Don't Look Back

I live an hour’s train-ride from my office in the inner city. I don’t mind the commute – it’s usually a great time to catch up on my reading, or just quietly contemplate. It’s not such a great time to catch up on sleep, which is the thought that sprung to mind as I was jolted awake by an announcement that my train had reached an unfamiliar station.

Instantly awake, I sprang up and bolted for the doors. Being peak time, this bolting involved more pushing and saying “excuse me” than anything approaching running and was punctuated at the end by my nearly tripping over someone’s bag.

I stumbled onto the platform, gasping, but further movement was arrested by a tug at my left shoulder. My bag was trapped in the train car’s near-solid mass of humanity. I turned around to tug on the strap, making pleading eye-contact with the person nearest the entrance.

The stranger shifted and my bag released instantly, causing me to stumble backward. I nodded to the stranger, noting that there was something familiar about his face. “Say,” I began, “do I know–”

My words were cut off by the train doors closing and the train speeding off. I shrugged and headed for the terminal exit, seeking a map.

The first map I found brought me to an irritating conclusion. In my panic at having fallen asleep on the train, I had misheard the announcer and disembarked two stops too early. Frustrated, I headed for the opposite terminal and waited for the next train.

As I waited, I recalled the familiarity of the stranger in the train doors. Could he have been an old acquaintance? Someone from school or university, perhaps? He was a funny-looking fellow, his face lopsided somehow.

The train was coming in five minutes. I took out my phone and flicked through a couple of messages that had come through while I’d been asleep. Group chat spam, chain-letter spam, and spam spam. The final message was a group photo taken at lunch that day by an inveterate selfie-snapper colleague. I noticed myself in the photo, thought about how weird I always looked in photos, and nearly dropped my phone in astonishment.

The lopsided man in the train doors was me. I had seen my own face, not in a mirror, but on another human being.

~§~

It took me the rest of the train-ride home to rationalise my strange experience. First, I eliminated the following obviously ridiculous possibilities:

  • I had been separated at birth from an identical twin and both of us now lived in the same city.
  • I had travelled to an alternate dimension and met my alternate self.
  • I had time-travelled an imperceptible number of nanoseconds while asleep on the train
  • Someone had built an android replica of me with the intent of having it steal my life.

Then I eliminated a number of other ridiculous possibilities.

Recognising I was getting slightly carried away, I shifted focus to more likely explanations. I’d heard of the phenomenon of doppelgängers, and some research on the internet turned up a couple of sites claiming to match people with strangers who looked exactly like them. The pictures were a bit creepy, in that way identical twins are, but they went a long way to reassure me of the utter banality of my train experience.

As I disembarked this second train – this time at the correct stop, and thankfully with a lot less jostling – I found that my recollection of the incident was already growing fuzzy, and I decided that maybe this stranger hadn’t even looked all that much like me, that it had all been a trick of memory.

Thanks to my little misadventure, my commute had taken longer than usual and it was starting to get dark as I cycled out of the station. Few people lingered on the streets in the twilight, and a cold wind picked up. The only sounds were the wind and my bicycle’s wheels turning. I cycled faster.

My apartment building was also very quiet. The front desk was unmanned, and I was happy to find when I went up to my rooms on the fifth floor that my downstairs neighbour wasn’t doing his usual evening sound system test.

As can be deduced from my falling asleep on the train, I was very tired that day, having gotten into work early to work on a project that was nearing deadline. Grateful for the peace and quiet, I ate a small supper and went to bed.

~§~

The next day was another early morning. Our deadline was the end of the week, and I didn’t fancy doing weekend overtime. I woke up while it was still dark and pedalled to the train station with my back to the sunrise. My arrival on the platform was perfectly timed with the train’s, and I stepped on, found a seat, and opened a book.

The next thing I remember is waking up, again, to the sound of an announcement that the train was arriving at an unfamiliar station. My first instinct was to panic, but I quickly remembered yesterday’s mistake and smugly kept my seat.

I awoke once more to the announcement of another unfamiliar station. This time it was real, and I jumped to my feet and rushed for the exit, being able to rush with great freedom as few other commuters were on this early train.

I jumped onto the platform, felt a tug at my shoulder and a strong sense of déjà vu, turned around, and faced myself.

The other me had a bland expression and appeared to be looking past me at the tiled platform, or maybe one of the adverts on the wall. Before I could open my mouth to get his attention, the train doors snapped shut and the train roared off, leaving me on the deserted platform.

I had gotten off one stop too soon. Thanks to a subsequent train delay, I ended up being late rather than early for work, and had to rush to catch up on my work. To make matters worse, a number of people had called in sick that day, and I was further delayed by their absence.

I left work in a cloud of frustration and boarded the train in an angry stomp. To keep myself from taking a now habitual nap, I elected to stand for the whole hour instead of sitting.

This was clearly a short-lived resolution, as I awoke once again, seated on one of the side-benches, to the sound of the announcer. This time, though, he announced my very stop, and I felt momentarily relieved. I sauntered out of the sparsely populated train car and onto the platform, feeling rejuvenated. If I could get the timing right like this, maybe these naps wouldn’t be so bad after all. On a whim, I glanced behind me.

I stared back at myself, and myself stared back at me. The spark of recognition in his eye must have resembled my own. He opened his mouth to speak, but the train was gone in an instant.

Severely creeped out, I turned around to find myself facing a map. The map clearly showed that I had gotten out only one stop after the one I’d left from. I swore aloud, then immediately put my hand to my mouth, looking around to see if I’d offended anyone. But I was the only person on the platform.

~§~

I can hear the sound of conversation, the bustle and commotion of a train station, the cars and pedestrians on the city streets, the chatter of neighbours in my apartment building, but it’s as though someone turned down the volume of the world. And the last person I looked in the eyes was myself.

The next train took me home, but there were no people on its platform, no people in the cars, and no announcements as it stopped at stations along the way. I stayed awake, wide-eyed and staring, for the whole trip, and all I heard was the whoosh of train and an occasional crack of static from the speakers.

I cycled home without beholding a soul, and I arrived at my apartment without meeting anyone on the way up. The messages I’ve sent haven’t been received, and there are no responses to my knocking on others’ doors.

I’ve stopped bothering with work, although the train seems to work fine without any people. For food, I take what I will, as there is no-one around to sell to me or stop me. I wander the empty streets by day, and return to sleep in my lonely room by night.

But still I can hear them. I think the sound is growing fainter, but I can hear people – the buzz of conversation, the stamping of feet, laughter and angry shouting, all seemingly around the next corner, but not. Whether I walk or run, I cannot reach the source of the sound.

Sometimes I think of myself – the other self, on the train, the one I saw so many times as I got off at the wrong stop, an early stop. He did not follow me. He must have disembarked where he intended to, following the proper course of things. I diverged from that path, and with every divergence, my world grew emptier, until there was only me. The wrong me.

I have taken one final resolution. Once this document is completed, I will print one hundred copies and leave them everywhere in cycling distance, as a warning and final memoir. Then I will return to the train station, take my usual line, and fall into a deep sleep. When I awaken, I will leave the train, emptying this world of its final inhabitant.


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