A story from 11/2001, unpublished. Philip K. Marks is a recurring character of mine; he also appears in the story “sift, almost invisible, through” which appeared in the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris.
Dreamers of Dreams
by Jeff Somers
He didn’t know what to make of it, which was usually how he knew he was onto something. Being completely mystified meant he hadn’t yet understood, that was all. Phil Marks scratched at his growing beard and watched the two men across the subway car from him. Years of watching people more or less professionally made Marks a bold observer; he evinced no shame in watching others, and made no effort to hide the fact that he was watching them.
The first one was young, a kid. No more than twenty-five, Marks figured, feeling all of his own forty-two years suddenly, and with force. He was dressed like a student: torn jeans, white T-shirt, backpack. A pair of sporty sunglasses hung from the V-neck of his shirt. His sneakers were expensive but very old and decrepit, leftovers, Marks thought, of a pre-college loan era. The second man was taller and older, dressed in a black suit, everything black, down to his painfully-shined shoes that glared in the fluorescents of the subway. Marks ran his grey eyes over the second man and imagined, with confidence, that the man’s undergarments were also black.
They didn’t know each other. Marks knew that they had entered the subway car at different stops. Having noticed the Man in Black immediately, Marks had watched him. The man had examined the population of the subway car carefully, and chosen a seat next to the kid, where they sat in silence, ignoring each other, for a few moments. Then, without warning, the older man had turned and leaned in to the kid, speaking too softly to be heard by anyone else on the train. The kid had frowned, and then leaned in to hear better.
They were still in that position. The Man in Black had a hand on the kid’s arm, lightly holding on, and his jaw moved steadily. The kid, still frowning, made no move to pull away, and seemed pretty interested in what the man had to say. Marks watched, and didn’t know what to make of it. What did a total stranger have that a kid like that would find so interesting?
At the next stop, the Man in Black stood up, nodded to the kid, and exited the train. The kid sat on the seat loosely, slumped, as if his muscles had stopped having any effect on his frame. He stared at the advertising poster across the aisle so intently Marks twisted around in his seat to look at it: an ad for English lessons. Learn English in two weeks. Immigrants welcomed.
Marks looked back at the kid and frowned. The kid appeared to be in deep, deep thought, seeing nothing in front of him, and Marks’ instincts told him there was a story about to happen. He reached into one of the pockets in his great coat and pulled out a battered notebook and a pen. Flipping the notebook open to a blank page, he quickly jotted down his impressions of the scene and a few details: Man in Black speaks earnestly to stranger. Young kid down on his luck listens intently for no good reason. Is left with lots to think about apparently. MIB: tall, thin, grey hair and all black clothing, doesn’t look crazy. Kid: also tall/thin, looks like college-age but hasn’t eaten or bought new clothes in a while. Bet everything he owns is in the torn knapsack he carries everywhere.
Marks flipped the notebook closed and stuffed it back into his coat. He figured he’d follow the kid for a bit, see what might happen.
Two stops later the kid stood up and left the train, his knapsack still on the seat. Marks stood and plucked it up, thinking it was a great excuse to talk to the kid should he choose to. Carrying the knapsack, he dived through the closing doors and looked around the platform, finding the kid almost directly across, apparently waiting for the uptown train. Marks paused, looking down at the knapsack in his hand and then up at the kid again. He studied the kid’s posture, the way he was peering intently up the tracks at the oncoming train, and had half-raised his hand in a useless gesture when the kid took a step into nothing and allowed himself to fall directly under the train’s wheels.
Someone screamed, and Marks remained frozen, one hand half-raised, his mouth half-open. He had no idea what he’d intended to do.
A crowd quickly gathered, and several people had their cell phones out to dial the police. Marks shook himself out of his stupor and quickly knelt to the floor and opened the knapsack. He didn’t expect to find a note, but he thought there might be some hint as to why the kid had committed suicide – and he knew he’d never get close to the knapsack once he turned it over to the cops.
