Thursday, August 30, 2012

Train of Consequence
... is my first Friday Flash, a short story submitted as part of the Friday Flash community. It's longer than it should be. I apologize for verbosity.
Train of Consequence
by D. C. Petterson

I’ve watched long enough, Sophie thought. I need to decide.
The door slid shut. Sophie clutched at the strap hanging from the metal beam to keep from falling over as the train jumped and started its crawl forward. She snorted in disgust. People packed into the train car like broken crayons crammed into a too-small box. She couldn’t fall over even if she tried. The crayons around her would hold her up. The thought of being crushed among these bodies made her choke and she struggled not to vomit.
The train lurched as it picked up speed, bursting from the dim station into searing sunlight, and a fat old man in a greasy three-piece suit jostled against her. He smelled of gym socks and stagnant water. Sophie had seen him before, more times than she could count. Nearly the same set of crayons jammed themselves into the same set of box cars every day, twice a day, once in the morning, once at night. Most had staked out territory they always reclaimed within the box. Stinky Fat Man in Threepiece usually stood closer to the front of the car where Sophie didn’t have to smell him. She turned her head away.
Why do I let this go on?
Skanky Waitress didn’t smell much better, reeking of fried chicken and stale beer. She seemed especially awkward this evening, precariously balanced on absurdly high heels, her belly bloated with her own new little broken crayon packed inside. Her profile looked like a twig with a tumor threatening to burst her middle. She seemed to pop those critters out once every year, as if marking the seasonal rhythms of snow and heat. Maybe she couldn’t find anything to do in the winter other than ride some lodgepole, but carrying enormous womb-tumors around in Chicago’s tropical summers couldn’t be comfortable.
They are all blind and weak. I need to set them free.
A mother stood nearby, holding the hand of her child, a boy of perhaps ten. He stood close to her, eyes bright, not yet dimmed by the crush around them. The mother stared straight ahead, not moving except to occasionally shush her son when he tried to get her attention. Sophie hadn’t seen them before. Maybe Mom had promised Boy a day in the city during his summer vacation.
The seat near Skanky Waitress always held Wall Street. Most days, he sat with his copy of the Journal tucked under his arm, staring at Skanky’s legs, or at the way her dirty white work costume barely covered her tiny ass. At the moment he held his paper spread in front of his face, blocking his view of Skanky’s belly. He apparently found her less appealing while pregnant. She shifted from foot to foot, staring at the top of his head. She sniffled, and rubbed a hand under her nose, her face twisting.
That displayed the reason for much of Sophie’s contempt. Wall Street couldn’t be bothered to offer his seat, even when the object of his lustful fantasies clearly could use the relief for her tired feet and aching body. For her part, Skanky didn’t have the courage to ask, nor the brains to stop getting repeatedly pregnant.
The train shifted, rocked downward, and plunged into darkness. Sophie allowed herself a grim smile at the sexual symbolism of the long train thrusting into a tunnel in the earth. It seemed fitting.
They suffer in silence, they lose their wills and their souls. They won’t change, and they won’t ask for help. All for a chance at something they’ll never have.
Another example. Sophie looked between the rocking bodies and found Mouse. She cowered in a far corner, eyes wide, barely twitching, as if she could hold her breath for the whole forty-five minutes of the twice-daily ride. Something once had shattered Mouse, breaking her spirit and reducing her to silence. It now festered like a rotting carcass within her, yet she couldn’t bring herself either to face it, or to run from it. She merely endured the unendurable, day after empty day.
Backrub clutched one of the metal poles, his face a mask of slack-jawed boredom. Sophie recalled him once finding a victim, a young woman, maybe a college student, anyway she’d never ridden this car before. He’d positioned himself such that every lurch of the train, every bounce and jostle, would just happen to force his crotch harder against the girl’s hip, just happen to rub him against her like a dog humping someone’s leg. She scrunched her eyes closed, silently trembling, putting up with it the way Mouse suffered though each day. Backrub had finally moaned, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the train, and all the tension drained from his face. He stumbled back. Sophie thought maybe he’d collapse, but he didn’t. The woman got off the train at the very next stop, and Sophie never saw her after that. Backrub didn’t even watch her go.
The train slowed, the darkness around them starting to flash as they passed the lights close to the next station. They groaned to a stop, brakes screaming in protest. Even their machines are in pain.
The broken crayons shifted around the box. A few got off. More packed themselves in. Tattoo Girl with her unfocused eyes and facial piercings and carefully-ripped T-shirt. Big Shot with his nose in the air and his briefcase clutched in a manicured hand. Beanpole towering above everyone, ducking as he came through the door.
None of them wants to be here. None of them wants to live here. Perhaps it is time to set them free.
The doors closed, the train lurched, and Stinky Fat Man fouled her air again.
Sophie sighed. Semjaza, I’ve done as you suggested. I’ve observed them.
The air tingled as with a stroke of lightening. Sophie smelled ozone. The little boy looked up at her, still holding his mother’s hand. “Then tell me, Sophia, what have you seen?”
The mother seemed not to notice the boy’s change of character. Neither did Wall Street or Stinky Fat Man or Skanky Waitress.
Sophie struggled to encapsulate her conclusions. “I’ve seen beings without hope, without souls, barely tolerating their own lives but refusing to change them.”
The boy shook his head. “This is hardly a fair sample.”
“I’m not generalizing to the whole species.”
“Good. I wouldn’t expect such an unwarranted generalization from the Archetype of Wisdom.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Is that sarcasm I hear?”
“How can I know what you hear? My point is--”
“I know what your point is.”
