DP FICTION #57B: “The Train to Wednesday” by Steven Fischer

Charlie Slawson sat alone in the transit station, watching a set of empty train tracks and wondering why the train was late. Truth be told, he hadn’t known until just then that temporal trains even could be late. 

He looked around the underground station—its old, brick walls lined with gaudy digital displays, advertising exciting trips to next year, next century, and beyond—before noticing a man stepping onto the platform from a little door beside the tracks. He wore navy blue coveralls and a tall pair of work boots. His close-cropped, grey hair was half hidden beneath a faded baseball cap.

“Excuse me,” Charlie called. “Any idea when the train will arrive? I think it’s running late.”

The man stopped and frowned, then walked over to the bench. “You sure you’re in the right place, son? Which train are you waiting for?”

Charlie nodded and motioned to the marquee above the tracks. “Train to Wednesday. Just like it says.”

“Hmmph,” the old man grunted. “Wednesday’s never been one of our peak destinations. Especially not a Wednesday that’s just a few days away. What’d you want to do a thing like that for?”

Charlie turned the tablet in his hands so the old man could see the picture on the screen. That day, years ago, when Dad took him fishing out west of Cambridge. The first time he’d ever been to the train station. 

Dad tried to keep the trip going every year after Charlie left home, but life got busy, then they drifted apart. Charlie had always assumed they’d have time to catch up later, but he would give anything to have that day back, now.

“Your father?” the man asked.

Charlie nodded. “His funeral is this Wednesday.” He thought of the tearful video message he’d received this morning from his mother, his siblings already bickering in the background over funeral venues and seating arrangements. 

It was foolish, all of it. It would make no difference to Dad if the memorial dinner served chicken or beef, or if the service was held at the church on High Street or Main. What Dad would have appreciated was more time with his son, but Charlie hadn’t given him that. And no memorial, however perfectly it was planned, could do a thing about it. 

More time at home would just mean more time to feel guilty. More awkward conversations with distant relatives, more photographs and memories, more reminders that Dad had always been there for him, but he hadn’t done the same. 

“I loved my Dad,” Charlie said. “Even if I wasn’t the best at showing it. I wouldn’t miss his funeral for the world, but I’d just rather skip all the mess in between.”

The man nodded and fished a hand into his coveralls, coming up a moment later with a small, silver pocket watch. Inscribed on its cover was the looping infinity symbol of the Temporal Transportation Administration. 

The man opened the watch and tilted it so Charlie could see. Dials and arms littered the watch face, twisting together in an intricate dance that Charlie struggled to make heads or tails of. The man tapped the glass faceplate and made a sound which fell somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh. 

“Well would you look at that,” he said. “Seems you’re right. Train should’ve been here at least thirty seconds ago.”

“Is that normal?” Charlie asked.

“Nah. But it ain’t unheard of either.” The old man bit his lip. “These tunnels have been around almost as long as I have. Every once in a while the track is bound to run a little slow.”

Charlie looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. “Okay. Any idea how much longer it’ll be?”

“Doesn’t work like that.” The old man shook his head. “A little hiccup on the other end might mean just a few extra minutes here, or it could mean a few days, or more. No way to tell without heading down the tracks and finding where the train is stuck.”

“Christ,” Charlie mumbled, staring down into the empty tunnel at the end of the station. “Is that safe?”

The old man shrugged. “Life ain’t safe. But there’s no reason it should be especially dangerous, provided we’re careful.” He turned and started to walk towards the tracks.

“We?” Charlie asked.

“Course.” The old man climbed down onto the railway and motioned for Charlie to follow. “Any extra delays stack up real fast down the line, so once we get her going again, the train won’t stop until the next station. You’ll have to board wherever we find her.” 

“You’re joking,” Charlie muttered, glancing down at his dress slacks and new oxford shoes, then at the puddles and mud waiting for him beside the tracks. 

Then he thought of his father, and the nightmare the next two days would be without him. He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hopped over the edge of the platform.


Charlie tiptoed along the rail line, as close to the man and his flashlight as he could manage. Above their heads, aging brickwork dripped water and something much darker in thick, black droplets that clung to the floor. 

