Excuse me, this is the Quiet Car
by Cara Mast
The magic of the quiet car is best when everyone follows the rules.
I’m halfway through the math problem I’ve been mulling over when a sudden bleep-bleep-bring-a-ling in the quiet makes me jump, slamming my knees into the fold-down tray table. Ouch.
And then, as if the phone ringing wasn’t enough, the man across the aisle from me picks up. “This is Paul Whitford. Yeah, hey Jerry, what do you need?”
White- and grey-haired heads pop up from the seats ahead of our row, the usual crowd of over-65’s turning to look for the disturbance. I really just want to go back to my problem set. The train shakes audibly around us, more like a throat clearing than regular train rumbles, and I’m pretty sure that’s a warning at this point. I’d rather not find out. Much as I’d like to ignore this guy, he’s now made his business everyone’s business.
“…you’re really killing me here, Jerry—”
“Sir,” I cut in, barely above a whisper.
He scowls at me, and I point up to the sign on the ceiling that reads QUIET CAR: No cell phones, no loud conversations. The scowl turns into a hearty scoff, and the man looks away with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“What? No sorry, just some obnoxious kid next to me.”
To be fair, I am wearing my university hoodie. But I’m also right, and I have a healthy appreciation for the rules. Rules currently being broken. Rules that don’t take breaking lightly.
“No, no, go on, this is a fine time. I’ve got plenty of time.”
Even though we’re not going through a tunnel, the main ceiling lights die off with a whine before coming back alight in dimmer fashion, with a distinct flicker. Some folks are now standing up in their rows, peering back at this guy on the phone. He’s either oblivious, or, more likely, unable to be shamed by their mutterings.
“What a jerk.”
“It’s not like there aren’t signs throughout the car…”
“If he only knew what’s coming if he keeps it up.”
A bony finger jabs into my side from the seat behind me; I turn to see an older woman peering between the seats at me through large round glasses.
“There’s not going to be trouble, is there? Isn’t there something…” she says, and then shrugs a little helplessly. Isn’t there something we can do?
I’m contemplating the value in trying to be “some obnoxious kid” again when the air conditioning starts to hiss in a way that’s become familiar to me. I reach up and jab the service button for assistance, to get a conductor to step in. The little bulb above my seat lights up orange.
Paul, phone man, rule breaker, laughs hard and long like the clip of a helicopter. A few muffled gasps follow the laughter. Other regulars like me, I’m sure. We know where this is leading.
“Sir, I’m going to need you to take that call to another car,” the conductor announces as she strides up the aisle.
The relief I feel that she came quickly, and that she cut straight to the chase without waiting for an opening, is substantial.
“Jerry, hold on… Excuse me, what?” Paul wears the same scowl he’d used on me.
The conductor is unperturbed. “Sir, this is the quiet car. No loud conversations, no phone calls.”
“So, you want me to just get up and leave? All of my stuff is here, I can’t just move it all. No, Jerry, don’t worry about it, I’m on the train, minor issue I’m resolving now.”
“If you really need to take that call, you can walk back to one of the other cars and then return to your things when you’re through,” the conductor explains. If she had any patience at the beginning of this encounter, it’s gone now. “But you cannot continue having that conversation in here. Come on, get up.”
“Excuse me?!” Paul splutters, louder. “I paid for my ticket, and I won’t be threatened over a phone call!”
Behind us, at the back of the train car, the car door clanks open and crashes closed.
Well, it’s come to this. I hunker down into my sweatshirt. I’d really hoped it wouldn’t come to this; I did what I could so that it wouldn’t come to this.
The lights throughout the car cut out again, and then the service light above me, as well as all of the others, turns a soft blue.
“Threatened?” the conductor says, raising her eyebrows and lowering her voice. “This was a courtesy.”
I turn back to the woman behind me, the one who isn’t a regular, and say, “Hey, you might want to look out the window for the next few minutes. This is going to be handled but… probably best not to pay attention.”
She slowly shifts to the window, which I’m glad of. Some of the other regulars are whispering warnings to their neighbors as well.
“Oh, so you’re just going to walk away, fantastic,” Paul sneers as the conductor walks back to the front of the car. “Yeah, Jerry, some nerve these people have—”
Though barely audible, the naming of the loud man cuts him off abruptly.
A single ceiling light flickers back on, right above our row. Mister Whispers occupies the aisle of the train, looming over the rule breaker who summoned him. To me, Mister Whispers looks like a distended, animated shadow made of dense, deep blue smoke. Several arms – varies depending on the trip, today it’s three – and something that swishes like a scarf, or maybe a tail, it’s hard to tell. On his head–well, at the top of him at least–sits a conductor’s cap. I don’t think that Mister Whispers looks the same to everyone, but whatever this Paul Whitford guy is seeing, it’s no better.
“What the… Jerry, shit, I gotta call you…”
He stops speaking. Not because he wants to, or even because he’s afraid, but because Mister Whispers has reached out with one of his hands to press a finger to Paul’s lips. Paul’s mouth is still moving, but sound has ceased to come out of it.
“Much better,” Mister Whispers says. He reconfigures such that the conductor’s hat is angled in my direction. “Hello, Catherine.”
“Hello, Mister Whispers,” I respond in a respectful whisper.
“Catherine, was this man bothering you?” Mister Whispers moves again, and the conductor’s hat gets closer to my eye-level. “Was this man breaking the rules?”
There’s a script to these encounters. I’ve only ever been a witness before, not a participant, but I remember how to respond.
“Did you attempt to stop him?”
“Yes. I pointed him to the sign. And then I called for the conductor.”
“Thank you, Catherine. And what is your verdict?”
I’ve always kind of liked that Mister Whispers always leaves the actual resolution to the passengers. We do our best to be understanding with people who might have missed the signs, or helpful in the case of a legitimate exception like a crying baby or a medical emergency. If it gets to this point, with someone who’s been gently corrected multiple times, there wasn’t a reasonable solution. Everyone always rules guilty in these cases.
“He broke the rules, ignored requests to come into compliance, and—”
A crash, and then silenced as he is Paul Whitford is gesticulating across the aisle, through Mister Whispers, to try to contradict me. He’s in my space. His hand waves close enough to my face I can feel the heat of it. I scrabble back toward the window seat where my bag’s been laying, trying to grab for my math notes, heart racing for the first time this whole ride. In the handful of times I’ve seen Mister Whispers, no perpetrator has ever interrupted the proceedings.
“I think not, Paul Whitford!” Mister Whispers says, the loudest I’ve ever heard him, almost approximating an “inside voice.” Halfway through the shadows, Paul is stopped, his hand outstretched toward me, face warped in a snarl, shadow puddled around his shoulders and torso. He’s still trying to talk: probably ranting and swearing based on the way his mouth moves and his neck bulges and the shade of reddish-purple he’s turning. For all that I can’t hear a word, I instinctively keep trying to put more space between us. Push my bag down to the floor, hug my books to my chest, huddle against the window. I don’t have to hear his threats to feel them.
“Enough!” Mister Whispers barks. He does… something, and Paul is sucked back out through his shadowy form and spat out against the seats on his side of the aisle. The whole car shudders at the impact. I can’t tell if Paul is still trying to fight, but I can see that Mr Whispers has more arms now, and they’re keeping him engaged. Restrained. I stay pressed to the window.
From other parts of the car, regulars call my name:
“Are you okay, honey?”
“Kid, wave if you’re alright.”
“SILENCE, PLEASE.” Mister Whispers says, and he billows, expanding briefly like a pulse.
There ceases to be any sound in the car at all beyond the muted rattling of the train and the hiccoughing sounds of my own breathing. I press my hands to my mouth, trying not to make any sound at all, tearing up as I fail.
“Catherine, please do not cry,” Mister Whispers says, the conductor’s hat once more facing my direction. The bulk of the shadow is still doing… whatever across the aisle, but an arm stretches to pat me awkwardly on the knee. “This is not your fault. You did all you could.”
The tears that were welling spill over, but I do feel a little better being comforted by Mister Whispers, for all that he isn’t exactly a comforting presence. I don’t relax, though. I did do everything properly here. It’s just that nothing went the way it usually does after that. I still have three hours left on the train, and I don’t want to spend any more of it anywhere near Paul. I realize I’m shaking when Mister Whispers pushes down more firmly on my knee.
“Oh, no Catherine, not to worry. You will stay here, and safe. I will be taking Paul Whitford with me. We do not tolerate riders who break the rules of the quiet car.”
Across the aisle, the shadows have grown, such that both seats are covered in opaque blues. The man sitting there is no longer visible. I take my first steady breath. The extended bulk of Mister Whispers undulates, then begins to recede, leaving nothing behind but the cell phone as Mister Whispers returns to what I think of as his normal shape.
Mister Whispers nods to me, his hat bobbing. “My apologies for the discomfort.”
He pulses, and I can hear the regulars again, mostly light coughs and murmurs of assent.
“Everyone, I have restored the quiet. Please resume your enjoyment of our travel. And please also thank Catherine for her service today.”
As low notes of “thank you Catherine,” and “thanks kid,” sound off throughout the car, the tension in my body eases. We’re back on script now.
“Thank you, Mister Whispers,” I say, patting the hand on my knee. “Have a quiet day.”
“Have a quiet day,” the other passengers echo.
“Have a quiet day,” Mister Whispers concludes.
He slithers down the aisle and out of the train car, the door gliding shut behind him with only a soft click.
I slowly resettle into my aisle seat, listening to the thrum of the train for some time before pulling the tray table back into position and reopening my workbook. The train conductor who’d come by earlier brings me a coffee with a smile. She turns the service light above me off when she leaves. Sipping the hot coffee, I stare at the half-figured equation, trying to remember where I’d left off before our peace was so rudely interrupted.
Before I forget, I lean across the aisle and pick up the abandoned cell phone, toggling the silent switch.
About the Author
As a retired tall-ship sailor, a failed academic, and a millennial finance professional, Cara Mast gets stopped constantly in New York City and asked for directions. Cara spends their free time drinking coffee, binging words, and yelling about the Philadelphia Eagles in their apartment and family group chat. They can be found on twitter @digicara, and at digicara.com.
About the Narrator
Lalana Dara is Thai American, was born in New York, and spent 20+ years in life sciences and information technology. She is a gamer girl, a foodie, and a wanderer. Usually not lost.
Lalana is also known as Piper J. Drake, bestselling author of romantic suspense, paranormal romance, science fiction, and fantasy.