This story contains themes of sexual abuse

‘The first time I saw the woman, she was standing across the carriage from me. She was gripping the yellow railing of the train. I remember because she looked dishevelled, and her hand had turned white from her grip. Her hair – fire-engine red – looked like she had been tugging on it. There were little fly-aways everywhere. When she saw me, she kind of tilted her head to the side and maintained eye contact. It was a bit creepy, to be honest. Her eyes had these giant bags that made her look like she had been punched in the face. It was her eyes that haunted me the most, I think.’


This train will stop at Lidcombe, Auburn, Clyde, Granville, then all stations to Edmondson Park and Leppington.

Lila was obsessed with the automated voice that sounded across the crowded carriage. She loved the way that it somehow managed to sound both like a woman and a robot. The way the female timbre mixed with something distinctly mechanical never failed to capture her attention.

Lila shuffled her feet on the stairs, accidentally knocking the man squeezed on the step beside her.

‘Sorry,’ she murmured. The train was so full that Lila almost wished she were brave enough to shove people until she could create a space for herself. Clenching her book against her chest and keeping her eyes planted on her feet, she tried to huddle closer to the stair railing instead.

Lila mentally ticked off the stations. Twelve stops to go before home. She would see about getting a seat by Yennora, and then there would only be five stops to go.  

This train will stop at Lidcombe.

Lila watched people shuffle about to let others alight. The man beside Lila slid to stand on the step directly behind her, letting a stream of people push past them. A large woman’s handbag slammed into Lila as she crashed down the stairs, a man with a satchel descending quickly behind her. Through it all, the heat and smell of the man behind her was uncomfortable. Having sprayed on too much deodorant, he smelt strongly of stale spice. The smell left a sour aftertaste in her mouth. Please move away.

As the passengers rushed off the train, Lila counted one, two, three, four people rushing up the stairs to fill any gaps that the exiting strangers had left. She squeezed one hand on the railing, the other mutilating the cover of her book. Please move away. But the man stayed pressed against Lila, moving impossibly closer to her.

Doors closing, please stand clear.

The doors slid shut, the train slowly pulling away from the station with a small jolt. She waited one, two, three, four, five, six seconds but the man made no move to slide back into the vacant position beside her.

Lila forced herself to loosen her grip around her book and take one, two, three shallow breaths. She wished that she were the kind of girl who would pull herself away. The kind of girl who spoke up for herself. The kind of girl who wasn’t afraid to tell people like track star Michael Blake to back-off, get out of my space. Lila felt a light brush of something warm against her backside. She sucked in a sharp breath, squeezing her eyes shut.

Behind her eyelids, large hands stroked, squeezed, and cupped. The hands swept across her back slowly, trailing down to test the waters. In that faux darkness, the train became the equipment storeroom. Lila had wanted to know the secrets that Michael had promised to share with her, but she hadn’t wanted to do more than make-out a little. She hadn’t wanted that.

No. She wouldn’t let her mind go there. She wouldn’t. The hand was just an accident. There were a lot of people in a small space, and everyone was frustrated about the ongoing train strikes. It was normal for people to brush against each other. The man was standing so close behind her that she probably imagined it. He wouldn’t do that to a stranger. It was fine. Perfectly fine. Then the swipe came again, firmer this time. The hand trailed teasingly from her bottom to her waistline, inching around her sides…

Lila’s eyes bugged open, her hand shoving hard against the railing to catapult herself across the staircase. Her side slammed into the wall with a thump. Dozens of eyes moved in her direction, but Lila found herself returning only one person’s stare.

Standing across the train, the woman’s brown eyes met hers without confusion or curiosity. Her eyes were black, as if she hadn’t slept properly in weeks. With just a small cock of the head, she stared back at Lila, taking in her heaving chest and damaged book. Their eyes only met for three seconds before the woman turned away. Loose strands of her bright red hair masked her eyes as she dropped her gaze to the floor, avoiding Lila’s own stare. Lila felt it was a dismissal and a condemnation all at once.

‘It’s just that your boundaries are so unclear, Lila. It’s hard to know what you want. If you were clearer, it wouldn’t be like this.’ That’s what Michael had said as he pulled up his running shorts. It’s what he had said when he saw her in the school corridor later that week. And again, when she was timing his races. It was what ran through her head when he had asked her out a month later in front of all her starry-eyed friends. Lila felt tears gathering behind her eyes. She swallowed once, twice, and pushed them back. The crowd had returned to their screens, ignoring her once again.

