What happens when you're in the wrong place at the wrong time
I walked, alone, down the near-empty streets, across the bridge, to the station, and onto the ghostly train. It was a night train so, having only two emergency lights itself, it relied on the lights of the station for illumination which on this platform were few and far between. All the colours were dissolved into the grey, like an oyster soup had been poured over everything.
It occurred to me that I'd never noticed this on a night train before, I was always too busy looking at the ceiling or out of the window I guess. Hue and I usually sat across from each other with our feet on the seats opposite and our heads laid back, not talking or doing much at all. Now I sat there by myself, making half of our usual shape, tying and untying my boot laces and trying to stop my brain from running wild.
No one else came on to my carriage in the five minutes I sat there apart from one man with an embroidered coat and a girl on his arm. They sat as far away from me as they possibly could and, from all the rustling and muffled giggles I could hear coming from their direction, I was quite glad.
After a few more minutes, the train rumbled to life. I opened my eyes briefly and then the most remarkable thing happened. Just as the doors were closing, a black rucksack was launched through them. It skidded across the carriage and was shortly followed by a girl. Able as a ninja, she manoeuvred through the tiny gap between the doors just in time to not get her left arm chopped off and she too skidded a few inches before putting out her rescued arm to steady herself. I peeped around the seat opposite me and caught her looking almost straight at me, a look of anxiety in her eyes. I let out a small yelp and dived back. After a few seconds, I peered around again, more gingerly this time.
She was paused for a moment as if to catch her breath. I watched her whole torso rise up and down, I imagined a small firework sound every time she exhaled, chest rising, pausing, falling, boom, rising, pausing, falling, boom. The fireworks became a more regular rhythm after a while and she cowered away from the glare of the tunnel lights.
Energy radiated from her, a kind I had never seen before. It was like she was emitting a force. It was subtle but strong and buzzing like it was going to burst into the rest of the world and infuse it with her, just her. There was only one word I could think of at the time to describe it. It was, well... ethereal.
I stared at her as she tucked a stray strand of her toffee coloured hair behind her ear once, twice, and a third time as it kept falling back in front of her face. Her skin seemed to glimmer in the tunnel lights whenever she moved, to arch her back as she stretched, or to pick her rucksack off the floor. I had just about worked up the courage to approach her when she turned to look in direction of the couple, sticking her nose up in the air like a dog. I sighed and watched as she took a few steps. There was a scream, someone cursed and then she jogged back towards me, her face a painting of embarrassment. We left the tunnel and were plunged into the pitch black of the night.
I saw a pair of green eyes get closer to me in the milky darkness. I felt my chest tighten, the tightness in my chest that I used to feel when I saw flowers bloom for the first time in Hallie or when I went to sleep on a Friday knowing that the next day would be spent doing what I love. I took a shaky breath and heard her take one as well.
Inhale, pause, exhale, boom.
Soon my eyes adjusted to the grey air and I began to see the outline of her face, her round cheeks and soft jawline and then her collarbones, and the edging of her vest top. I wondered if she was watching my eyes in the darkness, amber and wide, flitting around the emerging outline of her body like a fly that couldn't settle.
I felt a hand brush my knee and I startled.
Her eyes were locked on mine now. Neither of us said anything, we just sat there, her hand on my knee and me counting the colours in her irises. Hue always mocked people for doing this, saying there's no way that one person can contain so many colours like that. It was one of the few things I tended to agree with him on. But she, she had almost every shade of green imaginable, some blues as well. And every now and again I would spot a gold fleck, they seemed to float around, coming in and out of view, occasionally catching what little light there was and shining like a piece of a star was caught there.
"Do you mind if I turn my lamp on?"
I heard her giggle and dig around in her bag for something and then all of a sudden she was stood in front of me, awkwardly banging her knees against mine as she tried to find the lamp hook in the dark.
Inhale, pause, exhale, boom.
In one swift movement, she moved away from me, hooked the lamp onto the hook, and landed back on her seat. She clapped her hands and the lamp came on. It was surprisingly ornate, a glass orb inside some kind of metal cage that was shaped like a blossoming flower. I opened my mouth to ask how something so delicate had survived being thrown onto a train but my words were caught in my throat when I took in the sight of her opposite me. She was quite literally shining. A dewy glisten covered her exposed skin and I could vaguely make out a gold tattoo that covered her left shoulder and upper arm, it was a drawing of a sun. Her skin was the colour of cherry bark and almost her whole face was covered in tiny freckles, dotted tightly together like blossoms on a blossom tree. She flushed under my gaze, her whole body becoming rosier by the second and I snapped back into focus, stammering an apology.
