Nora blinked at The Blue Raccoon in front of her.
“I’m sorry, where did you say we were going?” Nora asked. The bushy fellow rubbed his paws together and settled deeper into the crimson carpet of the train seat.
“To the Next Destination, Miss,” The Blue Raccoon replied haughtily. He checked the bottom of a now-empty chip bag and smushed his garbage next to his (unbuckled) seatbelt. Nora rubbed her thumb underneath her own (buckled) seatbelt and tugged gently.
She didn’t remember buckling her seatbelt. But then again, she couldn’t remember getting on this train… or anything really. And while it was strange that her neighbor was a talking blue raccoon, this really seemed like the smallest of her concerns.
“But what is the Next Destination?” She asked. Nora had bribed him with a snack from the cart lady, but now that he was finished eating, the Raccoon seemed a bit tired of her questioning. Nora wondered how many bags of chips it would take to understand what was happening. Maybe she could have gotten something that took longer to eat, like caramels, toffee, or gum...
“That depends on you. Everyone has a different Destination. Personally, I’d like to come back as a shoe in a very pretty woman’s house.” The Raccoon licked the salt off his paws.
“You’re quite crass, aren’t you?” Nora huffed.
“No, I’m merely open to all sorts of opportunities. Some of these passengers want to be socialites and stars. Things of beauty or power, or things that are deadly or devious. But rather than power and riches, I yearn for much simpler pleasures.”
“What about you, Miss? You’re taking the news rather well.”
Nora stared at the metal clasp of her seatbelt.
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe this was something I wanted in my old life… a fresh start that is.”
Nora scoffed again, “You’re asking someone who lost their memories. I don’t know why.”
“But you couldn’t have known you would get a fresh start. You didn’t know about the train. No one knows about the train while they are alive.”
“No, maybe I didn’t. But maybe I just didn’t want to be at that place anymore.”
At that The Blue Raccoon quieted, and Nora sank down in her seat, feeling like her conversation had overstayed its welcome. It was hard to be upset that you were dead when you had no memories of being alive. There was nothing to mourn.
Well, almost nothing.
Nora reached under the seat belt into her pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. The note had a golden glow to it. The slight tinge made it look somehow separate from everything else on the train. Somehow, this note felt more real than anything else here.
Find me at the Next Destination.
Nora touched the edge of the note lightly. She didn’t know who had given her this note, but when she looked at the looping handwriting, something warmed her from within. It felt like all of the heat in her body flushed up to her face and tickled her cheeks.
Hell, she was smiling.
The note made her happy, but she couldn’t place why. She couldn’t even remember who had written the note or how it had come into her possession. But every time she looked at it, she lost herself to some wave of giddiness.
“Does everyone lose their memory as soon as they enter the train?” Nora asked. The Blue Raccoon looked up, then looked down the aisle of the car both ways. They were alone.
“No,” he answered slowly, “there is a spirit on board who is in charge of removing the traces of our past life. He is formally known as The Conductor, but I’ve heard a few passengers call him the Face Stealer.”
“The Face Stealer?”
“Yes, why do you think I look like this?”
Nora was silent. The Blue Raccoon huffed.
“What, you thought I just looked like this? I used to be a human too, you know.”
“But I still look like a human. I’m not a purple pony or anything.”
“Yeah, yeah. What do you want me to say? The face stealer has a sense of humor.”
“You must’ve had a few choice words for him if this is what he did to you.”
“Maybe I punched him right in his face stealing face.”
Nora laughed, and looked her fuzzy friend in the eye.
“What’s your name, by the way?" She asked. "You’ve been so helpful, and yet in my head, I’m just calling you ‘The Blue Raccoon’ when that’s not even what you are.”
“Yes, your name.”
“I don’t have a name. Well, I don’t remember my name. The Conductor scrubbed that part of my identity a long time ago.”
“How long have you been on this train?”
“But I still remember my name. It’s Nora.”
“Hm. Maybe The Conductor just didn’t finish the job with you.”
“It makes sense. You still remember your name after all. And that note you’ve been glancing at. Seems like it’s a residual from your past life. The Conductor would have never let you keep that.”
Nora quickly shoved the note back into her pocket.
“Relax, I’m not going to tattle on you. The Conductor is the only one who cares that you still have bits of your memory.”
Nora sighed and leaned back into her seat. Her eyes flicked to the window, where indistinguishable colors swirled outside the train, whipping by the window at incredible speeds. Nothing outside looked familiar, but everything felt familiar, as if she had seen it all before.
It was pretty.
A sprinkle of orange dust sprinted by her window.
How fast was this train traveling? How long would she be here on this train? When would she arrive at the Next Destination? What was the Next Destination?
