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The Ash Man

The long plaintive wail of a train horn startles me awake

By GK BirdPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 15 min read
The Ash Man
Photo by Adam Rhodes on Unsplash

The long plaintive wail of a train horn startles me awake.

I blink rapidly then close my eyes and sit still while my mind tries to catch up to my body. I take deep slow breaths, in through my nose, out through my mouth, as Dr Hughes taught me. The breaths coming in are silky and smooth, the ones going out jagged and rough, matching the beat of my pounding heart.

My exhales soon settle and the sharp edges even out as my heart rate slows to an acceptable level. I open my eyes. I quickly close them again. I don’t understand.

How did I get on a train?

I remember laying down to sleep. It feels like just moments ago the soft springy mattress held me up, supporting me, the heavy blankets weighed me down, protecting me, the spongy pillow cradled my head, accepting me, the darkness surrounded me, hiding me.

I think I might still be dreaming. But it feels so real. My body sways violently, left to right, left to right, as the train squeals over what I can only assume are imperfections in the track. It smooths out again and the chack chack of the train on the track becomes rhythmic again.

Although my heart rate has accelerated again, I open my eyes and force myself to keep them open. I look at my hands in my lap and tell myself emphatically what I know Dr Hughes would say if she was here. I can’t shut myself off from the truth. I can’t deal with things if I don’t know what’s going on.

Why am I right here, right now? I rarely take public transport anymore. I only do it if there’s absolutely no other choice. When did I decide to take a train? Where am I going?

I cringe at the thought of strangers touching me, pressing against me, elbowing, pushing, crowding to be first on board. I grimace and shift my gaze from my faded blue jeans to the grimy orange fabric I’m sitting on. I lift my eyes and look at the back of the seat facing me. The blue flower pattern is dull and faded and can’t hide the wear marks and the grubby brown stains left by other people rubbing their hands and who-knows-what-else on there.

I wrinkle my nose and try to hold my breath. I don’t want to inhale the air that someone else recently breathed into the enclosed space of this train carriage. But I can’t hold my breath for long, so I let it out and take small sips of air, in and out, in and out.

I finally build up the courage to look up properly. I’m seated midway down the carriage, on the right-hand side, facing towards the rear, in a seat next to the aisle. This makes me feel slightly better. I always face backwards on the train because it gives me a sense of comfort, of certainty. I’m looking at my past, things I know, when I face this direction. I’m uneasy facing the future.

I always sit in an aisle seat when I’m on a train. If I sit near the window, my anxiety rises and I feel like I’m boxed in, especially if someone sits next to me. I need to be able to stand and move to the exit with no barriers, no need to ask someone to move their legs so I can get out.

The train speeds up and I feel an invisible hand push on my chest, pressing my torso back into the unyielding hardness of the seat. I fight it at first, then concentrate on my breathing again until my heart rate slows.

The only sounds are the moving train and the wind whooshing by the windows. There are no people in front of me, so I glance over my shoulder. There are only two other people in the carriage with me. They’re sitting apart, one on either side of the door that leads to the next carriage.

The woman with long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail briefly meets my gaze and then looks back down at the floor. She doesn’t smile.

The man has short spiky hair, a lip ring, and faded tattoos down his bare arms. His hands are clasped in his lap. He has his eyes closed, and his lips move in what could be a silent prayer. His eyes open for a millisecond and we make eye contact before he quickly closes them again.

I look to my left, across the aisle, and see what looks like small piles of ash on the seats. I look back at my pale hands tensed on my thighs and wonder again where I am and how I got here.

I don’t seem to have anything with me. Normally my brown leather handbag would be on my lap with the long strap wrapped around my right arm so no one can grab it. I feel my pockets but they’re empty, so I don’t even have my house keys with me.

I’m wearing my favourite cream-coloured blouse with the long sleeves, the ones that stretch down over my hands. I’ve got my brown boots on; the ones that lace up over the bottom of my jeans, the ones that grip my ankles tight. But the laces don’t look quite right. They’ve missed going through some of the eyelets. I don’t do that. I wouldn’t leave the house like that.

I get scared, then I get angry. Someone must have brought me here. Someone broke into my house, got past all my deadlocks and my alarm system, and stole me right out of my bed. I don’t know how they dressed me without waking me up, but the thought of a stranger putting clothes on me like a doll, makes me feel sick and dirty. I need a shower. But I’m on a train!