Inhale, pause, exhale, boom.
I didn't know and still don't, how we ended up together. We were both alone and scared and I suppose it was fate that lead her to jump on my train, on the particular carriage I was on.
"Where are you from?"
"Hallie, the inner forests" I wondered where she was from, she sure didn't look like a forest girl, but then not like a city girl either. I wondered if she was from the mountains.
"I'm from Palle" She whispered as if reading my mind.
We talked for a few more minutes, she avoided answering my questions so I ended up telling her all about my job, about the forest, about Hue and Aries and Lila.
"I've never been outside the forests before. Palle seems nice though"
"It is" She told me all about the history of the central square, the best place for people-watching, how to sneak into the council building. I found out that it's only a half an hour walk from the forests if you sneak through some abandoned railway buildings. I remember that I learnt so much about Palle that day, about how the water splashed up from the fountains in the summer onto your face, how there were cats that lived everywhere, in cafes, in the street, Delia has two of her own.
After a while, we fell into a sleepy silence. With another clap, the girl had turned the lamp off and left me to watch the shadows drift by out of the window. Along the track were a patchwork of grey buildings, only distinguishable as the residential quarter because of the lack of lights, it was past curfew by now. We got further and further out of the city into the industrial zone. Dimly lit academy buildings soon turned to pitch black cabins, vast expanses of farmland then woodland, forest and then the uninterrupted emptiness of lowland tundra. I fell asleep watching the steady rhythm of the train's shadow mingling with the dusk.
A jolt woke me I don't know how long later. I remember it was silent for a second, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Then everything got loud again. There were shouts and a banging on the outside of the train as if a horse were galloping across it parallel to the ground.
I felt a hand on my knee again, it patted around my leg until it found my own hand and then I was pulled up and out of my seat. I stumbled, still half asleep after Delia as she hurried down the carriage and then another. With a yelp, she stopped halfway down the next and bundled us both into a luggage cupboard. A pair of footsteps ran past not a second after the door was closed behind us.
"Wha-" I opened my mouth to ask but was cut off by a finger on my lips.
"No time." She whispered in my ear then paused, head to the door, silence, and we were gone again. Out of the cupboard and onto the next carriage, through the door and through another. My wrist was hurting from being pulled but she didn't stop until we were right at the back of the train. There were men on the porch.
She didn't have time to run before they heard her. It was all a blur. Two of the men, the burliest of the group that looked to be 6 or 8 strong, swept Delia up and onto the porch. They had thick fur hats pulled down over their eyebrows and scarfs wrapped around their mouths to shield them from the cold outside. One of the others took Delia's face in his hand roughly. She screamed and cursed but couldn't get free as he studied her closely and then compared what he saw to a piece of paper that must have been a portrait. She was yelling and craning her neck to bite him but it was all for nothing.
"It's her" He finally said, voice bellowing down the empty carriage.
That's when they saw me.
I ran before I even knew what I was doing, back down the train, past the luggage cupboard and into the carriage where she and I had been sleeping not five minutes ago. I grabbed my bag and her lamp and glanced back to see another two, possibly three, of the men storming up the train behind me. They were strong but I was small and could slide down the narrow aisles faster than them. When I got closer to the other end, I heard more raised voices. I was frozen. "What would Delia do?", I asked myself, completely unaware that this was the first in a long line of times I would find myself needing to consult her in the weeks that followed. The lamp illuminating the snow-covered ground outside gave me the idea. Just as the pounding footsteps reached the carriage I was on, I leaped full force over the nearest table and straight into the window above. My bag was heavy, full of books, and made of sturdy leather from the cows farmed on the windswept coast of the southern-most reaches of the forest district. With a crash, I was out. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings. My right arm hurt from the impact and I had shards of glass sticking in my exposed skin. The cold got me moving. Without knowing where I was going, I ran and ran across the snow and onto a frozen lake, the muffled shouts from the train behind me getting quieter and quieter as I traveled further into the wilderness. I stopped in the centre of the lake. The ice must have been 5 or 6 feet deep and was covered in a thin layer of snow. It is only light for five hours a day this far north so the lake is likely frozen for most of the year. At its tip, I saw a cabin. I thought it odd that the lights were on. How brave, I thought. And then I walked towards it.