This story is by Michael Hotchkiss and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
The 6:43 am Metro North train pulled into Stratford station predictably four minutes late. The train had left its origin from New Haven at 6:21. How it lost four minutes with only two stops baffled and agitated me more than usual. It also was a shitty day for June. My mood was gloomier than the overcast skies and cool temperatures. I felt like this from the minute I woke up and I couldn’t figure out why.
My short, amiable commute buddy Randy and I stepped on with a dozen or so other commuters into a crowded car. We had an arrangement. Randy drove. I paid for parking. We alternated paying for the Uber ride on the other end when it was too crappy to walk; like today. Randy had no speech filter and always was good for some assessment of our ride ahead as we boarded. Today was no exception as we found ourselves standing and not sitting.
“Fuckin’ train is crowded today. There must be an Asshole Convention at the Javits Center or something.”
I quietly replied, “No more so than any other day.” It was an attempt to not provoke him further.
“What? There’s an Asshole Convention every day?” he quipped.
I was simply in a bad mood and I knew a further response would encourage him, so I didn’t react. There were a few muted chuckles around, but more stern-faced, I-live-in-my-own-world commuter-faces.
That is, all but one. At first, I thought there was some new ad-poster with a dopey character on the bulkhead. I kept looking. It moved. I nudged Randy and motioned with my eyes toward the thing.
“What?” he asked.
“See that,” I whispered.
“That, that whatever the hell it is.”
“All I see is that cute chick in the red polka dot skirt.”
Randy loved his wife but never stopped looking at the menu.
I let that go and looked harder without trying to appear as doing so. Was that a mask? Was it some disfigurement? It had an all-white, round head. No hair. If there were eyes, they were slits. No ears or nose and a dog bone cavity that must have been its mouth. It was a normal person in size, but not human I thought. I checked around to see if others were gawking as I felt I was. Nope. Lots of ear buds in ears, guys playing dumb games on their iPhones and Randy ogling anything ogleable.
I spoke again to Randy, but louder so those nearby would hear, “What do you make of that Marshmallow head thing?” As I pointed.
I saw a couple of people follow my finger and then returned to their iPhones. Randy just said, “You got shit in your eyes or something?”
Now I was questioning myself. I shuffled a bit to change my view. Marshmallow was also moving. Its head was rotating – too far, like an owl or something. I felt it was noticing me without looking. It was hard to tell what those slits were seeing.
We made our only stop at Bridgeport station. No one got off and dozens more piled in. There were no more seats, so adjustments were made to those of us standing. Marshmallow Man moved as well. But he didn’t seem to be taking any space. None of the new riders seemed to notice this weird thing and joined right in with the other sheep with earbuds and iPhones.
“Dude,” Randy said to me. “What the hell is your deal?”
He clearly had no clue what was occupying my attention. I tried once more to explain, “I know you have altitude issues, but don’t you see that funny looking thing next to the pole at the other end if the car? He, er, it with the white head?”
“Bro, I don’t know what you put in your coffee, but I don’t see a fuckin’ thing.”
I questioned myself again, but couldn’t stop staring and wondering what I saw. It was definitely looking at me. It tilted its head like a curious puppy; sizing me up or checking me out. At a loss of what to do, I gave a thumbs up sign. I now saw an “arm”, a blobby white extension from somewhere below my sightline raise up to the side of its head. The dog bone curled and the eye slits widened. The bulbous arm made a motion. I swore it was returning my thumbs up. This was followed by a nod of approval. One slit closed and then opened. A wink I thought. None of the other commuters noticed.
I punched Randy in the shoulder. “Keee-reist! Did you see that?”
Randy had joined the sheep on his iPhone and barely acknowledged my intrusion. His reply: “The Wi-Fi sucks on this train.”
We pulled into Stamford station, our stop. Earbuds, iPhones and their sheep piled out. I strained to see if Marshmallow Man was moving. I couldn’t see him anymore. Was I hallucinating? I don’t know. Something felt ok inside. The thumbs up left me upbeat; like I was being judged and approved.The ennui I had felt since I got up was gone.
I heard Randy, still staring at his phone as we shuffled onto the platform. “Crap,” he said to himself. “It’s June 26. I almost forgot. I’ve got a fuckin’ dentist appointment at ten.”
June 26 hit me like a lightning bolt. I turned to Randy and said, “You know, my Dad died six years ago today.” It was more of a reflective statement than a sullen one.
“Oh my God! Are you ok?” Randy reacted.
“Yep. I’m good,” I said. “You know what’s weird? The little things I remember. Like Dad loved marshmallows.”