4 comments

Mystery Speculative

Hank settled in for the fifty-one minute journey from Perth to Mandurah. The train eased cautiously out of Perth Underground, like a turtle’s head from its shell. Picking up speed, the train settled into the lulling clickety-clack train track rhythm. Managing to stay awake during the short stop at Elizabeth Quay, Hank drifted off soon after. Letting his hoodie swaddled head loll against the window, he basked in the warmth of the winter sun.

Quickly, Hank surrendered to deep sleep, floating in the endless sea of his subconscious. He dreamt of his early childhood, things he hadn’t thought about for years, things he’d forgotten. His mother bending over his cot while he pretended to be sleep, her voice kind and loving. His father carrying him on his shoulders at a BBQ, humming a nursey rhythm to keep him amused. His sister dressing him as a little businessman for morning tea with their toys; their grandfather’s Fedora stuffed with paper to keep it on his head.

***

A break in the soothing clickety clack woke Hank. Yawning, he stretched and looked out the window hoping to catch a landmark. While he searched, his reflection gazed back at him, a transparent copy of his countenance. He smiled and was rewarded with a grin in response: his lost twin brother. Dark hair tumbled from the confines of his twin’s hoodie, an unruly topping for his perfectly symmetrical, green eyes. His skin was pale and freckled. His smile easy. He saw excitement in his twin’s eyes. Only a short train trip separated him from his son, Tom. Using the window as a makeshift mirror, Hank scrubbed the sleep from his eyes with a balled hand.

‘Sorry, but we don’t have much time: we need to talk, now,’ a voice said, as Hank felt a minute hesitation in the clickety clack.

His twin’s face troubled, eyes narrowed, forehead furrowed. Behind the twin, the reflection of another person—a hoodie pulled low prevented Hank from discerning their features. Hoping the stranger would leave him alone if nothing was said, Hank ignored the request.

The tap on his shoulder was a shock and unwelcome. He rounded on the stranger: flight or fight already determined.

The elderly, hooded man stumbled backwards, hands held high, only righting himself with the help of a handhold on a seat. ‘Damnit! It catches me out  every time. Please, we have sixteen minutes if we are lucky, thirteen if were not,’ he said in a familiar voice, drawing the hood from his head.

Had Hank not been sitting, he’d have tumbled. The elderly man was his grandfather: the gentleman whose Fedora he’d worn with a swagger while taking tea with the teddies. ‘Poppa?’ he asked. ‘What are you doing here? You should be in Sydney! Has something happened to Nonna?’   

Hands that had been raised in self-defence now re-assured Hank. ‘It’s OK! Poppa and Nonna are good: they have many happy years ahead.’

Even in his startled state, Hank noticed Poppa’s use of the third person. ‘What do you mean, “they.” Who the fuck are you?’ Hank snapped.

Again the hands placated, held high beside that familiar face—too familiar. The mop of hair was grey and unkempt but was still a counterpoint to the symmetrical, green eyes. The skin was pale, but age spots had subsumed the youthfulness of freckles. The smile was ready, albeit it not as wide as he remembered. Hank looked closer: the hoodie was identical to his—a Goodthread Hoodoo Spirit—only it was threadbare. The old man wore the same jeans: G-Star, but one knee was torn, the other worn. They shared the same taste in Air Jordans, but the old man’s were down at the heel and faded, while his were fresh out of the box.

‘What the fuck are you?’ Hank asked, anger rising again. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ he asked, searching for hidden cameras. ‘I’m being punked, aren’t I? Who put you up to it?’

‘Please. Sixteen minutes at best. Let me talk.’

Hank searched the carriage for help only to find it empty. Returning his gaze to the man opposite him, he stared at his twin: the one who’d aged forty years overnight. ‘Talk, then, old man,’ Hank sneered.

Before you woke, you were dreaming of morning tea with your sister and the teddies. Remember, you wore Poppa’s fedora and drank orange juice, instead of tea.’

Hank slide along his seat, away from his aged doppelganger.

‘I’m real. Feel me,’ the old man said, holding out a wrinkled hand.

Like a dog offered a poisoned treat, Hank reached out slowly, hoping the hand would evaporate before he touched it. Just centimetres away, he stopped and extended his index finger, like the hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

‘It’s never quite the same,’ the old man said, closing the gap, grasping Hank’s finger momentarily. ‘See, quite real.’

Hank yanked his hand away and nursed it against his chest. ‘What did you mean when you said, it’s not the same?’

‘I said it’s never quite the same. I’ve done this trip a ton of times. The beginning and end are always the same, but the middle? It’s always different. Sometimes we’re in the same carriage. Sometimes I have to search for you. Sometimes you’re asleep, other times awake. Sometimes you see me and take-off. Sometimes there are other passengers in the carriage. But always, when you come at me, like today, you scare the hell out of me, and I fall over.’