Marks was quickly disappointed. Inside the bag there were three paperback novels, a notebook of blank paper, and a bagged lunch. Nothing else. Marks slowly zipped the bag closed and looked up. A large crowd of people obscured the spot where the kid had gone over. The train stood there, emptied and lit, as if it didn’t know what to do either.
Marks hung around the platform until he saw a cop he recognized, then strolled out and let himself be seen. Before too long a tall policeman with rust-colored hair noticed him and walked over unobtrusively, keeping his eyes on the surrounding walls.
“This was the kids bag, Sam,” Marks said softly, dropping the knapsack.
The tall cop stooped to pick it up. “How’d you end up with it?”
“Left it on the seat when he got off. I thought I’d catch him and save his day.” Marks shrugged. “I didn’t move fast enough.”
“Uh-huh. Don’t hold out on me, Phil. I’ve woken up to too many of your stories in the paper.”
Marks shrugged again. “I didn’t have to give you the bag, Sam.”
“Okay. Thanks. Anything else?”
“Not right now,” Marks said, thinking of the Man in Black.
“Okay. Let’s have a beer sometime, okay? Speak at a normal volume.”
Marks watched the cop stroll back to the scene, handing the bag to a uniform. He wanted to ask some of the witnesses a few questions, but the cops wouldn’t let him get away with it. And even if they did his questions would only get him into trouble, hinting that he knew more than he was letting on. Grimacing, he made his way out of the station and into the brisk spring air, where he felt silly scanning the street for a Man in Black, perhaps talking quietly with someone, telling secrets.
Phillip K. Marks knew a thing or two about tracking people down, and especially about tracking strange people down. Even he was a little stymied, at first, about how to find a man whose face he hadn’t even glimpsed well. A tall man with elderly-looking hands in black clothing…Marks sat at his desk in his crummy office, a tumbler of whiskey warming in one hand, and stared at his brief notes from the afternoon. There seemed to be nothing there to latch onto, nothing that hinted at anything. From years of writing speculative columns that had earned him a following he had a lot of friends who were willing to do favors: friends with the police, the post office, insurance companies. None of them, he thought, would be much help without at least a scrap of information to start with.
He sipped his drink and went over and over the scene on the train, trying to come up with some small detail he’d missed that would help. When nothing came, he dug out his files, all carefully boxed and labeled in an adjoining office he’d rented for the purpose, and started going through everything he had, scraps of information, research from previous stories, published and unpublished. He quickly became absorbed in killing off the bottle in his desk and poring over the huge amount of data he’d collected over the years.
At the end of the evening, he had a headache from the ebbing alcohol in his bloodstream and no better idea of how to find the Man in Black. Standing up with a crackling of joints, he thought there would be nothing better to do than ride the subways; if the man had found one young man to talk to on the subway, it stood to reason there was a chance he would find others. Marks decided to go have some dinner and then some sleep, and he’d start researching subway jumpers the next day, see if there was a particular line getting more suicides recently than others.
A morning of strong coffee and research informed him that there were proportionally more subway jumpers on the M1 line than anywhere else, by a big enough margin to have his instincts tingling. The jumpers themselves, from what he could glean from old clippings and reports, had little in common: young, middle-aged, old, rich, poor. The lack of a pattern just made him want to find the mysterious Man in Black even more, find out what his connection, if any, was to it all.
So, he began riding the M1 subway.
At first, there was something intriguing about it, just riding the train hour after hour. The people who got on were fascinating. The morning rush reminded Marks that he hadn’t had a commuting job in fifteen years, and made him mighty glad of it, though he noted with clinical maleness that skirts had gotten shorter in the office in the intervening years. The fierce competition for space, for seats made him happy to be self-employed, even if most of the people on the train had more disposable income than he did, or ever would. He sat smugly, pretending to read a paper, and witnessed three verbal arguments, two shoving matches, and overheard workplace gossip that he found strangely fascinating despite not knowing any of the principles.
