pole until her vision cleared. Before she could open them fully, she could hear the beeping of the walk sign signaling it was time to continue. 

She cautiously stepped off the curb, straining to watch the road for any wayward drivers who absentmindedly ran red lights. The way the sunlight bounced off the silver speckles embedded in the dirty-black pavement made it difficult for Iris to look down. Perhaps the sunglasses she bought last Tuesday on Olivera Street were the cause? Even though the lenses were dark, she still squinted to see past the sun’s harsh rays. 

She glanced over her right shoulder, just above her thick pleather purse strap, to check if she was still being followed. Or was she? Maybe it was nothing more than her cheap sunglasses and an overactive imagination playing tricks on her. It was a shadow that was following her. A shadow without a body. She knew it sounded odd, especially to her. Yet, there it was, directly beside her, keeping in perfect step with her. The shadow walked with elongated steps, an uplift to the left heel every third step it took as if it had stepped on a carelessly discarded piece of chewing gum.

Iris hurried across the crosswalk, nearly missing the countdown on the other side of the street. Horns blared from the normal midday traffic that crowded the streets of Los Angeles. The same traffic Iris swore she’d never be caught dead driving in, even if she had bothered to get a driver’s license. She stepped onto the curve, nearly losing her balance on a loose piece of concrete. 

Her heavy purse spilled over, dropping a change purse and a small hairbrush onto the sidewalk. Out of reflex, she knelt to retrieve the spilled items, picking up the change purse first in case any of the city’s thousands of homeless residents had thoughts of swiping it from her. She turned her eyes upward — there the shadow stood, dark as tar and hovering inches from her. 

Iris snatched her change purse in a panic, leaving her brush, and hurried down the busy sidewalk. With every quickened footstep, Iris could feel the shadow directly behind her — somehow, it managed to jump in front of her. She stopped dead in her tracks, staring straight into the shadow’s face. There was nothing there, yet it stood staring at her with a tormenting, sightless gaze. 

She turned slowly, accidentally bumping into a man selling snacks from a shopping cart. She kept walking, not bothering to apologize to the man, and started jogging away. When she had returned to the stoplight, she glanced back to the sidewalk. The shadow was gone. Or was it? She examined everyone’s shadows as they moved past her. Everyone else’s shadows were behind them at this time of the day. Nothing looked out of place. She glanced over her shoulder, only seeing her own shadow. 

“I must be losing my mind,” she mumbled.

She continued on her journey, keeping a diligent eye out for any signs of the shadow. Several blocks down the road and a right turn later, Iris arrived at the opening of the Hollywood and Highland subway station. Within the station, the lights were dimmed. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust from the harsh afternoon sunlight. 

She noticed the shadow again from the corner of her eye, lingering in a dark corner of the station. Every droplet of blood in Iris’s veins grew cold. She attempted to ignore the shadow as she walked directly past it and hurried to the ticket machine. Her hands trembled as she reached for her coin purse. Four quarters, two dimes, and a nickel; she placed each coin in the slot. A quarter plopped into the change return, forcing her to retrieve it. She attempted to use the quarter again, and the quarter was returned again. Then she realized it was a Canadian quarter. 

“Where did that come from?” she huffed, examining it. She fished into her purse, finding only two more dimes.

 “I can’t believe this,” she huffed. She stretched her fingers into the bottom of her purse, rummaging around for any loose change. Her eyes glanced to the floor where a grimy nickel sat abandoned, stuck to a glob of something Iris could only hope was gum. She snatched the nickel, forcing it into the machine. Seconds later, the ticket slid from the machine’s bottom tray.

With the ticket firmly in her hand, she hastened towards the escalators. According to the time on her fitness tracker, the train should have already arrived. Thankfully, the trains rarely ever run on time. 

As her loafers slid from the last step of the escalator, the train’s sizeable front light illuminated the tunnel leading into the station. She would make the train as long as she ran. And run she did, barely making it into the train in time. Her heavy foot slipped through the doors of the train, forcing them to remain open so she could climb on board. The doors slid closed as she whisked her left foot within.

A deep, gasping breath was followed by a rumbling chest cough, reminding her she needed to quit smoking. 

