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Train of Thought
By Ian O'Neill

I work to live…I don't live to work. A mantra that seems to fall short considering my early mornings into work and late nights after failed attempts at escape. Don't get me wrong, it's good work. It just doesn't pay overtime. Yeah, I complain about it, but what can I do? I work long hours because if I don't, then someone else will.

My wife constantly nags about my late hours, but she does it 'cause she loves me, or so she says. She even stays up some nights waiting for me to crawl, slide, or pour myself through the front door. I have to work or life won't be worth much. We can't afford a lot as it is. We live in a small, modestly furnished apartment in the West End and I take every form of public transit to get to my office in the upper East End. Like I said, we can't afford much, let alone a car. We'll get one eventually, I guess.

The streetcar is a pretty short ride and sometimes I walk it if the weather is nice. Then comes the GO train into Union Station. If you think being packed into a commuter train is akin to suffocation, the subway ride north is like a slow train to hell. Constant jostling, armpit odour, never a seat, always hot, but other than that, it's great. The bus journey is fairly straightforward and lasts about ten minutes. I've tried walking it, but it adds way too much time to the trip. I can't be late for work. Someone else would be on time.

I'm on the reverse journey going home after…my watch must be wrong, a 14-hour day? Wow, how time flies while you're working to live. The bus ride is great. Only a few people scattered around as cargo and most, like me, are slave labour. I can tell by their slumped posture and lifeless faces. Heads resting against the sliding glass windows, not reacting to the occasional bump in the road that sends foreheads banging into glass. We're all just so tired. I try not to stare at my fellow passengers, and manage to get through a few pages of a novel I've been reading for about a week-and-half. I'll finish it. I paid 11 bucks for it.

I depart my weary brethren and shuffle down the stairs into the bowels of hell. Only at this time of night it's not so bad. Plenty of legroom. No full-body contact, wrestling, or tackling. No mad dash for a seat that I'll give up later to a woman that I just can't stand to see, well, standing. I blame my parents for my good manners. Which means they are partly responsible for my shin splints.

The wind kicks up first and a foul smell hits my nostrils from somewhere in the guts of the city. A light always appears after the wind and smell. Then the crunching of wheels against rails echoes through the station. It gets deafening when the train whizzes by and every time I think that it will just keep going. Sometimes I want it to keep going.

The squeal of brake pads engaging worn down metal drums send shivers up my spine but I like it. The doors bang open and I plod in to find a comfortable seat, which means I try to sit facing in the direction the train is travelling. If I don't, and end up sitting against the flow, I'm nauseous for the whole trip. There are plenty of seats and I plant myself down with a grunt, happy to assume the familiar lean against the window. I got really lucky this time and sit in the very first row, the driver's compartment right beside me. I like it a lot 'cause I feel like I'm driving. I can mindlessly watch the track disappear below me and forget.

The train stops at every station and fellow lifers move to and fro. I don't really pay attention to them since it's only a mirror of my own mediocrity. Besides, I'd have to turn my head to see them. I'm just too damned tired is all. When the train lurches forward I feel my body compress slightly against my seat and it makes me think of the dreams I had of being an astronaut or a racecar driver. How I was going to walk on the moon or break the land speed record. I try not to dream anymore since it never works out. That's okay, though. I mean I got a fairly decent job that underpays me and then I get to pay too much to ride all this public transit and of course my wife is constantly upset that I work too long and hard. But, I get a paycheque, I pay my rent, and we get to go out to dinner once a month, unless the bills have piled up. This is one such month, so I figure tonight it's leftover spaghetti in the microwave. Astronauts don't eat leftovers.

My heart speeds up as the train rolls toward another tunnel. I love the tunnels. Everything just dims as the darkness swallows the entire train. The noises are amazing, as if being in the dark amplifies them somehow. The train bangs and clangs around a corner and wouldn't you know it, we're all outside again. The night isn't nearly dark enough.

I can see the green light that signals the next station is clear of other trains and moments later we're rolling into another dank hole in the ground. I'm staring out the front window and suddenly I see this guy plastered there like one of those stuffed animals with suction cups on its feet that people stick to car windows. His face is all mashed against the glass and he looks painted on. I'm imagining it. It's been a long day.

It always amazes me how quickly and smoothly the train comes to a stop. My imaginary friend disappears from the window. I don't feel any bumps so I figure it was all in my head. But I notice a ball or something rolling down the tracks in front of me. It just keeps going and soon it disappears into the darkness beyond the station.

The driver's compartment door whips open and the bang is deafening. I nearly shit myself. The driver runs right out of the train. I lean forward hoping to see where he's going but the front window doesn't give me a good view of the station. I figure he needs a bathroom break. Hey, drivers gotta pee, too, right?

Ten minutes have gone by and the train is still driverless. I figure I'll just shut my eyes and wait for him to get back. As soon as the train moves I'll wake up. I never miss my stop. I'm just getting comfy when I hear the PA crackle to life. I can't understand a word the person on the other end is saying. All I hear are muffles and grunts like the guy talking into the microphone has a bag of marbles in his mouth. Others on the train must speak PA because they start getting off the train. A woman glares at me and I just flip her off with my eyebrows.

A piercing scream echoes through the station and there's all this shouting. I gotta see what's going on so I get up and stretch the kinks out of my body. As I'm reaching for the ceiling and my bad back cracks louder than the earlier screams, a transit worker appears in the doorway.

"This way, sir."

Him I can understand since he doesn't have a microphone to his mouth. So, I follow and see a pair of ambulance attendants guiding a stretcher along the platform. I turn to the front of the train and the transit guy puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel him gently nudge me in the direction of the stairs.

I have to look. I had to be imagining things. No way that guy was real.

I push off the little transit guy and head to the end of the platform. There's about a dozen feet from the end of the train to the start of the tunnel and lying smack dab in between is a severed leg. I can't keep my eyes off it and even have to shove the transit guy away again so I can study it better.

It was severed from my imaginary friend at mid-thigh and I'm amazed that it still wears a blue-jean pant leg. The bottom of the foot is pointing toward the tunnel as if to direct the driver as to where he should be going. The toes are pointed at the ceiling. I can't see his shoe. I don't see any blood, either. There should be lots of blood, right?

I get pissed when I feel the transit worker's hand on my shoulder and shirk him off. Then he grabs me and I spin around to face him only to look up at the biggest damned cop I've ever seen.

"Time to go, sir."

I don't argue with him since he could probably turn me into what my imaginary friend now looks like. I trudge up the stairs and a woman tells me a bus is waiting to take all the passengers from the train on to the next station. There's apparently another train waiting for us to complete the rest of our journey.

The bus ride is filled with whispered conversation about my imaginary friend. I tune it out though. I saw the main event and don't need the recap. When I get to the next station I head straight for the last car. I guess everybody had the same thought because it is crowded like we're in the middle of rush-hour. I have to stand. The trip is longer than usual. People smell bad. I get knocked around a bit going from the subway to the Go train. I just miss a streetcar and have to hoof it home.

I put my key into the lock of my little apartment and push the door open. My wife is in bed and that is a good thing. I don't have to hear her complain about my overworking and how I should be asking for a raise and that the cat needs surgery and God knows what else. I see a little note sitting on top of a plastic dish. Sorry, I couldn't stay awake. Heat this up. Love you, Molly.

I pop the microwave door and start my dinner. Leaning against the counter listening to the whir of the microwave I suddenly realize, I forgot my damn book.

Ian O'Neill is feeling much better now.



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