By Deborah Sharp
The electronic information board inside the Washington, D.C., Metro station flashed a brief message:
Green Line trains delayed due to accident at Columbia Heights station.
No need for me to worry. Playing tourist for a few days in the nation's capital, I was on my way to the Smithsonian. I was riding the Orange Line.
The next morning, as I enjoyed the free breakfast at my hotel, I spotted a small-font headline, deep inside The Washington Post:
Person fatally struck by Metro train.
It was the briefest of stories, buried in the local news digest on page C3. In five short sentences, the Post conveyed the critical details: It happened about 3 pm. Trains were delayed by 20 to 30 minutes. And, said the spokeswoman for the Metro, ''it is believed that the person was intentionally in front of the train.''
As a former journalist, I realized the Post was abiding by standard newsroom rules regarding suicides. Because no one wants to encourage copycats seeking notoriety, suicides generally don't merit banner headlines or breathless coverage. At least they don't unless the person is a famous public figure, the manner of death is spectacular, or the suicide itself presents a broad risk to public safety. A run-of-the-mill train jumper doesn't meet any of those criteria. I get that as a one-time reporter.
But as a fiction writer, I wanted to know so much more. What was going through that desperate soul's mind? As I was blithely consulting my subway map so I wouldn't overshoot my stop, some tortured individual was contemplating his -- or her -- final seconds of life. Was there a last-minute regret? Resignation? Acceptance? And what about the driver, who could see -- but not avoid -- what was about to happen? What of the other riders waiting on the platform? Did someone reach out, and just miss saving a life?
I checked the Post for the next two mornings. I couldn't find anything further on the fatality. No name. No age. Not even the gender of this person whose final act disrupted Metro service for ''20 to 30 minutes.''
When I teach seminars, I often use short newspaper stories -- sometimes just a headline -- as a creative writing prompt.
Ask yourself the question, What If? I always say to students.
What if I'd taken the Green Line that day instead of the Orange? What if I'd struck up a conversation on the platform with a person whose eyes seemed so sad? What if...