The Girl on the Train

It’s a late night train ride home and I’m pretending to listen to music. But really my phone died an hour ago, and I’m just listening to the silence between the steel tracks. And to the stories between the silence. The ones left behind by lovers and losers, old men with nowhere to go and women wishing for a better home. Stories too heavy to carry up concrete steps and out into the tainted city air breathed by angels, demons and pigeons alike. Stories left behind in sadness, relief or bitterness. I think about leaving my own story behind but there’s still so much more that needs to happen. Leaving it behind now would be careless. And lazy. It hardly weighs more than a tiny pebble full of air. I could fit a hundred copies into my pocket, that’s how light and thin and young it is. That’s how much further it has to go. So I turn back to the music that’s not really playing instead—until a girl gets on the train.

She looks about my age and like she’s scheduled to fall off the cliff of Functionally Drunk any moment now. I can smell it on her like perfume gone wrong when she collapses next to me; a slinky who’s lost its bounce and rainbow coloring. She’s all rusty and silver now. No, not silver. Grey. Like a whisky bottle full of rain but you drink it anyway because who cares. Or you drank everything else. Or you don’t even notice the difference anymore. I might notice though. One of them might feed my soul, the other one might kill me.

I think about moving but that would be rude. She might notice. Drunk people are unpredictable people. And unpredictable people either love you a lot or hate you even more. Especially girls. So I stay where I am, and just keep playing make believe with my headphones.

“I saw a ghost once.”

I could pretend not to hear her. I could pretend to be listening to the loudest rock music in the world. But I’m already taking out my earbuds and turning my head.

“What?” I ask.

“Well, not me. M-my baby sister… we were in the kitchen. She kept telling me not to be scared. ’Don’t be scared’,” she says in a soft baby voice. “’Don’t be scared, Abby.’ K-kept… looking over there. Like she could see something! I didn’t see anything!”

I’m already wishing she had boarded a different car. Because I don’t do well with ghost stories. Because there has to be someone else on this train who lives for them. Because I don’t want to take this story to bed with me. But she’s looking at me with this need in her eyes that I so dearly recognize. This need to be heard and believed. And I don’t know what else. Saved? Reassured? Absolved?

She’s doing that thing people do when they’re trying so desperately to shut down and dig themselves a hole, while also reaching up and out for help, releasing a thousand tears in the process. Like a thousand tiny bats finally given permission by the setting sun to burst from their cave. Like she’s being pulled in both directions, and doesn’t know where it’s safer to go. Into the earth or into the sky. So she sort of just stays where she is, bobbing miserably like a rotten red apple.

“I didn’t see anything!” she swears. “If I had seen something… I would’ve… I didn’t see anything!” she cries. Like I don’t believe her. Like I’m about to accuse her of something.

“Oh. O-okay.” I’m feeling so uneasy but so glued to my seat. “So… what happened?”

“She disappeared, the next day.” Her head and voice both droop into a wilted whisper.

“Who? The ghost?”

“N-no…” She looks up at me again. Begging me with her eyes to connect the dots that she’s probably so tired of carrying everywhere with her. Of connecting, disconnecting, then reconnecting again every day. There’s probably hundreds of thousands of them. So heavy in her pockets. They probably weigh a ton.

“Oh.” I say, completely stunned. “Your—. And you think—.“ I can’t even get the words out of my mouth, it’s so sad. It’s all suddenly so sadly unbelievable and unexplainable. I don’t want to believe it. But I do. For some reason I do. And before I know it I’m riding the train with her to her stop. And she’s asking me if I believe her and I’m nodding my head yes. Then she’s asking if I believe her baby sister. And somehow I know that believing her isn’t nearly as important as believing in her baby sister. So I’m nodding my head again, yes. And I’m taking some of those heavy dots from her pockets and placing them in mine. I feel them knocking against my pebble full of air, and it almost bursts. And even though I don’t know the whole story, and even though it’s so unfinished—and even though I know I should be more skeptical about these things—when I get off the train I carry it up the stairs with me. I take it out into the tainted city air where it can breathe with the rest of us. And then once I’m home, I take it reluctantly to bed.

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