The Departure (Short Story/Horror/Mystery)
Three people await their train at a deserted train station.
All three know they have a train to catch, but all three are also unsure why they are waiting for one.
All three also seem unable to recall just where that train is heading to.
Or how they arrived at this unfamiliar station to begin with.
And just where are all the other travellers?
And why are these three the only signs of life in this dreary edifice?
Please keep behind the yellow line. The next arrival is the train you need. Please ensure you have your luggage to hand, and prepare for…
Written so far (unedited) –
He glanced at his watch impatiently, then double checked the time with the big, old-fashioned station clock presiding over the platform. The clock’s time worn face looked on impassively as he swore under his breath. Ten minutes late. Not out of the ordinary, to be honest. A late train wouldn’t usually bother Jake in the slightest but on days like this, days when he had to be in a certain place at a certain time, it mattered. If the train wasn’t here within the next five minutes he would probably miss his connection. Which would make him late. Unless he forked out for a taxi, turning an already expensive journey into an even dearer one. Bloody rail prices were ridiculous – he could fly to Spain for less.
Further along the platform, to Jake’s right, a young girl played hopscotch on the cracked paving stones while her mother nattered loudly into a mobile phone. A hand, fake tan orange, clamped the phone to one ear. The lit end of a cigarette, held between the long, manicured fingers of her free hand, traced patterns in the cold December air as she described last night’s action and her latest conquest. Jake pitied however had the misfortune to be on the other end of her call.
The girl and her mother were the only other signs of life on the desolate platform. Even the vending machine to Jake’s left had given up the ghost. An A4 sized sheet of paper, yellowed with age and taped to the grimy glass front, proclaimed “Dis Mashine be OUT of ORDR” in sprawling handwriting. A little education goes a long way, Jake thought, but sadly, in this instance, a little education hadn’t gone far enough. He imagined the young girl playing hopscotch would have made a better job of it. Jake watched as she hopped from one square to another, her bright red coat bobbing up and down like an oversized robin. Mother robin squawked something unintelligible and began jabbing a painted nail at her phone. Oh the horrors of a lost signal.
Jake’s back spasmed and he grimaced with pain. Station benches were definitely designed by somebody who had never sat on one. He stood up and walked to the nearest wall, leaning against it then standing up straight again as his back spasmed once more. With a sigh he stood as his physiotherapist wife had taught him. She was always deriding him for his bad posture, convinced his slouching was the cause of his occasional backaches. So – feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart. Spine ramrod straight, extended upwards, really reach for the sky with your head. Chest out, shoulders back. Make sure they’re level, no lounging to one side. He looked like a soldier on parade. He felt like a dick. His back spasmed painfully again and he gave up. What was the point?
A battered and travel weary rucksack lay between Jake’s feet like a faithful dog, and he squatted down to it, rummaging around inside until he found an old tub of aspirin. Washed down with a mouthful of water from the bottle he’d brought with him they’d soon sort the pain out. Or at least dial it down to a more manageable level. He glanced up as he replaced the bottle inside his bag. The girl had stopped hopping around and was watching him with big blue eyes. Her blonde hair blew about her face as a gust of wind swept along the grey platform, an empty crisp packet fluttering before it.
“Are you ‘kay, mister? You look kinda ill.” Her hands gathered up her long hair as she spoke, fingers expertly fastening it into a ponytail to prevent it blowing around.
Jake stood up and stuffed both hands into his jacked pockets. The wind had strengthened and the temperature was dropping. “I’m fine, hon, don’t you worry. Just a little back pain is all.”
“Does your back hurt a lot?” The girl took a couple of steps towards him. Her bright coat screamed red, her eyes flashed blue to rival a summer’s sky, her hair was the sun, bright and golden. And just like that Jake no longer stood on the station’s worn platform. Before him stretched a field of poppies, mile upon mile of blood red flowers nodding in the soft warm breeze. Overhead a bright and golden sun shone down from a cloudless and blue summer’s sky. Despite the warmth, he shivered. A shadow was creeping behind him, swallowing the day in its blackness. A tuneless humming filled the air, increasing in volume as it drew nearer, a soulless choir announcing the arrival of… of what, exactly? Not his late train, that was certain. Something other was coming; something sinister, something evil, something Jake most definitely did not want to see.
“Mister? Hey, mister! Are you sure you’re okay?” Robin girl’s voice reached him over the humming, and he opened his eyes, snapping back to reality with a jolt. Christ, maybe those pills hadn’t been such a good idea. Could aspirin go off? He rubbed a hand over his face. The hand trembled slightly. He shoved it back inside its warm pocket.
Jake tried on a few expressions until he found a smile that felt right. “I’m sure, little robin, I’m all okay.” To him his voice sounded strained, forcing a casual tone from his larynx, but the small girl accepted it and she smiled in return.
“My name isn’t Robin, it’s Leona. Leona Alanna Daley. I’m eight!” As she spoke, Leona smeared a Chapstick over her lips. She offered it to Jake. “Want some? It’s cherry flavoured!” Jake shook his head, amused, and the Chapstick vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
“My uncle Liam has a bad back,” Leona continued. “He says it stops him from getting a proper job. Mum says it’s only sore ’cause he lays on the sofa all day.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Mum calls him a lazy bastard, she says he wouldn’t know a proper job if it bit his arse.” Surprised laughter escaped Jake’s lips, and he bit his tongue to silence it. Leona twirled around and pointed at Mother Robin. “That’s my mum over there. She’s called Britney Jade. She’s a dancer, an exotic dancer. She’s teaching me to dance, she says I’m going to win X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent one day!”
Britney Jade. An exotic dancer. B. J. Daley. Jake sighed, a deep, top to toe sigh. All at once he felt old, decades alder than his forty four years. The brave new future world he’d looked forward to experiencing when he was a child had turned out to be a fearful, decaying place. The shining new cities he’d read about in his favourite science fiction stories had turned out to be just the same old cities, but now crumbling and rotting from the outside in. Even their glittering centres were haemorrhaging wealth at an alarming rate. And now little girls had exotic dancers with unfortunate names for mothers. Or maybe he was just turning into a bitter old man.
“You never said if your back was really sore. Or told me your name. I told you mine.” Leona folded her arms across her skinny chest. “It’s polite. Mum says so.”
Jake returned to the bench and sat down, aware it would make his back ache but not caring. Let the pills earn their keep and sort the pain out. “My name’s Jake. Jake Schreiber. Pleased to meet you, little robin. “ He held his hand out towards his new friend, waiting for a handshake.
Leona giggled and returned the gesture, her small hand disappearing inside his much larger one. They shook, and she stepped back. “I already told you, my name is Leona, not Robin. Why do you keep calling me that?”
“It’s your coat, hon, it’s bright red, it reminds me of a robin’s red breast.” Jake eased back against the metal bench, trying to find a comfortable position.
“Oh, okay, I get it.” The young girl hopped from one foot to another moving to beat only she could hear. “A robin’s a little bird, right? I read about them in school.” Her large eyes looked at the grey sky, travelled down over the grey walls and took in the dusty grey floor of the train station. “This place is yucky, it needs more bright colours, like my coat!” She twirled on the spot, as though trying to fling the bright red from the garment over the colourless surroundings.
Jake grinned. “Yes, I agree, this place is yucky, a lick of paint wouldn’t go amiss. As for my bad back – yes, it’s really sore. I get back ache from time to time, but today is different, today it hurts like a motherfu…” Remembering who he was talking to, Jake quickly corrected himself. “Today it hurts a lot. Hanging around waiting for a train isn’t helping either.”
The girl’s blue eyes filled with sadness as she looked at Jake. “I’m sorry about your back. I know mummy is too. Mr. Devlin, the station guard, will be back soon, he’ll tell you when your train will get here. He had to go away for a while to sort a problem out. He said… he said…” Leona’s voice tailed off, a look of confusion on her face. “I forgot what he said. But he’ll be back soon, he said so!” she finished, with a smile.
The confused look transferred itself to Jake’s face as he tried to make sense of what his new little friend had just said. He opened his mouth to ask her to explain, but a shout from further along the platform interrupted him.
“Leona! Leona Alanna! You get your butt back over here!” Jake and Leona’s heads swivelled in unison, looking towards the sound of the raised voice. Mother Robin had finished squawking into her phone and was now engaged in full on chick protection mode. “What have I told you about talking to strange men? Come over here, get away from him. Now!”
Britney Jade tottered a few steps towards them, her ridiculously high heels tap tap tapping on the worn slabs of the platform. A fresh cigarette blazed as she sucked another shot of nicotine and chemicals into her lungs. Leona looked apologetic and started to shuffle towards her mother.
“I have to go, my mum wants me. It was nice to meet you, Jake. We’re still sorry about your back.”
Jake raised a hand and twiddled his fingers in a farewell wave, not sure what Leona had meant, but also strangely uncertain whether he really wanted to know. “It was nice to meet you too, little robin.” He glanced up at Mother Robin and tried out a half smile on her. Britney blew smoke through her sticky red lips, false eyelashes blinking rapidly to keep it out of her eyes, eyes which flashed dire threats in his direction. Jake took back his smile and looked away, troubled. He’d seen her face before, he was sure of it. But where?
