- Introduction and Coffee
- Why does Starbucks Coffee… um… maybe you should just read it.
- Why can we walk past beautiful artwork without noticing it?
- Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp
- Why is the sky over Los Angeles that particular color of yellowish grey?
- What’s the real deal with gasoline prices?
- The Songs of Books
- Why do some people stay on the train past the end of the line?
- The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid
- Why do we get spam email that’s complete gibberish or random sentences from books strung together?
- Why does alcohol produce hangovers, and why doesn’t it produce hangovers consistently?
- Dog Reincarnation
- The Princess and the Wyverns
- Manannán mac Lir and the Isle of Ninjas.
- Why is there a disconnect between Art and Industry?
- Why are there Suburbs?
- Why do people check the time on mobile phones instead of watches?
- Prosperina: A Mythology of the Modern World Holiday Special
- Mythology of the Modern World: Aren’t I Just Ripping Off John Hodgman?
- Where do babies come from? I mean, really come from?
- The Souls of Toys
- The Fruit Fly and the Nymph of Time
- Why are the ideas of things scarier than the reality?
- Time Zones and the Witching Hour.
- Ball Lightning, Missing Socks, Drawer Crud and the Protectors of the Hearth
- Why do things break right as their warranties expire?
Monday as always is Mythology day, and it’s that time once again. (And who expected we’d still be keeping this up all these weeks later?)
Today’s myth offering answers a question posed by a fellow called CrazyDave. And you know, I’m not about to mess with him. Guy’s crazy. I was going to go with a different myth this time out, but then he posted this to the last open forum and it just hit me right between the eyes. He writes:
Who are those people who don’t get off when a train reaches the end of the line? (Happens all the time on the Central Line to Ealing Broadway).
As it turns out, there’s a good answer to that, though I rephrased the question just slightly. I’m like that. So, the question is: why do some people stay on the train past the end of the line?
The answer? Follows. Because I am going to tell you.
I kind of like this one. It goes all the way back to story, with actually fewer digressions than normal. Let me know what you think.
*** *** *** ***
His name was Bobby, and he was a nice enough fellow. Good to his mother, kind to kids and small animals he met, always on time to work (he worked at Starbucks, having a natural affinity for pushing the buttons on automatic espresso machines and personally preferring espresso to drip coffee) and without significant word spoken against him.
Bobby had only one real problem, and that was curiosity.
Curiosity is considered a virtue, but it is worth noting there is some room for doubt. It is curiosity that drove Galileo to learn the truth of gravity and the stars and other worlds, and that ended up with some inconveniences here and there for him, plus house arrest and public repudiation of all his works to appease the ruling elite. Any number of cats have been curious about oncoming traffic. Human beings have to touch areas marked as wet paint ‘just to be sure.’
And Bobby was curious. When friends of his would have tension between them, he would be driven to find out why, even if it made matters worse. When a coworker left ‘to pursue other interests,’ Bobby had to work out what really happened. And while he never actually put a recording device into the ladies’ room to find out what girls really talked about when they went to the bathroom in groups, he had priced small tape recorders and wireless audio transmitters and he had thought about it.
But Bobby never meant any harm. He just wanted to know.
Bobby lived in Boston, which is a nice city to live in, among other things, because its public transportation system doesn’t suck. Oh, people complain, but there is a truth that’s hard to ignore: if you have a CharlieCard, you can pretty much go anywhere you want in the city. Bobby and his girlfriend Nit spent plenty of days and weekends just exploring the city, hopping from one T line to the next, taking trains and buses all over the place, seeking out interesting places and good food and one of the rare good cups of tea in the city.
What’s that? Oh, you want to know about Nit. Well, that’s not her name, of course. That kind of proper name gets parents calls from Child Services. Her name was actually Neith, but she hated that, so she went with Nitty or just plain Nit. When she took up knitting after she turned twenty, it seemed to fit all the better. And of course, her knitting habit gave her something to do on long rides on the T during their explorations.
Bobby didn’t need anything to do. Bobby was too busy looking everywhere at once. Looking at the people as they got on board. Looking at the people as they left. Looking out the window as they rode through the streets or over the streets, depending on the T-Lines. Watching the lights fly past as they rode underground from subway station to subway station. He wanted to see it all. And, as we said, he was very curious.
One night, Bobby got out of Starbucks later than usual. He was closing, and tonight there was also inventory and cleanup, so he’d only made it to the T-Stop long past his usual commute time. Nit worked down to Neiman-Marcus, and she’d long since gone home anyhow, so he was on his own. It was a cool night, in early Autumn, and so he’d wrapped his arms around himself.
The train arrived. It was heading inbound — Bobby rode the Green Line in to Park Street, then transferred to the Redline for the trip out to Braintree, where they sublet a small apartment. He’d been riding that for months.
But it was late, this night. And as he climbed onto the train, he found a seat near the back, and as it pulled forward, he let himself drowse. He nestled back, the train lurching and bouncing. It was maybe a quarter full, people sitting on either end, meaning they faced both ways. Old and young, well off and poor… ‘the democracy of the MBTA,’ he’d called it once….
He drowsed, and that melted into sleep, to the sound of the ‘chunkachunka’ of the car’s wheels on the track, the sway back and forth that was second nature to him now, and the voice of the train operator — “Tappan Street… Washington Square… Fairbanks… Brandon Hall….” monotone over the tinny speaker, the recorded announcements probably broken again. He slid further, barely noticing as the train ducked underground, and passed through Kenmore Station and headed on….
“North Station. Change here for the Orange Line. Last stop. End of the line.”
Bobby blinked, sitting up. He felt a bit bleary — he’d clearly fallen asleep. Looking around, he could indeed see that they’d reached North Station, which was indeed the end of the line. He’d have to grab another train going back a couple of stops to Park Street. He pushed out of his chair, grabbed the knapsack he carried, and bounced down onto the platform.
Looking back, he paused. Inside, there were still five or six other people. They were all in the forward part of the car. Men and women. Black and white. One looked like a mother, another like a lawyer, a third like a vagrant… it varied from person to person.
Bobby frowned. They didn’t seem to be getting up.
There was the double-tone sound, and then the doors closed.
One of them — a man in his thirties, his hair thinning on top, turned slowly. He looked out the window, into Bobby’s eyes.
He seemed sad. Or resigned. And he touched the window as he looked at Bobby.
Bobby watched the T pull foward, into the tunnel, where he had always assumed it went to be cleaned or serviced before turning around. It pulled forward and was gone. Gone to the end of the line.
Bobby frowned. Why hadn’t they made those people leave the train?
He decided they must be going the other way, and it was just easier to get on the train, ride it to the end, and ride it back up towards Brookline or Cleveland Circle. He’d just hop on it with them, since he had to ride back down to Park Street to catch the Red Line. He walked over and sat, waiting.
An E train went by. He let it go. The same with another E. He felt a little foolish, but something was nagging him about this….
And then a C train rode into view. The same one, or so he thought.
But the car was empty. The only person on board was the operator in the front.
Bobby frowned, and let the car go. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe this was a different one.
Then another E went by. And then another C.
He glanced back to the other side of the platform. He saw a C train arrive there. It had a long graffiti tag in white. Very distinctive. He watched as three people stepped off.
And he noticed there were several people staying on the train, before it pulled away.
He turned back, watching another E train pull into view. It moved on. He waited. It was just getting later, of course, but now he really wanted to know….
The next C train pulled up. With white graffiti on the front.
It was empty.
Bobby got on board. “Hey,” he said to the operator. “Where’d everyone go?”
The operator glanced up. “What?”
“There were people still on the train when it went past the end of the line. Where’d they go?”
“This is the first stop on the line, sir,” the operator said, bored. “No one could get on before North Station.”
“I know that — but there were people going northbound on the other side–”
“Please sit down, sir.” The operator, bored and slightly annoyed, turned away. The doors with the usual two tones.
Bobby sat down, frowning, and let the train pull him southbound, towards Government Center and Park Street.
That night, he tried to explain it to Nit. “It’s like… it’s like there was no question that they would keep going,” he said. “They were….”
“Bored?” Nit asked. She was working on a small blanket for her cousin.
“No. Resigned.” Bobby shook his head. “It was weird.”
Nit snickered. “Wait, you saw something weird on the T? I’m shocked! Call the papers! Weird stuff on the Boston T! That never happens!”
Bobby grinned. “I know. It’s such a bastion of normal life, right?” He looked out the window. “Still….”
Nit sighed. “You’ve got that look.”
“The puppy dog look. You want the ball.”
“Sure. Someone threw the ball. You chased the ball. But the ball bounced under the couch. You can’t have the ball. But you want the ball. So you bark, and you whine, and you dig, and you’re just sure if you do all this just right you’re going to get that ball.” She shook her head, fingers working on the weave of the blanket. “You want the ball.”
Bobby looked at Nit. Looked at her indulgent smile. Her warmth.
“Yeah,” he said. “I want the ball. And I’m going to have it.”
Nit arched an eyebrow. “This ought to be good.”
“Tomorrow, we take a ride out to Park Street. We get on the C train and go out somewhere in Brookline.We have a lovely breakfast. And then….”
“Then we ride the train back, and we stay on it past the end of the line.”
“Oooo,” Nit said. “You’re naughty.”
“The naughtiest, babe. You in?”
“Of course I’m in.”
So they did. They were up early — Nit was a habitually early riser and Bobby woke up when Nit got out of bed, always — and they showered and got ready. Flannel shirts over tee shirts, jeans and comfortable walking boots rounded them out. Bobby grabbed his knapsack. Nit grabbed her knitting bag. And the two headed out to catch the T.
Breakfast was at an outdoor eatery in Washington Square. It was a little bit nippy, since the autumn was progressing as autumns do, but it was sunny and nice enough that they could eat outdoors happily. Nit had left the blanket at home, and was instead working on a new project with an off-white yarn.
“What’s that?” Bobby asked, gesturing with a bit of croissant.
“Knitting!” Nit said, brightly.
“Okay, technically you answered, but I can’t say I know anything more than I knew before.”
Nit giggled. “It’s going to be a scarf. This wool just demanded it.”
“Okay then.” He grinned once more. “Are we ready?”
They settled up. They went back to the T-Stop. They flashed their CharlieCards and got on the next train to arrive. It was three quarters full, but there were seats near the back, once more , and the pair slid into it. Bobby sat near the window. Nit sat next to him, angled to lean against him, and kept knitting with the smooth practice of an experienced subway knitter, shifting as the train shifted to keep the process smooth.
This train’s automatic speakers were working. The cool voice announced each stop, both above ground, and after they descended through the train portal in the underground. Stop after stop, through to the very heart of Boston, and then just beyond….”
“The next stop is North Station,” the automated voice said. “Change for the Orange Line. This is the last stop for this train.”
“This is it,” Bobby murmured. Nit flashed him a grin.
They pulled out. They rode a long moment, and then the tiles of North Station came into view.
“This is North Station,” the voice said. “Change for the Orange Line. This is the last stop for this train.”
All around them, people pushed up out of their chairs, even before the train stopped. They moved to the doors, all along the train. And they passed through.
Leaving Bobby and Nit… and four others, all at the front of the train. As before, they looked resigned.
The doors closed, and the train pulled forward, into the tunnel, and began to ride. The tunnel lights moved by as it built up speed. And then, just as suddenly, there stopped being tunnel lights, the interior light from the train illuminating the walls instead.
“Here we go,” Nit murmured, sitting up.
Bobby just grinned.
At the front of the train, a man stepped out from where the driver drove. Bobby blinked — he was dressed like one of the conductors on the commuter rail. Only his uniform was slightly archaic. “Transfers,” he said, cheerfully.
One by one, the four pulled what looked at a distance like white paper out. Paper transfers — the kinds train conductors marked off with paper punches.
Bobby frowned, watching the conductor. He nodded at each, not bothering to mark them off or even look at them. He then stepped to the back of the car. “Hello there,” he said, pleasantly. “Can I see your transfers?”
