Train to Hell
Life is a series of multiple choice. James Macroy wished everything was as easy as picking A, B, or C; but according to his family’s high standards, he was severely failing at life. He leans against a pillar that reads Platform 7 with a lit cigarette clenched between his lips, contemplating his choices.
B) Walk away.
C) Wait for the next one while he finishes his cigarette.
He’s already let three trains pass, each time replenishing his cigarette with a new one. His teachers always said if you were unsure of your answer, statistically C is most often the safest choice. James already knew the answer to the question he has been asking himself for months, but he’s always been a nervous test taker.
Do you want to die? A short response question.
Please support your answer in 3-5 sentences using details from your life.
I want to die because I wake up every morning and go to a job that couldn’t give less of a damn about me, with a boss that puts me down daily. I can barely afford my studio apartment, even working overtime every week. My last relationship ended because I, well... let us not get into that. I am over 100,000 dollars in dept and because I don’t live up to their impossible standards, my family acts as if I am dead already.
As the fourth train passes, he crouches down to put out his cigarette. “It’s a good enough time as any to quit.” He says quietly. He closes his eyes to enjoy his last few minutes before taking the step he knows he can’t take back.
He’s never really been the religious type. He’d attended church with his family growing up, but it was mostly for appearances. He’d tried praying a few times, but praying to God felt a lot like talking to his parents: One sided and pointless. As he waits, he wonders what happens after. Will it all just be over or will he be eternally tormented by a red man holding a pitch fork. He was a decent person in life, but even he knows with his limited knowledge of religion that suicide is one of the more serious sins.
“Sir, I think you dropped this.” A small voice says on his left. James looks over to a petite woman. Her arm is outstretched towards him with his wallet resting in the palm of her hand.
“Oh, thank you.” He says, retrieving it. “I don’t know what I would have done without it.” James opens his wallet, counting all of his cash from inside. One hundred and thirty-seven dollars.
“You’re a life saver.” He states with a smile. “Here you go.” He adds, handing her the cash.
“Are you sure, sir?” She asks. James nods and the woman smiles kindly back at him. “I hope you have a great day.” She responds, then retreats to wait for her train a few feet away.
James tosses the wallet into the bin on his right, then approaches the platform’s edge as he hears his train approaching through the tunnel. He takes a deep breath, then steps off of the platform as the kind woman’s scream shrills through the air.
“Ticket.” James stirs in his seat, asleep. “Sir, I need your ticket.” The voice adds, louder now. James jolts up to his feet, breathing heavily and clutching his head and chest. He looks around anxiously, the ground vibrating under his feet.
“How did I get here?” James yells, attracting the attention of the whole train cart of people.
The conductor stares at him with an inpatient look before stating, “I just need your ticket and I’ll be on my way.”
“I don’t have a ticket; I don’t remember getting on!” James responds louder. While the conductor stares at him, James takes a moment to observe his environment and the people around him. The conductor for one: A lanky man in neatly pressed uniform, but outdated by at least sixty-seventy years. A large, but well-kept, mustache moves expressively with his face.
The others look as if they all plucked from a different era. The man in the seat next to James wears overalls and a cap. His face is filthy with dirt and black soot, his fingers blackened with what looks to be coal dust.
“You can buy a ticket now if you don’t have one, Sir.” The conductor states, hoping for resolution. James is confused, but nods. He reaches into his pockets knowing there will be very little to find there. His hand breaches his pocket and out comes a quarter, a nickel, and a dime.
“It’s fifty cents.” The conductor tells him. James pauses for a moment. Fifty cents for a train ticket? In this economy?
“I only have forty.” James replies, shifting the change around in the palm of his hand.
That train conductor huffs in an impolite manner before adding, “Well that will have to do, I suppose.” and collecting the change from James. The man clips a small ticket from a reel of many and places one on to James’ reluctantly outstretched palm. As James takes his seat, he brings the ticket closer to inspect it. All it reads is One-way express.
“One-way express? Where does this train go?” James asks the conductor who has already moved on to another passenger's ticket.
He looks up with a tired expression before replying, “The destination is different for everyone.” James turns in his seat to face him.
“How is the destination different for everybody? Doesn’t express mean there’s only one stop?” James asks, watching as the conductor retreats further and further with every ticket he clips.
“When it’s decided where you will go, then you will arrive.” He replies ominously.
“What are my options? Cabo? Hawaii?” James asks in a sarcastic manner, but really, he wishes he could strangle a straight answer out of the older man.
“Where you’re going isn’t any place on Earth.” The conductor replies. James is silent for a moment, at a loss for rebuttal.
“Am I on the express train to Hell?” James asks, almost in hysterics. “You charged me fifty cents to take me to Hell?”
“Forty cents.” He corrects him. “Who do you think invented capitalism?” The conductor responds.
“The devil invented Capitalism?” The conductor doesn’t feel James’ question warrants a response, so as he continues clipping tickets, the task carries him further away. James watches as he disappears behind a door at the end of the train car.
James looks to the person on his right. A pretty young woman sits with her legs crossed in the aisle seat across from his. Her hair rests on her shoulders in tight ringlet curls. Her face is youthful, no older than nineteen or twenty; but her pencil thin eyebrows and matching light washed denim jeans and jacket date her.
“How long have you been here?” He asks leaning towards her. She rolls up her sleeve to expose her relic of a watch. She stares at it blankly for a moment before shrugging.
“Not really sure.” She states shortly.
“Thanks, very helpful.” James replies, rising from his seat. As he makes his way down the aisle, he can’t help but to stare at some of the passengers. One woman weeps with her head resting on the window, her large white wedding gown drapes across the two seats next to her. He tried not to look too long, but really, he couldn’t help it. He’d never seen such a dramatic sight.
Just as he is about to reach the door leading to the other train car, the conductor comes through it. “Oh, very sorry, sir. You actually have to stay to your own assigned railcar.” He tells him.
“Why am I assigned to this one?” James asks.
“Well,” he starts, looking down at a booklet in the palm of his hand. “this one is for those who have ended their life by their own hand.” This seems to upset the older man sitting closest to the door.
“I didn’t kill myself!” The geriatric man yells.
“Drinking yourself to death is still death by your own hand, Mr. Collins.” The conductor replies loudly. James can tell this isn’t the first time Mr. Collins has tried to dispute the manner of his own death. The man turns his head away from the conductor and doesn’t say another word.
“Who’s in the cart over?” James asks the conductor.
“Unbaptized children.” He states casually.
“Are you serious?” James asks, unsure.
“I’m pulling your leg, that’s just an old wise tale. All children go to heaven, except for the ones born wicked.” He replies, but James just stares at him hoping for an extended explanation without having to ask for one. “You know, the ones born with the devil in ‘em. I’ve seen quite a few.”
“Like that film with Macaulay Culkin. What was it, The Good Son?” James asks.
“What’s a Macaulay Culkin?” The conductor asks. James actually finds himself laughing for a moment, but he stops as he sees a tall dark shadow pass him out of the corner of his eye.
“What the Hell was that?” James exclaims, whipping his head in the direction of the figure, but it’s gone. It’s the conductors turn to laugh now.
“That’s not the best sign, kid.” He tells James.
“What do you mean?” James asks, his expression worried.
“You’ve probably just seen one of them Sicklemen.” From the look of James’ face, the conductor can tell he is confused. “It’s the creature that hauls you downstairs.”
“Does everyone that kills themselves go to Hell? I mean, isn’t there some sort of line drawn. I wasn’t a bad person; I just didn’t want to live anymore.”
“Well, sometimes there are exceptions.” He replies. James motions his hands as if to say carry on. “Did you kill yourself to save someone else?”
“Did you kill yourself because the voices in your head were telling you to do something terrible and the only way to stop yourself was to die?”
“No, not that either.”
“Alright, let me think.” The conductor pauses to twist his mustache. “Did you kill yourself because you were held captive and tortured and wanted to speed up your imminent death?”
“No, all my torture was psychological.” James states.
“Ah, like Van Gogh.” The conductor laughs. “He rode this train for many years before I boarded. He was also a very tortured man, a kind man however. I enjoyed meeting him.”
