Sunday, March 7, 2010

Red and Black

eye of the station, originally uploaded by Jenn Platt.
And now back to our regularly scheduled stories.

This week's story was inspired by this photograph. I took it in Grand Central Station yesterday when I was stuck on a chapter for another story.

I was going to write something about why everyone ignores the sign in front of the stairs. Instead I ended up with an explanation for why everyone is moving so fast. And a man with a red camera.

I'll leave it to you to decide what his intentions are.

Peter waited at the railing on the landing, snapping pictures every few minutes, making a show of checking the display on the back of the camera, keeping sight of Meredith’s black jacket far to his left. He fought the urge to check his watch as he felt the minutes tick by. She was always punctual.
He’d lifted the camera again, framing the faintly blurred flag hanging from the ceiling, when Meredith stood. He dropped the camera from his eye and leaned on the rail. She walked away from the steps smoothly, evenly, not giving a sign that she knew he was behind her. Her black coat was sharp even in a sea of dark winter colors, edges crisp as her red hair and her white hands, the only sharp figure in a crowd of blurs.
He waited until she’d crossed the main concourse and disappeared into the arch for track eleven before he moved.
There was a little girl in a pink coat swinging herself under the brass banister, back and forth, popping out on one side of the steps and then the other, her mother holding her camera absently, bag at her feet, eyes on the painted ceiling.
He skirted the girl, waiting until she was swinging away to pass her. It was dangerous, with the first foot he put on the steps things slowed for him, the girl was a pendulum blur, whipping back and forth on the railing. Hitting him would be like a running jump into a brick wall. He edged guiltily past, relieved when he cleared her, but more relieved when he took up his seat on the last step near the sign with thirty seconds to spare.
Peter hummed under his breath, settling his camera between his feet, forgetting the lens cover, and pulling out his notebook. He settled it on his knee and turned it to the first fresh page. He methodically labeled it with the date and time and holding his place with his felt tip pen and his thumb he turned his attention to the concourse.
Everyone had been blurred to him before. They were ghosts now. Their streaming forms whipped past in straight lines, warbling curves, and sharp angles, only more than trails of color when they stopped. Then they were dark blobs with haloes of swirling hair, blurry hands sweeping across bags and phones and gestures.
His hand rested lightly on his notebook for minutes together, only moving when a clearer shape emerged. The first was by the closed ticket counter that ran the length of the concourse. A crisp figure in a red checked coat, every line perfect, hands on a timetable steady and clearly defined.
Peter lifted his pen, head cocked as he noted the time, height, hair color, clothes, the duffel with the airport tags still dangling from the handle. He lifted his camera and took several carefully focused shots. “Tourist,” he said under his breath, watching the man’s face crease into a frown as he scanned the timetable and looked up at the board across the concourse. Peter knew exactly when the man had focused on the board, his red jacket lost its edges, his hands were mist shoving the timetable in his pocket, his face was a mask of flesh color with smudges for eyes. As he pushed off the counter he became a line of color just like the rest of the crowd.
Peter put a star next to the entry he’d made and closed the notebook again, page still warm from his thumb. The man in the coat probably had no idea he’d slowed time for those few minutes. He might never know if Peter was the only one to spot him. It usually took five or six sightings with the same description for the agency to really start looking at a subject. Then, if they could find him, he would know all about changing time.
The hours ticked by around Peter, the sun shining through the windows in an ever lengthening angle, lighting three more sightings, a woman in a blue ski jacket, a baby in a white hat strapped into a carrier, and a kid in all black standing close to Peter’s step while she checked the wheels of her skateboard.
His own hour was almost up and his leg was starting to jump under his pad when he saw the figure across the concourse. The gray striped coat, the red camera, the black hair, the sharp brown eyes.
Standing in the same place he’d occupied every time Peter saw him, elbows on the wide stone banister, one hand loosely gripping the camera, the other casually dangling over the edge, eyes making slow sweeps of the blurry crowd below, the man was as sharp as Meredith had been, as sharp as Peter himself.
Peter slid his thumb out of the notebook, closed it, and tucked it back in his pocket. The pen he rolled between his fingers, unaware that his mouth was open a little as he leaned forward, staring.
When the man looked at him he felt it like a slap, but he didn’t move, didn’t look away. Not even when the stranger raised his camera. Peter’s camera was still at his feet, the strap looped around his wrist. His made no move to touch it. He hadn’t made a note or snapped a single shot of the man with the red camera. Not in six sightings. Not after he’d scoured the database for a sign of him. Not after careful questioning made him certain that there was only ever one agent assigned to this concourse.
The man lowered his camera and watched Peter with his head cocked to one side.
Peter would have been surprised to know he was holding his breath.
The man nodded, a short motion that made his dark hair fall across his face. He swept it aside and gestured with the same hand. It was the same gesture every time, made six times in the last month, never on the same day of the week, never at the same point in the shift, but always the same sweep of a white hand toward the left, toward the exit and the city beyond.
Peter started breathing again, feeling lightheaded. There was nothing that said he had to go home after shift. That he had to log in immediately and upload his pictures, transcribe his notes. That’s what he had done, every time the man looked at him, took his picture, beckoned him. He’d gone home with no picture of him, no note, uploaded the rest of his finds for the shift and sat staring at his computer, wondering.
Peter knew without checking his watch that he had two minutes left in his shift, that his replacement would be arriving on the landing behind him any second. He swallowed, his throat dry, and nodded.
The man with the red camera straightened, sweeping his hair back and tucking the camera into the pocket of his gray coat. He held Peter’s eyes for another moment and walked smoothly away, a group of tight lines in a sea of blurs, headed for the street.
Peter gripped his pen hard between his fingers and nodded again, to himself this time, tucking the pen away and lifting his camera onto his lap. He checked the battery, attached the dangling lens cap, and slung the strap over his shoulder as his time wound down.
He felt himself sweating as he stood, losing contact with the last step, time shifting back to its regular pace around him, the crowd coalescing into individuals that were only blurred at the edges.
He didn’t look at the agent taking his place behind him. His eyes were on the other set of steps, on the wide stone banister where the man with the red camera always stood. Tourists were there now, jockeying for position, black cameras pointed out into the crowd. Peter walked steadily in their direction, his own camera thumping rhythmically into his side.

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