“I’m getting too old for this nonsense,” she muttered.

The train accelerated, gaining speed beneath the City of Angels. The quick acceleration caused Iris to hold on to the safety bar in the middle of the doorway to keep her balance. Once she managed to gain her train legs, she hobbled over to a vacant seat next to the aisle, not too far from the doors. 

Facing her in the bank of four seats sat in was a teenage girl. The girl’s blonde hair was streaked with purple and pink dye. Her hair lay in stringy clumps over her silky black bomber jacket. She wore a rainbow-striped knit cap, even though it was in the middle of July. Several silver rings adorned her eyebrows, lips, ears, and nose. She was gazing out the window at her reflection as K-pop and techno music blared in her ears through two tiny white earphones attached to her phone inside her jacket. Iris barely noticed the girl. In Los Angeles, she looked like a typical teenager wanting to be self-expressive yet still blend in.

Directly beside her sat a man in a grey suit, texting anxiously on his phone. He glanced at her, then moved a tad closer to the window.

To Iris’s right and across the aisle sat a man dressed in clothing a thrift store would have tossed into the garbage. He was hunched over in his seat, sleeping. A windbreaker pulled up around his neck and hid his unshaven, grisly beard, which was a mix of gray, black, and spilled mustard. The man forced Iris to hold her nose against her shoulder to block out his foul body odor.

That was when Iris saw it again — the shadow of no man. It stood near the train’s door, hugging the wall like a normal shadow. Deep down, Iris knew it was watching her. What she couldn’t understand was why this thing was following her.

A noise from the train car behind them caused the shadow to turn, revealing a long, weather-frayed feather protruding from a fine-rimmed hat. Or at least that’s what Iris could only imagine what the shadow of such things looked like. 

The shadow continued to watch her, swaying with each bump in the tracks as if it did belong to a human.

Iris turned away, focusing her attention on the front of the train where a small door separated the two train cars. Beyond the door, she could see the silhouette of the train conductor standing in the aisle of the other car. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the shadow was still tensely watching her. 

Grinding metal signaled that the train was slowing for the next stop. The train speakers called out, “Next stop, Hollywood and Vine,” hidden in a horrible, nearly unrecognizable static. She always managed to choose the car with the bad speakers. However, she knew how many stops it took to get to Pershing Square without the need of some static-filled voice telling her.

The train stopped, and the automatic doors slid open. A group of ten people entered. A mother and her two infant children took up the seats behind Iris. As soon as they were on board, one of the children tossed a toy into the aisle. The child screamed, but the mother refused to give the child back his toy since it had been on the grimy subway floor.

“I need to learn how to drive.” Iris thought to herself as her ears throbbed from the child’s tantrum. She opened her purse, searching for her aspirin bottle. She found the bottle, shaking the pill as she unscrewed the top. There was only one pill left. Iris frowned with her frustration. It usually took two pills to stop her headaches. She forced the pill down her throat, tossed the empty bottle into her purse, and sat back. For some reason, the seats felt smaller to her today. Or was it Mr. Smelly beside her whose odor was wafting through the train car?

The doors slid shut, and the train accelerated. Iris closed her eyes for a moment, trying to keep from looking at the shadow again. She held back the temptation, telling herself it was only her imagination. Eventually, her curiosity grew too much for her, and she couldn’t help but take a quick peek. To her surprise, a man with dark hair, arms covered in tattoos, sporting a thick mustache, now occupied the area where the shadow once stood. He was a middle-aged man with a black football jersey that hung to his knees. 

“Whatchu’ looking at?” He shot back at Iris in a grizzly voice. His lips curled to make him look more ferocious than he probably was.

Iris turned back to face the conductor’s door. The man reminded her of the type of person that had to prove himself as a man by beating up older women and slapping his pregnant girlfriend around. The man who thought a good job was selling ecstasy to twelve-year-olds. Iris couldn’t stand his type, and they plagued the city like rats. She would have rather had another foul-smelling hobo, like the one on her right, over his kind any day.

