Gabe still has the note his mother left him before ending her life. Its body reads, "As you know, my childhood was filled with sad things, but because of your father, and because of you, I was able to be happy for many years. Thank you for bringing me joy. Please don't worry about me, or be sad that I am gone. Find my diaries in the black dresser and keep them with you. Sell everything else at your discretion to ease financial burden. As you read this, know that I am with your father again. I am confident you have everything you need to be happy in this world. Your time among the living will be long, and it will be joyful."
"Gabe," I repeat. He stares out the front window. It is a sunny day, clear and hot. The lawn surrenders its overnight moisture in steaming waves.
He looks at me suddenly. "What?"
"Do you want to take a break?"
"No," he says. "Sorry. What did you ask me before?"
"I asked if you still believe in the Willow Man."
Gabe breathes out in one steady gush of air and folds his hands in his lap. "No." He is thoughtful for a moment, then laughs in an odd way. "No, the Willow Man has gone away forever."
"What was that thing your neighbor used to say to you? The little verse?"
More quiet laughter as pen moves across paper. "They chose to walk toward him. I chose to flee. He took all the others, but he didn't take me."
Three nights in a row, Gabe helped himself to friendly conversation with Miguel. He wrestled with this indulgence, believing it to be both risky and necessary for the sake of his sanity. He wasn't sure what to think of his this strange new acquaintance. But the young man had so far been superficially kind to him, and didn't act like he had anything to prove, to anyone—a trait that, by itself, Gabe liked very much.
As Gabe rode the Orange Line back into the city, the thought bolted through his mind that Miguel might even be like him. Of course, this was only wishful thinking—and what exactly was he wishing for? What about the possibility did he find so magnetic?
Gabe disliked these distant reaches of the city, so sprawling and wide open, preferring the boundaries (physical and otherwise) imposed by the cozy streets he called home. To his right, ornate but chintzy fencing separated rail from roadway. Across four vast empty lanes lay a sidewalk the color of unstained teeth, followed by a wasteland of painted asphalt. At last, glowing big box stores ballooned laterally in the hazy distance like a whole shelf's worth of books flaunting their front covers instead of their bindings. To Gabe's eye, there was something shameless about it. Something arrogant. Along this section, the train operated as nothing more than a streetcar, exposed to the pitch-black morning, halting at traffic signals, yielding to phantom cars, and finally ducking underground at Biscayne, where it would accelerate through miles of cut-and-cover tunnel as if set free.
Before long, the walls of the tunnel closed in, and he found comfort near them. He was exhausted, nodding off a few times during the half-hour journey underground. Each time he opened his eyes, a few more people filled seats; by the time the train came to a lurching halt along the terminus platform, only a handful of open spaces remained. He was fully alert now, alive with the promise of some as-yet-unknown encounter. In one jerky, pre-programmed movement, he set off on his diversion, bumping past early-risers and night-owls until he landed himself at the top of the corridor.
Someone had fixed the lights. Not all of them were replaced, but it seemed a modest surplus of tubes had finally found their way into dusty sockets. The passage suffered under such honest light. Stained porcelain wall tiles grew a more putrid yellow and pieces of waste materialized all around him. A women's magazine lay open near his feet, ink bleeding across its damp pages.
Gabe could already make out the frame of the doorway to the men's room, but as the automatic motion of his legs bore him closer, he knew something was wrong. He arrived within ten feet of it and saw that the door was completely gone, obliterated. No light at all came from within. In spite of this fact, for reasons he could not comprehend, he wanted to walk through anyway, coaxed into a darkness so complete that even light from the freshest of fluorescent bulbs did not dare trespass. There was something so perfect about this black, this void, so minimal and sterile among its surroundings.
