By Braden Russell
I wake up and look at my watch. My eyes are cloudy, like somebody smeared Vaseline in them, and the green numbers are too blurry to read.
I blink, and it says 11:15.
The train is still moving, but you wouldn’t know it. The red leather seat I’m sitting on is solid as a post. There’s no bumping. No rattling. If you look out the window you see nothing but grey fog, wisping close to the glass. Some of the fog seems to have made its way inside the train car, or maybe my eyes just haven’t cleared up yet.
In the seat across from me is a guy with his head against the window, staring at the ceiling with half-closed eyes. His forearms are stretched out, pointed upward like the white bellies of dead fish, and a glistening needle sticks out of one. Some nagging thought in the back of my brain tells me that I should be repelled at the sight, but I feel nothing. Just a heaviness in my temples, like fog inside my skull.
The fat man in the blue cap is stooped over the passenger on the opposite side of the car, and I squint at him, trying to remember who he is, and then it pops into my head. The Conductor. Just the Conductor.
He is talking to the girl with the ragged black hair and scarred wrists. He’s laughing. I think they must be sharing a joke, but then I see the tears running down her cheeks. I turn back to the fog outside the window. How long have I been sitting here? I should stand up and walk down the aisle, get some exercise.
“Well hello, youngster. And how’s the trip been?”
The Conductor is standing by me now, flashing a wide grin that makes his gold tooth glitter. He is a very nice man, I remember, although I can’t recall how I knew that.
“It’s been nice,” I tell him, not sure what else to say. “When do we get there?”
He laughs, and it makes me grin. He’s such a jovial guy.
“Oh, we’re almost there, friend. Almost there.” He winks. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
I look at the passenger sprawled across the seat opposite from me, and something doesn’t seem right, something in the back of my mind I was supposed to remember.
“Mister, can I get off?”
He raises his thick eyebrows until they touch his cap. “You want to get off? Whatever for?”
I can’t think, but it seemed like it was a good reason. He smiles at my hesitation.
“Tell you what, friend, if you really want to get off, you can do it at the next stop. But I know you don’t want to, and you know you don’t want to, so why bother?” His grin stretches wider. “Just remember, you signed up for it.”
He laughs again, and I laugh with him.
“Now why don’t you try to get some sleep? I’m sure you’re exhausted. These long trips will do that to you.”
Now that he mentions it, I am awfully tired. Maybe I’ll just lean back and go to sleep. And maybe I’ll see about getting off at the next stop, because for some reason I don’t know if I want to go… wherever this train is going.
I frown. Is it strange that I can’t remember where I’m going?
As my eyelids droop, I can hear the Conductor saying something.
“Have a nice trip.”
I wake up and look at my watch. It’s 11:15. Why is it always 11:15?
The guy with the needle is gone, and there’s a different man sitting across from me. I look up at him, and he stares into my face. He’s wearing a brown hat and a beard that hides how old he is.
When he doesn’t say anything, I look back at the girl across the aisle. She’s hunched over in her seat, staring at her fingernails. Her mascara is smeared.
“Do you think she’s happy?”
I shoot a glance at the man in the brown hat. He’s still staring at me, and gives no indication of having spoken. I stare back.
“What about you? Do you think this ride is making you happy?”
I pick at a crack in the leather of my seat. “Yes.”
“You are?” He leans back in his seat. “Could have fooled me.”
Something about this guy gives me a weird sensation of déjà vu. I look away. “Is it any of your business?”
He’s studying me, and I can see his jaw working under his beard. The guy is starting to make me nervous, and I consider calling for the Conductor.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“I bought a ticket.”
I squirm. Why do I not want to think about it?
“Where are you going?”
My hand goes to my face, and comes away wet. I’m crying.
“Do you want to go there?”
No. More than anything, I don’t want to go there. “I’m getting off at the next stop.”
“No you won’t.” He leans forward and looks into my eyes. “There is no next stop. This train never stops.”
My mouth opens to argue with him, but the sound sticks in my throat, because I know he’s right. There’s never been a next stop.
The man leans forward and touches my arm. “You need to get off.”
“I bought a ticket. I don’t have a choice.”
“You have two choices. Staying here is one of them.” His seat squeaks as he shifts position. “The other is me.”
My eyes come open, and he is looking into my face with so much kindness that the tears start again. “You can’t help me.”
“I am the way. Your way off, your way out. Do you want to come with me?” His voice is like a shaft of light, slicing the fog that hangs around my head.
He reaches out and takes my arm, lifting me to my feet. “Come on.”
We step out into the hazy yellow light of the aisle. Past the passengers clutching orange bottles of pills, the slumped-over people with bloodshot eyes trained on glowing laptop screens. They take no notice of us, but someone else does.
The Conductor walks up to the man in the brown hat, the lines of his pudgy face no longer pleasant. “What do you think you’re doing with my passenger?”
The man looks back, impassive. “Your passenger wants to leave.”
“Oh no. No, I’m afraid we can’t do things like that.” The Conductor’s gaze shifts to me, and I unsuccessfully try not to cringe. “You don’t leave this train. You just can’t do that.” His scowl turns to a crooked smile. “You bought a ticket. You got on the train. You stayed in your seat when I offered you a chance to get off before we pulled out. And you think you can just leave?” He chuckles and shakes his head. “Please, sit back down. We’ll be arriving soon.”
Despair grabs my stomach. Of course he was right. I couldn’t leave. I could never leave. I look up at the man in the brown hat. “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.”
The Conductor nods, still chuckling. “I’m glad we see eye to eye on this. And really, you might as well enjoy the ride while you—“
The man in the brown hat pushes past him, pulling me along.
The Conductor’s scream of rage echoes in the car. “My passengers belong to me!”
“No.” The man in the brown hat keeps walking. “You belong to them. And this one doesn’t need you anymore.”
I try to protest, but he cuts me off. “You said you want to get out of here.”
“I do, but—“
“You can. Just follow me.”
We walk to the end of the car, and he throws back the opening mechanism on the door, then slides it open. A chill blasts through the compartment, biting through my jacket. Outside the door, all I see is the grey fog, swirling around itself like a dark whirlpool.
“You have to jump.”
I shrink back. “I can’t. We’re moving. I’ll die.”
“It’s the only way.”
I think of my red leather seat, back in the train car, and wonder what was so bad about it. It was comfortable, warm.
“Listen to me!” The man’s voice is tighter, almost desperate. “I can’t carry you off this thing. You have to decide to jump.”
If I jump now, I’ll fall through the fog and die. There’s got to be a better way.
I am the way. Those were the man’s words. The only way. But I still have to decide to take it.
I swallow. My mouth stopped making saliva a minute ago, and my throat just
squeezes against itself. I look at the man, trying to keep my face from shaking. “If I jump, will you jump with me?”
He doesn’t smile, but his eyes are soft. “I’ll be right next to you the whole time.” He takes my hand without looking away.
I look back at the fog, and my legs tense. My hand is warm in the man’s grasp. “Okay.”
I lean forward. My mind pulls back, but my legs jump anyway. Thoughts explode in my head as I hurtle through fog. I’m going to die is prominent among them. But I can still feel the man’s hand in mine, not squeezing, not pulling, just holding. I am the only Way.
My feet land on something solid. Ground. I’m still standing. For a moment, I can’t think.
Then I see the daylight.