It was like I heard it on the radio. Who listens to the radio anymore? You know what I mean. Except it wasn’t the radio. I must have been dreaming. In the dream, I was startled awake when I heard it on the radio. A voice said before you were born, in the beginning, God held you in His arms and stamped you with Fear.
That Fear hung in the air between them for a moment. The ragged looking man looked at him waiting for a reaction. He hadn’t decided yet what kind to give.
Do you get it? You’ll lose everything. Are you understanding what I’m telling you, the man said. I’m reminding you of something you already know. I don’t think you know that you know.
He decided to be politely shocked and interested in the information he was being given by this man.
Yes, sir. That’s totally right. It’s rough out there. From the moment we’re born, he said. You gotta just keep your eyes peeled, you know? Take care of yourself.
He started walking away from the man who moved to follow then stopped after a couple of steps like something was in the way.
I’m warning you. It’s on your soul. I know what happens to you at night.
The man kept ranting, but he didn’t look back. He heard the man yell one last thing before he disappeared around the corner to get on the escalator.
You hear it, too. You hear it, too.
He stepped out onto 8th Avenue fighting against the flood of people trying to go the opposite way into the Port Authority.
He walked on the left side of the street to try and get on the outside of the opposing traffic, but a taxi almost hit him in the bus lane.
The driver yelled something at him and he yelled back go fuck yourself as a reflex. He thought they were both in the wrong and he needed to get away from all these people. He looked at the light on the roof of the car and saw it was vacant.
Can I hop in, he asked the driver.
The driver looked at him for a second while mumbling something in Russian.
Yeah, come on, the driver said and waved him over.
He got in and told the driver 135th and Adam Clayton.
They headed for the West Side Highway to sit in more traffic.
He scrolled through his phone, refreshing, scrolling. The words weren’t computing. He stopped to look at pictures sometimes. Halfway through the ride the driver decided to speak to him again.
You know, the driver said, you look familiar.
Oh yeah? I get that a lot actually. Must be my plain face.
The driver didn’t laugh. He watched the driver’s eyes squint to focus on him in the rear-view mirror.
I almost hit you with my cab, the driver said.
Yeah, that was like 20 minutes ago. I’m fine. Don’t sweat it.
No, before that. A while ago. Maybe a few weeks. Yeah, I recognize you now.
Can’t recall. Maybe I didn’t even notice. I’m bad at paying attention obviously.
It was you. We looked at each other. I know your face.
I’m sorry, man. I don’t remember that. It could have been someone else. I’m unremarkable looking like I said, he chuckled.
The driver was looking at him so intensely he was afraid they were going to get into an accident. He thought about how the driver must almost run over people all the time like this.
They arrived at his apartment without another word. He paid the fare and got out. When he got to the door, he turned to see if the driver was still watching him but the cab was already turning the corner.
Six sets of stairs later, he was in his apartment. He stepped into the kitchen from the foyer and felt like he was walking into it for the first time in years. He looked at the microwave. Had this always been the microwave? He pressed a button expecting a revelation. Its sound registered as familiar, but in a half-remembered way. He turned on the light in the living room and recognized it even less than the kitchen.
Am I having a stroke, he asked out loud to no one.
He looked at the couch and tried to remember buying it. Where did he get it from? When? His mind kicked up the image of a furniture store out in Long Island somewhere along Jericho Turnpike.
Yes, that must have been in it. Wait. That doesn’t seem right. I want it to be right. Maybe I’m thinking of the couch my parents bought when I was a teenager. Yes, that’s what I’m thinking of. So, where did this one come from then?
At some point in his deliberations he had subconsciously taken a seat on the floor, cross-legged across from the couch as if preparing to engage in a conversation with it. He looked up at the ceiling. It occurred to him that he’d never done this before.
He didn’t know how much time passed. At some point he noticed that it was dark. He went into the bedroom and saw the green digits of the clock showing 1:00 a.m.