“Can you think of anything else?” James asks.
“I quite liked his Starry Night when I was alive.”
“No, I mean can you think of any other ways I wouldn’t have to go to Hell?” James asks, his patience for the conductor dwindling.
“Not really, it’s quite rare. I’ve only witnessed a few instances and I’ve already shared them with you.” He tells James. “From the looks of it, you won’t have to worry too long. Once you start seeing things it’s only a matter of time. A few hours, really.” James begins to sweat from the stress of the situation. As he wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, he can’t help but be angry at the fact that even after death he stress sweats. He thinks he should have included that in the list of reasons he hated being alive.
The conductor is well on his way to the other side of the train car before James even notices he’d left. As he looks towards the door, he can’t help but wonder what’s beyond it. If he tried, could he make it through, or would the door not open for him at all?
James tries to be casual as he approaches the door. He tries giving it a tug behind his back just to be sure the conductor wasn’t watching. It doesn’t budge, so James approaches the old man who is sat closest to the door.
“Would you mind moving in so I can sit in the isle?” James asks.
“I didn’t kill myself.” The man says before scooting over a seat.
“I believe you, Mr. Collins.” James responds taking his seat.
“I liked my life, but I think I might have liked whiskey more.” Mr. Collins pauses. “What was your poison?” He asks.
“Uh, well, I was more of a white wine kind of guy.” James states, but his real attention in on the conductor who is making his way back to the door.
“What are you, one of those lady boys?” Mr. Collins asks bluntly.
“Honestly, Mr. Collins, you have to get with the times. You can’t just ask that kind of thing.”
“So, you are, aren’t you. You’re hiding lady parts under those clothes?” Mr. Collins laughs, but James doesn’t respond. He sits quietly as the conductor passes. The conductor opens the door and exits through it. The door follows him swing shut, but not before James wedges his foot to prevent it from closing fully. “I don’t think you’re allowed in there.” Mr. Collins comments.
“What are they gonna do?” James asks looking over his shoulder. “Kill me?” Mr. Collins laughs.
“I guess not.” He says shortly. “You’ve got more balls than me, lady boy. I wouldn’t go sneaking around in the unknown.” James rises to his feet and grasps the doorknob. As he pulls to open it wider, the door suddenly feels very heavy. James tries to widen the gap until he is red in the face. As he maneuvers to fit through, he can feel the weight of the door growing. With just seconds remaining, he manages to squeeze past.
James wasn’t sure what he wanted to see in the train car over. Perhaps the backdoor to Heaven, but he knew it was very unlikely. What he didn’t expect to find was his younger self sitting atop his old race car bed. The same bed he had begged his parent to buy him for years, only to receive it when he was well out of his race car bed phase. Of course, James had pretended to be happy with it, but inside his fourteen-year-old head he was screaming, “Why? Why did you buy me this?”
James’ parents were in their late forties when they had him. He was an accident, James knows this. His parents didn’t think they could even conceive. By the time his mother had even taken notice to her condition, it was far too late to do anything about it. For the rest of his life, they did as little as possible; and when James turned eighteen, they had forced him out of the house. They told him it was to teach responsibility, but James had already been taking care of himself for years before then.
James watches as his younger self cries into his pillow. He wonders for a moment if this is one of his memories, but young James raises his heads and looks up at James with his red swollen eyes.
“You killed me.” Young James cries. “What did I do wrong? Why didn’t you want me?” James stays silent. He knows this can't be real. Young James glances to a particularly out of place door. James recognizes it immediately as the door to his childhood bedroom, his Charlie’s Angels poster hung in all its glory. He stares at it, wondering what might be behind it. He begins making his way down the train car towards the door and stops for a moment to look back at young James. He wants to say something, but suddenly is lost for words, so instead he turns back to the door that is now wide open. As he exits, he can’t help feeling like he let his younger self down.
It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust as he enters, but once everything comes into focus James, can’t believe the sight in front of him. His mother is kneeling picking weeds from the floor of the train car. The ceiling, instead of metal, is made of greenhouse material. His mother loved her garden. She spent more time trimming her flowers and pulling weeds then she did being a mother.
