There’s a woman standing at the other end of the subway platform.
There’s nothing abnormal about her appearance: backpack slung over one shoulder, hoodie emblazoned with the name of some college, jeans ripped at the knees, scuffed sneakers tapping a rhythm against the yellow tiles, presumably on beat to the music she’s listening to on her phone. The epitome of a college student. I would know, considering my own ensemble of clothes.
None of that is what grabs my attention, however; what does are the numbers floating above her.
A timer, I realize after they count down to two minutes. As the woman turns her head to cough into her hand, the numbers follow the movement, as if they are attached to the top of her head.
I look around to see if anyone else sees this, get an unspoken second opinion or reaction. There’s no one else around, however; it’s late, and this isn’t a popular stop to begin with, being located at the outskirts of the city and all.
Staring at the changing numbers, I wonder if this is something of the norm. New pieces of technology seem to pop up on the daily, and it’s impossible to keep track of every single one. Still, if such a thing was possible, something akin to a holographic display, Emily would have talked my ear off about it already. I consider taking a picture and showing it to her later when I get home, but don’t. Knowing her, it’ll be met with some snide remark – “Oh, this girl caught your eye, did she?” – followed by a lot of passive-aggressiveness for the next few days. After the week I had, that’s the last thing I want to deal with.
Anyways, back to the floating numbers.
For the briefest moment, I even entertain the idea of a supernatural explanation, before banishing the thought. I haven’t believed in anything supernatural all my life, and am not going to start now.
Of course, there are countless other questions besides the how.
Is the woman even aware of the numbers? If not, am I the only one seeing this? Why only this woman, and not the countless people I met throughout today? What makes her special?
Is it somehow contagious? Will I wake up tomorrow morning and see a timer above my head in the mirror?
But most important of all: what is the timer counting down towards? What happens when it hits zero?
My initial thought is that it could be the waiting time until her train arrives. This is promptly disproven when her timer hits one minute, and there’s a ten second delay before the waiting time on the nearby train sign follows. So, not that then.
It could just be something mundane she set as a reminder for herself, like ‘buy milk’ or ‘feed the cat’. Something that doesn’t matter to anyone besides herself, especially not a stranger waiting for the same train. But then why showcase it for everyone to see, which brings me back to the question of whether she’s aware of the numbers being shown.
Then, it hits me, the most obvious, cliché answer that I somehow didn’t think about; it could be the time of death.
Now that I look again, the woman has this sort of resigned look on her face, tired but determined. She pockets her phone just as the light from the incoming train can be seen, growing brighter and larger as it approaches the station.
“Train approaching,” says the station-wide announcement from above. “Please stand back from the edge.”
The woman takes one step forward towards the edge of the platform instead, and it’s all the incentive I need to break into a run. The first passenger car enters the station, closing in on where the woman is standing, and I’m still too far away to reach her.
“Stop!” I shout, but my voice is drowned out by the screeching of train wheels against the rails, and all I can do is watch helplessly as the woman brings a hand up to her mouth, timer reaching zero and-
She sneezes, inaudible but unmistakable in motion.
The timer disappears.
Hwankyu Song was born in Korea but raised in a multitude of countries, the most recent one being the US. He’s currently attending Carnegie Mellon University, where he is majoring in Math and minoring in Creative Writing. His stories are usually lengthy, but he also writes flash fiction on occasion.