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Dark Railroad and Other Tales

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Dark Railroad

and

Other Tales

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer A. Ellis

All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Tales

Preface 4

Red 5

We All Got Regrets 6

Phoenix 13

Noemi 14

Memories 16

Dark Railroad 17

Zero 21

The Warehouse 24

About the Author 34

Preface

The following is a small collection of short stories that have been floating around for a while. Most of them appeared in a truncated form during a blog challenge called Blogging from A to Z April Challenge that I participated in a few years ago. I was unable to let the ideas go, and eventually I expanded on them until they ended in the form seen here. There are other tales from the Challenge that I haven’t quite gotten a handle on yet, but they’re waiting to be uncovered, I just know it.

Please enjoy, and Happy Reading

Red

Red.

It’s everywhere I look.

So much red.

I told her to leave me alone. I told her I wasn’t well, that I was sick. I could feel it coming on, like a fever. It starts as creeping sensation on my skin, and then it moves on to a jumpy nervousness. I can’t stay still. I have to move. I have to do things.

She knows to leave me alone when I’m not well.

She followed me. She ambushed me. She kept asking why. “Why? Why? Why?” Her voice was so needy.

She should have listened to me, because as I stood there listening to her asking “Why? Why? Why?” everything turned red.

And when I opened my eyes the red was still there.

Red on the white snow. Red in her short blond hair. My brown hiking boots have red spots on them. I can even feel the red on my face, drying in sticky streaks on my cheeks.

It’s her fault everything turned red. She should have listened.

We All Got Regrets

It was supposed to be a gloomy day, with clouds filling the sky and a cold drizzle on the mourners’ heads and shoulders. Something to match what they should be feeling. Instead, the sun was out, warming them, making them close their eyes and turn their faces to the sky, relishing the first real day of spring.

Xavier stood behind the crowd, watching them as they bowed their heads in prayer. He listened as first his daughter, and then his son, stood before the small gathering to share their eulogies. Carol had been fully prepared, as always, and read her remarks from a small sheet of stark white paper. Dan did what he always did and rambled for ten minutes, saying whatever came into his head. Both of them said the kind of things he would have expected them to say.

When the children – who were far past childhood – finished, there was another prayer, and the casket was lowered into a hole in the ground. Then the mourners, a small collection of friends, coworkers and family (Xavier took note that his ex-wife wasn’t present), filed past the hole, dropping clumps of dirt that landed with soft plops on the casket. The whole thing took forty minutes. Nobody cried.

After they left, two men with shovels came and removed the tarp covering the displaced earth and sod, and began to fill in the grave. Xavier leaned against a massive stone angel and watched them until they were finished tamping the last square of grass back into place. Then he moved closer. There was no headstone yet, only a small plastic marker with a number on it. He sighed as he stared down at his final resting place. Now what was he supposed to do?

When the doctors worked on him, pounding on his chest, squeezing air into his unresponsive lungs, shocking the heart that had tendered its resignation, Xavier had stood by, saddened and embarrassed. He looked like a giant baby on the table, naked except for a pair of boxer shorts, pale legs splayed and round belly protruding. Even at sixty-six, he hadn’t thought much of his own mortality. Despite his doctor lecturing him about his weight, he hadn’t felt sick. Maybe he wasn’t as quick as he used to be; maybe his knees hurt and his fingers were beginning to crook with arthritis; maybe his vision was just beginning to go cloudy with cataracts; but he wasn’t dying.

Well, here he was. Dead. He knew there was no way he was going to squeeze himself back into that old baby body.

It was a heart attack. That’s what they told Dan when he had arrived at the hospital. Xavier – well his body, anyway – was in the next room, covered with a white sheet. Xavier inspected some hospital literature: “Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack” while Dan nodded, then covered his face with his hands. His son didn’t cry, but that was only because Xavier could tell he was desperately shoving the tears back inside himself.

The sun was setting before he came to the realization that hanging around his own grave was beyond morbid. He tried to think of what he would be doing at this time if he was still alive. Relaxing in the recliner, and watching TV with a slowly emptying bag of Lays potato chips in his lap, while Roscoe slept on the table beside him, probably. Then he began to think of what others might be doing. And then he was in Dan’s apartment, standing in the kitchenette, watching his son microwave a bowl of Spagettios.

That was the thing he hadn’t gotten use to yet. The ability to suddenly teleport to places he was thinking about. Whether he wanted to be there or not. Could he learn to control it? Would he be around long enough to learn? Wasn’t he supposed to be walking towards a bright light by now? Or was that reserved for those who actually believed in the light?

And Spagettios? Dan was thirty-five years old, for Christ’s sake. Why was he eating like a five-year old?

Xavier moved out of the way as Dan took his bowl of kiddie food out of his small kitchen into the small living room. Xavier didn’t need to move out of his way, he knew this after a few days of being dead. It wasn’t as if Dan would have bumped into him; but his son wouldn’t have simply walked through him either. He would have just maneuvered around the space that Xavier currently occupied. But old habits die hard, and Xavier found himself pressing against the counter to make room. He followed his son into the living room, and lo and behold, there sat Roscoe on the recliner, daring Dan to move him.

Xavier smiled at the stubborn old orange tabby who was starting to show white on his paws and around his whiskers. The cat flattened his ears and slowly slid off the chair when Dan shooed him away.

“Hey, Fuzz Butt.”

Roscoe turned towards him and flattened his ears against his skull, twitched his tail, but he didn’t hiss or yowl. Neither did he move to greet him.

“Do you see me?” Xavier asked.

“What are you looking at?” Dan said.

“He’s looking at me.” At that point Roscoe proved how much he cared for his late owner and stood up, turned his back, made a show of pointing his butthole in Xavier’s direction, and stalked out of the room. “Screw you too, buddy.” Xavier said, smiling again.

His smile faded as he looked back to his son. Dan was watching an episode of Law & Order, slurping bright red sauce and pale Os out of a plastic bowl between sips of beer. He was beginning to resemble Xavier in the more ways than a doctor would deem healthy. His flushed face told the world that this wasn’t his first sip of alcohol tonight, and his stomach was beginning to round out, bulging over his belt. Xavier had been able to quit drinking by simply quitting when he’d had enough of the fuzzy nights and hung over days. Would Dan be able to? And that belly wasn’t going away. He knew that as a fact.

“You should take better care of yourself,” he said to his son, who of course didn’t hear a word of it. “Otherwise, you’ll be me in thirty years. You don’t want that. Too bad you and Sam couldn’t work it out. I really thought you guys had something good going there.”

His son’s divorce had come as a complete surprise, unlike his own. In fact, he hadn’t even found out until they had been separated for two months, when he called the house and his daughter-in-law (former, daughter-in-law, of course), laid it out for him. Dan had been living in motels and on friend’s couches the whole time; never told him, never asked for his help. That was two years ago, and luckily it had been more amicable than many divorces. Dan didn’t lose his shirt in the divorce, and was able to land on his feet, more or less, financially. What had caused the dissolution of his son’s marriage? Xavier never knew. There didn’t seem to be any adultery, or estrangement, no abuse. He had never seen or heard of Dan and Sam fighting. The one time he asked, Dan had given him a look and simply said, “We weren’t in love.”

We weren’t in love. Not We weren’t in love, anymore. Simply not in love.

Roscoe had returned to the room, and was alternately licking a paw and glaring in Xavier’s general direction. He was sure the cat could see him, but it had no interest in greeting him, or otherwise acknowledging his presence. Just as when he was alive. The more things change…yada, yada, yada.

A commercial came on with a familiar jingle. Xavier winced. It was the theme song to his career in insurance sales, and it had played at every faculty meeting, every industry conference, and in the last few years at the beginning of every shift over the PA system in the building where he worked. He hated that song. Dan mumbled a few lyrics:

“…we’re always there for you…Capital State is always true…” He raised a spoonful of Spagettios to the TV. “Here’s to you, Dad. Even if you weren’t as reliable as Capital State.”

Xavier found himself standing in the parking lot of his old apartment building. It was full dark, no moon or stars overhead. He was the only soul in the lot, and he realized he was standing in his old parking space. He looked up to the second floor, at what used to be his bedroom window when he had lived there. The window was dark, and he figured they hadn’t rented it yet. He doubted his belongings were still there. Dan or Carol – most likely Dan – would have taken care of that. It was all probably in a storage unit somewhere, waiting to be auctioned off or thrown on the curb when Dan inevitably stopped paying the fees. Staring up at the dark window, he felt a sense of sadness – No. It was more akin to emptiness. Nothing of him truly remained on this world. Nothing but his kids, and did they even count?

