Passage of the Hellbound Express
EVEN IN THE pounding rain, the necklace Rose held above her head glimmered in Caledon’s eyes. On the necklace was the Heart of the Ocean—a priceless gem that meant everything to the young bumptious tycoon. A great deal of conning had gone into acquiring the stone, and, if it came down to it, Caledon Hockley would rather ditch one-thrid of his steelworks fortune than lose the diamond. And now this . . . this child of a woman, with her two-bit ragamuffin boyfriend, Jack, seem to think they can steal it from him? No way! Caledon dug the pistol tighter against Jack’s cheek and threatened to pull the trigger.
“Don’t drop it” he yelled to Rose, her hand outstretched over the boisterous waves, “or you’ll see your pretty boyfriend’s brains spattered all across this bloody ocean!”
The stern of the ship lurched upward with a roar, pummeling more rain and ocean water into Rose’s face. The girl was determined not to give in. She was cold and her whole body ached. But she had to save Jack. There were still lifeboats they could run to, if only she could free him in time. Tightening her grip on the jewelry, she held it higher, still outstretched over the railing. The ocean water heaved, the great boat sputtered and shook. The ship was coming apart and going down fast. An iceberg had come out of nowhere. All around them, people wailed and shouted, scrambling back and forth in panic across the deck, in an effort to save themselves. There was still time, but very little time left to lower all the lifeboats.
“Did you hear me, Rose?” Caledon’s voice cracked in an urgent plead. His man, Lovejoy, Pinkerton trained, was already poised to pounce on her. Hovering beside Caledon with one hand curled to a fist, and the other, fingers widespread, the faithful valet took a step forward, ready at any moment to launch toward the girl and snatch the necklace from her.
“I’ll throw it!” Rose squealed, and she raised the stone higher. “Don’t make me do it! I promise, I will! LET HIM GO!”
Then suddenly the ship shuddered with a violet jolt, knocking each of them off balance.
Rose was thrown to her knees and stunned for a moment. But with the presence of mind not to let go of the necklace, she’d cupped her free arm around the rail and was just then standing to her feet when Lovejoy sprang into action, tackling her.
There was a scuffle—Lovejoy wrenched the necklace from her hand and pushed her down, but Rose was back on her feet in an instant and took it back; then both their hands were on it at the same time, wrestling for it—at the very moment another vicious tremor, rocking through the vessel, tossed Rose off her feet sideways against the rails. She lost her footing, the slippery deck making it impossible to stand. Her feet slid out from under her. Then, her body flipped, and she went plummeting over the side, headfirst.
In the commotion, no one heard Rose’s piercing scream as she hit the water . . . and the frigid ocean shallowed her whole.
--then she woke up.
Rose gasped. She found herself on her feet, on a train, straddling some fat guy’s bulky gut. Seconds ago, while asleep, a sudden thud by the train caused a loose spring in the seat beneath her to burst through the leather cushion, poking her in the butt. She’d sprung instantly to her feet. Now, quite dumbfoundedly, Rose quickly dropped from off the man to her seat by the window. But the big guy didn’t seem to mind. Honestly, he’d been eyeing those smooth long legs of hers for quite some time. He’d watched as Rose’s body slumped lower in the seat, the short flower-patterned A-line skirt inching its way up her legs to her hips. While she slept, the man gawked at the legs and the delicate V-shaped area gradually coming into view beneath a pair of white panties.
Rose, rubbing her nose, her nostrils flared, full of the man’s sweaty scent.
“The perv’s been watching you for quite a long while,” said a young female voice across from her. Rose looked up to see an Asian girl with purple hair and purple eyes in a purple and white baby-doll cosplaying outfit, staring quite purposefully across at the man. Staring a veritable hole right through him. The girl sort of glowed there in the corner with her white gloved hands, ruffles and lace, and the bright sunlight on her face.
“And who do you suppose to be, dressed up like that?” asked the man with a sure sound of sarcasm in his voice. “Some sort of Tinkerbell on steroids?” He chuckled loudly, the thumb and index fingers on both hands touching to illustrate his point. His laughter had been so loud people several rows away looked up to see what was happening.
“Uhn?” The girl’s eyes narrowed.
The man wasn’t finished. “I hope you don’t dress like that every day!” he said, continuing his insults. “What a loser!”
