By Emma Reid
We were all on our way somewhere when the subway stopped forever. Many of us were headed to work; others were likely on their way to somewhere they actually wanted to be. Some of us wore headphones. Others swore that before the train slammed to a halt, they heard something that sounded off, like the empty rattle of a piece of machinery broken loose.
A moment of chaos ensued, and the train jerked us backwards. Most of us reached instinctively out to grab onto bars, seats, the people next to us. Our hands closed on air that seemed emptier than before.
A crackly and uncertain voice spoke over the announcement system. The voice told us that the train had stopped and it wouldn’t be starting again. There was confusion, panic, voices that couldn’t be distinguished from one another. Their sentences sounded sharp and ended in exclamations.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s what everyone said. The subway had been running so slowly. And the train made an awful screeching sound whenever it turned, as though it was reluctant to go anywhere at all.
We wanted off the train, so we explored our options. Several of the men on the train tried to pry the doors open, but they refused to budge. The rest of us watched them, removing layers of clothing as they pushed and pulled and shrugged in bewildered frustration.
After the second day, the smell got bad. Well, actually, the smell was bad to begin with, as people sweated out their hysteria and the remaining traces of their lives before. But the smell became unbearable on the second day. Someone found a door on the floor that opened onto the tracks. Some of the smaller passengers tried to squeeze out, but there wasn’t enough space. Instead, people squatted over the opening to relieve themselves. We all turned away, politely embarrassed the first few times.
For the first month, we had plenty to eat. Or at least, the train did. It seemed to be filled with moms and athletic-looking people, all with protein bars and bottles of water to spare. After the third night, we barricaded the doors between cars. We heard scratching from some of the cars, the ones with less nutritionally prepared passengers. The sounds stopped, eventually.
By the third month, we got hungry again. We dismantled one of the barricades and wandered throughout the silent cars, scavenging for food that hadn’t been eaten. Finding sustenance was easier than we expected. Our definition of food had changed.
The announcer voice hadn’t told us exactly why the train had stopped, so people started to guess.
Maybe it was an emergency alarm, or someone panicked.
“What’s there to panic about?” an older woman asked.
A younger woman whipped around to face her. “Aren’t you paying attention? There is everything to panic about. The air is filled with smoke, and every time we speak, acid pours out of our mouths.”
Someone else mentioned the police could be responsible. The police were always stopping things that were in their way. When they said this, the announcer voice returned, booming in agreement. For a while, some people were happier blaming the police, because they didn’t like the police.
An older man asked if maybe someone had gotten hurt, and the trains were stopped to make sure they were okay.
“But we’re all hurt,” a young girl replied. “That was no reason to stop.”
The teens sitting in the middle of the car thought the problem was a trespasser. They were angry at this person, who had selfishly wandered onto the tracks. They cursed the trespasser, thick clouds of ash exploding from their mouths, until one of the moms asked them to stop.
In the sixth month, a man asked if maybe, sometimes, the train simply had to stop for no reason at all. His theory probably wasn’t true, but some people liked the sound of it. They liked believing what happened was part of some plan.
In the eighth month, we stopped talking about why the trains had stopped.
In the ninth month, we stopped talking at all.
We were tired, and our voices had started to grate on one another.
After one year, someone said it had been one year, but most people didn’t believe them.
One day, someone looked out the window and shouted that the tracks were gone. People crowded around to stare at the ground. “What did this mean?” we asked the announcer voice, our words echoing with shock. The voice never replied. We hadn’t heard even a crackle in months.
Another man said that the tracks were never there.
We rolled our eyes. “Of course, there had been tracks,” we said. “We were all going somewhere.”
Someone asked why they couldn’t send buses for us.
“Oh, the buses are terrible,” someone else said.
Everyone nodded in agreement. Buses were really a last resort.
After a while, the air outside became so smoky that we couldn’t see past the windows. For three years, we didn’t see anything. A baby grew into a toddler. We tried to describe the sky to him.
After a few years, a boy suggested we get off the train.
People tittered. “And then what?” a woman asked, smirking, and acid dripped out of her mouth.
“I don’t know,” he said, so everyone stayed.
“Maybe it’s better in here,” a small voice said. It was the voice of a young man. When we first met, he had been a greasy teenager with his hands in his pockets. His spine had grown crooked, and he had become shorter and curled with age. He gestured to the windows, which had become coated in a permanent ash. “Maybe it’s better away from the smoke, the crime, the chaos, and all the others.”
The older people murmured their agreement. They spoke of fascism and sickness on the outside. Many of us couldn’t remember clearly from before; we couldn’t be sure of what it felt like. Maybe this was better.