The Railroad Killer
The landlord was right. The passing trains behind her row home had become white noise. Hattie lived her life around the comings and goings of thousands of commuters. She was one of them. Departed at 6:39, returned at 5:10. The train rattled like a dog shaking the rain from its fur just before it dipped into the belly of the city. It was a wake-up call to the morning riders that the workday reigned.
After the train screeched to a halt, she climbed the underground rail’s grubby stairs. She glimpsed the pale sun as the crowd wove past an assembly of food trucks. She followed a stream of commuters through the glass building’s revolving opening. Within 7 minutes, she was at her desk amongst the clouds. The long gray season was underway.
Hattie went days without speaking to anyone. If she spoke to a coworker, it didn’t count. The words were insubstantial. She prided herself on this invented game of saving words.
Small row house waited for her in the evening. She shared two walls and lived her life with her neighbors’ movements and murmurings. Their lives had become white noise too. In the morning, she heard the mother coax a child to brush their teeth. At night, they sang a song she heard bits of the tune like a fading radio station. When the father came home at night, she could check off the last instances of their day.
The other neighbor was a hard-of-hearing widow. Blared her television from midday until the 11 o’clock news. This was how Hattie learned of the Railroad Killer. A breaking news bulletin entered, muffled by the brick and plaster of her living room wall. She caught parts of the story: a man preying on the train stop towns. Watching his victims. Perhaps he rode alongside them before he made his move.
Hattie clicked on her own boxy television and saw a grainy police sketch. Hair disheveled. Clear, sad eyes. Eyelids half closed as if he were about to drift off to sleep. A checkered flannel, too big for his languid frame. His name was James. Photographs provided by a recent ex-girlfriend showed an unsmiling James next to a happier version of the woman. His eyes held the same sorrow. The ex spoke through a curtain of tears. She had ended their relationship weeks earlier. “He was miserable, but it killed him,” she said. Hattie checked the front door’s deadbolt and wrote a note to ask the landlord about one for the back.
Her mother called at 6:10 while Hattie ate her breakfast of vanilla yogurt. “Oh, Hattie. Aren’t you scared? All alone?”
“Independent,” Hattie answered. No, she was not coming home.
“You know who you could call. Whatever happened to…?”
“Someone else was better, remember?” Hattie did and still felt the hole in her soul. She had not been enough.
“You are kind. Too kind for your own good, maybe.”
“You always said to ‘kill them with kindness.’ I guess I chased him away.” Hattie caught a glance of herself in the bathroom mirror as she stood in the hallway. She ran her fingers down her tangled hair, then across the acne scars on her cheeks.
Hattie added the 11 o’clock news to her daily routine. She watched them report on the Railroad Killer. Each night, he got a stop closer. The abacus of disappearances and deaths gained another bead. A life shifted from light to dark. Unofficial curfews ensued. No trick or treating. No nighttime strolls. He was everywhere and nowhere. Was he the young man pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt as he departed the train? Was he the one in the back of the crowd swarming out of the station? There were so many with sad, half-closed eyes. How many paths had he crossed?
Hattie left the lamp on over her card table to create the illusion that someone waited. Her past self awaited for her present self to arrive. The future one, a hazy vision. The landlord’s taped note said he would try again another day.
In bed, she lay awake, stayed attuned to her neighbors’ movements. The father next door must be away. Their child had already brushed their teeth. On her other side, the widow gone to bed early. No matter. She read her book as the silence stretched. When the trains stopped for the night, she switched off her light.
She felt warm arms around her. She rested her head back on the shoulder but awoke cold. The silence was heavy. A light from the tracks streaked weak shadows in the stark room.
Had the father come home? No. Someone below walked with measured footsteps. The softness assured her; someone was in her home.
Paralyzed, her eyes shot to the window, its frame chipped and swollen with years of paint. All the escape routes would reveal her. She slid out of bed and smoothed the cover to feign absence. To limit her steps, she balanced on the ball of one foot and reached for the narrow wardrobe. It waited with an inch of openness. She contorted herself behind her rolling suitcase, sure that the slightest movement announced her presence, and braced for impact. The case might give her enough cover. She listened.
Footsteps continued. The refrigerator opened. Someone ate her food. An extended pause followed every action. A plastic bag rustled. Liquid poured. Glass placed on a surface. There was nothing or no one to save her. Not the trains. Not her neighbors. Not herself. She had not spoken for days.
She heard him on the stairs. Then, two feet, inches away, darkened outside her enclosure. The door opened. She kept her head down; the cold air raised her skin. She waited for a violent acknowledgment.
Something distracted him, or she had fooled him. Steps faded. The absence receded like an ocean wave. Air roared in her ears. She felt as if something, someone had removed her house like a Monopoly game piece.
Hattie remained crouched against the world behind her suitcase. The morning trains resumed. There was the 4 a.m. one and so forth. Hers was coming. The light under the closet entry waned. Sunrise was close. Police sirens approached. They stopped and screamed on her street.
The steps returned fast, in a hurry. The closet door opened. Hattie flinched expecting a blow. The early hour obscured the face. A hand extended. She took the rough hand and stood, felt whole again at the unexpected human touch. He embraced her. She did the same. Put her head on his shoulder, closed her eyes. Smelled dried mud and musk on the dirty flannel. The hold tightened. White noise filled her ears. He did not let go.