The Metamorphosis, Noha Khalil
CW: death, animal death
The car is empty when Juliet enters it. Not surprising, considering that it’s two in the morning.
She slumps into a seat and takes off her shoes. They’re too small for her, but they’re the only work appropriate shoes she owns. Every time she goes out to buy a new pair, she can’t forgive herself the price tag.
So Juliet sits, feet aching and head resting against the map on the wall, as the train clatters around her.
Out of the corner of her eye, Juliet sees something move. She turns her head to see a massive rat scurry across the car. Lip curling in disgust, she draws her feet up to her seat and puts her shoes beside her, eyes fixed on the rat. But there’s nothing she can do about it, so eventually the rat skitters back into a corner and Juliet leaves it be.
It’s late. God, it’s late. Juliet rubs her dry eyes, and mascara comes off onto her hands. As she stares down at the black smudges, something overwhelming grips her suddenly, making her chest tight. The mascara cost her five dollars at CVS. She wears it to work, every day. This simple fact seems unbearable in this rattling F train at 2:16 in the morning.
She might not be sitting here now, with her heels on the seat beside her and mascara on her hands, if her supervisor hadn’t called the office.
“You can’t work another all-nighter,” he said, his voice thick with exhaustion and something like concern. “Enough. Go home. You’ll be back in a few hours.”
She will be back in a few hours.
Juliet exhales and wipes the mascara onto her skirt. She fumbles with her phone—2:17 AM—but there’s no service. She doesn’t know what she wanted to do, anyway. Like a child, all she wants right now is to be in her bed, something warm in her belly, someone warm kissing her forehead.
The rat scrabbles across the floor of the car, and Juliet is shaken out of her half sleep. It stops and looks at her inquisitively, eyes black and bright. She looks right back at it.
Disgusting thing, Juliet thinks placidly. It makes an indignant noise at her and then darts back under a seat.
It occurs to her that it has been a long time since the last stop. She tries to remember the last one—Broadway? West 4th, maybe? No, she’s in Brooklyn already. Jay Street. That’s it, she’s sure. She’s certain.
It’s so late.
Juliet puts her shoes on the floor and lies down on the seat, not caring how dirty it is. It feels so good to stretch out her legs. God, she’s tired.
This time, the rat doesn’t wake her up.
The alarm on her phone peals through the car. When Juliet opens her eyes, she feels the cheap mascara gluing her lashes together.
Juliet’s first, wild thought is that she’s missed her stop. The crumbling makeup clouds her vision, and it takes a long moment for her to reorient herself. Christ, she’s still exhausted. Juliet scrambles for her phone to turn off the alarm, and almost drops it again when she sees the time is 6:00. She won’t have time to change her clothes or shower or eat or wash this fucking mascara off her face—
Juliet bursts into tears in the grimy little subway car. She’s so tired.
After what feels like a pathetically long time, Juliet pulls herself together. She does her best to wipe streaked makeup from her cheeks and puts her shoes on. She’s smart, successful, sophisticated. It’s silly to get upset over something like this. Useless. She folds her hands in her lap, sits up straight, and waits for the next stop, wherever it may be, so she can start her day.
The train doesn’t stop. Juliet’s shoulders start to slump. Her hands fidget. The time is 7:53 AM. The time is 8:26. The time is 9:09.
The train doesn’t stop, and Juliet is late for work.
Then her phone dies, and she doesn’t know what time it is anymore. She sets the useless phone aside.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Juliet says to the empty car. She isn’t startled when the rat scurries to the center of the car. It holds her gaze, whiskers quivering. She thinks it must be young. Its eyes are bright, its coat unscarred.
“I guess this train isn’t stopping,” she goes on, acutely aware that she sounds insane. But there’s no one here to hear her, no one but this rat.
Juliet stands up. The rat twitches. “But I’m getting hungry,” she says finally. She isn’t, actually, not at all, but she wants to think it would’ve made the rat laugh if it spoke English.
Resolutely, she strides across the car, her heels making muted, anticlimactic sounds against the sticky floor. She wrestles the door between cars open. A rush of stale wind makes her eyes sting and fill with tears. Carefully, she opens the next door.
She steps into the next car, blinking the tears from her vision. The door slides shut behind her, and her eyes clear.
In the center of the car is a rat.
Juliet takes a deep breath and walks directly past it, tearing open the next door.
In the next car, her vision blurs again, and again, when the door closes, the car comes into focus before her. Again, a rat sits in the middle of the car.
Juliet keeps walking, telling herself she’ll find the conductor eventually.
In the next car, the rat chitters at her. She ignores it, ignores her mounting panic as she recognizes the ads plastered on the walls. She forges forward through ten cars, and at the end of the tenth car, she stops, breathing heavily, staring through the window into the next car. It’s impossible to see clearly, but she thinks she can see a black-suited figure in heels in front of the far door, and something small and gray in the middle of the floor.
She wrenches the door open and goes through, almost tripping in her haste.
There is not a soul in the eleventh car, but for the rat. It has not moved.
“I’m late for work,” she says. She can hear her voice shaking, and hates herself for showing this rat how scared she is. But the rat says nothing.
Juliet sits down heavily. She can’t think of anything else to do, doesn’t even want to try. She can’t check the time (there’s no point in knowing it), she doesn’t have food (she’s not hungry), and she didn’t get to say goodbye (to who?).
She doesn’t cry again. She takes off her heels and lies down. She uses her jacket to wipe away the last of the mascara. The rhythm of the train is so familiar now that, despite her predicament, the noise and movement is a comfort. Before long, she’s asleep again.
It doesn’t take very long to fall into a sort of routine, Juliet and the rat and the train.
She spends much of her time sleeping. She never feels any less tired, but sometimes when she is waking up, in the haze between rest and wakefulness, the train rocking her, she feels almost rested.
Often, she speaks to the rat. It seems attentive, and eventually, Juliet stops doubting that it’s listening. Not long after that, she stops doubting that it understands her.
It doesn’t seem to sleep at all, or it sleeps when she does. Juliet takes to talking even when she can’t see it, lying on her back on the seat and staring up at the perpetually flickering light.
She tells it about her life.
“My mom still lives in Queens,” she confides. “I talk to her maybe once a week. She never liked that I left the city for college. Or that I never moved back home. She hates Brooklyn, she won’t visit. I don’t think that part is my fault.”
“I gave up a lot to work where I do. But it’s worth it. Or it would’ve been.”
“I didn’t really have a lot of friends in college. I had to keep my scholarship. Couldn’t get caught up.”
“I’m the most disciplined person I know. I don’t know how much good it did me.”
“One of my friends got pregnant in college. She had a lot more friends than I did. We weren’t really close, but we didn’t have anyone else we were close with, either. I always thought it was weird how she had all these people who would lend her their notes or go out with her, but she asked me to drive her to her appointments. The father wasn’t an asshole, not really, but he was scared just like she was. So he had an out and she didn’t. She didn’t blame him. I always told her she should, though. She ended up losing the baby.”
“Do you think she remembers me?”
Juliet has not had a very long life. Soon, she runs out of stories to tell, and begins speaking in fragments.
“I wish I took care of my body better,” she says once.
The rat skitters against the floor somewhere close, and she continues.
“This was going to happen eventually,” Juliet goes on. “And maybe if I slept more I wouldn’t be so tired now.”
She turns her head to look at the seat opposite hers. “Do you think I’ve been reported missing?”
The rat doesn’t answer.
Sometimes she stares out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of a light, or a maintenance hallway, or graffiti. She never sees anything. There’s nothing left out there, not anymore.
“We are the only two people in the whole world,” Juliet says.
The rat says nothing, but it agrees.
Once, she tries to open the window. She’s stopped trying to escape, but she wants to be rid of her dead phone and her awful shoes. It doesn’t work, and as she gives up, sliding into her seat, she makes eye contact with the rat.
“I know,” she says. “It is what it is.”
Juliet doesn’t cry often, and never has. Now, she has let herself fade into a mostly calm emotional fog. But then the rat collapses, and never gets up again.
She sits bent over, facing the floor, crying so long and so hard that her tears pool on the floor. She falls asleep with her head aching and her eyes stinging.
When she wakes, the stale air has begun to stink. The corpse of the rat is bloated. She lies on her side, back to the rest of the car, and stares at the yellow seat. She doesn’t want to cry again.
