Obscure the Monstrosity
by Azadan Bhagwagar
All I ever do, and have ever done, is run. And when the day comes when I can stop, I wonder if I will look down and be able to see everything I have lost along the way. Tatters of my youth torn off by barbed wires, the chipped edges of my humanity blunted by hard tarmac. Sometimes I think this day will not come until the very end, until I’m enveloped by the earth in a muddy, shallow grave, and I’m looking down at my two feet, worn to the bone from all the running. Like two pearly edifices, peeking out of the soil, to mark for eternity everything that I have done wrong.
“I think you dropped this.”
The words were barely out of my mouth before the apologetic businessman took his wallet from my hand and threw me an energetic smile of gratitude, while being mostly focused on his phone call. I threw an equally artificial smile back before I hurried along to the next carriage, one hand deep in my coat, still clutching the 100 Euro banknote I snatched from the pick-pocketed wallet. It was indeed quite hard to resist taking on an egotistical canter as I skipped past the isles of seats, giddy with my latest theft, the latest in a line of many; fairly many. Well actually, alarmingly many. I’m well past calling my kleptomania a mild personality quirk, and rapidly approaching the status of a savant. As all the familiar chemicals of this electric feeling rushed through my body, I was once again on the buzz that keeps me going, that gives my life meaning. It whirred around my brain as I idly scanned the labels of the various train compartments, looking for my seat: 22E, 22E, 22E. I failed to notice myself muttering my seat out loud; I just get far too pre-occupied in moments like these. When everything feels like it’s in my control, when all is right with the world. “Aha, here it is. 22E.” Dropping down in my window seat, I swiveled my knapsack onto my lap and squeezed it tightly, looking out at the gentle, glimmering afternoon sky over the bustling train platform. I pulled out my 100 Euro trophy from my pocket and admired it; barely creased, newly printed. He probably has a lot more where this came from. In the end of the day, I argued to no one, I’m simply doing what I’m best at. I reasoned. It’s what I am. My stomach lightly churned at this thought. Well, the correct thing to say would be it’s who I am. Trying to sweep over the unsettling notion, I stuffed the bill back into my coat pocket, but it was too late for amendments. The high of the crime had begun to evaporate, and in its stead, the familiar, hideous presence awakened from its slumber in the back of my mind; my oldest friend, the dull feeling that follows me wherever I go. I let out a sigh and slumped deeper into my seat, staring out at the harsh, blistering afternoon sky over the raucous train platform.
The diffused light of dusk revealed little detail of the dilapidated houses on the railway side as we powered along the outskirts of town, getting farther and farther from the metropolitan and into the countryside. Away from the glossy shopping malls, soaring office buildings; and that museum. Somehow, as all things have done in this past month, my mind once again returned to that wretched place. It’s amusing that it seems to catch me off-guard, when really that’s the whole reason I’m on this train. Like a beast in the deeps, it swims in my psyche, silent and deliberate, slipping out of my awareness until a ripple on the surface reminds me of its presence. I looked out to refocus my mind, at a lone bus winding its way through the empty streets, ferrying factory workers back home. Once I lost sight of that, I instead turned to the abandoned concrete shacks, crumbling and white-washed husks that were pocked with holes all over; one of them even looked like a face, old and worn out. Almost like a statue. Like an object of antiquity, a tribal statue of priceless value. The beast was roiling in my subconscious. Carved to perfection with sapphire eyes, one of a kind and -
“We will be serving dinner now, kindly make way for the trolleys. Thank you.”
The PA announcement derailed my train of thought, and brought me back to the present. I’m not hungry at all, I decided. Instead, I grabbed my bag and stumbled out of my seat, hastening towards the sleeper compartment. Some rest would do me good. I dumped my belongings at the foot of the first narrow bed I found, hopped inside the covers, and screwed my eyes shut for sleep to take over. Yes, that’s what I need, some sleep. And in a rare moment of fortune, sleep came quickly, serenaded by the chugging and hisses of the pulsating locomotive.
I’ve been having strange dreams lately. Wild dreams. Last night I was in a strange machination, like a horse-carriage, but much larger and powered by an invisible force. And the people around were dressed so peculiarly, many peering intently at these glowing metallic blocks. Within seconds of waking up, the details began to slip my mind, and now all I recall are rows of odd, stone structures; one troubled me, I don’t remember why. My covers fell to the ground as I lurched myself groggily out of bed, to shuffle to the port hole at the other side of the cabin. The inky blue sea was as calm as a captain could reasonably hope for, but the fog that had begun to settle since last night hadn’t cleared yet. Nevertheless, it was fairly thin, and not a great cause of worry.
“Captain, are you alright in there?”
