Strangers No More
I was riding home on the train when a stranger sat down across from me. He looked at me for a long time before speaking.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said, finally. I didn’t respond, but the man mistook my silence as interest.
“You kill my wife and I kill yours.”
“What the fuck,” I said.
“It’s the perfect crime,” he said. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. The cops will not be able to determine any motive.”
“That’s not how it works anymore,” I said. “There’s forensics and technology.” I waved my hand in the air to demonstrate the ubiquitousness of technology. “We’re probably being recorded right now.”
“So that’s a no?”
“Bro,” I said with finalizing scorn.
“All right, all right,” he said, throwing his hands up in surrender. “You don’t have to be a dick about it.”
The man stood up and walked to the other end of the train car. He stepped over a sleeping man to take the inside seat next to the window. I watched him look out at the passing buildings, waiting to see if he would look back, but he seemed to have forgotten about me.
At dinner, my wife’s fork clinked against her plate. Soft rock played in the background. I tried to think of dinner conversation that didn’t involve what the stranger had asked. The whole experience made me feel like I was at fault somehow, as if I was the type that attracted strangers who murder other strangers’ wives.
“How was your day?” she asked.
“It was fine,” I said. “Busy, actually. A beast.” Beast was a term I said to denote something difficult or unwieldy. My wife nodded once, deeply, lowering her face to the plate to slurp spaghetti.
“This is real good.” I gestured toward the food.
“Thanks, I added fresh garlic to the jar sauce.”
“That’s awesome!” I said, resolute in my decision to not have her killed.
Several days later, I saw the man on the train again. I couldn’t be 100 percent certain it was the same man because I had experienced several beasts of days since our first encounter, but I was pretty sure it was him.
He was sitting at the other end of the train car, talking to someone in the seat across from him. I was at a distance that I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. I stared until the train stopped and the man—my guy—stood up and exited.
When we started moving again, I walked to where he’d been sitting and sat across from the man my guy had been talking to. It was an old man with eyebrows that would dust his lover’s forehead.
“Excuse me,” I said. The old man raised his miraculous eyebrows. “The fella who was sitting here—did he ask if you wanted to murder your wife?”
“I beg your pardon,” the old man said. He shook his head and picked his briefcase up so that it covered his middle section. “If you don’t leave immediately, I’m going to call train security.” He turned sideways in his seat to look out the window. It seemed like an overly dramatic move to put himself in such an uncomfortable position just so he wouldn’t have to look at me, but I stood up and returned to my seat nonetheless.
I went to my job and performed my duties with half-hearted interest. I clicked an empty cell on a spreadsheet and entered an obscenely long number, which I had to type out a couple times due to my wandering mind.
The stranger’s proposition kept coming back to me. I imagined his homelife. Certainly, it couldn’t have been good.
I typed a one in the next cell, followed by a string of zeros.
What a sad life he must have, I thought.
The next time I saw the guy on the train, I decided to sit across from him. Confrontation is not usually my thing, and my brain was fried from the current week of beasts I was experiencing at work, but his proposition had always been in the back of my brain, amidst all those spreadsheets and zeroes.
“Hey,” I said. “Remember me?”
He looked up from the book he was reading, which had a hand holding a knife on the cover. “Um,” he said. His eyebrows raised to the middle of his forehead. “Are you Jerry’s friend?”
“Who?” I shook my head. “No, I’m not Jerry’s friend. You asked me if I would kill your wife.”
“That doesn’t sound like something I would say.”
“And you offered to kill my wife.”
“That definitely doesn’t sound like something I’d say.”
I paused. A couple of goth teens with skateboards tucked under their arms watched us. They didn’t seem to care that I knew they were eavesdropping.
“Bro,” I said, perhaps trying to cater to the teens. “You said it. I fucking swear.“
The train stopped, and the man stood up. “My stop,” he said. “Wish I could help you.”
I watched him exit and made note of the stop. He stepped out onto the platform and looked back at me. We maintained eye contact as the train lugged forward. I was certain there was something underneath his aloofness and confusion. Had he just nodded at me? I pressed my forehead against the window to keep him in my sight as the distance between us increased.
When he was out of sight, I leaned back in my seat and watched the landscape pass behind the greasy mark my forehead had made on the window.
A couple days later, I followed the man home. I told my wife I was going to be late, related to her how much of a beast my day had been, and that I was going to get some drinks with “the boys” after work. She seemed thrilled that I had finally made friends with the boys.
I got off at the stranger’s stop, a couple doors down from where he exited. I was careful to keep a good distance between us, although I was confident that my new trench coat and hat did a decent job of hiding my face. I bought this new espionage outfit with my personal credit card so my wife wouldn’t be able to see the charges on our shared account. I rationalized this by remembering how hard I worked at my job and how I had never murdered anyone in my life, so why not treat myself to a secret gift every now and then?
The man walked at a brisk pace, which I admired and immediately equated with wealth. Of course a wealthy man would want his wife killed, I thought. Rich people are so bored all the time. Always looking for the next thrill.
I tailed the stranger through a residential neighborhood, one that—for reasons I couldn’t articulate—was nicer than the one my wife and I lived in. Or perhaps it wasn’t nicer—perhaps I was only dwelling on the negative aspects of my life. I quickly resolved to stop all negative feelings toward my own life.
The stranger entered a two-story, Cape-style house, painted white with red trim. It looked straight out of a movie that portrayed idyllic suburban living. The specific movie, however, I couldn’t say.
I moved to the window and placed my face against the glass. The inside of the man’s house was exquisite and unlike anything I’d imagine a murderer to live in. I looked upon a dining room, where a woman—his wife, I supposed—had set out dinner for them. She poured wine into two glasses while a piece of meat steamed in the center of the table. My stomach growled, angrily reminding me of the meager, low-calorie lunch I had eaten hours ago from a paper sack on which my wife had written my name in black sharpie. “Bro,” I whispered to my stomach.
The man’s wife was very pretty. Young, I’d guess, given the tight angles of her face. And killer bod, I thought—something I’d never say aloud about another man’s wife.
The man stepped into the room. He removed his jacket, swirled it into a ball, and flung it into the corner. He kissed her on the mouth, a peck. It wasn’t passionate, but it wasn’t loveless. I watched them eat—forking meat and sipping wine. My breath became heavy and left a soft halo of condensation on the window. I pulled the sleeve of my jacket over my hand to wipe it away. Never once did the man or his wife look my way.
I stood like that for hours. I watched the man and his wife clear the table, do the dishes, look at their phones while they sat in front of the TV. It appeared so pleasant and mundane. Exactly like me and my wife. How could this seemingly decent man want to have anybody killed? Let alone his wife, who, from my vantage, looked to be quite delightful. Maybe that’s the thing with strangers, I thought. How can you ever really know a person?
Night fell and the temperature dropped. I stomped in place to keep the blood flowing, not even realizing I was standing in one of their flower beds until I noticed that I had crushed some very choice plants. “My bad,” I whispered, feeling genuinely horrible despite the fact that these flowers belonged to a cold-blooded killer.
When their TV shows had ended, the man and his wife stood up and stumbled upstairs. To bed, I presumed. One by one, the lights from the upper floor windows clicked off, and suddenly I was alone in the dark.
Frustration rose through me until a hot ball of it settled in my forehead. I needed to see the bedroom. Where else besides there can a person lay bare their intimacies—nude, raw, and vulnerable? Aha, I thought. That is where I would expose his true awfulness, and satiate the curiosity that had been itching in the back of my mind ever since he offered to kill my wife that first day we met: What type of man is capable of murder?
I placed my hand on the door knob and closed my eyes. If it was locked, I’d step away, walk back to the train station, and go home. No harm no foul. I held my breath and turned the cold metal. The latch disengaged; the door opened without a sound. Well, I thought—a statement left unfinished, hanging in my mind.
I walked back toward the train station. In the dark, the stranger’s neighborhood didn’t seem as fancy as in the daylight. Some of the windows were lit, and I cupped my face to them hoping to see someone. I imagined I looked quite frightful with eyes wide and hair askew—not to mention the blood—but no one saw me. I don’t know what I was looking for, and after some time, when my heart rate returned to normal, decided that it was time to go home. Tomorrow had the potential to be a beast and I needed the sleep.
There were very few people riding the train so late. Late workers returning home, graveyard shifters heading out, denizens of the night embarking on their sordid adventures—all these possibilities crossed my mind. One thing I had recently learned is that you can never know anyone unless you put out the effort.
I sat across from a young man with earbuds in, his eyes closed. His head swayed with the rhythm of the train.
“Hey.” I slapped his knee. He woke with a start, choking off a snore.
“The fuck,” he said, yanking the buds out of his ears. There was a moment of unbridled hatred that passed over his face, but after getting a better look at me, his bearings returned quickly, and the anger left his face. “Dude. Are you okay?”
“Oh, this?” I said motioning to my jacket. “Just a bloody nose.”
“Kind of ruined my jacket, I suppose. My wife doesn’t know about it, though. Paid for it with my own credit card.” I winked. The dude fidgeted, over my shoulder and then behind him. “What do you do for work? Are you married?” I asked. “Have you ever wanted to murder anyone?”
The conductor announced a stop over the muffled intercom. The man stood up and ran off the train. The doors closed and I looked down at the dark under my fingernails.
I woke in the morning to the smell of coffee brewing. Ahh, I thought, and pushed myself out bed. My wife was in the kitchen, looking at her phone and sipping from a steaming mug. “Good morning,” she said. “Late night last night. Didn’t expect you up so early.”
“I feel great,” I said. I poured myself a cup of coffee and drank it black. It scalded my throat all the way down.
“What’d you do?” my wife asked—not accusatory, but excited, like kids wanting to know the details of a hot date. She came up behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist. I felt her cheek against my back. “Where’d you go? Who were you with?”
“Went out with the boys,” I said. “And then met up with some other people. They were really nice.” I paused. “I guess I never got their names.”
I drank the rest of my coffee and set the mug on the counter. My wife continued to hug me from behind. I could feel her heartbeat against my back and wondered if it had always pumped so hard.
Ryan Bradford is the author of the novel Horror Business, as well as the founder and editor of Black Candies. He is the winner of Paper Darts’s 2015 Short Fiction Contest. His writing has appeared in Vice, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, New Dead Families, and PANK. He also writes the regular column “Well, That Was Awkward” for San Diego CityBeat.
Illustration by Meg Lionel Murphy