“Slow down,” Mary quipped to John. John was being a leadfoot as usual, zipping past cars and changing lanes whenever the opportunity arose. “I think the exit‘s coming up, get in the right lane.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John muttered. He never said much. Taking a quick glance over his shoulder, he swerves the car across two lanes of traffic. Mary twitches as several drivers blow their horns. “Yeah, yeah,” he responds.
“I wish you wouldn‘t drive like this,” Mary whispers.
“Why not?” John asks. “Does it scare you?” He shakes the steering wheel, and the car zig-zags within the lane. Another horn honks.
Mary covers her eyes, “Please don‘t.”
John laughs. A deep, belly laugh.
Ahead, a slow moving Voltswagon bus belchs dark smoke. “See?” John pounds the steering wheel, “This is why I don‘t drive in the right lane. Maniacs like this driving probably twenty slower than everyone else.”
“We‘re almost there,” Mary whispers to no one in particular.
“I can‘t believe idiots like this are allowed on the road!” John glances up and down the lane to the left, looking for an opening to slip into. “Gotcha ya!” he cries out as he swerves into the left lane.
“John!” Mary screams.
A semi, who had also been taking the opportunity to move right, swung toward the side of their car. John swerved right, but not before the mirror was ripped off by huge trailer. The semi blasts its horn, sending a ripple of distraction through the busy traffic.
“Why that little...” John steams as he tightens his grip on the steering wheel.
“Get off the freeway,” Mary cries.
“I‘m gonna get the license number of that asshole and report him!” John slows down to manuever behind the truck.
“John, just get off the freeway,” Mary implores.
Without the mirror, John crains his neck even further to check the lane. Mary‘s eye instinctively follow. Almost an opening, but not enough...
John looks forward.
The car ahead is stopped. Stopped!?! On the freeway!?!?
The sound registers first. It sounds like a can being crushed. The front of the hood seems to pop up and the windshield shatters. A force, now, like a giant hand pushing into the seatbelt. Difficult to breathe. The car spins out, and another impact. Mary looks at John, as the car is torn in half. The distance between them increases, as Mary reaches out her hand. Why so slowly? She tries to call out.
John‘s eyes are full of fear.
“I‘ve never seen him afraid before,” Mary thinks.
Sitting in a chair. A wooden chair. The scene slowly comes into focus. Mary rubs her head. Why? Because her head pounds horribly. A migraine?
Her voice is weak, but her strength is returning. What is this place? A series of simple wooden chairs desperately in need of sanding and staining line the wall. She sits in one of them. Why this particular one?
In the center are benches, like pews at church. Church? She looks toward the altar, but there is none, only some faded, yellow papers nailed to a rotted bulletin board.
She stands. She stumbles. She falls. Dust swirls around on the floor in her wake.
The chair groans as she hoists herself up again. Stumbling toward the center, she leans on one of the benches. Slowly, one step at a time, she comes to the front. The paper is so old, too old to read. She touches it, and a piece breaks off and flutters away.
Her clothes are different? Different how? She wears a simple gown, like a nightgown or a robe. The paper fluttered toward an open door. She can walk now, the pain is subsiding.
The doorway opens into a vast expanse of desert. A restless wind blows.
“John!” she calls out, shielding her face from the blowing sand. “HELLO!!”
Outside, she stands on a simple stone platform. The sun burns hot overhead, and orange sand seems to extend endlessly in all directions.
Ahead, at the end of the platform, two metal rails extend toward the horizon. Train tracks, going eternally to the horizon.
She steps off the platform into the sand. It‘s soft and difficult to walk in. Her shoes, bath sandles really, are filled with sand. Coming around to the front of the building, she sees a worn sign above the doorway.
“Darn it,” she despairs to herself. Stumbling up to the front door, she swings it open easily and finds herself back in the small building.
With its wooden chairs. And benches that look like pews. And decaying notices and schedules.
She slips onto the nearest bench and begins to cry. “Somebody... Please... Anybody...”
In the distance, a train whistle blows. Mary looks up. Was it real?
She stumbles out, again, onto the platform. In either direction, the tracks extend into the wavy horizon of heat, wind and sand.
Yet again the whistle sounds, closer now. It seems like forever, yet finally she can see, amidst the waves of heat, the train approaching in the distance. Again and again the whistle sounds. For what?
Three huge diesels lead the train, belching forth dark smoke. Smoke... Like a Voltswagon bus...
“Hey!” she screams, jumping up and down, and waving her hands, “Hey! Stop!” The whistle drowns her voice.
The squeal of brakes erupts into the air and the train rolls slowly into the station. Each engine is jet black, except for a single number in a dirty grey.
The cars are not freight, but passenger. Mary gasps. What a stroke of luck!
With a final squeal, the train lurches to a stop. The engine hisses and clunks. The passenger windows, Mary notices, all have the shades drawn, and besides them the cars are black. Except for the door, on which is a single number in a dirty grey.
One of the doors opens, the 9 sliding aside, and a gaunt, pale man leans out.
Mary runs over to him. “I need help, you see, I don‘t know what happened, I was just in the car and then something and I don‘t know, I don‘t know, I need to get home. I‘ll pay anything.”
“Ticket?” The man asks.
Looking for at him for first time, Mary sees that this man is not simply gaunt, but pale and stretched, beyond what the body is made to endure.
She backs away.
“Ticket?” The man repeats.
“Um,” she reachs into her pocket instinctly, and is surprised to find a rough piece of paper. She draws it out.
It‘s a simple affair, as if made on a typewriter; no graphics or logos.
RAIL TRANSIT TICKET PASSENGER NAME: Mary Kelli Levinworthe DATE OF DEPARTURE: 2 February 2004 PLACE OF DEPARTURE: D.o.R. Station 7 DATE OF ARRIVAL: Not Applicable PLACE OF ARRIVAL: E.U.S. TRAIN NUMBER: 9
“Um,” she says, staring at the paper.
“I‘ll take that, missy,” the man reaches an almost skeletal hand out. The skin, Mary notices as she shrinks away, is almost clear. His hand closes on the ticket and it slips out of her hand. He inspects it for a moment, then retreats into the darkness of the train car.
“Come,” his voice intones from within, “Welcome aboard the number nine.”
Her eyes haven‘t yet adjusted to the darkness by the way the conductor has directed her to a seat. The whistle blows, muffled now by the insulted car, and the train begins to move again. As her eyes adjust, she sees that other figures, horribly gaunt, bodies twisted in various ways, litter the seats. Their eyes watch her, the stranger, the newcomer.
“Um...” she whispers.
The window shade seems to be jammed shut. Rattle, rattle, shake, shake. The train thunders onward.
She pries and pries, and the shade gives a lot. The introduction of light into the cabin, even a sliver, stirs the other passengers. They shift, moving their broken bodies from one position to another. Yet from their seats they do not rise.
Mary peeks through at the crack of light. Outside, only desert. Nothing else can be seen.
Mary cries. At first, soft, quiet tears, but later full on bawling. The other passengers stare at her, but make no move to offer assistance or even a kind word.
Stumbling free of her seat, she bursts into the next car. Another car full of a the same “people”. Can you even call them people? Only vaguely in appearance.
In one of the last seats, she spies the conductor working entries in a logbook. Slowly. So very slowly.
“Hey,” she calls out, storming up to him. “What‘s going on? Why does everyone look like a mole?”
He looks up slowly at her.
“Where is this training going? What‘s the next stop?”
“Yours,” he replies slowly, “was the last.”
“What do you mean, the last?”
“This,” a hint of emotion rises in his voice, almost excitement, “is the express train!”
As if to offer affirmation, or perhaps punctuation, the train blasts its horn.
“To where? What‘s the route? Where did the train come from?”
He closes the log-book. “This train, like the others...”
“What others?” she interrupts.
“Why, numbers one through eight, of course. But as I was saying, this train originates in the mountains of treachery. This is the most difficult part of the route, so we like to finish it quickly. Not too many passengers though,” he muses, stroking his bare and decripit chin, “from there into the hills of ignorance. Not a bad place, really. Our first major batch of passengers generally gets on around the trees of sharing. After that, we pass through the forest of peace and the plains of community. That last one has a beautiful station, I might add, really love to see that station. That‘s about it. We cross the river of truth, and”
He leans closer, and whisper, “I hear that anyone who manages to cross the river themselves will find themselves suddenly on the opposite shore of Eternity!”
“But,” returning to his regular voice, “we simply pass over it. It‘s really the one place when everyone opens the windows and watchs. Beautiful, beautiful...” he mutters and seems to trail off, “Yes, and then the window shades go down, because we enter the desert of the real.”
“The desert of the real?”
“There‘s a couple of old, rarely used stations along the way. When I received notice of your pick-up, I figured it was a mistake, until the engineer actually saw you on the platform. We haven‘t picked up someone in the desert for, gosh, I don‘t know how long.”
“Sir, I have to ask: What happened to everyone here?”
“Oh, don‘t worry about that, it‘s just a natural side effect of being cooped up inside the train. I mean, no one wants to look at the desert, certainly not slow down the journey any longer than needed by stopped, so we just all bear it. It won‘t be long now, your station was the last stop.”
“Last stop until what?”
“Until the sea of Eternity, of course,” his eyes twinkle.
“The sea of Eternity?”
“And after that?”
“You mean the other shore?”
“Well, being across the sea of Eternity, you have to cross infinity to get there.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know why the people are so tired and gaunt? We‘ve been crossing the desert now for two hundred years, plus or minus a few, of course. Hard to keep track sometimes.”
Mary‘s eyes widen.
“But,” he continues, “that‘s nothing compared to the sea of Eternity.”
Mary sits in silence, the thundering of the train‘s wheels against the rail being the only sound echoing in the cabin.
“John...” she whispers.
“Pardon Missy?” the conductor asks.
The train horn blasts, then again, and again. The conductor smiles broudly and picks up a hand held microphone connected to the cabin wall.
“Attention passengers,” his voice echoes throughout the car. The other passengers stir and look around. Some color seems to re-enter their limbs. “You may now open the shades, the sea of Eternity is at hand!”
All around, shades open, revealing the desert has been replaced by sandy dunes. Passengers are alive, as if woken from a slumber and they point and whisper. A beam of sunshine falls upon the conductor and his skin seems to darken, richen and fill out. Ahead, a sparkling ocean like diamonds extends into the distance.
“This is always the best part of the trip,” he smiles.
Several passengers cheer.
The train crosses off the land tracks and unto a bridge; the sand rescends away beneath the surface of perfectly clear water, rolling with gentle waves.
Mary looks back at the conductor, who has apparently regained a nice moustache and bit of hair in the interim, and asks, “My husband, John...”
The conductor opens the log-book, and leafs through it. “John Fredick Levinworthe?”
“Yes, sir,” she answers in anticipation.
He closes the book.
“I‘m sorry,” he says, downcrest.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“The schedule shows that he was issued a ticket for the number two.”
“What does that mean?”
“Missy, on the number two, passengers don‘t sit in seats. They shovel coal, continually, non-stop. Number two will pick him up at the volcanoes of hatred and he will shovel coal for the next ten thousand years before that train finally crosses what we have crossed in a mere two hundred, or only a day or so for your lucky self. A dirty, awful, foul train the number two is. Eventually, of course, they will arrive at the end of the desert of the real, your station, as a matter of fact; that‘s the end of the line. The number two doesn‘t cross the sea of Eternity.”
“What happens to the people?”
He shrugs. “Their choice. Some try to walk it. There‘s a pedestarian path on this bridge too. Others walk back the way they came. Some of them get tickets for other trains when they get off, they just have to wait a bit. Some just wander off, never to be seen again...” He frowns, “I really don‘t know.”
Mary fights back tears. “Will I ever see my husband again?”
He smiles. “That‘s the beauty of Eternity. No matter how long it takes him to get a ticket for a train crossing, you and him will arrive at precisely the same time, along with everyone else.”
“And now to traffic, we have a major injury accident on the 5 blocking all lanes northbound. Fire and medics are on the scene right now where witnesses say a swerving car hit a semi and lost control. Apparently this started a chain reaction.”
“That‘s right, Jane, we have about twenty cars involved all together in a real dominio effect of a pile-up. The lead car is pretty mangled, looks from here like there‘s actually part of it now on the left and right shoulders. Police say there were two fatalities, one person in serious condition, and an assortment of minor injuries.”
“Thanks, Tim. Be safe if you‘re driving tonight, and those of you who plan to take the 5 should think about alternative routes for the next few hours at least. Now on to sports...”
If you miss the train I‘m on, you will know that I am gone; you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.
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