She has lost any sense of time, but she lies silently for a long while, falling in and out of sleep, stench of decay so bad it makes her eyes water. Eventually, it stops bothering her. She doesn’t know if she’s used to the smell or if the rat has completely decomposed, and she doesn’t have the energy to turn over and check.
It is as close to death as she has ever been.
Finally, she resolves to find out what has become of her only friend. Slowly, she shifts into an upright position, and is not quite surprised to find a small pile of bones on the floor.
“All the animals are gone,” she says. Her voice does not even sound like her own, and her throat hurts with disuse. “And now I’m the only one left.”
She kneels by the bones, touches the skull of the rat with a hesitant finger.
“I guess it’s not your fault that you don’t live too long,” she says quietly. “So I forgive you. But who will I talk to now?”
She doesn’t talk much. She walks up and down the train car, avoiding the bones of her friend. She takes to tugging at her hair, watching the black strands tangle in her fingers, feeling them pull free from her scalp, separate totally and finally from her head. She tears maps and ads from the walls, makes up poems in her head and scrawls them everywhere. When she runs out of paper, she uses the seats. When she runs out of ink in her one and only pen, she memorizes.
None of her poems make sense, she knows. But she reads them over and over again to herself.
Her favorite is one about the moon. If there is anything she really, truly misses, it’s the moon. There is nothing quite like the gentleness of the moon’s watchful faraway eye.
Her hair is growing longer than she’s ever had it. She can’t bother herself to figure out a way to cut it. In any case, it makes a soft place for her to rest her head when she sleeps. Once, she wakes up to find her first gray hair. It makes her laugh uproariously, like she hasn’t laughed since college. She examines herself, her hands, her face in the reflection of the window. She notices fine creases where she hasn’t before, age showing in a face that has become wild and unfamiliar.
Sometimes, when she’s falling asleep, she trails her fingers over her stomach, her arms, her face. It might feel like the touch of someone else. She isn’t sure. She doesn’t remember what it feels like to be touched, or seen. She isn’t sure if she still misses the moon.
She gets older. Her knees begin to hurt when she walks up and down the car, trying to keep her balance every time the train jerks, so she stops. Occasionally, she finds the energy to recite one of her poems, but this happens less and less frequently.
“How long have I been in exile?” she says. It’s a newer one, and she has never spoken it aloud before. “A single hour. Just one, if you make minutes into miles. I have been stranded for miles and miles.”
Her voice was once customer-service smooth. Now, it is as rickety as the train itself.
“Has my absence been noted? Written down? Filed away? I have been seen, all twenty six years of me. All thirty, forty, hundred, thousand years. I have been fired for being late.”
She can’t remember if that’s the end of the poem, but she keeps talking, no longer from a memorized script.
“I have been disciplined. I have been fired. I have been expelled. I have been exiled!” Her weak voice is getting louder. “I’m here! I’m alone! I’m everybody! I’m everywhere and everything and everyone and alone!”
“I’m here! Didn’t you see me? I was always there, for miles and miles and I’m still there! And what did I ask for? I asked for more time! And what did I get? I got—”
She claps a withered hand over her mouth. She listens to the train, willing herself to calm down, her racing pulse to slow.
“I got more time,” she says, muffled.
She looks at herself. The window is warped, and her reflection is no longer clear. But she knows what she would see: an old woman, yellow toothed, tangle haired, barefoot. Her suit filthy.
These are the last words she ever speaks.
She no longer feels the need to fill up the time. She does not resist it passing. Each time she goes to sleep, it is with a pain somewhere, joints or kidney or heart, and she knows she may never wake up.
She sleeps more and more now, or maybe it only seems that way. There is little difference, now, between waking and sleep.
Everything fades. Holes appear in her memory. She can no longer remember anything before this little pocket of existence, and then the only thing she holds on to are the poems. Her vision wears away, her teeth fall out. She tries to speak and cannot. The ever-present rattling of the train fades as her hearing gives out.
The only real thing, the only moment that exists, is the beat of her heart. A second springs into reality with the pulse of blood, and fades between beats. As her heart slows, blood moving thickly through her veins, so too does each successive second. When her heartbeat ceases, time stops entirely. There is nothing left to measure itself against.
Noha Khalil is a young writer from Brooklyn, New York, with recent work appearing in King Ludd’s Rag.