The Southbound Transit Line
By Barrett Johnson
The smoke from Train 229 poured out from the tunnel and swirled into the yellow station air. It danced and puffed at every chilly commuter like a man blowing cigarette smoke into the face of a dog. Ah, Detroit! The last haven for the cynical optimist clinging bitterly to every moment of despair with the absolute certainty that there is no place to go but up. Such was Kevin Troweler, morning train fare.
It’s been this cold since May, fucking 1971, thought Kevin. Even this car is cold. The seats are cold, how are the seats cold?!
Kevin glared at the neighboring commuters, who were in turn glaring daggers at everyone else. The frost that inched up along the windows was painting a design upon the glass like varicose veins upon the arm. The silver metal that jostled and trembled over the tracks in the darkness leaned gently into the palest shade of blue. God dammit, thought Kevin. God dammit.
At the end of the carriage, a woman stood up. No one seemed to notice; her clothes were plain and bundled against the chill. Kevin leaned forward to stare down past the row of glaring faces and towards the woman. There was no telling if she was pretty, wrapped up as she was, but Kevin looked anyway and the woman looked back.
We’re not even halfway to the next stop, Kevin mused, what a tourist. Yet try as he might to berate her very existence, there was something about the woman, something that stirred in Kevin and took him back to the roaring radiator that was pressed against his single bed in his single cozy room. Kevin loved that room. And the more he looked at the figure, the more Kevin was overcome with a deep and consuming desire for her. Kevin wanted to rip off every layer of clothing the woman had and take her right there in the cold carriage, while all the wind‐burned faces never stopped exchanging evil looks. He wanted to shrug off the cold and stand up as well. He wanted to keep riding the train until it rumbled to the end of the line, noone still in the cars but two bundled figures, standing in the middle of carriage number Seven. Kevin shook himself and leaned back into his seat. Calm down,dummy, you’re fantasizing about a giant pile of coats.
Definitely a female pile of coats though. Definitely that.
A sudden undeniable urge came over Kevin, and he sharply stood up as well. His bad running knee wobbled, disapproving in a crotchety way this sudden act of betrayal after having just bent to sit down. Kevin felt a rush of blood to his face, felt himself redden. He was sure every single person on this rickety old train was staring at him in the same way he had been staring at the woman a moment ago. Kevin felt dizzy, and realized standing up so quickly had even upset his inner ear.
“What are you doing?” a voice said from Kevin’s hip. Kevin looked down to see a teenage girl’s face demandingly glaring up at him from the seat across.
“Oh, I’m – well I just thought I’d stand.” Kevin felt his face redden further.
“We’re only ten minutes out, it’s another fifteen ‘til the next stop.” the young girl spat.
Dammit, how come that woman got away with it and I didn’t?
“I know, I know, just…” Kevin bent over and struggled at touching his knee, “feels good to stretch, you know? Cold air. Stiffens the bones.”
“Sit down, man, you’re freaking me out.”
“You sit down.” This was not going well. Kevin looked over to the standing woman for help, but the ‘Statue of North Face’ said nothing, and gave no indication she even registered Kevin’s plight. All around him, the commuter mob began staring intently at their phones and e‐readers.
“Ugh, you’e the worst.” the girl bemoaned, slumping back into her seat.
Kevin stood quietly in the aisle of the train. There would be no sitting down now, it would mean he had lost a battle he had not intended to fight, which he then proceeded to fight anyway. He stared at the white tile smudged with brown mud. He stared at the windows and their icy veins. He stared at the metal in the ceiling, cracking and falling apart. It was the worst moment he’d had in weeks, but… much to Kevin’ chagrin… at admitting things could only get better. It could only go up. Still, he never dared look at the girl sitting next to him, or the woman in the jackets.
Fifteen agonizing minutes passed and still Kevin stood. His knee hurt, and he wanted desperately to sit back down but he knew he had weathered the worst of the storm. When Train 229 hissed and billowed into the next station, Kevin got off. The air was orange here, not yellow. The sky was clearer and the wind less blistering, and though it was still desperately cold, Kevin decided to let his train leave him. He would catch the next one.
Better to leave that one behind, he thought. And as the
whistle blew, sending smoke puffing into Kevin’s face upon the platform, Kevin sat down on a nearby bench. His knees gave in gratefully, and he folded his arms into his chest against the cold. That’s better, he thought. That was much better.
Here is an interview with the winner: