Everyone on the train was normal.
Of course, Stuart didn’t care to notice that they were normal. When something is normal, the brain doesn’t pay it any mind. Why would it? It’s a waste of energy to notice the mundane. If it’s normal, it’s not a threat. It doesn’t need to be taken care of. Doesn’t need to be noticed, thought about, or given an ounce of consideration.
When something is not normal, however, that is when the human mind begins to take notice of the details. Stuart wished so desperately that he had noticed the abnormality of the town when he first got off the train. If he had just paid attention right then and there, maybe he wouldn’t be so frantic right about now. But no, it wasn’t until the meeting that he noticed something was off. He had seen it on the taxi cab driver, yes, but it was easily chalked up to nothing in his mind. After all, lots of people are missing fingers. Why should one lonesome cab driver without an index finger alarm him? But then at the meeting….
He swallowed as he sat in that dull hotel bedroom, re-imagining it over and over again. He walked into the office building: nothing. He ascended the elevator: nothing. He went down the hall to room 313 and was greeted by Mister Higgins… who extended his hand to greet Stuart to their little conference room.
“Mister Allaband,” Higgins had said, smiling and shaking Stuart’s hand. “Good to have you here. I trust the train ride into town went well?”
Initially Stuart had simply thought it odd that Higgins too had neither of his index fingers. What a coincidence to have a taxi driver with no index fingers, and then be greeted by a branch manager with no index fingers.
“Wonderful to be here, Mister Higgins.”
Higgins then turned to the room of employees, smiling and introducing Stuart to the lot.
“This is Stuart Allaband, our new rep from corporate. He came in all the way from Philadelphia so let’s make sure he feels well and at home here!”
Then the room waved. They waved at Stuart. None of their hands… none of them had any index fingers. Stuart didn’t dare ask about it, no. What was he supposed to say? “Hey all you people I’ve never met before, why do you all have the same deformity?” No, that would be horrible of him. Then again, it seemed horrible that none of them had their index fingers in the first place….
He got out of that meeting as quickly as he could, going down to the coffee shop on the corner hoping to order something that’d help him decompress a little. The waitress came right on up to him, smiling and holding her notepad.
“What’ll it be for you today, sir?”
“Oh, just whatever your cheapest sandwich is, please. With some lemonade?”
“Of course, sir,” he replied. She came back a minute or two later carrying his lemonade, and then he noticed it on her, too. He counted over and over. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. Thumb, middle, ring, pinky. Thumb, middle, ring, pinky.
He smiled with a twinge of angst as she delivered him the beverage, a sudden clamminess overcoming him. He paid the bill with all the haste in the world, then retreated to his hotel room where he was now. He could only sit there, staring at the floor as his mind spun.
“What the… what he heck is going on here?” he muttered, swallowing again. He had been sitting there for almost an hour, only able to stare blankly at the floor as his mind drew an even larger blank when trying to find an explanation for it.
Eventually he relented, shaking his head as he tried to cast this abnormality from his mind. He turned to his laptop, wondering if perhaps doing some work in his excel sheets would benefit his current mental state. He opened it and navigated right to his drive. He spent a while moving items around and putting in updated information into the file, all of it status updates from the branch he’d met with today.
Stuart had finally begun to move his mind back towards business, decompressing and feeling less concerned about… about the fingers. He had always been deeply appreciative of his work. Last year when his wife left him his family at the office in Philadelphia was there for him. Bonnie, Richard, Amos—the whole lot. Threw him a surprise birthday party this year, even. He really did work with good people. And the people here at this branch seemed to be good folks, too. Just… just all missing their index fingers, that was all.
Stuart sighed, looking at the hotel phone on his dresser.
“Maybe some food will help me out here,” he muttered. He closed the computer and leaned over to pick up the phone. There was a brief ringing, and then the receptionist picked up.
“How may I help you?” she asked.
“Hi, yes. This is Stuart Allaband, room 203. I was wondering if it was too early to order some dinner?”
“Not at all. Are you ready to order now?”
“Um, let’s see… I have the menu right here. Just give me a moment, please.”
He stared for a moment.
“How about the alfredo?” he finally decided.
“Yes, that’ll be right up for you in about fifteen minutes.”
“Is that all for now, sir?”
“Yes, that’ll be good for now.”
“Very good, sir. Have a nice day.”
He hung up the phone, pausing as he placed it back on its stand. He stared at his index finger. He wetted his lips, taking note of their sudden dryness. What… what was all this about, exactly? Had this all been the most astronomical coincidence in history, that seemingly every single person in this town had no index fingers? Was he and everyone he knew in Philadelphia the strange ones? Was he drunk, and seeing things?
At any rate he was startled when the door opened and a young man pushing a cart came into the room.
“Mister Allaband?” he inquired.
“Yes, son. That is me.”
Stuart walked on over, feeling some sense of relief from his frantic mind as the smell of alfredo filled the air.
“That’ll be twelve eighty-three,” the young man said, holding out a card reader.
Stuart nodded and went for his wallet, pausing when he saw the hand that was holding the swipe machine. His throat felt dry, and he feigned a smile as he continued moving his own hand towards his wallet.
“Are you alright, sir?” the boy asked. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
Stuart smiled. “Oh, no. I’m fine. It’s… it’s nothing,” he lied. He extracted his card from his wallet, and passed it over to the young man.
The server’s eyes suddenly widened when he took the card from Stuart. Stuart froze up, a sudden pit in his stomach developing as he kept that fake smile on his face. His hand was shaky, but upon seeing the young man’s expression he didn’t move it.
“Oh…” the boy groaned. “You’re new here.”
“On a business trip,” Stuart explained. “Only here for twenty-four hours.”
The boy nodded. “Gotcha. Well, you should be fine, then. It takes him a while to track down newcomers.”
Stuart wasn’t sure what to say at that, he just held his smile in place as the blood rushing through his head began to grow audible.
The young man smiled, swiping Stuart’s card. “Oh, nothing you need to worry about. If you’re only here for a day then it really doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter? The fing—”
The boy scoffed. “Well, don’t say it!” he instructed, matter-of-factly. “He might use scents to find newcomers but he’s still got a sense of hearing, you know.”
Stuart’s forehead was getting damper by the minute. He took his card back from the boy, putting down on the bed next to him as he stared.
“What on Earth is that supposed to mean?” he stammered. “Are you people just trying to freak me out?”
The lad snorted. “Like I told you, doesn’t really apply to you since you’re leaving here tomorrow.” He shrugged, waiting for a moment.
“If you want a tip you’re gonna have to tell me,” Stuart sputtered.
“Dude, it’s just some collector. No big deal, you know? He just… collects them.”
Stuart wrinkled his brow, reaching back for his wallet.
“Fine, here’s your tip.” He forked over a couple of dollars, and the server smiled.
“Thank you, sir. Have a good night.”
He backed out of the room, closing the door behind him and leaving the cart behind. Stuart just stared at the thing, adjusting his collar and pursing his lips. Suddenly… suddenly this alfredo didn’t seem quite as appetizing anymore. He wasn’t quite hungry.
He moved back towards his laptop, throwing it open and searching for train tickets. The company had already paid for the ticket on the way back tomorrow afternoon, but he needed one right now. He bit his lips as he looked at the prices for tickets leaving in the next hour. It wasn’t going to be a small hit to his monthly budget by any means. The pit in his stomach encouraged him to just take the loss, though, and he couldn’t enter his credit card number quick enough.
“There we go,” he sighed, leaning back. He reached for his cellphone, then dialed Mister Higgins. His heart pounded with every buzz of the ring. He could feel his breath getting shorter, but he brought it back to a normal pace by reminding himself of the ticket he’d just bought. He tapped his fingers against the nightstand as he shivered off the frigid sweat that had built up on his back.
“Hello?” a voice finally said.
“Hello? Mister Higgins?”
“Yes, that’s me. Is this Allaband?”
“Yes. So, listen, something’s come up, and I won’t make it to tomorrow’s meetings. I’ve got to get back to Phili—the wife is in kind of a rough spot.”
“I thought you said you were divorced?”
Stuart held his breath, biting his lip. “I did tell you that, didn’t I?”
Higgins sighed. “Is this about the fingers?”
Stuart’s heart dropped. “No!” he cried, remembering what the server had just said to him. “Don’t say it aloud!”
Higgins scoffed. “Did somebody tell you he could hear it? Seriously, Stuart, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You won’t be in town much longer, you can rest easy. He won’t be able to find you in such a short time.”
“Who?” Stuart shouted. “Who won’t find me?”
“Ugh, Mister Allaband, please. We really did enjoy you here today, I think you’ll be able to work great with our team. And, if he somehow does manage to find you, it’s honestly not even that bad.”
Stuart’s hands were shaking. What was wrong with this man? What on Earth was wrong with this man?
“No, Higgins, I’m sorry.”
