Chalk

0396 - ChalktopusStephen loved to walk from his tiny garret apartment overlooking the river to the university where he taught. His first class was a geography section that met at ten minutes past seven every morning. Most of the year, that meant his walk was illuminated by the first, warming rays of the morning sun.

He would walk the first section along the river, where fog often diffused the colors of the sunrise, then he would turn toward the center of the city, stopping at his favorite newsstand for the daily paper – he reveled in the inky texture of newsprint against his fingers – a coffee, and a cheese Danish. His lunches and dinners were always healthy but having coffee and pastry in the morning had been a ritual since his student day, when eating on the go had been more important than balanced nutrition.

Besides, his daily walks, rain or shine, warm weather or cool, kept him trim. He could afford the ’empty’ calories.

The last section of Stephen’s walk brought him through the Chalk Alleys. These were narrow streets between great brick buildings, their external walls covered in layer upon layer of chalk drawings. He enjoyed the work of the different artists, and while he could never decipher the tags that represented their creators’ names, he recognized each distinct style.

There was one chalk artist who was obsessed with machine age cityscapes, and another who thought themself a contemporary Degas, covering walls with stylized dancers in modern club attire. There was the illustrator who memorialized local personalities on the bricks, and there was another who created trompe l’oeil windows onto other worlds.

More recently, however, a new artist had joined the extant crew. Stephen had glimpsed some of their work on warehouses along the waterfront and become intrigued by the monsters they depicted. A white shark with three-dimensional teeth swam on the wall of the old boathouse, and a dragon with scales that glittered like the stars was on the wall opposite the university gates. Creature-Feature’s (Stephen’s private nickname for the skilled creator) monsters were all based on real animals, but given heightened realism, and exaggerated danger.

As he turned the final corner, Stephen saw Creature-Feature’s most recent work: a giant squid that seemed to undulate along the wall, several of its tentacles even curling around the corner of the building. In the weak light that hit these bricks, it seemed as if the squid had was following him on his path. Indeed, when he turned the corner, the tentacles followed him, stretching off their flat surface to reach for…

No! This could not be happening!

Stephen quickened his pace in order to reach the next corner, and where he could cross the street and climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge.

The great beast followed him.

It made no sound, but when Stephen had to step closer to the wall to side-step a puddle, he caught the scent of seawater and something faintly rubbery and slimy and sinister, and felt the sucker on the tentacle’s underside brush the back of his neck.

Dropping his coffee and pastry, Stephen broke into a run. Most of his brain was occupied with breathing and not tripping and wishing he’d thought to wear running shoes to work and change upon arrival, but another, smaller part, wondered if any of his students followed this route to school, and what would they think?

The sunlight grew brighter, bringing more of the brick expanse into its warming glow and Stephen cast aside his newspaper and ran faster. If he could reach that corner, he’d be out of the shadows. Surely sunlight would stop the thing, right?

Right?

But he’d forgotten: just before the corner one of the old building had been supplanted by a skyscraper, as was happening more and more often in the city. The tall structure blotted out the sunlight, and the squid reached for him again, and this time, the suckers caught him.

As the chalk creature dragged him into its dusty embrace (why had he thought it was slimy?), Stephen screamed.

But there was no one to hear him.

The seasons changed. Stephen’s class was reassigned to the bewilderment of students who had always enjoyed their original professor’s lectures. The landlord eventually emptied the apartment and leased it to someone new at twice the rent.

Rains erased the cityscapes and dancers, and new illustrators came to create new chalk picture, but the squid, on its sheltered bricks, remained. It wasn’t technically indelible, but no one was willing to touch it. It felt too weird, they said.

Still the image of the giant sea-monster had been altered. If asked, people would say the image changed around the time of Stephen’s disappearance.

And the alteration?

The figure of a man in khaki pants and a jacket with elbow-patches, a messenger bag slung across his body, was visible in the curl of one of the squid’s tentacles, his mouth open in a perpetual scream.