A new short story by science fiction writer R.W. Webb.
Bobo sat alone in the corner of the subway car with his one good eye dancing between the map and the flickering display screen above the door. They had told him not to be late, but he just had to see Manhattan. Booked into Coney Island for one night only and then due in Philadelphia the following afternoon; Bobo had no time to go explore the city he’d dreamed of seeing for so long. So he took the time; rebelled, and now was running late for his show. He’d groveled and begged for a spot with this renown troupe and was actively screwing it up on his first week.
They would never forgive him if he wasn’t on his stool when the curtain went up. They had been given one of the smaller tents on the midway so the crowd would be meager to begin with. If the starring act was absent, their hopes for paying the booth rental for that sought-after boardwalk location was shot to hell along with Bobo’s chances of continuing on with the troupe around the world.
Born an albino, during his teens Bobo started having his body tattooed to cover his self-esteem issues that sprouted from being so visually alarming. The tattoos covered up the fact that his skin glowed like the surface of the moon, but no amount of ink could cover up his pink eyes. Bobo adopted a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers and felt well veiled from the scorn of average America.
He trained in sword swallowing and gravitated toward the traveling sideshows that passed through his hometown of Atlanta. Each Spring Bobo would rush to the fallowed fields on the outskirts of town to marvel and gasp at the traveling troupes of carnival acts. He showed them his chest and his skill with the sword one night after his sixteenth birthday, to mass applause from the little family of oddballs.
They were all instantly enamored with the young tattooed Bobo and insisted that he come along. He eagerly joined the troupe and spent the next decade exploring the country and learning new tricks of the trade. Picking up new tattoos along the way, by the time Bobo’s thirtieth birthday rolled around he was completely covered from head to toe – and had another new gimmick to play up. The only part of his body that escaped the needle were Bobo’s hands. He wanted to keep those free of ink but with the tribal patterns across his skull and the checkerboard waves bridging his forehead and the lush seascape across the entire back of his skull – his hands were never noticed.
The troupe had new signs printed and Bobo made more than ever with his updated act. Times were great until the night the fire engulfed the little family circus and the heavy wood beams holding up the tent collapsed and pinned Bobo underneath. He yelled and clawed and scratched and twisted and kicked and bit but nothing moved the sturdy beam. While the other members of the troupe perished in the inferno, Bobo cried out for mercy where none would come.
Eventually choked to sleep by the billowing waves of smoke – Bobo lay there beneath the smoldering ruins of his first troupe while the right side of his face melted away like ink-streaked caramel. By the time he was pulled from the wreckage, everyone was gone but him.
He spent most of his meager savings on corrective surgery but was never able to come away with anything remotely resmbling a natural face. The doctors finally advised giving up and trying to live with it but whenever he drifted away from his performances on the midways of America – people still gasped and recoiled in horror. The Ray Ban’s no longer disguised him after the fire left half his face scarred and torn. His right eyelid dropped down almost to his nostril; heavy, veiny and pink. It leaked tears from the damage to his tear ducts and was constantly seeping down across his tattooed cheek. The nostril was repaired using skin from the back of his thigh, but still didn’t resemble a nostril as much as it did a snout while the corner of his lip curled up in a menacing grin no matter how he was feeling.
People in the hospital tried to reassure him that it was a good thing he was in the line of work he was in – and laughed, and tried to make light of his disfigurement. Bobo smiled and whistled through the slit in his still-healing lips and thanked them for being so kind.
Two months after the night of the fire, Bobo stepped out into the sunshine and flinched at the stark, white glare of the sun on his sensitive skin. His droopy eye started drizzling down onto his collar and Bobo held his hand up to signal to the cabbie that he was ready. He went direct to the airport and boarded the first flight east. Bobo slunk home to Atlanta and started back to his life of freelance sword-swallowing and performance art on the bustling downtown sidewalks. It was all he knew.
“The-next-stop-will-be-Fiftieth-Street-Station,” the droning voice announced over the tiny speakers. Bobo checked his watch.
