From the author: 'twas the week before Christmas...
by Stephen Dedman
It had been a long day, and Kayla was regretting having moved to New York. A few months ago, her scholarship had seemed like a godsend; now, it felt more like a sentence. She was tired of the crowds, the noise, the dirt, and especially tired of the streets that only saw sunlight at noon - if the sun happened to be out at the time.
She waited in the subway station for the lift to arrive, her backpack full of textbooks, her arms of Christmas presents. The doors opened, and she blinked and stepped into the small cage. The door closed behind her before she noticed that something was different; the drab metal walls were adorned with pictures of bears, cut from magazines or calendars - Kodiak bears, black, brown, grizzlies...
She looked around, saw the old man sitting in the corner. He looked different, too, and she wondered with some embarrassment whether he'd been there since she'd moved here in fall and she simply hadn't noticed him before. She vaguely remembered feeling sympathy for the lift operators when she'd first moved here - doing an incredibly boring job while trapped in a small smelly metal box, seeing the sun only occasionally and then only through frosted windows - but within a week, they'd become just another shade of grey, like the millions of other people she saw without them registering. She shook her head. Some anthropologist she was going to be, when she couldn't even observe the people who surrounded her constantly. "Evening," she replied. In her experience, it was rare for a New Yorker to waste time on such formalities as 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please' or 'thank you'... it was as though the few seconds the words would take were incredibly valuable. Then again, she thought, that didn't sound like any of the local accents she'd heard before, and she looked at the old man more closely. His face looked like brown leather, like an ancient pair of boots, but his hair was black and glossy, as was his short beard. His nose was long, his teeth yellow, but something stopped him being ugly, exactly - a strange sort of dignity, maybe.
"What's that?" he asked, nodding at one of her parcels. "An L.P.? I didn't think they made those any more?"
"It's a calendar," she explained, with a faint smile. "Susan Seddon Boulet's 'Shaman' calendar."
"Yes, it is." The doors before her opened, and she stepped into the vestibule. The moon shone in through the doorway. "Good night," said the old man.
Kayla hurried back to her tiny apartment. Even though it was a good neighbourhood - or so she'd been told - she was still nervous walking home at night, though lately the cold gave her cause enough to shiver. At school in Arizona, she'd been famous for her courage simply because of her ability to handle snakes without fear. She didn't believe she was braver than anyone else - she just liked snakes, had done since she'd first seen one, and still dreamed about them - and she certainly didn't feel very brave here in the city, especially after sunset. At home, she'd always felt safe, as though help were never far away; here, she felt alone, and unprotected. She fumbled in her jacket pockets; her gloved hands felt more like paws, and she hoped she could unlock the doors without dropping any of her packages. She did, but only just. After closing her apartment door behind her, she dumped her shopping onto the bed, shrugged off her backpack, and locked the door. She glanced at the calendar beside the door; a week until Christmas. She sighed softly, then walked into the kitchen and began preparing her dinner.
* * *
Ricky was in a shitty mood, which usually meant trouble for someone. Usually, he'd let off steam by going over to Manhattan with a couple of friends and beating up some gays, but Tony was doing seven-to-twelve on Riker's Island, and without him around, the others were acting nervous. Besides, it was just a diversion, not a solution.
He sat on the roof and scowled. It was three days since Linda had announced that she was leaving, her tone of voice making it clear that she wasn't scared of him. He didn't know who else she was seeing - maybe no-one, yet, but Ricky was just smart enough to know that almost nobody broke off a relationship, however bad, unless they had another relationship already lined up - and he wasn't sure which was worse, the leaving or her lack of fear. Of course, she didn't need a new boyfriend to protect her; she had two brothers who could have put Ricky into several different hospitals at once, and her old man was said to have mob connections. He certainly had more money than Ricky thought a baker should be making. He reached into his pocket for his balisong knife, flicked it open, and admired the edge.
