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The Smoke Train at Midnight

by Isabel Atherton-Reimer 2 months ago in Short Story
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Strange Dreams and Invisible Things

The ground pulsed like a heartbeat beneath Kai’s body, travelling over muscles and limbs - across cool lips and behind closed eyelids. It was as if every nerve in her body was being strummed by some invisible hand, striking a chord to accompany the music of the cosmos that pumped through her very soul - a music that had no beginning, yet had somehow always existed.

She sensed her neck first - sensed a crick that was in it, was more like it, likely a result of once again falling asleep sitting up. Her arms came back to her next, heavy and leaden as the dregs of sleep trickled from her body like the last bit of sand running through an hourglass.

Not a sound invaded her senses, nothing to hint at why she might be so alert at that time, but she had the inexplicable urge to wake. It was like a gentle brush on the back of her hand - this voice in the back of her mind telling her to get up.

Telling her that it was time - for what exactly, she wasn’t certain.

Kai didn’t normally get up until after her many alarms had been screaming at her for at least thirty minutes - sometimes not even then, with the snooze button readily at hand - but she was feeling almost eager to wake that morning, so she decided to rouse herself from her half slumber before she was wrenched from it by the seven alarms of hell.

That should have been her first hint that something was off; Kai didn’t leave sleep voluntarily, especially not out of some misguided desire to do so. Asleep was one of her favourite places to be.

Still, almost of its own traitorous volition, her body coaxed her mind from that coveted place. Neck aligning with a rejuvenating crack, arms and legs straightening, pulling the kinks from her muscles, she eased herself upright in her chair.

Blinking away the grogginess fogging her vision, Kai pushed her wire-rimmed, circular glasses farther up her nose - having once again forgotten to take them off before sleep - and instantly shot upright at the first glimpse of her surroundings.

She wasn’t slumped over in a familiar, comfortable chair, as she had initially thought, but rather a stiff one made of rough fabric. It wasn’t uncomfortable, per se, but it most certainly did not make Kai want to curl up and go back to sleep.

Most pressing however, was the fact that she was definitely not in the place she had initially thought - not in any place she was familiar with, even. Instead, Kai found herself in the strangest space she had ever seen.

It was long, narrow at the sides and seeming unending in length, with two rows of seats bordering a straight walkway that ran the length of the space. Lining the walls were a seemingly unending stream of identical windows, all boasting a similar view of the blurred landscape beyond.

The walls appeared to be made of some sort of hammered metal - in a colour so light a silver it almost appeared white - with seats covered with beige fabric nailed into a floor of a similar substance, only with the raised bumps that Kai could only assume were for grip.

The ground gave a shudder beneath her, followed by a metallic clang and a forward jerk of movement. Kai straightened farther at the sudden motion, realizing that the room wasn’t a room at all, but a train. A train that was becoming apparent that she was not alone in.

She could see the odd head peeking out from above headrests, the odd curious gaze catching on her - a woman across, clothed in a monochrome outfit of deep red, looking at her a little more than most.

Though the train car wasn’t full, there was a fair amount of people filling its seats, with more likely in the others.

The people distracted her for only a second, then reason wrestled control over her curiosity, and Kai found herself wondering how in the world she had gotten on this train in the first place, as well as her pending destination.

Kai didn’t remember getting on a train, or even buying a ticket, for that matter. The last thing she could recall was settling into her favourite chair, with some obscure book she had found abandoned in the park, a bag of her favourite candy torn open on her lap.

So how, then, did she end up here, on a train that she had never stepped foot in in her life?

Perhaps I sleepwalked, Kai thought to herself, leaning towards logic rather than the panic threatening to beat its way into her brain - panic was a useless waste of time, and Kai was nothing if not efficient. Her sleeping body had taken her places before, and though Kai had never made it to a train stop - never mind inside a train - she wouldn’t put it past the strangeness that her mind had the tendency towards when she slept. She wouldn’t put it past her subconscious to plan a trip to wherever the hell they were going, without the input of her far more rational conscious brain.

“Wait,” Kai called to a woman passing her seat, hoping that she might she some light on her current situation. “Do you have any idea where this train is going?”

The woman simply smiled and walked away, leaving Kai to wonder at the rude dismissal and her altogether lack of answers.

Deciding to settle in to the ride and figure it out when she got there, Kai directed her gaze to the blurred scenery outside.

The old woman in red wouldn’t stop staring at Kai.

