The Last Train: Part Three

I hugged my briefcase as we sat down in a corner of the bar. My eyes were no longer drawn to the unusual individuals that were laughing, drinking and chatting. Instead, my gaze was on Maddie, who was now sipping a green drink in a glass that was shaped like a flower.

“Are you sure you don’t want a drink?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I just want some clarity. Why am I not ready?”

“Only you know. But usually it’s fear. Fear of something.” She took another sip and touched her earlobe.

“Why all the questions? Why am I supposed to be ready to answer questions. What does any of that have to do with getting out of here?”

“That’s because this is not a destination.”

“Right. It’s a journey. But a journey to what? Where am I going? Home? Because that’s the only place I want to go to.”

“Yes, but are you willing to get there, that’s the question. You said you were, but you’re not. Otherwise you would be by now.” Her voice had gotten softer, like the melody of a broken song.

“What do I do if I won’t ever get ready?”

She glanced around the establishment. Look around, that’s your answer.”

I swallowed. “You mean, all those people?”

She took another sip.

“But they look nothing like me. They’re not from the same place as I am, right?”

“They were, but just like decorations, at some point it all becomes one with the room. It blends in like it’s the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is. Maybe it’s survival. Or acceptance.”

“I don’t want to accept. I just want to go home.”

“But is that what you truly want?”

I looked at the ribbon on my briefcase. “I don’t know.”

“Good. Then think about what it means to be home, for you. What needs to be achieved in order for you to get home.”

A short while ago I would have answered: ‘Some bloody good directions instead of talking deer and strange ponds.’ Instead, I uttered the word that had been stuck in my throat for a while and had difficulty coming out: “Forgiveness.”

Maddie grinned an extra mischievous grin. “Then I know our next stop.”

 

“Are we there yet?” I asked after what felt like an hour of walking. All this while my thoughts had taken a seat in my head and refused to leave. I hadn’t even realised Maddie had been whistling a tune. I rubbed my forehead and paused my thoughts for the moment.

She stopped whistling as quickly as she stopped in her tracks. She turned around and took a step closer to me. Personal space was not a concept to her because our noses were almost touching.

“We’re here. Are you ready?” she whispered.

I swallowed.

“Excellent,” she said loudly and dashed backwards. We had reached the bottom of a hill, where a large, broad willow stood. Its branches reached to the ground as if it was too sad to lift them to the sky.

Maddie walked towards it and I followed.

“Knock, knock,” she said and laughed like a hissing cat.

“Not funny,” a voice said.

Without thinking I took a step back. “Who was that? It sounded so close,” I whispered to Maddie.

“Why, the tree of course,” she said.

I cleared my throat. “Of course.”

“Who wants to pass?” The tree asked and out of the bark appeared a face as if someone was pressing it against the wood from inside the tree, trying to break free.

“George wants to pass.” She stepped aside and held out a hand to me.

“George wants to pass.” The tree let the words role of his tongue, his voice low and deep with rough edges.

“May George pass?” Maddie asked.

The tree grumbled something as if contemplating his answer. Then silence returned to the woods. One fly buzzed past me and hovered in front of the tree before doing the same with Maddie.               She kept staring at the tree.

Buzzing.

A breeze swayed the tree’s branches.

Buzzing.

Maddie didn’t blink.

Buzz—she moved her hands forward in a sharp motion and smacked the fly between her hand. When she rubbed her hands together yellow dust fell down.

I was surprised by the fact that I wasn’t surprised anymore.

“Yes. He. May. Pass.” The tree spoke slowly, interrupting any other thoughts I would have had about the fly that turned into yellow dust.

“Excellent. Thank you.” She bowed and tipped her hat before turning to me.

My eyes were still on the tree, whose face had sunken deeper into the bark until it looked like a regular willow tree again.

“This you must do on your own, because only you know what you must do.” She grinned and held out her arm to the path that led up to the hill, where there were no orange trees to light the way.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Do you trust me?”

“Strangely enough I do.”

“Then good luck and I hope I won’t see you again.”

“Wait, so if I succeed, then you won’t see me again?”
“That’s right.”

I shifted my weight on my other leg. “But, then…I mean…”

“Ah, George, will you miss me?”