He couldn’t think of why he had jumped to his old place, but he knew he had wanted to leave Dan alone. He wanted to be alone himself. He knew he hadn’t been a great parent, he just had never heard Dan say it out loud. Carol, on the other hand, never let him forget it.

Now he was standing in Carol’s bedroom. His daughter was half undressed, wearing just a bra and the black slacks she had been wearing at his funeral. He gasped, and spun around to face the wall, but not before noticing how much she looked like her mother in a similar state of undress.

Carol. Five years older than her brother. There were individual strands of silver in her dark hair, glinting in the lamplight. Other than that, she looked young for her age. He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was rummaging through a drawer, and pulled out an old over-sized t-shirt. His gaze snapped back to the wall when she whipped off her bra and pulled the shirt on over her head. The whole time she was talking on the phone.

“It was just sad,” she was saying. “There were maybe ten people at the funeral, and maybe another ten showed up at the viewing. No wake.” She paused as the other party spoke. He couldn’t understand the words, but by the pitch and the cadence he knew immediately who she was talking to.

“Nobody expected you to come,” Carol said when it was her turn to speak again. “Least of all Dad.” Pause. “I don’t know. Dan took care of it all. It’s all in a storage unit. I didn’t bother looking through anything. There wouldn’t have been anything I wanted.”

Xavier moved about the room, each step meant to avoid Carol’s pacing. He stopped paying attention to what she was saying to his ex-wife. They had always been close, and when the divorce came, she had been firmly on her mother’s side. He didn’t blame his daughter for that. If it had been him, he would have done the same. Even twenty-five years later she hadn’t forgiven him for breaking the family apart, even though Katherine had been the one who filed the papers. If it had been up to him, they would have stayed together, despite his attempts to sabotage the whole thing.

Carol stopped pacing and sat on the edge of her bed. She was wrapping the call up, uh-huhing and welling her way to the inevitable goodbye. When she had finally weaned her mother off the phone, she dropped it beside her on the comforter and sighed. She was still wearing her slacks, and she unbuttoned and unzipped the waistband, but didn’t pull them off. She sighed again, stood up and went to the dresser where her purse was. She reached into the bag, pulled out a bunch of womanly things, finally coming up with a faded photograph. She went back to the bed and sat down with the photo in her hands. Xavier moved stealthily, as if he needed to sneak around, and stood behind her, looking over her shoulder. The picture made his intangible heart skip a beat.

Fourteen-year-old Carol, arms wrapped around a much thinner, more hirsute Xavier. Her broad smile was distorted by the braces on her teeth, and her eyes were magnified behind thick-lensed eyeglasses. She was wearing her volleyball uniform, and in the background there were other teenaged players meandering about, frozen at that awkward age. It was the day Carol’s JV team had won regionals. It was, as she described it later that day, the best day of her life. Only Xavier was in the picture; Katherine had stayed home with Dan who was sick with the flu. Although, in hindsight Xavier was sure she was meeting with her lawyer. After all, the papers had been presented to him only a week later. The Wildcats had lost their finals match. Katherine blamed it on Xavier. Somehow, it had been his fault she sued for divorce right before the finals.

“I’m sorry,” Xavier said to his daughter. “I guess. I don’t know.” Frustrated, he couldn’t find the words. He was sorry, but it was deeper than sorry. A regret so deep it burrowed to the depths of his being and coiled there like a lazy python slowly squeezing the joy out of him. He clutched his belly at the sensation. It had always been there, he realized, but it took death for him to notice it. “God damn it, I’m so sorry. You guys deserved better than what I gave you.”

Because after the divorce, after the papers were signed, he’d simply dropped out of their lives. He didn’t fight for custody, and visitation could only charitably be called sporadic, more from his own disinterest than his ex-wife’s spite. He loved them. Loved them all, but the love had been buried under years of resentment and self-loathing. For Xavier, love became a habit instead of an emotion.

Carol sighed once more – all the sighing, just like her mother – and placed the photo, face down on the bedside table. He wanted to sit beside his daughter and put his arm around her, just like he had done when she was little. He tried, but his arm slid off of her, just as he knew it would, as if she was covered in some super slick material. He had no sense of skin to skin contact, and she gave no indication that she felt him.

His grave was near the back of the cemetery, away from the mausoleums, the office and chapel, so the flood lamps that lit them had no chance of reaching him. He looked down at the slight mound of sod and the white plastic marker, and he wondered if there would be a headstone for him. Of course there would be. Carol would see to that; despite their problems, it would be unseemly to her for him not to have a permanent marker. Probably one of those flat metal plates, all modern and respectable, but not too showy. An actual headstone or monument would make it look like they’d had an actual relationship.

“Are you done with your regrets yet?”

The speaker was a young man, with dark hair and olive skin. He was leaning against the angel Xavier himself had leaned on earlier as the grave diggers did their job. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a dragon untastefully sprawled across it.

“Are you dead too?” Xavier asked. The man shrugged. Xavier took that as an affirmation. Otherwise, how would the man be able to see him? “How do you know I have regrets?”

“Man, we all got regrets. Me, I made my mom cry more than once, but she didn’t cry at my funeral. How messed up is that?”

“My kids didn’t cry at mine.”

“Yeah, but your kids are adults, right?” The young man looked him up and down. “Unless you were gettin’ down in your later years. Moms are supposed to cry for their kids, right?” This time, Xavier shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose they should, unless they’re terrible people. Or the kids are terrible people. My mom is a good person, though. So, I guess we know who the bad one was.”

“I’m not a bad person,” Xavier said.

“You say that, but you must think you are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”

“Here. You mean this limbo?”

“No, man. Here. Standing over your grave and moping and shit. Happens every time.”

“Every time what?”

The young man snorted. “Every time you visit your mom, or your kids, or whoever. And you start thinking about how you messed up your life, and how it messed up other people’s lives. Then you’re back here. Moping.” Pause. “And shit.”

“Moping and shit,” Xavier muttered under his breath. “How long have you been doing this?”

Another shrug. “I don’t know. A while. My little sister’s about to graduate high school. She was just starting ninth grade before. She cried.”

“Is this it? Am I stuck here?”

Another shrug. This guy shrugged like Carol sighed. Each one had its own meaning. This one said, “Sure. Whatever.”

“Is that yours?” Xavier asked, pointing to the angel.

“Hell no. I’m over there.” He pointed in the general direction of the darkness to the left of Xavier’s plot. “Just saw you over here and figured I’d see what’s up. I kind of like to see who’s around.”

“There are others?”

“Oh yeah. Bunch of us. There’s this old lady who comes up here crying her eyes out every night. I don’t know what her deal is, she won’t talk to me. I think she’s been here forever, because she’s wearing like a seventies pant suit with a giant collar. Brightest yellow I’ve ever seen. Her place is way up at the front.”

“So, we’re all stuck here. That doesn’t make sense. If that was true, I’d be seeing people all over the place.”

“I never said that everyone comes around. I’ve seen lots of people buried who never come back. There are also lots that used to come around who don’t anymore.”

“Where did they go?”

Shrug.

Roscoe was squatting in the litterbox next to the toilet in Dan’s bathroom. Xavier could hear the plop and smell the stench of the cat’s turds as they hit the gravelly litter below. He wondered why he still had all these senses when everyone else was blind and deaf to him.

Regrets. The young man had implied that regrets were what kept him here. Did he regret that much?

Plop. Another waft of fresh cat poo. Roscoe stared straight into Xavier’s eyes. Roscoe certainly didn’t regret his passing.

Xavier had never remarried. Katherine had. And now she was lying in bed with her new husband, whose name was Bob.

Xavier had hated every Bob he had ever met in his life. It was as if all Bobs were required to be jolly, solid fellows with booming voices, who clapped you on the back when they greeted you. Bobs mowed the lawns and barbecued on Saturdays, and sat in a pew in the middle on the church every Sunday. They were successful in all their endeavors, and commanded the respect of their friends, families and communities. Xaviers were not Bobs.

This Bob appeared to be sleeping with a pillow balanced over his eyes and forehead. Presumably, the pillow was to block the light from the lamp on Katherine’s side of the bed. She was sitting up, reading a book with plastic over its cover. Xavier squinted at it in the dim light – a mystery novel, probably the type that involved old ladies in knitting circles who happened to moonlight as detectives. On the table beside the bed, next to the lamp was a glass containing an amber colored liquid. She was up to her night drinking again. Katherine was never flat out drunk, but she always drank just enough to loosen her tongue. To say things she would later deny saying. Was that the reason it had all fallen apart?

Of course it wasn’t. It was a symptom of a syndrome. Bad Marriage Syndrome, BMS for short. Because the night drinking hadn’t started until he started messing around with the dental hygienist from down the street, and the receptionist at work, and the mother of one of Dan’s friends. Katherine didn’t know about any of that, not at the time, but she knew there was something wrong. Just as he knew there was something wrong. He turned to sleeping around. She started night drinking.

Was this his regret? He wondered as he stared down at his ex-wife and her new husband. He began to remember their life together, as if he was watching an old home movie on video tape. High school sweethearts, different colleges, their relationship held together by near nightly phone calls and mad dashes across the state one weekend a month. Wedding. Honeymoon. Carol as a newborn. It all began to speed up now. Dan’s birth flashed before his eyes. Holidays and vacations blurred together, becoming a cacophony of gifts and meals and destinations until he couldn’t tell which memory went where.

And then it all stopped. Frozen on an image of himself staring back at himself in the mirror. His eyes were blood shot, face unshaven; there was a scratch on his forehead; Xavier couldn’t remember where it had come from.

The room went dark. He blinked, sure this was it. He was done visiting his regrets, and now he was moving on. There was a rustling, and as his eyes began to adjust to the dim light, he realized he was still standing in Katherine’s bedroom. She had turned off the light, and was getting comfortable for the night. He heard her sigh, just like Carol sighed.

“You’re back.”

Xavier could sense the young man standing nearby. Instead of looking up, he nudged the white plastic stake marking his grave. His toe slid off it without making contact. He looked up to see an old woman with a blue beehive hair-do wearing a lemon yellow leisure suit strolling past. She glanced at him, and sniffled, her eyes red-rimmed from crying.

“How long will this take?”

“Dunno, man. We all got regrets. I guess as long as it takes.”

Phoenix

“He’s burning up,” Callie said as she brushed her hand across the old man’s face. She retrieved the quick read thermometer from the pocket of her smock and swiped it across his forehead. The device beeped and a quick glance at the read out made her shake her head.

“What’s wrong?” the new aide asked.

“Thermometer’s broke.” She reset the thermometer and tried to check the old man’s temperature again. The read out was more wrong this time. “Hundred and fifteen. Can’t be right.” She placed her hand on her patient’s forehead again. The heat that radiated from him was intense, she had never felt anything like it on a living thing. “Best get the doctor. Even if this thing is broken he’s running a high fever.”

The aide hurried from the room as Callie pulled the covers down from the old man’s body. His body was thin and sickly looking. As she loosened the gown he was wearing she felt the heat intensify. It was as if there was fire being stoked inside him.

“What’s going on?” The RN on duty bustled into the room, followed by an orderly and the nurse’s aide. Callie fought the urge to roll her eyes. Tell the girl to get a doctor and she comes back with an orderly.

“He’s spiking a fever,” Callie said. “Last temp reading was one-fifteen.”

“Impossible.” As the RN spoke, Callie noticed a smell in the air, like roasting meat.

“He’s smoking!” the orderly cried.

They all stared in awe, terror, and dumfoundedness as thin curls of smoke began to rise from the old man’s thin gown. Then it caught fire. Shouting words her mother would have beaten her for, Callie snatched the pitcher of water next to the bed and dumped it over the patient.

With a *whoomp* the man burst into flames.

The RN was shouting, the aide was screaming. Callie tried to push them out of the room and found their way blocked by the quick thinking orderly who had retrieved the fire extinguisher from the hall. The flames were shooting up from the bed, scorching the ceiling. The frail body was completely engulfed.

And as quickly as it had started it was over. The orderly didn’t even have time to press the lever on the extinguisher when the flames died down and disappeared.

They all stared, slack-jawed at the tiny form lying on the bed.

The baby opened its mouth and let out a hearty wail.

Noemi

The trees surrounded her on all sides, pressing in against her. Noemi stepped carefully around a large trunk, trying not to rustle the ferns that insisted on getting in her way. The deer, a yearling buck with short, slender horns, froze. Noemi froze along with it, holding her breath. Her arm ached from holding the bow in position.

There was a crack as a branch overhead broke. Probably a squirrel or large bird. Whatever it was, the startled buck leapt into the underbrush, gone in a flash.

Noemi groaned and lowered her bow. She rolled her shoulders and stretched. She wasn’t supposed to be out here. She was supposed to be back at the tiny cabin with her children. But she was out here, hunting. If only her husband was still here.

She looked about, getting her bearings. Despite it being mid-day, she was not very far from home. She turned west and found her way to the small stream that winded its way through the forest. There she knelt and drank cool clear water from her cupped hands. Then she splashed some of the water on her arms and face before sitting back on her haunches to watch the stream flow past.

“Noemi.”

Noemi jumped at the sound and grabbed her bow, she looked around taking in the trees and the stream and the muddy bank, but there was no one there.

“Noemi,” the voice whispered again. It was coming from the bushes to her left. There was a rustling sound as someone pushed through the bushes. When the figure fully emerged, Noemi leapt to her feet, simultaneously nocking an arrow. “No. Don’t.” The figure held up its misshapen hands. “Please, love. Don’t you recognize me?”

Indeed she did recognize the horror standing before her. Tallis had left their cabin three weeks ago a tall man, handsome and strong. Now he was bent over, in obvious pain from the tree branches that sprouted from his back. His arms and legs were flexible tree trunks covered in thick, warty looking skin. His long black hair that she had always loved to comb and braid for him, had mostly fallen out and only a few strands fell over his shoulders. Only his face was the same, and it gazed at her pleadingly.

“Please, Noemi. My love. I want to go home.”

Noemi lowered her bow, but kept the arrow in position. “What happened to you?”

“It was the Inulpa,” Tallis said. His voice was high and plaintive. “He changed me into…this thing. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t find my way.”

Noemi, blinked back the tears. All this time she had believed her husband was dead, but the reality was so much worse. She raised the bow again.

“Please, Noemi. I want to go home.”

The arrow flew the short distance between herself and her husband. It struck him in the chest with a solid thunk. In a blink of an eye, Tallis was gone and in his place stood a tree thick around the middle and about the same height as a tall man. Noemi sobbed and dropped the bow. She rushed to the tree, and through her tears she saw the whirls and grooves and knots in the bark resembling a nose, a mouth, and eyes; the face of her love.

Memories

Paper thin skin stretched over bulging blue veins. Twisted tendons, and knotted fingers. That’s how she remembered her mother’s hands.

If she thought really hard – really wracked her brain – maybe she could come up with an image of younger hands: smooth white skin, firm; hardly showing the tendons and bones underneath. The veins were still there, but only as a delicate blue filigree under the skin. These hands may have stroked her hair or wiped stray crumbs away from her lips. Those hands may have smacked the backs of her own hands when she misbehaved.

But the images were faint and fleeting, any associated emotions were vague, and there was no feeling of nostalgia attached to them. What she always thought of was the old hands as they grasped and scratched at the sheet pulled over the thin, heaving chest. She remembered the way they were raised to ward off the blows, and when she closed her eyes she could clearly see them weakly pulling on the pillow pressed over the old woman’s face.

This is what she remembered, and the memory she savored: the twitching and final relaxation of those old hands.

Dark Railroad

I was sure I was hallucinating when I first heard the train whistle. It was about time I started hearing things.

I had been following the railroad tracks for days. Maybe it was just hours. No, it must have been days, because that pale smoky disc that passed for a sun here had come up and gone down more than once. It’s really hard to tell that it’s there, unless you’re looking at it. It doesn’t actually do anything to illuminate this place.

I was on the tracks, stepping from cracked and rotted tie to cracked and rotted tie. It was awkward going, but if I walked beside the tracks it would be too easy to get lost. It almost happened once, when I first arrived here. I was walking beside the metal rails that gleamed darkly in the murky light. I looked away from them for only a second, and when I looked back they were gone. There was nothing but blackness and dust everywhere I turned. After several long minutes of panic I found the tracks again, and I haven’t left them since. I even slept for a few hours stretched out across the tracks, like one of those damsels in distress in the old black and white movies, tied up by the dastardly villain waiting for the hero to rescue me.

There aren’t any heroes here. There isn’t anyone here except me.

At least that’s what I thought until I heard the whistle.

Like I said, I thought I was hallucinating. I hadn’t heard anything other than my own breathing and the sound of my footsteps for a long time, so that low wail in the distance couldn’t have been anything but my imagination. But then it came again, drifting across the endless plain. I stopped and stared into the distance, cocking my head to try to catch the sound, and before long I saw a faint light – light that was actually light, and not like the flat light-less sun – far, far away down the tracks. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it as it came nearer and nearer, impossibly fast. At first it was miles away, then only a mile away, and then it was right on me. I leapt off of the tracks at the last minute as the whistle blew, blasting into the silence, and the brakes squealed. Then it was just there, in front of me.

It was on old fashioned steam locomotive. I could hear the chuffing sound of the steam rising from the engine. The cars were wooden and engraved with strange glyphs and images. The door to the car in front of me slid open, and, silently, stairs flipped out and landed on the ground beside the tracks in a puff of dust. In the doorway stood a tall, thin man with pale skin and even paler hair. We stood staring at each other for a long time, before he lifted one hand and motioned me forward with a flick of his long fingers.

I didn’t say anything. Perhaps I should have asked what was going on, or where I was. Maybe I should have just said Hi. But I didn’t say anything, and neither did he. I climbed the stairs into the train car. The tall, pale man pulled the stairs in behind me and slid the door closed as I found a seat amongst the rows of empty benches on either side of the aisle.

When the whistle blew again, it sounded distant, even though I was now inside the train. The sound of the steam engine was also quieter as it revved up and the train lurched forward. I looked out of the window beside me. The railroad tracks were out of sight below the train, and all I could see was darkness.

After a time, the gentle rocking and clunk-clunk of the wheels lulled me. My head dipped, my eyelids drooped. I dreamed that I was walking next to railroad tracks that glowed in harsh light that in no way emitted from the black ball of a sun overhead. It was like a negative of the world I had just left, and with the brightness of the air I couldn’t see more than a foot away from the tracks.

I jolted awake at the sound of a door sliding open. A tall, tanned man was coming from the far end of the car towards me. I rubbed my eyes and blinked. That seemed to clear the disconcerting way his face wavered. He stopped beside my bench and looked down his long, thin nose at me.

“Hello.”

“Uh,” I said. “Hi.”

The man motioned towards the bench facing me, the motion graceful like a magician’s. “May I?” His voice was soft and rather pleasant. It didn’t seem to fit with his overall look.

“Go ahead.”

The man sat and arranged himself, gently tugging at his jacket and trouser legs so it all lay neatly, perfectly.

“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.

The man smiled, a small turning of his lips as if he was amused by the question, but the rest of his face didn’t move. “Where do you think you are?”

I looked out the window next to me. The scenery hadn’t changed at all. “A dream. A horrible, terrible dream that I can’t wake up from.”

“Yes. A dream.” He said it as if he was just going with the flow, humoring me. I was starting to think that maybe it wasn’t a dream.

“Eric. May I call you Eric?”

I nodded. I didn’t bother asking how he knew my name.

“I’m here to give you a choice.”

“What sort of choice?”

“This train only goes one way. You can stay on the train until it reaches its destination, or you can get off at the next stop and return to the tracks. Another train will not be by to pick you up.”

“Where does the train go?”

Again that small smile that didn’t move his cheeks or crinkle the corners of his eyes.

The train whistle blew. I jumped at the sound. There was a squealing as breaks pressed against wheels, and the train began to slow. I looked out my window as the train came to a halt. I could barely make out a figure standing beside the tracks, next the car in front of mine.

A door opened, and a shaft of light pierced the gloom, illuminating the old man who stood blinking in the glare. He was slightly stooped, and he had a head full of steel gray hair. The tall, pale man stepped down into the dust next to the train and motioned towards the open door. The old man shook his head, but after a few moments he climbed the stairs into the car. The pale man followed and pulled the stairs up behind him. The door closed, the light was cut off, and the train whistle blew again as we began to move again.

I turned back to the sharply dressed man in front of me. “Who was that?”

“Another traveler. He’ll have his own choice to make.”

“What am I choosing here?”

The sharp dressed man leaned back and rested against the back of his bench. “You are choosing whether to continue to our destination, or to return to the darkness.”

“What’s the destination?”

“Eric, do you remember how you got here. How you ‘fell asleep’ and ended up in this ‘dream’?” I could practically hear the air quotes in his voice.

“I fell asleep. I dreamed. Now I’m dreaming about talking to you.”

“How long have you been dreaming?”

“What?” I tried to scoff at the question, but it hit a nerve. “What do you mean? There’s no time in dream.”

“Stop making excuses and think.”

I thought. I thought about the darkness outside the train, and the metal rails glinting faintly in the non-light from the faded sun. I thought further back to the time I got lost in the dark. I pushed my memory, trying to remember what I had done before going to sleep. Brushed my teeth. Turned on my laptop to run some innocuous TV show while I slept. That’s what I would have done.

Except that’s not what I remembered.

…I’m hung over, probably still a little drunk from last night. I’m riding my bike down a busy street. The wind is whooshing in my ears and blowing my hair around. I forgot my helmet in my mad dash out of the apartment. I’m thinking about what time it is, how close I’m cutting it to get to work on time. I pedal faster.

I sense the car getting too close before I see it from the corner of my eye. By the time my groggy mind can process what that chunk of shiny red is, it’s too late for me to react. I try anyway. I twist the handlebars to the right, but it is too much, and at that speed, I lose control. I feel myself tipping to the left, and then a bone jarring impact. Both the bike and I catch some air as we’re thrown towards the side of the road. There’s a sidewalk, with a yellow painted curb. I have lost my hold on the handlebars, and now I’m flying alone towards that strip of yellow.

I don’t remember landing.

“Shit,” I whispered. “Ah, fuck.” I felt a tightening in my chest, and my stomach twisted itself into a knot. My hands started to shake, and I clenched them into fists to stop the tremors. “I’m dead? Oh, God. Am I dead?”

“Not quite,” the man said. “You’re in a coma. A persistent vegetative state. That’s what it says on your medical chart.” I half expected him to produce the charts, but he only watched my reaction. The look on his face. He was enjoying it. “The darkness, you see, it’s an in between state. You’re not quite alive, but…” He shrugged and spread his hands. I got the message.

“So, where does the train go? The afterlife?”

“The Afterlife.” Again that smile. It was a deeply unsettling expression on his face. His features wavered again. I blinked to straighten them out, but when I looked again he was still a bit whishy-washy, and for a split second, not a bit human looking.

“What if I decide to go back out there?”

“Why would you do that?” His smile grew wider, his face flashed slightly and this time his true face showed through. “You wander in the darkness for a very long time. There won’t be any more trains.” His face shifted again, and the true face, the one with the black shark-like eyes, and a mouthful of too many teeth stayed long enough for me to decide that I wasn’t crazy.

“Can I go back? To me. My body?”

“Perhaps. Not likely.”

“What sort of afterlife is this?” I asked. The air in the train was suddenly very warm, and breathing it in, I caught the faintest whiff of brimstone. “Is it the good kind, or…?” I couldn’t bring myself to finish.

“What kind do you think?” Now the human visage barely clung to him. I couldn’t believe that I had been fooled by his fancy suit and elegant manners.

“I would like to get off please.” My voice squeaked and I sounded like a kid asking for a hall pass. I didn’t care. I couldn’t be on this train with him any longer.

“Are you sure, Eric? There are far worse things than me waiting for you in the darkness.” His human mask still smiled, but his real face looked almost as if he pitied me.

“Yes. I would like to get off.”

“Well,” the creature who was no longer a sharp dressed man stood up and straightened the suit it was still wearing. “You have made your choice. Good Luck to you.” He reached over his head and pulled on a cable hanging there. After a few moments the whistled sounded, and the train began to slow. I was on my feet before it stopped.

The tall, pale man appeared at the front of the car, and as I moved forward he opened the door and lowered the stairs. I paused at the top of those stairs looking out. The darkness scared me, almost enough to send me back to my seat on the train. But then I heard the sound of the creature in a man suit shuffling towards me, and I dashed down the steps, into the dust beside the tracks. The stairs were pulled up behind me, and with the blast of the whistle the train moved away.

I looked up to the car just as it passed me. The sharp dressed man – now fully human again – lifted his hand and waved.

Zero

I awoke with Zero hovering over me. She was doing that more and more often these days. It wasn’t even a shock anymore to see her looming there next the bed in her yellow rain coat. This morning she had put aside the black umbrella that completed her ensemble. It leaned against the wall by my bed. I looked at it, as always amused that it was a real physical thing. At least it seemed to be. I had never touched it, just as I had never attempted to touch her.

“What do you want?” I asked, as I did every time she appeared to me. It used to be a pleading, frightened question. Then it became more inquisitive. Lately, it had become a grumpy one.

As usual Zero didn’t answer. She just stared at me with the black holes that posed for eyes on her mask. Her yellow rain slicker seemed to glow in the early morning light, and it made no sound as she leaned forward, staring hard at me. I stared back. She no longer scared me as she once did. She straightened and lifted one alabaster white hand and flicked her fingers at me. “Get up” that motion said. Then she picked up her black umbrella, and walked out of the room.

I rolled out of bed and stumbled down the hall into the bathroom where I fell into the shower to wash the last vestiges of sleep away. Afterwards, I wrapped a towel around my waist and cleared the steam away from the mirror with the palm of my hand. The man peering back at me was familiar, you could even say he was me; but today, I noticed how my cheeks had hollowed out, and the skin under my eyes had darkened, as if I was chronically sleep deprived. I was only twenty-five, but my hairline had already crept back about half an inch. The man in the mirror resembled my dad.

I picked up my toothbrush and began to scrub the funk out of my mouth. I looked into the mirror again to see Zero hovering behind me. It’s the type of thing that in a horror movie would have been accompanied by a sting of music, and a scream. But it was just Zero. Over the past few months, I had stopped being afraid of her, and accepted her as a sort of roommate; a roommate who came and went at all hours, never spoke, and didn’t contribute to the bills. On the plus side, she never ate my food. Still, I froze, mouth full of faux mint foam that made my tongue curl, and tried to discern what she was thinking, if she ever thought of anything. Her face was a porcelain mask with red painted lips framed by long, bone straight, black hair that fell past the shoulders of her slicker. The effect could have been achieved by anyone wearing a mask and wig, except that behind the eyeholes there was nothing but blackness. I had spent many days and nights looking into those holes trying to see something there, a presence, a sense of being. But I was wasting my time. There wasn’t anything there.

After a moment, she drifted away. I finished my teeth, and then stared at the razor lying beside the sink bowl. Another glance in the mirror, and I decided to skip shaving. In fact, I thought, I might grow a beard. My dad would never grow a beard. I went back to my room – Zero was now at the opposite end of the hall staring out the large window in the living room – and dressed.

When I came out of my bedroom, I found Zero standing by the door, umbrella in hand.

“What?” I asked.

Zero just stared at me.

“You know I can’t read minds.” I went back to my bedroom to find my boots. She was waiting from me there. “What do you want?” I asked for the billionth time.

She pointed to my closet. I copied her gesture, and when she made no other movement, I pulled the folding door open. Now floating beside me, she pointed to the olive green army surplus rucksack in the corner. I dragged the rucksack out of the closet and opened it. I began to pull items out, and lay them on the floor in a neat row: canteen, rain poncho, leather gloves, a folding shovel.

Zero pointed at the shovel.

“This?”

She just kept pointing.

I put the stuff back into the rucksack, except for the shovel, and found my boots as Zero watched me with her black, empty eye holes. When we left the house together, she held her umbrella over her head and floated down the rickety stairs bolted to the side of the house. My apartment was on the second floor of an old Victorian era house. My downstairs neighbor was middle-aged woman who spent her days sitting on the porch, no matter how cold, hot, or rainy it was, chain-smoking and watching life go by. I lifted a hand in greeting and she nodded in acknowledgement. She took no notice of Zero drifting down the sidewalk on an unseen breeze.

It was the middle of November. The air was cold and the last of the autumn leaves clung, brown and withered, to the trees lining the street. We passed a house where Halloween decorations still hung from the door and plastered the windows. I began to rethink my decision to follow on foot until Zero took a sudden left turn and wandered into someone’s back yard. There was no car in the driveway, and the blinds on the windows were down. I stepped onto the crispy, dead lawn in pursuit.

We didn’t follow a straight path. Zero took a circuitous route, going down one street and up another, zig-zagging through people’s yards, and taking a diagonal path through a used car lot. She moved at a leisurely pace, and I hardly broke a sweat. The streets were oddly empty; maybe everyone was at work, or maybe they were still asleep. Or maybe I had finally snapped, and I was presenting a rather unseemly spectacle: unshaven man in ill-fitting clothes shambling about town occasionally muttering to himself, and I was only imagining that the town was too quiet. I soon reminded myself that wasn’t the case. Things like Zero don’t exist. I know they don’t exist. And knowing crazy things don’t exist proves you’re not crazy, right?

Eventually, our journey took a general direction towards the northern edge of town. There at the city limits, the town ends abruptly. There is no sprawl and the open fields of corn and soybeans begin. There is a field where a development company had planned on building a new subdivision, but when the housing market went bust, the project was abandoned before they even broke ground. This was where Zero led me.

I followed her across the field. She never looked back at me as she floated ahead, gripping her umbrella, like a demented Mary Poppins, her yellow coat flapping in the wind. She stopped at a low mound of earth, grown over with brown grass that waved in the wind. She pointed with her free hand at the mound.

“There?” I asked. Zero nodded silently, her blank doll’s face, as always, expressionless. I unfolded the shovel and twisted the screw in the middle of the handle to keep the shovel in the open position. It was a short handled shovel so I had to bend over a little more than was comfortable to start digging.

A cold breeze, sharp as a knife, began to blow, but the effort of digging made me sweat. I paused to wipe my brow and to take a glance at Zero where she floated a few feet away from me. She hadn’t moved from that spot since I had started, but I noticed that there was a flaw in that perfect porcelain face: just there across the cheek was a crack, zig-zagging from the corner of her left eye-hole to the edge of the mask, where it got lost in the wave of dark hair. When had that happened?

I didn’t want to think about what the crack might mean. I was afraid of what it might reveal underneath the mask. I went back to digging, but I hadn’t tossed more than two shovelfuls of dirt when a loud clack echoed across the field as the shovel hit something hard in the dirt. I put the shovel aside, and knelt down next to the hole.

There was something there, a grayish white against the darker soil. I reached down and touched it. It was cold and solid. I brushed some of the dirt away, revealing a larger piece of the object. It used to be white, and as I brushed some more, I found some painted red lips, now chipped and dull. I looked up at Zero. It was her in the dirt.

She tilted her head down at me, and I could see her face was now covered in dark, jagged cracks, winding across her forehead and down her temples; from the corners of her eye-holes to her cheeks. Disturbed, I looked away, back into the hole.

There was something else there. At first I thought it might be some sort of thick root, even though there was nothing but grass for five acres. Then I realized that the shape wasn’t right, and neither was the texture, nor the color.

Chicken bone. Chicken bone, my mind raced. I desperately wanted to believe that they were the bones of some animal, but I knew that was wrong. I reached down and brushed more dirt away. I looked back at Zero.

“What is this?”

Zero’s black eye-holes bored into me. As I watched, the cracks in her face widened, became fissures, and with a loud crack her face exploded. I ducked to avoid any flying shards, and when I looked back, there was nothing left. No sign of Zero anywhere.

The Warehouse

John retrieved a radio from the charger and settled it in the holster at his hip. Picking up his flashlight he turned to Carl and said, “Off on my rounds.”

“Don’t let the coyotes get you.” Carl said around a mouth full of turkey sandwich. It wasn’t fully in jest. They had both seen the pair of coyotes on the cameras skulking around the warehouse. John grunted in assent as he left the guard shack. Carl was the senior of the two, having been working for Mr. Smith for the past 15 years, compared to John’s 18 months. They were supposed to share the duty of checking the perimeter fence and the doors of the warehouse, but John took up most of that burden. He joked that it was to spare the old man the effort, but it was mostly to get out of the guard shack he shared with Carl for twelve hours a day. Carl was a perfectly nice guy, but he smelled constantly of onions even though John had never seen him consume any.

He started with the perimeter fence. There was only one entrance, the gate with the guard shack sitting to one side. He walked the perimeter at a leisurely pace running the beam of his flashlight over the links of the fence, checking for breaks, and making sure that the hole the coyotes had apparently dug under the fence to gain access to the area was still filled in. It took him 10 minutes to finish his check there. Then he turned towards the warehouse.

The building was an oblong squat structure, a dull metallic gray in color. John had no idea what was inside. He had never seen any trucks entering or leaving the gate. No one ever went into the warehouse. In fact, as far as he knew there were no keys to the 2 doors or drop-down bay that allowed the only access to the building. There were a row of small windows that went around the top of the building, but they had all been covered over with sheet metal from the outside. What he was being paid to guard was an absolute mystery to him. Mr. Smith paid him good money to not bother asking.

John frowned at the building, thinking about his strange employer. He had never met the man, just knew his name was Smith of all things. He had answered a classified ad for private security thinking it was a firm, but it turned out to be a one man deal. His only contact was Ms. Walker who claimed to be Mr. Smith’s assistant. He was hired after what he was told was a rigorous background check, but what he now suspected was covert surveillance of his day to day life. On the day he signed his contract he was given these rules by Ms. Walker:

“First, never ask what is in the warehouse. Second, never attempt to gain access to the building.”

That was it from the boss.

He learned his actual duties from Carl later that evening. Carl had been with Mr. Smith for a while and got the job the same way John did. John never attempted to break Ms. Walker’s rules. Even if he had bothered to ask his colleague he doubted he would get an answer. Carl was just as oblivious as he was and perfectly happy to keep cashing his paycheck.

John started the check of the exterior of the warehouse. He made his route counter-clockwise. It was a superstition that Carl had that he had followed to appease the man at first, but the last time he tried to go right he felt wrong. As with the fence he swept his flashlight across the walls of the building, checking that the windows were still covered. He reached the bay door, grabbed the handle and gave it a good shake. As always it was locked down tight. He continued on to the first door which was just to the left of the bay. That door was also closed and locked tighter than Guantanamo. He reached for his radio and reported back to Carl in the guard shack, at the same time turning to the camera trained on the doors and giving a thumbs up.

“Bay and Door One secure.”

“Roger that,” Carl replied. He sounded like he was speaking around a mouthful of meat and bread.

John moved on, checking the western side of the building. This side and the eastern wall were long blank slabs of cinder with shuttered windows on the top. The sweep of his light revealed nothing out of the ordinary. He turned the corner to the north face of the building. He found the second door also locked securely. He reached for his radio and fumbled as it got caught on the latch. He looked up as he raised the walkie to his mouth. But the words died on his lips.

Before him Door 2 stood open revealing a gaping black hole. He stood, mouth agape, as he gazed into the darkness. There was a lamp right above the door, but the light didn’t reach into the interior of the warehouse. John’s mind grappled for what seemed forever trying to understand how a door that was previously closed and locked now stood wide open. After a moment he managed to bring himself back. He took a step closer to the opening, noticing the strange way that the light from the lamp overhead stopped immediately at the threshold. He stopped and stared. It felt like someone was just on the other side of the blackness staring back at him.

“John, you all right?” Carl’s voice crackled in the silence. John screamed in shock and nearly dropped the radio. Carl came roaring back, his voice shaking with barely concealed laughter. “Got you on the screen. You been day dreaming?”

John turned towards the camera trained on Door 2. “Door 2 is open.”

“What?” There was silence for a few seconds. “I got you on the screen. Looks like the door is closed to me.”

John glanced back towards the doorway. The gaping blackness was still there. He felt more than ever that someone was watching expectantly to see what his next move would be. “Carl-” He was interrupted by furious yipping. It sounded so close that he was afraid the coyotes had found their way back in. He turned and scanned his surroundings, making broad sweeps with his flashlight. The yipping continued, but moved further away.

“Say again?”

John dropped his beam and turned back to the door and was treated to a third shock. It now stood closed. “What the fuck?”

“Man, you have to press the little button. You know the one that says talk?” Carl was starting to sound worried. “Did you say that the door was open?”

John stepped close to the door. He placed his hand on the cold metal and had the sensation that just on the other side something was copying his gesture. The surface thrummed for a split second under his touch and then lay as frigid and still as ice. He grabbed the door knob, twisted and tried to rattle it, but it seemed even more solid than before. He raised the radio to his mouth.

“It’s closed.” It’s closed, but it was wide open 30 seconds ago. He turned towards the camera and repeated the message. “It’s closed. Door 2 is secure.”

“You said it was open.”

John paused, wondering if he should explain what he saw. But Carl was watching the feed in the guard shack and he claimed he didn’t see anything. He glanced back at the door, still secure, and staring at him. Closed, then open, then closed. And I’m the only one who saw it. “Shadow. Thought it was open. Must have been a shadow. ” He gave a distracted thumbs up to the camera.

“Roger that,” Carl didn’t sound like he was rogering anything.

He strolled away from Door 2, trying to keep a steady pace even though he wanted to run. The back of his neck crawled with the sensation that he was being stalked, but he didn’t dare look back.

¤

The next night, John began his walk through as normal. He considered asking Carl to do his fair share of the work for once, but after thinking about it decided that it would seem strange that he would suddenly want to change his habits after what had happened the night before. He grabbed the radio and flashlight, and started his rounds.

The perimeter was the same, no surprises there. At the warehouse he anxiously checked Door 1 and the bay door. Both of them were secure as usual. Western wall the same. He turned the corner and walked confidently towards Door 2. He could see before he even reached it that once again it was wide open. He forced himself not to alter his pace as he approached the opening. All his caution stemmed from a sense that allowing anyone, even Carl, to know that the warehouse was open was asking for trouble.

He stopped in front of the entrance, and looked into the blackness. Again he noted how the light didn’t penetrate the interior of the building. Again, he felt that someone was watching him from inside. John stepped towards the doorway, one step, then another, until the toes of his boots were just on this side of the emptiness. That was what it felt like, empty, but not empty. Someone was in there watching him, waiting to see how far he would go. His raised his hand, extended it, stopping just short of the dark again. He felt nothing, yet something. John pressed his palm forward slightly and felt the slightest resistance, as if across the doorway to darkness the thinnest, sheerest membrane stretched, keeping the world at bay. He increased the pressure-

-and felt the membrane push back.

John snatched his hand back in shock and disgust. The push back felt as if someone had pressed their hand to his through the membrane. Only it wasn’t a hand; it was something very un-hand like, no individual digits like the human hand. John pressed his palm protectively to his chest, still gazing into the dark.

Something moved.

How he knew something moved, John couldn’t tell. The blackness was so complete that movement could not be detected, but he saw it, heard it, felt it. He had a sense of a large fluid body rolling across the doorway with multiple appendages pulsating and roiling across the floor. Then it was gone. He blinked.

The door was there. Cold, silent, still.

John turned towards the camera trained on him and the door. He put on his cheesiest grin and gave a thumbs up to Carl back in the guard shack.

“Door 2 secure.”

“Roger that,” Carl replied without hesitation.

¤

Back at the guard shack John logged his walk through, noting that all was secure with nothing out of the ordinary. Carl made no mention of the time that he had spent hanging around the black entrance and John had the idea that Carl hadn’t noticed anything strange.

“So, uh,” John began. “There was a guy before me right?”

“Of course there was a guy before you,” Carl replied never looking up from the small TV that was showing an episode of Seinfeld. “Rick.”

“Rick,” John said the name. “What happened to him?”

“What do you mean, ‘What happened to him’?”

“Why do I have his job now?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Carl looked up from his show. “Let’s just say that he had some problems, and the job didn’t agree with him.”

John grimaced. He hated non-answers. He wondered if Rick had seen the open door. He wondered if Carl ever had. He suspected not.

¤

Three nights later Mr. Smith came to visit.

In the preceding nights, John made his rounds, but Door 2 remained closed, locked and completely inert. He said nothing to Carl about what he had seen and felt, and was starting to feel like maybe he might have had some sort of stroke and imagined the whole thing.

Mr. Smith’s visit solidified his belief in what he saw.

They were in the guard shack enjoying the warmth. The temperatures had dipped into the 40’s during the night, and while not overly cold, it was much more comfortable inside. They were watching a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. Carl loved anything with a laugh track, John cringed at the sound of canned laughter. As canned laughter filled the air, a dark car pulled up to the gate. John had never seen anything pull up to the gate in his tenure at the warehouse, and looked to Carl for guidance.

“Shit,” Carl breathed. He suddenly looked far more concerned, even scared, than John had ever seen him.

“What? Who is that?”

“Mr. Smith.” Carl stabbed a pudgy finger at the power button on the television set.

“Oh,” was all he had to say. Finally, the (un)famous Mr. Smith. John had been given the expectation that he would never meet the man who paid his rent. Carl had never mentioned him, and Ms. Walker had only spoken of him in the vaguest terms. He was starting to believe that the man didn’t exist, or that the name was just a cover for a shadowy cabal with hazy plans for world domination, or at least the domination of one 4000 square foot warehouse.

“Don’t say anything about the door,” Carl said, putting on a big smile for the boss. His voice, however, was deadly serious, and for the first time John realized that his coworker wasn’t just a rent-a-cop stereotype, more interested in crappy sitcoms and donuts. He knew. He knew what John knew and was very good at keeping it hidden. John suddenly felt full to bursting with questions, but for once had the good sense not to ask them. Instead he followed Carl out of the shack to greet his boss.

Carl unlocked the gate to allow the black sedan to pass through. It pulled up behind the guard shack and the engine was left to idle as Ms. Walker stepped out of the car. She was a woman that John guessed was in her mid-fifties, her hair dyed an ash blond color and pulled back in a severe bun, every strand in place. John knew she wasn’t a tall woman, but the heels she always wore, and the military straightness of her posture gave her an imposing presence. On his first meeting he had realized that he was a little afraid of her, and subsequent meetings only made the feeling worse.

“Good Evening,” Carl greeted cheerily. “Bit chilly tonight, Ms. Walker.”

Mr. Smith’s assistant merely nodded and went to open the rear passenger door. The overhead light inside didn’t seem to fully illuminate the figure in the back seat, and John had a momentarily disconcerting feeling that the only thing sitting there was a pair of legs and one arm, clad in a black suit jacket, and one pale blue veined hand resting on a black trousered lap. Ms. Walker reached into the car and gently grasped that arm and helped its owner out of the vehicle.

He was an old man, bent and trembling slightly. His hair pure white and sparse and parted directly down the middle. On either side of his head two large ears stuck out like handles with drooping lobes quivering in the air. His face was wrinkled and spotted with age, and his watery blue eyes glistened weakly in the bright light thrown by the arc light overhead. Christ he must be a hundred years old, John thought. Ms. Walker led the old man towards the shack. He didn’t shuffle as John expected, but he lifted each foot, and deliberately placed it ahead of the other.

“We didn’t expect to see you here, Mr. Smith,” Carl hurried ahead of the couple to open the door to the guard shack.

“Mr. Smith believed it was time for him to visit the property,” Ms. Walker responded. “It has been far too long since he was last here.”

“Oh yes,” Carl held the door open and stepped to the side to let them through. “It’s been quite a while.”

Inside the shack, an area designed for 2 was woefully overcrowded with the 4 of them. Carl managed to maneuver a chair into position for Mr. Smith to sit in. The old man lowered himself slowly grasping Ms. Walker’s arm with one hand and his cane with the other as Carl held the swivel chair steady. To John the whole exercise seemed to take a painfully long time, though it could not have been longer than a few seconds. He tried to stay out of the way of the others, it seemed they knew what they were doing. Carl managed to bustle about in the cramped space, shuffling papers into some semblance of neatness, tossing the boxes that contained the remnants of their take-out dinner into the round trash can beneath the counter. The whole time their employer sat still, his veined hands now both resting, shaking, on the head of his cane. Neither he nor Ms. Walker said a word. The only sound was Carl muttering to himself as he tidied up.

After a few moments, the old man spoke: “Mr. Nelson. I would like to speak with Mr. Coe privately.” The voice was high pitched and just as shaky as his hands.

Carl stopped his busy work, but his hands still fidgeted as if they continued to find papers to shuffle in midair. “Sir, is there anything I can do for you? John hasn’t been here that long. I’m sure I can answer any questions you have.”

“No, no, Mr. Nelson,” Smith’s eyes wandered about, taking a leisurely tour of the room before landing on John. “I would just like to get to know you Mr. Coe. We haven’t met properly yet.”

“No, Sir,” John said. “I am happy to finally make your acquaintance.”

Poor Carl hesitated, a worried look on his face.

“Mr. Smith wishes to speak to your colleague in private,” Ms. Walker said. She rested a hand gently, but firmly on his arm. Carl had no choice but to follow her direction as she led him out of the guard shack. As he left, he shot John a look, as if he was trying to send a message to him telepathically. John could only guess at what the message might be, but he thought it was Don’t say anything about the door.

Once they were alone, Mr. Smith motioned to the other chair in the room. “Please have a seat Mr. Coe.” John settled himself in the chair, sitting up straight, hands on his knees. “I have been very derelict in my duty as an employer. What kind of man does not make himself known to the people who work for him?”

“No worries, Sir. I figured you were a man who liked his privacy.”

“Yes, yes. That I am. But still, it’s rude.” He shifted in his seat, and stroked the head of his cane. “How are you getting on? Are you content in your work?”

“Ah, sure. It’s pleasant enough.” John had never worked anywhere where his boss asked how he liked his job. He was a little unsure of what the right answer would be.

“And Mr. Nelson, has he been helpful to you in learning your duties?”

“Oh yeah. Carl got me squared away pretty quick.”

“Oh good, good. It’s always good to have a team that works well together.” He paused. “Your background check shows you are unmarried. Do you have any family? Anyone you’re close too?”

“Not really. There’s my mom, but she’s in Arizona now. Couldn’t take the winters anymore.”

“Oh yes.” Mr. Smith said, his shaking voice pepping up a little. “The southwest. I spent some time there when I was a young man. New Mexico actually. It wasn’t a state then, but beautiful nonetheless. Ms. Walker thinks I should move south, better for the old bones, but I love the winters, the cold. You don’t hear that often from an old man!” He cackled in a way that made John uneasy, but he chuckled along with him.

“No Sir. You don’t hear it from the young very much either.” John mulled over the information. Before New Mexico was a state? How long ago was that?

“Everyone wants to be warm, Mr. Coe. From the smallest infant to the old man on his deathbed. They all search for it and they will find it, but in the end the cold wins out. I like being on the side of the winner.”

John decided his best response was to nod in agreement. It was a strange thing to say. His own hands began to fidget on his lap. They sat in silence for a moment until Mr. Smith’s quavering voice peeped up.

“How is the building? All secure?”

“Yes Sir. Every night the same thing. Nothing comes in or out, except me and the other guards.”

“I had heard that you have been having problems with animals?”

“Some coyotes dug under the fence and were wandering around the yard, but we filled in the hole and they haven’t come back in yet. They have been hanging around though. You can hear them howling and yipping.”

“Not good to have animals about. Coyotes are dangerous creatures.”

“I know. Luckily nobody has run into any of them in person. We just saw them on the cameras.”

“Nothing else out of the ordinary?” Mr. Smith’s eyes were fixed on John’s face. They had lost their weak and watery appearance and were now shrewd and sharp as ice.

John acted as if he was trying to recollect anything. He shook his head. “No. Nothing else. Everything else is the same every night.”

Mr. Smith sat up straight in his chair. He still looked like a centenarian, but his body language had changed from doddering old grandpa to that of a man 50 years younger who sensed he was not hearing what he wanted to. He stared at John as if he could see the truth in him. John tried but lost the staring contest. Mr. Smith continued to watch him after he found something less threatening to look at.

“Mr. Coe,” he started, “It is vital that nothing out of the ordinary occurs at this warehouse. I have…valuables stored here, and I, an old man, often have delusions that they may not always be secure.” He sounded like a man far too serious for delusions of any sort. “You have never seen anyone-anything-that might make it seem as though the premises were not completely…safe?”

John steeled himself and looked back to the old man. “Safe?” Mr. Smith continued to watch him. “Mr. Smith, I don’t know what you think might happen, but I never see a change from day to day. I make the rounds every hour and the gate is always locked, the fence is always intact, except for the incident with the coyotes. The warehouse is sealed tighter than…I don’t know what, but it’s locked up. Always.”

Mr. Smith did not believe him. It was obvious in his posture, the hardening look of his eyes the clenching of his jaw. John waited for him to call out his lie, but he only sat silently evaluating him.

“ Mr. Coe,” his voice was no longer high and quavering, it was low and solid. “This warehouse holds things that are best left undisturbed. If you ever notice anything-anything- that would compromise the security of this building you must notify me at once. Failure to do so will result in disastrous consequences for you.” He leaned forward. “The blackness is not empty.”

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He knew exactly what the old man meant.

They sat in silence for an impossible amount of time. Mr. Smith stared at John, John stared at a spot just above the old man’s left shoulder. John couldn’t bring himself to look directly into those sharp blue eyes. He felt if he did he would drop his gaze and that would be even more damning than not meeting the gaze. Finally Mr. Smith called for his assistant. “Ms. Walker!” His voice was high and quavery again.

Ms. Walker entered the guard shack and helped him to his feet. John didn’t move to assist her, but followed them out the door and watched her gently ease him into the back seat of the black sedan.

“It was a pleasure speaking with you, Mr. Coe” Mr. Smith said.

“Likewise,” John replied. Ms. Walker closed the door, slid in behind the wheel and drove off without a word.

John and Carl watched the car drive down the block. As soon as it was out of sight Carl turned to him and asked: “What did he say to you?”

“What? Nothing.”

“John, did he say anything about the warehouse?”

“No. We talked about my family, or lack thereof. He asked me if I like working here.” John was reluctant to talk about the warning he was given or the cold hard looks that the grandfatherly man was capable of giving.

“Last time Mr. Smith was here, Rick was on the street the next day.” Carl placed a hand on his shoulder. “I tried to get a hold of him a few days later, but it was like he had disappeared into thin air. They actually investigated it as a missing person because so far as the police could tell he wasn’t planning any trips. HE talked about the warehouse to Mr. Smith.”

“What happened to him?”

“I told you, he disappeared.”

“What’s the deal with the warehouse?” John asked.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Carl replied. “It gives me the creeps, even after 15 years. I’ve never seen any open doors though. But Rick saw them, and I know you did too.” He leaned in closer, the hand on John’s shoulder gripped hard. “Rick said he saw something like a giant squid that wasn’t a squid moving around in there. Did you see it too?”

John shook his hand off. “I didn’t see anything.” He didn’t want to talk about this with Carl. His colleague was starting to worry him. The man was so agitated that he was beginning to breathe heavily and even under the arc light John could tell that his face was a disturbing shade of deep red. “Carl, calm down. I think you’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”

“Just…be careful, John. I have no idea what happens in the warehouse. I just know that Mr. Smith has something in there. I think it’s alive.”

John went back into the guard shack and stared at the monitors showing the camera feeds. He had looked at these images every day for months, and nothing ever changed, except when he was on his rounds. He looked from one screen to the next, it was like watching a tv show that was paused during the most boring part of the show. Carl came in behind him and offered to take the next round. John agreed without taking his eyes from the screens.

He watched as a mini Carl in shades of black and grey moved from one screen to the next. He answered when Carl radioed that each of the doors were secure. He made notes in the log. Carl did all the remaining rounds that night and not once did John see a change on the screens.

The next day, John arrived at the warehouse at his usual time. Carl was already there, relieving the day shift guards. The senior partner on days was a man named Thomas who sported a beard to make Santa Claus jealous, and the junior was Carissa, a young woman who John occasionally flirted with, but today he had his minds on other things.

When Thomas and Carissa left, the two men settled into their duties as normal. Carl suggested taking the rounds again, but John would only agree to split the shift. “Like it’s supposed to be anyway.”

Carl, seeing that he wasn’t going to convince him to change his mind, reluctantly agreed.

A few times during the night he tried to bring up the subject of doors, and John redirected the conversation at first, before snapping “I’m not talking about this anymore,” after the fifth time it was mentioned. Carl looked hurt, but what was he supposed to do? Assure him that he was going to leave it all alone, just let it drop? John was the type of person who let a lot of things drop, but this was different. He felt the warehouse pulling him.

When it was his turn to do the rounds he grabbed his flashlight and radio without a word. Carl tried to say something, but he walked out the door without a look back. He didn’t bother making a show of checking the perimeter or the other doors. He headed straight for Door 2.

It was waiting for him, yawning open like a toothless mouth. John paused staring into the blackness. He could imagine that there was nothing but a bottomless pit on the other side, even though it was straight ahead and not down. It felt like something was waiting expectantly for him to make his move. He took a step, then another, and he was in the blackness.

All was black and empty. He had no sense of movement, or air, or the floor beneath his feet. There must be a floor, he was standing on something, but he couldn’t feel anything. He was blind, and turning around, he could not see the door he had entered through. There was nothing. He stepped forward, but there was no sense that his legs were moving. He inhaled, there was no sense of air rushing to his lungs. He said “Hello?” just to hear something, but the word fell dead from his mouth, hardly more than a muffled whisper. He started to panic. What the hell had he been thinking, just walking into the warehouse? The answer came immediately: he hadn’t been thinking, not really. He had been fully aware of what he was doing, but the voice in his head that usually talked him out of anything that wasn’t routine, had been as silent as the inside of the warehouse. John turned in circles, he thought it was turning. The whole place was so disorientating, with no light, or sound or sense of direction. Was he on his feet or his head? Maybe he was sideways. John began to panic, his mind racing, but his body was inert. He tried to scream into the absolute nothingness, but as with everything else it was a dead thing in the warehouse. He imagined himself running, and perhaps he was actually running, how could he tell in here? He ran for a long time, the warehouse never seemed to end. And when he finally came to grips with the fact that he was going nowhere, he stopped. In the empty space that running had filled in his head, a new idea began to take root. He was no longer alone.

The presence slithered and rolled into being, crowding his mind, sliding icy tentacles into his brain. He whimpered as they poked and groped his mind, prying open his thoughts and memories, caressing, then tightening around his soul.

He sees flashes of images that are not his own: fire, deep bruised looking furrows in the earth, black skies with no stars. There are creatures with bulbous heads, gaping sucking mouths, maneuvering on long whip-like tentacles that moved with no discernable rhythm. He is one of those creatures. He is trapped in a stone as punishment for crimes his human mind can barely comprehend in their barbarity. The stone is hurled into the universe where it drifts for millennia, before coming in to the gravity well of a faint yellow star. He is sleeping then, but still dimly aware of falling towards a small blue and green planet. When he lands the stone shatters, sending shockwaves across the world throwing dust and debris into the air, causing a winter that lasts for decades. He is unleashed.

He feeds on the lumbering giants that roam the world, but after a few years they become scarce, as their own food sources were destroyed in the cataclysm caused by his arrival. He finds smaller and smaller prey until his is reduced to hunting the small hairy animals that squeal so deliciously when he traps them in his rows of needle-like teeth. But they are not enough, so he sleeps again. When he awakens millions of years later he finds the world vastly changed, rain forests replaced with open savannahs, and on the savannah he finds furry creatures larger than the ones from before. Some of these creatures walk on two legs, and are especially delectable. Soon he makes a discovery. The greatest nourishment comes not from the flesh of the two-legged animals, but from their minds. He learns to live off of the psychic force that emanates from them, finding it to be so much more enjoyable.

He lives this way for a very long time, longer than even he can fathom, and as his chosen prey begins to change and evolve, they lose their fur, they grow taller, and they spread out from the savannah. They begin to wear clothing, to create art and music. They learn to grow grain, and to breed animals. They build villages, then towns, then cities. They spread out across the world, and where man goes he follows.

Man isn’t the only one who has evolved. He has become dependent on their psychic energy. Soon he finds that he can feed off of one human for decades, and so he does. He and his host develop a symbiotic relationship, and for thousands of years it is a mutually beneficial relationship, until he grows bored with his host. Then he finds a new one. The old one finally succumbs to the ravages of age they have always avoided.

Then he meets a young man. A man whose psychic vigor is positively exhilarating, it makes what passes for a heart in his alien body beat fervently with joy. For many years they enjoy each other’s benefits; the man is extremely fortunate in all his dealings and surprises everyone he meets with his vibrancy long after his hair has turned white. He luxuriates in the manna that exudes from the man’s mind. But then the man turns deceiver. Traitor.

The man has discovered a place where the lines of the world unite, where the walls of the world wear thin. The man erects a metal building, and here-through trickery, and deceit – the man traps him here in the walls between worlds. And here he languishes, biding his time, making his plans, sharpening his knives in a metaphorical sort of way. He won’t need knives when he finally escapes his prison.

One day a new man appears, but he is deemed unworthy when his mind is fractured in the warehouse. So he waits a little longer, and much to his surprise another, stronger man appears. He takes his chance.

This one is so strong. He won’t break like the last one. He will serve.

John felt the creeping tentacles withdraw from his mind, and with them all the fear and panic. He sat, motionless in the black, for a very long time. He wasn’t concerned. He knew that the Master would take care of things.

After for what seemed like ages, he saw a light, a bright white rectangle in the dark, blinding him with its brilliance. John smiled and stood. His feet planted firmly on solid concrete, and the air stirred in a faint breeze. His eyes adjusted and by the time he stepped through the portal he was no longer dazzled.

He stood in a hospital room, smelling strongly of disinfectant. Machinery whirred and beeped, surrounding a small bed. On the bed covered with a faded yellow blanket lay Mr. Smith. John moved closer to him and gazed down at the wasted figure. The droopy ears looked even more ridiculous now on his gaunt skull. John waited.

Lashless eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. Faded blue irises surrounded by yellow corneas streaked with red stared up at him. One of the machines began to beep faster.

“Hello, Mr. Smith.” John smiled. It was a distracted, humorless smile. “I brought someone to visit. He’s an old friend, and he’s very disappointed in you.”

Mr. Smith struggled weakly in the bed. His breath wheezed in and out, and the little tube in his nose was knocked loose. “….mistake…”

“No mistake. The only mistake was yours.” John sneered, his face turning dark and animalistic. “Deceiver. Traitor.”

He stepped aside as the Master rolled forward on roiling appendages, round tooth-filled orifice gaping open.

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About the Author

J A Ellis has lived in many different places in her lifetime, but currently resides in Kentucky with her family.


Dark Railroad and Other Tales

  • ISBN: 9781311762603
  • Author: JA Ellis
  • Published: 2016-01-05 04:35:12
  • Words: 15403
Dark Railroad and Other Tales Dark Railroad and Other Tales