“All aboarddd!” The conductor drug out the final syllable with a dramatic flourish.
Darkness still hung in the sky. The sun had yet to make its appearance, and in the star’s absence, bright, garish streetlights illuminated the parking lot and loading platform, reflected off the train, and cast a long shadow from the conductor. Sleepy-eyed passengers shuffled to the open door like a group of zombies converging on a meal, train tickets wearily grasped in their hands. One by one they handed their tickets to the conductor, who ripped off the removable tops with a smile and cheerful greeting.
“Good morning, Mr. Matthews,” said the conductor, his enthusiasm insulting this early in the day.
“Mornin,” grunted Mr. Matthews, offering his ticket.
The conductor took it with a theatrical sweep of his hand, careful not to graze Mr. Matthews as he did so, and scanned the contents.
“Alright, Mr. Matthews. It looks like you’ll be sitting in 12A this morning.” The conductor ripped off the top and handed the ticket back. “Enjoy your ride.”
“Thanks.” When had they started assigning seats?
One step. Two steps. Mr. Matthews stood in the narrow aisle of the train, eyes squinted against the bright interior lights. Blue faded carpet. Rows of forward-facing gray vinyl fabric chairs that promised to be uncomfortable. The smell of hand sanitizer. Seats 1A and 1B were to his immediate left, identifying numbers labeled crispy on the edge of the overhead baggage rack. When had they started numbering the seats?
He trudged towards the back, passing glances at the passengers already seated.
2A. An elderly woman in a black mourner’s gown. Her eyes were closed, mouth agape with a sliver of drool hanging precariously from the edge.
4C and 4D. Two college-age boys with deep bags under their eyes, phones in hand and earbuds firmly inserted.
7B. A small girl by herself. She kicked her legs back and forth, feet far from the floor, as she stared out the window. Where were her parents?
9C. An attractive middle-aged woman with sharp features and long dirty-blonde hair done up in a bun. She wore cargo pants and a loose-fitting long-sleeve t-shirt. A bulging, orange hiking backpack occupied 9D. She glanced up at his approach and Mr. Matthews quickly returned his gaze down the aisle. Green eyes.
12A. Empty and ordinary.
12B. Full and extraordinary.
Mr. Matthews stood staring perplexed, his tongue darting over his cracked lips, throat suddenly dry.
In 12B's seat, cans and bottles stretched towards the ceiling, perilously stacked atop one another like some unfathomably balanced, malformed Jenga tower. And even though some of the containers faced away from him, Matthews knew what the contents of all of them were. The shapes, colors, names, and logos were all familiar, his longest standing friends gathered in one place for a surprise reunion.
Beer. IPAs. Seltzers. Vodka. Whiskey. Tequila, rum, gin, wine, cider, sake. Top shelf, bottom shelf, tap. Everyone was in attendance. Was this a sick joke? He looked back towards the entrance; other passengers were heading his way with shuffling steps and heads bowed. Apparently no one else’s seats had been tampered with, or at least they weren’t making a fuss about it. Mr. Matthews decided to take a seat. Better to unobstruct the aisle, don’t cause a scene, and then speak with the conductor once they came onboard.
But the conductor never entered. The stream of onboarding passengers subsided and as the last one took their seat, the door to outside slid closed.
Mr. Matthews glanced across the aisle to 12C and 12D. A middle-aged man in a wrinkled blue suit with his head titled back against the headrest. Nothing but a plain, weathered briefcase occupied the seat next to him. Staring at the man, Mr. Matthews realized with a start he didn’t have any luggage with him. Had he forgotten it in his car? The train let out a blaring whistle and began to inch forward. Too late now.
Mr. Matthews leaned forward to gain a view out the window past the obstructing tower of drinks. Immediately outside the window, in a patch of groomed grass, lay a red sedan flipped onto its top, roof caved in. Shattered glass encircled it like fallen stars. The back tires still spun tiredly, exhausted runners on their last leg of a race. Not far from the car lay an orange hiking backpack, a warning cone to the accident. The car's paint looked blood red in the grim, early dawn lighting.
The train continued onward, unbothered by Mr. Matthews' mounting concerns, and the accident disappeared from his view. Mr. Matthews sat back against his seat, sweat forming in his armpits, the beginning of a headache tapping inside his skull. He gulped, tongue darting out, right hand twitching.
The neck of a bottle protruded towards 12A like a tempting rip cord, somehow its base pinned between two vertically upright cans.
Maybe just one drink.