The bum covered in shit sat ragged and bare-faced at the Crossroads of the World. He called himself Mazda Miata, his broken grin and feral gaze more than enough to keep strangers six feet away, not that there were many people around. The few that walked his territory did so in a hurry—essential workers, drug addicts, and lonesome whores… all eager to get away from the eerie vagrant basking like a reptile under the afternoon sun. Times Square was his.
Only one man tested the boundaries of Mazda Miata’s kingdom.
George Campos: a short and heavyset twenty-nine-year-old with wavy green hair, olive colored skin, and wide set eyes. An expensive Nikon camera adorned his proud chest like the cross on a crusader’s breastplate. He wore a black jumpsuit. Plastic gloves. Several facemasks. A belt attached with Lysol cans strapped around his waist. He strode through the plague-ridden land with a steady hand and firm steps. Airborne Ebola couldn’t stop the photographer from chronicling his city.
The shirtless vagrant sat on a milk crate in front of George Cohan’s statue. Mazda Miata seemed content nestled in a circle of trash. He gently picked his nose, watching chunky rats and dirty pigeons play in the refuse.
“Gross. What’s your story, man?” George whispered to himself.
Mazda Miata looked to be in his late fifties. He had ruddy, pockmarked skin. From his large head sprouted strands of greasy black hair. A cardboard Burger King crown rested on top of it. Yellow shit and strips of torn denim covered his legs. His bare feet were the stuff of nightmare: black and scabbed like a dog had gnawed on them before getting sick of the taste.
Taking in a sharp breath behind his triple layered facemask, George snapped another picture from ten yards away.
Mazda Miata’s eyes instantly widened and he frowned.
George ducked behind a shuttered pop-up tiki bar next to the graffiti of a fire breathing Donald Trump spray painted along the bar’s abandoned gate. The flames engulfed Hilary Clinton, two Shaqs (though they may have been badly drawn pictures of George Floyd), and something that looked like a skinny cock wearing oversized sunglasses.
George’s heart was racing. Had the vagrant just recognized him? The photographer had been surveying Mazda Miata for months. Had something just shifted in those glassy black eyes? Had the man reengaged with reality?
“I’m Mazda Miata! Mazda Miata! Black boots are hanging from the streetlamp.”
George peeked back out.
“You’re the fucking King of Times Square and you know it, Mr. Mazda Miata.”
“Not another Mazda Miata! No, ahahaha! Not another! I got enough! I am enough!”
Mazda Miata chuckled, steering an invisible wheel, then fell into abrupt silence. He stared up at the dozens of giant Times Square screens, vigorously masturbating to the flashing images of Covid death tolls, race riots, the Tiger King, Mayim Bialik’s face, Governor Cuomo delivering grave announcements… Mazda Miata seemed to enjoy them all equally.
George’s stomach lurched. A definite line would be crossed if he followed his artistic instinct. He knew so with every ounce of his being. There would be no going back. But how could he not capture this moment?
Fuck quarantine. Fuck the virus. Fuck their rules. Here’s this barefaced royal bum in the Center of the World, whacking his willy in the face of death. This is a statement.
George nodded at this insight, pleased with himself. In Mazda Miata’s throaty groans, George sensed a climax, and hoped he was a long stroker and no minute man.
“Just a few more seconds your Highness.”
Taking a deep breath, George swung back around the tiki bar, capturing the moment. Mazda Miata stopped in mid stroke, staring at the obsessed photographer. Heart pounding, George lowered the camera, staring back at the King of Times Square, as the homeless man sat motionless, cock in hand, Burger King crown tilted oddly on his head.
“Not another Mazda Miata. There are black boots hanging down from the streetlamp. We’re hungry. And we know the sound of your footsteps. The beat of your heart.”
The voice spoke inches from George’s face.
George jumped back.
Dropping his prick, Mazda Miata waved. Weird shadows coalesced around him—unanchored to any physical object.
