The mist is thick in the pre-dawn gloom, and the commuters on the platform at the train station are huddled into overcoats and thick hats, wishing it were still Christmas. The depth of winter has yet to arrive; by the standards of the month to come today’s chill is moderate. But by the standards of the long Indian summer recently past, it is frigid and the workforce waiting for their diesel powered railcar avoid each other’s gaze, each locked in introspective longing for the warmth of their homes and beds.
Within these clusters of non-interacting, space-sharing humans, there is a peculiar silence that permeates gathering locations with shared purpose but no shared engagement. It is a silence typified by a buzz of accepted background noise: Car tires rumbling over the tracks at the edge of the station; hollow chatter from ticket machines stamping dates and times onto counterfeit-proof sheets of pre-paid cardboard; indignant wails from ravens engaged in a dangerous dance with stray cats over a discarded bag of fast food scraps. But there are few conversations, few droopy-eyed attendants who wish to unwrap the scarves from their mouths to exchange pleasantries with strangers.
The cry that escapes the suburbanite-approved pseudo-silence commands immediate attention. Through the bluish fog that obscures the tracks as they curve away from the line of sight, a repeated phrase echoes:
Again: “Help!” It is a woman’s voice.
No one moves, but all turn to look. The buzz of silence descends again for a moment, maybe two. Then a repeat: “Help!” The commuters shuffle uncomfortably, each looking intently down the tracks, but seeing nothing behind the curtain of blue-grey vapor.
James Sand is not a brave man. He is a dull cubicle-dwelling soul who once dreamed of being a musician. He plays piano mostly to entertain his small family, now, improvising silly songs on the poorly tuned upright in his den to the occasional delight of his daughter Tia and his son Thom. He takes the train because he doesn’t make enough to afford to repair his battered car, nor to buy a new one. Most of his money goes to pay child support to his ex-wife. He’s happy to pay it. He misses her, and she says she misses him. They both know the marriage wasn’t successful, and she’s seeing a new guy now. When he dreams, James imagines he and his wife, Joline, reconcile and she dumps her boyfriend to rebuild their marriage. When he is awake, James is too afraid of a second rejection to attempt suggesting they try again.
In spite of his fear and the knowledge that if Joline knew he was doing anything remotely dangerous she would be livid, James does what the other curious and concerned but inactive commuters will not: He begins to walk toward the cries for help. He moves deliberately, not rushing into potential if improbable danger. There are no more cries, but as he walks past ten, then twenty, then maybe three dozen onlookers, all peering intently in the direction he is moving, he gradually sees a woman materialize from the obscuring layer of mist, down at the far end of the parking lot. He pauses, as she does not appear to be struggling or in any immediate danger. The lights spaced widely in the thin but long lot reveal enough to show she is engaged in conversation. James looks back over his shoulder and sees that his motion has emboldened another few men, who are moving at a pace that matches James’s steady one.
As he approaches, the woman breaks off from her conversational partner though not, he thinks, as a result of his presence. His progress clears his vision around a silver car and he notes the other participant is a dark-haired diminutive woman in an expensive-looking jacket who appears to be shaken as she threads her way carefully through the sparse shrubbery dividing the parking area from the platform. The dark-haired woman seems to be a fellow commuter, not someone who was recently in direct danger. James focuses his attention on the other lady, now striding purposefully but in an agitated fashion through the rows of parked cars.
“Is everything alright?” James calls to her.
“No!” she spits back at him. “Everything isn’t alright! I was just attacked over there!”
One of the men in James’s impromptu entourage interjects, “Attacked?”
“Yeah,” the woman says, a bit defensively. She has ratty blonde hair, deep creases in her face that suggest a life of cigarettes and difficulty. Her clothing is layered and while not fashionable or even matching, she doesn’t have the grimy appearance of a person forced to scavenge for necessities. James guesses her age somewhere in the mid-fifties.
“What happened?” the other man asks.
“Are you okay?” James adds.
“I’m not hurt,” the woman calls, now resuming her stride having slowed for a moment to talk to the concerned citizens. “I was just—” she seems inclined to relay the story and then glances over her shoulder. “You know, let me tell the police, first, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” James says. The woman disappears between the cooling automobiles and James debates whether to pursue her to make sure she’s okay or to continue investigating what might be wrong. The lone woman in the pack of followers hugs her knitted shawl tightly to her shoulders.
