Tito never believed that the stop after the last subway station existed, the place where the world supposedly changed for the better. The one he needs six silver tokens to get to.
Until he does. Until he needs to.
That’s when he boards the subway and travels on it for two and a half years, hurling forward towards a place that he’s only heard of in hushed, fervent stories. Except Tito doesn’t truly believe in the stop after the last station until he’s standing between where the tracks end and the new world begins, wearing the last of his lipstick, with only two aspirins and one shiny token left in his pocket.
The impossibly tall conductor/tour guide/gatekeeper smiles down at Tito.
“I can get you in,” she croons in his ear. She means past the turnstile at the end of the track, which gleams like silver but its edges glint like knives.
“How much?” he asks, mouth dry.
“One token, please.”
Tito’s aching fingers curl around the last coin in his pocket. It’s all he has left. His luggage, his memory, himself have all been lost along the way. It’s been a long trip.
Past the turnstile he sees a respectable road with bicycles and Vespas, a fruit seller and lingerie shop. He smells the engine exhaust and hears the drift of a radio turned up too loud. The world beyond is alive and full of potential, yes, but to Tito, the promise of this new place doesn’t quite cancel out the pang of loneliness and loss in his chest.
“This isn’t what I imagined,” he says, proud that he still remembers that bit at least. “Isn’t it supposed to be better here?”
The conductor/tour guide/gatekeeper shrugs. “For some it is.” She shrugs again and holds out her hand. “Well?”
Tito hesitates. Why? he thinks. Why? Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you traveled two and a half years on this stupid subway for? After all he’s given up to get here, this should be an easy sacrifice, a no brainer.
Except now that he’s standing at the end of the tracks, at the cusp of a new home beyond the turnstile, a new future…
…and he can’t imagine himself in it.
“What if…what if I wanted to go back?” he asks.
The conductor’s gaze is piercing, but there’s a hint of a smile on her lips. “I’m sure we can work something out,” she replies.
A few stops ago, when Tito has two coins in his pocket instead of one, he weighs his options.
“Well?” The conductor/repairman/toll collector looms over him, palm outstretched.
Will you give up a coin to save what’s left of you?
This far into the trip, tokens are rare and precious. The subway car was once packed with people. Now, it’s a bleak and lonely place. Filled with empty seats and hollow places where memories once were.
It’s not just the passengers who are disappearing. Tito’s last remaining possessions are pooled in his lap: two tokens, a tube of Parisian red lipstick, some colored pencils, a bottle of aspirin, a photo of himself and a woman he doesn’t recognize. She’s important, he thinks, so important. But her name is gone like a distracted thought. That terrifies him.
He’s clinging to what he can. He applies lipstick daily like religion and tries to ignore how the ache in his joints feel more like a memory. How transparent he’s becoming. Literally. The subway’s flickering fluorescent lights passes right through him now.
Will you give a coin to save what’s left?
The conductor’s hand is still outstretched. Tito hesitates, though it was never really a choice, was it? He’s traveled this far.
Reluctantly, like parting from a dying limb, Tito forfeits his second-to-last token.
The conductor smiles. Suddenly, Tito’s solid again. Opaque. He’s a little lighter now, maybe, but no longer threatening to disappear.
He exhales and sinks into the worn subway cushions, relieved.
He takes stock of what remains. Counts the items in his lap, his misshapen fingers with their swollen knuckles and then his stiff toes. His joints throb incessantly again, which is annoying and painful, but also a comforting proof of existence. Only now does he notice on the seat next to him, there’s this ugly mauve blanket. Straight, white hairs are caught in the fibers and it smells like apricots. Tito’s hair is black and curly and he smells like too much travel. He understands the blanket belonged to another passenger. Someone important.
There’s a void in his chest where this person should be and Tito wishes he could remember.
There’s this lanky boy sitting next to him, with long, white hair and thick glasses, wrapped in a mauve blanket. Tito has three tokens in his pocket.
