The rain was just starting to hiss down on Martin's hunched shoulders and speckle his glasses lenses when the Metro bus lumbered up to his stop. As soon as he climbed aboard, he was immersed in the close-packed, damp smell of the other commuters. He used his fare zip-card and braced his feet as the bus lurched back into traffic.
He was forced to take the only open seat next to a bulky woman who reeked like a perfume counter. Martin tried not to brush against her as he squeezed his gangly frame onto the seat. He couldn't help but see the large metal button she wore prominently on the lapel of her rose colored raincoat.
"Love Your City!" the button cried out from a bright red heart design.
It was one of those cheesy things the city was giving away to promote community pride. The buttons were spreading everywhere already, like malignant metal growths that had suddenly broken out on people's chests. Martin was the only passenger on the bus who wasn't wearing one. The things had a trendy ugliness that he hated. There was even something wrong about the button's slogan: "Love Your City!" It was a shrill and vaguely fanatical demand to whip-up pride in a dull and homely city that had nothing in it to love.
The woman saw Martin glance at her button. She took a quick look at his wet raincoat front. "Where's yours? Wearing it under your coat?"
Her nosiness annoyed Martin. "Haven't got one."
"You can get one almost anywhere. They're free. All the stores have them. I got mine at the grocery check-out."
"I don't want a damned button."
The woman leaned forward to stare at him. Her tone became hostile. "But it's for our city. We all need to show our support. You should get on the bandwagon."
Martin turned sideways on the seat to cut off the conversation. He could feel her glaring at his back the rest of the bus ride.
It was a relief when he got to the office and settled into his familiar back corner cubicle on the policy underwriting floor. He could bury himself in actuarial analysis all day and no one would pay any attention to him. The only thing better would be working at home and never having to go out, but those kind of jobs were hard to find.
At ten o'clock Martin took his medication with water from a plastic bottle that he always kept at his desk. He wasn't feeling good today. It wasn't anything specific, like warning signs of another seizure coming on. He just didn't feel quite right. Maybe he should call his doctor this week, get his prescription adjusted.
Just before noon he took his morning stack of finished reports up to the front desk. He turned them in to Maureen, the tall, bony document clerk. She had one of the city-love buttons pinned high on her flat chest.
She gazed hard at him. "Where's your button, Don? I haven't seen you wearing one yet."
Martin sighed tiredly. "I'm not interested in that."
"You should be. The company is an official supporter of the city pride campaign. There was a memo last week asking all employees to get on the bandwagon. We're trying to do our part."
"Good for you." Martin turned and moved away, cutting her short.
Others had been standing nearby and overheard the conversation. Martin could sense the undercurrent of hostility toward him as he returned to his cubicle. It was different from the usual disdain they showed toward him.
It had been like that since Martin had that seizure at his desk. His seizures were not the violent, convulsive type. He knew what they had all seen: him sitting in a rigid, blank stupor, drooling down his shirt front. When he came out of it after a few minutes, the embarrassment for him was acute. Nobody ever mentioned it later, but he knew what they were thinking. Martin had become the office freak, the butt of furtive whispers and jokes. Once he had accidentally seen Phil Lehman imitating the dopey trance for Maureen and some other employees. They were laughing and mocking him behind his back. Martin hadn't forgotten it.
They pretended to overlook his disability, but my, oh my, wouldn't they love to see that freak act again, the next time Martin blanked out? Wouldn't they like to gape with eager, disgusted faces while he degraded himself in front of them all over again?
That was the one overwhelming fear of personal humiliation that Don Martin lived with every day of his life.
Martin made it a point to never eat lunch anywhere near his building so that he wouldn't run into any of his co-workers. If he ever had an episode, it was better if it happened in front of strangers who didn't even know who he was.
Today he found a deli he hadn't been in before, bought a turkey on whole wheat at the counter, and sat down at a tiny plastic table next to the steamy window glass. The deli was crowded with noontime customers.
