Atonement – Fatima Diallo

The “We apologize for the slow pace, we’re experiencing delays,” the intercom spluttered. The speaker was right above me and every time it vibrated, there were answering tingles on my scalp. I had tried looking for another seat, but the Amtrak train was the fullest I’ve seen on a Thursday night. I usually liked to sit by the window seat where I could lean my head while I read, but all the window seats were taken. 

“He’s said that four times in the last hour and a half,” the man sitting next to me at the window seat grumbled. I looked at him and smiled slightly the way one does when agreeing with the slightly unhinged. He wore orange sunglasses and had a puppy stuffed in his bag–a chihuahua? It had been staring at me for the past thirty minutes. At first, I thought its fluffy ears were a nasty chunk of dark hair caught on a hairbrush but then one glance at the man’s reflective head and a sudden glint of eyes from the bag told me otherwise. 

“I could get home faster if I crawled,” he said.

The delays had been announced twice. Something about the rainstorm from last night messing up the electrical lines. 

More time to read my book. 

I opened the book that had been laying on my lap, barely touched for the last fifteen minutes. It was a German copy of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Sahar gifted it to me from her university town in Germany when she felt bad that she hadn’t been able to visit for my birthday. 

I lied to her when she asked how often I was studying German. I had tried to study it for a few weeks, but I couldn’t even pronounce the word for ‘I’ correctly. It always seemed to get caught in my mouth, trapped beneath slick tongue and sharp teeth and if I couldn’t even pronounce ich correctly, why even bother? She sounded so happy to hear that I’d also taken an interest in the language and culture she had moved across the world to embrace. I could understand maybe six sentences on any one page, and I filled in the rest based on the elaborate illustrations, my memory of reading some of the English version of Arabian Nights when I was too young to understand most of it, and — when I really needed it — my sister’s almost illegible annotations.

I was up to the story about the fisherman and the jinn. Or as I should say for Sahar’s sake, der Fischer und die Dschinn. I hadn’t read that story before but the plot was clear from the illustration. An emaciated old man lay prostrate on sandy banks, wearing nothing but dirty, tattered white pants. A worn boat was moored a few feet from him and there was a gold vase studded with rubies–much too ornate to belong to the fisherman — lying just by his head. Green smoke billowed from the vase, almost swallowing the frail man, and forming a formidable shape that resembled a giant with wings and spiked horns. The jinn’s enormous eyes glowered at the fisherman and its nose flared as if about to swallow the poor man whole. The fisherman had one thin arm held up in front of him while he lowered his head as if not gazing upon the jinn would guarantee his safety. The fisherman wasn’t even trying to protect himself.

He was probably going to die. Maybe to repay a debt to the jinn. Or to sacrifice himself for someone he loves. Or just to accept his fate because he doesn’t have anything else left. I could almost imagine the jinn biting the fisherman’s head off, with nothing remaining of him but tattered white cloth.

People in stories are always so quick to give in.

Last summer when Sahar had told me she wanted to study abroad in Germany, I asked if she was joking. It was one of Dearborn, Michigan’s hottest days and we were laying on the scratchy carpet in our room painting together, and the sunlight was sucking the life out of our watercolors.  

“Can you please just listen for once,” she had said slowly, each word soft like she was placating a child. She wasn’t even looking at me, but was instead focusing on the brushstrokes of a wilted rose like a single mistake would kill her.

“I am! You’re just being selfish right now and you know it’s wrong, that’s why you’re acting like this right now!” This had made her look up, brush in hand. I watched as it splattered three drops of red on our yellow carpet. 

“Oh, I’m the one being selfish now?! This won’t even change anything for you! Why can’t we both get what we want for once?” Sahar’s eyebrow twitched in the way it did when she was truly upset. Though she was older, I had always been louder in my anger, more confrontational. Sahar was always quieter. Sometimes it even felt like she was afraid of me.

“Well, because life doesn’t work like that, at least not ours. You know Mom and Dad won’t let me go away now if you do.” I felt guilty for a second that she had to ask my permission. If I was a better sister, I would’ve been celebrating the fact that she got accepted to the program in the first place. But I felt tricked. Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to travel far from home, immersing myself in different cultures, never letting myself remain too comfortable anywhere. Going away for university was always my goal — maybe to Switzerland? Or South Korea. Our parents had never taken this dream seriously, but I thought Sahar, out of all people, understood. 

