Even among thousands, you can die alone
In a crowd, a big crowd, there is terror. The 21st century has taught us to fear such things. We are vulnerable ‘en masse.’ Whether it was a stint in quarantine that made us wary, or footage of rifle-packing madmen that chilled our spines… the crowd is a thing to fear.
This dreadful abstraction was not lost on Caleb. With apprehension he ascended the stairs, moved numbly through the turnstiles, avoided eye contact with drunks and far-gone tailgaters. He was an average joe, but no fan. Gray jeans, red flannel, obligatory team cap. He saw no joy in winning streaks or overdue victories. It was a phantasmagoric swirl of faces, smells, concrete, and plastic.
“We’re right here.”
“Yeah, 27 A I think.”
“This is huge, you guys! Fucking playoffs!”
“I’ll take the row seat. Beer runs.”
“Caleb, this is you.”
Beer after beer he sat, paying attention, cheering when cued, toasting when the groans came. Beer has a way of making everything fun, but a growing doom was in his mind, wrapped in a too-tight blanket of alcohol and crowd noise. The less his senses worked, the more his fear took hold. Too many arms waving, too many teeth laughing, too-long reverberations in unseen rafters, masses of steel looming above, fire flickering at the foundations.
During a break, ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ played for the crowd. It was sonorous, blasting, echoing with immense sing-along quaffers. But something went wrong then, a technical difficulty, the final organ note simply- hung- in the air. For eternal seconds the crowd froze, confused. The off-tenor tone lingered, and lingered… perfect and unchanging. Like some chorus of demonic monks making a mockery of God-fearing rock and roll. It was a sonic drill, turning in reverb like an invisible cube. Then, it was gone. The cheers arose. The game resumed.
“That was weird.”
“Dude, Corvio is killing it! We got this shit!”
“Caleb, you ok?”
“Yeah, did you hear that?”
“Weird organ shit. Guess the organ guy passed out on the keys.”
When it comes to scary stories, there is always a turning point. Little things are realized to be terrible, the unexpected is made large, and both usually too late. In this case, no such point gave Caleb the comfort of doom’s hand. It was sports. Stadium sports. Nothing more… just the crushing presence of tens of thousands, the clumsy, reasonless madness of a city frantic to win, the combining colors, the hands raised, the sloshing beer, the month-old food. There was no horror to break Caleb’s tension, but tense he remained in the waiting.
He was the first to see it. 4th inning, Phillies up, then the bat lowered. Right by the plate, the hitter went slack, or rigid, hard to tell from this seat, but the bat went down. The pitcher relaxed, the catcher looked up. Normal stuff? Normal stuff.
No, something off. This wasn’t normal stuff. The hitter was Corvio, their guy. Star of the night. He went slack, mannequin mode. The pause on the field (this was baseball, after all) was eternity. Finally, after what seemed hours, the Padres' catcher reached up and poked at Corvio with his glove. Thirty thousand fans silently mouthed “hey, you ok man?” into their beers. More waiting. Few things are more unnatural than a massive crowd waiting for the next inhale.
Corvio seemed to feel the poke, turned with slow, dead eyes to the catcher. The umpire took a step back, relaxing a bit. Then, to the confusion of most but the horror of Caleb, the bat rose up. Leaning back, Corvio took a stance that was foreign to any sport, foreign to any endeavor of living men. The bat he raised, higher, then with all those muscles made huge by forceful means he brought his oaken club to bear.
The catcher was brained. His skull splattered onto the umpire like a pink paintball. He slumped back, face-guard splintered in blood. The umpire was in shock, or simply stunned, and onto him the bat came too. A massive, back-handed swing did he endure, and it ripped his jaw from his face with a cracking spray. Into the groomed dirt he fell teeth-first, gurgling, terribly alive but abandoned. Corvio walked toward the home dugout. Was it some long-trained instinct that drove that murderous body to its nest, or some demonic homicidal madness from the stars turning on his teammates? Who can say. The bat came… dripping with bits and black spatter… and panic gripped the men there.
No weaklings are athletes, and among them many brave as lions. So they jumped up, and strove to stop the bat. One by one their skulls were made soup, their arms broken and necks twisted by Corvio. Methodical, unstoppable, horrific, brain-covered he strode through them like a reaper cutting grain.
Then to the crowd turned he, bat-demon, head-basher, marching inevitable from man to woman to youngster, row by row, slaughtering them, and the crowd went into a stampede. Many dogpiled, and died, and many more ran. Bullets flew and fires broke, but still the bat marched on, relentless, invincible, a thing carried by a corpse, an evil relic from some other world.
In the crush and the chaos, the jumbotron went wild. Cartoon baseballs raced in flashing strobes. There were screams and baffled rent-a-cops. Kids were trampled, cowards hit closed gates, drunks emerged from bathrooms to scenes of apocalyptic bedlam. Somehow, in all this, Caleb’s eyes met those of Corvio. Across a sea of people their eyes met. Slowly, impossibly, supernaturally the bloody bat rose, pointing at no one else, unmistakable, like a weathervane, pointing at Caleb. Squarely, with deadly intent was that clotted club raised, and all the anxiety came to bear at last. Caleb screamed, but it was drown. Corvio marched, but it went unseen. Stairs, chairs, cups everywhere, stumbling vendors, a dead mascot, blood-spattered handrails.
Then, somehow, they were face to face.
“What the fuck do you want?” Caleb screamed, as three bullets ripped through the star player to no effect.
No answer came, just another step closer, bat going back to strike.
When Caleb tried to flee, tried to turn away, there were people. When he looked to the stairs, more bodies tumbling. When he thought to leap the seats, they were crawling with fans like ants on a hot dog. He was impossibly alone in a sea of thousands, trapped in silence in a din of shouting and panic.
So Corvio, the star hitter, descended on him. The first hit went to the ribs with a sound of breaking knuckles. Then, a strike to the temple. A slapping sound there. Swing by swing was Caleb bludgeoned to mush, made into red mud by the bat, again and again, clack after clack on the darkening concrete. When Caleb’s skull was liquid and his ribs all splintered in a thanksgiving feast of nightmare, Corvio finally lowered his bloody, invincible bat.
The organ sounded in the din... hanging on one, dissonant note.
“Hey, where’s Caleb?”