Judgment Day: Part 1
Rush hour in DC, Red Line to the suburbs. Daryl opened his eyes as the subway doors slid open, the driver’s garbled voice announcing the station and destination. He was in the last seat on the train, behind tinted plastic, trying to separate himself from his fellow commuters. The train was full of impassive faces and searching eyes staring at the chilly spring evening outside. A steady rain fell, running down the windows and soaking the red-brown tiles of the station platform. Looking through the doors, he met a man’s eyes. A mousy accountant type, standing oblivious in the rain, staring right back at him. The platform looked abandoned, which was unusual, even for the late rush hour. He held the gaze for a moment, then looked away, uncomfortable. When he looked up again, he jerked back into his seat as the man was taken to the ground by a cop, a scene that belonged on TV or in movies. The two of them vanished beneath the windows as the chimes rang and the doors closed. He turned in his seat and watched the station fall into the distance as the train pulled away, a swarm of police converging on the man and no one else in sight on the platform. Then the scene was gone. The station a rapidly fading island of light along a dark corridor through the city.
The driver’s voice came through the PA, the electric purr of acceleration turning it into an unnatural, alien growl. Daryl knew the words: Next stop, Silver Spring. First stop in the state of Maryland. An announcement he heard everyday; something unchanging. No explanation of what had just happened. Why bother? The driver might not have even seen it. It was a world of warnings and fear, but no actual explanations.
Silver Spring was the last above-ground station before the train plunged into tunnels beneath the suburbs. That was the hardest part of the trip, when the scenery went away. Even on a rainy night, the ride home seemed a little bit faster when there were lights and buildings and roads to stare at. The living, breathing city right out there and accessible from any stop, flowing by at 60 miles an hour. But down there in the tunnels, the windows became mirrors, broken only by lights that seemed weak against the well-lit, climate controlled cocoons blasting past. Daryl’s own tired eyes were reflected right back at him down there, and he didn’t always like what he saw. His stop was at the end of the line, the end of every workday spent in the dark tunnels with all these soulless commuters shuffling out of the train and pressing their way to the overflowing parking garage. He looked around now, but no one seemed flustered. Surely plenty of folks had seen that guy taken down, but there was no conversation, no questioning looks, no reactions at all. The zombie culture. Daryl hated that he was a part of it. The world exploding around him and, well, in everybody’s sad little world, it was all about avoiding confrontation and maintaining the status quo. That was the rule. It bothered him that he thought about alternatives, though. It seemed, he thought, that ignorance would truly be bliss. That he, too, should be able to repeat the common sayings – the poor are poor by choice, the unhappy can switch jobs, opportunity is always a-knockin’. All a weird bastardization of the outdated American Dream, words and thoughts that are spoken almost automatically, part of a background noise. He assumed that he had failed somewhere along the way and, now, things had begun to spiral downward into a strange maze of social anxiety. An unfocused, undetermined rage. He was an only child, his parents crippled by their own mental instability and dead and gone before he had kissed 22. The remainder of his family ancient, few and far between. He had grown up on his own and had learned to bounce theories, fears and confusion right back inside.
Every day for what felt to be an eternity, he had ridden this train home. Even when the cops cleared a station and tackled people to the ground, even after the American Century had ended in terror, the daily routine felt like he was caught in some sort of loop, repeating the same commute home again and again despite changes in wardrobe, the emergence of a few grey hairs, and shifts in employment. The routine always ended, plunging into tunnels, with the decision that he was wasting precious and limited time with meaningless worry.
He tried to remind himself to keep perspective. There were leaders and followers even in ages of renewal, liberation and revolution. That was Human Nature. Most of his acquaintances assured him that his sense of dissatisfaction came from anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, lack of sex… Or whatever.
He often fantasized about the simple jobs. Would he have more time to breathe and realize goals if he just gave all this up and became a night watchman, or worked the bar at the Greek restaurant near his house? The paycut would be the hardest thing to swallow – Amazon.com would be so disappointed in him. The true horror: He belonged with the consumer sheep, surrounded by material wealth and never moving forward. Secretly, he feared, he enjoyed it. The money and the routine, that is, not his sullen, impatient fellow commuters.
Something was in the air now, something that made him feel edgy. It went beyond what he had just witnessed which, even now, just a few minutes later, felt like a dream. There was a slight difference in the background noise of daily life. That was the tone the whole world had taken in the 21st century. It seemed silly. The wars were fought by Other People. Daryl and his ilk were safe in their cubicles, and if they did get a plane steered into them it would all be over without much delay. No more bills, no more useless commute, no more tired weekday nights. He grinned to himself. When a person starts hoping for terrorist attacks just to break up the monotony, it’s probably a bad sign.
