Next Stop: Never
The gentle shaking tugged at Shawn, slowly coaxing him into the world. He tried to force the feelings of lucidity away, but the tendrils of sleep slipped further and further away as the demanding rattle forced him into consciousness.
Groaning, he abandoned his hope for another five minutes of peace, and cracked his eyes open to glare at the too-peppy yellow alarm clock that adorned his bedside table, hoping that he only had minutes before the alarm was due rather than hours.
Only there was no alarm clock to glare at.
The lingering fragments of sleepiness vanishing in a flash, Shawn stared at the wall of tawdry brown leather in front of him. His brain scrambling for a rational explanation for why he would awaken anywhere but the comfort of his own bedroom, he jolted his body upright, his gaze sweeping across his surroundings in a panic.
He appeared to be in some kind of train compartment, the steely gunmetal walls illuminated by harsh, hospital-bright lighting. Rows of plastic grey seats filled with all manner of passengers crowded the limited space of the drab car.
But how? He hadn’t taken a train in years! Shawn mused. How would he even get to a train? It’s not like there were an abundance running through the flat plains of rural Wyoming where he resided. His sleepy town could barely handle a decrepit gas station and the mom and pop diner that served as a haven for those looking to escape their lives for a bit. Even the most basic modern infrastructure was hours away.
He turned to the passenger in the row across from him, an older gentleman with wiry gray hair and a stern expression upon his face. “Excuse me,” Shawn called. “Would you happen to know where this train is heading?”
The man didn’t so much as twitch, his gaze fixed ahead of him.
Frowning, Shawn called to him again, but the man resolutely ignored him. Could he be hard of hearing? Shawn wondered.
Twisting in his seat so he could kneel and see the woman behind him, Shawn once again repeated his question. And once again his only response was a stony silence. Her playfully wavy blond hair felt at odds with the ice he saw in her crystal blue eyes as she stared straight ahead.
Growing more confused by the minute, Shawn lurched to his feet, fumbling his way into the aisle to get a better look at his companions in this mysterious rail car.
Rows and rows of dead-eyed souls filled the seats, each intent on burning through the seats in front of them with their stares.
Making his way up the aisle, Shawn shuddered at the almost inhuman expression that occupied the faces of those around him. Not a single person twitched, blinked, or coughed as he made his way by them. He couldn’t be positive that they were even breathing.
Reaching the front of the car, Shawn found a large black sliding door. He grasped the handle and tugged, but the door appeared stuck fast. Groaning, Shawn tried banging on the door, but the eerie silence in the car seemed to almost swallow the noise. It was clear no one would hear his muffled pleas for escape.
As he spun around to continue his exploration of this inexplicable predicament he had found himself in, his eyes landed on a large red button mounted on the wall beside him. The white word ‘PRESS’ was emblazoned across the front, taunting him with its blatant dare.
He hesitated for a moment, but after taking one last sweeping glance at the rigid strangers around him, he decided he had nothing to lose.
Reaching out and slapping the button, he braced himself for the unexpected.
“Welcome to purgatory! Estimated time until the next stop, forever.” A booming voice rang out from the speaker mounted nearby.
“Purgatory?!” spluttered Shawn. “What in the….. Is this some kind of sick joke? Some prankster trying to catch their 15 minutes of fame with some ridiculous Dante-inspired sketch?” The more he considered it, the more his unease grew. If he was being pranked, why would he have no memory of the events leading up to this moment? Surely even the best of pranksters couldn’t pull off a trick like that.
Hit eyes lit on the window of the train car. Rushing over to peer out at his surroundings, he gasped at the unnerving sight before him. A deep darkness stretched as far as the eye could see, broken only by an angry red haze blanketing spitting pillars of rolling flames billowing up from below.
There was no way a scene of this vastness and intensity could be faked, the technology simply didn’t exist. Shawn sagged against the wall, his head reeling.