“You sure it’s safe to be in here?” Charlie asked. “These walls don’t look like they’re holding up so well.”

The old man grunted in agreement. “Been around a long time. It’s a wonder they’ve held up as long as they have.”

Somehow, that didn’t comfort Charlie. “Why hasn’t anyone bothered to replace them?”

“Ha!” The old man laughed, then turned back to face him. “When are you from, son?”

“When?” Charlie asked, shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “Don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Course you don’t,” the old man replied. “Because you don’t remember when they put these things in.” He patted the brick wall with obvious affection, then turned down the tunnel and started to walk again. “It ain’t just something you can go and replace. Takes a lot of time, and a lot of lives to dig a set of tunnels through spacetime. To pull the two apart so that you can move through one by moving through the other. It also took a lot of problems to make men and women willing to take that risk. Problems that you couldn’t just hop on a train and skip.”

Charlie grimaced. He wasn’t skipping the problem, just the mess. “So how does this work?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. “Aren’t we traveling back in time?”

The man laughed again, like Charlie was a child. “Course not. Trains can only go forward and so can we. Can walk down the tunnel as long as you want, but you’ll never reach a previous station.”

“And what if you managed to get outside the tunnel?”

“Wouldn’t want to do that.” The man pointed his flashlight at a pool of ink-black liquid. “The tunnel’s old enough here that some of the outside’s dripping through. All you’d find out there is a big sea of black.”

“Unless you found another tunnel?” Charlie asked.

The old man shrugged. “Suppose so, but you wouldn’t last that long. Just the tunnels and trains that can survive in the void.”

As they walked down the tracks, the dripping grew more frequent and louder, until the darkness spilled from the walls in neat little rivulets. 

“Careful now,” the old man muttered. “Better keep your feet on the tracks and avoid them puddles altogether.”

“Otherwise?” Charlie asked.

The man’s voice was stern for the first time since they’d met. “Otherwise I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”


The train was near wrecked when they finally found her. That much was clear the moment the old man’s flashlight beam fell onto her engine’s crumpled exterior. 

“Well that doesn’t look good,” Charlie managed to mutter.

The man shook his head and wandered closer to the engine. He pointed his flashlight down onto the ground, stepping carefully around the small, black stream which poured from the brickwork where the train had collided with the wall. The engine was lodged halfway through the wall itself, the only thing plugging a massive hole to the void.

The old man crouched beside the damaged tunnel and ran his hand along the bowing stone. Little waterfalls of thick, black liquid flowed from the brick around the sides of the train, pooling into a narrow brook which ran both ways along the tracks.

“Well?” Charlie asked. “What do you think?”

The old man grimaced. “I think we’ve got a big problem to deal with.”

Charlie looked at the line of train cars behind him. Aside from the engine, the rest of the train was largely undamaged. Passengers milled about inside, uninjured, pressing their faces up against the small, dark windows. A woman in a floral dress and an ancient-looking hat leaned her head out of one of the passenger car doors and began to climb down the emergency ladder. A young, mustachioed man in a charcoal-grey suit followed closely behind.

“The train doesn’t seem so bad to me,” Charlie said. “Just needs a new engine, probably.”

The old man nodded, then noticed the couple exiting the train. He wagged his finger like a grandfather scolding a pair of children. “And what exactly do you think you’re doing?” he called.

A guilty smile crossed the woman’s face. “Just coming to have a look. Maybe see if we could fix whatever’s the matter.”

The old man sighed and dipped a finger into one of the pools of black. The liquid crawled quickly up his hand, until he withdrew it from the puddle. He held his arm in the air a moment before pressing it against the edge of the train. The blank, dark space where his hand had been simply passed through the metal as if nothing was there.

He fixed the couple with a glare. “And what exactly are you going to do about that?”

The woman’s smile vanished and she mumbled a half-hearted reply.

“Exactly,” he replied. “Now you two get back inside and close that door, and let the experts handle this.”

Charlie chuckled. He certainly didn’t feel like an expert.

