SOMEONE NEARBY HAS CHALLENGED YOU TO A GAME OF WORDED.
Rob looks up from his phone as the train pulls away from the station.
Standing by the door, his shoulder pressed against the handrail, he observes his fellow passengers.
Eight seats face each other in the center of the carriage, occupied by commuters bathed in the glow of their smartphones and tablets and e-readers. It's busy as always and everyone is squeezed in, shoulder to shoulder. Hunched and swaying in rhythm with the train's steady progression.
The next stop is City Station.
To his left, drums and a guttural bass line throb from the earbuds of a hipster. Their owner nods along to the beat and the motion of the train. To his right, a middle-aged woman clothed in beige clutches her handbag and strains anxiously away from the wiry, tattooed man spread across the seat next to her.
Rob accepts the challenge.
His letters are E, F, R, E, V, H, and A.
Staccato laughter tumbles down the carriage from a group of school girls. They giggle and point, whispering to each other.
They're laughing at the businessman sitting ahead of them. His suit, pristine and pin-striped, his hair slick with product. He twists and glares at the girls, then returns to barking orders down the phone at some helpless assistant. Rob imagines a tearful, flustered and stuttering young woman on the other end of the phone.
He's growling, “Calm down, you're getting emotional. You’re gonna have to learn how to deal with these situations, sooner or later."
Laughter erupts from the girls again.
Rob plays the word: FREE and replaces the handset in his pocket.
The train eases into the next station and the doors part with a gust of cool evening breeze.
Lumbering through the entryway, a drunk sloshes the contents of a half-crushed can on the floor. He is followed by a tramp with mouldy clothes. The drunk sways across the carriage, catching a bar for balance as the tramp shuffles along and lowers himself to a crouch just behind the seats.
“Watch it mate." The drums cease momentarily so the hipster can hold the drunk at arms-length.
He slurs his apologies, "S-s-sorry. So s-sorry."
Rob's phone trembles.
YOUR CHALLENGER HAS PLAYED A WORD.
The drums rumble on, snaking out from the earbuds and across the carriage.
The word is GUILTY.
A subtle tremor flows over Rob as he studies that word. It drags an idle finger across the spine of a secret shame.
Seeing that word at that moment makes him feel vulnerable, unmasked.
He shakes it off, it’s just a game. It means nothing. But still, he glances again around the train at his fellow passengers. Looking for his challenger. His assailant.
His letters are V, H, A, L, I, E, and F.
Rob meets the tramp's gaze, peering out from between a gap in the seats before him. Those empty eyes offer no recognition. He opens his mouth as if to speak, revealing two jagged, rotten teeth. But he says nothing.
The train doors slide shut and the carriage drags forward.
Rob plays the word: ALIVE.
"It'll be your word against mine! You wanna risk it?" The businessman is irate now and the school girls stick out their tongues.
The next stop is Dodgers Court.
Rob is dragged back into his memories as the horizon spools by at pace.
His guilt is there, a vast abyss he had tried to forget. An ocean he could always feel but never acknowledge. From the depths, the memory of her floats to the surface.
He saw her only for a moment, through darkness and blurred vision. So many years ago now, he could no longer trust his memory. Was she the perfect image of youthful exuberance and promise that he now held in his mind? All delicate beauty and unspoiled innocence. He must've exaggerated. It wouldn't have been the first time. Idealising her over time, deepening his own torment.
But the terror in her eyes, he remembered that well enough. A split second of bright shock that sharpened his senses all too late. He could see it now as clearly as he saw the tramp staring at him from the dark corner of the train carriage.
His phone trembles.
The word is DEAD.
His vision clouds and his head is light. It can't be a coincidence. Just as his thoughts returned to her, after so long. Cold panic surges through him.
The word on the screen feels distant but it burns in the depths of his mind. It drags the waters of his memory, hauling the terrible images and sounds of that night into the light.
A shrill scream, cut short. Headlights bouncing off wide eyes. Illuminating pale skin. A ghost in the dark.
It was an accident. She ran into the road out of nowhere. Could he have gotten help for her? Saved her, maybe? No, the damage was done and it wasn’t his fault. Why should his life be over too?
The frantic moments after the accident repeat in his mind and his chest tightens.
The train shudders and throws the passengers forward.
He sees her, lying on the tar-black road.
The drunk pitches towards the floor and collapses onto a young girl in a silk headscarf. He struggles and sways and mumbles as she helps him back to his feet, "I'm so s-ss-sorry. So so ss-orry."
He sees her, twitching on the ground, blood snaking from the corner of her lips.
Rob meets the tramps gaze again. Doleful eyes that pierce straight through him.
The train halts and the doors drag open, then closed.
The next stop is Wallout End.
Shouts and giggles from the school girls return him to the present and the train lumbers on. His heart slows, the panic receding. The memories sink back.
The businessman argues, “Good luck finding somewhere else that'll take you on.” And the drums rumble on from the earbuds.
His phone alerts again. He hasn’t played a turn but the game has gone on without him.
The word is MURDER.
His throat turns to ice and his heart strains against his chest. He is breathless, weightless with shock.
He sees her, lying on her back, twisted and sodden.
His eyes stretch wide as he searches the faces in the carriage. The drums have stopped, and the hipster smirks at him. The girls' laughter grows louder and cascades over him as they point in his direction in ridicule.
"SHUT THE FUCK UP WILL YOU!" the businessman erupts.
And the tramp sits staring.
His gaze penetrates Rob. He sees his shame. Sees the truth.
Her, lying bloodied and broken and dirty. Dying by the side of the road. A shadow in the taillights, stretched in red across the asphalt.
The train plunges into the darkness of a tunnel at speed. All light extinguished. Rob shrinks into the blackness, trying to hide. But the eyes of the tramp remain fixed on him, glinting through the gloom. In this darkness, they are alone. Far from the scrolling vistas of the outside world. Far from the safety and security of anonymity.
When the horizon returns outside the window, the lights flicker back to life. Rob winces in pain at the deafening screech as the train comes into the station. Mud-brown leaves whirl across the floor as the doors burst open.
He seizes his chance, sliding on the greasy leaf litter as he sprints from the train.
The laughter of the girls fades and the train moves off with a low hum.
He is alone. Safe.
Stooped in the shadows of the advancing evening, he regains his composure. The train fades into the distance, taking the drums and the laughter and the accusing eyes with it. The dull, rhythmic thud in his chest slows and he is left in the warm amber glow of a dimly lit platform.
A breeze rolls leaves and litter idly across the tracks.
He takes a deep breath and hurries down the station stairs, to the street below.
His phone buzzes.
A text message illuminates the screen.
The message says I REMEMBER.
Searing white light erases everything. He clenches his eyes shut and shields them with his hand.
He sees her face again but not as he remembered it. Her skin grey, lifeless and damp. Her lips, cracked and purple. Her eyes, wide and shining. Advancing on him like headlights through the night.
An engine chokes, splutters, and growls into life.
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Hi Ash! Welcome to Reedsy and Congratulations on the well deserved shortlist! This one was utterly thrilling. I loved the premise of words games as writers since we are, by our very nature, utterly obsessed with words. I also really loved the way you played into the impact of mobile games and all the ways we’ve coped with the world. This mystery made me come back for more and re read to pick up on details I missed. Nice work!!
Creepy and unsettling, nicely done! I love how it just kept getting more intense. Great ending too!
This was totally gripping. I love that you managed to ratchet up the tension while still giving a lot of great, detailed language. Well done.
What a gripping story! Congratulations for being shortlisted- well deserved.
Great story of guilt unrelenting! The people on the train become the ghastly chorus in his tortured mind, the wordgame judge, jury and executioner. Well done!!!
Congratulations on shortlist honors, Ash - well-deserved!
Welcome to Reedsy! I really enjoyed this story. Very gripping & well placed. Bravo!
Oh wow, great story, Ash! The whole set-up and the particular ending was an interesting exercise in something that would, indeed, be fairly terrifying if it happened to me! Really excellent - thanks for the story, and welcome to Reedsy!