“I’m going to see my son,” I heard the old woman say. There was an unmistakable joy in her voice that pitched it high above the usual sounds of a busy morning subway platform.
“Yeah?” a younger voice answered.
I looked up from my phone to see the little boy in his Catholic school uniform who had become her reluctant, but nonetheless captive audience. The woman wore a long brown coat and a cap to match. With scraggly white hair and a rather no-nonsense air about her, she looked like a retired professor or librarian. Characters like her were far from uncommon on public transit. Sometimes, they were talkative, as this one turned out to be.
“Yeah,” the woman said in return. “Would you like to come with me?”
If I wasn’t invested before, I was now. One of my favorite things to do was collect stories from the colorful folks that populated the tunnels beneath Boston. Subway nuts, I called them, always affectionately. From the sound of it, this woman’s story was set to become the latest in my collection.
Stealthily, I navigated to the recording app I had on my phone and hit the little button to silently set it going. Please be good, I thought.
“Come with you?” the little boy asked, his discomfort clearly audible.
“Oh yes,” the woman said. “I’m sure he’d love a little friend like you. You see, you might think by looking at me that my son is a grown up like your daddy. But that’s where you’d be wrong. He’s only a little boy.”
The schoolboy seemed to take this in and mull it over. “Your son doesn’t live with you?”
“Hm?” The woman was caught off guard by the question. “Oh, no,” she finally answered. “Not anymore.”
“Why?” At that moment, I thanked my lucky stars for the natural, if impolite directness possessed by most children.
“Well,” the woman began, “he decided he didn’t want to live with me anymore. So he went somewhere else.” I saw her frown. Her eyes glazed over and slipped into some other world, a memory only she could see.
“What happened?” the boy asked.
The woman smiled weakly at him. “I don’t like to talk about that,” she said. “But even though he doesn’t live with me anymore, we still talk everyday.”
“That’s good,” said the boy, his stilted voice betraying the social graces training he’d received from his elders.
“Yes, indeed,” the woman said, her cheeks rosing over once again as she rocked gently on her seat. “Every morning he talks to me, my Dennis. He’s a good boy. In a way, it’s good that we’ve had this time apart. It’s shown us both how much we miss each other.” She frowned again. “I haven’t been the best mother,” she said. “But I certainly intend to make up for it.”
“How?” the little boy asked.
A smile crept across the old woman’s face. It was a strange smile. I didn’t like it. Somehow, her eyes burned too brightly, and her happiness seemed too unrestrained for a morning’s commute. “Well, you see,” she said.
It was all she managed to get out because, a second after she began speaking, the sound of the next train came echoing down the nearby tunnel. I kept my eyes glued to the woman as she turned her face upward. Something about her posture was reverent, prayer-like.
“Here comes the train,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”
“I can’t,” the boy called out in his best attempt to speak over the approaching roar.
“That’s too bad,” the woman said with a shake of her head. “He would have liked you.”
Without another word, she collected her bag and rose. Swiftly, she stepped toward the end of the platform, not hesitating or looking back for a moment. The train was just about to break the tunnel and pull into the station.
Then there were screams. Commotion. Train wheels screeched to a halt. I felt a splash of something warm hit my face. Flecks of red dotted my phone’s screen. Out of instinct, I looked over again at the Catholic schoolboy to see his uniform ruined, stained and spotted by the same dark liquid. His eyes were wide and blank as it dripped down his face as well.
As bodies raced and voices thrummed, I hit the stop button on the recording. This, I followed by clicking the trash icon to delete the recording completely. I didn’t need a file like that on my phone.
She never even screamed. How disappointing.
Written by Jdeschene