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Odyssey Club Short Story Contest

March 13, 2012

1st Place Winner – Amber Barnett


She withdrew her shaking hand from the lip of the platform, clenching her fist tightly around something that felt far too light in her hand. As she stared at it, the squealing of the train’s deceleration seemed to stretch forever in her ears.

It somehow finally faltered to a halt before her. Her heart continued to race a mile a minute as the doors slid open, their pressurized locks the only sound on the entire platform. It seemed as if everyone in the train stop had simply ceased to breathe in the state of shock that enveloped the station, like night.

The object gripped in her hand bit painfully into her palm.

Her toddler son’s pudgy fingers reached upward and pulled the hand down, attempting to tug the object from its vise. His tiny palm was warm and moist with perspiration.

He looked up at her, bewilderment giving his wide brown eyes a frantic light. Her eyebrows creased upward in worry, and she failed to return a comforting look. Had he not been there, she probably would’ve been hyperventilating. And yet, he was. She quickly subdued the hysteria she felt rising within her to a numbed agitation.

He dropped his gaze, looking toward the front of the train on their far left. He obviously didn’t understand the sequence of events that had just unfolded before him.

She spoke before he could begin his questioning.

“I am not taking this train. C’mon, honey, let’s catch the other one.”

She tugged his arm to lead the two of them away from the waiting doors. The commuters surrounding them stepped back to clear the way, silently staring. A sasquatch of a man extended his arms to push immobilized gawkers back, and she gave a curt nod to show her appreciation.

Her sneakers padded muted footsteps into the concrete as they crossed the platform to the other train line. His own toddling steps filled the beat between each of hers, accentuating his struggle to keep up with her longer, rushed strides.

He kept looking back at the train they had left, toward the crowd that had gathered at the first car. She tried desperately to not do the same.


“Let’s just catch the other train, honey,” she rasped.

They crossed the threshold seconds before the pristine, gliding doors sealed shut, and the train began to lurch forward. It didn’t matter that this train was traveling in the opposite direction. The only direction that mattered at this moment was away.

This particular carriage happened to be fairly empty. The lack of heat from respiring crowds of commuters had allowed the gleaming plastic chairs to adopt frigid, uninviting temperatures. She selected one in a secluded corner and sat down, feeling the iciness seep through the seat of her pants. She propped her son in her lap, cradling him more for her own comfort than anything.

He was being surprisingly quiet. She burrowed the lower half of her face in his thick sandy hair and breathed deeply, letting the heated air rebound onto her own skin. The numbness wavered momentarily.

Tunnel darkness whipped past at dizzying speeds in the window, each second taking them further and further away from that platform.

Had they really been at the marine exhibit, tapping the glass jellyfish enclosures, just an hour ago? He had been so awed by their slow, pulsing movements. She remembered how pale he’d seemed in the dark enclosure, his skin adopting a spectral hue from the purplish glow of the tank. His eyes had been glassy with delight, no trace of this crushing confusion that clouded them over now.

The train had begun to roll to a halt as it arrived at the next train stop. The doors once again slid open, this time to a busy platform that gave way to a tide of commuters. Staunch urbanites quickly crowded the available standing room, while seats were warmed by the less able-bodied.

She couldn’t help but look and ponder. Everyone had the same detached, reserved demeanor of citizens desperately trying to avoid eye contact with one another. People in transit, it appeared, did not regard one another as actual persons to be acknowledged.

She mused over this observation as the train began to rumble towards the next stop. He finally spoke up.

“Where are we going?”

“…I’m not completely sure.”

“Do you want me to hold it, Mommy?” He reached for her hand, and she brushed it away before he could coax the object from her whitened fingers.

The next station arrived quickly. Commuters disembarked as new ones filled their displaced spots, moving as puppets on strings. Mother and son stared blankly at the coming and going crowd, spectators of the show.

The frantic beeping that signaled the closing of the doors had just begun when an aging woman approached, just barely squeezing in between them as the jangling of her silver bracelets preceded her arrival.

The toddler jerked in her arms, his pupils dilating with recognition of the newly familiar sound. With the jolted movement, a storm surge of hysteria gushed within her, sweeping aside delicately constructed barriers. She was now hyperventilating, and yet felt no relief reaching her lungs. She almost crushed the toddler in her arms as she buried her entire face in his hair, muffling wheezing gasps.

A warm, pudgy hand touched the side of her face as another tugged at the object in her hand.

“Let me hold it, Mommy.”

The silver bracelet that was all that was left of a young girl, the girl she had failed to stop from stepping in front of the train just minutes ago, bit into her palm even harder.