The Accidental Hero
Josiah stood at his office window watching the snowfall as the last light of day extinguished itself at 5:15 in the evening. He told himself the days would start to get longer but the lack of sunlight bit into his psyche like a rabid dog. For the last hour he’d been staring at the computer screen, his mind refusing to retain a sliver of the information it needed to process.
The office was still largely empty. His entire staff had been working from home for 10 months. A vaccine had been approved but no one in administration wanted to be the one responsible for bringing people back too soon. And when they did the logistics would be a killer. Would they still need to line up for elevators up to the 40th floor? That would take hours. Would you need an appointment system just to get up to work? It was mindboggling and he had a headache from trying to figure it out.
Before the pandemic, when he felt like this he’d head down to either Hy’s or the Ritz and drink himself into contentment, but neither one of those places was offering much comfort these days. He’d watched in horror as his favorite watering holes had tried to adjust to the constant slate of restrictions only to close up.
No. There was no comfort here. No live jazz and a casual supper, no opera with a glass of Trius before the opening scene, no new productions at the local theatre with shining new talent and no sports with live spectators to buy merchandise. There was however Netflix. He knew he’d reached rock bottom when he started reading the reviews of the latest Netflix releases.
The stale black coffee he’d been drinking hit his stomach like a lead weight.
He could stay longer but he knew there would be no point. He pulled on his coat and haphazardly placed his disposable mask over his mouth and nose. The elevator took only moments to arrive. He was torn between the convenience and the loneliness of being the only one in the office.
In the lobby he nodded to a sleepy security guard and pushed his way out the revolving doors. The cold air had an odd refreshing feeling as it penetrated his body. He’d forgotten his gloves and the found himself reveling in the slight tingling of his fingertips.
“Good, I’m still alive,” he thought as he looked around, a slow feeling of delight creeping over having simply escaped the confines of his office. The populace was locked down for the second time in months but the city still pulsated with life. Traffic on the downtown street was snarled and there was the usual cacophony of bellowing car horns. Construction workers in their bright orange jackets, their breath escaping in small bursts of fog, oblivious to the angry drivers, stood around gaping holes in the concrete.
“Human beings are incredibly adaptable at creating their own inconvenience,” he muttered to himself as he navigated the construction barriers.
He walked up the street past the Christmas windows at The Bay on Queen. This used to be a highlight, something that helped make sense of cold dark winters. The glittering Christmas decorations contrasted sharply with the shuttered stores. Worse, an eerie silence seemed to sit heavily on the Eaton Center, its front entrance guarded conspicuously by a heavy set security guard, its noisy bustling crowds outlawed.
He trudged down the stairs to the subway, feeling more burdened with each step. A few brave souls were awkwardly trying to maintain social distance while waiting for the train. He noticed a young woman in tight jeans and a short red parka, her face dutifully covered with a mask that matched her jacket. He admired her long blond hair dyed purple at the ends.
“Certainly a fashion statement,” he whispered, wondering why it had become popular to dye one’s hair in unnatural colors. The practice reminded him of his childhood, accompanying his mother to the hairdresser when silver haired ladies with beehive hairdos dyed their the tips of their hair bright blue. He thought they were trying to imitate aliens on Star Trek. Now he had been told it was a sign of individualism, the popular outsider embodied in the singer Billie Eilish.
He was sure the young woman was smiling at him beneath her mask. Her eyes sparkled and he thought for a moment of speaking to her but realized he had nothing to say. Instead he leaned against the wall, shoved his tingling hands in his pockets and tried not to stare at anyone. The lack of a crowd was almost a guilty pleasure. The pandemic had gifts. One of them was not riding on a crowded subway. He could always get a seat and he didn’t have to smell anyone else’s coffee breath.
Neon signs flashed the latest news. “Vaccine distribution only 2 months away!”
“Two more months,” he thought despondently. He immediately chastised himself, angry at his morose thoughts. Just like everyone else he knew he’d done a lot of reading about mindfulness and trying not to think of endpoints. It never worked for him but he was not a quitter and kept trying. He was pretending to meditate when the subway came.
He got on the first car and sat down. For all the traffic and hustle on the street only three people were on the car. A skinny black teenager, with an oversize knapsack sat facing the door. He kept his gaze fixedly between his feet. His worn jeans had holes that were not a fashion statement and his hoody was too thin for the cold. A portly man in an expensive cashmere dress coat heaved himself heavily into a seat several rows down. Balancing his brief case between his legs he stared at his phone, avoiding all possible eye contact. The young woman he had seen on the platform swung around the pole once and sat down a seat away from Josiah. He could feel the radiance of her smile beneath the mask. “Joy comes in strange forms,” he thought. There was something in her that reminded him of the first warm day in spring, the moment you feel the sun on your cheeks after a long cold winter and you know the snow will melt.
He settled in and amused himself, looking at the ads. He was starting to over-heat but couldn’t bring himself to unzip his coat just to have to do it up again when he got off the train and went outside again. His head began to throb slightly. Home and Netflix did not seem so bad.
The train jerked to a stop. As the door opened he heard a sharp sound and watched in horror as the black teenager slumped forward and crumpled to the ground with a thud. A high-pitched sound was emanating from the masked mouth of the young woman with the purple tipped hair. Her eyes dilated in shock. His cell phone crashed to the ground as the man with the expensive dress coat crouched to the floor, holding his briefcase over his head as a cured leather shield.
Josiah looked up to see two young men with buzz cuts shoving something metal into his face.
“Don’t move,” one of them commanded in a calm confident voice, belying the murderous assault that had felled the young teenager dying in his own blood on the floor. Sweat had begun to pour down the sides of Josiah’s face.
“Should have taken off this damn coat,” he thought.
