Saturday, March 19, 2016

Strange Girl on the Train, Katy Comber

The Dream House Chronicles, Part 1: Lights Up, Lights Out
by Katy Comber

The 5:05 R5 from Paoli to Philadelphia rattled forward and then shuddered to a stop. Three businessmen stared down at screens and with muscle memory motions minded the gap and found their seats without much of a glance up. An extraordinarily tall, trench-coated man with freckles across his dark nose and a neatly trimmed white beard ducked into the train car behind them with inspective look around at the other R5 travellers. Then, a petite college student with flowing black hair, a girl the businessmen had peripherally eyed appreciatively moments before, skipped on and sat down next to an elderly black woman with a complex knitting project. No one heard the girl whisper to herself, Lights up. 

“Hi!” the girl’s southern draw pronounced the monosyllabic word like a song.  
“Hello.” the woman clipped, “first train ride in Philadelphia?” 
“Yep-- how’d you know?” 
“You are trying to make conversation. People don’t usually do that on the early morning commute when they are regular.” 
“Oh. Well, that’s sad. I’m visiting my sister. She goes to Penn. She’s going to be a doctor…” the girl continued her chipper rambling about her sister until the woman’s blessed stop. It had only been a ten minute ride for the seat-mates, but the woman already knew about Clementine’s sister Frida’s brave venture across the Mason Dixon line and ambitious journey away from their home in Tallywog, Alabama (population 3,015 most of which were somehow related to Clementine). Clementine decided to follow in sister’s footsteps and go for a liberal arts degree at a small college in St. Davids. 
“Good luck, Clementine.” Ellanorah chirped as she packed away her knitting. The car door opened and a uniformed employee appeared to help Ellanorah down the steep stairs to the platform. Clementine’s right hand shot out, and her wide eyes, friendly and warm, indicated that she wished to say a proper Goodbye. Ellanorah shook her head and laughed as she shook Clementine’s hand. What a strange girl. 

As the woman left, a stocky university rugby player named Davis Gibson hopped on and though he had a couple of options for seating, he choose the seat next to the beautiful coed seated three rows from the door. She seemed a bit nervous as she swept her black hair into a neat bun on top of her head. Maybe it was her first train ride, and Davis could make her feel comfortable. She looked like a ballerina. 

“Hey.” He quipped like the greeting was a private joke they shared. His eyes crinkled as he shot the girl his best dimpled smile. 

“Oh! Oh, thank goodness it’s you.” The girl’s heavy French accent and worried expression, took Davis by surprise.

“Do I know you?” he choked back. The senior’s college years of questing after women and accolades had been a blur. This was not the first time a woman recognized him without Davis having a clue about her. 

“No. But can we pretend that you do? Here.” the girl pulled Davis’ arm around her and smiled brilliantly back at him. Her green eyes sparkled with adoration and between her clenched grinning teeth she whispered, “I am being followed.” 

Davis looked around the car. One of the businessmen who had stepped on the train at the same stop as the girl was studying the couple with a dazed and disappointed expression, his left hand’s third finger was slightly indented by an invisible ring. Once Davis caught the man’s eye, he squeezed the French girl protectively, and nodded upward in the man’s direction. The man coughed and put his hand into his coat pocket. Seconds later, the man’s hand reappeared. The golden ring glittered in the light of the rising sun. 

“I see. You’re safe with me, honey.” Davis peered down into the girl’s eyes. Were they really green? Or blue? The fact that he was catching the train back to campus with a gorgeous girl after an awkward one night stand with another flattered Davis. He was the man. “Why do you think this man following you?” 

“I have something in my possession. Something that someone wants.” The girl opened her clutch and presented a flash drive to Davis. “If it gets in the wrong hands…” she gulped. 

“Okay. Okay.” Davis comforted her. Oh, Shit. This is like a effing Bourne movie. Davis couldn’t believe his luck. A beautiful foreign girl, a mission impossible-like scenario, his dreams of being in the FBI one day, this was insane. Adrenaline pumped furiously through Davis’ veins as Daphne explained how her boss Frida Castry helped powerful men obtain secret information. The next stop, Davis’ stop, the businessman lumbered off the train and Daphne shot Davis an appreciative grin. She slipped the flash drive in his pocket along with a business card that was blank except for a phone number in small font and a series of coordinates jotted on the back in red ink. He was to call the number and arrange for a drop off. Davis flushed as the girl pecked him fondly on the cheek and whispered “Au revoir, Davis. You have saved me.” 

The extraordinarily tall man with freckles across his dark nose and neatly trimmed white beard ambled down the aisle to the newly emptied seat by a fresh faced girl letting down the bun that had perched neatly atop her head. She was giggling to herself and jotting down notes into a marbled composition book. 

“This seat taken?” the man asked. 

Startled, but not alarmed by the sight of the looming man as most seemed to be, the girl responded in a cockney accent, “‘Elp yourself.” 

“Are you ready for the day, my friend?” 

“Are you talkin to me? A’right. I guess. I got ‘hree ‘ousees to clean that I’m not quite up for, but a girl’s gotta do, you know?” 

“Well. A housekeeper. That’s a respectable position. Good hard work. I’m guessing your wages are… under the table?” The girl blinked in response. “Maybe you could help me. I have a job that requires a woman of your stature. In fact, you’re the perfect height…”

“Look mate, I’m not that kind---” 

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. You’re beautiful, and as helpful as that is-- no. I’m a magician, you see.” The man produced a card from behind the girl’s ear. “And I’m in need of someone to, uh, distract the audience and fit in small spaces.” 

The girl laughed. “This has been the best train ride of me life.” The man looked down at her curiously. “Nothin’ forget it. Yeah, yeah, that sound ‘ight up me alley. Give me the address to your shop and I’ll do me best.” 

The train stopped, and the man got up. “This is me. Here. This address. 3:00.”  The man tossed an origami swan into the girl’s lap, ducked his head, and hopped down the stairs of the train before the girl glanced down at the intricately folded card in her lap. As she unfolded the card, a familiar address uncovered before her eyes, and she began to laugh. 
*****

Three church bells chimed down the street from 443 East North Street. The brick building towered and cast its shadow over the girl curiously observing its gothic structure. Frida Starling breathed deeply and opened the door. Voices shouted and whooped in the direction of a winding staircase marked “Stage Entrance.” A bewildered Davis paced before her in the lobby of the theater. 

“Daphne! You’re here! The woman on the phone told me to come to this theater, but no one knows--” Davis stopped short as Frida grinned at him. “This. This. Was a joke?” he sputtered and cursed. 

“I’m not Daphne. My name’s Frida actually. And, I promise. I’ll explain everything,” Frida’s speech rang clear and her Daphne accent was gone. She grabbed Davis’ right hand and shook it. “You, my friend, have saved my life. You have no idea.” Instead of dropping the boy’s hand, Frida pulled him along in the direction of the stage and swiped the flash drive from his pocket without the boy realizing a thing. As Davis looked around, he noticed a couple of other chagrinned and bewildered people standing awkwardly behind a group of loud and exuberant actors telling tales about The Grand Preliminary Exam and the mysterious instructor who had assigned the task. 

“Everyone! Take a seat. Except for you three. Thank you for participating and your service. Here.” A small woman appeared dressed as a magician’s assistant. She handed Davis and the two other guests a program for an upcoming show with two free tickets attached. The woman smiled brilliantly and the three men looked dumbfounded in response. It was a promotion? For a theater company. Interact with some actors and get tricked into coming for a play? “You may exit from the back of the stage; the doors will lock behind you.” 

Davis looked around at the other two non-actors. They were being dismissed by the booming voice in the shadows of the audience. Frida caught Davis’ eye and shrugged apologetically as he trudged away. Then she turned and squinted through the stage lights to see a familiar form rise up to stand as Davis and the others shuffled upstage toward the back theater exit. An extraordinarily tall man with freckles across his dark nose and a neatly trimmed beard strolled to the stage. 

As the victims of an apparently harmless grifting exercise/theater promotion walked behind the curtain, the three men strolled silently to the stage door that emptied into the alley behind the theater, and then Davis stopped. He touched the inside of his pocket. No flash drive. Duped and infuriated, he felt as though he deserved more of an explanation. The other two seemed oddly fine with the adventure they’d already experienced. They also seemed relieved to go back to normalcy. 

The two strangers looked back and waved off the boy who couldn’t just let it go as Davis swooped back through the door before it closed. Locks clicked behind Davis as he crept in the direction of the rafters. Once he climbed into position, he peered down at the tallest man Davis had ever seen. He could see Frida sitting in the front row and jiggling her foot in wild anticipation.

“Welcome. All of you. Welcome agents, to your training. Six of you completed the first task; implant information into a civilian with a simple story about Tallywog, Alabama. Four of you were successful planting the flash drives and retrieving them with the information they captured at the assigned coordinates. But, only three of you completed the third assignment. Those of you who failed to bring a civilian today step onto the stage.” Four nervous agents slinked forward and took their places onto the wooden platform. As they stood, the man paced behind them. “These are the people who failed,” one of the men let out a groan, the woman next to him began to whimper, and the tall man continued, “Failure is not an option.” 

“Failure is not an option.” The remaining class in the audience chanted back. 

Davis squinted. Something, or things, had risen from the floor and began to crawl up the legs of the four men and women who had not completed their mission. The screams pierced upward. 

“When agents fail, they are no longer welcome in the program,” the man continued as the former agents dropped to the ground. The man whistled and the pitter-patter of ambling creatures clicked across the stage to the man. The creatures looked up expectantly at their master. One of the eight-legged creatures licked a drop of blood from its tiny fang. The man pointed to his foot and the creatures raced to obey and sit by the extraordinarily large boot. The boot raised and stomped the creatures into dust. They had served their purpose. The four agents who lay collapsed on the floor crumbled into dust just as the creatures who bit them. A small, hunched-back woman scrambled onto the stage and swept the all ashes into a dust bin and then lurched away to complete other housekeeping duties. Davis noticed something familiar about the old woman. Her ragged dress, it looked as though it had been a dazzling uniform of a… The magician’s assistant, but that… that was impossible. 

Frida and the other two agents watched, expressionless. As Davis peered down, he wondered how the woman who had looked so lovingly into his eyes hours before could be so remote. Frida felt the eyes of the stranger she had conned on the train. She looked in his direction and blew him a kiss. Her smile was one of Daphne’s, beautiful and fragile. The smile was her parting gift as something flew in Davis’ direction. With her kiss, Frida unleashed a flying bite with its gentle blow. The eight-legged creature, a baby compared to the others who premiered before him, landed softly on Davis’ neck. And as an enamored Davis grinned his best dimpled, eye-crinkling smile back at the lovely Frida, the creature began to eat. 


Lights out. 

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