“You’re treating the street people like pets,” Everett said as he watched his new girlfriend pack squares of leftover lasagna into a foil lined cardboard box.
“Just because you’re studying psychology, doesn’t mean you need to search for hidden motives behind a simple act of human kindness.” Polly pointed out. “I’m merely taking leftovers to some hungry people. If more of us helped out, perhaps we wouldn’t have street people.”
“Now hold on there,” Everett said helping Polly with her parka.
“I’ve lived in the city my whole life and street people have always been here.
Bag ladies and bums: they like their lifestyle — no taxes, no rules, and no worries.”
“What about food?” Polly asked punching the elevator down button. “Or warm clothing, or shelter? Things that you and I take for granted. Are you telling me that you believe street people actually enjoy this way of life?”
A swirl of snowy air ruffled Polly’s dark curls as she stepped outside the building. Everett zipped his jacket to his chin and stuffed his hands into warm pockets before answering.
“My grandmother used to tell us that street people not only enjoyed being street people, but that they actually chose this type of existence.”
Polly’s black boots slowed on the snowy walk and she turned her solemn brown eyes to Everett. “Why on earth would she think that?”
“Grandma was always afraid of the street people. She used to tell us stories about them. I think, so that we’d be afraid too. Afraid enough to stay away from Sluggards.”
“That’s what Grandma called the street people. She used to tell us that the Sluggards were actually aliens that came here into the cities of the world to observe us — you know — study our lifestyle so that they could infiltrate our planet better when the time came. Isn’t that crazy? Grandma sure could spin a yarn.”
Noisy street sounds clamoring to be heard swirled around Polly. As she strolled this darkening stretch of 42nd Street, however, it was only Everett’s words that she heard.
“That’s ridiculous,” Polly said. “No, it’s worse than ridiculous. It’s pathetic. If the street people are all aliens, then — look around you, Everett — they’ve already infiltrated our world.”
“Well, sort of,” Everett replied. “But they’re different. They’re street people, don’t you see? They can’t take good care of themselves like you and me because they’re not really human, but parasites with a human shape. Grandma used to say that they really look like an earthworm or a slug. It is ridiculous, I agree, but you know how grandmothers are.”
“I’ve never met your grandmother, Everett. Although I’d like to.”
Polly, still holding her box of leftovers, descended into the depths of the subway with Everett trotting at her side.
“Where does your Grandmother live?”
“Oh she’s in a rest home now. In Albany. I’ll take you with me the next time I visit. I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”
Polly’s booted heels clacked against the littered tunnel. Everett’s voice echoed hollowly against graffiti-covered walls reeking of urine and cigarettes.
“How much further are we going? It’s really spooky down here.”
“Just a little more,” Polly said. “There’s someone special I want to check on. Tell me more about your grandmother’s theory. It’s an interesting story. Even if it is a bit far-fetched. What’s her name? I feel like I know her already.”
“Ellen. Her name is Ellen Dodge. People say that I look a lot like Grandma Dodge. We have the same slate-blue eyes and, before she got gray, her hair was sandy-blond like mine. There really isn’t much more to tell. Apparently the Sluggards have a way of wrapping around a victim and absorbing them to take over their human shape. Gross, huh? According to Grandma, this leaves them so weak, physically, that they must live the remainder of their new lives as bums and street people. She used to speculate, however, that the Sluggards were breeding new life forms down here in the subway tunnels. Funny, huh? Caretakers, she called them.”
Polly stopped in her tracks and turned to face Everett in the dim tunnel.
“Yeah, Caretakers. A stronger breed of Sluggard who could fit in better with society. You know, hold down a job, have place to live. Someone who could help take care of the weaker Sluggards while they worked on breeding more of this stronger model.”
“Your Grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman, Everett. She has quite an imagination.”
They were standing in a remote portion of the subway tunnel. Everett, ever fearful of his Grandmother’s stories, would probably never have ventured this deep into the tunnels alone, but Polly seemed to know exactly where she was going. The pretty young woman reached behind Everett to a rusty lever buried in the concrete wall. With a raucous screech, part of the tunnel wall slid back exposing a weakly lit passage.
With a hasty glance in both directions, Polly shoved Everett into the passage. She possessed remarkable strength for such a small woman.
Everett, sprawled on the dank floor and shocked into silence for a moment, watched Polly step into the opening and depress a lever, thereby closing the concrete wall behind them.
“Sorry, kid, but you know too much,” Polly said. “We knew someone had been talking, just couldn’t find the leak.”
“Talking?” Everett said. “Talking about what? The Sluggards? It’s just a story. My grandmother made it up. Didn’t she? Polly?”
A bent old man dressed in patched jeans and a moth-eaten overcoat hobbled into view. An enormous woman swathed in a garish fake leopard skin poncho and plastic boots closely followed him. Her dirty, matted hair screamed out from her head in spikes giving her a porcupine appearance.
Polly handed the box of food scraps to this pathetically deranged looking couple. They immediately tore open the carton and with grimy fingers began stuffing cold lasagna squares into their slack mouths.
“Everett, meet Mom and Dad,” Polly said to her nauseous-looking young friend. The squalid couple grinned tomato-flecked teeth down at Everett who still lay prone on the cold concrete.
“He knows,” Polly said to Ma and Pa Street Bum. “But I have the name of his source. I’ll bring her here tonight.”
To Everett, Polly said gently, “We’ll need to make you one of us. Don’t worry; I’ll always take care of you and Grandmother Dodge. I’ll be your caretaker.”
The big woman in the oversized poncho reached a dirty hand under her leopard skin folds and drew out a wriggling slug-worm. The worm-thing oozed iridescent pools of slime across the woman’s arms as she held it like a newborn baby. It continually coiled and uncoiled much like a giant grub upon first exposure to light.
Everett, his slate-blue eyes wide and slightly vacant, seemed mesmerized by the sight of an actual Sluggard. His mouth opened and closed like a giant fish, but only faint clicking noises issued from his tight throat.
The large woman cooed unfamiliar lyrics to her squirming bundle before setting it tenderly beside a stunned-looking Everett.
As the Sluggard inched toward him, much like a giant oozing maggot, Everett seemed to come back to life momentarily. He scrabbled backwards like a crab until his body hit the unmovable concrete wall. His shrill screams became muffled and died out altogether as the Sluggard wrapped his struggling body into bulging iridescent folds of slime.
The following week, if anyone in the big city noticed, but unfortunately few ever did, a bent man in threadbare clothing helped an ancient crone hobble down the concrete steps to the subway tunnels below. The man’s face seemed altogether too young to be perched on such a bent and beaten old body. His arresting slate-blue eyes peering warily from rheumy sockets curiously matched those of his companion as the pair shuffled slowly through the crowded subway terminal.
If anyone had paused in their busy, bustling day to listen: they may have heard the old woman whining piteously to her companion. “I’m so hungry, Everett.”
“I know, I know,” her unkempt comrade replied. “The caretaker will be here soon. Then we will eat.”