Find me at the Next Destination.
Someone from her past life had left her that note. Someone she knew well, perhaps even someone she loved.
Nora’s face felt hot again, but for a different reason.
Someone loved her enough to send this note, and she had forgotten them.
Nora bit the inside of her cheek. She closed her eyes and thought hard about the looping handwriting, trying to imagine the hand that had formed each letter. She couldn’t remember the hand, but she could remember what it felt like to hold someone’s hand. How the air turned soft and warm, even in a cold winter storm.
Blue gloves. Gray hat. White snow.
Nora’s face pulled together tightly, but just as quickly as the images passed through her mind, they left her. The blues, grays, and whites joined with the swirling mass of colors outside her window.
But she had felt something stirring within her chest. She had felt the presence of someone else. Someone who loved her very much. Someone who had made her feel warm and safe, even when the world around her enveloped her in storms.
Nora touched the note in her pocket, but she didn’t dare pull it out again.
Find me at the Next Destination.
I will, Nora thought, I will find you.
Nora unbuckled her seatbelt and stood. The floor dipped underneath her but she caught her balance against her chair.
“Where are you going?” The Blue Raccoon asked.
“I’m going to find The Conductor,” Nora replied.
“Now why would you do such a thing?”
“There’s someone I need to find.”
“The Conductor is not going to help you!”
But Nora had already reached the door of the train car. She peered through the window as the train bumped underneath her. The cars were held together by shiny couplers, and the swirling colors flooded the gap between the cars. She could cross it, but the train was jostling more now than ever, threatening to buck her off for her non-compliance.
“If you fall, you will not return.” The Blue Raccoon warned. He was standing on his haunches now.
“You will not get another chance. You will not reach the Next Destination. You will lose yourself. Do you understand what I am trying to say? You will lose everything if you fall.”
Nora looked up at his small face, pinched with worry. She gave a small, lopsided smile to him.
“Thank you for everything. I do hope you get to be a shoe in your next life.”
And with that, she pulled the handle of the door and stepped through.
It was idiotic, senseless, and illogical—but Nora couldn’t help herself. Her heart thundered from the inside out. She knew, somehow, that this was the type of love that made you do crazy things. Whoever was waiting for her, she wanted to see them at the Next Destination. She wanted to see them at every Destination. In every life. From here until the end.
The wind sucker punched her in the stomach. Outside of the car, the air felt thick as it buzzed by her ears like static. Multicolor glitter fluttered around her legs as she stepped onto the metal binding one car to the next. The train bounced up viciously, then tilted to the left. Nora’s foot slid, but she rammed her body into the door of the next car. Her fingers tightened around the handle as if her grip was the only thing protecting her from falling. From losing everything.
Nora swung open the door and stumbled into the car. A dozen pairs of eyes peered up at her, as a handful of passengers watched her with awe and confusion. Most of the passengers were humanoid, but a few oddly colored creatures sat among the mix.
The Conductor must have already passed through here.
Nora looked at a young girl with a blue mouth, sitting next to an oversized, emerald-green cat.
“Excuse me,” Nora said as she shifted past them. On her right, an old woman with scales instead of hair nodded politely.
“The Face Stealer is up ahead,” a young boy’s voice lifted out of the seat in front of her. Nora raised her eyebrows. She stepped forward.
“How did you know I—”
Nora froze. A faceless boy turned his head. She stared into the place where eyes should have been.
“I also crossed cars to find him.” The voice came from the boy. Nora’s eyes flicked to the patch of skin that would normally host a mouth. She bit her own tongue before she questioned how the boy could speak. This was a strange place after all. The normal rules of existence did not apply here.
“Did he do this to you?” Nora asked instead.
“He made sure to wipe away everything after that,” the boy responded.
Nora’s voice caught somewhere in the back of her throat. The boy turned his face away.
“I don’t even remember what I had wanted so badly, or why I crossed cars to find him. I hope… I hope it was important.”
Nora knelt down and clasped her hand over the boy’s hand.
“I think it was very important. I think you were very brave.”
The boy nodded slowly.
“I hope you find what you are looking for,” he whispered.
Nora stood slowly and walked to the front of the car. She didn’t look back at the boy, or any other passenger. She only looped one hand on the handle, took a deep breath, and kept pushing forward.
This time it wasn’t wind that hit her, but rather, a memory.
An orange. A hand peeling the fruit. The taste. Sweetness. On the lips.
The orange swirled into the kaleidoscopic dust surrounding her. The train jolted again underneath her. Nora pressed her back closer to the train car as the wind barreled by her. She fought the strange urge to touch her mouth and steadied herself.