Quickly, however, he tired of it. It was monotonous, and after the morning rush there were fewer people to watch and more weirdos; angry, unrestrained men and women who talked to themselves, shot him angry glares, and were constantly rousted by police, who swept through the cars at hourly intervals. When they started looking at Marks closely, remembering him from their last visit, he went to lunch and brooded over a whiskey in soda and steak, getting nowhere. More to be thorough than anything else, he got on the M1 again and quickly dozed off.
He was awakened into a more crowded car than he expected, and was briefly startled and panicked. Blinking away sleep and remembering where he was, he received a few dubious stares from the other passengers, all of whom looked to be early escapes from work.. He assumed he’d been dozing for almost two hours, and began checking his pockets to make sure he hadn’t been robbed. As he leaned over slightly to get access to his back pockets, he caught sight of a pair of brightly shined shoes, black, connected to black socks, and then to black pants. Marks continued leaning, getting some hard stares from the people next to him.
The Man in Black was sitting across the aisle. He was leaning in to a young woman’s ear, whispering intently. Her eyes were wide, as if in shock, but she nodded slowly as he spoke.
Marks watched carefully, trying to gauge how long it was before the next subway stop.
The girl seemed to be in a daze, her eyes fixed on some distant point as she nodded. She had a bag held loosely on her lap. A pair of tight, worn jeans, a white T-shirt. Lank blond hair. Pale skin. Marks couldn’t see the man’s face, but noted the casual hand on her arm, as if holding her, gently, in place for a moment. Marks had the sudden sense that he was witnessing something private, even though it was occurring on a public train, in front of dozens of people. He realized that the girl was tense, she was stiff-backed and trembling slightly as the man spoke.
He stood up and pushed his way through the standees until he was directly in front of the odd couple. He looked down at them for a moment.
The Man in Black stopped whispering. The girl jumped, her whole body seizing up. Marks waited, but nothing happened; the Man in Black sat still, in the same position, his mouth near her ear, his whole body turned away from Marks. The girl stared straight ahead, panting.
“Miss, are you –”
He looked up as they entered the station, the bright lights flickering by, slower and slower by degrees. There was a sudden flutter of motion, and when he looked up, the Man in Black had pushed past him and dived out the doors of the train, lost in a sea of people frantically moving in either direction. Slow and dopey, he blinked twice and turned in time to see the girl walking towards the other set of doors, slower but just as obscured by the milling mass of rush hour commuters. Marks reached out a hand senselessly.
No one paid him any mind.
Marks chose the set of doors nearest him and began fighting his way through the crowd towards it. He had to push his arm in the way of the closing doors to stop them, and then push his way through more stationary people. By the time he made it onto the platform, the Man in Black was nowhere to be seen. The girl was standing on the opposite end of the platform, her bag left some feet behind her, forgotten. Marks began walking towards her as quickly as he could, scanning the platform for police.
She turned her head a bit, glancing over her shoulder, and then quickly back. She took a step forward.
“Wait a moment! Miss! Wait!”
Marks pushed people out of his way and heard grumbling in his wake. He didn’t care. He reached her, panting, and touched her lightly on her arm. She turned to stare up at him, mouth slightly open, eyes flat. Marks blinked in surprise. He found he didn’t know what to say to her. He stared back at her for a moment, dumb, and then said the only thing he could think of.
“What did that man say to you?”
She stared at him dreamily. “Man? The man on the train?”
Marks nodded, trying to think of what to say next, because he thought keeping her talking was the best thing he could do.
“He told me secrets,” she said. Her face tightened. “Terrible things.”
Marks didn’t know what instinct he was operating under, but he took hold of her shoulders tightly. “Were you going to jump? Were you going to jump in front of a train?”
In the back of hi s mind, he thought, God, I sound crazy.
She frowned and looked down at their feet. “No, of course not.”
