By ARMIV2 17 Comments
The Shrouded Man
He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he had gotten off that first bus. He really didn’t care either, though, because all he could think about was when the next one was getting here. Looking back would only take too much time away from the anticipation of now, and checking the time would only result in disappointment, because if anything he at least knew that not nearly enough time had passed for the second bus to be anywhere close to half-way yet. And so he stood there by the frail, sickly, city-bred remnant of what was supposed to be tree, and waited…
His wait was long and unbearable, but mainly only because his mind wouldn’t see it any other way and his legs were getting tired of the day. He wanted to prop himself up against the tree, but a quick glance at the smooth texture of the tree that is really supposed to be hidden under grey, scraggly bark made him change his mind. Something about being so close to something so vulnerable made him feel rude; as if he would need to apologize to someone about it the next time he was at the station. He then contemplated sitting down against the miniature brick holding that covered the number 4 bus dock pole, but the heavy smell of urine, cigarette, and some other humanly third thing made him feel otherwise. With these two options out of the question, standing suddenly felt all the more bearable.
To keep himself busy, he kept to people watching. Without making it obvious, he scanned back and forth from the number of people also waiting for their respective busses and made semi-detailed analyses for each one. He also, for a select few, created imaginary events that involved him and them meeting. If they were pretty girls, they would find that he was their mister right brought to them by destiny’s whim, while if they were “dingier” looking guys, he would think of stories where they were either actually very cool people to talk to or if they were some kind of scumbag that needed to have a smart mouth dumbed down. Everyone as the station got stories. The young, the old, the singles and the couples, the children, the parents, the friendly looking, and that one homeless man bundled up underneath all of the cloth and texture. Oh, especially that one homeless man.
The homeless man was the one figure he couldn’t settle on just one story for. The most anybody at the station was lucky enough to be blessed with was three tops, but this man…this enigmatic stranger…received at least seven or eight (the only differences between two of them were the endings) stories. In two of them, he was a benevolent old man who was waiting for the right kind of stranger to pass something of great importance on to. In three of the stories, he served as a primer for some event, like maybe instigating one of the dingy looking guys and thus calling for the hero to act. In two more stories, he was just a background character who, while maybe being someone as dramatic as a veteran or something, only did something of worth for one while before being separated from the rest of the group or so. The eighth story hadn’t been entirely formulated yet, but before it could, the 37 bus for dock 1 came in, taking with it an infant story and a good percentage of the people waiting.
Gone were the pretty girls and most of the dingy guys. The parents had left with their kids, and the old people that were there were now heading off somewhere distant; maybe home. In their place was an overweight man wearing a sports cap adorned with stickers and a very important and boring looking man with a suit and briefcase. The boring man looked to his watch then headed over to the parking lot while the overweight man with the cap found a bench to sit on and look out into the night with an open mouth and distant stare. Still waiting is he who would take to inventing better and braver world for lucky folks to inhabit. These two were not so blessed, however, as he only tried so hard to put them somewhere. To boring to be of any use to anyone in their imaginations (perhaps even their own), so it would be better to be spared the trouble and focus on more interesting subject matter such as the homeless man.
He turned back to the homeless man. He studied him a bit more with only his eyes and the occasional flaring of the nostrils. He made sure his head was looking way of the capped man’s gaze while his hands were in his jacket pockets. He was worried that, given too much attention, the subject would just up and leave, leaving the conclusion to this dramatic eighth story unresolved. The boring man’s car pulled out of the parking lot and headed into the small city traffic. Good riddance surely, for what is the point of being so boring in the space of the creative process?
Now as it was already, the darkness of the coming night was making it all the more easy for the eyes to relax. The neon and fluorescent light of the surrounding city scene mixed together to create an oddly soothing energy. But he wasn’t about to fall asleep. Not when he still needed to get back home, and especially not when this story needed a conclusion. But as this darkness came in stronger, his eyes began to get lazy from detail and focus out. He tried to adjust his vision without making himself look conspicuous, but from where his head was looking, nothing would be helped. “That homeless guy is so shrouded that surely there would be no way for him to see any potential onlookers or peepers or whatever” he though with a whisper. He turned his head as normally as normal people do. He began to study the homeless man with clearer focus when the second bus came.
It wasn’t his bus though. For his bus he would have dropped the eighth story and thought about things involving dinner and tackling the week’s school assignments. But this bus was only here for the capped man, and with an awkward series of motions, he boarded and left the story weaver with the shrouded enigmatic. “Alone at last” he chuckled a tad forcefully and under his breath. He went back to studying the homeless man and trying to piece together the finishing act of his brilliant story. Perhaps this man would play the wayward villain who only does what he does out of personal injury? Or perhaps he would be a secret billionaire looking to give his estate away to one so bold enough to simply say hello?