I cleared my throat. “I didn’t say that, I mean, I just wanted to get to know you more, I guess.”
“Trust me, it will be a good thing if you don’t.”

“Will you be okay?”

“Of course. This is my home.”

“Has it always been?”

“I don’t think so, but the longer I’m here, the more I forget where I once was from.”
“Have you been here long?”

“It feels that way, but time is different here.”

I nodded. “Thank you for helping me.”

“It’s my pleasure.” She bowed to me and winked.

“Take care.” I smiled and started walking up the sandy, dark path as I felt Maddie’s eyes on my back. It wasn’t until I reached the top when I turned around and all the orange trees had gone out below me and there was only a sea of darkness that had swallowed my peculiar friend.

There was a well on top of the hill and the full moon shone enough light for me to see things clearly enough. Like the short grass that surrounded the well and the one flower that stood a few feet away from me. It was a tulip. They had been her favourite.

I walked up to the well, feeling that this is where it would all begin. Or end, rather. I put down the briefcase on the bricked edge and took off the ribbon. Then I placed the briefcase on the soft grass and rested one hand on the cold stones of the well as I leaned forward and stared into nothing but black. It felt like it was staring back at me. And I wanted to see it, even though I also didn’t want to see it.

I let go of the ribbon. “Forgive me.” The darkness swallowed the ribbon but I knew it was still descending, I knew it was getting closer and then I closed my eyes.

When I opened them again I was at home. The home I had lived in with her and I looked at the calendar which hung above the bin in the country-style kitchen. It was that day. Today was that day.

I heard her hum as she came down the stairs, always that same tune, that tune that I had missed so much. I felt the tears well up and blinked repeatedly so I could see her clearly when she waltzed into the room. And when she did I couldn’t help but shriek and run over to her, clinging to her tightly, inhaling her lavender scent and touch her golden hair that reached between her shoulder blades.

“Love, what are you doing? Are you okay?” she asked. Her voice soft and high, laced with the warmth of a crackling fire.

“Yeah, I’m fine, sorry.” I cleared my throat and let her go as I stared into her light-blue eyes that searched mine with curiosity and concern. Her eyes had been the clearest thing about her I’d remembered, I’d see those every night as I woke up from my nightmare.

I touched her cheek. “I’ve missed you.” And I kissed her hard and soft at the same time. When I pulled back there was even more confusion written on her face.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You know I just saw you when I woke up, right?” Her mouth unfolded into a smile and I held her close again.

She laughed this time and I felt her body shake. “What is wrong with you? Did you have a bad dream or something?”

“Yes, you could say that.”

“Well, I’m late for work, so I don’t have time for breakfast and I’ll have to take your car.”

I swallowed and felt like somewhere inside my stomach I was being set on fire. “Err, are you sure that you want to go? Maybe you can stay home and—” my voice trailed off. I knew these words wouldn’t help. This wasn’t a second chance, this was a second viewing. Front row seat. A chance to say what I needed to say, a chance to see it very clearly.

“No, no, I can’t do that. I have a very important day, I told you.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. She then grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and tucked it into her bag. “I’ll see you tonight, have a nice day.”

The fire in the pit of my stomach grew wider. “Wait.” I followed her to the door where she had her coat over her arm and my car keys in her hand.

I touched her elbow. “I love you.”

She smiled. “I love you too.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For letting you go, for letting you leave.”

“What are you talking about? You really did have a bad dream, didn’t you?” She frowned and handed me her coat and the car keys. “Hold this.” From her hair wrist she undid a pink ribbon and she bent down next to the stairs where my briefcase was. She tied the ribbon around the handle and stood back up. “There, it’s a lucky ribbon and it will keep your nightmares and worries at bay.” She kissed me on my lips and grabbed the coat and the keys. “Now I really have to go or I’ll be super late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. Sometimes things just happen. It’s called bad luck.” She waved at me before the door closed behind her.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated and closed my eyes. “It just happened.” The next images that flew through my mind were of the phone call, the hospital, the doctor, the funeral. And finally there was nothing but black around me. My eyes were closed. I lifted my eyelids as they fluttered against the harsh lights of the carriage.

