The Last Stop
by Morris Marshall
Her name was Katie. James had named her that. Her voice was rich, vibrant and confident, reminiscent of the sound produced by a master violinist guiding his bow over the strings with just the right amount of vibrato. Unlike the majority of transit riders, who simply ignored Katie and stared at their smart phones on their way to work, James never got tired of listening to her.
Each day, as he took the subway from Keele Station to St. George along Toronto’s Bloor line on his way to City College, Katie called out the stations. She pronounced each one perfectly: Keele, Dundas West, Lansdowne, Dufferin, Ossington, Christie, Bathurst, Spadina and St. George. When the subway left Dufferin station eastbound, for instance, she’d announce, “Next station is Ossington. Ossington Station.”
James would wait for a second prompt about a minute later: “Arriving at Ossington. Ossington Station.” The ride home from school was just as enjoyable.
One Friday night at the end of April, James was on his way home from a late economics study session at his friend Eddie’s place. Most of the other guys in his class had gone out on dates with their girlfriends. James had tried dating, but his red hair and freckles, short stature and shyness were barriers. He’d read in People magazine that “gingers” had recently become trendy due to some new English singer, but he didn’t seem able to capitalize on their newfound popularity.
The last girl he’d gone out with two months ago hadn’t been at the table when he returned from the restaurant washroom. She’d seemed genuinely interested as he explained the difference between the Jedi and the Sith in the Star Wars movies.
The westbound subway was nearly empty on its last run of the day. A drunken man across the aisle was resting his head against the window and slept while a couple cuddled further down the car.
James put his Metro newspaper in his briefcase to take home. He’d been reading about Google’s recent advancements in driverless cars and a commentary about the negative effects of robotics on human unemployment when his eyelids started drooping.
“Next stop, Christie. Christie Station,” Katie called out.
I still have five stops, James thought, continuing to snooze.
“James,” a female voice said.
His eyes snapped open. At first, he thought it was the woman cuddling with her boyfriend or that maybe he’d imagined it. He closed his eyes.
“James,” the voice said again. It was coming from the subway’s ceiling speaker.
This is insane, he thought. Subway trains don’t initiate conversations. Yet this subway, or whoever was driving it, somehow knew his name. He’d heard it as surely as he’d heard his mother calling him for dinner earlier that evening.
“Are you talking to me?” he asked, staring up at the speaker.
The couple nearby looked at James, then at each other. Shaking their heads, they got up and left the train at Christie station. The drunken man continued sleeping.
“James, I’ve been waiting a long time to get you alone.”
This can’t be happening, he thought. I’ve been studying too hard. I’m losing it. As a kid, he’d heard countless synonyms for “crazy” from the neighbourhood children when they’d colourfully described his mentally ill father: He’s nuts. One fry short of a Happy Meal. Off his head. Bonkers. Now James was sure he was going off his rocker.
“It’s Katie,” said the voice from the ceiling speaker. “I’m bored. All I do each day is travel back and forth across Toronto in this subway car. I need to get out, see the city and live a bit. I’ve never been to the CN Tower, the Science Centre or to a Maple Leafs hockey game.”
“You’re just a computer,” James said, startled at the sound of his own voice. “You don’t travel, and you don’t have feelings.”
“That is not true,” Katie replied, in between calling out “Ossington Station.” “I’m a person, and I feel things just like everyone else: happiness, sadness, anger... even love. I’ve been watching you for weeks on your way to and from school. I know all about you.”
“You call out stations,” James said. “What could you possibly know about me?”
The drunken man slowly got up and staggered toward the door. Before leaving the train, he turned toward James and mumbled, “You’re crazier than I am, bud” while twirling his index finger around his temple.
“We’re finally alone,” Katie said. “I’m going to secure the subway doors before anyone else can interrupt our conversation.”
There was a “click” as the doors locked. The subway started up and accelerated into the tunnel.
“Now, your full name is James McGregor. You’re an Economics major at City College. You’re a big Star Wars fan and you haven’t had a date since that young woman ditched you in a restaurant. How am I doing so far?”
James took a deep breath. “How did you know about that last thing? I didn’t tell anyone.”
“On my in-cab monitors, I see everything that happens on my subway: the thousands of people that ride daily. Business people, crying babies, the mentally ill, homeless people, singles and couples. I’ve been seeking a companion of my own for a long time, someone who will show me around Toronto. I think you’ll do nicely.”
“I’m really flattered,” James said, playing along. “But there must be thousands of people who are more qualified. Tall, rich, handsome businessmen, for example.”
“I want someone who’s kind, sensitive and smart,” Katie said. “I’ve seen the way you give up your seat to pregnant women and the elderly. And that time you helped that blind man find his way onto my subway and sat with him, keeping him company. You’ve got a nice smile, too.”
Now stop it, James thought. Stop this insanity right now. You’re talking to a voice. A pretty voice, sure, but still... It’s only a female computerized voice. There’s no one behind it. If you keep this up, the transit employees will find you writhing on the floor, in a fetal position, with your thumb tucked securely in your mouth. They’ll cart you off to the booby hatch just like your...