A sudden screeching sound jerked his attention back to the front of the train. The black door which had appeared so immovable before slowly opened to reveal a tall, sharply dressed gentleman. A dark vest and neatly arranged suit jacket contrasted the whimsical black and white striped pants that adorned his gangly legs. A bowler cap perched precariously on his head, and an ornate gold pocket watch chain dangled from the front of his vest, giving him the feel of a person stuck outside of their time.
Shawn rushed to confront this new arrival, eager to interact with the first sign of convincing life he’d seen since awaking in this unsettling environment. “Excuse me!” he spluttered. “Do you know what the hell is going on?!”
Cocking his head to the side, the anachronistic stranger studied him with a bemused expression. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?” his puzzled voice giving evidence of his British roots. “I really don’t know how much clearer the recording can make it. You’re in purgatory. You’ve died.”
“What do you mean I’ve died?!” exclaimed Shawn. “What happened?!!!”
“Well how should I know?” scoffed the man, his expression shifting to one of annoyance. “It was your life, not mine. I just know you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t.”
“And where exactly IS here?” Shawn asked, his brain scrambling to make sense of the new information.
“……… Purgatory.” The man now regarded him as if he were completely stupid. “The in-between place. The land for those who aren’t deemed worthy of heaven, but also not sinful enough to be subjected to the punishments of hell….. do they not teach this in schools anymore??”
“No, no, I know what purgatory is,” Shawn mumbled in exasperation. “I just don’t understand how this can be that.”
Frowning, the man beckoned him over to the door. Pulling it open and gesturing out to the fires surging below, he said, “You see? Hell.” And then swinging his index finger to a faint glowing patch far above that Shawn had failed to notice on his first peek at the dismal skyline, he continued, “And up above is heaven. And we are in between. Purgatory. A quite literal interpretation of the definition as I recall it.”
“But, what do you do here?” questioned Shawn, still not sure how to interpret this bizarre place.
The man frowned at him thoughtfully, then turned to flick his eyes over the other occupants of the train car. “Well, you wait I suppose. And you hope that one day you will be called to ascend.”
“And if you’re not?!” asked Shawn.
The man swung his gaze back to meet Shawn’s, and for the first time Shawn noted the heavy bags beneath his eyes, and the hollow appearance of his gaze.
“I suggest you pray!” and with that, he tipped his hat and jumped. Shawn scrambled forward, but there was nothing he could do to halt the wiry man’s leap. Horrified, he watched as the man’s dark profile plummeted through the air, growing smaller and smaller until his image disappeared completely to the roiling hellfires below.
And the train continued on.
Time passed, but Shawn had no way of knowing how much. The reliable dance of the sun and the moon had no place in this apocalyptic hellscape. The angry red glow from below, and the soft white luminescence from above were immutable constants in the unchanging horizon.
At first Shawn spent his time trying to analyze every inch of his new surroundings. Looking for an escape route he may have missed, or another person who may be able to shed further light on his situation. No matter how hard he tried to gain the attention of the other passengers, none of them would spare so much as a blink for him.
Eventually denial and confusion faded into acceptance, and Shawn came to understand the truth of the tall stranger’s words. There truly was nothing to do but wait.
He tried praying, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Either his words were not enough to change his fate, or the ears he was pleading to were deaf.
Eventually, Shawn felt his hope fading. The rumbling of the train only grew more irritating with time, and the silence of the other passengers more deafening.
Perhaps that was what separated purgatory from hell – the loss of all hope for something better.
One day, it was simply all too much to bear anymore.
Shawn succumbed to his fate, and jumped.
Falling, falling, for what felt like miles, into the black abyss. And then nothing.
The gentle shaking coaxed Shawn to open his eyes.
I'm hoping that he will fall asleep again and explain some of the points that were left hanging, I do see a chapter two coming up. Well written and looking forward to more.
What a great plot twist. Such solid visuals. I felt like I was on the train!
Nicely written, good use of language. I found the ending unsatisfying, though. Also, I'm looking for more insight into why this man ended up in purgatory - what made him not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell? Knowing more about him might have helped me understand the choice he made at the end.