Short Fiction

The Night Train

John collapsed into the subway seat. He’d found few benefits of the graveyard shift, but the empty subway car sat at the top. It didn’t smell better, but there was some amount of peace and solace in those hours that bridged night and day. Usually, he’d get onto his stop in the dark – or as dark as the city ever got – before dragging his way towards a sky just starting to illuminate with weak morning light.

John fought to keep his eyes open as the subway lurched and groaned into motion. Sleeping on the subway at this hour rarely ended well for him. Once, he woke up twelve stops too late while another time, he’d woken to find no watch, wallet, or phone in his pockets. And five stops too late.

John’s mind wandered from the present moment as his stomach growled. There should have been a few slices of pizza left from the night before. That would be lovely, he thought. His sister had gotten him one of those air fryers the Christmas before – or the Christmas before last? It worked a marvel, turning a frigid wedge of pizza into a warm slice of stretchy cheese and dripping grease. He’d just need to contort the slice a bit. John could almost taste it-

“Excuse me.” The voice, very polite and high and feminine, jerked John from his fantasies. A young lady sat beside him. Her white skin was so pale it appeared luminous. Her hair was pure silver, draped elegantly across a slender frame clad in black. The woman’s eyes were wide and dark, violet lips parted in a curious expression.

John shifted in his seat, moving a little further from the woman. He’d thought he was alone. Perhaps the long night was playing tricks on him. He felt a tingle of annoyance; there were plenty of open seats. Why bother him, and sit so close he could smell…well, the smell was strange. It overwhelmed the normal smells of the subway. Fresh rain and flowers, and something earthy beneath it all.

John gave a sharp nod of acknowledgment, then rose and went to another seat some distance away. Something about her dark gaze cast a chill over him and cut to his core.

“I have a question for you.” The woman sat at his side again, like he’d never moved. Or perhaps he hadn’t. These long nights at the gas station tended to stretch his mind to the limits. He’d see shadows that had no casters and hear whispers with no source. Maybe he hadn’t moved.

John hadn’t imagined the chill, though.

“What?” He tried to keep a conversational tone.

“Are you happy?”

“Sure,” John said with a dismissive shrug. The same answer he’d given for years before and likely years after. He wasn’t on the street or lost in the bottle or needle. Even if he didn’t have a good job or friends or partners, who was he to complain? John had lived a perfectly average life of ups and downs in an uncaring city. Neither good nor bad.

The woman frowned, the expression somehow delicate and thunderous at once. “Don’t lie to me, John.”

“How do you know my name?” John edged away from her, opening a seat between them. Strange people walked at night. Men with too-bright eyes for the hour, children with haunted gazes like specters. John tried to remember if he’d seen this woman before. The gas station had banned several customers for stalking the women who worked in the wee hours. This strange woman could be his own stalker, but he didn’t think he’d seen her. “Have we met?”

“You have a name tag.” She reached out a thin hand and tapped the thin plastic square on his shirt. John fumbled with the tag, sticking it into a pocket.

“I’ve answered your question. If I could have a bit of peace?” What a day to forget the earbuds at home. He could have drowned her out.

“One more. Please.” Her eyes grew wider. They seemed to sparkle and swirl, entrancing John. He found himself nodding into their inky depths, making a promise he didn’t care to keep.

“Do you have any last words?”

The question snapped John out of her eyes and he jerked away. His head struck the rail behind him and he clambered to his feet. “I don’t want any trouble.” John backed away. He pulled his wallet and phone from his pockets and tossed them to the ground. He never had gotten around to replacing that watch. “Take everything I’ve got.”

No need to tell her the credit card had forty bucks before maxing out and that the account attached to the debit card had twice that if he was lucky. The stranger before him hinted he was not.

“I don’t want your money.” She was beside him again, this time standing and holding the overhead handle. “Oh. I never gave you my name. That’s why you’re uncomfortable.” She cocked her head and stared at John, as if trying to decide what her name was. “Call me Chuck.”

Then her brow furrowed. A hand jumped to her chest, then fumbled with her hair. “Oh. Call me Mary. No, Hannah. I like Hannah, I think. The beginning and the end are the same.” Chuck or Mary or Hannah gave a radiant smile. “So, what are your last words?”

John’s chest twinged and his breathing grew labored. Hannah smiled at him like they were old friends out on the subway, heading for a terribly late dinner or absurdly early breakfast. But she was going to kill him, wasn’t she? John backed away. He tripped. The motion knocked John back into a seat and Hannah was sitting beside him once more. Had he ever seen her move more than her hand or head?

“I don’t know,” John said in something like a squeak.

Hannah pulled a face. “That’s what many say. Think it over before answering. Take your time.” She stared at her wrist like she was checking a watch on the bare skin. “Well. Take some time.”

