Those Who Ride
Jonathan J. Sample
Selenia's toes wriggled and sharply folded back towards her feet, scratching the insoles of her slippers along the way. Every evening the cacophony screaming from the metallic friction of the incoming homebound-tram triggered this reaction. Her slippers were far from grateful and would, if they could, emote in a fashion similar to her face which displayed tremendous discomfort at the noise.
Her eyes opened from their tight squint and gazed up at the softly glowing sign above the nearest rail car's side door. “Laurel Manor via Sharpton Hall” it read. She mentally cursed the indirectness of the subterranean lines and departed the dim of the empty platform. Her hand went out for the nearest vertical bar inside the car's open doorway, wrapped, every few inches or so in frustratingly tacky tape. Hauling herself in, her eyes drooping with the fatigue that meets each worker at day's end, she quickly shuffled herself over to the nearby beverage machine and punched up a concoction which would surely set her to right until she could crash into her pillowy nest at home.
A long and slender can crashed down into the hulking machine's scratched, silvery escape hatch. Selenia reached down for it, adjusting her shoulder bag as she did so, realizing then that the can was not actually the one she initially requested. Damn, she thought, and let the arm which bore the incorrect beverage droop down to her side. Finally she looked up into the rest of the tram car to see who would be accompanying her on today's end of the day commute. The frustration from the beverage incident carried over to pick up the slack for the reaction to what her eyes now saw.
Unfortunately this evening the tram staff saw fit to remove all but one of the side benches, excusing their inconsiderate action with a hastily scribbled sign which read, “Apologies. Use top rail for support if seating is unavailable. Thank you, from the Cor-Eidolon City Tram Support Staff.”
She let escape a sigh-grunt amalgam and studied the only bench in the nearly empty car. Upon it sat two familiar yet incredibly exasperating characters. To one side was a hirsute gal Selenia and other passengers had come to call the Fastidious Frump. The Frump sat on a side of the bench which struggled to hold her bulk. Her hair was matted down all over her body except for a defiant strand or two of head hair. She stared forward with a wide-eyed gaze and a tight, forced smile. A clumsily arranged tie hung about her neck and upon her lap sat a briefcase which was fooling no one. The briefcase belonged to a certain practitioner of the medicinal arts, a Mr. Harvey McWetter MD according to its label. Surely this McWetter fellow, the more than obvious previous owner, was someone of high societal standing and great importance. Clearly different from the Frump who could be seen, by day, aimlessly wandering the streets at the heart of the Cor, gazing up at the monoliths of purpose, and basking in the energy of the most important place in the whole of their world. She now hummed, tight-smiling and clutching the briefcase with her long-nailed hands.
To the Frump's right, across a small space which Selenia painfully realized was the only available seat left in the car, hunched a curious-looking fellow who was wearing a stupefied expression. His dress was clean and casual. A silken, deep-red scarf hung from around his neck, resting on the lapel of a flawless deep-blue overcoat. His head was a pulsing, ashy ember. This was a typical feature of his kind, one of the most important peoples of the city. His title, which he only offered to those who could manage to coax a word or two from him, was Mr. Ash. His mouth hung agape, revealing dozens of diamond, baby-sized teeth. He, too, was staring forward but with eyes which, when visible in the calm of his mental ember, seemed to scream panic.
Selenia made her way cautiously over to the two oddities, her skirt swaying in the gust which coursed through the car as the doors hissed shut. The tram began to jerk towards movement and she stared now at the two folks possessing the majority of the sole bench. She gestured with a bobbing head and inquiring brown eyes towards what she hoped would be her resting place for the journey home. Her mouth was obscured by the can which she held up to her face, playing at the its tab with her teeth as she tired of waiting for the vacant expressions to glance her way and provide the courtesy of a seat offering.
Mr. Ash shuffled his gloved fingers between and around each other while continuing his stressed gaze forward. His mouth closed and then opened again. He didn't pay her any mind nor offer her any invitation. As usual he was wordless.
“Go ahead. There's room,” blurted the Frump who shifted her glassy, golden eyes up to look into Selenia's soft, brown orbs. “Plenty of room here, dear, dear. Take it.”
Selenia bowed a thank you towards both, continuing her teeth-play of the can tab, and swung her backside round to squeeze between the two seated figures. Each of them adjusted, Mr. Ash soundlessly as the Frump let slip a surprised grunt. “Sorry,” apologized Selenia.
“Nothing bothering, dear. All's well,” responded Frump. “Quite.”
Orange lights shifted past the car's windows, slowly at first but then streaking as the tram picked up its speed. The whole of the car in which the trio sat shook its usual shake, rocking back and forth as it was whisked along with the rest of the long-linked, snaking transport. The bright, sterile glow of the faint-blue car lights caused everything within to take on an intense focus while the darkness of the tunnel without became even more overwhelming. A speaker above the three attempted for a few seconds to entertain them with a particle of instrumentals. They looked up in unison as a crackle came on the line and faded away into nothing. It hadn't done that in a while, thought Selenia. This caused her to notice the severe disrepair in which the tram car existed. It was patched up and bandaged like a persistent prize-fighter who just wouldn't go down in spite of reason and a dozen or more broken, vital bits.
The Frump's clanky, nailed hands shifted their grip on the briefcase of Dr. McWetter as she attempted to turn her bulk slightly to face Selenia who only felt her tight space become more so as a result. The Frump had no neck so torso motion was the only way for her inefficient make up to allow her head to get a decent look around. She strained to make eye contact with the mostly squished Selenia, “How was your day in the city, dear, dear?”
“More of the same. Deliveries, deliveries, and, when the time calls for it, more deliveries. It's a living.”
“It would have to be,” replied the Frump who readjusted to face forward, much to Selenia's relief. “We're fortunate to hold such wonderful work spots in so lovely a city, no?”
Selenia chuckled nervously and fingered the top of her now open beverage cannister. “Sure thing, Frump. Lucky workers, us.”
“I had a marvelous day flitting about my extremely busy schedule,” continued the Frump. “So many tasks to complete and so many places to visit, you know. It's lovely to have such purpose, really.”
“Mm-hm!” Selenia responded with a friendly, feminine crescendo. She wondered what it was the Frump was referring to and if she should break it to the Frump that she was aware of how little Frump actually did while in the city. In fact she wondered where the Frump was heading now. Home? A new place to wander until the next day? What a mystery is the Frump, she thought while transitioning her focus to a light, slow hum she decided to begin.
“What's the point of any of it?” Mr. Ash groaned inquiringly, much to the incredible surprise of Selenia and the Frump.
“Whatever do you mean?” huffed the Frump as she kept the briefcase from slipping off her lap. “The city runs and living continues. You better than anybody knows that, Mr. Ash, sir! Where's your pride, huh?”
Selenia let her eyes slip to their right corners. Her gaze fell upon the now drooping head of Mr. Ash who shook it from side to side, quickly blinking his eyes. “Are you all right, Mr. Ash?”
“I got a glimpse of something today and lost all hope because of it. We, all of us, are now in the doomed business of holding back degradation. We're all units busying ourselves with futilities. Haven't you noticed?”
At this Mr. Ash shifted his head to view Selenia's curious face. She locked eyes with the fellow as his glow died down and the intensity of his worried look pierced her. In spite of his radiating warmth she felt a ghastly chill. What was it he'd seen from his lofty vantage point? What had he noticed that she and others neglected, she wondered.
“It's all for naught, you see,” Mr. Ash moaned. “If you doubt me look up tonight as you make your way home. That's not majesty. It's pure rot and utter failure. ”
“Now that's quite enough, Mr. Ash!” bellowed the Frump. “You are a foul and faithless being, you! Obviously you can't see the good and meaningful work our society does. We're maintaining and doing a powerful job at it. We're blessed to be here doing what we do. Blessed!”
At the screech which ended the Frump's reply to Mr. Ash Selenia felt her toes repeating their initial response to the halting tram. She looked from side to side nervously at the two beings which flanked her and felt the huffy rise and fall of the Frump's breathing. Mr. Ash stared downward and made soft sobbing sounds. She couldn't help but feel an overwhelming fear and an insane panic rise up from deep within. Her hand suddenly shot up and yanked the signal line which ran along the top of the car's windows. An audible ding rung off the metal interior of the car and startled the Frump.
“What? What's the matter?” the Frump implored of the panicking Selenia. “Don't let this fool get at you. He just doesn't appreciate or understand anything. Everything is fine! You're fine!”
Selenia popped out of between her emotional neighbors and made a break for the car door as the tram eased off its speed to cruise into the nearest stop. Mr. Ash didn't pay her any mind as he continued his mourning, facing floorward. The Frump just huffed and anxiously looked from the fleeing girl to the pathetic Mr. Ash scowling at the latter. Selenia hastily squeezed out of the slowly opening door, dropping her half-full can which poured its remaining contents all over the litter-cluttered tram floor.
“Well, fine, stupid girl,” growled the Frump as she folded her arms and let Dr. McWetter's briefcase fall to the soiled car floor. “Listen to this nitwit! I don't care! No pride or sense in anyone these days! Forget you! The whole stupid lot of you!”
Mr. Ash folded over and continued to sob. His surrender was now completely apparent in that it was more than confessed, it was displayed.
Selenia quickly made the surface in a brief moment of flight. Her breath struggled to right itself as she leaned against the railing. She couldn't help but look up. There it was, she realized. The grand flaw. Mr. Ash was right. There was nothing marvelous or beautiful about it. It was a tragic, nightmarish end creeping across the dome of reality. She fell to her knees sobbing uncontrollably.
Somewhere far beyond the realm of Cor-Eidolon on a plane of existence apart from the seeminlgy ill-fated city, in fact, a place external to the realm itself, a sickly figure felt sudden, powerful despair course through its form as signals of pain radiated through its limbs. Hopelessness was all that it now knew as it lay slightly inclined upon a hospital bed. Death soon, it thought. No matter. It then shuddered for what was to be the last time.