The Midnight Express, a short story: Part 3
For a time they stood before the barrier without speaking, listening to winds whipping past the open door. Then Violet turned and walked back over the gangway, Eric following quickly in her wake. His return trip was not nearly as terrifying, though Eric felt certain this was only because a new fear was welling up inside of him. The fear that there was no escape.
He slid the door shut on the outer darkness, though the wind continued to howl through the broken window. Violet wandered slowly down the aisle, Eric following in her wake. Inside the dining carriage they came upon Jeff and Penelope who were arguing over her interpretation of the signal.
Eric ignored them, walking straight past into the passenger carriages. Through an open door he saw Pendleton and Abby sitting beside each other on the seat, Pendleton staring out the window towards the shadowy horizon while his sister clutched at his coat. For a moment Eric considered saying something, but had no idea what to say. Instead he decided to seek out Finnegan for no real reason at all.
Whether Violet, who continued walking ahead of Eric, had the same idea or not was unknown to him. When they arrived in the lounge carriage Violet promptly took a seat at the bar, pilfering a bottle of liquor from the fridge and draining it in a single gulp. While his de facto partner for the moment fished around for a second, Eric noticed that Finnegan was nowhere to be seen.
At the end of the bar he found an empty bottle of whisky and a crumpled bag of chips, which he took as clear evidence the man had been there. While trying to think back and remember if Finneganâ€™s compartment door had been shut, he heard the door leading to the crazy manâ€™s carriage slide ajar. Heart racing, Eric snapped his head around to see if the man was approaching. Instead he saw Violet opening the door oblivious to the danger on the other side.
â€œWait!â€ he cried, jumping in front of her. â€œThereâ€™s a dangerous man through there.â€
â€œYou mean the one Iâ€™m staring at?â€ she asked, raising her flashlight up like a baton.
It wasnâ€™t until Eric checked over his shoulder that he realized she was referring to him. â€œNo, not me; he was a veteran or something.â€
â€œA man in fatigues jumped me in the next carriage,â€ Eric said exasperated. â€œYou canâ€™t go in there.â€
For the second time Violet pushed him out of the way, venturing through the door without a hint of fear. Terrified of what might happen to her without him around, Eric quickly followed. The compartment where the fatigue man had abducted him was empty, though it bore a few signs of habitation. Against his silent pleas, Violet promptly walked down the hallway and ripped open every door along the way.
They found the last compartment devastated.
The cushions had been cut to ribbons and the stuffing meticulously pulled out, while the walls had had holes smashed in them. Unnerved, he and Violet exchanged a glance before exiting into the next carriage. A double-decker observation carriage awaited them on the other side, wide windows giving them a fantastic view of the dark world outside.
Though Ericâ€™s attention was instantly drawn to the screaming echoing from the upper deck. He and Violet raced up to find Finnegan bound in strips of cloth while the man in fatigues stood above him clutching a knife.
â€œâ€¦erly mad!â€ Finnegan screeched, desperately wriggling away from his captor. â€œHelp!â€
â€œThatâ€™s right, cry for your masterâ€™s help,â€ the fatigue man said, leaning close to Finnegan and sliding the flat of his knife across his captiveâ€™s cheek. â€œLet it all come out. Every last facet of it.â€
â€œFor Christâ€™s sake man, canâ€™t you hear yourself?!â€ Finnegan pleaded, â€œNothing youâ€™re sayingâ€¦â€
A loud crack echoed through the carriage as Violet brought her flashlight down upon the fatigue manâ€™s head, sending him whimpering to the floor. A flabbergasted Finnegan looked between her and Eric, sputtering his lips inarticulately. The man in fatigues groaned, threatening to rise again. Eric jumped over him and grabbed the knife from his hand, cutting his fingers in the process.
While trying to staunch the blood, Violet took the knife from his grasp and cut Finnegan free. The man promptly staggered to his feet and gave the man in fatigues a kick.
â€œMadman,â€ he muttered.
Eirc glanced at Violet, the pair knowing what they had to do. He dropped to his knees and held down the man in fatigues while she bound his limbs. When the cloth that had been cut from Finnegan ran out she carved off sliced of her dress just to be sure he would not wriggle free. Once certain the man was incapacitated, the pair rose from their grim work, Eric feeling strangely hollow inside.
As his eyes focused a look of panicked helplessness crossed his face. He offered only a cursory struggle, apparently knowing that it would be useless.
â€œDidnâ€™t check my flanks,â€ he muttered. â€œDamned Illuminatius goons.â€
â€œWho are you?â€ Eric asked quietly.
â€œPah, you know god damned well who I am,â€ he retorted, â€œthis abduction is all because I know too much.â€
â€œCare to enlighten us?â€ Violet asked.