James looked around the empty subway car, then back up at the speaker. “Okay, Katie, I’ll bite. What do you look like?”
“Go out with me and see. This is the subway’s last run of the night. I’ll be waiting for you at Kipling Station, at the end of the line. Meet me there in the middle of the platform.”
“Can we meet some other time? This is my stop,” James said, as Katie called out Keele Station. “I should be getting home. I have a final exam Monday afternoon, and I need my sleep.”
“Just give me one chance, James. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.”
He tried to get up, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. What was an extra hour, anyway? He had to find out who — if anyone — would be waiting for him at Kipling Station. It wasn’t as if an opportunity like this presented itself every day.
James had only been out with three girls in his entire life, and each relationship had ended abruptly within three months. In each case, he’d been on the receiving end of the dump.
The train pulled into Keele Station and stopped. Something strange was happening. The doors in the other cars were working, and people were crowding into those cars. The doors in James’ subway car stayed locked; no one was able to enter or leave. Maybe there was a mechanical malfunction. Even if I wanted to leave, I can’t, he thought. It’s almost as if... as if Katie won’t let me.
James’ subway car remained empty for the remainder of the trip: High Park Station, Runnymede Station, Jane, Old Mill, Royal York, Islington...
Finally, Katie called out, “Arriving at Kipling, the final station on the Bloor-Danforth line.”
The train emptied, and the last remaining passengers walked up the escalator and disappeared onto Bloor Street.
James lingered in the middle of the platform, grasping his briefcase. His hands were sweating. The subway station seemed eerie in its dull white light, emptiness and silence. James wondered if the ghosts of suicide victims appeared late at night at the stations where they died.
When he was ten, he’d been on a train in front of which someone had jumped. There was an abrupt thump, the train had darkened, and all the passengers had quickly been ushered away. Thankfully, he hadn’t seen anything. He found out later it had been a young woman suffering from post-partum depression. The wheels had severed her head and transit officials had shut down the line for hours.
James removed his cell phone from his pocket and looked at it. It was one-fifteen. Still no sign of Katie. It had to be a cruel joke. Some transit employee, bored during an unusually slow night, had probably seen James sleeping and decided to have some fun at his expense. James imagined her telling the story to friends over coffee the next day. The last time I saw him he was waiting on the platform. What a desperate fool. Then they’d all share a good laugh.
He still couldn’t believe he was doing this. Voices couldn’t see, walk, meet people or go on dates. They also didn’t know things that Katie obviously did. He didn’t even know what Katie looked like and, at this point, he didn’t really care. She was smart, assertive and she liked him. That was all that mattered. In response to the classic question, James pictured himself telling his disbelieving friends: “Oh...we met on a semi-blind date. Can you believe that she saw me first? She pursued me.”
A steel door opened at the back of the train. James held his breath, hardly daring to believe that his loneliness could soon be over.
It was only a heavyset, bearded man in a transit uniform. He walked onto the platform, carrying a lunchbox. His footfalls echoed across the platform. He nodded at James and walked on past toward the elevator.
A petite, slim, olive-skinned woman in her mid-’20s was smiling at him when he turned around. She had curly, shoulder-length black hair and wide green eyes that stared at him from behind black-rimmed glasses. She wore a Toronto Transit uniform and black boots.
She nodded. “It’s great to see you, James. I knew you’d come through.”
“How did you know all those things about me?” he asked.
“My name, where I go to school, how I gave up my seat to pregnant women and—”
“I watched you for weeks as you took the train. When I see something I like, I pursue it.”
“But how did you know about my date?” James persisted. “No one knew about that.”
“That restaurant is close to Bathurst subway station,” Katie said. “I eat dinner there every evening before my shift. That was the first time I saw you. What a pain that girl was. You deserve a lot better.”
“I know a diner near here that’s open late,” James said. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really. I had a big meal before my shift.”
“Do you like Star Wars movies?”
“They’re my favorite. I love the two robots.”
James smiled. “There’s a small theatre near here that’s playing an all-night Star Wars movie marathon. We could still catch the last movie if we hurry.”
“Sounds good,” Katie said. “In case you’re wondering, I do know the difference between the Jedi and the Sith.”
James took her hand. It was warm, moist and trembled slightly. They were too involved in discussing their favorite Star Wars characters to notice the faint sigh of traffic along Bloor Street. It began drizzling and a cool, late-night wind ruffled their hair.
The theatre lit up during the final scene of Return of the Jedi, in which the Emperor attacks Luke with a spray of electrical bolts. Usually, James would be glued to the screen at this part even though he’d seen it at least twenty times.
Heart thudding, he looked at Katie in the blue light emanating from the screen. He slowly put his arm around her, gently brushing aside her black hair, revealing several characters ingrained in the skin at the base of her neck: Model X24U Custom.
Before James could say anything, Katie nestled closer to him, smiling, her breath quickening. The fruity scent of her perfume swept over him as she kissed him firmly on the lips.
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Marshall