Friday, October 29, 2010

On the Trains

My name is Andrew Erics. I lived, once, in a city called New York. My mother is Terrie Erics. She's in the phone book. If you know the city, and you read this, find her. Don't show her this, but tell her I love her and that I'm trying to come home. Please.

It all started when I decided, around the time that I turned twenty-five, that it was time for me to give up taking my backpack in to work. It would make me look more mature, I thought, if I weren't lugging around a book bag everywhere like a high school student. Of course, this meant that I had to give up reading in the subway in the mornings and afternoons, since I couldn't quite fit my paperbacks into a pocket. A briefcase would have been out of line, since I was working in a factory, and messenger bags always seemed a little, I don't know, fruity to me. They were too purse-like for my liking.

I had an MP3 player, which helped pass the time for a while, but when it broke - it would shut down at the end of every song if I didn't skip to the next track manually - I gave that up too. So, every morning, I'd sit in the metro for a half-hour that dragged on endlessly, with nothing at all to do but watch my fellow passengers. I was slightly shy, so I didn't like to be caught at it, so I'd surreptitiously watch people. Interestingly enough, I quickly discovered that i wasn't the only person in the world who was uncomfortable in public. People covered it up in various ways, but I learned to see through them. I divided them up into categories in my head.

There were the fidgeters, who couldn't get comfortable, constantly moving their hands, shifting their wieght, moving their legs closer to the bench, then further. They were the most noticeably nervous types. After them were the fake-sleepers, who'd take their seat and practically close their eyes in the same second. Most of them weren't really sleeping, though. The real sleepers shifted more, came awake suddenly at stops or after loud noises. The fakes just zoned from the second they sat until the moment the train pulled into their stop. Then there were the MP3 Player addicts, the occasional laptop people, and the people who traveled in groups and talked to loudly. The cell phone junkies were either very popular or just completely unable to shut up for more than two minutes at a time.

Just as people-watching was threatening to get unbearably boring, I found my first incongruity: a middle-aged looking man, brown-haired, average size and weight, and dressed casually. Oddly enough, he seemed almost too normal. He had no remarkable features, no mannerisms, as if he were designed to fade into a crowd. It was that which led me to notice him; I was intentionally trying to see how people acted on the subway, and he didn't act at all. He didn't even react, either. It was like seeing someone sitting in front of the television, watching a documentary about fish. They aren't excited, aren't engaged, but they aren't looking away, either. Present, but not accounted for.

He was on the subway in the afternoons. It was more than a month into the people-watching experiment before he caught my eye, because I didn't catch the same subway everyday, and didn't consciously sit in the same car when I did. I saw him for the first time on a Monday, I believe, and for the second time on the Thursday of the same week. He obviously did catch the same train and sat in the same car - in the same seat, even. 'OCD, much?' I thought at the time. Since he'd caught my attention so much the first time, I watched him more avidly the next. He was, frankly, downright unsettling. He didn't do anything at all. He sat there, expressionless, head straight, no matter what happened. A woman with a wailing child entered the car and sat right behind him, and still nothing. He didn't so much as turn his head or frown in annoyance...and that kid was fucking loud, too.

By the time the subway reached my stop, I found myself queasy, and when I exited the car my hands were shaking like I was having a nicotine fit. Something about that man was *wrong*. He was, I thought, some kind of freak. He was, maybe, a sociopath - one of those quiet guys who it turns out has a dozen women's heads in his freezer, the first victim his mother.

I found myself intentionally dawdling after work in the afternoons, stopping to browse in kiosks in the mall near the subway even when I didn't intend on buying anything. For a couple of weeks, I avoided catching that subway, and when I found myself at the stop when it was pulling in, I made sure to choose a train-car as far from the one I'd seen him in as possible. Then, one morning, I saw another person who set off the same warning bells in my head. It was a woman, just as plain-looking, just as out of place in the hustle and commotion around her. The moment I recognized her, I realized later, was when my obsession began.

My people-watching, which had began as a hobby to stave off boredom, became something of a religion to me. I couldn't enter a subway or ride a bus without finding myself examining everyone, filling out a mental checklist in my head. Plan clothes of solid colors and no brands? Check. No expressions or casual glances out the window or towards other passengers? Check. No bags, purses, or accessories? Check. Check, check, check, we've got another. I started calling them the Strangers.

I didn't see them everyday, even after I started taking the metro more than I needed to, even when I found myself riding buses out of my way in the evenings. But they were there, often enough. Seeing one would set my teeth on edge, make my palms sweaty and my throat feel dry. If you've ever given a speech, you might recognize the feeling. Even though they didn't pay me the slightest bit of attention, I felt like I was on display for them. I could see them, plain as day. How could they miss me?