“And what’s that to you, fatso?” said the girl.
The man groaned in retaliation, got up and went to find another seat.
The girl rolled her eyes.
“Hi. Just call me Lo, short for Lolita,” said the purple girl to Rose.
Rose smiled back. “My friends call me Flower,” she said, “but actually it‘s Rose.”
“Your ticket, miss?”
Rose’s eyes swung upward to see a lean narrow old face staring down at her. It was the conductor.
“Hand me your ticket, miss.”
There was a moment of absolute confusion on Rose’s face.
“I don’t have a ticket. Where are we anyways? I don’t know where I am or how I even got here … The last thing I remember was being on a ship—with Jack—and fighting for a diamond before falling off the ster--”
But the old conductor didn’t hesitate. He left, going up the aisle asking other passengers for their tickets.
“You’re like the rest of us,” Lo said. “None of us know how we got here, or where we’re going... Like you, we simply woke up one day on this slow-moving train, going to who knows whe—”
Suddenly there was a commotion at the rear of the train car. A kid with a knife was threatening to cut up another passenger for some off-the-wall reason.
“Stop staring at me!” the deranged kid demanded.
“What, duh—” The other guy seemed confused. Still seated, there was a look of amazement on his face as he looked up at the switchblade. The young punk with the knife looked oddly out of place. His psychedelic jeans and mid-length brightly colorful African dashiki didn’t match. He was a white boy but even from the distance Rose could see the kid’s dreadlocks were long.
“I’m not one of them!” the kid yelled.
“One of what?”
“A lady-boy, even though I’ve got both of their parts.”
“Nobody said you are.”
“But you were thinking it, I know it!”
How do you know that?”
“I can see it on your face,” said the kid, turning the blade now this way and that. “See! Now all of you are thinking it!”
“What if you are, so what? What problem is that to us?”
The kid went tender for a moment, talking softly to himself. “I have to admit, I really like taking it from behind every once in a while . . . and everybody calls me Bugle coz,” he giggled to himself, “one of my specialties is draining men of their strength the way I blow horns so so good,” but then he paused, looked back up at the other passenger, and stuck out the knife—"but that doesn’t make me a—"
“NEEDMORE, TEXAS!” the loud voice of the conductor cut in abruptly as he passed through the crowded train car, announcing the next city the old train was just about to reach. The only problem with that was the train never stops. Not here, not at any of the other countless locations the train was soon to pass.
“You’re going to hear and see a lot of strange things from here out,” Lo sniggered, tilting her head at Rose. Her smile was strange. “Things you ain’t never seen on another train ride—EVER!”
And she was right. In as far as the train ride was concerned, this train never stopped but rolled right on by every place the conductor announced. Within minutes, the conductor announced the approach of French Lick, Indiana—where, miraculously, three new passengers appeared onboard, sleeping in seats not yet occupied; no one seeing the people the exact moment they showed up—and the train whizzed by Beer Bottle Crossing, Idaho; Machu Picchu, Peru; Tightsqueeze, Virginia; Nagoya, Japan; and Nowhere Else, Tasmania, Australia … A strange fact the train passed cities and towns in no certain order, and no certain location in the world. The train seemed to be all over the place, approaching different random stops that really weren’t stops at all but points of interest on a spooky railroad timetable of some kind.
And wasn’t the train’s speed starting to increase just a tad?
A quick glance out the window showed a lush green countryside under the glare of a bright sun rolling by, just now. In the curve on the tracks, Rose could see the enormous length of the train, stretching far and long in both directions, with so many separate cars being pulled by an ancient but shiny engine. In the distance it was almost a piercing light.
“You know what I’m thinking?” said a smart looking kid in glasses, with a huge red spot at the corner of his nose (He loved going by the name Snort because that’s what he was infamous for, snorting cocaine). He was sitting on the other side of Lo. “I think we’re all dead and this is some kind of purgatory vehicle, conveying us to—
“Heaven?” said Lo, interrupting, “because I hope that’s what you’re about to say, because….”
“Because if we’re heading for the other place,” said Snort, “than we’re basically fuc—”
“Why do you say that?” Rose’s eyes were wide with concern.
“That we’re—dead?” It was obvious she wanted clarity.
“Well, think about it, what was the last thing you remember doing before waking up here?”