Cal, that’s his name. Tito remembers. Not everything, but more than before. Or is it less? Time’s becoming slippery on the subway.
Cal’s arguing with the conductor/teacher/scheduler. “Why aren’t we there yet?” he asks, and the question is full of longing, desperation.
The conductor is silent, but her expression is sad, like a promising pupil who hasn’t found the right answer yet.
“How much longer, then?” Cal shivers, pulls his blanket tighter, and Tito notices his fingers are completely translucent.
“Who knows?” the conductor replies, with a sigh, and moves on.
The conductor never gives them straightforward answers, but this time, as they watch her walk down the aisle, Cal’s expression is devastating and Tito has to bite the inside of his check to stop from yelling awful things after her.
“I won’t make it,” Cal says, miserably. “Look.” He thrusts out his hollow hands under Tito’s nose. They’re shaking.
Tito doesn’t know what to say. What can he say to a fading friend? So, he puts an arm around Cal instead. The movement feels natural, but also reversed. He inhales the scent of apricots and, Tito remembers vaguely, it’s Cal who is usually wrapping an arm around him in comfort.
“You’ll make it,” says Tito, hoping words, like wishes, come true on the subway.
“No, you’re going to make it. You’re stubborn.” Cal points towards Tito’s lap and in it, he’s surprised to find his dogged-eared sketchbook. He’d forgotten about this.
“Maybe,” Tito says, blushing, as he flips through page after page of half-drawn buildings, semi-formed ideas. But the foundations are there for eco-high-rises and colorful community centers. “Who’s going to like these weird houses, though?”
Tito’s blush deepens. He can’t remember if anyone’s ever told him that before. It feels new.
“I hope the stop after the last station is full of people like you, Cal,” he says.
Cal grins. “Me too.”
Tito laughs. But he can’t shake the feeling of déjà vu. Or that if he doesn’t do something here and now, Cal’s going to disappear. And that is an unbearable thought. So, he fishes out one of his remaining coins and pushes it into Cal’s hand. His friend’s eyes go round with surprise.
“Just promise me you’ll hang on this time,” Tito says.
Cal clutches the token, his pale eyes brimming with tears and hope. “Promise.”
Tito can’t actually remember what happened to his fourth coin. Not exactly. Maybe he traded it? He probably traded it. Everything is bartered and bargained and shared and swapped on the subway.
The car is no longer empty, though it’s not full either. Rather, it’s been staked out by two dozen or so passengers who are lounging, pacing, laughing, drawing, composing, crying, writing. The subway car has become a swirl of ideas and dreams.
At first, Tito watches the others from his seat, not quite confident enough yet to approach the woman who’s painting three seats down or the blues singer with bold makeup.
Cal, on the other hand, is fearless and charming, even though he remembers less than Tito. He travels up and down the car, wrapped in his silly mauve blanket, talking to everyone. But he always comes back to sit down next to Tito. Sometimes with a little more than he left with.
“I forgot about these!” he says when he returns with his own notes, full of stories and cartoons about an albino superhero. “Create the hero you want to see in the world, I guess,” he says, as he flips slowly through the pages, giving his eyes time to focus on each panel, all while wearing a delighted smile.
That’s how Tito finds the courage to talk to the painter three seats down, awkwardly telling her about his unusual building sketches, explaining that back home he was bullied in school for being a nerdy, arthritic teenager. Apologizing as he stumbled over his story, embarrassed for being awkward, far from home, and a little lost.
He’s stunned when the painter doesn’t judge him. Neither does the blues singer, when he timidly asked for makeup tips.
But they ask why Tito’s on the subway.
He almost says I want to live someplace better, someplace that gets me. That’s why he came on this journey. Isn’t it?
“I want to be more than what people think I am,” he says instead, and frowns.
His story’s changing. No, his reasons are changing. No, he’s changing.
