Bookcase Short Stories


(c) Arike van de Water 2007-2009

Queen of the Underground

What a time to start daydreaming. Carley only had a few seconds to jump on the underground, but then she'd come by, the fabulous woman. She always sat demurely in a corner of a four-seat booth, looking out of the window. Her hair lay in long burnt-orange waves down her back. A red ankle-length mantle hid all but white hands with red-laquered nails and shining black boots. She screamed classic, and everybody watched her. Nobody earned a glance from her, as if she pretended they didn't exist.Who was she? Nobody knew.

Carley swallowed, putting the mystery of the woman out of her mind as best she could. She slid inside as the door to the car closed in beeping delight. Her eyes searched for a place she could safely sit down during the cross-town ride through the dark.

The only seat still free was next to the woman. The rest of the commuters sat or stood in a half-circle that centred on her. An admiring court. The male half probably stared in frank admiration of her face. The female audience, Carley herself included, could not help but envy that clothing, and where did she get those boots? The only detail of this arrangement that struck Carley as out of place was the pressing silence. No phone rang here, none whispered behind their hands, books remained in bags in favour of the tableau she provided.

Carley shifted on her legs. She really wished to sit. Half an hour of standing in a crowded metro followed by eight hours of standing behind a counter would kill her legs. On the way back luxury would mean a handle to hold onto so she didn't fall into fellow passengers' laps. With lead feet she shuffled to the free foul-cream chair and sat. Her neighbour did not move an inch.

She aimed her gaze out the same window as the woman, the only place she did not have to meet all the eyes just darting away from a daring glance at the red-haired woman. She had the same view as her, now, Carley realised. She could see what the woman's view was, even if she couldn't look at her today. This wasn't too bad. She relaxed slightly. The window offered only a pale reflection of the car's interior, between flashing lights and darting darkness. It hypnotised. A slight shift at her side, unexpected. She'd never noticed the woman moving.

An entrancing sight, it almost seemed shapes drifted in the darkness. Gargoyle faces sketched in dark blue. She felt herself falling into a doze, except her eyes remained open. The faces moved. Sometimes there were none, sometimes a few, always the same. An elegant male with dark hair and a long nose. Two women had smiles that stretched too wide. A boy, carried by one of the women.

She blinked her eyes slowly. The inside of the underground hazed over. She risked a lazy look at the other passengers. They swayed standing still. The woman shifted again. She exuded a smell now, surprising Carley. It mixed cinnamon and lemon together.

Her eyes flowed back to the window. The boy gave her a friendly wave. Lemon and cinnamon filled her nostrils. Her head lolled to the side. She straightened it. If she fell asleep, she would miss her stop. She put a feeble hand around a metal bar to pull herself up. Standing might help. She found she did not have the power to lift herself.

A white hand with crimson nails came to rest on her knee. “Be easy,” the woman said. “You'll understand.” Its sound was unfamiliar, in all the months Carley'd travelled the underground, this woman had not spoken a word. It rang loud in the silent cabin.

“You're looking at me,” Carley managed to whisper. Black eyes held her own.

“Isn't that customary in the event of a conversation?” Burnt orange curls framed half of a frowned face.

“Normally you look out the window.” Her head became too heavy to lift. She rested it against her hand on the pole.

“You've noticed me before, then?” the woman asked.

“Of course. You're here every day, same time, on the morning metro headed to Egryfont. Everybody stares at you like they do right now. You're very noticable.” Carley found a last smidgen of energy to smile.

“They're usually quick to forget.” The woman turned to face her fully. A surge of lemon and cinnamon wound about them both. “You didn't.”

“No. I might, when I fall asleep.” She closed her eyes, but opened them again. She didn't want to miss a moment of conversation with this strange woman, or a chance to look at her for more than a polite second at the time. She had cheekbones that stretched her face at an angle not found in the average face. Carley also wondered if she could have the address of the place she bought her night cream.

The woman rose. “Don't, then. Come with me, take a breath of fresh air on the station.” The red-laquered nails glinted when the hand turned to hover in front of her in invitation. Carley raised a hand slowly, putting it in hers. Anything to prolong the conversation. If she could attract the attention of this individual for long enough, the glow would swell her confidence long enough to ask Christian from the helpdesk if he wanted to have a cup of coffee sometime.

“Yeah, that would be a good idea.”

“Come.” She rose, finding in that grip the power to stand. The world had returned to a semblance of coherence, but it was more like a lucid dream, the edges still fuzzy.

