Cara ran as fast as she could, but it was too late.
The subway's red taillights vanished into the dark tunnel. One day Cara would make it to work on time. Today was not that day.
Cara slipped through the thick crowd of morning commuters. There was an alternate subway she could take. This line would take her further north than her office building, adding an extra ten-minute walk, but she couldn't afford to be late again. She already had two written warnings in her file. A third would, at best, get her pay docked, or worse, fired. Her colleague, Lauren, had been covering for her for over a year, preventing that third strike from sending Cara to the local job search office.
Cara had fallen in love with New York eight years earlier when she vacationed there with her family. Central Park was her favorite, especially this time of year. She could picture the vast expanse of trees, colored amber and crimson, the leaves tumbling to the ground covering the grass in a blanket of sunset shades. After all this time, the magical beauty of the autumn colors still had her captivated. More like a captive, she thought. Were there any good reasons why she still lived there? She couldn't think of any.
Her phone beeped in her pocket. A text from David. Still on for dinner? David, her boyfriend, was nice enough. He had a good job, and she got along with his family. He wasn't unattractive with his sandy blond hair, dark brown eyes, and boyish jawline that couldn't seem to grow a beard. They had met through friends almost two years prior, and he asked her out on a date that same night. She had reluctantly agreed. She hadn't wanted to start anything serious, but her best friend, Olivia, convinced her to give him a chance.
She slipped the phone back into her pocket. David could wait. She already knew what the evening plans would be. They would meet at 7:00 P.M. on the dot at the little Italian place a few blocks from her apartment. As always, David would order the lasagna then tease Cara for how long it took her to decide on something new. They had the routine down to a science, which felt more like a rut with every passing week.
David was utterly smitten with her. Cara still hadn't developed the deep emotional connection to him that she expected. She mentally shushed herself. She should consider herself lucky to have found a genuinely decent guy. The city's shallow dating pool was something she wanted to avoid at all costs.
Olivia had gotten married last year to one of David's close friends, Greg. Cara envied their relationship. Greg treated her like a queen. They were equally crazy about each other, almost to the point of mushy grossness.
They were inseparable. Traveling, running marathons, and exploring the city, they did it all. Just last week, Olivia had texted her pictures from their weekend hiking trip in the Catskill Mountains.
David was far less bold and daring, preferring a more low-key lifestyle. The most adventurous he ever got was when Cara convinced him to order Chinese takeout. He was safe, which became incredibly boring sometimes. Secretly, she wished he was more like Greg.
Yesterday, she'd spotted a business card from a jewelry shop half-hidden under a pile of unopened mail on his counter. Cara's chest tightened. She checked to see if David had noticed her discovery before quickly shoving the card back under the stack of envelopes. If he was planning on proposing, she was in big trouble. She wasn't sure her answer would be yes.
Couples should click. She longed for the natural, easy-going relationship Olivia and Greg had. It just worked. With David, it was like they were always on their own trajectory. They were like two magnets, pushing away from each other no matter how hard you forced the poles to touch.
Her doubts were even further confirmed when Olivia invited her to a gallery opening last week. David made several excuses, attempting to get out of having to attend with her.
"Just go with Oliva. You can spend some time together. I have too much work to finish."
"Greg will be there too. I don't want to be a third wheel."
"I don't really like art."
"We don't have to stay long. You can have a few beers with Greg. All I have to do is make an appearance, and we can leave."
It had taken a lot of convincing, but he reluctantly agreed. The beautiful abstract art pieces lining the walls captivated her.
"It's so sad." She looked at one of the largest paintings in the room. Roughly brushed streaks of blue crisscrossed over the canvas conveying frustration that only came from a place of immense grief.
"How can a painting be sad? It's just paint slapped on paper." David shrugged, sipping his beer.
"You don't see it? There is so much emotion in all of his work."
"I'm sorry. I don't see the point in all this. It's a bunch of blue paint. Look at it. A three-year-old could do better than this."
