Do you ever watch other people in the subway? It’s so strange to have to ignore someone who’s right up there in your face. A can of sardines springs to mind, except passengers aren’t joined by a bond of thick oil or brine. Instead, they’re stewing in a miasma of sweat, cologne and annoyance. Everybody absorbed in their own little worlds, warm little cocoons. There, whizzing through the bowels of the city at a brisk clip, you’ll find people reading books, newspapers. Maybe on a Playstation Portable. Maybe on a smartphone.
Except me. I’ll always be looking through the thick glass windows at the flickering blackness just beyond. Sometimes, late at night, I hope I’ll get on the same train once more, so I can see it all again.
It had been one of those weeks. Actually, it had been one of those months, where the targets piled up like so much dirty laundry. The boss was on my case. Miserable, balding fart with his mortgage and his European sports car, riding us all for another bullshit project for some client across the country. The days and nights lost their meaning. In at work early to beat the crowd. Heading home without ever seeing the light of the sun. Caffeine was my only friend. The last thing on the agenda for the work day was the mad sprint for the last train home because the miserable bastard wouldn’t even sign off on the late night taxi claims. It showed up on the work life balance indicators, he’d said.
It had been another mindless day of numbers, presentation slides and text. To be frank, I didn’t even know if the version of the meaningless report I was working on was the fifth or the fiftieth, nor could I have told you the difference between the two. The office had already emptied out an hour before, my last coworkers giving me a commiserating pat on the back as they headed off. I cursed as I stuffed my laptop and swept some papers into my bag. I was going to miss the train. The stale warmth of the building gave way to the bitter cold as I hit the streets running.
The station was deserted. Not unthinkable at this time of the night, but eerie all the same. There’s something about a hollow space meant for crowds. I’m not talking about muggers or anything like that. There is an air of the forbidden about these empty spaces. That’s how that night started out. Expectant. Waiting for something to happen.
Not that I cared at the time. The escalators were out for the night. I was wheezing hard by the time I got to the bottom, that old college fitness long drowned under an ocean of booze, buried under a mountain of fast food. I thought the last train had already left, resigning myself to a long wait for an expensive taxi ride back. I was about to leave when a train pulled up with the familiar scream of metal on metal. Graffiti adorned the grey skin of the train, tribal tattoos for the modern locomotive. The doors hissed, warm air belched from the cabin. I got in.
The train, strangely, was full. Not packed, but it was crowded. I found myself a seat in between a old man in a large brown overcoat and young lady that wearing a dark formal dress, a large flower pinned to her breast, her face a mask of mascara and eyeshadow, inexpertly applied. Across from me sat a pair of army guys in fatigues, their scalps shining pink under their tight buzz cuts. And many more besides. It was a puzzling thing, to have a cabin so full late at night, and with such a motley crew of inhabitants.
With a shudder, the train pulled out from the station.
I settled back contentedly into my seat. The network connection in the tunnels was never dependable. I had to find another way to entertain myself on the ride home.
The noise from the screech of the rails and the rush of air outside seemed muted. Instead, the cabin was filled with a soft susurrus, the hushed tones of a crowd in a theatre, expectant but subdued. The cabin felt colder than it should have been. Was the heating out again? It couldn’t be. I was certain that the cabin was warmer than the platform a second ago, yet now, it felt like I was back outside in the howling cold. I tugged my jacket a little tighter. I looked at the hodge podge of strange individuals in the cabin. Everybody seemed out of place. Why would there be a gaggle of high school kids, obviously inebriated, this late at night? Or the waifish girl that was wearing what seemed to be a school uniform. I shifted uncomfortably on the sculpted plastic seat. Not a single mobile phone or any other electronic device in sight, a strange sight in this day and age. I looked up at the row of LED lights that indicated the train’s progress along my route. 4 more stops.
I was still staring at the display when the train whizzed by the next station. It didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. Just kept going right. The lights and pillars of the station streamed by in a blur. I jerked upright in my seat, my eyes widening. What kind of train had I gotten on? The rest of the crowd was unfazed by this development. If anything, the low buzz of whispers got even louder as the train progressed.
We were still hurtling through the dark tunnel, the overhead lights flickering on and off, when the little girl in the school uniform affixed me stared at me, wide-eyed. She crept over to the group of high schoolers and tugged at the sleeve of one of the young men. He must have been a basketball player, towering over his companions. He nearly had to bend double to bring his ear down to the little girls face. Her jaw worked up and down as she whispered something to him urgently. I heard nothing over the sound of the train. He blinked and took a step back when he looked back in my direction, as though seeing me for the first time. His handsome face twisted strangely. What was it? Anger? No, he looked like he wanted something. He looked hungry. His compatriots noticed the break in the conversation and directed their gazes to the focus of his attention. To me. The same gamut of emotions cycled through their faces. Shock. And then a sharpening, a hardening of their features. They were hungry too. The giant took a step forward, perhaps meaning some harm for some slight on his person that I must have committed. One of the high school girls held him back.
The feeling spread through the cabin, like a spark arcing from person to person. The two uniformed men, looking up and tightening their jaws. The old man next to me, perking up and scooting down another seat so that he could look at me without straining his neck. Outside, a blur of lights told me that another station had shot by. 3 more stops.
