The doors closed with a hiss and Ben looked around the cabin of the subway car. As usual, all of the seats were full. The train pulled away from the station, and Ben quickly grabbed one of the hand-holds, just narrowly stopping himself from careening into a little old woman. He sighed.
Looking out of the tinted glass of the car, Ben's glazed eyes took in the brick and mortar of the dark subway walls in the dim, flickering glow of the exterior lights. He half imagined that when he narrowed his eyes, the beings in the shadows would come to life and dance before him thinking that he could never see them. He liked to do that. Every day he did the same thing, half closing his eyes to see the shadow people, and every day he felt as if he were nearer to fully seeing them- not just flickering glimpses or movement on the edge of his vision, but fully, whole-bodied and clear as day.
The train slowed and came to a stop with a jolt, its doors opening with hisses and the people came and went; seats vacated and seats filled. The train again began to move.
"What are you looking at?"
Ben jumped, nearly dropping his briefcase in surprise. He looked beside him to see the dark red top of a woman's head. The head tilted up and the woman spoke again, a questioning look on her face.
"I think so, yes," Ben said softly, shaking off the shock of being spoken too.
The woman smiled and together the two looked out the window in silence. After a minute, she spoke up again.
"I like the lights."
Ben sharply looked down at her. "The lights? Why?"
She shrugged. "I dunno, I sort of feel as if, as soon as the wall lights mix with the lights of the train, and I look at them in the right way, I can see heaven." She laughed a high-pitched laugh.
Ben looked again out the window and tried to look at the lights, but after a few tries, his eyes became tired and hurt.
"I don't see it," he said simply.
"You must not be looking right."
Ben laughed. "I've been looking out of this window for three years now. I have yet to see heaven."
She laughed with him. "Maybe you're right. What do you see?"
He stopped laughing and narrowed his eyes again. "When I narrow my eyes just a bit, I think I see shadows dancing outside." He looked down at the woman expecting a laugh or some ridicule, but instead saw her narrowing her eyes.
"I don't see it," she said after a minute.
"You must not be looking right"
The woman laughed at this and offered her hand.
Ben took her hand "Ben."
"Good to meet you, Ben."
He nodded. "Likewise."
"Tell you what, Ben," Wanda said. "I'll look out the window like you said, and you look out the window like I said, and we'll see who's right."
Ben smiled. "Sure."
They stood together, each staring out the dark glass into the tunnel beyond until the next stop came. The doors opened with hisses and the people came and went; seats emptied and seats filled. The train again began to move.
The red head turned to Ben, smile plastered across her face. "So what is it you do for a living, Ben?"
He shrugged. "I sell kitchenware."
The woman laughed. "You're kidding right? I mean, you look like you should be some sort of business manager or something."
Ben shook his head slowly. "No, I've never been good enough to be in business management." He held up a finger. "But I did win the employee of the month award two months ago."
Again Wanda laughed her high-pitched laugh at what she assumed was sarcasm.
"What do you do?" Asked Ben, ignoring her laughter.
"I serve drinks at Charlie's."
"A waitress? That can't pull in too much money."
She shook her head. "No, it doesn't pay much. I only scrape by each month."
"What about your husband?"
She giggled. "I'm not married."
Ben grunted and let his eyes wander back to the window. "That makes two of us." He paused. "Without anyone waiting for us, not without boyfriends."
Wanda laughed again and patted Ben on the back. "You're funny, Ben. Sad, but funny." Not sure how to respond to such a remark, Ben just grunted at the window.
The two resumed their staring out of the window until the woman again spoke up, quietly.
"I sometimes see you taking this train," she said.
He looked at her in surprise. "Really?"
She nodded. "You always take the same car and get off at the same stop, almost every day." She grinned. "I'm no weirdo; I just get off at the same stop as you and noticed you before."
"Where is it you live?"
"Two blocks from your building."
Ben grunted. "I'm surprised we've never bumped into each other before now."
She began fiddling with her hands, looking down at them as she did, grinning nervously. "Well, I never really knew how to approach you before. It was only today that I realized you always stare out the window."
The lights flickered suddenly and the train jolted as Ben let this sink in.
Wanda looked up at him expectantly, her grin fading as he still said nothing but looked out the window.
"I'm sorry," she said finally. "I didn't mean to disturb you."
She started to turn away when he spoke up.
"I think I can see them," he said.
"See what?" she said, turning back.
He pointed out into the dark tunnel. "The shadow people. I feel as if every day I get a little closer to seeing them fully. But every day I still miss them. Maybe I'm not looking right, I don't know. For three years I've looked out this window trying to see them, but I never have. Do you think I'm wasting my time?"
Wanda paused, staring alternately at the window and the man, before speaking with carefully chosen words.
"I think that it's always good to have a goal to aim for."
The train slowed and stopped at the next terminal. With a hiss and a slam, the doors opened and closed and the train moved again.
"A goal," Ben mused, tilting his head back in thought. He pointed above the window. "Like that?"
