Mary Claire Garcia

What The Girl Watched

                I was a watcher. There isn't any other word appropriate for what I was. Mind you, it’s not a job or a perverse habit. It was just what I had become – a watcher. I watched and that was that.
                It was five years ago – a rainy morning in August. It was also the first day of my uneventful college life – a day I would never forget. Not because of a freshman reason like walking in the wrong class or meeting the love of my life on the first day. It was something darker, something I myself find hard to understand. It was something that I eventually looked forward to every morning.
                I walked to the train station and arrived there at exactly 7:30. The train will be arriving at 7:45. My class wouldn't start until 9:00 but I was a stickler for time. I had never been late my whole life. I would find out that I would have more than half an hour of time to spare every morning in the university but I wouldn’t change my daily habit until the incident.
                The incident was something no one else could understand. When it happened, my parents were confused and worried but no psychologist could come up with a good explanation except for the fact that I had developed a trauma for trains. After the incident, I could no longer look at trains. I would be reduced to a human ball on the ground, shivering, with eyes shut, and hands covering my ears. The fear would hold me captive for exactly fifteen minutes. It was a very long time for me and for those who witnessed my pitiful situation. A picture of a train, a toy train, or even a five-year-old's drawing of a train had the same power over me. Even mentioning the word “train” to me or a bad impersonation of its sound did the trick too.
                My life had changed ever since. Everyday I would wear headphones and carried a map with me with marks where any remembrance of a train, be that a drawing of a train or a kid playing with his toy train could be found. Years later, the map looked like someone had splattered red ink all over it. There were too many trains or reminders of trains in the city and I never even realized that before I had developed my trauma. Now, let me tell you what happened before the incident. Let me tell you what had happened that had caught up to me once again even after all these years. Let me tell you about them.
                It was a rainy morning in August as I’ve already said. I was happy because I got to use my new umbrella that I had bought with my new "college school supplies." I arrived at the train station a little less wet than the adults who came streaming in the train station with me. I would like to say that I was full of life and blooming with possibilities as how a freshman should be in a novel of this time. But that wouldn't be true. Now that I think of it, I was empty. I just wanted to think that I was happy because there was no reason for me to be sad either. I was trapped in the mediocre of emotions and that itself was kind of sad. I wanted to have a reason. I selfishly envied other people who had dramatic highs and lows in their lives. That was before them. They were the ones who filled my emptiness. But they were also the ones who left me feeling empty.
                The people were starting to stream in. There was a huge analogue clock hanging from the ceiling. Beside that, there was a countdown timer. Both of them counted the time in red. At first, I was only looking at the countdown timer but that got boring fast. I decided to observe the would-be passengers like me. That was when I first saw them.
                There were five people who were holding hands by the edge of the platform. They were in a straight line, facing the tracks, oblivious from the curious stares they were getting. But that wasn't the only thing that drew me to them. They looked so different from each other. From the left, there was Obese Guy, Druggy Man, Nerdy Schoolgirl, Business Woman, and Pregnant Woman. I admit that it was really judgmental of me to think of them in that way, naming them with those stereotypes in my head even though I really had no idea about them. But I could not find any other terms or nicknames to give them. I gave them those stereotype nicknames because they looked like those stereotypes. They were living and breathing stereotypes that had come together, holding hands in front of judging eyes without a care. They looked like the kind of people you'd least expect to be together. They didn't even look like they were friends. They never spoke to each other or even acknowledged each other's (or anyone else's) presence. Their stillness and silence was disturbingly refreshing to me in a world of constant sound and movement.
                The countdown timer ticked by. Only a few more minutes. Some of the people had started to move towards the platform. Some were blocking my view of the group already. A few more minutes left. It was still early. I kept my eyes on them, starting to become irritated at the people blocking my view of the queer group.
                And the train came. The doors opened. The people rushed in the doors, shoving and pushing. But in the middle of all that, there were only five people who remained calm. They went in the train silently and still holding hands. I saw irritated looks and heard mumbles of curses directed at them. The people did not like their calmness. They didn't like the unbreakable hold they had over each other. They didn't like the group and that was that.
                The group faced the door they came from. The group faced me. I could see parts of their faces from the small window amidst the other faces in front of them. I knew that they had stopped holding hands already. They were starting to move and face away from each other. Business Woman had already taken out her phone and was holding it over her ear. Then the train moved and they were gone.
                I looked at the countdown timer. Another fifteen minutes to wait.
                Ever since that day, I always arrived at the station at exactly 7:30 in the morning and I would always take the second train. I was fascinated with them. I went to the station on Saturday and Sunday but they weren't there and I never went again on weekends. On the second week, I felt that they knew I was observing them. When they were already inside the train, one or two of them would be looking at me. Nerdy Schoolgirl was the first one to notice my presence. The others started noticing me too. Their stares were long and empty. They revealed no expression as they stared back at me. It was like staring at vast emptiness. It was like staring back at myself.
                As the days passed by, I started to notice more things about them.
                Obese Guy always wore a black polo and black slacks. The polo was too small for him. It made him look like he was made up of stacks of bulges. I worried that he might fall over from lack of air.
                Druggy Man always wore a short sleeves shirt that showed his arms with holes and bruises, evident even from afar. He had greasy long black hair and dark circles under his eyes, also evident even from afar.
                Nerdy Schoolgirl was wearing a high school uniform from a school for rich kids. I think it was the school that a lot of my peers hated. “Stuck up pieces of shit,” they said. But she didn’t look like she was one of those “stuck up pieces of shit.” She looked like the nerdy girl in the movie who always gets bullied. She wore thick glasses, a long skirt that must have been longer than the prescribed length of the school, and loose white socks. But she had straight long black hair as fine as a Japanese doll. At first, I thought that she might be pretty because of her nice hair. But the more I looked at her, I realized that her face was very plain. Her face was not overly pretty or overly ugly. It was just plain. I felt a little guilty for envying Nerdy Schoolgirl's only redeeming physical quality.
                Business Woman always wore business suits that looked to be two sizes larger from her real size. Her suits always had shoulder padding too. Her hair was like a boy’s cut, short and neat.
                Pregnant Woman was pretty. She had fragile-looking features – wide eyes, thin wrists, and a childish air about her that would make you want to protect her…or crush her gleefully. She must have been in her early twenties, her age must not have been far off from Nerdy Schoolgirl’s.
                Time passed by as it should. The first semester of my college life as a freshman was coming to an end. I had friends already, or people I hang out with regularly, and I was starting to adjust. It was hectic but every time I felt so stressed out, I would just think of them and a sense of peace will wash over me. That was the kind of effect they had over me.
                The semester ended and I was so scared to what I would see or would not see as I went to the station. My fears were confirmed. The group was not there. But I knew that would happen anyway. They weren't there during weekends because Nerdy Schoolgirl would not be going to school on weekends. The group would not be there either on semester break because of Nerdy Schoolgirl too.
                For a moment, I felt angry towards Nerdy Schoolgirl. I would have to wait for two months and in those two months, I would be nervously thinking that they might not come back anymore. But then I realized that it would also be wrong if Nerdy Schoolgirl would still be there during semester break. It would not be natural anymore.
                So I never went again to the station during semester break.
                On the first day of classes of the second semester, the weather was still cold. But when I reached the station the familiar warmth enveloped me. It was as though the weather never changed inside the station, like it had its own world inside. As I removed my jacket, my eyes wandered off, searching for them.
                Then I saw them. They were still wearing the same clothes - no jackets or sweaters in sight. They were still holding hands and they were still in the same order - Obese Guy, Druggy Man, Nerdy Schoolgirl, Business Woman, and Pregnant Woman. Perhaps the only thing that changed was that Pregnant Woman's belly had become larger. That was to be expected I suppose but it still surprised me.