“No, I don’t know that, and you don’t either. They know you’ve always wanted this. You can still go away, okay? But I must live my life too, and what I do with mine shouldn’t affect yours.” The sunlight had slanted across her face so that one of her eyes glittered as she glared at me.

That’s where she was wrong. Everything about her life concerned mine. Without her, I was an only child, awkwardly filling the shoes of two. With the both of us, one could be the writer, the other a mathematician. One could be silent while the other spoke. One could be praised while the other was rebuked. It had always been that way, why was she trying to change things now?

Sahar did feel bad about moving so far away from me. Though we could not be more different, we grew up doing almost everything together and her going away felt final, like cutting an anchorline. Before she left, she did make Mom promise to not make it a big deal when I also decide to travel to a country thousands of miles from home. “We have to leave at some point. I’m just doing this first. For once,” she had said.

I think it was after she watched the German series — maybe a month or so after — that she became almost possessed with a desire to visit the country. I had never seen her want anything more in all the years I’ve known her. Those first few weeks after the thought crept into her head, she was brimming with life and everything about her was more loud, her voice, her music, her clothes, even the way she hugged me. She had mentioned that there were lots of supernatural rituals in the show and not like the Hollywood ones, either. She didn’t want to spoil it for me in case I wanted to watch it too. 

I didn’t end up watching it until after she left. It was a small way of remembering her when we couldn’t always talk because of the six-hour time difference. But also because I didn’t want to immediately give her the satisfaction of seeing me watch it. I was always the one who recommended the shows and she was always the one who ended up loving them. There was something strange about watching the show without her though, it was her show, and I almost missed her gushing about it from the other side of the room. 

The series was called Kopfkino or, as I called it, ‘coffeeccino’. Apparently, it translated to ‘head cinema’ in English and meant something like playing out a scene in your head. The show followed four characters who lived their lives constantly in a limbo between a dream and awake state. The lines between their states blurred with each passing day to the point where they didn’t know whether they were awake or asleep. Oh, and they were trying to escape from a cult in a small, sleepy town in Germany, which is where the supernatural rituals came in, complete with animal sacrifices. At the end, all four of the characters dreamed that they entered a new city and when they woke up, found that they were actually in that city, alone and with no recollection of how they ended up there. A new season was already being filmed but I didn’t even get what happened in the first one. There were too many complex layers between the characters’ dreams and hidden messages that I didn’t feel compelled to unravel. After finishing it, I told Sahar and she gushed about it over the phone: “Omg, finally! Wasn’t it great? It’s just so… so German, isn’t it? I love it so much! And the cult stuff? It really pays homage to the way cults control us and how cults show up everywhere around us. Anyway, what was your favorite part?”

“Uh…I really liked the ending, it was…hopeful, I guess. Brighter than the rest, at least,” I had said, trying and failing to remember any other concrete details. 

“For sure, I mean…yeah. Listen, my class starts in half an hour, and I want to grab a snack. Talk to you later?” Sahar had hung up the phone before I could say goodbye.  

Our parents hadn’t understood why she left, either. They asked her “Why Germany? Why that far?” She only responded with something along the lines of Germany being a beautiful country and about how the school she transferred to had an amazing technology and acting program, so why not Germany?They hadn’t stopped her but, in the airport, Mom hugged Sahar for five minutes straight and refused to leave her terminal for twenty minutes after her flight had taken off. Dad has barely spoken to me since, except for in the car ride back when he argued that I must’ve known she was planning this much before she told them. This was not like her and there was no way I didn’t know more, we’re as inseparable as twins, he’d said. “That’s what I had thought too,” I’d said. 

It has been three months since she left, and I still did not know the real reason why she suddenly decided to go to Germany and that part still hurt me. I told her everything and she did too, usually–

I started as I was jabbed in the arm. I looked at the green pencil that was repeatedly poking through my sweater and then back up again at the bald man, who wasn’t even looking back at me, as if he wasn’t poking a complete stranger with the sharp part of a pencil, the nerve!

I shifted and my sudden movement pushed the pencil from his hand. “Excuse me?!”

He glanced at me for a quick second, then pointed to a group of people that were standing by the door. “Shhh, look, look, over there.”

“Sir, what? What are you– what?!” I couldn’t believe some people. This guy was seriously unhinged.