â€œNever,â€ he spat, â€œIâ€™ll take my secrets to the grave.â€
â€œOh piss off,â€ Finnegan said, â€œat least do me the courtesy of telling me your bloody name?â€
The man shook his head. Silence settled throughout the carriage as the fatigue wearing man looked upon his captors defiantly.
â€œLetâ€™s secure him,â€ Eric said quietly.
â€œIn an empty compartment near the dining car,â€ Violet said, grabbing the captive under his shoulder. â€œSo we can keep an eye on him.â€
With Violetâ€™s help, they lifted their prisoner up and carried him back through the lounge carriage.
â€œShoeâ€™s on the other foot now, eh?â€ Finnegan said, his voice oozing with false frivolity. â€œNot so, not so, are we.â€
When neither Eric nor Violet joined in his facade Finnegan trailed off, plunging them back into silence. Not a word was spoken until they arrived in the sleeper carriage directly adjacent to the dining carriage which Eric had awoken within. As they crossed the threshold into the carriage, Eric noticed Pendleton emerging from his cabin. He turned and stared at them, fear and bewilderment entering his eyes.
â€œWhat in the goddamn hell are you doing!?â€ he sputtered, taking a step back.
â€œDealing with a madman!â€ Finnegan spat.
â€œMadman? Youâ€™ve brought some dangerous lunatic to within feet of my Abby!?â€ he cried incredulously, glancing towards his cabin. â€œHave all you taken leave of your senses!?â€
â€œSimmer down,â€ Eric said, â€œwould you rather we leave him alone in the rear and risk him getting loose?â€
â€œAye, weâ€™re better off with him where we can keep an eye on him,â€ Finnegan said nodding. â€œSo quit your whining.â€
â€œWhining? Youâ€™re the madmen,â€ he stammered, pointing his finger at all of them. â€œGet away!â€
With that he jumped back into his cabin and slammed the door shut. Though he had left the hallway, the words of Pendleton echoed through Ericâ€™s mind as he secured the prisoner in his cell. Once they had him secured, Eric decided to try and reason with Pendleton.
After a solid minute of knocking returned no results he abandoned the effort. As he walked down the hallway towards the dining carriage, Eric realized that he had no idea what to do. The incident with the man in fatigues had given him a moment of true purpose. Yet the feeling had subsided, leaving him back at square one.
While contemplating his place in the world he entered the dining carriage, finding only one person still inside. Penelope was curled up in a corner wearing a forlorn expression.
â€œWhat happened?â€ Eric asked, feeling his emptiness evaporating.
â€œJeff left,â€ she replied blankly. â€œGot it in his head that the message is a distress signal from the train driver person.â€
â€œLike, I guess so,â€ Penelope replied, â€œheâ€™s determined to reach the dude, and like, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s such a good idea.â€
â€œAnd just why is that?â€ Violet asked, stepping through the door, â€œI think that is an admirable goal, considering our current situation.â€
â€œBut, like, thatâ€™s not what the message said,â€ she insisted, pulling out her notepad, â€œI believe itâ€™s instructing us to stay away.â€
â€œHow can you get such disparate conclusions from the same notes?â€ Eric asked confused.
â€œBecause Jeff thinks that the actual message is white noise, while whatâ€™s actually white noise is a partial message.â€
â€œSounds like either of you could be right,â€ Violet said, â€œwhich way did he go?â€
Penelope pointed towards what Eric believed to be the front of the train. Curious if he could make it, Eric started towards the coach carriages. It took him a few moments to realize that he had broken into a run and Violet was at his heels. They arrived at the howling abyss door, though this time Eric had no problem crossing the gap.
Inside the baggage car they found the missing Jeff, tearing through the mountain of luggage blocking his way. Suitcases and duffle bags lay discarded around him, some split open, spilling shirts and sunscreen and snow globes onto the floor. He was halfway through pulling a bulging bag loose from the wall when Eric intervened.
â€œWait!â€ he cried, grabbing Jeffâ€™s shoulder.
â€œGet off dude!â€ he hollered, â€œWeâ€™ve got to make it to the engine before itâ€™s too late.â€
â€œKnock it off!â€ Eric said, â€œYou donâ€™t know who this stuff belongs to.â€
â€œSimmer down,â€ Eric said, suddenly wondering why he was attempting to stop him. The whole thing seemed like nonsense. â€œWe shouldnâ€™t destroy anything if we can help it.â€
He glanced back at Violet, who simply shrugged. Jeff however seemed to capitulate as he stepped away from the luggage.
â€œThen, like, how do you suggest we get through?â€
â€œBucket brigade?â€ Violet suggested, â€œOne of you tosses me bags across the gap and Iâ€™ll stow them in the empty carriage across the way.â€
â€œThat sounds reasonable,â€ Eric agreed. He turned to Jeff, who simply nodded. After Violet stepped across the gap the three of them formed the bucket brigade.
