gray train

The Solitaire Commuter

Edward Duffy was a man of habit. His whole life was organized into sequences of events, very predictable, very routine. Ed, age 52, was of medium height and heavy set, carrying an extra 40 pounds around the middle. He was well groomed in appearance and of moderate disposition. Ed worked at the old Chicago Public Library branch on the corner of Michigan Avenue & Randolph Street. He was hired some twenty years ago as a custodian and still held the title, proud of the work he took responsibility for. He grew up and still resided 60 miles northwest of the city in Harvard, Illinois. He never minded much about the lengthy commute, explaining that it filled a simple life. Ed traveled in and out of the city by way of train. He became a regular commuter on the Pacific Northwest line of the Metra system soon after he was hired on. For twenty years now, he would rise at 4:30am to catch the 5:48 train. Then after a full day of work he would return to the station by 4:10pm and arrive back in Harvard by 6:05 pm every night. On the way in, he would board the first car of the train and the rear of the train at night. This allowed him to have a short walk to work and to be nearest his dollar-a-day parking space in the south lot back in Harvard. The schedule suited him just fine. On Fridays, he would pick up a pizza on the way home.

Joe Thompson, a conductor on that line for sixteen years, was a good friend of Ed’s. They exchanged idle conversations every day. The weather, sports and politics were among the typical discussions they shared. Ed would often strike up conversations with other passengers he commuted with too, bragging from time to time about his sleeping record-he believed he might be the only commuter to have ridden the trains for twenty years without once sleeping. Another point of pride was his solitaire playing. Ed gave up reading books he borrowed from work, long ago. He was not much of a reader. He preferred cards, especially Solitaire. For years now, Ed would board the train, take his seat, first on the left, nearest the window. Then with his old brown worn briefcase on his lap, used exclusively for cards and lunch food, he would extract a deck of old dog-eared playing cards and deal round after round of solitaire, Canfield. He had become quite good. He told himself someday he would go to Las Vegas and play cards for big money. Joe, the conductor, would sometimes come by and try to spot a play Ed had missed, but that was a rarity indeed. Ed was very good.

One day, early in March, Ed awoke in bed, late for work. A nasty storm system had worked its way into the Midwest during the night and knocked out electricity in all of Harvard. Scrambling around in the dark, he managed to make the later 6:10 train, but felt too jittery to play cards. All day long, he had not been able to mentally catch up on those thirty minutes. At 3:45pm, he left work without finishing cleaning the upstairs storage rooms he had planned on. Not until he was nearly to the station did he realize he had left his playing cards at work in the basement of the library. He stood on the platform, waiting to board his train, hiding the anxiety that had been building all day. He hoped this was the last of it. As Joe stepped out of the open vestibule onto the station platform in his navy blue conductor suit and hat, he spotted Ed and waved. He wanted to chat with Ed about last night’s terrible rain. But Ed looked preoccupied, so Joe adjusted. “What’s up buddy?”

“Ah, nothing, I just forgot my cards, that’s all. How about this crazy rain, huh?” “There’s more coming to” Joe responded, stepping aside to let Ed in. Ed boarded the train, took his seat and waited. No cards. The train slowly filled and twenty minutes later left the train yard fully loaded. It was a long train, twelve cars, more than a quarter mile. Ed sat in his seat in the rear car next to a young girl who was humming under a set of yellow headphones attached to a Sony Walkman (circa 1992). He fidgeted with his briefcase. No cards. He turned to the young girl, maybe she would talk. “Hi” he smiled. She ignored him. “Hi” leaning over in case she didn’t hear him. She hurled a glare at him, “PERVERT!” She gathered her things, got up and left.

Empty of cards, company and thought, Ed stared blindly out his window. The rhythmic movement of the train was hypnotic. He had never noticed that before. With nothing on his mind, it was not long before his eyes rested once, twice and then for the first time in twenty years, Edward Duffy was asleep.

. . .

Ed woke with a startle. As his eyes adjusted, he realized the lights in his car had gone out. This had happened maybe three times in all the years of his commute. Not impossible but a very rare event. The next thought registering was that he must have slept for some time, because his car was vacant of fellow passengers, above and below. His train was an all-stop to Harvard, which meant most commuters were using the first stops out of the city. Anyone going as far as Harvard would surely take an express train. Ed had never minded, more time for his Solitaire. Looking around at an empty car, he quickly calculated he must be out as far as Barrington, maybe Fox River Grove. He decided he would get up and find Joe. Got to get the lights back on. When he rose to get out of his seat he nearly lost his balance. “Jeez!” he said to no one out loud. This baby is really moving today. He looked outside the window, trying to fix his eyes on landmarks so he could estimate the speed. It was pitch dark at this time of day in March. But with the nasty thunderstorm raging outside, occasional lightning gave him the coordinates he was looking for. Oh my, they were going very fast. Too fast.

He moved forward through the car into the center vestibule and then into the other half of car number one. It too was dark and empty. He advanced through the connecting doors from car one onto car number two. As he opened the door to the car, which had been lit, it went dark. “Damnit!” he thought. Well, keep moving. As he neared car number three, he noticed it was lit, but again upon entering, it went dark. This is too weird, he thought, as his mind was struggling to think over the loud thunder and the various mechanical noises coming from the train, protesting this excessive speed. He suspected they had to be traveling at least 70 miles per hour, a good 20 miles too fast. No one in sight, on the main level or the upper deck of this car either. Lightning spilled murky shadows into the corners of the steel machine. He leaned over and looked outside, he was racing through Crystal Lake. They were supposed to stop, every stop-remember? Who the hell was driving this train? Where was Joe?

Cars four and five were the same and as he approached the middle of the train he could see all the lights in the forward cards go out, one by one. Nothing in front of him, nothing behind. He began to get scared. He had accidently left his bag back in his seat. He wished he had it now. He could use a cough drop, something, his throat was dry. He was perspiring heavily and his eyes were not adjusting well to the darkness, with the frequent lightning outside. The rain was pounding on the steel roof and laying diagonal incisions on the windows. The train was complaining even louder about this dangerous speed, which now seemed to be gaining momentum every minute. Ed lost his nerve and began running through the cars. If Joe cannot be found, at least the driver might be able to help him. He ran through cars six, seven, eight, and nine. All dark, all empty. Ed cried out, “Joe, where the hell are you?!?” He kept running. Suddenly, the train took a sharp turn in the track and nearly left the iron rails shaking the cars violently from side to side. In car ten, Ed flew head first into three chairs, bruising his forehead and a rib. He lie on the floor in the aisle of the car. His right arm, above his head, swept around to help lift him, when it brushed over a foreign object. He latched onto it and lifted it to his face. In the glow of the distant lightning, he realized he had found an abandoned umbrella. He used it to raise his aching body. He had regained his balance, holding on to the umbrella and the back of a seat, when he first saw the THING…

Back two cars and barely noticeable, except for steady lightning illuminating it, a large figure draped in a blanket of some sort was racing through the car towards Ed. A savage face hid in the dim shadow of the hood. An over exaggerated grin, like that on a Halloween jack-o-lantern, cradled two sunken eye sockets filled with fires from Hell. Edward Duffy’s hair stood on end as he wet his trousers in utter shock. He turned and kicked his heels, nearly busting the door off the hinges trying to get into car eleven. He sprinted through the car, through the vestibule and into the other side. Once he arrived in car twelve, he slid the umbrella through the door handle, then bent it. It would delay this THING for a little while anyway. As he watched this demon approaching through the windows of the door, he froze, hypnotized by the eyes deep in the hood, smoldering like the hot embers of two cigars becoming brighter with a gentle drag. Something told him to move, move now! He ran through the twelfth car. Empty, dark. Where the hell was everyone? He was crying now. The rain was dumping on the cold steel roof and he was weeping on the dark center aisle. The thunder was deafening. The train was traveling at a fatal speed, over 100 miles per hour. He realized for the first time, he was going to die. He turned and ran to the last car.

Pounding on the locked door, hoping the driver might hear him, he suddenly thought of the lavatory. It has a lock. He could hide there. The monster behind him was howling with frustration as it worked the lock restraint. Ed pushed feverishly on the door handle to the bathroom. It was stuck. He pushed again. Finally, it gave way as the door swung hard inside. Joe, the friendly conductor stood erect, eyes in a ghastly stare, hat tilted to one side. A hole the size of a small pizza was centered in his chest. Vital organs, or the remains of them hung about the edges of the fatal wound. The corpse of the dead conductor leaned forward and fell onto Ed. Ed screamed as he pushed the body up again so it might repeat the performance. Finally, the movement of the train itself pushed poor Joe aside. The door at the other end of the car smashed open, sending debris into the first few seats. IT was in the car with Ed. A twisted laugh filled Ed’s ears. He swung around and started flailing his arms against the car door. Blood, his blood, smeared across the window of the door as he wailed against it, total disregard for his frantic hands. Finger nails busting and small cuts inflicted the hands of a man about to be devoured by Satan himself. Ed could hear himself screaming with horror. His mouth stretched in a wrench of terror and suddenly mutated into laughter. Sick laughter. He was losing his mind. He laughed hard as he finger-painted his blood into crazy shapes on the window before him. The strong odor in the room, a stench from Hell, made him laugh. He felt the icy grip of death grab his shoulder firmly, securing him. He roared with insane laughter. The hand shook his shoulder back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

. . .

Ed sat in his seat, now dripping with urine, as Joe, his conductor and friend, stood over him wearing a face of distress and shame. More faces filled the train car, above on the upper deck as well as the seats around him. Lightning & thunder outside struck and snapped Ed into the car he was riding in. Joe was talking, but Ed could not hear him at first. A little bit, then some more, when finally the whole sentence fit in Joe’s mouth and came out audible. “Ed, are you alright? You just fell asleep. That’s all.”

-Michael Hemphill, October 30, 1994

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