“Last Stop” by Frederick Doot

TWA 61 Doot-01

On Day 1, the first thing you notice is the subway. It feels different, something not right. The world is off. Sure the sounds and smells of the subway are unchanged. Piss and dirt and scum linger in the air, the masses scurry like ants or rats or whatever insectian-vermin cliché enters your mind today. You join them in their scurrying and cram into the car. As expected, no one pays any mind to anyone else. Blank stares or affixations to smartphones steal everyone’s’ eyes. No need for talk, however small, nor pleasantries nor “nice to meet you’s.” everyone’s numb in their own life; no one else exists. You stand and hold the railing with your shirtsleeve, scouring the subway car looking at the people.

You’ve always been a people watcher. Businessmen with their slicked salt-and-pepper hair and chiseled chins sit while an old lady stands, struggling to maintain her balance from the jarring car as it accelerates out of the station. Secretaries with their phony high heels and short skirts and tits hanging out trying to woo the businessmen into a happy hour drink and maybe more. And you can always tell the married folk, dead to the world, living out life according to society’s expectations.

People suck, you think, and you continue scanning their faces, glancing past the two old men in the corner, one dressed in white, the other in black, whispering secrets to one another about death and the meaning of life. Curious perhaps, but this is New York City, and here the norm is the only thing abnormal. When you’re done with your people-perusing, you look down and see a briefcase at your feet.

The case is of average size, standing upright on its side. Black in color, leather in substance. Presumably belonging to the gentleman standing beside you. The one who must’ve showered in his cologne. At least it’s better than the normal piss and dirt and scum smell your nose has already acclimated to, or is it? You think nothing of the briefcase, and think nothing of nothing as your mind enters the same trance as the rest of the car’s occupants.

Two stops later, you exit and make your way home. Thousands of people line the streets, and you mingle with none of them. When you get home, it’s like this too. The dog welcomes you with a wag of the tail and sniff of your outstretched hands. The spouse and kids aren’t home.  It’s Wednesday and they’ve gone out to the movies. Another happy hump day for you. You have a glass of wine, hit the fridge for leftovers, and retire before they even get home.

—–

By midday on Day 2, you realize something’s up. You’re up pre-dawn, and hail an Uber to LaGuardia for a quick trip to Boston for the meeting. You flip open your phone when the plane rolls into Logan International a few hours later, and notice the screen’s cracked. Funny. When’d that happen? Phone still works though, and you check your email. You’re reading the news as you exit the plane, and instinctively side-step around the black briefcase at the door of the plane. The meeting’s cancelled, and they will reconvene once they figure out how to handle the disturbing news. You’ve always felt out of the loop at work, this is nothing new. You enjoy a nice long late lunch, forgetting about life for a while, and book your early evening return flight home.

Like the subway, no conversations are made on either flight, no pleasantries exchanged, no “Nice to meet ya’s”, to anyone. Not even the man in white or the man in black sitting in the last row of the plane acknowledge you.

God people are dull.

This time when you get home, the spouse and kids are asleep; after all, it’s after 11, and who expects the love of your life to wait for you, to even check and acknowledge that you made it home safely during the course of your day? Not even the dog greets you when you enter. His ears twitch when you close the door behind you. He raises his head and looks around, then settles back into sleep.

When you slip into bed after the shower, the spouse doesn’t even stir.

—–

It’s Friday, Day 3, and it feels like a Friday. One more day, this time slugging around the office, and you can call it quits for the weekend.

The regular crowd shuffles into the subway, someplace else they’d all rather be. The morning crowd is no different from the afternoon crowd. You feel like a zombie when you enter the car, lethargic and slow and not giving a shit about work or life or anything. You slump into a seat and scan the car looking at the people. Old habits die slow. Same slog, different day. Or is it?

Your mind shuts off sooner than usual, and you hardly notice that the car has cleared on the first stop, except for two people. The man in white and the man in black. Both staring at you. Staring and waiting.

When you stand, it comes to you. Hits you hard. Hits you like a bus you never saw coming when you darted out between the cars to make that goddamn meeting Wednesday afternoon, all to avoid that arrogant look of disdain and disappointment on your boss’s face. But you never did make that meeting, did you?