Cara was disappointed David couldn't see what she did. The real problem wasn't his inability to see any deeper meaning in the painting. It was more evident now than ever before; David didn't truly understand her. She quietly browsed the rest of the gallery alone while David talked numbers with Greg.
Oliva came over and handed a glass of white wine to her. "Are you avoiding David, or is he avoiding you?"
"I'm not avoiding him. He isn't interested in the whole art scene. You know him. It's not his thing. He'd rather talk to Greg then look at the paintings."
"They always want to talk shop," Olivia joked, trying to lighten the mood. "Just ignore them."
Cara did her best to enjoy the rest of the evening, but a dark cloud cast shadows on her good mood. She couldn't stop herself from questioning the longevity of their relationship. There was an expiration date rapidly approaching.
"Did I do something wrong?" David approached her towards the end of the night. Cara didn't respond right away.
"No, it's fine, really." She dismissed his concerns. An argument was the last thing she needed. "We can leave now."
"I'm sorry if I upset you tonight, but I tried telling you art isn't my thing. You're the creative one, not me." David walked to the corner and hailed a taxi.
"No, David, it's not that. I'm just tired." She hoped to reassure him, but he didn't let it drop.
"I just don't get it. I don't understand you." His mouth set in a hard line, he looked away from her, shaking his head. "You just seem so miserable all the time. Maybe you'd be happier if your head wasn't always stuck in the clouds."
Cara recoiled. Where had that outburst come from? "You think I'm miserable because I like art and talking about my feelings?"
"You know that isn't what I meant."
"Then what did you mean, David? Please, explain it to me." She crossed her arms over her chest.
"You're an optimist. You have a heart of gold, and you always try to see the best in people, but Cara, you're always dreaming. You're trying to live a life that doesn't exist. This," David gestured an outstretched hand towards the busy streets, "is real life."
"Maybe if you spent as much time analyzing art as you did your stupid stock numbers, you might understand how I feel." She hadn't meant to snap, but it slipped out before she could stop it. What was wrong with wanting more, having dreams? David was a realist, grounded in the gloomy truth of the world around him. His idea of dreaming was hoping the stock market closed over a hundred points up.
David's shoulders dropped and his stern expression melted.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that." Cara reached for him, but he stepped away.
"Yes, you did."
Uncomfortable silence ballooned between them. Fortunately, a taxi pulled up. Always the gentleman, he opened the door for her.
"I know things between us have been strained lately, but I think things would be so much easier if you moved in with me." David reached for her hand, but Cara skillfully moved it away under the pretense of rubbing her nose.
Stuck in the taxi with no way to make a getaway, Cara pretended to laugh, even though she cringed internally.
"David, we've talked about this. You live on the opposite side of the city. Your commute is already over an hour, and it would make mine just as long. It just makes sense for us to stay where we are for right now. It's the smartest choice." She used David's logical tendencies against him. "And you can't move in with me because Rick already said he would double the rent with a second occupant."
David reluctantly agreed she was right, but she could tell he was hurt that she didn't want to discuss it. He slumped in his seat and was quiet for the remainder of the drive back to her apartment. When he walked her to her door, he gave her a soft kiss on the lips. There was no spark, not even a tingle, just an empty indifference that worried her.
She envisioned David sitting across from her holding a ring box, and she had an overwhelming urge to run as far as she could. Why was she still with someone she didn't want to marry? Because it was easy? Because he was nice? Those were not good enough reasons, no matter how much she tried to justify them.
Cara wanted more than khakis and a four-door sedan in her future. She wanted the wind in her hair. She wanted to travel and see the world. So many dreams she wanted to fulfill. Those dreams would never become a reality if she continued to head down the same road she was currently on. Cara could never find an exit, and she definitely couldn't see herself becoming a Goldschmidt.
The screeching of the subway coming into the station jolted her back to reality. She yanked her subway pass from her pocket and slid it into the turnstile slot. It beeped loudly, and she pushed through the barrier. She knew what the plans were for tonight. Plans for the rest of her life? Those were still up in the air.
