GREY DAYS by Ray O’Bannon

‘The important thing’, he told himself, ‘is not to panic’. But his nerves tingled and his mind was having a hard time forming rational thoughts. His car was gone. He was sure this was where he had parked it only a few minutes ago, but now it was gone. He was the sort of person who liked everything organized, everything tidy. The disappearance of his car left him feeling suddenly powerless, helpless and disturbingly out of control of his own life. ‘But it won’t help to panic’, he told himself. ‘You have to stay calm.’

He had parked just off Hawk Avenue and had walked over to the little toy store on Hawk and 3rd Street. After finding what looked like a suitable birthday gift for his niece, he had returned to where he thought he had parked. But the car wasn’t here.

He couldn’t imagine that anyone would steal the vehicle, since it was an older car with faded paint and a dented fender. He realized he must be mistaken about which block he had left it on. It must be sitting somewhere nearby, a block north or south of here. He stood holding the teddy bear in its garish plastic bag, looking about in confusion, wondering what he should do. After a few moments he decided he might as well finish his shopping and then come back and find the car. After all, the shops would only be open a little while longer, and the car had to be around here someplace.

He began to relax a little as he made his way back to Hawk Avenue. His weekend trip downtown had been made primarily to acquire the birthday gift, but he had chosen that particular toyshop for two reasons. One reason was that he had loved the place when he himself had been a child. The other was that it was only a few blocks from Pod’s Music.

He had always disliked winter, and always fell into a sort of lethargy around January and February. This winter had been particularly cold and bleak, and even now at the beginning of March he still felt suffocated and drained by the endless grey overcast days. Everything always seemed less real this time of year, less substantial. But he had found one place where the depression and lethargy always seemed to fall back, a place that always lifted his spirits the moment he stepped through the doorway… Pod’s Music. The little shop carried all sorts of albums you’d never find anywhere else, and his visits there always lifted his spirits and provided the fleeting sensation that maybe things weren’t so bad after all.

As he approached 4th Street, a large man in a thick coat bumped into his shoulder while passing by. The man continued onward without slowing or uttering a word. He considered saying something to the man, but decided to let the matter go. No point looking for trouble. He noticed a nearby drug store and stepped in to buy a pack of gum.

Returning to the sidewalk, he began thinking how nice it would be to see Pod again. He hadn’t visited Pod’s Music in several months and he hoped the aging proprietor was doing alright. Pod smoked too much and never looked particularly healthy. But whenever he dropped by the store, Pod always gave him that huge smile. Pod did the same for pretty much everybody, but you always felt like it was just for you. It was that kind of smile.

He glanced down to check his wristwatch, wondering how much time he had before the shops started closing. His watch was gone. He stood staring at his bare wrist in surprise. A lady in a loud pink jacket walked by, bumping his arm as she passed. She continued on without stopping. Scowling, he turned up the collar of his own jacket, a sudden breeze chilling the back of his neck. He suddenly remembered walking this street as a child, asking his mother why it was called Hawk Street, his frightened eyes scanning the sky, expecting to see some sort of vultures swooping down. But there had only been that damp grey emptiness. Looking up now, he could still feel the ghost of that childhood fear, tightening his chest muscles ever so slightly. He reached into his pocket for the pack of gum, but it wasn’t there.

He was nearly hit by a car while crossing 5th street. The driver had waited patiently as the couple in front of him crossed the turn lane. But then the car darted forward as he tried to walk past, missing him by mere inches. The driver never turned her head towards him or acknowledged the mishap in any way. He found it even more peculiar that the children in the back seat of the vehicle also ignored the event, none of them pointing or laughing. They sat with bored expressions, staring glumly at the passing shops, as the car pulled away into traffic.

Reaching the sidewalk, he crossed over to a soda machine on the corner. He would have preferred hot coffee, but didn’t want to waste time going inside anywhere. The stores would probably be closing soon, and he was anxious to reach the music shop. He reached for his wallet and found that it wasn’t there. Had someone actually stolen his wallet? He scowled upon realizing he wouldn’t be buying any music without it. With a disgusted shrug he turned and continued on down the sidewalk, clutching the plastic bag tightly. Might as well at least say hi to Pod.

Just past 6th Street he passed a blind street musician. The musician had been playing a jazz tune with surprising skill as he approached. But as he walked by, the musician abruptly stopped playing and seemed to gaze directly at him with an expression of fear and astonishment. What could be so odd about a man walking down the street with a teddy bear in a bag? He stood uncertainly for a moment before continuing down the sidewalk. The musician didn’t resume playing until he was some distance away.

A little voice in the back of his head was insisting that something seriously wrong was going on here. But he could now see Pod’s Music just a short distance ahead, and the little voice couldn’t compete with the excitement of seeing his favorite music shop again. With a smile, he crossed over to the little store’s entrance and reached for the door. Pod stood behind the counter, puffing the ever present cigarette and staring glumly out into the street. But the door was locked.

He rattled the knob in surprised frustration but it refused to open. More surprising still was the fact that Pod wasn’t coming over to open it, wasn’t looking over with his trademark smile, wasn’t even glancing towards the doorway. Pod’s dismal gaze remained focused on the overcast street. He tapped the glass but Pod continued to make no sign of recognition, or to even acknowledge his presence. Then he became aware of his own reflection in the glass doorway, the little voice in the back of his head insisting there was something wrong with it. He stood puzzled for a moment before glancing down. The plastic bag was gone.

His heart sank and he suddenly felt an inexplicable twinge of terror. Where was the teddy bear? Where was it? Desperation began gnawing at the edges of his concentration. Glancing around, he saw three teenagers coming his way down the sidewalk. The one on the end, a big kid built like a football player, was about to walk right into him. He yelped and jumped to the side, but wasn’t fast enough to completely avoid a collision.

Rather that the jarring impact he expected, there was a horrifying cold sensation as the kid’s shoulder seemed to simply pass through him with no resistance at all. The kid continued on down the sidewalk, still absorbed in his conversation with the two others, as though nothing had happened.

Turning back to the doorway of Pod’s Music, he now saw Pod approaching the door. Relief poured over him. Something was finally going right! Pod reached the door and flipped the ‘OPEN’ sign around to display ‘CLOSED’.

He was too amazed to even tap on the glass. Pod had acted as though he wasn’t even there. He stood watching as the old man switched off the lights. Then Pod was shambling over to the rear door, preparing to leave. He wanted to tap on the glass, get Pod’s attention, force everything to start making sense. But as he prepared to call out his name in a desperate plea for recognition, he suddenly realized… he didn’t know what his name was.

His reflection in the glass door of Pod’s Music was beginning to change. It seemed increasingly less substantial and he could see through it. As he stared in astonishment, it grew more and more vague, until finally he saw no reflection at all. He stood screaming for a very long time, but no one seemed to notice.