In his head, this man was all those things. He was all of these things for they just seemed to work. The homeless man was basically a pearl of inspiration hiding underneath a shell of old worn out material. Perhaps it was this powerfully and emotionally driven though that reached out to the shrouded man that caused him to stir…
Without so much of anything close to a warning, the top flap of material that would be covering the head jerked up. Though heavily hooded, the front piece of material that fell over the face managed to do so in a way that carved out a seeing darkness. This caused him to jerk back into looking into his safety direction, hopefully avoiding the seeing darkness’ gaze. “Oh, geeze, that was scary” he thought. “Like that one guy who rode the wyvern-dragon thing in Lord of the Rings…geeze!” he ran over and over this in his head while he tried to compose himself. He couldn’t have been looking at the man for that long, and even if he had, how could he have seen him with all of those rags on?
It had to be an impulse thing. Sort of like when your leg jerks when your getting ready to sleep, or when you get a sudden itch and your arm automatically swings to the source. It just happened, surely…but still, better not look again. Don’t want to make an already awkward situation turn into a rude one. And so looking in that one direction he stayed, while only thinking of looking back. He could swear that the homeless man was still watching him, but he didn’t want to look back. Maybe it was to save face, or maybe it was because (despite how much he hated to admit it) he was afraid. “It’s just a homeless guy, though! The worst he can be is slightly crazy and talking about nothing.”
Nothing at all to fear, which is why he kept his head looking that one way, until his shoulder began to itch.
With his jacket on he couldn’t just scratch it. He had to reach under the collar of his shirt to scratch it, but for reasons he couldn’t quite understand, he kept fumbling with it. He fought the urge to turn his head just that slightly towards the direction of the homeless man in order to get this scratch. As hard as he fought, he has to compromise on how far he’d want his head to go. He squinted his eyes, turned his head slightly, and reached under his collar. Nothing too hard about that, just so long as he kept his eyes closed. “Keep low, don’t look at him, it’s all cool”…
But something drove his head to look up. Something, be it nerves or some sick miscommunication from the brain, compelled him to raise his head up just that slightly to see if the homeless man was still looking at him. He was. He was still looking, and for whatever reason, he knew that the homeless man had never stopped looking. All this time the homeless man knew what he was trying to do, and in that time he just kept looking at him. At this point, there was no point in trying to hide looking. It had been silently agreed upon that the only proper thing to do at this point was to address gazes. He looked at the shrouded figure initially with anticipation and tense excitement, but as the minutes went on, the feeling faded into something else; something tamer but still teetering on a flight or fight response. He just kept looking, because at this point doing anything else could only illicit something bad.
“M-maybe I should just walk around and try to avoid this guy-” he thought “up until my bus decides to get here.” He checked his phone to see the time. “7:41. the bus gets here ‘round 8:11…damn”. He pocketed it away when he thought of how he had taken his eye off of the shrouded man. His movements slowed, but still in the pocket went his phone, while he began to look up. Still sitting and staring. He grew agitated with the homeless man and the predicament he had created. He wanted to end this staring contest and return to waiting for the bus as any ordinary person does. He wanted to, but he knew that he was stuck in that moment so long as the homeless man wanted him to play in it. He wanted to turn to the homeless man and say something. It wasn’t even a coherent anything in his head, just a something. He wanted to make a noise at the homeless man and break the spell, but all that accidently tumbled out was a sealed and uncomfortable sigh.
The wind’s breathing died out at that point. There was still the feeling of the wind coming in and out of the earth, but it kept so quiet so as to not even whisper upon even the most attentive ear. He retracted himself a little bit ways back as if to reel in his mistake, but by that time it was already too late. Blood rushed to his head the way it does with anyone when they say or do something out of the heat of passion. He stood there waiting for a response when the black emptiness that was the homeless man’s stare seemed to intensify and focus in. The world around seemed to reel as he could only look back into the abyss of the shrouded vagrant’s façade. His stare became more and more focused as tunnel vision kicked in. He felt himself being pulled into the shrouded man’s gaze, as if his very soul was being siphoned out of him. He tried to shake off the feeling, but is kept crawling back into his temples and boring into his skull. His head jerked slightly away too far to one side, and that is when the shrouded man responded.