She had glanced between the woman and the window at regular intervals throughout the duration of the hour, and each time, without fail, would find deep-set, piercing grey eyes boring into her own when her gaze eventually drifted back to that worn face.

Each glance away gave the woman an opportunity to look away - to show some semblance of human decency, of common courtesy - if only to pretend that she hadn’t been trying to peer into the farthest reaches of a fellow passenger’s soul. She didn’t take it.

But beyond that blatant rudeness, her complete and utter lack of social cues, the woman looked somewhat…

Haunted.

There wasn’t anything in particular that gave Kai this impression - the grey eyes, lined face, smoothed bun and pinched mouth that of an average grandmother - but rather, the feeling she radiated. And the way she stared—

Kai couldn’t explain it, but there was a glimmer of something behind those grey eyes that, frankly, gave her the chills.

“My stop is soon,” came a voice from beside her. Kai’s gaze snapped from the staring old lady to the source of that high-pitched voice, her eyes snagging on a child no older than eight sitting beside her, a presence she hadn’t noticed until that very moment, as distracted she had been by the woman across the way.

Large brown eyes peered up at her, almost comical in his small, round face.

The boy was clothed in a black suit fitted with a cape, the accompanying mask pushed around his neck. His brown skin gleamed under the faint lights within the train, combining with the sun filtering in through the window to bathe him in an almost ethereal glow, making it seem as if he could be a smaller version of the superhero he chose to idolize.

A batman fan, then, Kai mused. She was more of a Spiderman fan herself.

His hair was buzzed, and his hands danced between flitting across the shorn surface of his scalp to toying with the strap of a large backpack he had plunked upon his small lap, the object nearly as large as the boy himself.

Unsurprisingly, the backpack was black, the yellow outline of a bat emblazoned across the largest pocket.

She looked from the kid to the empty walkway behind him, back again.

Where is this kid’s parents? Kai wondered to herself, baffled that anyone would leave such a young person unaccompanied, as the boy clearly was. It was bordering on neglectful, leaving a child to take such a journey alone.

“I’m Johnny,” the kid said, those dark eyes boring into Kai’s own dark gaze. “What’s your name?” He asked expectantly, legs swinging in idle movements, hands still making the rounds from his pack to his head.

It was clear the kid had some trouble staying still. Kai could relate, an effort having to be constantly made in order to keep her own muscles still.

“Hi Johnny, I’m Kai,” she answered, tentative, gaze flitting around for adults that she somehow knew weren’t there. “Where are your parents?” She finally asked, almost reluctantly, deciding that sussing out if this child needed aid was more important than being nosy.

“Not here,” he sighed, stilling as he did, as if the question sobered him some. “They didn’t want me to go at all, but I had to, and they couldn’t come with me.” A small scar between his eyebrows pulled as he lowered them in thought.

Kai frowned at the strange statement - the fractured logic - but said nothing, silently calculating how she might help the boy without overstepping.

“I won’t need any help getting off,” the boy assured her, as if seeing the turmoil written across her face. “I know where I am going now.” Then, more sadly he added “I’m ready.”

Kai wasn’t sure what to say - didn’t want to foist her help upon a kid that didn’t know her, and likely trusted her very little, as one should a stranger - so she simply nodded, even though the boy had already returned to looking out the window.

Not knowing what else to do - suddenly on edge with the boy that felt so very young, yet ageless at the same time, at her side - Kai’s gaze found its way to the ceiling. It was made of that same metal - like the rest of the interior - but unlike the walls and floor of the train, had words engraved onto its surface.

Names. Kai could only guess they were names those who wanted to mark their presence, though why they might want it marked in this particular, unassuming train of all places, Kai wasn’t sure.

Despite the fact, Kai absently admired the tenacity of those mild taggers. It would have been quite a feat to reach so high, never mind writing something legibly up there.

Closing her eyes to her surroundings - her mind to those absent, meaningless thoughts - Kai allowed herself to drift off once more, falling into a fraught sort of half-sleep.

It wasn’t until Kai awoke on the train that she had the mind to ask the boy where they were heading - that he might be more fourth-coming than the passing woman had been. He seemed talkative enough.

Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she turned her head to do just that, opening her mouth —

only to find the boy gone.

Her head snapped to the side, gaze catching on nothing but empty air as she frantically searched the area for the boy. Lurching from her seat, Kai walked down the aisle, shoes pounding upon the ground in time with her heartbeat as she scanned the space for that small form.

