Inspired by Reddit image prompt "Tickets Please" (image credit: Joel Kilpatrick)
by Matt Lashley
The recirculated air on the night train was tangy. The metal in it gritted between your clenched molars, coated the tip of your tongue, brushed against the roof of your mouth. Smelled like hot iron. Tasted like blood. Young mothers, old women and smart men don't go out on nights that taste like this.
Nobody ever called me smart.
"Today is your lucky day old man", the lanky, twenty-something blonde guy in the shiny maroon windbreaker holding the six inch Bowie knife said.
I pressed my lips together, sat still and looked away from the blonde standing over me. I slightly tilted my head down like an old wolf. A wolf not looking for a fight, willing to wait his turn. Willing to let the younger, stronger wolves eat first. A psychological trick they taught us during training. What to do if captured by the enemy. One of the few things I still remembered.
The lanky blonde leaned in toward me, holding the Bowie in a closed fist behind his back. Ready to strike, if challenged, like a single-fanged rattlesnake.
"Hear me, old man?" he said as he leaned down into my face. "Today's your lucky day cause I'ma let you get your stuff and get the fuck outta my seat. Now move beetch!"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the blonde's cheeks were as dimpled as a warped golf ball. A bout with adolescent onset acne he apparently lost. His breath, lingering above me, smelled like milky ranch dressing several decades past its expiration date. Left in an unplugged refrigerator. At the dump. In July.
"Brush your damn teeth pizza face," I grunted. Shit. I could never keep my mouth shut.
He straightened. At full height he was five foot eight give or take a quarter inch for the heel on his wing-tipped, leather lace ups. "Well look here, Dante," the blonde said to the bigger, dark-haired man wearing a similar shiny, maroon windbreaker sitting one seat over from me. "Old man actin' tough. Don't look tough though. Sure actin' tough though."
If I was acting tough, I wasn't trying. I missed my grandson's ninth birthday the day before. Today I went to the park early to stake out my spot for the night and found a Wolverine action figure some kid left in the sandbox. I thought my grandson would like it. I was taking it to his house to leave on the doorstep.
Dante, without looking up, said, in a low, disinterested gravelly voice, "Fuck 'em."
Smiling, the blonde leaned down again and stopped two inches from my face. "Wooo. Hear that old man? Dante gave me the go ahead to fu--."
Before he could finish his sentence, with a short, strong stabbing motion I jammed Wolverine's outstretched arm into his right eye with my left hand and used the palm of my right hand as a pummel to pound the action figure's feet and secure the toy deep into the blonde's eye socket. His eye made a squishing sound followed by a small pop--the same small pop a kid makes fish-hooking his cheek and letting a wet slip pop out.
He dropped the knife at my feet, screamed and with both hands, pawed at the plastic, yellow X-Man buried ass-deep into his face.
I jumped from my seat, using my shoulder to knock the screaming blonde backward. He twisted and fell into the seats across the aisle. He face-planted into the hard plastic, violently thrusting the toy even further into his head.
One down, three to go. A guy with an ax, a guy with a machete and a guy, their leader, named Dante with a baseball bat. Next step, grab the knife and cut off the snake's head and the body follows. I figured slicing Dante's jugular would be close enough.
I squatted like a power-lifter over the Bowie knife. Keeping my head up and my eyes on the remaining three gang members, I reached for the knife between my legs. Dante dropped his newspaper and reached into the seat beside him for what looked like a nail-spiked wooden baseball bat. I'd seen fewer nails used to frame a house.
Just then the loud hiss of air brakes filled the air. In the following half second, the subway car lost thirty percent of its momentum, causing every person in the car to lean in the same direction. And everything on the floor not bolted down slid in the same direction. Including the Bowie knife.
The Bowie knife skidded behind me. Damn. No way to reach it without exposing my back. Only one way to go. Forward.
From the power-lifter's squat I drove forward like an All-American defensive end. My right shoulder hit the ax guy's midsection and I heard him expel air in an "Oomph".
I wrapped my right arm around his hips and grabbed his right leg just at the Achilles with my left hand. He fell back, dropping the ax. I lay on top of him. So much for not exposing my back.
