Short Stories

An Unplanned Stop

Jackson pushed through the train's sliding doors just as they were closing. The soft whoosh of the car’s air conditioning system echoed his sigh of relief that he had made it on time. The next train would not be for an hour, and the sun had already long set. He was sure another hour spent downtown after dark would kill him.

Not that downtown was unsafe, he felt. It’s just that the shops rolled their windows up at seven, and the night did little to cool the hot, humid air that rolled in off the ocean. The train's platform had only fans that just blew hot, wet air around, and there were few places with air conditioning still open that he could sit and be cool for an hour.

The gray-haired conductor offered Jackson a friendly smile as he stepped past, waving him off when he started to show his ticket. "You're fine, son. Sit down. Relax." The man's eyes crinkled at the corners, and Jackson subconsciously compared the conductor to his own father, despite the sleek, silver uniform that the train workers wore.

"Thanks Al. How's the family?"

"Oh, glad you asked!" The conductor reached for his wallet, an obviously familiar gesture. He retrieved the worn, leather billfold and opened it up with a barely perceptible shaking in his hands. His thin, wrinkled fingers flipped through several pictures held in plastic sheaths and excitedly turned one particular one toward Jackson. The picture showed a baby not older than two or three months. The child had a huge smile, and the photographer had captured a glint in the boy’s eyes that made the photo seem almost lifelike.

“My third grandson! He’s three months old today!”

Jackson smiled at the conductor’s photo, feigning excitement about the exuberantly presented grandchild. It wasn’t that Jackson resented the picture, or being shown it, but seeing this excited older man talk about his grandson made his own loneliness seem so much more poignant. “He’s a fine looking child there, chief. You’re a very lucky man. And his parents are very lucky too!”

The conductor didn’t seem to notice Jackson’s reservations, or if he did he preferred to ignore them. After letting Jackson study the picture for a minute, he took it back and returned it to its home at his hip. “There’s not a greater feeling in the world, my friend.”

“Yea, so I’ve heard.”

The conductor seemed to realize Jackson’s sadness, and his compassionate expression conveyed a deep understanding of Jackson’s loneliness. “Don’t you fret none, son. Things will work out for you. I can feel it. Right here.” He thrust his index finger right into the middle if his own chest. “Trust me, I know these things.”

Jackson grinned, but the train lurched into motion, interrupting his next thought.
“Goodness, son.” Al seemed surprised that he had lost track of time chatting with Jackson. “You’d best get to your seat now. And I’ve got to get to the next car!”

Jackson did as he was bidden; he slipped into the comfortable leather seat he’d been assigned, while the conductor disappeared through the door that connected the train cars. He chuckled to himself as he thought about the conductor’s levity, but after a few moments that passed and the pressures of the office returned to the fore of his mind.

Jackson led a small group of insurance analysts at Promise Insurance Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hartman and Durbin Inc, one of the ten largest corporations in the entire country, though most people weren’t familiar with that name. They always did business through subsidiary companies with catchy names in order to achieve brand recognition.

Hartman had recently ordered a full scale, drop-everything-and-hope-against-hope-that-everything’s-in-order accounting investigation, going back five years. Every case his group had ever analyzed needed to be pulled from storage, summarized, and compared against corporate records. He and his team had been working seven days a week, twelve hours a day for the last month, and they were running out of time. The boys in charge at Hartman had the axe at the ready, and everyone knew it. Something was wrong somewhere and they needed some heads to roll. It didn’t really matter whose, so it would be anybody whose shit wasn’t together.

Jackson’s shit, it seemed, wasn’t together. And he was profoundly worried that it was his head that was going to be rolling. He’d already pulled out his resume and freshened it up, but he didn’t want to shop it around too soon. It was possible they’d come through this crisis, and if his resume was already out there it might be considered an admission of guilt, even though there was nothing to really be guilty of. And the worst part, to Jackson, wasn’t that he might get fired, but that he had spent the last three years getting his team together and keeping them together. He’d put his own job and personal health on the line in order to protect them more than once, and every time it had paid off in terms of loyalty and productivity, which then paid off in bonuses.

And the bonuses were great, but the truth was that Jackson really cared about his people. Often considered a fault in his line of work, Jackson considered it an asset. His biggest concern was that one of his employees might try to take advantage of it, but so far all of them had been much happier with Jackson as a shield than they would be if they tried to connive their way into promotion. It helped that they all had a good example in what happened to Zachary, who lasted only three months as Jackson’s director before he was asked to achieve success elsewhere.

