The express was crowded during the morning rush. But even when the cars were half full, these passengers continued to stand, pressed into the dark corners of the train. They never talked or listened to music or browsed their phones or flipped through a book. They simply stared out across the tide of weary commuters.
They watched Jim, who biked to the station in his reflective blue jacket and sports pack so as to be seen in the dim morning light; they watched Mary, the tenured college professor permanently wrapped in bundles of scarves; and they watched Corey, who continually struggled to lasso his two screaming toddlers into the overcrowded seats. Night and day, morning and evening, on every trip, in every car, they were there, watching us all.
Their blank stares clawed into me like an unpleasant itch. It was unnerving to meet their gaze. Usually when you lock eyes with a stranger on a train or a pedestrian in a city you look away, almost instinctively, as if you’ve made some offense. These odd beasts ignored the unspoken rules of social propriety. They gawked and stared and judged without consideration for others. More than once I witnessed a fellow passenger challenge the scrutiny of those dead eyes, only to see that individual shiver and blanch.
I had considered driving, but I would rather catch up on work or sleep for forty-five minutes than battle my fellow man for an hour in traffic. Besides, living within walking distance from the train station, my wife and I had traded in both our individual coupes for a compact SUV when our second little girl was born. My wife needed the car and I had insisted I did not. We had made our bed together and I wanted to continue to sleep in it.
As a creature of habit, I sat in the same crowded car day after day, the third one from the back of the train. I would see familiar faces, like Jim and Mary and Corey, the types of individuals I sort of knew from briefly chatting together while waiting on the station platform. For the most part, however, the faces of my fellow riders bled together, a mass of humanity caught in a somnolent routine.
The three peculiar individuals roosting at the ends of my car stood out beyond their lack of etiquette. The dark pits of their expressionless eyes made their pale faces ghoulish. Both of the impeccably clean-shaven men were dressed in dusky trench coats and matching fedoras. Double-Windsor knots choked their sallow necks; their dress shirts were muddied yellow under the car’s fluorescent lights. The sole woman wore a long black fur coat; its fibers seemed to sway to some unheralded, unfelt wind. She fashioned a deep red lipstick reminiscent of the shade my grandmother wore well before I was born, the type of crimson that always shines through in long faded pictures.
Occasionally, a fourth individual haunted us. Tall and dressed as anachronistically as the others, this frightening ghoul’s immaculately trimmed ash white hair and steel grey eyes boasted the entitled air of an executive accustomed to getting his way. This corporate general stalked the length of the train, silently pushing past his fellow straphangers with leather-gloved hands. His pallid eyes frowned down upon every individual with the weighty appraisal one reserves for life changing decisions.
I had great alarm as to what those decisions were.
To say the situation became unnerving was an understatement. I always harbored a fear of being mugged while on public transportation; one never knew where criminals lurked, scoping out potential targets. Most of us folks commuting into the city were well off. We could afford the high housing prices and property taxes that came with living in the affluent suburbs. Each of us brandished the latest phones and laptops and wore five-hundred dollar coats to protect against the winter’s cold. We were soft, plush, and complacent. We were easy targets.
I was a target.
But I was no longer complacent.
Nothing had yet to happen, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t. The soulless hoards of dark eyes and ghastly faces were up to something, I was sure of it. There was no other explanation.
One morning, I was chatting with Jim when I felt the hollow gazes of the men and woman at the end of the car weigh upon me. I asked Jim if he had noticed them as well.
“Yeah,” Jim gave a short sniffle and blew his nose. “And they give me the creeps.”
“I was thinking of reporting them to the conductors,” I said.
“They won’t do anything,” Jim scoffed. “They can’t kick people off the train just for being weird.”
He sniffled again and went on to say that each train, like an airplane, had a marshal stationed by the locomotive. Sometimes, the marshal would walk up and down the cars to scope things out.
“After all this time,” Jim said. “If that marshal suspected these weirdoes were up to something, he’d have taken action. I mean,” Jim coughed, “I don’t want to say I’d jump at someone just because they were a little different, but yeah, if I felt something was even a little off—hell, if the government gives you the power, you better—“
He stopped. A gloveless hand rested on his shoulder. I looked up to see the grey-eyed man looming over my fellow passenger. The old executive acted as if he had lost his balance due to a lurch in the train’s momentum. Though I may have been mistaken, I had not felt the slightest tremor until my nerves began to quake under the man’s unyielding gaze.
“My apologies.” His voice scraped like gravel over sandpaper. It wasn’t the authoritative tone of a high-powered executive. If anything, it was apologetic; weak and roughened to the point of being sympathetic. But his pale grey eyes were anything but. They held fast, judging us both. I had to turn away before I did something foolish.
