Intersections [Short Story]
The cool winter wind crawled its dirty hands through the folded layers of my scarf and enveloped my neck as I waited for the nightly intercity train to arrive. I stood a few inches behind the faded yellow line that blocked me from the depressed rails. The same bleak rails that tangled its way through a city that was currently rushing to get home on time. As my parched eyes blankly skimmed the night sky devoid of stars, my freshly lit cigarette dripped drops of embers onto the gum-slickened concrete pavement. I impassively watched the slow, monotonous falling of glowing red embers as I awaited for the coming train at the intersection between the city and its rails.
I took a brief puff on my cigarette.
The train to my apartment complex would arrive in fifteen minutes. It has always approached the station at exactly 20:05 with its rhythmic wheels screeching a heavy thud that lengthens as the train slows to a stop. Like the hands of a ticking clock, it would present the familiar graffitied doors in front of a crowd of anxious, isolated people pushing for a spot either on a worn, moldy seat blackened from years of sitting or a plastic handle to hold onto so they don’t collide with the dreary advertisement-plastered walls every time the metro hits a minor bump. No matter what people aimlessly chose, none of that mattered to the dead metal body of the intercity train as it continued on its daily uninterrupted schedule of endlessly circling around town.
As a kid, I fondly remembered the shape of a wooden train head with paint chipping off in the palm of my hand. Its little plastic wheels would wildly spin around in brimming excitement after I ran the model quickly over the ground and lifted it near my face to examine it in inquisitive wonder. The fanciful adventures it had as I guided it on pre-laid plastic rails with my chubby fingers barely large enough to grasp it. It climbed up above a bridge taller than my largest textbooks and toys and, when it hurried down, it would fly at speeds I couldn’t have imagined possible until it hits a sharp turn and veers off the guiding rails and into the wall. I would subject it to the same adventurous fate again and again, hoping to maybe surpass my previous speed record or see it fly farther than ever before. At night, when my parents told me to be quiet to not disturb the sleeping neighbors, I would slowly push the train along the assembled rollercoaster of store-part rails, enjoying the muffled clinks as the plastic wheels met the little bumps where two parts of the toy rails connected. The wooden train is gone now. Probably molding in a corner buried beneath paperwork and boxes of unopened furniture. It had long left the station of my childhood.
I stared at the unwelcoming welded iron rails below my feet. Although they had similar function, the difference between these neglected rails and the characteristic plastic toy rails that guided me as a child was like another world. The existence of these dead metro rails would have never had a place in my fantastical roller coaster designs. Parallel rows of industrial iron rusting with empty cans of soda and forgotten jackets lying on the outskirts, enviously staring up at the drifting crowd of people. Scars from the screeching brakes of the intercity trains have tainted the once-shimmering surface of the metal bars. They were waiting for something, but whatever they wanted was never answered. They only received the pelting thunder of rain, the blistering heat waves, the sharp winter winds, and the periodic scream of sliding metal wheels.
I took a momentary puff of my cigarette. With every puff, the red ember on the end glowed for a fleeting second.
The crowd was forming again. Individual groups of people congregating together in bubbles of isolated conversations that resembled what we called a crowd. Clustering together to protect the essence of fragile familiarity, they formed separated islands maintained by the ever-looming apprehensive fear of others. And so, they chat with their friends, wearing superficial masks made of a patchwork of personalities pulled from TV shows and popular media as they make baseless jokes about the cynical decline of the world. They were wrong about the world though; the cracked sidewalks, the garbage clogging up the storm drains, and the litter by the trashcans were always there, we just unconsciously missed it in ignorant bliss. Back when we were living the moment, we never stopped to examine the hideous scars that surrounded us.
The warm sun that embraced us as we sprinted across sandy beaches has long set. It had had enough watching over us as we chatted with schoolyard friends about the latest cartoon or argued about who would fetch the runaway ball. Perhaps it was disgusted by our simplistically pure smiles and mindless laughter that echoed with fearless bravado down the playground. Perhaps it was driven away by the embarrassment of long-faded family photos where we were caught half blinking or looking away from the camera. Perhaps it ran away in fear from the increasingly difficult math problems we had for homework or the gruesome scars etched into our innocent untouched skin after we fell off of our petty tricycles for the first time. Whatever it was, the warmth of that distant sun had won in our childish game of hide-and-seek, perhaps simply because we stopped seeking.
Under the blinding LED tubes illuminating my pallid skin, I watched the stagnant groups of actors arbitrarily deemed a crowd. Their eyes shifted around, algorithmically scanning anyone with a shady black coat, a suspicious face covering, or a hand in their pocket. When asked, they give an empty, practiced laugh to their friends and scoff at the outlandish notion that they were anxious of strangers and harmless phobias, a condescending trait only associated with kids. They hold their unjustified maturity high above their heads, hoping it would impress others a millisecond more with its shallow shine like the artificial LED lights nailed down onto the roof of the station. It was all mindless talk; everyone knew the fake smiles would end once they stepped onto the crowded train in self-isolation.
I took a short puff of my cigarette. The smoke wisped out and dispersed into the night wind.
When I was a child, I was fascinated by cold mornings. Whenever I breathed, a cool mist condensed from water vapor and blended into the morning air. It was magical. I believed I had superpowers, perhaps some sort of ice breath or maybe my mouth was hot enough to breathe fire if I believed hard enough. I remember holding in my breath to warm it up and release the strongest blast of mist anyone has ever seen. I promised myself that, one day, I would fulfill my dreams with these latent powers I have yet to discover; I just needed to grow up to learn them. I wouldn’t become those lame adults that mill around and talk about the same boring subjects all day. I’d be the superhero who usurps this bland world.
Funny how everyone at the station breathed out mist as they talked about boring subjects to each other. They seem to care about perceived appearances more than their mist-breathing superpowers.
I took a hasty puff of my cigarette. It corroded my lungs.
The clock struck 20:00, signalling that in exactly five minutes the train would arrive with its glaring headlights cutting up the blanketing night atmosphere. It seemed that the others were aware of this too. Everyone looked at their watches like a synchronized puppet show. We were scheduled to know the time. After all, it drove our lives.
Like pre-programmed machines, I followed the commands of the alarm clock, walked to the tick of the red second hand, and was dismissed by the ringing of the office bell. I never received rest at home either because the house was but another workplace; this time strictly organized by the silent beeps of microwaves with precooked meals, airing times of gaudy TV shows, and the peer pressure of society. It was the same repetition that played its metronomic tone in a never-ending act until death. I existed in these grayscale days that never ends with me unable to remember what happened an hour ago.
The ephemeral summer days where I played with toy trains and ran through windswept waves of tall grass were now only a painful curse of memory. The false joy of leisure only leads to a corruptive desire to experience the impossible taste of glee again. The sandcastles I constructed on the glimmering white beaches have long been washed away by the tides of time. The photos of a laughing child are now accompanied by tear stains and the smoke of regrets. The small pockets on my favorite childhood jeans I filled with dirt, rocks, and memories had too many holes to hold anything now. The seemingly everlasting joys of childhood are nothing more than tortuous tinnitus in these monotone days that never subside.
They say at intersections of roads, people make fateful choices on where to go. Some call it maturity. Others call it the flow of life. Some clever people decided that the intersection can prove to be a dilemma for morality, whether it’d be a pointless trolley problem of who to kill or an insightful balance of opportunity costs. Others dictate that the 4-way intersections for cars had to be regulated by lifeless stoplights, robotically commanding where people go and what they are allowed to do. The intersections of railroads converged in a maze of rusted iron and graffitied steel containers, nothing like the plastic roller coasters I dreamed up as a child.
Everyone urges you to make a decision: left or right, to execute or to avoid, plan ahead or run in blind, kill one or kill five, blaze your own trail or follow the steps of others. Infinite pressuring decisions present on the interval of every soulless clock tick stressing you to move forward and continue in your own chosen gray misery of perpetual monotony. They all have one commonality: they force you to move and make a decision.
I don’t want to move forward. I want to head back. I want to walk back towards that ideal little dream at the beginning of this splintering, demanding road where my childhood lived with a brightly colored toy train that I can freely push down any plastic rail intersection. I want to experience once again those endless days of unbridled and uncontested pure laughter from the heart that died so long ago. I want to have an adventure every step again, jumping over street cracks to avoid losing in a self-made game of parkour, watching an imaginary man do acrobatics over made-up landscape obstacles from the backseat window of a speeding car, running with joy at the sound of a light drizzle dancing on familiar roof tiles, and sparring with fanciful wands and swords created by makeshift sticks and ample imagination. I wanted to go back to the times when I thought a crow’s dying shrieks were the sweet melodies of a songbird, when the towering clouds distracted me from the grime-covered concrete I walked on, when a friend smiling didn’t evoke irrational jealousy, and when the laughter of my peers wasn’t an insidious sneer.
But I couldn’t. I was as powerless as the misty breath in a cold morning mistaken for superpowers. I can’t walk away from the network of intersecting rails demanding a decision. It was impossible to overcome the laws set by the ticking clock that wouldn't allow me to turn back the hour hand.
I was hopelessly waiting for a train, another one different from the rundown interstate rail I was idly existing for. It was a familiar wooden train with old plastic wheels and paint chipping off. It will take me away from this gray cityscape governed by clocks, towards the iridescent warmth of the summer sun, and to the long-forgotten playground where I once smiled without having to put on a mask of lies. It was ironic then, how I lied to myself about waiting for the train when I already knew that the train I desperately hoped for had already left a long time ago.
I took a final puff of my cigarette. It disintegrated as I coughed and wheezed from its toxic fumes slowly killing my lungs.
A child beside me pinched his nose in disgust at the foul smell of tobacco smoke, hoping that he won’t infect his lungs as I have. It was a futile attempt to preserve his youth. He ran off towards a tattered wall advertisement of a children’s cartoon show where his mother sat and held out a ragtag doll to comfort him. Clutching the worn doll tightly to his chest, he was probably hoping he can find solace in his group of imaginary friends while swearing to himself that he will never end up like me.
The loud thud of metal wheels screeching against iron rails came echoing from the distance. The train arrived on time again, as dictated by my watch. The headlights glared through the night sky, but no one paid it any attention. We have all seen it too many times already that it lacked any novelty worth garnering eyes.
The train wouldn’t stop charging towards me for another minute. It may try to apply brakes but it still had enough inertia to carry the several tons of steel forward for a few hundred meters before coming to a complete stop with the doors properly aligning with the station. Then it would start up again, constantly going around in the same route every day at exact times without needing to make any real decision. It didn’t need to think, it just ran its daily cycle it was mechanically created to do. But now, finally at this moment, it was approaching.
The cold winter wind strangled my bare neck with its soulless hands, urging me to decide. For the first time, it reminded me of the warm embrace of the summer sun.
I walked across the yellow line that constricted me and stepped onto the welcoming rails.