Editor’s note: winner of the Quicksilver Flash Fiction contest at Silver Pen Writers in August 2017.
Ruth clocked out after eight hours on the riveter, and left the factory as horns on poles blared: “Watch for saboteurs. It can happen here!”
She took a brisk walk to the train station, where thousands mixed in silence but for the clomping of boots, the squeak of wingtips. She paid two truth dollars, boarded #41, and stationed herself at a window, studying her fellow passengers as they entered. Each was serious, quiet, and clandestinely watchful. Colored people filed into a train several tracks over.
One man in her car seemed suspicious. He had an open, ruddy face, and was reading a novel. He was so absorbed he didn’t notice the people around him as they scrutinized his features and clothes, looked at and judged his book. It was by Charles Dickens, who was not on the approved author list.
All the other passengers read The National Times, if they read at all. But most of them were too busy in their vigilance.
The man was certainly a foreigner. You couldn’t trust them, they had different values. They didn’t care about freedom. And what business did he have here? Truth was, Ruth hadn’t seen a foreigner in years and didn’t exactly know what to look for. There was no evidence of weapons. His hands looked soft and clean, not grimy and desperate like those of an imagined bomber, and he had an honest-looking face. It was confusing.
Nevertheless, something broke in her, and she moved into the seat next to him.
“You need to be more careful!”
“Pardon?” He had an English accent, airy and whimsical-sounding. It was familiar from war movies.
Ruth lifted her chin at his book. He shrugged, clueless.
“Put that away.”
Not understanding, he tucked it into his jacket, waiting for her to explain.
“It’s not on the approved list. People have noticed.”
The man nodded in thanks. His voice was low. “What people?”
“Everyone.” Ruth could hardly indicate the other passengers, so she flicked her gaze up to a poster near the ceiling: Report Suspicious Persons.
“My mistake, I’d forgotten. By the way, I’m Wesleyan.”
Ruth ignored his proffered hand. But despite herself, she was curious. After all, she’d never met a foreigner. From the stories, she’d expected him to be much tougher-looking, grittier, dangerous.
“What do you do out there?” she said.
“I’m a—“ he lowered his voice, finally realizing everyone was listening. “A journalist.”
Ruth was not familiar with the word. He explained. It had never occurred to her that there were people who wrote The National Times, the newspaper where everyone got their information and announcements. But of course, someone had to write such things.
“Isn’t it dangerous? Hard to get food?”
Wesleyan shrugged. “Well, not more than anywhere else. Actually, I could stand to lose a stone.”
Ruth leaned back in her seat to think. Immediately, she noticed the eyes, narrowing at her and Wesleyan over newspapers or under lowered brows. His strangeness now extended to her. Maybe they thought she was a saboteur or a sympathizer. Yet she’d ridden this same train five days a week for the past six years, wearing her blue uniform, a red handkerchief covering her hair, like always.
“I hadn’t really noticed it before,” said Wesleyan, very quietly. “They’re all watching me, aren’t they?”
Ruth nodded curtly, the eyes of the others staring, judging.
“I’m writing for a British paper,” he continued. “But it will very possibly be censored by your government. Can I ask you—how old were you when the bombs dropped?”
The smart thing would be to ignore him. This conversation had been a mistake. She’d just felt bad for him. Yet, no one had ever asked her about the day they dropped the bombs, when everything had changed.
“And what did you think? Did they show it on TV? What did your teachers say?”
Ruth could see it quite clearly. The newsman had said those twenty bombs would win the war, even though they hadn’t been at war yet. The TV had showed the mushroom cloud blooming over Moscow. It had been Mrs. Friedrich’s class. She remembered what they’d said.
“Now we’ll be safe.”
BIO: Michael W. Cho lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona, where he plays Spanish guitar for his day job. He enjoys writing and reading science fiction and fantasy.