Nighttime Express

I wrote this a few years ago for a writer’s group I’m involved in. I think it’s close to being almost good, so I thought I’d share. Sharing my writing is something I’m going to need to get in the habit of. In the past I’ve been far too scared about sharing. Also, sharing the writing I’m not in love with might be helpful. That way, if people comment they will either say that it’s good and woo! free ego boost for me or, and this is far more likely, point out the weaker (crappier) parts and thus I will learn something and grow.
Well, that’s the plan.

The Nighttime Express

-26-

In two hours the next Nighttime Express would be here. In twenty six hours, I’d be gone.

I’ve been here for one hundred and forty thousand, one hundred and twenty four hours.  And twenty six hours is all I have left.

I know I seem kinda focused on the hours but that’s just how it works here. It seems like all I know is the hours. You know the hours you’ve had, the hours till the next Nighttime Express, and the hours you have left. I have twenty six. Some people have two. Some have two hundred. I have twenty six.

-24-

I wait on the platform in the chill and I hear it. The shrill whistle that heralds the approach of the Nighttime Express, powering closer to the station, closer to me. But not tonight. Tonight my job, as someone with over one hundred thousand hours, is to help take the new ones – the ones with zero or however long they’ve had – off the train safely and give them to the carers so they can look after them so they can get more hours. I don’t like the new ones. They’re small and spoldgy and all they produce are tears and shit and they want all the time. More than they deserve. It seems cruel that the only time you get your wants are when you can’t remember getting anything at all. At least, I don’t remember being cared for like the carers do now. I remember the cold. So did Mike but he was gone four thousand and fifty two hours ago, so I don’t know if he remembers anything anymore.
It wriggles its hands and arms, fat fingers opening and closing over nothing, its mouth a pink hole of noise. A carer comes and relieves me of it and coos at it revoltingly. She moves away and I set about cleaning the carriage. moving the seats so that those with no hours will be comfortable when then go.
Now that Mike’s gone, I don’t talk to the others as I work. Four thousand and fifty two hours ago Mike was my friend. When the Nighttime Express is ready I go back to the platform and help the older hours on and to their seats. In twenty two hours no one will need to show me on. I know the routine. Sit down. Put on and eye mask and wait. Food in one hour. Everything will be OK. That’s what I tell them now and that’s what they believe.

-12-

I open my eyes. It seems like, for my last hours. I should feel different. I don’t. Regret briefly stabs at me when it occurs to me I have just slept for 10 of my last hours but it passes when I realise I had nothing better to do anyway. I had no friends to play with anymore. I supposed I better have my last hours the same as the rest.

-0-

The night is the same as it was before. I stand on the platform in the chill and hear it. The shrill whistle that heralds the approach for the Nighttime Express. Soon I’ll be on it, then I’ll be gone.

The train pulls up to the platform and slides to a halt, steam still belching from the chimney and disappearing into the night. I can hear the new ones on it, screaming and can hear the others on the train, scooping them up, passing them to the carers and preparing the seats for us. There are fourteen others with me. I don’t remember, but I’ve been told that there were more when we arrived as new ones on the Nighttime Express. I don’t want to get back on it.
I’ve been working on the Nighttime Express for forty thousand, one hundred and twenty four hours, and I still don’t know where it goes, where it comes from, and what happens to the people that leave on it. I guess I’ll find out soon.

A wild thrill suddenly grips me. What if I didn’t get on the train? There’s no one guiding me on, no one showing me what to do. The others just assume I know what to do and will look after myself. I could just… wait. What would happen to me, when the train left? I didn’t know, but I didn’t know what would happen to me if I got on either, so I might as well stay here.

I stood there on the edge of the platform, staring at the door and waited. Everyone else was on board and settled in. The helpers and carers had left the platform. It was just me. In a few moments, the train would slide away and I’d still be here.

“Hey, kid. Quit dawdling.”

My head whips around to the speaker, who is obviously talking to me, because I’m the only one left on the platform. A… a someone is leaning out of the window of a nearby carriage and looking at me with a tight, tired face.

“Get on board, already, We gotta get moving.”

I don’t move or speak. I just stared at him. He looks like no one I’ve ever seen before, he looks like he’s had twice the hours I’ve had. His messy dark hair is topped with a blue cap, which was slightly too big for him, and tipped low over his eyes. He wore a dark blue uniform buttoned up to his chin with a double row of tarnished brown metal buttons. His face was just… filled with hours. And while it was obvious he had more hours than me, a lot more, I had the feeling that the hours he had had, he’d really had. He watched me impatiently.

“You listening kiddo? You gotta get on, time to move on out, yeah?”