They both stared at the glowing advertisement above the window, one of the many lining the walls of the car. This one had a picture of a smiling couple dancing in a green garden in front of a beautiful cottage. It was selling soap.
Wanda frowned. "Yeah… I guess."
"You don't sound so sure."
"Well, I've never really thought of that as my goal."
Ben scratched his chin in thought. "Neither have I, but they look happy. Shouldn't that be our goal? Happiness?"
"They look beyond happy- it's like a drug-induced euphoria. I've never seen anyone that happy."
Ben peered closer at the ad. "Even the place seems happy. How can a place seem so damn happy?"
"Well," said Wanda slowly. "It is the country. Isn't life supposed to be better out there?"
"Don't know, I've never been."
"I went once when I was little."
"Really?" asked Ben, shocked.
"I don't remember much, but I do remember lots of green and absolute silence."
The two went quiet for a minute, staring at the picture.
"I don't think I've ever heard silence," thought Ben aloud. "What's it like?"
She shook her head. "I don't know, really. Just… no sound. Quiet. It sounded weird."
Again the train slowed and stopped, changing passengers. With a hiss the doors closed and the train carried on.
Ben and Wanda had finally found space to sit down.
"Are you happy, Wanda?"
She frowned. "I don't know. I don't know if I'd realize if I was, to be honest."
Ben nodded slowly. "How do we know we aren't happy now?"
She laughed nervously. "If this is happiness, I want something better."
They went quiet for a moment, thinking. Suddenly, she grabbed Ben's hand and held it tightly. He let her, holding her equally as hard.
"What do you think happiness is?" Wanda whispered, not looking at Ben.
Ben leaned his head back onto the back of the seat so that he could get a view of the happy advertisement. He stared at it for a second.
"I think… it's not wanting anything else. Your life is complete, you know? A good job, security, a family. That sort of thing."
"Do you have any of that?"
Ben frowned and slowly shook his head. "Not one."
"Are you trying to get any of it?"
Ben felt a stab of panic hit him as he thought of this. He had no family; the closest thing to security he had was a bolt on his door; his job was dead end and had lost its appeal years ago. Was he trying to make things any better?
"No, I guess not," he said heavily, squeezing Wanda's hand tighter. "What about you? Do you know what will make you happy?"
She absently chewed her lip as she thought of this. "I want someone to love, most importantly. And they must love me back."
"So you want a family?"
She shook her head angrily. "I could care less about a family! I just want someone to be with who will make me happy. My mother had a family, and it made her miserable. I don't need a family."
"You want someone to be there when you come home…"
"Someone to be with at night…"
"Someone to help you get through the tough times…"
"Someone to care for me…"
Again the two went silent, each thinking of their own lives.
"Can we ever be happy?" asked Ben suddenly.
"I don't know," said Wanda quietly. "I hope so. I don't think I could stand thinking of never being happy. To have no light at the end of the tunnel would only leave darkness everywhere." She paused. "No heaven and no shadows."
Ben shuddered, suddenly cold and angry. "Why the hell have I been looking out that damned window trying to see the shadows every day for the past three years? Why haven't I been trying to make myself happier, instead of just distracting myself from my life?"
"Are you sure it's distraction that's making you do it?"
Ben stared blankly at her.
"What I mean is," she said slowly, "could it be that you just want to see something that no one else has? You want to be special."
He laughed at this. Not a happy laugh, but a laugh containing all of the pains of a troubled mind. "I- I don't know. I don't know why I try to see them; why I spend so much time trying to see them. So much wasted time…"
Wanda patted him on the shoulder. "You're not the only one who wasted so long of their life." Pause. "I've spent the last year just looking at you. Hoping that one day something would happen to start us talking. Hoping that you could make me happy- and for the past year you've done pretty good without you ever realizing. I go to sleep each night thinking of you and the life we could have and I wake up each morning thinking of what you will look like that day."
Ben stared at her. "The past year? Why didn't you say anything?"
Wanda stared resolutely at the floor. "I didn't want to risk losing the ideal of you. I wanted you how I imagined you- a kind, gentle man who loved me. I didn't want to ruin that by finding out you were some asshole."
"So why talk to me today?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just needed something real, not imaginary. I woke up this morning alone in my bed and realized I couldn't live with a dream forever. A dream won't make me happy, will it?"
"It might if it's good enough."
"It was a good dream, but a part of me knew it was nothing- I was still living alone and felt alone. I still had a crap job and no future."
"A dream only goes as far as reality," added Ben brightly. "And it's reality that makes you happy."
Wanda stared in amazement at the man. "That's pretty deep stuff."
Ben grinned. "I'm sure I read it off of a fortune cookie."
Both seized the moment to laugh as the train ground to a halt at another stop.
Ben stood up quickly. "Our stop," he said while still chuckling.
Together they stepped off the train and made their way up to the main street, arm in arm, laughing uncontrollably with each other- each holding the other for support.