Bodies crushed against each other, a blur of hair and clothes, in the mad dash to exit the subway. The air smelled of the greasy restaurants above and felt stuffy, despite the bitter cold that rattled through the damp subway tunnel. My mouth watered as I sniffed roasted chestnuts.
You haven’t eaten dinner yet, my rumbling stomach scolded.
I slipped past a man speaking rapid Spanish to board the train, grabbed a pole, slid on to a seat, and pulled my green bag higher towards my chest. The two paperbacks inside jammed into my ribs. With a groan, I shifted into a new position, wondering what glorious worlds awaited within the glossy covers.
“Whoa ho, ho, ho.”
More people ranting on the subway. It could never be a quiet ride. I opened my bag to peer at the fantasy novels. I’d chosen thick books because they lasted longer and made the reading more rewarding.
“Ho, little one.”
A face shoved into mine from the aisle, and I jerked back, squeaking. Oily black hair hung over a scarred forehead. The man swayed, braying a laugh. I glanced at the woman with bright pink hair sitting on the next seat. She read a newspaper without looking up.
“So much to you.” The man licked his lips and slurred the words.
His pungent odor clawed its way through my nose; no escaping the invisible fumes. They washed over me with groping draws until my eyes watered. I cringed, my craving for chestnuts gone. Anyone on a diet would be thankful to have him around.
He stood, clinging to a pole with one gloved hand. Threads poked from the torn seams in the gripping brown leather. Two duffel bags, stained with mud, rested near his feet, bulging with contents.
I lowered my gaze, clutching the bag tighter. Please go away. I shouldn’t have taken the subway, but I’d done it to save time. Even though I was seventeen, Mama said it wasn’t safe to ride alone, and now, I agreed.
I’m not gonna be home by my seven o’clock curfew. Mama’s gonna freak. I can’t believe I forgot my phone.
“You don’t belong on this world.” He smacked his lips. Behind his head, a large sign told the public not to smoke, or they’d get lung cancer and die. It was easier to stare at the anti-smoking sign than him.
“Yes, thank you,” I mumbled as he leered at me. Even if he lacked a home and suffered from insanity, he didn’t deserve rudeness.
“You like fantasy?”
I stared at my lap, but when he repeated the question louder, I nodded.
“What would ya do if fantasy became your life? What would ya do if it wasn’t fantasy anymore?”
“Fantasy isn’t real.” I shifted my gaze to my black socks. They came up to my thighs and the right sock had a tiny hole near the knee. I’d have to sew it when I got home. If I studied it, maybe he’d grow bored and mosey on elsewhere.
“Are you happy here? Don’t you want more, little one? I can take you to another world.” His deep breaths made snot rattle in his nose.
I gagged, hiding my mouth behind my hand. The woman with the newspaper glanced over. I pleaded silently for her to make the man go away, but she moved to an empty seat down the car, wrinkling her nose. I still had five more stops before I could get away.
Do I dare follow her?
“Don’t you believe in destiny?”
What if he sits next to me? I slid my bag onto the empty seat, clutching the handle. As the subway curved around the corner, it screeched, the sound echoing through the metallic enclosure as if screaming, “Doom!”
“I’ve been to other lands. I’ve seen my future, and I spit at it.” He turned his head to hack on the floor. The saliva bubbled with a yellowish hue.
The subway squealed to a halt, and some of the passengers stood to exit. I removed the bag in case someone new sat down, someone safe, but no one came near or looked at us as they found seats. The doors slid shut, and the train moved again. Four more stops to go.
“Don’t shun fantasy. I’ve made mistakes and don’t want you to make ‘em too. Take it and see what you can do. Take it!” He pumped his fist, revealing grease stains on his coat sleeves.
I scanned the other passengers’ faces. They ignored us, although the ranting man filled the car with his voice. Only the smiling faces on wall advertisements watched. Ever-smiling, ever-trapped in their realm of sales. I fiddled with the zipper on the front of my gray hoodie, heart racing.
The subway halted at the next station. Again, people exited and entered, and no one sat beside me. Three more stops to go. I drummed my fingers against my thigh.
“I know all about the ones they call the Goats.” He drew a ragged breath. “I’m not supposed to, but I know. My wife was one. She told me all about them. Oh, yes, she did. She wasn’t supposed to, but she did. They don’t let them take over the world. They won’t!”
