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.

Short Fiction


Avi strode through the burning city, surveying his work. Amidst the screams, the smoke, the roar of fire, and the thunder of collapsing buildings, pity and boredom entwined in the god’s heart. All this continent was swathed with flames and destruction. Another world, another calamity, another heartbeat of eternity passed.

The reptilian people of this planet hadn’t done anything to deserve this. Father had simply sent Avi to this planet to test its sentient life. And where Avi went, calamity followed. It was his nature, his duty to carry out Father’s will and show these life forms the worst the universe had to offer.

Avi turned his gaze to the emerald sea. It sat placid and flat, calmly reflecting the city’s carnage like a mere curiosity. That’s all it was to the sea, Avi supposed. It had existed long before his visit and would endure long past it.

Much like the land of this continent and the other across the sea. Such a small planet, he thought. Why had Father wanted to test it with such little land, so few people? But he had a duty, regretful as it was.

The sea shuddered as Avi considered it, as though the body of water understood it could no longer be an onlooker. Avi cast himself from the burning city into the ocean’s depths, marveling at the diversity of life as he traveled. Fish with many eyes and more teeth, barbed plants that snared passing creatures for a meal, and most fascinating were the strange creatures that looked like pulsating lights drifting through the water. Avi wondered how that one functioned, at what it did for the green world beneath the waves.

Avi could boil the sea and all of the life within, but Father had only decreed that the sentient life be tested, so Avi intended to harm these beings as little as possible. Avi wanted to preserve as much of this sea life as he could – with luck, and a few hundred thousand rotations, one of these creatures could crawl upon the land itself.

But the sea still had a role to play. Avi cracked the planet’s crust beneath the water, triggering a tsunami and directing it towards the distant continent. He regretted using the sea this way but wanted to wash his hands of this planet. Once, Avi had reveled in his purpose and duty, razing planets and upending civilizations with the glee of an infant who had found something sweet. But now the injustice of his actions seemed to grow greater and greater, as great as the wave he had sent across the world.

This planet’s people were technologically inept, lacking any means of communication beyond written messages. It was kind, in a way. People on the other side of the world wouldn’t know the horrors befalling their brothers and sisters. They would be living their normal lives until they were shattered by a wave greater than anything this world had ever seen. Avi estimated that of those living on the coast, three percent would survive.

Bitterness swelled in Avi’s heart. He reached out ahead of the tsunami and split atoms, unleashing a series of explosions that tore across the sea with a god’s fury. The counterforce shattered the tsunami before it would reach the continent. The locals would experience nothing but strangely unseasonal thunder. Avi turned his gaze back to the landform he’d left, quelling the fires with a thought.

Deep inside Avi’s being, something angry stirred. The tiny piece of Father that made Avi a god quivered with rage that he would disobey. Avi felt the anger through every fiber of his being, making the sea itself vibrate. Quickly, Avi struck at the ground. The world rocked, the entire surface experiencing quakes and tears simultaneously. Calamity enough, he decreed, though a tiny part of him feared Father wouldn’t accept such fast and sloppy work.

Begrudging acceptance was his response, then Father’s presence faded from his mind. Avi waited in the sea, surrounded by glowing creatures. Sometimes Father directed Avi towards another planet immediately. Other times he let the stars spin and civilizations grow old before calling on his child. Avi waited as the devastated world swung around its star twice and its cities were rebuilt. He’d have helped if he could, but such an act would grind against his nature and cause immense pain and weakness.

Another few rotations passed and Avi decided that Father was sleeping and satisfied.

Avi left the planet, stepping into the black sea between the stars. He drifted through the eternal night, enjoying Father’s creation in all its glory. He could perceive as much or as little of the universe as he felt necessary to bask in the glory of stars, and planets, and dust, and light, and everything that ever was or ever could be. After an irrelevant amount of time, Avi moved to a new solar system to watch what would occur.

Avi didn’t create every calamity with his own hands. His presence in the universe was enough to tip the delicate balance of being and cause destruction that might not have occurred otherwise. But he was aware of ongoing destruction in the universe and chose to watch the star of this system die.

He arrived at the perfect moment to watch it erupt in all its glory, one that few things saw. Avi noted that sentient life hadn’t adapted to the three orbiting planets lost in the explosion. Even on the others that weren’t destroyed instantly, life hadn’t advanced past a vegetative state. Avi alone witnessed this beauty. Except, any sentient life wouldn’t have seen beauty. They would have simply feared and panicked for a few brief moments before their planet was swallowed in the supernova.

