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by marty roppelt 2 months ago in Short Story · updated 2 months ago
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Fares and Tolls

Image by Rob Owen-Wahl from Pixabay

Three steps. Just three steps at the right time, and sweet oblivion follows.

I focus down the tracks but don't see far. The tracks curve in a gentle bend a few hundred feet away, past the end of the platform. They come through a forest, tall green trees and a lot of them. But I feel the faint vibrations on the concrete platform under my feet. The train approaches. The train. My friend, my ally, my co-conspirator. My self-murder weapon.

Stepping up to the painted yellow caution stripe, I hesitate. Should I jump down onto the tracks? Or maybe keep my head stuck a little too far past the edge, and make this look more like an accidental decapitation?

Doesn't matter. The enjoyment, the actual love of riding in a train every working day makes me step away from the stripe as the number 812 surges into the station.

Taking my place in a line of a dozen commuters, I climb up into the car. I shuffle to my favorite window spot and ease back into my seat. With my eyes closed I fantasize that I'm flying. Cruising in a jet gives me a sensation of darting through the air seated on an arrow. Smooth. Swift. Elegant. In spite of the few inevitable passengers who pass on preflight baths or showers, I always sleep comfortably on a plane. Imagining myself in flight helps me catch an extra hour and ten minutes of sleep on my daily commute to Alistaire's Department Store. The morning train always skates smoothly on twin iron rails stretching to the city. The cars transform in my mind into a single cabin, gliding in a straight line, banking gracefully on occasion. Even the stops don't wake me.

It's been years since my last travel vacation. Still, on days of extra heavy work weeks, imagining a short trip on a plane helps me grab some much needed sleep.

Won't have to worry about that any more, will I?

The train drifts forward, slowly at first but picking up speed. I shift in my seat. Despite the comfortable commute and my air flight fantasy that makes it so, unease bleeds into my consciousness like oil seeping into the sea from a wrecked tanker. A looming lunch date churns my stomach. My whirling mind focuses on a few short moments the day before...

"Bruce," the store manager, Anderson Smythe had called to me as he approached from the escalator, a plastic smile on his face.

I paused in the folding of a wool sweater. "Anderson."

Smythe clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Let's meet for lunch tomorrow. Callahan's. One sharp."

The store manager's hand slapped my shoulder again. His smile never twitched...


My eyes flutter open. I stand little chance of getting more sleep. Inside my backpack - one I, ironically, bought from a competitor - I keep a few energy drinks. Today there's a six pack of them. I don't know why. But I grab one now and gulp it down. Leaning my head against the window, I pretend this is all a bad dream as the train continues south through the lush valley toward the city.

"Croton-Harmon," the conductor calls over the loudspeaker.

Surprised that I dozed, I rub my eyes. Could it be I always sleep through such commotion? Almost every pair of people in the car holds a conversation, some discussions whispered in raspy tones and others debated in full-throat. Blue-tooth technology cuts down on musical noise, but there is always that one person at the back of the car with a cell phone playing their favorite playlist for all to hear. More annoyance.

The train speeds along. The trees meld into a green mass without definition. Usually, I'll be asleep and miss the scenery. Today, however, I watch the greenery pass for a moment, then yawn and turn to the aisle seat next to me. There sits a lank, gamin-like woman who must have embarked at Croton-Harmon. I blink, a little surprised. She gazes into my eyes and smiles.

The direct gaze disquiets me. Why? Smiling back, if only to mask my unease, I do what I normally do when meeting someone new: critique her as I might one of my store's mannequins.

Twenty-three or four years old... long, wavy red hair... no make-up to hide her freckles but scrubbed, clean good looks... Wide-legged denim pants, a size too big... well-worn gray cardigan sweater... wide brim floppy straw hat... sandals, fanny pack. Fifteen bucks total at a thrift store. Granola Girl.

The waif sits straight up near the edge of the seat, her hands folded in her lap.

Suddenly self-conscious, I take inventory of myself. Alistaire's senior tailor saw to the Italian charcoal gray suit I'm wearing. The royal blue silk tie is our company brand. And though not in great shape - I could stand to lose fifteen or twenty pounds - I feel that at forty-five years old I am healthier than the nearly skeletal young woman next to me.

"Hello," I venture. I regret speaking even as I do so.

The woman smiles and nods. "Hello."

"I don't think I've ever seen you before," I say into the uncomfortable silence.

Wow, you sound like a douche.

The woman shrugs, then faces forward, sitting straight up, ignoring the seat back. "No."

I frown. Maybe she's foreign. Or maybe she's scared of me.

"I didn't mean anything," I say to her. "I'm just... nervous, I guess. Heading into work, my last day."

What are you doing?

The loudspeaker crackles. "Scarborough. Next stop, Scarborough."

With over an hour left to the city, and despite the energy drink, I turn my head toward the window and close my eyes.

A dream soon encompasses all my fears. Anderson Smythe, wearing his usual blue pinstripe suit and an outrageously huge train engineer's cap, stands at the controls of an ancient steam locomotive engine. I offer him a printed job resume.

"Hah!" Smythe says. He crumples the paper and feeds the wad into the engine's fire.

I give him another resume. Again it is fed to the flames. The ritual repeats itself a dozen times, with Smythe growing more adamant, and me growing more desperate. My skin glistens, cold and clammy despite the roaring heat of the engine.


Rousing myself from the nightmare, I sit up. The landscape whizzes by outside my window.

"Whoa, that's not right," I mumble, my tongue sluggish with sleep. "How long have we been going this fast?"

Just as she had when I fell asleep, the woman sits at the edge of her seat. She turns to me, shrugging her shoulders. "Is this fast?" Then she faces forward again.

The train no longer resembles a jet or an arrow. The car rattles and sways enough to be noticed. No one else acknowledges the extra movement, though, the lack of smoothness. Do the wheels still even touch the tracks?

The conductor enters the car and ambles down the aisle without effort. He bends over to converse with an elderly couple a few seats behind me. They all share a chuckle. I raise a hand.

"Excuse me."

The conductor moseys back toward me.


"Is this train..." Beckoning the conductor closer, I whisper the rest. "Are we going at a safe speed?"

"Yes, sir."

With that, the conductor saunters down the aisle to the next car.

Shaking my head and slapping my cheeks a couple of times, I try to clear my senses. "Wow. What a nightmare." I turn toward my Granola Girl. "I'd tell you about it, but that would be a little weird. And I doubt you're interested."

The woman turns in her seat and raises an eyebrow. "Nightmare?"

"It's all a nightmare, I guess."


The conversation door opens. My insecurity pushes me through. "I manage the men's floor at the Alistaire's flagship store. Worked my way up from the bottom."

The woman cocks her head. "You must love it."

Smiling for the first time, I nod emphatically. "I do, every part of it. Opening a box of new khakis or sweaters or casual shirts. I mean, I'm like a kid at Christmas. The smells, the textures of different fabrics... displaying them to their best advantage... I love it all."

"You're going to work now?"

"My last day. I've run out of time."

"Run out of time?"

"Yeah. You can't get more time. But I'm only forty-five. That's not too old to start new. Is it? How, what do I do? Retail is all I know, and now I don't know it any more." I grab another bottle from my backpack. "Want one?"

She holds up her hand. "No thanks."

"On-line shopping," I gripe after a hit of my energy drink. "When COVID first happened, we closed the store. Lost a lot of foot traffic. More people discovered on-line shopping."

"They haven't come back?"

I shake my head. "Some days it's like working in a crypt. Anderson Smythe is our store manager. The big boss. He's also the one who groomed me from the beginning. Now he gets to tell me I'm done. Over lunch. I guess I'm an exception, with him letting me down easy."

"I'm sorry."

I try not to whine, but fail. "I'm not needed any more. Nobody's looking at my resume and saying, 'hey, let's get this guy.' It's all changed."

