Fastest way across town, Matt tells himself, but it’s no comfort. The escalator draws him down into the hot, swampy stink of the subway. He takes his last breath of fresh air before descending into the primordial sludge of morning breath and unwashed bodies and sewer wafting through the tunnel. Breathing through his nose or his mouth is hell. He can’t focus around the taste building in the back of his mouth.
Alarms blare, splitting through his ear drums. Matt taps his cane on the pavement as a distraction only for the sound to be swallowed up in the whoosh of the arriving train. Air rushes around waiting passengers, swirls towards the low ceiling; speakers blare through the chaos, warbling Matt’s spatial sense further. He presses his cane against the side of the train and holds, a clutch for balance, until the doors open and more New Yorker comes spilling out.
Waiting for the next train isn’t an option; it’s probably as packed as this one. Matt folds up his cane and steps on board, tucking himself against the nearest pole. A wave of passengers board behind him, thrusting him deeper into the crowd. Matt buries his face behind his shoulder against an onslaught of onion and body odour. Bassline rumbles from a pair of headphones that can’t hope to contain sound at that volume. Heartbeats thrum from all sides, pulsing the bodies closer and closer. Matt’s skin picks up all the vibrations; he forces himself to breathe even as the rumblings collect in the back of his throat.
There’s comments about his cane, his glasses. A hand waves in front of his face. Matt twists away. Laughter laced with milk breath follows him. Matt rides a dip in the tracks straight into his tormentor shoulder-first.
“Sorry,” he says as the guy disappears into the crowd. Another hoard of bodies presses in around him, more tightly this time. Matt barely has room to turn around. Too many bodies.
Announcements deafen him as they pull into the next station.
Only six more ear-piercing announcements to go.
His chest tightens. An elbow brushes arm; hands rove past his side. He can taste what the woman next to him had for breakfast, feels the days of body soil seeping over him from the two men on the bench behind him. Another stop throws his senses into a complete swirl. White noise, static on a television. His whole centre of gravity enters a summersault and only the pole holes him upright.
Five more stops. He can do five more stops.
Another ground of passengers push on board. Now, Matt really can’t move, and the heartbeats aren’t simply forcing the breath out of his lungs, they’re filling him up when he inhales. And he can’t get anywhere. The pole roots him to the train, but the passengers send his senses scattering.
Four stops. He can walk the rest of the way. Matt nudges forward. “Excuse me.” The crowd shifts; he follows the breaks through to the door. The train lurches forward; he holds himself upright. Train doors open, and he never gets the chance to step out before another flood of passengers push him back.
Matt ends up with his back against a pole. No idea which side of the train or where he is in the car. Limbs billow in front of his face, and prank or accident, he can’t tell. It’s all just a teeming mass of human; a singular, gigantic organism that’s bubbling around his ribs and arms and neck and face. Sound blasts through his ear drums, stabs into his skull.
Doors open on the opposite side of the train; he couldn’t get off if he tried, not with the next wave of passengers coming on board. Damn it, he can do this, ride out this next wave, be one stop closer, be that much more packed. God, how many people ride the subway? Are they all waiting for his stop? How are there this many people in one place? And there’ll be more at the next stop. More smell and sound and taste - fuck, the taste. Matt chokes on his next breath.
A body shuffles straight in front of him, knocking the other bodies out of the way. Knocking their scents out of the way. This one smells of black coffee, beard oil, glycerine soap. He’s got a heartbeat like a stampeding rhino, so loud that Matt can’t hear the blaring headphones beyond. So loud that the chatter of passengers bubbles incoherently in the background. The broadness of the guy’s shoulders, his sheer size, creates a barrier between Matt and the train.
It should be aggravating. It should be intimidating. But it’s neither. He’s right there, face inches from Matt’s, and his heartbeat is a perfect place for Matt’s hearing to land. His whole body is an anchor against the chaos. Smelling good, sounding good. Matt’s so caught up that the next stop comes and he rocks sideways. The guy dips in and catches Matt against his chest.
“Sorry,” they both say, but only Matt means it, and he only means it for a second. Voice like a gravel backroad, body like a brick wall: this isn’t a stranger. The beard prickling against Matt’s senses might have the other passengers fooled, but Matt knows the man too well for soap and beard oil to hide him.
The next wave of passengers comes on. Matt nearly leaps out of his own skin. Too many. There’s too damn many, and they’re all so close –
“This your stop?” voice like a backroad asks him.
Matt follows that stampeding heartbeat back down, back to that space that’s just large enough for him to stand, to breathe. Coffee and soap; steady heartbeat thrumming against his chest. “No,” Matt says. “Next one.”
“Kay.” A chest presses up against his, blocking out the other bodies and giving a swift knock to Matt’s senses. Static clears; the train solidifies. There’s less space, but Matt feels freer, less confined by others. He dips his head behind the comforting bulk of shoulder and lets the motion of the train propel his hearing into Frank Castle’s bloodstream.
The last stop isn’t so far away after all.