The woman led her onto the platform. Once there, they started walking towards the quiet end, where only a few posters hung and a stairs led down to track level.

“This is not the way up.” The statement turned into a question on the way out of Carley's mouth.

The woman pulled her along to the end. “We're going down.”

“What?” she asked vaguely. Carley wondered if she wasn't still daydreaming, back on the platform at her departure station.

They reached the stairs, where in the dusk the faces from before stood, full-bodied now, unsmiling. “You've brought another one?” One of the women growled. She had pale eyes, and paler hair. Both with a blue sheen, even now they stood in the station's yellow light.

“She fascinates me,” the woman said. A low grumble started in her throat and built up until the Carley started thrumming to the sound. Carley blinked and tried to enjoy the strange turn in her dream. Where would it take her?

“Your majesty, your foracious appetite in pets necessitated us to make our surface forays into weekly happenings. I'm not risking myself under the sky even more. You know what happens to the surface dwellers of our kind!” The man stepped forward. He swiped his hand as if to swat a fly. “Turn her around and tell her to take the next metro. She'll have forgotten us within three seconds.”

The woman who'd remained silent until now snorted. Her dark hair stood in a greasy crow's nest around her head. “Fools. If that had been an option, she would not have needed to mesmerise this girl in order to come along. Look! Smell, sight and touch altogether were needed to compel this creature. She's more resistant to our spell that I've ever seen before. Can't you see how her eyes are still focused? We need to see what makes it so.” She waved a hand to bring Carley forward.

Carley cocked her head in question. If this dream was lucid, she did not need to obey. She wanted to remain with the red-haired woman. “Why?”

“What?” whispered the man, a choked sound. “How deep under is she really?”

“Tego, quiet. She remembered me, so I decided to bring her. I did not want to carry her all the way.” She walked around to Carley's front. “Darling, you've come with me so far. I'd like to show you where I live now. It's a good place. Will you come?”

From somewhere a memory of a life outside the dream came to Carley's mind. She needed to break this dream, no matter how lovely. Otherwise her pay would be docked again, this month. I need to go to work, she wanted to say. All that came out was a quiet “work.”

“What's she saying?” asked the pale woman.

“She's saying she needs to go to work, I think,” the woman, orange hair sparking in the lamplight, said. She'd let go of Carley to descend the stairs. Her red mantle tended more toward black in the soft shadows. She sounded ill at ease. Carley felt a pang of remorse for disappointing her. She always disappointed people, even in her dreams. Perhaps she needed to wait a little longer to ask Christian for coffee, until she performed better with the people her imagination conjured up.

“Take her, take her now,” the man said, becoming impatient. “You have time for games and conversations later! We need to go before the next can full of humans arrives, out of the light. Castor has not yet the power to hide himself.” He put a hand on the boy. Something in their expressions, narrowing eyes, the teeth baring, in the boy, the man and the dark-haired woman, made Carley put a step back.

“Fine.” The woman put out her hand. Carley shook a head. She really needed to go. The metro, the next metro. She needed to catch it. The woman slowly approached her. “Come, young one. You need to come with me. You're not well. I'll make you better. Much, much better.”

I need to go, sorry, I need to leave. I'm sorry, I'll see you on the underground tomorrow, in the waking world, her mind said. What came out of mouth was “Go. Leave. See'nderground. Waking.” She turned on a heel and started running. She could already hear the metro coming. She needed to go. The lucid dream had already lost some of its fuzziness. She'd wake soon, she hoped. Somehow, with the clarity that only came during sleep, she decided that getting on the dream metro would wake her up in time to catch the real one. For surely, hearing it in her dream meant she was hearing the real one pull in, and her subconcious brought it into this place?

Running feet behind her, a hand brushing her neck. A sharp pull on her hair made her head snap back. Pain pierced her beneath the jaw line. Only for a moment, until she swung out with a hand, and hit something soft very near her. She hit it again, harder. The grip on her hair loosened. She stumbled forward, a few steps towards the back of the last cart. In through the doors while they beep-beep-beeped closed. She fell to her knees. Had she caught the train?

Awkwardly, she planted herself in a chair. The other passengers watched with interest, she ignored them while she closed her eyes and waited for the fuzz to fade. Then she risked a glance at the screen overhead that announced the next station in large, scrolling letters. She'd caught the metro, but at a different station. Had it not been a dream? She put a hand hesitantly against her neck. Nothing there.