"Change happens," she says, vibrant green eyes boring into mine. "Sometimes the change is a big one."

"Not to pry," I say, preparing to pry. "But are you a student? What are tuitions like now?"

Silence. A pause. Then the strange woman faces forward again..

Dumb question. How am I getting a loan if I'm unemployed?

A glance out the window catches the Tarrytown station zooming past. The train's speed increases. The sudden boost pulls me back in my seat. The car shakes more overtly now. The wheels rattle. Conversations continue unchecked, however, and the music in the back of the car annoys without pause. The conductor enters the car and passes on his rounds.

I reach past the woman and grab the conductor by the arm. Panic edges into my voice.

"We're out of control."

The conductor squints and shrugs, smiling. "We're fine, sir."

"We just missed Tarrytown."

Squinting harder, the conductor shakes his head. "We're coming up on the end of the line, sir."

I peer ahead of us. Somehow, we're approaching the city, but at a fatal speed.

"We're going too fast!"

"Oh," said the conductor, "if we were going too fast, we've got the air brake system. The brakes would've kicked in by now." He points at the open backpack, at the empty bottles of energy drink. "If you don't mind me saying, you're the only one going too fast on this train."

"Listen, pal," I say. But the conductor is gone.

Buildings replace the trees. Structures fly by in a tan and brown blur. Shaking and swaying, the train hurtles toward the station.

My left hand feels numb as I try to wipe my window to see better. The woman watches me. I ignore her, focusing on the onrushing terminal.

She puts a gentle hand on my thigh, and smiles. "This is going to make a mess."

We are engulfed in the blackness of the station tunnel.


My eyes scan the faces hovering above me. I raise my left hand to grab the lapel of the gray-haired man who always sits in the seat in front of me. Only my hand doesn't budge. My brain again commands the hand to move. Again, it stubbornly refuses to obey. A third effort meets with the same result: failure.

"I'm okay. What's all this?" I attempt to say. The garbled, slurred nonsense that reaches my ears brings tears to my eyes.

A half dozen people crowd around me, fear and concern on their faces.

A middle-aged woman clutches her leather mini bag against her breast. "What's wrong with him?"

"Drugs," says her companion, a muscular gent with a thick neck and a nose that had clearly been broken at one time.

My brain says, "No drugs." What comes from my mouth is, "Gurg nerfig."

"He's had a stroke," says a man wearing new blue jeans and a blue scrubs shirt.

The conductor sticks his head into the assemblage.

"Drugs," the muscle man repeats. "Look at him. He's too young for a stroke. All the hot shot executives do drugs."

The medical professional tugs at his scrubs. "Unless you're a drug user or a dealer, I think I've got a better chance at diagnosing this."

"He's spent the past twenty minutes talking to thin air," the gray haired man says. "I heard him."

"Drugs, I tell ya," muscle man insists.

"Could go either way," medical guy concedes.

I am confused. Thin air...talking to thin air? Did they not see Granola Girl next to me?

The conductor barks into his walkie-talkie. "We've got a possible stroke or O.D. in car three." He then calls on his phone for paramedics to hurry to the platform.

"Sat next to me... said big changes... mess..." I chuckle. None of what I said came out as actual words.

"We've got you, pal," the conductor coos. "Hang in there."


The gurney wheels clatter despite their rubber coating. Unable to move my head, I scan my surroundings the best I can with my eyes only. The train platform holds a mass of commuters. Many of them gawk at me. The most hardened travelers stare ahead, anxious to get to the concourse and be on their way.

One woman stands to the side. She catches my attention by her inaction, her stillness, the eye of the hurricane around her. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

The Granola Girl simply smiles at me.

Short Story

About the author

marty roppelt

My life-long love of reading coupled with my family background (we're Transylvanian. Yes, there is such a place!) leads me to write mostly in the paranormal and horror genres. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, I also have a heck of a sense of humor.

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