I fix my boots and sit until the nausea eases a bit, then against my better judgement, I move to the window seat. There are blinds on all the windows, and they’re all pulled down. I push the edge of the blind with my fingertip and peek behind it but see nothing but a roiling white fog. Or is it smoke? Flakes of what looks like dark ash particles pirouette and dance as the train rushes by.

The train subtly speeds up again and I see blurry shadows undulating, reaching out to the train but they quickly get left behind. Maybe that was a station but the train’s going too fast to stop? My nausea comes back and I let the blind drop. I move back to my aisle seat, curl up into myself, making myself as small as possible, and wonder what to do.

I have a sudden thought. What if the conductor comes along and wants to see my ticket? I don’t think I have a ticket. I don’t want to get in trouble. I worry about this for what seems like a long while, playing out all the possible scenarios in my head. None of them ends in my favour.

I hear Dr Hughes’s voice in my head. She tells me to breathe slowly and evenly to get the blood flowing properly into my brain so I can think. She tells me that I need to ask someone where this train is going. I recoil at that, but she persists and bullies me into standing up.

I turn around and walk towards the end of the carriage, stopping between the man and the woman.

The woman glares at me and hisses, “You can’t get out of your seat. You have to wait for the Ash Man.”

The man frowns at me but doesn’t speak. He batters me with his stare and I take a step back.

“Where is this train going?” I ask. I think I’m speaking loudly but my ears tell me I’m whispering. I speak a little louder. “I don’t know how I got here.”

“You have to sit down and wait for the Ash Man,” the woman hisses again, glancing at the man but he has his eyes closed again. His lips continue to move but no sound comes out.

“Who’s the Ash Man? Is he the conductor?” I ask. But the woman ignores me, pretends I’m not there, and won’t meet my eye now.

As I walk back to my seat, I’m tempted to sit in a different seat but most of the other seats have those strange piles of ashes on them. Maybe it drifted in when the doors opened at the last station? But the ash is only on the seats; there’s none on the floor, which seems odd.

I sit down to wait for the Ash Man. Maybe he can tell me where I am, how I got here, and where I’m going. The easy swaying of the train and the rhythmic chack chack of the wheels make me drowsy and I close my eyes.


A blast of cold air wakes me up.

I open my eyes and I’m still on the train and it’s going even faster. I can tell by the cadence of the wheels on the track.

The door at the end of the carriage is wide open and a man is standing there, backlit by a blinding light. His silhouette looks like an old-timey gunslinger but without the guns on his hips. I squint and shade my eyes, but my eyes water and sting and I can’t make out his features.

I assume this is the Ash Man.

He walks down the aisle towards me. As he gets closer, I see peppery grey hair peeking out from under a grey cowboy hat, matching the colour of his handlebar moustache and the myriad whiskers sprouting from his weatherworn cheeks and chin. His eyes are ice-blue under bushy grey eyebrows and there are crinkles on his forehead as if he frowns a lot. He wears grey jeans and a grey shirt under a long grey leather coat that reaches almost to the floor.

He pauses when he gets to me and the train speeds up again. An air of authority hangs around him, one that I can’t deny. If he asks for my ticket, I don’t think I’ll be able to speak. I think I’ll end up curled on the floor at his feet.

He walks on and I turn in my seat to watch him. He stops between the man and the woman. Neither of them looks at him. He sits down beside the woman.

The woman screeches and points at me. “Can’t you do her first? She’s new. I need more time.”

The Ash Man touches her lips with his finger and she goes quiet. He leans over and pulls up the blind. She looks out and her breath hitches in her throat. All I can see is smoke. I obviously can’t see what she sees.

The Ash Man whispers something in her ear.

The woman shakes her head and turns away from the window, tears now gushing down her face. “That wasn’t me. I never did that. I always took responsibility for my actions.”

The Ash Man points out the window.

“No,” the woman sobs. “I didn’t do that. That wasn’t me.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” the Ash Man says as he draws the blind down again. He places his right hand on the top of her head and I gasp as she dissolves. All that’s left of her is a pile of ash.

I feel sick again as I look at all the piles of ash on all the seats. Were they all people? What is this place? Who is this Ash Man?

I turn back and watch the Ash Man move to sit next to the man. The man locks eyes with the Ash Man.

“I’m ready,” the man says, nodding.

The Ash Man leans over, pulls up the blind, and whispers something in the man’s ear.

