Charlie stood at the edge of a derelict platform, peering down the dark tunnel. Held in his hands was a red wool scarf he often wore in the winter. He fidgeted with its tassels. The tunnel was quiet, save for the soft sound of dripping water and the distant cry of cicadas. Moss grew on the crumbling cement walls. Behind Charlie was a mural of an astronaut whose arms and legs seemed a little too long to be human.
The subway had been unused for several decades, yet Charlie found himself standing there, waiting. He only had an inkling of why he was there. The abandoned subway was the subject of an urban myth: the Ghost Train. There were many versions of the tale. They often involved witches, ax-murderers, faeries, or sometimes a combination of the three. However, all variations shared the same elements: at 4:00 am, a train would pull up to the abandoned station. It would stay there for exactly one minute, and then it would leave. Where it went, no one knew.
Charlie was waiting for the Ghost Train. He didn't have a reason to wait for it, but he also didn't have a reason not to. His life had gone to hell, and although he could start the process of picking it up again, he didn't want to. It wouldn't be the same, and he'd have to face the shame of what he did in the mirror every day.
Earlier that night, he had unwittingly destroyed half a dozen papyri scrolls in the museum archives. They were worth millions, maybe even billions, but it wasn't the money that bothered Charlie. Recently discovered, still untranslated, the papyri were thought to be at least 6000 years old. And Charlie had destroyed them with nothing more than some spilled water. Any information, any secrets they held, were now lost.
He reported his accident. Filled out all the paperwork with shaking hands. And then, Charlie went home to wait for the inevitable firing. He tried not to think about it. He tried to eat his dinner. He tried not to think about it. He tried not to think about it, and at some point, he found himself grabbing his scarf as he headed for the abandoned subway station. There had been a logic to it at the time, but Charlie had forgotten it.
He didn't expect anything to happen, yet he half hoped something would. Something whose significance would make the destroyed papyri look like nothing at all. Something to make him not think about it. Charlie pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the time. It was 3:59 am. Soon, it would be 4:00 am, and the train wouldn't come, and then he would-
A light appeared in the tunnel, and its appearance was followed by the steady beat of wheels on rusted tracks. Charlie stood there, gaping at the light as it grew larger and closer, revealing the gleaming metal of the train's exterior. It didn't look like how he imagined it. The train had a rounded modern look, and as it pulled up to the station, Charlie could see that inside it was a clean, well-lit interior populated not with ghostly skeletons but with normal human passengers, the kind you would see on any train in any city. For a moment, just a moment, Charlie didn't think about the papyri.
The door to one of the train cars slid open, and Charlie wandered onto the train. He was only a few steps into the train when the door slid shut behind him. The train lurched into motion. Charlie grabbed onto one of the handrails and wondered if he should worry about being locked in a train whose destination was unknown. Then, he remembered the papyri. He decided that he would rather not leave the train car. Charlie surveyed his surroundings. He wasn't alone. There were four other people in the train car.
Sitting closest to him was a woman wearing a floral sundress. She had her brown hair pulled tight into a low bun. Charlie could see a nasty bruise on the right side of her forehead, just underneath the hairline. A few shopping bags were on the seat beside her, as if she were just out running errands. Her hands were folded on her lap as she stared at the darkness outside the window.
Further along, the aisle stood another woman. She had one hand loosely gripping a handrail. Her hair was dyed neon orange and was shaved into an undercut. She wore a white tank top with the image of a goat's head printed on the front. There was a large burgundy stain on the back of the tank top.
A few seats away from the orange-haired woman sat a bald man wearing a black bellhop's uniform. He sat so still that if Charlie had walked into a store, he could have mistaken the man for a mannequin.
At the other end of the train car, there was someone curled up on one of the seats, buried underneath a mound of coats, sleeping. They were likely homeless.
Charlie decided to sit down. He began to walk down the aisle, and as he passed the brunette woman, she turned towards him and spoke, "Excuse me. Does this train go to Queen's Park?"
Charlie stopped for a moment and stared at her, frowning. He didn't know a Queen's Park.
The woman stared back expectantly.
