THE CALL OF THE VOID • by Anna Zumbro

Jon’s morning world is dark and quiet. He moves in silence through the kitchen of his studio apartment, where he keeps the lights off to avoid waking his roommate. The near-vacant streets are soundtracked by his footsteps and the rustling of newspapers that blow in the breeze like urban tumbleweeds. He descends into the station precisely two minutes before his train is scheduled to arrive. The bright lights emerging from the tunnel are his sunrise.

The only thing Jon likes about taking the 5:42 a.m. train is that he can always find a seat. He doesn’t need to go in so early — no one else bothers at his new company — but his father impressed upon him the philosophy that he should always do more than necessary at work. First in, last out. Only in the past two weeks, as hushed rumors of downsizing have grown to near certainties, has Jon considered the other meaning of first in, last out — and more relevant to him, its inverse.

He takes a swig from his water bottle and glances down the platform, counting. Nineteen other commuters wait for the train. He recognizes a few, those familiar strangers to whom he is bonded by morning routine. There’s the young couple who always waits next to the timetable, whispering in Spanish and holding hands. Right now they’re stealing kisses with the excitement of new lovers, though Jon’s seen them together nearly every day for the past four months. At the far end of the platform stands the blond woman with bangs nearly covering her eyes, scowling at her smartphone as though it’s offended her. Jon moves away from three nurses in scrubs and sneakers, one man and two women. They’re chattering on about some doctor they can’t stand. Dr. Jones, this time — yesterday it was Dr. O’Malley.

One minute left before the train’s arrival. Jon steps forward onto the tactile flooring that alerts the visually impaired to danger. A familiar pull, the one that always reaches for him from just beyond the ledge, beckons him into the dark.

What if I jumped?

What would it feel like, to jump?

Am I crazy?

He glances at the blond woman, who has put her phone away and is now staring at the tracks. Does she feel it too? Not the wish to die, which he does not wish to do — merely the wish to leap. He lives by rules and logic, but this he can’t explain.

The red lights, the ones that always remind him of the footlights at the proscenium of a stage, begin flashing. He looks again at the nineteen others on the platform, now twenty as a balding man with a briefcase dashes down the escalator. Some scurry to the ends of the train where there are fewer passengers; others move to the precise spots where they know the doors will stop. They know this station, this routine, like Jon does — like it’s home.

It’s the void, Jon thinks, that’s really home. Rootless in this city, he’s left his hometown for a job that might leave him. In the eternity of space and time maybe it doesn’t matter. Everyone returns to the void.

He glances again at the tracks, litter and gravel filling the spaces between the rails and ties. But there’s something else, too. Something green. A plant has taken root in this man-made tunnel and, impossibly, begun to grow. Without rain or sunlight, life has staked a claim. It’s a beautiful middle finger to the universe and everything Jon thought he knew.

The train’s headlights shoot through the far end of the tunnel. Jon steps forward. He pitches the contents of his water bottle onto the tracks, hoping some will reach the little plant.

Later this week he will sit on a hard chair outside the boss’s office, waiting his turn to defend his worth to the company, wondering for the first time what the company is worth to him. Later this year he will turn the people on the platform into characters in a play called The Green Line and don his best suit for its opening night at a local festival. He will peek from behind the curtain into the dark theater, so full of people he doesn’t know.

But for now he steps onto the train, resisting the call of the void. He thinks about getting a cactus for his desk.

Anna Zumbro lives in Washington, DC. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy Scroll, freeze frame fiction, and other publications.

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