Marks stared at her – at the top of her head, presented to him listlessly. He realized he didn’t know how to proceed. He couldn’t do anything, and he didn’t know what kind of questions to ask. He forced himself to repeat his question, the only one he had.
“What did he tell you?”
“Secrets,” she repeated to her shoes. “I told you. He changed everything.” She looked back at him. “If you don’t let me go I’ll call for a cop.”
Marks released her and stepped back, spreading his arms. “Okay, okay. Sorry to have troubled you.”
She looked at him, her face blank. Marks thought her eyes looked flat and empty, but thought to himself that it might have been due to the fluorescent lighting underground.
“He wouldn’t bother with you anyway,” she said contemptuously. “Too late for you.”
She walked off. Marks watched her go, standing powerless in the middle of the platform.
Marks went home, showered, fixed himself a few drinks, and spent the evening going through his files, looking for links to his current story. He’d investigated a long list of Very Strange Things in his career, and only a small percentage of them had made it into print. The rest lay unorganized and random within his filing cabinets. Some were the merest scraps; clippings and scribbled notes, some of which seemed random and meaningless to him. Others were thick folders of material, along with fully written articles never published for one reason or another.
Through half a bottle of whiskey and five hours he squinted at notes and leaders and rubbed his dry eyes. Then, leaving the papers and photos and photocopies and notebook pages strewn about the floor, he went to sleep, thick-headed and no more knowledgeable than before. he slept soundly, and woke up to his blank-faced girl from the subway on page four of the paper, dead from having jumped in front of a train at a station four blocks away from the one in which she’d left him.
He rode the M1 line for the next week, watching everything he could, staying awake with coffee and cigarettes. He got to know a few of the cops who walked through the cars, telling them that he was writing a story about the subways, asking them a lot of questions. In his experience people were hardly ever impressed when he told them he was a writer, but warmed right up when he started asking them questions, so he really got into the act, checking on the spelling of their names and getting their ranks right. After a few days they started inviting him to observe the more interesting arrests, which he declined as carefully as he could. And in the course of a week he missed three more suicides, all young people who jumped in front of oncoming trains.
The Transit Authority admitted that it had an epidemic of jumpers on its hands and assigned more cops to specifically watch for depressed teens. Marks found himself riding the cars with plenty of company, ad estimated that at slow periods during the day he was surrounded by nothing but undercover police.
After a while, he avoided the cars filled with cops. The Man in Black would not be so easily fooled, he knew, especially when the cops did not even know that he existed, or that anyone was connected with what were plainly suicides.. He didn’t blame them, it was crazy.
After three more days and two more suicides, Marks finally caught sight of the Man in Black. He had taken to moving from car to car on the subway, searching, and entered the third car from the end on the M1 to find only a handful of people, among them a young boy with headphones around his neck, staring dazedly ahead as the Man in Black, sitting casually aside him with his long legs outstretched and crossed over each other, whispered into his ear.
Marks took the first empty seat he could find and thought, hurriedly, about what to do. He had seen this often enough now to know how it would end, and that he wasn’t going to be able to stop it. The kid wouldn’t admit to anything, the cops wouldn’t be able to hold him, and the kid would just go to another station if he really meant to jump. He watched the conversation for three or four more stops, and was ready when the train slowed at 34th street, and the Man in Black stood up to go. Marks studied him carefully in the five or ten seconds before the doors opened: tall, thin, white, white skin. Huge sunglasses that hid a great deal of his face. Even so, he appeared to Marks to be completely hairless.
When the train stopped and the doors opened, Marks ignored the kid and stepped out to follow the Man in Black, figuring that the kid was dead anyway.
The Man in Black moved fast, faster than Marks would have guessed. He was a tall man, but looked portly, heavy around the middle, which suggested a panting lack of fitness to offset his long stride. This didn’t manifest itself, and Marks found himself sweating and gasping to keep up, once again feeling all of his forty-two years, with force. He found himself following at a greater distance than he would have liked, professionally, and began losing sight of his quarry around corners. Finally, after losing track of the Man in Black completely when he ducked down a stairwell, Marks put his head down and broke into a trot to try and make up some ground. As he pounded down the stairs and stopped to look around on a largely empty platform, he froze, finding the Man in Black leaning against a pole nearby, smiling at him.