Where had he come from? I’d never seen anyone else on the train before.

“What the hell’s going on Matt? You still playing?” Another voice issued from the carriage. I nearly jumped. There were more of them?

Matt turned back to face inside. “Kid’s out on the platform he’s not getting on.”

“So deal with it, aren’t you an expert?”

Matt turned back to me with a scowl. “Hurry up already, you can’t stay here.”

The train suddenly let out a shriek and shuddered to life. Matt looked panicked.

“Get on!” he yelled.

Slowly, painfully slowly, it began to slide away. I didn’t move. I watched Matt and the Nighttime Express go, Matt staring at me in distress before ducking back into the window. The end carriage was coming up, about to pass me when I saw the door fling open. Matt hung out, hooking his arm around the rails along the side of the door, intending to grab me and pull me in as he went past. I stumbled back from the edge of the platform as he drew level. His grasp was uselessly a few feet away from me, and then he was past, the Nighttime Express pulling him away and into the night. He twisted around to look back at me, his face twisted in frustration, getting smaller and smaller as he and the Nighttime Express vanished into the dark.

And I was still here. I’d made it, whatever it was. I was still here, and I didn’t need to get on the train, and nothing bad had happened to me. I could have as many hours as I wanted here and get on the Nighttime express when I wanted. Maybe never. I went home.

– -12 –

I woke up starving, I mean, so unbelievably hungry, it felt like I’d never eaten in my life. I sat up, head spinning, feeling like I was going to be sick. I grasped for the glass of water I kept by my bed and took a few desperate gulps, but they didn’t seem to help. I needed food.

I stumbled up, throwing my crumpled clothes from yesterday and made my way to the cafeteria.

People stared at me as I entered and made my way to the waiting food. I ignored them, grabbed a tray and piled it with food. I sat down and ate and ate, but nothing seemed to help. I was still starving and this food wasn’t sating my hunger at all.

I went to work, to continue repairing some chairs, but I worked so slowly, and felt so dizzy, so drained, I gave up after two hours and went back to my room hoping that if I fell asleep, I could forget the hunger. I had no such luck.

– -24 –

I don’t know why, but I found myself on the platform again as the Nighttime Express pulled in to the platform. I wasn’t intending to get on, but I was there. I was curious, I suppose, to see if that Matt was back, and what he had in store for me. Maybe he could tell me where the train goes.

I waited on the platform’s edge as the helpers and carers performed their duties around me. People hadn’t really spoken to me for hours, since Mike left. I suppose I stopped speaking to them, but at least they acknowledged me. Now they avoided me, like I was something to be feared.

When the platform was clear I turned my head to the carriage Matt was in the previous night. There was no sound coming from it. No one popped their head out. I waited, and waited, but the train pulled away and no one spoke to me.

Feeling betrayed, I turned and went home.

– -40 –

The hunger was beyond a joke now. My whole body felt like it was constantly trembling. I was always dizzy and could barely keep my eyes open. I lay in my room all day, drinking water that I couldn’t taste and slipping in and out of sleep.

When the time came for the Nighttime Express I would find Matt and make him tell me what was going on.

– – 48-

This time I waited outside where Matt’s carriage would be. The Nighttime Express slid up next to me and, not bothering to wait until the helpers and carers were gone, I rapped on the window. No one answered. I tried to peer in but the window was too dark and I couldn’t tell if anyone was inside. Frustrated I kept on smacking my hand against the glass, hoping that if someone was inside, at least they’d let me know by telling me to stop it.

Finally, when the platform was empty, the window snapped up. My hand was just about to smack the glass again when another hand shot out and grabbed my wrist.

“Cut that out” Matt growled.

I looked at him in surprise and he sighed, his expression softening.

“Jesus kid, I’m surprised you haven’t keeled over by now. You going to get on this train tonight or what?”

I shook my head and his lip twitched with annoyance. He grunted, let go of my wrist, and disappeared into the carriage, snapping the window shut.

“HEY!” I yelled, smacking the window again. “Get back here, tell me what’s going on!”

“What’s going on, kiddo, is that you don’t belong here anymore.”

I turned to the side. Matt had stepped onto the platform. He was holding a paper bag and looked distinctly uncomfortable. The train shrieked and began to slide away. Matt watched it go, his shoulders hunched over with regret.

“Ahh Jeez. What the hell’s wrong with me.” He glared at me. “I hope you’re happy.”

“Tell me what’s going on.” I was trying my best not to flinch under his glare.