Reaching the end of the walkway, she slid open a door set into the wall - made of a smooth metal a few shades darker than that of the train, holding a small window at eye level that Kai could just barely peek through - entering a car much the same as the one at her back.

Though she knew it was futile - knew the boy was no longer on the train - she continued to scour the area. She searched until there was nowhere to look - through doors, within rows and beneath seats. Kai even went as far as to crawl on her hands and knees, hoping that a shorter vantage point might aid her some, but to no avail.

She had only been out for what seemed like minutes, eyes closed for what she thought had been the shortest of naps, but it would have had to have been a deeper, longer sleep for her to have missed the train stop and the boy’s departure.

Kai silently cursed her own inattentiveness.

One last cursory glance didn’t make the small form of Johnny reappear, so, giving into defeat, Kai trudged back to her seat.

Kai had no intention of falling back asleep, but the moment she sat down, something simply pulled her under. Pulled her away from the train, the mysterious boy, and the woman in red.

A gust of wind reached into Kai’s throat and pulled, tugging the breath from her lungs. She gasped, eyes flying open as her lungs squeezed, chest momentarily aching for air.

Her eyes snapped open, watering from the sudden brightness and greeting of the overzealous air. The breeze tore at her clothing - a soft sleep shirt and shorts, the same she had been wearing upon falling asleep in her chair before the strangeness of the train, decidedly less clean now.

Kai’s gaze flicked about, tracking a city skyline bathed in the fiery oranges, pinks and reds of a retreating sunset.

The last thing she could recall was being on the train, and now she was back in some nameless city, having no memory of getting on or off. In the meantime, she had lost an entire day in the span of those missing hours.

Maybe the train simply dropped me off, Kai thought weakly. Perhaps she had been suspended in that partial sleep she tended to transition into at night, and her fellow passengers assumed she had been awake.

Her rationale lacked a certain sense of reason, but at the moment, reason felt like somewhat of a stretch to Kai. It was better than the alternative - better than having the soundness of her mind so very questionable.

Kai didn’t have the time to be going crazy.

She swept her gaze away from those faraway buildings, across the uneven skyline and the rocky ground at her feet, searching for some hint of where she might be - some landmark within this place that seemed as if Kai had simply appeared in.

Had simply awoken there, with no memory or explanation as to why or how.

Her eyes travelled farther, snagged on something that almost had her knees trembling with relief.

A train track - thin, tall and slim, making it a wonder the thing had been deemed remotely safe, even in its prime - stretched across the gravel-covered ground at her front, running in either direction.

It was old, and falling apart to the point of being near condemned, but most importantly, one she had seen many times before. The sight halted the panic seeping into Kai’s limbs before it could fully take hold. Stopped most of the panic, at least, because while she found herself at the foot of a bridge she had visited many time before - visited with bored friends for a bit of fun, or alone, for the solitude its remote location could provide.

Perhaps there was some truth to her pending insanity. At this point, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch.

The last dregs of sunset faded from the world as Kai made her way home, weaving through quiet streets and around buildings that were only just beginning to brighten with the sounds of life.

She knew how she must look, to anyone lucky enough to get a glimpse of her that morning - knew she must appear as scattered as she felt.

With her slippered feet pounding against pavement with a renewed urgency, legs burning with the cardio Kai’s body was so very unused to, she couldn’t bring herself to care. She had already been away far too long as it was, if the day had indeed passed her by, and she could not afford to lose any more time.

After what felt like miles - but had likely only been a half a dozen blocks - Kai finally reached the small, worn house that she called home. The grey siding was chipped and fading in spots, the small windows set into the front underlined by boxes of wilting flowers that Kai never had the time to properly care for.

Kai followed the cracked walkway up to the small porch, which led to - the exterior’s only redeeming feature.

She wove through the house, greeting a Arie - clothed in her usual scrubs - on her way through. The doorway stood gaping at the end of the hall, Kai’s feet taking her towards it, but stopping right at its maw.

She only allowed herself that second of hesitation before smashing it to dust.

Kai took a deep breath, then entered the room, her soft footsteps accompanied by the faint beeping and hissing of the many machines filling the space.

Her eyes skated across the figure curled on the bed, the sleeping form of her grandmother looking especially small in the dim light. She approached the bed on silent feet, smoothing the dark hair from the small, round face and smiling eyes that people always said Kai herself bore a striking resemblance.

Kai always thought that it would be a miracle if she ever came close to her the woman’s radiance.

