“I’m sorry,” Cathryn said to her friend Lily as they sat down in the subway train. “I shouldn’t have said I’m— I shouldn’t have said I was worried sick.” The doors closed and the train started moving, carrying them away from the platform where Cathryn had just urgently left a very unpleasant mess in one of those clear hanging garbage bags that are supposed to better for security.
“It’s OK,” Lily said. “It’s stress. This is sudden and unexpected.”
“And downright weird,” Cathryn said. Then she was seized with a fear that she might instantly be surrounded by ghouls or goblins or other eldritch entities. She looked around. There was a lady with a bright orange shower-curtain-looking dress. A goth-dressed girl with black lipstick reciting a litany of discontents to her apparent boyfriend, who had four lip rings and hair dyed orange onto the scalp. A very small but very muscular woman wearing cactus-coloured scrubs. A fellow with a matted beard and jeans and a vest that didn’t seem to have been washed since the last unexpected rainstorm. Several people togged in H&M’s finest (does sarcasm still work?). Two very tired-looking women, even more tired-looking than most people, having a pleasant conversation. Across from Cathryn and Lily, a fiftyish man in a black leather jacket was reading a battered copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and glancing around every so often. All perfectly normal for the subway. Almost normaler than normal.
Yet… “Don’t you think strange things are happening in the past day or two?” Cathryn added.
“I don’t know. Stranger than usual? The world is a pretty weird place. I’ve been spending a lot of time watching my guinea pigs instead.”
“But. Things are happening literally that usually only happen figuratively.”
“Well, such as?” Those words may look like a challenge on paper, but Lily sounded kind and attentive.
“A guy was literally electrocuted. Another one literally had plethora. Something that was supposed to be non-flammable was literally inflammable. But always just as soon as the person said it was.”
“You mean like, ‘Hey, y’all, watch this’?”
“Like, as soon as I said I was worried sick, I was literally sick. And rushing off the train to a garbage can.”
“Well, I understand that. The subway makes me nauseous.”
Cathryn looked at Lily and suddenly felt a wave of nausea, but she had nothing left to heave. She looked away and it seemed to abate a little. She looked across at the man with Ulyssesand saw him glance up at them. Quite abruptly his colour went off and he started breathing long, slow, pursed breaths, as one might to avoid yawning in technicolour. The train was pulling into the next station and once it had stopped he stood up and walked very quickly through the doors. No one else on the train seemed affected. The goth girl looked at them with razor-sharp boredom.
Lily noticed the man’s exit. “Geez, is it me?”
“You’re not nauseous now, though,” Cathryn said hopefully.
“No, not at all.” Cathryn felt much better right away. She glanced out onto the platform and saw that the Ulysses man was also no longer afflicted. She looked back around the car and noticed that the man had left something on the seat – a bookmark? The doors closed and the train started to move again, separating bookmark from book forever.
“Thank you again for the dictionary,” Cathryn said. “I’ve already used it once.”
“Maybe it’ll be your defence against the lexical dark arts. …Sorry.”
Maybe it isthe lexical dark arts, Cathryn thought. But she didn’t want Lily to feel bad. Badly. Bad. Badly. Wait. Which? Then a thought stabbed her. “Do you have a copy of it?”
Lily laughed. “No, I needed two strong men just to carry that for you. I could almost fit inside the box. I get by with my old college dictionary.”
“And no weird things have happened to you.”
“No weirder than usual.”
They lapsed into silence. Another station came and went. The tired ladies kept talking about pleasant things. Several people stared at their phones. The train wheels screeched as they ground around a tight corner. The goth girl continued her recitation: “And then she said if I wasn’t going to finish the shift then I shouldn’t show up for the next one. So I haven’t eaten a thing all day and I’m so mad I could literally eat this seat.” She did not start eating the seat. “So this is all really awesome.” She seemed filled more with bitterness than with awe. “When I get home I’m going to literally yawn a can of Alpha-getti into my face.” Cathryn almost giggled at the thought. The girl looked down at her boots, lifted one up; the sole flapped a bit. “This boot is a real piece of shit.” It remained a boot. She looked up and saw Cathryn looking in her direction. She looked steadily at Cathryn like she was seeing her own future and it wasn’t what she wanted. Cathryn looked away. The train pulled into the next station and the goth and her taciturn companion flopped off.
“Are you going to be OK?” Lily said. The next stop was Cathryn’s.
“I’m fine. I’m worried about Henry.”
“They’re taking care of him. The nurse said he would be OK.”
“That was the doctor.”
“But her name badge said… Oh. Wow. That’s”—stifled giggle—“unfortunate. I feel bad,” she added sincerely.
“I think he’ll be OK. But I need to find out what’s going on.”
“Do you want me to come up?”
Cathryn looked at Lily, who, though not so much larger than the eponymous flower, did not resemble one in other key details. And would not want to become one. “No, it’s—” What word would carry the least risk of damage? “I’ll be OK. Thank you for coming to meet me.”
“Do you want me to call you in sick tomorrow?”
Cathryn was about to say yes, but a flash of panic stopped her. She couldn’t take a whole day of emesis. “Uh… Mental health day… or whatever. Thanks.” The train slowed and she stood up.
Lily stood up and hugged her. “It’ll be alright.”
“Thank you.” The doors opened. On her way out, by a curious reflex – a reflex of curiosity? – she stooped over momentarily and picked up the bookmark the man had left, slipped it into her purse, and continued on to the nearly empty platform.