“Why are you following me?”
Marks stared, mouth open, breath rattling in and out unattractively. “I wasn’t.”
“You’re a very bad liar, Mr. Marks.”
“You know who I am.”
“I read the papers. There are a lot of papers on the subways, you know.”
Marks nodded, wiping sweat from his forehead. “Well, that’s flattering, but you’re wrong, I wasn’t chasing you.”
The Man in Black pushed away from the pole and approached Marks slowly. He was tall and thin, and very pale. His nose and mouth appeared to Marks to be unfinished, raw and pink, as if slashes had been cut into the face and allowed to heal over, producing a mouth and nostrils. Marks suddenly lost any desire to see behind the dark glasses.
“You want to ask me what I’ve been discussing with your suicides.”
It wasn’t a question, but Marks shook his head slowly from side to side anyway, feeling foolish but unable to stop.
“I don’t tell them to kill themselves, if that is what you are wondering. I’m not surprised that they do, however.”
Marks took a shaky step backward. “Why is that?”
“I explain to them what death is, Mr. Marks. I tell them the secret of existence. I give them a chance, and most of them elect to take it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course not. I haven’t explained it to you.”
Marks bumped into the wall and paused. “Explain it to me, then.”
The man shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s too late for you; it would be a waste of time.”
“You’re too old, Mr. Marks. To learn a secret like this. Too trained. The young ones, I can work with them, they haven’t had their Moment of Mortality – when you realize, really realize that you’re going to die someday. Once you’ve had that epiphany, Mr. Marks, I have nothing more to show you, you’re hardened. Cured. Set in your thinking. I can only work with the young.”
Marks began sliding along the wall, feeling his way. “Okay, then. Now I know. Pointless for me to pursue this, huh?”
The Man in Black shook his head. “Yes, pointless. What is death, Mr. Marks? Is it being dragged down into hell by unseen hands? Is it terror? Or is it being raised up to heaven by smiling cherubs? Is it salvation?”
“It is neither, Mr. Marks. Death is awakening. Life is sleep.”
Marks felt foolish, but the only thing he could move past his lips was “What?”
The Man in Black threw back his head and laughed. “Too late for you, Mr. Marks! You see? It is not easy with the young people, but it is possible to make them see. Then they are eager to shake off this delusion, to move on to the real existence we hide from here. The older – you cling to this dream, out of habit, I suppose.”
Marks found empty space behind him and backed into it gratefully. “You convince them to kill themselves.”
“I convince them to live, Mr. Marks. I don’t expect you to understand. I show them that this is prelude – and the sooner they get on with the real thing, the better.”
“How?” Marks managed, resisting the urge to just turn and run and be done with it. “How do you show them?”
“Careful, Mr. Marks.”
Sensing a sudden emptiness behind him, Marks whirled in time to see the tracks directly behind him, inches away.
Another step, maybe two, and he would have fallen onto them, helpless to stop himself. Buffeted by the wind of the train as it roared into the station, he swallowed air and closed his eyes for a count of five.
“I merely tell them, Mr. Marks. I tell them that life is an illusion, that they are being held back from true existence. They aren’t happy to hear it, but I convince them. And once convinced, they cannot wait to get on with it. They are young: they believe.”
“They’ll believe anything, right?” Marks muttered, and turned suddenly.
The Man in Black was gone.
Marks did not ride the M1 again, and avoided the subways altogether for a while, racking up huge taxi expenditures. He kept his eyes on the papers, though, and was surprised that there were no more suicides for weeks after his encounter. Every morning over coffee he gently cradled his aching, hungover head and read through two or three papers, searching for more believers. None were found.
It was almost a month before he thought to check the out of town papers.