Night Train ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in a slightly different form in Bartleby-Snopes.)
Martin Haythorne disliked riding trains at night. They moved too slow and made too many stops. At one of the stops a woman boarded the train carrying a sleeping child. Martin was facing the door and as he saw her coming toward him, he hoped she wouldn’t sit in the seat facing him, but she did. He uncrossed his legs and sighed and pulled himself up straighter, thinking it’s going to be a long night.
The woman fussed with getting the child fixed just right in her lap and, after she was settled in the seat across from him, she looked searchingly at Martin until he looked back and gave her a wan smile.
“It’s so crowded tonight,” she said.
He could see all the way down to the other end of the coach and it was more than half empty.
“I think traveling at night is so lonely,” she said. “I like to find somebody I can talk to. It helps to pass the time.”
He looked away and picked up and began reading a newspaper that somebody had left behind, but that didn’t deter the woman.
“This is my little girl,” she said, looking down at the child draped across her lap. “She’s three. Her name is Ivette. She always gets sick to her stomach on a train, so before we left home I gave her a little pill to make her got to sleep. She doesn’t have any idea she’s on the train just now. Don’t you think that was the smart thing for me to do?”
He shook his head and looked at the child, who barely seemed to be breathing. She was tiny and pale, with scraggly blond hair and a throbbing blue vein in her temple. She was wearing a cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke, blue jeans and cowboy boots.
“What about you?” the woman asked him. “You have any children?”
“Not me,” Martin said. “I don’t have time.”
“I always thought I would have three or four children, but Ivette is my only one so far. I guess there’s always a chance for more.”
Martin looked longingly at the empty seats, wanting to move but not wanting to appear overly rude. Instead he picked up the newspaper again, turned the pages and, not finding anything of interest, began studying a sofa ad.
“You’re probably wondering where my husband is,” the woman said. “You’re probably asking yourself why I’m traveling at night by myself with a small child.”
“You need a book or a magazine,” Martin said. “Reading is what really helps to pass the time at night.”
“Oh, I don’t read much and, anyway, reading on a moving train would only make me sick to my stomach.”
He kept looking at the sofa ad with feigned interest, wondering how he might make the woman stop talking. After a while he refolded the paper and set it on the seat beside him. Remembering the pack of cigarettes he had in his pocket, he took one out, lit it and blew out a big cloud of smoke. That would surely make the woman want to take the child and move to a different seat.
She didn’t seem to notice. She moved the child off her lap onto the seat beside her until the child’s head was resting against her thigh and the cowboy books were sticking out in the aisle.
“Aren’t children just the most precious things?” she said. “God’s greatest gift.” She smoothed the child’s hair back from its face.
“Look,” he said, “if you don’t mind, it’s late and I would really like to just sit quietly. When I’m riding on a train at night, I like to just sit and think about things.”
“Oh, no!” she said. “I don’t want to bother you. Just pretend as if I wasn’t even here.”
He leaned his head back, turned his face toward the window and closed his eyes. He could go to sleep if only he was alone.
“You know,” the woman said, “when I’m riding on a train I love to watch the scenery, but at night all you can see is the darkness, unless you pass through a little town where there are lights. The towns always seem kind of lonely and sad, somehow, at night, don’t you think?”
He reopened his eyes and sighed. He was ready to move now to another seat, no matter how rude it seemed. When he started to stand up he saw the woman was crying.
She saw he was looking at her and said, “Oh, don’t mind me! I try not to cry in public but sometimes I just can’t help it.”
She took a handkerchief out of her purse and wiped her eyes.
“Are you sick or something?” he asked. “Do you need to get off the train?”
“No. Why would I want to get off the train all the way out here?”
“I just thought…”
“Look, would you mind getting me a cup of water? I need to take some pills.”
He went to the men’s restroom and filled a tiny, cone-shaped paper cup with water at the wash basin and took it back to her.
“Thanks,” she said. “I sometimes get hysterical, but I have these little pills that help.”
“Look, I’ll move to another seat and you can put your baby here and I’ll just get out of your way.”
“Oh, no, no, no! I want you to stay with me!”
“But I thought…”
“No, I feel better if you’re here.”
He looked at his watch, calculating how much longer the trip would take, and sat back down. The woman put the handkerchief over her face and let loose with a torrent of sobs, causing a throbbing in his head. A crying woman always brought unwelcome associations; his mother used to cry for no reason at all.
When he saw the conductor standing at the front of the car, he stood up and approached him. “I’d like to move to another car,” he said. “There’s a woman who keeps saying things.”
“What kind of things?” the conductor asked. “Indecent things?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that.”
“Well, what is she saying?”
“She’s just bothering me. I want to rest.”
“Well, you can’t move to another car because this is the only car carrying passengers tonight.”
“Why don’t you just move to another seat?”
“I think she would move, too.”
“Well, tell her to stop annoying you. Tell her to shut up. Sometimes that’s what it takes.”
“I will. Thanks.”
He went back to his seat and sat back down. If only he could sleep the rest of the way, blot everything out, he’d feel much better. The time would go by so fast that before he knew it the trip would be over. He wasn’t going to let the woman bother him anymore.
He tried closing his eyes again, leaning his head against the window and folding his arms across his chest. He could feel himself starting to drift off when another train passed by going in the other direction, letting off a shrill blast.
The blond-haired girl woke up and began screaming. The woman picked her up and set her across her lap.