The lights flashed within the car, causing Iris to hold her purse closer. The lights always flashed in certain areas of the city for a short time, but she was always careful to keep her purse close. In one second, someone could steal it, and there was no chance it would be returned with as many people who used the Metro. 

The lights flashed again, then dimmed, sending the car into darkness.

“Get your hands off me!” screamed a woman behind Iris. She couldn’t tell for sure, but it might have been the mother of the two infants. Then Iris felt a hand squeeze her shoulder. A woman screamed, and then another. Another scream. The cries of both infants followed a crash of glass.

The lights flashed on. The passengers’ all seemed to sigh in relief at the same time. Only a few seconds of darkness, but in a crowded subway car, a few seconds of darkness felt like an eternity. In a train car, no one knows anyone. Any person around you could be a killer, a rapist, or a lunatic looking to harass someone. Usually, there weren’t problems, though Iris couldn’t help but worry that one day there might be, yet not enough to convince her to want to drive to work — at least until today.

The teenager in front of Iris sat upright. Her big, hazel eyes outlined in black eyeliner were wide as saucers. Her bottom lip trembled as her finger outstretched to the seat across from Iris. From her lips poured out a sharp, ear-gouging scream, gaining everyone in the car’s attention.

Iris turned to the seat beside her where the girl pointed. The tattooed man stood against the glass partition above her seat, his hands wrapped around a finger-thick metal rod protruding from his throat. His hands slipped away as blood sputtered from his lips. His eyes rolled back in his head as his body collapsed to the ribbed rubber floor.

The train car grew thick with the screams of the passengers. Someone hit the emergency stop button while one woman frantically beat her hands against the window for a way to escape. One man attempted to call for help on his cell phone, but Iris knew there was no signal in the tunnels. The train was traveling sixty miles an hour, surrounded by a concrete tunnel; there was no way anyone would escape. 

“This is so cool,” exclaimed a young man who sat in the bank of seats in front of Iris. He found it the perfect opportunity to shoot a video of the chaos, and the dead man, with the aid of his cell phone and seemed unaffected by the chaos around him.

Iris remained calm, clutching her purse as a way to steady her panic. The man to her right stood in terror. His entire body trembled as he slid past Iris. As soon as he reached the aisle, he darted out the door where the conductor sat. Iris slid into his seat, as far away from the dead man as she could without standing. Then the teenage girl stood and followed after him. 

Iris cuddled her purse close to her stomach and gazed straight ahead at the door. She watched as the man and the teen attempted to talk to the conductor. Moments into their conversation, the conductor fell from view. Something moist spattered the window between the two train cars. Then a handprint appeared against the window and slowly slid down, streaking the glass. Everything in the next train car dropped into darkness. 

Iris turned her eyes to her purse strap, noticing a string. She carefully tugged on the string. “How am I going to explain this to my boss?” she whispered, knowing full well that she was going to be late for work. Her mind couldn’t focus on anything else. She couldn’t comprehend that her life was in danger or that there was a monster running around the train car. Her mind took her somewhere that made sense, somewhere she could understand.

 She remained watching the door, but the door never opened. The floor vibration around her told her the train was not going to stop at the next station. 

Then a faint sound of the static-filled speakers filled her ears: “Next stop, Hollywood and Western.”

The world swirled in Iris’s mind as she sat back. She gazed out the window, watching the mirrored images of those around her within the reflection. She couldn’t grasp why she felt pressure in her chest nor why it was so difficult to breathe. Her heart beat so heavy and fast that it nearly leaped from her chest, yet she remained watching, unable to move, speak, or even blink.

Her enormous eyes watched everyone in slow motion. The mother and her two children were huddled on the ground. Their backs pressed tightly to the door. A man was yelling at his cell phone as if the person on the other end could have any possibility of helping him. In the far left-hand corner, a woman banged her hands against the windows so hard that her blood streaked down the glass. In its way, the scene held a euphoric beauty — a beauty that only Iris could see from her seat by the window.

She glanced at the dead man lying on the floor near her feet. His body twitched as if he were still alive. Iris knew better. She had watched a man die before. When she was thirteen, she killed a man. Yes, she murdered her father with a butcher knife she was using to chop carrots for dinner. 