The subway car bolted and he gripped the edge of the seat with anxious knuckles. The train screamed slowly around a bend in the line and slid into the station. Blank faces stared through the windows like flickering images from a television as the train came to a steady stop.
Bobo checked the sign above the door, then glanced back at the map. It was still several stops left until he reached Coney Island at the end of the line. From there he would just have to run. There was still forty-five minutes before the curtains opened, so there may still be time.
He edged forward on the seat as the doors opened and a woman and her small daughter entered like a pair of wind-ruffled pigeons. The doors closed and the bell sounded and she pushed the small girl down onto the orange plastic seat. The mother fumbled with her jacket and toppled down into the seat beside the little girl as the train lurched to motion.
The only other passengers were at the far opposite end of the car. They’d spotted Bobo when they entered and found a spot as far from the deformed freak as possible. The mother and child had not yet looked in his direction so he pushed his sunglasses higher up his nose and leaned back against the wall. Bobo counted the dots on the map. Nine stops to go. I should be fine, he told himself. The tight vice around his sternum lifted and he let his mind clear in preparation for his show.
With his eyes closed behind the glasses and his head back, he heard a tiny slurred voice mumble, “Mama, lookit! Mama! Mama what’s wrong with that man’s face?” But Bobo didn’t open his eyes or flinch at all. He’d heard that a million times, what his ears perked up for was the mother’s answer. He loved hearing his appearance explained.
“Cherise, I’ve told you about this. Stop staring. It’s rude to stare,” she snapped – clipped and impatient. “There’s nothing wrong with his face so hush.”
“But why does it look like that,” the little girl’s insistence grew as the train picked up speed. “Mama look at it! Why is it all…”
“Shut up! Just shut up,” the mother stated softly through her teeth; more of a threat than a request.
The little girl closed her mouth with a click and stared across the aisle to Bobo. He heard the hum of the wind pressing in around the car as it swept over the avenues of lower Brooklyn. The bell chimed and the automated voice recited its message. Bobo kept his head leaning back against the wall and his eyes closed. The train slowed into the next station and even with his eyes closed he could feel the uncomfortable glances from the strangers waiting to board the train. As the doors hissed shut and the bell chimed again, Bobo leaned forward and opened his eyes.
The seats were filling up as the train got closer to Coney Island. More eyes avoided staring at him but inevitably turned and did it anyway.
Bobo pulled a limp handkerchief from his inside coat pocket and wiped the moisture pooling in his limp eyelid. He always felt self conscious about that more than anything else and as he tucked the rag back inside his coat he looked up and saw the perplexed face of the little girl with Down Syndrome staring back at him with her head cocked.
Bobo smiled and turned to stare at the map again. Eight stops left. He checked his watch. Forty minutes to go. “The-next-station-will-be-Seventy-First-Street. Transfer-is-available-to-the-B-and-M-trains. Stand-clear-of-the-closing-doors-please,” the announcer droned and the doors clapped shut on cue.
Bobo leaned his head back against the cold, steel walls and let his mind clear. Tonight’s show was dependent on him not screwing up. He had to make a good impression on the troupe as well as the crowd. One tightened muscle in the wrong place and he could slash his stomach open like a warm balloon and that wouldn’t impress anyone.
Bobo took a deep breath in through his damaged nostrils and held it until his chest burned then he pursed his lips and exhaled slow and evenly. A few of the closer passengers cut their eyes toward him but quickly looked away. The little girl sat across and tugged her mother’s sleeve with renewed urgency and panic.
“Mama! Mama! Mama, why’s he doing that,” she leaned over and whispered at the top of her lungs. “Mama! What’s he trying to do over there? Lookit! Lookitim Mama!”
The old woman standing by the door looked down and smiled with sympathy but the other passengers tightened up with discomfort. A mist of awkwardness descended across the hostage passengers. The little girl’s observations hung in the quiet air of the train.
Bobo watched from behind his glasses as the angry young mother yanked the child’s arm violent and embarrassed as she growled, “Stop talking so loud. I told you to leave that poor man alone. He doesn’t want you staring at him. Don’t make me tell you again, either!”
