The young man didn't notice her at first. The early evening flow of commuters draining out of the city had subsided, and the train was quiet, with plenty of seats empty. He chose to stand anyway, and when he glanced up, he saw the young woman standing across from him.
She was reading a paperback book with a pale blue cover. The young man could not make out the title, and even if he could, he would not have known it, for he was not a reader. It was a literary book, though. The discreet cover and restrained title told him that.
The woman was less discreet. She wore a tight black sweater and a turquoise pleated skirt that went down mid-thigh. As befit the winter months, she also wore flesh-covered hose that hung loose around her slim legs and wrinkled around her knees.
He studied her face. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a short, tight ponytail. Her face was carved like a cadaver, pale freckled skin over bone and a slight frown like a drained cut. Her posture was tense, and while he examined her, her head sprang up like a trap.
The man looked away. He waited for the woman to return to her book, then he continued, eyes scrabbling all about. He knew there wasn't much time left. Her fingernails were ragged and her fingers unadorned. She wore dirty white tennis shoes. Her upper forearm had slipped forward, out of the sweater, and the skin beneath was fevered, glyphed with a tumble of precise cuts. She favored her left leg and. . . She wore a silver necklace around her. . . Her eyebrows. . .
The second time the woman glared at him, her eyes flared like a cornered cat. The young man turned and walked down the subway car. He could feel her stare drilling into his back. He ignored her. It was time to plan.
The train sped over the river. Behind it, darkened skyscrapers pressed up and upwards, wounding the sky with bruised reds and purples. The man watched the skyline retreat, his thoughts elsewhere. Then the train dipped into a tunnel and the view was gone.
When the doors slid open at the next stop, the woman snapped her book shut and slipped through. She walked to the escalator with hurried steps. He might have followed her, as he had others - but he thought he had everything he needed from her, for now.
The doors closed, the train moved, and she was gone.
But not really, not for him. "My mind is like a cage," the man whispered. He sat down, closed his eyes, and held her inside of him.
The night was full by the time the young man reached the squat complex where he lived. He walked up to the third floor and down a pale green corridor of closed doors and timid noises. The faint odors of age and sweat were not unpleasant, at least not anymore.
Once inside his studio apartment, the man walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He made and ate a sandwich in the dark, and when he was done, he sat down at his desk and switched on the lamp. He readied his instruments, sharpening them as he went over his plan one last time. Then he hunched over and went at it.
Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. His concentration and focus were total, but that was not unusual. Forty-five minutes passed, and then he was done. He sat back and examined his work.
It was a picture. Done in colored pencils, it depicted the young woman sitting alone at a table with a checkerboard tablecloth. The remainder of the restaurant was shadowed and unimportant. A half-eaten salad sat before her. A fork dangled from one hand; the other held a book with a pale blue cover. Her eyes were alive as she read. Her smile was distant, and genuine.
The man hesitated, then erased the sharp red lines on her wrists. A faint pink smudge was left behind. "There," he said. It was true, or would be. He could feel it.
He framed the picture, then hung it up on the wall, where it joined the others. There was the old man watching television and laughing with crumbs spraying out of his mouth. The little girl spinning in a pink tutu in front of an audience of stuffed animals. The teacher staring out at row upon row of empty desks. There were hundreds of pictures, and in each and every one, someone alone, but not always lonely.
The man smiled and turned off the lamp. He could feel the people, his people, all around. "Good night," he said, and went to sleep.
I kind of like this story (and so did the instructor in the flash fiction class that I took). I like the way that it's quiet and not unkind.
It's also semi-autobiographical. Whenever I see a person with a book, I can't help but want to know what that book is, even if I have to crane my neck and contort my back in order to get a good look at the cover. Long story short, I did this once in a New York subway, only to have the woman described in the story above give me a death stare. I'm sorry ma'am, I really was only trying to figure out what book you were reading!