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The motion of the train rocked me awake as we passed by a silvery lake which stood out like a puddle in the landscape illuminated by the now risen full moon. After a moment I sat up and adjusted myself – wiping the drool from the corners of my mouth and cleared my throat. The passenger car that I was in was dimly lit and nearly black. The train hummed and shook as we continued on the narrow tracks which now ran along a cliff to a valley miles below.
I picked my hat up from the seat next to me and twirled the brim between my fingertips – the once soft material was now hard and smooth – years of sweat broke down the felt to an almost plastic feel. I set the hat back down and adjusted my tie.
My thoughts were only on the present and I had not taken the time to think on where I was heading and why. I slowly searched my jacket pockets for my ticket and eventually found a brittle piece of card in my left coat pocket. The ticket read the date, year and the words “Cheyenne to Portland.” I searched my mind for a reason as to why I might be taking a train to Portland – but in my awakened stupor the thought did not come to me, so I decided to allow the thought to come naturally to me later and simply enjoy the ride.
A feeling of drowsy consciousness engulfed me as I searched my pockets for a cigarette.
Did I find one when I was searching for my ticket already?
Was it already in my mouth?
I pressed my hand to my lips and sure enough the cigarette rested between my lips. Was I acting without thought? An act done so many times that without thinking I placed the cigarette in my lips. In my now opened right palm lay my gold lighter. How long had I been holding it?
I lit the cigarette and took a long drag before placing the lighter next to my hat – but the moment I placed the lighter a voice came from the darkest corner of the cart. A low rusty voice which spoke through a smiling mouth that could not be seen.
“Can I get a light?”
From the darkness I could hear a shifting in the leather seat and in the cascading moonlight the tip of the strangers cigarette appeared. Shaken I picked up my lighter, flicked the flint and light the strangers cigarette. The red tip shone as the stranger sat back taking a long drag himself.
“Thanks.” The dark voice grumbled, polity but without emotion.
I sat back and placed the lighter in my pocket. After another long drag of my cigarette and cleared my throat again, but before I could say anything the stranger spoke again,
“You were asleep for a long time” he said very matter-of-fact
“Was I?” I responded, the sound of my voice came at such a high contrast to the strangers grumble that I shook a little at the sound of it.
“Longer then I think you know.” the Stranger said
The room felt cold, colder than the weather outside permitted and room felt empty, emptier than two people. The space between the stranger and myself was a void of nothingness, the floor suddenly much darker than I had realized, as if it sucked all light from the room and without realizing it I picked my feet up off the floor and placed them on the strangers bench across from me. The stranger then took the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped the ashes off the end into a neat little pile next to the exit door of the cart.
After a quick but quiet swallow breath I spoke to the stranger,
“I don’t think we’ve met,” I said sheepishly trying to convey a much lighter atmosphere to that of the cart
The light of the strangers cigarette grew bright red as he took another long drag;
“We have.” He said flatly.
The cold of the room now crept up my spine and down the front of my shirt like a bucket of water being poured over me in slow motion. I couldn’t hide the shudder from the stranger and I sat up to shift my position.
“Well,” I stuttered in an attempt to gain control of the situation, “I must apologize then, b-b-because I don’t recall speaking to you b-b-before I fell asleep. So p-perhaps we should re introduce ourselves.”
“We’ve met before.” The stranger said.
After a long beat I spoke up again this time certain that I would put an end to this dismal encounter.
“Now Look Here…”
But before I could say another word the stranger began talking, not over top of me but instead of me. He sat forward again so that the tip of his cigarette shone in the moonlight. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and once again tapped the ashes off into a small neat little pile by the cart’s door.
“I was there when you were 12; I stood next to you watching the empty gaze the neighbours cat, Piper, gave you as you covered it’s mouth with a rag and threw it into the river. I was there when you were 26, in the seat next to yours as you ran down that pregnant woman, smiling. I was there at 37, 38, and 39 when you caught and collected all those pretty young girls and slit each ones throat with your dad’s straight razor. I was there. And I am here now.”
“And what do you want from me.” I said through tears
“I want to tell you something from all of us…”
The train made no sound, not a single crack of the tracks nor the breeze past the window, just the ever still moonlight and the strangers smoke in the cabin. The stranger lifted his hand to take the cigarette out of his mouth illuminating his hand which lacked all flesh and muscle. He leaned into the moonlight enough to show just his jaw, bone white and rotten with flesh and bits of bile clinging to it in small patches. The stranger then smiled cracking the spaces between his teeth allowing bits of porcelain coloured bone to dust off into the air.
“….keep up the good work.”
When I woke up again it was morning and the train had arrived in Portland station. I stood up grabbed my hat and coat and pulled my bag down from the top shelf placing it on my seat. I opened the bag to confirm that I had brought my tools for my new life here in Portland and with the confirmation I closed my bag and slipped on my hat. Stepping out of the cart I couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated in my mission and happy to start it all over again – of course I made sure to step over the neat little pile of cigarette ashes.