Nightfall

As the train crawled away from the station, the great piles of people rose and rolled off each other. I was among those in the middle, and was grateful when the weight atop me cleared. The car was full of pained groans and gasping breath. Many people immediately cast themselves upon the floor when once they were free. Others doubled over with their hands on their knees, sank into a chair, or buried their heads in their arms against the wall. I went to look out the nearest window.

The beast remained alone with a few scattered bodies on the platform. It watched us leave with an expression of malignant satisfaction in its eye. I have no doubt that it could have significantly damaged or even derailed the train, but it did not chase us. Instead, it bent down and snatched up one of its victims. While I watched, it tilted its head back, the throat flexing like a snake, and the body disappeared whole in a few quick gulps. I turned away.

With the immediate danger passed, I surveyed the crowd again. Cody was not among us. I saw that there were doors on either end of our train car through which I could pass to the other cars along the line. But somehow I knew that I wouldn’t find him there either. I had lost track of him in the panic. One way or another, the monster we left back on the platform had gotten to him. I decided to check the other cars anyway. I wove my way around the various people in their various states of shock and dismay. I gave a push on the door handle and some mechanism hidden inside took over. The door slid open.

The car I entered looked exactly the same as the one I left. People there also fought to catch their breath and composure. I picked a path through them, looking at each one to see if I recognized Cody. Just as I expected, I did not find him. A furious noise came from the door at the opposite end. I opened it and looked through. It was the engine car, apparently working fine all on its own. I let the door close before me and turned around. There was at least one more car to search. I didn’t want to think any further before I’d seen everything.

I went through the two cars quickly and crossed into the last. It only took a moment to see the truth. Just to be sure, I opened the door at the other end. It was another engine car, this one silent. I only looked in for an instant, and then spun back around. The door closed behind me. It was surprising to find an engine on each end. What could the meaning of that be? It didn’t quite matter, Cody hadn’t made it. The weight of it settled on me and I leaned back against the door. Gone. Not just for a few years this time. Gone for good.

I sank down and held my face in my hands. It was only then that I realized that I was still breathing heavily. I forced myself to take in deep breaths and blow out through my nose. I expected despair to wash over me, but there was nothing. My chest heaved, but my hands stayed dry. Still, the sound of sobs came to my ears. I looked up, my breathing starting to slow. The crying came from just before me. A woman sat in a chair nearby in much the same position I was in, crying into her hands. Not far away, another on the floor did the same thing.

I pushed myself back to standing and gazed over the train car. All over, people were falling apart. Small groups huddled together to comfort each other, individuals wept and rocked back and forth. One man was vomiting out an open window. Apparently not many were handling the situation as well as I was. Maybe it was just the adrenaline that kept me going.

I watched this process unfold before me and thought of what might lie ahead. That was only the first stop, and we had three more to go. What else might we face? What would be the state of people if things got progressively worse? There was somebody else whom I had noticed missing, the man who had established himself as the leader of this group. He must have been smashed or swallowed as well. The train plowed on ahead, and I wondered where it could be taking us.

I made my way back through the train cars, careful to neither disturb, nor become entangled in the nervous breakdown that was going on in each one. I saw many people who were wearing the blood of someone who had died beside them. Some were desperately trying to clean it off. Here and there, I saw faces looking at me with a kind of expectation. Nobody else was moving in the train, so I stuck out as I passed through for the second time. Some reached out to me with an arm, as though to comfort me. I smiled and softly rebuffed them. Many simply looked, and I thought they wanted something. I knew what it must be, but I didn’t want to think about it.

As I neared the front end of the train once again, more and more clear eyes and calm faces turned my way. Not everyone was a wreck. I was not alone in keeping a clear head. But my mind was on what was coming up, and I hoped for a view from the front window of the engine car. I pushed the handle, and the door slid open. The room was no longer empty.

Past the massive engine that churned and shouted in the center of the car, a woman was standing at the front glass. It was a lonely sight, and I realized that people must have looked at me the same way. I eased around the equipment and found myself next to her. She jumped slightly when I showed up next to her, and then tried to smile. Conversation was impossible in the noise of that train car, but I think we both took a little comfort from each other’s presence.

I looked out at the scenery before us. The tracks went out before us, straight on until they disappeared over a hill. The jungle was gone, replaced by rolling grass hills and sparse trees. Way out ahead, larger hills appeared, not green, but brown and black. I turned back and looked at the woman again. It might have been the same who had first seen the dinosaurs grazing over the treetops so long ago. But it could have been somebody entirely different.

It seemed as if everyone on the train was a clone of everyone else. All the men were serious and important. All the women looked worn out. Everyone was about fifteen years older than me, everyone was dressed for work as a nameless office drone. Grey, brown, coats, skirts, ties, frazzled hair, red-rimmed eyes. Then the woman pointed out the window with a strange laziness, and I saw that it really was her.

We were topping the hill. The train tracks followed the gentle slope down and joined with another set at the bottom. These ran out sharply to the right. Not much further on, the tracks ended. The woman leaned in and cupped her hands around my ear. I could feel her moist breath, and when she spoke, she shouted. “Station two!”

As we approached the second stop, I noticed something wrong. It was late afternoon and the sun was giving its last great effort before it waned. In that bright light, I saw that there was gravel across the tracks. It began harmlessly, just a speck or two on the rails. But the end of the tracks disappeared under the loose rock. The train’s brakes applied automatically. Not soon enough, I thought, to account for the gravel.

I imagined that I could feel those first few rocks get crushed under the great mass of the train. The brakes squealed, but we still glided smoothly. Then the gravel began to be too much. The ride got rough. The stones built up under the train’s wheels and the whole thing began to shutter. I was thrown first forward, and then back. The woman fell with me.

I thought for sure that we were going to derail. The jarring bumps and shakes became more pronounced. Screams from the passenger car behind me overwhelmed even the noise of the engine and the brakes. But the train slowed, and the violence diminished. The train stopped. The engine room fell completely silent. Amazed at our luck, I rose to my feet. The woman pulled herself up, her hair all across her face. She swept it aside and repeated, “Station two.”

Far away, I heard the other engine car start up. Immediately, the train began to reverse. We pulled away, no hint of the gravel disturbing our passage. I looked out the window and saw how the wheels had driven away the gravel from the tracks. Two deep ruts showed where we had finally stopped, the ends not quite showing metal, only powdered rock. It scared me to see how close we had come to disaster.

“Now what?” I asked.
“Station three,” she answered. I felt the train turn out along the other track.

I left her as I found her, alone. The passenger car was in disarray. People were still picking themselves up, wobbling and off balance under the fresh movement. A few had been injured as they fell, though nothing looked more serious than a bruise. New panic swirled among them, and I made an effort to comfort and reassure them. People looked up into my eyes, tears often welling in their own, and quieted down almost immediately. I did not understand the effect, but I went through each of the cars like a traveling physician.

When I reached the end, the afternoon was passing on to evening. I was spent. The noise of the engine at what had become the front of the train was oppressive, so I went all the way back to the other end. It looked as though everyone was beginning to settle down to rest. People stretched out on the floor or pulled their knees up to their chests on a chair. It was not quite dark outside, but many were already sleeping. They looked like babies who had exhausted themselves in a tantrum. I began to let myself down in a corner, and those around immediately moved to give me extra room. Instead of protesting, I leaned my head back and fell asleep.

Next Chapter

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