“I was dropping from the stern of a ship into an ocean,” she said.
Lo hesitated before answering, chuckling with a gloved hand to her mouth.
“No,” Lo said to Snort. “You, first.”
Now he chuckled. “It was the best angel dust trip ever! Haha, I was floating, floating and then I woke up—here.”
There was a moment of silence before Lo jovially said, “I’d just finished off my fifth john for the day, when . . .”
“No, you don’t have to tell us if it embarrasses you?” Rose said.
“No, girl, I don’t mind. I like talking about it—you know, confession's good for the soul and all that shi—”
“I mean, the gory part, how you ‘supposedly’ had died.”
“Ohh, it was the best screw I’d had in months…I mean, he did everything right, flopping me this way and that—with me on top, then his mouth working all over me—and he was just about to . . . you know—in my mouth, when I suddenly felt a stabbing pain at the back of my head . . .”
“I mean, I didn’t even hear the gunshot because I was gone in an instant.”
“Probably one of the jealous wives or girlfriends,” she added.
Rose was quiet for a second, her face displaying confusion again.
“What’s the matter?” Lo asked.
“But that’s just the thing,” Rose said, “It’s all wrong.”
“All this. When I ‘died’ I wasn’t dressed this way. I had on a long overcoat, that wasn’t even mine, and I’d jus--”
“Yeah, that’s what I was about to say,” Snort interrupted, “we’re all from different times and periods and places and--”
“Ouuuwww! I’M GONNA GO CRAZY!” shouted a black guy a few seats away. He’d been sitting quietly by himself looking out the window the whole time. Rose noticed that, for some reason, everyone avoided him. Perhaps it was because, occasionally, without warning, he’d punch himself in the face. Not a soft open-handed slap, but a heavy-handed, bare-knuckled punch across the jaw. “I WANNA KILL SOMEBODY!” he suddenly yelled.
Rose didn’t know why, but she felt she needed to talk to that man. It wasn’t in her nature to put herself in harm’s way, but something compelled her, even though she clearly didn’t want to.
“They say his name’s Nelsen,” the smart kid volunteered.
Rose looked over a shoulder at Nelsen. He seemed crazy sure enough the way he sat there with his head slumped lower than his shoulders, and the way he seemed to be mumbling excessively to himself.
“I think he’s crazy,” said the boy. “One minute, he’d be sitting quietly gazing out the window, quite melancholy, but the next he’d be clapping his hands and singing Glory, Glory Hallelujah! at the top of his lungs.”
And Rose was on her feet and standing in front of Nelsen before she knew what she was doing. Odd thing was, the closer she got to him the more she understood why most everyone avoided him. He smelt like a backed-up sewer line.
“What are you doing,” Lo whispered loudly to Rose.
“Shh, it’s okay,” Rose whispered back, a small smile.
“Watch yourself” Snort added, not too softly. “They say he eats people.”
“I can’t be left alone,” Nelsen said to Rose before their introductions.
“What?” She sat down across from him.
“People can’t leave me by myself,” he said.
“Cuz, I see ‘em.”
“All them niggas—Dead people.”
Rose was holding her breath between words and surprised herself when she gasped and took a deep breath right in front of him.
“They’re always ‘round me,” he said. “I can’t even go to the toilet alone. Even there—” and he pauses and whispers, “—they’re watching me.” Nelsen stopped and looked up. “Who’s that little nigga standing there behind you?” he asked.
Rose looked around. There was no one there. “I don’t see anybody.”
“Yes, there is.” He said, and then his voice grew tender. “Is that you Sally Mae?” he asked. Blonde hair, blue-eyed three-year-old Sally Mae Echoes was a child he’d murdered twelve years ago. Snatched her from her home near the woods behind the trailer park where she lived. When they found the child’s body, it had forty-two stab wounds in it; she’d been sexually assaulted, and an ear was missing. Eaten away. But the authorities never were able to name a suspect. “There she goes” he says. “Bye, Sally Mae.”
Rose and Nelsen talked on for a few minutes more. For her, having never heard rap music before, not knowing the derogatory way some artists use racial slurs and explicit language to describe themselves and their life's condition (that being, perhaps, an outgrowth of their culture), she wondered why Nelsen said the word “nigga” so much when referring to himself or others. He told her trust wasn’t one of his strengths. He didn’t trust white people because of something called White Privilege, nor did he trust other blacks, either.
