This story is by Naomi Davidson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The train lurched from the station and Elton took his seat. There were only a few other people in his carriage, which wasn’t surprising, at this time of morning.
The world was washed into grey scale, coloured occasionally by streetlamps and headlights. Elton caught snippets of life through the window, like stills from a movie – a glimpse of a hens party tottering unsteadily home in their short dresses and tall shoes; A group of drunken men playing soccer in a car park; a bakery with its windows lit up, the first loaves of bread being placed in the oven. Each moment was like briefly touching someone else’s story; in those seconds Elton played a background role in their lives.
The train tugged on, not stopping. They passed several stations. A few had people waiting on them but mostly they were empty. Elton leant into the hard, colourfully upholstered seat.
There was nothing that felt more like home than sitting on a train, unaware of its destination, enjoying the rattle and sway of transit. The motion and the steady rhythms helped him think. When he needed to work through a problem he’d jump on a train, it didn’t matter where it was going, and riddle through it while he watched the world go by. It helped if the train wasn’t crowded. Standing up in the middle of a carriage surrounded by people was not indicative of productive thought.
A feeling of relief edged through Elton as the train left the city and the hustle and stress of deadlines and coffee queues that accompanied cubical life. The weekend held the potential of adventure away from his self-inflicted cramped cell, but he would probably spend it as he usually did – cleaning the weeks grime off the carpet and watching daytime television, waiting for the day to be over. Alone, as usual.
The train slipped into darkness, a moment of perfect stillness before the first wall light zipped past. The yellow carriage lights flickered as the train rushed under the earth.
Elton closed his eyes, completing the darkness. It took him back in time. A child, travelling alone on a train bound for an unknown location. Lost.
He had been eight years old. His stepdad’s car broke down and he didn’t pick Elton up from school.
Catch a train.
Trains were like dragons to Elton then. Huge, dangerous monstrosities with deafening roar as they thundered past.
Elton had walked to the nearby train station and waited. He had never caught a train on his own before. The locomotive rattled up to the station and the doors opened revealing the belly of the beast – a dimly lit cabin with rows of warn out seats patterned with garish colours, faded by use and sunlight.
Elton stepped cautiously into the cabin, not daring to look down between the platform and the train. The cabin was empty, apart from one old lady who sat at the back. She smiled at him but Elton kept his head down and didn’t make eye contact. Old people were strange. They went to bed before it was dark and watched daytime television. This one probably smelt funny as well. Like a moth-eaten fur coat in an old suitcase in the back corner of a dusty antique shop.
Elton sat in the middle of the carriage, by the window. The train lurched forward unexpectedly. Elton pitched forward with it. He grabbed hold of the seat in front and watched his knuckles turn white.
Lips pressed tight, Elton stared at the back of the chair. He only noticed his surroundings when the old lady got off the train at a station with a name that he didn’t recognise.
Elton looked around the train as it started to move again. There was a sign with scrolling writing that moved too fast for him to read. He looked out the window but didn’t recognise any of the buildings or roads rushing past. There were strange people driving cars different from his stepfather’s. There were children wearing school uniforms different to his own. He only saw these people for a moment before they disappeared into the distance. The train trundled on and Elton pulled his knees up to his chest. He buried his head and breathed big, slow breaths.
Sitting like this he didn’t notice when the train glided into a tunnel. Or the lights in the carriage lights go out.
When he opened his eyes there was only the wall lights from the tunnel zipping past.
Zwooom. Zwooom. Zwooom.
Elton looked around in sudden panic. He wanted his mum.
Then there was calm. Comfort and warmth washed over him and he suddenly felt like he had found home.
He got out of his seat and stood in the middle of the isle. At the end of the carriage there was a woman. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her eyes were stern and her mouth was kind. She wore a silver pinstriped jacket, black trousers and bright red shirt that matched her lipstick. She had no shoes on her feet and a string of pearls draped around her neck.
The strange woman smiled at him and walked forward. Behind her was swirling blackness tainted with vibrant blue, a vortex, like on the TV show his big sister liked. Elton wondered if there was enough room for an old police telephone box in the train.
Are you an alien?
He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Behind the woman a girl with eyes like liquid mercury stepped through. She was dressed in black and white striped, had wild blond hair and Elton thought that she had a lovely look about her, like someone out of a fairy tale.
No, love. We are here to help you. You are lost.
The woman knelt in front of him like a warrior about to be knighted by her king. Elton nodded. Out of the corner of his eye he saw more people stepping through the swirling void. Lights still flashed past, lighting up their faces in ugly florescence. They were old and young; smooth skinned and ancient, wrinkled leather; men and women. All dressed in a mish-mash of colours and styles, many of which Elton had never dreamed of.
We are The Lost. Come with us and you will never be alone again. Come with us, Elton, and we will help you. We will love you.
The strange woman smiled at him, cooing and comforting, her smile as soft and welcoming as that of his sister’s dolls.
But, like the dolls, it was painted on. Her eyes did not share her lips intentions and when she talked, Elton saw sharp, predatory teeth between her delicate red maw.
He stepped back, away from the fake smile and the strange dress. The girl in the black and white dress looked at him sadly.
He said it again and again. He could see a shadow reaching out toward him. The tunnel lights flashed past. He cried out.
A flood of light broke through the window, washing out the carriage of grasping shadows.
Elton slammed against a seat. When he looked back the carriage was empty again. A calm, automated man’s voice called out the name of his station. The doors opened and he saw his mum, wearing normal blue jeans and a branded t-shirt.
He ran out of the train into her arms.
As the train doors closed he saw a girl in a black and white dress look at him, disappointed, and he felt panging loneliness as he watched the girl disappear with the train. He hugged his mum tighter.
Elton opened his eyes but the darkness remained. Only the tunnel lights illuminated the cabin as the zipped past. He felt comfortable in the hard chair.
Zwooom. Zwooom. Zwooom.
No one else seemed to notice the woman standing in front of a swirling void. She was dressed in a black and white striped dress that reminded him of the circus. Red petticoats peeked from underneath the skirt. They matched her lipstick. Her blond hair was messily piled on top of her head with a model boat tangled in the top of her curls. She wore no shoes.
Strangely dressed people started stepping out of the vortex behind her but Elton didn’t pay them any heed.
The woman tilted her head, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled a large, doll-like smile at him, exposing all her perfectly shaped, pearly teeth.
We are the lost. Come with…
The woman shook her head at him, pity in her gaze, then walked forward. Toward him, through him.
He turned and saw behind him a young boy, about eight years old. He stared at the woman and at the strange people behind her. The woman knelt before him like a warrior before her king.
Come with us and you will never be alone again.