Ilsa hugged her purse to her chest as the train snaked past a jungle of houses, rusted metal tracks groaning under the weight of night. Across the aisle a girl sat cross-legged in burgundy slacks, no older than twenty, her face buried in the front page of The Times. Ilsa’s fingers rubbed over the golden star instinctively. It wasn’t gold, just a cheap brass key-chain she’d bought him for his birthday from a sketchy market dealer on a trip to Slovenia, but he treasured it regardless. While other kids had teddy bears and barbie dolls, he’d had the star. Always. She closed her eyes and tried to swat away the words forming in her mind. The front headline, teasing her, testing her strength. Through the skinny walls of the train she heard voices drubbing at her mind: John, John, John. The word she had become so familiar with slipping through her grasp into the wrath of darkness, their letters deformed, syllables twisted into a pile of broken limbs.
Slowly, as if knowing the words before she saw them, Ilsa shifted her eyes to the girl’s copy of The Times. She swallowed. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real. Just a string of empty words, hanging from a clothesline, slightly out of reach. If only she were strong enough to read them.
Ilsa’s hands trembled in syncopation to the rattle of the train. God, have mercy. God, have mercy. Oh blessed Lord, please have mercy. Bathed head-to-toe in black, she could’ve been mistaken for the break of midnight entering the sky. Her fingers danced over every corner of the brass star. She grabbed a bottle of water from her purse and gulped, the liquid heavy in her throat, tongue bruised with salt. God have mercy on her now.
The train stopped to catch its breath at Ashbury, its wheels covered in a river of ivy. Micah’s hands hid in the burrows of his sweatpants, his eardrums clouded by the sound of earplugs. He coughed as he stepped onto the train, almost as vacant as the endless tunnel ahead. There was a woman, swathed in black, blending with the twilight outside, fingers tracing a golden star as if in a ritual or trance, and a girl across from her, her blonde head tucked into the page of her newspaper. One inch closer and it would devour her. The woman in black - that’d be his nickname for her – took a chug of water as if it were alcohol. One hand on the bottle, one on the star. He winced at the crunch in her gulp. As he strolled across the aisle, afraid that the train would move again before he sat down, his eyes flitted to the face of the woman in black, her eyes a baby pink, her skin slightly wrinkled. It was a silent acknowledgement, and she stared back, before turning away to stroke her toy star.
The dull screech of metal grinding against metal drowned the old blues whistling through Micah’s ears. He picked up a left-over copy of The Times lying on the table. His neck began to sweat as he saw the front headline, and the picture that accompanied it. A Mona Lisa smile, hair the color of the sun on a crisp summer morning, lips that had memorized the anatomy of his own mouth. Micah felt his tongue on his, a carnal experiment, a foreign date with sin. Remembered the hands that explored the caves of his skin, every mountain and crevice. It was only one night, he reminded himself. It was only one night.
Micah’s eyes drifted in and out of the article, in and out of consciousness. He pictured the words the night they’d made love: I can’t do this, God, I’m sick, You need to go. Micah took a swig of leftover whiskey, the bottle almost empty. God, my mom is going to kill me. She is going to kill me. I’ll f***ing end up on the streets. He whispered to himself until, hands clawing at hair, he screamed for Micah to leave. The only memento of him was his soft imprint on the bed, the tangled bedsheets representing a hazy memory forgotten by morning. As the train was engulfed in a sea of tunnel, illuminated by a dim glow, Micah read the word he’d whispered that night, encrypted in black and white. John. He thought of his father, who had tossed him outside and never looked back, and pondered about how he wasn’t surprised at what John did. Staring into the infinity of darkness, Micah leaned his head against the cold glass. Tonight he’d beg his father for forgiveness, preach empty words of change. He dreamed for his home, for his place to belong.
The air crept with the stench of antiseptic. Lucy’s throat itched for a taste of the whiskey kissing the lips of the young man a few seats ahead of her, but then she remembered her promise to stay sober, just for once. She didn’t care. Today was different. She had left work, in a sour mood from the passive-aggressive remarks by her boss, and flipped to The Times, nearly choking as she saw the picture of the man she’d encountered a few days ago. Shivering in ragged jeans and a gray t-shirt, clutching a golden star in his left hand, a styrofoam cup in his right. She’d heard the desperation in his voice, saw his quivering form, and froze.
Please, he gasped, as if it were hard to breathe. Lucy took a swig of beer.
“Come on!” her friend groaned from afar. Lucy saw his skin, a pile of bones, his ribcage expanding with every exhale. “We’ll be late! Let’s go!”
The train halted to a stop. The young man a few aisles ahead hopped off the train and disappeared into the night, his head buried in his neck, ears drowning in the sound of music, eyes never leaving the empty tile ground. Lucy bumped into the woman across the aisle on her way out, and the gold star in her hand fell to the floor, sparkling against the dead of night. Her fingers searched for a cold beer as she felt the woman’s eyes not on her, but on the star. Outside, a black limousine, followed by a slew of cheap sedans, waited. The woman in black clutched the rail and shivered. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry. She mumbled to herself amid a slew of tears and shaking breaths. Lucy took a few steps back. She felt the words on the edge of her tongue, but before she could speak, they were swallowed by a hollow and restless silence.