The man stares out the window as he speaks. “I did that. I stole my wife’s stories and lied. I passed them off as my own and belittled her when she tried to tell people they were hers. I loved her but I loved the fame and the money more and where did that get me? I died alone. I regret that; not for myself but for her. She should have been happy, she was so talented and I stole that from her. If I had my time over, that’s one thing I would change.”

The Ash Man stands up and points to the door that leads to the next carriage. “I think that’s true. You can move on.”

The man looks relieved and stands up. He shakes the Ash Man’s hand before opening the door to the next carriage and stepping through.

I turn back around and slump in my seat. My mind picks over what he said. He said he died alone. Is this some sort of death train? A ghost train? If I’m on a ghost train, I must be dead. I don’t feel dead. I don’t remember dying. How did I die? I’m starting to freak out now.

The Ash Man’s boots clomp down the aisle. The seat directly behind me creaks as he sits. I’m too scared to turn around. I squeeze my eyes shut.

I feel his breath on my neck as he leans forward and I smell sweet cigar smoke. He places a hand on my shoulder and it takes all my willpower not to flinch. His grip is strong but gentle. Dr Hughes’s voice in my head tells me to ask him what’s going on. She says I need to know the rules. I tell her I need to know if I’m really dead.

I take a deep breath, let it out, and squeak at the end of it, “Am I dead?”

The Ash Man’s voice is deep and raspy as he murmurs into my ear. “Yes.”

“How did I die?” I ask, swallowing deeply but feeling a weight shift off my mind. I’ve always been terrified of dying, but it’s apparently happened and I wasn’t even aware of it.

“I can show you,” the Ash Man says, reaching for the blind. “If you really want to see.”

I sit silently for a few minutes and look at his tanned, wrinkled hand, hovering, ready to lift the blind. Will it make any difference? I’m curious. Was it my fault or not? Did I die naturally or did someone kill me? Did I take too many sleeping pills? I realise that knowing the mechanics of it won’t change anything. I’ll still be dead, won’t I?

“Can I go back?” I ask.

“No,” says the Ash Man. “Death is a one-way ticket.”

“Then it doesn’t matter how I died,” I say. “What is this train? Where are we going?”

“This is your transportation to the afterlife,” the Ash Man replies, pulling his hand back from the blind. “This is the first judgement point, where you’ll be found either worthy of moving on to the next stage or not.”

“Did all these piles of ash used to be people?” I ask, gesturing at the seats across the aisle from me.

“Yes,” the Ash Man says. “In the past few years, there have been more unworthy than worthy, more than at any other time in human history. The ashes stay until someone else needs the seat, then they blow away and join the others outside.”

“What are the rules?” I ask. I swing my legs around into the aisle and look at him. “Do you judge me on the life I lived?”

“I don’t judge you,” says the Ash Man, smiling and shaking his head. He raises one bushy eyebrow. “You judge yourself. I ask you some questions and you answer as truthfully as you can. Some people never tell themselves the real truth even when they’re dead. When a soul knows deep down that they’re still lying to themselves, that they still don’t accept their flaws and failings, they burn up under the weight of their conscience.”

I realise I’m not scared anymore. There’s something comforting about knowing the rules and I know I know myself. I accept myself even though I beat myself up every day of my life over things I did or didn’t do. I may have withdrawn into myself, but if there’s one thing I know well, it’s me and my truth.

“You get two chances,” says the Ash Man. “I ask you the first question. If you miss that one, I leave to give you time to reflect and think about your truth. When I come back, I ask you the second question. If your soul judges you worthy, you move on to the next carriage. If not, well…you’ve seen what happens.”

“What’s in the next carriage?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that,” he says.

I turn back, set my feet solidly on the floor, put my shoulders back, and sit straight in my seat. “Let’s do this.”

The Ash Man moves around and sits next to me. He pulls up the blind and I watch my life dance in the smoke outside the window. I watch myself being born to a mother barely old enough to look after herself. I watch her give me away. I watch myself as a child, in foster care with couple after couple only interested in the money, never interested in me. I become a lonely teenager and then an equally lonely adult, doing awful things, all for external validation which I mistook for love. I watch myself do things I'm ashamed of, things I could never do now. I turn into the messed-up adult I am today.

I see everything that ever happened to me through that window, everything except my death. I look away when I go to bed that final time and the Ash Man pulls down the blind.

He leans over and whispers in my ear. “Tell me about a time you let someone else take the blame for something you did.”

I laugh out loud. This is not hard at all. I won’t need that second chance.

Short Story

About the Creator

GK Bird

Australian fiction writer and reader, always on the lookout for good writing.

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