Jackson needed to stop thinking about this; he was becoming morose and depressive, and he knew it. While trying to get his mind off of work, Jackson looked out the window at blurred shapes of buildings as the train sped by them. None of them remained in his vision long enough to really see them, but he got an overall impression of squalor. Not exactly the combat zones, where trains don’t even run, but definitely the clustered, poor urban environment where they have jobs but little chance for advancement. Jackson imagined there must be six or eight people living in one-bedroom apartments in these giant arcologies.

How cramped it must be. But those places aren’t exactly cheap. But they do have easy access to shopping and the trains to get to work. The arcology builders had made a deal with the government back when they started building the monstrous complexes. Arcology residents get discount train fares, and in exchange the complex owners help pay to operate the trains. Then they pass that cost right through in the rent, and get to keep their buildings full. Sweet deal for everyone. Except for the poor families who pay for the track and engine maintenance with their rent.

Jackson’s thoughts quieted, and he let the regular thrumming of the train over the tracks lull him. He still had half an hour of travel time before the train would reach his suburban neighborhood. He relaxed and melted back into the leather seat, thinking he might sleep for a moment, but was interrupted by the train’s lights suddenly going out. Then the brakes engaged, and he was thrown forward in his seat while the train’s wheels made a loud metal-on-metal squeal as they skidded against the track.

The train came to a complete halt. There was a murmur from the crowd as people tried to figure out what was going on. The general feeling edged toward panic, as no answers were immediately forthcoming. But then a few of the lights flickered on, and that alone was enough to put at least a few people more at ease, even though it was only a very few of the lights.

Shortly thereafter, a crackly voice came over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, the engineer reports that we’ve had a minor malfunction in the engine. It will take us a few moments to check on things, but right now we think we should be back and running in less than ten minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience and we thank you for your patience.”

Jackson grimaced, happy that it didn’t seem to be serious, but now irritated that he was going to be home even later. At this rate he was barely going to sleep before he’d have to get right back up and catch this very same train back downtown.

He leaned back in his seat, trying to get comfortable against the padded leather, but his failing mood made that all the more difficult. For something to do, he turned to look out the window. The train had stopped next to a large, brick apartment building. Not one of the arcologies, but one of the old—indeed, possibly now ancient—buildings made of red brick that was now black with years of built up soot. The window directly across from Jackson was open and well lit; its curtain flapped out the window from time to time as the breeze swept past it.

He imagined it must be beastly hot in there if the window was open. Despite the fact that he had always been taught that it was impolite to look in other people’s windows, he found it easier to imagine someone else’s problems than to think of his own. So he looked.

In the window he saw a dark-haired man, probably in his early thirties, Jackson’s own age. He was wearing a very cheap suit; artificial materials. It had to be hot and uncomfortable, probably scratchy and rough against his skin, unlike Jackson’s own suit, which was well cut, fashioned of fine silk, and was very good for excessively hot weather.

He studied the man. His face was covered with lines—hard work, hard weather. A lot of scowling, too, Jackson thought. And he was worked up about something; he was yelling at someone Jackson couldn’t quite see, obscured by the brick wall surrounding the window frame that served as Jackson’s portal into this world, so very different from his own.

Suddenly the man ducked to one side, and an object—Jackson couldn’t make out what it was—flew by his ear and disappeared somewhere else in the room. The dark-haired man shouted something, though between the distance and the train’s insulation, Jackson couldn’t hear even a peep of it. Then he advanced on whomever it was that had thrown whatever it was, and disappeared from the window.

Jackson leaned forward, curiosity piqued by this affair. In his mind, he imagined the dark-haired man had been through a hard day at work, and had come home to find that his wife hadn’t done anything she said she’d do. Or maybe she had, and that he was just an asshole and didn’t like something she’d done. He wondered if the thrower was actually even a woman, let alone the man’s wife.

After just a few seconds, a blonde woman with short hair lurched into the window’s view. She wasn’t the sort that Jackson would find attractive in any way. Her skin was leathery, her features uneven and her cheeks were discolored. The dark-haired main stepped into view and hit her across the face with a wide, hooking, open-handed slap, and the blonde went down to her knees, obviously crying.

“That explains the discoloration,” Jackson muttered aloud. Someone a seat or two away answered, “What?”

Jackson turned, completely embarrassed by his lack of discretion. “Oh, nothing, just thinking out loud. Sorry.”

“Ah.”

Jackson turned back to the window. The dark-haired man seemed to be choking the woman, her hair flying as her head bobbed back and forth. Jackson wondered if maybe he should call the police, this certainly seemed to have become pretty serious. But he was so deeply embarrassed by looking into someone else’s window that he didn’t reach for his mobile phone. He just sat and watched.

A third figure appeared in the window. This one looked like he might be a teenager. One that would never amount to much. He was dirty and unshaven, and it appeared as though he was missing teeth. He wore a tank top and ratty jeans, and he had what looked like several tattoos on his arms, shoulders and face.