I shrank back in my seat.The tendons straining at the surface of my hands as I clutched at my bag protectively, as though that stupid gesture, grabbing on to my work, the focus of my life, would ground me and take me from this nightmare. It didn’t. I felt the weight of their eyes on me, like insects crawling over my skin. Something was wrong. So clearly wrong. This strange crowd, so different, yet each of them was wearing that naked need on their faces.
“Don’t mind them, they’re just jealous of you.” The young lady by my side. Her voice was soft, mellifluous. “Don’t stare back and don’t talk to them.”
I turned to look at my erstwhile companion. “What are they jealous of? I just wanted to catch the last train home.”
“It’s the last train home for all of us, too.” She smiled. She was very pale. Very beautiful. “But not all of them want to be here. And looking at you, going home tonight, makes them so very unhappy.”
“Where’d they all come from? Was there a convention? A meeting?” I cast my eyes around the cabin again, but was stopped halfway by her strong fingers on my chin. Her fingers were icy cold. She turned my head around to face her.
“Everywhere. All around. Most of them didn’t want to be here. Except me, maybe. I’d had enough of where I was. I miss my parents. I haven’t seen them in such a long time. It took awhile, for me to gather enough courage to go look for them.” She paused, suddenly pensive at what she’d said. “You’re not meant to be here, you know. You’re on the wrong train. This isn’t your ride.” Outside the window, another station went by. My eyes flicked back to the board with all the little lights. 2 stops to home.
The whispering in the cabin had started up again. Louder than before, but still muffled by the sounds of the rails and the rushing air outside. They were talking about me. The atmosphere grew oppressive. The attention of the crowd felt like a rock on my chest. A vice. My breathing grew laboured. Each inhalation a struggle. I wheezed.
My companion sensed my discomfort. “I wish I could help,” she said, sadly. “It’ll stop when we get to the end of the line, I suppose.” Her eyes lit up at the thought. She turned around and scooted up onto the seat, her knees on the hard plastic, palms on the cold glass. Even with her face pressed up against the glass, there wasn’t a trace of fog on the window left by her breath. If she was even breathing at all. “Here, why don’t you take this, I won’t need it where I’m going.” She fumbled at her dress, detached the white flower and pressed it into my hands. The sweet smell of the lily took my attention away from the pain in my chest.
“We’re here!” She was quivering with excitement as the train began to slow. I looked up at the board overhead. All the lights on the map had gone out. Where were we?
She cupped my chin in her hands. It was only then, with her arms so close to my face, that I saw the network of fine white lines that criss crossed her forearms. She caught the flick of my eyes towards her arms. She shrugged, sheepish. “Practice makes perfect,” she said. She frowned, suddenly serious again. “This stop is for the rest of us. You can’t join us. You have to stay here.” She leaned forward quickly and gave me a kiss on my cheek. Her cold lips burned like an ice cube.
The people in the cabin quickly turned their attention to the approaching platform. I felt the weight on my chest ease. The whispering grew to a crescendo as they pointed and chattered excitedly. The platform drew close. And what a sight it was. I didn’t recognize the tiles or the posters. I must have taken this train a thousand times. I could have closed my eyes and named every station in order and the time between stations if I wanted to, and yet I was lost. There was nothing on the platform that helped in any way. No signs. No directions. What the platform had was people, a milling sea of heads and faces, all expectant, all eagerly waiting.
When the door opened, it let in the roar of the crowd outside. Shouts, shrieks and yells. And tears, so many tears. The passengers burst out of the train, throwing themselves into the waiting sea of people. I saw one of the army boys embracing an older gentleman, also dressed in military fatigues. None of that new aged stuff that pixelated camouflage. This was old school, with big green and brown blotches. The resemblance between the two was clear. They parted, the younger man introducing his father to his compatriot. The older man hugged him as tightly as he had hugged his own son earlier.
The group of teenagers whoop and leapt as they pushed through the crowd, seeking some new adventure for the night. I caught a last glimpse of the blond locks of the basketball player as they vanished around a corner.
The old man that was sitting by me had found an elegant looking lady in her thirties, her light sun dress looked out of place for the biting cold of winter. Or had I mistaken the man for someone else? I looked again and it wasn’t the old man any more, but a young couple laughing in the prime of their lives. No, it was the same coat and his features, lined with a jealous greed scant moments ago, were now lit with a fierce joy.
Just as the train doors hissed shut, I saw the girl that sat next to me on the train. She was in tears with her arms around a well dressed couple. She waved at me as the train pulled out of the station. I waved back.
My legs shook as I got off the train at my stop. The platform was reassuringly deserted. I watched as the train screeched into the distant darkness of the tunnel. I gingerly touched the numb spot on my cheek where the girl had kissed me. My fingers came away wet. I didn’t even remember the tears falling.
My nose was suddenly assaulted by a rich, thick greenhouse scent. Decaying plant matter. I fished out the lily from my coat pocket, where the strange girl had left it. The pristine white petals were dry to the point of crumbling and speckled black with rot. I let it fall from my fingers and watched it bounce on the station floor. It sat there, like an unmelting snow flake on the pocked grey concrete. I stared at it for a long time before I began the long trek home.