Outside the window was the familiar sign that indicated I had arrived at my local train station. “I’m home,” I yelled with unexpected enthusiasm. I got up and ran out while the doors were still open. It was like the train had been waiting for me. The doors closed soon after I stood on the platform and I embraced the chilly breeze that swept right through me.

Maybe it had all been a dream, I thought as a sigh escaped my lungs. The thought planted roots in my mind as I started heading home but when I stopped at a crossing, I forced myself to look down.

The ribbon was gone.

 

 

THE END

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The Last Train: Part One

This story was born out of a writing challenge by a twitter friend. I was supposed to write about: a man who catches the wrong train home and ends up in place he has never seen or heard of, an adventure begins…

THE LAST TRAIN

My footsteps sounded hollow on the pavement and I nearly tripped over a loosened tile. Running three days a week had prepared me well for this joyous moment where my boss made me work late and I had to run a whole three blocks to the train station in hopes of catching the last train home.

I ran up the stone steps to the station and rushed through the hall only to crash into an older gentleman. I didn’t even look back at him as I shouted my apology. From the corner of my eye, I only saw his dropped cane.

The train stood by the platform on the opposite side and I dashed down stone stairs, ran and then made my way up stone stairs again. By the time I had reached the right platform, the whistle was blown, the doors closed and to my horror I watched the train drive off, going faster and faster, accompanied by a grating roar.

“Damn it,” I panted and fell to my knees which shot up a pain right through to my thighs. I clutched my briefcase. A red ribbon was tied to the handle and it danced in the gentle breeze of this spring evening.  How was I going to get home now? This was the last train.

I grunted and rose to my feet. A hotel was my only option. I looked up at the darkening sky.

“There’s another train coming,” a male voice said.

I spun around, my heart beating faster at the sudden intrusion of silence.

It was an older man, with a hat and a cane.

“Oh, sir, was it you I ran into earlier? I hope you didn’t—”

“It comes in ten minutes. I suggest you buy yourself a snack. You might get peckish.” The man grinned and revealed a golden tooth among the other pearly white ones. He twirled his cane. It had a rabbit on the top.

“Well, are you sure? I mean, this was the last train according to the—”

“Nothing is fixed, my boy. Nothing is fixed.”

“Right,” I said. Not sure if he enjoyed being rude or if he was simply too impatient to let me finish my…

“Better get yourself a snack, boy. Hunger can’t be stilled with air.” He grinned again.

“Right.” I nodded and walked past him, back down the stone steps, but not before turning around. He was still there, his broad, straightened back towards me. His long coat nearly reached is ankles and both his hands rested on the rabbit cane. He reminded me of a nineteenth century lord that had somehow taken a wrong turn.

I continued down the steps and walked back to the first platform, which held a small kiosk. I grabbed a sandwich and a bag of crisps. How had the man even known I was getting hungry? Probably a lucky guess since it was late and I obviously just came from work. Inwardly I chuckled at my paranoia. When I turned to pay for my food, there was nobody there to pay. “Hello?” I asked. I glanced around and leaned over the counter.

When I walked back out to find someone, the older man on the opposite platform said: “Tick-tock, my boy. Tick-tock.” He took something out of his breast pocket that resembled a pocket watch.

I swallowed and fished my wallet out of my pocket. I placed enough money on the counter before running back the way to the other side of the small train station. The man was still on the platform and didn’t look up as I passed him, instead he stared at his pocket watch.

“Is it coming?” I looked into the distance and saw headlights growing bigger. “Is that it?” I turned to the older man, but he was gone.

“Sir?” I glanced around and wanted to go down the stairs, but the train arrived with squeaking sound. A sound which, moments ago, I was afraid I wasn’t going to hear again on this Thursday night.

The train was smaller than the one I usually took and the sign on the side was turned off. Nothing to indicate where it was going. It seemed this entire train station was switched off and this train and I were the only moving things.

My footsteps sounded hollow as I took deliberate steps towards the metal beast and entered its belly. As soon as I’d stepped inside, the doors closed. The train took off soundlessly and I sat down in the closest seat, by the window.

The train smelt different but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I placed my briefcase beside me and touched the ribbon. It reassured me, because even though she wasn’t there anymore, the ribbon made it feel like she was always with me.

I ate my sandwich and put the bag of crisps in my suitcase. Then I rested my eyes as the stress of the day began to drain from my body.

