"Sorry," he said with an embarrassed half-smile. "Thanks for not letting me fall."
This time I know I blushed: "You're welcome."
Then the train pulled into the next station and he got off, giving me a glance as he went. It was strange, at the time; he almost looked sad.
Just one of those things, like I said. I went on to work and didn't really think about it again.
Until the dreams started.
They're always the same. I'm at home, asleep in my bed, when they appear. No fireworks, no clouds of smoke; they just seem to ooze out of the shadows. Two of them, tall and thin, with white skin that looks more than half-dead against their black suits. Their smiles are as dead as their black eyes.
"We've come to collect what you owe," the first one says.
It doesn't matter what I say in response, the second one always chimes in with: "No-one likes a debtor."
They reach for me and I run. Out of the room, down the stairs, out the front door. Sometimes I run for the car, desperately trying to start it. Sometimes I hide; under the stairs, in the bushes in the front yard, behind the neighbours' rubbish bins. Sometimes I pound on people's doors, begging for help. Sometimes I just run, mindlessly fleeing until it feels like my heart is going to explode. And always the dream ends the same, with cold bony hands on my neck and an equally cold voice in my ear, whispering: "Time's up."
At first I chalked it up to stress, some kind of unconscious issue juggling at me. That's what dreams are, after all. I went to a psychologist, but talking didn't help. I went to the doctor, for something to help me sleep, but that was worse; the dreams still came, but I'd be stuck in my bed, paralysed. I tried herbal remedies on the advice of my mother, St John's Wort, chamomile teas, aromatherapy... and still I'd wake up screaming. I even went to a psychic, desperate to find a way to get away from the two men in my dreams.
"You have something they want," she told me, pouring over my hand in a tiny flat that smelled of boiling cabbage. "Ask them what it is, and find out how to pass it on."
Pseudo-psychology, of course, but it was better than most advice I'd gotten. The next time I slept, I forced myself to ask, as soon as the shadows began to stir: "What do you want?"
For the first time, the dream changed. Instead of demanding payment, the first man stooped over me and whispered: "We want what was given to you."
"Given to me? By who?"
"By the last one who owed us. He has given you his debt," said the second one.
"But..." I began, but it was too late, they were already reaching for me with their long fingers, teeth bared like a shark's and I woke up with my throat tight and my face wet with tears.
So, that's where I am now. Looking for someone to take my debt. Well, I say "my debt" but it's not mine. It probably wasn't even his, that guy on the train. Somewhere, back at the start of all this, someone cut a deal - and then tried to dodge the price.
I'd be angrier, only I'm out here doing the same damn thing. In the end, no-one wants to pay.
Now, who will it be?