Shit, no you didn’t.

And this is it, and you know it. This isn’t some M. Night Shyamalawhateverhisnameisan movie. This comes as a surprise to you at this moment, though it shouldn’t have. You knew it all along. It is the end. And now you know it.

You turn and walk towards the sliding doors, though they don’t open. At the base of the doors stands that black briefcase, shaking just a bit, screaming at your eyes. Dancing. Waiting.

You stare. It shakes.

The doors remain shut, but a smoky fog is oozing from the cracks into the subway car. You glance back again at the two men. Their stares are locked on you in anticipation.

You reach for the briefcase and it sieges your hand, locking your fingers around its handle.

Now tell us, how heavy is the briefcase? How burdensome is the weight you’ll have to bear?

And that smoky fog coming through the doors. When the doors open, as you know they will, will you be met with a bed of clouds and sun and smiles, or a floor of coal and screams and scours?

 

 

 

 


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Frederick Doot writes literary fiction, screenplays, film reviews, and blogs both on the craft of writing and the continually woeful New York Mets. He is also a freelance editor and participant in various writers groups near Glen Rock, N.J. For much of the summer, his alter-ego, Rick Tood, can be found meandering the woods of the Catskill Mountains near Livingston Manor, New York, hiking, fishing, sippin’ whiskey while staring at the stars, and churning out words for the endless supply of speculative fiction stories that sneak into his mind. He is also Managing Editor at Fantasy Scroll Magazine, a new publication publishing high-quality, entertaining, and thought-provoking speculative fiction. Doot is Chief Editor of Total New Games currently developing Zombacane: The Card Game, destined to invade tables across the world veeery soon. Doot is owner of a small sign and lettering company, doot designs, based in Bergen County, New Jersey.

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5 Comments

  1. What worked for me:
    – the compact nature of the storytelling. Not a word wasted. Nothing spare.
    – the sense of place. I liked that the subway, an unpleasant place of transit, is visceral and detached at the same time. The urban isolation feels real.
    – the world building. The briefcase as a version of Marley’s chains, the watchers who lurk as a faintly menacing presence.

    What didn’t work for me:
    – I wanted a little better connection with the protagonist, I get no sense of him, so I don’t really care what’s waiting for him at all.
    – the line about this not being an M Night Shyamalan movie. Except that it is. It’s The 6th Sense. That line kicked me out of the story. “He/she was dead all along” is a classic story form that still works when it’s told well, and in my opinion it very nearly was here.

    • Also in the pros column for me: I was surprised by how well the second-person present tense form worked. That’s a risky move because there are a LOT of ways to get it wrong, but it didn’t feel jarring to me which is quite the accomplishment.

    • Until I read your comment, I was very disappointed with this story. For some reason, it felt incomplete and despite reading it twice, my mind wasn’t connecting the dots. Now that I realize what exactly happened, I went back for a third read and it seems glaringly obvious.

  2. Quite a lot I really love about this story. Much of it already touched upon in Doc’s first comment. This story is concise, but mostly complete. The wording is carefully considered, and reading it felt like the sentences roll across the mind like a perfectly timed Rod Serling monologue.

    I was especially struck by the way people’s patterns and behaviors evoked a sense of isolation, to such an extent that if one was to become a ghost it would take them so long to figure it out because the way they moved through their day in life wasn’t a whole lot different than simply being dead.

    The only thing I felt was a bit lacking in this story was something that would anchor me a bit more emotionally to the protagonist. While I understand that what is ultimately at stake is the question of his eternal fate, I don’t really know enough about how he might be emotionally invested to it. We’ve been able to see “important” aspects of his life. That he has has a spouse and children – but they are presented circumstantially. This certainly underscores the sense of detachment that pervades the story, and it works well in a sort of quasi- nihilism/existentialism regard, but it’s also part and parcel of a risk in not connecting the reader enough to care about what the protagonist leaves behind as he exits the train car and steps into the unknown.

    I will say this though…..I’ve read this story a few times now, and although the only real reference to black & white imagery pertains to the mysterious old men watching the protagonist throughout the story, there was something about the construct of the language that expertly cast every scene in my mind as a black & white setting. Almost as if I was watching something expanded out of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”. Very nice writing here.

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