“My goodness!” she said. “That frightened little baby, didn’t it? Bad old train woke little girl up!”
She jiggled her up and down, but the girl kept screaming. After a while, the screams tapered away to subdued sobbing. “We make quite a pair, don’t we?” the woman said with a laugh. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with us, I swear I don’t!”
When the girl continued crying, the woman took a candy bar out of her purse, unwrapped it and gave it to her. She instantly settled down, making little cooing noises as she ate the candy, looking at the ceiling.
“Sometimes with children things are so simple,” the woman said.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve tried to be patient with you, but you don’t seem to be getting the message. I want to just sit quietly and not be bothered and not talk! Is that so hard to understand?”
“We’ve just been so upset because my husband ran off and left us.”
“I can’t say I blame him.”
“Of course, Ivette is too young to understand, but children know things instinctively.”
“Okay, I’m going to move to another seat now.”
“I wish you wouldn’t. I like talking to you.”
“Well, I don’t like talking to you!”
“He has a kind of recurring amnesia, my husband does. He’s fine for a while and then he has these spells come over him where he forgets things. He forgets he has a wife and a child, and he goes away on the train or the bus, and I have to go get him and bring him back home. He seems to have it in his head that he’s escaping from something.”
“I think I know what he’s escaping.”
“The doctor believes he has a kind of a growth thing on the brain that makes him act the way he does. If we could just get him to agree to have an operation, that might make him just as normal as anybody.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be normal.”
“Of course he does. Everybody wants to be normal and live a normal life.”
“I love my husband very much and little Ivette loves him too, and I believe that in his own peculiar way he loves us just as much. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to bring him back home as many times as it takes.”
“You don’t seem to be getting the message, lady, so I’ll put it to you in very plain language: I don’t care about your troubles and I don’t want to hear about them!”
He stood up, picked up his coat, hat and suitcase and moved all the way to the front of the car next to the window. He was so relieved to get away from the woman and the little girl that he felt close to tears and his hands were shaking. He put his suitcase on the seat beside him so she wouldn’t get it into her head to come and sit there.
Sleep at last came to him and he awoke to the sounds of the train pulling into the station. The sun was just coming up. The interminable night was over.
He got off the train as quickly as he could to avoid another encounter, but he didn’t see the woman and the little girl again. He took a cab to the hotel, checked into his room, changed his clothes and went downstairs in the elevator.
The hotel restaurant was crowded, but he didn’t mind it because he got a little table at a remove from the others. After placing his order for breakfast, he lit a cigarette and closed his eyes, feeling pleasantly fatigued. He was looking forward to a day of solitude and relaxation—visiting a museum or two and possibly seeing a movie, and then returning to his hotel room for a nap before dinner.
While eating his ham and eggs, he noticed a woman come into the restaurant. He wouldn’t have noticed her at all if she hadn’t been carrying a small, blond-haired child. She sat down facing him at a table about thirty feet away. She held the child on her lap for a while and then pulled a chair up close on her right side and set the child on the chair.
The woman looked closely at him and when he looked back she smiled at him and he saw then that it was the woman from the train, although she looked much different, dressed in finer clothes and wearing a hat. She reached over and said something to the child and then she pointed her finger at him to indicate to the child that he was there. He wanted to move around to the other side of the table facing away from her, but he knew it was no use. There would be no getting away from her.
I’ve seen her before, he thought, and not just on the train. I’ve seen her many times in many places. I forget about her, and then I see her again, in the least-expected places at the least-expected times. She is everything to me that I abhor in the world, everything I hate and fear, and she will not relent until she has overpowered me and forced me to her will.
He closed his eyes and wished the woman and the blond-haired child gone. He would kill them if he had to, to save himself. He’d buy a small gun that he could conceal easily in his pocket and lure them away from the hotel and kill them. Nobody would ever know, as long as he planned things out carefully. Yes, he could kill a child because this child wasn’t just any child—it was her child.
When he opened his eyes again, the woman and child, to his great relief, were gone. He finished his breakfast, paid for it, and went up to his room on the tenth floor of the hotel and locked himself in. He didn’t want to be disturbed.
The room was quiet and cool. The faraway sounds of the traffic on the street below were comforting. He kicked off his shoes and lay on the bed and put his arm over his eyes.
He fell into a deep sleep, losing track of the passage of time. He woke to the sound of a faint stirring, as of someone in the room with him. He opened his eyes and when he saw the woman from the train standing beside the bed, he jerked himself to a sitting position.
“What the…what the hell is this?” he said, not sure of what he was seeing.
“We’re here,” she said. “We’re both here.”
She touched the head of the blond child standing beside her and then reached down and picked her up in her arms. The child, seeing him lying on the bed, stuck her finger in her mouth and then pointed it at him and leaned far over toward him from her mother’s arms.
“She certainly has missed her daddy!” the woman said.
She placed the child on the bed beside him in a sitting position. It was the same cowboy shirt with a horse embroidered on the yoke, the same blue jeans and cowboy boots.
“Who is this?” he said to the woman.
The child looked at him knowingly. She had the same face, the same upturned nose, the same washed-out blue eyes. When she opened her dribbling mouth and smiled at him, he could see her tiny, animal-like teeth. He was sure he had never seen a more despicable child. He wanted nothing more than to put his hands around her throat and strangle the life out of her and then do the same to the mother.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp