Previously: “The Art of Jacob Emory.”
If you’ve ever lived in a place where you had to rely on a subway system to get around, “The Strangers” will probably strike a chord with you. We often see the same zoned-out people on the train during our regular commutes, day after day after day… but what if there’s a reason for that zombie-like quality? And what if you were never supposed to know what that reason was?
Although “The Strangers” takes place in New York City, it’s got a few quirks that mark it as a story written by someone who has never actually spend a significant amount of time in the place: The subway doesn’t stop running late at night, no one refers to it as “the metro,” and so on. I think it also could have used some trimming; there comes a point where it starts to get a little bogged down in itself. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, and it’s possible that the oddities about the subway… well, let’s just say that they might be intentional.
My name is Andrew Erics. I lived, once, in a city called New York. My mother is Terrie Erics. She’s in the phone book. If you know the city, and you read this, find her. Don’t show her this, but tell her I love her, and that I’m trying to come home. Please.
It all started when I decided, around the time that I turned twenty-five, that it was time for me to give up taking my backpack in to work. It would make me look more mature, I thought, if I weren’t lugging around a book bag everywhere like a high school student. Of course this meant that I had to give up reading in the subway in the mornings and afternoons, since I couldn’t quite fit my paperbacks into a pocket. A briefcase would have been out of line, since I was working in a factory, and messenger bags always seemed a little, I don’t know, fruity to me. Too purse-like for my liking.
I had an mp3 player, which helped pass the time for a while, but when it broke – it would shut down at the end of every song if I didn’t skip to the next track manually – I gave that up too. So every morning, I’d sit in the metro for a half-hour that dragged on endlessly, with nothing at all to do but watch my fellow passengers. I was slightly shy, so I didn’t like to be caught at it, so I’d surreptitiously watch people. Interestingly enough, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only person in the world who was uncomfortable in public.
People covered it up in various ways, but I learned to see through them. I divided them up into categories in my head. There were the fidgeters, who couldn’t get comfortable, constantly moving their hands, shifting their weight, moving their legs closer to the bench, then further. They were the most noticeably nervous types. After them were the fake-sleepers, who’d take their seat and practically close their eyes in the same second. Most of them weren’t really sleeping, though. The real sleepers shifted more, came awake suddenly at stops or after loud noises. The fakes just zoned from the second they sat until the moment the train pulled into their stop. Then there were the mp3 player addicts, the occasional laptop people, the people who traveled in groups and talked too loudly. The cellphone junkies were either very popular or just completely unable to shut up for more than two minutes at a time.
Just as people-watching was threatening to get unbearably boring, I found my first incongruity. A middle-aged looking man, brown-haired, average size and weight, and dressed casually. Oddly enough, he seemed almost too normal. He had no remarkable features, no mannerisms, as if he were designed to fade into a crowd. It was that which led me to notice him – I was intentionally trying to see how people acted on the subway, and he didn’t act at all. Didn’t even react, either. It was like seeing someone sitting in front of the television, watching a documentary about fish. They aren’t excited, aren’t engaged, but they aren’t looking away either. Present, but not accounted for.
He was on the subway in the afternoons. It was more than a month into the people-watching experiment before he caught my eye, because I didn’t catch the same subway everyday, and didn’t consciously sit in the same car when I did. I saw him for the first time on a Monday, I believe, and for the second time on the Thursday of the same week. He obviously did catch the same train, and sat in the same car – in the same seat, even. OCD much? I thought at the time. Since he’d caught my attention so much the first time, I watched him more avidly the next. He was, frankly, downright unsettling. He didn’t do anything at all. He sat there, expressionless, head straight, no matter what happened. A woman with a wailing child entered the car and sat right behind him, and still nothing. He didn’t so much as turn his head or frown in annoyance. And that kid was fucking loud, too.
By the time the subway reached my stop, I found myself queasy, and when I exited the car my hands were shaking like I was having a nicotine fit. Something about that man was *wrong*. He was, I thought, some kind of freak. A sociopath, maybe, one of those quiet guys who it turns out has a dozen women’s heads in his freezer, the first victim his mother.
I found myself intentionally dawdling after work in the afternoons, stopping to browse in kiosks in the mall near the subway even when I didn’t intend on buying anything. For a couple weeks, I avoided catching that subway, and when I found myself at the stop when it was pulling in, I made sure to choose a train-car as far from the one I’d seen him in as possible.
Then, one morning, I saw another person who set off the same warning bells in my head.