Five minutes must have passed before I opened them again and by now it was too dark to even see where I was, but the train was slowing down and then came to halt. Its doors slid open and as if to politely kick me out, the lights turned off.

“Hey,” I shouted, as if the train could hear me. The stress of the day came creeping back in as I picked up my suitcase and stepped out of the train.

“Hello?” I shouted and looked around. We were on a platform, but it was small and without signs…or a train station. It was surrounded by grass and tall trees for as far as I could make out.

“Damn it.” I walked to the front of the train to address the train driver, but before I could reach it, the doors of the train closed and it went on its way again, in total darkness.

“Wait! Wait!” I couldn’t run any further because I would have fallen off the platform and since that would still make my day worse I just cursed and kicked the lamppost next to me, which was providing faint light. As I kicked it, the light flickered and then turned off.

I sighed and felt like crying, but instead I took out my mobile and used its light to shine ahead of me. Civilisation had to be close-by, so I followed a narrow, sandy path into the woods whilst humming a tune to drive out the silence of the night.

Eventually I reached a meadow at the outskirts of the woods and paused to look at the night sky, which held little, sparkling diamonds.

Leaves rustled to my right and I turned to shine the light. Nothing. When I turned back to look at the meadow a woman stood in front of me.

I screamed and stumbled backwards, nearly falling over, but the slender hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me forwards before I could hit the ground and make a fool out of myself.

“Thank you, miss.” I shone the light upwards so we could see each other’s faces. My breathing paused for a moment because there was something about this woman. Something quite unusual. She was pretty, perhaps even beautiful, but in her eyes there was something that made you shiver. Not a good kind of shiver, nor a bad, just a shiver.

She unfolded her lips into a smile. “Maddie, please.” Her voice was like the silver of the moon.

“I’m George,” I said.

“George,” she purred. “What a nice name.” She had her black hair pinned up, but thick curly locks sprouted out from under her black hat. Her eyes were a mixture of colours I couldn’t quite make out due to the poor lighting, but they were captivating and just by looking into her eyes I somehow knew what it must feel like for a fly to become trapped in a spider’s web.

“It seems you are lost, George,” she said. “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

“Y-yes, I hope you can be.” I gripped my briefcase tighter. “I need to get home.”

“Ah, yes. Home. Right you are, for home is where we belong.” She didn’t blink.

“Err, right. Yes.” The older man with the cane popped into my head and the question of whether or not he was a part of this journey balanced on my lips. I decided to swallow it. For now.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“In the woods, I’d say. Why don’t you put that shiny thing away, you never know what it might attract.”

“You mean mosquitoes?”

One corner of her lips pulled upwards. “Besides, you need at least one hand free here. It’s advisable.”

“Oh. I see.” Except that I didn’t really see. But that shivering feeling she brought up in me, prevented me from asking any further. I turned off the light on my phone and slid it back into my pocket. We were now surrounded by the darkness of the night. I could make out her contours and I could somehow see her eyes quite clearly and wondered if she could see mine as well, including the fear that danced behind them.

“It’s dark,” I said.

“It is. But that can be changed. That’s why we have orange trees along each path.”

“Orange trees?” I frowned and became more and more convinced that she was in fact, crazy.

“You just have to clap your hands three times. Go ahead.”

“I have to clap my hands three times and then what?”

“There will be light.” Her laughter sounded like a broken violin.

I gripped my briefcase tighter. “Why don’t you clap?”

“I don’t need the light, George. You do.”

I cleared my throat and glanced around me. The vague outline of trees, but other than that, darkness. The reason people didn’t like the dark was because it hid things and nobody liked not to be able to see what was around them. I touched my tie and put my briefcase between my legs, pressing them close so that nothing could take it away. At least not without me feeling it.

I clapped my hands three times, feeling much like an idiot as I did, but my inner sceptic was silenced when all the oranges in the orange trees along the path, as far as I could see, lit up like bulbs.

“Wow.” I picked up my suitcase and took a few steps forward. The entire path and the trees and shrubbery behind the orange trees were lit up in an orange-yellow glow. It no longer looked spooky.

“Three is a lucky number,” Maddie said as she whirled past me. “Now, let’s get you home.”

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