It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.H.P. Lovecraft
The Incident in Downtown Miami
by Michael Conroy
Palm trees outside the Avalon Hotel swayed in the breeze, but the American flag hung limply from its pole. Driving through South Beach with the windows down, Ahmad wafted his damp Cuban shirt and switched the channel over from Salsa Classica to Radio West End. The yellow cab’s interior, despite the pine-scented air freshener, smelled like gym socks and stale French fries. Pastel-coloured hotels slipped by as he cruised the sunny streets, where beach babes in colourful Lycra swimsuits rollerbladed over the concrete.
Ahmad’s shirt clung stickily to his back as he reached behind and knocked on the glass partition between him and the backseat. “You want me to take the MacArthur Causeway, Mr Dylan?”
Dylan wore aviator sunglasses and a striped sailor T-shirt. “I’m sorry?” he said, pulling out one of his white earphones. “I wasn’t talking to you, Ahmed.”
He shook his head. “My name is Ahmad.”
“Whatever,” Dylan said, swiping left and right on his smartphone. “I’m not going to do it, Matthew. I’m not going to listen to you being a queen.”
Ahmad watched as the taximeter ticked over from $3.50 to $4.00, which, after ten minutes, would rise to $9.00. If he was lucky, the traffic might inflate his fare and buy him a Big Mac.
He knew that, come evening, he’d have to spray and wipe down the backseats again. The previous week, some smelly vagrant had held Ahmad hostage with a broken bottle of Budweiser, skipping out on the fifty-dollar fare from Little Havana to Fort Lauderdale. He’d shat all over the backseat too. It was Ahmad’s Muslim duty to help those in need, but sometimes, even Allah (peace be upon him) knew how to take the piss.
Dylan ran a hand through his messy blonde hair in the rear-view mirror. “Matthew, darling, I’m coming to see you. Yes, right now. What more do you want?”
They called Florida the Sunshine State, but Ahmad had already seen a thousand blue skies a thousand times more beautiful. The Latin Quarter did not compare to the verdant hills of the Kashmir valley. Nor the white sands of Miami Beach to the snowy hilltop Hari Parbat in winter. Nor even the luxurious Marriott Stanton South Beach to the sumptuous poverty of the tin-roofed Srinagar slums.
Truthfully, America made Ahmad sick to his stomach. He should have been designing biofuel or life-saving drugs, not cleaning up liquid shit. He had a MSc in Chemical Engineering, but education didn’t matter here. Not where he didn’t belong.
He pulled the cab onto the westbound MacArthur Causeway and put her into fifth gear. Eyes on the road, he ran one hand over his bald head and pushed it to the limit. Palm trees rushed past in assembly. The stark blue waters of Miami Bay glittered like a thousand camera flashes.
Ahmad thought of Gangabal Lake where he’d taught his son how to catch rainbow trout. Yellow wildflowers carpeting the hills; the snow-dusted peaks of Mount Harmukh beyond the water. If he swerved now, the car would veer off the causeway and plunge into the bay.
He slowed down and caught one last glimpse of the liquid blue before turning off onto Biscayne Boulevard.
Dylan flashed his teeth. “Matthew, you’re embarrassing me…”
Cruising downtown, where the white yachts parked alongside the roadway, Ahmad saw tourists drinking afternoon daiquiris from plastic cups, hoodlums smoking reefer, and señoritas flogging knockoff handbags at the side of the road. The scene reminded him of the Srinagar markets. Pickpockets weaving through the fruit and spice stalls, stalking the crowd, looking for their next mark. He thought about the wife and son he’d left behind. It was six years since he’d left Kashmir. He missed them every day.
Dylan knocked on the partition. “Jesus, could you turn the heating on? It’s freezing back here.”
Ahmad rolled up the windows, not thinking to question why the air outside had turned so suddenly cold. The gearbox juddered when he turned on the heater, and then, with a great flash of violet light, the electrics shorted out.
“Bloody bastard,” Ahmad said, smacking the dashboard. He hit the brakes, but the car kept moving.
Dylan banged on the glass partition. “Watch where you’re driving!”
Ahmad swerved to avoid a pedestrian in the road and slammed into a mailbox. The horn blared as envelopes and postcards scattered down like confetti.
He groaned over the sound of the horn, touched his bloody nose and winced. The wing mirror hung down with its red and blue wiring exposed. His palms turned clammy as he spotted, in the cracked mirror, the shirtless tourist he’d almost run down.
Ahmad watched, open-mouthed, as the screaming man thrashed about, trying desperately to shake off the cackling ape-like creature that was tearing into his shoulder. Completely black, it had the face of a baboon, with pointed ears, and a great lion’s mane that hung down over its shoulders.
It opened up the man’s throat and doused itself in his blood.
Sirens blaring, a police cruiser ploughed through the sidewalk, flattening diners outside a coffee shop. Tables overturned and parasols took flight. The hot dog stand outside a thrift store exploded and the shrapnel cut down a troupe of high-waisted jogging pensioners.
Amorphous eels swam electrically through the violet mist. Translucent pink jellyfish snared dog-walkers and latched onto their screaming faces. Perched atop telephone poles, legions of faceless ghouls with tattered bat wings swooped and plucked bystanders from the ground, carrying them away like the spoils of war.
Ahmad shouted in Urdu as the cab’s front window shattered and the ceiling caved in. Suckers full of teeth scratched and pulsated against the passenger windows dripping clear, sticky slime, and the metal chassis crumpled like a soda can. Ahmad kicked away the smaller tentacles that reached into the cab and groped him. Curling and uncurling like a moneylender’s fingers, the tendrils grabbed Dylan by the ankle and dragged him out screaming through the window. His bloody sunglasses clattered onto the backseat.
Ahmad screamed and clung to the driver’s seat as the cab spun and rose back end into the air. Catching only fleeting glimpses of the rampant chaos on the streets, he struggled with his seat belt, but the buckle wouldn’t give, so he wriggled out and somersaulted into the passenger seat. If he jumped, he could drop and roll onto a nearby rooftop without breaking his ankle, but the door was jammed. The only escape was the shattered window.
Then he saw it.
In the wing mirror: a quivering mass of black eyes surrounding row after row of shark’s teeth. The maw opened, the car plunged, and Ahmad held his breath.
Header images from Pixabay.
Copyright © ‘The Incident in Downtown Miami’ Michael Conroy 2020