I attempted to reduce the amount of over-writing in my manuscript. It was a great experience. Adjectives and adverbs added unnecessary details better explained by showing the action. Take a read…
Chapter One: Johnny
I twisted my hair around my fist and held it away from my face. My fingers brushed the strands at the back of my neck. The air suffocated New York City in August. It was the kind of sticky that made you curse the idea of clothing and epitomized the definition of swamp butt.
Most parents insisted their kids miss a day or two of summer league in Central Park or swimming lessons at Chelsea Piers to escape to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore. Most city parents, but not mine or Johnny’s. As my best friend and I walked down the sidewalk, lined with cars and smelling like garbage, I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t forced to leave the city I loved.
Johnny’s mother spent most of her time playing the victim, claiming to be too weak to make it to the supermarket, or nauseous from the bus ride to the store, or simply exhausted from another one of her episodes. She complained about her existence, but the truth was she lived in a apartment on the Upper East Side. Bills were paid by Johnny’s father, who had moved to L.A. with a blonde over a decade ago.
It took a toll on her relationship with Johnny, and he avoided his home at all costs. My family cared more about his whereabouts than his own, anyway. Since the first time we ate hot dogs from Gray’s Papaya on West Eighth Street, to the Sunday afternoon’s we spent throwing chestnuts at pigeons under the arch in Washington Square Park, we were inseparable.
Johnny and I spent middle school copying each other’s homework and laughing at the kids’ arguments about who’s phones cost more. Like the brother I never had, we were comfortable spending hours together, and as far back as I can remember, he had a seat at the Jones’ dinner table.
My parents were citizens. My mom, Emily Jones, was a nurse in the pediatric department at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She worked nights in shifts, but she spoke about her patients like they were family. Happy to spend time with her and the kids she took care of, Meggy, Johnny, and I were faces in the hospital.
My dad, James Jones, was a chief technology officer for one of the Mayors of New York. He wasn’t one of those guys with a blog and a twitter handle. Dad ensured network servers were working, maintained cloud space, and ran business continuity tests. With little political aspirations, Dad claimed it was a job, but with the Mayor up for re-election, this summer would be busy, planning and strategizing for the campaign in the fall.
We might not see him for days at a time, but he never forgot any of our birthdays, baseball games, or dance recitals, including anything of Johnny’s. It wasn’t as if Dad had to exert effort to support Johnny. Johnny liked to do everything I did. When I signed up for karate, he did, too. Then, he joined me for a short stint rowing for a crew team on the Hudson. He even attempted sketching models.
He wasn’t talented at any of the sports or arts, but it didn’t matter. They were interests of mine, and despite the coach’s compliments and insistence I follow through, I got bored and was happy to be doing something new with Johnny by my side.
Johnny maintained a smile each time I suggested a activity, but it wasn’t his stamina to keep up with my whiplash that awed me. Let’s just say, Johnny was prone to brushes with death. Somehow, our activity ended in tragedy.
For example, there was this time in karate class when I ‘hi-yah’ed a piece of plywood and a chunk of it flew across the room and pierced Johnny’s cheek. From that moment on, he wore the scar like a badge of honor. Or the time we walked along the dock at a crew meet, and he tripped into the river. I don’t know if it was the seaweed or the wind or what, but we needed hands to pull him out of the water.
I wasn’t thinking of those experiences as we entered hell, also known as the New York subway system. Johnny and I were heading home after a concert at Bowery Ball Room. The band had been dull, but my eyes were glued to the pictures on my phone. My act of excitement was intense, considering how terrible the concert was. Fine, it was fake, and Johnny knew it, too.
I needed an excuse to put space between Johnny and me. There was a moment in the mosh pit when Johnny grabbed my hand, and I don’t mean brushing fingertips or pulling me out of the way of a crowd surfer. As the singer belted the chorus of a song, Johnny reached over and linked our fingers.
I let him hold my hand for the song, and then I insisted I needed to search for my phone. That was an hour ago, and I hadn’t let go of my mobile device yet. His display of affection caught me by surprise. I’ve known Johnny for so long, and I never considered him anything but a friend. He didn’t feel the same way.
The sound of my foot tapping was the only noise in the Spring Street subway station. In my head, I was screaming for the train to come and end the silence. Perhaps some Cupid love god was dragging out my discomfort with the hope I would change my mind about Johnny.
Johnny stood a few feet behind me with his hands shoved in his pockets and his eyes on the ground in front of him, like I had scolded him for breaking the number one rule of our friendship. If he could disappear into the tiles that lined the walls, I was sure he would have. I felt guilty just looking at him, so I focused my attention on the impending train coming down the track.
A glow twinkled against the tunnel. “Do you see that?” I asked Johnny, happy for the diversion. Johnny joined me on the edge of the platform and looked into the tunnel. The ball of light was growing larger.
“See what?” Johnny asked. He bit his lip in concentration.
“The orange light,” I replied, like it was obvious.
Taking a beat to smooth his facial features, Johnny turned to me and said, “Oh yeah.” It was clear he didn’t see it.
I centered all my attention on the blur. I rode subway trains my entire life and never had I seen a light like that before. Most trains had headlights that shined forward like flashlights.
As we stood there, staring into the darkness, a wind howled down the corridor, tingled against my skin, and caused the hair on the back of my neck to stick up. The air was heavy with humidity and didn’t leave the tunnel. Instead, it felt like it was pushed out by something in pursuit.
“Did you feel that?” Johnny asked, a little spooked, but hoping to prove he believed there was something strange happening. I looked back at him and nodded.
He pulled his arms across his chest. His eyes widened as we heard a noise. I looked around the station. It was abandoned, except for us. Where was the scratching coming from?
“Look!” Johnny shouted and pointed at the track. A rat scampered past us. He didn’t stop to nibble on an apple core or check for crumbs in an open bag of Doritos. He had his mind set in the same direction as the howling wind. Away.
The brightness was larger, but it was still far enough away that I couldn’t see anything else around it. It hung in midair.
Moments later, the scratching sound buzzed louder, like a cloud of bees. Johnny and I were frozen in our spots. I held my breath as a pack of rats passed our feet at a speed. My heart pounded inside my chest.
Johnny moved closer to my side. “What are they running from?” He whispered, like he was afraid to raise his voice. I shrugged my shoulders, but I had a feeling it was the light.
I stepped to the edge of the platform. Maybe I could get a picture of it and zoom in to analyze it. I focused the camera app on the spot at the back of the tunnel. Snapping a photo, I turned toward Johnny to examine it. I couldn’t believe it. The screen was black. There was no menace.
“It was right there,” I complained. Johnny leaned in to get a better look at my phone.
Craning my neck over Johnny’s shoulder, I caught the swish of hair in my vision. A girl rushed down the stairs twenty feet behind us. Her steps were stealthy. I wouldn’t have known she was there if I had kept my gaze on the tracks.
Distracted by the movement, my attention was redirected, and she caught me looking in her direction. Our eyes locked, and her irises and pupils pierced me with loathing. The jolt of it paralyzed me.
In the back of my mind, I heard the screech of the train’s wheels against the tracks. The heat escaping the tunnel pressed against my skin.
Before I could comprehend what was happening, the train and the girl were headed in our direction. Johnny noticed my sudden fear, and turned in time to see the child break into a sprint.
I tried to tell Johnny to get out of the way. He didn’t need to get hurt. It was obvious her stares were meant for me, but he planted his feet between us anyway.
In one movement, she rammed her shoulder into Johnny’s gut and sent him flying, out of her way. He teetered and tottered, throwing his arms out in an attempt to balance himself.
I screamed for Johnny, worrying if he was hurt, but my eyes were pinned to the girl. Removing Johnny from the battle was a means to an end. She never lost focus on me.
With a final push, the train broke through the tunnel. An aura saturated the station. Laughter echoed from somewhere on top of the train. It must have been related to the glow, but I didn’t dare to turn and look.
The noise seemed to ignite a do-or-die sort of fight in the fiend’s action. Even though we were the same height, she slammed two hands into my chest with as much force as a linebacker. I sprawled backward from the blow.
The train’s horn wailed, and my heart pounded in my ears. Our attacker growled at the train like an animal toying with its enemy, and then she ran for the exit.
With my senses heightened, the next few moments played out in slow motion. A blast of air blew through the station at speeds. As I struggled to maintain my balance, I turned and watched in horror as Johnny stumbled over the line, just out of reach.
I felt someone or something else’s hate, like an out-of-body experience. It threatened to suffocate me in dark thoughts. It was angry because I was out of harm’s way.
I shouted for Johnny. The cards were always stacked against him. It was as if all three Fates had cut his life string short.
From the beginning, he had the worst luck. He was embarrassed by the scar that marred his stomach from a slip of the doctor’s hand when he nicked Johnny’s belly instead of his cord. Everyone dismissed it as an accident, but was it?
With my birthday one day prior, I was in the hospital the day Johnny was born. The nurses insisted we reached our arms toward each other. I used to laugh when Mom told the story, brushing it off as one of those things moms said. Not anymore.
Johnny and I were inseparable from cradle to grave. Well, to be clear, we were inseparable from cradle to his grave. Just like in the nursery, I was reaching for him the day he died. It was too late. Johnny tumbled over the edge.