by Delilah Brainin
12th grade, Dwight-Englewood School
Teacher: Ms. Lisa Quirk
First-place prize: $500
I wasn’t cold. The others at the train station shivered but I was never all that much affected by the cold. It was a subway, the train station. I walked down hundreds of steps, or maybe thousands, I lost track. At one point it felt like it wasn’t even my legs moving. I felt like a torso stitched onto someone else’s lower half. The feet made no noise on the stairs. No one made any noise on the stairs. It happens that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
About halfway down the staircase, someone spoke to me. Maybe it was three-quarters down, actually, or maybe less. It doesn’t matter much how far down.
“Excuse me, do you have a phone?”
I didn’t have a phone.
“Oh, alright. I just wanted to make a phone call. It’s alright though.”
I glanced to my left, to where the voice came from, but I couldn’t see very much. It was pretty dark on the stairs, you understand. I’m surprised I didn’t trip on them in all that darkness.
“Who’d you want to call?” I said.
“My mother,” the voice said. I think it was a man’s voice. “I just wanted to tell her I’ll be out late tonight.”
“I’ll be out late, too.” I paused. “Where are you from?”
The man laughed, or maybe coughed, and wheezed for a little.
“What you should be asking,” he hacked, “is where it is I’m going.”
“Where are you going,” I said.
The feet walked in silence for a little while.
“Does the train come quick here, usually? Does it run on time, I mean?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever been to this station before,” I admitted.
“I’m on my way to a birthday party. It’s important that I’m not late.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know where you were going?”
“I remembered. I have a birthday party, it’s for my father, and I really need to be there.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“How old is your father?” I finally asked.
“Oh, my father’s dead,” said the man.
“I wouldn’t want to miss my father’s birthday party either.” I nodded in understanding.
“He’s a hundred and seven today,” boasted the man.
“That’s a big one.”
“Yeah. D’you think we’re almost at the bottom? I really need to get to this train. It’s the only chance I’ve got.”
“I’m sure we’re almost there.”
I don’t know where the man went, but I didn’t hear him after that. I wonder if he made it to the birthday party. A little bit farther down, I heard a woman’s voice. She was singing. I’d never heard the song before, but she had an ancient voice that carried with it desert winds of times which I hadn’t been alive to see. With my lips parted and unblinking eyes, I listened to her song. I don’t know if I kept breathing or walking. She finished her song.
“What were you singing?” I whispered into the darkness. My voice was hoarser than I thought it’d be and I didn’t know if she was able to hear me.
“Oh, sorry, I thought I was alone,” she said.
“Don’t apologize,” I told her.
“Oh, okay, sorry,” she said.
“How do you sing like that?” I asked.
“I’m very old,” she said. “Melodies collect in your throat when you’re as old as I am. I can’t help it.”
“How old are you?”
“Older than you can understand.”
I was quiet for a minute, then I was all of a sudden overwhelmed by feelings of affection for things that were not there. I wanted to love, but I was met with merely shadows and reflections.
“My hands go through everything, it seems,” I whispered to the woman. “I try to love them and I just pass right through them.”
“It happens that way sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“I miss my mother,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
“I think I’d like to go home,” I whispered. “I’m done walking, my legs are quite tired.”
“Well, everything comes back around eventually.”
“What do you mean by that,” I said.
“You’re here, you’ve been here, you will be here. All of that, always, eternally, but not exclusively.”
“You’re here, and you’re home, and you’re dead, and you’re not born yet, and you’re in your dreams, and you’re sleeping, and you’re awake, and you love, and you love, and you love, and you’re conscious, and you’re unconscious. All of that at once, eternally. You’re all of it and none of it, especially right now.”
“Why especially right now?”
“Because your mind and your body are waiting to switch realms.”
“Realms? Are you psychotic?”
“It’s simpler than you think,” she said plainly.
“What do you mean, then,” I said.
“You’re waiting to die.” She laughed and began to sing, and her voice floated away. It was silent for many blinks.
And then I reached the bottom.
There were no more stairs and my feet were so used to moving forward that I bumped into someone in front of me.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, it’s no bother,” they said. “You waiting for the train too?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Ah, where are you headed?”
“Same place as you, I think.”
“Oh, well, that’s great! Man, it happens that way sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
They didn’t say anything else and I didn’t either. My eyes began to adjust to the darkness and I saw vines clinging to the tiled tunnel walls with long, bendy fingers, and grass and plants poking up through the floor. There was a deserted ticket booth next to me. It was overrun with foliage and slugs. As more people reached the platform, the line grew, and I got pressed up against the ticket booth. Slugs began to crawl on me, leaving slimy trails all over my body. I was uncomfortable at first, and then not so much.
We waited for the train for a very long time.
Linda L. Hellstrom, Founder
Wendy Supron, Chair
Elizabeth K. Parker
Diane Naughton Washburne