Death Rides a Fast Train

August 19, 2010
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Early morning rush hour, and Sameh was already late for school. After hurriedly getting dressed and descending onto the busy street in front of his apartment, he intended to make it across as fast as possible hoping to catch a taxi or a microbus on the other side of the median. He gracefully dodged a green pick-up truck carrying enormous heads of cabbages, and then glided past a cart being drawn by a fly infested donkey. Keep moving. Move faster. Successfully crossing his first obstacle, Sameh raced towards the median. He persistently wiggled his way past the numerous people blocking his way. They were probably trying to catch a bus, or (more likely) just leisurely standing and talking along the crowded street. I am late! Usually being late didn’t bother him. He, of course, respected his time, but if being late is unavoidable then there should be no fuss about it. No need to cry over spilled milk. But today something urged him on, a little voice in his ear demanding him not to slow down. As Sameh approached the center of the median, he heard the train bells go off. He never paid them any mind. The train was fast, but he was faster and could always cross before having to wait for it to pass. Today each bell rang out a warning. Preparing to fly across the tracks, he began to sprint. He didn’t have any time to waste. Out of the corner of his eye, Sameh noticed another young guy around his age. He had obviously decided he couldn’t wait for the train to pass either because he began to jog slightly behind. The train was getting closer and the rails were beginning to shake, quaking under the weight and speed of the flying locomotive. Noticing the guy was lagging behind, Sameh called to him, “Hurry up! It’s coming fast!” Assuming the guy would heed his warning, Sameh sped across the tracks. Setting foot on the graveled ground behind the tracks, he felt a rush of wind at his back confirming that he made it across in time. Horrified, Sameh realized that he didn’t hear the normal screech of metal on metal that is made as the train tore its way through Gisr el Siwais. He heard a loud squelch, kind of like the sound of a watermelon thrown to the ground. Immediately afterwards a woman screamed. The guy following him popped into his mind. Sameh turned around, hoping to see the fellow next to him, sweat dripping down his face, panting to catch his breath like everyone else around. The guy was nowhere to be seen, but Sameh wasn’t naïve. He knew…. By the time he had looked down to the ground near his feet the caboose of the train was several meters away and the metallic smell of blood began to fill the air. What was once a man was nothing but a puddle of blood and scattered body parts. A crowd began to form around the massacred body. Gasps, screams, and cries for help pounded through Sameh’s ears. He stood still, eyes unable to move from the horrific sight in front of him. Though it was still early morning, the unmerciful Cairo sun blazed down on the area, as if highlighting it for the whole world to see. The nauseating smell of blood came in waves and the flies wasted no time. Sameh stood frozen in time, suddenly feeling much older than his twenty years. He was finally awakened by a tap on the shoulder. A group of men brushed past him carrying a white sheet. Half of the men begin picking up recognizable body parts, putting them onto the sheet, hoping to eventually be able to deliver them to the young man’s family, if he was ever identified. Feeling as if he was the closest person to the deceased in his last moments of life, Sameh felt compelled to help. When the horrible deed was done, he went home. Zombie-like, not even noticing the blood covering his hands and shirt, Sameh re-crossed the street. He thought of everything and nothing simultaneously, as he auto-piloted his way back home. He would make his way upstairs, shower, try to forget the scarlet images in his mind, but he would not go to school. Rabina ya Sahil. Today was not a day for school.

My sandaled feet dragged across the golden sand, which was thankfully cooling as the sun began to set. The sunlight ricocheted off of one of the apartment buildings casting an eerie glow on the people moving around me. As I squinted through the barrier of my thick eyelashes, it seemed as though everything was tinted an angry red. After successfully descending from Sameh’s home and crossing one minor street in the neighborhood, a major road teeming with reckless cars loomed ahead. Following this obstacle there was a large median with rusty train tracks running through its center. Behind this median was another slightly busy street, which after being crossed would lead us to what I considered safety and what Sameh considered refuge- a shisha café. The pace at which we were walking was becoming a burden to my recently gorged tummy, so I tried to slow down. Of course he wouldn’t let me, making sure I was always at his side, especially in this bustling area of Gisr el Siwais.

He nimbly guided us through traffic as if the action was a choreographed dance, all while simultaneously laughing and talking with me about our dinner. Upon reaching the median, he was in such a spritely mood about our conversation that he didn’t even notice that he had almost been clipped by a passing vehicle’s side-view mirror. Suddenly a piercing whistle tore through the air. No one around us seemed to notice and moved about as usual. Sameh, on the other hand, panicked. His face morphed with rage, and a glimmer of some other emotion that I couldn’t identify. “Why is it coming now?!” he yelled. He quickly threw me away from the tracks, even though in my opinion they were still a good bit away from us. I began to get scared. I assumed this was only a train, but signaled by the way Sameh was acting, I knew that I’d missed something. But what? As he gripped my hands tightly, he placed himself in front of me as if making himself a barrier from some invisible force. To the left, the speeding black dot of the train zipped towards us. Cars scrambled to get off of the tracks. People quickly took their place on either side of the tracks, trying to keep away from the however-many-ton steel force that was pummeling our way.

Within two seconds it had arrived. It moved so fast down the tracks that it could have been just a blur of my imagination. Suddenly, it was gone as fast as it came. It was as if a movie was shifted from pause to play. Everyone began to move again, resuming life as normal – except Sameh. I watched him stare after the train, which was getting smaller in the distance. His pale, unreadable face sent chills down my spine. After a few seconds, I touched his arm. He slowly turned without looking at me and muttered in disgust, “I hate that train…” Finally glancing towards my face, he saw the look of confusion and worry that it held. He let out a forced laugh, trying to smile to make me forget how I had just seen him. He loosened his grip on my hand, and led us swiftly to the café, past the tracks, on the other side of the street.

After ordering in the café, we sat in silence. Sameh puffed his aromatic orange shisha with a glazed look in his amber eyes. He stared off into the night. It was as if he was watching a movie, a slideshow of flashing images and impressions in his mind. Breaking the silence I quietly asked, “What’s wrong? Why do you hate that train?” He seemed startled that I had spoken, as if he’d forgotten I was there. It took him a long time to answer, but he managed to whisper, “That train killed someone--someone right next to me. It could have been me….” Slipping back into his trance-like state, his smoke rings floated slowly into the chilly night air. I didn’t think I was supposed to respond ( Even if I was, I didn’t know what I would say), so I wrapped my cardigan more tightly around me. Afraid to break his cycle of thoughts and uncomfortable seeing him this way, I watched the misty smoke with my eyes. I followed its pattern intently upward until it dissolved into the night sky.

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