A while back, I wrote and recorded a 14-episode podcast entitled “No Good Story Comes to an End.” (available on my Soundcloud here). It was exceptionally fun to create, and featured a Welcome to Night Vale-esque town called Spasming Hill, which had its own geographical features, local attractions and strange personalities.
This is a tale from that small town.
Pablo frowned at the sign, mouth twisting in concentration.
Invest in a vest! Sylvester’s Stunning Vests are made from 100% recycled materials. Feel the gossamer slide of the material on your skin and wonder: what is that? Is that silk? Or, I can’t tell, maybe cashmere? Oh! It’s moving! Is it spiders? I bet it’s spiders.
We don’t know! We have no idea what our vests are made of! We only know they’re made from quality recycled goods donated to us involuntarily by conscientious humans and humanoid-form consciences. So treat yourself to a Sylvester’s Stunning Vest — the environment will thank you for it!
The sign was plastered to the station wall just above the bench Pablo had been sitting on a moment before. Now, he was on his feet, his eyes a gaping void drinking in the sign’s meaning. Oddly, he could not remember the sign existing a minute ago. Oddly, he could not remember himself existing a minute ago. Perhaps he still didn’t, and was a figment of his own mind. Perhaps — and here Pablo shuddered — he was a figment of someone else’s mind. But no, he reassured himself. The Higgs Boson had justified his faith in objective reality.
He looked around. He was standing in a station. He nodded, eyes running over the familiar surfaces. There was the wooden bench, which he had been sitting on until he wasn’t any longer. There was the ticket collector, leaning against the wall and punching tickets with her ticket-punching machine. There were the train tracks, coated in a glistening syrupy substance that helped trains run slow enough that there were never any accidents, and also never any trains. It was safer this way. Public transport casualties were at a seven-year low, the lowest in the country.
His eyes slid back to the ticket collector. The woman was leaning casually against the wall with open, friendly body language and a fixed smile on her face. She wore a badge that read Citizens’ Train Prevention Society. Her ticket-punching machine made a rhythmic clicking sound as it punched tiny holes from the pitch-black strips of cardboard, little circles fluttering down lazily to join a pile that was already up to her knees.
Pablo couldn’t tell where she was getting the tickets from because the knee-deep pile of ticket punchings looked like it had not been disturbed in centuries and there were no other passengers in the station, but nevertheless the machine kept clicking and the tiny cardboard circles kept fluttering down, performing brief pirouettes in mid-air before becoming lost among the thousands already on the ground. There were great ragged holes in her fingers where the machine had punched flesh and not ticket.
Pablo looked back at her face, and now it seemed as if her fixed smile was wavering, quivering around the edges as if the ticket collector were struggling with a great sadness. It was conceivable she had only taken this job because her father had been killed in a train accident and punching tickets here, in this station, was the only way she knew to get revenge.
Pablo felt regret that the new safety measures for public transport had come too late to save her father. He knew how hard it was to grow up without one, and as her empty pitch-black eyes stared back at him he hoped she would see the grief-laden sympathy festering in his soul. He hoped she would not see only the mole on his right cheek that had been his deepest shame for as long as he had existed, years and years or possibly only seconds.
Overcome with emotion, Pablo strode across the sticky linoleum floor to the ticket collector, fumbling to pull out the pitch-black strip of cardboard from his pocket only to find he had been clutching it tightly the whole time. Still he fumbled at his pocket, because it was important to keep up appearances and no proper passenger would have their proof of fare so readily available. When Pablo stopped in front of the ticket collector he realized he had embarrassingly ceased fumbling somewhere along the journey, but she seemed to have not noticed his indiscretion and merely stared at him with a fixed smile on her face. Her eyes were the same pitch black as the cardboard in his hand.
Closer up, the smile seemed steadier and more menacing, and Pablo began to fear he had made a mistake. Perhaps her father had not been killed in a train accident after all and she had taken this job only because she desired money for goods and services or because she had hated cardboard from a young age. Maybe she was a human-form facsimile constructed to lean against this wall and punch a never-ending stream of mysteriously manifested strips of pitch-black cardboard. Such things had been known to happen.
Her lips parted, revealing the monstrous pitch-black cavern that was her mouth. There was a crackle and an announcement flooded the station, reverberating off the walls until the floor began to shudder and quake, bits of plaster flaking from the ceiling and collecting on the linoleum floor.
Attention, passengers, came the announcement, though from the ticket collector’s throat or hidden speakers high above Pablo could not tell. We would like to thank you for traveling today on Spasming Hill’s city rail network. This is a reminder that the ten-fifteen all-stations train to the Ricardo Memorial Thudball Arena will not be arriving on platform seven shortly. Again, the ten-fifteen all-stations train will not be arriving on platform seven in approximately three minutes. We thank you for your patience and remind you to take a bus. Have a nice day.
The sound clicked off and the ticket collector closed her mouth, expression settling back into a menacing fixed smile, though Pablo’s vision was blurred and juddering in the aftermath of the bone-shaking announcement and it was possible he was mistaken. He shut his eyes and counted to ten, a thick glutinous substance trickling inexplicably from his ears, then opened them again, aware he only had a few minutes left to get his ticket punched.
Passengers found loitering in the station after the appointed time of their train were taken by the station’s staff and drafted onto the Public Transport Advisory Board, never to be heard from again. While Mayor Jacqueline Hyde stressed being a part of the decision-making process for something so important and life-threatening as public transport was a great civic honor, nobody relished the thought of spending the rest of their short, fleeting lives completing standard Passenger Cancellation Forms and devouring eight times their body weight daily in diesel.
Pablo gestured pleadingly towards the pitch-black strip of cardboard in his hand, pushing it towards the ticket collector as he urged her, just this once, to fulfill her sacred duty. He noticed that for the past few seconds as they had stared at each other she had been missing the tickets with her machine, and now thick crimson drops were welling up from her punctured skin. They dripped down onto the pile around her knees and stained the pitch-black cardboard a deeper, darker shade, imbuing them with the essence of her fragile existence. It was beautiful, in many ways, to see her life’s blood soak into the off-cast cardboard, and Pablo made an appreciative murmur with his throat, so soft it did not break the seal of his lips.
He raised his head and looked into her pitch-black eyes, and in that moment he saw something he had not seen before. This is me, her eyes seemed to say, as blood stained her hands, the machine, and Pablo’s cold, bare feet; I am real. I punch tickets not because I want to but because nobody else can. As he wordlessly pressed his ticket into her weak, trembling grip, her eyes spoke again, flashing fiercely in defiance of her fate: This is me. And we are real. For this moment, if no other.
And she wept thick, pitch-black tears as she punched Pablo’s ticket, crying silently for all the fathers past and present sacrificed to the monstrous public transport system they were both a part of. Her tears left burning, pitch-black tracks down her burning, pitch-black cheeks and she wore a fixed smile that seemed to cry out for justice in a universe that had no justice left to give. And in that instant, they were alone.
By the time his ticket hole had fluttered down to join the blood-soaked pile and the station’s klaxons began to sound, Pablo had already taken the subway stairs two at a time, and fled.