“Excuse me,” Nora asked the woman in the long coat, “do you have the time?”
Stupid question, she thought, even as the woman startled, turning away from the train tracks at which she’d been staring with disconcerting intensity. But it was the only question Nora’d been able to think of: the subway clock, an ancient bright-red digital display, had stopped working again, and it gave Nora the excuse.
Nora might have left the woman alone otherwise. Despite the fact she’d watched the woman—Nora’s own age, more or less, but so much more poised and elegant—every weekday morning for nearly a year, there was no reason for Nora to believe there was anything alarming about the way she was looking down at the electrified rails, her expression almost wistful.
There was no wistfulness in the glare she gave Nora. She flicked her eyes toward the broken clock, and resignation took over her face. “Sure,” she said, her accent marking her as a local. She dropped her right hand into one deep pocket and pulled out her phone. “8:24.” She turned away again.
“Thanks,” Nora said. From the tunnel she heard the squeal of a train coming around the too-tight corner into the station; it would be the E line, the one the woman in the long coat climbed on every morning. Around her, people began to shuffle forward, raising their voices to be heard over the sound of the incoming engine. “Wait,” Nora added, wondering where her newfound bravery had come from. “Are you—is everything all right?”
She wasn’t sure, at first, that the woman in the long coat had heard her. But then she turned, and the glare was sharper, and she said, “Mind your own business.” And the crowd swept her away.
Nora kept her eyes on the train until it rounded the corner out of sight, and the station fell back into relative quiet, the only sounds the hissing of the HVAC and the hum of the electric transformers. Around her, people stood in pairs and groups, heads together, talking quietly. Nora stood alone.
She turned back, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the broken clock flash. Not numbers, oddly enough, but letters: TY.
Some kind of error code, she thought. When she blinked, it was displaying the time again.
Nora decided she would stop looking for the woman in the long coat, but the next day the woman found her.
“Listen,” she said. Her hair, shaved away from one side of her head and hanging long over the other, had fallen into her eyes; absently she swept it behind her ear. “I’m sorry. Yesterday. I was rude.”
She wasn’t glaring, but she wasn’t looking at Nora, either, instead staring somewhere over Nora’s shoulder. Her skin was warm brown, touched with gold, and Nora couldn’t tell if she was blushing, but something in the woman’s face suggested she was embarrassed.
“You weren’t rude,” Nora told her. “I interrupted.”
“That old clock though.” At last the woman met Nora’s eyes, this time with a self-conscious smile. “You’d think they’d replace it.”
“They figure we all get the time on our phones,” Nora said.
“You don’t have a phone.”
Nora did have a phone. Like everyone else’s, its lock screen displayed the time. She hadn’t thought about it, watching the woman stare at the train tracks. “It was at the bottom of my pack,” she lied, gesturing at her overstuffed bag. “But I shouldn’t have bothered you.”
“It’s okay,” the woman said. “It’s just the time.”
The E train pulled up; Nora hadn’t even noticed the noise.
“That’s my train,” the woman said. Then: “Okay. Well, bye.”
She turned and walked toward the edge of the platform, and Nora felt the familiar push of the crowd around her. She stumbled, and instinctively glanced at the clock to check on her own train.
Except this time the clock said NAME.
Nora blinked. The word remained.
“Oh!” She turned back to where the woman was receding into the crowd. “Hey,” she called. “Hey. I’m Nora.”
She wasn’t sure, at first, that the woman had heard her; but then she saw the half-shorn head stop and turn back in her direction. The woman said something, and Nora saw her smile, and she disappeared on to the train car.
She must have heard wrong. That wasn’t a name.
When Nora glanced back at the clock, it said ELSE.
“But that’s not a name,” she told it.
A moment later, the clock blinked again, and said 8:26.
When Nora next saw the woman in the long coat, she was carrying two paper cups of coffee.
“I took a chance,” she said, approaching Nora with that same shy smile. She held out a cup.
Nora, who made cheap coffee in her apartment with the expensive coffee maker her old boyfriend had left behind, took the cup and gently pried off the lid. The smell was rich and strong, the coffee pale. She took a sip, glancing at the woman’s cup; scrawled on the side in coffee-shop Sharpie was the word ELSE.
“So that is your name,” she said.
The woman grimaced. “It’s a nickname. My real name’s worse.”
“As bad as Nora?”
Nora felt mildly giddy. “It’s old-fashioned.”
