16 Nov The Strangers
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"The Strangers"Written by Anonymous
Estimated reading time — 19 minutes
My name is Andrew Erics.
I used to live in a city you probably heard of called New York.
My mother is Terrie Erics—Teresa, really. She’s in the phone book under “E”—if they even have those things any more. Maybe you can just Google her. I don’t know.
If you know the city, and you read this, find her. Please. Don’t show her this, but do me a favor and tell her I love her, and let her know that I’m trying to come home. Really.
It all started around the time I turned 25. I decided for no good reason that it was time for me to give up taking a backpack to work. Idiotically, I thought that it would make me look more like the guys I saw on the trains. You know, the ones the women are with. The guys who made it. I figured that if I weren’t lugging around a ridiculous-looking book bag everywhere like some braindead kid, I’d be seen as more mature because I wouldn’t look—you know… stupid.
Yeah. Right. I know.
But that meant that I had to give up reading on the subway going to and from work. See, I’d get a seat because I got on early, then hide a book under the pack in such a way that it’s peeking out just enough for me to see it. Because, you know, who wants to get jumped for reading? And like hell was I going to wear a messenger bag. Please. You’re joking, right?
For a while I had an MP3 player I got from my mom. That helped pass the time for a while and I could even put books on it from the library. It was perfect, because no one can tell what you’re listening to. If you nod your head every once in a while, they think it’s music. But I dropped the thing getting off the train in one of those shoving let-me-offa-the-damn-train fits. Ever since then it’s been shutting down at the end of every song if I don’t tap it to skip to the next track. So I gave that up, too.
Instead, every morning on my way in, I’d sit on the endless “A” train, with nothing to do but watch the other passengers. I was relatively shy. I’m serious. I talk like I’m not, but I really am. See, I didn’t want to be caught looking—or even looking like I was looking. Instead, I watched people from the corner of my eye. I figured out pretty fast that I wasn’t the only person in the world who wasn’t totally comfortable out in public.
Different people hid it in different ways, but I could see through them. I made groups for them in my head. First, there were the “Fidgeters” who couldn’t get comfortable, always moving their hands, shifting their weight, and edging their legs close to their seat, then away. They were the most nervous types. After them, second, we have the “Fake Sleepers” who would take a seat and practically close their eyes in the same moment. Lots of them were rich white guys who did this to avoid giving a seat to a pregnant woman or an older person. When I saw them I gave my seat up right away because most of those guys weren’t really sleeping at all, and I’d try really hard to get close and “accidentally” kick their shoe or something. Then I’d be all like, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to wake you!” Right? Anyway, the “Real Sleepers”, my third group, shifted more suddenly, whenever we stopped, or they were startled by loud noises. The Fakes just zoned out the second they sat down until the moment they reached their stop, at which point they’d hop up, peppy and alert, and jump off.
I didn’t like them much. Why do you ask?
Then comes the fourth group — MP3-player Addicts — the one people would probably lump me into if they had watched me in my earlier days. The people in this group were related to the fifth group — the Occasional Laptop Losers — and those in the sixth were ordinary people, the ones who traveled in groups and talked too loudly. So, you know, New Yorkers.
I crack myself up.
Anyway, right around when people-watching was getting very “same old, same old,” I had my first surprise: a middle-aged white man, with brown hair, completely average looks, and casual Friday clothing. Dockers, business-friendly sweater. You know the type. He was so normal, he was almost too normal. Know what I mean? He had nothing special about him; no funky hand movements, didn’t weird laugh or anything. It was as if he’d been designed by one of those cop shows to fake you out. Like he was born to melt into a crowd.
That’s why I noticed him.
Here I was, purposely trying to see how people acted on the train so I could categorize them, and he didn’t act at all. Didn’t re-act, either. It was like seeing someone sitting in front of the television, watching a documentary about, I don’t know… something really boring. Like fish. The guy watching isn’t excited or focused, but he’s not looking away either. Present, but not accounted for.