“-- they can’t possibly thrive without--”
“You made that clear when you and the others first abandoned Heaven.”
“Sophia, they need us! Don’t you see that?” He looked away, shook his head, looked back. “They don’t deserve to be abandoned.”
“No. They don’t. Certainly not those here, on this train. They don’t deserve to suffer this way.” She was sure he wouldn’t mistake her meaning.
He frowned. “Everyone?”
“On this train, yes.”
The boy raised a hand. “Wait. Why did you summon me?”
“I promised to tell you what I saw. Now I’ve told you. Feel free to leave.”
“What about,” he patted his chest with his free hand, “this, or that?” and he pointed to the bulge in the middle of Skanky Waitress. “Even innocents?”
“Innocent? Some of them believe they’re born in sin.”
“I don’t buy that crap. I know you don’t, either.”
“You miss my meaning. Some of them do believe that. It’s how they shape themselves. Twenty years from now, thirty at most, these two will be no different.”
“Are you sure you’re not generalizing?”
“Get out while you can, Semjaza.”
He turned away. The scent of ozone drifted off. The little boy buried his face in his mother’s pant leg. Sophie spread her arms.
Stinky Fat Man jumped, as if stuck by a pin. He gaped at Sophie. “Are you all right?” He blinked, and tried to back away a step, pushing farther into the box of crayons. “Your face...”
Yes, I know. By now, it would be stark white, drained of blood, perhaps beginning to glow.
A hubbub and a murmur spread from where she stood, ripples in a pond. The others turned toward her, staring. The mother pulled her boy close. Skanky Waitress put her hand on her belly. Wall Street crumpled his paper.
Big Shot took a step toward her, pushing some of the little people out of his way. “What do you think you’re doing, young lady? Are you some kind of terrorist?”
I’m giving all of you want you want. From the corners of her eyes, she saw her hands burst into flame.
Tattoo Girl screamed.
They all fell back, shoving each other against the windows, crowding into the tiny bench seats. Sophie gathered her arms to her body and looked down, building the heat, pulling it to her. When she opened her eyes again, she stared out from the midst of a ball of air glowing white hot. Her clothes flashed into flame and vanished in a cloud of ash.
Backrub’s expression hadn’t changed--still bored, already dead inside. He moved only to shove one hand into his pants.
Sophie’s voice thundered, much louder than the roar from the train. “I set you all free from your suffering and your despair. Children, rejoice!”
The others scrambled away, climbing over each other in their desperation. Wall Street knocked Skanky to the floor, and stood on her crumpled body trying to get past the next bench seat.
I made the right decision. Nothing can be salvaged here.
Sophie threw fire outward at them all, flinging it with backhand slaps. They screamed as they burned. Beanpole tried to tear off his shirt when it burst into flame, before the skin started curling away from the muscle beneath. “Crazy bitch!”
Stinky Fat Man tripped, and he fell on two other passengers. They lay pinned, helpless, beneath him. He held his arms up in entreaty. “Please, please, please...”
She’d ridden this train with him every day for five years. He’d never once asked her name. She flicked her fingers at him and fire burst from his chest. He threw himself from side to side, crushing the unfortunate people under him.
One passenger, and one only, seemed to understand. Mouse turned dark and haunted eyes toward her. She spoke, barely a whisper, from the far end of the train car. Sophie heard her clearly. “Thank you.”
Sophie smiled. “You’re welcome, child. I set you free. I love you.” She held her arms wide. Just before the fire engulfed them all, Mouse smiled back and closed her eyes.
The explosion tore the car in half. The front of the train careened on, its cars thrown from the tracks like dice skittering down a drainpipe, flying a half mile father through the tunnel. The trailing cars crumpled and smashed into each other like a logjam in a narrow ravine. The echoes raced away, reverberated back, and slowly faded.
Sophie let her anger and loathing die along with the heat of the explosion. She stood naked in the shattered remains of the subway tunnel. No easy exit presented itself, but she had no concerns on that score. She could leave this now-useless body behind.
A voice drifted down the tunnel to her, a whiff of ozone carried on the fleeting echoes. “Was it good for you, too?”
She glared into darkness. “Semjaza, I came at your invitation. You wanted me to see these creatures, their pitiful state, the shells of their tiny lives. I saw. I pitied them. I freed them from sorrow.”
“Their tiny lives--that’s all they have, you know.”
“Yes, we’ve argued this before. I’m done with it.”
“What will you do now?”
What indeed? “If you want to help them, that’s up to you. I’m done with it.”
“Will you stand in my way?”
She laughed. “What can you accomplish without Wisdom?”
“Let me worry about that.”
“Fine. I’ll leave you to your own devices.”
“And the others?”
She paused. “The ones who revolted with you? We won’t disturb them either.”
“I meant your loyalist friends.”
“Most of them abandoned Earth long ago. You know that. I can’t control the Powers or the Principalities.”
“They haven’t cared about anything in five thousand years. I’m not worried about them.”
“Then we are at an understanding. Enjoy your world, Semjaza, but do not ever try to return.”
“You’re always welcome here, if you discover any softness in that ancient heart.”
She snorted. “Eternal Truth never changes. That’s what makes it eternal.”
“Wisdom never encompasses all things. I leave the door open to the wonder of foolishness.”
“Enough! Goodbye, Semjaza.”
If he said anything more, Sophie didn’t hear it. She left the spent and exhausted body of the young woman crouching alone in the tunnel. Someone would undoubtedly find her. Maybe she’d wonder what had gone on in the gap of five years since her last memory. Maybe not. Sophia stopped thinking about it. She had other worlds to consider.