End of the Line by Chrissie Rohrman (August 2021)
“I think you missed your stop, dear.”
Several beats pass before I realize the voice is addressing me. I turn to my left and blink, startled by the presence of the elderly woman at my side. I don’t remember her sitting down. “I’m sorry?”
The woman’s hair poofs around her head like a dingy cotton ball. Her features are deeply lined, lips red and cheeks rosy in an otherwise pale face, all of it accentuated by the harsh lighting of the subway car. Something about her is familiar.
She gestures towards the front. “There’s only the end of the line left.”
“What?” I check the screen of my cell phone, appalled how much time has passed. I’m stung that Malia hasn’t sent a single text, even to say fuck you.
The subway had been mostly empty when I lugged my bags aboard, immediately faced with an obnoxious couple engaged in PDA. Seeing them entwined like that was just adding insult to a too-fresh injury, and I chose a seat as far away as possible, laying my head against the window as I replayed the evening’s events, the argument that had spiraled out of control.
A quick survey of the car shows that while it hasn’t completely emptied, the lovebirds have gone, along with the hippie chick who stunk of weed.
“Excuse me,” I mutter.
I hike the strap of my laptop bag on my shoulder and grab the handles of my duffel, pressing against the neighboring seatback to slide past the old woman.
I duck my chin, avoiding eye contact with the remaining passengers as I move to stand in front of the doors.
It’s a sign, I decide. My hand drifting to the pocket of my coat, where the necklace I never had a chance to give Malia is safely tucked away. I’ll get off at the end of the line and double back, ride the northbound train all the way to her place instead of stopping at my own apartment. I haven’t even stayed there in weeks.
I’m not ready to give her up. Nothing was said that can’t be taken back. It was a stupid fight, one borne from being cooped up inside too many days during a harsh winter. It’s not such a big deal that she forgot to go grocery shopping. Who says you can’t make a passable meal out of stale pasta, yogurt and ice?
Resolved, I squint up at the map to see just how far I’ve strayed; I’ve never ridden to the end of the line before. Instead of the familiar tangle of colored lines and marked stops, there is a single uninterrupted black line stretching across the entire display, and only one stop.
The End of the Line.
What the hell?
Outside the streaked window of the door, there is pure darkness, no expected wash of brightness from security lights mounted at regular intervals as we zip along the tunnel.
I turn back to better inspect my fellow passengers. Two boys are sitting quietly a few rows away, their faces gray and eyes sunken. At the rear of the car, a slender man lights a match and raises the dancing flame to the end of a cigarette dangling from his lips. He catches me staring and turns his head, displaying the matted, gore-streaked hair at his temple. I swallow hard as I stare at the obvious gunshot wound.
The old woman is still seated in our row. She coughs and drags a hand across her mouth, leaving a crimson smear on her chin.
I grab the pole to steady myself. I remember now why she seems so familiar. The news this morning. The picture of an elderly woman who died in a head-on collision just after dawn. She had the same poof of hair, the same rosy cheeks.
I avert my gaze, looking to the front of the car. My hitching breaths bloom in the suddenly chilly space.
Through the foggy, grimy window, a figure is positioned in front of a control board. I don’t remember ever seeing an operator on this line before and thought the system was all automated these days.
The operator is dressed oddly, in a tattered robe that was once maybe black but is now a dingy gray. With the way he’s positioned, I can’t see his face, but in his hand is a gnarled wooden staff.
The train picks up speed, the car rocking as it hurtles through the darkness.
Sweat gathers beneath my palm, and my hand slips on the pole.
I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I need to get off this subway, now.
I take a few shaky steps to the front of the car and knock against the window to get the operator’s attention. “Hey!”
The hooded figure turns, a stilted motion that turns my blood to ice.
I stumble backwards into the pole and grip it tightly, squeezing my eyes shut as the train accelerates, hoping everything will be different when I open them. Hoping that, maybe, I’m just in the middle of an incredibly vivid dream. A nightmare.
Instead, something teases my memory.
I step into the cold night and slam the door behind me, struggling with the straps of my duffel and laptop bag.
Tonight was supposed to go differently.
I fumble with my bags as I walk toward the subway. The heel of my foot slips from the curb. There is a wash of blinding light, a blaring horn.
Then darkness, sudden and final.
I open my eyes, my mouth dry and heart pounding. No.
The old woman is standing next to me. Her fingers close over mine, stronger than expected, and ice-cold.
She tilts her head sympathetically and smiles, baring bloodied teeth. “Like I said, dear. You missed your stop.”
The overhead lights flicker, then extinguish, plunging me into pitch black.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chrissie Rohrman is a training supervisor who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband and five fur babies, including new kitten Kiki S Pickles. Her short stories have been published in various online and print magazines, and she is currently drafting the first installment of a fantasy trilogy. Follow on Twitter @ChrissieRawrman or on Facebook at Chrissie Rohrman Writes Things.