A train stood at the platform. The night was dark, there was no moon and the blackness seemed to cover everything in an ethereal shroud. The cold bit through to the bone and the rain whipped at the face of a small and hunched figure, jogging towards the train. Pulling his raincoat up against the weather, he boarded the train. After taking a deep breath, he walked along the carriage, shacking his coat and looked for a seat.
A wide isle separated the two columns of seats, each one having a table. On his previous trips the seats had been much narrower and closer together. He was used to having no legroom, but he was also used to having the entire train to himself. It was always empty when he got on at this time of night. James Graham headed for the last seat at the back of the train, removing his coat and looking around at the strange layout of the train. The man sat next to him was tall, but wearing a kind of dark, hooded cloak; much ticker looking that the hoodies you would generally see people wearing, and it seemed to engulf his entire body.
The company had suggested that he drove down to London; they’d even offered him use of the company car. He’d declined; this was partly because he was a very nervous driver, but mainly because he wanted the extra night with his wife. He’d asked if he could arrive a little later, but they insisted on nine o’clock, and so he had to leave five and a half hours earlier. Still, it meant he could catch the last train and get there first thing.
“Tickets please!” shouted the conductor as the train pulled away.
As the conductor approached, James saw that he was a very unusual looking man; he wore a full suit and hat – the kind of thing you would have expected to see in the early twentieth century; all he was missing was a pocket watch. James handed his ticket over and the conductor examined it for a short time, a look of confusion spreading over his face, turning to angst.
“Oh dear, I’m afraid you’re on the wrong train, Sir,” The conductor said, sounding horrified that someone could have made such a mistake.
Several people in the carriage looked round, with a similar look as the conductor – somewhere between worry and pity.
James looked at him in disbelief, “I don’t see how, it’s the right time and no other trains stop there for at least an hour! Where does this train go then?”
“This is not a regular service, Sir,” replied the conductor, “I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake,”
“Oh shit! Sorry. I’ll get off at the next stop and get the next train back. You don’t know when that is do you? I’ve got a meeting at nine, and I can’t really be late!” asked James, beginning to wish he’d taken the car.
“You don’t understand,” the conductor hesitated, obviously trying to find the right words, “I’m afraid this is an… express service, Sir,” replied the conductor, fishing in his top pocket. James couldn’t believe it – there was the pocket watch.
“What do you mean, ‘express service’?” James regarded the conductor, obviously considering him an idiot, “Why would you have an express train at this time of night? Here, in this part of the country?”
The conductor looked around at all the full seats and then back to James, shaking his head.
“It doesn’t stop until the end of the line now, Sir,”
Suddenly, a realisation dawned on James.
“This is a private train isn’t it!” He looked around again, “Why the hell did you stop at the platform then – I was the only person to get on! It’s bloody ridiculous this – if this is a private train, you should only stop at recognised stops, where people are scheduled to get on! How am I supposed to know?”
“I’m afraid you’ve taken somebody’s seat now, Sir,”
“There was no one else on the platform!”
“No, like I said, you’ve taken somebody else’s place,” answered the conductor.
“So where does this train stop?”
James was beginning to get nervous, but he has no idea why – the thought of arriving late was part of it, but there was certainly something else. He looked over to his quiet, unsociable neighbour, who had not looked up, even once, at all this.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I have to check all the other tickets. I’ll come back to you later on,”
He looked past James to his neighbour, who didn’t have a ticket, but instead, raised his palm to the conductor. The palm looked like it had been tattooed or branded. Upon seeing this, the conductor was satisfied and moved away. As the conductor approached them, the other passengers held up their palms, they all had similar tattoos.
James was becoming unnerved.
“Is this a private train or something?” he asked his neighbour, “That guy wasn’t exactly helpful!”
The man didn’t answer his, but drew closer into his thick, hooded cloak.
“Excuse me, I’m speaking to you!”
“I know. I don’t want to speak to you, though,” replied the neighbour, in a thick, guttural tone.
“What? Why not?”
The man withdrew the hood, which had until now, hidden his face. A wave of nausea swept through James’ stomach and into to his head. A vice clamped firmly onto his bowels and squeezed until they gave way. James screamed. The scream was a scream of fear, because his brain had slotted the pieces into place.
The man’s left eye was completely missing, a small amount of long dried blood trickled from the socket – like a tear, shed for his lost eye. There was something wrong with the back of his head, but James couldn’t quite see what it was – he suspected he knew, though. The clamp tightened.
“Your eye,” James offered, lamely.
The man looked down at the stain in James’ pants; he smiled, revealing a set of seemingly bloodstained teeth – most of which were missing.
The man regarded James with his remaining eye as though he were stupid, “I got shot in the head,”
The man chuckled a little to himself and replaced his hood.
He gestured to the man’s face “You need to see a doctor!” he suggested.
The man began to laugh in earnest, some of the other passengers chuckled at this comment to.
“It’s a bit late for that,”
“Late? Well, I suppose they can’t save your eye – I don’t know, but you might get an infection or something,”
James Graham was a man of logic: of reports and statistical analysis. The problems he faced everyday had set procedures to their solution. He knew the answer to this problem, though – why he was here, on this train, and what it meant to be here. He knew why the man sat next to him didn’t feel it necessary to see a doctor. Some form of sanity defence mechanism was holding a sheet in front of all this knowledge, but the sheet was getting very threadbare.
“I’m dead,” said his neighbour, confirming his line of thought.
The man pulled back his hood, again, and showed James the back of his head, which was mostly missing. Parts of his bloodstained skull were clearly visible, as were fragments of the brain that used to inhabit the cavity.
“Dead!” James shouted, with incredulity. Then he repeated it, with much less incredulity, but more resignation. The protective sheet was gone, and finally he was accepting the situation as it was.
“What are you doing on a train?”
“I think the question is, what are you doing on the train?”
James had never really believed in ghosts. He remained neutral on all the major religions and ignorant of the smaller, or more difficult ones. He had never really contemplated death, but when he had, he always pictured a white light and him floating peacefully toward it. Never, even in his worse nightmares or surreal dreams, had he thought that he would be catching the 1:15 to hell.
“Everyone on this train is dead?”
“Apart from you, apparently,” his neighbour replied.
James sat back, thinking that he must be dreaming, when the conductor appeared again.
“You said earlier that I’d taken someone’s place, what did you mean by that?” asked James.
The conductor looked uncomfortable.
“The person who was scheduled to sit there will join a later train,”
“You mean I’ve died in someone’s place?”
“In a sense, yes.” Answered to conductor, “but you are still alive,” he finished weakly, almost as a question.
“How often do these trains run?”
“They run when there are people to board them, Sir,”
“People die every day – thousands of people die every day. Why aren’t the trains packed with people like me who mistakenly board the wrong train?”
“This train is a special service; not all people who die board this, or any other train,” the conductor struggled with his answers, obviously feeling that he either wasn’t equipped to give them, or wasn’t permitted to. He added, “This isn’t actually a train, you realise that, don’t you?”
James shook his head, “But I walked onto the train. I was alive. I am alive now! You just told me that!”
“I’m afraid that I don’t have the answers to your questions. All the explanation I can give you is that this train is not a train, the man sat next to you does not actually have a gaping hole in his head, and I am not really a conductor. Boarding this train was not a physical act – it was a spiritual one. You’re not the first person to make such a mistake, but very few people do,”
“Will I die before we reach the destination?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you what will happen, Sir,” He paused, “or when.”
“What happens if I arrive there alive?”
“Don’t worry about that, Sir,” the conductor disappeared through the carriage doors again.
James had spent an hour looking out of the window at total blackness, when he finally saw something. In the distance, a mountain brimmed with glowing lava, rivulets of which trickled down the side of the mountain, defining its shape in the blackness. This illuminated creatures, flying close to the mountain; although they were too small to determine form. The blackness returned, but James continued to look out of the window.
The train had been travelling for over twelve hours when James began to feel ill. He couldn’t explain the sudden sensation, but it began to bite into his kidneys first. He felt like he had been kicked there – hard. He doubled over with the pain, as he did so, blood began to pour from his mouth and nostrils; he sank to the foot-well, writhing in agony. For almost half an hour his blood flooded the train floor; the flow gradually getting stronger. His eyes burst, spasms of blood pumped from the empty sockets; he coughed as blood came from his mouth. He lay in a pool of blood, spluttering and screaming alternately, until blackness finally enveloped him.
His eyes opened.
He could see, but not as before. The fluorescent lit cabin was now much darker, the people in the cabin now appeared as though in infrared. Their bodies seemed to shimmer, and wisps of red drifted from them. There was yellow, too; not in everyone, but some people had, what could only be described as, yellow scars; the yellow was harsh, and seemed to cut into the red. His neighbour had great swathes of yellow, cutting right through his head.
The cabin smelled of burning rubber.
The trained slowed.
Looking out of the window again, he saw more of the seemingly volcanic mountains he had seen earlier, but the colour of the lava had changed, it was now a bright yellow, cutting deep into the side of the mountains. He saw people too – they seemed to be milling around by the tracks; their features were blurred, they seemed to be mainly red vapour, with occasional yellow scars. There were creatures there too; it was difficult to tell exactly what they were, the red mist, which defined their bodies, was hazy at the edges.
There seemed to be three distinct shapes of beings, that differed from the human form: one was very hunched, like a shepherd’s crook; the second was very straight and thin, almost twice the height of the human forms, but very thin too; the final shape seemed to be like a snake, the mist seemed to slither along the ground, these were far more blurred than the others, and had no yellow.
The train slowed gently to a stop. The station appeared to be an equal mixture of red and yellow swirls, swimming together in the rough shape of a station. The people around him stood and began to file towards the door, and so James followed. At the door, a hooded creature was checking the tickets; he looked down to his hand, and found it now bore a similar tattoo to the others. He wondered what the point of checking a ticket was.
As he stepped from the train, a creature approached him, wearing a thick, hooded cowl. James looked on as the man faced him and withdrew the hood. James stared at a face that was the mirror image of his own. The doppelganger reached his hand towards James’ face, and before he realised what was happening, the hand was somehow inside his head. When it withdrew, it was holding a swirling red mass, which it then released into the ether. The being that used to be James Graham now floated, no longer restricted by the scorched flesh that lay somewhere beneath it.