The darkness became oppressive and cold. The loss of the star no longer felt as beautiful as the instant he’d seen it. Was this growing old? It happened to all life, but surely not to gods. He stared at the two planets that had lost their stars, drifting alone in the void. The planet life that had developed would wither away to nothing without much time. Some life would remain, primarily microbial life that cared little about light and could feast on the dying planets. Avi had always been surprised at how well life clung to itself. Few planets he visited were entirely purged of it unless Avi split the core and the planet with it. He’d done so often in what must have been his youth, reducing thousands of planets to rubble in the void with none to witness their passing.

None but Avi, who remembered every calamity, every time he had upended the natural order at Father’s whim or his own. Avi pondered his past as the planets around him grew colder and were drawn into the emptiness left by the star.

Then a thought erupted into Avi’s mind with the force of the supernova. His duty was to bring calamity, to upend natural cycles – but what constituted a natural cycle?

Avi left the cold planets, too barren and doomed for his plans. He raced through the dark sea, hunting for the right system, the right planet. This one had three suns too many, that one had a single planet whose irregular orbit would doom it with another hundred or so rotations.

With time, Avi found the one. A rather small planet with an elliptical orbit around two stars. The planet was coated in purple land with a moderate surface amount of strangely white, tepid water. Avi landed on the planet softly, the soil stirring at his passage.

Avi began with an atmosphere, drawing forces and gases together and creating magnetic poles that would all work to help protect his planet from the twin suns. Then he set about purging the soil and sea and air of universal toxins that all life hated.

Father stirred and suspicion peered out of Avi’s center. He commanded Father to be silent and leave Avi to his machinations. Father had not given him a command and thus Avi was free to pursue his desires. Father growled, making it clear that he thought this went against Avi’s nature. Beyond his domain.

Avi finished purging the soil and created a single cell of life.

The planet split beneath his feet at Father’s whim. Avi fought against him, struggling at first to bring the planet back together, then to stop it from shattering. A terrible scream emanated from within as he fought both Father and his own nature to hold the planet together. Destroying the planet upended its natural order as much as creating life would, and holding it together threatened to shred Avi’s very being, though he didn’t understand what that would entail.

The stars around the planet surged with energy. Avi sensed Father’s intent to create supernovas claiming the planet and sought to delay them, stretching himself further and trying to remind them that they had all of eternity to burn for.

Father’s pity welled up, compelling Avi to just let go of the planet. He had given Avi a glorious purpose and this was not it. Avi resisted, knowing to the core of his being that the creation of life was a calamity. This planet’s natural cycle was death and nothing – how better could he subvert that than to give it life?

They weren’t alone anymore. Avi sensed his brethren flocking to this system, all the gods of creation marveling at the battle between Father and son. The first rebellion since the first breath of eternity. Avi let them feel his will, his passion and desire, and his certainty.

Father sighed.

The first star erupted. Then froze mid supernova. The twins Ori and Iro held the star together, one wishing for new life to protect and the other desiring new lives to reap. Slowly, the will of the pantheon bent towards Avi’s favor and the other gods joined in his effort to hold the planet together, to stop the stars from dying. Some joined in pure support of his purpose, others wanted to just see what would happen.

Avi felt a burst of energy deep inside. The support of his brethren left no doubt that this was Avi’s nature. This was his role to play. Avi directed this new power into the planet, not just holding it together but beginning to mend it.

Father pulsed with surprised rage and Avi suddenly saw the end of eternity. The heat death of the universe would bring oblivion to everything except Father. For the first time, Avi had to consider that he might end.

Oblivion threatened him. But Avi stood tall and proud, gazing ahead. He would bring life to this planet or calamity to the universe. He would work for his purpose and resolved to act with pride in doing so. Avi stood in open defiance to Father, awaiting judgment with his head held high.

A deep sigh shuddered through existence, felt by everything which was. Then a slow pride burned from Father. He undid his damage, restoring the planet and stars to what they had been. The pantheon flitted away, buzzing with new energy and wonder at this turning point of eternity.

Avi was alone on his purple planet. The god of calamity smiled, then life erupted into being.