“Not a worry,” Jim said, and I turned back to see him helping the man stand back up. “You want to sit down?”
I wanted to shake Jim and ask him what madness possessed him to ask such a question.
Luckily, I didn’t have to. The old man waved his hand to indicate he was fine. He continued his walk down the aisle and after a few steps gave an almost imperceptible nod to the black-clad passengers lurking at the end of the car.
“Did you see that?” I whispered to Jim.
“See what?” Jim rubbed his shoulder where the grey-eyed man had touched him. I realized the old man had not been wearing his customary gloves; he had touched Jim with his bare hands. I could only wonder at the horrors of what this meant.
“Man was heavier than he looked,” Jim wheezed.
“He nodded to those other ones down the end of the train,” I said.
Jim looked up toward where the pasty-faced man and woman stared down the length of the train, not specifically looking at us, but not not looking at us either.
“I think you’ve got a case of the conspiracy theories, my friend,” Jim chuckled, then blew his nose again. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get some rest before I crawl into work.”
Jim shut his eyes and soon snored away. I spent the rest of my commute looking out the window, trying and failing to ignore the dark eyeballs I knew were boring into my skull.
I didn’t see Jim on our commute the next day nor the day after. My thoughts harbored on the old executive’s naked hand, his nearly translucent skin. I couldn’t help but wonder if my commuting buddy had suffered some ill misfortune at the hands of the ghoulish strangers.
On the third morning of Jim’s absence, I resolved to track down the train’s marshal. Much to the chagrin of my fellow passengers, I snaked through the train’s crowded aisles toward the front of the train. I discovered the marshal reading a newspaper outside the engineer’s platform. I relayed my suspicions about the odd entities that skulked at the ends of each car.
“I’ll talk to them,” he said. “Just give me a few minutes.”
I left him to his paper and, hopefully, to his duties. Leaving the car, a gruesome beast in a charcoal duster glared at me. His eyes locked onto mine as I hurried past him to the relative safety of the next car.
Ten minutes later, the marshal passed down the aisle of my car. Peering over the lip of my e-reader, I spied the marshal talking to a black-clad man and woman. They were both older, past the high point of middle age, heavyset, unseasonably pale, and evidently married long enough that they had started to look like one another. The couple appeared quite confused by the marshal’s initial bequests and very upset when the conversation was finished.
The marshal moved on to the next car and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I suppose I had unrealistically half-hoped the marshal would apprehend the dozen or so freaks peppered throughout the train. Still, it seemed like the stern talking to by that marshal had the desired effect. For the rest of that ride, and later on my journey back home, the eyes of those strange passengers stared at nothing but the floor.
The following day twice as many strangers crowded the train. Their dark clothing swallowed the exit of each passage in shadow. Their unblinking eyes assessed the ocean of commuters with blank reservation. More than a few of my fellow suburbanites shuddered as they were caught in the soulless gazes.
Risking the chance of being called the man who cried wolf, I rose from my seat to search out the marshal once again. I pardoned and sorry’d my way to the door where the huddled black mass of sallow-faced wretches blocked my escape.
“Excuse me,” I said, working up the courage to be polite while avoiding their dead-eyed gazes.
Not a one of the strangers moved.
“I’d like to get through,” I said again.
I stepped forward and, for a moment, I thought that my second request would be as unsuccessful as the first. Then, the two largest of the men, the two who happened to be directly in front of the door, moved apart like stone gates on rusted hinges. I slipped through the narrow passage, opened the door and escaped to the enclosed space between cars.
As soon as I was free, the metal door snapped shut behind me. A lock clicked. I checked the door, but it was fastened shut. The door to the next car was also locked. Two other black-clad ghouls blocked its window, the same man and woman I had witnessed the marshal question the day before. I knocked on the glass and shouted for them to let me in. The woman turned toward me and I recoiled in horror. Something under her skin crawled, an unseen worm burrowing under the pasty flesh, wriggling up her jawline and disappearing beneath her doughy cheek. The black irises of her eyes caught mine. A chill struck my spine. My lungs tightened like a drowning man’s. My stomach dropped several inches and my heart twisted in my throat. I tried to force myself to turn away but couldn’t. Her gaze froze me in place. All I could do was stare back.
The lock on the door clicked and I had control over my body once again. The woman slid the door open for me. Without saying a word of thanks, I raced past her toward the locomotive.
Each doorway proved similarly obstructed by the uncommunicative and unaccommodating ghouls. I saw none of their skin crawl as that woman’s had, but I also admit that I dared not look too hard, for I was wildly fearful of getting caught in another helpless trance and never getting out.