The shrouded man lurched forward while still sitting. He noticed this and stood dead still in his place. He kept his eyes on the shrouded man, and the shrouded man on him, for a brief while. For an eternity of seconds, nothing happened. His lungs seemed to be filled with air and blood, because that’s all of what he tasted whenever his breath came staggering out of his windpipe. He could feel his foot involuntarily pulling back. He only thought for a fraction of a moment about trying to stop it. The rest of his mind was so full of adrenaline and unknowing that he really couldn’t think straight. When his foot finally reached the ground, he could have sworn he saw the shrouded man respond in some miniscule way. Nothing too dramatic of a retreat, for it caused no apparent anything from the shrouded man. At this point, he couldn’t care less if the man was homeless or even human; he just knew that he had to get away. “Why isn’t the damn bus here already?!”
He had just begun to direct his body for a full step back when he again believed he saw the shrouded man slightly motion a response. He wanted to be still in that moment, but the laws of physics rarely if ever lift themselves in our hours of need and want for the impossible. His body came down and with that the shrouded man rose as if he were on perched knees. He had become prey at this point, for the shrouded man was clearly poised to act swiftly in case the moment called for it. This shrouded thing needed something from him, or perhaps it just reveled in the fear it had created within his heart. Whatever the case was, escape was vital. “I’ll run back and circle my way around in the parking lot, give me some distance…”
In that thought he had taken three small steps back. Hardly enough for any human who isn’t fueled with some otherworldly passion to immediately act to notice or care about. Hardly enough for any human…
The shrouded man rose up as a light turns on, with one leg out forward and one poised to propel the entire frame forward. It stood, from estimation, about eight feet tall. The material it wore that made it seem shrouded were its sleeves; long and scraping the concrete floor, the sleeves widened out to an exaggerated proportion once above what appeared to be the beginning of the forearms on its long, lanky arms. Its frame was wide in the shoulder and chest region, but its shape slimmed down to a disgustingly thin stature. In its dark and subdued attire, the maddening void that should’ve been a face was as dark as ever.
All at once that that siphoning feeling came back. The shrouded one slowly advanced forward as he gripped his head and stumbled back. His head was full of noise and vertigo as a high-pitched whine began to grow from some sub-conscious dimension within his mind. It came from the underside of his skull and charged towards his eyes, grating the cones with the force of its oncoming. The shrouded one kept coming forward in a way that could only be described as appalling; with jerks and shutters abounding in every reflex. He felt the pain reaching to all corners of his head and reaching down his neck and towards his shoulders as he began to fade out. His breathing became spastic, while still silent. The shrouded one was only so far away when the light came out from the corner and broke the scene.
8:13 p.m. The bus had arrived only a couple of minutes late. It creaked and sputtered city fumes as it rounded the corner coming into the dock way adjacent to the nearly empty parking lot. Mechanical parts groaned as they carried the weight of the vehicle towards its destination. At once the vertigo and pain were gone. His head was his once more, and the siphoning ceased while his being slowly revived. The bus made its way to the appropriate dock while he scrambled to remember what its purpose was and to find his bus pass. In a panicked sweep, he searched all of his pockets and found it in the left chest pocket on his jacket. As the bus slowly braked to stop and open its doors, he rushed up to meet it as quickly as he could.
He jumped on board as the doors opened and swiped his pass, only taking a brief glance at the bus driver, who seemed to be displeased with him and everything else in this sorry world. He went and found a window seat, sat down, laid his head back, and covered his face. He breathed a sigh of relief while looking up, then a sigh of release when his arms came hammering down upon his lap. He closed his eyes and tried to process all of what had just happened while not trying to think about any of it. As he thought about it, he turned to look out the window, just to see if what he had escaped from was even real or just a figment of his story telling having gained too much power. He looked out and saw no shrouded one, only a wad of dark material balled up against a wall on an island separating a parking lot from the bus dock way. He looked out in disbelief and a nearly silent breeze of a breath came out of his mouth.
“What in the…?”
“Yeah, that guy doesn’t do much of anything ‘round here” said the bus driver. “He just sits there all day. Don’t think I’ve ever seen him do something as small as ever moving come to think of it. Shoot, I don’t even know if he’s even alive anymore, heh-heh.”
He couldn’t provide any proper response other than “Heh, yeah…”
“I wonder what that guy’s deal is anyway. All these crazies got a story out here, ‘cept his is only as that one guy in the blankets.”
“Yeah, I wonder too…I wonder…”
"There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell -- but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful -- but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the , they must sleep, or they will devour us -- they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish."
- from "The Premature Burial"
~Edgar Allan Poe.