George snapped a few more pictures. The vagrant stood and sauntered away, pants still down, crown on his head now firmly in place.
George lowered his camera, breathing heavily.
The strange shadows followed Mazda Miata uptown.
Dizzy and disoriented, George headed in the opposite direction. He took a few more furtive pictures of junkies shooting up at Herald Square Park. Jumped on an empty train. And headed back to his Brooklyn apartment.
He walked in on his roommate and her boyfriend having sex on the communal futon, and cursing under his breath, slammed the door and stepped back into the hallway. The couples’ harmonized climax was loud, abrupt, then quickly consumed by a moody silence. George cringed. He lolled his head, snapping the band of his plastic gloves angrily against his wrist.
The door swung open.
Karen sashayed into the hallway. Her face sweaty. “Sorry about that. Wyatt is insatiable.”
The pixyish twenty-five year old was an unemployed fashion designer. She had red hair. Wore a red kimono. No facemask. Her large sleepy eyes were the color of dying grass.
A few drops of semen clung to the side of her jaw.
Cupping his facemask, George tried not to retch. He vaulted backward, slamming into the banister.
“We just came from a BLM protest. That always gets us in the mood. Why don’t you ever protest systemic racism with us? Aren’t you an ally?”
“Please, Karen. Have sex in your own bedroom. I paid for that futon.”
“You’re too attached to the material world. You know that? Meditate for once in your life.”
She nonchalantly wiped off Wyatt’s trouser gravy.
George stared nonplussed.
“Whatever happened to your girlfriend?” she asked.
Karen was losing her mind during lockdown. This conversation only strengthened his suspicion.
“We’re not together anymore. She moved back to Florida to be with her family. You already knew that. Why are you asking about her now?”
“You told me she died last week.”
“That’s not true. I never said anything like that. You’re lying for no reason.”
“You’re too backed up. In a sexual sense. I’m going to hook you up with Marcy.”
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. I can’t go on dates.”
“But you can stalk mentally ill vagrants for your art? Marcy sleeps in a tent on my fire escape. You can party with us on the roof tonight. Weather permitting.”
“You’re kidding, right?” George stared in disbelief.
“That’s not cool. Or healthy. I mean—”
Five people barged from the apartment. A gaggle of Brooklynites in their early twenties. Barefaced and half naked. They pranced past Karen and George, giggling loudly.
“We’re going to the bodega,” they said in unison.
Karen smiled. George stared at the floor. The merry group dashed down the stairs. Storm of flip flop claps quickly fading. George sprayed a cloud of Lysol around himself, giving his roommate an incriminating stare.
“Not safe, Karen.”
“You worry too much. Besides, you see the way Marcy was staring at you? Hot.”
“Which one was Marcy?”
“Which one? Um, they’re all Marcy. That’s how they choose to identify.”
“Yeah. What fucking century are you in dude? Wake up.”
“They operate a Farmer’s Market across from the Marcy projects. You know, Jay Z’s old hood. They sell plums and kale. They give back to the community. They’re a treasure.”
“Stop fucking on the futon.” George entered the apartment.
Wyatt lay naked on the couch.
“Yo,” he nodded.
George said nothing, unlocking his bedroom door, and slammed it closed.
“Privileged asshole,” said Wyatt, his voice coming through the paper thin walls.
Quickly, George locked his door. A small bed, bureau, and bookcase, as well as a dozen framed photos by André Kertész—his favorite artist—occupied the 500 square foot room.
Opening the window, George sprayed more Lysol just to be safe.
He considered setting up a security camera. The last thing he wanted was Karen, Wyatt, and the Marcy sneaking into his room and mingling liquids on his Ikea bed. George had put the bed together in under eight minutes without an instruction manual. It was a source of pride.
Loud calypso music played in the living room.
George grabbed his camera and sat on the windowsill. “Fucking maniacs. They’ve all lost their minds. I’d be better off out there.”
