Sunday afternoon. How many people ride the train Sunday afternoon? Not many, I assure you. I’m one of the few. Every Friday evening, I crowd on with a few hundred people and squish myself between a person, usually too large for the chair, and the window. I only sit in window seats. I get nauseous.
Friday evenings the train is always louder. It’s not the people on the train. Some snore or listen to music on cheap earbuds, forcing the rest of us to listen to the tinny echoes, but most just sit and breathe. On their phone screen, on their lap, their book, the window, or the person next to them. No, it’s the train itself that’s louder.
Have you ever listened to the sounds of a headache? My headaches sound like people shouting, unintelligibly, but just loud enough that you feel like you should be able to hear what they are saying, so you strain a little harder, you press a little deeper into your headache, and then you remember it’s a headache and jerk back out again.
That’s what riding the train on a Friday evening is like, except that it’s all so very real, and there are people all around you just breathing, and it’s all you can do not to breathe in their breath and suffocate on the carbon dioxide. Funny how evolution doesn’t want us too close, or maybe I just don’t understand science.
But Sunday afternoons are different.
The train is tired. It’s been a good weekend, relaxing, but you know tomorrow’s Monday and the train has to work every day of the week, and I know I don’t, but don’t you feel what the train feels? You can smell its peace of mind in the seats. The leather has a stronger scent on Sunday afternoons, and the sounds of the headache, the sounds of the train, are more like beating butter and eggs together for brownies than a body being beaten up in some dark alleyway.
But this Sunday, the glass cracked.
Always, the sounds and whispers of the train are just out of reach, just a little too nebulous to really understand and do anything more than describe, inadequately. This Sunday, I felt as though I had slipped deeper into the sounds than ever before.
I heard a loud crash of sound, from where I had no idea, and then a man of forty, with black and silver hair and sad, dark eyes, thought today would be a good day to be his last day. Maybe he was a commuter or maybe he was planning on taking the train for some other reason or maybe he’d come just for this purpose, either way—he threw himself off the platform at a stop the train hadn’t planned to stop at.
A second after, the driver slammed on the brakes.
A second before, the auburn-graying-haired woman across from me slammed down her knitting and pressed the emergency button on the wall.
The little girl on her father’s lap across the aisle broke into a long, tragic wail.
The old man reading the Washington Examiner let out a wild sneeze.
The train screeched violently to a halt just as we came into the turn, and I watched as though in slow motion the woman who’d gotten up to press the emergency button fall sideways into the window, an oversized bag flying off the rack above my head right towards hers—
“DUCK!” roared the old man with a cold, and the woman dropped like a parachute, too slowly for my comfort but fast enough to feel fast as the oversized bag smashed into the window over the head she cradled in her hands.
The glass had cracked.
All of the sounds—the woman gasping as she pushed the oversized bag off of her head, letting out a little cry when she saw her knitting torn in two; the old man wiping his nose and clearing his throat, picking up his fallen newspaper; the little girl sniffling after her unexplained tantrum, her father wiping her wet eyes with a tissue; and among it all, myself, and the fifty-odd other passengers, sitting on the breathing, unmoving train, breathing—and now they weren’t. It was as though they had been zipped shut. Pulled into silence and yet still, I could sense them, more clearly than before.
The glass had cracked but was not yet broken.
The woman ran a finger over the crack that had threaded its way down the window. A voice crackled on over the loudspeaker. “The doors are opening… please get off here and take another train to your ultimate destination, you may do so free of charge… there has been an accident.”
It was the driver’s voice, not some prerecorded jingling peal of a woman’s voice, always a woman’s and lacking in all tone or humanity. The doors rattled open and yet none of us moved. The woman continued to trace the cracked window and we all sat in silence. Then the father and the little girl got to their feet and began to walk toward the open door.
“Stop!” the woman shouted.
The man froze, clutching his daughter. “Why?” he asked. He had the voice of a much older man but the eyes of one half his age. His face was quite striking, I thought.
The woman glared at him. “Did you see me push the emergency button?”
“Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“Do you know why I pushed the button?” she asked.
“Because… because the train stopped?” he asked, but even as he spoke it was dawning on him that he didn’t, in fact, know why she would have done that.
“Because of the man,” I broke in.
“What man?” the father asked, his striking face beginning to contort with something akin to fear. I saw his right hand slide slowly over his daughter’s coat, protecting her.
The woman turned to me. “The man?” she asked. Her head was tilting slowly, as though I were some kind of interesting specimen she’d just put on a slide.
“The one who threw himself in front of the train,” I said, with conviction.
“And how did you know that?” she asked, moving closer.
I blinked, but her face did not waver before my eyes. “I—I don’t know.”
“What sort of man?” she asked, now directly in front of me, a steely glint in her eyes. She pressed back her auburn-graying hair with her left hand, sliding it behind one ear. “What did he look like? What is his name? How much do you know?”
“He’s forty,” I said, “dark hair, but a little white and gray on the sides, dark eyes, sad eyes. He’s not very tall.”
“Is that all you know?”
“That’s all I know,” I said, but there was a small chill going down my back—my strange premonition had grown even stronger now that I had spoken. He was more vivid in my mind and then, that little extra detail, his height, had popped up unbidden even as the words had emerged from my mouth. I didn’t understand it, but now this woman was pacing, and the father and his little girl were standing frozen, wide-eyed, just before the exit.
“It’s you,” she said, freezing, stopping, staring at me. “The minute the train stopped, I knew something was wrong. I knew—I wasn’t at my strongest. And there’s proof,” she continued, gesturing at the little girl and her father, hovering at the door. “They almost left. They almost… slid out of my grasp.”
It took me a moment to realize that no one else on the train had moved, only that father and his daughter, and now even they were stock-still. So still, in fact, for a moment I wasn’t even sure if they were breathing—but they must be breathing, I told myself. There was no way they weren’t breathing, as bizarrely immobile as they appeared to be.
She tilted her head, again, this time the other way.
“You tell them to stay,” she said. “Go on, tell them.”
I opened my mouth, but she cut me off with, “Not with your words. Your mind.”
I stared at her. I had no idea what she meant. All I could manage was, “Who are you?”
The sounds and sights of the train seemed to be swaying and echoing all around us, as though there was a forcefield of color and it was all drawn to the center, to the woman with auburn-graying hair and torn knitting lying on the ground, and me—why me? But there was no denying it was all there. Or that I had known about the man. That I had felt him—and I felt cold.
“I have a headache,” I said, instinctually, irrelevantly, almost as an excuse, even though it was a blatant lie.
She sat down hard on the bench across from me and stared at me, hard. “If you want me to answer that question, then you’ll have to close your eyes.”
I stared at her. I couldn’t remember what I’d asked.
“Just for a second. So I can get that poor man and his daughter to sit back down, and tell the driver to close the doors again.”
I had more questions than there are words in the world but I closed my mouth for the moment and acquiesced.
The silence grew deeper.
I opened my eyes. The doors were shuddering shut and the man and his daughter were seating themselves down again, as obedient as lambs. The woman smiled at me. “You’re not very well-trained, but you have some power in your voice,” she said. “Now, if you want me to tell you who I am, you must first tell me who you are.”
“You said I just had to close my eyes, and you would tell me who you are. And—” my voice caught. “And who that man—”
She waved a hand. “He matters, but not to you. He was going to die anyway.”
“I would’ve stopped him, but it’s too late. You interfered.”
“And I forgive you. It’s not the first time. But it seems you don’t understand who you are.”
“As I said, you said you’d tell me who you—”
She sighed. “Well.” She picked up her knitting and let out another little sigh. “Well. I suppose I should start at the beginning.”
“The beginning of what?”
“Me,” she said quietly. “We’ve got time, don’t worry. Your mother is out shopping with her boyfriend and won’t be home until ten.” She picked up the ball of yarn on the seat behind her. It was a dark, musty mustard yellow. I watched as she began to unravel the spool and let it fall down onto the floor of the train. I felt like something inside me was unraveling, too, or I was only just noticing how unraveled I was, what I’d done.
She held out the end of the yarn, the very end, not the bit that was connected to whatever misshapen thing she was knitting, but the very, very end, a frayed piece that dangled in front of me like a taunting finger.
I hesitated, staring at the woman, and then took a deep breath and picked up the bit of frayed end, causing the long wooden knitting needles to clatter to the floor as I jerked on the end of the yarn. Smoothly, slowly, impossibly, we slid sideways into the dissolving air, which whistled and sighed, mockingly, with incomprehensible whispers my ears strained to decode.
“This will only take a second,” I heard the woman say as the air disintegrated. “It’s years… years and years of memories… but they’ll only take a second.”