He glanced back. Phone once again glued to her ear, bleached blonde hair pushed out of the way to accommodate it, Britney gazed into the distance with unfocused eyes as she listened to the small sounds emanating from the gadget. Jake blinked, and the heavily made up face raced towards him at an alarming rate, encased behind a windscreen. Sunlight sparked off diamonds and gold; jewellery decorated fingers which gripped the top of a steering wheel. The image charged towards him, closer, closer. His back spasmed, an excruciating pain travelling the length of his spine, and the onrushing vision dissolved into a grey mist, dissipating around him.
Jake passed a still trembling hand over his face as he slumped against the back of the bench. What the hell was wrong with him? Maybe it was the pills, maybe they really had gone off, passed their use by date. He’d have to ask somebody about that. A check up with his doctor might be a good idea too. He’d make an appointment as soon as he got back from… from wherever he was heading. The name danced on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. Better safe than sorry, after all. That’s if he ever got to his destination in the first place. Just where had the damn train got to? It was thirty minutes late now; if it was a joke then it wasn’t funny any more.
Patience wearing thin, Jake got to his feet and slung his rucksack over one shoulder. There had to be a guard around here somewhere, or a ticket office, or something, anything. He strode along the platform in the opposite direction from the little robin and her overbearing mother. He had no wish to be pecked to death.
A waiting room was hidden just beyond the defunct vending machine. The large window which enabled waiting travellers to view arriving and departing trains lay on the floor inside the room, the glass shattered into countless shards. Two of the three wooden benches lay on their sides, some legs missing, the remainder twisted out of shape. A reddish brown stain marred the floor, trails of which smeared up one wall, culminating in what looked suspiciously like hand prints. Jake passed by, glad he chosen the uncomfortable platform bench to wait on.
Two wooded doors followed, their once glossy dark blue paint now faded and dusty, cracked and peeling in places. Streaks of rust ran from the screws fastening signs the their surfaces – “Gents” on one, “Ladies” on the other. And past them, the ticket office. Jake marched up to the window, then stepped back, disappointed. A thick coating of dust covered the dirt and grime encrusted screen. Next to the central speaker-grill a small hole had been punched through the glass, a spiderweb of cracks emanating outwards from the centre. Behind the window a drab, olive green blind had been drawn, hiding the rest of the room from prying eyes. A small, handwritten sign was propped in one corner – “Bck in 5 miniTs”. Written by the same uneducated hand that had written the sign on the broken vending machine, no doubt. Dead flies littered the shelf on which it stood. Jake very much doubted the sign writer would be back anytime at all, let alone in five minutes.
“This isn’t right, this isn’t right at all. What the hell is going on here?” Not for the first time this morning, Jake wished he had stayed in bed, warm and cosy and a long, long way from this confusing strangeness.
* * * * * * * * *
“Mummy, when will the train be here?” Leona skipped in rapid circles around her mother, long ponytail swinging from side to side.
Britney pulled the phone away from her ear and glared at it with bloodshot eyes. “I don’t know, babe. It’ll be here when it gets here.”
Leona stopped skipping, choosing instead to hop on one leg, now circling her mother in the opposite direction. “I wish it would hurry up. I don’t like it here, it’s nasty dirty.”
The young girl’s mother jabbed a long finger at her phone’s screen and swore under her breath. She selected another number, pressed call, and returned the gadget to her ear.
“Mummy, where are the all people?” Leona hopped another circuit around her mother. “Mummy, I’m bored, when can we go?” Another circuit was successfully hopped. “Mummy, I’m hungry, my tummy is shouting at me.” The small girl stopped in front of her mother and turned to face her. “Mummy, I need a wee!”
Britney continued to ignore her daughter. She stared into the distance, eyes unfocused as she concentrated on whatever sounds the phone emitted into her ear, her jaws moving rhythmically as she chewed yet another stick of gum.
“Mummy. Mum!” Leona planted her hands on her hips and glared up at her mother’s heavily made up face. Britney continued to pay more attention to her phone than to anything happening around her. Another gust of wind blew along the platform, swirling dust and ruffling the fake fur of her jacket. Leona hated the jacket, she believed fur belonged on animals, even if it was fake. Britney thought it made her look classy.
Used to being ignored most of the time, the young girl poked her tongue out at her mother and scampered off along the station’s platform, calling over her shoulder as she went, “I’m going to find a loo, Mum, I won’t be long.”
Leona hadn’t been lying when she’d said she didn’t like the station. She really didn’t like it. It looked old; all grey, drab colours, and dust everywhere. Even the air smelled old, used, and left a bitter metallic aftertaste in her mouth. She skipped along, jumping from one paving slab to another, careful to avoid the gaps between them – step on a crack, break your mother’s back – moving away from where she’d met her new friend Jake; she didn’t want her mother shouting at her again.
