She pumped the pedals hard and felt a burn in her thighs. This was a good feeling, as was the chill breeze against her face and through her long dark hair, her scalp tingled as it lifted off her shoulders and whipped around behind her.
It felt good to be alive, it felt good to be riding, the twilight was calming and the sudden cooling of the hot summer air was welcome. The city would come alive soon with the night, but the in-between time always felt oddly quiet, serene. By the time she got home and washed up and settled down with the book she’d been reading it would be dark and she could relax.
The air even smelled sweet for a moment, a patch of it, maybe she just rode through a cloud of grass-scent, but it reminded her of her childhood in the suburbs and she felt like a kid for a moment. She was free. Free for the rest of the night, free for tomorrow, free of her family’s eye, free of Brad and his neediness.
Knowing the tunnel was ahead, she followed her bike-from-work routine and left the main street for the sidewalk. There was the hole, ease right – hop over the uneven sidewalk break – and smooth sailing until the tunnel. The soft rotation of the bike chain and the hum of the tires seemed the only sounds.
To be free of Brad. Always needing something. She could not understand modern men… or maybe it was just city boys. They weren’t like the guys she grew up with, who were just straight pigs and unashamed – but she felt she knew how to handle them. The men she’d met in the city were scared of her more than not, unsure of themselves, completely lacking the masculine quality that she wasn’t ashamed to admit she desired. To her, a beard didn’t make a man.
It wasn’t that Brad was a bad guy, quite the opposite, but he didn’t… well, he didn’t make her feel safe. When she was with him he joked about what a coward he was, but she believed there was truth in it. He avoided trouble at all costs, which was the smart way to be, but it kept him from doing anything fun as well. He was handsome in a generic sort of way, but there was no character in his face. That’s what she missed. Character.
Her mind breezed over the thought that she wanted to feel safe and that she looked for that in a man. She had often wondered the line between being feminine and feminist - she enjoyed being a woman, yet something within wanted to yell out for looking to a man for safety. There wasn’t anything wrong with feeling safe in someone’s arms… but to her it was also a sign of weakness in her, to desire that.
No wonder men where confused. She was confused. She shook the notions from her head with a wry shrug.
The tunnel approached quickly and she took a few sharp breaths. It ran for almost an entire city block beneath a massive network of train tracks, and the air beneath it was always musty and cool. To ride in the street was foolish, it was too narrow to accommodate a vehicle and a bicyclist and the walkway lifted beside the street, creating a five foot wall that trapped you in, so she always took the walkway. It was rarely occupied and was a straight shot, but the support columns made her nervous. There was one every ten feet or so, and they were wide enough for someone to hide behind.
She entered the tunnel at a decent speed and immediately went to her worst case scenario: Someone leaping out from behind one of those pillars and making her crash. Then? Who knows, hopefully she could defend herself. The air grew cool and musty, and her guard went up.
There was something ahead… something dark in the sulfuric yellow light, lying against the smooth wall opposite the street. The sidewalk rose, almost five feet higher than the street itself, a deadly drop on a bike going high speed. She maneuvered closer to the flat wall to her right as the dark object came closer fast.
It was a black plastic garbage bag. She could identify it now, it was full and looked wet, like it was out in the rain, but it hadn’t rained in days. She pedaled harder and tried not to think of the Korean horror film she’d seen, the one where there were garbage bags being found all over the city with body parts in them, breaking open like swollen ticks and spilling the blood and chunks and hands-
She pedaled harder, feeling the good burn in her legs. She heard herself breathing. The other side of the tunnel was a pinpoint of bluish twilight in the vanishing point of yellow and suddenly there was the bag and she glanced at it as she flew by, then looked ahead again.
Safe. Safe and the home stretch. Why did she take this route? Was it to challenge herself? To face some unnecessary fear? For the hundredth time she swore to herself that she’d take a different route next time.
Then something dark came out from behind a pillar ahead. She let out a surprised yelp and squeezed the brakes, the front tire wobbling uncertainly. It was a man-sized shape, dark, and it stepped out into the middle of the walkway. She could not gauge if she could make it past the shape and couldn’t continue on the bike while trying to see what it was, so she slammed the brakes and stopped. She put both feet on the ground.
The figure was still about twenty feet away, standing in the center of the walkway. There was no way she could get around it on the bike. She was breathing hard. Was it wearing a robe? A hooded robe? Her heart was hammering, her legs went shaky.
“Get out of my way!” She yelled at it, not sure why she didn’t think to yell “who are you” or “what do you want”.
It didn’t respond, it simply stood there, silent.
She took a breath, tried calming herself, but instead grew angry. Fear turned into a rage.
