From writing prompt found here.
“Did you give me this note?”
The train was rumbling on into night time, so I’d been getting settled into “my” sleeper room when the woman came in wielding a note on a lined index card.
I took it from her carefully, using two fingers on the corner, and gave it a glance.
Whatever you do, don’t get off this train until it arrives at the final stop.
“This one’s fresh,” I told her. I passed it back to her. “Good guess, though.”
“That’s what the guy in the next room down said,” she complained. “What’s that mean, ‘fresh’?”
I folded down the seats where someone was meant to hang out during the day and offered her the one nearer the exit; while she sat down, I offered her the little caddy of one-shot bottles and a clean glass.
“Water?” she asked weakly.
I poured her a glass of seltzer from the mini fridge while I gathered my thoughts. Fresh. They were coming faster now, too.
“So. There’s two ways people get that note. Either someone who already got one passes it along aerie in the next, like me, or Perry in the next one down, or-“
I had to pause here because this part never made sense to anybody, no matter how long this has been going on for them. It still didn’t make sense to me.
“- or sometimes, they just appear. like that one you’re holding. Fresh. We don’t know why; we don’t know how. But they just show up.”
“We.” She held onto her glass like she was thinking maybe she should’ve taken me up on the offer of something stronger. “Who is we?”
“Me, Perry, Le, Donovan, Cass – people who have already gotten one of these and who decided to stay. I mean.” I was thinking maybe I should’ve poured myself something stronger, but she needed to be able to trust I was coherent, even if she ended up thinking I was crazy. “I’m not sure we all know each other. This train is pretty long.” I had never found either end of it. I didn’t mention that part. “But you know, when I decided I’d listen to the note, stay on for a bit, for a lark, well, I noticed that there were other people who didn’t get off right away, and then didn’t get off after a day or two. Someone asked me about it, and then we asked some other people, and then… eventually there were a bunch of us. We never bothered to come up with a name for ourselves,” I added, feeling, ridiculously, a little defensive. “We’ve mostly kept busy trying to figure out what the heck was going on – while not being too obvious.”
So I told her something I did know instead. “We spent a year figuring out how many people got those cards. We took one section of the train and we counted everyone who went on and off it, and then we counted the number of people who stayed. As far as we can figure, it’s about one in six thousand.”
“One in six thousand…” She stared at me for a moment. “One in six thousand people who get onto the train get one of these notes? ‘Fresh’?”
“Yeah. For every 6000 people or so, there’s one person the universe thinks shouldn’t get off the train.” I pressed my lips together, trying to keep another thought in, but it bubbled out anyway. “I’ve been here… well, a while. In the beginning, sometimes people would just leave the note, drop it, throw it out. A lot of times, we collected those, too, to pass on to other people. But lately, nobody who gets the note – as far as we can tell – gets off the train.”
Those of us on the train, we didn’t get a whole lot of news. We generally tasked one person a day with keeping track of what we could get off their phones (a nice invention that hadn’t been remotely prevalent when I got on this thing; I had my chunky old work laptop which was miraculously still running, but it didn’t get any sort of signal from the outside world without a cord), but those signals were rare. And maybe about 90% of the time, the news we did get wasn’t in English, and you had to hope the person listening could follow whatever language it was in.
Of course, having been on the train for 20 years (when I told the lady it’d been a while, I meant decades), I’d picked up a few other languages along with everything else I’d gathered from books people had lying around.
I’d also gotten really, really good at reading people, so I noticed when her eyes squinched up a little and her shoulders tightened.
She tried to pretend like it hadn’t happened; she looked around my little sleeper room at the plants growing in scavenged containers, set on every surface that wasn’t the bed, the chairs, or the very narrow walkway.
“Been here a while, huh?” she asked, as if it was the most natural question in the world. “You can’t be living on – on tomatoes and peas.”