This was now, in a crowded train. Michael wasn’t here. Lila swallowed, running her eyes over all the people crowded together. All the eyes that had been staring at her just a moment ago. If she moved again, would they stare at her again? Would they know? Would they care? That woman even looked away. It was nothing to her. If it was nothing to her, it would be nothing to Lila. She couldn’t even blame the man, could she? It was probably an accident. He probably wanted to get off the train at the next stop, that’s all. It was nothing to be concerned about.

Doors closing, please stand clear.

Lila glanced to her right, but the man was gone. She glanced around the train trying to spot the man, or the small woman with severe, blackened eyes and fiery hair. But both were gone.

This train will stop at Clyde, Granville…

Lila tuned out the mechanical woman. She knew there were ten stops to go. Ten stops and then she could go home. Ten stops before she could wash today’s events away in a boiling hot shower.

Ten stops.   


‘I saw her over and over again for the next few years. Each time it felt like she stared at me for longer and longer. I would go home and have a shower, but I could never seem to wash away whatever it was she was doing to me. I would think about her, and then I would think about Michael and then I would ask myself “what is true?”. Was what Michael said true? Did I really bring it on myself? Let me tell you, the more that someone tells you that everything is your fault, the more you start to believe it. Over and over again I would convince myself that Michael was right – that that woman was right to turn away from me. But then I’d think about it some more and convince myself of the opposite. I felt like I was splitting apart, and I don’t know what it was about that woman that gave her the power to do that to me. To put me in that state. She never even spoke to me. Not until that last time.’


Lila strode onto the train, scaling the stairs in one, two, three, four steps. Quickly scanning the carriage for an empty seat, she slipped into the last row, eyes catching the woman that had followed her up the stairs. The woman swept past Lila, ignoring the seat left beside her. Lila placed her bag on the seat next to her, hoping that it would deter anyone else from sitting beside her. She kept her gaze away from the other passengers and was just pulling out her book to read when she heard a pointed cough.

Lila swung her head up to the person next to her, instantly meeting familiar brown eyes swamped in black. The bags under the woman’s eyes never failed to jolt Lila. Lila swept a few fallen pieces of hair back into her bun as she squirmed on her seat. The woman stared at Lila’s constant movement, refusing to look away as she usually did. Lila met the woman’s gaze, noting the red lipstick that had smudged onto a tiny tooth that had been ground down into almost nothing. The woman’s mouth twitched in response to Lila’s attention, and Lila could feel her own tongue sweep across her teeth. Still, the woman did not look away. Instead, for the first time, the woman began to speak.

‘My ex-boyfriend used to play this game, you know. He’d come home from work and he’d tell me all these stories. Some were true, some were not. Most of the time they were both. It was my job to figure out which parts were real and which were not.’ The woman tilted her head to the side, mirroring Lila’s perplexed expression. ‘But the asshole could never keep a story straight. How am I supposed to know what’s real when he can’t even stick to a single narrative?’

‘I-I d-don’t know. How?’ Lila’s heart slowed down in her chest.

‘You can’t!’ The woman cackled.

Lila shrunk back into herself, unable to take her eyes off the woman who seemed so dishevelled; like she was splitting apart at the seams. 

‘He didn’t like when I pointed that out. I was wrong he insisted. Wrong! If I got it right, all would be forgiven. If I got it wrong, he would walk out. He said it was to give me “space” to figure out my mistake.’ The woman’s face shut down now, lips stretching down into a frown, eyes flattening back into a dead expression. ‘Maybe I should have been smarter. Maybe I should have known he was lying.’ The woman paused, her eyes misting over as she finished softly, ‘I wish I hadn’t believed him when he told me that it was my fault. That my boundaries were unclear.’

I wish I hadn’t believed him when he told me that it was my fault. That my boundaries were unclear. Lila couldn’t breathe.

‘Hey! You’re scaring my kids. Go get help if you can’t help talking to yourself!’

Lila’s head whipped around at the raspy call. A broad woman on the other side of the train was sneering at Lila, her large hands forcing her son to look away. Her voice had sounded loudly across the space, turning heads in Lila’s direction. Lila’s chest started to burn at the attention of so many people.

Flicking her head back to the woman beside her, Lila was greeted with empty space. There was no one sitting next to her. Just her own reflection in the glass window, her own messy red hair, her own panicked brown eyes staring back at her above dark bags.

This train will stop at Granville.

Gemma Sandblom is an aspiring writer who spends her time reading, daydreaming, writing and studying – in that order. Her writing spans genres, but more often than not, it finds its home in fantasy, where she questions realities. You’ll find her patting her cats and listening to music.