“Most of ‘em’s stuck in the past—Eck! Hit the rewind button!” he said, mimicking the action of pressing an invisible button in the air. “Ring-a-ding-ding! Help! Help! Save me, I’m drownin’ in a sea of uncle tomism.”
Rose tilted her head, puzzled.
“All niggas are the same,” he said at one point with a strange glare in his eyes, “no matter what color they is.”
“Why do you always say that word?” Rose asked, somewhat curious.
“What word?” he said, his mind starting to wander.
“LOST, ABERDEENSHIRE, SCOTLAND!” the old conductor shouted, passing down the aisle.
On board the train, other strange events were happening, too. Some people riding there seemed like regular everyday passengers, not knowing they were dead on a ghost train. But for others it was very apparent. Like the obese dude in the dining car, sitting alone, feasting on an assortment of sumptuous meals that really weren’t there; it looked like he was gorging himself to death, the chair he sat on barely able to support his seven-hundred-plus pounds of fat.
Halfway down the aisle from Nelsen and Rose, a big woman in a wide brim hat, sat on her seat crying. She went by the name Baby, being the only name all her jilted lovers ever knew her by. “What time can I see you tonight, Baby?” the memory of one star-struck lover, begged. “Ummm, yes! Baby!” said another. “Meet me out back on the terrace. In the moonlight. My husband will never think to look for us there.”
Bugle, the kid with the knife, sat in his corner, in the back, tossing his dreadlocks over his shoulders and picking his nose.
Lilly, a would-be porn star, with an iconic 1960’s beehive hairdo, was putting on a full-blown fantasy sex show for a few of the passengers in another car. A balding twentysomething named, Earl Eastman, came and sat across the aisle from the Slater twins, watching her. She sat directly across from them, masturbating right out in the open. Sporting a blue and white schoolgirl costume, right there in public, she raised the front of her pleated skirt, took a finger, stuck it up inside herself, then purred like a kitten.
And way up front in another railcar, Jenkins was always in the background laughing. Laughing about something. Laughing about nothing. Laughing out loud about everything, like a crazy person.
“GOGOGOGO, MADAGASCAR!” the conductor yelled. More sleeping passengers appeared.
“I don’t like this train,” Nelsen said finally as he and Rose talked, and he turned away from her to stare outside. Things were passing faster now than before, which meant the train’s speed had increased. Then Nelsen startled Rose, belting out loudly a verse to the song This Train, in his own words.
“This train it’s bound for glory, I ain’t tellin’ you no story, This train it’s bound for glory, this—"
Rose got up to walk away and froze in the aisle. There before her stood a dog—probably the biggest dog she’d ever seen closeup. It was black, blacker than a million midnights, with long white teeth, already barred, and a strange gaze in its eyes.
When she turned her face, the dog’s eyes followed hers. Its stare would not leave her face. Rose took a step backward. The dog took a step, too. Forward, towards her. Panic ran riot through Rose then. What should she do?
The dog had her cornered.
The next moment, though, an old man clutching a wine bottle, turned over in his sleep and woke up. Getting to his feet, staggering like a drunk, he came into the aisle mumbling to himself and passed between them, quite absentmindedly. “Gotta go pee,” he was saying, “before me cause a flood up in here.”
Rose saw her break. Even before the man stepped between them, she was already turning; and bolted for the door. She figured if she reached the door in time, she could shut it, creating a barrier between herself and the demonic canine.
At the door, Rose slammed it shut and stepped away. It was a door with a glass. The dog burst right through the glass.
Escaping now into another train car, she fought to get away, overturning luggage, colliding with passengers, knocking some of them down—a gnashing of teeth, the snapping at her legs; the grunting, panting, snarls of sounds—but the dog kept coming … train car after train car—and Rose even crashed through a throng of people standing round watching a naked couple, both with heavily tattooed bodies, making out—
Until, at last . . . out of breath and out of hope, Rose tripped to her knees, her will to live almost abandoned . . . the dog wasting no time in its attack. Storming into the railcar on her heels, it leaped for her as she braced herself for the inevitable, hands raised, shielding herself, eyes tightly squeezed
–but the demon dog ran right through her . . . a spirit thing that faded into thin air.