By the time I reached the last car, the train had arrived at our destination. I was forced to wait for the stream of passengers to exit before I could finally conclude my quest to talk to the marshal. He was nowhere to be found. I checked every car and the entire length of the platform, but the marshal had disappeared. I hailed a member of the station’s security team and filed a report regarding the strange passengers and what I had witnessed, sans the woman’s crawling skin. The security officer undoubtedly thought I was a crackpot, but given the state of the nation with regards to potential terrorist groups, he promised me that he would look into it.
Despite his assurances, I was extremely hesitant about riding home that evening. I called my wife and asked if she could pick me up, but both of my daughters were sick and my wife was unable and unwilling to make the two-hour-plus round trip with vomiting children. Searching for an excuse to prolong my stay in the city, I discovered that it was one of my workmate’s birthdays and, usually not able to imbibe because of family commitments, I hopped at this opportunity to delay my return trip.
After several rounds of drinks, I was barely on time to catch the last train home. Settling in, I noticed my usual car was bereft of any gruesome miscreants. I considered that my police report had possibly made a difference and, after setting my phone’s alarm clock, I closed my eyes to nap off my mild inebriation.
When I awoke, the car was empty. Fearing that I had missed my stop, I checked my phone only to discover that my battery had died. Outside my window, the night’s landscape raced by in an indefinable blur of shadow and moonlight. I watched for any recognizable landmarks but failed to make sense of any sight or shape.
Looking back over the train car, I realized it was not as empty as I had first thought. A solitary man sat a few rows ahead of me, his face turned away so that I only saw the neatly trimmed line of his white head of hair. The porter was nowhere to be seen, so I thought it best to ask the man where exactly we were.
I stood up then immediately sat back down. The distinct wool hat was missing, but a glimpse of the hardened pallor and the great black overcoat was all I needed to recognize the grey-eyed man. The lights in the car flickered and dimmed and the abyss of his coat swallowed it all. When the lights buzzed back on the man with the grey eyes had turned around. His lips curled to what might have been a smile.
He rose from his seat and I wished I could have done the same thing, but he locked eyes with me and my body froze much as it had with the doughty woman earlier that day. The old man held my gaze and my heart stopped beating for several seconds as he eased his ancient body down next to me.
“How has your ride been?” he asked in that thin, gravelly voice. His pale eyes scanned me up and down, appraising me, peering into my thoughts and weighing my soul. Frozen and defenseless, I felt like prey trapped before a kill and half expected fangs to sprout from beneath his smiling lips. Something moved under his skin, crawling across his brow, snaking from one temple to the other. I had never wanted to close my eyes or turn away from something more than at that moment, but no matter how much I willed myself, I could not move one muscle.
His thin lips parted and the muscles in his jaw twitched and squirmed. “I’ve seen you here many times,” he continued. “Do you like the train?” His cold eyes bore deeper into me and I could still not foster a response even though he evidently wanted one. My mind raced with thoughts of escape, though I could do nothing but sit and stare and listen. His coat pulled in all the light around us, and I felt that if I didn’t do something soon, I too would be sucked into that never-ending void.
“I know you see things and you wonder.” His voice held a deep menace and I feared the worst. The lights flickered and in the darkness I saw those other ghoulish passengers, those I now determined to be the subjects of this gothic crypt keeper. Their ghostly visages swarmed around me until the lights reclaimed their brightness and they disappeared, leaving the old man and me alone once again.
The steady click-clack of the train wheels rumbled on into the infinite darkness beyond the windows. I thought I must be dead or dying, that something had happened, somehow, that perhaps I had been mugged and killed on the train in my inebriated state, that I was now headed down into the depths of beyond with this grey-eyed fiend as my conductor. Faint screams clawed against my eardrums, cries for help reaching out from the monstrous chasms hidden beyond the old man’s black cloak and ashen mask. I thought of Jim and his own sudden disappearance from the train. I wondered if what became of him was now happening to me.
I finally found the courage to speak and asked about Jim. The waxen masque of the old man’s skin wriggled as that gruesome facsimile of a smile once again creased his lips.
“Don’t worry about him.” His words scratched into my ears. “You’re only here so that you may know.”
“Am I dead?”
The smile stayed locked on the grey-eyed man’s face as his lips scraped apart.
David Charpentier is an educational media producer and visual artist who has written for online magazines such as Popmatters.com. His short stories have appeared in college and online journals, and his pop-culture essays appear in a variety of textbooks, most recently, “Reading Pop Culture” in Bedford/St. Martins. He is also an independent film producer; his most recent feature, “Money,” premiered in theaters and on Netflix. Follow him on Twitter.