She ran across the platform and jumped onto the closest car as the doors slid shut. Another close call, but for her, it was the norm. She was always cutting it a little too close. With the subway and her rent also, she was barely making it. When did living become just getting by? She was barely hanging on by her fingertips from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to get through each week. She grabbed a silver handhold above her head and took a deep breath.
In the lobby that morning, her landlord, Rick, had been standing on a ladder, changing a bulb in one of the light fixtures. She'd dropped her head, hoping to avoid him, but he twisted to look at her as she walked by him. Busted.
"You’re over a week late on rent, again.”
She threw him her biggest smile, hoping to smooth things over. “I’ll get it to you by Friday, I promise.” She hurried toward the doors.
“You said that last month too!” Rick shook his head, waving a screwdriver at her.
“I’ll have it!” she called over her shoulder, making her getaway.
Cara leaned back, letting her head rest against the wall. Never did she imagine she would be on the verge of thirty and working as a telemarketer. Cara remembered when she used to have so many plans for her life. Moving to New York had put a screeching halt on all of them. She had been so young and naive about the world. Despite how things had turned out, she didn't regret her decision. It had opened her eyes to what she truly wanted in life. The allure of the fast-paced life in the Big Apple had drawn her in. She quickly discovered fast-paced and exciting were not synonyms.
She had desperately wanted to get away from her small-town life in Pennsylvania. She jumped on the first opportunity to move. Landing a job as a waitress at a swanky uptown restaurant had been her ticket out. The job was physically demanding, and she worked long hours, but the tip money alone made it worth it. It was also where she met Olivia.
Realtra closed less than a year later, and she desperately needed a job. The telemarketing gig was less than ideal, but it was a paycheck. It paid for her rent and food but not much else.
With her rent nearing $1,600 a month, her salary was barely covering it. By the time she paid all her bills, she had nothing left at the end of the month. Moving would be a costly venture. As much as she wanted to leave, she couldn't afford it with an empty savings account.
Her mother had offered for her to move home for a while until she got things sorted out, but Cara couldn't bring herself to accept the offer. It was more out of pride than anything else. Looking back, she worried she’d made a colossal error in judgement by not using it as her opportunity to get out.
She pulled out her phone and texted Laura that she would be late again just as the subway arrived at her stop.
“Excuse me.” Cara squeezed her way through the thick mass of people in the car, slipping between the closing doors. She hurried up the steps to the street. Olivia leaned against a bike rack, waiting for her, coffee cup in hand.
“I got your favorite.” Olivia gently shook the cup.
“You are the best!” Cara took a long drink, letting the coffee warm and energize her. She wished she’d had a chance to tell Olivia to add an extra shot of espresso; she had a feeling she would need it today.
“One of those mornings?” Olivia chuckled.
Cara shook her head, blowing out a long breath through her nose. “You have no idea,” she groaned. “You didn’t have to meet me here.”
“I don’t have a meeting until ten, so I had a little extra time. Plus, I could use the walk. We won’t have many nice days left before the snow arrives.”
The brisk chill in the air made Cara even more grateful for the hot latte in her hand. She zipped her jacket and shoved her free hand in her pocket to stay warm. Winter was on its way and would soon dump heaps of snow onto the city. The beautiful layer of pure white wouldn’t last long, quickly turning into ugly brown slush. Cara liked to believe autumn was nature’s colorful way of apologizing for what was about to happen next.
Olivia worked as a paralegal in the office building next to Cara’s. After they lost their waitressing jobs, she and Olivia applied for a decent paying secretary job at the law firm. Oliva got the job. Cara was happy for her. Olivia was a hard worker, and it was a great company. Her boss had even added on a small stipend to take night classes and get a degree. Cara had never quite been able to get her feet back under her. Despite the differences in their lives, Olivia was loyal. She was the kind of friend every girl needed. If she moved away, leaving Olivia would be the hardest part.