A heavy weight pushed the air out of his lungs and paralyzed him. His eyes were open and looking into the dark room but he couldn’t will any of his limbs to move. He was pinned down.
I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, he kept trying to yell.
He wanted to wake himself up but all he could feel coming out of his throat were weak groans. He didn’t know what was on his back. He could feel his mind trying to imagine some sort of grotesque creature guaranteed to frighten him, but this acknowledgment seemed to stop it from happening. A light turned on behind him. He could barely make out the illumination of the wall in his peripheral vision.
He tried to shake this image away too as he felt terror begin to seep in. The wall glowed while a loud crackle rang out. A hiss filled the room. After several moments, he could hear something trying to emerge from the static.
There…something…know. Tell…you. Awake?
He kept trying to yell and roll himself over to wake up. Nothing would move. The voice kept asking.
The pressure on his back and neck intensified. He groaned because it was all he could do. The voice got louder as the static receded.
I must tell you something. Something you need to know now in your terror. Listen to me and feel the relief wash over you. Before you were born, in the beginning, God held you in His arms and stamped you with Fear.
His head trembled and his neck felt like it would snap as he tried to muster all his strength to face the light that the voice was coming from.
Do you understand, it asked. I have only this to tell you. It will soon be a new morning.
The light faded and the static dissipated. He was alone. He rolled onto his back and screamed until he thought something in the back of his throat would snap.
Someone was shaking him as dawn peeked in through the blinds.
You were groaning and started yelling for help, said a woman’s voice in his ear.
He rolled forward to get away, tumbling out of the bed onto the floor. A woman in a nightgown was sitting next to where he was sleeping. She looked at him and laughed while shaking her head.
What’s wrong with you? Who else would be here?
He was certain he hadn’t met this woman before in his life and yet she looked so familiar.
Who are you? How did you get in here, he asked.
The woman stood up from the bed and walked over to him. He was still on the floor. She had stopped laughing and now looked at him with concern.
Honey, it’s me. Did you hit your head?
He kept looking at her in confusion making no effort to get up. He didn’t feel like he was in danger.
Oh my god. What if you had a stroke or something?
She got down on her knees to join him on the floor and pulled at his face to see if his left side seemed drooped. To his surprise, the gesture brought a full belly laugh out of him.
No, I didn’t have a stroke. I don’t know what’s wrong, to tell you the truth.
Then she was laughing, too. The two of them sat on the floor of the bedroom laughing until they couldn’t see through the tears.
He was walking along West End thinking that maybe he’d go all the way down to 72nd street. It would be a workout, but the reward would be the Gray’s. He was debating getting onions on his hot dogs when a taxi swerved out of its lane and sped towards the curb at 96th street while he was stepping into the crosswalk.
The cab wouldn’t have come anywhere near him if he were still waiting on the sidewalk, but because he was already practically in traffic, he barely escaped getting clipped. The driver laid on the horn.
He gestured at the cab what? What? What? Alright, it’s my fault.
The driver got out of the cab and stomped over to him. He walked backwards as the driver’s red, drenched face got closer to his. After a moment, he recognized the face. This was the driver that almost hit him at Port Authority and then drove him home.
Woah, hey, hey, remember me? Come on, man. Calm down. You drove me home a couple weeks ago.
Son of a bitch, stupid asshole, I almost killed you.
You gave me a ride home and said you recognized me because you almost hit me once. Come on. Don’t you remember?
I’ve never seen you in my life, the driver yells. You stupid asshole. Get out of the street.
The cab driver stormed back into his car and sped off just as the light turned red, leaving everyone that had been beeping behind him stuck.
The two of them sat at the small table shoved into the corner of the kitchen. Chicken cutlets and steamed asparagus. His was mostly gone. She barely touched hers.
We need to talk, she said.
He kept chewing to delay having to give a response.
Okay, he finally said, about what?
I feel like you’ve changed. You look at me like you don’t even know me.
He took another forkful of chicken and put it in his mouth. He lowered his eyes and shuffled the asparagus around on his plate.
