Meredith wandered through the empty subway tunnel, looking for a sign. She had taken the subway at night before, and she had gone the same way she always had: take a left after the turnstile, go down a flight of stairs. And yet there was no familiar orange circle, adorned with the white letter B. She couldn’t have gone the wrong way, and yet there was no sign for the B train or even the A or the Q train to indicate that she had made a wrong turn. The tunnel was dark and empty, with no sound but the clicking of Meredith’s own heels.
She must’ve done something wrong: gone on autopilot, accidentally gone down a second flight of stairs or turned right instead of left. She tried to retrace her steps, but she couldn’t remember anything. It had been too routine for her to take note. Regardless of whether she understood why or not, she was clearly in the wrong place. With a sigh, Meredith turned around and started to walk back towards the stairs.
She immediately noticed the man on the bench—he hadn’t been there earlier. When had he come down? Meredith certainly hadn’t heard any footsteps, though she figured she must’ve been too lost in her own thoughts to notice. If he was sitting on the bench, he must be waiting for a train, too. Meredith began walking faster, her strides lengthening with purpose. “Excuse me,” she said. The man turned around. He was old—maybe seventy or so, dressed in a dark suit. He had pale blue eyes that Meredith immediately averted her gaze from. They were too light, too empty. If eyes were the windows to the soul, then this man had none. “Excuse me, sir, are you waiting for the B train?”
The man looked away from her, fixing his gaze on the wall directly in front of him. “Your train will be here soon,” he said.
Meredith walked around the bench and stood next to it. “The B train? It’s coming then?”
“Your train will be here soon.”
Meredith shrugged, not seeing the point in interrogating the man any further. Maybe he did mean the B train, or maybe he just didn’t understand what to tell her—he looked old enough for senility to be creeping in. She sighed and sat down at the other end of the bench. Bored, she started tapping out the rhythm of a song with her fingernails on the side of the bench.
“There’s no need to be nervous.”
Meredith jumped at the sound of his voice; she had forgotten the old man was there. “I’m not nervous.”
“You don’t have to pretend. I see people like you all the time. They’re usually either scared or confused. Everyone wants to believe that they’ll be brave, but no one ever really is.”
Meredith nodded, though she didn’t understand what he was talking about at all. She was starting to feel very uncomfortable: lost in a dark subway tunnel, sitting next to a strange old man who didn’t seem to have a solid grasp on reality. She decided she had better go back like she had been planning to earlier. She would return to the turnstile, and this time she would make sure she went the right way. She stood up and started walking towards the stairs.
“Where are you going?”
She had only gone a few steps when the man called out to her, stopping her old in her tracks. She turned around slowly; he still wasn’t looking at her, but was staring straight ahead at the wall. “I—I think I’m in the wrong place,” she said.
“Your train will be here soon.”
“No—no, I don’t think it will. I think I made a wrong turn somewhere.”
“You didn’t make a wrong turn. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Just wait. Your train will be here soon.”
With small, quiet steps, Meredith started walking back towards the bench. “What kind of train is it, exactly, that I’m waiting for?”
“It’s a train that will take you where you need to be. It will take you somewhere far away, and it’s not going to bring you back. But there’s no need to be nervous. The train ride is fast, smooth, and painless. Waiting for it to come is the hardest part.”
“You’re sure? This is the hardest part?”
“I’m sure. I’ve watched millions of people board this train. They always get scared right before it comes, but afterwards it all works out just fine. Exactly the way it’s supposed to.”
“Is it true? What they say, about it being like falling asleep. I’ve heard that the sound of the train going down the tracks is soothing, and the train rocks gently like a cradle. You fall into a sleep so deep that there’s nothing else—no dreams, no waking. Just closed eyes and a calm, quiet train.”
“You’re right,” the man said. “That’s exactly what it’s like.”
Meredith nodded. She, too, was staring straight ahead at the wall; there wasn’t anywhere else to look. She didn’t have a choice. All that was left was to sit and wait. The tunnel was silent; Meredith didn’t much mind the silence. She could get used to the silence.
But the silence didn’t last forever; it was broken by a vibration that shook that floor, a low, grumbling sound that filled the air around her. This wasn’t quiet or calming. Lights flashed through the tunnel, so blinding and bright that no one could ever hope to fall asleep as long as they were on. She turned on the old man, indignant. “You told me it was quiet. You said it was soothing, and you could sleep, and—and you lied!”
“I didn’t lie. I told you this was the worst part. It gets better once you board the train. The train will be here soon, and then all will be as it’s supposed to be.”
“No. No! I’m not getting on that train. I won’t get on that train!” She stood up and started sprinting down the tunnel.
“You can’t get away,” the old man said. She could only hear him faintly; he wasn’t struggling to yell over the growl of the approaching train. She didn’t care. He was just a senile old man. He didn’t know what he was talking about.
The grumbling grew louder and louder, and the brightness that filled the tunnel became increasingly more intense. Still, Meredith ran towards the staircase. She was close; she could make it. She glanced behind her to see if the old man was following her; he wasn’t. He was still sitting on the bench, staring straight ahead, as if completely indifferent to her struggle. But she had dared to glance back, to take her eyes off of the path in front of her, and her shoe landed in a shallow puddle of water. She lost her footing and came crashing down to the floor of the tunnel, hitting the side of her head upon impact. She started to roll to the side; filled with pain and unable to think, she didn’t struggle. The walkway between the rails was wide—at least, it should’ve been. It wasn’t until she rolled over the side, until gravity started dragging her down onto the tracks, that she realized she had made a fatal mistake, the same mistake she had been making all along: the thought that this was a normal subway tunnel, one on which people could come and go as they pleased, one on which choice, not fate, decided where a person would go.
The old man could barely hear Meredith’s scream over the sound of the train as it barreled into the station. He could just hear the faint sound of her bones cracking over that of the train slamming on its brake and grinding to a halt. He didn’t need to hear the sounds to know what had happened; he had known what was going to happen the second he had sat down on that bench. “I told you, he said. He got up and started to walk towards the stairs, shaking his head. “I tried to tell you. All will be as it’s supposed to be.” He never understood why people always tried to fight it, why they panicked in their last seconds and tried to outrun the train. It never made any sense, and it made his job more difficult. With a sigh, he climbed the stairs and entered another subway tunnel. There was a middle-aged man wandering near the end of the tunnel, looking for a sign.