Commute (Part 2 of 6)
The rest of the week passed in a blur. Janet tried to shake the worry that was pressing down on her like an invisible weight, but it was no good. She silently cursed her mother and grandmother for passing on their trait of worrying over everything. Her brother would merely shake something like this off and not give it a second thought. She envied that trait in him. Janet, however, couldn’t shake this off. She kept thinking about both incidents and what they could possibly mean. Her mind wasn’t helping matters, though. It kept throwing up all kinds of paranoid fantasies, from the mundane to the outright bizarre. All of them felt plausible to Janet when she couldn’t stop the worry from closing in on her. Somehow, she was able to get through the working week without messing everything up and getting a roasting from her manager. That was all she needed, she thought on the Wednesday morning; a dressing down while all of this other stuff is rattling round my head.
While Janet had survived the work days, her time at home had not been as positive. She lived alone, unless you counted her cat, which Janet most certainly did, and she found herself obsessing over what had been happening to her on the trains almost every evening. Nothing seemed to be able to take her mind off of it. Trashy TV didn’t work; cuddling with the cat didn’t work; chatting with her friends on Facebook didn’t work. Also, she wasn’t sleeping well. Her dreams were getting unnerving, so she found herself reading into the small hours during most of the nights that week.
It was Monday again. It wasn’t raining that morning, but Janet was too distracted to read her new book. Her sleep patterns had become so restless during the past week that she had finished the book she had been reading and had tried to start a new one. However, her mind was so all over the place that she was finding it difficult to get into. Janet found herself looking furtively at the other people on the platform as she waited for the train. She was growing desperate for any sign of a culprit for what she felt was someone having a nasty little laugh at her expense. She wondered briefly if it might be her ex-boyfriend back on the scene, but that was unlikely. They’d been broken up for two years now, and the last she heard he was serious with someone else. Someone was doing something though; Janet just didn’t know who, or why.
When the train pulled in Janet was actually relieved to see that it was too full already for her to get a seat. She didn’t want to sit next to a window that morning, just in case. She wedged herself into a bit of space in the vestibule along with a few other people and settled in as best she could for the journey. She took a strange sense of comfort from the fact that she was standing that morning. This meant that she wasn’t going to fall asleep on this journey, so if someone was riding the same train as her and playing mean tricks then hopefully she’d catch them in the act.
Janet looked about her constantly during the journey, checking people’s faces quickly and surreptitiously. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself if she could avoid it, just in case there was someone trying to get inside her head. At one point in the previous week her mind had proposed the possibility that if someone was trying to frighten her that they might also be dangerous, and that was it. From that moment on that thought would not leave her alone. She had even contemplated calling the police. What would she have told them, though? She felt silly when she imagined herself talking to a dubious 999 operator about how her last two train journeys had been frightening for her, but that she might have dreamed them on both occasions. Janet started to feel a little better, but at the same time a bit ashamed of herself, as her rational side started to get the upper hand. She took a steadying breath as the train entered a tunnel.
That’s when she saw it.
It appeared in the darkened train door window for only a second, but its image was instantly seared across Janet’s mind. In the gloom of the tunnel a hideous face had flashed into view. Its eyes were wild and piercing. They stared at Janet with a look of pure savagery and malice. The mouth was a maniacal snarl; its lips drawn back to expose long and deadly-looking teeth. Only portions of the forehead, cheeks and chin could be seen, but the flesh looked pale and ghostly white.
It was gone as quickly as it had come.
The scream erupted from Janet’s mouth before she even realised it, bypassing her brain entirely. It pierced the docility of the Monday morning commute like a needle through a balloon, and all at once people were turning frantically to see what was going on.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ asked one commuter, looking at Janet with disdain as she tried to shrink away from the window.
‘Are you alright?’ asked another.
‘What’s wrong?’ and another.
‘Th-th-there!’ was all Janet could manage, pointing a shaking finger at the train door window. Everyone who could see what was going on looked at the train door but saw merely a train door. They had left the tunnel by now and the same dull landscape could be seen out of the windows. A few people tutted in annoyance and turned back around, convinced now that Janet was a lunatic or something. The man standing directly behind Janet placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
‘Take it easy – ‘ Janet spun round with wild, staring eyes as the man’s hand touched her. She suddenly felt threatened, hemmed in. She looked desperately into his face and saw only kindness. Her head whipped from side to side as she looked frantically about her. She both did and didn’t want to see the terrible face again. The memory of it was horrible enough, but the thought that she might be losing her mind was worse. Her muscles suddenly felt tight and overused, her tendons felt like they were wound up and ready to snap. Her breathing was rapid and shallow, her skin felt cold and clammy. She looked again into the face of the man who had laid a hand on her shoulder. He was an older man and he looked at her with a father’s concern.
‘It’ll be alright,’ he said, soothingly. ‘Just calm down.’ Janet tried to steady her breathing and the realisation of the scene she had just caused hit her full in the face. Embarrassment and shame now mixed with the fear and panic that was still firmly gripping her. She felt unhinged, like she was losing the plot. She collapsed into the man’s arms and sobbed heavily into his chest.
I’m going mad, thought Janet. So help me, I’m going mad!