Hannah pulled a small yellow notebook from her pocket. It fit in her palm. She flipped it open and started thumbing through pages. John couldn’t help but watch. Who thought about their last words?

He was still afraid, but that fear was slowly fading. Or changing. Some fundamental part of John told him there was no escaping this woman and whatever she had planned. The subway was still rolling, after all. Where could he go?

“Do you do this often?” The question fumbled past his lips. Hannah looked surprised, then nodded.

“Every time. Well, mostly. So many people say ‘Who are you, what are you, what’s happening,’ then that’s it and it’s what I have to record. It especially happens when I come after the fact, which is why I’m trying to come sooner.”

Hannah checked her wrist again and gave John a meaningful glance. “Try thinking about your life. What would you tell somebody here, now, in this spot?”

“Run.” John tried to smile. He failed, and Hannah didn’t try.

“What if your son asks?” Her gaze pinned him into the seat. “Or daughter or whatever – whoever – you’re leaving behind?”

The question pulled at the part of John’s mind that regretted his lack of children over the years. He thought he’d buried that. It’s not that he was too old, but too small. The idea of children, of a wife, of commitment, had driven him from others long ago. That part of his mind reared now, all the more painful for its time in the crevices of his heart. “I’m not leaving anyone behind.”

“It’s why I ask,” Hannah murmured. Her eyes grew sad and heavy. They tugged at John’s heart, trying to pull him down with her mood. “A young girl asked me what her parents said, and I had nothing to give her. No reassurance or comfort. So I started to ask. It makes it harder to do my job, but everybody deserves a small mercy at the end, don’t you think?”

She produced a pen by rolling her fingers, like a magician pulling a trick. “You’re nearly out of time, John. I could take a no comment. Some people ignore me and I don’t get anything until the very end and they start begging. I usually don’t record that, though. There’s no dignity in telling a spouse that they’re partner begged and raved at the end.”

John wanted to ask what they begged for, but he knew. The note of finality in her voice told John he didn’t need to beg for his life either. It would fall upon cold ears. So he scoured his life for something meaningful. A lesson he’d learned – oh, there were many. Some should have been obvious. Others John still barely understood. There were dozens of hobbies scattered across his timeline, picked up and forgotten, and chains of dead end jobs that crushed passion instead of stoking it. A legion of girlfriends he’d fled from in the final hours, or hurt in the fog of youth and ignorance.

There were good times. John wouldn’t deny those nights out drinking with his friends, the tender kisses and loving nights that preceded the breakups and heartache. The jobs he’d found unexpected delight in before companies changed or coworkers left. Had it been a life well lived? Or had it been too ordinary? Heartbreak, drunken nights, fights and joys and sorrow. Was there anything remarkable he could say to make this woman remember him among the faceless masses of the city?

The subway began to slow. “This is it,” Hannah said.

John’s heart fluttered. What could he say? He wanted to be remembered for something profound. If not profound, at least not cowardly or foolish. Surely that was something.

The subway slowed. “I don’t know,” John said in a panic. “What should I say? Who would ask?”

“Maybe nobody,” Hannah said. “I could be the only one to remember you. But I promise I will.” She showed him the notebook. His name was written in neat script. Somehow, John knew it was him. Even though he had a common name, his essence was woven into those few letters forever. Nobody reading this notebook would mistake that John for any other.

“Thank you,” John whispered.

The subway lurched to a stop. Hannah wrote “thank you” with the same clean handwriting. She snapped the notebook closed and both it and the pen were gone. Hannah offered John her hand.

John took it. It was surprisingly warm, considering she led him to death. He followed Hannah onto the platform. There were few people out at this hour, as always. But there had been a commotion. The people on the platform were clustered around something, a few cars down. A police officer pushed his way through the crowd.

Hannah cocked her head, fingers drifting free from John. He had nothing better to do than follow her over to the people. Hannah sighed and shook her head. “The wrong car.” She walked through the crowd. They parted before her, though none of them seemed to see her. Hannah helped an old man to his feet and led him away from the whispers. Her voice drifted back to John, waiting by the train.

“Any last words, Jack?”

John pushed his way through the crowd. The officer blocked his path, asking him to step back and please give the man some space. The old man, the same one Hannah was helping away from the platform, lay on the ground, a hand on his heart. John staggered away from the crowd, twisting and looking for Hannah.

John met Hannah’s eyes across the platform. “What about me?” His voice shouldn’t have traveled that far, but she shrugged. Her own voice whispered in his ear, as though she stood just over his shoulder and not a dozen feet away.

“I guess you can take your time.”

She and Jack were gone.

John wiped his face, then turned his back on the crowd. He walked up the stairs, ascending into a city lit by weak morning light.

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