There were no tracks under the train, just the dust of a thousand obliterated memories swirling around her. Nora inhaled and jumped from one car to the next. She slammed open the door and again found the faces of passengers. An oversized yellow frog, a woman with donkey ears, a child with three too many eyes.
Another place where the conductor had been.
Nora chose not to linger and pushed through the aisle to the car’s exit.
Another door, swinging open. Another swirl of colorful dust. Another fragment of memories. No words, no faces. Just hands and lips and a sensation so blindingly warm. The ease of playing with someone’s hair. The comfort of lying in someone’s lap. The echo of laughing—laughing so much it ached.
Her past life had been hard. But she had someone who made her feel bright and alive—even now, when she was no longer alive.
Nora pushed into the next car, and then the next car. She nearly fell before she flung open another door and met eyes with a most curious being.
A man stood in a navy suit with crisp sleeves and golden buttons. His entire body was enveloped in a dark purple aura. He lifted his face to meet Nora’s, and his eyes glowed pure white and pupilless.
“Ticket, please,” the man asked. He lifted one hand out to Nora. The purple aura dripped from his fingertips onto the floor.
“You’re The Conductor,” Nora replied.
“Ticket, please,” the man repeated, and his fingers stretched further from his body.
“No ticket?” The Conductor’s white eyes flicked over Nora’s body. She felt like he could see through her, see the note burning a hole into her pocket.
Find me at the Next Destination.
“No, I don’t have a ticket, but I need your help,” Nora started. The Conductor floated closer to her, getting so close that the purple aura dripped onto her shoe.
“You still remember…” The Conductor said.
“Yes, well, kind of,” Nora stammered.
“Easy, child. I will help you forget,” The Conductor reached one hand up, fingers spread wide, hovering over Nora’s face.
“Wait!” Nora cried. She stumbled back into the door. The Conductor tilted his head, watching Nora closely.
“Please, just hear me out,” Nora begged. “I loved someone in my last life, and I think loving them was the only thing I ever did right.”
The Conductor began to close the distance between them once more. Nora sank into the doorway and let the words tumble from her mouth.
“And I don't remember much, but I remember what it feels like. And I would do anything for the chance to love them again. Please. This is the kind of feeling that transcends a single lifetime.”
The Conductor continued to silently approach. Nora shrunk down into the floorboards, watching helplessly as The Conductor’s hands reached for her head once more.
“Please, don’t take this away. I need to find them again; they are waiting for me at the Next Destination.”
The Conductor paused. Nora used his hesitation to fish in her pocket and reveal the note. She flashed the looping handwriting at The Conductor. He shook his head slowly and squatted down to meet Nora’s gaze at eye level.
“Child, I am not the villain in your story. You boarded this train broken. I fixed you.”
“What?” Nora was shaking now.
“You suffered so much in your past life. I erased all that pain, gave you a fresh canvas to paint on in the Next Destination. I freed you from it all so you could begin again in peace.”
“But I loved someone. I loved them so much.”
“I know you did.”
The Conductor plucked the note out of Nora’s hand. She whimpered and curled in closer to the wall, willing herself to phase through the door and run away.
“In my experience,” The Conductor spoke softly, “when you humans find a connection like this one, you do not need to worry about whether you will find it again.”
Nora’s chest rose and fell as she stared into the white eyes of The Conductor. His purple aura splashed onto her shins as he leaned over her.
“Your capacities for attachment are incredible. I am always pleasantly surprised whenever such emotion makes its way onto my train.”
Nora blinked at the droplets of purple stains freckling her arms and knees.
“Stay still, child. I will take away this fear.”
The Conductor’s hand dropped over Nora’s eyes, but she did not cry out. The images before Nora’s eyes shattered into pieces, falling to the ground as dust, leaving only dark swirls of color dancing around her consciousness.
It was pretty.
When The Passenger awoke, she found herself sitting on the ground in a train car.
“Hello there,” a man in a blue suit held his hand out to her.
“What happened?” The Passenger asked. She felt a bit dazed, but the man smiled kindly as he helped her to her feet.
“A bit of motion sickness,” he explained. “Don’t worry, it happens to us all. Please, follow me to your seat. You will be arriving at your Destination shortly.”
The Passenger felt a bit stiff, but she followed the man in the suit. He took her forward a few train cars and then gestured to a train seat made of crimson carpet.
“I’ll ask an attendant to bring you something to eat. It will help you recover your strength,” the man said. He tipped his hat and turned to walk away. The Passenger nodded and sat down slowly.
She reached to buckle her seatbelt. As she did, her hand brushed against the hand of the passenger next to her.
It felt warm.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Original narrative & well developed characters
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives