Originally published in Tales from the Moonlit Path.
Thirty seconds before departure, the train doors shriek and swish and shut and lock (for my own safety). Ordinarily this wouldn’t bother me, but after catching my breath I find myself unexpectedly alone. The rear coach is empty, at rush hour, on a Friday. I don’t care what the platform announcement said. There’s no way I’m on the right train.
Clutching my portfolio to my chest, I jog toward the next coach, hoping to find another passenger or to catch a glimpse of the platform information screen through the window. While I’m in the concertina corridor between coaches, the train pulls away. When I emerge, the end of the platform is slipping past the window. This coach is empty too. Something tells me the whole train is empty.
The cheery blue upholstery promises comfort, but the bright white fluorescent light reminds me of hospitals and holding cells. Outside it’s an ink-black midwinter evening. I look for streetlights or neons or illuminated windows, but the train seems already to have left the city behind. (There’s no way it’s my usual line.) All I can see in the window is the coach interior reflected again and again, as if mine is just one of an infinite number of identical trains racing at the same speed along parallel rails.
Cupping my hands around my eyes, I press my face to the chilly plastic. My own eyes are all I can see. I stare through my own pupils, hoping for a glimpse of the world outside. My eyes gaze stoically back. They glisten like some creature dredged up from an oceanic trench: something with which we can coexist at a distance, but which once confronted seems frightening and alien. Those wetly glistening eyes can’t be a part of me.
I step back. My reflection looks as solid as I am. I can believe it is a being all its own, standing staring back at me from a parallel train on parallel rails. Behind me, through the opposite window, another being glances at me over its shoulder. I don’t want these people to be insentient images of me. I want them to discover and exert their own free will. I want companions on my journey to who-knows-where.
I blink, and so do they.
I raise one hand, and so do they.
I sit, defeated, and so do they.
I want them to individuate themselves because otherwise they’re all just versions of me: infinite alternative selves in the same predicament, being carried through the dark towards a destination we didn’t choose. Resistance leads to derailment and death. Only once we get wherever we’re going can we stop, and breathe, and try to pick a new path: one that takes us somewhere worthwhile.
I hug my portfolio, close my eyes and wait for that opportunity. Blind, I can believe that out of an infinite number of parallel passengers, one stands watch for a light outside.