On the ground, Rose opened her eyes. What just happened? She looked around. She was alone.
She was just standing to her feet when Lo ran into the room.
“Are you okay, girl?” Lo asked.
“Yeah,” Rose said, still shaking. “I am now. What was that thing?”
“Like I said, you’re gonna see a lot of strange things around here—but I’ve been thinking ‘bout what you said.”
“About all this being wrong for you. I think you’re right.”
“What do you mean?” Rose asked.
“I mean, you don’t belong here.”
Rose chuckled softly. “Sure, I do. I’m here now.”
“Yeah, but, what have you done so bad in your life that you should deserve this?”
Rose didn’t have to think about it. She knew. “As a child, I used to steal rock candy from the local five and dime store, and once I-I stole a handkerchief from Woolworth’s!”
“Yeah, so what?”
“I’ve had a lot of impure thoughts, too—especially after meeting Jack.”
“What girl in love hasn’t entertained a few sexual thoughts here or there.”
“But then I killed him.”
“That’s what I intended to say earlier, about everything being wrong.”
“The moment I dropped from the ship, I got Jack murdered for something that wasn’t even his fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was wearing my ex-fiancé Cal’s overcoat at the time, and in the pocket, I’d found the priceless diamond he’d blamed Jack for stealing.”
“Don’t you see, Lo, I was just trying to use it as leverage to clear Jack and plan our escape, but instead I got him killed? So I deserve being here.”
Lo laughed to herself, turning a moment to glance out a window. Outside, everything looked like a blur, the train obviously going even faster now. She turned back to Rose. “Girl, you don’t know nothing. Your guilt is just as real as my purple contacts. I can tell you about who deserves what and who doesn’t . . . and I’m the one whose perfectly where she ought to be.”
Rose’s eyes brightened.
“What I’ve done in my lifetime was way more serious than stealing candy or handkerchiefs from a five and dime. I’ve ruined marriages, squashed dreams, haha, I’ve even caused two suckers to take their own lives.”
“I’m not like you, girlfriend,” Lo said. “I’ve got it bad. I loooovvve sex and I’ve used it to worm my way through this world, snatching husbands—and wives—from their faithful families, and I didn’t give a shit who got hurt in the process.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“It was all a big game to me.”
“Yep, the thrill of conquest, reaping the spoils.” She laughed slightly to herself, pausing to tug on each glove at the elbows. “Yeah, and then came the real fun when I’d look ‘em right in the eyes and tell them, ‘I have no feelings for you—it’s over!’”
“Seems to me, with the fact you knew what you were doing,” Rose said, “you could have stopped any time you wanted.”
“Naaa,” Lo continued. “Girl, you don’t know nothing! When your stuff’s good, you just can’t stop—and they just keep on coming!”
Strange as it was, for some reason, at that moment, Rose thought of Nelsen, how he sees the ghosts of his mistakes but tries to minimize their importance by labeling them with derogatory words and statements. “It sounds like you’re proud of yourself for that. Don’t you feel any remors—"
“It is what it is, ho!”
A quiet moment.
Then, softly, Lo asked, “You know why everyone calls me Lo?”
“It’s because your name’s Lolita.”
“Nope,” she said, seeming rather sad for a moment. “It’s because, deep down inside, they all know how shitty I really am. I’m really quite lowdown, you see. Not worth spitting on.”
Rose was quiet for a minute. “I don’t think that way about you.”
“Of course not. Since coming here, you’re the only person I’ve cared to bond with. You seem descent enough to me.”
Lo smiled and the two ladies hugged.
“Listen to me, Rose,” Lo said, finally. “What happened to your boyfriend wasn’t your fault.”
“Sure, it was. If I hadn’t found the diamond, then he wouldn’t have died.”
“You need to put it behind you and forgive yourself.”
“I think it’s too late for me now. Looks like the train is rapidly taking us to its final destination. My fate, like yours, is sealed.”
“You don’t belong here, girl” Lo said.
“What do you mean? I—"
“You’ve done no wrong. Our crimes are the unforgivable-sins kind, but yours, girl—” Lo froze. Her eyes brightened, as if in surprise, looking at something behind Rose.
Rose paused. “What?” she asked.
“She’s right, Rose," came a voice behind her, then. "You don’t belong here. You belong with me.”
