The Commuter

A short story by Meg Sorick.

There were five of them in the car as far as I could tell. Three squished in the back seat and two up front. I could hear the music blasting through the open windows. They all were singing along. Only teenagers could be that happy stuck in rush hour traffic. Lucky dogs.

We inched forward a little and I thought back to the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I had two jobs —both part time, both of them waitressing gigs— but it hadn’t prevented me from going out every night of the week. All my friends were doing the same kind of thing —working our summer jobs, sharing cheap apartments, surviving on Ramen noodles and thrift store clothes, so we had beer money instead. It might possibly have been the happiest time of my life.

In the car in front of me, the song changed and the kids sang louder. The old Chevy positively shook as they danced in their seats. I sighed. Where had the years gone?

Finally, thirty minutes later, the log jam broke and traffic started moving. I changed lanes and passed the concert on wheels. Stealing a glance over, I saw a snapshot of the past. Five carefree souls not worrying about a thing. Just you wait, my little darlings. Life is about to smack you in the face. Student loans, credit scores, mortgages, car payments, insurance, utilities, taxes…

I pulled in the driveway an hour and fifteen minutes after I left work. This commute was killing me. As I dropped my keys on the hall table and kicked off my shoes, I smelled the scent of tomatoes and garlic wafting from the kitchen. I followed my nose. My husband looked up from the stove when I entered. “Hey,” he said with a smile. “Kiss the cook?”

I kissed him, but I was distracted by the scene on the television in the corner. The news was on.

“Accident on the Schuylkill. Quite a mess,” my husband said.

The scene on TV was shot from a circling news helicopter. A crash. Two exits before mine.

“Lucky you were past it already,” he said. “Or you’d have been even later.”

I recognized the old Chevy. Life is about to smack you in the face…

(Header image thanks to Philly.com)

Suburban Station

Written in response to Angela’s photo prompt for Tell the Story Challenge. Her beautiful poetry can be found at Heartbreathings. As I’m in the midst of, and bogged down on both my works in progress, I was happy to attempt this piece of short fiction as an alternative. So based on the photo below, here is my story: Suburban Station.

I was a pop superstar. I had an agent and a stage name. I got discovered at age 16 when I made the cut for Next American Star and spent most of my twenties either in the studio or on the road. I was a household name. I had all the girls I could want but I never fell in love. I had a house in California and an apartment in New York. I owned three sports cars before I even got my driver’s license.

You know what comes with that kind of life. It’s a cliche, really. Late nights, parties, booze, drugs and then other drugs the next day just so you can get up to do it all over again. And of course, the inevitable hangers-on, the leeches that form your entourage, managing your affairs so you can concentrate on being creative while they suck away your fortunes. I still have some of mine. I guess I was lucky.

It’s been two years. I’m thirty-one now but I look a lot older than that. The drugs and the pills and everything else have taken a toll. One morning, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. A hotel, yes, but what city? I had stumbled to the bathroom and puked, only to find, when I pulled my head out of the toilet, some dude sleeping in the bathtub. I didn’t recognize him. Nor did I know any of the other partiers passed out in the room. Was it even my room? I checked the closet. Yeah, those were my clothes. I had to get out of here.

I left the hotel room, found out I was in Miami, and vaguely recalled playing Hard Rock Stadium the night before. I took a cab to the airport. Tour canceled, the star is unwell. That concert was my last. I fired my manager, I sold both my homes, all my cars and hoarded what was left of my wealth.

I went home to Philadelphia and bought a small townhouse. I go by my given name. At rush hour I take my guitar to Suburban Station and play for the passengers boarding the trains. Sometimes people look at me funny –like maybe I seem familiar or something. Nobody’s ever asked. The rest of the time I volunteer to teach music in after school programs for inner city kids. That’s where I met my girlfriend, Jill. She’s a teacher, too. And she’s the only one who knows my secret. I’m not sure how long my money will hold out, but for the first time in my life I am happy.

***

Inhuman (14)

To read from the beginning, please visit the Inhuman Page.

No sooner had Amanda made the short walk home from the bus stop and stepped in the front door, than her phone rang. She pulled it from her handbag. Nathan. “Hello,” she answered.

“Hi. How’d your first day go?” he asked.

“Uh, well… it was kind of overwhelming actually.” She paused. “I saw Brian.”

“Oh… No one told me he, um, was up and running again. That must’ve been … difficult.”

“To say the least. Listen, I really need to ask you…”

“About dinner?” He hurriedly cut her off. “I thought it would be a good idea to give you a little tour of the town and have a bite to eat at the local diner. Nothing fancy.”

Right, no talking openly on the phone.  “Yes, that’s perfect. I was wondering what you had in mind.” They made plans for Nathan to pick her up in an hour and they disconnected. He has something more in mind than just a tour of the town, she thought. But I wonder if there’s any place where we can speak freely. And speak about what exactly? 

After changing from her work attire and freshening her makeup, Amanda watched from the front window for Nathan’s car. Some of her neighbors were walking to their homes, from the direction of the main road. From the bus stop? she wondered. Did they all work at the lab? 

Amanda didn’t wait for Nathan to get out of the car, but ran out before he turned off the engine. “Hi,” she said sliding into the passenger seat. “Ready whenever you are.”

A surprised Nathan said, “Ah, ok. Well, let’s show you around the neighborhood first.” Then holding a finger to his lips, he handed her a sheet of paper with a handwritten note. It read: ‘Be careful. Keep conversation general. I will take the lead. You can ask about the lab but nothing to arouse suspicion. When we go into the restaurant, leave your phone in the car. I believe we will be relatively safe if we are discreet.’

