The day started off normal enough, I muse to myself falling heavily into the chair pulled up to my kitchen table and gripping the cold bottle of lager freshly procured from my fridge. Thinking back on the events of the day, I find myself scarcely able to accept they actually occurred. Life sure can be funny sometimes.
I had the day off, and lacking any duties of pressing concern to attend to decided that before going to the gym I would take a trip down to the mall on Broadway and buy myself a new pair of cross trainers. It was a luxury I had been putting off for months, but at long last my existing pair of trainers were coming apart at the seams, the left sole beginning to peel back further and further each time my toe dragged slightly on the pavement along the seawall during my daily jogs around the park. So, as I donned my coat and sunglasses and laced my boots at the door before leaving the apartment I shouted to my roommate, who was busy applying some kind of cream for some kind of effect on some part of her body for some reason, “I’m off. Today is New Shoe Day!”
I was waiting on the platform at the train station for the next southbound, listening to the music in my headphones and scanning the humanity that stood trapped in limbo, in transit, in wait, like myself. They were the usual lot I’ve seen suspended at similar stations on similar afternoons, lying in wait for similar trains. Over by a trash receptacle I espied a pair of teenaged Asian girls giggling over some text one of them has received on their phone and felt compelled to show the other. They laughed with hands over mouths as though the mere utterance of such a noise is an act of dishonour and shame to be hidden from me and the rest of the world. By a sign advertising a new way to save money on my mobile phone and earn points for a vacation to somewhere warm and sunny there stood a thin, fit woman in her thirties all decked out in Lulu Lemon black stretch-pants and bold magenta sport sweater. A stylish wisp of scarf tied round her neck and yoga mat efficiently slung in a bag over her shoulder, she looked the very model of the West Vancouver upwardly active, professional and health conscious citizen. A bit closer to my own personal space a young dude in a fedora and thick-rimmed glasses bobbed his head to something (I have no doubt) exceedingly rare and under-appreciated. And over there…
Over there stood probably the most peculiar-looking man I had seen in as long a time as I can recall. In a city this size, you become accustomed to observing some pretty odd fellows walking the streets, standing at train stations, begging for change. I can remember seeing a man sporting one arm and half a face, around sixty years of age and grey-haired, wearing nothing but a pair of Daisy Dukes and dragging a bruised and rusted cooler behind him – the contents of which I can only guess. There is a woman who habitually circles the block in my neighbourhood nearly each day pushing a baby carriage in which there sits, pretty as you please, a full-grown white duck, while a pigeon sits perched atop the woman’s dung-spattered Tillie hat. Indeed, you see the most damned interesting people everywhere in this city. But this man – I had never seen anything like him.
He was huge, a genuine refrigerator of a chap, unspeakably tall and wide with broad and squared shoulders, huge hands and a great cinder-block of a head. His face was like pictures I’d seen of reconstructed Neanderthal Man; thick brow and high forehead looming formidably over a pair of wide and staring eyes. The square jaw held an expansive mouth full of grey and crooked teeth. I imagined the man being able to swallow a teacup Chihuahua whole with very little effort, and furthermore gleamed from his eyes an insane glint saying that he might very well intend such an act. He reminded me of Andre the Giant with Down’s Syndrome. Tearing my eyes from the grotesque face I took in the rest of his massive frame. The two-piece and button-up combo in which he was clothed were varying shades of ash, his shoes appeared old and worn yet freshly shined. His bow-tie was loosely spun in an old-fashioned way, something you might see worn by a Vaudevillian or the ring-leader of some deranged circus. This image was reinforced in my mind’s eye by the top-hat sitting atop the giant’s watermelon-sized cranium and by the long flowing cape made of twilight blue crushed velvet that flowed from his landing-pad shoulders.
My god, I thought. He looks like a magician.
Not wanting to stare too long or hard at the living Golem, I averted my eyes to the bespectacled dude, the yoga woman and the twittering teenagers. I only dared to steal the most brief and occasional of glances now and then, and then simply because the man was just so damn fascinating. I wondered where he might be going to or coming from, and what the purpose of his attire might be. Did he actually work in a circus or some sideshow? Perhaps he was part of some burlesque troupe that performs in some underground or hole-in-the-wall cabaret venue somewhere in the city. If such was the case, did he simply not have time to change after work? I reasoned that it being the middle of the afternoon that it would be more likely he were on his way to a venue rather than away from one. Would he really wear such attire around all day? Did they not have proper changing facilities wherever he was scheduled to perform? Perhaps he was an entertainer, a magician who played parties doing card tricks and performing feats of strength. Maybe he was a real life geek like the ones long forgotten in the travelling caravans of the roaring twenties, who bit the heads off of small animals for the savage applause of gore-junkies hiding in some seedy underground public house. I was willing to believe anything.
Slowly and steadily though, my bemused fascinated was being replaced by an overwhelming sense of unease. There was a pervading, unsettling aura about the man, something as crooked and sinister as his grey and dying teeth. I shook the feeling off as you would a black cat or a broken mirror, as something that existed only inside your own superstitious leanings, and decided not to look at him anymore.
Our eyes met. It was quite by accident – I had just made the decision to avoid his gaze permanently when my attention was obsessively drawn back to him for one last glance and it was then that his glaring ocular spheres found mine. I froze, wanting more than anything else to look away but desiring even more for the man to avert his own eyes first, but he did not. He held my gaze, his saucer-sized peepers burned right into mine like lasers and I imagined feeling something like a cold shiver rush down my spine.
The train came rocketing into the station, slowing to rest along the platform and I broke my gaze and turned my attention toward the transport, my salvation. I breathed in and realized I had been neglecting my regular breathing patterns for an unusually lengthy beat of time. I boarded the train at a door very far down the line from the giant. As the train jolted into forward motion and continued its course down the track I found I could not shake him from my mind. Such an unusual sight was he and such a visceral reaction he inspired. More remarkable than that I remember thinking how not one other person outside myself in the station appeared to be taking any exceptional notice to the man whom I found would stick out in even the busiest and most cluttered of locales. Then again, I reasoned, ignoring people is a skill many people learn as soon as they move to the city and if you’re born inside the confines of the urban jungle it’s not so much of a learned skill so much as it is an instinctual reflex.
Sometimes you just see something so bizarre it stays with you for a few extra blocks. Or all day, for that matter…
I wish that were the end of my recount with the odd-looking stranger observed in a train station on my way along Broadway. I wish I could simply skip along to the part of the story where I arrive at the mall and find the pair of shoes I had set out to acquire. These are things I cannot do, I’m afraid. There is more.
As I tried to shake the unease and collect myself for the task at hand – the mall, and my new shoes, and what I would do after the mall, and whatever else was on my mind – I realized that my unease was not leaving me. I began to realize that what I was feeling was the unease of being watched, and not only watched but watched closely, watched closely by huge eyes in the middle of an Easter Island head riding on the apex of a mountainous vehicle of flesh and bone dressed in an ash-grey two-piece, cape and top-hat. I could see him in my mind’s eye, standing in the far back corner of my train car, watching me through a tightly packed flock of bystanders, bewilderingly unaware of the malicious giant in their midst who was clocking my every twitch and sway of the train’s motion.
A second later the image in my head transformed into the image I was seeing with my own waking eyes. There he stood, the Goliath in Mad Hatter’s garb complete with top-hat, cape and bow-tie, looking at me with an eerie sense of familiarity. Not on my part, of course – I had never seen a man like him in my whole life except in my most demented fantasies, and furthermore never wished to see a man like him again. What at the present moment shone in the giant’s eyes was a light of recognition, and it frightened me more than anything. Quickly I performed a mental scan of my recent and distant memories searching for some recall but drew no results, no answers, no recollections. No circumstances existed where I could have possibly seen such a fellow in life, whether by purpose or circumstance. So why then, this look that lingered in his gaze? Why would this ghoulish, hulking spectre think that I know him?
The train pulled into the next station where it came to a halt, and I exited even though my stop was not for another two stations. I could not bring myself to stay a moment longer on the same car as the magician. While the train was still parked in the station taking on new commuters, I dashed down the line toward the back of the train and boarded the car furthest from that I had been aboard. I shuffled myself past other passengers and stood in the far rear corner, facing the window. I felt jolted, off kilter, and I needed a moment of peace in which to collect my bearings. As the train engaged its progress again I began to relax.
I peered out the window. It was a fair-weathered day yielding many clouds but no rain. I began to forget about the Magician and felt the foreboding tickles of spidery dread subside from the surface of my skin. I began to laugh at my own paranoid fantasies. We descended into a tunnel and the scenery turned to darkness. With my peaceful cityscape wiped away from my sight, I turned to look back into the car and was struck by two hideously inexplicable visual realities: the first being that the car, which last I beheld was full of passengers was now (almost) completely deserted, and second; that the only person other than myself who now occupied the car was the Magician.
He stood no more than four feet from me, his bulging eyes fixed on mine.
I froze in fear. Things like this don’t just happen.
He spoke: “It’s been a long time.”
He was the largest man I had ever been face to face with. I felt myself shrinking just standing close so to him. I didn’t know how to respond. After what felt like ten minutes of thick, stilted silence, some mechanism kicked over inside my head, stirring my autopilot vocal response system into going online, and from somewhere that felt foreign and far away and very feeble, a noise seeped from my throat and answered, “What?”
“I wager you had expected never to see me again?” In the sterile, unventilated air of the train car his breath hit my face hot and thick. The exhaust that came blasting out of his maw along with his menacing words was overpowering. I guessed that a few of those yellow crooked teeth hanging from his purple gums were rotted straight through to death and were ready to drop.
My mind spun frantically in search for a coherent response, but all that my quivering mouth and shaken nerves could muster was a mess of stuttering. “I’m s-sorry, I – I’m late for w-work.”
An odd smile spread across his crooked lips. “You’re not late. What’s more, I don’t believe you work. I’m afraid you are not going to fool me this time.” Another foul wave of reeking breath hit me like a tsunami, decimating the unprepared coastline of my face.
I wished upon wishes that I had the faintest clue as to what he was talking about and why the man continued to allude to some insane notion that we knew one another from some previous engagement. At the very least I wished to know what words to use which would make him stop his discourse and leave me be.
I have found myself in situations similar to this before: some deranged individual intent on conversation, perhaps starving for some kind of human interaction, accuses you of perpetrating crimes upon him such as sleeping with his ex-wife or stealing his thoughts or working against him with the aid of some covert government agency. In such instances there has always been some way of playing off such accusations, re-directing the topic of discussion toward something else and thus escaping a potentially insane confrontation. In every one of those past situations, however strange and randomized the circumstances may have been at the time, nothing as supernatural as an entire crowd of people simply vanishing into thin air ever has occurred before. Nothing even close. This and the general otherworldly feel to the entire scenario had me at a complete loss.
Again I searched for an escape. My mind finally gave up, saying the only words clear enough in my head, the lone phrase which seemed to float up from the mired confusion of my befuddled vernacular to encapsulate my entire being at the present moment: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The smile on the large man’s face contorted, twisting into a mask of malicious, grinning glee. A fresh tremor erupted up my spine and cold sweat began leaking through the pores on my brow. He spoke again, and as he did he backed slowly away, his arms rising, palms splayed wide and fingers spread like the wings of some dark bird, his eyes never leaving mine. “You are not going to fool me this time.” His voice became even deeper and louder, seeming to echo off the walls of the train car. “I have waited one thousand years for the two of us to meet again, and you are finally going to pay for the eons I have spent in dissatisfaction!”
As these words finished pouring forth from his massive mouth I felt a slight tremor begin beneath my feet. The vibration quickly grew in intensity until the floor, walls and windows shook. Indeed it seemed the entire train began to feverishly shake and jostle. An earthquake! I thought. But it was not. It was something more. Against everything I thought possible or dreamed plausible, the world around me – metal car, padded seats, hand rails, Plexi-glass, posters for cellular phones and teenage pregnancy, the dark concrete walls of the tunnel outside the train – split apart like the rubbery shell of a crocodile’s egg and fell away to oblivion.
I looked up, down, and all around me and saw a vision of Hell. The sky above was a blood-red sky like the one at dawn only with swarms of luminous green stars twinkling across a swirling mass of pale grey storm clouds which against the blood-stained heavens were turning a sickly, brownish hue. Underneath my feet was a flat expanse of black stone that shone with a reflective finish that reminded me of volcanic glass. This stone floor extended outwards in a large oval for hundreds of yards all around me, its outermost edges marked by grotesques monolithic spikes made from the same shining black glass. The air was dense and hot. Intermittently, streaks of piercing silver lightning erupted from one of these conical spires and travelled over my head hundreds of yards in a perverse javelin’s arc to dissolve into the tip of another.
I drew my wandering eyes back to find the strange man who had continued his steady backward retreat and was now about fifty yards in front of me, still with his arms outstretched and still penetrating me with those awful, dark eyes. As his hands clenched themselves into fists, a fresh discharge of lightning exploded overhead and he spoke again, his voice booming across the wide chasm of space which now divided us.
“All these long years I have spent in waiting, anticipation and agonizing idleness, imprisoned in solitude, away from the light of the surface, with only my dreams of eventual retribution to keep me comfort! Yes, now you will pay!”
Oh god, I wished I knew what the hell this guy was talking about! Where in the hell was I? Was I in fact in Hell?! What was I doing here? And how was I supposed to get out?! Who is this guy and why does he think he knows me? The questions and thoughts ran in circles through my brain like a ferret in a maze.
As if reading my thoughts, the man boomed, “Don’t even try to play innocent! I have grown wary of your deceit and your trickery! When last we met, I was naive and you got the best of me – even when I knew I was the stronger wizard!” At this, the man raised one mighty arm high above his head. As he did, a bright blue aura sparkled out from his clenched fist.
