The Twenty-Third Car

Submitted into Contest #27 in response to: Write a short story that takes place on a train.... view prompt

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General

Circling, circling,

The hills shone, a vibrant green-painted blanket of jitterbug-dancing life, as though the earth had taken it upon itself to create an earthbound paradise, a promenade of the purest natural beauty. An eagle rose into the sky, buffeted by gusts of wind, sending him spiraling. 

On the edge of the verdant meadow sat rails, rusty iron tracks used twice a day by the great red steam engine. The polished-brass wheels shone, traveling city to city at high, well-advertised speeds. 

            Circling, circling,

Inside the twenty-third train car stood a man. It did not matter what he looked like, because no one really saw him. 

            “Ticket, please,”

They handed him their tickets and looked right through him as they were carried by the smooth-running train, back and forth. The man, however, never set foot off the train, even as the rushing hordes of people pushed past him, desperate in their pointless quest, to be the first to leave the train, to be the fastest walker. It was all they wanted, to get from one place to the next as fast as possible.

            When they passed the meadow, they never looked up. Phones, books, tabloids, all grabbed, clutching with desperation to the attention of the businessmen, of the nannies, the schoolchildren who rode the train, mesmerizing them far more than the meadow ever could.

            The man wanted to shake them. He wanted to shout, 

“Look! Don’t you see? Fools, don’t you see?” But he couldn’t. And they didn’t.

            Daily he walked the length of the train car, watching, seeing with clear eyes the people who did not see him.

            Circling, circling,

            “Ticket, please!”

            An absentminded middle-aged woman, hair scraped back against its will into a tight bun, held a finger up to shush her four squabbling children as she handed him their tickets. He watched her as they approached the meadow. He always did watch, just in case. Just in case. 

            “Momma! Mommm-a!” piped up one of the young ones, sticky nose smushed against the window. The man rose up on the balls of his feet, watching and wondering. The mom turned her head, and he felt his hopes rise. He always held out, waiting- 

            She shoved an iPad in the direction of the kids, all of whom fell on it, grabbed with dirty fingers, seized as starved animals lunge for meat. 

            The man closed his world-weary eyes, and moved on. 

            The soft rustle of his feet against the metal floors startled no one, so engrossed were they by whatever they held in their laps. 

            Hurrying, hurrying. 

            The man stood by, pressed against the cold metal wall, ice against his gooseberry skin, as people, loud hordes of people, rushed off the train.

            So much noise, so few smiles. 

            Someone, a tall gruff man in a bowler hat, shoved past him, grumbling as he went. The conductor hesitated, words slick on his tongue. He recognized the man- an acquaintance from school? A past friend? But it did not matter, for the moment was past, the bowler-hat man had sped past. Gone. This bothered the man, more than he cared to admit. A large rush, a tidal wave of people entered the train car. How many people, wondered the man, were sitting next to past acquaintances, but never looked up? How many were standing next to future friends, coworkers, partners even- but lost that future by hiding behind their screens.

            He paced the train car, waiting for someone to look up. No one did. Until-

            “Isn’t it splendid?”

            He turned, tentatively, unsure if he was the one being addressed. A girl- woman, really- was looking up at him. From behind a curtain of short messy black hair, her emerald eyes flashed from behind violet glasses, and an expression of wonder was frozen on her face. She pointed a teal-painted finger towards the smudged window. Outside, the meadow flashed by, an eagle above it circling, circling. 

            “It’s certainly something,” replied the man. And it was as he saw it through her eyes, a burst of color, a piece of the countryside in this nation of factories.

            He sat down beside her.

            “I see that meadow every day, and it never ceases to amaze me.”

            She said nothing, and he felt his palms sweat as fear flashed through his mind. Was that too much? Was it dumb?  But she flashed a radiant smile and said,

            “Exactly.” She glanced around, wrinkles creasing her brow as she asked, “Do other people even-oh!” With a jolt, the train pulled into the station. The man felt a stone sink into his stomach as the unnamed woman shot him a grin- as she stood up to leave. 

            He wanted to shout, Wait! He wanted to, but he didn’t. Perhaps because he had met her barely five minutes ago, or perhaps because he was already sinking back out of the world of the living she’d brought him in, into his train-life. So he let out a breath, a breath that seemed to be the very life-blood holding him together, as the woman with the purple glasses, the woman who had looked up, disappeared into the roiling mass of people.

            He waited for her. He searched every train car, every trip made by the immense locomotive for a week. But the woman- he didn’t even know her name- was nowhere. She, apparently, had reached her destination. He couldn’t explain why the thought made him so sad. 

            And so he returned to his wraith-like state, a conductor drifting through the great train, unseen, unheard. 

            “Ticket, please,”

            Those two feeble words were all that passed his lips for days. A week? Two? Time was lucid, fluid when you did the same thing, day in, day out. He watched the meadow each day, watched the brilliant green grass swaying and the eagle soaring. Of course, no one looked up. 

            And then he saw. A head of messy black hair, cropped short, head leaning against the back of the seat. His heart pumping faster than it had in weeks, he strode purposefully forward. Before he could lose his courage, the man tapped the shoulder of- the person spun around- not the girl. His heart seemed to drop into the floor. It was a teenage boy now staring up at the conductor, looking irritated at being torn away from his phone screen. 

            The conductor shrank back, and he moved to turn away.

            But maybe it was the boy’s emerald green eyes. 

            Or maybe the conductor was tired, tired of never being seen or heard, of seeming to be a ghost. 

            Whatever the reason, he stepped closer to the young boy and pointed out the window, out towards the brilliant green meadow.

            “Look. Isn’t it beautiful?” The boy turned, looking towards the meadow of swaying grasses. 

            “Isn’t it splendid?”

February 06, 2020 02:10

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