I felt a hard thud against the right side of my lower back immediately followed by waves of pain signals shooting through every nerve ending in my body, keeping time with my spasm-ing kidney. My vision blurred. My ears rang. I felt the urge to throw up the bottle of Jack I'd had for breakfast and the bottle I'd had for dinner. I'd been here before and knew I'd be pissing blood for a month.
"Hit him again, Dante," the guy I was laying on said. "Hit this old bastard in the fuckin' head."
I knew I couldn't take another hit from the spiked bat without suffering serious damage. Before Dante could land the next blow to my unprotected back, I rolled, slid and flipped the ax guy so he was on top of me. We were face to face and, for a moment, I could see the blissful, ignorant, psychotic happiness in his eyes. He thought he had me.
And then Dante's next blow, already in downward motion when I performed the flip and slide, hit its mark. Or what was supposed to be its mark. The ax guy's eyes rolled back, exposing two tiny, wet chicken eggs. Then his eyes rolled front and stared at a point beside my head. Then his entire body went limp.
Using my arms, I pressed his torso up and scooted back and out from under him. As I scooted, his head jerked up and back, stretching his neck, exposing his throat unnaturally. Then his head fell back down. Then it jerked up and back again. And fell back down again. It was weird, inhuman. For a moment, I imagined the involuntary contractions were symptoms of the guy turning full-fledged zombie.
"Fuck!" yelled Dante, "The bat is stuck in Tyrone's skull. Fuck. I can't get it. Marcus the bat's stuck. Slash 'em Marcus."
That explained the jerky head movements. No zombies. Thank god for small favors.
Marcus was slow. By the time he lifted his machete above his head to strike, I'd completely slid out, crouched back into a power-lifter's squat, grabbed the ax handle with both hands in the middle for leverage and, in one underhanded move, brought it blade side up into Marcus's crotch.
The blow wasn't my strongest, but it was strong enough to cut through denim and split scrotum meat. Which caused Marcus's testicles to succumb to gravity and drop from their broken home and into the cold, harsh world like a couple of orphans.
With the machete held above his head, Marcus looked down at the cut material and rapidly growing blood stain between his legs. He looked back up at me. He looked back down. He dropped the machete to futilely (some may say fruitlessly) cup his crotch, attempting to keep his balls from falling out of his already vacant ball sac.
As soon as the machete hit the floor I grabbed it, stood and surveyed the situation. Marcus was on his knees now, busy: bleeding out and searching the subway floor for his balls. No longer a viable threat. The guy with the spiked bat embedded in the back of his skull was, well, he was a guy with a spiked bat embedded in the back of his skull. Threat risk zero.
The blonde guy with a yellow Wolverine wedged in his eye socket was sitting in the front of the subway car on the floor sobbing and complaining in a curiously monotone voice about everything being dark and his brain being on fire. That left Dante. Dear leader. Fearless leader. Played whack-a-mole with my kidney leader.
Dante had given up on the spiked bat and had taken a position by the sliding doors where he furiously punched the red emergency alarm button.
I stepped over the body with the spike in the skull and moved toward Dante.
Dante backed toward the closed sliding doors. "Look man," he said. "You won, okay. You won. You got this." He put his hands out, palms up. I moved closer.
"C'mon, man," he said. He tilted his head slightly down and away, Not looking me in the eye. Did he have training too? Or did it just come naturally to some people?
I raised the machete and brought the fat end of the curved blade down hard just over his left eye. The blade split his skull, sunk in several inches and exposed brain. Dante looked at me, his eyes half closed, and said, "Aw, man." Then he crumpled like a long sleeve dress shirt falling off a hanger.
I moved toward the blonde. Even though he'd stopped crying and talking, I decided it'd be in bad taste to pull the Wolverine figure out of his eye to give to my grandson. The claws would probably be bent anyway. Maybe the kid would like a shiny maroon windbreaker instead.
Another hissing sound filled the air. The subway slowed, then stopped. The doors slid open. The platform was empty. The air was sweet..