Trickery? Prison? Wizard? What in the hell?
The man’s trembling fist at once ceased its crackling of electric blue, and he lowered his arm to rest at his side. “Now,” he said, “make your request!”
By some amazing leap of reason and logic and understanding, beyond all the incredible sights and sounds I was beholding, above all the shear confusion of this entire ridiculous situation unfolding around me, my mind was somehow able to pierce through the confusion and grasp onto what the man had said. I asked him in return, “Request?”
“Again, I warn you,” his voice echoed, “do not play innocent with me – you are well aware of the rules of magical engagement!” He paused and his face took on a bemused look. “I wonder… Perhaps it has been too long between contests for you. Maybe your old brain has grown soft from lofty, fattened life on the surface with the mortals. Well then, my jelly-brained opponent, I shall state it clear and loud: in accordance with the rules of engagement, we shall each make one request for the battle before we commence. Then we shall have it out in the traditional style – spell for spell! Since you are the reigning victor, besting me in our last meeting – underhanded as I so deem that it was – the laws dictate that you shall make your request first. Mark me, wizard: you best make your request a good one, for I have had one thousand years to ponder over my request, and I promise you I have not been merciful in my decision!”
Inside, my body was pulp. My mind was skittering this way and that, a panicked rat in a tin box. My skin was damp with sweat and I shivered. My eyes darted, my breath came in gasps. Should I request a phone call to my mother, like they do in prison? Should I ask for a steak dinner like the guys on death row? What the fuck do I do?!
“No more stalling, and no more trickery! Make your request!”
The last outburst hit me like a sonic boom, shaking my whole skeleton and turning my body to a quivering, boneless mass. I felt like gelatin, my mind a buzzing hornet’s hive of chaotic doom. The hope that all this was a dream or some hallucination was growing more distant by the second. Although parts of me still clung to the hope that I would awake safe and sound on my couch in my apartment with the sounds of my roommate’s music playing from her bedroom, my eyes and ears and skin told me something different. This was happening, and for the life of me I did not know why. For what seemed like ages I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. My eyes took in the dark, swirling, crimson sky, the hard and foreboding ground, the lightning striking overhead, and the gruesome magician standing across the ebony expanse who had brought all this to pass. Brought it to pass seemingly over some otherworldly case of mistaken identity! The ludicrous nature of my circumstances was lost in the sheer terror of my plight, but upon objective observation the entire situation was almost worth laughing over. Instead of laughing though, I wanted out, wanted back to the world I knew and understood, away from this hellish realm of desolation and fury. I wanted boredom, banality, business as usual. I wanted the train, and dudes in cliché hipster glasses and Asian girls giggling at stupid texts and tiny dogs and shopping carts and ads for points cards and overpriced coffee. I wanted to be rid of this here and now, of this supernatural sphere of noises and light, but more than anything —
“I want you to go away!” I cried out, hands pressed to my temples. My voice shook with growing, unborn tears. “I want you to disappear and leave me alone for a million years!”
Suddenly, the world went quiet.
Lightning ceased to strike and the clouds above stopped swirling and spiralling. The receding low rumble of distant thunder was the last of the past chaotic symphony. I looked across the expanse at the man whose countenance of aggression that had only moments before hungered for vengeance and destruction was now calm. Although his eyes still held a small flame of quiet hatred in their core, a slight grin of acceptance crept into the corner of his ugly mouth.
He spoke. “Well played.” His torso bowed slightly to me, one massive palm on his belt buckle. “I accept defeat at the hands of a craftier wizard than I. But mark me, in one million years, you and I will have it out, and you will not get my better again.” He tipped his hat.
In the span of a single blink of my eyes, the world was as it had been before. The train, once again in regular, lolling transit, was all around me as were the plethora of urban commuters. Over there was a young man with dred-locks reading over university text books. Over there a teenaged boy in a backwards baseball cap was texting. There was a couple sharing playful kisses. An old man in a three-piece suit was leaning on a cane. An overly made-up woman in a short skirt wobbling in extremely high heels was trying not to fall over as the train turned a sharp corner.
I looked around for the strange man, the giant, the magician. But he was nowhere to be seen. No one seemed to notice anything odd about me and were acting as though nothing in the world were amiss or asunder.
Inside I was screaming: How could this be?!
I wanted to grab the nearest person to me, shake them violently and demand that they admit to seeing a strange giant man in a top-hat sweep me away to an underground arena to do supernatural battle and then transport me back in a flash of magic before vanishing to who-knows-where.
But I didn’t.
A moment later, the train stopped. It was my station. I shook off momentary paralysis, put my head down, walked off the train and dared not look back.