It was my first-mate, Avis, calling from outside my door. “Why, yes. Enter if you please.”
“Sorry to bother you cap, but I heard you crying out in the night. Is everything alright sir?” This came as a surprise to me, as I wasn’t prone to such things.
“You don’t say? Well, yes, come to think of it I did stumble into my dresser in the dark,” I lied, “just before sunrise; nothing of concern. Ready the men would you please.”
Avis grinned as he dismissed himself. “Sure thing, captain.”
As he closed the door, I remained standing in place, contemplating what I’d been told. I was crying out in my sleep? The dream hadn’t been particularly disturbing, though the cart-like contraption was bizarre. However, there was that feeling; a deep, dreadful presence that lingered throughout the reverie. Whatever it was, it was good to not tell Avis about anything. Talk of such witchcraft doesn’t bode well if it comes from the captain. I know this more than anyone; I know what the cost is. Not wanting to dwell on such thoughts much longer, I set to dressing myself for the day ahead, hoping the routine task would dispel the worries that began to bubble and fester in the back of my mind.
“It really doesn’t make any sense, captain.”
The crew was scuttling around the deck with their orders I had just barked to them, and Avis was beside me on the prow, staring at the light fog all around us. “The wind is blowing well”, he reported, “but this mist hasn’t budged an inch. It’s inexplicable.”
And he was right. The fog just hung about the ship, a thin yet persistent film that tinted the open sea with a faint grey hue.
“It must be the weather; we’ve been sailing north for a while now. Pay it no heed Avis, carry on with your tasks.”
“Will do captain. It’s just…” but he let himself trail off, and I pretended not to notice. Turning about to face the deck, I spotted a mast on the starboard side with a slightly loose rigging, and called upon Avis to help me fix it. Just as my foot took the first step down from the prow to the deck, the ship violently lurched to the side and hurled everybody to the floor. I swiped at a railing for support, missed, and careened all the way down to the deck, slamming my head onto an iron chest. “Captain!” cried Avis as he got to his feet “Are you alright?”
I forced myself upright. “My god what was that? Yes, yes I’m fine, thank you.” But as soon as I stood up, the world began so spin around me and my eyes clouded over. I could just about hear Avis saying something again before everything went black and I collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
I’ve been having strange dreams lately. Wild dreams. Perhaps it was due to the rhythmic swaying of the train as it barreled across the countryside, but last night I dreamt I was on a ship, a sturdy vessel of rope and timber; and I was the captain, no less, out on the open ocean, the crew at my command. Still lying in bed, in almost complete darkness, I tried to recall the specifics of my captaincy, but nothing more came to mind, despite my best efforts; except for the fog. What was so strange about that fog? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it unsettled me deeply. Sitting up from the firm mattress, waiting for my grogginess to wear off, I noticed the sleeper compartment was already empty, though they had left the heavy blinds closed for me. I need to get something to eat, I’m starved. Having finally mustered the energy to get up, I threw my bag over my shoulder and made to leave the sleeper compartment, casually flicking open the blinds on my way out. And as the thick, woolen shades flew up, it revealed, with no warning, a sight that chilled me to my core. Out of the window, rolling all over the emerald countryside, was fog; a damp, heavy, fog.
Chewing on a croissant from the breakfast trolley, which I had uncharacteristically actually paid for, I stared into the empty space of the seat in front of me. On the outside, I seemed fairly unbothered. But playing behind my glassy eyes was the memory of the night 3 days ago that led me to my current state: a fugitive on the run.
The moon was entirely masked away by storm clouds on that fateful night. Pattering against the museum windows of the Ancient Antiquities exhibit, the rain washed the dark and empty room with a sound of drum beats. I remained hunched alongside my duffel bag in the safety of my location, perfectly motionless behind the colossal Mesopotamian vase. After weeks of careful planning, this position was deduced for two reasons. The first was concealed beneath the pristine marble tile: an escape shaft I had dug the week before, leading to the air ducts under the floor, barely a foot away: a fatal flaw in the architecture that I intended to exploit. The second was that this was the only blind spot from the blinking surveillance cameras all over the room. Each one surveying the hall like vigilant sentinels, waiting for me to slip up; to fail. The most taunting of the sentinels, however, was my prize glaring at me upon its pedestal: the obsidian humanoid statue with orbs of sapphire for eyes, barely larger than my hand but worth an incalculable fortune. I did not return its demonic gaze, for all my focus was on my atomic digital watch. Five, four, three, two, one: now! All the security cameras and alarms were jammed for the next 5 seconds. Springing from my hiding spot took the first second, leaping towards the pedestal and snatching the terrible figurine took the next two. Bounding back to my escape hatch took barely a second. And ripping open the tile to plunge to safety would have taken the last; but the tile stuck. An unbearable terror gripped my throat as I dropped the statue on my bag and desperately tore at the edge of the tile with both hands. It was too late: the sound of approaching footsteps flooded my ears. I was a trapped animal, and every instinct in my primal mind screamed out in terror. The wretched sculpture glistened at my peril, as if mocking me. Bursting through the doorway, a security guard roared into the room, and our eyes locked for a horrifying, frozen second. “Hey you! Stop right there!” No, no, no. Watching my hands move with their own accord, I saw them reach into my duffle bag and clasp around the cool metal of my handgun. “Stop there! Put your hands up!”. No, no, no. In the tenth second, I turned to face the guard, pointed my gun, and fired.