Anyway, I’m not that good at being punctual, my mom says… said… so I didn’t get on the train at exactly the same time every day. And since I didn’t care one way or the other, I didn’t try to sit in the same car either. Random was fine with me. So I was more than a month into my people-watching-and-grouping experiment before he caught my eye—that normal guy I told you about. I saw him for the first time on a Monday, I think. Yeah, it was definitely a Monday, because I know I saw him the second time on a Thursday, when I was heading home to hang with the same crew I’ve hung with every Thursday night since we were all in school together.
Mr. Normal Guy, well… he obviously did catch the same train. And he sat in the same car — the first car — and in the same seat, even. Talk about obsessive-compulsive. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. What I should have been thinking, however, was, “Crap — that is not normal.”
Since he’d caught my attention so well the first time I saw him, I watched him even more closely the next time. Frankly, something about him made me really uncomfortable. Mind you, he didn’t do anything to make me feel like that. He didn’t do anything at all, really. What creeped me out, maybe, was how much he was trying not to be there. The way he sat there in silence, staring straight ahead with a blank expression on his face, no matter what happened, was unnerving. Once, a woman with a crying kid entered the car and sat right next to him — still nothing. He didn’t so much as turn his head or stare the kid down.
And that little punk was seriously loud, too.
By the time the subway reached my stop that Thursday, I felt sick — queasy sick — and when I left the car, my hands were shaking like I was in the throes of nicotine withdrawal. That man was wrong. He was some kind of freak. A sociopath, perhaps. One of those quiet guys who, as it later turns out, has a dozen women’s heads in his freezer — the first victim likely his own mother.
I’m telling you all this so it’ll make sense why the next part is so weird. Because he freaked me out, so you’d think I would do everything I could to stay away, right?
Yeah, I would have thought that, too.
In my early days, he was just part of my “grouping experiment” — and not a particularly interesting one at that. At least, I had convinced myself of that. But it wasn’t long before I noticed I’d been wasting time after work in the afternoons, poking around the newsstand, reading magazines I didn’t want, until the clerk chased me away for loitering. Unconsciously, I was doing my best to stay off that guy’s train. And if I found myself on the platform at the wrong time — his time — I made damn sure to choose the last car — the one as far away from his as possible. The opposite of obsession, right? Fine.
Then, on my way to work one morning, I saw another person who set off the same warning bells in my head.
This time it was a woman in the last car. Just as plain-looking, and just as out of place in all the hustle and bustle around her. The moment I saw that she was in his category — I only realized it later, when I had lots of time to think about it, you understand — well, that moment was when my obsession officially began. All of my people-watching, which had begun as a way to keep myself from dying of boredom, became a religion to me. I couldn’t set foot on a subway platform or ride a bus without examining everyone and filling out a mental checklist in my head. Plain clothes, solid colors, no brands? Check. Expressionless, no casual glances out the windows or towards other passengers? Check. No bags, purses, or accessories? Check, check, check — we’ve got another.
I started calling them the Strangers.
Like any other convert, I loved that connection. Finding my next Stranger “fix” was my ritual. I didn’t see them every day, even after I started taking the subway more than I needed to, but they were there often enough. Seeing one would set me on edge, make my palms sweaty, and my throat dry. I know that sounds like a bad thing, but like I said — I was obsessed.
Even though they didn’t pay me any attention — they never looked at me or made eye-contact, treating me as if I was invisible — I still felt like I was totally exposed in their presence, a flashing neon sign in the midst of Times Square, as it were.
I could see them, plain as day. How could they be so oblivious of me?
But they never noticed me, not in any way that I could tell. And when my curiosity finally gave my fear a beat-down, I decided to follow one of them. I thought I should go back to my first, the man on the afternoon train who always chose the same seat in the same car. I imagined he’d be easy to find. So I went to a likely platform and waited, watching for him in the windows of the front cars that pulled in. And eventually, there he was. I got on and took a seat diagonally across from him, doing my best to look inconspicuous. We rode until the end of the line, and he got up and walked out before I did. Keeping a reasonable distance between us, I tailed him, but it wasn’t much of a trick. He didn’t even leave the platform. He took a seat on one of the cleaner wooden benches—as expressionless as always—and I went behind one of the big map boards and waited, trying to look blasé. After a few minutes, the next downtown train arrived, and I watched him get in… and take the same seat.
