the commute

It would not have been a stretch to call his seat insufferable. The heating below did not work, the window sealing had a small leak through which the winter cold was creeping in, and the back rest sported visible remains of a large reddish stain that could have been anything from red wine to human blood. Someone might have died on that seat, Frank pondered, though at least it was hypothermia that would kill him, not a stab in the heart.
The angle of the back rest was stuck right in between comfortably leaning back and sitting upright, just so that he would neither be able to sleep nor eat or drink. He tried reading, but he could not bear the strain on his arms in this awkward position for prolonged time, and eventually put the book back in the briefcase.
The only upside was that the stain did not smell. Frank could have sat on the seat to his right, at the corridor, but its cushions had been slit open, yellow foam plastic almost spilling out, and he guessed that he'd feel cold there anyway, too.
He alternated between positions. At one point he took his jacket and tried to scrunch it into a makeshift pillow, but that was even more uncomfortable to rest against, plus without it he would freeze even more and thus put it back on soon.
There he was, on what must have been the worst commute in his entire life, staring out onto the white rolling hills and the distant outskirts of the city. He once saw a hare run across a field, and wondered whether it was feeling cold, too. Maybe, he concluded confidently.

"Excuse me, sir?" Frank heard a voice, too distant to ever possibly mean him. He heard a throat being cleared, and a louder "Excuse me?". If someone was talking to him, he preferred to ignore it. His mood was bad enough without having to deal with an annoying stranger asking for change or some hippie explaining how this day was so lovely, the fresh snow beautiful and the rays of light flooding spectacularly through openings in the clouds in the distant haze. Frank also very much did not look forward to his sanity being subsequently questioned because he must certainly have looked just as grumpy as he felt on this wonderful January morning.
"Excuse me, sir, I could not help noti-"
"What do you want?" he snapped back in the middle of the sentence while turning to see the man sitting on the opposite side of the corridor, occupying a pair of perfectly intact seats with his perfectly ordinary body and a huge bag, and it was this moment when Frank realized that had there not been that huge abomination which would hardly pass for hand baggage, he could have sat in its very place. Stony-faced, Frank stared at the stranger as it dawned to him that this man and half of his household stood between him and getting some sleep for the remaining hour of his morning commute.
The stranger pretended not to notice, or at least Frank hoped that the man actually realized and intentionally ignored that this conversation was entirely undesirable on his part, or, more accurately, that Frank would have liked to punch the man in the face simply for being there, friendly and calm, in the way and - most importantly - warm and comfortable.
"I could not help noticing that you appear to be freezing."
The stranger smiled and Frank felt his right fist clench.
"None of your business," he replied with an undertone that must clearly have conveyed the intended message that Frank's well-being was indeed none of the stranger's business, especially considering his obvious role in preventing it.
"I understand, but if you don't mind, I would like to swap seats."
"No I would not like to - what?" Did that guy really propose what it sounded like? Did he really have the nerve to mock Frank, after all he had done to ensure that he would not find a free, warm and intact seat? Or was that an honest offer to - no, such notion was preposterous, no one in their right mind would voluntarily take Frank's seat unless the only alternative is standing.

Glances were exchanged, the stranger still smiling, Frank's mouth wide open. He still wanted to hit the man, yell at and lecture him about the rudeness of taking two seats just for himself and his baggage while someone nearby is shivering in the middle of the crime scene of a train-murder. But this guy, he just, just - Frank had a hard time forming another sentence in his head. It was too, too... did he say something again?
"I said," the stranger repeated smiling genuinely patiently, "I apologize for not noticing sooner, but I was lost in thought and looking outside."
That hit home. Single-handedly, without even breaking into sweat, the man had won the fight that had been taking place in Frank's mind. One massive, decisive and inescapable blow to the very narrative that would at least have enabled him to put the blame on something, someone other than bad luck. Dumbfounded, Frank only nodded, his mouth still half open, absent-mindedly obeying the stranger's request to stand up, then observing him shuffling past his enormous bag, heaving it onto the slit-open seat before settling into the blood-stained cushion under the cold air leaking in, the very place that had already set Frank's mood for the rest of the day.
Frank sat down, silently, into the cozy place at the right window, pulled the lever on the side and gently lowered the back rest into a comfortable sleeping position. Quickly, inconspiciously, he glanced at the stranger, who was already staring out of the window again, his head rested against the hard, cold and leaky plastic frame.
"Thank you," Frank uttered, feeling that he should have cleared his throat, but now it was too late, and, for reasons he could not even explain to himself, he could not bear to repeat the words. He was glad that the stranger did not react.

Frank slept soon, and when he awoke the train had just arrived at the final stop, his stop, and the other man was gone, the bag was gone, and Frank had had, after all, a quite pleasant and undisturbed trip. How odd, he thought.


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