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The girl on the train eats brains: A short story

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MAY 07, 2023

Content warning: gun violence

T here’s this girl on the train. There’s always a girl on a train. She’s dressed in her college sweatpants and a frilly white blouse with a sweetheart neckline. I look at her.

She looks back at me. I continue to look at The Girl. She doesn’t see me, of course, she doesn’t see me. The Girl looks down — 

There’s a boiler room set this weekend, we should go! The Girl messages her friend, exclamations marks galore. She imagines a sweaty dance floor, some kind of hypnotic trance and happy emotions spreading through her body. I think it’s sold out? Her friend replies, killing the fantasy. The Girl frowns. She flicks through the other locations of the infamous DJ set: Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. She dreams up a life where she is an up-and-coming influencer and nurses a private dream of being discovered by a model scout, shot into the limelight, where she can rub shoulders and kiss the cheeks of the other young, beautiful, Forbes Under 30, industry darlings. 

She stops herself before she gets too far. Ridiculous. Be realistic. Her mind starts drifting to a new fantasy, a European summer? Juicy peaches, tiny bikinis on the beach, cigarettes and lots and lots of wine. She’s never been, but she’s seen girls from her school post social media albums of long brunches in the sun. The Girl opens a new tab on her phone, types flights to London, and bites the beginnings of a mouth ulcer inside her cheek. Hmm … $700 round trip.

I’ll ask someone, maybe there are door sales? Her friend tries again, and The Girl hearts the message as she turns up the EDM blasting from her tinny earphones. She’s slightly miffed that she’s missed a chance to try the Molly here. Would it taste different? The weed does. It’s smoky and dry here, though her friend swears it’s just cuz it’s the cheapest one. The ones back home taste wet, damp and minty. Whoosh. She used to roll joints with cute boys from uni at the ferry terminal. Well, she would try to roll a joint. But they’d just laugh at her clumsy fingers, take the papers, and roll it for her instead. Whoosh. They would always have this look in their eyes when she knew they wouldn’t make the last train back. Whooosh. Or maybe they didn’t want to, so she’d always offer, Do you want to come back to mine instead? Whoosh. The train dives back to reality, underground, under the sea, and her ears pop as the altitude plummets. 

The train dives back to reality, underground, under the sea, and her ears pop as the altitude plummets. 

The Girl spots her reflection in the window as the train dives further into the dark tunnel. I wonder if I’d look good in a mullet. She reopens her phone, and spends the next few stops photoshopping different hairstyles on a selfie. Bangs? Buzzcut? Maybe she could go back to bleach blonde? The Girl notices her slouched posture, a sluglike concave over her school bag. Urgh, I don’t look hot at all. She tries to correct it, but self-consciously starts slumping back into her resting state. Ew, who wants to look hot on the train anyways? 

Her noise-cancelling earphones do a great job. Before she could register the ping-ding-ding of the train doors, she’s missed her stop. Ah fuck. She wanted to stop by the mall before her yoga class. She tries to look up the walking distance back to her stop, hmm … but she remembers the last time she walked down that street. It smelt like piss. She’s trying to have a nice day. Her silly daydreaming has messed up the flow of her day. She just wants to get from A to B!

The Girl hops off at the next stop, and I follow her. She looks around, squinting at the announcement. Okay, eight minutes for the next train. That’s not too bad. She tries to find a place to sit, but the people have weird vibes and swaying bodies, so she decides to perch against the wall instead. 

The hairs on the back of her neck just softly, gently, slowly start to lift. She doesn’t flag it at first, chastising herself for being so judgemental of people. There’s always something happening at the train station, unlike suburbia! She keeps telling herself off. You’re a big girl! In the big city! Just be like, chill. She sees a body swaying in and out of the pillars. Someone is yelling far away. 

He’s angry. He’s spitting about something. Seething. Furious. “Bitch, you bitch!” There’s silence.
Distant scuffles. An older woman beside her starts bristling and proclaims, “Oi cut it out. I’ll come break it up if you keep this up!” A “Karen”’ by any other name. 

The woman smiles smugly and titters to her friend, proud of her heroism. Her civic duty is done for the day. A train pulls up to the side, nearly. It’s not the right colour, she’s looking for the red line. 

Another yell. A bang. 

Violence has no linear plot, it’s unlike the police procedurals.