Her mind returned her to the night it happened. She and her two younger sisters were the only ones in the apartment. Her mother, a seamstress, was working late in the Fashion District the night it happened. Iris helped out when she could to support her single mother. Her father was an abusive drunk. One day her mother had enough of his abuse after he broke Iris’s arm. She packed their belongings and took the girls to Los Angeles from Houston. 

Somehow, her father discovered where they were living and hunted them down. Leading up to the moment when she plunged the knife into his chest was a complete blur to her. When her mind could focus again, she stood over her father, her face splattered with his blood. The police called it an act of self-defense. Self-defense or not, killing her father took a piece of her innocents that would never return.

The train didn’t stop at the next station, nor the one after that. The train rolled down the tracks like a dense fog in a horrible nightmare. Would it ever stop? Iris closed her eyes tightly, clutching her hands together in silent prayer.

The breaks engaged, vibrating Iris’s loafers as grinding metal shimmied against the floorboards. The train screeched into the next station and hissed to a stop. 

Iris opened her eyes, gazing in utter amazement at the now nearly vacant subway car. Everything was quiet. Only two people sat nearby; the same smelly man from earlier and an older woman in the bank of seats in front of her. She glanced over to the floor on her left where the dead man once lay. There was no blood, no markings, nothing that would seem out of the ordinary.

 “Next stop Grand Central Station,” called a voice on the train car’s speakers… the voice was crystal clear.

Iris slowly stood, her eyes focused on the floor where she thought the dead man should have been lying. 

“Am I losing my mind?” she whispered to herself. She turned to the window, seeing the chaos continue within the smooth glass.

“HOLY HELL!” She grabbed her purse, holding her hand to her heart as she rushed to the train doors. The doors to the train car opened, and she hurried off the train and onto the platform, not once looking back. 

She paused dead-foot on the train platform when she noticed the same man, dressed in his football jersey, about to step onto the train. The woman with the two infant children was right behind him, struggling, as she had before, to lift her stroller on board. Iris watched as, once again, one of the children tossed his toy on the ground, but this time Iris caught the toy. The mother ripped it from Iris’s hand, snarling at her instead of thanking her.  

The crazy woman, who kept beating her fists against the window, ran to catch the doors before they closed and barely slipped into the train car in time. She followed the man on his cell phone and the teenage girl with pink and purple streaked hair.

Iris paused to watch the train as it disappeared into a long tunnel. Was it all just a dream? She glanced to the ground seeing a shadow pass by. A small, gold shamrock stickpin sparkling in the dim light sat by the toe of her left loafer. For a long moment, she stared at it. As a girl, she had the very same pin, but she accidentally left it behind when she came to California.

She knelt to pick up the pin, once again feeling a presence. She turned with fright, fearing it was once again the shadow tormenting her.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” asked a sweet-faced officer with dark skin that looked like midnight on a moonless night.

“Dropped my pin here,” she held it up to show him as she rose. “Silly thing keeps coming undone,” she chuckled nervously. “Looks like I’ll have to fix it,” she said, trying to pin it on.

“Allow me,” the officer offered.

Iris grinned, causing the officer to smile as he pinned the shamrock onto her purple sweater. “There you go, ma’am. You have a nice day,” he said with a nod, then continued on his way.

Iris glanced down the tunnel where the train disappeared. “Officer,” she called before the man managed to walk too far away. He turned back. “You might want to alert someone about that train. One of the windows had a small crack,” she mentioned, even though she never saw a crack in any of the windows.

The officer scowled, lifted his hat to scratch his head then nodded. “Thank you, Ma’am, but it was probably graffiti carvings. I’ll pass it along, though.”

With her consciousness cleared, Iris felt a little better. Telling the officer there might be a problem with the train seemed outrageous. If something did happen, they might have blamed her. Though, she was compelled to say something. Her dream was too real. The people who entered the train after her were also too real. Everything felt real. 

She started to walk towards the stairs leading to the surface street, only to realize she had two shadows again. She turned to the shadow, shivers spiking up her spine. Enough was enough. She would confront him once and for all. The shadow tipped its hat to Iris and continued walking past her — his work was done.