He finally looked up at me, probably finally noticing my raised eyebrow and the way I had shifted to press almost against the window. “Oh yeah, sorry about that. That pencil is awfully sharpened, huh. But look here, you don’t want to miss this.”

Look here? Look where?! I’ll show him where to look! 

I decided to not say anything further. The second the train stopped I was going to find another seat. This man with his bald head and annoying dog and sharpened pencil?! Who knew what other annoyances he had stuffed in his bag? Maybe I can squeeze in with the couple sitting a few seats in front of us by the door, except a woman was standing near them, eyeing the seat, too. I could almost see the greedy look in her eyes, the resolve to battle for the seat until her last breath, to–

Her bag. A man standing by the group was reaching a hand out from his side, which happened to be right by the woman’s bag. From where I sat, I could see the wrist strap of a red wallet the woman had just placed back in her black bag. His hand reached out slowly, no sudden movements, he shifted closer to her, his fingers reached down, the train lurched, the wallet was in his hands, he shifted slightly, and it was gone.

I inched up from my seat, squinting my eyes.

“Did…did you see that just now? He just–he just took it,” I glanced at the bald man and saw that he was already staring at the scene, mesmerized, like a child on his first day at the circus. 

“Mhmm, wow, wow, wow,” the bald man said, chuckling. He rubbed the ears of his puppy that was still staring at me.

I looked around at the people closer to them. Had the couple noticed it? How about the man with the business suit a couple of seats away? The other big group with the dozens of suitcases? No one else seemed to be looking over at the woman and it felt like I had solidified some sort of alliance with the bald man.

“Shouldn’t we say something?” I whispered. 

“Oh no, we’ll leave it. He’ll atone in due time,” the bald man said, closing his eyes and stroking his pet’s head almost meditatively.

What? What does that even mean? Wait–and how did you know…?”

The man simply smiled and began humming, still closing his eyes.

Was that Auld Lang Syne he was humming? It was November, not new year’s. Unhinged. Simply unhinged. 

I looked again at the woman. She was still standing there with her bag slightly open, and the man had now moved farther from her and was standing by a door, looking ready to escape with the wallet as soon as the doors opened at the next stop, which was approaching faster than I expected.

“Now approaching Holder station,” the intercom spluttered. It was now or never.

“Excuse me!” I stood up, suddenly with dozens of eyes on my face. Immediately, I regretted it but it was too late to sit back down. Why is it so embarrassing to be bold? “Um, I think you have something that doesn’t belong to you,” I lifted a shaky finger and pointed at the man as everyone swiveled to look at him. It was silent in the car and the man looked anything but afraid. 

“Um, okay…and what would that be?” he asked, smirking, as if he really believed there was nothing I could do about it. 

I nudged the bald man and noticed he was glaring at me, looking eerily like his dog. “We–we saw it, we saw what you did, right? Give it back!” 

The bald man suddenly put his hand out in front of me and slowly stood up. He glanced at everyone whose interest I had caught. “I apologize, everyone, we’re just returning from the dentist, she had surgery, y’know–the anesthesia and all? It’s still wearing off.”

There was almost an audible murmur of understanding and relief as everyone turned away and resumed their previous activities. Just then, the train doors opened, and the man stepped off, one second there, and in the next, he was gone, merging into the crowd in the train station. 

It was my turn to glare at the bald man. “Wh– what was that? Why did you do that?! He got away now. What even– anesthesia, seriously?!”

He had gone back to stroking his dog’s head and closing his eyes, not even bothering to look at me after he just made the whole train believe I was drugged and acting out. “It wasn’t your place, it simply wasn’t your place, not to mention it wasn’t time yet,” he said softly. If he had said the words any slower, it would’ve sounded like a lullaby.

I scoffed. This man was unbelievable. I looked again at the lady, who was paying me no mind. I felt a sharp stab of anger–you know what, I tried, it’s her loss. She doesn’t care, right?

The bald man’s eyes suddenly snapped open, startling me. “Oh, where are my manners? I must have left them on the platform when I boarded, huh. I’m Gerian and my lovely friend here is Dhiren. It’s great to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand and smiling, as if he hadn’t just stabbed me and embarrassed me in the span of five minutes.