The little girl turned away from her mother and looked with a guilty, sheepish expression at Bobo. He smiled and waved his fingertips at the curious little girl who spun in her seat and rammed her face against her mother’s ribs with a coy ferociousness.
“Stop it Cherise! Get off me! Why you acting stupid. Quit it you little re-tard,” the mother pushed the little girl away and she cowered behind her mittens as the train rumbled into the next station.
The other passengers were stuck with nowhere to stare and eager for the flood of incoming faces. Cherise stayed motionless; peeking out with her face hidden behind her red mittens. Watching Bobo with rapt interest, she saw nothing but him.
The door parted and a river of people rushed in, eager to get out of the evening wind. The salty whisper of the ocean was on the breeze and Bobo felt comforted that his excursion into Manhattan would not affect his performance. He’d still have time to slip in the back and be in place when the curtains opened and the spotlights sizzled awake. He closed his eyes and practiced the relaxation technique again while the train sprung back to life. Elevated above the boulevard, the horizon was slathered in neon signs. Brooklyn floated by outside the windows as the monotone man’s voice announced the next station. Bobo took another deep breath and his throat clamped shut in shock from the feeling of a gentle, tentative tap on his knee. He was used to being laughed at, stared at and even ridiculed – but a simple touch was unheard of and Bobo leaped backward instinctively.
He coughed as his eyes sprung open and saw little Cherise standing before him, wobbling and trying to stay balanced on her short legs as the train pulled out of the station. Bobo looked past her to the empty chair the young woman had been seated in. “Well…hello there? Where’s your mother,” he said with a nervous smile. “Stop tapping me and sit down before you fall.”
Cherise flopped down in the vacant seat next to him and slammed her face into his ribs. “She got off. She got off and I wasn’t watching and now I’m lost!”
Bobo spun to face her as several concerned onlookers eased further away from the disturbing duo. “What do you mean she got off? Where did she go?”
Cherise shrugged and looked away through the windows with a distant smile on her cheeks.
Bobo looked for help from his fellow subway passengers but no one wanted to make eye contact with the man who’s eye lid was flapping in the breeze. He grunted and shook Cherise’s shoulder, “Do you know what your address is? I can get a cop or somebody to help you find your way home.”
Cherise didn’t respond. She kept on staring through the windows at the rooftops floating by. Bobo looked up at the sign above the door flashing the next station was coming up and groaned.
“Listen little girl, I don’t have time for this. Why won’t you say something? I don’t know what you think I’m supposed to do for you. Hey, are you listening to me?”
He snapped his fingers in front of her eyes and she stiffened.
Cherise turned her blank stare up to Bobo and blinked as if she’d just realized he were sitting there. She smiled her sweetest and with one finger raising slowly toward his crippled cheek, she asked – “What happened to your face? It’s…so….beautiful.”
He swatted her curious finger away from the scarred tissue as the train slowed to a crawl and eased around another bend. Signs flew by and aluminum walls blocked off the view of the horizon as the subway came into the 18th Avenue station.
“Is anyone else going to help this little girl,” he shouted to the unresponsive crowd. A subtle tightening of shoulders and rustle of newspapers were his only response.
“Yeah – that’s what I thought,” he spit at the indifference of New Yorkers. “What’s your name little girl?”
“Cherise-my-name,” she chirped.
Bobo jumped to his feet and yanked the little girl forcibly by the hand as the doors parted. “Come on then Cherise. I’m turning you over to the cops. They’ve got time to deal with this. I don’t. If these people won’t lift a finger to help you – I will.”
“Ouch! Stop yanking on me! I’m coming Mama,” Cherise bellowed as she stumbled along behind. “You ain’t got to pull on me so hard. I’m coming!”
The old lady waddled quickly away from the doors and kept her eyes on the floor as Bobo tore the little girl from the car with a resentful snap to his wrist.
. . .
Cherise whipped along behind him as they made their way down the platform. Bobo chewed his bottom lip like an anxious cow and kept glancing at his watch. This was the last thing he had time for – but he couldn’t just leave the little girl to the vicious wolves of nighttime New York, could he? He wasn’t one of them. He might not have a face – but Bobo had a heart.