He also had a gun. Jackson put his hands on the window. Now he was sure he should call someone, but his hands seemed unwilling to move toward his telephone. Then he saw the weapon’s muzzle flash. He wasn’t sure how many times, but it was easily half a dozen, probably more. It was enough to make him look away, without really seeing what happened. When he looked back, the kid was gone and the window was empty, just the curtain blowing in the breeze.

He finally reached for his mobile phone then, but paused when he saw the dark-haired man rise from his position on the floor. Blood was irregularly smeared on his cheeks and hands. Then he knelt down again, leaving only his back in Jackson’s view, but quickly rose again, the blonde cradled in his arms. She didn’t appear to be moving, and while the man had smears of blood, she was covered in it. He just stood there, holding her limp body next to his uncomfortable-looking suit. Jackson could only imagine that he was in complete shock over the event.

The lights in the cabin came to life, surprising Jackson who had been so engrossed by the scene that he’d almost forgotten where he was. He felt almost blinded by the bright lights, but after a few seconds his eyes began to adjust. He couldn’t see into the window anymore, thanks to the glare, but thought once his eyes completely adjusted he might be able to.

The poorly broadcast voice sounded over the train’s loudspeaker again. “We’re sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve had a minor engine malfunction, but we’ve isolated the problem, and we just need a few more minutes to take care of it and we’ll be under way. We ask that everyone please remain calm and in your seats. We thank you for your patience, and we will be moving again shortly.” The speaker made a harsh squealing sound as the announcer’s message ended.

The car filled with a small murmur of conversation about the event; Jackson realized it’d been going on for a few moments now, but he hadn’t paid any attention to it, so rapt was he by the scene unfolding in that apartment. He kept staring out in the dark, waiting impatiently for his eyes to readjust.

When they finally did, he saw that the police had already arrived at the apartment. Three officers in shiny, silver uniforms and full combat gear were visible through the window. One of them was speaking with – or perhaps shouting at – the dark-haired man, who didn’t look like he was being very responsive to the interrogation. The other two were walking around, poking the ends of their rifles at and into items that he couldn’t quite make out.

Jackson frowned at the police activity. Somehow, it wasn’t what he would have expected from the police. He hoped there were more of the officers going after the kid, but how many officers would have shown up so quickly? Jackson imagined the kid broke in looking for something to steal so he could sell it and get drugs. Though upon reflection, that scenario didn’t really make a lot of sense. The dark-haired man had been shouting, there was no way anyone would think that apartment was empty. Perhaps he had a grudge against them? He wondered if the kid was shooting at the woman or the man, and whether or not he just missed. The kid fired the gun quite a few times. Maybe he wasn’t very good with a gun.

The interrogation apparently wasn’t going well for the policemen. One of the officers was now pointing her rifle at the dark-haired man and he had his hands in the air. The one who’d been interrogating him was in the man’s face, getting weak protestation in return.

But then the officers must have finally upset the dark-haired man, because unexpectedly he started yelling. His arms gesticulated excitedly, and Jackson imagined a string of obscenities coming from his mouth after reading a couple of pretty recognizable swear words on the man’s lips. He pointed at the interrogating officer, stabbing his crooked finger in mid-air.

One of the officers held up a pistol, balancing it by the trigger guard on just one finger. Jackson imagined the officer asking the man if it was his pistol. The dark-haired man shook his head violently. The officer scowled. With an impressive display of throwing acuity, he lobbed the pistol—using just one finger—at the dark-haired man. It went up in a slow arc and sailed right at his chest. Instinctively he reached out and grabbed the flying piece of metal. And as soon as he touched it, the three officers unloaded their rifles into him.

Jackson watched the carnage in shocked silence. Bullet after bullet ripped through the man’s clothes and into his flesh, and he just stood there in shocked surprise. Rivulets of blood appeared and flowed down the bad suit, and then he collapsed, disappearing from view. The last thing Jackson saw of the man’s face was a twisted mix of surprise, horror and pain. That image burned itself into Jackson’s mind.

Just then, the train’s engine started back up; there was a brief feeling of tension, and then the car creaked as it went into motion. The loud squeal of the metal wheels against the track seemed to be an extension the buzz that filled Jackson’s mind. He’d never seen anyone killed before, except on television. And actually, the deaths on TV were much more gruesome than this, but somehow that just didn’t seem to get to him. That was just television. This…this was real.

Jackson barely noticed the loudspeakers coming alive again, and most of the droning voice was lost to his ears. He only caught the end of the message as he sat limp in his chair, stunned into immobility. The man’s dying face was still in his mind.

“Everything’s back to normal now, and we apologize for the inconvenience.”

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