The first few bags went by smoothly enough, though one nearly fell out into the void. As he continued, however, Eric felt his arms beginning to tire. When the seventeenth piece of luggage was placed in his hands he felt a pain in his elbow. The next throw was bungled. His left hands released a moment before the other, sending the backpack towards the void.
Instinctively he leaped towards it, realizing only after he had committed that he was rushing towards oblivion. Terror flooded through him as he slammed precariously against the gangway, his torso hanging over the void. Ericâ€™s scream died on the wind as his own weight pulled him towards death. Then a hand grabbed his belt, an unknown person dragging him back from the edge.
He turned around to find Violet standing there, holding his belt tightly in her fist.
â€œSorry,â€ he murmured, â€œthat was a real dumb move.â€
â€œYou know it,â€ she said, releasing him and taking a step back.
â€œShall we get the brigade back going?â€ Jeff asked, seemingly oblivious to Ericâ€™s near fatal fall.
He leaned against the wall of luggage, which gave out at that moment, tumbling down along with him into the empty half of the carriage. For a moment everyone remained still, staring at each other in stunned silence. Then Jeff scrambled to his feet and made for the door, wrenching it ajar in triumph. A terrible wind ripped through the carriage, nearly knocking Violet and Eric to the floor.
Jeff vanished through the black gap, his scream, if he ever made one, drowned out by the howling wind. Eric crawled towards the spot where Jeff had vanished, while Violet pulled the neared door shut. The wind died down, allowing them to hear the poor bastardâ€™s desperate yelling.
Eric and Violet raced to the open door, finding Jeff holding on to the threshold by the tips of his fingers. The two dropped down and seized his arms, heaving with all their might. Against the seemingly unstoppable wind they pulled, Ericâ€™s arms screaming from the exertion. A rattle echoed through the carriage, nearly shaking the hapless Jeff from their grasp.
With all his strength Eric and Violet dragged him from the jaws of death. Once he was fully inside the carriage Violet sprang up and slammed the door shut, sealing off the outside world. Several minutes passed in silence as they collected themselves. Violet was the first to depart, leaving without a word. A few moments later Jeff rose from his fetal position and left as well, offering Eric a mumbled thanks.
Alone again, Eric approached the door at the end of the carriage, looking down the desolate tracks. He had found the end of the train, through he couldnâ€™t determine whether the tracks were racing towards him or away from him. After rubbing his eyes several times, Eric turned away from the sight and retreated back into the couch carriage. Luggage was now scattered around the door.
Over stuffed suitcases and bulging duffle bags stared at him from the formerly empty seats. He tapped a few of them, toying with the idea of tearing them open to see what was inside. After more than a short pause, Eric tore himself away from the tempting luggage and made his way back to the dining carriage.
Inside he found Jeff and Penelope huddled together in a corner. She was holding his head against her chest, gently rubbing his shoulders. Not wishing to disturb the scene, Eric quickly exited into the sleeper carriage. Through the door he came upon a scene quite the opposite of the one in the dining carriage. Pendleton and Finnegan were inches from each other, their faces contorted in anger.
â€œâ€¦oved now!â€ Pendleton screamed, clenching his fists.
â€œFor the hundredth bloody time weâ€™re not moving the prisoner!â€ Pendleton retorted, crossing his arms defiantly. â€œYou got cloth ears?â€
â€œOh fantastic,â€ Pendleton sputtered, glancing art Eric, â€œanother of the gang has arrived.â€
â€œIâ€™m in a gang now, am I?â€ Eric asked, trying to force a smile. Both Pendleton and Finnegan glared at him. â€œWhat seems to be the problem?â€
â€œThat madman should not be a few feet away from my Abby,â€ he said insistently. He pointed towards down the hallway towards the lounge and observation cars. â€œTake him to the rear of the train, where he belongs.â€
â€œThe rear of the train is that way,â€ Eric replied, pointing the opposite direction.
â€œNo,â€ Pendleton snorted, â€œthe train is going the other way.â€
â€œThereâ€™s no engine in that direction,â€ he said, pointing towards the baggage carriage. â€œIâ€™ve checked.â€
â€œThatâ€™s, what?â€ Pendleton said, glancing out the window to check the horizon. He stared for several moments, a twinge of fear crossing his face. Then he shook his head. â€œNo, no canâ€™t be right.â€
â€œIâ€™ll show you if you want.â€
Pendleton shook his head, retreating once more into his little cabin and sealing off the rest of the world. With the conflict seemingly resolved for the time being, Eric continued on his search for something to do.