Night Train 6 p.m. The conductor announces that the train from Newport to New York City is departing in 5 minutes. A few last stragglers board. Two of them, a couple with a baby wrapped in a plaid blanket, cross to the coach car, and one, an aging Chinese man, heads into the silent compartment. At 6:05 exactly, the train chugs out of the station, leaving the dusty city behind. Night has begun to creep in steadily now; sunset gives way to dimly lit twilight which melts into the soft dark.
7 p.m. A heavy-set woman in first class lifts her phone to her ear. It is her mother. Her
mother’s body betrayed itself nine months and fourteen days ago, bone cells multiplying in some perverse parody of youth. There are three weeks and four days left until the cancer is projected to finish its remaking of her skeleton. The woman’s fingernails carve aching red crescents into her palms. There is a moment of silence wrapped around the hum of the phone. All the businessmen, with their ears finely tuned to disaster, are suddenly sitting far too close. Everyone is leaning in to hear her tragedy. The woman squares her shoulders, lets a single tear fall from a half-closed eye, and tries not to think about her mother’s bones crumbling beneath her skin. “Hello?”
8 p.m. Eli is seventeen and he has never been on a train before. The night passes too
quickly outside so he turns his head to stare at his lap and twist his two hands together. He is going to the city to see his boyfriend. They met at summer camp. Eli told his mom and dad he was staying at a friend’s house in Newport, so he’ll be home by tomorrow, but he feels like a runaway. His heart beats too fast when he sees men with salt and pepper hair or women with long legs and black purses- he recognizes his parents everywhere. Eli is terrified of New York because he read somewhere that it has the highest per capita muggings in the eastern United States. Eli is terrified of trains too because they are filled with strangers. Eli is there anyway because he thinks of Central Park in the winter and knows it is a good place to fall in love.
9 p.m. The couple with the baby are fighting. They both know it, but neither of them
says a word. The woman thinks that the man is away from home too much, thinks that missing him leaves holes in her stomach. The man thinks he is a disaster of a father because it’s in his blood, thinks that to stay away is to protect the best two things he has ever seen. The man can always detect the woman’s breathing hasten when they pass through the darkness of tunnels, but
today he pretends not to. They do not sit close enough to touch. The man studies the veins criss-crossing his arms. His are red because he is made of angry things, of arson, of blood on shattered glass. His wife’s are purple because, he thinks, she is made of the moment just before dawn when the sun hasn’t quite remembered to be yellow yet. The baby begins warbling tearfully, requesting in its way to be held and bounced. Its mother and father lock eyes for a split second, and the man gathers the child up in his arms, fragilely, like a breakable thing.
10 p.m. The passengers in the quiet car are growing tired of the constant tapping from the
young man in row 7. His feet do not stop moving, and his hands do not stop their tattoo on the headrest in front of him. Everyone is too polite or too exhausted to ask him to stop. The young man thought he could handle the silence today, but he was wrong. The silence is a hospital and he cannot be- will not be- sick again. His fingers move without his permission, one, two, three, again, one, two, three. He will go until he gets it right and then he will start over.
11 p.m. The young man is still beating on the seat and the floor and his brain. The elderly
Chinese man is watching him, though not unkindly. He takes in the young man’s dark hair and tan skin and sees his son, lost years ago to a handful of sleeping pills. The two boys share a manic twinkle in their brown eyes and a landslide of things inside of them that they believe are too ugly to share. The old man thinks of his child and the life he did not have, and he wants to speak to the stranger in row 7 and tell him that he can be understood. Instead, on the way to the bathroom, the old man nods to his son- no, the stranger- and walks quickly away, because what else is there to do?
12 a.m. In the coach compartment, a woman in her late twenties with a slim leather
briefcase nods in and out of dreams. She makes this commute every week, because Newport is a rusty city and New York is where the taxis run 24 hours a day and where the buildings force the sky to grow to accommodate them. There is a duality to this woman. From Monday to Friday, she is a young professional at a big law firm, dreaming as all the other young professionals do to have her name printed on the sign out front, and on the weekends, she is a nobody. She sits on the cracked steps in front of her building and sketches the people that walk by. The drawings are not accurate or beautiful, and sometimes a person will end up looking like a dragon or a car. But there are no standards to meet. The city doesn’t mind her eraser shavings.
1 a.m. Two sisters sit at the back of the very last car, thinking they are surely the only
people left awake in the whole dark world. The girls have different hair and clothes, but you can tell they’re related by the curve of their noses and the way they both feel happiness as a fullness in the space between their chins and their throats. The older one is thinking how much nicer this train would be if it didn’t have a roof and everyone’s hair was blowing around in the sweet night wind. The younger one is underlining the words in her book that make her sigh out loud, because she figures any feeling that isn’t just hers has to be important. 2 a.m. The intercom announces our arrival to Grand Central station. I have been writing for so long that my pen has almost run out of ink. I consider the woman across from me again and cross out “mother,” deciding that her father is dying instead. In my head, Eli fidgets with his hands. The young man in row 7 falls asleep, feet and fingers finally at a standstill. My journal is full of the messy late-night prose I am all too fond of churning out. I finish today’s entry with this: The train at night is such a different beast. Every passenger has a story and no time to tell it. As the dark gets deeper, each person seems to have some translucent memory fluttering near their hair or some dream becoming solid in the seat next to them, but as the train pulls into the station, the peculiar atmosphere is lost. Your tired bones pull themselves towards dawn and erase the mystery of night. The contents of your brain get hung up on the trees as they blur past, and when morning comes, you have to start over. I title the page “Night Train” and hide the book away in the folds of my sweater. Passengers shuffle off into the foggy early morning. I wonder what stories will be telling themselves in Grand Central Station today. We all start over.
Short Story Caroline Wiygul