A small field of shiny metal city buttons winked and bobbed on the torsos of feeding people. Martin glanced around and saw that he was the only one in sight who wasn't wearing one of the things. Other faces glared coldly back at him and he felt the same wave of antipathy toward him that he had sensed back in his office.
He knew they hated him because he didn't have one of their inane buttons; he wasn't on that frantic, pathetic bandwagon with the rest of them, and somehow that made him a threat to them. None of them wanted to admit the truth: the city they lived in was a shabby urban mediocrity and a reflection of their own dead-end lives. They couldn't stand to have Martin rub that in their faces by not joining in their phony city pride campaign.
Only now, when those flushed faces eyed him, Martin began to notice an eerie, feverish intensity that made him uneasy. He ignored the hostility and chewed his sandwich rapidly so that he could leave. He had to sip his coffee carefully because they had made it too damned hot.
From the corner of his eye he saw a sudden, violent commotion outside the window. The disheveled panhandler who had been sitting on the sidewalk asking for money was getting bashed by a couple of punks. They punched him in the head and kicked at him as he tried to crawl away.
Pedestrians veered around the scene without stopping. People in the deli moved close to the glass to get a better view. Others continued to eat deliberately. Martin was angry that nobody was doing anything about the vicious assault.
He stood up, holding his coffee. He called toward the manager behind the counter. "Hey, they're beating up that guy out there! Can't you call the police?"
The thick-waisted manager in the green serving apron ignored him. Martin stared at the callous disregard of the others around him. What was wrong with these damned people?
"Can't you see what's happening out there?" he demanded.
No one met his eyes, but he was sure he heard a nearby voice say, "Somebody shut him up!" He had a sudden feeling of being in the midst of something alien and hideous that he couldn't quite identify, and he had to get away from it.
He started for the door, but as he did, it seemed like other bodies arose and milled in his path to purposely block him. Without ever looking directly at him, they shoved him roughly between them, keeping him penned in the aisle. As he struggled nearer the door, someone locked tightly onto his forearm, pulling him back deeper into the crowd. Martin panicked and threw hot coffee from his cup onto the gripping hand. He heard a scream of pain and broke free at the door. As he pushed through the entrance, he felt another hand rake at his back.
On the sidewalk, the punks were already gone and the panhandler had managed to limp away. The wind was chill and gritty behind Martin as he fled in fright and confusion back toward his building.
He had a bad afternoon. He was still shaken by what had happened at the deli, or what he thought had happened. Martin wasn't sure now how much of it was real and how much was distorted by his growing queasiness. His forehead was clammy and his face felt warm and heavy. A dull headache had formed in his temples. The sensations were all too familiar. Warning signs of a possible impending seizure. He had already taken the maximum dosage of his medication for the day. Usually the medication controlled the seizures, blocked them before they occurred. Usually. But on rare occasions the meds didn't work and Martin had an episode.
Once the seizure started, there was nothing he could do to stop it. He wouldn't even realize it was happening until he came back to logy awareness afterwards. He could only hope that his meds would work right this time and stop the seizure from developing. Just don't let him end up there in the office with those bastards all gaping at him like he was some carnival show. He couldn't stand the shame of that again. He couldn't let them see him that way one more time.
He sweated out the rest of the afternoon in his cubicle. To Martin's relief, nothing happened, and at five o'clock he made his way unsteadily to his bus stop. He felt light-headed while he was waiting there and for a moment he was scared he was going to pass out. Then the bus wheezed up and he was able to get aboard.
Even the bus driver was wearing one of the city-love buttons, and he gave Martin a dirty look when he paid his fare. Luckily, he was able to sink down into a free window seat on the left side of the bus.
The streets were already dark in early November, and the bus seemed to glide through a tunnel of orange streetlight cones and garish commercial signs on the buildings. The flashing ribbon of colored lights outside the window bothered Martin and he had to look down at his lap to keep from getting disoriented.