They didn't, though; not in any way that I could tell. When, eventually, my curiosity overpowered my fear, I decided to follow one. I chose the one that I'd found first, the man in the afternoon subway who always kept the same seat. I got on and took a seat behind him. We rode to the end of the line, and he rose and walked out before I did. Keeping a distance between us, I tailed him, but he didn't go far. He took a seat on a nearby bench, as expressionless as always, and I turned a corner and waited, trying to look nonchalant. After a few minutes, the next metro arrived and I watched him enter it and take the same seat. I couldn't find the nerve the follow him again.

He hadn't gone anywhere! He just rode the metro to the end of the line, and then what? Rode it back? What possible reason would he - would anyone - have for that? It nagged at me, long after I rode a later train back home and tried to get some rest. I couldn't leave it alone, not until I could make some sense of it. I found myself for than confused; I was downright angry, now. Why was this uncanny bastard, this almost inhuman person, riding subway trains back and forth, going nowhere? The mind, I once read, recoils from certain things, because the very sight of them is an affront. Spiders set it off in a lot of people, particularly great big ones. They just look wrong to us - alien. That was the effect the Strangers were beginning to have on me. They offended my senses.

I followed him again the next day and again the day after that. Every day, for at least a week, the two of us made our silent trips together, though only I knew it. By the end of the week, I was following him for hours until the last train that stopped at near my apartment block that night. We rode from one end of the city to the other then back again. I wasn't people-watching any longer. I was person-watching - Stranger-watching. I didn't have eyes for anyone else, though peripherally I noticed more than a few confused glances sent my way. Other than that, we two might have been the only two people on the planet, for all I cared.

I lost my job the next week. My manager was kind and timid, but firm. I wasn't concentrating; I had no focus. I wasn't being anywhere near productive. It was actually quite a speech, I think, but I could barely hear it. All I could think about was my new work, my vigil. What would that man - no, that thing - on the subway get up to when I wasn't there to keep an eye on him? I left work for the last time at noon that day. Normally, I'd have started tailing my subject at five-thirty, but I was sure that he'd be waiting for me. I wish, now, that I'd paid more attention to that day. Was it sunny? It was summer, after all. I could have walked across downtown, maybe checked out a few pretty girls. I could have had an ice cappuccino and a smoke at an outdoor cafe and then gone home, putting my growing obsession out of my head. I could have found a new job and taken to reading on trains and buses again.

Instead, I waited. More than one train goes up and down the lines, so I sat in the station for at least an hour until I saw him through a window. I walked into the subway car and noticed for the first time my skin wasn't clammy, my hands weren't shaking, and my heart wasn't pounding hard. I sat, for the first time, right across from him, directly in his line of sight. I watched for a change in his face. Would he recognize me? If he did, I saw no sign of it, and I was looking hard. We must have made quite a pair, sitting across from one another that afternoon, staring at and into one another. It was hard not to let the building-in rage in me contort my face, but with effort I was able to keep as still and as expressionless as him. Inside, I practically screamed at him. React to me, you fucking asshole! See me, damn it. I know you for what you are!

I didn't, though, and my silent demands weren't answered - not the first trip around, or the second, or the third or tenth. We rode far into the night together, and at each terminus we got out together and waited. I sat right beside him on the bench, watching him from the corner of my eye, and still got nothing from him. But two could play that game as well as one.

The next terminus I came to, I decided to try and find something to eat or drink. I don't know why I waited, but it seemed to important to ride to the end of the line. I got there and could barely bring myself to leave. I'd never seen the Stranger leave the underground; I'd never seen him eat or drink either. My stomach would not take no for an answer, though. I steeled myself and tried to keep my face carefully neutral, and made my way out into the station proper...and then I got confused.

I was looking for escalators or stairs or something like that, but all I saw were holes in the ground, the walls, and the ceiling. They were gaping, irregularly-sized holes, like I was in the middle of a beehive. What was I supposed to do? Leap into one? It didn't make any sense to me, not until someone came through one. He floated up through the floor and then floated by me. He frowned for a second, or at least I think it was probably a frown, but apparently whatever kept them from recognizing me as an alien in the subway extended at least this far. It did not, unfortunately, allow me to levitate, which seemed to be the only way out of the subway station beehive thing. Swearing, I made my way back down to the tunnel.

I was angry, lost, starving, and I'd been abandoned to a fate that, if it wasn't worse than hell, was at least twice as stupid and three times as nonsensical. I was not in the best frame of mind, which I feel excuses the mistake. Normally, I take corners with a wide berth, because everyone knows that if you just dart around a corner sharply in a public place, chances are decent that you're going to walk right into I did. I slammed into someone, a woman, and fell to the ground. Without thinking, I reacted like any New Yorker would - badly. "Jesus, fuck, you stupid bitch! Watch where you're going!"

I realized my mistake even before she did. Her eyes grew quizzical and confused, and when she really noticed me, they bulged with horror. She jumped - well, floated quickly - back from me and let out something scream-like. It was a little more yowly than I was used to, but I got the point. Further down the tunnel, I saw alien, three-eyed heads turning towards us. I thought, suddenly, about all those sharp, filthy teeth, and just like that I was running.

The subway train wasn't there, but there was a walkway along the tunnel - for the repairmen, I assume. That's who'd use it where I'm from, anyways. I took it at full-speed and just kept running until each breath felt like getting stabbed. I stopped, panting, and looked back. The tunnel had curved, so I couldn't see the light any longer, but nobody appeared to be following me. Going back, though, was not an option.

I continued forward in the dark for a long time. Eventually I came to a small opening in the wall and stopped there for a rest. Hunger, despair, and a full-speed terrified run had all left me absolutely drained. I probably would have wept again, which seemed to be all I was capable of lately, but it just seemed like too much work. I say against the wall, legs splayed out, and imagined I was beating that bastard Stranger to death with a hammer. It was a relieving image.

A rat was shuffling around nearby in the dark. Every so often, I would kick out a foot to scare it away, but after a time I didn't even bother with that. Rabies or any other disease it might be carrying would be a blessing compared to endless traveling through the subways of strange worlds lost, destitute, and alone. When it crept near me again, I didn't shoo it off. Even when it reached and pressed against my leg, I couldn't bring myself to care. I didn't, not until a train passed by and the lights lit up the culvert I was in, as well as the thing I had thought was a rat.

It was ratlike, yes, but not as much as it was spider-like. If someone had bread the two of them together, the resulting abomination might have been almost as horrible as the thing nuzzling my leg. I shrieked, flung myself up from the floor, and booted it like a soccer player would: right into the opposite wall. Its back made a sickening crunch and I watched it twitch out its last before the final car passed and the darkness returned.

In the darkness, a terrible thought came to me: I wondered if it was edible. I didn't want to, and I gagged just imagining it, but I was hungry and there was no guarantee that I'd be able to find food in this place, or ever again. Rat-spider was my only option. I held off as long as I could, but in the end survival trumped squeamishness. I had my lighter, but nothing to light on fire. I picked meat off its carcass and cooked it a little by holding it over the flame, but it didn't help much. Nothing could have. Its meat was foul, more foul than anything you can imagine. I've been that desperate for food since, and eaten many other questionable things, but nothing has ever been as bad as the rat-spider was.

In retrospect, that is, when I became a Stranger before, I'd struggled to reach that expressionless state the other had maintained. What I'd taken for calm was numbness. A sharp rock thrown in a river will, over time, have its edges rounded off by the water beating on it, and what I'd gone through had done the same. Tearing up and eating a monster in the dark, below an alien world, the last of my edges smoothed. By the time I'd left the darkness and came back into the tunnel, I was as expressionless and empty as the one who'd led me here had ever been.

That was not the worst of it, though. The worst came later, the first time I got stuck. The Stranger had mentioned it, but in the state I'd been in I had hardly noticed. One night, at the end of the line, I was asked to leave the train. The world was one of the closer-to-normal ones. The people were almost human, as I recognized it. They were orange, sure, and hunch-backed, but other than that, they were practically normal. After the last world, where the people had been hideously overweight, six-breasted hermaphrodites with no noses, the orange guys were pretty much normal to me.

I thought, at first, that the conductor was talking to someone else, but I was the only one in the car. And moreover, I'd understood him. The Oranges certainly hadn't been speaking English all day, but nonetheless, I could understand what he was saying. When I stood, I began to realize why. I couldn't stand up straight. I was hunch-backed, and as I saw my reflection against the window as I exited, orange. I pieced together the rest from there. Stuck meant that I was trapped in this world, for some reason, and stuck looking like them as well. That would be handy if I wanted to take the opportunity to leave the subway station - which is possible most times, but requires a lot of care and is quite overwhelming. Alien worlds are a little revolting, I've found. You try to compare them to your own, but the differences are so vast that it just makes you sick.