I didn’t have the courage to follow him again.
He hadn’t gone anywhere! He just rode to the end of the line. And then — what? Rode it back? What possible reason would he — would anyone — have for doing that?
It nagged at me, long after I’d taken the next downtown back home. I tried to get some rest but I couldn’t leave it alone, not until I could make some sense of him. I was beyond confused — I was angry. Why was this jackass — this inhumanly silent and still bastard — riding trains back and forth, and going nowhere? He bothered me, but not the way a guy who unapologetically slams into you on the street without looking twice does. He bugged me the way spiders do. Big, hairy, train-riding freak spider guy makes me want to get the hell away from him. That was how the Strangers were beginning to look to me. They made my eyes water, and my mouth dry.
But did that stop me?
Hell, no! Of course not.
Desperate to satisfy my curiosity, I followed him again the next day, and again the day after that. Every day for at least a week, the two of us made our silent trips together, though only I noticed. By the end of the week, I was following him for hours. All day, every day. All night. Well past the time the trains started running night expresses and passing stations — like my stop — in parts of town that shut down for the night. We rode from the east end of the city’s system, down, around, and up to the top. Then back again. I wasn’t people-watching any longer. I was person-watching. Stranger-watching. I didn’t see anyone else on those trains I rode that week. We could have been the only two people on the planet, for all I knew, or cared.
I lost my job after that. My manager was nice about it but didn’t leave any room to beg. I’d lost my concentration, my focus. I’d become totally unproductive. It was actually kind of a heartfelt speech, to be honest. He had been a nice guy, but you know what? As distracted as I was, I can barely remember him, or the words that came out of his mouth during “the talk.” All I could think about while he was speaking was my new work, my responsibility, my vigil.
What would that man — that thing — on the subway get up to when I wasn’t there to keep my eye on him?
How would we all survive without me watching?
I left work for the last time at noon that day. Normally I’d have started tailing my subject at 5:30, but I knew — I just knew — that he’d be waiting for me.
I wish now that I’d paid more attention to that day. Was it sunny? It was summer, after all. When did it start feeling like he knew when I’d be there? I wonder because that was the last day I could have walked around downtown, my last chance to have had a beer or two at that joint with the cream-colored menus and the tables on the sidewalk. I could have sat there, checking out the girls walking by in their summer dresses — or would that place make me drink wine? Whatever — it doesn’t matter. The point is, I could have had a good time, gone home, and put all this insanity out of my head. I could have looked for a new job and started reading again.
Instead, I waited for a train.
* * * * * *
Many trains are on the tracks at any given time in “The City That Never Sleeps”, so I sat in the station for at least an hour until I scored. There he was, finally, framed in his first-car window as his train pulled in. I waited for the exiting crowd to thin, then shoved past the stragglers and noticed — surprised — that my skin wasn’t clammy, my hands weren’t shaking, and my heart wasn’t pounding. I sat, for the first time, right across from him, directly in his line of sight, and watched for him to make a change — any change. Eyes, mouth… hell, if one of the hairs on his head had moved, that would have been something. But no. No change. No anything.
Did he recognize me? If he did, I couldn’t tell, and I was looking hard. We had to be a strange pair, sitting across from each another that afternoon, staring at and into one another — because this time he had to look at me. I’m sure my face said plenty. I couldn’t believe I was able to keep as still and as expressionless as he was, because inside I was screaming, “React to me, you freak! See me, damn it! Because I sure as hell can see you, you spider-brained bastard!”
But I didn’t scream, and he didn’t answer. Not during the first trip uptown, or the second one down… or the third… or the tenth.
We rode into the night together, and at the end of each line, we got out and waited. This time I didn’t play. I mimicked him exactly, sitting right beside him on the bench and staring straight ahead, but always watching him from my peripherals — and still nothing.
But two could play, right?
