The gloom began to fade as early morning sunlight filtered into the underground station. It crouched on the far side of the tracks and waited for the first of today’s crowd to come streaming down the moving walkway. It liked watching the crowd, the constant flow of shapes and sizes and colors. It liked listening to the drone of the crowd’s constant chattering and muttering.
On this day, the station remained empty, silent. It waited for quite some time, until the light had brightened considerably and the shadows cast upon the floor had lengthened. No one came. Not one. This was confusing. Even on what it thought of as the lesser days, there were multiples of them coming and going. And there were the things that carried groups of them to and from places unknown. None of those had come either. Tomorrow, it thought. They will return tomorrow.
It waited as usual for many days in a row, certain that one day the normal flow of life would be restored. They never came back. And then one day it stopped waiting. For a time, it simply pursued the basic necessities. It caught the plentiful rats that roamed underground and ate them as needed. It visited those places where rainwater collected and slaked its thirst. It slept when the sun went down and woke when the sun began to rise. It survived.
But it was lonely. It began to make up stories about the lost ones, mostly to pass the time and keep itself company. The stories began as small things. It would imagine two or three of them standing by the tracks.
“Running a bit late,” one would say.
“Yep, but it should be here soon,” another would reply.
It imagined that group moving on as another group replaced them. And then another after that. It imagined them always present, gabbing and gesticulating and rushing about as they had been wont to do. Of course, they were not really there. It knew that. These small imaginings were not enough. It looked around. It scrabbled across the tracks, turned its gaze to the top of the now unmoving stairway and wondered. What was up there?
Curiosity was not something it was used to. Certainly it had enjoyed watching them. Certainly it had relied on their presence as an expected part of its life. But it had not wondered about them. It had not cared what they did outside of its own place. Their absence had created a void into which its newfound curiosity flowed. Perhaps they were gathered there at the top of the walkway, out of sight, waiting for it to find them.
“It’s late,” one would say.
“Don’t worry,” another would respond. “It will be here soon. We will wait until it comes.”
And if they were waiting, what then? Should it stay and let them wait? Should it go and join them? It did not know. It exercised its curiosity for many days in a row, navigating the tracks and staring intently from the bottom of the stairway to the top as it wondered. It felt things both old and new — fear and excitement, wariness and yearning. Then one day it simply moved past the bottom and began the climb to the top, to the place of the lost ones. Up there.
*Note: The tragic events of the last few days have led me to think about a lot of things including friends who are no longer with us. My good friend, Beth, once challenged me to write a story in response to an image she created from a photo taken in a DC train station. After some searching through my back-ups, her image has now been restored as an illustration here. This story was the result of the challenge. It’s always been one of my favorites because I originally planned for the creature in the story to be an evil stalker thing. But the narrative just wouldn’t come together until I realized that the creature wasn’t evil at all, just lonely. This story came to mind this morning partly because Beth died in November, 2014. I still miss her acutely. The story also came to mind because I often think we are heading for the world described here, the one where people are no longer present. And yet one in which there is always an element of hope.
© Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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