Hurting Linda wasn't the answer; he knew that. He wasn't even sure he wanted to do it - quite apart from the risk. She was the best-looking girl he'd ever had, and while it had freaked him a little how much she liked to take charge, he'd soon had to admit that the things she wanted to do felt better than any sex he'd had before - or, a nasty voice in the back of his head told him, than he was likely to have again in the near future. He shook his head. He'd hurt women before, but this was different, he knew that much.
The sky darkened as he thought.
* * *
"Good morning." As much as she disliked the subway, Kayla had found that she was always glad to see the lift operator; his was often the first smiling face she saw during the day, and sometimes the last as well. Despite his boring job, he never seemed to complain; he merely sat there, surrounded by his pictures, so relaxed that he seemed almost asleep. Or maybe it was the fact that he seemed as much out of place in the city as she did, maybe more so. She'd never asked his name, and he'd never volunteered it or asked hers, but a few days before Christmas, she asked where he was from. Montana, he replied. Had he been there long? No, and wasn't planning on staying long either, just for the winter. She wanted to ask more; he looked as though he might be native American, at least partly, but nothing in her anthrop classes had taught her how to ask such a question without it seeming impolite. "At least you must be used to the cold weather," she said.
He shrugged. "I don't notice it," he replied.
"I do; I'm from Tucson. I could really do with some sun." The doors opened, and she nodded goodbye as she stepped out. That afternoon, she bought him a Christmas gift, a paperback copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear - one of her favourite books as a teenager, after McIntyre's Dreamsnake, and a nice thick volume that would relieve a few hours of boredom. And a jar of nuts and dried fruit. While she normally spent hours agonising over the best gift to buy, these somehow seemed exactly right.
* * *
"Where are we going?" asked Linda, a faint hint of a whine in her voice.
"Uptown," said Ricky. "Got somethin to show you."
"It's a surprise. For Christmas."
She snorted softly, but there was enough curiosity in her make-up to keep her from leaving the subway at the next stop and going home. She'd decided yesterday to give Ricky three more days to redeem himself, and dump him on Christmas Eve if he failed. She'd already received Christmas presents from several other suitors, all of them wealthier than Ricky and some better-looking, and had decided that New Year's Eve wasn't a bad time to start another relationship. Besides, she'd heard, somewhere, that more people commit suicide on Christmas than at any other time of the year, and she wanted to see how Ricky coped.
"Next stop," said Ricky, quietly.
"Huh? Okay." Fort Washington? What could there be in Fort Washington? Ricky looked down at his feet and pulled the hood of his jacket up as the train stopped, and Linda noticed that he was careful not to look at any of the security cameras. Intrigued, even a little excited already, she did the same. No-one else left the train at that station, and there was no-one in the booth; Ricky had checked the place out thoroughly a few days before, and was confident that it was safe. He knew that apparently motiveless murders were almost never solved, and he'd spent a lot of time thinking about how to find a victim that no-one could possibly connect to him or to Linda.
* * *
Kayla was reading the chapter on Native American shamanism in one of her anthropology texts, fascinated by the descriptions of vision quests and the details of some of the animal totems from which their power came - Wolf, the hunter; Raccoon, the thief; Snake, the healer; Bear, also a healer, but capable of berserk rage. She was absorbed in a description of medicine lodges when she realised the train had stopped at her station; hastily, she dropped the book in her bag and ran to the door.
When Ricky saw her hurrying past the turnstiles towards the lifts, just off the other train, he grinned; perfect. She didn't look much like Linda - several inches taller, and slender rather than buxom - but she was about the same age, and just as attractive in her way, so that would be enough to give Linda the message he wanted to send. He walked quickly up the staircase towards the turnstiles, while Linda followed, close enough not to appear submissive, but slowly enough not to appear too eager - so slowly that the lift door closed behind Kayla with a faint rattling sound, almost a chuckle, an instant before Ricky reached it. He managed not to swear, and punched at the button to summon another lift. If it arrived quickly enough, he might still manage to catch the girl before she made it to the street.