At last, we made our final trip together. That day, I felt untouchable. I was downright smug, so certain I had him and that he knew it. The conductor, mostly understandable on the speaker, announced this would be the train’s last run for the night. He’d be switching to a different train when we reached the last stop, and the engine and car I found myself in would retire for maintenance.
So here it was now — officially — the last night of the trip.
I’m not too proud to tell you that I’d always let him get away from me before this point when it was this late. The end of the line is a long way from my home, and if the trains go slow this time of night, the buses are flat-out worse than waiting for Santa’s sleigh to show up and take you home in July. But this time, I thought, “what the hell?” I’d follow him, and finally get a look at where he was — what he was — when the trains stopped running. Maybe this time I’d get some answers.
The subway rolled on towards the end and my stomach rolled with it. The car emptied like coffee through a filter until it was just us, two silent watchers beneath the city. I fought to keep a crazy grin off my face while the subway train slowed to a crawl, and then stopped. The doors opened to no one.
The end of the line.
The Stranger didn’t move, didn’t react at all. The car stood still, doors open. I could hear a few stragglers faintly, far down the platform, making their way out of the station, their footsteps echoing in the silence.
The speaker system crackled in a half-assed attempt to let any sleeping riders know that we’d gone as far as we could go.
And then, I heard footsteps again: a conductor, perhaps, popping his head into each car to make sure it was empty before he took the train to wherever the hell it goes for the night.
No matter what I heard, however, I wasn’t about to take my eyes off my captive.
I paid attention to the conductor when he finally reached our car while still staring down the Stranger. The conductor looked in. His eyes scanned over us, and then he looked confused. Like he’d forgotten a phone number he’d known his whole life. He blinked a few times, and paused. I waited for him to say something, but the moment stretched out, spinning slowly in a track-breeze. Then, with a slight shake of the head, he walked towards the conductor’s door, keyed it open, and left us in the main car.
A few minutes later, the train started up again. We rode straight off underground for a while, then it felt like the train looped around and stopped. I could see the windows of more trains behind my motionless companion. And through those train’s windows? More trains.
And then, while I was trying to calculate my next steps, he smiled at me. It was nothing more than a slight curl of the lip, but I noticed. I probably wouldn’t have it if I hadn’t spent the last God-knows-how-many hours studying his face. A smile is normal… right?
Sometimes, as it turns out, it’s not.
“So,” the Stranger said in a rough baritone, “here we are.”
I tried to respond but couldn’t. My throat had clamped shut. I was incredulous. I’d been waiting for this for what felt like my whole life, and yet, I’d been rendered speechless. The entire tunnel system we were in felt as if it had just collapsed onto me. I coughed and stammered and finally managed, in a rasping tone, to ask the question that kept me up at night, the one which drove me halfway to madness, and led me to this place and this moment.
“What are you?”
He ignored me and stood. The train doors opened, and he started walking. A moment later, he turned and stared straight into me again.
“Coming?” he called.
He didn’t wait for an answer but stepped out onto the platform. I scrambled out after him, finding words difficult to come by, and immediately wished I had brought a bottle of water.
“Come on, damn it!” I finally shouted, then tripped on the uneven platform. He ignored me and continued walking. “Talk to me!” I hollered while I picked myself up. “Who are you? What are you? Why do you ride the trains all day?” He didn’t look back or slow his step. I couldn’t see his face as I recovered my balance, but I’m willing to bet he didn’t react at all — or, at least, no more than he had in response to anything else. I stalked after him, shouting until I realized the futility of my actions, and I gave up. Five words were all I was going to get out of him, it seemed.
In spite of a growing sense of unease, I was overwhelmed with curiosity. I’d come all this way, and I wasn’t about to leave without an explanation. And so I traversed the platform until we came to an odd junction of sorts, unlike any I’d ever seen in the New York City subway system before. Trains lined both sides of a platform that appeared to stretch into infinity. This place was even spookier than the old ghost platform I was lucky enough to glimpse in a dim tunnel years ago on a quiet, early morning when my train was rerouted.
Suddenly, the Stranger turned.
We had been walking perpendicular to the trains around us, passing nose after nose of the hulking vehicles, their headlights seemingly glaring at us as we passed. The path ahead was lit from above, but I couldn’t see where it ended. Innumerable trains on either side of us went on forever, so far as I could tell. Far too many trains to service one city, I realized, even one as densely populated as New York. No one needed this many trains.
It wouldn’t have changed anything, I know, but I probably should have paid more attention to that at the time.
I’m not sure how long we walked. I had a watch once, but it broke and I never replaced it. Kind of like the MP3 player, now that I think about it. Go figure. Pathetically, I took out my cellphone at one point, but as expected, I had no signal. The Stranger stopped every now and then and looked at a subway car for long enough to get me jumpy, but then he’d pass on. I’d stand there looking at the train he’d paid so much attention to, seeing nothing out of the ordinary about it at all.
Finally — after-who-knows-how-long — I saw what he saw. The trains weren’t all the same. We’d walk past tons that were similar, and then we’d come upon a different model. Even in the gloom, it was easy to tell when they were a little larger or smaller, or that they had a different curve to their nose, different siding, or different doors. The conductor’s cabins were a little different as well.
I didn’t see, and still don’t know, exactly what the Stranger was looking for, what he was waiting for the trains to tell him — but he must have found it, because, zip! There he went, turning down a platform. And the train’s doors opened as soon as he stopped in front of them.
I followed closely behind, and we took our usual seats in the darkened car.
“Are you willing to speak now?” I asked him.
I sighed with frustration and seriously began weighing the pros and cons of punching him in the face, when the lights in the car came on and the engine started. “What the hell?” I said.
When he locked eyes with me then, he actually looked sad. Then he offered six more words that changed everything. “You can’t go back, you know.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I retorted. “Go back where?”
The stonewalling bastard just sat there, ignoring me.
Our train lurched, pushing off in the opposite direction from what I expected. The Macy’s Day Neverending Parade of trains had thrown off my sense of direction, I guessed. We rolled on for a few minutes and then slowed as we approached a stop. His gaze, vacant since the train started moving, grew sharper. For the first time, I got the sense that he was finally staring at me, rather than just staring in the direction I happened to be in.
“Be still, be silent,” he said. “Don’t catch their attention.”
The train stopped, the doors opened… and they began to flood in.
I don’t know what I noticed first — the weird clothes, the too-long arms with hands nearly brushing the floor, the jet-black eyes set deep into angular faces, or their blue-gray skin. My eyes saw it, but my brain refused to process it. When my mind could no longer ignore the horrors right in front of me, it was all I could do to stymy the shriek which threatened to tear its way out of my throat. My frantic heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. Like a strummed bass string, everything in me lurched and throbbed with the rolling spasms of horror. My head grew dizzy. My eyes fogged over — which I was thankful for — and I felt bile rising in the back of my throat.
Following the Stranger’s instructions, I kept my mouth clenched shut, forcing me to swallow it back down, managing only because the other option was much worse. My instincts screamed his words at me. Be still! Be silent! Don’t catch their attention!
The rest of the day was a blur.
We rode the subway car up and down the line — both still, both expressionless — for hours. For days, maybe. It seemed longer than the route I knew — the line I’d followed the Stranger on for so long. The hideous things around us seemed to pay us no mind, though I, at least, must have stood out like a nun at a heavy metal concert. When we finally returned, alone, at the endless cavern of trains, I burst into tears in our blessedly empty car and collapsed to the floor, exhausted, and sobbed for a long time.
The Stranger simply watched.
When my breathing had returned somewhat to normal, I managed to croak, “Take me home. Please.”
“I can’t,” he said bluntly. “I don’t know which one of these would lead you back, if any of them do.” He stood, the doors opened again, and he stepped out once again onto the platform. I fought the urge to whimper like an abused puppy, and followed him.
He spun around, eyes glinting. “You’ve followed me long enough.”