But then an odd clattering noise hooked into his right ear. He turned toward it, seeing, to his shock, that the barricade preventing access to the abandoned platform had vanished, every last brick removed, carried off. How had he not noticed until now? The floor and walls showed only faint scarring; otherwise it may as well have never existed. He stepped cautiously beyond, moving toward the sound, approaching the ghostly platform itself, cast in gloomy incandescence. On the wall above the rail trench, lettering peeked from beneath the grime in antiquated, blood-red script: Odin Line - Central. He locked his eyes on the words, emerging from the dusty tube, halting at the center of the cavern.
He heard his own voice shout across the platform: "What do you want?"
Immediately, the dry rasp of a reply landed near the base of his skull—an occipital ache that pulsed at each syllable. "I want nothing," it told him. "I have already taken her."
Please, God, let it not be true. Gabe bolted toward the platform's exit, reentering the tiled hallway. He continued steadily over the fading scars of the barricade, past the closed door to the men's room. Finally, he remerged with foot traffic in the larger corridor. He had captured something back at that forgotten place, though, right as he turned to leave: a glimpse of the gaunt, grinning figure down in the trench, standing on powder-white femurs at the mouth of the single-width tunnel, through which the last of the Odin Line trains made its final pass so many years ago.
Gabe was twelve years old when they first met. His parents had invited the tall, strapping man over for dinner, as well as the man's girlfriend, Lydia, whom his father described as very beautiful and quiet white girl. Up until that time, Gabe had known Eddie only as the deep voice that called their home on occasion, asking to speak to his father. As the couple arrived, that same voice had boomed through the gap in Gabe's bedroom door. Half an hour later, when it dared to utter Gabe's name, Marco had replied, "He's in his room. Quiet kid, these days. Likes to keep to himself." Then his father had called for him, and Gabe had reluctantly joined them.
Eddie was younger than Gabe's father. His distinctive appearance had captivated Gabe: Such a powerful physique felt infinitely distant from his own pitiful pubescence, impossible, forever unattainable. And of course there were Eddie's other physical qualities: his face and arms so deeply tanned, that certain origin of his features so transparent—so unapologetically Vietnamese. Gabe had never seen anything like it. Eddie displayed a coercive fullness of his ethnicity, the very same to which Gabe was only half-entitled, and for the first time in his life, Gabe had longed for all of it, so that he could hope to one day wear it as beautifully.
It was only as Eddie casually stroked the back of his girlfriend's hand that Gabe had noticed how distinctly attractive she was. Her frame was slight, especially next to Eddie; her hair, a pale golden color, parted from one side and fell below her shoulders, unlike the popular style of the time. When she smiled it was bright and genuine, showing off perfectly white teeth. As their hands touched, Gabe was scandalized that two people of such stark visual dissimilarity could be together in that way. While this wonder at this aspect had quickly faded, his bewilderment at Eddie's imposing physical form would linger for some time.
Gabe's mother had outdone herself in anticipation of these rare visitors. Once they were seated in the dining room, she presented them all with hot, oily spring rolls, grilled pork and pickled vegetables over rice noodles; there was also cold soba, lemongrass shrimp, and, near the end, sweet and milky iced coffee. Gabe ate everything greedily, jealous that only Eddie's presence justified such an extravagant meal. Over the coffee, Gabe's father had offered Eddie the opportunity of a business partnership. Eddie had acted surprised and deeply flattered, accepting immediately.
After dinner, they had retired to the living room for drinks, and Gabe was dismissed. An hour or two later, Eddie and Lydia left for home. Gabe's father had gone out onto the balcony to smoke, and Gabe helped clean up in the kitchen, scrubbing grease splatters from the stovetop and side of the microwave.
His mother spoke slowly to him. She was not sober. "Thank you, Gabriel. You were very polite to Eddie tonight. Eddie is a very important person to our family. You have made me feel proud."
Gabe had nodded silently, wincing each time her voice slurred.
"No matter who you end up to be, you must know how proud I am of you. You are strong and you are also capable. If you are ever in a place where no one is around to remind you of that, you must tell it to yourself, understand?"
The metallic wailing of the garbage disposal started up. His father reentered from the balcony carrying the crisp scent of Marlboros.