The old man frowned at him, then pulled a small, silver rag from his coveralls and wiped his hand clean. The black which had coated his palms seemed to simply fade into the fabric. “It ain’t the train that I’m worried about. This wall gives any further and the whole tunnel will be swimming in the black. Station too. Maybe the next station down the line. Nothing to stop it moving forward once it reaches that point.”

“Christ,” Charlie muttered. “What can we do about it? I imagine there’s someone that we’ll have to call?”

The old man glanced at his pocket watch. “No time for that. It’d take ‘em at least as long as it took us to get down here. But we can start by getting this engine out of the way.”

“What?” Charlie asked, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten at the idea. “The engine is the only thing plugging the hole. If we pull the plug, the entire tunnel will flood.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t work like that, kid. The tunnel isn’t any happier about it being broken than we are. Given the chance, the hole would seal itself right up. As is, the train’s the only thing keeping it open.”

He pointed at the spiderwork cracks running through the tunnel wall. “It’s like a knife in a wound. Might bleed worse for a minute when we pull it out, but the longer it’s in there, the more damage it does.” 

The cracks seemed to grow even in the short time the man spoke, new drips and defects popping up around them. “Well that’s easy then,” Charlie replied. “We just put the train in reverse and pull the engine out.”

“Mmhmm,” the man replied. “Provided she’s still working.”


Charlie sat in front of the train’s aging control board, horrified that humans had ever trusted their safety to technology so primitive. Although digital networks had replaced the engineers running the rails decades ago, the engines were built in a time long before then and still sported a panel of manual backups, littered with dials, levers, and other relics of the past. Charlie glanced over his shoulder at a small, dim screen that showed a live feed of the passenger cars. Come to think of it, most of the train’s passengers were relics as well.

Out the cabin’s small side window, the old man stared at Charlie and gave him two thumbs up. He’d stayed outside to make sure the hole sealed shut, his hands full of minor patching equipment which Charlie was entirely sure would be insufficient if actually needed.

Initially, he thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal. But now that he was inside the engine room, with only inches of glass separating him from the horrible emptiness which stared back through the front windshield, he wasn’t so certain. The darkness in front of him swirled and writhed like a pile of living shadow, feeling and squirming its way towards the cracks in the tunnel wall. Charlie couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Felt it the same way he felt this might not end well. But what choice did he have?

He could climb back outside the engine and tell the man he’d had enough. Walk straight to the station and wait out the rest of a painful week at Mom’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be tearful and frustrating, but certainly not deadly. 

But it had taken nearly an hour to walk this far down the tunnel, and there were no guarantees the wall would hold long enough for him to get back. Besides, if the man was right, and a spill on this end of the track could creep into the future, who was to say he’d make it to the funeral at all?

At the end of the day, those thoughts didn’t matter. The only one that mattered was of Dad, standing on the train platform all those years ago, bending over to pick up a piece of crumpled paper from beside the trash can.

“Never walk past a mistake, Charlie,” he’d said, his quiet, certain voice rising over the sound of the station’s bustle. “Not when it’s in your power to fix.”

Dad had lived his life by those words, and Charlie would be damned if he couldn’t live up to them, especially today. It was the least he could do.

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered, staring down at the large, red lever on the control panel. He glanced out the window and gave the man a thumbs up in return, then threw the lever into reverse. 

Behind him, the engine whirred to life, rumbling and shaking as it struggled to throw the massive weight of the train backwards. Charlie gripped his seat and stared out the window at the man beside the tracks, but the train didn’t move.

The man shouted something that Charlie couldn’t hear, but he knew what it must mean by the waving of the man’s arms. Turn the engine power up. Charlie nodded and spun one of the dials to full. 

The knot in his stomach tightened even further as he felt the train start to shift backwards. Its metal walls screeched and scraped against the brickwork as it pulled itself back from the hole. Then, just as soon as it had begun, the train slammed to a halt.

“No, no, no,” Charlie mumbled, spinning dials left and right. Despite his attempts, the train wouldn’t budge. Outside the window, the man motioned madly for him to kill the engine, rushing out of the way of a sudden onslaught of black liquid. 

Charlie stared at the river and raced through his odds. A portion of the wall must have broken loose as he reversed, lodging itself behind the rear wheels and holding the train in place. The void was coming in, even if he stopped the engine. 

He looked at the growing stream of black with mounting certainty. Even if he stopped now, it would be enough to flood the tunnel. The only chance to stop it was to get the engine out, so the hole could close. 

Through the windshield, the void tumbled over itself with anticipation. Nothing but black in its horrible depths. Nothing but black…and was that a streak of silver?

Charlie stood up from his chair and pressed his face to the windshield, struggling for a better look. Somewhere below, in the sea of emptiness, a small line of silver glimmered brightly. Charlie traced its path until it ended in a box, so far below it only looked like a little dot. 

But it wasn’t a dot, of that Charlie was certain. In that moment, he knew it was a train station—some other year, some other century, lingering in the darkness below. 

It was a train station, and he had a plan.

Charlie sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, then one final peek out the small side window. The black stream had grown into quite a torrent already, pouring both ways down the tunnel. The old man still motioned for Charlie to stop the engine, but he was standing pressed up against the opposite wall to avoid the darkness as best as he could. 

Charlie tapped a small red button on the dashboard, feeling a clunk behind him as the engine detached from the rest of the train cars. 

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered. “I’ve never been one for walking anyways.” With that, he gripped the engine’s lever and shoved it towards the waiting void. 

The engine lurched forward with a tremendous screech, and Charlie turned around in time to see the wall snap closed behind him and the world vanish from view.


The engine crashed through the station ceiling some time later. How long, exactly? Charlie wasn’t certain, and he doubted he ever would be. It felt as if he’d spent no time at all in free fall, and yet it felt as if he’d spent his whole life. All he knew was that he was happy when the collision threw him forward against his restraints and he was suddenly staring into someplace bright and living again.

The moment the engine came to a rest on the empty platform, Charlie unclipped his restraint and scrambled to the door. He climbed awkwardly out of the twisted, tilting vehicle, prepared to shout at any bystanders about the need for evacuation. Instead of spotting a stream of black liquid behind him, however, he noticed that the engine had fallen straight through the ceiling, which had, indeed, sealed itself right up behind him. 

The few commuters on the platform stared at him with surprise, but not dismay, until a middle-aged man wearing dark blue coveralls shouted at him from a across the platform. 

“Hey! Hey you!” he called. “What the hell is going on?”

Charlie stared at the brightly colored baseball cap atop the man’s head and smiled. He ran across the platform and wrapped the man in a tight embrace.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the man grumbled, shoving him away with a confused frown.

“What year is it?” Charlie asked suddenly, catching sight of the posters which lined the station walls. He remembered seeing them years ago.

“Oh Jeez,” the man muttered. “Don’t tell me you got yourself lost somehow.”

Charlie felt the knot return to his stomach as he shook his head and grabbed the man by the shoulders. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I just need to know the date, or at least the day of the week.”

The man stared at him for a moment without answering, but Charlie already knew the answer. On the tracks, a train was waiting, its doors preparing to close. Inside, a young boy and his father were too busy staring at the fishing guidebook they’d brought along to notice the commotion outside.

“Wednesday,” the man muttered, but Charlie was already running towards the train.

© 2019 by Steven Fischer

Author’s Note: I spend most of my life waiting for moments. Counting down the days to big events like graduation, or the minutes to small ones like the end of a shift. Too often, I’m so busy looking forward that I forget to look around, and I find myself wishing later I could have those moments back. Time-travelling trains might make for fun scifi, but even in fictional worlds time only moves one direction, and in real life you can’t cheat your way around that. 

Steve is a resident physician in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn’t too busy cracking open a textbook (or a patient’s thorax), you can find him exploring the Cascades by bike, boat, or boot. His stories have appeared in places like F&SFGrimdark Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. You can read more of his work at www.stevenbfischer.com, or find him on twitter @stevenfischersf. 

