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art by Junior McLean

This Life

Lee Hallison is a transplanted New Yorker, living in the Pacific Northwest among the rhododendrons and Douglas firs. She writes in a big old house, where she lives with her husband, their teenager, a dog, and three fat cats.

Hope grabbed at the railing as the surge of people pushed her off-balance. She hung on as she made her way down the rain-slick subway stairs, exhaling with relief at the bottom. The crowd carried her into the station, where she stuck her token in the turnstile and headed toward the A-train track.
Another dull, tedious cubicle day, another nasty bit in a crowd of smelly strangers--and the same commute back to that boring old apartment. Hope sighed as her thoughts spun. The train thundered in with a rush of stale air, and she stepped through the doors as they shushed open.
Inside, rather than smooth fiberglass and chrome, rows of old-fashioned tawny-yellow wicker seats stretched to her right and left. White canvas hand-grips hung from the ceiling. Hope swung quickly back to the door, but it had shut, letting no one else in. The train jerked and moved. People flicked past, and then the swoosh of the tunnel wall darkened the windows.
The back of Hope's neck prickled. She peeked over her shoulder, but the car looked the same. Empty seats. Green painted walls. An old fan flicking. Yellow light bulbs.
"Hey," she called out, to whom she didn't know. The train rocked along, and Hope swung into a seat. She rubbed the bumpy surface with her finger. She hadn't ridden a subway with wicker seats since she was a kid.
The door at the far end opened. Hope looked up at a large woman squeezing through, bags hanging off both arms. She struggled free and the door banged shut. Her impossibly orange hair hung in curly ropes around a wide face, setting off a big-toothed smile.
"Hello," she said, panting a bit as she plopped onto the bench seat facing the aisle.
"He… hello." Hope didn't talk to strangers, but she wasn't used to empty cars, never mind old ones.
The woman pulled out a skein of light beige yarn and began to knit. The rhythm of clicking needles relaxed Hope. She stood and moved down the car to a seat nearer the woman.
"Thinking of a change, then?" The woman opened her eyes wide, making them look popeyed. She flashed another big grin.
"No, no, just on my way home." Hope frowned as the train rocked along. They should have reached a station by now, yet the train sped along like an express.
"What kind of train is this? It's the local, isn't it?" Hope looked for a sign, but the walls were blank--no map, no labels, no ads.
"Ah, local in a sense, yes. What kind of change do you think you'd like?"
Hope looked away, toward the back of the car. She was in the subway with a wacko--best ignore her. Maybe she could move back there.
"Shh. What can you hear?" asked the woman.
"What?" Hope glanced at her. The woman began to knit faster, a rectangle forming below her needles. Hope heard the clicking of the needles turn into a hum. The train lurched and slowed. The streaming light resolved into individual lights whipping past, then slowing. Posts and walls signaled a station, and then the station itself slid into view. The train screeched to a halt next to the empty platform.
The doors opened onto a lush field of grass and wildflowers, the sound of birds and the smell of spring replacing the stale air. Hope stood with a little gasp. Where was the station? She looked at the woman, who smiled and nodded.
"You can make a change, a new life, if you'd like. Farming? Family and friends, weeds and wisdom...."
"What? What are you talking about?" The woman sounded crazy, but then Hope was seeing things.
She looked out onto the path through the meadow. She shuddered, city girl sensibilities kicking in. The door shut with a swish.
Hope staggered and sat hard as the train started up. It seemed to accelerate instantly to 100 miles an hour. She watched the lights whizzing and wondered whether the loony's comment was true. Step into another life? She laughed.
The woman laughed with her. She pulled the end of a second skein and knitted blue into the rows hanging from her needles. The rectangle lengthened, the new color making stripes.
"Shh, what can you hear?" Smooth needle clicks filled Hope's ears. The train slowed, then pitched to both sides as it abruptly stopped at the next station.
The doors skidded open and the taste of December rushed in, cinnamon and snow.
"Skiing, snow and slush, fireplaces and fancies," the woman chanted.
Hope looked out onto the top of a mountain. Skiers below swooped in graceful arcs. A lump of snow fell off a tree close enough to touch, and the spray of wet cold tingled her skin.
Hope drew back. The view dizzied her, despite the taste and smell. She sighed, the doors closed, and the train lurched on.
"Who are you? What is this train? Where am I?" Hope gripped the edge of her seat.
The woman set her knitting down and gazed at Hope. She tossed her orange curls back, then pursed her lipsticked mouth.
"Do you always question presents, my dear? You've been tired, and bored, and unhappy for a long time. Choose something else, if you'd like. This is a chance, a gift."
Hope's stomach churned. She couldn't imagine stepping off this train, yet didn't want to stay one minute longer. This woman had some nerve, entering her life and messing with her head. She must be dreaming, or hallucinating.
"I want to go home," Hope's voice cracked. She cleared her throat and said it again, louder.
"Are you sure, now? This is your choice?"
The woman cocked her head and picked up her knitting, clicking fast, fingers a blur.
"Shh, what can you hear?"
Hope frowned and said, loudly, "Stop it!" The humming clicks did not stop. Hope stood up, grabbed one of the hand-grips and pointed at the woman.
"Don't do that! I want to go home!"
The windows lightened as another station slid into view. The train stopped. Hope stumbled, almost losing her footing. She tightened her grip on the canvas and straightened up. The doors swished open onto an empty station platform.
"There you go, girl. That's the way home." The woman picked up her knitting and pursed her lips again.
Hope looked out at her station, looked back at the woman, and stepped to the door. She hesitated, but jumped out just as the doors began to close. The train squealed as it started to move. Hope watched the woman through the window, yellow light bouncing off the orange head. As the train passed by, the woman looked out at her, the striped knitting beginning to unravel from the needles in her hands.
Walking home, an odd freedom bubbled up from deep inside Hope. She opened her mouth and let out a happy bark. What a funny strange thing had just happened. She swung her arms just for the heck of it. A car beeped as she stepped off the curb, and Hope waved as she stepped back. This life, she thought. This life.
Shh, what can you hear? Hope is laughing.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Author Comments

The idea that we only get one life is a truth that can be easy to forget--we sometimes waste some of it wishing for things to be different. I wanted to write a story where turning down an adventure or change was the right thing to do. The rickety old A train felt like a good setting for a bit of strange magic.

- Lee Hallison
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