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The Kindness of Strangers
On the platform, a restless crowd hugs the edge of a concrete precipice, ignoring the blinking signs that caution them to stay back: this is the last grade-A train going out of town for the night, and they all intend to be on it. They don’t have to wait long for it to appear, emerging from the darkness swift as a snake and whining to a stop at the platform. Eighteen sets of doors open simultaneously, nine on either side—enter and exit. The exit doors may as well remain closed: no one is getting out here; no one will be getting out for another seven stops at least, until the train is well out of the city.
Meanwhile Nick is bounding down the terminal’s escalator, moving so quickly that he seems in danger of tripping over himself and rolling the rest of the way, like a ball of soiled laundry, like a cartoon character. But he is more agile than he looks: in his line of the work, he has to be.
Following him rather comically are two constables, distinguished by their trademark caps. They clamber down the steps and shout after him uselessly—“Hey! You there! Stop!” Nick is suddenly thankful he is not in America, where the police carry guns.
By the time the two constables breathlessly reach the bottom of the escalator, Nick has disappeared, and the last of the crowd are cramming themselves into the train. The constables can only assume their quarry is among them, and they shout at the train to wait, as if it could. The doors snap shut before they can reach it, and faces stare out at them from within before whirring out of sight, down the rabbit hole.
Nick is indeed on the train, sufficiently concealed by two fat, well-dressed women in one of the less crowded cars. He glances over his fellow passengers surreptitiously, but no one seems to be looking at him, and there are no officers on board—or watchdogs, as he and his set call them, since they’re good for nothing else but looking to see who doesn’t belong. And on this grade-A train, whooshing out of the city at seventy miles per hour, it’s him, as attested by the red patch he is obliged to wear on every article of clothing he owns, including this coat. It would give him away in a minute, should anyone notice it.
But of course no one does, which both relieves and irks him. He watches their reflections in the dark window—no one looks at anyone else; no one looks at anything at all, at least not consciously: they are too preoccupied in thinking about themselves, and he tries not to be angry, because these are the people he is trying to protect—but it occurs to him that that wouldn’t be necessary if they would just protect themselves.
Typical grade-A for you, he thinks to himself sneeringly, the enemy’s jargon infiltrating his vocabulary. But his mind isn’t on the enemy anymore—or at least, not that enemy. Could it be that the real enemies are the ones sitting here on this train, too wrapped up in themselves to see the bigger picture, much less do anything about it? But why should they? The enemy sees to it that they are fed, sheltered, dressed. They are the only ones, of course, but since they are, why should they? Why should they do anything about it? Nothing has changed for them.
Here he stands among them on this train, a fellow countryman, and they would denounce him in a second if given the chance, would go crying to the nearest officer that there’s a grade-B on the grade-A train. All notions of loyalty, of solidarity, have vanished into thin air. He vowed to save his country, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s no country left to save.
The train is approaching the next station, and to his alarm, the two fat women begin rustling, readying themselves to get out—one mutters fretfully about having forgotten something. He reassures himself that he’s in no danger regardless of whether they stay or go, but when they do go, he feels naked. Not helping matters are the two officers idly patrolling the exit platform—self-consciously, he wraps his arms around himself and turns away from the window, to see two more officers boarding his car. He throws a tense glance at the exit doors, but too late. They have closed and the train is once more on its way.
Given the relaxed alertness of these two officers, they appear to be off duty, but that doesn’t mean they won’t report him if they see him. One is smoking a cigarette in defiance of subway safety regulations, and they give off a faint stink of alcohol. Nick can only hope they are enjoying themselves, or at least that their vision is impaired.
As he is thinking this, someone clears her throat behind him, and he is startled into looking at her. She is a head shorter than he, but not, he guesses, much younger. He crosses his arms in a delayed attempt to hide the patch, but she has already seen it, and now she will go to the officers, and he will be arrested, and he doubts he will have the same good luck in escaping this time…
But she does not do this. Wordlessly, she slips in front of him, shielding him, it seems, to the best of her ability. Perhaps she hasn’t see the patch, he thinks, but a gentle nudge from her, pushing him backwards, forces him to reconsider. Then an older man stands up from his seat and, when the officers aren’t looking, gestures for Nick to sit down. Nick does, and sinks down as low as he can, closing his eyes to simulate sleep. He passes an agonizing few minutes like that before feeling the train begin to decelerate. He feels someone squeeze his hand—the woman sitting beside him?—and he opens his eyes. They mean for him to get out here, but how to maneuver past the officers, who are standing next to the exit door? As he is deliberating this, the girl takes his hand and tugs at it, pulls him up. They walk toward the door, toward the officers, with her walking on their side, her head somewhat blocking the patch. He remembers that if he is caught, she will be taken in with him; the officers will assume they are together; and he wants to push her away, but that would attract attention. One step, two steps, three steps closer—he counts them under his breath, and can’t resist a glance at one of the officers, whose gaze flickers over him at the same time. There is a belated whelp of recognition, and the officer reaches for Nick, taking hold of his coat. Nick, without thinking, shimmies out of it, grabs the girl’s hand, and starts running.
They surface on a roaring street, and pause briefly to see if the officers are still following them—they are. Nick looks to the right and left and then opts to go straight through the traffic.
“Are you insane?” the girl calls after him, but the officers have made it to the top of the escalator and she has no choice but to follow him. They dance through the traffic, dodging cars right and left, and then they hear the squealing of tires, and a dull thud.
One of the officers has been hit. He lies in the road, unresponsive, and his friend is kneeling over him, crying for help. The girl moves forward, but Nick stops her and shakes his head.
They wander into a coffee shop, where they sit down without ordering anything. They find they have shockingly little to discuss.
“That’s the last train,” Frank says finally, idiotically, and the girl looks at him like he’s an idiot.
He clarifies. “I mean, you’re stuck here for the night.” It comes out more ungraciously than he means it to, but she doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. She only shrugs.
He can’t resist asking, “Why did you do that?”
She laughs a little to herself, as if he’s being melodramatic.
“I recognized you,” she says, “from the posters. You’re a wanted man, though they don’t say why. Resistance?”
And then she says a funny thing:
“But we’re all part of the resistance, you know.”
“Hey,” Nick says suddenly, “thanks. That doesn’t really seem to cover it, but—thanks.” She nods. “I don’t even know your name,” he realizes.
She shrugs. “I don’t know yours. Does it matter?”
“No,” he says. Because that’s what she wants to hear. Not because it’s true.
She leaves then, but he stays till closing time, and then he’s on the street, in search of another bright light, another open door.