He cringed at the garbage piled across the alley three floors down. The trash hadn’t been picked up in days. City services were the pits and would only get worse. There had been three shootings in his neighborhood during the past week. Maybe “The Bad Old Days” were back and here to stay… with much shittier music. He rubbed his face. Looked through his day’s work.
George had been taking pictures of midtown Manhattan for years now, chronicling the tourists and transients around Times Square. Mazda Miata was new—he’d arrived shortly after New York City’s first Covid death.
Miata had ambled past the Naked Cowboy on that unseasonably warm March day, as thousands of tourists milled about, avoiding him like the plague. The cops eyed him but also kept their distance.
George snapped his first picture of the vagrant while he sat alone on a bench. There was something different about Miata. He seemed so unlike everyone else. George couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The quality was ineffable.
George took another photograph.
The spirit of long-gone alleyways, of decaying gargoyles perched on forgotten roofs, of the subways’ lost tunnels and hidden platforms, and every kinetically charged heap of rubble and history the city had shed over the centuries, had all animated and come to life in this wreck of a man. These strange ideas and others like them flashed across George’s mind the first time he saw Miata.
George thought about the strange encounter with Miata earlier today. The vagrant must have somehow thrown his voice. That was the only reasonable explanation. The string of words? Just a mentally ill man rambling on.
Black boots hanging down from a streetlamp. They could hear his footsteps. The beat of his heart? Who were they? George caught a chill and shook his head. No… nothing worth thinking about. It was all bullshit.
Something was different about the latest batch of photos George had taken. The area immediately surrounding Mazda Miata wasn’t normal. In the backdrop were traces of a shadowed, cavern-like landscape.
George hopped off the windowsill. Uploading the pictures onto his laptop, he noticed more odd textural discrepancies. The photographs appeared embossed—overlaid with raised, braille-like dots. The dots… moved. Wiping his eyes, George focused in. Miata wasn’t sitting in Times Square at all. It was a cave. Some kind of tunnel system.
It had to be a glitch. Old data from George’s camera or his laptop had corrupted the image files. Past photos had somehow merged with the new ones to create an illusory effect of caves and dots and whatnot. But right now he was beat. The day had been long and whatever technical issue was causing the problem could wait until morning.
George put away his laptop. Grabbing a six pack from his mini fridge, he drank heavily. Wyatt, Karen, and the Marcy’s partied outside his bedroom. Ambulance sirens blared past somewhere down in the streets. George had grown accustomed to both. They lulled him to sleep. He awoke covered in spilled beer. It was four AM. Finally the apartment was silent.
Mazda Miata weighed on George’s mind. George tried to get back to sleep but couldn’t. He reexamined the photos, puzzling over the bizarre glitches of dots and caves. He smoked a joint. Drank another beer. Neither helped. George badly needed to piss. The thought of the biohazard zone beyond the safety of his bedroom filled him with loathing. Quickly putting on his gear, he grabbed two fresh cans of Lysol.
A mass of snoring bodies lay sprawled across the dark living room floor outside his door.
George sprayed Lysol. “I’m living in a madhouse.”
No one stirred. Spraying a fine mist over Wyatt’s face, George nearly emptied the can, satisfied. George claimed the bathroom throne.
Someone was snoring in the bathtub.
“Jesus Christ. Karen!” George said in a fierce whisper. “What the hell? We have to talk in the morning.”
Karen stirred, smiling vacantly, and burped.
“Another Mazda Miata,” she grunted.
“What did you just say?”
Karen’s eyes blackened, taking on the wild gaze of the eerie vagrant.
“Hungry. We know your footsteps. Your heartbeat. We’ll take you soon. We know you well enough now.”
Karen loosed a rancid burped. Ripping off the shower curtain, she wrapped it around herself, falling fast asleep. She snored, reeking of rot and disease. Mazda Miata beckoned.
Unafraid, George would answer the call.
George rode an empty train to Times Square. Packets of synthetic weed lay scattered across the dirty subway platform. A few homeless men huddled around a bench, smoking and swaying to music only they could hear. One of the men was tall, wearing little more than rags and surprisingly clean pro-keds, and shouted something incoherent as George hurried past.
George took pictures of the group and rushed away. He raced up the main terminal, out of the desolate station, and strode beneath the bright starry sky. He snapped pictures of Broadway. The buildings seemed more buoyant than ever. Unburdened for months with the weight of human beings. And yet furtive figures still darted from shadow to shadow. They possessed an unreal quality to them. Maybe they were only there because they had to be? Something demanded it. The idea of it was turning George’s thoughts hazy and erratic. Yet it was a premonition he couldn’t shake.
Driven by his odd intuition George continued west. The already sparse populated streets grew more isolated as he walked into the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen and beyond. A loud squelching noise erupted the night air near 12th avenue, a block past the trafficless highway, and through his facemask permeated a foul odor.
He walked toward the river. Firebombed cars lined the deserted street. He was surprise to find a stripped Mazda Miata. The black boots dangling from their laces on the streetlamp.
Maybe he lived here.
George took pictures.
At the very least this place means something to him.
He snapped more pictures, approaching the edge of the street where the scent was strongest. A combination of rot, motor oil, and wet plaster.
In the concrete opened a rectangular hole with braille-like notches jutting from its edge. George grew fearful. But he couldn’t look away.
It was breathing.
The hole was some organic thing in disguise. Its wheezing breath carried the noxious odor, ruffling the scratchy protrusions living along its inhuman mouth.
Looking down inside its throat George saw only darkness. He felt watched. Now the entire street seemed alive. Sentient. Bustling with the retroactive energy of a city gone deathly still. Hungry for echoes of life. For hidden things living and thriving beneath the ground. It would even sacrifice a bit of itself just to simulate a return to order. And in exchange it’d take anyone foolish enough to be found in its lonely, unlit places.
Just like it had taken Mazda Miata.
Replacing him with the gibbering thing from the hell mouth—a creature that had latched onto the final fleeting images of Miata’s mind; and now was using them as an incantation to anchor itself in the world above.
George suddenly heard shuffling feet. The creature resembling a man would round the corner in moments. A black coldness existing beneath its veneer. One that could only develop in the shadow world below. And it would take George, replacing him.
He fled the shambling thing. Light of foot so he wouldn’t alert it. Wheezing, he made it back to Times Square. His legs weary. His heart racing.
Doubling over, he ripped off his facemask.
The smell penetrated everywhere. In everything. And it had brought with it Mazda Miata. But he wasn’t alone. A hundred or more people stood gathered around him in a great circle. Normal looking. Yet George knew they weren’t. He needed to get away. To catch his breath and flee. But George couldn’t help himself. He wanted to capture the moment. Had to capture it.
George snuck toward the crowd. The bright Times Square lights recoiled from the people: a gathering of hazy, shadowy things with enough power to keep the light at bay.
Snapping a picture, he drew nearer. Another, and still no attention was paid him. They were listening to Mazda Miata speak. George was too far away to hear what was being said and he crept closer.
Icy cold fingers squirmed like tapeworms wrapped around the back of George’s neck. A great force propelled him toward Miata and he screamed out.
The faceless things surrounded him. His body paralyzed. Held in place by the creature at his back. He dropped his camera and it broke against the concrete.
The thing squeezed harder. It mumbled its victim’s words. George’s eyes rolled up and met Broadway’s bright lights.
The light won’t shine on them.
Mazda Miata continued to speak.
I still can’t understand him.
George’s neck snapped. His world grew dark. Behind him the creature spoke in his voice. Guttural. Inhuman. Grasping at the words that would anchor it in the world above. Using his voice to bring itself into existence.
His last words… and its first.