“Likewise, Gerian, it was truly a pleasure.” I snatched my book and my bag and quickly squeezed past him and his creepy dog (sorry–Dhiren) and headed further down the train to a seat by the man in the business suit, who, thankfully, did not look like he would suddenly start stabbing me with a pencil. I glanced back at Gerian, and he had profited from my absence, leaning against the window, and stretching his legs out on my previous seat. 

A win-win situation.

I plopped my bag down on the ground between my feet and opened my book again. Right, the fisherman and the djinn. I decided to not even bother reading the rest of the story when I could just look at the illustrations. Sahar had written on the page before the illustration, in bold letters: RUBBISH, RUBBISH, NO CONTRITE FOR THE RIGHT. 

I ran my fingers over the angry black letters as if I could somehow decipher the meaning behind them. It sounded like a lyric from one of the rock bands Sahar loved to listen to. 

I turned the page and there was still the old man in his tattered white clothes, with his bones threatening to escape his body. The jinn and his green smoke was still there. But to my astonishment, the old man was now standing on the sandy banks, holding the bejeweled vase with his gnarly hands above his head, like a trophy, a triumphant expression lighting his eyes. The genie’s eyes were squeezed shut, his face frozen in an expression of agony, and I could almost see him writhing as his green smoke faded back into the vase. I quickly flipped back to the first illustration, folding the page in between them so I could look at them side by side. 

I didn’t understand. I skimmed over the German words catching sight of ausgetrickst: tricked. 

So, it was all an act. He never meant to give in.

“We are still experiencing slight delays, we apologize for the inconvenience!”

I jumped as I realized my new seat also had an intercom right overhead. So much for an improvement. My head was pounding just like it did after I went to a rock band concert with Sahar the week before she left. They had been touring in Ohio and Sahar didn’t want to miss them when we lived close, so we took a day trip to go see them. For some reason, Mom and Dad did not want her to go alone even though she was leaving for Germany alone the week after. Right before we left, while Sahar was applying her eyeliner in the bathroom, Mom had pulled me to the kitchen and whispered–“ask her about it, okay? Find out what she really plans to do there.” 

I sighed and nodded my head, “Okay.”

Before I turned to leave the kitchen, Mom grabbed my hand again, rubbing it between both of hers. “Is it a boy? It’s a boy, isn’t it? You’ll tell me if you know anything, right? I know I can trust you.”

“Boys? Sahar? With all the shows she watches, what time does she even have for boys?” I laughed and my mom dropped my hand as Sahar left the bathroom. 

“Now arriving at Grand Falls,” the disembodied voice from the intercom–now farther away and less assaulting to my head–announced as the train came slowly to a rest. 

Grand Falls. I had been trying to decipher the German for a while and I was now only one stop away from seeing Sahar. It was her winter break and she was spending it with some friends–also international students from her university in Germany — who lived in Chicago. For some reason, she had told me not to tell Mom and Dad she’ll be coming back because I “really don’t want to spend my break around their negative energy,” she’d said. “Besides, when was the last time we did something truly fun, just us two? You can come down to see me and we’ll get to hang out. You can meet my friends, they’re really cool.” She had laughed on the phone and her voice sounded muffled for a second, like she was talking to someone else in the room and didn’t want me to hear. “Ok, they’re weird, but they’re cool. Yeah, I think you’ll like them.”

I was nervous. Excited, but nervous. It had only been three months, but what if she had changed? What if these new friends knew her more than I did? What if she forgot and she wasn’t even waiting for me and had decided to go on a trip with her new friends? 

After all, she hadn’t seen my messages in the past few days even though we were planning our meetup for weeks and she knew the time I was arriving. I turned on my phone, debating on whether to send her a message or not.

Heyy, just making sure we’re still good for today, I’m almost there!

I erased the message. It wasn’t like it would make a difference now anyway. 

My phone pinged right before I turned it off again. It was a news article about an attack on a train. I smiled grimly.

Of course, my phone will choose to grace me with this tidbit of information while I’m on a train.


Wait, what?

I frantically click on the news headline, scrolling through the article, looking for a picture, something, anything to prove this wasn’t what I was thinking, this can’t possibly be-

The man had gotten off the Chicago bound Amtrak train at Holder Hill, and was just on his way to the exit, when bystanders say four angry chihuahuas rushed him. One bystander said, “I was sitting right here on this bench, about to nod off, when I heard this hellish…babel, like animals being slaughtered. Absolute chaos, I’m telling you, they ran straight at him. I lifted my feet up; they ran right by me and straight at him. Eerie, they didn’t touch anyone else. And after they jumped on him and scratched him all over, they grabbed the wallet from his pocket and dropped it at the feet of this officer. And this officer, he’s terrified they were going to attack him too. But they didn’t scratch anyone else, not one other person. But all the police, I mean, just about everyone was shocked, because you don’t see that everyday, you know what I’m saying?” Another commuter said after the man lay on the ground, writhing in pain, the “dogs just turned around and ran into the train tracks, silent, as if they were hearing something we weren’t. It was something out of a horror movie.”

The man, identified as Nick Olsen, had a woman’s wallet in his possession, which contained over $5000 in cash and credit cards. Surprisingly, there was no security footage of the chihuahua attack, but it was captured by many cellphones. A picture of Olsen as he was departing the train at Holder Station is shown here:

A shiver went down my spine when I scrolled to the picture. It was the man. It was the man who had left the train not too long ago. 

He’ll atone in due time.

I shot up from my seat and looked for Gerian and his crazy dog Dhiren. Their seats were empty, and their sudden absence was suddenly even more terrifying than if I had seen Gerian’s smug smile and the unblinking eyes of his chihuahua.

How did Gerian know something was going to happen? Were those his chihuahuas, was one of them Dhiren? How could Gerian have been at the station when the train doors closed while he was still sitting beside me? How could he be in two places at the same time? No, it couldn’t be.

Dhiren’s glinting eyes flashed in my memory. I remembered the way he was glaring at me, barely moving in Gerian’s bag. 

If I had stayed with them longer, would I have been next? What had Gerian done? What was he?

I sat back on my seat, running my sweaty palms on my jeans, over and over again.

I have to tell someone about this. I’m going crazy, I’m going crazy, I’m going crazy

I suddenly remembered a scene from Kopfkino, where a possessed ram was painfully exorcised after it drove the rest of the sheep off a cliff with its iron-like horns. Sahar had laughed gleefully at that scene and I had wondered what she found so funny about it. She had always been the one into the supernatural realm and was always ready to talk about the next conspiracy theory and explain why ghosts and demons are real. I never took her seriously because why try to create problems and fears from what you can’t see when there are enough problems you could see? But how else could this be explained? I wished, more than ever, that Sahar was with me now and was all worked up and offering nonsensical explanations and theories. I would listen to her this time.

I lifted my phone, Olsen’s eyes staring right at me accusingly. 

I turned to the man in the business suit. “Excuse me, um…did you see this article? I wasn’t lying, you see, did you hear what happened?” 

The man glanced at me in what looked a lot like the look you give to slightly unhinged people and gave me a tight-lipped smile. 

“Uh…no. You know, I heard that uh…drinking water and taking naps should help wear off the anesthesia. Maybe you should try that.”

I shook my head, the panic rising to my throat again. 

“No, no, I didn’t have surgery, listen-”

“Now arriving at Illinois Heights,” the voice on the intercom sounded chipper suddenly as if it purposely interrupted me. 

I couldn’t slow down my breathing as I grabbed the book and my bag and stumbled off the train. The sunlight blinded me as I found a bench and rested my head in my hands, trying and failing to count my breaths.

BREATHE, 1,2,3, BREATHE, 1,2,3, BREATHE 1,2,3, BREATHE, 1,2,3, BREA-

Familiar shoes — black Doc Martens with roses — appeared at the edge of my vision. I looked up at Sahar’s face, shrouded by her dark hair. 

She bent down and pulled me into a hug and as she squeezed me to her chest like so many times before, her lungs seemed to fuse into mine.

“I got you, I got you, don’t worry.”

I was finally able to breathe, and I took a long whiff of her hair, the familiar scent of tangerines mixed with something that smelled faintly of burning paper. 

“I missed you so much,” Sahar said. She looked over her shoulder and smiled and for the first time, I noticed her friends. “And I have so, so much to tell you, it’s unbelievable, honestly,” she said, sounding a little breathless. “Oh, and how was your train ride? Not too boring, I hope. I saw an article about this chihuahua attack and I think the man who was attacked got off your train? Crazy what happens these days, huh? You have to tell me all about it,” she chuckled as she reached down to grab my bag before putting her arm around my shoulder and walking me to the exit.