The echoes of their footsteps built up a rhythm that colored the moment. The techno soundtrack implied a chase scene, police officers behind them, pistols drawn. Neither he nor Leslie was athletic enough to vault over obstacles or slide under railings, and in fact their running would have more realistically been called jogging if not power walking. If power. Nonetheless, they made the sounds of running. If he remembered the moment later, it would be dynamically framed, with wipes and swipes and filters.
Once they hit the pavement, their movements lost resonance, and they shuffled forward with characteristic asthma. She stayed a few steps ahead, which was fine, given that she knew where she was going. The way she walked was lopsided, but had a grace of its own, as if compensating.
He caught up to her for the sake of conversation. “Thanks for letting me stay with you.”
When she didn’t reply, he continued talking, like he was supposed to. “It’s good to be back. You have no idea what I’ve been through in the past few years. Don’t you miss when things were simple?”
Before he was socialized, Leslie had tried to instruct him in the art of conversation. “It’s rude not to answer when someone speaks to you,” she had said. He couldn’t remember the exact context, only the maternal tone of her scolding. She’d always seen him as a child, and somehow that had seemed flirtatious to him at the time. Before he was socialized.
“Did I tell you you could stay with me?” she asked, but Ezekiel wasn’t entirely sure the question was directed at him. The artificial lighting of the streets at night had taken his attention. Shadows cascaded in all directions from almost everything.
As the echo of the firearm’s explosion filled the car, Ezekiel waited for some courageous bystander to tackle him and be a hero. That would have felt right. Instead, he opened his eyes and looked around. All the strangers remained inanimate. Bits of glass on the floor left him able to pull the lever whenever he was ready, completely according to plan.
“Any objections?” he announced. Leslie rolled over in her sleep and tried to fight the fluorescent light out of her eyes. “Is anyone opposed to my pulling the emergency cord?”
He faced everyone, though they refused to reciprocate. The faux pas of orating to unknowns was meant to embarrass him, and he blushed slightly for their benefit. Knowing he was embarrassed, they might be more compelled to reassure him, or at least to acknowledge him, or at least to be alive.
Pulling the gun from his injured backpack, he waited for any kind of reaction. He shot a bullet at nothing in particular, psychopathic. Briefly, he pointed it at a man whose face annoyed him.
“I think we’re almost at our stop. Go ahead and pull it,” Leslie said.
Not the trigger. He nodded. Gripping the handle with both hands, he braced himself against the closest bar and yanked down with both hands. The lever did not move. He lifted himself into the air. Back on his feet, he wrapped the straps of his backpack around the knob, and pushed his feet against the wall. As the switch gave way, the lights went out and the train shook. Individual cutouts fell over, and the screech of steel brought Leslie to her feet.
“I was joking. Dipshit.”
They stepped out of the wreckage and onto the platform. “Sorry,” he said.
Leslie ran forward. He had to chase.
The glass sign that said “Emergency Use Only” wasn’t necessary pointing to the emergency lever underneath. Without more clarification, Ezekiel couldn’t be sure it wasn’t referring to the bench beneath it, or to the train itself. Not to mention, whatever constituted an emergency was unclear. If one of these passengers passed out, one should probably not pull the lever. Better to let the train run its course. The only emergency worth stopping the train that Ezekiel could think of, was if the train would not stop.
He looked out again, to make certain. If it flew past a station, he would feel better, but he saw nothing but the flashing lights, evenly spaced along the insides of the tunnel. No one else seemed upset, but nothing assured him that this trip would ever end. He examined the glass again.
To reach the lever, one had to break through the panel, but no tool was provided. Ezekiel flipped his backpack over his shoulder, and grasped for any hard object inside. The Rubik’s cube would shatter, and almost everything else was soft, except the automatic. He had forgotten it was in there, because it shouldn’t exist. He forgot about racism, misogyny, classism, jealousy, Coca-cola. He held the backpack in front of him, his hand inside, clutching the pistol. With the bag against the glass, he tried jostling the gun forward, and it made a hard tink that might have echoed around the cabin, might have commanded attention. He didn’t look to see. As far as he knew, no one could see or hear him, and that was for the best. He shouldn’t exist. He should have been gone a long time now.
Tightening his grip, he held the muzzle against the glass. Oh well.
After a certain amount of time, possibly ten minutes, possibly a half hour, Ezekiel realized that the train hadn’t made any stops. No one around him seemed to notice or care, but he hadn’t seen any landmarks go by, and became worried. Nothing denoted that they were even moving forward except the side-to-side wobble that threw him off-balance and into various laps.
He knew the thought was crazy. Any conspiracy is crazy, but maybe the train wasn’t moving. He watched the window more carefully. Lights flashed by in rhythm, steadily enough that he heard music in his head. A piece of graffiti for The Young Guns flashed by every few measures. They were either a gang or a band, maybe both. Most bands were gangs. Violence is the closest harmony.
“Would you sit down and stop dancing for one minute?” Leslie growled from her seat. Ezekiel looked down at his shoes, now firmly planted on the Metro carpet.
“Okay,” he said, and he approached her. Now that his friend was awake, he told himself to stop worrying about the eternity of their journey. He could worry about that later. He wanted to talk to her, and began to speak.
“So, does this train usually make stops?”
“No, you have to use the emergency stop there,” she replied, and pointed. She seemed like she was joking, and Ezekiel chuckled a little. “No, you do. You’ve really been gone a long time, haven’t you? The train doesn’t stop unless you break the glass and pull the cord that says ‘Do not touch.’ Don’t you know anything?”
She rolled over and went back to sleep. Ezekiel noticed himself starting to dance again, and needed a hammer.
The other people on the train had no faces. Their conversations were not made of words, but overlapping differently colored noise, looped in waves of approval. They were cardboard cutouts, animatronic puppets there to give a sense of legitimacy to the whole enterprise. Only one seat remained. Leslie went straight for it and fell immediately asleep.
Ezekiel stood and surfed with the curves of the rails. On occasion, he had to take a step forward or back to maintain his balance, and sometimes he was knocked to the ground by a sudden stop. He bumped against a couple with their lips locked against the other’s. The heads came off together, and the hydraulics behind them continued to pump and gyrate.
“Excuse me,” Ezekiel muttered, propping them back on their perch. The train lurched to the left and to the right until he admitted to himself that he had to hold onto something, lest he end up in someone’s lap.
When he held onto the pole, the train seemed stopped. He felt foolish clutching so tight, but he had nothing else to steady him. He was on display. The audience was trying to ignore him, which only made him more self-conscious. They looked in no direction without faces, all facing the center where he was dancing. They were not looking at him. They were not looking at anything. They were incapable.
Leslie sat in the corner, asleep. Ezekiel told her she had the right to remain silent, and that anything she said could be used against her in a court of law. She had the right to an attorney.
Some of the cutouts scoffed and sputtered. One of them spit in his direction, though it was just a malfunction. Ezekiel had a conversation.
A woman passing by looked their way and sneered cheerfully. He couldn’t move his arms to shrug or otherwise gesture, as he was pinned in place, but he wanted to respond somehow. He turned his face slightly red. Their asymmetric hug was not of lovers or of relatives, nor was it the reunion of old friends. The way she had him smothered was an imitation of affection. It was the hug of a case worker, rooted as firmly in fear as it was in forced positivity.
When she let him go, he felt like something had been taken from him. He checked his pockets.
“Are you all right?” she asked, but she didn’t care. She hoped he was sick and dying. She wanted him to tell her he had cancer and wasn’t long, or that he was on the run from police or bandits or both. Something like a story, and assurance she wouldn’t have to deal with him very long.
“I’m good,” he said, and watched the muscles in her face atrophy with disappointment. Later he would tell her he was dying, and that he was on the run from police and bandits and working with both. He might discuss the mayoral coup with her if she seemed amenable to it, but she was always bored by politics. To him it made no difference what was happening in his life. He would leave it up to her.
They went back down to the underground. The escalators were narrow, and she led the way, slower than he would like. He felt like she was walking him.
They just missed their train, and had to wait for the next. Aquarium air suspended them, and they shared a silence. He thought it was a comfortable silence, but he waited.
Leslie was not attractive. He didn’t want to objectify her in any specific way, but she was ugly, no question. Whatever part of him made inventory of physical characteristics and analyzed the data worked automatically. The conclusion was in his favor. The great worry he’d had was that she would trigger the hormonal crazy part of him that had been his personality at twenty, and because she wasn’t attractive, she was safe.
He had not yet started a conversation, or alerted her to his presence. The sculpture in the center of the square was a good enough hiding place for him to catch his breath. It was cube-shaped, on its corner. It represented modernism. His own place in the metaphor seemed less clear, though he supposed if he was hiding behind modernism, it would be some statement on self-awareness in media, or perhaps how modern art obfuscates more than it elucidates.
Leslie hadn’t seen him yet. She was smoking a cigarette, as was her custom, and he watched her take deep tar-filled breaths through her drooping beak. Though she wasn’t wearing a watch, she looked at her wrist several times while he watched. The twilight suited her, especially with the cigarette. She was like a Hopper, or a Norman Rockwell on an off-day.
She was waiting for him. He couldn’t believe she wanted to see him.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not attracted to you anymore.”
She put out her cigarette. “Hi. I was never attracted to you in the first place.”
She hugged him like a belt. He didn’t know what to say. He never knew what to say. He was glad to see her.