Violence has no linear plot, it’s unlike the police procedurals. The Girl likes to watch as if she’s curled up with a bowl of rice, fried tofu and broccoli. There’s no scene unfolding, we don’t know when the action or inaction starts or ends. There’s no camera zooming and we don’t feel any music pulsing to mark where our attention should turn. For now, the girl just thinks her anxiety and imagination are overactive. She started a new medication a week ago, something something wellness-tron™ her psychiatrist prescribed her. While it’s made her less sad, it’s been giving her random adrenaline rushes. This must be one of them. 

Snap Snap Grunt. 

She sees two bodies, swaying, stumbling down the train. And behind them, two burly men. Large guns, bigger than she’s ever seen. Not even at her local Walmart. Their eyes are peeled, and one stomps down the train. The other hunts down the platform. 

Something has happened. What has happened? 

We try to tell ourselves a story to make sense of the chaos. ACAB, ACAB, she mentally chants, as she wonders if these men are brutes, if maybe she should root for these fugitives. At the start of the train — another loud bang. 

The people around her, their expressions don’t change. Even though she’s a little frightened, she tells herself to be brave. Or at least, don’t be embarrassing. No one else is leaving. The Girl wonders if she should leave and just walk back to her stop. Don’t be a sheaple. No no, she wants to pick up a sports bra from the Mall. Yes, the Mall, so she can go to yoga class. She images the stretching her hip flexors and sighs, 

I am The Girl, and I become The Girl. 

I’ve watched her memory tapes more than a hundred times now. It’s almost habitual. I’d stay late every other night, long after the cleaners have meticulously sanitised all the surfaces in our office. In a trance, I’d be carried by the soft scent of cleaning alcohol and nostalgic lemons and squat on the chair with the missing wheel in the 5th-floor basement — where we keep all the archival memory footage. 

It’s this time stamp, 15 minutes 32 seconds, that haunts me. When I close my eyes, I can trace her tortoiseshell hair clip, the silver frames, and her nibbled chapped lips. Some nights, I feel like her eyes see me. Right through me and beyond.  

There’s a gap at this point in the recording. My team and I have tried to retrieve the footage, but her lens, her eyeballs, start flashing up at this moment. It’s hard to make out exactly what had happened. 

We’ve learned that this was one of the main sights of the infection. Something spread at this station that night. We’ve harvested from the brains and eyeballs of those at the train station to piece together a misty timeline. But we’re running out of time. 

We’ve harvested from the brains and eyeballs of those at the train station to piece together a misty timeline

I fast forward to the final moments left in the brain disk, the dizzy montage-like clips at the Mall. The Girl really wanted to buy her sports bra. I watch her stumble up the escalator, her fingers shaking. She grips tightly, checking her Fitbit. Ten minutes. The Girl thinks about how she must have hit her daily step count now. She can still make her yoga class. Just go to the store, and grab a sports bra. 

Based on our calculations, she would have been one of the first carriers of the Central Station Outbreak. 

The store’s name is brightly lit up with fairy lights. A charming girl-next-door’s smile is plastered across the front window. The store attendant is nattering away at her, 30% off leggings if she buys two shorts. The Girl nods dumbly, five minutes til her yoga class. She’s going to be late, that’s fine. It’s probably just downward dogs at the start. She doesn’t want to be rude, so keeps mute, listening, listening. At some point, the attendant leaves, and she looks around for a sports bra among the neon soft waffle fabrics. Sports Bra Sports Bra SPortS BrA!

A bright green one commands her attention. She barely flicks at the price tag, just looking for her size. Medium, Medium, Medium ah, Medium! She’s barely holding herself together at this point, she wants to scream, did you not see? Did you not see what they did?

It’s in the changing rooms, at point A, where we see the second major outbreak. 

We’re still trying to understand the extent of the shift. Many argue they’re just the same as us. I don’t like calling it a “zombie outbreak.” It diverts the necessary analysis needed on these sites of violence. We only have hazy secondhand recollections, panicked emergency phone calls and these memory banks. I’m asking us to treat these people, our friends, family and acquaintances with empathy. They are still people, don’t you think? Even though there’s something altered about their movements, thought patterns and instincts. Even though we don’t understand why some have been infected to a greater degree than others. We’re still working on figuring out the contagion pattern. But they’re still human. 

Just like the Girl. The Girl on the train. Who continues to ride the train. I’m trying to save the girl on the train. I’m trying to save all of us.

Contact Sherry Zhang at 


MAY 07, 2023