“Please, Mister Allaband, it’s hard having such a high turnover rate with our corporate correspondents. Don’t do this to us.”
“I’m sorry, Higgins, I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Stuart hung up, looking around at his luggage. Barely any of it was unpacked. It would be rather quick, to load it all back up into the suitcase and climb into a cab. Without a moment more, he began putting what few things he had pulled out for the night back into the leather bag. He zipped it up as he dialed the cab service in town, waiting anxiously for someone to pick up.
“Stuart Allaband, I need a cab at the hotel on Main Street as soon as possible.”
“Yes sir, will do.”
He hung up, moving quickly down the halls and towards the elevator. He stepped into the small box and hit the button to the first floor. The doors closed, and his heart dropped along with the elevator. In the dull metal walls he could see his silhouette. Next to his on the right was the muddled shape of another man. It stood just a few feet from where Stuart was, standing perfectly still and in complete and utter silence. But he couldn’t bring himself to look. His lungs became cold, and a small cloud of breath could be seen against the elevator doors as they parted again. Stuart leapt out, eyes wide as he finally looked behind him to see a perfectly vacant elevator.
“Sir?” one of the receptionists asked. “Sir, are you alright?”
He gasped when she raised her hand to call for his attention, her four-fingered wave driving a pit into his gut. Behind her in the reflection in the glass was that same shadowy outline.
“No, I’m fine,” Stuart sputtered. He moved his eyes away from the women and honed his focus on the doors. They parted as he approached, and he hustled out into the cool air of dusk. A cab was pulling up, and the driver rolled down his window.
“Allaband?” he asked.
“Yes,” Stuart replied hurriedly. He opened the rear door and climbed in. His heart skipped a beat when he saw the reflection on the windshield of the shadowy figure sitting in the front seat of the cab. He froze up, only able to nervously tap his leg as the ride commenced. He couldn’t even find the strength to wipe the sweat from his forehead, nor the strength to swallow the lump that had built up in his throat. He just… stared.
“You alright?” the driver asked.
“Y… yes,” Stuart lied. “Absolutely.”
“Alright. Where to, buddy?”
“The train station.”
“You got it.”
He began driving, and Stuart found his eyes bouncing back and forth between the shadow’s reflection and the fingers of the driver on the steering wheel. His breath was shallower by the minute. He wanted to stop looking at the shadow, but every time he looked away he found his mind drawn back to it with the concern that it may have moved.
“Stay still. Stay still. Stay still…” he repeated, unsure if he was muttering to himself or the figure.
The driver pulled up to the next stoplight, looking back in the mirror.
“You okay, man?” he asked.
“Don’t look like it.” The driver suddenly nodded, and Stuart presumed that it was because he’d seen all five fingers on his hands. “Hey, don’t worry, man. You’ll be at the train station here soon. And hey, even if he sniffs ya out on the way there, it really ain’t that bad. Feels kinda good, actually.”
“Are you crazy?” Stuart hissed through gritted teeth.
“Nah man, it’s kinda how everyone ‘round here feels. Seriously, I’d even encourage you to stay long enough.”
Stuart eyed the figure’s reflection again, breath feeling more sporadic.
“Just move quickly.”
“Alright man,” said the driver. “You’re the boss.”
The light turned green and he started on his way again, meandering through the streets to the train station. Stuart sunk down into his chair, his face getting clammier as he watched the figure in the reflection move. It got on its knees, turning around and looking over the headrest. Stuart looked to where the headrest was in reality, seeing nothing there.
The cab finally came to a stop near the train station, and Stuart began fumbling for his wallet.
“Alright man, have a good trip.”
“Yes, yes. Will do.”
He extracted some cash and paid the man. He threw the cab door open and brought his suitcase out. He slammed the door, startled by the shadow’s sudden appearance in the window of the backseat. The cab proceeded off, and Stuart shuddered. He marched up to the doors of the station and made a beeline for the counter. He showed his receipt to the man behind the desk on his cellphone without saying a word, hardly even able to think between the anxious throbs in his chest. The man looked at him and smiled.
“You’re good to go, sir.”
Stuart nodded, looking back behind him at the front doors to the station. The silhouette stood there, its hands on the glass as if it was looking at Stuart from without longingly. He didn’t allow himself to take any sighs of relief, though, until he got onto the train and saw several people there with five fingers.
He slumped back into his chair on the train, smiling. He held up his hands, oh so relieved that he still had… that he… he… only had four fingers….
Credit: The Quiet One
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