"What're we doing here?" Linda asked, a little breathlessly. She hated being hurried.
"Getting you your Christmas present," he replied. He reached for Linda and kissed her, then grabbed her hand and thrust it into his right pocket, guiding it towards the warm hardness of the balisong knife. She grabbed hold of the knife before recognising it for what it was; she'd seen and admired it before, but had never seen Ricky use it. "For me?" she asked, uncertainly.
"Uh-huh." She backed away slightly, and he realised that she'd misunderstood him. "It's okay, babe. Not gonna hurt you. Not you."
She stared at him, and suddenly realised what her Christmas present was going to be; anything else would merely be wrapping paper. "I'm gonna let you watch," he confirmed. "Would you like that? Turns you on, doesn't it?" She grinned, and bit Ricky's earlobe, and the lift door opened. He lifted her off her feet and carried her inside. A photo of a grizzly bear looked him in the eye for a moment, until he turned around and let her put her feet back on the floor. Her hand came out of his pocket, still holding the folded knife, and he realised that she didn't want to wait for them to catch up with the girl, she was too hot to be patient, she wanted her goddamned Christmas present now. He took the knife from her, flicked it open, and turned to face the old man sitting in the corner.
The old man looked back levelly, even when Ricky brandished the blade an inch from his nose. "I have nothing you could want," he said, softly.
Ricky laughed. "'Away put your weapon, I mean you no harm,'" he said, in a creditable imitation of Yoda, then, thickly, "You got blood, don't you?"
Something behind him growled, but Ricky didn't turn around. The old man's lack of concern was off-putting; it was almost as though he weren't even awake. "My girlfriend wants to see blood -" Ricky said, and suddenly had the feeling that it was exactly the wrong thing to say. He looked down for a moment, to see if the old man was armed, but his hairy hands were empty...
Linda stared, excited, ignoring the rumbling sound from behind her until two powerful arms wrapped themselves around her chest. She kicked back, as she'd been taught to do, then slithered out of the grasp and turned around. A huge paw, with claws as long as her fingers, swung at her head, leaving deep gouges across her face.
Ricky heard her scream, but couldn't look away from the old man's eyes. There was something strange about them, and not just the complete absence of fear: they were still only half-open, but they seemed even darker. The whites had disappeared, but more than that, there was the impression of someone that had been woken from a very long, very deep sleep, and wasn't happy about it. The old man still didn't move, except to sigh quietly. "Blood," he said, sadly. The sound of growling became louder. Linda screamed again, and Ricky turned around, raising the knife. Something knocked it from his hand. Then it ate his hand, biting through his wristbones as though they were candy canes. Where the walls and ceiling of the elevator cage had been, he saw only darkness. And bears.
The huge grizzly slapped at Linda again, this time hitting her so hard that Ricky heard bone breaking. He glanced down at the stump of his arm. "Blood," someone behind him repeated.
* * *
The old man was sitting in the lift, as usual, seeming even more drowsy than usual - not surprising, considering the late hour - but he was awake enough to smile at Kayla when she walked in, and to hold the lift door open while she carried her bags through. "Vacation?" he asked.
"Going home," she said. "Seeing my family - and the sun, I hope. And my pet snakes." The door closed, and she was struck again by the awfulness of his job; sitting there for hours in a metal box that smelled like a meat locker, nothing to see except the people passing through and his pictures of well-fed bears. She reached into her bag, and handed over the gift-wrapped novel. "Merry Christmas," she said, then wondered whether he celebrated Christmas; she'd never had the nerve to about ask his religion...
but he raised a shaggy eyebrow, and his smile became wider. "Thank you," he said. "Merry Christmas to you, too." He held the door open as she carried her bags out, then, when it had closed behind her, he yawned, showing enormous yellow teeth. Bear only knew why he'd come here, chosen this box as a medicine lodge rather than some nice cave somewhere... but Bear always had reasons. Ah, well, he thought, it would be spring soon, and he could finally go home.
This story originally appeared in Altair #5.