                The 7:45 train came and the people rushed in. They held hands as they boarded the train and broke off upon entering. Then they looked at me.
                It was normal for one or two of them to look at me before. But this time, all of them were looking at me. Their eyes did not leave me until the train started to move and I could no longer see them and they could no longer see me. I let out the breath that I didn't know I was holding. It was a strange feeling. But it only confirmed what I had felt already before - they knew. I remember smiling after that. I remember the giddy feeling, the sweating hands, and the anxious happy feeling. I remember excitedly waiting for the next day to come.
                I was earlier the next day. Little did I know, the ball that time had stopped before had already started to move and I was the one running on it, making it faster and faster until the moment I fall off and the ball leaves me behind. There was a bounce in my step, a hint of a smile in my lips, and sweaty hands despite the cold weather. They were already there at the station and that was the first time I wondered what time did they go to the station. I never saw them waiting for the other. They were always already there, complete and unchanging.
                I stood at my usual spot, observing them and taking them all in. The 7:45 train was arriving. As usual, the people have started to crowd in around them. But as I was trying to get a better view of them, I heard the people scream. Screams filled the station. It was so wrong. My mind blanked out. I wasn't prepared for it. I would have never been prepared for it. I elbowed my way through the crowd, no longer caring that I was breaking my personal protocol of distance between me and them. I needed to know. I needed to see.
                And so I did.
                There at the center where the five were supposed to be, only one remained.
                It was Nerdy Schoolgirl. She was down on her knees, crying and saying things that rang out of frustration. There were no blood splatters. It was like the train had erased them in an instant, like the world had found the glitch in its system.
                More people crowded around Nerdy Schoolgirl. Security guards or medical personnel, I wasn't sure. It was all a blur. A mess of a living nightmare and I had become static. They must have been murmuring words of comfort to her, rubbing her back, putting a pristine white towel around her like she was a victim who had come out of a burning horror house in a movie's ending. As they helped her get up and made her walk away from the scene, I saw her face. It wasn't a traumatized face of a victim or a shocked distressed face of a friend who was kept in the dark. It was the face of someone betrayed and angry. At that moment, I understood why she looked stricken - she was supposed to jump with them.
                She was murmuring and it was like the buzz of angry bees wanting to sting and die. "They let go...why did they...they must have...no they wouldn't...but why did they...damn it damn it damn it damn it...I should have jumped with them...but the link....they broke the link...did they plan this...but she said....why the fuck...damn it....those fucking traitors...they deserved it...I deserved it...why did they....they let go...they must have...no they wouldn't...," she murmured continuously but the medics or the security people holding her paid no heed to what she was saying. Couldn't they see what obviously happened here? Why were they so oblivious? Was I the only one who paid attention to them?
                Then she looked at me. She was so near me. It almost looked like she was walking towards me. Sound left the world. Everything was in grayscale except for us. Only the two of us mattered. She opened her mouth. She was saying something but again, sound has already left the world, sound was no longer needed.
                Her mouth formed the words, "Come again."
                I did not give her an answer. I did not want to come to the station ever again. I wanted to tell her that but I could not form the strength to tell her that. The way she looked at me, she was so sure of it. Something deep and something that others would never begin to comprehend passed between us. Time no longer existed with sound and color. The frustration, the assurance that things would never change, and the anger of its imperfect ending - those feelings floated in the air between us, like shiny broken things crying for how they've ended.
                Then time existed again. The colors came back too bright and the sounds too loud. The moment had passed. She was going away and I had to go too.
                I did not go to class that day. That must have also been the exact day I had developed my trauma for trains. After all, that was the day that everything changed for me and the one unchanging thing that I held onto had changed.
                The next day, I could no longer fake my sickness as an excuse not to go to class again. As I was walking to the train station, I was overcome with a heavy feeling - a sense of dread and something else that was too dark to comprehend. Every step felt like another monster had taken a ride on my back, adding up to the others who were already there.
