In my dream, there is music.
At first, I panic. The music is sweet but heavy. It clogs my ears and fills my nose and mouth as if to drown me. I try to scream but there is no sound and there is no air. But then I hear words. I cannot understand them, for they are too old and too ancient for me to comprehend. Instead, they soothe me like the whisperings of a lover. There is sorrow in the music. Sorrow as deep as the black chasms that crack the seafloor. There is longing too, the restless ache of a sailor oceans from his home. In a way, I am reminded of Mariela. I can almost hear her voice in the music’s ebb and flow and see her lips move with the mysterious lyrics. Her lips move again and out of the melody I recognize a word. An irresistible command that shocks me like ice and scorches me like fire:
My eyes snap open.
A alarm blares overhead and my vision is bathed in flashes of crimson light. At first, I think I have fallen asleep at one of Mariela’s concerts. Perhaps while I dozed the fire alarm was accidentally tripped and now people were rushing for exits. But no darkened concert hall greets me when I sit up. Instead, I am sitting at a stainless-steel bar counter with half-full glass of scotch in my hand. A headache pounds beneath my skull, exacerbated by the flashing alarm lights. I scowl at the glass of scotch. Hopefully, the experience had been worth it.
Accompanied with my new awareness of my surroundings, I feel the rhythm of motion underneath my feet. A soft, nearly imperceptible swaying that could only be attributed to a vehicle of some sorts. I blink furiously, trying to remember. A train?
Besides the flashing lights and blaring sirens, an eerie silence surrounds me. The rest of the room appears to be some high-end lounge or bar car, everything about the pinnacle of lavish living. The walls are some white, plasticine material, the two chandeliers are made of brilliant crystal, and the shelf of liquors in front of me has some spirits that I know cost upward of $5,000. Yet for all of its opulence, there is not a soul in the room besides me. No rich fops are sitting on the white leather couches arguing about the most superior brandy strains. No heiresses are trying to regal any hapless male with tales of their royal ancestry. Just me, Laurence Fletcher, who up until recently thought I was still at my father’s penthouse in London.
I must have been really drunk. I try to recall any of my memories on this train but it’s like trying to hold a wet bar of soap. The moment my mind touches them they slip away.
What I do remember is Mariela. I remember her brown eyes and her bright smile. I remember how she talked with the voice of a singer, loud and confident. Even when she was having a conversation, I heard music when she spoke. I remember the last time I saw her as well. How I stood in the musty backstage area after one of her concerts, holding a wad of yellow roses. I waited with those roses while she sat on a stool pulling pins out of her black curls, her back to me. Only when her slender, brown fingers had worked the last pin from her hair, did she turn and look at me. That’s when I knew something had changed.
“I’m not your canary, Laurie.”
I grimace and instinctively grab the half-full glass of scotch, downing the rest of the lukewarm liquor in a single fierce gulp. My eyes water with the heat, but the memory subsides.
The alarms are still blaring insistently, briefly turning the white room scarlet with every flash. Even the chandelier reflects a dull, red glow. I swallow—something is wrong. With unsteady, feet I rise from my barstool and stumble towards a wide window that stretches most of the length of the lounge.
When I look out, the sight is unbelievable.
A fantastical, subterranean landscape flashes past through murky darkness. The train is going incredibly fast, so fast that I can barely see anything through the blur of dark shapes. But then I see something massive and looming—an immense cliff that seems to rise and rise up into infinite blackness. I press my face to the glass but there is no top or summit, just an uninterrupted face of sheer rock, towering into oblivion.
But even more than that, I realize why the alarms are blaring. The darkness beyond is illuminated by some light-source outside the train and it’s not the sort of darkness caused by night. It’s blacker, thicker. I stumble back, horrified. The train is underwater.
I open my mouth and my scream mingles with the alarms. The train must have gone off a bridge into the water. Any second I expect the windows to crack and break under water pressure. Any second I could be instantly crushed by the inky blackness that surrounds this train. A lonely, nameless corpse sunk in the deep.
There are two steel doors in the car. Frantically, I run to the front one, desperately trying to open it. It’s locked and I start pounding on it. I need someone to hear me, a conductor, a manager, the captain of the Flying Dutchman, anyone at all.
“Hey!” I scream, my fist reverberating painfully off the steel, “Hey! Somebody help!”
There is no response.
I start rummaging through my pockets. Maybe I have a key or a keycard that can unlock the door. Maybe I can open it and swim to the surface. But there is nothing there. No ticket, no passport, just a billfold with my ID and a couple of credit cards. I choke back a sob as a doomed man in his final moments. I look up as if to pray, but then suddenly stop. Something curious is engraved above the door. With a hammering heart, I squint at the letters.
