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The Stranger on the Train

By Robert Russell


Published in Replication Art & Literature Magazine Volume XLVIII: 2018-2019


            It was almost an hour into the conversation before Susan discovered that this homely, sweet, old lady, with whom cordial pleasantries had flowed seamlessly, and who had helped make what should have been just another monotonous train ride not so insufferable, was secretly a felon.

            Life has a funny way at disguising the most sinister of stories.

            “Have you read ‘Lamb to the Slaughter?’” the old woman asked. “I think it was Dahl who wrote it.”

            “Yes, I think so. That’s the one where the wife murders her husband with a lamb leg, then feeds it to the police, right?” Susan responded back, grinning with intrigue as she inferred the woman’s reason for the reference.

            “Yes, well, that was my inspiration, you see,” the lady proceeded in a light tone, unobvious with an air of nonchalance. “Arthur was bitter drunk and was prone to violence with each sip of the drink, me being the obvious recipient of that violence. Luckily, we never had kids. I used to shake with fear when he would come home hours after he was due because I knew what he had been doing. I would hide, but he’d always find me. He cursed me, then beat me, I’ll spare you the gory details. But this went on for years, and that was at a time when people just didn’t get divorced. It was so looked down on. So I had to make a decision. It turned out to be a fairly easy decision.”

            Her words struck Susan in the gut. Empathy poured from Susan’s eyes stronger than she would have expected. The lady’s words transcended the wide age difference between them, flew from her lips across the tiny space, entered Susan’s ears and fell to a bottom place in her chest, vibrating her senses with a tinges of heartache. For a moment, Susan stared at herself in the eyes of the old woman.

            “Gosh, that’s terrible,” Susan murmured solemnly. Her tone transformed as curiosity boiled up from her throat. “So how did you do it? With a lamb’s leg?”

            The woman chuckled. “Oh dear, no, no. I didn’t stay entirely accurate to that old fable. I couldn’t use a lamb’s leg. I planned differently. I wasn’t about to let any evidence survive.”

            The old woman’s eyes dilated and her face dropped, an expression that Susan read like a horror novel.

            “The first rule of killing your husband, or I suppose anyone for that matter, dear, is to always get rid of the body. They can’t charge you if there’s no body. After that, you must get rid of all traces leading back to you. If there are no tracks, then they’ll never find you.” The old woman spoke like she was passing down a family recipe. A sobering timbre, however with a trace of nostalgic jollity.

            Susan sat transfixed. She had always had a tiny fascination with the macabre side of life–she read true crime novels and a few mysteries, and this was like a real-life King novel playing out before her. The truth is often stranger than fiction. The old woman’s words hung in moving pictures suspended before Susan’s eyes. In the transitioning frames, she saw herself playing the protagonist.

            “So how did you do it?” Susan asked, trying to conceal her excited interest that seemed to burst from her eyes.

            “After I poisoned him, I put in the incinerator.”

            Susan grew pale and her jaw slacked, dumbfounded and stupefied.

            “Cyanide was easy to get back then. That was the easy part. I put it in his drink after a long day at work. He asphyxiated on the kitchen floor. Took about fifteen minutes.”

            Susan was bewildered, yet slightly impressed.

            “The hard part was carving him up. I was a lot younger then, but still, my arms were frail, and bone is a lot thicker than you might think. That took about two hours.”  

            “And no one ever found out? You got away with it?” Susan broke her stupefaction.

            “No one ever caught me. And still, not a day goes by that I regret anything. He was bastard who had it coming.” The old lady reached into her handbag and rummaged, removing a book, a few loose bills, and a journal. She retrieved a tiny box.

            “I keep this as a daily reminder.”

            She opened the tiny, wooden box and inside lay a smooth gold ring. His wedding ring.

            “Also, make sure you remove his ring. As small as it is, an incinerator will actually leave this behind.”

            Susan was stunned in full-blown astonishment. These were instructions, not a story. The old woman stared into Susan’s eyes gravely as if urging her to carry out this sadistic plan. An announcement of an imminent stop suddenly blared through the loudspeaker.

            “My stop is next,” declared the old woman.

            Susan remarked, “Oh okay, well thank you for chatting with me. You have quite the story.”

            The old lady faced Susan, suddenly grasped her wrist forcefully and lowered her voice. “Just remember, get rid of his body, get rid of your tracks, they’ll never find out.”

            Susan slowly nodded in understanding. Then, she stood and let the old woman pass into the aisle as the train screeched to a halt.

            “Take out an insurance policy first if he doesn’t already have one. Might as well eat the fruits of your labor.”

            Susan feigned a soft laugh as she waved and watched the old lady depart. She sat back down and peered out the window, following the old lady as she hobbled into the station.

            The train powered up again and Susan began to ponder in silence, forlornly reminiscing, contemplating the story of the old woman.

            Susan reached down into her handbag, retrieved a tiny wooden box, and popped it open with a twist of her fingers. Inside lay a smooth gold ring that shimmered in the passing light. She traced the curvature of the ring gently with her thumb. She looked up and a tiny glint of a grim grin grew on her face. 

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