On the Rails, Off the Rails

by Elias Keller

The Quiet Car of the early afternoon train to New York wasn’t crowded. There were plenty of isolated seats. But when the train paused at New Brunswick station, he sat down beside me, trapping me between him and the window.

"On the Rails, Off the Rails"

This is exactly why I don’t like my photo on book jackets.

I opened the newspaper pages wide as the train lumbered forward. All I wanted to do was read the Times, look out the window, and let my imagination wander. And for a few stops my uninvited seatmate didn’t say anything. But as we pulled away from Metropark I felt him shift in his seat and heard him clear his throat.

“You’re—you’re Chloe Anne Masterson, right?”

***

This is not happening. This is not happening.

Annabel rushed down the steep metal steps of the train and out into the wintry air. The lanky man had a ticket to the terminus of the route—she’d seen it, in big bold letters: TRENTON. But he’d gotten off two stops early, at Princeton Junction. Her stop. And as they’d detrained, he’d kept pace so close behind her that she felt his breath on her tubular neck.

Just get the fuck out of here!

photo for New Pop Lit story

She scurried off the platform, looking for a security guard, but at one o’clock in the morning the parking lot was eerily empty, except for twinkling mounds of icy snow that’d been plowed to the corners. She walked briskly, almost trotting, until she reached her silver sedan with relief and plunged her bony hand into the pocket of her puffy winter coat—

Two sharp jingles rang out behind her like cymbal crashes in the still night. Annabel whirled around.

No no no no no no—

The man who’d followed her off the train was holding her keys.

And grinning.

***

“I’m Fred—Frederick. Frederick Arnolds.” He smiled at me, showing a gap where one of his front molars would have been.

“Nice to meet you,” I whispered, still looking at a political cartoon.

The train made its stop at Rahway Station.

“I really liked your last Annabel Lee book,” he offered.

“Thank you,” I answered. “I’m glad to hear that.”

Frederick Arnolds took a long, nervous swallow. “I write thrillers, too.

I was hardly shocked at this coincidence and thought again about how much I disliked my face being on so many book flaps.

“I mean, not like you,” my seatmate went on. “But I have a novel out. Red Blood Rising. That’s—that’s the title.”

Speaking very softly, I said I was sorry, I hadn’t heard of it, there were so many books. “Who published it?”

“It’s—independently published. But it’s available online.” He spoke rapidly and his voice rose. And it was reviewed by—”

I nodded toward the Quiet Car sign and Frederick Arnolds, looking startled and embarrassed, stopped talking.

***

Annabel stood up straight and looked steadily at the man. An overhead light in the parking lot illuminated his dusty leather jacket, baggy black jeans, and green ski cap. Her keys still dangled from his hand in the frigid air.

He pickpocketed you.

And now he wants more than his hand inside your pocket.

There was only one road leading out of the parking lot and he was blocking that. Surrounding the lot otherwise was the woods. She had no chance in raw combat, but she did run three miles a day.

“My friend was supposed to give me a lift,” the man drawled. “But he ain’t showed up. So how about you give me a ride? Seein’ as I found your keys and all.”

“I’m sorry,” Annabel said genially. “I really have to get home.”

He smiled wide to show a black hole between his left canine tooth and his molar. “No rush, darling.”

Fucker! She felt capable of ending his life if she had the chance.

No, not just capable of.

Desirous to.

Annabel reached in her pocket. Maybe she could she get far enough away from him to call 911 and then stay away until the police came.

He shook his head and made a tsk-tsk sound. “Now don’t do that.”

91-164-Q_KNIFE,_SURVIVAL,_USN,_PILOT

She noticed for the first time a knife handle peeking out from the rim of his boot.

***

As a handful of passengers boarded at Elizabeth Station, Frederick Arnolds rummaged in his overstuffed backpack. I don’t mean to impose,” he said, “but—would you be interested in reading my book? I have a copy.”

I glanced over, sighing inaudibly. “Thank you, but I just have so much to read, I don’t know when I’d get to it.

Oh, well, no rush. It would just be an honor to

“Thank you anyway,” I said, folding the newspaper crisply and looking out the window at the stark branches of a passing forest.

***

Do it! Now!

Annabel bolted across the parking lot, toward the woods, her heart pumping like she’d already run ten miles, realizing that her morning runs would never be the same after literally running for her life.

Soon after she plunged into the woods, her woolen cap fell off and she felt wintry air rush through her wavy blond hair. The man chased and called after her. He didn’t sound very far away.

Don’t trip don’t trip don’t trip—

Suddenly a branch hit her thick eyeglasses with a thwap. Annabel cried out involuntarily, stupidly, alerting him to her location—and giving her an idea.

***

The train rumbled away from Secaucus Junction and toward the bowels of Manhattan. People started standing up to fill the aisle.

“It was nice to talk to you,” Frederick Arnolds said.

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the sprawling skyline. When I stood up a few minutes later, he did too.

I don’t mean to bother, but—is it—would it be possible to maybe get in touch with you sometime? Maybe for some writerly advice, or—”

***

Annabel grabbed a thick stick and held it tight in her right hand. Then she pulled back the twangy branch and waited until she heard leaves crunching under the man’s boots.

As soon as she saw the green ski cap Annabel released the branch. Thwap! Not right in the eyes as she’d wanted, but he still cried out and grabbed at his forehead.

Fucker! Fucker!

Her first swing, a two-handed backhand harkening back to her college tennis days, hit him square in the temple and brought him to his knees. Then a savage forehand to the bridge of his nose drew blood and toppled him to his side.

Don’t give him a chance.

She clubbed his head with the thick stick until he was still. Then Annabel snatched her car keys out of his pocket and pulled out her phone. She dialed a 9 and one 1 before she caught her breath and stopped.

cellphone at night

He knows your train stop. He’ll come for you again. Or someone else.

Annabel looked down at the handle of the knife in his boot. Then she put her phone back in her pocket.

Do it now and never speak of it. Not to anyone.

Do it now.

***

I pretended I didn’t hear his question over the din of the exodus at New York Penn Station. But Frederick Arnolds stuck doggedly close on the platform and rode shoulder-to-shoulder with me up the escalator.

penn sta escalator

At least I wasn’t alone with him. Imagine that.

“Ms. Masterson, would it be possible—”

It was nice to meet you,” I answered as we emerged into the crowded atrium, where he just about sideswiped a little boy in order to stay near me. I have to get going, though. Good luck with the novel.”

I turned away from Frederick Arnolds and his wounded expression. Then I walked away briskly, almost trotting, until I was out of the station and inside the waiting car sent by my publisher.

Yes, indeed. Imagine that.

Penn_Station_NYC_main_entrance
*******

Elias Keller has published fiction in Pif, FewerThan500, The 3288 Review, Atlas+Alice, Oblong, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Wordhaus, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, and elsewhere. He grew up in Philadelphia and currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com

 

 

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