“What?!” I shouted, fury overshadowing my misery. Rushing forward, I grabbed the Stranger by the shoulders, and with an unexpected burst of strength, slammed him up against the side of the nearest train car.
“You son of a bitch! What the hell did you get me in to? What did you do to me!?” I smashed him against the metal walls again and again. “Take me back!” I screamed.
Like a candle deprived of oxygen, the sight of his eyes returning once more to their usual emotionless state extinguished the rage in me, and I felt my anger peter out, leaving me hollow.
“Please,” I begged again. “Please take me home.”
“That’s not how it works,” he said. ” Go your own way. Be still and be subtle, and they’ll think that you’re one of theirs.”
“One of their what?” I demanded.
He peered down at his hands, in silence.
“How could you do this to me?” I cried. “Why?”
He cast me a melancholy glance. “You’ll do it too. Sometimes you get… stuck.” He brushed my hands off his shoulders and turned to walk away. Devastated, I fell to my knees. He turned back to me one final time.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and touched his finger to my forehead.
That is the last thing I remember.
* * * * * *
I don’t know what he did to me or why. When I came to, I knew my role, and played it to the best of my ability.
I was still.
I was silent.
And I rode to the ends of the lines, no matter who — or what — got on.
Being still was as good as being invisible, but once in a while, I caught a reflection in a train window. The first hundred times it happened, I didn’t catch on. But eventually, even I understood: the longer I rode with the… things… the more I became like them. I was stuck in their world until someone started watching me. Then, if they followed, and only then, I had a chance of getting back to the endless platform of lost trains.
In the time I spent ensnared in that place, I did some terrible things — things I’m not proud of — to the other Strangers. But I’d made my choice: I was not going to lure anyone else into their trap. Not even if it got me home faster. They were better off dead than being in whatever state I was.
It makes me wonder, though, about the Stranger who got me into this situation. I wonder what he originally looked like, and whether he knew he could have killed me and gotten to the hub that way. I wonder, too, about the others I saw back home, and the rare few I’ve come across since I left. Do they kill them, or take them? And whichever one they choose, do they consider it a mercy? I can’t bring myself to talk to them, to ask. We’re damned either way, and the damned ought to suffer in silence.
I’ve killed fifteen Strangers now, and I’ve gotten very good at it. But I’ve made a decision. I’m done killing—innocents, at least. Before I returned to the central hub this last time, I scrounged as much paper as I could, and I wrote this story. Over and over again, to be left in as many subway cars as I can manage. Thousands of messages in bottles, cast into a sea of steel rails.
This tale is a request. It’s also a warning.
My request — remember? — was that you find my mother and tell her a lie.
It’s a white lie, don’t worry.
You have to find her then tell her that I love her, and that I am trying to come home. It may give her some hope, or peace. Or something.
And, oh, how I wish it were true.
But here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking I’m similar to the character we read about in school when the teacher tried to get us all jazzed about mythology. Did you ever read the story about Odysseus, lost and drifting upon the sea, looking to return home, to something and someplace familiar? That’s me, struggling to find my way. But that’s where the similarities end, I’m afraid. Because I’m not lost at sea. I’m lost in endless tunnels — a labyrinth of sorts. The distinction is important, because labyrinths are designed. They’re built, intentionally, and just like in those old legends about Theseus, it’s the same here.
Someone, or something, made this impossible place. And they’re going to pay for what they’ve done to me. The rules of this place have transformed me from what I once was into something else entirely, something horribly inhuman, and then into something else again. They’ve created a monster. And if that’s what they expect, I’ll be their minotaur in this labyrinth. And if I can, I’ll tear it down around me, and take the ones that built it along for the ride.
They have no idea who they’re dealing with. They never should have messed with a New Yorker.
My warning — because I’m trying to be a Good Samaritan here with my balled-up stories scribbled on dirty paper — is that you should stay as far away as possible, even in public places, from silent, expressionless people. Just keep your distance. They may kill you, or something far worse.
If you see them, run far, and run fast.
And even more importantly, I beg you — do not ride any train to the end of the line. That ride might just be your last… or it might just last forever.
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