Pulling the thick blanket up to her grandmother’s chin, Kai retracted to the soft, worn chair in the corner of the room and opened her eyes against sleep.

Or rather, tried to.

Kai once again awoke on the train.

It was a dream that she did not care to return to. Because what else could it be, if not a dream? How else could she continue to appear within the belly of this metal beast, with no memory of having even made it close, if not by some strange design crafted by her very own subconscious?

It is a dream, Kai assured herself, and yet, even after pinching and slapping herself for what had to have been dozens of times, the only results Kai received were strange looks from her fellow passengers - from that same woman in red.

Kai made a decision the moment the woman and her piercing stare made their way into her sights, her mind set on a piece of familiarity, however small.

Without wasting a second, Kai straightened from her seat and made her way towards the woman. Though she didn’t know what she had no idea what she might say when she got there - whether it was to get answers or simply tell the woman to stop staring - something that was becoming increasingly annoying with ever passing moment - only that the woman in red was a common denominator in both of these strange dreams, and Kai needed something, at least.

It made little sense, but Kai was willing to try anything at that point.

The old woman smiled as Kai approached, crow’s feet appearing at the corners of eyes that seemed far warmer up close.

“I have been waiting for you,” the woman said, then before Kai could so much as respond, took her hand.

She found herself on a neatly trimmed plot of land, the green grass peppered by spaced apart headstones. Kai felt the old woman at her side, her hand still securely grasping Kai’s own - not in a loose grip, but not too tight, either.

It was a graveyard, that much was clear, how they got there wasn’t quite as much.

The place was fuzzy at the edges, as if a fog hung just at the edges, smudging the scene slightly.

The woman pulled the both of them forward as Kai’s mind struggled to make sense of what she was seeing - if where she was and the reason for it and all of the other strange things that had happened recently.

A flash of the woman’s red clothing caught Kai’s eye as they stopped at the foot of a headstone, the name Nila Rewick carved onto ints surface, a small group of people huddled close. Though she wasn’t sure how, Kai knew they couldn’t see her and the woman.

The woman inched closer, eyes drinking in the group as if taking the sight of them all in. Kai swore she heard the woman whisper goodbye.

“I’m ready now,” the woman said, her eyes still trained upon those people.

Kai squeezed her hand. “Let’s go, Nila,” she said, somehow knowing that the name was her’s, without knowing exactly how she did.

Vehicles whizzed past where Kai stood, the steady blur of headlights like smudges of paint amongst the mottled inkiness of night, reds and whites and yellows dancing across her vision. The rush of wind and sound came after, assaulting her senses, causing the strands of her hair to whip at her face and her skirt to dance around her calves.

She wore her hair loose that day, her swirling mind not retaining enough clarity to do much else than run a brush through her layered, pin-straight strands and choppy bangs. And her clothing… Even she wasn’t sure what to make of her attire at that moment.

Kai usually dressed in accordance to how she was feeling at the time, and as such, had created a rather interesting outfit for herself.

The graphic tee she had plucked from her dwindling pile of “clean” clothes portrayed a small, green frog in the centre of the white fabric. With the shirt partially tucked into a black and white polka-dotted midi skirt that just brushed her calves - more out of absentmindedness than any sort of fashion statement - she was the most unkempt she had ever allowed herself to be in public.

The only word Kai could use to describe the look was frazzled. The word was accurate for both her outward and inward states, as of late.

She wasn’t entirely certain how the worn combat boots she favoured made their way onto her feet, but she could see them peeking up at her, the scuffed black surface winking in the illumination of the streetlights waiting above.

It was out of character for Kai to be anything but immaculately tailored. On any given day, not a thing was out of place for her, with each hair all but having its own designated place on her head.

Tonight, however, the girl felt like a toddler that had just been given leave to dress herself for the first time - a fact that couldn’t be helped, as she currently had much more pressing matters on her mind than paying attention to her physical appearance.

Or any semblance of fashion sense she could still lay claim to, for that matter.

Everything that had always mattered to Kai was starting to feel incredibly frivolous now.

Unimportant, when there were things that held far more gravity.

Kai had come across a sidewalk memorial for a little boy that night, His name was Johnny, and most of the pictures spread throughout were of him in a batman costume. He was gone, had been for weeks, and Kai couldn’t seem to come to terms with the fact - couldn’t come to terms with the fact that Kai had interacted with the boy on the train after he had been deceased.

The first time Kai had stepped foot on the train was but a few days ago, weeks after he had passed from what they said was leukaemia.