“You want to hear old-fashioned? My whole name’s Elspbeth.”
Nora thought the name was beautiful, but something in Else’s voice made her laugh. “It’s very Victorian.”
“To go with my very Victorian image.”
She was funny. Else was funny.
“My mother says she gave me the name because she wanted me to be an old-fashioned girl. I started calling myself Else because—”
“—you wanted to be called something else.”
Nora bit her tongue; she shouldn’t have interrupted. But this time Else was laughing. “Anything else, really. That’s how I sign my artwork: A.E. Silva.”
“You’re an artist.”
“You haven’t heard of me?”
Nora blinked. “I’m not much in touch with the art world,” she said.
Else shrugged. “Wouldn’t matter if you were. Nobody’s heard of me.” She looked away, and some of the light had gone out of her eyes. “What do you do?”
“Software,” Nora told her. How could she make Else smile again?
“Really?” Else turned back, interest in those eyes. “I’d heard it was awful there. For women. You hear all these stories.”
“It is awful, in some places,” Nora allowed. “But I like it.”
Nora couldn’t remember ever being asked that before. “It’s fun. It’s like—did you ever do puzzles as a kid? Like Sudoku? Or logic puzzles?”
“You mean ‘Jerry is three inches taller than the boy in the blue vest’ kinds of things?” Nora waited for ridicule, but instead Else said, “I used to love those.”
“It’s like that,” Nora told her. “Like doing logic puzzles all day.”
“And you never got shit for being a woman?”
Nora became abruptly aware of the crowd, and the time. She glanced at the clock. 8:27 and still no train. She blinked her eyes, and the clock said LATE. And then, a moment before switching back to the time: TALK.
“When I started,” she said, “I was late for this meeting. When I got to the room I heard everybody joking and laughing, but when I walked in they all went silent. Just stared at me while I sat down. After that, they were all really stiff, until this one guy—Tamal—he was arguing a design point, and he said the manager’s idea was bullshit. Everybody looked scandalized, but they were staring at me. And I realized they were worried about swearing in front of the girl.”
Else gasped. “What did you do?”
“I told them I thought the manager’s idea was bullshit, too.”
The screech of the train drowned out Else’s response, but she was laughing again, and Nora decided her exact words didn’t matter that much. “Sorry,” Else shouted above the noise. “Gotta go. See you tomorrow!”
Nora raised her coffee in lieu of a farewell, and Else waved, rushing into her train car. Nora watched the car pull out of the station and disappear down the tunnel, and she stared at the darkness for a full minute.
“You could have delayed it a bit longer, you know,” she said aloud.
When she turned to the clock, it was saying: SRRY.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Nora asked Else.
They were sitting in the coffee shop before 8:00 am. Throughout high school and college, Nora had sworn she’d never take any job that required her to be coherent that early. Else was shattering all her habits.
“You mean like apparitions?” Else asked. “Clouds in the corner? Your grandma watching you have sex? That kind of thing?”
Nora could feel herself blushing. “More like lights flashing when they’re not supposed to.”
“Ah.” Else sat back, all authority. “You mean a poltergeist.”
“Like the movie?” Nora frowned. “They were nasty in that movie.”
“Not at the beginning.”
Nora thought of the clock, and the train delay. “No, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Are you haunted, Nora?”
Else was laughing again, but when Nora said, “I don’t know,” she stopped.
“You need to not listen to spirits, Nora,” she said, all seriousness. “Voices in your head? They lie.”
There was something in her voice, something inviting Nora to ask and not to ask all at once. Nora opened her mouth to tell Else the truth, then smiled. “No voices in my head,” she said. “Just—coincidences sometimes look like more than that, you know?”
SRRY, she thought at the clock.
The internet told Nora that poltergeists didn’t haunt locations, but people. In her small apartment one Friday night, facing two days without Else, she turned off all the lights and said, “Are you here?”
There was nothing.
The train station Nora waited at every morning was one of the oldest in the country. In more than a hundred years, a hundred and twelve people had died at the station. Thirty-two had died on the tracks.
Tracking down all the obituaries was problematic, even for the internet, and Nora discovered there were still such things as librarians. This one, a woman Nora’s mother’s age, didn’t even blink at the morbid request.
“Most of the microfilm has been digitized,” she said. “I’ll log you in and let you do a search. But anything before 1938 or so is going to be a physical archive. Having the dates will help.”
Nora made notes of names, ages, and modes of death, and learned more than she wished about what a train could do to a body, no matter how hard the conductor slammed on the brakes. But the one that struck her most was not a death on the tracks. It was a footnote, a small boxed obituary on the front page of a now-defunct newspaper dated 1933:
LOCAL MAN DIES OF HEAD INJURY
Gerald Newby, aged 33, of Beacon Street, died yesterday after striking his head on a concrete pillar at Park Street Station. Mr. Newby was employed at Goorin Bros. Hat Shop on Salem Street. He is survived by his mother, Ruth, and his sister, Elspbeth.
Nora felt a chill up her spine.
“Thank you,” she told the librarian. “I’ve found what I wanted.” She tried not to rush too obviously as she helped the woman put the materials away.
She got up early on Sunday, long before the Saturday night revelers would be awake enough to frequent the trains. Even so, the station was milling with people, and she had to adapt her original plan of shouting up at the clock.
I didn’t have to shout before, she thought.
She put her arm around a cement pillar and leaned against it, trying to look as if she were waiting for a train. “Mr. Newby?” she asked. “Gerald? Is it you?”
The clock was half-heartedly draped in plastic, its face dark.
After nearly a minute, it said: YES
Every hair on Nora’s body stood on end. “Are you a poltergeist?”
“Are you stuck here?”
The clock was dark for a long time.
“Oh.” Nora had to blink. “I’m sorry, Gerald.”
“Do you like it here?”
That one took her a moment. “A little?”
“What do you like?”
It would be, she realized, the perfect location: crowd after crowd, over years and decades. Birth and death would change faces, but not the fact of the company. Gerald could watch as much as he liked.
But that was very nearly all.
“Do you talk to a lot of people?”
“You wanted to help me?”
“I’m sorry; I don’t understand. Why me, then?”
She didn’t know how to break down the line of questioning any better. “Is there anything I can get you, Gerald?”
She stood there for a while, watching the crowd grow as the city woke up. Eventually, she said, “I have to go now, Gerald.”
“Gerald. Are you lonely?”
There was another long pause before the clock replied.
For the rest of the day, Nora felt light.
The next day, Else didn’t show up at the coffee shop.
When she was missing again on Tuesday, Nora called in sick to work and went back home. She’d avoided internet searches before, not wanting to feel like a stalker; but worry drove all of that out of her head.
A.E. Silva, she typed in the browser search bar.
The first page of results were all images, and she realized she’d never asked Else what sort of art she made.
They were sculptures, all iridescent glass and impossible colors, graceful and fluid like the lines of Else’s coat. Abstracts, every one, although Else had given them names: More Laughter, one was called; another, Passion Tears. Nora stared at them, each one a perfect transcription of a part of Else’s personality, happy and sad and frivolous and serious all at once.
There was one in greens and blues, curved over itself in impossible balance, that reminded Nora of the look she’d seen on Else’s face that first day, when she’d been staring at the train tracks. The sculpture should have toppled under its own weight, and indeed it looked as if it would at any moment.
Failure, it was called.
Nora entered her credit card number into a public records site, and came up with an address a few blocks away from their coffee shop. So close. All along Else had been so close. For years, maybe.
Nora dialed the number as she headed out the door. Else didn’t answer.
Nora leaned on Else’s buzzer until she heard the intercom click. “Get the fuck off my doorbell,” Else said, and Nora nearly passed out from relief.
“It’s me,” she said.
There was a long silence. Nora wished for Gerald, and then there was a click as the door unlocked.
The building was short—six stories without an elevator—and Else lived on the top floor. By the time she arrived, Nora was puffing; but Else opened the door at her step.
She looked as if she hadn’t bathed in several days; her long hair was matted and sticking up at angles from her face.
“Well,” Else said. “I suppose you should come inside.”
Else’s one large room sported crown moulding and wide wood floors, and a single countertop kitchen. Beyond that, there was a mattress on the floor and a laptop sitting next to it. Cushions were scattered against the walls. Nora wondered if this was some sort of artists’ lifestyle.
“I was worried,” she said.
Else turned away and shuffled to the counter. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice was gray. “I have bad days sometimes. Do you, Nora?”
Not like this.“How can I help?” she asked.
Else had pulled two mugs out of the cabinet and was pouring coffee. Not as rich as the coffee shop’s, but from the smell Nora thought it was from the same beans. “I think,” Else said, “I just need to get through it.”
Nora took the cup Else offered her.
Nora was not a taker of risks; she never had been. Software was not her dream profession, but she’d had an aptitude, and it paid enough. Before Else, she’d been gliding through life, comfortable if not joyous, safe if not secure. Her handful of relationships had each petered out due to apathy on both sides; she was fairly certain she’d never had her heart broken. All the songs, after all, said she would know.
She was not a taker of risks. But she said: “Do you want company?”
And Else smiled.
“I should go home,” Nora said.
They were curled around each other on the mattress on the floor, the remains of three take-out meals around them, no lighting but the glow from the laptop screen. Nora had thought she understood contentment, but she’d never felt anything like this soul-deep wholeness.
“I should have cooked for you. I’m a lousy guest.”
“You’re terrible. Stay.”
“I didn’t come for this. I came to cheer you up.”
Else lifted her head off Nora’s shoulder and looked into her eyes. In the half-dark Else was luminous, like an apparition, and Nora tightened her arms around her.
“You did cheer me up,” Else told her.
For a long time, they didn’t talk.
Before dawn, they got up and showered. Nora fluffed out her short curls, and then with a wide-toothed comb tugged the tangles out of Else’s long, wet hair.
“The day we met,” Else told her, “when you asked me for the time.” She inhaled. “Nora. I was staring at the train tracks.”
“I know,” Nora told her.
“I would have, if you hadn’t stopped me.”
“Why did you stop me?”
“Someone was looking after us,” she said.
“Call me the second you get home,” Else commanded as Nora left.
The morning was clear and cold, the air full of the sharp, tangy city smells that Nora loved. So beautiful here, the sprawling buildings, some reaching high into the clouds; the green spaces; the gridded streets and the wandering paths. More people than Nora could count smiled at her, and she didn’t wonder, because she knew somehow she was glowing, the fire inside of her visible through her skin, blazing the world around her with joy.
She took the stairs down to the train station, only to find two workmen setting up a scaffolding under the clock.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
They each gave her a quick, assessing glance, then turned back to their work. “Replacing it,” they told her. “Took long enough for them to cough up the cash.”
Nora found her cement pole. “Gerald,” she said, “will you be all right?”
If the men taking the clock down saw the word, they didn’t react.
“Can I do anything?”
“But you’re stuck in the clock, aren’t you?”
Oh.“You’re stuck at the station.”
“So I’ll see you again.”
A long pause.
Something tightened in her chest. “Gerald. I want—before, when you said HELP. You didn’t mean you were helping me, did you?”
“You knew what she was going to do.”
“You’ve seen it.”
Her vision was growing blurry. “You saved her life.”
“I love her.”
“Obsolete piece of crap,” one of the workmen remarked, and yanked the wires out of the ceiling.
“Else. You’re not ready.”
“What? Of course I am.”
Nora frowned at her. “You’ve been painting. There’s color in your hair. The non-deliberate kind.”
Else had dyed her long hair bright blue three weeks earlier, but the yellow blob of paint clinging to the tips was not part of her planned look. Else looked down, swore, and headed back to the bathroom. “I shouldn’t have worn white,” she groused.
Else looked beautiful in white. She looked beautiful in everything.
Nora had asked Tamal what they ought to wear when he’d invited her and Else to be his son’s godparents. She had never seen him in anything other than jeans and a polo shirt, and he’d laughed at her. “Be there. Bring love. The rest is up to you.”
At Else’s suggestion, Nora was in pale blue. “Because you’re the sky,” Else had told her, shyly. “Always there, no matter how cloudy I get.”
Else emerged from the bathroom, hair cleaned, and picked up their coffee mugs. “Can we get breakfast after?” she asked, heading for the kitchen.
“Sure. But please, real food. If I have more donuts my brain will short-circuit.”
“There’s no such thing as too many donuts.” Else poured out the now-cold coffee and ran water into the mugs. “You ready?”
“Been ready for ten minutes. C’mon.”
Else pulled on her long coat, and something about the way the garment flowed over her dress made her look like royalty. Nora didn’t realize she was grinning like a fool until Else waved a hand before her eyes. “Nora. We’ll be late.”
Nora grabbed her own coat off the hook by the door. “There’s a brunch place around the corner from the church,” she said.
Else made a face. “I hate brunch.” She opened the door. “Bye, Gerald,” she said over her shoulder.
“Bye, Gerald,” Nora echoed.
Before she pulled the apartment door shut behind her, Nora saw the coffee maker flash