He didn’t answer, just looked at me, and when the train had gone, went and sit on the edge of the platform, legs dangling over the side. That was against the rules, and I was about to tell him so, but he glanced at me out of the corner of his eye with a funny expression and I had a feeling that he was doing it expressly because it was against the rules, and so I could tell him so, and so he could laugh at me. Instead I went and sat down next to him, letting my legs dangle in the air above the tracks. He hid a smile and opened the paper bag that was in his lap. He reached inside and pulled out a steaming hot pie. My stomach tightened and my mouth watered, it smelt good. I was so hungry, I blinked and tried to focus on the pie.

“Mmm mmm,” He said “I bet you are one hungry fella, yeah?”

I watched him as he broke the pie in half. Steam poured out of it. It was filled with meat and gravy and smelt like the best thing in the world. He handed me half of it and I grabbed it and shoved it in my mouth. It was hot, and burnt my tongue, but I could taste it. It was delicious. I tried to chew slowly, to savour the meat, the flavour but before I knew it, It was gone. I licked my lips and wiped my chin, where juice had dribbled down, then licked my fingers. When I was finished I looked over at Matt. He was just popping the last bit of his pie in his mouth and watching me with amusement.

“More?”

He shook his head.

“You mean thanks, yeah? You’re lucky I shared that with you, after all the trouble you’re putting me through.” He leaned back and lay flat against the platform, folding his arm up under his head. “So, kiddo, wanna tell me why you’re so against getting on that train?”

I shrugged and leaned back to copy him.

“I don’t see why I have to, just because everyone else does it.”

Matt grinned.

“Wanna be separate from the crowd, huh? A noble endeavour I guess, expect there are a lot of things ‘everyone’ does. You can’t ignore all of them.”

“Can if I want.”

“Oh really? Everyone eats. You’re doing well at that so far, I guess.”

My stomach, the comedic genius, took that moment to grumble. Matt chuckled and continued.

“Everyone breathes, or do you you want to be different with that too?”

I said nothing. Matt smiled and closed his eyes.

“Everyone grows and everyone gets on the train. It’s just how life works, kiddo.”

“Where does it go?”

“Come on now, I can’t tell you that. That’s the other thing, everyone finds that out for themselves.”

I looked up at the familiar stars hanging about us. I still didn’t want to move.

“I’m scared.” I finally admitted.

“Everyone gets that too.”

I sat up and looked down at him, he winked open an eye to look at me.

“Did you get on the train? Where did you go?”

“Of course I did. Aren’t you listening? Everyone does. If you don’t, you die. You wanna stay here and die, huh?”

“So you don’t just stop.”

“Of course not. You go on to the next part and you do whatever you need to do. It’s just life.”

I considered this for some time. Matt didn’t offer me any more advice or conversation, he just lay next to me, feigning sleep.

I woke up curled in my bed. I didn’t know what the hour was. I didn’t care. I was hungry again. I moaned and tried to sit up. Two strong hands grabbed my shoulder and pulled me up.

“Morning kiddo, want some breakfast?”

I blearily opened my eyes. Matt was sitting on the edge of my bed. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the crumpled paper bag. Inside it was a squashed pastry.

“You had more!”

“I wasn’t going give up all my food at once” Matt tore the pastry in half and chucked me a bit. I grabbed it and bit into it. It was slightly stale but I could still taste it, so it was delicious.

“Now, me, I’m getting on the Nighttime Express tonight, for the second time no less. Will you be joining me?”

I shrugged. “Maybe.”

Matt sighed and stood up. “Whatever, kiddo, I tried.”

—-

I went with Matt to the station and stood next to him at the platform as the Nighttime Express pulled in. The carers and helpers worked around us, avoiding us and giving Matt strange, fearful looks. If he noticed, he didn’t care, just whistled softly to himself and looked at the stars.

When the platform was empty the window to Matt’s carriage opened and someone popped their head out. This was was a girl, she looked like she had the same hours as Matt and had long, dark hair. He face was pinched with anger.

“What the hell did you think you where playing at Matthew? You have a death wish or something?”

Matt grinned and her and waved cheerily.

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

The girl just huffed and rolled her eyes before ducking back in and slamming the window shut.

Matt turned to me, looking serious.

“Alright, kiddo. Do or die. What’ll it be?”

“My name’s not ‘kiddo’”

A flicker of amusement passed over Matt’s face, then was squashed by seriousness.

“Well, really? What would it be then?”

He was making fun of me. I didn’t care.

“It’s Adam.”

“Well, Adam, would you like to hop on board?” he gestured showily to the door and dipped his head a bit, still mocking me.

I bit back a grin. The hell with it, I wanted to see the sort of hours this guy had. Or even better, make my own.

I stepped on the train.

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