I left that subway, anyways, because it was clear I wasn't returning to the central hub (what I'd taken to calling the infinite line of subway trains) that night. Or any other night, I soon found out. Whatever had let me go unnoticed wasn't working any longer. I considered, briefly, staying. But this place wasn't home, and could never be. Even if they looked like me, their culture was bound to be different. That was a lesson I'd learned before. Even worlds where the people are absolutely indistinguishable from me are fraught with danger. I was once on a world where the people looked just like me - well, actually they looked Brazilian, but that was more than close enough - and learned the hard way that the gesture that to me means "hello" meant something gravely insulting; it was insulting enough that I'd been beaten half to death while a crowd looked on with approval.

Besides, even if that place had a culture I could fake, I didn't want to stay. I wanted one of two things: to find my way home or to find the Stranger who'd set me on this path and beat the shit out of him. Nothing else would do.

So, I wanted to move on. I wasn't sure, though, if I could do to some poor sucker what had been done to me. Could I really force someone else to wander the eternal underground like me? It turned out I didn't have to. After a few months, one of them did notice me, yes, and began to follow me for weeks. I very carefully made it seem like i hadn't seen him, just like the Stranger had to me. I was torn between the desire to warn him away and the desire to bring him to the end of the line so I could leave his dismal world already.

The last night, he followed me to the end of the line, just as I had once done. He hadn't managed to work up the nerve to sit right across from me, though. As soon as the train stopped at the terminus, he rushed off. I waited, hoping the conductor wouldn't see me and I could continue on, but to no avail. I left the car and the metro rushed off without me, and I cursed inside. As I walked around the corner towards the ticket booths, the young man who'd been following me attacked. He had a wicked, curved knife, and should have caught me by surprise, but I'd been traveling through hostile alien worlds for several years. My reflexes were sharp.

We struggled, viciously, before I managed to wrestle the knife from him. I don't know how it got in his neck. I don't think I wanted to kill him. I hadn't even been that angry, remembering my own building rage from so long before. Afterward, as he lay there, bled-out, I got pissed. I kicked him repeatedly, shouting, "You dick! You were supposed!" Kick kick. "To follow me!" Kick. I fled the scene of the crime, but not for long. I was there bright and early the next day, to catch the first subway of the morning. And that night, when I rode it to the end of the line, I was invisible to the conductor again. I guess you can either kill them or bring them with you if you want to return to the central hub.

I was invisible again, but I was also orange and hunchbacked still. I stayed that way until the next time I became stuck. The next time I killed. That one went much faster. I didn't wait for her to follow me. Once I was recognized as a Stranger, I recognized her as the next one, and I made my choice. I won't bring anyone else into this.

It makes me wonder, though, about the Stranger who inducted me. I wonder what he originally looked like, and whether he knew he could have killed me. I wonder, too, about the others I saw back home, and the rare few I come across since I left. Do they kill them or take them? And whichever one they choose, do they consider it a mercy? I can't bring myself to talk to them, to ask. We're damned either way, and the damned should suffer in solitude.

I've killed fifteen of them now, and I've gotten very good at it. I've made a decision. I'm done killing - innocents, at least. Before I returned to the central hub, I filled a backpack with as much paper as I could cram into it, and I wrote this story. Over and over again, to be left in as many subway trains as I can. A couple thousand messages in bottles, cast into a sea of steel rails. This is a request and a warning.

My request, above, was that you find my mother and tell her a lie. It's a white lie, don't worry. Tell my mother that I love her and that I am trying to come home. It may give her some hope, or a small measure of peace. I wish it were true, too. Here's the thing. I've been thinking of myself as like Odysseus, lost and adrift, looking to return to familiar shores, but I am not lost at sea. I am lost in endless tunnels - the labyrinth. The difference is important because labyrinths are designed, built.

Somebody or something made this impossible place, and they must be held accountable for what they've done to me. They cast me as Theseus, not Odysseus, but I won't play that part any longer, either. The strange rules of this place have turned me from the human I began into something else, then something else again. They have made me a monster, and so I will be the Minotaur of this labyrinth. If I can, I will tear it down around me and destroy those that built it.

My warning is that you should be very wary, in public places, of silent, expressionless men and women. Keep your distance. They may kill you, or they may do worse. If you see them, run far and fast. Even more importantly, I warn you, I beg you: don't ride the train to the end of the line.


  1. well was about time for a new histori, bring more for this hallowen

  2. I've got a backlog of stories, but I would've had more before now if this story wasn't so freaking long!

  3. Finally a nice change of pace from old, crappypasta.


    Although, the writer says "hunchback" and I end up thinking of Richard O'Brien for the remainder of the story. Thank you for that.

    Tasty pasta, original, not very creepy but still interesting and enjoyable. Would eat again.


    Phone was YOU

  6. This is actually called Stranger on a Train, btw.

  7. I love this story:)
    It has potential. Sequels and stuff, as long as they're equally good