“It’s quite a world when someone yells for help,” she says to James, “and you aren’t sure if you should help them or not.” She laughs nervously. James casts her a disdainful look.
“Whatever helps you sleep,” he says, uncharacteristic in his bitterness. The woman looks down, too ashamed to even defend herself.
“I’m going to see if she’s okay,” offers a tall man in a red sweatshirt. He seems to be deferring to James, as though he were some kind of authority here. James nods and the man departs down the platform, loosely tracing the traumatized woman’s path.
“Did someone call the police?” the cowardly woman asks.
“I did,” pipes in a younger man holding up an expensive-looking bike and adjusting a bright yellow windbreaker.
The dark-haired woman from the parking lot approaches the small crowd of concerned commuters, “I called 911, too,” she offers.
The bicyclist turns to face the new member of the posse. “What did she say?”
“She just said she had escaped from a guy over there,” the tiny woman says, pointing up the tracks toward a barely discernible pair of ramshackle sheds. “She asked me to call the police to come pick her up.” With all eyes suddenly on her, the woman dips her head so the curtains of black hair obscure her face. She concludes in a low tone, “She said she was lucky to be alive.”
The small cluster of investigators check their cell phones and watches for the time. The train will be arriving in less than ten minutes. James and the bicyclist smile reassuringly at the dark haired woman and proceed to the very edge of the platform, peering intently into the hazy distance.
“There!” the bicyclist thrusts a finger forward and James follows the gesture until he sees some vague movement above the sheds. The barely standing structures seem to be using a chain link fence that runs behind them for support; beyond the fence is an eight-foot sound wall demarcating the property edge for some medium-income apartments. A shadowy figure seems to be shuffling along, hunched low at the top of the fence. “Hello?” the bicyclist calls.
There is a long pause. James peers as hard as he can, trying to will his eyesight to penetrate the gloom. For a moment, he presumes the movement was a cat or an optical illusion.
“Hey.” The voice from the mist is thin and high, but sounds masculine. “Is she there?”
James and the bicyclist exchange nervous glances. “Who?” James challenges.
“The lady. She had a blue coat.”
“What about her?”
“Is she still out there?”
“She went to get the police,” the bicyclist chimes in.
There is another long delay.
“Oh. Um, okay.” James catches another hint of motion, just a flicker of a passing shadow behind a thick curtain made of water vapor. Hardly there at all. “I called the cops, too,” the voice calls out. “I saw something.”
“What did you see?” asks the bicyclist.
There is no response. In the distance, the approaching train’s horn echoes up the alley carved in the residential streets and across the wooded parks between the town and the originating city. James checks his watch again and looks at the yellow-jacketed cyclist, who shrugs and begins to pedal back toward the overhang on the main part of the platform where the other waiting passengers have stopped watching, having decided there is nothing more to see. James stands on the edge of the concrete slab that marks the boarding and deboarding zone, waging an internal struggle. He thinks of his children. He thinks of Joline.
The horn from the mists calls out, a warning and a beckon. There are mysteries out there. His mind is a flip book of simultaneous stories; in one he is an unlikely hero, in the other he is a tragic footnote. Both options hold a mad allure, a promise of an exclamation point at the end of an otherwise uninteresting sentence, the discovery of remarkable flavor in the last bite of a bland dish. James takes a sharp inhalation of breath, tilts his weight out over the edge of the platform. If he runs across the tracks now, he will have just enough time to scramble down the rock-covered embankment before the train blocks him from the platform, from his routine.
He thinks about the voice from the mists, curious and timid. Is it a fellow good samaritan? It could be the attacker, trying to deflect blame. There are questions in the fog, and answers too. The only question on this platform is whether James wants them asked or answered. There is no more movement discernible, the train’s light and bulk and noise all that exist, carving a giant hole in the mystery. The unknown corkscrews itself down, finding the only two potentials it ever condenses into: forward into it, or stationary in defiance of it. James rocks back onto his heels.
The train horn blares and its recorded bell chimes announcing arrival. He paces it down the platform, un-rushed, thinking without anxiety how he will call and invite Joline to dinner after work.