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DP FICTION #55C: “Fresh Dates” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

SFX, International Terminal

The scuttling of a million feet before him, the collective aspirations to get somewhere resounded in the marble hall, while he stared at his stubby chin in the glass. He rubbed a growing five o’clock shadow with a soft hand. “Paging passenger Carl Rogers. Please come to Gate 48B. Paging passenger Karl Rogers. Please come to Gate 48B.” The near-garbled voice issuing forth from the speakers was far from honeyed, but there was something sweet about the announcement and the cadence of the passenger’s name. At that moment, he would do anything to be Karl Rogers, to have such a short three syllabled name, so he could be rushing about like the many others rushing about. Needing to get somewhere and feeling the inadequacy of bipedalism in hauling body and material possessions to reach that end.

7F. His gaze shifted beyond his saggy eyelids and the harried countenance of Vishaljeet Mazandaran in the reflection staring from the glass at him. 7F. Seven effing syllables. He hit the convex button to his right, perfectly crafted to nestle his fingertip. One button for the number seven—for his monstrosity of a name when rendered into syllabic roman letters: Vi-shal-jeet-Ma-zan-da-ran. The other for the F for effing, for the way he felt standing here staring at this vending machine. The smooth buttons and the way they cradled his hand belied the enormity of the situation and the creeping feeling of unease. One push and processed foods appear before him, ready to eat. It was so simple, so elegant, almost a physics equation: one action that precipitates another reaction. A button, a mechanism from behind the machine, the coil winds, the snack falls.

He had been staring at the snack which was so innocently snack-like, and yet, never in his twenty years in the States has he seen a bag of Fresh Mazafati Dates tucked away among the coils like he did now. Its tantalizing green package called for him, like the swaying grass of the verdant prairies and the tall trees of the forests of Nur alongside the crystal blue Caspian Sea of his childhood. And only $1.50. Six quarters to afford him a taste of his old home, of the grocery store near the apartment, where they would have the dates in boxes piled next to candy bars, popcorn and small packages of tissues that owner Alireza hoped you would grab as impulsive buys.

He decided he would do it, had an obligation to— who else would buy these foreign dates that had probably been sitting here for ages now? The dates probably fermenting as he felt like he was in his collared shirt and classic fit trousers, his suit jacket folded in half across his left arm. He fed the machine the replicated bust of George Washington, founder of this proud country, hearing the coins fall as identical clinks into the machine’s abyss—and waited for the deposit to yield a sweet, nectarous outcome wrapped in polyethylene lining.

Instead of dates, he got Hostess Ding Dongs. What a wonderful joke! Similarly brown, yielding a sweet flesh, he guessed it could be a substitute for someone who didn’t know better. His finger must have slipped— did he press the correct button? The bag of dates beckoned to him again, an enticing product of nature held behind the glass as an object of admiration, like a museum artifact, and instead in his hands, he found himself holding a crinkling product of mostly Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening generously doused in High Fructose Corn Syrup. Ding Dongs—he remembered eating them when he first came here to the US.

Most of all he remembered the office jokes, his coworker Stan, or as he liked to call himself, Stan the Man, the proud pusher of dubious investments, who would pitch a pencil at Vishaljeet’s turban, saying the bun, or as Sikhs would call it, joora, looked like a little boy’s ding dong. After the third time in two weeks, Vishaljeet had half a mind to go to HR, but what would they do? A grown man tattling on his colleague. Not an upstanding approach to deal with banal workplace terrorists, he decided.

That was all ten years ago, ancient history, as far as he was concerned. He jammed the fluffy Ding Dong into the waste bin next to the vending machine. The joke’s on me, he thought, now I’m the effin’ terrorist, stuck in this airport, can’t leave the terminal. I should’ve ratted on Stan, got him fired, rained more havoc while I had the chance, he thought. But he knew he would never have done that. It wasn’t in his blood; he was never taught to inflict undue harm on others. (But, it was not undue, it was probably in all fair use of the term “due,” and yet, he could not and knew he never would get someone fired from their job, their income to feed their family for some petty name-calling.) Instead he found a convenient excuse to move his desk to the sixth floor. Avoidance some might call it, but smart evasive tactic is the way he thought of it.

