It had just snowed the night before, but they still decided to smoke outside so that their apartment wouldn’t reek. They threw on some layers, and brushed the small cushion of powder off the DIY-plank table and their two white wooden deck chairs. One of them grabbed two pads so they wouldn’t freeze their asses off, the other shifted an ashtray to the middle of their table while lighting his cigarette. He passed the lighter over to his friend in silence, and as twilight fell they both sat quietly, observing the soft patter of slowly melting snow.
“Wasn’t it seventy, or something like that, yesterday?”
“Don’t know what to tell you. This is what real weather is like, I guess.” They both laughed. He continued, “how was the flight out here? Okay?”
“Flight was fine, but.” She took a drag. “Dude, you have no idea how unlucky I was with all the usual public transportation.”
“Wait, why? What happened?”
“Ah. Nothing really that big. Just some lame luck and unfortunate timing.”
He paused, imagining his own experience with frustrating long queues and ridiculous delays. “I’m sorry. That sucks.”
The two were quiet for a while again, thinking about various things as the pattering of the melting snow started to transform into a soft flutter of snowflakes.
“It’s pretty funny in hindsight, though.” She started talking as if the pause never happened.
“Because it was just so absurd. First train out of the city after I got to the station was an hour later than I had originally thought it would be. This happens a lot to me though, so I just listened to some music and killed time. It’s kinda nice to just people watch and chill at train stations sometimes. Eventually I got on the train, put my head down, and fell asleep like I usually do. I was pretty sure I’d wake up a few stops before I’d have to get off.”
“Doesn’t sound too bad. I’d say pretty normal so far.”
“Nope. Everything was kosher -- until I woke up and, gathering my bearings, I realized that during my sleep I had spilled a cup of coffee all over my shit. Like, the entire side of my bag was wet. My stuff had fallen off of my seat, and the go-mug I always keep in the side pocket busted open.”
This time he took a long drag, creating a slight pause. “Ah ... yeah, that’s kinda shitty.”
She smiled, remembering. “After the initial shock, I was just like, ok -- it’s only coffee, and it didn’t get any electronics or clothes wet, really, so I grabbed a wad of paper towels from the bathroom, dabbed up the remaining spill, and went back to my seat, simply embarrassed that I had let that happen. I checked the time; it had already been an hour since I left the city. I figured I would be getting in relatively soon. But when I checked the map of the stations left on this route, it hit me that I was on a local train instead of an express train, and we had been stopping at every single metro station on the way upstate. Instead of the usual one and a half hour ride... it was going to be more like three or three and a half hours.”
“Oh man.” He laughed again. “How did you not realize that before you got on the train? Did the ticketmaster not say anything to you?”
She exhaled, looking a little like a peeved baby dragon. “No idea. I’m horrible at these kinds of things. But this meant that my friends, who had agreed to pick me up from the station nearest school, were now going to have to wait another hour or so.”
“I texted, let them know. They were surprisingly fine with it. Again, today was really weird. Normally they would have been pissed-off and left me stranded, figuring out how to wrangle a taxi back to school. In fact, they hadn’t even had lunch. The timing of it all actually almost worked out perfectly.”
While their conversation had rattled on, the two began to see some stars peeking out from behind the thinning winter clouds. Night had finally settled. The snow had stopped falling, but it was cold enough for the remaining snowpack to stay frozen, creating a deep hush that permeated the entire countryside. Looking up, the two could see a sky free from obstruction, excluding the small trails of cigarette smoke that wafted off the porch. Without realizing it, both admired the way the smoke curled and twisted up off their cigarettes, as if controlled by a specific force that made the smoke spiral the way it did.
“So?” he asked, breaking the silence. “That’s it?”
“Yeah. I guess it’s not that climactic in the end. I was basically at school after that.”
“You said you had shitty time coming up here, but so far you haven’t described anything unbelievably super-strange, or even acted like you were bothered by any of the hassles, though.”
“Oh -- right. Well my train did get stalled on the last stop before I could get off. You know, right at the Hobart Street station.”
He put his cigarette down, looking at her. “What?”
“The train stopped for a while at the last station before school.”
“I heard you. But why?”
“Well, at first I wasn’t sure. The train just kind of stalled and stopped, the doors remained closed. Everyone sat there a little confused. Didn’t seem like there had been a technical issue or anything. Everyone looking around to see if anyone around us looked like they might know what was going on.”
“Wait. You’ve kind of lost me. There wasn’t an immediate announcement? Normally the conductor informs everyone of what’s happening when there are weird stops like that.
She sighed, shrugging. “I guess not, in this case.”
“Did they ever tell you guys what the problem was?”
“Apparently some guy was pacing along the tracks, shouting stuff, and so a whole line of trains was being held up. Everything was being dealt with on the fly.”
“What the fuck? He on the tracks? Like, actually on the tracks? Just pacing around? Was he homeless?”
“No clue.” She scratched her head as if the memory was foggy. “The guy was mad about something. I was sitting next to the window, so I could see him, for a while, shouting and gesturing.”
“Holy shit. Weird.”
The winter night had become almost too quiet now. He took a deep drag from his cigarette, wondering how she had felt watching something so surreal from the sidelines. Then it hit him, and breaking the silence again, he had to ask, “But so why was your line held up? If you could see him, he was on the other track, right?”
Without turning to look at him she sighed again, doing her dragon exhale, this time from her nose. “Our train couldn’t open its doors to let anyone out because it had been ordered not to. The whole station looked like it had been shut down by the police, and there were about a dozen or so officers following the shouting man up and down the track.”
She took one more quick pull on the cigarette before ashing it in the tray. She turned to look at him. “I guess this had been going on for long enough that a whole section of commuters had become trapped inside the station while the police were trying to resolve things. I noticed the bystanders on the other platform first, then saw them holding their phones up as if filming something, then saw the shouting man, and finally realized there were police on either side of the tracks. Kinda in that order.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of the general thought I had while seeing all of this go down. I already had my assumptions and cynically began to worry that this situation was going to escalate into a worst-case scenario.”
“You mean Shouting-Man Pulls a Gun?”
“Fuck no -- more that the police accidentally use too much force, or that the shouting-man might accidentally electrocute himself on that charged middle train rail, or anything like that.”
“I mean ...” He didn’t really have anything he felt like he could say in response. This was the kind of bizarre thing he never knew how to deal with. “That’s fucked, though. Was the guy obviously dangerous, or holding a knife or anything?”
“Nope.” She propped her feet up on the table and leaned back in her chair. “There were ten or so cops, and they kept walking back and forth, following the shouting-man’s pacing, but since trains are basically soundproof I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying outside on the platform. I mean, clearly the cops wanted shouting-man to get off the tracks, but shouting man had something to prove or just wasn’t into that idea. I have no clue, dude.”
She continued. “So we just sat there. In a sound-proofed train. Unable to leave. Spectators to this weird event. The conductor came on the PA and explained everything that we could already see was happening -- as in, there was police presence and the situation would eventually be dealt with, so please stay patient. The usual stuff.”
“Isn’t there a continuous current in that middle rail that keeps the trains moving?”
“Yeah, you mentioned that,” he paused, thinking, “but I’m not sure. I think you’re right, though. That’s why they always say to stay out of the tracks, and there are all of those DANGER -- ELECTRICAL CURRENT signs.”
“Hm. Well, shouting-man wasn’t phased at all by that. But the police were. Trying to coax him out while staying safely on the platform themselves. Like they were too scared to go down there themselves. That was kind of funny to see. After a while, the two parties moved out of sight -- Shouting Man and his police posse -- and all I could do then was sit in my seat and watch the bystanders on the opposite platform, all those people holding out their phones; I watched their reactions as they watched what was unfolding.”
He waited, but she seemed to be finished. Staring up at the stars.
“... So? Did it get ugly?”
“What do you mean?”
He didn’t want to ask, since she had seemed so eerily calm this entire time, but he imagined it was now or never. “The officers didn’t do anything crazy, did they?”
“Mm.” She responded with a vague grunt as she sat upright and lit another cigarette. “No clue.”
He was stunned. “How can you not know? You were sitting right there! You must have been able to tell what was happening from how people were reacting! Can you not read facial expression, or did you just get bored of watching people and go back into your own little world of sleep and music?!” He was aware that he was now standing, and the silence of the winter night had been completely broken by his shouting. He wondered how he’d gotten so agitated so fast -- what was it that was bothering him about her? Was it a sense of indifference? Ignorance? Total lack of interest? Her blank, expressionless reaction?
She kept casually, calmly smoking, as if focused more on her cigarette than the outburst happening right next to her. “Well, what can I say?” She continued, “we -- as in everyone involved in or watching the stand-off -- were all trapped in our own little spheres of existence, and had limited knowledge of what was outside of these spheres. It also took a weirdly long time to get settled. No-one could tell what was really happening except through speculation -- there were just simply too many possibilities and perspectives and, considering how vaguely it all ended, anything could have happened. I didn’t even see the cops leave. I guess eventually my mind just moved on to focus on the rest of the shit I needed to get done. Without knowing anything specific, all I could do was eventually return back to my own preoccupations.”
She stared at him blankly. He sat back down, sinking into his chair. “I give up. I don’t really even know what you’re talking about right now. Little worlds? Bullshit. No one’s trapped in a bubble, or that self-centered.” But as soon as he uttered that phrase, he started imagining what that might look like: how she might have felt, stuck in a tiny box, while watching people stuck in a different type of box, watching the police activity in another. It seemed so unreal -- like she said -- sort of a ‘who watches the watchmen, when they have to watch us’ situation.
He thought about this for a while, and she smoked, and soon the night became winter silent again. Both of their gazes eventually turned to cold sky.
This time, though, staring out into the darkness, he realized it had resumed snowing lightly. Big fat flakes fell slowly, but steadily, without any sound.
He hoped he could get to class tomorrow.
Joe Pyne is a writer living in California.