A Train

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

A new life, one she made for herself. Or did she?

Submitted: June 05, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 05, 2018



She hadn’t wanted to live in New York with the man the lawyers said was her uncle, but from the moment she stepped off the train, she fell in love with the place.

Looking back, she realized that it was partly just relief to find a home, as tenuous a home as it was. Her parents had died so suddenly that the lawyers were still scratching their heads over who got what, and whether there was anything to fight over at all. Uncle Horatio had appeared as if by magic, an unlikely savior for a little girl. She had never met him before, she was certain, but then again he seemed so familiar that maybe she had. It was never made clear to her how they were really related, and she didn’t press the point too often. She wasn’t curious by nature, really, and felt that someone might figure out she shouldn’t be there at all and whisk her away to an orphanage. They still had those, right?

After all there was no one else to take her; that had become alarmingly clear at their funeral. So she became determined to be happy, and perfect, and then Horatio would want her to stay. It seemed quite simple, really. And his house was a wonder. Huge and cavelike to her, since she had only known a suburban pastel existence before, the brownstone hulked at the end of a tiny street. Its neighbors were wedged in around it, huddled together as if they were whispering about the house but afraid it would overhear them and seek revenge. She always had trouble figuring out how many stories it really was, since the top wasn’t a real floor, with its dormers and hipped windows staring down at the street.

But as uncomfortable as the outside may have looked, the inside was perfect for a lonely little girl. Long hallways led to crowded rooms. Each floor seemed to have different stairs that shouldn’t have met one another, but they did. Horatio gave her the run of the house, with almost no thought as to what that meant. But he never reneged on the deal, just avoided her with near surgical precision. She learned quickly how to navigate around his routine and they rarely saw one another, which seemed to suit everyone. Dinner was the one time they met regularly, and though he never said so out loud, it was clear that attendance was mandatory and tardiness was not to be tolerated, or even considered.

You would have thought that she would have been miserable but quite the opposite was true. She loved the house dearly and explored every square foot. The library kept her company on the rainy, dreary fall days and the attics gave her a place to hide and cry when she thought of her parents. The housekeeper was kind and motherly, but apparently mute. Or maybe ashamed of not speaking English (she did seem quite foreign, but she wasn’t about to ask) that she never spoke a word. But she made it clear that the girl was welcome when in the kitchen when she cooked and baked, and made sure that meals were properly laid and promptly cleared, whether in the ornate dining room with the enormous sideboard or the butler’s pantry, where the girl’s breakfast and sometimes lunch were served. The worn white enamel table in the kitchen always had a sensible snack waiting at 3 as well. The girl knew she wasn't disliked, and maybe even welcome, but she was certain she would never feel at home again anywhere.

She and Horatio saw each other only at dinners at first, until he announced one night that she would accompany him to events so she could learn to present herself properly in public. She was surprised and a bit fearful at first, but it became very ordinary very quickly. The strangest part was his insistence they always use the subway, regardless of the distance or time required. But like the house, she quickly fell in love with the subterranean trains. She poured over maps of the routes and read history after history of their construction and plans for their future. She never could bring herself to pester her uncle about when their next excursion would be, but she would cross all her fingers and even her toes during dinner in hopes he would announce another. And when he would, it took all her self reserve to keep her from throwing her arms around him in joy, as she was quite certain that wasn’t proper to do.

When they did take the subway, she would press her face tight against the windows so she could take in every detail. She became obsessed with the trains that would run along side one another when their tunnels would converge without warning. At first it was the shock of seeing another train suddenly hurtling along side, bursting out of the dark, just inches from her face that pleased her so much. Then it was the race they seemed to have with one another, the local leading the express, then falling behind as they sped away from the station, only to suddenly disappear from one another around a sudden bend hidden in the dark.

It was the straightaways where they ran along one another the longest that became her favorite. She decided that these trains were the best, most secret things to see, since they were rare and special, and you only got a short look at them. They looked like they were scenes from an old fashioned movie, flickering along in the dim light. The people inside seemed sealed in amber, distant and unchanging, completely unaware they were being observed. She could never understand how that train could ever arrive at a station safely, since the track was on the wrong side to let them ever get out.

She liked to pretend that it was a time capsule, a ghost train from the past. Sometimes she would pretend it was an antique traincar, ornate and quaint compared to the graffittied steel boxes of today. And the people in it, old fashioned dresses and men with hats, some even with mutton chop whiskers. A few times she convinced herself it was really true, that the occupants were in costume. But then she knew she was being a silly little girl, no one dressed like that in decades and she knew better. Or maybe they were actors on the way to work on Broadway? Surely not. She decided to investigate.

Once she knew Horatio’s schedule perfectly, she would sneak out now and again to ride the trains she knew might give her a glimpse of her secret trains. The housekeeper would cluck under her breath when she would return, sometimes just moments before Horatio arrived from wherever it was he went, but she never said a word to her or to Horatio about her secretive excursions.

And so time passed, and the lawyers sorted through the papers and trusts and such, and finally arrived at a suitable figure, which was substantial, much to the little girl’s surprise. It meant that instead of being ignored and left to roam the dark corners of her (supposed) uncle’s house, she was trapped, cleaned, pressed and packed off to boarding school far out in the world. And sadly, very soon after she arrived there, a note came to tell her that Horatio had died, victim of a subway accident. No one would explain the details, because she was a little girl, after all, but it was clear he had been killed by a train and that was that.

So time passed, and boarding school gave way to college, and college to university. The little girl wasn’t little and had learned to make her own way in the world. Helped in no small part by the still substantial funds in trust, she called a meeting with the lawyers and explained how things were to be. She would return to New York. She would reclaim Horatio’s brownstone, which had stood vacant all the while. And she knew what she would do as well. Her love of the subway had guided her to a degree in the science of planning cities. Her obsession had given her a complete grasp of the lines, almost to the point of eidetic, whether existing, planned or abandoned. Even the veterans of the civil service envied her knowledge; her career was assured. And it meant she could ride the subways to her heart’s content. In fact, it was a requirement that she spend time moving about the city, station to station, to test her theories and plans for improvement.

And she found a happiness that she was unprepared for. A sense of contentment and success, both with her work and her home, which seemed unaffected by fifteen years alone, settled onto her. The housekeeper had disappeared after Horatio’s death but she had learned to keep herself fed and clean, and the house didn’t mind her being there at all. It wasn't as if she had ever left, really.

But then it started. It had been a difficult day, actually. Funds had been cut again from her project and it was all going wrong, so to cheer herself she hopped an uptown express. It immediately felt better to be back underground, but so crowded, too loud. She didn’t mind standing but couldn’t get to the window as she really wanted, in hope of seeing her train. It occurred to her, for perhaps the first time, that it was an odd hobby for a young woman to have, and maybe it was time to branch out, look elsewhere for contentment when she saw the face.

They were just pulling away from the station. It had been so crowded that many people gave up trying to push their way in and resigned themselves to the next one (which the conductor's mechanical voice pleaded dully with them to do, unconvincingly promising it was ‘only one minute behind us’), so there was still a crushed mosaic of faces. But among them was one she knew.

Horatio was there in the station. She knew it was him, but reason and fatigue convinced her to forget it, that it was a trick of the light. And forget it she did, for a few days.

Then it happened once again, this time just as her coach arrived at the platform. She pushed her way off the train, but it was too late. He was gone, or hadn’t been there at all. She searched face after face, till a police man noticed her and asked a little too pointedly if she needed his help with anything.

After that, she saw him more and more often. Standing just inside a car, or disappearing up a staircase, always just out of her reach. He never was looking for her, or at her, it seemed. He was always doing something, or going somewhere, or just being there. She began to spend more time underground than above, looking for her uncle. Too much time.

And when she found him, it all made sense again. She had been riding for hours, maybe days, and was slumped against the window, staring at nothing when her secret train appeared out of the darkness. She smiled and sat up to watch her old friend race with her. But then she realized what was wrong. The train running along side her in the dark just wasn’t right. The people really were in old fashioned costume, but not all the same. Gibson girls sat near sailors from World War 2. Businessmen in fedoras stood while boys in porkpie hats and knickerbockers slumped in the doors. All their eyes were dull and vacant, no one seemed to realize their surroundings. Except one face that turned sharply and caught her eye. Horatio sat calmly, framed perfectly by the window. And both her car and the ghost train, once her friend but now something else, slowed into the station.

To her horror, her uncle began to smile at her. He raised one hand and made a quick motion for her to come to him. And she felt the need to do so.

Just then, her train came to a stop, a little too abruptly, and she came to her senses and ran from the car. She couldn’t breath right, couldn’t stand up straight, just needed to get away from his awful stillness. She fell back against a wide, tiled pillar to catch her breath and let the train leave so she could reclaim reality, snap out of whatever this was. But the platform seemed to tilt under her feet and she could feel her shoulder slide across the tiled surface. She was falling, at an impossible angle, just as the train was moving away. No one could see her, no one could help.

The timing was perfect. Just as she went down, the train accelerated away. She staggered once, but that terrible vertigo one gets when too near and between a moving train and the platform edge took her, and she fell without a sound onto the rails.

Amazingly enough, she was all right. She jumped to her feet, brushing brake dust and a gum wrapper from her sleeve. A hand reached out to help her, and she took it gratefully. Only too late did she realize that hand was Horatio’s, and in that instant she was on the ghost train and he was in the station, and the door closed.

He stood, whole and sound once more, in the empty station, as the train pulled away, back to its secret route. She quietly found her seat, leaning her head against the window, and sighed. As the train picked up speed and the tunnel opening blurred in her view, her last conscious thought was that it was good, in a way, to be home, to have finally found her way back to her place in the world.

© Copyright 2020 Austin Thomas Burton. All rights reserved.

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