Each train car had a driver’s booth on either end, ready to become the lead car. The last seat he now occupied, separated from the others, could be sealed off by a flimsy door when the driver was present. Without the driver, the cubicle was a dark cell and Daryl could peer through the Plexiglass at the controls, ghostly lights floating in shadows, ready to power up and pull the train in the opposite direction once they hit the end of the line. Round and round it goes. He would really hate being a Metro operator. He was toying with the idea of picking the lock, letting the door slam shut and sitting like a VIP office rat. The locks on the Metro could be popped with a car key, which made a mockery of the whole idea of enhanced security. He jumped out of his mental drift when the cell phone in his coat pocket rang. Without checking the caller ID, he answered.
“What’s up?” Azizi, one of his housemates. It was good to hear a friendly voice; it helped shake the dark thoughts out of his skull for a few moments.
He exhaled against the phone, “Nothing, Aziz. I’m on the train.”
“Yeah. Look, Martin and I are doing a Phantasm double header, tonight. Well, I guess it’s more of a quadruple header. All four in a row, case of beer, pizza, death by four AM? You on board?”
The foundation of friendship seemed to be alcohol and bad movies, though he’d known Martin and Azizi for years. Why complain? At least he had friends. They had the right idea, too. Martin was a freelance writer with a part time job at a used bookstore and Azizi pounded out webpages from the comfort of the basement all day. What Martin called “bathrobe jobs.” A lifestyle that was looking pretty attractive to Daryl, though he didn’t have the talent that could keep him fluid.
“You still there?”
Daryl jerked, the phone pressed against his ear. Had he been staring glassy-eyed and open mouthed at his fellow commuters? Probably. “Jesus, it’s a freak-out night.”
“Are you hijacking the train or something? Should I call back in a few minutes?”
“I’m about to go underground…”
Azizi made a strange sound that didn’t translate well over a cell phone and the noise of the train. “Okay, sounds like your brain has turned to pudding. Just a head’s up, then.”
This was an unusual call. As if Azizi were trying to reach out. Did they feel it too? The soulless dissolution of reality, the tension of life? Nobody knew how to talk to each other anymore. The driver was on the speakers again and Daryl couldn’t make anything out. He didn’t need to. The train moved into the Silver Spring station.
“I think I’ll join you guys,” he mumbled into the phone, watching the flood of commuters pour out of the train.
Office buildings surrounded this old station now. He could remember a time before they were there. Not even thirty years old and he had seen a world rise up, everything seeming to change overnight. It was after seven in the evening and most of the offices still looked to be occupied. Men and women were on the phones and walking in the brightly lit windows like living dolls in a house. Sad world behind those suicide-proof windows.
He continued, “Maybe a movie is what I need. Help me unwind.”
Azizi was silent. Yes, it was an intervention call. Even over the noise of the commute and the tinny cell phone, he could hear the slight tremolo of concern in Azizi’s voice. “D, you sound like you’ve smoked too much crack today. I’ll have Martin break out the gin for you, that’ll get some Humanity back into your tortured soul.”
The cool March evening had settled in and the well-lit city hugged the children of rush hour. This was the American dream – the train passing between office buildings, the lights, the roads blurred with traffic. Everything was working, and everyone was going somewhere. Daryl was one of the millions out here. A cog in the wheel. A creature of the superpower.
“I need to figure a way out,”
Azizi cleared his throat. “I know.”
“I’m one of the mindless sheep. I’m part of a system that keeps going on despite all the people it’s slowly crushing.”
“Sounds like you’ve hit the gin already, D.”
“There’s no direction here, Azizi.”
“Sure there is. You’re heading northwest.”
There it is. A friend calls because he’s concerned, but doesn’t know how to say it. Daryl backed off. “Sorry, man, I’m just ready for spring to finally settle in. Getting tired of these dark evenings on the train.”
“Yeah.” It seemed as if Azizi was about to say more, but Martin’s voice pitched high in the background. There was a rustle of fabric, then his friend was back on the line. “So the neighbors are acting weird.”
“What are they doing?”
Azizi didn’t answer right away, the phone losing the signal and chattering with static. “I don’t know, man. Hey, I’ll call you back.” Azizi sounded rushed, Martin was still saying something in the background. Then the phone went dead just as the train hit the tunnel. Daryl glanced at the handset – no signal. Well, at least someone was having a touch of excitement tonight. The driver cut in again, and Daryl mouthed the words. Next stop Forest Glen. Doors opening on the left.