“The beans help,” I gestured. “But there’s a cart that comes around a few times a day. It’s not exactly regular, but I figure that’s the time zones. It’s enough to live on, but, well, it’s train food. Le down the way, she got this idea when someone forgot their planting supplies.” I pointed at one of the few plants actually in a pot. “You’d be surprised how many people just leave stuff on the train.”
Personally, I’d wondered from time to time if that has something to do with the same what same whatever that left the notes. I wasn’t going to mention that right now, though; I was trying to not freak this woman out.
Something about the people coming on and off lately, it lent an urgent feel to convincing people their little notes were important. Maybe it was just the length of time I had been here, maybe I needed people to join in with my craziness. But I didn’t think so.
(There were two psychologists, at least, among our number. What did that say?)
So what I was thinking was, there was no saying that this woman would get a second chance if she ran now. And so I wanted to be careful with her.
“You say you passed on your note, other notes you found,” she said after a moment. “How do you pick someone?”
That, I could answer.
“You sit out there-” I made a sweeping move with my arm that suggested the whole train, “riding the train during the day. Just like you’re a normal person, commuter. And you talk to people. I gave mine away within a month.” My smile got a little sideways, remembering. “I have to admit, I passed in on half on the way this person looked and half on the way they talked, but I haven’t regretted it. Then.” This took more thought. “I picked up a couple here and there, like I said, and that was a little different, you know, because by then I got a chance to think about our little community here, stayers, I guess, and so I’d be thinking about people who might fit in well or people who could help us out a lot. But that’s really not often, you know?”
“Do you ever just, you know, tell people?” I could see in her eyes she could already see how that could go poorly.
“I’ve tried a few times,” I admitted anyway. “I mean, with the notes you can be anonymous. When you tell people, though, trying to explain, mostly they think you’re nuts. I got two people to stay. And it wasn’t just me, it was Le and Perry and Anton and Maria. And we got them to stay, but only for a couple days. When they figured out, when they figure it out that the train just keeps going….”
She was staring at me now. “It keeps going. She looked around my little room, at all the plants, all the stuff stored up here, the mini fridge. After a moment, she looked out the window at the nighttime rolling by. “It keeps going,” she repeated. “It never has a final stop?”
“I figure, in theory, it has to. I figure there’s a stop somewhere and a reason it goes on for so long. But, when I think about how long it’s been going without turning around, without reaching the end of the line–” And here I’d just said people thought I was nuts, and I was going to go and prove it to her. I trailed off.
She shook her head. “I’m actually with you so far. This morning, this train – it didn’t look like any of the others that pulled into the station. But it had my stop listed, and the conductor took my ticket, so I figured it had to be going my way, at least. But even then – even then, I think I knew something was off. So go on. Please.” She sipped her water again, like it was a lifeline.
I swallowed and started again. “If this train is going about as fast as we think it is, then it has circled the globe – that’s the thing. We don’t know how long it’s been going. I’ve met people who’ve been on here longer than I have. The oldest I encountered, they got on thirty-two years ago. It seems to go by the same places, sometimes but not in any regular schedule. And I don’t know how it’s doing it. Sometimes I’ve looked out and it’s been long, dark tunnels for ages. But before this, I’d never heard of a train that went across the ocean.”
She was staring at me.
I cleared my throat again. “Sorry. I am sorry. But you did say to go on.”
“This train – thirty-two years? – and people…” She stopped staring at me and looked out the window instead. “You know,” she murmured softly, “you know, I can see it. I can believe it. I can – how do you stay on here, knowing that people have been here for so long?”
“Sunk cost fallacy.” My answer was wry. “I’ve been here so long, I might as well stay here. Besides… well.” I gestured around. “So by the time I realized we weren’t talking about hours or even months but years, I’d already been on the train for weeks. And that meant that my life, such as it was – well, there wasn’t that much to go back to. And I had this, and it turns out that I’m pretty good at this.”
“What is ‘this’, exactly?” She looked around again, like she could glean the answer from my room.
“Well, gardening in containers and scavenging; I’m a bit of a student of everything and I’ve started teaching other people. We hold classes on Wednesdays. I can sew and I can fix just about anything you’ll find left under a train seat, and I’m decent at talking to people, which, let me tell you, came as a bit of a surprise. I wasn’t ever good at that, before…”
“Lots of practice with people you’ll never see again?” she offered, her smile cautious. “So you – you’re sort of like the train ambassador now?”
“One of the things I do, yeah. I mean, if we get to that stop, when-” Shit, I hadn’t meant to say if – I dunno. What do you do when your CV has a giant gap of rode a train?”
“Get back on and ride it back to the beginning?” She smiled like she wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
“It’s really getting bad out there, isn’t it?” I pushed the caddy her way without being asked; this time, she took a little bottle of rum and poured it over her ice without hesitating.
She drank half the rum, and then a little more. “It is. Two other trains got bombed last week. And then there’s the other things. Um. Biological weapons. Chemical weapons. It’s happening all over the world – well, anywhere with cities. I’m honestly not sure about some of the more agricultural areas. I don’t know – oh.” She finished her rum. “There was that attack on Indian fields that turned out to be a biological agent of some sort. So… yeah. It’s getting bad out there.” She made a face and reached for the caddy.
I pulled out the couple bottles of wine I kept for special occasions, and the wine goblets for the same.
(I really did feel for the person who’d left those. Imagine putting down more than $100 on a bottle of wine and then leaving it and your goblets and your Happy First Anniversary card on the train?)
(A couple petals hanging around the area suggested they’d remembered the roses, at least, so that was something – for whoever they were, wherever they’d ended up.)
If we were going to be drinking like that, best to switch her over to something softer so she didn’t get herself too ill.
She waited while I poured, made a face, and sipped slowly at the wine. “The news plays the death toll every night. I’ve stopped watching the news, but you’re in the train station, or you log on to your email – right now, if the train reached its final station, I might just stay on.” She looked around my place again. “I mean, assuming there are more sleeper rooms like this one…?”
“There are, actually. There’s always a couple.” That was one of those things I hadn’t tried to think too hard about. There were always a couple rooms open, no matter how many of us moved in.
“It’s really nice. Nothing like a modern train.”
I could hear a question somewhere in her voice, so I guessed at what she might be asking.
“Nothing like that in trains in my day, either. If ‘my day’ is when I got on the train, at least.” I patted the seat. “It’s sort of a Victorian look, if you ignore the mini-fridge. And the heat, when it’s needed, which is weird and silent and -“
“Magic?” she asked dryly.
“I have to admit, I try hard not to think about the m-word. It leads down paths that I’m not sure I want to wander down.” I waved a hand. “Let’s find you a room. Not that we can’t keep talking, but that way, when you’re ready to bed down, it’s right there.”
“You were already bedding down…” she began uncertainly. “Am I keeping you awake?”
“One of the nice things about this life…” I grinned at her, glad for some lightness. “There’s no schedule. The train has one, I assume, but me? I can sleep in as long as I like.”
I led her out of my room and back to the next car, where I was pretty sure I’d seen a room past the one where Le stashed extra goods nobody needed at the moment. “Ah, see? It’s done in blues, that’s good. The blue ones are always the most comfortable.” I opened a cupboard. “Clean linens in here, dirty ones go in the hamper. Housekeeping takes them during the-“
She wasn’t looking at me. She wasn’t listening to me.
I turned to see what she was looking at, just as the world outside the train flashed into brilliant, horrible flames.
She fell against me. I caught her, got her on her feet, not feeling like it was me moving.
All of me was staring out the window.
While the world burned, the train rumbled to a stop. “Last stop!” someone called, tinny over the intercoms. “Last stop… The Station. Last stop!”
It played on a loop while the newcomer and I stared at a world destroyed, a world crumbling quickly to ash.
“Last stop!” the voice repeated. “The Station at the End of the World welcomes you. Last stop!”