“How does lunch at Lida’s sound?” Olivia’s question pulled Cara’s wandering mind back to the conversation.
“Sure.” Cara couldn’t afford the high prices at the little bistro across the street, but she didn’t want to let on how much she struggled financially. Olivia picked up on the hesitation in her voice.
“We did just eat there a couple of days ago. Let’s hit up the food trucks today instead. Is that okay with you?” Olivia smiled over her coffee cup as she took a sip.
The rotating string of food trucks that came by during lunch hours wasn’t much cheaper than Lida’s, but at least Cara would be able to find the least expensive option available.
“That works for me. See you later.” Oliva and Cara parted ways. Cara scanned her work badge, pushed through the turnstile, and got in the elevator. Cara pulled her hair into a ponytail and leaned against the wall until the doors opened on her floor.
Shift changes were always hectic. She made her way down the long rows of cubicles until she arrived at hers. Lauren worked the overnight shift. She was finishing up a phone call. The transition between them would be quick and effortless. Lauren would slip off her headset and hand it to Cara, who would tuck it over her ears and adjust the microphone as she slid into the chair to make the next call without even a second to settle in. Work here was fast-paced, tedious, and mind-numbingly monotonous.
Lauren pressed a button on the earpiece and swiveled in the chair to face Cara. “I logged you on at eight. Curtis hasn’t made any rounds yet, so I think you’re in the clear.”
“You’re amazing. I owe you. Again.”
“Just add it to the list.” Lauren laughed and grabbed her coat. Cara sat in the chair and hit the button to dial. She waved goodbye to Lauren. Lauren returned the gesture with a smile, slung her purse over her shoulder, and was gone.
“Hi, my name is Cara. I’m calling from Impro. Is this a good time to talk for a minute about life insurance?” A shrill, angry voice yelled back at her. Cara pressed a finger to the bridge of her nose. It was going to be a long day.
One call blended into the next. She hated the robotic nature of her work. Maybe David had a point; she was miserable. Her mind kept drifting to images of white sand beaches, towering mountain ranges, and endless stretches of open road that faded away into the horizon. When the lunch break finally arrived, Cara practically ran to the elevator.
“You okay?” Olivia put her sandwich down; her brows pinched together in concern.
Cara shrugged sheepishly, caught not paying attention, but she couldn’t stop her mind from wandering to vacations, travel, escape. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stay focused.”
“I just feel…” Cara trailed off, not quite sure which word to use. Cara took a few extra seconds to chew while she came up with an answer.
“Restless?” Olivia supplied, crossing her legs casually. “You’ve been restless since we met.”
Cara chewed at the corner of her thumbnail. Olivia knew her way too well. “I just keep feeling like something in my life has to change.”
“What kind of change? Job? Apartment?”
“Have you talked to David about how you’ve been feeling?” Olivia pressed. “I know he isn’t the most exciting guy, but you have to give him a chance to work on things.”
“I found a business card for Argento’s in his coat pocket.”
“The jewelry store?”
“I think he is planning on proposing.” It didn’t feel right saying it aloud, but as her best friend, Olivia had a right to know.
Olivia’s brown eyes widened. “Shut up, are you serious? That’s so exciting!” She paused. “Why don’t you seem excited about this?” Olivia slumped back in her seat. “Oh no.”
“Oh no, what?” Cara feigned offense.
“You’re doing it again. You’re going to run away.” Olivia gave a shake of her head and sipped her coffee.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I meant mentally,” Olivia corrected. “You did the same thing with, um, what’s his name? Owen.” She waved a hand in the air as she racked her brain for the name. “As soon as Someone gets a little too close, you freak out and shut yourself off.”
“I do not.”
“What about Michael?” Olivia crossed her arms over her chest.
“Hey, that isn’t fair. He was still in love with his ex-wife.”
“Whatever. It’s the same reason you don’t even own a pet.”
“I can’t have cats or dogs in my apartment. You know that. Rick has strict rules against-”
“You could get a fish.” Olivia looked smug, knowing she was right.
