's 2013 Horror Write-off:

"The Long Train Ride"

Submitted by John Pesando

   I woke up. The seats around me felt rough and sweaty. My worn jeans made a sifting sound as blood worked its way back into my legs. I had been dreaming of home, of mom and dad, of that old garden behind the porch…

But as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized I was still on the train.

   I stood up and stretched in the empty car. Around me lay discarded food cans and empty boxes of supplies. The car smelt foul from the scattered debris and my own sweat. It was past the end of the month, so it would be time to move any day now.

   I looked out the window. Nothing but endless countryside as far as the eye could see. Empty farm fields occasionally punctuated an endless expanse of grass and trees. The train sped along the track at top speed, as if urgently heading towards some destination. I spent hours each day just staring out the windows, looking for something different.

   This morning, however, I had work to do. I gathered up all the empty boxes and stacked them neatly in the back right corner of the train. The day before yesterday I had stacked them on the left side, and yesterday I had placed them back on the floor where they had been the day before. I didn’t know precisely what would trigger the door to open, of course, but usually the door opened after I stacked the empty boxes and cans in a certain pattern. As the months had gone by, I learned that the train followed certain patterns, and seemed to reward consistent behavior.

   At least, that was my theory; I had been two days now without food, and still the door to the next car wouldn’t open.

   It was no good trying to force the door; I had learned that the hard way. The lock on the doors was so thick that whenever I would try to open it I would only end up cutting myself badly. Of course, I only tried that when I was truly desperate, and thankfully I wasn’t at that stage yet.

   I stacked the boxes again, but this time alphabetically by contents, and then again by manufacturer. After that I stacked them by expiry date, and after that I tried again in a different corner. If the boxes didn’t work, there were other things I could try. Sometimes cleaning up seemed to help, or checking the bathroom for any lingering filth, or other things. I didn’t know exactly what the train wanted, but I knew that it appreciated hard work.

   After a few hours of these routines, I grew too tired to continue and sat down for a bit in one of the seats. I stared at the locked door, listening to the sounds of the train as it hurried onwards towards a nonexistent destination. Beyond that door there was food and water…I licked my lips just thinking about it, as my stomach growled in protest. What had I done wrong?

Well, I had gotten on the train, for starters.

   Several months ago I was returning home to visit my relatives. It was a normal enough evening, with plenty of fellow passengers. I was tired from work, and I must have dozed off for a bit some time into the second hour of the journey. When I had woken up, it was light outside, and the train was completely empty but otherwise the same. I had of course panicked, shouted, tried the doors, tried to use the PA system, tried everything I could think of to access the other cars. I had of course thought about breaking the glass and moving along the cars that way, but the train was travelling at such high speed that doing so would be suicide. So, after exhausting all my options, I decided to wait it out; the train had to stop somewhere, and when it did I would get some answers.

   There were no nights and no seasons beyond the window; the days and the landscape never changed from the fall day when I had boarded the train. I had thought about that a great deal. I had also attempted to calculate how far I must have traveled on the track; given the train’s current speed, and assuming that the train always traveled in a straight line, I should have circled the Earth at least five times by now…But, of course, the terrain never changed. No oceans, just endless farmland.

   I looked through the garbage to see if there was anything left to eat, knowing full well that there wasn’t. After about a half hour of this, I began pacing the car, trying not to look at the locked door at the other end. When the door was locked, a little red light would glow in the top left corner of the frame, indicating to passengers that the train was in motion. When it was time for me to change cars, the light would turn green, but would only stay green for about a minute before becoming red again. One month, I had missed the light.

Never again.

   At first I had thought that some third party was playing a sick game with me. On the first day, I had stuck my head out the window, and saw that I was still in the third car from the front.  With no way to leave my car, I had to wait until the door turned green.  On the first day of the second month, then in a new car, I had looked out again to see how close I was to the front of the train …only to see that I was still in the third car from the front. The train looked normal, but I was definitely in a different car…and yet I couldn’t be, because that was impossible.

   Had I gone mad? No, everything seemed too real for that. So, unable to make sense of my surroundings, I had experimented and waited to determine what new rules now governed my destiny. On the second month, it had taken longer for the light to turn green, and I was worried I might have angered the train by looking outside.

   I was still pacing at the other end of the car, thinking about all this, when I noticed that the light had turned green.

   My heart jumped and I dashed madly towards the door. Sometimes it stayed green for a minute, and sometimes it stayed green longer. I hadn’t been on the train long enough to know for sure if there was any pattern, but at that moment I didn’t think, I just acted. I grabbed the handle and yanked the door open.

   The space between cars was my only taste of being outside each month, but I was always too hungry and anxious to appreciate the experience. I waited with impatient dread for the other car door to turn green. It did so, right on schedule. I pulled open the door and looked into the new car.

   It was clean and smelled fresh, and at the far end was a new set of supplies, stacked neatly. I ran forward and got down on my knees to examine the food and water, as the door behind me quietly shut again and the light turned red. The train was merciful, and I started weeping as I searched through the supplies. They were all perfectly normal food and beverage items. For a time I thought the train had been keeping track of how I ate; for the first and second month, the train had stocked more of the items I had eaten first in the new supply groups, but after that the arrangement of food items had appeared to be random. Well, maybe it was keeping track after all; I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.

   I bit into some bread. It was fresh and delicious. I moaned loudly at the pleasant sensation. It was Heaven to finally eat something fresh again. At the same time, however, I had to be careful in conserving food, and while my body demanded that I gorge at the moment, I was careful to leave plenty of the boxes and cans unopened.

   I had just finished cataloging the food items, when the unimaginable happened; another train whipped past beside mine.

   I jumped to the window, staring into the cars of the other train as they sped past. There was nobody inside as each car passed my window. My heart was pounding in my chest the whole time.

   Then, just as the last car came into view, I saw a girl with her face pressed up against the glass, a haunted expression frozen on her features. Our eyes met for a brief second, and in them I thought I could see a history sadder than my own. How long had she been on her train?  She said something, which I of course couldn’t hear. Her mouth was moving, and then she was out of sight forever.

   I watched as the other train sped into the distance. I then slumped back into one of the seats, staring deadly across the car. I sat there for a long time, my hands clenching and unclenching involuntarily. I looked at the boxes of food, outside, at the other seats, back to the food, then back outside.

Finally, I made a decision.

   I grabbed the emergency hammer for the car and walked towards the breakable window. With a desperate yell I proceeded to smash the glass with all my might, making an uneven break with jagged edges. The glass hit the track with a loud crashing sound. Taking a deep breath, I pulled myself up to stand crouching in the window frame. The jagged bits of glass cut my hands as I gripped the window tightly.

   “Nobody should live like this.” I said out loud. I stared down at the tracks as they sped before me, like a pair of old newsreels.

I jumped…

   My eyes opened, numbed by harsh light. My hand clutched something soft, and a sense of dread filled me as my senses returned.

I was still on the train, lying on the floor of the same car I was just in.

   I didn’t have the energy to do anything after that; I simply lay where I had been deposited, staring up at the ceiling of the car. It was painted to look like the sky.

I closed my eyes, and dreamed of home.