“What’s your problem! Get the fuck outta’ my way!” She yelled, and she could hear her voice like someone’s voice in a movie and she could identify the tremble of fear in it.
The figure remained motionless.
Her mind darted around. Did she have a weapon? No, she had nothing that would even come close to a weapon. She whipped her head around to the way she’d just come and her stomach dropped.
There was another figure, blocking the way back. It was just standing there darkly in the yellow light, about twenty feet away. Had it been hiding behind the pillar, just letting her go by?
“Oh God,” she croaked.
The figure behind her was about where the wet garbage bag was. It wore a hood and its face was completely in shadow. It watched her, though, she could feel it watching her.
“What do you want, fucker?” She screamed at the one before her, whipping her head around. Her hands were wringing the handlebar grips.
The figure before her lifted its right arm. She could see no hand, no glove, no skin, just the wide sleeve of the robe (or whatever it was) rising slowly. A gnat hummed past her ear, she shook her head. Sweat was pouring into her eyes, she blinked it away. The right arm of the figure slowly lowered. Her heart pounded in her ears, her cheeks, her eyes.
Suddenly she spun around to the one behind her. She watched as it took a step to the garbage bag and crouched down to it. Whipping around, she saw the one in front of her still standing silently, then flung her attention back to the one behind her.
The figure had the same type of robe with no hands and wide sleeves, and it reached to the plastic bag. It got some type of purchase and ripped it open. The world was silent. No vehicles had passed by on the street beside/below her.
The figure behind her stood and stepped away from the plastic bag.
Something was moving in it. She saw the plastic move. She saw something poke outward, then touch the sidewalk. Like a crab leg. Like a big, white crab leg. Another came out, gently touching a pointed stalk end to the sidewalk. Another.
She spun around to the figure blocking her way and it was walking toward her. Silently. Just casually walking toward her.
Some kind of a scream ripped out of her and she put her feet on the pedals. Without hesitation she biked off the five foot drop onto the street below and in mid-air lifted the front tire as well as she could before slamming into the pavement. Her hands slipped when the front tire hit and her mouth smashed into the handlebars and she fell sideways off the bike. Her legs were caught in the bike and she’d broken her fall with her left wrist, which sent a sharp pain all the way up her arm and into her eye. Her elbows burned and there was something wrong with her tailbone but instinct told her to look behind her for oncoming cars.
Nothing, no cars. A dead street. Scrambling out from the bike, she looked at the walkway, now above her. The cloaked figures were slowly and soundlessly walking to where she’d gone off the ledge. They were silent like shadows sliding across a wall, so silent that when she heard the soft clicky sound to her right it felt like it was in her ear. She spun, finally on her feat, and screamed again.
The thing with the crab legs. It was crawling down the side of the embankment and it was big. She watched, breathless, as the multiple legs, more like spider-legs made of bone, clicked onto the pavement she was standing on. It was a vague, pulpy, whitish mass with too many legs to count, and it was moving toward her in the shadows.
She didn’t scream. She looked up at the robed figures and they were now within arm’s reach, stooping to get closer. The yellow lights above and behind them cast their faces in opaque darkness and she didn’t give a shit anyway, the clickety-clack of those bone spider-legs was getting closer.
She didn’t scream, she grabbed the handlebars and hopped on the bike. White lightning flashes of pain shot up her left arm and she almost seized up but she didn’t and she didn’t yell out again, she put her feet on the pedals and cranked. Her tailbone sent piercing, cold pinches through her back but she stood on the pedals and cranked and pulled the handlebars for more power, stifling her breathing and suddenly the musty air was blowing into her face and she could see the distant twilight at the far end of the tunnel.
Eyeing the columns above and to her right that lined the walkway, she steered left and rode hard in the center of the street, cranking. The chain held. The bike held. She held.
She could hear herself breathing and it was like a feral animal but it was controlled. Her nostrils were flared and her eyes were wide but she was determined for that opening. It was within reach. The dark columns to her right whipped by.
With each pump of the pedals she grunted.
And she was out of the tunnel. The sweet smell of cut grass and the clean white street light hit her and the sky and the entire world around her was bathed in blue and she stopped. Something primal within told her she was safe. The quivering in her spine eased and the cold hand of pressure had released her chest. She was safe. Her arms were practically vibrating, her legs were rubber bands but she was safe.
She stopped the bike and immediately all the pain came at her. Her wrist, her ass, her bloody mouth, her lungs, her legs… but she didn’t cry out. Instead she steadied her breath and looked behind her into the dark mouth of the tunnel. Despite the sulfuric yellow lights it was a pool of blackness.
From within that blackness, something screamed.
It didn’t frighten her. She watched the shadows within for a moment but nothing stirred. Taking a deep, slow breath, she got on her bike and rode away.