And the old woman in red, who had simply disappeared the moment she had whispered her goodbye in that mist-filled cemetery.

The city glimmered around her, bustling with its daily clamour - the shouting of a nearby food vender parked down the packed sidewalk, the distant barking of an overzealous dog from a nearby apartment complex, voices raised in laughter. It was all so normal, so mundane, that, for that moment, all Kai could do was stand amidst the common and take it all in.

She hadn’t realized how loud it all was - how very overwhelming the constant noise and commotion could truly be - until her thoughts were all but a reflection of it. Until the sound of her thoughts joined in in one big, cacophonous roar.

Figures brushed past her, all going about their lives - some returning to homes and families, others losing themselves back into the glimmer of nightlife - while Kai was suspended in time, on the precipice of something large that she still had yet to grasp.

It felt like toeing the edge of a cliff - considering the jump while being entirely blind to what lay below.

She felt a nudge on her shoulder, a tug on her heart, as if some invisible presence was telling her pay attention - some unnameable thing was telling her follow.

Seeing no other option but to oblige what could only have been the makings of her own insanity - the last frayed threads of an unravelling mind - Kai followed the direction of that thing, her feet taking her across stretches of sidewalk and around bends until she eventually found herself at the foot of a monolith of a structure.

A hospital - that voice had led her to a hospital.

Without giving herself a chance to turn around, or get herself some serious help for a seemingly unravelling mind, Kai entered through the building's sliding doors.

She skirted past doctors and patients, following that feeling through hallways lined with shelves and people and the odd gurney. Following that voice until she reached an unassuming doorway, something telling her to wait - watch.

Standing in the shadows of the doorway, she did, eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness as she took in a the scene of a grieving family, feeling like the worst sort of trespasser. A man lay on a cot in the centre of the room, his lined face peaceful with something much deeper - more absolute - than sleep.

Those gathered were clearly his family, mourning a grandfather, father or husband.

Kai averted her gaze, knowing that her witnessing such a private moment was an intrusion, but that voice urged her to wait, still - to stay just a moment longer.

Her gaze made its way around the room, over the drawn faces of those present to a board in the corner near the door. It had a plethora of information, a multitude of things to catch her attention, yet Kai’s eyes found the name - were drawn to it.

Leir North.

Leir found Kai on the train the next time she arrived.

That time, when she opened her eyes, she knew what she would find. Not moments after doing so, she had been greeted by his smiling face. She returned his warm smile, taking his soft, fragile hand in her own. Then, he was gone.

He didn’t need a comforting word or a last goodbye, that man - it seemed that he had only needed to see Kai’s own face, just one time.

A petite woman approached her seat not long after, long hair all but swallowing her frame while her timid gaze stayed downcast. This one was more tentative, and said nothing when Kai asked for her name. So Kai simply held out her hand, waited, the woman gently grasping it after a few moments. She went easily, after checking on her small children one last time.

A teenaged girl named Thea, who only wanted to give her family some peace of mind before she departed, was next.

Then a young man, who wanted one last glimpse of the love of his life.

It went like that for what could have been a second or an eternity, person after person, soul after soul, the list of names scrawled upon the roof growing with every one.

The ground had the tendency to feel too still now, at the times when Kai didn’t find herself upon the train that never stopped - never slowed. Not for anyone. Kai expected a jostle, a lurch - a crowd that needed little else but a small nudge or a guiding hand.

Nothing but stillness greeted her, her surroundings an afterthought - always an afterthought, now.

And now…

Even though Kai’s feet were on solid ground - her senses filled with sun and air and the sights and smells of the bustling city - she could feel the pull of the smoke train in her blood, her bones, forever reminding her of how fleeting each moment could truly be. Reminding her of the invisible place that was always coaxing her eventual return.

It was a calling that rang within the deepest reaches of her spirit - a calling that would never stop, ever onward. Always onward.

A calling that would only end when that same vessel one day carried her, too, into the after. She still didn’t fully understand - didn’t think that she ever would, or that anyone ever could - but she would embrace it, regardless.

With her heart pounding in time to that everlasting beat, travelling in the never-ending loop of existence, Kai felt the farthest thing from afraid, safe in the uncertain certainty of life and death.

Short Story

About the author

Isabel Atherton-Reimer

Isabel has harboured a love for stories for as long as she can remember, be it those of her own creation or of others'. She is a regular optimist with nihilistic tendencies, and a romantic who still isn’t sure if she believes in love.

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