His life was always full of smart evasive tactics in approaching assimilation. He kept his turban for half a decade, keeping faith to the minority that he was whether in his hometown Iran or his newfound dwelling, land of the free, the recipient of “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” America, but eventually conceded to the calls of practicality that noted that the refuse-turned-residents generally didn’t wear turbans. He didn’t have to and he knew he could have kept it, but he was just tired of the explanations, of the looks of inquiry, the snickers. He played with the idea that when this airport fiasco was over, this silly detention in this transport hub keeping him from his home of twenty years in Jersey, he’d put the turban back on, if he could find it buried in his wardrobe somewhere. He’d be out soon, anyway. Back on a plane to the East Coast in no time. Just a hitch, he thought, a misunderstanding. He had a fiancé after all, and a position in i-banking he’s held for at least a good ten years. Wears jeans at home, drinks coke and watches football. How more American can he be?

His stomach whimpered. It was not really sustained enough to be a growl. Not enough for a meal. The officials didn’t even provide him the decency of an airport tray of food. Not even Panda Express or Taco Bell. Just told him that he was denied entry until further notice. His frustration curbed his hunger, however, and all he wanted were those dates, just as odd-fitting as he was, in the array of American snacks, and yet, it was there, belonging to the cache of automated refreshments.

Another fumble of coins and another buck fifty for a Persian fruity confection. A series of whirs and out comes—not his fruity delight as expected—but a yellow package of Starburst. He smacked the glass on the machine, but to no avail. These machines are as sturdy as bulls, made to take hits. It’s not like the dates were dangling on the edge of the coil, anyway, so aggression was of no use. They were perfectly lined up as they were when he first peered through the glass of the vending machine. Instead, another slot that had been activated that released the Starburst. He saw the familiar yellow package now in partition 9B, next to the Cheetos and M&Ms. Not the Fresh Mazafati Dates of 7F.

His will relinquished control to his gut and he unwrapped one chew to mollify his hunger. Twenty calories of corn syrup and palm oil. Unexplainably juicy, the package read. Certainly there were aspects of the sweet that were unexplainable, he thought. He thought of the name Starburst, a kind of galaxy, one that bears high rates of star formation. The Cosmic Exploration podcast taught him that. The kinds of things he would learn on his hour commute in New Jersey, sitting in traffic, playing with the dials. He thought about high star formation, as he chewed his artificial extreme juiciness. Starburst seemed like potential, the greater the generation of stars, the greater the possibility of planets. It was the bringer of life. Starbursts as firehouses of possibility, of creation.

Then his mind turned dark and inwards and he thought of other bursts, of those he’s been accused. He recalled an infamous moment—he was making a purchase for a boss’s birthday at the mall when it happened, in the early morning, right as work was to start. While all the consumers rushed to the Sears TV screens to see what the commotion was, once he heard the words “terrorists” and over and over the date that now has an ominous ring: 9/11, he slinked away, took the day off and stayed home. He hated them, the terrorists for what they did, ignoble acts of abomination, and he hated them more for what they did to his identity. He was no longer a Punjab-son-of-migrants-Iranian-American. He was first and foremost a suspect, to be wary and leered at, for someone not Sunni, not even Muslim, but still a prime candidate for jeers of being a bomb-flinging subversive. He didn’t get it— Sunnis and Sikhs didn’t even look the same. Sunnis don’t even wear turbans, they wear skullcaps. And Iran is mostly Shia (with exceptions of minorities like him). Even though his parents adopted a Persian surname named after Vishaljeet’s northern Iranian birthplace (where his parents migrated to), he was set aside from “normal” Iranians because of his top-knot donning of the turban of the Sikhs of his ancestral land Punjab rather than the spherical wrap the majority Shiite Iranians favored. Now, the same aesthetics that set him apart in Iran as a Punjab minority conversely made him more generally Muslim to an angry American populace, for reasons he could fathom given the ignorance but still could not really believe.

For the next few months, Vishaljeet saw his friends and family drop their turbans like stones into a river, a burden that sunk to the bottom never to be detected again. Their hair cropped short and neat, the iron dagger a mere pendant tucked under the button-down shirt, or in one case, as a subdued tie clip. Nothing flashy or even hinting of inciting aggression, let alone violence. Tucked shirt, shaved, hair trimmed. Just another ant in the American colony of capitalist businessmen.

He spat out the half-masticated Starburst into a tissue, wadded it and into the trash the whole package went. The sweetness was getting so overwhelming that it tasted almost hyperbolic. He pulled out another tissue and wiped his lips of concentrated cherry juice and Red #40. That wad, too, into the chute.

He decided he’d have another go at the vending machine. He was determined. He would get the dates. His resolve was like a gamer at a claw machine at the arcade, committing ceaseless trials fishing for the wayward stuffed animal that cost a sheer fraction of the bills pulled out of the wallet.

7F. He watched carefully as he clicked, matching his fingers to the buttons.

Another failure. This time Kit Kat. Reminding Vishaljeet of when he had bought his first Kit Kat at a newspaper stand near a bus stop. Again almost twenty years ago when he first arrived in this country. While sitting waiting for his stop, among other passengers bouncing in their seats, he took a surreptitious bite, just opened it and bit it whole—and was ridiculed by a boy with braces pointing at him, nudging at his preteen friend laughing. He looked around—perhaps they were pointing at someone sitting beside him—but they were clearly pointing at him. He didn’t understand it—a grown up eating a candy bar, how can this be a source of contemptuous fun for juveniles? Later he learned he was supposed to snap each of the perforated four pieces, one at a time, as he ate them. A social gaffe, an etiquette breach of handling quintessential Americana.

He deposited this junk in the trash bin—out the vending machine flap the Kit Kats came and into another flap it goes like the other previous unwanted conferments. He’d have to try again.

He was sticking in his third quarter of the six into the coin sliver of the vending machine when a young man bumped into him. “Excuse me,” said the man, on his cell phone. Vishaljeet’s quarter clattered to the ground and rolled about a foot and a half before spinning in a graduated lethargy to a stop. The man picked up the quarter and handed it to him, then hung up the call and pushed his thin cell phone into his chest pocket. Below that, clinging to his abdomen, hung a conference tag, “Daniel Chih-hung Chen,” it said. This man, Daniel, glanced at the vending machine, stopped for a second and asked if Vishaljeet was using it.

“Why don’t you go ahead?” offered Vishaljeet, extending a soft hand towards the glass.

Vishaljeet saw Daniel feed a crumpled dollar, watched it come back out and only to be fed again, (like giving peas to a petulant child, he thought), and then a few dimes and nickels. The man pressed 7F. Seven for the syllables in my name, thought Vishaljeet Mazandaran again. Something fell to the abyss below with a plop and the man opened it and pulled out a puffy package.

The man, Daniel, stood there for a moment, bent over at the base of the machine, one hand holding open the flap exposing the dispensing chasm of the vending machine and the other holding up a bag of Doritos.

“Huh, tortilla chips,” said Daniel.

“A problem?” asked Vishaljeet.

“No, not a problem. Just confused. Clearly, I saw peanut brittle.”

“Peanut brittle?” asked Vishaljeet.

“Yes, 7F. You don’t see it? It’s Taiwanese, one of our specialties there. A-li brand, it says, known in South Taiwan. Sweet, crunchy, very tasty. I didn’t know they packaged it for commercial overseas sale,” Daniel answered, muttering a bit to himself.

“I see,” said Vishaljeet. He looked at the vending machine but saw only dates in 7F. “Ali is an Iranian name.”

“Oh yeah? We have a lot of Ah-something’s back in Taiwan,” said the man. “I guess that’s something we have in common.” He was now standing upright, holding up the bag of chips inspecting it against the 7F goodies behind the glass. “It’s strange, I still see it there. The peanut candies. I guess I pressed the wrong number.”

Daniel brought the bag of chips up and held it six inches from Vishaljeet’s face. Vishaljeet could see the orange triangles on fire in the image on the bag, taunting him. For a second, he felt something dreadful, like seeing his hopes of returning to his home in America burn away. “Spicy Nacho,” Vishaljeet read.