James knew his mother too well to be mad at her. He knew she was never meant to be a mother, she wasn’t built for it. He was only upset with her for not putting him up for adoption. He understood deeply why she hadn’t. She was a greedy woman, but not so much financially. His mother couldn’t stand the idea of her child being raised by someone else, even if they could have given him a happier upbringing. Though deep down she wished she had more to brag about. She wished he’d acquired a more impressive title, like doctor or lawyer.
His mother turns to look over her shoulder with a scowl before saying, “You were always weak. When you were little all you would do is cry and cry.” She pauses, grabbing a bundle of weeds and yanking them from root. “You always needed something. You would take and take never giving anything in return. You were a selfish child. You were even selfish in death. How are we supposed to tell people our own son killed himself? Did you do it to embarrass us? You were always vindictive that way, crying in the supermarket, causing a scene. Making me look like a bad mother.” James watches his mother hunched over, snatching weeds left and right. Even in death his mother berates him.
He thinks for all the time leading up to this moment. He’d never spoken up for himself, he’d always taken her abuse for years without comment.
“You were a bad mother.” James states, approaching his mother's side. “You should have done us both a favor and given me to someone with a heart.” His mother stares up at him, her expression blank. Not at all the response his real mother would have returned with. James sighs, knowing his words were pointless. He would never be able to truly tell her how he has always felt. He wishes for a moment he had, just to see the look on her face when she realized he didn’t care about her unwarranted opinions about his life.
James sighs looking away from his mother, locking his eyes on the green house door. He’d only ever seen it from the outside, never being allowed in. He makes his way towards it, wishing that in life he hadn’t lets his mother's words have so much effect on him.
He enters the next train car to what seems like the middle of his last breakup. Brenda sits crying on their shared bed. “We can make it work.” She sobs. “We still love each other!” James almost wants to turn around and go back the way he came, but the door in which he came through has disappeared. “I’m so sorry, Baby. Please forgive me.” She stares desperately at him.
“You slept with your boss.” James responds, just as he had four short months ago.
“It didn’t mean anything. It was all a mistake!”
“Which part?” He asks.
“All of it.”
“What was the mistake? Doing it or being sloppy enough to get caught?” Brenda quietly cries into her hands, unable to respond, just as she had that day. James hoped for more this time, maybe the truth.
“Sir, you’re not supposed to be here.” James hears from behind him. The conductor has appeared from what seems to be thin air. “You’ll need to follow me back.” He finished with a beckoning wave. James is desperate to see more however, so he takes off in a sprint to the only door within sight. James throws it open to the platform in which he had thrown himself off of what feels like hours ago now.
“Sir! Wait!” the conductor yells from behind. James tries to bring himself to a halt, but his feet slide carrying him to the edge of the platform. James can hear a train screeching through the tunnel and he tries to steady himself to not fall over the edge. His body teeters on the edge as the train passes, knocking him to the floor with the wind ripped from his lungs.
James doesn’t fight the darkness he is sudden plunged into. He wonders if it’s finally over. Maybe it’s time to go where ever it is he belongs. He feels at peace for a moment. He thinks maybe this was it, just a dark sleep. For ever and ever.
His rest is interrupted however. Bright lights make his eyes sting and the kind woman from earlier cries next to him giving him a pounding headache. Or maybe the headache had already been there, James isn't quite sure. Either way, the woman's pitchy theatrics felt piercing.
“He tripped!” She yells to someone near by. “We need an ambulance!” James’ head rolls to the side. His eyes focus hazily on the train car door and out steps the conductor. The conductor from his train ride to Hell. The man is different, however. Modern with a clean shaved face.
He crouches down to James, placing a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll live, kid.” The conductor says with a smile. James lies quietly as the petite woman partakes in a chaotic banter with whomever is on the other line of her phone call. He wonders for a moment if he had imagined it all, but as the conductor retreats, he glances over his shoulder at James with a sense of familiarity. James lets his head roll back, resting his eyes on the sign hanging on the pillar above him. He takes a calming breath knowing he was given a second change on platform 7; and this time, his answers will be different.