Contest #27 shortlist ⭐️

The Train (Eternity)

Submitted into Contest #27 in response to: Write a short story that takes place on a train.... view prompt

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General

Green pierces the dim light of the room. A whistle cuts across the din. The scratch of words on the thin paper in your hand tells you your train departs abruptly at 3 a.m. and, as the whistle and lights have warned, this leaves about five minutes to board. 

You pass through the crowds gathered on the platform, dialogue in countless dialects drifting apart from the rest to meet you momentarily. Each spoken word is different, yet familiar. Over your endless years of traveling this route you have had plenty of time to pick up on the sounds of countless languages, to know a couple of the travelers and their stories, though your own remain unheard. Even without this understanding, you would only need to hear their tones to recognize reunions, formalities, arguments, goodbyes—the usual exchanges of train platforms, exchanges which you sometimes envy for their ease and accessibility. For their familiarity and yet variability, each telling a new story, changing by the day.

You’re in another plane of existence entirely. Lifetimes apart from the couples and groups, drifting past the hordes like smoke. Despite that envy, you don’t always mind being unnoticed in a crowded room. You’ve grown used to the inattention of most. At least you’ll catch your train on time.

The locomotive is hauntingly beautiful—it rises from a haze of smoke and steam, towering and gleaming, gloating over its fresh coat of black. If only you were present enough to appreciate it. Instead, with each passing journey, your eyes are gradually clouded by fog. And you don’t even notice your own inattentiveness; your eyes lazily glance over the ornate curvature of silver-painted numbers, just to check that you’ve found the right platform though you know this station by heart. You approach the mob congregated in front of the train as its horn bellows, echoing around the cavernous station to once more signal boarding time. You once resented the mob; now you don’t feel much at all.

The compartment’s grandiose doors unlatch and creak open, pushed by two attendants dressed in black coats to match the train’s. You are not the only invisible passenger in their eyes, too glazed by boredom to acknowledge the occasional gesture of thanks. The crowd in front of you surges into the train, rushing in a wild attempt to grab the best seats. You have long-ago learned not to shove like the rest, lest you brush against a bare arm and bring the attached head to focus, angered or frightened by the chills you send scattering over skin. Winter’s first gust of frigid air in the midst of humid summer.

When you finally make it past the doors to the rowdy hallway beyond, you find one cabin near the front with one remaining seat, sandwiched between an crotchety-gazed hag and a sulking being concealed under a broad hood. Not the most forgiving pair of possible seat partners. It would be much less troublesome, you know, to stand in the middle. But you are weary tonight, at the sight of the seat; an opportunity for rest has not been presented to you in so long, and there it is, looking like heaven packaged with a ramshackle bow. You hardly hesitate before slipping in.

You accidentally brush against the latter passenger, and inwardly curse yourself, going still. But the expected barrage of beratement never comes. The being must be distracted by something, lost in thought, because your touch goes blessedly unnoticed. You shrink back in your seat with a sharp release of cold air and try to make your presence as small as possible. It will be a long journey in the middle of nowhere, and you don’t want to do anything else to risk being stuck between two irate fiends the whole journey, or worse--losing your precious perch. 

The horn sounds again, the doors slam shut, the train lurches away from the platform. As soon as the chorus of goodbyes shouted from outside fades, you begin to relax, gazing out the window and allowing your mind to drift. Drift, as every night, from the hushed chatter around you to the thought of the journey ahead, back to the cabin’s view. Moonlight paints moving shadows on the floor and the seat below you. Crooked spires form silhouettes against the night, streetlights and starlight flickering between. As every night the train rocks, steadily; attendants carry crystal glasses that clink together, sleepily. You feel sleepy. It is a wonder to rest your deadened feet. Every night.

Every night for the rest of time.

You haven’t slept in so,

so long.

… 

You dozed.

You must have, for you’re not fully alert when it happens. You must have, or you’d be quick to shoot up when the alarms begin to blare. You’d see the moon’s glow corrupted by red, see it paint the faces of the passengers surrounding you.

You blink slowly, half-awake. Someone says in a ghoul’s gravelly tones, “Hunter Alert,” voice shaking. 

“What’s happened?” croaks the hag, uncertain fear masked by an upturned nose.

The compartment around you has come alive. Creatures lurch up from their seats, arms flinging out to steady themselves against the walls. The train’s rocking seems less friendly now. A panicked din rises from the hall as the door slides open.

An attendant’s head juts in. Her eyes have lost their careless glaze, posture strict and at attention. “We have received a tip-off about a terrorist on board. Please remain calm and exit swiftly.” She’s gone in another blink.

You’re awake now, gaze darting around the compartment at the faces of the other passengers. They appear just as terrified, staring around warily as they reach for their belongings. Where is the attacker? Surely not among us? You prepare yourself to slip into the rushing stream of passengers spilling towards the train’s nearest exit.

That’s when you see it. The cloaked being’s fair arm emerges to reach for the sack at his feet. Something about it sparks a different kind of chill in you, one you haven’t felt in so, so long.

Something tells you to run. Something else keeps you anchored. Your eyes drift from familiar boots to familiar pants to that familiar cloak--a uniform you remember too well in being awake--hood pushed back to reveal familiar eyes, staring right into yours. 

Seeing you. 

The hooded man’s bag. You carried one once. The contents are hauntingly familiar. You never imagined it’d hurt you. Yet here it is, the weapon you’d pointed at countless ghosts before, now pointed at you, soon to rip through every spectral creature or undead being on board.

He knows you recognize him. He knows you’d be able to blow his cover, warn security. He knows, and so you’re his first target.

“Didn’t think I’d see you again.” Your old hunting student grins. He is old now, hair as pale white as his skin. The gleam in his eyes is still thrilled and hungry. You’ve thought about it every night. That gleam as you taught him to hunt; that gleam as he polished his weaponry, singing songs of supremacy. That gleam as he grew hungrier for status and success, and that gleam the day he decided that you, experienced and reputable, were in his way. 

Every night. You’ve thought about it every night for all of time. Now it’s not merely here to haunt you.

To be Man is to be God,” he almost sings, a shriek above the din, a dim glow from his weapon just barely catching your eye, gleaming. “And to be God is to rule all beings.”

That chill courses through you. And yet… to rest...

You haven’t slept in so long. 

Your journey was meant for eternity.

Your journey has come to an end.

No creature on this train will make it to their destination.

There’s a human on board.   

February 03, 2020 22:47

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