‘There, there,’ said the man to whom Janet was now clinging. ‘I’ve got you.’ The man looked about him, a little embarrassed himself. He caught eyes with several other commuters. Some gave him appraising looks for helping the clearly distraught woman. Others looked as disdainfully at him as they had done at Janet. One man, however, sitting a little way down the carriage, hadn’t seen what had gone on, but he knew all too well what was happening. He briefly looked in the direction of the vestibule.
‘Found another one, have you?’ he said to himself.
* * *
After what had happened to her on the train that morning, Janet couldn’t face going into work. She rode the train into the city centre and got off like everyone else, but the remainder of the journey felt torturous to her. She wanted to get off the train and be away from all of the staring, accusatory eyes that she felt burrowing into her skin. She felt a sickening shame broil and fester in the pit of her stomach and she wanted nothing more than to go back home, go to bed, and pretend that the morning hadn’t happened.
Once off the train, Janet fought her way through the Monday morning throng and found a quiet enough spot where she could phone her office. She felt guilty for calling in sick when she wasn’t really, at least in her opinion, but she was so rattled that she felt she’d do more harm than good at work. She made her apologies to her manager, who was fortunately already in the office, and promised to be in the next day. She lied about why she needed the day off, but she couldn’t imagine telling anyone the truth. She felt silly even thinking about it. Whatever was going on was not something she wanted to discuss with other people, especially not her bosses at work. She needed her job, and she didn’t want to be thought of as weird, or worse, a liar. That was the worst part, thought Janet, as she made her way to the correct platform for the return journey. What if this is all in my head? What if I’ve just blagged myself a day off over a bad dream? Janet continued to feel ashamed and confused as she descended the stairs to the platform.
As soon as Janet was on the platform she felt the fear coil its way around her again. She’d been so wrapped up in her guilt of calling in sick that he had been on auto-pilot as she walked down to the platform. Now, the reality of catching another train after seeing that grotesque and terrifying face came to her in a moment of horrible clarity.
No, I can’t do it, she thought.
Janet turned smartly on her heel and climbed back up the stairs at a brisk pace. Although it would take over twice as long, Janet decided to take the bus home. This added a further worry to Janet’s already overburdened mind: the prospect of ending up having to take the bus to and from work instead of the train. Janet’s morning commute was already enough of a bother – frightening occurrences notwithstanding – on the trains without the noticeable extra amount of time she’d need to catch the bus and still arrive at work on time. She found herself torn as she walked to the nearest bus stop between two possible eventualities, neither of them particularly pleasant. She could either continue travelling to work on the trains and remain at the mercy of whomever, or whatever was doing its best to scare the life out of her, or she could start getting up before dawn to be ready to catch the bus. Janet didn’t want to have to do either, but as she waited for her bus no other sane solution came to mind.
Janet was so engrossed in her nervous thoughts that she completely failed to notice someone join the queue for the bus behind her. He paid the same fare as Janet, and climbed to the upper deck, the same as Janet. He sat a few seats back from her, glancing carefully at her every now and then as the bus pulled away from the stop.
Trying to steady her breathing, Janet’s mind was a whirl of activity. She was fretting over what she would tell her manager when she went into work the following day. She was worried about how she was going to get to work and whether she could face the trains again. She even began to wonder about whether she would need to start looking for a new job closer to home if the trains were no longer going to be an option. She gazed, unfocussed, out of the bus window as all of these thoughts flew madly around inside her head, not really looking at anything.
Then something caught her eye.
The bus was driving up a road that was flanked by a small wooded area on the left-hand side, the side that Janet was sat on. She went from absentmindedly peering out of the window to bringing her gaze into sharp focus in one heart-stopping, gut-wrenching moment.
No, not again!
Janet could see, amongst the trees, a figure darting in and out of view. It appeared to be running and it was eerily keeping pace with the bus, even though the driver had to be going easily over forty miles per hour. Its shape was somewhat indistinct, but it appeared to be human. It moved too fast though, and Janet could feel the panic begin to twist up from her stomach into her throat. Her hands tightened on the seat in front of her as her eyes remained fixed on the mysterious figure. She could feel herself grow warm and prickly as sweat began to push its way out of her skin. Her insides squirmed unpleasantly and she began to feel sick. Quickly, Janet darted her eyes around the top deck of the bus to see if anyone else had noticed this strange sight, but they were all just sitting there. Her lips were clamped down into a thin, tense line, as she returned her gaze to the window.
The face was there again.
Janet recoiled from the window as if it had suddenly caught fire. She toppled off of the seat and fell to the floor of the bus, frantically trying to get away from the hideous face that had appeared in the glass. This time it lingered there, sneering down at her like a mask of insane, babbling vileness. Its eyes were once again locked on hers, unblinking and loathsome. The bus came to a stop with a jolt and Janet was shoved along the floor with the force. Her eyes broke contact with the sickening face and when she looked back it was gone. Unable to talk, unable to think, Janet pulled herself to her feet and hurtled down the bus’ stairs. She barged passed people trying to get on the bus and fled down the street.
Before the bus resumed its journey, another passenger disembarked, and he walked off in the same direction that Janet had gone.
Interesting, he thought to himself as he walked.
- December 2014