Why do crazies always go for alien invasions? I twirled my brown curls. I’d get off at the next stop and walk the rest of the way, even if I arrived home later.
What if he follows me?
“The Goats!” He flapped his arm.
Alien goat invasion. How awesome. I jumped and clutched my bag like a shield. The subway screeched as it approached the next station. I wanted to run, but he waved both arms, repeating the scream.
The doors swished open, but if I stood to escape, he could attack. Two more stops to go. What if I can’t escape at my stop, either?
As soon as the subway started, he lowered his arm and drew a few breaths. He reeked of alcohol, and overpowering the sweat stench, the stench made my head swirl.
“Beware of the Goats.” His chest heaved. “Help the Goats. Save the Goats!”
He really is deranged. There weren’t any goats in New York City that I’d ever seen.
“Yes, I will.” Go away. “I’ll … I’ll watch out for the goats.”
“The Goats,” he corrected, as if I’d mispronounced the word. He picked up his duffel bags and waddled to the back of the car, where he dropped onto a seat. He took a small paperback book from the pocket of his trench coat and flipped it open.
When the doors swished open at the next stop, I exited in the crush of bodies. People coughed and spoke, heels clicked and wheels on backpacks rolled, and the sounds echoed off the stone walls.
I slid through the turnstile and bolted up the cement steps two at a time, the edges cracked and crumbled and graffiti decorated the walls with images of fire and obscene language. The brightness of the paint, and the harsh edges that curved and sang were beautiful. The scrawls seemed to want to leap off the stone, suddenly alive.
At the top, I grasped the railing. Cold, dented metal bit through the fishnet of my fingerless gloves while I gazed over my shoulder. The people emerging didn’t spare me a glance. I was lost in the crowd, a stationary fixture.
The man wasn’t following. I ducked my head to push into the crowd. People bumped into me, jostling with elbows and bags. I almost walked into a tourist, who snapped a picture of the taxicabs.
“Hey,” called a stout vender from the corner. “You okay?”
I tucked back a brown curl. “I’m fine, but thanks.” Wind whipping between the skyscrapers stole the power of my words.
“Wanna dog?” He held one out, nestled in a white roll.
“No, thanks. I don’t eat meat.”
“Good,” I thought I heard him whisper. “Your kind shouldn’t.”
He couldn’t have spoken. It must’ve been someone else. It wouldn’t make sense for a man who made his living off people scarfing down meat-in-a-tube to agree with my vegetarian lifestyle.
I ogled the sea of metal vehicles washed in the afternoon sunlight like sharks swarming for a fresh kill. I shook off the thought and ran, an empty Styrofoam cup crunching beneath my foot. I didn’t have a watch, but the sun hung low in the sky.
A thought raced through my mind as the sun made windows wink and flash.
Beware of Goats.
“Long line at the bookstore.” I dropped my bag on the marble table beside the door to my family’s condo. Instrumental Celtic music wafted from the living room as I left the small foyer, and I almost tripped over my sprawled little sister.
“Phebe, you shouldn’t lie on the floor.”
“Why are you home so late?” Phebe dragged an orange crayon over the page of her coloring book. Her ponytail bobbed as she tipped her head, studying the picture. “You should’ve taken me with you. Mommy said so.”
“I’m sure she did.” I rolled my eyes.
When I’d left earlier, Phebe had still been doing her mathematics homework. We were home schooled, so even in the summer, we had work to do. It sucked because other home schooled students I knew had summers off. That was our penalty for having a mother with a Master’s degree in elementary education.
“Where’re Mama and Dad?”
Phebe sat up on her knees with her eyebrows knit together. “Mommy’s crying.”
My heart sunk and dropped clear out of my stomach. Mama never got that upset when I came home late. Did she find out about the party last weekend at Tiffany’s? I’d lied and said it was only going to be Tiff, her parents and siblings, and me. I hadn’t mentioned her parents were in Vancouver on vacation or that Tiff had invited all of her friends, not just me. Regret stabbed my gut.
“Mama, I’m home! Mama?”
The family photographs glared at me from the wall, none so reprimanding as the face of my Reverend Uncle. I kicked off my flats and hurried into my parents’ bedroom. With the lamp off, only a little light slipped through the closed venetian blinds covering the single window.