Rose froze. She knew that voice. She spun around.
She flew into his arms. They kissed.
“What are you doing here?” she asked after a moment.
“I’ve come to get you.”
“You belong with me.”
“But how do we get off? Aren't we stuck here?”
“No, of course not! Come with me, I think I know a way,” he was saying, taking Rose by the hand; and they started to leave. But Rose paused, glanced back at Lo.
“Go, girl!” she said, using her hands in a pushing motion. “Go on . . . Scoot!”
Jack and Rose ran through the train, heading for the rear car. Inside the train, the gravity felt heavier, so that, as the train sped up at unbelievable rates, all motion inside slowed down. At times, it felt like walking on the moon. But Jack and Rose ran past all the various crowds gathered on the different railcars. Some passengers were suspended in place while others appeared not aware of the train’s accelerated speeds—where, at the last train car, Jack forced open the outer door. On the outside was a mounted ladder.
“Now, Listen, Rose,” Jack said, the air whistling as it passed, “It’s gonna get scary. This is really dangerous stuff, but I know you can do it. Just keep your eyes on me…”
And they climbed atop the moving train, the force of the wind blowing against them more powerful than they imagined it would be. For them, it took great effort just to hold on.
“Stay low,” Jack yelled. “We’re going to have to jump.”
“Jump?” The idea sounded crazy.
“Yes, just not yet. I’ll tell you when.”
At this neck-break speed, the total landscape waived by in shades of colors yellow, brown, beige, white and green, poised with brief glimpses of rolling hills, distant mountains and other structures, like forests, fields, streams, and the ghost of cities. There far ahead in the distance was a blinding target the train apparently was shooting for. It seemed a place beyond reality, of darkness and yet light, of fire and yet coldness, a sort of white hole. The end of the line.
But then Jack saw it. There, far ahead, stretched horizontally faintly and flat across the tracks, as they rocketed towards it meteor-fast--a body of water.
The Mississippi River.
Within seconds they were upon it and Jack didn’t have time to prepare Rose for the jump.
It was time—
“No, Jack, I can’t do it!”
“But you have to, Rose!”
“Now, listen to me, Rose," Jack said with a tremble in his voice, "you can do this! We're gonna have to jump. Now shut your eyes,” and without another word for success or failure, Jack took Rose by the hand, and they both jumped.
It only took a moment, but almost immediately they were submerged in water way over their heads. The clear blue crystal glory of sunlight in water, popping their ears, bubbling up—the world turning over on end . . . colors going from blue, to gray, to brilliant black—with a sucking, dragging, pulling sensation . . .
And they were back in their original time. The gigantic whirling vortex of the Titanic having dissipated, with the screams of helpless, dying people, Jack found himself floating on the surface of a sea of dead bodies.
There in the freezing water, he found a piece of floating wood and leaned on it. And his mind went immediately to Rose.
“Rose,” he cried.
His body was too weak to yell out. Too weak and cold to go search for her.
Then Jack felt a hand touch his back, and turning, found her beside him. She was blue in the face, but alive, freezing like him. He helped her hold on to the wood.
Despite the fact they knew they’d probably die out there in that frigid water, they both managed to smile. At least now they’d have a chance to die together.
Then suddenly the stray beam of a lone flashlight illuminated the darkness around them. It was like a miracle because the bright glare fell directly on Jack’s face.
He looked up.
“There! There!” said a voice out of the blackness. “I see someone alive!”
Maneuvering through the mounds of frozen bodies, the seamen placed their oars into the water, turned the lifeboat about, and started towards Jack and Rose.
The rain had stopped, and the stars were out.
While waiting, Jack turned over one hand, and Rose gasped. There was the necklace with the Heart of the Ocean stone.
What had happened was when Rose fell over the stern, Jack had elbowed Cal Hockley and broke free, managing to snatch the necklace from Lovejoy, before jumping in after her.
For a moment, they both floated in darkness, looking at the necklace.
And the reflected glow from the approaching flashlight hit the diamond and gleamed in their eyes.
(Author's Note: Thank you for reading this. You can't imagine how happy you make me! If you liked my writing, please subscribe and click the little heart below this piece or near my name, at the top of this page. And if you are a writer, please tell me how I can come read your work, too).