THE OCEANIA EXPRESS – Deep Sea Riding Experience
A bolt of hope shoots through me. Is the train supposed to be underwater?
Behind me, I hear dry laughter. I look around and a man stands up from behind the counter. He looks like he had fallen there, his clothes and hair are rumpled. He adjusts his spectacles, which looked like they had been damaged from his fall as well. He grins at me, his eyes wide.
“First time in the Mariana Trench, eh?” He says, “Don’t worry, mine too. I’ve sent so many people down here but it’s a lot . . . deeper in person.”
He offers his hand. Numbly, I reach out to shake it. “So the Oceania Express is a—?”
“—Train? Of sorts. It’s the world’s first deep sea exploration train. Able to withstand ten tons of pressure and go to depths of seven miles. I should know—I designed it.” He grinned at me again. “Lead scientist Dr. Alexander Lyst at your service.”
“Laurence Fletcher,” I whisper in reply.
"I sent lots of people down here actually," the doctor continues. He talks very quickly as he gazes around. "In little submersiles. They worked on laying the track, see? The Oceania Express's track. But I kept losing them. Guess how many I lost, Mr. Fletcher."
"I - I really don't know, doctor."
"Alright, Alright, I'll tell you." the Doctor's eyes are bright. "It was twelve. Twelve submersiles with twelve men inside them. Did you think that stopped me?" He began to laugh a bit. "Do you think that stopped me?"
I lick my lips nervously. “Dr. Lyst, are we safe?
Dr. Lyst erupts into high-pitched laughter. A succession of incessant giggles that go beyond the warmth of humor.
“Safe?” he splutters. Then drags a hand through his hair. His eyes still bright and staring. “Did you know that only 80% of the deep ocean has been explored? Imagine that—so much of our world unknown, unstudied. And I thought with my degrees and education I could study the un-study-able. Know the unknowable. I could tame the deep waters!”
He starts giggling again.
“But the ancient Greeks were wiser than I,” he continues, his voice pitching higher and higher, “Now those people were people who knew how to respect the sea. Those were people who didn’t meddle with things they didn’t understand!”
“Sir, I don’t think you’re thinking clearly,” I say, “Let me get you a drink, I think you’ll feel much better if you have a drink.”
“Thinking clearly?” Dr. Lyst titters, “No, I suppose not. They are in there, you see. And they are here to stay.”
I see a glimpse of plastic peeking above one of his pockets. I blink in disbelief, is that a keycard?
“Dr. Lyst,” I say slowly, “That keycard—in your pocket—does it work?”
Dr. Lyst pulls the shiny, plastic rectangle out from the pocket of his slacks. “Ah yes, I suppose it does,” he says, looking intently as if studying it, “I suppose with its high clearance it might open one of these doors in full lockdown.” I take a step toward him, eager to put it to use.
To my dismay, he starts giggling again. “But where could I go? Where could I go, indeed? The thing about the brain is that you cannot run away from it. It stays and stays until you are gone, but they are still there. They never leave.”
Suddenly, his eyes widen with pure terror. “Don’t you understand, Mr. Fletcher? We can’t escape! I can hear them even now! The singing! The singing!” He groans loudly and tears at his head.
A chill creeps over me. Faintly, faintly, I hear the music again.
I feel the same yearning as I did before. A nearly irresistible urge to obey the command. The call comes from outside the train and for a moment my only desire is to smash through the window and join whatever is out there in the pitch-black abyss. Through some twisted rationale I even think Mariela is just beyond the glass, waiting for me to find her.
“No!” I scream. I realize I am now standing a couple feet away from the window I had just been contemplating. I shudder. There is something very wrong with the music. Something that is eating away at my mind.
The alarms screech and screech. Now I know what they are warning about.
Dr. Alexander Lyst fares even worse. He has collapsed on the floor and lies there, stiff as a board. His eyes are still wide. His mouth works soundlessly, flecked with spittle. Through the ghastliness of it all I wonder: why is the difference between us? Why does he seem so much more affected? It may be the adrenaline, but the answer comes quicker than I thought possible.
I run to the liquor shelf and seize the first bottle I can reach, a Ł250 bottle of brandy. I choke down as much of the strong stuff as I can. It makes my throat burn and tears stream down my face. I grow tipsier, but the music fades. The command is a whisper:
“Come.” I grab another bottle for Dr. Lyst.
I hear a garbled scream and turn around to see Lyst on his feet and dashing into the window. He hits it head-on, breaking his spectacles into shards and likely breaking his nose too. Blood gushes as he staggers away, but he only charges the window again. This time he rams his shoulder into the impossibly thick, pressure-resistant glass. Again, I hear the music clamor insistently. Again, I see Lyst throwing himself against the unyielding window. He charges until I hear a sickening crack which doesn’t come from the window.
