issue eleven

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(1350 words)
Jillian Taylor
Phantom Touch
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
 
       She used to ride the 8:15. In the third car, a man with ink stains at the side of his mouth liked to pat her bottom with the rocking of the train. Jackie never acknowledged his touch until the day he grabbed her. She had enjoyed the lightness of his hand and the anticipation in between his soft pats. But one day he began to slide his hand in a circle over her hip. Tyler used to fall asleep spooning her, his small hand holding her hip. Since she always slept on her side, he woke Jackie with this same circular touch, gently rocking her.

The stained man's hand sped up, buffing the fabric of her dress. Jackie waited, wondering why this day was different. And then he dug into her cheek, his fingers spread wide to hold as much of her as he could in one hand. Jackie didn't have to react; a woman behind her saw him grab her and she hit the man with her purse.

"What's wrong with you?" she yelled as her purse caught him under his chin. As much as possible, a small area was cleared around them. "Why would you grab that young girl? What's wrong with you?"

A conductor entered the car and fought through the tightly packed mass leaning away from the swinging purse. He got stuck between a woman with a stroller and her husband laden with bags; the conductor's short legs could not step over the plastic dam, so hands extended to hold aloft the stroller, allowing him to duck underneath.

The woman continued to hit the stained man, who searched desperately out the window for the next stop. "You freaking perv! And what's with that stuff around you mouth? Are you drooling, you sick sonofa -"

The train stopped and he pushed through the door. The conductor finally arrived and looked at the panting woman.

"What happened?" he asked.

"That man grabbed her ass." She pointed to Jackie who had remained still the entire time.

The conductor held Jackie's elbow between his thumb and finger, and leaned in to speak softly. "Is everything okay, miss?"

Jackie kept her eyes down and nodded. He waited a moment longer to see if she would say anything else; when she didn't, he squeezed her elbow gently and turned away to plot his route to the front of the car. A shadow of his touch stayed on her elbow for days afterward.

From then on, Jackie took the 8:27 train. She tried the 7:53 once but saw Tyler board after the third stop. She quickly stepped off the train as the doors closed and remained near the edge of the track until an elderly man with a tweed fedora approached her. He escorted her to a bench with an extended arm and sat with her. Jackie placed her purse on her lap. Tyler had preferred lying down to standing up, even to sitting up. He would drape himself across Jackie like a blanket, or use her for a pillow while she sat. She liked how her lap cradled his head. She would pet his hair and ignore the tingling in her stiff legs. The weight of his phantom head heated her thighs now.

Fifteen minutes later, the next train stopped; Jackie kept her head down in case the stained man was on the train. The platform swelled with the mixture of boarding and disembarking passengers, gradually thinning until empty. The old man with the hat continued to sit next to Jackie, his only movement a gentle shaking of his tall umbrella at a pigeon who danced close to their feet. When the next train arrived, Jackie stood and nodded at her companion. Only a handful of others appeared and waited for the train and she fell in line with them. The old man followed. He offered his arm when it was her turn to step onto the train. Her smile and the lightness of her hand on his arm lingered with him for weeks.

Jackie preferred this new train, the fourth car especially. It was filled to the brim for a full twenty minutes each morning. Jackie reveled in the hiss of the train doors as they opened to allow more passengers. She inhaled the crowd entering the car and stood near the middle, maintaining her white-knuckle hold on the pole. The fastest claimed seats and kept themselves busy settling in, procuring their passes from purses and wallets, shuffling bags around their feet, avoiding the eyes of those left to stand. Warm bodies pushed against her and she shifted from foot to foot to accommodate them, only to touch someone else. Each pinpoint of contact burned brightly on her body like a rash.

A man with a gray beard snickered when her moist palm twisted and squeaked on the metal. Jackie glanced at him and did not like the lift of his upper lip. She considered moving to another area of the train when the train lurched forward and she stepped back. Her heel hit a shoe. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a tall man with glasses behind her. Jackie eased her weight onto her back leg as she slid her foot to brush his instep. She waited to feel his body shift away from her, but he didn't move.

The train slowed to a stop at the next station and he stepped closer to Jackie to allow access to the nearby door. Jackie leaned against the pole to make more room, but he only followed her. She knew they weren't touching but she felt his being, his aura expanding outside his body, teasing the skin on her back with proximity. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the cool pole. She remembered how she used to wake up before opening her eyes, feeling Tyler's back centimeters from her own. A breath slightly deeper than necessary would be enough to reach him.

The individual strands of hair escaped from her bun and tickled her neck now, dancing with the man's silent breath. The train accelerated suddenly and Jackie caught herself from tripping over his foot by falling into him. His left arm wrapped around her waist, holding her steady. She settled her feet between his and turned her head to thank him. He nodded, his arm still around her. Jackie faced forward and took slow, even breaths.

As the train rocked, their bodies swayed together. Jackie's back felt hot, almost uncomfortably hot. The hard buttons on his shirt and the cool buckle of his belt pressed into her back. His hand flattened on her stomach to widen his grip and his arm tensed whenever the train jerked. Jackie gripped the cold pole as a lifeline from this altered reality. His fingers flexed once, a languid tightening then smoothing, like a drowsy cat. A yearning caught her breath and closed her eyes.

At five more stops, he stepped forward each time to make room, moving her with him. Trapped between the pole and him, between the inanimate and the live, the cold and hot, Jackie felt less lonely. Someone wanted to be near her, to touch her. Someone cared for a moment that she was there taking up space. Her vision shimmered as she blinked back tears. When he next stepped back, bringing her with him, she leaned into him like she had the right to. She settled her shoulder blades against his chest and shifted her hips to fit against his. His only response was to slide his arm further around her until the crevice of his elbow touched her side.

He spoke as the train slowed for the next station. "This is my stop." Jackie tried to step away but he held her until the door slid open. Quickly, he squeezed her against him and let go. An arctic wind stormed into her back, giving her goose bumps. She leaned her warm forehead against the pole, which furthered the chill traveling through her body. Jackie closed her eyes and wondered if the buttons had left little circles imprinted in her skin.




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This work is copyrighted by the author, Jillian Taylor. All rights reserved.
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