                The bad feeling became physical as I reached the train station and I was trying to climb up the stairs. I held on to the metal railing with both hands and only progressed up the stairs one step at a time. I knew I was climbing the stairs too slowly but my heart was already beating like I had been running for miles already. It was beating so hard against my chest, it felt like it was going to stop. I was sweating and breathing hard. My vision was starting to fail me. The world was losing its colors once again. Nothing else existed. I had to go up the stairs but I could no longer remember why.
                Someone was trying to talk to me, I think. I was no longer sure if I was still moving. Concerned voices tried to reach me. But sound had escaped me too and they ceased to exist too. I was alone and the other one in color was nowhere in sight.
                Moments later I learned that I had been holding onto the metal railing unmoving but shivering and sweating profusely for about fifteen minutes. A lot of concerned people had gathered around me, trying to snap me out of my strange state. I left the station, embarrassed for making strangers worried about me. I was still shivering but I knew that it may happen again if I stayed there longer.
                After that incident, I took a taxi everyday to school. I was the only one I knew who rode a taxi everyday going to school. But I was still unable to fully escape. There were still reminders of the train in places and in people I would have never expected. Was I to be haunted by them all my life? Was it punishment for being a watcher?
                I graduated college and got a a desk job in a government office. It was a boring job but it had its own isolated world just filing papers, typing mindlessly, and stapling in silence. There weren't any windows or barely any people for me to talk with. I took a taxi everyday to work and always closed my eyes when the taxi passes by the train station.
                I was okay. I was safe. I thought wrong.
                One evening in January, the office burned down. An officer texted all of us that night that we were on standby until the government finds us another office. There was nothing about whether we would still be paid for being on standby but I did not ask anymore. I was sure that the officer was already receiving a flurry of texts about that anyway.
                I still went out the next day. I was walking aimlessly at the streets. But then again, it wasn't really aimless. I arrived at the train station at exactly 7:30, like before. There was no shivering or sweating. I wasn't feeling anything. I was just there because it felt like I had to be there.
                Then I saw them.
                It was like I was expecting them to be there waiting for me. Four people were standing on the platform and it didn't take me long to name them again. From the left, there was Obese Guy, Druggy Man, Nerdy Schoolgirl, and Pregnant Woman. They were different people from those who jumped, of course. But the similarities were screaming in its obviousness. Obese Guy, Druggy Man, and Nerdy Schoolgirl were holding hands but there was a noticeable space between Nerdy Schoolgirl and Pregnant Woman – a space supposedly for Business Woman.
                Pregnant Woman's left hand was slightly outstretched, waiting for the missing person to take her hand. Nerdy Schoolgirl's right hand was outstretched too. The pieces fell to place. My heart beat quickened. I knew. But how did they know? I didn't know. It was destiny and that was that. There were too many questions and answering them would destroy the beauty in its mysteries. I knew what to do. I walked towards them. Hesitant at first but I became surer as I became nearer.
                I took their hands. Surprise registered at Nerdy Schoolgirl's face. Perhaps she thought that the missing person was never going to come. But her face became blank again and even peaceful, as I held her hand firmly. I turned to look at Pregnant Woman. I knew who she was, of course. She was Nerdy Schoolgirl. She didn't look back at me or said anything to say she knew that I would come again. She knew I would and a part of me I refused to acknowledge before knew that I would come again.
                The 7:45 train was coming. I breathed in and almost smiled. Was there someone like me watching us from behind? The feeling was strange but exhilarating. The train was getting nearer and nearer. The 7:45 train that I had never boarded was coming to finally pick me up.
                I let go of her right hand and her left hand was let go too. Then we jumped and like that cold August morning four years ago, the girl in the middle was left behind. All the colors and sounds of the world left. Only the four of us were in color. And before we reached our end, we allowed ourselves to look at each others’ faces and smile. We had left our mark in the world and she would carry us with her until she faces her own end.

Mary Claire Garcia is from the Philippines, and is currently studying B.S. Development Communication at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños.
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