The bus churned along a halting route through the rush hour traffic. Martin sat with his fists clenched, enduring every new bell ring to let other riders off. The bus had cleared the city center by now and picked up speed as it slid past the winking porch lights of the residential neighborhoods.
At the next intersection the bus slowed abruptly, even though Martin knew there was no regular stop there and no traffic signal. As the bus crawled ahead, he put his forehead to the rain-blurred glass and squinted into the darkness ahead to see what the hold-up was.
Just beyond the streetlight arc he saw an apparent accident scene in the opposite lane. The square hulk of an SUV was stopped in the street with the driver door open. A circle of people was gathered around something lying on the slick pavement in front of the SUV. Something that the vehicle had hit.
Martin couldn't tell what was lying in the street. There were too many bystanders blocking it. As the bus inched past, he could make out a vague shape on the pavement and a pool of black liquid under it that trickled into the leaf piles in the gutter. He realized that it must have been an animal that was killed, probably someone's pet dog.
One of the bystanders poked at it with a long stick or fallen tree branch. To Martin's shock, the thing on the street suddenly squirmed. The animal wasn't even dead yet. It was still lying there hurt and suffering while the ring of people only watched. In the dim outer rim of streetlight, the metal buttons on their coat fronts shone dully. Martin had only a momentary glimpse of their sullen faces staring avidly at whatever lay in the middle of them.
The bus slipped by finally and in the last second Martin could see more of the hurt thing through the legs of the onlookers. As it writhed in pain, he saw, to his horror, what looked like a human torso with limbs that had been broken and twisted at grotesque angles. The black puddle was coming from under its head. Martin felt a rush of nausea and his gorge rose in the back of his throat.
The bus accelerated as Martin stared wildly back at the fading accident scene, trying to make sense of what he thought he had seen. Good God, if it was an injured person lying there, where were the police and the paramedics? They couldn't let whoever it was just lie in the street like that and not call for help.
The pitiless faces of the bystanders suddenly reminded Martin of the scene in the deli earlier. Once again, he had the sense of being surrounded by something alien and hideous, a mass entity hostile to any outsider or misfit that wasn't part of itself.
"There should be an ambulance," he muttered aloud.
The man next to him with a metal button on his baseball cap, who had been pressing across Martin to see, snorted derisively. "An ambulance for a damned dog?"
"It wasn't a dog!" Martin's voice was hoarse.
The man's breath smelled of tobacco. "A dog was what I saw, buddy." With a glare, he heaved himself up and moved to another seat.
Martin's mind was confused and he felt sicker with every passing minute. His forehead was damp with sweat now. He sagged back against the seat and his head lolled with the bus motion. Martin saw the driver's eyes flick up to watch him in the front mirror. Only a handful of riders remained and Martin could feel that they were watching him too. A few blocks later, his stop finally came up and he lifted a shaky arm to pull the bell cord.
He managed to lurch up the aisle to the door and down the steps. He heard several pairs of feet plodding off after him. The doors snapped shut behind him and the bus roared away in a haze of diesel fumes. The street was empty and silent in the watery darkness. Martin stumbled off past house windows lighted behind closed drapes.
Footsteps echoed behind him, matching his faltering gait. He had only a block left to go to get home. He was groggy and nauseous as he walked, and the familiar prickly sensation crept into his arms and legs. His tongue had a rubbery numbness and he had an acrid taste in his mouth. There was no doubt left anymore. He felt another seizure coming on again like a black, rumbling storm he could never outrun.
He already knew he wasn't going to make it to the house. As he staggered to a halt, he could barely make out the shadowy forms of the ones who had been following him, metal buttons shiny on their chests when they closed in around him. Pinpricks of blackness dotted his vision, his legs folded under him, and he slumped down helplessly to the pavement.
With the circle of sullen, somehow eager faces hanging above him, Martin's last clear memory was the feel of the hard asphalt under the back of his head as someone poked him in the side with a sharp stick.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM