The Last Train Home

This short story was inspired by a writing prompt: “You are riding a train and get off at your usual stop. When you get out, you do not recognize the station. When you turn around, you do not recognize the train.”

This commute would be the death of her, Christine thought, her limbs protesting as she woke with a start. She shifted on her seat in a bid to move against the weight of her own exhaustion.

The last train home after a double shift. Oh, how she ached and craved a hot soak in her mother’s vast clawfoot tub to soothe her weary muscles. She yawned and covered her mouth, stretching her limbs as she arched her back against the hard, plastic seat. Her lids fluttered and she blinked away the cold fingers of sleep that coiled about her and threatened to pull her down. She couldn’t miss her stop, not again.

The blurs of light and brick passed her by whilst the shadows of skyline and cityscape danced beyond her window. A chill swept over her, brushing against her prickling flesh as dread welled in the pit of her stomach. Her stop would be coming up soon, and she’d have to walk those last twenty minutes home in the pitch dark. These past few nights, it almost felt like eyes were on her — though she saw nothing whenever she turned around. It would be the same tonight. She shuddered as implacable, primal fear took hold.

The train slowed to a halt as she arrived at her stop.

Christine rose to her feet and moved toward the door, her steps reluctant. Something was off, something so indescribable as though words to name it would evaporate before they could pass through her lips. The infusion of foreign and familiar danced about her senses, taunting her as it evaded her awareness. With each step, the answer to a question she didn’t know she had felt lorded over her. Sudden pain rose behind her ruddy gaze as she reeled from the metallic ring in her ears that played like dissonant notes. She brought her hands to her forehead and winced, pausing in the aisle. A tormented whimper welled within her throat and broke free while she pushed forward in one desperate burst, fleeing the train.

She staggered forward across the empty platform to fall to her hands and knees — fine flaxen locks cascading as her head bowed. Her chest heaved with labored breath as she tasted bile on her tongue.

The masonry her fingertips brushed over betrayed the memory of the station she visited so often. Christine lifted her head and craned her neck back to see the train she had stepped off of mere seconds ago. She blanched. That wasn’t the train she boarded. It gleamed in its whitewashed splendor, bathing in electric light. The train was curved and sleek as if from a work of science fiction.

There had to be some explanation. This made no sense at all. That wasn’t her train, and this wasn’t her stop.

Her gut told her to hurry and get back on it. She stood up and turned around, poised to run back to the strange train that brought her here. Before she could, it abandoned her in this strange place, sliding away into the night without a sound.

Her stop was supposed to be dark, empty at this time of night, with nothing but fields and scattered houses with few lights still on. What she found here was lit up like the day, despite the late hour. Buildings towered above and around her as the roar of nearby street traffic raged in opposition to the night. This wasn’t her stop, nor did it resemble any of the other stops so far out from the city. Yet an aching familiarity lingered here. She came down the steps and shuffled away from the platform, along a pathway of grey brick that cut through a small park filled with large deciduous trees and light posts. Had she passed through here before?

Christine’s heart sank as she wandered out from the park to a sidewalk along a busy street. Vehicles of shapes and designs she did not recognize blurred past in each direction. The mechanical ghosts bathed in pale light as it bent around and trailed with them. All of the light here seemed unnatural, otherworldly.

She gasped as she turned to see wisps of smoke filing past her, taking no heed of her presence at all. Fear rumbled in her throat as her color drained, eyes wide and lips taut. One went through her. Her heart raced as it felt like sand filled the inside of her mouth. They moved along the streets with intent and purpose, they moved along the streets like regular people. Christine’s breath shortened, stifled as though frozen fingertips reached in and tore it away.

Moisture clung to her gaze like steam on a window as she fled the specters and flung herself forward onto the street. Asphalt bit into her knees as she fell, her hands catching the road to keep her from kissing it. Headlights blinded her as she froze in place, impact imminent. An ear-piercing shriek escaped as she closed her eyes and braced for her end.

Christine felt nothing.

When she opened her eyes again, the threatening vehicle had passed through her as though it was never there at all. She scrambled to her feet and crossed to the sidewalk, sobbing as more grey wisps moved in all directions. Frozen pinpricks spread over her as her chest tightened. She avoided them as she sprinted along the sidewalk, her chest now on fire as the tears kept flowing.

At any moment, if felt as though her legs would collapse under the weight of every new and foreign sensation that bombarded her, yet she remained in motion — her flight undeterred by the pain in her muscles. She kept running. Running past the structures she’d never seen before, past the stores with names unfamiliar to her, past the phantoms on the street until she came to a shop window, horrified by what reflected back at her.

Christine did not see herself in the window, but a smoky wisp of darkness not unlike the others she saw, floating right where she stood. For the first time since she left the train, she saw people reflected in the window. She turned to see the specters and then turned back to the window to see people again. Many were covered in tattoos and grotesque piercings, some with meticulously preened hairstyles and beards. Their clothing was vibrant while borrowing fashions that came and went. Her dismay ran wild. This wasn’t how anyone she knew dressed. Her forehead rested against the pane of glass. A cry of despair clawed its way out of her in ragged sobs. All she wanted was to get out of this twilight zone and to go home.

Yet, home —

Her stomach tingled and her scalp burned as white-hot pain seared through every limb. Bleak realization took hold with stunning clarity. She traced her fingers down to a new wound, her abdomen sliced open as it now burned like hellfire. Blood seeped through and saturated the fabric, pooling and spreading over the pristine white blouse.

— was gone.

She cried out at the faint sight of an empty field glimmering in the shop window until it vanished again. She looked over her left shoulder, to see the unfamiliar city, and saw the eyes, those haunting blue eyes behind her. Christine moaned as her eyelids grew heavy. She pressed her hands against her stomach, blood pulsing out between her fingers. The sidewalk swayed beneath her feet until she succumbed to the darkness blotting her vision.

Christine awoke on the last train home with a start. She blinked away the exhaustion as she ignored her aching limbs.

This commute would be the death of her.

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