The subway is definitely changing. Sometimes it’s a smelly and standard mass transit vehicle. Sometimes it’s a posh, retro steam engine. Sometimes it’s a fish in a river. The transformations are always sudden, unexpected. Sometimes Tito blinks and the subway is new and bewildering. Sometimes he wakes up, looks around, and the sense of déjà vu is so strong, Tito thinks he’s going to be sick.
Once, he tugs on the conductor/engineer/fisherman’s sleeve when she walks down the aisle.
“Haven’t I been here before?” he asks, more desperate than he means to sound.
“Yes.” Her expression’s stern, almost says: Haven’t you figured out that time flows back and forth on the track?
“Okay, so…are we heading towards the stop after the last station?” Tito asks. “Or away from it?”
The conductor gives him a long, piercing stare. Then, she breaks into an unexpected grin. “Yes,” she says and walks away, leaving Tito more confused than before.
This stretch of the trip lasts for months. Years. Time blurs and bleeds together. Tito learns to barter and trade, to apply eyeshadow and mascara while wearing his finger splints. He remembers why he started putting on lipstick: He figured if people are going to stare at him, he might as well give them something beautiful to ogle at. Now, he’s perfected the art.
He spends hours arguing and laughing and dreaming with Cal as the building designs in his sketchbook become wilder, louder, bolder. In quieter moments, Cal talks about his family, who he left behind so he could learn to tell stories.
“I just want to find an art teacher who doesn’t dismiss comics and a literature teacher who doesn’t think graphic novels are for kids,” he says. “Shouldn’t be that hard, right?” Tito nods in sympathy. “I’m lucky, though, my family gets why I needed to leave,” he says lightly, but tears well up and pool behind his glasses. Tito wraps an arm around his friend.
“How about you?” Cal asks. “Did your family mind you leaving?”
Tito frowns. “I don’t think so.” But he touches the picture in his pocket. The truth is he can’t remember who he left behind.
They travel. Forwards. Or backwards. But always together. Tito gets good at talking Cal out of his creative despair and Cal helps sketch in small details, especially when Tito’s tired and every joint in his body is complaining.
Except sometimes he has an arthritic flare up so bad, he can’t even hold a pencil.
When this happens, the conductor/medic/lifesaver always comes by with ice packs and ointment that smells like nutmeg. She refuses any and all payment for this.
“Medical necessities should always be free,” she says, like it’s the most obvious fact.
For the first time, Tito realizes the conductor is a friend too. That she’s been one all along. “I want to be like you,” he tells her. At that moment, in this shifting, changing subway, he can imagine no better life. Becoming anything, everything he wants.
Her eyes soften. “No, you don’t,” she replies. “You’re you. You just don’t know it yet.”
Tito recoils, stunned, hurt.
“Hey!” Cal says, protesting on Tito’s behalf.
The conductor turns to Cal. “Your stop’s coming up,” she tells him.
“What?” Cal asks, confused.
“What?” she says.
She blinks hard, once, and suddenly, the subway becomes a space shuttle and there are stars outside the window glittering like jewels. The conductor’s uniform balloons into an astronaut suit and she gives them a small wave before leaving Cal and Tito shocked and floating weightless above their seats.
They look at each other, stunned. Then burst out laughing.
Later, when gravity returns and Cal’s fast asleep on the seat beside him, Tito studies the picture in his pocket for the millionth time. He can almost remember who the woman is. Her name is just out of reach.
Maybe the conductor’s right. He doesn’t want to be everyone, anyone.
He just wants to find a place where he can be his own weird, stiff-jointed, colorful self.
No, he wants to find a place with people like the painter, the blues singer, the conductor, and Cal, without being in a liminal space.
No. Actually, he wants to stop giving up pieces of himself to get there.
Five coins. Tito gives away the first one so easily. He trades his fifth coin for advice. Which seems silly in hindsight, because the subway is crammed with people now, talking, arguing, smelling of filtered coffee, dishing out wayward guidance for free. Sometimes Tito catches the other passengers staring at him, but for once, it doesn’t bother him. He gives them a warm smile. Sometimes they smile back.
The conductor/mentor/timekeeper is sitting on the seat next to him.
“Can you tell me how to reach the stop after the last station?” he asks, handing the coin over.
“Is that what you really want to ask me?” she asks, taking it with a sidelong look.
Tito hesitates. “Why do you do this job?” he asks.
She raises an eyebrow, surprised, which surprises Tito because he didn’t think the conductor could be surprised. “Because I’m good at it. Also, the subway helps a lot more people than it loses.” She pulls her cap down lower. “Ask me one more. Make it good.”
He fiddles with the tube of lipstick. It’s Parisian red and nearly full, waiting with promise.
“What will I find at the end of this trip?” he asks, unable to meet her eyes.
The conductor breaks into a grin. “That’s the right question.”
“You’re not helpful,” he says, groaning, pulling his head in his hands. In hindsight, he should’ve used that fifth coin to bargain for extra pens, pencil sharpeners, or the foresight to know that he shouldn’t disappear just because he doesn’t quite mesh with everyone else.
“Yes I am,” the conductor says. “Here. Sit here.”
Tito looks up and there’s Cal. His white hair is mussed, his thick glasses are slightly askew, and that ridiculous mauve blanket is slung over his shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Cal,” he says.
Tito sags with relief. “I was wondering where you went,” he says.
Cal frowns, puzzled. “Really? Because I just got on. And that’s the only seat not taken,” he says, pointing to the space besides Tito. It’s true, the subway’s brimming with passengers again, all looking for change.
“Oh. I’m Tito.” He slides over and Cal plops down next to him. “Hey, I never asked, why do you always have that blanket with you?”
“That’s a weird first question.” Cal blushes slightly. “Don’t laugh, okay? But it’s what I used as a superhero cape when I was a kid.” He hunches slightly, as if bracing for ridicule.
“Cool,” Tito says, nodding “What about now?”
Cal blinks in surprise. “Now I’m just always cold,” he replies with a boyish smirk and Tito laughs.
“Think there’s really a stop after the last station?” Tito asks.
“There better be. I paid a lot for my six tokens.”
Tito bites his lip, hesitates, then asks anyway. “But what if there isn’t? Or it isn’t right for us?”
Cal grins, mischievously. “Well, then I’m getting a refund and coming back.”
Relief, like he’s been holding his breath for years, floods through Tito. He grins back. “Yeah, me too,” he says and settles in next to Cal.
He has a long trip ahead.
No, he’s almost there.
On the day Tito exchanges five years of his life and all of his savings for six silver tokens, his mom meets him at the subway. He never believed there was a stop after the last station. Until he did. Until he needed to.
He can’t remember exactly what sent him to the waitress/broker/oracle in the cheap coffeehouse for the tokens. It wasn’t anything original—he remembers that much. Nothing climatic or cunning. But sometimes it’s one slur too many, one cruelty too sharp. Sometimes you need to leave to learn. Sometimes you need to come back to become.
His mom waits for him at the top of the subway steps, biting her lip. He remembers the tube of red lipstick in his pocket. Hers, the one she handed him when he said he wanted to be someone else, anyone else. His mom was a stage actor turned waitress turned nurse. She understood the power in transformation. She hands him a picture of the two of them.
“Mom, I’m traveling. Not dying.”
She nods, but the worry’s still there. “What if you get there, it’s not what you want?”
Tito pulls out the tokens from his pocket. The waitress/broker/oracle called them pieces of himself. Five of them are tarnished. Used. Exchanged and reclaimed. The sixth is untouched.
It’ll take Tito two and a half years to reach the stop after the last station, to figure out how not to disappear. And two and a half years to return again. To learn how to put together a portfolio of all the buildings he wants to design. How to wear blush and green mascara fearlessly. How to find friends and face the world he knows.
“What if it’s not what you want?” his mom asks again.
Tito’s fingers curl around his last shining token. “Then I’ll come back and try again.”
(Editors’ Note: “The Stop After the Last Station” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43A.)
© 2021 A. T. Greenblatt