Monday, May 28, 2007

Chapter 21. Flashmob

The lunch crowd was just starting to trickle into the cafe as Max waited for his muffin. He had hoped to avoid the rush, but it was beginning earlier than he'd expected. It was just past eleven and the tables on the sidewalk were rapidly filling. The crowd was young, primarily college age kids and a few professionals, and even some kids who looked as though they should be in high school.

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Max lowered his head and studied the wadded bills on the table to keep from catching anyone's eye, in the unlikely event that any of the arriving patrons knew him from campus. He picked the bills apart slowly and spread them flat on the checkered tablecloth. It had been so long since he had used paper money that Max almost didn't recognize the currency. All four were ten-dollar bills. They were old, worn, and crinkled. Someone had written on the least crumpled bill. The handwriting was jagged and juvenile, and he was having a hard time making out what it said.

He could feel the numbers of the patrons swelling around him. He recognized the sound of one-sided conversations that meant many of them were chattering on cell phones. He glanced up briefly to see that others were gathered in small groups. There was an excited buzz in the air. Max had the impression that there was more to the activity than hungry people in search of lunch. As he turned back to the writing on the bill, a skinny kid engaged in an animated phone conversation bumped roughly against Max's table. He mouthed an apology and continued into the throng surrounding the cafe.

Every seat was taken at the outdoor tables, and more people were on the way, strolling down along the sidewalk or dropped off at the curb by cars on auto pilot. The flow of customers had turned from a trickle to a flood, and was still building. This was definitely not a normal lunch crowd. Max dropped the wad of bills the lunatic had given him on the table and began rapping his fingers lightly on his thigh. The crush of bodies was making it hard to breathe. Max tried not to think about it, but he was continuously being jostled as more and more people arrived. He placed his hands open on the table and pushed down as if, at any moment, it might fly away and carry him with it.

He stared at the bill in front of him, and struggled to stay calm until his muffin arrived. Someone, probably the lunatic, had written a across the president’s face. , "U r 6e1ng w4+ch3d." It was clearly a novice attempt at shorthand for "You are being watched."

It was just the sort of thing he would have expected to find on money carried by a guy who wore a metal hat. On the other hand, thought Max, it was possible that the note was meant for him.

"Nonsense," he said to himself, while glancing up at the wall of bodies that surrounded his table and slopped over into the parking lot. It seemed the lunatic’s paranoia was contagious. Surely the note wasn't for him. On the other hand, the man had insisted that he count the money, perhaps to get him to notice the message. Still, why should he worry about paranoid missives from a deranged fruitcake?

He covered the bill with his hand to hide it from anyone looking over his shoulder. After a few calming breaths, he lifted his palm enough to peek at the message again. A shudder ran through him when he found that the writing had changed. It read "\/\/3'r3 h3r3 2 h31p.”

Max snatched up the bill. It looked like plain old-fashioned money, as far as he could tell. But paper money didn't have shape-shifting messages on it. He was still trying to make out the new message when it shifted again. The writing, still in that childish hand now read "d0n+ f34r +h3 fl45hm06."

Max blinked and slowly translated the script. "Don't fear the flash mob."

He frantically scanned the wall of bodies that surrounded his table. Flash mob? What the hell is that? Somewhere in the noise of the crowd, amid the laughter and shouts, he imagined the waiter trying to make his way back with a muffin and coffee in a paper cup.

Forget the damn muffin, he thought.

The crowd's seething was pushing him ever harder against the edge of the table. It was getting dangerous to sit. He squeezed out of his chair and stood. Instantly, there were warm bodies on all sides of him. Only the expanse of the small table beside him remained clear.

A thumping noise was gradually rising in somewhere in the depths of the cafe. The rhythm grew more complex, syncopated. All around him, people began swaying and bouncing in time with the beat. Music erupted, and the mass of humanity gyrated to a frantic tune constructed of whistles, hoots, and squealing guitars.

Although he had no intention of joining in the dance, Max could not fight the collective motions of the masses that enveloped him. Hips, thighs, chests grinded against him, and he had no choice but to grind back. Other than those immediately in front of him, he couldn't even determine which of the bodies bumping against him were male and which were female. Briefly, a pretty young woman, with deep green eyes, dark hair, and glasses was pressed against him, almost nose to nose. She smiled and mouthed something that he couldn’t make out over the music and the noise of the crowd. The woman seemed on the verge of kissing him when the flow of bodies swept her away. She was replaced by a slender, androgynous person whose back was toward Max. He tilted his head back and concentrated on the awning above in an attempt to put the grinding of the androgynous buttocks against his groin out of his mind. While he was mildly disturbed by the intimate contact, it had at least erased the rising claustrophobia he had been suffering from a few moments before. It occurred to him that his own buttocks were similarly grinding against the anonymous stranger behind him. Max decided it was best not to think about it and instead just ride out the madness with the dancing mob.

The base line pounded, a lead singer wailed. Occasionally, the mob shouted unintelligibly in response to some equally unintelligible line from the song. The music was punctuated from time to time with a blast from an air horn. In the distance, a police siren screamed. Coordination in the crowd began to crumble as the siren’s volume rose. The mob seethed, and pitched to Max's left. If he hadn't been so firmly entrenched, he would have toppled over, but here there was no room to fall. The mob surged again, inching toward the parking lot. It, and Max, gathered speed. Soon they were walking as the mob shouted and hooted. Then they were jogging, and finally running. There were multiple police sirens now. The wails threatened to drown out the music as Max and the mob exploded into the parking lot.

They were racing through the rows of cars in the lot when Max was abruptly slammed against the side of a parked pickup truck. He felt a tug on his shirt collar. There was a rough jerk and the shirt was ripped from his back. He spun to spot the culprit, but couldn’t pick anyone out in the fleeing mob. Two athletic young men with silvery sun glasses leapt out of the masses and lunged toward him. One rammed him against the truck. The other reached for the waste band of Max’s sweats and pulled. Time stood still briefly as Max stared wide-eyed at his distorted image in the mirrored glasses of the man pinning him against the truck. Max saw a flash of metal. The other man had a knife.

“Please don’t,” Max begged.

The man pressing Max against the truck grinned broadly, revealing gleaming white teeth. Max twisted his face away to look at the other man and saw the knife swing down toward his belly. The tension in his waste band increased, and suddenly was gone. A ripping sound followed as Max’s sweats and underwear were torn from his body. The two men turned and dived into the crowd, with the ragged sweat pants fluttering behind them. With the exception of his shoes, Max was naked.

He dropped onto his heels to cover himself. Someone running with the mob collided with Max’s shoulder and sent him sprawling onto his back on the rough asphault. He rolled under the truck and peered out at the countless thundering feet. A wailing police siren deafened him, and he saw the tires of the passing police car roll slowly by, briefly stemming the flow of the mob. Then it was gone.

Max cowered under the truck. “Come back,” he pleaded to the police car. “Come back.”

A pair of bright red tennis shoes appeared beside the truck, inches from his face. The person in the tennis shoes dropped to their knees. There was a hand on the ground. Then there was a face. It was the dark-haired girl from the mob at the café.

“Max,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“What?” he tried to ask, “Where?” But the best he could do was a guttural croak.

“Come on!”

She reached under the truck and her fingers brushed Max’s arm. He flinched at the touch, and squirmed farther under the chassis.

“We’re here to help,” said the girl.

He twisted away to the other side of the truck, scraping his back against the rough ground and raking his belly on the dangling truck hardware. Pebbles dug into his knees as he struggled to his feet. The girl had made her way around the truck and approached him with arms outstretched and palms held upward.

“It’s going to be OK,” she said gently. “I promise.”

Max turned to run, but a battered white panel van pulled up and blocked his way. He was trapped between the girl and the van. The van’s sliding door shot open revealing piles of blankets and rusted walls with peeling white paint.

“It’s going to be OK,” the girl repeated. “Just get in and we’ll help you.”

Max looked back at the open van. Its interior, though dingey, offered a darkened haven from the madness of the flash mob that still rampaged all around him. It was a place to hide his nakedness.

The girl stepped closer. Her eyes pleaded with him. He nodded and turned to head for the open van.

“Wait,” called the girl. He felt her hand on his shoulder. “You can’t go like that.”

Max stopped and looked down at his naked belly with his genitals peeking out below. He covered his groin with his hands and turned back to the girl.

“Take off your shoes,” she said.

He shook his head in bewilderment. “What is wrong with you people?” he shouted at her.

“Just do it. I’ll explain later.”

“Dammit,” he snarled, kicking off his shoes and diving into the van. He clutched at one of the old blankets and wrapped it around himself. The van rocked slightly as the girl followed him and slid the door closed behind her.

The driver leaned over in his seat and asked, “All set?”

It was the lunatic with the aluminum foil hat.

Max stared blankly at the girl, and then rolled toward the front of the van, balled up his fist, and slugged the madman in the mouth. The lunatic’s head snapped back. He covered his mouth with his hand and stared at Max with wide-eyed shock. A trickle of blood oozed between his fingers.

“Man,” he said behind his hand, “that hurt.”

The girl crawled over a pile of blankets and inserted herself between Max and the lunatic. “Drive Joel.”

The lunatic straightened up in his seat, wrenched the steering wheel with his free hand, and punched the gas. “I told you,” he said through his fingers covering his mouth, “I want to be called ‘Chalk Warrior’ from now on.”

The girl reached back and smacked the lunatic’s shoulder. “Joel, Just drive.” She winked at Max, who pulled the coarse blanket tight. The engine revved and the van weaved though the lot, and the chaos of the mob slowly died away.

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