By Michele Bardsley

She tapped the watch violently, but the second hand would not move. She looked up and asked another passenger for the time, but he appeared to look right through her and turned back to the newspaper clenched in his hands. He seemed tense. In fact, everyone on the train seemed upset about one thing or another. As she’d walked down the aisle to find her seat, she witnessed an old woman shaking a picture frame as if it was an Etch-A-Sketch. She’d also seen an agitated teenager pressing a Game Boy against his ear, as if straining to hear the beeps and pings of the game.

Marybeth sighed. She hated to be late. She had at least two clocks in every room of her house and she always carried a spare watch in her handbag. Of course! Marybeth removed her purse from under the seat and opened it. She unzipped an internal pocket and pulled out the watch. Relief flooded her. She’d had such an odd feeling that it wouldn’t be there.

The smile on her face faded. The hands of the watch spun crazily. She gripped the leather strap and stared at it, dumbfounded. What were the odds that both of her watches would break at the same time? Sweat beaded her upper lip. She couldn’t be late. She couldn’t be late for...she frowned. For what? Where was she going?

She put on the watch, right under the one already on her wrist. After placing her purse under the seat, she turned to the man sitting next to her. “Sir, do you know what time it is? Or where the train is going?”

He didn’t respond. Marybeth pinched her lips together to keep from commenting on his rude behavior. His grip on the newspaper was so tight she was surprised it hadn’t ripped. His lips were moving, but she couldn’t hear his voice. It struck her, then, that the only noise she heard was the clack-clack of the train wheels. She didn’t hear the rustle of the man’s newspaper or the hushed voices of conversation among the passengers. She’d seen several children when she’d boarded, yet she’d neither heard them nor seen any of them race up and down the aisles. Cold dread stiffened her limbs. Why was it so quiet? Why didn’t she know her destination? For the life of her, she couldn’t remember where she was going. She only knew that she couldn’t be late.

“Do you have your ticket, ma’am?”

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of a human voice. She looked up and saw an elderly gentlemen dressed in a black suit with gold striping on the sleeves and collar. His black hat capped short gray hair; his brown eyes were kind. She felt as if she’d seen him somewhere before. He extended his hand, obviously reaching for her ticket.

“I-I’m sorry, I don’t have a ticket. Please, can you tell me what time it is? And where we’re going?”

“You don’t know where you’re going? Do you remember where you boarded?”

“Of course. It was...” Marybeth paused. She remembered waking up this morning and getting dressed. She remembered that she had an appointment at...somewhere. “I’ve forgotten. I got in my car and drove to a big white building. I was supposed to meet to someone.”

“Someone who was going to help you?”

“Help me with what?” The noise of the train wheels grew louder. She looked at her seatmate, only to find that he wasn’t there. “I need to know the time. Where’s my watch?”

“You’ve got two on your wrist, ma’am.”

She looked down and saw that the hands on both watches had stopped. Her heart started to pound fiercely. Dear God. What if she was late? She looked at the gray-haired man; he looked so familiar.

“Smash the watches. It’s the only way to get off the train.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“You’re so close this time. You can do it, Marybeth.”

“How do you know my name? And what do you mean—this time?”

“You know the answers to those questions.”

She realized that she did know the answers. She knew this man, but he wasn’t a ticket-taker. She’d been on this train before, too. Many times.

“Smash the watches.”

“I can’t. If I’m not on time, I won’t be able to save them.”

Surprise flickered in his gaze. He sat next to her. “Save who?”

“Mom and Dad. I was out past curfew. That’s why I wasn’t in the house.” She looped her fingers under the watchbands and gripped them as tightly as she had her sanity these last few dreary months. “I was sixteen. I hated coming home at ten o’clock when all my friends stayed out until midnight.” She rubbed her thumb over the watch face. The tiny piece of glass felt smooth and cool. “If I’d been there on time, I would have stopped the fire.”

“The fire?”

“It started in my room. An electrical problem. The neighbors called 911 at fifteen after ten. If I’d been there, I would have been able to put out the flames. But I didn’t get home until eleven. My parents were dead and my house was gone because I was late.” Her tears splashed the hand holding on so desperately to the watches.

“And since then, you’ve never been late, have you, Marybeth? You’re always early to every appointment, every dinner date, every business function.”

“Something bad will happen if I’m not on time.”

“That’s not true. The only way to prove it is to rid yourself of the watches.”

Her silent tears turned into wrenching sobs. “Don’t make me. Please.”

“You must break the hold of your compulsion. When you destroy the watches, the train will stop and you can get off.”

Marybeth took off the watches. She placed them on the floor and raised her foot. She hesitated, but the ticket-taker squeezed her arm. “You can do it.”

Blinded by tears, Marybeth removed her shoe, got down on her hands and knees and bludgeoned the timepieces. Glass scraped her palms and her arms grew tired, but she didn’t stop. When the straps looked like stringy brown noodles and the dusty entrails of the mechanisms were flattened, Marybeth collapsed against the floor. She heard the screech of metal against metal—the train jerked to a halt.

As she opened her eyes, she felt tired and relieved. The gray-haired man leaned over her and smiled. “I don’t have a ticket,” she murmured. Still feeling drowsy, she blinked fully awake. “Dr. Blake?”

A nurse removed the wire patches from her temples; other people moved equipment and spoke to one another in low voices. After the surreal train ride, the activity in the bright room was disorienting. But at least she knew where she was—The Institute for Dream Therapy.

“It took thirteen months, Marybeth, but you did it. You freed yourself. You’ll have to do some follow-up therapy, of course, but what happened today was a huge step.”

“No more train rides?”

He chuckled. “From now on, Marybeth, you’ll write your own ticket.”

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

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