“You want this?” asked the man Daniel. He turned his lips up into a frown, and shook the Doritos bag again.

Suddenly, an image passed before Vishaljeet.


It was that same Taiwanese-American man before him, the same Daniel Chih-hung Chen walking in Keds on pavement in bright daylight, in a plaid shirt and corduroy pants. He’s much younger now, no hint of a receding hairline. He’s strolling the streets of downtown, cars zooming by every so often. He hears a taunt, a “Hey glasses!”

Daniel turns. He’s in mid-bite of the same triangular crispy Doritos. He’s got a handful in his right, the bag in his left. His mouth moves up and down with specks of some bright orange dust in the midst of chomping, just as the other voice says in a gruff, incredulous manner, “You eating nachos?”

“Yeah,” says Daniel, looking at his bag. “Do-ri-tos,” sounding it out. He turned around and looked at the guy talking to him. The man was short, with spiky blonde hair. He was sitting on some steps at the time but now stood up, still somewhat hidden in the shadows of the apartment complex, and looked Daniel up and down.

“Na-chos? Huh?” The man was now taking a step forward, puffing up his chest, like some pigeon mating ritual. “Look, Nachos!” he says to an imaginary crew or posse, but there was no one with him. He turns to Daniel again, “Glasses, you prefer to be called Nacho?”

Daniel just started to walk away. He turned around, aimed east towards home, towards the fiery sun, ignoring the guy with the crusty voice in the shadows.

“Nacho!” the guy howled behind him. Laughing riotously. “Notchyo country!! Notchyo country at all. Go back to your country, where you belong!”


The image faded and Vishaljeet saw before him a much older Daniel, worn-looking, but otherwise well-kempt, his arm pushing his carry-on back and forth in a nervous tic, eager to get to baggage claim, or to his gate, or wherever he was going.

“Hey, did you hear me? I said, did you want this?” repeated Daniel. Daniel was distracted. He was now looking at the scrolling Departures list on the screens next to the vending machine, using a pinky finger to push up his falling glasses, while still holding out the sachet of Doritos to Vishaljeet.

Vishaljeet shook his head. “Not really,” said Vishaljeet. “Not a big Nachos fan.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Daniel said.

Vishaljeet watched Daniel hurry away, the one arm guiding his rolling carry-on, the other still clutching the bag of Nachos, despite his professed dislike of them. Vishaljeet turned back to the green sachet of dates, the seductive contents of 7F, the fruit of his once-home in Iran, never found in vending machines in his now-home America until just today. His now-home America, he thought.

The green plastic of the parcel of dates now looked artificially green. How could he have ever thought it looked like the verdant prairies and lush forests of Nur? he thought. It must be the changing of light in this hall, perhaps the setting of the evening sun, even as fluorescent lights flooded the terminal. The plastic package looked sickly green, lackluster, dull and ineffective, like the meaningless green card frittering away in his back pocket, the one that had his name scrawled: Vishaljeet, in Indo-Aryan parlance: great victory, now victor of none, stuck in limbo between places, not even a victor against a mechanized snack dispenser.

© 2019 by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

Author’s Note: “Fresh Dates” was inspired by current events in America and my long fascination with vending machines and their conveniences and frustrations. Sometimes it’s the little things that magnify the greater indignations and outrages of life. I suppose I also had a few things to say about migration, assimilation and belonging.

D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Besides Diabolical Plotsher work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Uncanny,  Strange Horizons, Nature, Terraform, Grievous Angel, Fireside, Galaxy’s Edge, StarShipSofa, Andromeda Spaceways (Year’s Best Issue), Factor Four, Pantheon, Outlook Springs, ROBOT DINOSAURS, Mithila Review, LONTAR, Reckoning, Issues in Earth Science, Liminality, Star*Line, Polu Texni, Argot, Eye to the Telescope, Liquid Imagination, Little Blue Marble, Story Seed Vault, and anthologies of the strange and beautiful: Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Future Visions, Deep Signal, Battling in All Her Finery, and Broad Knowledge. She can be found on her website daxiaolinspires.wordpress.com and on Twitter @spireswriter.

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