He felt his pulse racing and he was having trouble breathing through his mask. It was hard to resist the urge to rip the mask off his face.
The attack had galvanized his senses. The lethargy and inability to concentrate in the dim light and stuffy confines of his office melted away. He could see the brilliant red of the girl’s jacket in the background, feel the cashmere of the coat on the businessman crouching on the floor and feel the viscosity of the wine colored blood pooling on the floor behind the young man who had been shot down.
“Give me your wallet.” One of the attackers had his gun pointed at the crouching man. Josiah could see the whites of the man’s knuckles as he gripped his designer briefcase.
The man slowly rose. He lowered one hand and began unbuttoning his coat. He reached into his pocket. Josiah could see his hand trembling. He handed over a slim wallet.
The attacker grabbed and threw it on the ground in disgust. It clearly did not contain any cash.
“Where are the credit cards man?”
Knowing his answer would determine whether he lived past the next few minutes the man seemed to pause to consider his response. Then he nodded at the cell phone across the floor.
“Damn technology!” The attacker growled then chuckled as he squeezed the trigger on his gun.
Josiah closed his eyes. He had never seen any one get shot. Come to think of it he had never actually seen a gun other than in a museum.
“After all this was Canada, not the States,” he’d often reasoned. Nothing he had ever seen on T.V. had prepared him for the gore and horror he was witnessing. It was as if all the connective tissue and bonds that made a man cohesive and recognizable as human simply disintegrated. Instead of a man in an expensive coat there was a mass of blood and tissue spattered over a subway car. Josiah felt a rush of sorrow for a man he’d never spoken a word to. Only moments ago he’d been another survivor of the pandemic, adjusting his life so that he could go about his business, secretly congratulating himself on his resilience. Then in seconds he became a body without a soul, his individuality, his connection to others, his hopes and dreams erased. Now he was just a pile of gore in a cashmere coat. And the next stop seemed a long way away.
The attacker crushed the cell phone beneath his feet.
“Won’t be calling anyone now.”
Forcing himself to look away from the kaleidoscope of visceral tissue, Josiah noticed a swastika tattooed across the back of the hand that had pulled the trigger.
Neither attacker was masked. He looked up into the eyes of the one who held the gun in front of his face. He found himself staring into the eyes of a man who could not be more than 20. Wide set green eyes focused intently on Josiah. His face was covered in freckles and which looked oddly out of place with the buzz cut and tatoos. Josiah noticed a slight tremble in the hand that held the pistol. He wore a vest over a ‘Make America Great Again’ T-shirt. Josiah’s eyes traced the lines of the hands up a well muscled arm covered with blond hairs except where the tattoos stopped them from growing. Josiah held himself back from remarking “But we are in Canada.”
“He’s a child, a misguided child,” he could not stop himself from thinking.
Low moans combined with stifled sobs were emanating from the girl in the red coat as the other attacker advanced toward her. Still long moments until the next stop. On instinct Josiah slowly raised his arms.
“I’m going to get my wallet out of my pocket, O.K.?”
“Next stop Eglinton station!” The metallic warning voice came on. Josiah saw his life evaporating as the train entered the dark tunnel before the station.
The attacker nodded. Josiah lowered his arms and unzipped his coat. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. An agonizing moment passed. He had never been much of a ball player. He liked other kinds of sports like windsurfing and chess. He was unprepared for how far he through the wallet. It landed with a thud at the other end of the car.
As the attacker turned his attention to the wallet Josiah his head pulsating with adrenalin rushed toward the girl, jerked her roughly to her feet and dragged her toward the door of the car as the buzzer sounded and the door opened.
“Run!” He was screaming as he dragged her with him. He felt her weight as her pulled her up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
He heard a shot somewhere behind him but did not look back. The girl was too breathless to scream.
In what seemed to take hours he burst into the cold night air, the girl behind him. His heart beating like it would explode he let go of the girl’s hand and leaned over to catch his breath. He heard the sound of gruff voices and commands as police officers rushed toward the entrance to the station. The crowd that had seemed so small in the confines of the underground platform felt like a wave as they surged and shoved past him.
He heard a soft breathy voice beside him.
“Are you O.K.?”
The dull roar of his pulse in his ears diminished at the sound of her voice.
He looked up. The girl carefully pulled the red mask from her face and scrunched it up in a ball as she put it in her pocket. He was fascinated by her mouth. She had glossy pink lip stick that could not quite disguise the scar left by an operation that had repaired a cleft palate. Cloudy puffs of air came from her nose and mouth in the cold night air.
He nodded at her as he felt his heart rate slow.
“I’m Nadine by the way,” as if they hadn’t just been in a near death experience, as if her makeup wasn’t running down her face from her frightened tears.
“I’m Josiah,” he managed to gasp.
Nadine put her hand on his shoulder to help him stand straight. To his surprise he needed her support. His knees felt like Jell-O. He found it hard to breath as if someone had punched him the gut with a jack hammer. He had a horrible brackish taste in his mouth. The subsiding rush of adrenalin was making him sick to his stomach and he sure exhaustion was leaking out of his eyes.
“I could use a drink!” she proclaimed
“You look too young to drink,” he admonished her.
“Nineteen last month!” She smiled broadly, the slight scar stretching across her upper lip. Taking off her mask had transformed her from a victim back into a person whose spirit he’d admired as swung around the pole on the subway car. He felt like he known her forever.
“I’d love a drink but we are in lockdown and I don’t have any money on me. It was all in my wallet.”
“Don’t you keep your credit cards on your phone?” she asked with the incredulity of youth. Then she added thoughtfully, “Well, I guess we will have to settle for Starbucks. I’ve got an app!”
Nadine gave him her shoulder to lean on.
Suzette Blom had a career in Law and Academics. She has published 8 short stories in the last year. She loves living in Toronto.