When my attention returned to the train, I noticed I was being watched. A middle-aged lady in the opposite isle was frowning at a newspaper, and then at me, comparing what she saw. I’ve been recognized. In the panic of recalling that dreadful memory, my guard was lowered. But that’s no excuse, how can I be so careless? Before the woman assured herself of her find, I nonchalantly shouldered my bag and strolled out of the compartment. Once in the next cabin, my pace quickened and I crossed several carriages without looking back; bounding along the fifth, sixth, seventh. They’re after me. My anxiety peaked and my legs began running. But just as I sprinted into the eighth compartment, the train swung a hard left, sending me crashing headfirst into the metal railing, knocking me out instantly.
“Captain! Captain! Can you hear me?!”
The sharp yell pierced my consciousness as I rocketed awake. All around me were crowded my crew as I lay on the deck.
“Yes Avis, I’m alright, I’m alright.”
Lurching up with great effort, I got to my feet instantly to pacify the men, but to my perplexity they all stared back at me with horror and fear.
“Captain, may I speak with you in your quarters. Now.”
Avis never spoke like this to me, but in my complete confusion I simply agreed. Pushing past the crowd, I followed him along, and it was then that I noticed it for the first time since I came to. The ship was completely blanketed by the fog now, impenetrably dense. Yet again, the dreadful feeling returned, making me speed on after Avis with greater concern. Once inside my quarters, I slammed the door shut.
“Avis, what in the world is going on?”
“I need you to tell me that, captain. The men cannot take this for long.”
“Oh will you just forget about the fog! I know that it is a bad omen but it no reason for such disrespect.”
“Captain, you were screaming again.”
I reeled back at this news.
“Strange things;” he continued, “wild things. You were shrieking that someone was chasing you. That you were going to be caught.”
The terror of my nightmare flooded my memory, and I could consciously grasp at its most distinct moments: the lady I was running from, a large tiled room, the idol. Yes, that horrific, stone-cold idol.
“I don’t know what you are talking about Avis.”
“They think you are cursed; by Ulric.”
An unmanageable weight fell upon my chest at the mention of his name: Ulric, the former captain.
“Avis, please, be silent.”
“You know what you did; we all were behind you that night. In fact, it was right in this room.”
“Watch your station!”
“This is an omen, captain. The crew is suspecting it as well. It is what shall befall the ship that commits – “
I tried to stop his words, but they were true, so I simply closed my eyes.
“ – mutiny.”
“Get out Avis. Get out right now.”
Having nothing else to say, my first-mate turned about and left me alone in my quarters. I was sick to my stomach, and felt hopelessly trapped. But not trapped in my quarters, nor in my ship; but in myself, my wretched form. I paced towards the port hole to get some fresh air, my head bowed down. When I looked up to swing open the glass, my eyes met a sight that pushed me over the edge. Out there hovering above the ocean waves, somehow perfectly visible through the hellish fog, was the obsidian statue, its sapphire eyes piercing my soul. The echoes of my scream reverberated across the open sea before I blacked out into nothingness.
With almighty roar, I jumped up awake in the middle of the train compartment, sending the passengers gathered around me flying back.
“Sir, is everything fine?”
My heart was in my throat as I rubbed my eyes and regained my balance, before turning to respond to the man.
“Yes, I’m fine, I –“
It was the first-mate from my nightmare, Avis, standing before me in the flesh. Every alarm in my brain wailed with full fury as I flung myself away.
“Sir! Calm down, everything is fine.”
“Get away! Get away!!!”
My blood went cold as a river as I catapulted down the train passage. I can’t escape, I can’t escape. I hurtled past the compartments at break-neck speed, running from what, I do not know. With every step, the train began to fill with the fog, and still, I ran. Help me, help me, help me. It grew so dense that there was nothing but the fog, obscuring even my arms and legs, and I could no longer breathe. I collapsed to the ground and rolled over on my back. And before the blackness swallowed me entirely, for the first time in my life, I stopped. I finally stopped.