Mute Strangers

It’s late, I’m not sure how late, but the sun is gone, the streets are mostly empty, traffic has ceased, and the subway is still available so it can’t be that late. Down and down and down the stairs I go, at least three levels to get to. People are going up and down as well, mostly people leaving to or from work, non-high paying jobs and non privileged jobs. Sweaters in one hand, bag in the other, buttons undone, hair half arranged, faces looking off into the distance, determined to reach their destination without disturbing and being disturbed. I’ve had this face before, so I know that the ruse hides a mind drowning in thoughts and anxiety.

 I wait.

Five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes go by and still no subway. I’m expecting it to be stuffed by the time it gets to my station, but when it does it’s actually mostly empty, enough so that I can chose a seat anywhere and not have to rub shoulders, share views or blankly stare back at anybody. Still, I sit well enough where I can see them all. An old lady, a teenager, three adults and a couple in the corner.

The train abruptly stops in the middle of the tunnel, same as it’s done before, without warning and yet much anticipated. We stay there a while, maybe six minutes, while odd creaking sounds come from the ceiling. A train rushes past us in the opposite direction, mostly empty as well, and after a flicker of the lights we start moving again. 

We arrive at the next station (three more and a line transfer to go for me), and of the two or three people that come in I’m unlucky enough to have one of them sit next to me. My peace is broken, and as the train starts moving I hope that this person does not find my presence an invitation for conversation or gets off on the next station. 

Without being too conspicuous, I try and catch any detail of who this person is: Three fingers are missing from the right hand, chopped off a long time ago, as they look very much healed. Work accident? Hobby accident? The left hand has all fingers, but there’s dried out blood in the nails. I know it’s blood because I’ve seen it on my own nails from when I anxiously scratch untill I hurt myself. The rest of this person is covered in a strange collage of bandages, cloths, pieces of clothing, and a huge old bag. The clothing doesn’t look dirty enough, nor does it smell for it to be from a homeless person, but it’s old and very worn. Beyond that, this person seems harmless, as I also don’t feel a gaze or stare.

We reach the next station, nobody gets in or out, but the lights flicker a bit. The train moves on.

Halfway through the tunnel, the train abruptly stops again, and the lights turn off completely. I hold tight to myself and my bag, counting seconds. Five go by and the lights and engine flicker back to life, and we keep moving. 

The person sitting next to me shuffles a bit, shaken off their comfort zone. I look around, avoiding staring at the person next to me: the old lady, three adults spread out, and the couple in the corner are looking around. I assume they’re shaken from the five seconds lacking light. I turn my gaze back to forward, I don’t want to draw attention or look suspicious. For some reason.

We go through two stations without trouble, again nobody gets on or off. After the third stop the train stops mid-tunnel once again. I sigh in annoyance as the lights flicker, go off and come back on five seconds later as we move. The person next to me shuffles, the odd choice of clothing being too heavy to avoid sliding when the train stops.

I feel my eyes getting heavy, but this is the worst place to fall asleep: no signal, too many stations and trains to check, and too much time to lose looking for me if anything were to happen. I look around to try and stay awake: the three adults, now sitting closer are sitting a bit more stiffly, I guess they are annoyed with the sudden breaks. The old lady, the teenager, and the couple in the corner are gone now, did they get down while I drifted?

On the next stop we stay in the station a little longer, nobody gets on or off. During moments like these I normally imagine a report asks them to wait… for some reason. The three adults are talking to each other at this point, one of them looks up and then directly at me. I stare back, waiting for him to gaze away first, and he does. The person next to me coughs suddenly causing me to jump a bit.

The train moved again, and now I just wait for it to stop mid-tunnel. So it does, and this time the lights go off for fifteen seconds. While they do, the person sitting next to me gets up and changes seats. I stay put, breathe out at the relief of my space being mine again, and I stretch my legs. The lights come back on, and when they do the train shoves lightly to the side. The speakers start emitting a half-understandeable announcement, either the conductor or an automated message, but clearly going through a broken system heavy with static. I grab hold of the tube closest to me, and as the train comes back into place, I look around again.

The heavily clothed person is sitting two rows away from me, facing the opposite way, and two of the three adults are now gone. The train starts moving, slowly but surely forward. One more station and I get off, but I’m tempted to get off on the next one. Had I honestly missed three people getting off back there? Had I missed the old lady, teenager and couple get off on any station? 

I get up and sit next to the heavily clothed person who doesn’t move at all as I take the seat. I stare at the hands again: the right one is missing only one finger now, and the left has two nails with different coloured nail polish on them, the rest still covered in dried up blood. I look up and realize the face is also covered in cloth, except for the eyes. Like some far off explorer in the middle of a sand storm, protecting every breathable piece of body. The eyes are a different color each: one brown and one blue. Even as I look and examine as politely as I can, this person is not moving, fixedly staring forward, to the distance and wherever heavy thoughts may drag.

I cough lightly, expecting at least an uncomfortable move, but get nothing. I breathe deeply, and begin to ask:

“Um… Did you…”

Grunt. 

“Sorry?”

Grunt.

We reach the station, and I look up: Another heavily clothed person gets in, sitting in front of the person next to me. As if a reflection, they both look very similar, with small variations that includes the condition of their hands. This new person had all fingers, but one on the left hand looked permanently broken and twisted. 

As the train starts moving, the person in front grunts to the person next to me. It grunts back, and the person in front turns towards me and locks eyes. I feel my heart on my throat, the beating beginning to muffle my surrounding sounds. I can’t move, frozen in intimidation, I’m expecting the train to break suddenly mid-tunnel, and I start to imagine whatever this person would be capable of doing to me, none of the options less delightful than the last. But the train doesn’t break, it keeps moving and reaches the next station.

The person next to me grunts, and the person in front looks up. I feel a release in tension and get up and stand at the doors, waiting for them to open. Not a moment later, I feel their presence behind me. I look to my far left and the last adult on the train is also ready to get off. The train stops, the doors open, and I dash out. 

Up, up, up the stairs I go, almost running. Once I reach the top, I stand to catch my breath and look back to make sure I wasn’t followed. The last adult on my train is making his way up slowly and calmly, but the people in broken clothing are nowhere to be found.

“Excuse me.”

“Hmm?”

“You were on the same train as me, right?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you see the two big people in random and heavy clothing who were sitting next to me? Did you see if they followed us as we got down?”

“Um… I’m sorry, what people?”

“Two people. At first it was only one, then another on got on. Huge, covered everywhere but the eyes. One of them had a bag. They got off right here along with us.”

“I’m… sorry, but… you and I were the last on that train. There was nobody else…”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes. Are you ok? Was someone following you?”

“Um… no, I mean don’t think so. um… sorry for the bother, but thanks.”

I got a strange stare, this person clearly wondered if I was on drugs.

I look on, still trying to find these people who would clearly stand out anywhere, but there is no sign of them. I’m absolutely certain there is no way I imagined this, but either way it’s better if I figure this out elsewhere. Just in case.

I get out of the station, the air felt too fresh for it’s own good, but everything looks strange. At first I don’t recognise where I am, and then I realise: I’m at the wrong station. I needed to transfer two stations ago.

Parada

Note: The things that I imagine while ridding the metro and listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross:

 


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