The only people riding the Blue Line on a night this cold are people trying to stay alive. I almost didn’t make it onto the train before the doors closed, and I doubt I could’ve lasted till the next one arrived. Two coats, and a scarf—that shit means nothing in this weather.
Hungry and tired, I drop into a seat under a flickering light. The car’s empty except for a goth girl in a seat across the aisle. Probably a runaway. And fucking white, like old Ms. Moore’s Persian cat—like that kinda white. When I was a kid, that cat would corner me on the front stoop—hissing, skulking. Just plain creepy. And that’s this girl—creepy. Eyes filled with darkness. Ripped jeans and jacket over a Ramones tee-shirt. And damn, that green hair. It’s blowing around like she’s standing under a bridge in the wind. But there ain’t no wind.
She pops out an earbud and glares. “Whatcha lookin’ at?”
“Your hair,” I say. “It’s everywhere.”
Her eyes sink deeper into shadow. “Fuck off.”
“You Irish or something?” Her accent’s thick.
“Recently immigrated.” She smirks then crazy-sings the next line. “More opportunity in the land of the free.”
A laugh uncoils from the back of the car, an old woman splashed in yellows and reds, a dress out of place anywhere that isn’t a loud wedding. And I tense because I didn’t see her. And I always see shit. Her face hides beneath a wide-brimmed hat like my grandma Harris wore on Sundays. Covered with flowers, but not fake, real, withering. A funeral wreath.
But this old lady doesn’t feel like anybody’s grandma—not warm, not safe.
“La Catrina,” says Irish. “I beg ya to join me. This night’s too bitter to spend it alone.”
When the old woman stands, her hat tilts up. Her face is shades of gray except for red lipstick smeared across her mouth. Paper-fine skin stretched tight on bone. She clatters over and slides into the seat next to Irish.
“Mija, good to see you. How’s the banshee business?”
I snort a laugh. “Banshee? That a new smack?”
Irish ignores the comment. “Busy, busy. So many souls movin’ along this time of year.”
“And young,” says La Catrina. “My last soul was una chica hermosa. Her quinceañera only last week. Poor thing jolted upright in bed, pulled the sheet to her heart. I sang a lullaby, but her eyes went wild as if I’d made a mistake.”
Irish nods. “I reaped a young man tonight.” She glances toward me. “Like yourself.” Green hair whirls across her eyes. “When his family heard me keening near his window, they all fell into a state.”
“Families take it hard.”
“I felt bad for ‘em; I did. But I snatched his soul just the same.” They both laugh and Irish shifts in her seat. “You’re right about their eyes, though—pitiful sad. Like they can’t believe their turn has come.”
That’s when I know. Watching them. Listening. They’re not fucking around. And I realize the next stop on the line, any stop, is long overdue. I glance at the door.
“Relax,” says Catrina. “We’re not here for you.”
Irish leans into the aisle. Her eyes are like flashlights gazing past my meaty parts, looking for hidden things deep within me. “You’re no stranger to death,” she says. “I can see that.”
I turn away, and a memory sweeps up from the dark, no more than a dream, a flash of color, and a flutter of pigeon wings. Seven years old and short-cutting through the alley behind Moe’s Market. A man slumped into his own puke, his eyes bulging to hold onto the world. And then gone. A graying over and gone. Murders and suicides and overdoses. The streets have no shortage of death, and that shit likes to latch on and follow a man.
I look up to see the bitches smiling at me like two crows flitting toward a shiny thing.
The train shudders and the rear door rattles open. The storm whips and howls through the car, sending a chill nicking at my bones; my breath quickens, and winter clouds huff from my throat.
In steps an old hag, her dark skin rough and grooved with age. Her cataract eyes fog cold and distant, like ice over glass. She shuffles over, all snapping joints and clacking bones, and then she turns the counter-clockwise circle of a setting sun before plopping into the seat beside me.
“Old hoodoo haint,” says Catrina.
Irish bats her lashes. “Evening, mother.”
The banshee smiles at me, and the thin-lipped-sour wispiness of it turns my stomach. I glance at the haint. “You off for the night, too. Right mother?”
She shakes her head, and her mouth pulls in like she put somethin’ sour in there. “No, son,” she says. “My night’s just beginning.”
“But I feel fine. A little tired, but I feel real good.”
Those milky eyes, hushed and empty and cold, spool out my soul, long and fragile, as the world moans and fades away. And my own eyes? Well, I know they hold that same wild sadness, gazing into the reaper’s storm. I fall away, becoming something other.
A whimper flutters from my chest; it’s a sadness at leaving so soon. “I’m not ready.”
The old hag chuckles. “Son, you’re not dying. Just changing.” She places her hand on mine. “You got the calling.”
Irish whispers from somewhere outside the moment. “There’s only reapers on this train.”
And a weight, like an avalanche, bears down to cover me. It’s the weight of the dying. I can feel their pain and relief and fear and anticipation. Most of all I can feel their regret at having to say goodbye. Wild-eyed with surprise, they’ll grasp my hand like they always knew I’d been waiting.