'And you scare the hell out of me,’ Hank said, acceptance reluctantly seeping into his demeanour. ‘You’re me, right?’

‘I’m a version of you. I’ve got forty years on the clock that you don’t have. That you won’t have.’

‘What the fuck?

‘I’m sorry. I’ve tried this a million different ways. I’ve worked it up slow. I’ve pitched it right out of the gates. I’ve sold it as a fable. I cast myself as an angel and played on your overwhelming belief as a born again Christian. The best way… no, the only way, is to warm you up and spit it out. This train is going to de-rail before it gets to Mandurah. You’re going to die.’

Fuck off,’ Hank said, feeling the train twitch.

'You felt it, didn’t you?,’ the Older Hank said. ‘It’s the third since I arrived. The first woke you. A hesitation in the clickety clack—it never gets any worse—the driver would stop otherwise. Before Mandurah, you’ll hear a thud, then a gut-wrenching screech, and the carriage will flip. You’ll careen around the cabin, like a pinball between bumpers. Third ricochet and you die. Sorry, it ain’t easy, but that’s it.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘You’ll feel the fourth hesitation in five… four… three… two…one,’ Older Hank said, counting down with his fingers.

Hank felt it come up through the seat and settle in his chest. It should have been nothing. The slightest uncertainty in the clickety clack, but it was everything. ‘It’s nothing,’ Hank said, hoping against hope.

‘I’ve done this myself, you know: been told when I’d die by an older me, so I get it. Use the emergency call button: contact the driver. Tell them about the clickety clack problem. But be quick. The time of derailment is uncertain.’

Hank stood, waited for a couple of seconds, then ran towards the closest exit in the carriage. He stumbled as he reached it and ended up hitting the emergency call button on the way to the floor. Scrambling to his feet, he hit the button again with the palm of his hand and kept it there. It took three seconds for his eyebrows to arch. Five seconds for the anxiety to nibble. Seven seconds for his anxiety to soar. ‘It’s broken!,’ he claimed, before running down the carriage to the next exit and repeating the process. He tried the third exit, but his heart wasn’t in it. He ignored the fourth and returned to sit beside his older self. ‘How can they all be broken?’ Hank asked.

‘They aren’t. They’re working. And that’ll be the finding of the commission. It’s Time fucking with you,’ Older Hank said. ‘The button works; the microphone works; the cabling is intact; the speaker in the driver’s compartment works. But, the time it takes for the signal to reach the driver has been stretched. It arrives after the train crashes, and the driver is dead. Like I said, it’s never the same. I’ve seen you try to get to the first emergency call button, and Time screws with the journey: you never get there. You move like a glacier. You want to try again?’

Hank pretended he didn’t, then he tried to take off, but he couldn’t lift his feet off the carpet—at least that’s what seemed to be happening. He was just very slow.

‘Occasionally, Time puts other passengers in here with us, and you try to warn them. Instead of slowing you down, it speeds them up. To them, you look like you’re sitting still. Time did that to me. I nearly bust a nut trying to speak to them,’ Older Hank said.

Defeated, Hank sat beside Older Hank and pulled out the crucifix hanging around his neck. He palmed the cross and closed his eyes, whispering ‘God has me in his heart.’

‘This stage is called acceptance. But we need to keep moving. Time sure is,’ Older Hank said.

‘Who’s Time? You keep name-checking them,’ Hank said, opening his eyes, holding the crucifix in front of him, in a death grip, like he was trying to ward off a vampire.

Older Hank sighed. ‘I’m not sure. I used to believe. In God I mean. I used to believe in God, like you. All I had to do was lead a good life, and I’d enjoy the happy ever after. But living forty years on this train sucks that out of you. Jesus walking on water? Time slowed him down, like it just did to you, and Jesus is skimming the waves. Bringing Lazarus back from the dead? Time hits the rewind button, and hey presto, Lazarus is alive and kicking!’

‘You haven’t answered the question!’ Hank said angrily. ‘Who’s Time?’

Older Hank sighed. ‘Forty years, I still don’t know. Everything it does is time related, so I call it Time, but it could be any one of the Holy Trinity, for all I know. God summoned bears to kill forty-two children because a bald guy was mocked, so anything’s possible. Remember Lot’s wife? God turned her to salt. But if it’s not God, then it’s something god-like. Think Loki: a cunning trickster.'

‘You’ve been on this train for forty years?’

‘Over forty years, give or take. I get on the train. I meet a younger me. I talk to them and offer Time’s deal. The train crashes. It all starts again.’

‘Time’s deal?’

‘Yeah, I took the deal when it was offered. Most of the Hanks before you took the deal. Now it’s your turn. Look, you die regardless. That’s a given. The upside to the deal is Time will help Tom. When you die, the money Poppa and Nonna have in trust for you goes to Tom. Time greases the wheels, makes sure the money comes through clean. Then Time turbo charges the investment timeline: one hundred years of compound interest in the blink of an eye makes Tom wealthy. If you don’t take the deal, Time pumps the brakes on the time line. The money, for one reason or another, never makes it to Tom. And it may not stop there. Time’s… well. Time can be… you know: a cunning trickster or just plain fucking vindictive. If Time is God, then it’s the Old Testament version. And he could take it out on Tom: stretch out the bad times; compress the good. It would drive a man mad.’

‘The downside if I take the deal?’

Fuck, I hate this part. I took the deal forty years ago. The money went to Tom, I know that, but I picked up the booby prize. At your age—twenty-nine—I replaced the previous Hank and have been selling Time’s shit ever since.’

‘What?’

If you take the deal, Time could bring you back to replace me. I’ve gotta warn you. I’m getting old, getting sick, getting tired. I’m about done. My Older Hank was about the same age when I replaced him.’

Hank rocked slowly holding the crucifix. ‘I might have to be you?’ he said. ‘Never getting off the train? Selling the shitty deal for forty years?’

‘It could be a week. That’s down to Time. The Hank my Older Hank replaced was thirty-one. He’d been on the job less than two years before he was—Shit, did you feel the missing clickety clack?

Hank nodded his head.

‘I must have your answer. Like I said, the time of derailment isn’t certain. It’s never before Wellard, but we’re close. Please. You need to tell me,’ Older Hank implored. ‘For Tom’s sake.’

‘It’s too much to take in,’ Hank whispered. ‘Too much.’

‘I know. I know. Hank. Look. I swear to…. I swear to you. It was the same for me. I went from punching Older Hank in the face to begging him to make the decision for me. Tom’s the easy get. It’s the thought of life on the train for forty years meeting a production line of Hanks.’

‘Tom would be OK without the money, right? Money’s not everything.’

‘Of course he would. But it would give him what you can’t. And Time might not be satisfied with just denying Tom the money.’

‘What do I do?’ Hank mumbled.

‘I’ll tell you what I’ve told every Hank. You’re a born again Christian. If you believe in a good and gracious God, then you believe in the afterlife. If Time doesn’t pick you to replace me: Advance to Go, collect everlasting life. If Time picks you, the natural order of things is a good and gracious God, as the supreme being, will have the final say: Advance to Go, collect everlasting life.’

‘And if you’re wrong? If there’s no God, only Time? Or Time is God? Or Time is the supreme being? What then?’

‘You could be on this train until you die—again.’

Hank felt faith seeping back into his bones, stiffening his spine, crystallising his resolve. ‘I’ll do the deal.’

‘Tell me, so we are clear,’ Older Hank said.

‘Tom gets the money. If this is real—and I’m picked—I’ll do the time.’

‘OK, good luck,’ Older Hank said.

The Hanks shook hands, and there was a thud that resonated through the carriage floor. Hank tightened his grip on his crucifix, his afterlife depending on it. The screech after the thud curdled Hank’s stomach. With his other hand, he grasped a nearby grab handle. The Older Hank was still with him, but this was very much Hank’s ride. The carriage left the track, the couplings bookending the carriage snapping, like breadsticks. Hank’s world turned with the carriage. The force of the derailment broke his grip on the grab handle, and he started the first leg of his journey. He was unconscious before he struck the window opposite his seat: the second ricochet. The third ricochet snuffed out his life, like a candle at the end of a church service.

***

Hank opened his eyes.

June 19, 2022 04:20

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

4 comments

Seán McNicholl
09:33 Jun 21, 2022

Mark, this is brilliant! You have such a wonderful way of writing horror and mystery! I loved the twist of faith splashed through it as well. And that ending!! Well done!

Reply

Mark Sheehan
00:12 Jun 22, 2022

Thanks Sean. Too long at Catholic schools, I guess.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Claire Lindsey
00:33 Jun 30, 2022

Hi Mark! Really nice work. I loved the dialogue especially; even though both characters are Hank, we still catch the difference of time between them. Part of me wanted Hank to refuse the deal, but I think him taking it reinforces the cycle & the power that Time has, almost as if Hank never really had a choice. One small suggestion as you continue writing: I noticed especially at the beginning that you used repetitive sentence structures (like: “picking up speed; managing to stay awake; letting his hoodie fall”). Your story became more eng...

Reply

Mark Sheehan
01:24 Jun 30, 2022

Hi Claire! Thanks' for the feedback. It's good to get someone else's perspective. Nothing harder than critiquing your own work. Regards Mark

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.