“Really? A fish?”
“What’s wrong with a fish? They don’t smell. They don’t make a mess. You don’t have to walk it. Having one could help you finally commit to settling down.”
“I don’t need help committing. I’ve been here for eight years. I think that’s pretty settled, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. If you were so happy with your life here, you wouldn’t constantly be thinking about leaving the city. Don’t look at me like that. I saw the travel brochures in your apartment.”
“You dirty little snoop.”
“I didn’t snoop. You didn’t even hide them that well.”
“Don’t you ever think there’s more to life than just work and home every single day? You and Greg take trips all the time.”
“Yes, but we always come back here. But it’s okay. I understand. You just want to move away from me.” With an exaggerated sniffle, Olivia dabbed her napkin at the corner of her eyes.
“Okay, drama queen. I don’t want to move away from you. I just don’t think I’m meant to live here forever.”
Cara stared at the busy streets. All the people were in such a rush. Cars honked before lights even turned green. People pushed and shoved, desperate to get to their destinations. She hated the perpetual feeling of impatience that came with living in New York. Why was everyone in such a hurry? No one ever took the time to slow down and relax. The only place she found any reprieve from the endless hamster wheel whirl was deep in Central Park. Nestled under the thick branches of a cluster of huge oak trees was a green, metal bench she had stumbled upon years ago. She would often sit there, watching people pass by on the path and let the world slow down for an hour or two.
Olivia laughed. “You know what you need? A vacation. Spending a week on the beach somewhere might do you some good. You’ll come back feeling refreshed. Maybe David will go with you. He’s a nice guy.” As if reading Cara’s mind, Olivia continued. “Okay, so he’s a little quiet, but he’s good for you.”
Cara wasn’t sure what Olivia meant by that. Maybe David did keep her grounded. Then why did it feel like she was suffocating around him? Being held down was far different than being kept grounded. Olivia was right about one thing; she did need a vacation.
A week somewhere in the tropics with cocktails that had the little pink umbrellas in them wouldn’t hurt. Just a short break to reset, and when she came back, maybe she’d be ready to commit to this life. David could easily pay for it, but she needed to convince him to go with her.
Olivia chattered on for the rest of lunch, and Cara did her best to listen, leaving her even more drained by the time it was over.
The rest of the day was a fuzzy blur, and when Jennifer from the evening shift arrived, Cara wasn’t sure exactly what had happened in the last few hours. How could a simple day at work leave her so disoriented?
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Cara waved to Olivia as they parted ways at the top of the stairs leading down to the subway.
On her way down to the platform, someone roughly bumped into her, nearly knocking her off her feet.
“Watch it, bitch!” the angry man glared at her over his shoulder. Cara rolled her eyes, rubbing her tender shoulder. Rude.
New York had lost much of its magical charm years before. Once, she had loved the city's endless hustle and energy, but New York had a dark side lurking behind all the bright lights. A rough edge that could cut somebody too soft to handle the sharpness of the people. It hid deep anger that simmered just under the surface that could explode out at unexpected times. It still took her by surprise even after all these years.
She boarded the last car on the subway, ready to go home and relax for a bit before dinner. She wanted to spend as much time as she could in a hot shower before meeting David.
New York was too loud, too crowded, too big. More passengers streamed into the car, squishing her up against the back door. Crammed apartment, crammed cubicle, and crammed subway. One day soon, she would leave.
Cara closed her eyes and dreamed of a vacation somewhere far away, where there was a lot of space. No people, just a whole lot of personal space; a concept New Yorkers were forced to forget.
The subway rocked back and forth. The fluorescent lights overhead flickered. It rocketed past a station and into the tunnel.
Cara daydreamed of her vacation with big fields, open prairies, and plenty of legroom. She dreamed of climbing mountains, hiking across forests all alone. Strange how David was never alongside her in any of her daydreams. She was always alone. It was the most obvious clue that David didn’t have a place in her life long-term. Even if she asked him to go with her, would he be willing to leave the city? Chances were good that he would say no. She would be on her own. There was an accompanying sense of overwhelming loneliness, something she was used to.
That was the funny thing about New York City. A person could be surrounded by thousands of people and yet, feel completely alone. And if things didn’t change, pretty soon she’d be homeless too. She was lucky Rick hadn’t evicted her yet. She would be eating dollar slices from Gino’s Pizzeria and two for one hot dogs from Oscar’s corner cart for the next month.
No fancy food truck sandwiches or French bistro soup for her for a while. Eventually, she would have to tell Olivia funds were tight. Olivia would end up offering to pay for everything, making her feel even worse about it. To Olivia, money wasn’t an issue, especially since marrying Greg. She meant well by it, her heart was in the right place, but it made Cara more insecure and self-conscious. Olivia would tell her to ask David for money, but Cara refused to be indebted to him in any way.
The lights flickered again, momentarily leaving the car dark. In the blackness, Cara could smell ozone, an acrid electric smell, hanging heavily in the air. As the lights came back on, they flashed red momentarily. She frowned. That was unusual.
A loud bang and a harsh grinding noise made Cara jump. She got a whiff of smoke but couldn’t determine the source. There was strange shouting faintly in the distance - a man shouting. Someone else yelled back. A woman, possibly? She couldn’t make out what they were saying.
No one in the car appeared concerned. They were completely engrossed in their newspapers, smartphones, and idle chit-chat; too busy to pay any attention.
Could they not hear that?
The lights went out again, and the subway jerked violently. Cara slammed against the back door of the car. Someone’s elbow connected with her ribs and her lungs emptied. The wind was knocked out of her. She coughed and wheezed, gasping for air. She groped around in the dark for a handhold. An ear-piercing beeping sound chirped, but it was distant as if it was coming from outside the car.
When the lights didn't come back on, the first cries of alarm from the other passengers rang out in the dark. Something was wrong.
Cara fumbled for her phone in her pocket to text Olivia, but someone bumped into her. The phone slipped from her grasp. Shit, no. It was too crowded for her to reach down to get it. The glass had cracked when it hit the floor, just another expense she couldn’t afford. As the subway raced around a curve, it slid underneath a seat, the white glow of the screen vanishing.
A sizzle of electricity crackled down her arms, leaving behind a trail of stinging goosebumps. She sucked in a deep breath of air. The charged air had a metallic tinge to it like she was sucking on a penny. The car jerked again, flinging her against the door. Her head and shoulder connected with it, and it flew open. She was inches from being ejected from the car.
A scream welled up in her throat, but she couldn’t make a sound: the wind rushed around her stealing the breath from her lungs. She wildly reached out for anything to hold onto and looked over her shoulder at the open door. She could see the tracks flashing below in a dark blur. One misstep or one wrong move, and she was dead.
The subway raced along the tracks and around another corner. The car leaned, and Cara’s body momentarily tilted away from the open doorway. Her hand grasped something cold and hard. She clutched at it, pulling herself closer, clinging to it in relief.
There was a flash of blue so bright it left her seeing spots in the blackness. The scream stuck in her throat finally made way to her lips, and it sounded over the thundering air rushing around her. Her fingers slipped from the handhold. Tendrils of blue light snaked around her wrists and up her arms. It coiled around her ankles and up her legs. Electricity crackled through it. Every part of her tingled with the prickly sensation of pins and needles.
Just as she lost her grip, an immense pressure enveloped her. She was being crushed and ripped apart at the same time. It was like she was being torn in two, being pulled in opposite directions by unseen forces and yet contracting into a singular point. She could hear a man yelling again through the commotion, followed by the deep boom of an explosion.
She flew out of the subway car but never hit the tracks. For a brief moment, she hovered, as if time had stopped. The blue light curled around her brightened and exploded into a brilliant flash of white. It cracked like thunder, blinding her, and she blacked out.