The man utters no sound of pain or discomfort. His right arm now hangs uselessly at his side, either broken or dislocated at the shoulder. It hardly concerns him. He simply starts ramming the window with his other shoulder.
“Dr. Lyst, please!” I beg. I grab a fist of his shirt with one hand and attempt to drag him away. “You must drink, Lyst! It will bring you some sense.” But the man ignores my efforts as if I am only a petulant child trying to pull his father toward a candy store. However, I do not relent. Setting the bottle of brandy on the floor, I seize him with both of my hands and heave with all of my might.
I succeed for a little while in separating him from the unforgiving window, now smeared with his blood and sweat, but now I have frustrated his goals long enough. He turns on me with an enraged howl. His good hand slams into my throat and I retch. We both tumble to the ground. I see Lyst’s face right above me, his face like a scarlet skull in the flashing lights. I see the single-minded fury in his eyes—I have distracted him from his one purpose, his only purpose, and now I must be dealt with.
Desperately, I dig my fingers into the meaty parts of his wrist but the pain does not reach him. I lash out with both my hands at his face, clawing or punching, but with no success. His hand closes over my windpipe, seconds away from crushing it completely. My vision fills with colors only, no shapes. I see black, and red, and white.
Then I catch a glimpse of salvation. Amber liquid in a crystal bottle. The brandy I left on the floor. My fingers find the bottle and wrap around its neck. Lyst looks up a moment too late as it comes down and smashes him in the head.
Crystal explodes around both of us. Lyst slumps to the side, unconscious.
I get up, shaking and gasping. My throat is raw from both the brandy and the near strangling I just experienced. Still, I can hear the music haunting me from inside my head. I feel the deep, aching sorrow in the melody as if it were my own. It’s getting stronger now. Soon, even alcohol won’t be able to protect me from its influence.
I look at Lyst. He seems far less horrifying now, like a man who got in a bad bar fight and lost. I heard no more unhinged laughter. I saw no more of his lurid smiles. I contemplated doing the same to myself. I could find some way to knock myself out and sleep my mind away. Perhaps that was the only way to escape them.
But for some reason, I don’t do that. Instead, I roll Lyst’s body over, take his keycard, and insert it into the slot by the door. I hear a click as the lock mechanism responds, allowing me to push open the heavy steel door. The rail cars are connected by a hallway formed out of some flexible but durable tubing. For a moment, I marvel Dr. Alexander Lyst’s ingenuity. The train can truly hold up under everything.
There is a door at the end of this hallway as well. There is a sensible part of me that says not to open it. It tells me to find some way to knock myself out or to simply go to sleep to escape the persistent influence of the music, the singing, as Lyst put it.
But I don’t listen to that part of me. I slide the keycard in its slot and open the door.
This time I’m in a dining car. Tables are spaced out evenly along the walls loaded with what appears to be a full breakfast. I see eggs benedict smothered with hollandaise sauce, scones next to saucers of jams and butters, and silver tea and coffee pots with steam seeping through their spouts. However, none of the people in the room are interested in the feast before them. They are more interested in the view above and around.
For this dining room car was built like an aquarium, a single, smooth tunnel of glass through which I could see the walls of the trench flashing dizzily by. I look straight upward and still see no end to the cliffs that rise steadily up. There is nothing beyond. And yet, I see people pounding bruised fists against the glass, against the door, and against the floor of the dining car. A young woman, her knuckles split and bloodied from frenzied abuse, curses the window and pounds at it, begging it to break so that she may "go outside". Another man hits the door at the front of the car with wooden chair, swearing and screaming over and over. I read the engraving above the door. Engine Room it reads.
This is where the music is loudest.
“Come.” I hear it insist, I hear them insist “Come. Come.”
I realize at once I have made a terrible mistake and yet I do nothing. I do not retrieve any bottles of liquor from the bar car. I do not take a silver tray and try to bludgeon myself into unconsciousness. I simply stand there, looking up into the all-consuming blackness above my head. It does not terrify me anymore, it is merely . . . comforting.
Once more, memories of Mariela flood back to me. I see them all—happy, sad, and tender. I everything she does, every wink, smile, tear, or shout.
And then, I see our final memory.
Mariela turns around, smiles at me, and takes the yellow roses. Her loose ringlets swirl around her face.
“Thank you, Laurie,” she says, “they’re lovely.” But I see indecision in her eyes.
I shrug, trying to smile through the turmoil in my stomach. “I figured I’d go a little simpler tonight. You like yellow, right?”
“Yeah,” she murmurs.
A silence falls between us.
Finally, I hear her inhale. “Hey, Laurie?”
“I don’t think . . . well, I’m not sure . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is I can’t really do this anymore. With you.”
The words physically pierce me, a slender needle stabbed through my heart.
“You’ve been wonderful, you know." She continues "Truly. I couldn't ask for a better man. And your money has helped me too. I’ll always be grateful, it’s just that . . .” her voice trails off and I hear her breath shudder. “I have to be sure I can do this, or at least, I could have done this, on my own. My career, Laurie . . . I need to know it didn’t just happen because of you.”
I don't understand what I'm hearing at first. She's going to leave me because I funded her?
"Look Mari, I'll stop funding your shows, alright? You can prove to everyone you don't need me. I don't care!"
"It's not just that," she says, "I just need to be sure."
“That I'm not the reason you're a star? Of course I'm not!” I cry, “You think throwing a bit of money at any two-bit wannabe makes them a star? You’re here because you’re amazing, and you’ll grow more successful because you’re amazing. My funding never had anything to do with it."
“You can’t make me change my mind,” she says, “I’m not your canary, Laurie. You can’t just “throw money” at me and make me sing.”
“Do you really think that?” I retort, tears of anger welling, “Do you really think I see you as some bloody bird in a cage? That’s not what you are. You've never been that to me. You’re a siren, Mari, my beautiful siren. And you always have been.”
She smiles sadly. “Sirens aren’t good for sailors, you know,” she whispers, “The sailors always die and the sirens are always alone in the end. That’s a pretty terrible story, don’t you think?” There’s finality in her words. I know she won’t be convinced
I turn to leave, unconsciously crumpling a loose program from her concert in my fist. “I’m sure the sailor is happy anyway,” I say. The paper crushes in my hand. “Right up until the very end.”
There are tears in her eye as she watches me go. “And the siren?” I hear her call behind me.
I stop but don’t turn around. “I guess you can tell me.” I leave the building, out into the cold, night air that freezes my lungs and numbs my hands and feet. None of it surpassing the ice and numbness I feel inside me, in my heart.
I blink, a new understanding illuminating me like a summer sunrise. The music is not evil. Its sorrow mirrored my own. It’s longing mirrored my own. They understand how I am unable to lose her. My dear Mariela. My tears turn sweet. The singing is meant to heal me. They are meant to heal me.
The order is gentle to me now, a soft plea rather than a command. My heart leaps to obey. But even as I once more ache to throw myself at the glass until I die, I know there is greater purpose in store for myself.
Dr. Lyst’s keycard slides smoothly into the slot, below the door where Control Room is inscribed above. The door unlocks without protest. Smiling with purest delight, I walk into the flexible, tubular hallway to the final door. It opens as easily as the first.
The control room is full of blinking lights and glowing dials. There are levers that adjust speed, keep up airlock, maintain pressure resistance. I stare at them all tenderly. They will be the instruments to reach my final destination. The engineer within the room looks up as I enter. He is an old man, his skin weathered and his hair white. He is terrified as well, just like all those who don’t understand the music. His hands are clapped over earbuds in his ears as he hunches over the board of buttons and dials. I approach him, approach the board, but he screams, an unpleasant interruption to the beautiful singing that surrounds and resides in me.
I reach for the board but he blocks me. I push my way through but he stops me again.
“Get out of my train, son! He shrieks, “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
I am angered now. Angered that he would seek to elevate such garish noise over such exquisite melody. Angered that he would disregard my purpose. That he would disregard me.
Wordlessly, but with every ounce of strength in my body, I grab his head with both my hands. The old man struggles and kicks, but I am stronger, more purposeful. The back of his head slams down into the board. I hear a crack whether of bone or circuitry I am not sure. The engineer utters a final, gurgling cry and tumbles onto the floor, a growing puddle of red forming under his head.
I used to be bothered by such things like death and violence. But now they seem like necessary tasks to accomplish a greater beauty. The music caresses me lovingly. I know they would approve.
I grab the first sliding lever and the train slows to a stop.
I hear the singing grow in climax, voices and voices layering and strengthening in volume and number. I weep tears of joy for I know I will join them soon. We will join them soon.
The next lever is for the pressure lock. I disable it. The board stars flashing angry, frantic red. A voice sounds out.
In a couple more seconds the immense force of pressure will tear the Oceania Express into pieces. Torrents of black water will gush down the halls and into the cars, flushing everyone out into the dark abyss of the Mariana Trench.
I only smile. I know there is more than death waiting for me out there. They wait for me too, to heal my hurts and salve my sorrows.
“My sirens,” I whisper, “I’m coming.”
About the Creator
Emma is an aspiring creative who deeply loves art of all kinds. She is a hopeless movie geek and book nerd who spends her free time buried in novels and practicing her violin. She hopes to use her writing to inspire her fellow humans.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme