The hazy afternoon fades into a rainy evening like a dream, slowly then suddenly. I flip up my coat collar and bow my head like a convict on the run, clenched fists shoved in my pockets. Rivulets of water trace their way through my hair, chilly fingers draw rivers down my back. I step faster as the pitter-patter on the sidewalk grows to a single hypnotic hum.
The crosswalk light holds up a red hand that smolders sharply in the gloom, but I pass it by and turn up the next street. Buildings flank the road like watchful sentinels, watery light pouring through rows of windows. It reminds me of my damp shoes and I’m suddenly aware of their squishes with every step. I want more than anything to kick them off, to throw my sopping overcoat onto a hook and change out of these clothes. I think I might be late for the train.
The air cuts through my wet jacket and leaves an eruption of goosebumps in its wake. I watch strands of wet hair dangle in front of my eyes and I swipe them aside with numb fingertips—soon they fall right back like the swing of a pendulum. My left hand ventures from its nest to vigorously shake it out. Streetlights flare to life along the street, passing me like a stranger and continuing on their way through the dusk. The lights make me feel alone, a spotlight for a show that isn’t happening. Now it’s just me on the empty stage performing to an empty darkness. I can’t think of a more forgiving audience.
The moon is hiding its face among the concrete clouds, but the distant glow of headlights makes me think he’s peeking over the earth at me. I duck into the subway entrance before he comes crashing to the earth to splash me with gutter water. The cement corridor takes the brunt of the spray, mist washing over the wall like static in my vision.
I grope for my wallet as I approach the ticket booth. The steady drip from my jacket accompanies the tapping of the worker on their computer, seemingly unaware I’m here. It’s a frustrating thing to be ignored, but the anger fizzles like a damp match and my eyes droop sleepily. Eventually she looks up to await my money with an impatient glare, and I fumble to lay out a few bills. She slips my ticket alongside them, and for a moment it seems a simple thing to just grab them both and race for the turnstiles. She busies herself with counting out my change before she takes the cash.
The thought drips to the floor at my feet and she splays a fan of dollars and coins under the divider. I crumple them in a fist along with my ticket and deposit the scrap of paper into the machine slot ahead. I can feel the worker’s eyes on my back as I walk away, though I still hear the clicks of her keyboard.
There are two people patiently ignoring one another as I sit alongside the endless gaping maw that will be my path home. One is a man, well older than the woman near him, probably in his fifties. She can’t be older than her mid-teens, clutching a handbag as close to her chest as she can, watching the ground as if the train might burst out of it. He’s reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but for the entire time I’m sitting here, I never see him turn the page. My phone is dead and I sit quietly nearby.
The rain overhead thunders through the corridor in waves, first deafening, then gentle, then monotonous, then deafening again. It rumbles inside my skull and reminds me of the ocean. I imagine a torrent of water racing down the tracks, foamed and unsettled, a focused tidal wave tumbling from one black hole to the next. A ferry would float down the new canal after the water settles, the same blue-red streak emblazoned across its hull like any other public transit. We would all shuffle toward the doors as they slide hastily open. I would take a seat next to a cute brown-haired girl that would smile when I look over to her and I would smile back, chest blooming with warmth, but then the intercom would call out, “Hey. Hey… Hey.” The ferry would rock from another gush of water that pushes past it, and I would fall forward in my chair—
My eyes jerk open before I leave my seat entirely. I sit back and sharply inhale through my nose, blinking away the mist in my eyes.
“You just about kissed the ground, buddy.” The middle-aged man grins companionably. “This isn’t the best place to take a nap.”
My eyes dimly point at him and attempt to make sense of the interjection. I open my mouth groggily, maybe to thank him or apologize or something, but I can’t force the words out. Exhaustion hangs sandbags off my eyelids like sleep still has me in its grip.
He only snorts a laugh to fill the silence. “Don’t blame you. This rain is half putting me to sleep too.”
I nod silently. The man’s gravelly bravado careens down the east tunnel, chatting with itself as it descends into oblivion. Only now do I realize how tired I am. Rain’s as good as a blanket to put someone to sleep, provided it’s on the other side of a wall.
“Our chariot arrives,” the man mutters, cracking a yellow-toothed grin. The rumble of the rain is matched by a full-body vibration that creeps from the east tunnel, as though in reply to the man’s echo. The girl’s eyes leap from the ground to the approaching noise like the chariot might not be out of the question. Light bleeds through the darkness in tandem, brakes screeching as the train shoots into view. The enormous rush of wind drags garbage along the tracks, clattering down the tunnel to the pounding rhythm of the brakes.
A moment of deafening silence. My eyes predict the closest door and lock onto it.
We raise all our belongings in tandem as the passengers wander out, glassy, unreal, and absolutely silent. I wander past them through the doors, as does my friend-of-necessity and the owl-eyed teenager, and we all take seats in the same car equidistance from one another. As with any subway station acquaintance, I consider how I will never see him again. I’m sure he knows that too, but he still took the time to speak to me. How pointless, I think. How utterly pointless that kindness was. That’s why I’ll remember it.
My musings are cut short by a rush of movement outside my cloudy plastic window. Someone, soaked to the bone, is hurtling towards my car’s door, which I now notice is sliding shut. “Doors are closing,” the voice says lazily, a moment too late to be practical.
I can’t remember exactly when I decided to get up, or even why, but I sling myself to my feet from my slumped seating position, shoes squishing loudly as fanfare, and I wedge a hand between the doors. I grimace at the rubbery death grip but slide my other hand in just the same. The man cracks what I can only imagine as a yellow-toothed grin behind me and chuckles as I heave the two doors apart like the jaws of a toothless crocodile. Eventually the resistance gives and they slide the rest of the way freely, and I wonder what an old woman who gets her purse stuck in the door could possibly do. Or even someone who gets their scarf trapped. What if the next stop is on the other side?
The doors free my hand but leave a black grime strip across my palm as a reward for my efforts. My gaze rises like steam from my examination and I notice I’m standing in her way. My hand is about eye level with her, raised stupidly as it is, with short auburn curls framing a pale, dripping countenance and a dusting of freckles across her reddened nose. Her black peacoat clings heavily to her and she’s still in the process of shaking out her hair, which unwillingly conjures an image of a Dachshund just out of a bath.
She catches my eye and immediately I forget the comparison. Sky-blue peeks out from behind her sodden hair, like a storm breaking. A look of surprise replaces her grimace of frustration as she registers the doors and the guy with the grimy hand extended as if for a handshake.
I blink. The entire moment occurs amidst it. She bolts between the doors before they snap at her again.
They shudder shut once more and the train crawls back to speed. I stumble back to my seat. The station map tells me I still have eight stops to go, the end of the line. My head drops against the pane once more and I watch dim lights shoot by like SEPTA-branded shooting stars. The rest is darkness.
I almost don’t register it through my wet coat and haze of sleep deprivation, but something falls against my shoulder. For another long moment I can’t even convince myself to see what it is. But it’s warm. Much warmer than some carelessly placed luggage. I attempt to raise my left arm and find it trapped underneath a mass of curls and damp clothing.
She hadn’t said a word when she took the seat, but she’d already made herself at home. Her coat is thrown over the back of the chair and her cheek is resting on my arm. The absolute darkness of the tunnel gives way to the distant pinprick lights of the city. The screeching and hissing of the train fade into the night. All that remains is the thrum of the rain against the window.
I lean my head onto hers and close my eyes like I’d been doing this all my life. My chest feels full to bursting and warmth seeps across me like a gentle rain. I fall asleep to the press of her head and the scent of her hair.
I jerk awake a moment later to the prodding of the conductor. “Sir,” he says gruffly, “sir.” I shuffle a bit to prove I’m awake, blinking away the sleep. “End of the line,” he says. I turn my head uncomprehendingly, staring at the poorly-upholstered seat as the conductor speaks again. “End of the line,” he repeats before making for the front car.
The doors are all open and the car is deserted. It’s much colder than before, though I can hear the rain has stopped. I step out of the car and into the wide, empty station. My footsteps echo and play among themselves around me. A row of benches to my left catch my eye as I walk past, but they’re empty from one end to the other. No sign of my friend-of-necessity. No terrified teenager. No beautiful strangers. I rub my eyes roughly with the heels of my hands and wonder what else I could have possibly imagined.
My fingers, clenched across my palm, pull away sticky and coated in grime. I watch my palm through blurry sleep-addled eyes. The conductor whistles tunelessly and turns to leave, discordant notes trailing behind him. In that hard, empty place, careless notes and echoes rise into symphonies. An aimless grin breaks across my face as I flip up my collar and head for the exit. The misty air lays across me and sends a shiver down my back, but I hardly notice. The night stretches out before me in the dingy orange glow of a streetlight buzzing overhead.
I wonder if she’s playing it all back, over and over again, wondering if any of it was real.
Kyle Goss is a fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in creative writing and theatre. ✉️ KG825800@wcupa.edu.