The raindrop-freckled window chills Evie’s right arm, even through her jacket. But she’s lopsided: her left side is warm because a man is leaning against her. When the man first leaned in, it wasn’t against her so much as away from the passengers who were sweeping through the aisle as they left the train. When they were gone, he would apologize and lean away.
Except he didn’t. Evie frowned and told herself he must be asleep and that’s why he won’t move, he doesn’t know what he’s doing because he must be asleep; and a sleeping stranger can’t hurt me.
She pressed closer to the window. A moment’s disengagement from him calmed her heartbeat, but soon his shoulder bumped hers again like a friend’s teasing jostle. Awake and alert, the man brought out his phone and laughed at something on it. The screen was tilted slightly toward her and Evie averted her gaze.
“Sorry,” she says finally. It’s best to preface these sorts of things with an apology just in case. “Sorry, you’re leaning on me a bit there, do you mind if…?”
He pulls away, apologizing but not as vehemently as she is. In two minutes, he’s back — the set of his shoulders and jaw suggests to Evie that asking him again would incite unpleasantness beyond this. So she bites her tongue and presses her lips together. It isn’t as though he’s hurting her. He hasn’t really — well, he hasn’t done anything, exactly, other than making her body temperature uneven and taking up her space and filling her with a thrumming fear.
But she’s riding to the very end of the line. More likely than not, he’ll leave before she does. She just has to last until then. This will be a funny story later — “and I was like ‘okay pal can you like… hold yourself up if that’s maybe not too much trouble?’” she’ll say, making herself out to be some sort of eye-rolling Atlas and the man a harmless dumbass. And her friends will laugh, mostly out of relief. She just has to last until later comes.
So Evie curls away from the man as much as possible and shifts her tote bag to make a barrier between their legs. She leans her head against the window, relishing the skull-scrambling vibration. Outside, the cityscape rolls past, all high-rises backlit by a fog-wreathed sunset and lined at the bottom by the ocean beyond. Evie’s breath has steamed up the window. She draws back to doodle on the self-created canvas, then remembers the man and stops. Scramble scramble scramble. Finals season is not the time to do this to one’s brains, come to think of it, but really what choice does she have?
The girl sitting in front has giant headphones on. Red thread chokes the girl’s fingertips, then slips from them, then dances above and between her knuckles.
Behind Evie may or may not be the hipster couple from earlier and their worried-looking third wheel, but she can’t hear the three boys’ cheerful Spanglish anymore and she doesn’t want to turn around and dispel their presence irrevocably. If they are behind her, they can see her, and maybe they’ll help her. If they’ve left…
The girl in front, though, her presence is confirmed.
Evie could touch her.
Just a little tap on the shoulder to ask her, polite as you please, for rescue from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A bubble of nervous laughter dribbles out at the boring-funny nickname. She wants to cover her mouth but that would mean movement, and if she moves the man might think she’s jostling him back, reciprocating, inviting, asking. And what then?
Evie resolves to do nothing to draw his attention and sneezes thrice even as she finishes the thought. He glances at her, smiling.
Is it safer to smile back or safer not to? Her nose saves her from deciding when it begins to run. Shoulders relaxing, she digs through her bag for tissue, able to breathe in the air the search forces between her and the man.
In her bag are her study supplies, wallet, a stress ball that has never done anything for her stress and a sketchbook that has, even if all the drawings in it are all perpetual halfway-theres. Also, a candy cane — could she lick it to a knife’s point without the man noticing? — and a stolen/borrowed pomander still smelling faintly of spice and citrus, probably from Lin’s party. Band-Aids and three bottles of hand sanitizer. Her lip-balm’s missing, typical. Her tissue’s missing, odd.
She startles. The man laughs and holds up a tissue from a cute orange travel pack. She takes it and smiles this time and thanks him and presses herself into the window and waits to see if the tissue is chloroform-laced, if she’ll wake up elsewhere. Are Schrödinger’s passengers still behind her? Were they ever?
Red flashes through the fingers of the girl in front, and she bobs her head either to her hands’ rhythm or to her music, and she is blissfully unaware of everything else, even though Evie blows her nose extra-loud. Contrary to the usual, Evie does not follow-up the nose-blowing with a douse of hand sanitizer. Instead, she entertains a fantasy wherein she whips towards the man and tells him off and flips him off and hits him, while the girl in front applauds and plays an appropriate battle ballad on her headphones.
This is not what happens. Instead the man gets closer in a thousand ways and the girl in front loops string in her hands and Evie imagines herself brave, though not before imagining herself a world where this sort of bravery wouldn’t be needed.
She calls a friend and talks about the unimportant — her sudden craving for comfort foods, the pros and cons of investing in martial arts classes — to let the man know there are people who would notice her absence or injury. She’s rummaging through her bag, the waxy wrapping of the Band-Aids soothing her fingertips, though not as much as a makeshift weapon would.
The girl in front stands.
Evie wrenches herself to her feet though it is not her stop.
The man stands, but she doubts it’s his stop, either. The man and the girl in front get off the train and Evie is right behind them until she ducks into another seat, below anyone’s line of sight.
The doors close with a pneumatic hiss and the train speeds off into the night. Evie’s still crouching, heart hammering north of her ribcage. A smile lifts her lips but guilt clogs her throat: the man got out at the same station as the girl in front, and because Evie never mentioned anything being wrong, the girl in front doesn’t know about him. The girl in front is alone and unknowing and her music was so very loud and she will hear nothing if the man sneaks up on her.
Evie lets out a breath, closing her eyes. The girl in front has string and skillful fingers. Perhaps she will be forced to use these.
Perhaps nothing will happen at all.
There’s really no way to tell.
Evie opens her eyes, shakes her head and stands back up. Kneading hand sanitizer into her palms, she disembarks at the next stop and rides back on a new train. This time of night, transfer buses take a while to come to the stop Evie’s fellow passengers got out at. The girl in front will still be waiting for one of these buses, and she should have somebody safe to wait with, somebody whose phone works, somebody to lean on.