She called out a name to him. He didn’t look up. She said it again, softer. He realized that she was calling him that name. That’s not my name, he thought. But, I don’t want to rock the boat even more.
What do you mean, he said.
Like this right now, she said. You’re not even here.
I’m sorry, he said. He put his fork down and searched his mind for what would be the appropriate thing to say next.
Who am I even talking to, she said while getting up from the table.
He watched her walk into the bedroom, come out with a big rolling suitcase, and then walk out the front door without saying another word to him. He shoveled the last of the food down and put his face in his hands.
He sat at the table for several days and waited. She did not return. How long it took him to accept this and stand up again he could not recall.
While tossing and turning during another night of lonely sleep, he felt that fear return. The paralysis set in as he heard the static get louder. All he could see was the light. The voice slowly increased in volume.
Finally, the voice rang out beyond the static.
You have an important mission. That gift I gave you. I have bestowed it on others. Sometimes, though, they forget and need to be reminded.
He felt his mouth moving to respond, but his mind wasn’t making the connection between establishing intent and transmitting what sounds he should be making to his lips. The light grew in intensity. Unlike the first time, he was frozen flat on his back staring into it. He could not make out a figure, though he felt like in another few seconds he would be struck blind.
You remember the words, don’t you? Deliver them to a lost lamb. You’ll know him when you see him.
The voice receded behind the static and the light dimmed until he was back in the dark alone. He didn’t scream. Something told him to check under her pillow. He reached his hand underneath and pulled out what felt like a photo. He turned on the lamp and there he saw a man looking up at him from the glossy paper. He flipped the photograph over, but there was nothing written on the backside. He looked at the man again and understood.
They would have to meet very soon.
By now he was caked in filth. His clothes browned and retained his stink. He forgot where the apartment was weeks ago. He walked for miles every day, circling neighborhoods trying to find the man from the photograph.
Have you seen him? Look, look. This man, have you seen him?
He asked anyone that happened to make eye contact with him. Few got close enough to see the picture. Those that did politely told him no, they had never seen the man before though they did so with a strange look that they tried to hide.
Where can I find this man, he said to no one. Eight million people in this city. How will I be able to do this? Help me. Dear God. Give me a sign.
Nothing happened. He kept asking and nothing happened. As he mumbled variations of his plea for divine assistance, he found himself walking down into the subway. A kid on the other side opened the emergency exit door for him.
He stood on the platform and waited, saying his prayers at a conversational volume. People tried to keep their distance from him as they also waited to be jammed together and carried off to wherever it is they go. The E train pulled up and he got on. As he walked through the cars asking for help finding the man he was looking for, a couple people offered him money, but he didn’t notice it. He got to the last car and folded down the single handicap seat where he sat in a new silence.
The train stopped at the Port Authority which reanimated him. He knocked people out of the way as he scrambled out of the packed car and ran towards the other side of the building. He knew where he needed to be. His prayers had been answered, but he was so blind for so long.
Of course, he said. Of course. Here. I was meant to find him here.
He dropped the photo at some point while walking, not that he needed it. He committed that face to memory. Every detail of that picture was as real to him in that moment as the assault rifle holding soldiers assembled in front of a pizza place. The constant flow of bodies. Eyes catching his eyes and darting away.
The idea appeared in his mind that he was going to miss the man if he didn’t hurry up. That he was already in motion and close to making his escape. He broke out into a run again. He cursed himself. He needed to deliver this message. It was the only way he could be free of this. He was sure of it. Everything was gone. But, maybe he could have them all again once he gave that voice from the radio what it wanted. It wasn’t God at all. A thief, that’s what it was.
As he turned the corner, he was met with a stampede of people coming from the direction of the LIRR trains. Off to the side, by the wall, he saw him. The well-dressed man from the picture looked up at the same time and locked eyes. The man muttered under his breath as the ragged looking man made his way over. He got close to his face.
I have something I need to tell you, he said.