Gio strode toward the 51st street bus stop. The purple glow of early morning spread over dingy strip malls and litter-crusted sidewalks. The 4:50 a.m. was the earliest bus, and Gio would have to take two buses and a northbound train to make the 7 a.m. shift for his nursing internship.
Take this job, his ailing 92-year-old grandmother had begged him. Even if you have to get up at 3 a.m.! Gio had been apprehensive, not about the distance or the early rising, but about caring for Grandma, which he volunteered to do every morning during his schooling.
Don’t you worry about me, Grandma assured him. I’ll take care of me.
Gio wondered how she would manage this first day, with aunts and uncles rotating in on weekdays. It was caring for Grandma that had led him to his calling. Now his calling seemed to be pulling him away.
Red graffiti covered the bus shelter. Across the street, immaculate cars in Plaid Pete’s Used Auto Lot contrasted the grimy surroundings.
Plaid Pete (if there was such a person) had left one of those inflatable vinyl mascots on overnight. The neon green noodle man flipped and flapped and slithered into the air. Tasseled appendages made a steady fwp, fwp, fwp sound. Googly eyes rolled over a fat pink smile.
Gio fished into his backpack for headphones, then glanced back at the noodle man, rising, falling, arms relaxing and springing high to that hypnotic fwp, fwp, sound. Its tube-like trunk crinkled in the breeze. A crazy cone of hair twisted toward the heavens.
He found himself fixated on the creature’s odd, undulating dance. He’d seen plenty of these gawdy things outside businesses before. Yet, for some reason, this one bothered him.
The fwp, fwp, fwp continued—the only sound echoing in the pinkening desolation of sunrise. Gio grabbed his backpack and stepped out from behind the bus shelter. He licked a finger, and held it into the air.
Hardly a ghost of wind. Yet noodle man whickered back and forth, side-to-side, not just up and down. Geo’s stomach tightened.
With no cars in sight, he approached partway into the street and peered over the modest lawn in front of rows of chrome sports cars. He couldn’t find any sign of the oversized industrial fan that usually powered the noodle men—no cords or electrical sockets nearby.
Noodle man’s head bobbed. Its vinyl skin shimmered. The bright green was too bright. Almost glow-in-the-dark. But it was getting lighter, not darker.
Fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp . . .
Noodle man’s eyes lolled. Its rhythmic dance slowed.
Fwp . . . fwp . . .
Its shoulders arched; cylindrical head twisted.
. . . fwp . . .
Angry black eyebrows arched as noodle man glared right at Gio.
Gio shrank toward the curb and tripped. The neon tube whipped and stretched, twice as long. The eyes widened. The maw of its mouth pried open with manic delight. The snaky Medusa tassels of its hair spread.
Gio scrambled to his feet. Noodle man’s arm stretched like taffy. Lime-colored jellyfish tendrils wriggled across the street. Gio rolled under the glass partition of the bus stop. Enormous strands of green linguini swept the sidewalk and noiselessly sucked up his backpack.
Noodle man recoiled its arm. It crouched and crawled across the street. Its clownish mouth swelled. Finger tendrils grew long and wild. That windy fwp, fwp, fwp grew louder, faster.
Fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp, fwp!
Gio tried to slip out of the bus shelter, but noodle man’s green mitts slapped the sides of the partitions and stuck to them. Green tendrils spiraled around the rectangular structure like neon mummy wrappings. A sour-milk odor filled the shelter. Gio gagged.
Stretchy appendages wormed under the partitions and covered the sidewalk. Gio leapt onto the bench. His stomach turned, skin crawled.
Noodle man’s gummy grin pressed against the shelter. Its eyes narrowed with malice.
A magenta tongue squeaked against the glass. Flat green hair slipped through the openings and snared Gio’s arms. The frying-pan-hot tendrils seared his skin, and he gave an agonized cry. More green wrappings cooked his legs, shredded his scrubs.
He couldn’t struggle—only scream as his limbs cooked in the smiling monster’s mocking embrace. Noodle man’s head smooshed into the bus shelter. The pink mouth widened. The magenta tongue smothered Gio’s cries. He had only the briefest moment to worry about Grandma, before his body crunched, compressed, and shot into squishy darkness.
* * *
Moments later, the 4:50 a.m. rounded the corner. Used cars gleamed like a field of diamonds in breaking sunrise. LeRoy the bus driver braked at the sight of a snakelike thing squirming across the street. It seemed to change shape, fold in on itself.
Swollen pink lips at the end of the green tube puckered and yanked the manhole cover right off the sewer. Then it slurped underground.