Nit sat up. The two looked at each other. With some fumbling, they both dug out their CharlieCards.
The conductor’s smile didn’t waver. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Those aren’t any good here. You should have gotten off at North Station.”
“I’m… sorry,” Bobby said. “We must have missed it.
“No worries, son. No worries,” the conductor said. He leaned over, and pulled the cord that ran along the top of the car. There was a ding, and the ‘Stop Requested’ light came on.
Almost immediately, the train began decelerating. It was a sharp deceleration — both Bobby and Nit had to brace on the seat ahead of themselves not to fall over. The conductor stayed upright by taking a firm, practiced hold on the guard rail.
With a lurch, the train came to a stop. Bobby could see that there was a single light on one side of the tunnel now, and the doors opened right in front of it. “You’ll have to get out here,” the conductor said. “There’s a ladder you’ll need to climb. That’ll get you out.”
“Can’t we ride back?” Nit asked.
“Oh, I’m afraid not,” the conductor said. “Regulations. You’ll need to get out here.”
“What if we walk back to North Station?” Bobby asked. “Do we really need to climb up and out?”
“Oh, you shouldn’t walk back,” the conductor said. “There aren’t any safety service ports or maintenance crawls, so when the next train comes you would be hit and killed.” He chuckled. “No one wants you two getting hurt.”
“But we can’t ride back?” Nit asked again.
“No. I’m sorry.”
“They’re riding,” Bobby said, nodding forward.
“They have proper transfers.”
“Where are they going?”
“I’m sorry, son. You have to leave now. We’re already running late, and there’s other trains behind us.”
Nit looked at Bobby. Quietly, they gathered their things and climbed out of the train, stepping down into the lit alcove. It was white tile, turned almost blue with fluorescent lights. At the back and to the side, there was an inset with rungs. The ladder.
Bobby looked up. And stared. It was a narrow shaft, and it went up what looked like hundreds of feet, with fluorescent lights all along the way.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Nit said.
“They need to let us back on that train,” Bobby snapped, turning–
The doors to the train closed. The Conductor stood, waiting. He was smiling, still. And he looked relieved as the train pulled away.
“Wait!” Bobby shouted, but it was too late. They could hear the train’s echo down the tunnel as it sped up, and away.
“Oh God,” Nit said. “This isn’t happening to us.”
“There must be… must be some other way,” Bobby said. He stuck his head out, looking both ways down the tunnel.
To the left, where the train they’d been on before had gone, he could see a far distant light. The train. It had already sped up and away. To the right, there was pitch darkness.
“Do you have a flashlight?” he asked.
“Do you think we can make it?” Nit asked. “He said–”
“We weren’t on that long. If you have a–”
Bobby trailed off. Far distant, down the right, he saw a light. But it was a long, long way of. “Nit?”
“Get back into the alcove.”
Nit pushed back, all the way against the far wall. Bobby joined her.
The sound reached them first. A rush, like a wind or a storm or a giant tsunami. And then the train blasted past them, far faster than they had realized the Green Line could go.
And then the wind died down, and the echoes grew fainter.
“Let’s not try to walk it?”
“Good thinking. We climb?”
It took a long time. Fortunately, the shaft was narrow, so they could rest by leaning back, with no real chance of falling. Nitty’s knitting bag was slung over her shoulder, so she wouldn’t lose it. Bobby’s knapsack was hooked over his own. Rung by rung they climbed, for what seemed like forever, until they reached the top, and a heavy lid.
Bobby pushed. It seemed stuck. He shoved hard, and the lid popped up and off. He pulled himself up and out, then helped Nit.
The light of the day was harsh, after the dim light. “Where are we?” Nitty asked.
Bobby squinted, eyes adjusting. “We’re… just off the Commons.” He turned — they had come out next to the Orpheum Theater. “Wait — we’re nowhere near North Station. How’d–”
“Did you put the manhole cover back?” Nit asked, frowning.
“Huh? No?” But the cover was back. And looked very solidly placed at that. Bobby kneeled and tried to hook it back up, but it wouldn’t budge.
“I’d like to go now. I’m tired, my arms hurt, and I’m hungry.”
“Right. Want to hit the Trident?”
The two went to the Trident on Newbury. They made good tea, and they got bagels with cream cheese. Bobby drummed his fingers, looking at the bonsai trees in the windows, thoughts a million miles away. Nit was knitting. It was getting long.
“You want to go back, don’t you?” Nit said, finally.
Bobby kept looking at the bonsais.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I want to go back. I want to know. I have to know.”
Nit shivered. “Would it be okay if we took a taxi back to our place? I really don’t want to ride the T right now.”
“Yeah. Yeah, a’course.”
Once back to their place, Bobby went into the library. Which was really an ambitious term for “room we have all the books piled.” Years of T riding had led to an impressive book collection in a never ending effort to stave off boredom. And since he used to need to switch to the bus back before the CharlieCard system had gone into place, it seemed likely that somewhere….
Yes. Here. In his copy of Resurrection Man, serving as a bookmark even after all this time. A nearly pristine transfer ticket.
Bobby smiled. The old conductor hadn’t even looked at the transfers. He was apparently content to see they had them.
Bobby showered, then put on a different set of clothes. Layered. Hoody over sweatshirt over tee shirt. It would be a cool night. His rattiest, most comfortable jeans. His Doc Martins that he didn’t wear so much these days. He wanted to look as disinterested and perhaps wistful as any of the passengers they let through.
He stepped into the living room. “Hey,” he said.
Nitty was sitting in a chair. She didn’t look happy.
“I… assume you’re not coming with me?”
“You mean you assume I don’t want to climb ten stories up another ventilation shaft when we get caught? You assume right, Bobby.”
Bobby chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I’m nuts.”
“Yeah, well. Hang on a minute.” She worked the needles before tying off and finishing. “Here.” She handed over what turned out to be a scarf.
“Dude,” Bobby said. “Dude, this is nice.”
“Yeah. I figure you’ll need it. It’s going to be a cold night.” She stood up, taking the off-white scarf back, and carefully wrapped it around his neck and shoulder. “Yeah, that looks nice.”
“Thank you,” Bobby said.
And he went out the door.
Bobby took the T back to Park Station, then rode his usual back out to Brighton and Brookline. This time, he rode it all the way to Cleveland Circle — the far end of the branch. He got out and found a place — a little bar, where he could have some coffee and a drink or three, and he waited.
Just after midnight, Bobby made his way to the Inbound platform at Cleveland Circle. That was the last trip of the night. The 12:10.
It was an older train — one of the doubles, with the accordion joint between them. There was a good number of people waiting, but Bobby got in among the first. He headed to the front of the car, sliding into one of the single seats along one side. He adjusted for comfort, and affected a sense of calm. Of apathy. Of wistfulness. Just like those he’d seen before.
The train pulled out. The last run of the night began its long ride down. He watched the familiar sights through the window — he was back-to most of them, since these seats faced the rear of the train, but he saw them go by. The Store24s. Kappy’s Liquors. The closed bagel places and boutiques. Across the aisle, through the window, he could see the light from the train reflecting off the wrought iron fence separating the outbound and inbound tracks.
Just after St. Mary’s Street the train went underground. It went through Kenmore station, then moved on, up past Hynes, and Copley, and Arlington and Boylston. Past Park Street, where he would have gotten off if he were going home. Past Government Center. Past Haymarket.
“North Station,” the operator said. The announcements tape was broken again. “Change for the Orange Line. Last stop. End of the line.”
Bobby set the side of his head against the window, and watched the late night clubgoers filter out, one by one. He watched the train slowly empty. And finally, there were just three people left. A woman, young, wearing a nice black dress and a jean jacket over it. A sixty five year old black man in a suit and tie. And Bobby himself.
And then the doors closed, and the train began to move. Down into the tunnel. Down with the lights.
Bobby’s heart was pounding. He waited….
Bobby turned his head. It was a different conductor. Younger than the last.
Bobby slid his old transfer out, holding it up with as much indifference as he could muster. The other two took their own transfers out.
The conductor stood, glancing at them briefly, and nodded. “Won’t be long now, folks,” he said quietly, and walked back to the front of the train.
Bobby dropped his hand in his lap, relieved. He looked out the window. The lights were moving past faster now. And then it was black. The train was really moving. They rocketed past a single light — Bobby realized it must have been the alcove they’d dropped he and Nitty off before — and then farther and faster. Miles and miles, with the train unencumbered by stops or other traffic or people in the way. The ultimate express.
And then they rocketed past new lights. New scenes. Side tracks, with ancient trains and what looked like beached boats up on blocks underneath cinderblock skies. A shantytown came into view, with people gathered around a fire. Then through another tunnel, and out past what looked like a rave, the music inaudible as they shot past, but so many packed in people, dancing and moving to a beat Bobby couldn’t hear.
And then the train began to decelerate. It pressed Bobby back into his chair, far more tightly than any deceleration he’d previously felt on the Boston T. He realized that was why everyone stayed close to the front of the car — if they were facing forward, they might pitch violently out of their chairs….
Things slowed…. and they entered a T station Bobby had never seen. It certainly wasn’t the Science Park station that was next on the Green line, that E trains went past. It was lush, with dark green tiles and a lot of activity, despite the hour. And a sign on the walls that they passed that made Bobby’s mouth drop.
“Psychopomp station,” came a voice over the speaker. It was the voice of the conductor, Bobby realized. “All out for Psychopomp station. Change here for the Golden Line, the Black Line, the Grey Line and the Crimson Line. Please have your transfers ready.”
The doors opened, with that same old double tone. Heart pounding, Bobby got up and swung out. The others were leaving too. He looked all around. On the other side — the Inbound track — he saw a green line train lining up. though there were iron gates keeping the passengers away from that side. Looking around, he saw blood red tiles leading to a walking bridge to what claimed to be the Crimson Line. In another direction there was shining metallic tiles leading up to the Golden Line. Below those were the black tiles to the Black Line. He didn’t see an exit to the Grey line from here, but he imagined there would be away.
“Amazing,” he murmured, looking around. There were quite a few people, he realized, though each was making their way to different exits. Toward different train lines. With a start, he realized he saw no street exit. There was no way out — just ways to other trains.
“It is amazing, isn’t it, son? I remember the first time I saw. Of course, they’ve remodeled since then.”
Bobby blinked, turning.
It was the old conductor. The one who’d put Bobby and Nit off the train the first time they’d tried to come here. He was smiling, though he looked a bit sad.
“It is. What… what is this place?”
“I had a feeling I’d see you again,” the conductor said, not answering the question. “I recognized too much of myself in you. It was too much to hope the climb would put you off.”
Bobby half-smiled. “I… I’m sorry. It’s just….”
“It’s just… that you had to know, right?” The Conductor smiled a bit more. “It was the same for me. You needed to know where those people were going.”
“Yeah.” Bobby shivered. “And… it’s crazy, but… I think I know.” He looked around. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“Of course, of course.” The Conductor looked around. “The movement of the dead to their final destination has always been a matter of mass transportation. Boats, ferrymen, horsemen — what have you. In the end, why not use trains? They’re convenient, they’re clean, and they have a schedule.” He looked back at Bobby. “Of course, there’s always the question of fare. Pennies for Charon. Or in our case….”
“A transfer ticket.”
Bobby shook his head, half-smiling. “It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. Where do they all go?”
“That’s not my department. Or it wasn’t my department. Now, it’s not your department.”
Bobby blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, son. Come now. That transfer ticket isn’t any good, is it? You faked your way into here.”
Bobby felt a sudden chill. “So… you need to send me back, right?”
The Conductor’s smile turned sad again. “There is no going back, son. You rode to the lands of the dead. And you did it without payment. Well, you did it without your payment.”
“Without my payment? What does that mean?”
The old conductor reached his hand out. “Give me the transfer, son.”
Bobby felt a chill… and slowly handed the transfer to the conductor. In the old man’s hands it seemed to blur… and a golden bar appeared across the top.
“Well,” he said quietly. “What do you know. The Gold line. Better than I could have hoped.”
The conductor took off his coat, and handed it to Bobby. Bobby accepted it, and realized that instead of just the coat, a full conductor’s uniform was hanging on a hanger in his hand. “Wait — you mean… but… but my life! My… my girlfriend will…”
“Your girlfriend is getting a call right now,” the old man — now dressed in the clothes of a working man from decades before — said. “Apparently, her boyfriend hid on a train, got to the end of the line, and was poking around the transfer station when he tripped and fell on the third rail. By four this morning, she’ll be in the morgue, identifying the body. I’m afraid that life is over, son.”
Bobby felt shaky. He shivered, and sat down on one of the benches. “So… what happens?”
“What you’d expect. You’ll come to work tomorrow. You’ll ride the train out. You’ll ferry the living to their destinations, and the dead to their destinations. Or at least, to the first step along the way. And maybe you’ll find yourself transferred, to ride the rails of the Metro in Boston, or the L in Chicago, or the Tube in London. I’ve seen a lot of the world in my time conducting the dead. Though always from the trains or the stations.”
“How… how long do I do this?”
The old man chuckled. “Isn’t that obvious. Every year, some number of men or women get curious. They find ways to sneak onto the train or stay on or stay hidden until it pulls into Psychopomp Station. And as each one of them comes in, the longest serving conductor gets his transfer ticket and moves on. You’re at the end of the line and the bottom of the heap right now. Given enough time, you’ll get your transfer and move on.”
Bobby shivered. “There’s nothing I can do?”
“You can do your job well.” The conductor paused. “Why do you think we don’t look so closely at those transfers, anyhow?”
Bobby, despite himself, chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “So… why’d you put me off the train before?”
The old man shrugged. “Son, just because I wanted to hurry the queue along is no excuse for not at least trying to protect the living. But once you falsified a transfer, you had made an informed choice. You knew you weren’t supposed to come and you came. And now you’re going to work your fare off.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said.
“You’ll find out more. That was the last run of the night. Go through to the office and they’ll get you a place to stay and run you through orientation. As for me…” he smiled — a smile of profound joy and relief — “I have a train to catch.”
“Oh… okay… um… what’s your name?”
“Charlie,” the old man said, before turning and walking to the golden tiled stairwell.
Bobby watched Charlie go. He touched the wool of his scarf, and then made his way to the office.
It was, in the end, a nice enough job. Bobby got into the green line train, climbed up into the operator’s cockpit, and rode out. As he passed between that world and Boston proper, his uniform became the modern uniform of the T operators, his face changed, his voice changed — no one would ever recognize him. He worked his shift like all the others. He got breaks, to grab candy or coffee or food from the kiosks. He saw the living. He got to know one or two regulars. It wasn’t bad.
And each run, after he reached Cleveland Circle and came back, included one or two or more people who sat near the front. People who were already gone, and simply making their final trip. And as they passed through past the End of the Line, he checked to make sure they had transfers and took them on his way.
His one affectation was his scarf. It never got dirty or dingy, and he found it comforting.
It was two years later that he saw her. He was walking back through the cars after checking on a woman who’d fallen, when he saw her sitting in a seat. She was vibrant, full of life, but slightly chastened compared to the last time he saw her. He paused, though he knew his face was different. She wouldn’t know him. But still….
She glanced, and did a double-take, and bit her lip.
“Excuse me,” Bobby said, looking down and keeping going.
“Nice scarf,” Neith said.
Bobby looked up.
Their eyes met.
“My girlfriend knit it for me,” Bobby said softly.
And perhaps not understanding, Nitty smiled a bit more. “She must really like you.”
And Bobby made his way to the operator’s cockpit. Nice moment or not, he had a schedule to keep. He pulled forward, and clicked the intercom — the damn recording was broken again. “Coolidge Corner,” he said. “The next stop is Coolidge Corner. Change there for the number sixty-six bus.”