“Hurry up – don’t make me late,” he commanded as Cherise struggled to keep up; tiny feet scuffled along the concrete in a blur. Her breath blew in puffs of white in front of her mouth as she ran along behind the man with the tattooed face. “There has to be a station attendant or cop around here somewhere. They can help you find your way home. I can’t believe I have to be the one to do this. I knew something like this would happen if I tried to have one nice day. Hurry up!”
He pulled her through the turnstile and up a set of sticky-black concrete stairs. The bums and the junkies watched the pair carefully as they rushed out through the main doors and onto 18th Avenue. Cherise smiled at the bright signs that flooded the street with a technicolor glow. “I want a donut, Mama! Can we get…”
Bobo rushed up to the first person passing the station entrance and pleaded, “Excuse me, sir! This little girl is lost and…”
“Screw off, pervert,” the grouchy old man snapped and walked away with a brisk click in his heels
Bobo turned Cherise’s tiny hand free and stepped out into the stream of pedestrian traffic. He cleared his throat and shouted,“Can someone please help us? This little girl is lost and we’re trying to find a police officer. Hello? Can someone tell me where I can find a cop? Please!”
A few startled eyes shot towards him, but quickly darted away. No one wanted to approach Bobo. With plumes of his breath puffing from the slit in his nostril and his exposed, pink eye lid turning gray in the cold air – people split around him as if he were a boulder in a river.
He cried out again, but no one even bothered to look up. He turned and looked down at the little girl standing with her back against the dirty wall. Smiling and staring at the signs with utter amazement.
“No one will help us and I have no idea where we are,” he said with defeat to her joyous grin. “I don’t know what to do with you. I thought New York was supposed to be user-friendly these days. Where are all the cops?”
Cherise shrugged and remained against the wall as Bobo stepped through the indignant masses and knelt down beside her under the blue glow of the Dollar Store awning.
“I have to get to work,” he explained to her blank stare. “I’m going to get fired if I’m late. I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know either.”
“Why would your Ma just leave you like that?”
Cherise blinked with her tiny eyes and shrugged.
“I can’t just leave you here. I can’t just ignore how helpless you are, can I? What is your Mom’s name? Maybe she’s listed in the phone book. Do you know her name?”
Cherise stared up at a moth battering the moldy awning and replied almost in a distracted whisper, “You can’t just leave me here. I can go to work with you. That would be fine if I went with you. That would be fine alright.”
Exasperated, lost and out-of-time, Bobo turned to look down the churning avenue and waited for a good idea to hit him. A tickle rippled out from his cheek and caused him to shudder. Bobo flinched and looked back just in time to see Cherise’s curious finger retreating back inside her coat pocket. She blushed at his glare and asked, “Does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
“Your boo boo’s. Do they still hurt?”
He rolled his eyes and answered, “No it doesn’t hurt anymore. Come on, we can’t just sit out here in the cold like this. People are quick to stare but no one seems to want to help. Let’s go back inside and see if we can find a phone.”
Cherise didn’t budge. Her white-rubber boots were glued to the concrete. “Who drew all over you like that?”
She nodded. “Them pictures.”
Bobo stood up and scanned the quick-cut-away glances from the interested strangers. “No one drew on me. I had it done. I like it this way. It’s better than…”
“I like it too. It’s beautiful.”
He stopped and looked down at her cherubic grin. Her eyes sparkled as she scanned the various images etched across his face and neck. Bobo was accustomed to a long list of adjectives that described his features – but beautiful had never been heard before. “Thank you, Cherise. That’s really sweet of you to say. We should go inside and find a phone now though. I’m running out of time. I’ve got to get to work.”
She nodded and reached up and took the sleeve of his coat. Bobo reached down and gripped her tiny hand in his icy fingers.
“Brr! Your hands are so cold and icky! You need to have someone draw on them too so they won’t look so bad,” Cherise said as she sneered at his pasty, dried knuckles. “Your face is beautiful but your hands are very, very ugly. How come you don’t have pictures on your hands? It would help.”
Bobo’s snatched his hand away from the little girl and stepped behind her. Pushing her along through the turnstile ahead of him, they wandered back into the criss-crossing tunnels under the crowded Bensonhurst streets. A truck drove overhead and caused the tiled walls to quiver.
The stifling, urine-scented air was overwhelming. Bobo scanned the walls for a pay phone, but there hadn’t been a working payphone in the 18th Avenue station in years. The closest one was two blocks away inside the Dunkin Donuts and guarded by a homeless man; Stinky Pete.
“Where are we running to,” Cherise called over her shoulder as Bobo shoved her further down toward the platform ahead. A distant growling indicated an approaching subway, so Bobo choked back his impatience and replied over the growing rumble. “We already been down here!”
“I’ve got to go to work. I guess you can come with me. I know there’s a phone near there that I can use to deal with you, but I can’t be late to this gig and there isn’t a damn phone anywhere in sight here. I don’t know what else to do.”
Cherise stopped as if her toes had suddenly become nailed to the stained concrete floor. “What kind of job do you do?”
“I work for a carnival, but if we don’t hurry I won’t have that job much longer. Thank God! Here comes the train.”
Cherise looked up with quizzical confusion and finally satisfied herself with a nod. She proceeded through the final archway with Bobo on her arm as the N train screamed into the station. Bobo glanced up at the giant red LCD screen.
“I’m so late,” he moaned under the cry of the steel wheels grinding to a halt. “They’re going to kill me.”
While Bobo lamented under the wail of the train, the brakes hissed and the doors split open and a flood of unsettled faces rushed out.
Bobo held tight to Cherise’s hand as the people walked around them as easily as if they were one of the concrete pillars holding up the roof. Once the initial flood abated, Bobo tugged the tiny child’s fist and stepped through the door of the train.
Just as Cherise’s feet cleared the gap a woman’s voice screamed out from further down the platform. Echoing and rolling like thunder across a prairie, “Cherise! Get away from that man,” could be heard as far away as the Duane Reade on the corner. A thin, shrill wail of anguish electrified the air. Everyone within earshot stopped and turned.
The little girl flipped around and looked behind her as the doors started to close. Bobo stuck a fist between the rubber and they sprung open again. A passenger moaned. The doors drummed inside their metal frame.
Cherise’s mother burst out of the gloom of the underground tunnel, her eyes wide with fear. “Come away from that man! Cherise get out here! After all you’ve put me through you stupid little brat – come here right now!”
Her shrieks sent a spine-stiffening wave of alarm through the idle passengers inside the car. They craned and watched through the paint-stained plastic windows. Bobo felt the heat of their eyes on the back of his neck where the mermaid sat proudly atop her sea-sculpted stone. The woman ran up to the doors as they prepared to close again and ripped Cherise’s hand away from Bobo.
“He was helping me look for you Mama,” Cherise tried to speak but her voice was choked out by the force of the tug on her arm.
She rocketed off the ground and across the rubber-lipped gap to land in a crumpled ball against her mother’s shin. The young woman glared with all the fury of a mother bear; ravenous, feral and wild. Her nostrils flared.
“He was going to take me to the carnival Mama! He was trying to help! Don’t be mad at him. I love him! I got lost and he was helping.”
Bobo held his hands up in defense but couldn’t get a chance to speak. Her cries were daunting and made him flinch with each new syllable.
“Shut up you little re-tard. I know damn-well what he was up to,” she snarled and yanked the little girl to her feet. “People like him ought to be locked up. Anyone with eyes can see what he’s got on his mind. He sees a helpless little retarded girl and thinks he can get away with it. Going to take her to a carnival, were ya? You almost got away with it. Thank God I spotted you trying to get away.”
Cherise pulled with futility at her mother’s sleeve. The doors snapped and started closing again but this time it was Cherise’s mother who stopped them so she could finish howling.
A louder groan of frustration echoed through the car.
