No breaks, No engineer, but what he finds most disturbing is an empty candy wrapper.
Her words drifted to me like grains of sand on a breeze.
“What do you notice?”
My eyes darted from left to right but I saw nothing. I felt warm. I heard a steadily increasing rhythm. A train maybe... Yes, a train. But its hypnotic chugging wasn’t the strongest sensation I had.
At first I sort of muttered it, almost sleepily. Embarrassed by my sheepishness, I attempted to correct myself. This time I cleared my throat and enunciated.
My own voice broke me from my slumber. After I blinked my blurry eyes, I discovered Nevada’s landscape rolling by me like a moving image.The knots of yucca grass, pale blue mountains and wide open sky were familiar to me, more than most probably. As I peered at the scenery the unmistakable whistle of a train wailed. Clearly I was staring out the window of a lounge car but I didn’t recall boarding.
My mouth was sticky and dry. Turning from the window, I found a table before me draped in a white linen tablecloth. Placed delicately on either side of the table were fanned napkins constrained by thick brass rings. My glass of water was sweating, the ice bobbing and tinkling along with the vibrations of the train. I lifted the cool glass to my lips and sipped the icy water, but the sensation wasn’t muted. I still tasted cinnamon.
An unusually dressed young blond approached me. She was wearing a mauve beaded flapper dress. Affixed on her head was a black fascinator, the netting of which fell just above her left eye. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked.
Her right arm was weighed down by a tray carrying glasses.
“Um, no. Thank you.”
“How about your girl?” she motioned to the empty red velvet chair across from me. Grace… where did she go? At her place sat the pamphlet for that evening's event: “Experience the roaring 20’s with the Nevada Northern Railway,” it advertised. But the pamphlet wasn’t all she left behind. There was also a red cellophane wrapper untwisted next to her water glass. But only one. While eyeing the wrapper perplexedly, I lied.
“Oh, she just stepped out for a moment but I think she is all set. Thank you.”
“Are you two on a special date or somethin’?”
“Yes, it’s our anniversary.”
“Are you local?”
“Actually…yes. Just South of here…about 2 and a half hours. Have you ever heard of Rachel?”
“Of course honey, it’s right next to Area 51,” she chuckled. “Everybody loves a good alien story, am I right?”
Alien… the word caused a shiver to crawl down my spine.
“Have you ever seen one?” She asked sarcastically. I chuckled along nervously. Now that she mentioned it, I think she would be rather surprised to learn just how much not everyone enjoyed, let alone believed, a good alien story.
Just then a woman’s voice crackled through what I imagined was some sort of PA system.
“What was that?” I asked the young waitress, gesturing toward the ceiling.
“Oh, that’s just Sandy. Whelp, let me know if you need anything else,” she wandered off to the next empty glass.
I rubbed my sweaty palms on my linen pants. Where was Grace? Hoping to spy her coming back from…somewhere… I peered down the narrow aisle. No dice. In an attempt to refocus, I turned back to the scrolling landscape .
This was the train ride we took for our tenth anniversary… I remembered that, but it was happening now. The Mountains stared back at me with as much confusion as my reflection in the window. We had dressed up, we had sat down… but what happened next? My head began to throb as I tried to remember.
The hairs on my arms stood on end. Repressing the urge to gag, I cautiously turned to find a surprisingly kindly looking older gentleman. He was wearing a black vest and hat adorned by a brass oval engraved with the word “conductor.” A wave of prickly cold rushed over me. I couldn’t understand the reaction my body was having. It was like I knew him even though we never met.
“What are you feeling?” Sandy inquired.
Quickly I glanced up toward the speaker again and then back at the man. We locked eyes while I patted my pockets. They were empty. Sheepishly I replied “Oh… sorry. I must have misplaced it.” The smile on his face receded like the tide. In its place I found a cold, threatening disposition. Even his rosy complexion became gray.
Sandy crackled through the metal grate on the ceiling again. “Breathe. What comes up?”
“I need to get to the locomotive,” the words escaped my lips before I could fathom them.
Just then the train jolted violently, which was followed by a loud “POP!” I whipped back to the window. Clouds of black smoke rolled past. I pressed against the glass to peer down at the rails where sparks were flying. Suddenly the slow roll of the Nevada terrain became a rapid moving blur. A chaotic chorus of escalating shrieks and sobs filled the car.
The conductor hurried toward the connecting car and shouted,“Everyone stay calm!”
But there was no mistaking how quickly the train was gaining ground. Then a woman towards the front let out a piercing scream. Panic swept through the train like a wave. Pressing my face against the glass, my panting breath fogging the window, I soon saw why. What looked to be the engineer was now rolling along the rails like a tumbleweed.
Grace! I jumped up to find her. Everyone was pushing and shoving. I nearly tripped over a little boy wearing a tie dye ‘Rachel Nevada’ shirt with a glow in the dark alien head in the center. He was crouching on the ground holding a red cellophane candy wrapper.
“Hey!” I shouted at him.
He gawked at me, eyes wide as saucers, then darted away. I slipped in and out of people trying to catch up with him but the car began to spin.
“Pay attention to your body. What are you feeling?” Sandy’s tin can voice asked me.
“I’m lightheaded. I’m going to vomit.”
“Okay, Let’s Pause here,” Sandy suggested from the ceiling. Suddenly all the people vanished like apparitions while the train continued to speed wildly down the iron rails.
“Picture a cloud and give it a color that represents calm to you.”
I crawled over to the window and pulled myself up by the sill. Nevada whipped by as the train sped up.
“Focus on the sky.”
I took my eyes off the increasing danger and looked at the white puffy clouds unbothered by our turmoil. I imagined the color blue. One little puff of cloud trailing behind the others suddenly turned electric blue.
“Good, now imagine a color that represents distress for you.”
It took barely a second before there was a bright red cloud before me.
“Now what I want you to do is breathe in the blue cloud and exhale the red one,” Sandy advised.
I inhaled through my nose and watched the blue cloud move closer, then exhaled and watched as the red cloud sailed away across the desert, too far to be seen any longer.
“Breathe again,” Sandy instructed. I inhaled 1-2-3-4-5. Then exhaled 1-2-3.
The spinning ceased. I turned and carefully walked toward the door.
“What do you notice?”
On the wall next to the handle was a huge red button that read “Keep going.”
“I have to keep going, someone has to stop the train,” I reported back.
“Go with that.”
I gripped the handle and opened the door to the next car.
This car was identical to the one before; wooden walls and stained glass above the windows, but all the seats were missing and the entire floor was covered in a foot of sand.
Was I still on the train? I could still hear the rapid chugging. A quick look out the window confirmed that though I was standing in what looked to be the desert, I was still a passenger on a runaway train.
“What do you notice?” Sandy’s voice came from my hip this time.
I glanced down surprised at the direction from which her voice came and realized I wasn’t wearing my roaring 20’s attire any longer. Instead I was suited up in full combat gear, walkie talkie on the left hip, gun on my right.
A hissing came from the middle of the car. Turning, I found an angry vulture guarding an empty black trash bag. He looked directly at me and expressed his displeasure.
“I’m panting. The vulture seems to be angry with...” I began but was distracted by the sound of a small voice softly crying. I looked up from the walkie to find the vulture had gone and in its place, in a ball, was the boy from before.
“Hey!” I shouted and started toward him. Like ghosts walking through walls, a whole squadron appeared inside the car with us, guns drawn and shouting.
“Get down! Put your hands on your head! Freeze right there!”
The boy’s voice was raspy from dehydration but he managed to choke out “please, please help! I’m lost. I got lost in the desert. I swear!”
“What do you notice?” Sandy nudged again.
“My heart is racing. I have sweat rolling down my face.”
“What lie do you believe?”
“The soldiers… they want to hurt the child.”
I closed my eyes and obeyed.
“What comes up?”
I opened my eyes and saw the soldiers lower their weapons and approach the boy with compassion. They helped him up. One was on his radio reporting to his superior “there’s a child out here, Sir. He appears to be lost. Possibly injured.” Another soldier gave the lad a drink from his canteen.
“The soldiers tried to help. They were just scared.”
“What do you notice in your body?”
“My shoulders are lowering. My arms are relaxing. I feel…peace.”
But the peace didn’t last long.
Something neon green rolled across the floor and bumped into my combat boot.
“I notice something new,” I said.
“Go with that,” Sandy encouraged.
I bent down and picked up the yo-yo.
As I held it in my hand the scene inside the car altered again. Now I was standing on a street that took up the entirety of the floor. One single street lamp shone a lonely cone of light in the corner. The light brought me no comfort, however. Similarly with the conductor, I experienced an urge to vomit.
Avoiding the street light, I crossed the car to the window. The sun had begun to go down, the train was still speeding out of control and now I could see we were headed toward a rather sharp turn. At the end of the turn hovered an intimidating cumulonimbus cloud. There lightning struck the tracks. My breathing quickened. I was clutching the yo-yo.
“What do you notice?”
I gazed at the toy in my hand. I knew this yo-yo. I turned it over in my palm. Yes, like I suspected, there was an alien head in the middle.
“Yo-yo,” I reported back to Sandy.
Sandy didn’t respond. Still looking at the yo-yo I said “Sandy?”
I looked toward my hip for the walkie talkie, but it was gone.
Now I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a pair of Converse. The yo-yo string was tied to my finger and the yo-yo was extended to the ground. I watched it go up and down three times before a wave of nausea rolled over me again. I couldn’t avoid it any longer, and I puked next to the window. Bent low, I wiped my mouth and then heard it, an unmistakable sound.
Slowly I directed my gaze toward the street light. There it was, in all its sci-fi glory, the thing I could never talk about; a Jack Russell Terrier being walked by a green, eight foot, tentacled creature with cavernous eyes.
My alien, my monster.
The alien stopped to let the dog pee on the curb. I could hear the dog tag clinking on the collar as the dog did its thing. Cicadas trilled as lightning bugs blinked on the outskirts of the light. The alien looked up at the ceiling of the train, yawned with boredom and then down at his wrist as if he was checking the time.
Blood was rushing to my head so quickly it was hard to think. I needed Sandy, where was Sandy? I got dizzy and sat on the pavement. My shoe crunched the gravel underneath. Then my rushing blood turned to ice as I realized I had drawn attention to myself. Holding my breath, I looked up. The dog and the alien were staring at me.
In desperation, I did what I had been trained to do; I breathed.
Before I knew it I was standing a few feet from a smiling alien.
“Would you like to pet my dog?” the thing asked me.
I slid my hand in my jeans pockets nervously while the alien waited for my response.
My fingers gripped something crinkly. I knew the texture, I knew the sound. I almost vomited again, but steeled myself and closed my eyes tight as I pulled it out of my pocket. I held it in my hand in front of me and peeked out one eye.
There it was, the red cellophane wrapper.
I glanced up at the alien. My apprehension was gone. I smiled at him and declared ignorantly “I would love to pet your dog!” I bent down and gave the pooch a couple pats. It happily licked my face. His breath stank and his fur smelled like he had gotten caught in a downpour.
“I’m going to give him a bath at my place, do you want to help?”
“No, say no,” a voice urged from the back of my mind.
“Okay!” I said instead. My heart dropped to my feet. I followed the creature through the door to the next car.
This car was dark and smelled like cigar smoke. I stood in what appeared to be a living room but I could see out the picture window that Nevada was still zooming by. The alien took the dog off its leash and let it run into another room. He hung the leash on a hook and motioned toward the coffee table. “Would you like another sweet?” he offered. I walked over to the coffee table next to a burnt orange couch. The coffee table was littered with red cellophane wrappers lying next to a brown glass ashtray. I unwrapped a candy and popped it in my mouth.
The rabbit ear television was muted with the captions on. A woman newscaster looked straight back at me but I ignored the captions that instructed me to “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.”
The alien crossed behind me and said “Okay, let’s go! Jasper is ready for his bath!” I smiled at him, nodded, and then set the wrapper down on the coffee table with the rest. He disappeared behind what I could only assume was a bathroom door.
I looked back at the front door…I could leave. That thing might not notice I had left…My breathing was out of control but I ignored what my body was telling me. I darted my eyes back toward the bathroom door… I always wanted a dog though… I shrugged off the uneasiness and walked toward the bathroom. The door was cracked open slightly, the light leaked out around the edges and I could hear the sound of running water. Swallowing hard, I grabbed the metal doorknob, turned it and went in.
Instantly, I could see the train tracks before me. Now I was standing in some kind of open air car. The clouds were heavy with imminent downpour. The sky was ebony but sapphire where the lighting struck. I looked down to find I was standing in what should be the coal car. However, this car wasn’t filled with coal…it was filled with large, heavy black trash bags
The taste of cinnamon was intensifying on my tastebuds, I heard my heart pounding inside my head, I also heard the sound of… electricity. I was no longer alone in the coal car.
Before me stood the alien wearing a black suit. He outstretched his long arms and drew his spiny digits together as if to pull something together from the air. As the tips of his tentacles touched, electricity emitted like a taser, and his mouth drooped like melting wax, revealing a gaping hole.
“What did you do? What did you do to the boy?” I demanded.
In a hollow, gravely voice the monster asked, “What boy?”and pointed to my shirt.
Looking down, I saw a glow in the dark alien head in the middle of my tie-dyed t-shirt.
I looked back at the live alien standing before me; my eyes wide with realization and filled with tears.I could barely get it out, but I finally found the strength to ask the question I had been burying for so long.
“What did you do to…me?”
The alien slowly pointed his creepy tendrils at the trash bags.
“I couldn’t have any… loose ends,” he chuckled maliciously.
I gawked at the bags before me, under me… everywhere. I was overwhelmed. I crumpled in a lump onto the refuse. The alien drew his fingers together again to gather electricity from the air while approaching me. The wind intensified. We were so close to the storm and to the bend we most definitely were going too fast for. How could I escape this?
Suddenly a scrap of paper broke loose from the garbage and collided with my chest. Sobbing, I pulled the paper off and glanced at it. The words “What do you notice?” were scrawled in cursive.
“What do I notice?” I muttered to myself. I looked back to the alien, he was advancing.
His suit, I noticed his suit. What kind of alien wears a suit with a vest…and carries a pocket watch? What kind of alien has a dog?
He was mere feet away when it hit me.
“You’re not an alien!” I declared.
The alien let out a cry and gripped his chest as he began to convulse. His visage became like clay, morphing and warping into his true identity. His tentacles transformed into fingers, knuckles and hands. His drooping jaw slowly reformed into a small weak jaw. His large eyes disappeared and in their place were deep set, pale blue eyes, surrounded by wrinkles. Before me stood the actual villain of my nightmares. It was no otherworldly monster. No, it was a man in a black vest and a top hat.
“What comes up?” a voice came from the radio on the conductor's hip.
Sandy, thank God!
I peered at my villain and I considered what came to me.
In one way it was better that it wasn’t a monster I couldn’t name, but in another way it was equally devastating because it took away the fiction. A man. My monster had always been a man. One I knew. One I trusted.
“What lie do you believe?” Sandy asked.
“It’s my fault… it’s my fault” I sobbed.
“What do you notice?”
I thought about the candy, the pile of wrappers on the coffee table, the bags and bags of trash I was standing on.
“Cinnamon” my voice broke a little as I said it, but saying it brought something deeper to the surface. From somewhere deep inside me a fury began to burn.
‘What do you notice in your body?” Sandy asked.
“Anger!” I yelled as I stood to my feet.
I addressed the conductor now.“You tried to get rid of me, but I survived! I came to… I came to and I poked a hole… I ripped that bag! Then…then I wandered in the desert you left me in!”
“What truth do you believe now?” Sandy gently nudged.
“It’s not my fault! It’s his!”
I looked the conductor dead in the eye and with an animalistic rage I bellowed my freedom.
Just then a bolt of lightning struck the conductor and eviscerated him where he stood.
I fell to my knees gasping for air, but only momentarily. The train was about to go around the bend. I could feel the rain begin to pelt my face. I jumped up and stumbled through the bags of trash, working my way toward the locomotive. I slid down the last few bags into the engineers’ room. I knew the breaks were shot, how could I stop this train? The thunder boomed and the lightning cracked across the sky. The rain was heavy now.
I looked at the gauges. Instead of numbers all the instruments read one word “ Breathe.”
Okay, what sounded like a breath? I considered this for a moment. Then I saw the chain for the steam whistle. I gripped it weeping, and pulled down allowing the train to echo the sound of my sorrow. All at once the train, the tracks and the storm faded away.
I blinked my eyes until my surroundings were no longer blurry. I wiped them and found that I had hot tears streaking down my cheeks. Slowly I realized I was in an office, sitting in an upholstered slipper chair. Across from me sat a lady in a pantsuit and eyeglasses, a clipboard on her lap and a blue pen resting against the corner of her mouth.
“That’s good Jack, breathe.”
I realized I could still hear a rhythmic sound that resembled the chugging of a train. I glanced over to her desk to see a radio, from which the sound was emanating. Next to the radio sat a gold placard engraved with the name “Dr. Sandra Cooper.” Above her desk was a poster breaking down the eight steps of EMDR.
That’s right. I was there trying a new type of therapy. It used rapid eye movement and bilateral stimulation to help people who struggled with PTSD to work through traumatic memories. I had come with...like a bolt of lightning it hit me.
I quickly turned to my left. Her mascara was smeared a little. She sat in a chair against the wall, electric blue sundress, and flip flops.
“Grace!” I exclaimed.
She responded with a warm smile.
A wave of sorrow came over me again as I realized what I had just learned.
“Grace,” my voice cracked. “ Sweetie, I remembered.”
The corner of her mouth shuddered a little as she replied, “I know sweetheart.”
About the Creator
My life is a little crazy. Four kids, homeschool, hotel clerk, write, create and coffee. Coffee is a verb. Do you coffee? I aspire to blow glass and finish / publish my novel. I would like to have an impact. Also, coffee.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Original narrative & well developed characters
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
This was exceptional. It was creepy and exciting, and even though I knew what was happening to him from the beginning with the therapy and voice over, etc... It was still surprising and satisfying at the end. You gave just enough away and withheld the right amount. Truly exceptionally done!
Very well thought out! I loved the idea of the intercom throughout!
I loved the creepiness factor about midway in, when you're starting to get an idea of what's happening but aren't sure yet. Great story!
Insightful and meaningful story - the psychological element came alive with your personal artwork. Impressed by your plethora of talent.
Loved your imagery here!!
Great story. Very well done.
What a trip! I did not see the end coming, and it was such a satisfying twist. Well done.
Reads like a fever dream, so well done and an absolutely spot on metaphor, well done!
Loved the originality and psychological element
ILoved the pace and intensity. The twist at the end brought everything together. Well done❤️
Fabulous!!! 👽Loving it!💖💕
It's such a personal touch adding your own art like that. Really makes it come alive. I liked the therapy references. My fav line though is: As the tips of his tentacles touched, electricity emitted like a taser, and his mouth drooped like melting wax, revealing a gaping hole. <- like I could picture it so clearly and then boom! Also an illustration. Very well done. Enjoyed the psychic edge to the tale.
You had me hooked from the beginning! Beautifully written. Loved the premise and the ending! I also noticed your love for coffee in your bio ;) I LOVE coffee and have 4 kids as well.
OMGOSH! I can't lie, I knew he was in therapy and that's what had me hooked. LOL! Still VERY good piece!!
I loved this so much! Loved the theme and concept you chose. I was hooked right from the beginning. You did a fantastic job on this story!
Very intriguing! Love the end!
Easily one of the best stories I've read for this challenge! It was very emotional and captivating read. Bravo! :)
This was a joy to read. As Morgana below stated, it was both riveting and heartbreaking in equal measures. It also demonstrated how easily the mind can twist trauma into something different to make it easier to deal with (if it doesn't altogether lock it away behind a wall). This, Meagan, was amazing to read. Keep up the good work!
WOW. Absolutely riveting, heartbreaking and liberating all at once. You took a delicate subject and you did it an immense, beautiful justice. Bravo. <3