See this man sleeping in a pose like a corpse in a coffin? This is Lazarus Tax. (No relation to the Biblical Lazarus. Unlike that Lazarus, this one seems unlikely to come back to life.)
Notice how his bed sheets are folded so neatly around him. Notice how he wears a neat set of adult pajamas of the variety you might expect to see men wearing in the 1950s.
Notice also how his alarm is going off and his eyes are opening. Honestly, he doesn’t need the alarm. He started waking up about thirty seconds earlier, right on time, as he always does.
Lazarus isn’t a zombie, but he is a bit of a stiff. Sure, his heart beats (at a fairly average rate), he eats food (always very sensible, well-balanced meals), and he breathes (never too heavy, of course). He’s definitely alive. Just not very lively.
Lazarus hasn’t taken a day off work in ten years. Not for sickness. Not for vacation. He gets up every morning at 5:55am, takes a shower, eats a bowl of oatmeal and an apple, drinks a single cup of coffee while watching the news, and gets ready for work.
He walks to work, Lazarus does, leaving his apartment at precisely 7:32am. He stops to buy a newspaper at the same place every day. He arrives at work at 7:54am (or 7:57am if the cross-walk signs aren’t timed in his favor).
What does he do for a living? You’d probably expect he’s an accountant, because accountants are supposed to be boring (but let’s be honest, that’s cliche and inaccurate). Truth is, it doesn’t matter what Lazarus does for a living. He takes great pride in the precision of his work, though he has little joy in it. Only the satisfaction of a job well done. He feels that way about life in general, really. He prefers his day to be a well-made watch: dependable, properly timed, running smoothly, and without variation. Predictability is his friend. (One of his few, really.)
But there is one area of his life that is totally unpredictable. That’s the instances when he sees Them.
They appear to be normal people. Except that Lazarus sees something else: a transparent image around each of them, revealing another form entirely.
Lazarus passes a newspaper stand. The man selling papers appears to be an average Joe, except that around him is the image of a rather large ogre.
Lazarus passes a coffee shop and sees there behind the counter a thin waif of a girl with purple-dyed pigtails and an expansive pair of thin fairy wings.
As Lazarus passes an electronics shop, a few big screens are showing replays from an NBA game. One of the players is a tall pale guy with long hair on his head. Around the player, Lazarus sees a shaggy white coat of hair covering the rest of his body.
As far as Lazarus knows, he alone sees them. Never willing to risk bringing attention to himself on the matter, he has never spoken of — and certainly not to — them.
There is an exception to every rule, of course. The exception in this case is Mike.
Mike is a homeless guy Laz sees on his way to work. He first met Mike one day when Mike bumped into him on the street, the bull’s head almost scaring Laz to death.
Laz suspects he knows what Mike is — a real life Minotaur, living right smack in the middle of the city.
Lazarus sees Mike from time to time on his way to work. If Mike doesn’t see him, he keeps going. If Mike does see him, he says “Hi” because he feels obligated. (And more than a little frightened.)
But today? Today is a different day. A fateful day. This is the day Lazarus stops being afraid. It’s 7:39, and Lazarus is walking to work, as he usually does. His mobile phone rings. It startles him because really, no one ever calls.
Laz answers. “Hello?”
“Don’t bother coming in today,” says the voice on the other end. "You’ve been let go.”
“Yeah, the company just got bought out. They’re sacking everyone corporate and only keeping the sales offices. You and me? We’re out of jobs. Everybody on the chopping block is being turned away from the office.”
“But what about my salary? My 401(k)? My health insurance?”
“I’ve been told somebody’s going to reach out to you with the details about severance and all that.”
“Jeezus, Laz, I don’t have time for this. I gotta go figure out what I’m going to do next, too. Good luck, man. It’s a jungle out there. Don’t get eaten up.”
Then the man hangs up, and Laz is left standing there with the news, caught mid-stride on his way to a job that no longer exists.
Lazarus stares at his phone in disbelief.
“Bad news?” asks Mike, who is standing nearby listening to the Lazarus end of the call.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Look,” says Mike. "I’m not one to butt into someone else’s business...but I see you walking by here a lot.”
“Yeah, it’s on my way to work. Was on my way to work.”
“Ah... Anything I can do to help?”
“Not unless you can get me a job.”
Mike shrugs sheepishly.
“Sorry, that was a dumb thing to say.”
“Not at all. I may technically be homeless, but I’m really not. Nor am I jobless."
“Yeah. I actually have an important job. A fun job. Gives me freedom. Purpose. You know, I think this is a good time you and I learned a little more about each other. Come with me. I want to show you something.”
Mike motions for Laz to follow him back down the alleyway. Laz is tempted to refuse, but he is swept away by Mike’s assumption that Laz will follow.
“Every day, people walk past me,” Mike explains as they walk, “never seeming to wonder who I am or where I came from or what I do when not hanging out in an alleyway. Do you know what I do?”
“No. Sorry, I really don’t.”
“Would you believe me if I told you I’m a community leader?”
“Really? I had no idea.”
“Seems stange, I know.”
They emerge from the other end of the alley and pass a parking meter reader writing a ticket for a car.
“Sam,” Mike says to the meter reader.
Sam tips the brim of his hat in reply. “Mike."
In a nearby store window, the reflection shows Laz standing next to Mike, with his imposing bull's head, and the gargoyle-like appearance of the meter reader behind them.
As they walk, Mike continues to explain his world. Block by block, the number of people around them begins to thin out as they approach a less populated area of town.
“Laz, there’s a whole world you don’t know about. And it isn’t just homeless people like me. It’s misfits. People who don’t have anywhere to truly belong. They prefer to live the way they want to live, without someone else’s rules or judgement. How does that sound to you?”
Mike and Laz stop walking. They’re standing at the entrance to a subway, its entrance blocked by construction signs.
“Uh...pretty good, I guess.”
“Pretty good? You guess? Come on, Laz. You’re a soul yearning to be free of this trap! You do the same thing, every day, day in and day out. I don’t think it’s because you want it that way, is it? I think it’s because you don’t know any other way.” Mike stops walking and fixes Laz with his gaze. “And because you’re scared. You stick with the familiar, the easy, comfortable, because the alternative is hard and frightening.”
Mike moves aside one of the construction barricades and starts down into the subway.
“Have you ever wondered, what would it be like to do away with everything you know? You’re a ‘rule’ guy. I get that. But ask yourself this question: Whose rules are you living by?”
They descend the stairs toward the abandoned subway platform. The floor-to-ceiling gate intended to block their way has had a wide gash ripped through it.
“Are you sure this is safe?” asks Lazarus.
Mike laughs. “How many times a day do you ask yourself that question, Laz? What’s the point of living if all you ever do is play it safe?”
Mike leads Laz walk along a subway tracks until there is barely enough light to see by. As the light behind them disappears, a faint light ahead of them appears to take its place.
“This part of the subway system is essentially abandoned. Like me and my people. We’re a sub-sub-culture. People forget the things they abandon. But the things they abandon often go on living, usually as something new because they’re no longer bound by the limitations of their former use.”
The light ahead becomes bright as another subway platform comes into view. It seems older than the one they entered through, but it is alive with activity. People are talking, cooking, playing games.
“This place is ours now. After it was abandoned, we managed to reestablish water and electricity without anyone noticing. No one sees the lights or the fact that people are living here. They don’t even send maintenance or inspection crews this way because no one cares what happens here any more.”
“So...you live down here?”
“Yep. Well, not all of us do. Some only stop in to visit. Others never leave. We bring in supplies and food as needed.”
They walk by a group of people sitting on an old leather sectional couch. Although old, the couch looks clean, and there are furnishings around it. It sits up against a wall along the platform. They’ve made it quite cozy. The people on the couch are all like Mike, and Laz tries not to stare as their alternate selves become apparent, one after another. A chill runs down Laz’s spine. One of the people has huge fangs, another is cherubic like a big baby angel, another has a dog’s head and is smoking a cigar, another is a woman with a dozen arms. The fanged one is the only one paying any attention to Mike and Laz as they walk by.
“Years ago, a few of us found each other. We all had a certain, shall we say, marginalized quality. We decided to form a community. We discovered this area was no longer in use by the subway system and that from here we could access running water and electricity. Granted, we’re tapping into both of those illegally, but hey, we aren’t exactly supposed to be down here in the first place. Before long, there were too many of us here to keep existing with such a loose structure. We established some general rules, a small council for decision-making, and suddenly we had a semi-formal community. It hasn’t always been easy — or pretty — but we’re learning, and things are going fairly well.”
“How many of you are there?” asks Laz.
“It varies. The core group consists of about a hundred or so.”
Several people are sitting around a kitchen table while another adds ingredients to a large pot. Mike winks at one of them. “Janice, it smells wonderful. I still owe you something from last time.”
The woman waves away his comment. “No worries, Mike. I know you’ll take care of me.”
“You better believe it, Janice. You see, Laz, we all pitch in here. Like the story of Stone Soup, you know? Everybody brings what they can to the table. Literally and figuratively. A true community.”
They keep walking until they reach the far end of the platform, then return to the train tracks. After a minute or so, the tunnel grows dark and Laz has to rely on the light from a solitary emergency light over a metal door. They stop there at the door and Mike motions to it.
“Here we are. Now, I have a question for you. How would you like to be part of our community?”
“How so?” Laz doesn’t quite know how he would fit in with these people and their mystical selves. If in fact he hasn’t been imagining all of it.
“Look, this has been a crazy day for you. You’re vulnerable. I know at first, it may not seem that attractive an offer, but we’re always looking for new blood. To you, joining our community may seem like an act of desperation. But it’s quite the opposite. It’s a decision to embrace freedom. To live differently. We all ended up here that way. We all needed another life, another way of living. We found that here with each other. We left behind the old world to join the new one. You can, too. You have your routine. But your routine isn’t your life. It’s what you fill your day with so you don’t have to think about what your life is missing.”
Laz knows Mike is right. He has been going through the motions for so many years, living out of momentum rather than choice. And here, someone is offering him a place to belong, to learn to live a fuller life, and to be part of something out of the ordinary.
Mike opens the metal door. “Behind this door, everything changes."
“Where does this go?” Laz asks.
“That depends on you."
Mike places his hand on Laz’s back and gently guides him through the door.
“It’s so dark. And quiet. And cold.”
“Oh, trust me, it gets plenty loud sometimes. It’s an old maintenance tunnel. A series of them, actually. Practically a maze. But I think of it as a prep area.”
Beyond the door is darkness. Behind him, Laz feels Mike’s presence. Not the presence of the man but of the bull, the minotaur, large and hot and breathing down his neck.
“Prep for what?”
“For a new life. A new form. This is your chance to be a part of our community. You can join us at our communal dinner table. Become one with us, body and soul. You just have to make your way through the darkness and survive to the other end.”
Mike is standing between him and the door. Laz cannot see anything in the other direction.
“I promise there’s actually a way out. Now look, I’m a fair guy. I’ll give you a head start. Fifteen minutes sound reasonable?” Mike holds a hand up. “No...you know what? Let’s make it ten. I’m starving.”