“Listen Lady – I was just trying to help her,” Bobo said quickly, batting his pink eyes in his most sincere fashion. “You’re the one that left her on the train. I was trying to help – just like she said. I was trying to find a cop or a phone, that’s all…I didn’t want to get involved in the first place. You should be thanking me instead of accusing me. This will probably cost me my job, but I don’t guess you care about that…”
“Thanking you? Thanking you?! I know what you were trying to do alright,” the woman continued from behind her repulsion-curled scowl. Her eyes scanned Bobo’s face. His mangled nostril, his upturned, charred lip and that loose pink caterpillar danging from the bottom of his glassy eye. She shuddered openly to illustrate her disgust.
Bobo threw his hands up in defense and interrupted, “Listen, I wasn’t trying to do anything but get to my job – and because I was nice enough to step in and look after the little girl you abandoned…”
“You asshole – how dare you? I didn’t abandon my little girl – she ran away and you swooped down like a vulture,” she shrieked and the passengers closest to the subway doors gathered their belongings and shuffled down the aisle away from the escalating situation. She slapped her chest and stepped toward him.
People in the station stopped and turned around to watch.
Cherise cringed against her mother’s thigh and kept her eyes fixed on Bobo’s with a softness and gentility that flushed his anger away. Bobo looked down at her and gave a comforting smile as the doors slapped against the woman’s palms and tried to close. They bounced back inside the frame and someone at the far end of the car shouted, “Aw, come on!”
“Don’t you ever come near my child again or I’ll have the cops on you so fast. Look at you. You’d be easy to find too – you filthy pervert,” she shoved Cherise protectively behind her while Bobo sighed and let his head drop.
The conductor broke in through the static-choked speakers and announced, “Please release the train doors.”
She yanked her hand off the door frame and the rubber seals sprung to life – eager to be closed.
Bobo kept his eyes on the floor to avoid any further delays. Whatever she wanted to think was fine by him. He was used to it. People didn’t warm up to someone that looked like he did. He knew that. He knew when to pick his battles and this was just another classic example of having tried to do the right thing only to have it backfire all over his misshapen face. As the final inch of space rushed closed, a little white fist burst in and stopped the doors from closing. The silver doors parted and half the people in the train cried out in a chorus of impatience.
Cherise tore herself away from her mother’s wails and stood in the open doorway looking up at the surprised expression on Bobo’s face. In her hand was the pair of red gloves she’d worn. She handed them across the gap and Bobo reached down and accepted them.
“Now you can cover up your ugly parts and people won’t be mean to you no more,” she smiled with a prophetic kindness she was oblivious to. “Thank you for being my friend. I had a nice time on our visit.”
“I can’t take these,” Bobo balled the mittens in his hand and prepared to toss them through the gap. He waved them in front of him and called, “They’re yours! Here, you need them more than I do! Cherise!”
He stepped forward as the doors sealed with a hiss. He stood in the window watching as the angry woman tore at the little girl’s limp arm and scolded her with one finger. The train’s automated announcer came on and stated that there had been a fire at the next station so they would be going express all the way to Coney Island. Fate had made up the lost time and Bobo realized his job would be safe. Instant relief.
The train bolted into motion and Cherise waved back at him as her mother dragged her across the concrete on her knees.
Bobo held the tiny mittens against the cold glass and waved back with a gentle smile across his checkerboard cheeks. One milky tear dripped from his loose eyelid and he pulled the handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped it away. Another teardrop fell and Bobo realized his eye wasn’t just leaking – he was actually crying. He wiped the handkerchief rough across his face and stuffed it back inside his coat pocket. He could not succumb to tears this close to the show.
He sat down in the corner of the car and looked up at the map with his one good eye. He rubbed the rough felt of the mittens with his thumb and smiled. The train picked up speed and pulled away from the station.
The shadowy rooftops of Brooklyn swept by with increasing speed.
Bobo leaned his head against the cold, steel walls and closed his eyes. He balled the red mittens and stuffed them into his jacket pocket. With a comforted smile on his scarred face, Bobo practiced his breathing techniques as the train rushed ahead toward the glowing clouds over Coney Island.
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/wardwebb
Looking for more stories from R.W. Webb? Visit: http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Tales-One-1/dp/147923494X/ref=la_B0071R2ISC_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364244217&sr=1-1