Cousin James gave Frances very specific directions for how to reach him. After the train went underground, she would get off at the first stop. A place called “Metro Exit 2/North.” She watched the passengers blowing in and out of the train, her mind somewhere back at the farmhouse in Tulracket. Eyes focused, imagining the lake behind her house. Nothing phased her until the train dipped underground and she felt her stomach jump, but this wasn’t what scared her. The lights dimmed slightly, but this did not scare Frances either. She watched the other people. There were two left from above ground. Everyone else had gotten off before the train dipped. She studied them, their slight shuffles and shifts to get comfortable. There was a rhythm to it. She smiled. They’re like the people in Tulracket. Bodies with the same patterns, the same movements. If I watched them for a week, I could predict what they might do on any day of their lives. The people shuffling around chaotically before the train dipped came to mind. “Like a beehive without a queen,” she whispered to herself. That’s what Cousin James had said in his letter.
A large metallic thud shook the car and it squealed briefly before grinding to a halt. Frances’ stomach jumped again and she worried that something had gone wrong. Squeals and bumps were normal in the city though. Nothing here is natural. She waited for it to restart. No rhythmic bumps of the track or hydraulic breaths. Just silence. Everything in the city worked quickly, but the car was suddenly still. It was the first time she’d ever seen things settle. A garbled voice said something over a speaker somewhere, but it sounded like words being chewed instead of spoken. Frances huddled over her bag, casting furtive glances at the two others in the car. A faint blue light brushed the grimy windows.
How long had it been? It was dark outside the car and she imagined days passing by up top without her noticing. It was possible, wasn’t it? She was on a different time-table now. Everything was too quick. She’d joked with others that there were only 12 hours in the day in the city. That’s why people aged so quickly there. That’s why nobody who decided to move there ever came back. They’d already been aged to dust. There are no advertisements playing. Frances felt the muscles in her neck seize. The car windows had played advertisements from the moment they went underground, but they were all silent now. This was unsettling. The city never slowed down this much. Something must be wrong. The closest person to her was a blonde woman in a pink hat sitting in an aisle seat a few rows up. Frances left her bag under her seat, tying it to the armrest as Cousin James had told her to do, and approached her.
“Excuse me,” she said. The woman appeared to be sleeping. “Excuse me, ma’am?” Frances’ head lowered and gazed at the blonde’s crossed legs and clasped purse. “Ma’am?” The back twitched. Frances winced. “Ma’am?” She felt her voice faltering, anxiety coursing up her throat like hot soup. Was something wrong? Frances felt her chest grow heavy. She was worried for the woman. The back twitched again. “Sir?” she said, addressing a black-haired man at the opposite end of the car. He was gazing out the window. Looking at what? A buzzing sound emanated from his seat, like she remembered at her father’s when the tape in the VCR rewound itself. She shivered to think of such a specific memory and her hand thrust out to touch the woman’s shoulder: it was cold and hard. The fabric was very thin. When she bent closer she saw only partial features: the eyes and slope of the nose but everything else was rounded to a point that looked like a jaw from afar but up-close seemed more like a thimble. Why hadn’t she noticed this before?
A loud siren filed the train car. Frances jerked and fell backward. From the floor she could see blue, green, and magenta lights glowing beneath the dress. The legs were welded to the floor. She screamed and pushed herself up. “Help!” she yelled, running toward the black-haired man. She tripped and nearly fell on top of him, catching herself on the armrest of the seat next to him. “Help!” she yelled again, inches from his face. His eyes did not blink or break their stare out the window. His body moved like the woman. The back twitching. Frances felt very hot suddenly. She backed away from the black-haired man, holding her arms out in front of her. She frantically pressed the green button to open the door to the next car. The door slid open and she fell into the car. The door closed rapidly, spraying her with cold exhaust. “My bag…” she said as she pulled herself up. She pressed a green button to return to her previous car but the door wouldn’t open.
“Excuse me, may I help you?” She turned and saw the entire car filled with people. They were different though. Their faces seemed palsied or frozen in an expression between amused and concerned. “Excuse me, may I help you?” She couldn’t tell who said it. The phrase was repeated. She heard it popping up in the group. Echoes, variations of the first phrase:
“Excuse me, may I help you?”
“Can I be of assistance?”
“¿Se necesita ayuda?”
“Madame, avez-vous besoin d’aide?”
“Would you like to book a hotel?”
Figures with pristine faces, cheekbones immaculately cut. Men and women, all with ambient lights pulsating beneath the thin artifice of dress clothing. Florence screamed again but no sound came out. She felt lightheaded. She tried to find a seat, but it was so crowded and she didn’t want to touch any of them. They still repeated the initial phrase, adding new languages, sometimes asking if she would like to visit a museum or make a reservation for dinner. It was hard to breathe. The train lights flickered, momentarily plunging everything into darkness. The voices layered over one another until it was indecipherable chatter, a soup of language. “What do you want?” she said. Her voice strained, trying to remain polite. She wanted to scream. It was something about hotels, something about a museum. She felt light-headed, her knees were weak and she remembered saying, “I´m sorry” out loud before everything went black.
About the Author
Brennan Burnside lives in South Carolina. His work has appeared in A Minor, Chestnut Review and The New Absurdist among others.