Short brown hair fanned over the plaid pillowcase, and Mama lay sideways on the king-sized bed, a crumpled tissue pressed against her nose. Dad sat beside her, stroking her shoulders. He still wore his suit from work—an even worse sign. The first thing Dad did when he walked through the door was peel off his jacket and toss the tie onto the table.
“Mama?” My voice cracked as my throat constricted.
“Your uncle called.” Dad tugged on his green silk tie that should’ve been lost in the pile of mail, not still fastened around his neck.
The Reverend in Massachusetts, Dad’s younger brother, only called once a month, on the first Friday. Even though we called him Uncle Tom around the house, we all referred to him as Pastor Thomas to his face.
“No, Uncle Jan.”
Mama’s brother, the one who called less than Uncle Tom did.
“What…what did he want? Has someone died?” Oh no, is it my grandmother? Uncle Jan lived upstate, in the same town as her.
“Keziah, it’s your grandmother,” Dad continued.
Oh no, oh no, oh no. When I’d been younger, we’d lived down the street from Mama’s mother. She had taken care of me while my parents worked, and we’d often picked violets in the yard. Sometimes, I imagined I could smell their perfume years later and hundreds of miles away.
I’d always called her Oma, which meant grandmother in Dutch. I could still remember the way I’d cried and screamed, begging to stay with Oma when we’d moved to New York City. The hours separating us seemed like an eternity.
“She has dementia.” Dad removed his tie and knotted it around his fingers.
I blinked at him. “Dementia?” Demented, like the man on the subway?
“She hasn’t been officially diagnosed, but the symptoms are there. Uncle Jan doesn’t feel she can live on her own anymore.” Dad dropped his tie onto the alarm clock.
“So…she’s moving in with Uncle Jan?” I pictured waking up from a sleepover at Oma’s house with fresh squeezed orange juice waiting in the kitchen beside a bowl of cream of wheat cereal, steamy and sweet.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Oma would sing. She’d pull out the chair, the seat hideous and green, leftover from the 1970s. It had been an honor to sit at the kitchen table with her.
Dad rubbed his chin. “Your aunt won’t let her do that.”
I grinned. “She’s moving in with us? That’s amazing!” I only saw Oma on school holidays, and that summer, we’d had to pass because Mama had taught a summer school class.
“You know that wouldn’t work.” Dad gazed at the dresser across the room, a fog coming over his eyes.
I pulled at a loose thread on my black skirt. If Oma moved in, then Dad would have to move out or risk family war. The yelling would never stop. She hated Dad with a roaring passion I’d never understood. That anger had contributed to the reason why we’d moved, and when we visited Oma, Dad never went.
“Your uncle wants to put her in a home.” Dad leaned over to rub a spot on the wall’s blue paint as if that space was the problem, and he could make it disappear.
I licked my dry lips. “You mean like a nursing home?”
“No!” Mama rose on her elbows. “I’m not putting my mother in a nursing home. Do you know how they treat their patients? It’s horrible. All those people. Oma would hate it. She’s so antisocial these days. Really hate it.”
“Hush. Come on, sweetheart. It’s all right. We won’t put her in a home.” Dad combed his fingers through her hair.
“Why would Uncle Jan want to do that?” I didn’t know anything about nursing homes, but Mama was right. Oma had become one of the most antisocial people I’d ever met.
“It’s your aunt.” Dad patted Mama’s back. “She wants to put your grandmother away. It’s getting too hard to take care of her, and she won’t let her move in with them. You know how your aunt can be.”
My aunt could be downright nasty—a sickish combination of stubborn and controlling. Dad was too nice to say that aloud, though.
“What are we going to do?” My question made Mama cry harder, and I flinched.
“We’ll think of something,” Dad whispered.
Jordan Elizabeth, formally Jordan Elizabeth Mierek, is known for her odd sense of humor and her outrageous outfits. Surrounded by bookshelves, she can often be found pounding away at her keyboard – she’s known for breaking keyboards, too. Jordan’s young adult novels include ESCAPE FROM WITCHWOOD HOLLOW, COGLING, TREASURE DARKLY, and BORN OF TREASURE. GOAT CHILDREN is her first novel with CHBB. Her short stories are featured in over twenty anthologies. Check out her website for bonus scenes and contests.
Keziah lives in New Winchester, a town frequented by squirrels. Win a squirrel charm necklace in honor of her furry companions!
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