While Amanda read, Nathan began describing the town. “The streets in Makepeace all run parallel to Main Street and the avenues perpendicular. This was a designed community, founded just after the Second World War to house the returning soldiers and their families. The public works projects of the 1930’s had just brought the Interstate highway system through this part of Pennsylvania and the general thinking was that the region was going to boom.” He glanced over. “But then the coal ran out and other industries didn’t come in to replace it.”

“And the mine fire was the final blow,” she added.

“Exactly.” They had reached the stop sign and after stopping to look both ways on the empty street, Nathan turned left. A few blocks later, they arrived at the town’s center —also empty— and pulled into the restaurant parking lot. By use of gestures, Nathan reminded Amanda to leave her cell phone in the car.

The Black Rock Cafe was doing a meager business on this Monday evening. Nathan led Amanda to a booth away from the other diners and slid in across from her. “Just keep your voice down,” he warned. “Now, tell me. How was your first day, really?”

“Fine. I guess. I mean, if I didn’t know what was really going on at the place, it would feel like any other normal office job.” She frowned. “Except for all the security. And the whole taking-the-company-bus-to-work thing. And everyone staring at me. And seeing the man who I was married to a few weeks ago who is now a reprogrammed military android, pass me and not recognize me. Oh god…” She rubbed her temples. “So it was weird, ok? And scary.”

“Hmm, yeah. I’m sure it was.” 

The server interrupted them to bring water and take their order. After she had gone, Amanda said, “The other day went I went to the supermarket, the cashier knew my name. How? I am positive I didn’t give it to her.”

“Well, like I said before, we haven’t had any turnover or brought in anyone new since the program started. You’re a curiosity.”

“Yeah, but the store cashier…?” Her eyes widened. “Is the supermarket owned by the agency, too?”

Nathan looked uncomfortable. “Actually, the entire town is owned and operated by the agency. All the shops and services give the appearance of being independent but everyone in Makepeace is being paid directly or indirectly by the agency. It’s the only way to maintain the facility’s secrecy.” 

So I can’t trust anyone in this town, she thought.

Nathan continued, “An outsider is going to explore the area. Even with all the precautions, they might see something that doesn’t make sense, start poking around. You can see how dangerous that would be.”

“Yeah, and not just for the agency,” she said, shivering. “Nathan, why the hell didn’t the agency just kill me? Or get me out of the way in some other fashion? Wouldn’t that have been easier than bringing me into the fold? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Amanda, we need your help…”

She snorted. “We? Who’s we? What possible help can I be working in the purchasing department? And help how? And for what?”

He sighed. “Look, it was my idea to bring you on board. I managed to convince the director and his advisors that you wouldn’t pose a risk. You had too much to lose. We —Leo and I and the missing androids— need your help because you’re an outsider, because you’re new and because after a very short while no one is going to be paying attention to you in the purchasing department.”

“So what do I do, just lay low and wait?”

He nodded. “Yes. Just do your job. We’re sailing uncharted waters here. Leo’s primary goal is to preserve his creations. His living creations. He truly believes —and I’ve begun to agree— that these androids are self aware, sentient, alive. Not human —something else. Something new. And we have to try to save them. Not just for Leo’s sake, not just for their sake personally, but for the sake of an entire new species of life.”

Amanda felt chilled, thinking, it sounds almost like religious fervor. Who’s playing god? The doctor? “Nathan, this is insane. These are matters better left to theologians and philosophers. You say they’re alive because they’re intelligent and self aware.”

“Don’t forget sentient — they have feelings, too.” 

“Fine. But that still doesn’t fit the definition of life. They don’t really breathe, digest food for fuel, their bodies don’t repair themselves and they can’t reproduce.”

Nathan smiled wryly. “You’ve been doing your homework.”

“Of course I’ve been doing my homework,” she hissed. “Do you really think I’d just blindly walk into this situation —this dangerous situation— and not find out as much as I could on the subject?”

Nathan’s smile was genuine now. “I told Leo you were smart. And capable. And resourceful I think, too. That’s why you can help.” He leaned forward. “We can trust you, Amanda. You haven’t been drinking the agency kool aid for the past twenty years.”

“Thanks, I think,” she said, running her hands through her hair. “For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the issue of whether or not the androids are alive. The agency still wants them back in any way shape or form. You can’t possibly think they’re going to care what kind of lives the androids have made for themselves, do you? Seriously, as soon as Dr. Knight builds the next prototype, won’t they just swoop in and capture them like they did with Brian?

“Yes, yes, you’re right of course. But making that offer has bought us some time. Time to plan and figure a way out of this.”

“Oh good, great. I’m glad to hear there isn’t really a plan,” Amanda muttered. 

Nathan held up his hands. “Look, priority one is to locate Adam and Diana without the agency finding out. If and when we do, we will find a way to keep them in hiding and completely educate them as to who and what they are. Information will be their best protection.”

“Wait. Adam and Diana? One of them is female?”

Nathan nodded. “Yep, there are women serving in the infantry. Not many, but some. Diana was going to be one more.”

Their food order arrived and they waited before Nathan resumed. “Purchasing will give you access to the network and the database. The doctor will supply you with all the information he has on the androids, one at a time, to be on the safe side. Your first job, Amanda, is going to be finding Adam.”