Charlie shrugged. "Don't know, sorry." He glanced at the other passengers. "Maybe someone else knows?"
The brunette woman sighed, "They don't."
The orange-haired woman scoffed loudly. Charlie turned to see that she was grinning madly at them, her fingers tightening around the handrail. "She didn't ask us a thing," the orange-haired woman said.
The brunette woman sniffed. "Does this train go to Queen's Park," her voice was flat as she spoke as if the question was a statement.
"I don't know," the orange-haired woman answered, her grin growing wider, "I bet if you ask someone else, they will know!"
The brunette woman glared at the orange-haired woman and opened her mouth.
"Don't you spout some bullshit about there being no way anyone else knows. We both know you didn't bother to find out," the orange-haired woman said before the brunette woman could speak.
Charlie waited for the exchange to end. He felt like he had somehow gotten between two dogs fighting over a bone. He wanted to sit down but was afraid that someone might snap at him if he did.
The orange-haired woman turned to the bellhop, "Hey, you! Do you know if this train goes to a Queen's Park?"
The bellhop shook his head.
The brunette woman sniffed again. "I knew none of you knew."
"Bullshit. Besides, there's still someone left to ask," the orange-haired woman said as she began to march down the aisle towards the person sleeping under the pile of coats.
"Enough," the brunette woman said, her voice growing louder, "I don't want your help."
Charlie finally plucked up the courage to sit down. He slunk past the brunette woman, sitting down in a seat between the bellhop and the sleeping person.
The orange-haired woman stopped. "And why is that?" she asked.
The brunette woman paused, then muttered, "I don't bother with people like you." Charlie began to fidget his scarf's tassels again.
The orange-haired woman laughed. "You can't know what I'm like. You can't know what they're like," she said, pointing at the sleeping person, "You can't know unless you ask!" She started walking towards the sleeping person again.
The brunette woman glared at her but said nothing.
The orange-haired woman stopped a couple of feet away from the sleeping person, "Excuse me!" she shouted.
The person didn't stir.
The orange-haired woman slowly reached out and poked the person's shoulder.
The person still didn't stir. One of the coats began to slide off them. The orange-haired woman stood there, waiting for the coat to fall away.
Charlie diverted his gaze to the window, trying to separate himself from the scene unfolding, trying not to think about-
Charlie jumped and looked over to see that the orange-haired woman had stumbled back onto the train floor. She was staring up at the sleeping person with wide eyes. Charlie followed her gaze and then froze, dropping his scarf onto the ground.
The sleeping person was not sleeping at all. They were dead. But they weren't just dead. They were mummified. Their skin was drawn taut across their bones, and their eyes had melted away to leave empty sockets.
Charlie remembered where he was: the Ghost Train. He should not have expected anything normal. Something began to bubble up in his throat. Charlie swallowed to stop it from pouring out. He leaned forward and picked up his scarf.
The orange-haired woman dug into her pocket and pulled out a cell phone, her hands shaking. "Fuck!" she repeated, "Does anyone have a signal?"
"Heavens, no! I don't carry those things. They cause cancer," the brunette woman answered, her eyes fixed upon the corpse.
Charlie looked at his own phone and found that it had no service either. "No," he said. He wondered if the others knew where they were.
The bellhop shook his head and got up, approaching the corpse. He bent down, picking up the coat and draping it back over the corpse, covering it back up.
"Fuck!" The orange-haired woman scrambled to her feet. She grabbed the handrail, and they all stared at the mound of coats. Charlie wondered how he should bring up the Ghost Train.
"We… we need to find the engineer," the orange-haired woman said, her voice shaking, "They might know what to do."
"If there is one," Charlie said, shrugging. He looked up to see the orange-haired woman open her mouth as if to utter a retort before closing it. She looked away from the mound of coats and sighed.
"I'm going to find the engineer," the orange-haired woman announced, marching to the one end of the train car, her hand reaching out towards the door handle.
Charlie scrambled to his feet to follow her. He didn't know what was going on or why or how, but he knew that he didn't want to be near a dead body. The bellhop rose to his feet as well, following the orange-haired woman too. "Don't leave me here!" the brunette woman squawked, grabbing her shopping bags and sprinting after them.
"I thought you didn't like me," the orange-haired woman said, her voice momentarily returning to the angry glee it originally had. She pulled the door open, and Charlie felt a blast of damp air on his face. It smelled salty. He didn't hear the beat of train wheels on the tracks from the outside but rather a soft whistling sound. The orange-haired woman frowned but said nothing. She reached for the door to the next train car and opened it. She stepped into the next car.
Charlie followed her, pausing for a moment to see what was outside. All he could see was a dark and endless void. He stepped into the next car, almost bumping into the orange-haired woman as he did so. She had stopped in her tracks and was staring forward, her mouth hanging open. The next train car looked like something from another era, with wood-panelled walls and velvet seats. But, most startling of all, were the purple candle flames illuminating the car from the wall sconces.
"What… the fuck?" the orange-haired woman whispered.
Charlie side-stepped around her. "Uh… I think we might be on the Ghost Train," he said, trying not to feel silly about it. The bellhop squeezed past the orange-haired woman and nodded in agreement.
The brunette woman scoffed. "Nonsense! This train goes to Queen's Park!" she said as she slammed the door shut behind her, "This is why I never take the train. The people in charge will let anyone on board and leave things a mess!" She stopped behind the orange-haired woman and crossed her arms, tapping her foot on the floor as she waited for the orange-haired woman to move forward.
The orange-haired woman took a step forward, silent as she furrowed her brow in thought. "Are… are we dead?" she eventually asked.
Charlie opened his mouth to say no but then stopped, thinking back to the events that occurred earlier that evening. He remembered coming home after the destruction of the papyri, trying not to think about what he did, while his mind kept drifting back to the vast sums of information that he had destroyed that was now lost forever. He tried to make himself eat some dinner, but the food tasted like ash and stuck in his throat. He remembered not knowing what he was going to do, not knowing how he could face anyone again. He remembered suddenly grabbing a scarf and then… and then… going to see the Ghost Train. Why had he wanted to go see the Ghost Train all of a sudden? Had he… did he… no… he couldn't have!
Charlie shut his mouth and looked at the bellhop. The bellhop nodded. Charlie felt his knees grow weak. He wandered over to one of the velvet benches and sat down, staring at the nothing outside the window. Then, he heard the orange-haired woman cry out, "Fuck!"
The brunette woman scoffed again. "Nonsense! We're not dead! This doesn't look like heaven, and my heart is still beating!" she said, holding up her wrist, "Besides, if we're dead, how come there is a dead body on this train? You can't die twice!"
Charlie glanced up at her but said nothing. He couldn't be dead, couldn't have done that… could he? It had been… hard to breathe… Maybe he had choked on his food? It was hard to swallow, after all…
The brunette woman marched past the three of them. "I'm putting an end to this nonsense! We're not dead!" she declared, reaching out for the door handle. She pulled it open, letting the damp air fill the train car. Next, she reached for the door leading to the next train car and opened that one too.
The brunette woman gave a relieved sigh and stepped forward, calling out as she did so, "Ma'am! Ma'am!" The bellhop rushed forward as she started calling out, his arm reaching out as if to grab her. Charlie frowned and leaned forward to peer into the next car. It was constructed out of stone, and he could see bioluminescent slime molds growing on the walls. The brunette woman was approaching another person standing in the train car, facing away from them. The bellhop kept reaching out as if to grab and stop her, but he kept stopping shortly before his fingers could touch her.
The person, the brunette woman, was calling out to had long hair that went down to their waist and had the dry texture of straw. Charlie couldn't tell if it was blonde or grey or both. They wore a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of overalls. Charlie's frown deepened, a restless feeling growing in his gut. There was something about the person that was like staring into a funhouse mirror, seeing the mundane reflected into a twisted mimicry.
"Ma'am?" the brunette woman squeaked out, stopping a few meters short of the person. She had her arms raised up, almost defensively.
The bellhop walked forward, stepping around the person. He motioned for the brunette woman to follow, his motions quick but his face expressionless. The person with the straw-like hair didn't move a muscle.
The brunette woman ignored the bellhop. "Ma'am! It's rude to ignore people like that!" She began marching forward again, reaching out to grab the person's shoulder. The restless feeling in Charlie's stomach morphed into full-fledged panic. The person certainly looked human, but there was something about it that screamed that it was not. By the time Charlie realized it, it was too late. The brunette woman's hand closed around the person's shoulder. The person turned around.
The person had a face, but it was not the kind of face a human would have. It was the kind of face found on stick figures and balloons, a face penned onto the blank fleshy space where a human face ought to have been.
The brunette woman screamed and tried to leap back, but the person-like thing grabbed onto her wrist. The brunette woman kept screaming and tried to yank her hand back, dropping her bags in the process. Canned goods rolled across the floor. And Charlie just stood there, staring at it in helpless horror. Was there anything he could do? Was there anything he should do? They were already dead, weren't there? What else could be done to them?
The thing started to reach towards the woman's face with its other hand.
The bellhop stared at the unfolding scene, his face placid.
The brunette woman kept screaming.
And then, a roar joined the brunette woman's screams. The orange-haired woman sprinted past Charlie towards the thing.
The thing stopped, jerking its head towards the orange-haired woman. Its perpetually smiling face watched as she rushed towards it, bringing her body low as she crashed into its knees and-
It didn't move. The thing just stood there. It turned its attention back to the brunette woman, who was still screaming. The orange-haired woman grabbed onto its knees and pressed all of her weight into them, grunting loudly. The thing didn't seem to notice. It began to move its hand again, and this time its fingers made contact with the brunette woman's face.
The brunette woman stopped screaming. Her body began to grow thin, and her skin became brittle and dry. She went limp. Charlie could swear he could see the depressions of eye sockets forming on the thing's balloon-like face.
Charlie just stood there, his heartbeat thundering in his ears. He wanted to do something. He did nothing. The orange-haired woman kept trying to knock the thing over. She kept failing. She would be next. And then the thing would go after Charlie. They would all wind up as mummies on the Ghost Train. Despite being dead, Charlie still very much wanted to live. He began to force himself into action.
At first, his movements felt sluggish, and the air seeming to weigh down on his limbs. But Charlie kept pressing forward. Finally, he entered the stone train car.
The orange-haired woman was still trying to knock the thing over. As Charlie ran past her, he grabbed the back of her shirt and yanked her towards him, away from the thing. He was pretty sure she didn't want to die either. Her shirt was wet to the touch.
The orange-haired woman yowled and started to go back to trying to knock the thing over but then stopped, her eyes drifting towards the brunette woman's quickly mummifying corpse. Before the moment had even passed, the orange-haired woman turned away from the thing and began running after Charlie towards the next train car.
And all the while, the bellhop watched, his eyes unblinking.
Charlie flung the door open, welcoming the warm blast of damp air, then yanked the next door open and fled into the train car beyond, the orange-haired woman on his heels. The bellhop followed them, walking slowly.
The two of them almost fell into the next train car, their feet hitting the metal floor with hollow ka-thunks! Pink neon lights illuminated their way. The orange-haired woman stopped, spinning around to grab the door to slam it shut, stopping when she realized that the bellhop was still in the stone car. "RUN!" she screamed.
The bellhop did not run. He kept walking. It was a couple of seconds before he stepped into the next train car. As he did so, the thing dropped the brunette woman's corpse onto the ground and began pivoting towards them. A ragged gash split the drawn smile on its face.
The orange-haired woman slammed the door shut as soon as the bellhop was through. "What. The fuck. Was that?" she hissed.
Charlie shrugged, trying his best to stop shaking. "Don't know," he said.
The bellhop said nothing.
Charlie frowned at the bellhop. He looked normal enough, but the calm way he seemed to react to everything was beginning to make Charlie more nervous than he already was. It didn't help that when the orange-haired woman asked if they were dead, the bellhop was the one to answer. How could the bellhop know? Charlie didn't remember dying, and no one else seemed to remember either.
The orange-haired woman began marching to the other end of the car. "C'mon," she said, motioning for them to follow.
Charlie blinked, shaking the strangeness of it all from his head. The matter of the bellhop could wait. For now, they had to put as much distance between them and the thing as possible. He jogged after the orange-haired woman, and the bellhop followed at his own slow pace.
They travelled through almost a dozen train cars without incident and without a word. The train cars varied wildly from one to the next. Some looked like something Charlie would find at a normal subway station; others were made of strange materials and constructed in strange styles. Occasionally, they would come across a mummified corpse, and all three of them would rush past it wordlessly, afraid that acknowledging the corpses would summon the thing with the drawn-on face.
When they entered a train car with domed windows and dinner tables set for a meal, the orange-haired woman stopped suddenly. She raised her hand up to motion for them to stop as well. Then, she turned around, peering out the door Charlie had just closed behind them. She stood there for several seconds before taking a few steps back and sighing. "We're safe," she said.
Charlie thought about that statement and glanced at the bellhop. He wasn't sure if it was true. Charlie shrugged and opened his mouth to ask the bellhop if he thought it was safe too but was interrupted.
"You two. Table. Now." The orange-haired woman turned to look at them as she pointed at a dinner table. "We need to clear some things up," she said.
Charlie shut his mouth and slid into one of the nearest seats. His elbow nudged a silver fork, and it fell to the ground. He was about to move to pick it up when the bellhop sat beside him. Charlie gulped and clutched his scarf, deciding that no one was going to mind if a fork was on the ground. The orange-haired woman sat in the seat across from them, briefly glancing at the silverware before her. Then, in one swift motion, she swept it aside, letting it all clatter to the ground as drinking glasses shattered into thousands of shards. "I have questions, and you two have answers."
Charlie shook his head. "I really don't. I just got on a train at an abandoned station."
The orange-haired woman narrowed her eyes and glanced at the bellhop, who said nothing. "Then, why'd you call it the fucking Ghost Train?" she asked.
Charlie shrugged. "That's just what people call it. I'm not the first one to see it."
The orange-haired woman sighed and leaned back, frowning as she thought for a moment. "Okay," she eventually said, then leaned forward, pointing a finger at the bellhop, "What makes you say that we're dead?"
The bellhop stared at her finger for a few seconds, then looked up to meet her gaze. He said nothing but held out his wrist. He put two fingers against it as if he were taking a pulse. Both Charlie and the orange-haired woman frowned as he did this and put fingers to their own wrists. Charlie felt the steady throb of blood flowing through his veins. He seemed too alive to be dead. By the orange-haired woman's deepening frown, Charlie guessed that she was feeling a pulse too.
The bellhop shook his head and held out his wrist again, slowly reaching to grab the orange-haired woman's hand. She jumped as his fingers touched her wrist, her eyes widening as he slowly pulled her hand towards him, placing her fingers on his wrist. She stared at him in wide-eyed confusion. Then, she pulled her hand away. "The fuck…" she whispered, almost cradling her hand, her eyes fixed on the bellhop.
The bellhop turned towards Charlie, holding his wrist out to him. Charlie gulped and decided not to wait for the bellhop to grab his hand. Instead, Charlie reached out, placing his fingers on the bellhop's wrist to take a pulse, but as he did so, he had to stop himself from shuddering. The bellhop's skin felt ice-cold, and as Charlie held his fingers to the bellhop's wrist, he realized he couldn't feel anything moving. There was no pulse, no warmth, nothing beneath his skin, just a frigid stillness.
Charlie drew his hand back from the bellhop and wrapped his scarf around it, turning his attention to the cutlery on the floor. Charlie had a pulse. The orange-haired woman had a pulse. The bellhop did not. Charlie gulped again and forced himself to look back up at the bellhop. "Am I… am I dead?" Charlie asked.
The bellhop nodded.
"Why is my heart beating?"
The bellhop tapped his own head.
Charlie frowned. He wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean.
"Are you… human?" the orange-haired woman asked, her voice low. Charlie's eyes widened at the question, staring at the bellhop's expressionless face.
The bellhop turned his head towards her and shrugged.
Charlie leapt to his feet, scrambling away from the table as the image of the thing with the drawn-on face flashed through his mind. The bellhop couldn't be human. He had to get away, put as many train cars as possible between him and the bellhop. Charlie was about to yell at the orange-haired woman to run too when she made a shushing sound and rolled her eyes. "Calm down," she said, "Plenty of things aren't human."
"I… I'm not going to take my chances," Charlie said, his voice shaking.
"Well fuck you too, I guess." The orange-haired woman waved her hand as if to dismiss Charlie. "He didn't choose to be…" she looked at the bellhop, who just shrugged again, "…not human?"
Charlie stared at her in horror. So they were as alive as Schrödinger's cat, on some supernatural train headed to god knows where, facing monsters that mimicked humans and wanted to make them more dead than they already were, and the orange-haired woman wanted to sit down and have a conversation with one! "He… he could kill us! Just… just like that thing!" Charlie sputtered, waving his hands back toward the way they came.
The orange-haired woman rolled her eyes. "So? You could kill me too. How do I know you're not going to strangle me?"
"What? That makes no sense! Why the hell would I do that?"
The orange-haired woman leaned back. "I don't know. I'm not you. But humans kill each other all the fucking time. Why should I take my chances with one?"
Charlie opened his mouth to say that she was being reckless, that the safest course of action was to stick together and be as far away as possible from the bellhop, but the argument fell apart before it could leave his lips. The bellhop had done nothing to indicate that he was going to kill them, and there wasn't any reason for him to. The orange-haired woman was right in that aspect… but wasn't it better to be safe than sorry?
"What if you're wrong?" Charlie asked after a long pause.
The orange-haired woman shrugged. "I'll deal with it. I'm not going to run away because I don't understand what the fuck's going on. I'm not a stupid coward."
Charlie glared at her. He'd accept being called a coward, but stupid? "Hey! There's nothing stupid about running away from something that can kill you!"
The orange-haired woman matched his glare with a grin. "Nothing stupid? Should I not cross the street because a car might kill me? Should I not try a new food because I might be allergic? Should I not befriend anyone because they might secretly be a murderer? Should humans steer clear of the seas and stars because there might be something lurking in them? Should humans not have discovered fire because it could burn us to death?" As she ranted, the orange-haired woman's grin faded into a snarl, the sparkling mischief in her eyes morphing into rage, her voice becoming a shout. "Should we run away from the only person who knows what the fuck is going on because he's not exactly human? Should we stay in the dark, smothered by our own ignorant bullshit?"
The orange-haired woman stared at Charlie, her hands balled into fists, waiting for an answer. Charlie didn't have one.
"That's what I thought," she said, turning back to the bellhop, the rage fading from her face, "I have a few more questions…"
Charlie just stood there, watching the two converse. He wanted to run, but he did want to face the train alone either.
"So, we can double die? Like how that… monster… turns people into… those dried-out corpse-like things?"
The bellhop stared at her for a moment. Then, after a few seconds, he shrugged, nodded, and held up his hand, tilting it side to side. It was a yes that technically was not a yes at all. Although they could experience something that may function as a second death, it wasn't exactly dying either.
The orange-haired woman nodded, then asked, "Are we stuck here? On this… train?"
The bellhop stared at her blankly for another few seconds. This answer would also have caveats. After a few moments, he pointed at himself, nodded, and then pointed at Charlie and the orange-haired woman, shaking his head. Only the bellhop was bound to the train.
The orange-haired woman frowned slightly. "Do you know what happens if we leave?"
The bellhop shook his head and shrugged.
"How do we get off the train?"
The bellhop pointed at the door leading to the next train car.
As Charlie listened to the orange-haired woman question the bellhop, he felt himself relax. The bellhop was passive and made no move to harm them. He just answered their questions as best as he could. Yet, Charlie couldn't help but think of the thing that killed the brunette woman, how it grabbed her and turned her into a mummified corpse, its drawn-on face slowly forming eye sockets and that ragged gash of a mouth, almost as if it absorbed something from the act. Her essence? Soul? Lifeforce? Charlie wasn't sure. All he knew was that it turned her into a corpse, just like the homeless person on the train car, where the bellhop had been when they stepped onto the train…
The orange-haired woman opened her mouth to ask another question, but Charlie interrupted her. "I've got a question!" He meant to shout, but the words came out almost as a squeak.
The orange-haired woman shrugged. "Go ahead."
Charlie gulped, his grip tightening around his scarf. "Can… can you kill? Double-kill, I mean." He asked.
The bellhop turned to stare at Charlie for a long second. Then, slowly and slightly, he nodded. His face remained expressionless, but the motion had a slight quiver to it.
Charlie felt his knees grow weak, and he took another step back towards the door, towards the next train car, his hand reaching to grab the door handle. It didn't matter that he would be by himself; he would be safe. He wouldn't remain with the bellhop any longer.
"Do you kill?" the orange-haired woman asked quickly, and Charlie froze.
The bellhop shook his head quickly, almost violently.
Charlie relaxed a little but still turned around and flung the door to the next train car open. He was still running away, and he wasn't going to die, not a second time. He was going to move forward, through the train and then… and then… and then…
And then what?
Charlie didn't know. He just stood in the doorway, feeling the warm blast of air on his face. He didn't want to move forward to the next train car. He wanted to go home. Home, where things made sense, where he could rest easy at night, and where the dead quietly lay six feet beneath the ground. He had been happy there. He had been happy until the papyri disintegrated before his eyes. Dead or not, his life as he knew it was over. Charlie didn't want to think about it, didn't want to mourn what was lost, but he didn't want to move forward and away from it either. Charlie put a hand to his mouth and stared at the next door as it wobbled in the dark, shaking with the train, almost taunting him.
"What are you waiting for?" the orange-haired woman said, her voice coming from only inches behind him.
Charlie jumped, letting his hand fall away from his mouth. When he glanced behind him, he could see that the orange-haired woman and the bellhop had queued up behind him, waiting for him to move on so that they could too.
Charlie sighed. He wasn't waiting, only wishing. Charlie stepped aside. "I'm not going," he said, motioning for the others to go on ahead without him. He didn't want to stay in the same train car as the bellhop. Besides, what was the point of moving on when all he wanted was already lost?
The orange-haired woman shot him a small glare. "Suit yourself," she said, moving to pull the next door open and stepping into the train car beyond.
The bellhop didn't follow her immediately. Instead, he looked at Charlie and shook his head violently before pointing at the next train car, almost as if he were pleading for Charlie to move forward.
Charlie frowned at the bellhop and sat down at one of the tables. What was the point? Home wasn't forward. He heard the door shut, cutting off the inflow of warm air from whatever lay beyond the train. And then he was alone. Alone and safe. For the moment.
Then, the crushing weight of it all became apparent. Charlie stared at the void outside. He knew he was dead, but now the realization was truly sinking in. No more cozy apartment. No more wine and cheese nights with friends. No more long talks with his parents. No more wandering the halls of the museum, gazing upon artefacts from ages long past. This train and this silence were all he truly had.
Charlie covered his face with the scarf and began to sob into it.
Charlie didn't know how long he spent crying, but he supposed it didn't really matter if he was dead. What mattered was that he was here, on this train, grieving for the things he had lost, the things that were lost because of him. He was dead. The papyri were gone. There was nothing he could do to bring himself back to life. There was nothing he could do to reform the papyri from its disintegrated bits remains. The only thing he could do was either move forward or delude himself into thinking he could return things to the way they were. And as hard as he tried, Charlie couldn't force a delusion upon himself. He could not not think about it. He stood up and followed the path of the orange-haired woman and the bellhop.
The train cars Charlie travelled through continued to be strange. One had chairs made out of moss, another had floors that glowed brightly like the sun, and one was completely empty. He went through dozens of train cars before he found another person. He found them in a train car whose floor was obscured by a thick layer of pillows. The metal ceiling of the car was covered in star-shaped stickers that glowed in the dark. The person was sitting in one of the corners, hugging a pillow to her chest. She was an old woman, her eyes covered by the shadow of a sun hat.
For a moment, Charlie wasn't sure how to react. Here, there seemed to be another human being. Seemed to be. The thing with the drawn-on face looked human at first, too.
Eventually, Charlie raised a hand and waved at the woman, "Hello?" he called out.
The woman lifted her head to face him, and Charlie's breath caught in his throat. The woman had no eyes at all. Instead, skin covered the sockets where they once were. Her nose was nothing more than a pair of slits. Only her mouth still retained some semblance of normality. "I told you unless you're taking me back, I'm not going!" she spat, hugging the pillow closer to her chest.
Charlie took a deep breath. He counted to ten. Then, he broke out into a sprint, running to the other end of the train car, grabbing the door's handle, and throwing the door open. The old woman did not move, but she kept ranting, her voice hoarse and dry, "…a little girl, and I'm not abandoning it! I'm going to sit here until…" Charlie opened the door to the next train car and stepped through, slamming it shut behind him, leaving the eyeless woman to continue ranting alone. He kept moving forward.
Charlie didn't know how many train cars he travelled through. It felt like hundreds, and their weirdness began to feel normal. The cars that resembled the normal subway cars were now the ones that made him stop and stare. Occasionally, Charlie would find a mummified corpse. He thought he would start to get used to the corpses like the weirdness of the train cars, but he found himself panicking every time he spotted one, averting his gaze as he sprinted past them.
Eventually, Charlie reached the final train car. He did not know it was the last train car at first. It seemed just as strange as the rest. Pipes ran across its rusted ceiling and down its walls into the metal grating that made up the floor. Some of the pipes rattled as if something flowed through them, and a couple of them had dials with symbols Charlie didn't recognize. It wasn't until he saw that the other end of the train car didn't have a door that he realized that it was the final car. Instead of a door, a control panel underneath a great domed window looked out into the void. And bent over the control panel was a person.
Charlie froze, remembering the eyeless woman. He glanced around, searching for anywhere to run that wasn't backwards. There was a door to the left of the person at the control panel, but that meant Charlie would have to get close to them. He was about to turn around and retreat when the person turned around to reveal their face. They were the bellhop.
Charlie stopped, frozen this time out of surprise instead of fear. The bellhop's face was expressionless as usual, but they lifted a hand to give Charlie a thumbs up.
Charlie relaxed. He thought he'd still be afraid of the bellhop, fearful of what he could do, but found himself feeling relieved to see someone who didn't want to kill him that wasn't a corpse. "Hi…" Charlie said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
The bellhop motioned for Charlie to come forward, glancing at the door to his left, before turning back to the control panel. Not knowing what else to do, Charlie walked forward until he was a couple of feet behind the bellhop.
Charlie peered over the bellhop's shoulder at the control panel. It looked as incomprehensible to him as the dials, with its strange symbols from a language not spoken or written on Earth covering its keys. Little screens showed various lines and more arcane symbols, hinting at the information they gave, but nothing more. Nevertheless, the bellhop seemed to understand the symbols and pressed various buttons without hesitation, his eyes watching the screens. Charlie frowned, wondering not what but who the bellhop was.
Charlie didn't spend a lot of time wondering. Not even a minute later, a small light on the control panel started flashing purple, and the bellhop turned to face Charlie, his hand pointing at the door to his left. The door shuddered before slowly sliding open. Charlie gasped at the sight, dropping his scarf in surprise. The open door revealed not a dark void outside the train but a landscape illuminated by the dim orange light of the soon-to-be rising sun. A worn dirt path wound its way between the grassy hills to a glittering cluster of little lights in the distance. The air that wafted into the train car smelled fresh and green. And for once, Charlie found himself wanting to move forward, not because there was nothing else to do, but because he wanted to.
After a moment of staring, he looked back at the bellhop and smiled. "Thanks," he said.
The bellhop answered with another thumbs up, and as he did so, Charlie swore he could see the corners of the bellhop's lips twitch slightly as if he was attempting to smile.
Charlie stepped through the doorway, leaving the train. To where he would go, he did not know. But he wanted to find out.