Monday, March 17, 2014

"The Commute" - the definitive version

No longer constrained by the 1,500 word limit, I re-vamped a couple of scenes and added back in the original beginning and ending.  Not really flash fiction, not really a short story. Meh, it's 2,200 words of fiction, I'll take it.

The Commute

                “Meow the door, please?”
                Scratch, scratch.
                Jeff looked up from his laptop toward the front of the railcar as it accelerated out of the station. The portly man to his right, the only other person in the compartment, started out of a mid-snore, sat up straight and stared straight forward.
The sliding door at the front of the car was being pushed from the opposite side, but didn’t open.  The other rider looked toward the back of the train, muttered “last car” car under his breath. He turned toward Jeff, sweat glistening on his balding head starting to seep through his rumpled business shirt. 
Grabbing his briefcase from the next seat, the fat man wiped a sleeve across his skull, and leapt toward the front of the compartment.  After pushing the black rectangle to open the door, he bowed his head toward the floor.  Muttering something apologetically, he shuffled through the door before it could close
“About time,” came a voice as the door closed. The voice had an odd quality to it, somewhat high like a child’s, but gravelly, like a child with a pack-a-day habit. Like the Munchkins that were spending their hard earned money at the Munchkin strip club when Judy Garland showed up in Oz.
Seeing nobody enter the car, Jeff shrugged and went back to playing Candy Crush.
“Hey, it’s M.M,” The oddly high voice came nearer, apparently engaged in a phone conversation. “Yeah, I might be late getting home tonight.  Could you distract Owner? Thanks.”
“Excuse me,” the voice now sounded directed at Jeff. As he slowly moved his eyes to the right, it continued, “You’re in meow seat.”
Jeff looked to his right. Standing in the aisle of the train was a cat, grey with black stripes, yellow-green eyes looking up solemnly.  It blinked at Jeff. He blinked back, looked around, saw nobody. He leaned toward the aisle to get a better glimpse.
“Your seat?” he asked to nobody in particular. “I didn’t see anybody’s things.”
“Gotta go,” the cat said into a Bluetooth earpiece, raising his paw to tap it off. “Meow you, too.”
“You’re a cat.”
“And you’re talking.”
Jeff had never known a cat could roll its eyes, but this one just did.
“You’ve never seen Family Guy?” the cat finally asked.
Jeff nodded.
“Brian talks. He’s a dog.”
“But that’s a cartoon.”
“You’re a cartoon.”
The click of steel wheels on steel track made the only sound.
“I hate to be a burden,” Jeff continued, “but I’m already unpacked here. My laptop’s got a bad battery. I need the outlet.”
The two stared at each other. 
“Besides, you’ve been on this side of the door for a full minute. Aren’t you going to meow to go back out now?”
The cat’s pupils dilated and re-focused. Ears twitched sideways, backwards, then forward.  Pupils contracted from round and playful to vertical coal strips.  Pushing its back legs into the ground, it pounced onto the top of the empty chair next to Jeff.
It walked along the seat backs, half curling three times in an attempt to get comfortable before finally stretching out along the entire back. The chair shook as the cat licked its front leg to clean behind its ear. The tail twitched back and forth, flicking Jeff’s ear in the process. 
“I’d say I meow you don’t mind, but I actually hope this meows you to the core.”
“Look, cat, I was here first.”
“I get that. You’re new here. I make this commute every day and that seat helps me wind down from a rough day.  Got to get home before meow owner does, or else he worries I’m stuck in somebody’s garage or something. To relax, I need some grooming, a comfortable setting. That’s why I marked that seat.”
“Gross,” Jeff fidgeted, sniffing around. “You peed on this?”
“Do I look like a meowing dog?” the cat asked. “I rubbed my chin on it. It’s called pheromones. You humans think you’re so smart.”
“You can’t claim a seat the day before,” exclaimed Jeff, tired of being condescended to by a cat. “This isn’t Cheers, you aren’t Norm.”
Was that acquiescence? A challenge? Jeff shook his head, trying to clear his mind, and turned back toward his laptop. He reached for the Ziploc bags containing his uneaten lunch. Maybe he was just hungry.
The cat’s paws tapped the top of his head.  He ignored it, took a bite of his sandwich. The cat tapped again.
“Knock it off, stupid cat.”
“Who meows tuna on a train?”
Two things happened simultaneously.  The train darkened as it entered a tunnel, while the paw hit Jeff for the third time. This time, however, sharp claws poked into his scalp.  He jerked, from both surprise and pain, and claws scraped across his scalp.
A furry noose constricted around his throat.
Jeff twitched and flailed. The laptop shattered to the floor while tuna salad spilled over the adjacent seat. The armrest lodged into his side, leaving Jeff gasping for breath.
“Tail,” Jeff gulped out loud. “It was just a tail.”
The train exited the tunnel. As light filtered back in, Jeff saw himself, askew and akimbo across two train seats.  His arms were flailing where the cat had been, which was now vacant.
Instead, the cat peered down from the seatback in front of him.  Sitting on its back legs, it casually licked its right paw. Pupils contracted whenever the tongue neared the protruding claw.
“Meow a sight.”
Jeff’s hand went out to steady him, but landed directly into the tuna salad.
“You ever meow Johnny Cash?”
Lick, stare, lick.
“I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die? He wrote that about meow.”
“Stupid cat,” Jeff responded. “That song is fifty years old. What are you, five?”
“Eight in cat years, times seven, is fifty-six.”
“That… That… makes no sense.” 
 “It was 1954. I was meowing from a kitten into a cat.  Let me meow you about it.”
“Shut up!” snapped Jeff. “Just shut the hell up! Bob Barker’s right, we should cut off all your balls!”
The paw dropped. The eyes lost their sparkle, the joy gone. The stone-cold glare that remained left Jeff’s heart cold.  His feline tormenter had just crossed from Auric Goldfinger to Hannibal Lecter.
“Bob. Meowing. Barker.”
Jeff tensed as the cat leapt, but relaxed when he realized it was going the opposite direction. Sitting upright, removing his hand from the fishy mayonnaise, he saw the cat as it jumped up onto the forward-most seat. After waiting a beat while the train straightened, the cat flew directly onto the black rectangular button that opened the door, then disappeared from Jeff’s sight.
He began to shake when the door closed, finally realizing the fight-or-flight mode his body had been in when it started to ebb.  He wiped his hand on the back of a seat.  As his breathing returned to normal, he grabbed the apple that had rolled out of his lunch bag into the tuna goo.  Wiping it off calmed him further.
When the pounding in his ears lessened, he heard a scratching sound through the open window. He rose on wobbly legs, but had no view of what the cat was doing on the other side of the door.  
“Just leave it, Jeff,” he muttered to himself. “It can’t hurt you from the other side. Curiosity killed the-“
Scratch, scratch.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
Jeff staggered out to the aisle. Laboring through exhausting steps in a lilting car, he finally emerged through the quicksand of the aisleway. Leaning against the door, he peered through the plexiglass window.  
The cat was wrapped around the cable connecting this car to the rest of the train.  Its back was lodged against the ball hitch, front claws imbedded in the thick plastic. Its powerful back legs kicked with the force and pace of a jackhammer.
While the cat was occupied with this futile endeavor, Jeff thought now was a good time to make a dash for the other car and safety.  He could even kick the cat onto the tracks en route. 
He pushed the rectangle in the middle of the door. Nothing happened.
He pushed again. He slapped, punched, pounded the button, but the door would not budge.  Turning his body sideways to slam his shoulder into door, he finally noticed freshly-sliced wires coming out of a control panel, underneath a bright red button printed “Override.”
Jeff staggered back. Despite telling himself that the cat could not cut through the cable,  his panic started to rise.  Then the train entered another tunnel.
Jeff dashed toward the back, but only made it two steps before crashing over an armrest.  He sprawled out onto the floor of the cabin, smashing his temple onto hard plastic on the way down.  By the time he could re-focus, the waning afternoon sunshine was back.
The cat was back in the car, perched on the armrest of the first seat, haunches arced in the classic Halloween pose.  The sound emanating from it was a low, guttural growl mixed with a hiss. 
“Look, cat, you can have your seat. Just let me the hell out of here.”
The cat continued its odd sound, now mixed with a dash of purring. Jeff backed up on the floor of the aisle, cowering into a seat alcove. His right hand brushed against the apple, which must have rolled out when he fell in the darkness. 
Flight instinct turned desperately to fight. He sat up and fired a perfect fastball at the cat. His adversary deftly jumped aside. The apple sped through the air above the recently vacated armrest and slammed into the red button beside the locked door.
Brakes squealed and the car heaved, slamming Jeff toward the front.  A myriad of sounds and sensations assaulted his mind. The smell of brake fluid and hot steel as wheels locked onto tracks.  The sound of frayed and shredded plastic snapping as ten full-speed train cars broke away from the braking final car.  The shaking of a car that couldn’t decide if it should shatter where it stood or graciously fall off the track.
One sight stayed with him: a grey alley cat with black stripes, jaundiced eyes and black-slit pupils staring down from the open window.  He closed his eyes, struggled to open them again. The cat turned its tail and leapt free from the train.  Then his world went black.

A man wandered through the woods.  He wasn’t sure how he got there. He looked down and saw torn and tattered business clothes.  His arms were bruised and bloody.  And was that soot? Exhausted, he moved his hand up to his brow to wipe away sweat and winced.  Something definitely wasn’t right there.  He pulled his hand back and saw fresh blood.
He staggered through a row of trees and collapsed on the side of a road. Headlights approached through bleary eyes, and he mustered every ounce of body control he had to prop himself up on an elbow and raise his other arm.  The intended wave came across as a very bad Statue of Liberty impression. 
The car stopped, and the man crawled toward it. As the window rolled down, he used two raw, chapped hands to pull himself up and peered in to the driver.
“You look horrible, guy. Were you part of that train wreck?”
The man tried to think back. Had he been on a train? He licked chapped lips but could not wet them.  He hacked a smoker’s cough.
“Let me take you into town,” the driver offered. “Get you to a hospital or something.”
The man nodded futilely. As he grasped for the door handle, the man’s attention was forced onto the passenger seat. He froze.
Sitting on the passenger’s seat was a grey cat with black stripes and yellow eyes.
“I hope you’re not allergic,” the driver said, moving his hand to pet the top of the cat’s head. The cat closed its eyes and soaked up the attention and started to purr.
“I just don’t know how Mr. Mistoffelees made it all this way out of town.”
The driver moved his hand underneath the cat’s chin and started scratching.  The cat, eyes still closed, lifted its chin in the air and rubbed it against the human fingers.  The purr grew.
“They say cats can hear their owner’s car from far away.  They have a sixth sense. Is that why you came to get me, Mr. MIstoffelees? Is it? Oh, what a good boy!”
The purr became deafening to the stranger, the only sound that could penetrate the fog in his brain.
“Well, get on in, I’ll drive you to town.”
The cat turned its face in the wounded man’s direction and opened its eyes. The pupils were tight vertical slits focused on the wounded man. The cat’s tongue darted out to lick the left side of its lip, retracted, then licked the right side. Its pupils toyingly grew to full circles. The purring reached a crescendo.
“No thanks,” said Jeff.  “I’ll just walk.”

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