The Midnight Express, a short story: Part 1
A sharp crackle of static rousted Eric from his slumber. He stared around, his ears filling with the low rattle of train carriages rolling down the rails. He was seated at one end of a well furnished dining car, a pair of passengers seated near the other end of the carriage. The two were laying face down on their tables, fidgeting in their sleep.
Confused and disoriented, Erik tried to think of why he was on a train, but came up empty. The last few hours seemed to be a blank. Another loud crackle of static drew his attention to a small intercom box in the corner. Besides a sporadic burst of noise quiet static was all he could hear from the thing. Gingerly he rose to his feet, walking down the aisle towards the other end of the carriage.
He looked out the long window, trying to discern where they were. A dark expanse stretched out before him, the thin moon providing only enough light to hint at the shapes of rolling hills and dark mountains in the distance.
At the end of the aisle he came to the rear door, through which he could see another carriage. Though his first instinct was to continue exploring, Eric held back, his hand wavering over the handle. Instead he turned around and took stock of his fellow passengers. Nearest to him was a blond woman in a red tank top, sitting across from a blond man in a blue polo shirt. The two were stirring in their sleep, the young manâ€™s hand shaking restlessly across the table.
Eric weighed his options, uncertain if he wanted to disturb the status quo yet finding the continued silence unnerving. The carriage shook, rattling the glasses scattered about. The young woman stirred, but settled back down. Deciding that he was unready for their prying questions, Erik pulled open the door and crossed into the next carriage.
It was a sleeper carriage, with tiny compartments along one side. The doors were hanging ajar, and Erik found the first three devoid of life. The fourth one contained a black haired young man in a navy blue jacket leaning against the window. Beside him sat a little girl in a yellow dress, whose face and black hair bore an uncanny resemblance to the young manâ€™s. His sister, Eric guessed.
Both were sound asleep, just like as the couple in the dining car. A creeping unease began to take hold of Erik. The next compartment was locked, the curtains drawn. For a brief moment he tried to force it open before taking a step back. Erik flexed his hands and tried to remain calm, his heart racing out of control.
He moved on to the next compartment, open and empty, and then onto the last one, which contained nothing but a suitcase propped up on the seats. Behind this was the toilet room, which he found empty and unlocked.
After hesitating Erik moved into the next carriage, finding another sleeper car. The first compartment was empty, and it took all his self control to not sprint down to the end of the carriage. In the second compartment he found a brown haired woman in a blue dress sprawled out on the ironing board sized bed, a murder mystery book lying open upon her face. After waiting for her to respond, he realized that she was asleep as well.
He was on the verge of shouting when he ripped open the door to the third compartment and found a man seated inside.
The man was grey haired and balding, wearing a crumpled, brown suit. His nose was buried in a newspaper and for a moment Erik assumed he was asleep as well. Then the man looked up at him, his brow wrinkling at the intruder.
â€œOy, what do you think youâ€™re doing?â€ he demanded, his voice scratchy and annoyed.
â€œWhat?â€ Erik asked, genuinely confused.
â€œWhat do you mean what?â€ he spat, tossing his newspaper aside. â€œBarging into peopleâ€™s compartments for starters. Where you raised in barn or something?â€
â€œI-Iâ€™m sorry. I didnâ€™t know.â€
â€œDidnâ€™t know what? That you ought not barge into peopleâ€™s rooms? Have you never been on a train before, lad?â€
â€œNo, actually, and I donâ€™t remember getting on this one.â€
The man snorted, reaching absentmindedly for his paper. â€œYoung people these days, honestly.â€
Erik hesitated at the door, the old man eyeing him contemptuously. For a moment he felt utterly foolish, doubt eating at him until he was certain everything that he had done was a massive overreaction.
â€œI apologize for intruding.â€
â€œGood, now scram.â€
â€œCan I at least get your name, sir?â€
â€œThe polite thing to do would be introduce yourself first,â€ he replied, â€œsonny.â€
â€œIâ€™m Erik Olafson; and you?â€
â€œUgh; if you must know Iâ€™m Finnegan Oâ€™Hair. And Iâ€™m traveling, traveling,â€ he hesitated, a flicker of doubt crossing his face. â€œOn business; yes, must be business.â€
â€œYouâ€™re not sure?â€
â€œIt must be business,â€ Finnegan insisted, â€œwhat else could it be?â€
â€œDo you remember boarding the train?â€
â€œNot really, but, Iâ€™ve been on so many, theyâ€™ve blurred together in my mind.â€
â€œBut you canâ€™t remember getting on this particular train?â€
â€œI thought you were leaving, Mister Olafson.â€
â€œHave you been out of this compartment at all?â€
â€œIf it will make you leave sooner, yes, I have been out and about.â€ Finnegan retorted, growing more agitated by the moment. â€œGot up to get a drink about an hour ago and got up to piss a half hour ago. That good enough for you, sonny, or shall I call security and have you ejected?!â€
The shout echoed through the carriage. When it had passed into nothing, a palpable silence returned to the carriage and neither of them dared break it.
â€œWhatâ€™s all the shouting about?â€ A female voice asked.
Erik turned to face a lady in blue emerging from her compartment, looking up and down the corridor. Her face was drawn and tired, her brown hair unkempt. She stared at Erik with dark brown eyes and repeated her question. â€œWhat was that shouting about?â€
â€œNothing much,â€ Erik replied, â€œdid we wake you?â€
â€œI think I woke up on my own,â€ she said noncommittally.
â€œFantastic,â€ Finnegan said glaring at them, â€œNow would you kindly sod off? Come on, out with you!â€
â€œFine, fine,â€ Erik said, reluctantly sliding the door closed. â€œWhat an unpleasant man.â€
â€œYou did barge in on him.â€
â€œOh, pardon me, Iâ€™m Violet,â€ she said, extending her hand.
â€œErik,â€ he replied, shaking her hand. â€œDo you remember getting on the train?â€
â€œThatâ€™s an odd question,â€ she murmured, raising her eyebrow. â€œWhy do you ask?â€
â€œBecause I donâ€™t and though heâ€™d never admit it, I believe Finnegan doesnâ€™t either.â€
â€œThe man I barged in on.â€
â€œAh, him,â€ Violet said, nodding, â€œErm, you want to get a cup of coffee?â€
â€œNever mind,â€ she muttered, making to return to her cabin.
â€œWait, can you answer my question?â€ he asked, moving between her and her compartment. â€œItâ€™s important.â€
â€œGet out my way,â€ Violet snapped, shoving him aside, â€œyouâ€™re like a real creep, you know that?â€
With that she snapped the door shut, leaving Erik to nurse his suspicions alone. Hoping to escape the encroaching silence, he continued searching the train, now more confused than ever. The next carriage was a lounge car with a bar at the far end. A pair of half empty glasses stood on one of the tables, their ice long melted into water. On another table was an empty glass beside a torn antacid packet and a biscuit wrapper.
Glad to see signs of habitation, Erik moved on to the bar, finding it stocked with chips, mini bottles of liquor and soda. He moved to take a bag of chips but stopped himself when his fingers reached the bag, feeling uneasy about taking something without paying.
Unwilling to commit theft, he moved on, finding another sleeper carriage past the bar. Before he could even look into the first compartment a hand reached out and grabbed his arm, dragging him inside. A moment of sheer terror gripped him as he came face to face with a square faced man in faded military fatigues, his eyes bulging out of his head.
â€œWho sent you!?â€ he demanded, spittle flying into Erikâ€™s face. â€œWho!?â€
â€œE-e-easy,â€ Erik stammered, trying to pull free of his iron grip. â€œIâ€™m Erikâ€¦â€
â€œA likely story!â€ he exclaimed, throwing Erik out into the corridor. â€œNow tell me why youâ€™ve abducted me, or itâ€™s going to get ugly.â€
When the crazy man reached beneath his shirt Erik jumped to his feet and sprinted back the way he had come. He didnâ€™t care if the man was reaching for a knife, a gun, or a granola bar. Back through the lounge and into the passenger carriage he ran, not looking or caring what was ahead of him. He didnâ€™t even notice the person in front of him until he had run headlong into her, sprawling them both on the floor.
â€œOuch!â€ she shrieked, shoving him back. â€œWatch where youâ€™re going, you dumb jerk!â€
â€œS-sorry maâ€™am,â€ Erik croaked, retreating back an armâ€™s length.
The young woman staggered to her feet, her blond hair falling down past her shoulders. Erik realized that she was the woman from the dining carriage where his waking nightmare had begun. She stared at him, backing several paces away.
â€œWho the heck are you?â€
â€œErik Olafson; and you are?â€
â€œLike, Iâ€™m Penelope,â€ she replied, her tone softening, â€œand do you have a clue where this train is going?â€
â€œNo, thatâ€™s actually what Iâ€™ve been running to and fro trying to figure out.â€
â€œSay what, you donâ€™t know either?â€
Eirk shook his head. â€œIâ€™ve only found a few other people onboard, one of whom might be a lunatic.â€
â€œWhoa, heavy,â€ Penelope murmured, â€œWhere is, like, the conductor or someone?â€
â€œI havenâ€™t seen any staff.â€
She bit her lip, â€œthis is no good man. Come on, letâ€™s go see if Jeff has the intercom working.â€
â€œMy boyfriend,â€ she said brightly, â€œheâ€™s trying to get the intercom working.â€
His mind flashed back the static producing box that woke him up. It had never occurred to him that it might be used to communicate, though now it seemed painfully obvious to him. Erik followed her back into the dining car, where Jeff was prodding the communications box with his finger. He turned around when the door opened, smiling earnestly as they approached.
â€œHey love, you found someone,â€ Jeff called.
â€œYeah, Iâ€™m Erik,â€ he said, pushing forward, â€œyou think you can get the intercom working?â€
â€œI like, have no idea what Iâ€™m doing,â€ he admitted, â€œMaybe you can help dude?â€
â€œSorry, Iâ€™m not much good with electronics.â€
â€œBummer,â€ Penelope said, sitting down, â€œWhat do we do now?â€
They both turned to Erik, apparently wanting him to tell them something. Erik felt his face grow warm, apprehensive about over stepping his boundaries or worse giving them the wrong impression.
â€œNot sure,â€ he replied, glancing towards the window.
The landscape was as featureless as ever, giving no hint as to their location or even how fast the train was moving. A flicker of fear flashed through Erikâ€™s mind, but he pushed it aside. Instead he tried to marshal his thoughts and think of something productive to do.
â€œWe need to search the train.â€
â€œWerenâ€™t you, like, just doing that dude?â€ Penelope asked.
â€œYes, but, only towards the rear of the train,â€ he replied, motioning back the way he had come.
â€œBut like, thatâ€™s the front of the train,â€ Jeff said quizzically.
â€œNo itâ€™s not,â€ he insisted, glancing at the window for confirmation. The few shapes outside seemed to confirm his claim. Yet even as he watched the passing mountains seemed to slow and flicker. Hands trembling, Erik looked away, trying to get a grip on himself.
â€œLike, are you alright, dude?â€ Penelope said, patting his shoulder.
â€œIâ€™m fine, Iâ€™m fine,â€ he lied, â€œjust disoriented is all.â€
â€œMaybe you need to take a load off for awhile? Stress saps your spiritual energy.â€
â€œNo, no, I need to do something; look for more passengers or find a crewman. Either of you are welcome to accompany me.â€
Without waiting for a response he brushed past Penelope, trying to open the door leading to the forward carriages. It didnâ€™t budge. After trying to force it open met with no success, Erik took a step and a deep breath, taking a closer look at the situation. A moment later Penelope leaned past him and pulled a small lever near the top of the door. Then she tugged it open, flashing Erik a half smile.
â€œIt just was latched.â€
â€œThank you,â€ he murmured, glancing at his feet.
â€œNo problem dude,â€ she replied, taking the lead. â€œLike, letâ€™s find out where all the people have gone.â€
Slightly embarrassed, Erik soldiered on, following Penelope through the gangway into the next carriage. A second time he bumped into her, for without warning she stopped midday through the opposite door. An instant later he understood why. Inside the next carriage lay a scene of chaos. Garbage littered the stained carpeting, interspersed with discarded linins and overturned suitcases. Erik tapped Penelope on the shoulder, carefully edging past her into mess.
Slowly he picked his was through, glancing into the compartments for signs of life. The doors of the compartments were open, revealing rooms strewn with heaps of multicolored clothing, empty miniature bottles dripping from their perches, discarded electronics blinking forlornly from the corners, broken trinkets lying on the tables. By the time he reached the other end of the carriage and found the toilet smashed and leaking, Erik could not pretend to be surprised.
He turned around to look at Penelope, who had been unable to make it further than halfway down the corridor. Her eyes were filled with confusion and fear, the chaos having knocked a hole in whatever delusions which had kept her from accepting the horror that they found themselves within. Where it not for his earlier experiences in the rear carriages, Erik was certain that he would have been similarly overwhelmed.
â€œLike, what a mess,â€ she said, forcing herself to smile. â€œSure hope the man wonâ€™t make me help clean it up.â€
â€œYeah, me too,â€ Erik replied, his voice betraying more uncertainty than he would have liked. â€œWell, onwards.â€