The platform ended some twenty metres further ahead, but she couldn’t see anything beyond the final barrier. The railway tracks curved away to the right, worn steel gleaming even in the dull light, and vanished into a thick mist. To Leona it looked like a cloud had dropped down from the sky to hide what lay beyond the perimeter of the station.
As she watched the grey mist swirled and pulsed, as though some large entity moved about inside it, just out of view. Tendrils of vapour crawled along the floor, away from the mass, formless arms searching for something to catch hold of and drag back into the murk. Something like a small girl wearing a bright red coat, perhaps. Leona came to an abrupt halt, a shiver running along her spine. She’d come far enough in this direction, she decided. Maybe there were some toilets at the other end of the platform. She turned and ran back the way she’d come.
Britney barely glanced at her daughter as Leona scurried past. “Everything okay, babe? Did you find the toilets? Come on, you stupid phone, why won’t you work?” The mobile phone suffered another onslaught from manicured nails as the screen was jabbed repeatedly once more.
“I think they must be this way,” Leona replied, not slowing down. She’d spied Jake further along the platform, and some deep instinct told her she’d feel safer in his presence. Britney had already turned away, her attention continuing to focus on the gadget in her hand. Leona shrugged mentally; being ignored was nothing new.
Jake smiled as he saw the young girl skipping towards him. “Hey there, little robin, what’s the rush?” He dropped his rucksack on the floor at his feet as Leona slithered to a halt in front of him, cheeks flushed from her run along the station’s platform.
Leona grinned. “Hi, Jake, I was,” she waved a hand at him as she caught her breath. “Just looking for a toilet.” She crossed her legs, a pained expression crossing her face. “I need to wee. So, so bad!”
“Oh, I see. An emergency of the highest order!” Jake swept an imaginary hat from his head and bowed low in an extravagant manner. “Luckily for you, my lady, rescuing damsels in distress is my speciality. “He stood up and replaced the invisible hat back on his head.
Leona giggled, the sound bright and lively in the dull setting. “Thank you, Sir Jake, my hero!” The young girl eyed her surroundings hastily while hopping from foot to foot. “The toilets? Please? I’m desperate!”
“Of course, Lady Robin, of course,” said Jake, aware the emergency could turn into a messy accident at any moment. He raised his arm and pointed at the two doors standing between the waiting room and the closed ticket office. “Ladies use the door on the right.”
“Thank you, oh thank you!” Leona called, already sprinting towards the correct door. “Wait for me, please? I’ll be right back!” She hit the door at a run, and Jake was thankful it opened smoothly, or his little friend might well have had a broken nose to add to her woes. The door closed swiftly behind her, almost as if the darkness beyond had swallowed the small girl in her bright red coat.
Jake glanced at his watch, then slid his hands back into the warmth of their pockets. He’d wait for the Lady Robin to finish up in the rest rooms, and then resume his search for somebody to explain the lack of his train. Or any other train, for that matter. The station seemed… no, was unusually quiet and deserted for his liking. Leona and her mother were the only people he’d seen since he’d arrived here. Surely there must be more travellers somewhere, waiting for their trains?
* * * * * * *
The door swung shut behind her and Leona paused for a moment, allowing her eyes time to adjust to the gloom. A single, dull and fly spotted lightbulb flickered behind a wire cage high on the far wall, its intermittent light creating a random strobe like effect. To her left three sink basins were set in a pale green counter top. Sinks and counter alike were caked in dirt and grime, thick with dust. One basin was missing both its taps – Leona could see them laying on the floor in the far corner, partially covered in stained toilet paper. A large mirror covered the wall behind the sinks, its surface cracked in a dozen places, small sections of reflective glass absent entirely in several places. Their shattered remains lay scattered over the counter and tiled floor, sparkling like cheap costume jewellery in the sporadic lighting.
Three toilet cubicles occupied the entire right-hand side wall. The doors of the two stalls nearest the entrance hung at drunken angles, one with a broken top hinge, the other missing its bottom one. The farthest cubicle appeared to be intact, its dirt and graffiti covered door standing slightly ajar. Leona edged forward across the debris and litter strewn floor, nose wrinkling at the foul odour emanating from the toilets. If she wasn’t so desperate she’d have turned around and left this horrid place immediately but her bladder had other ideas, insisting she empty it as soon as possible.
Not wanting to but knowing she had no other option, Leona scurried across the room to the far cubicle. She almost gagged on the stench inside as she pushed the door open. The toilet seat was broken, and what the black and crusty sludge in the bowl was she didn’t want to imagine. At least there’s toilet paper, she thought as her eyes spotted the tattered roll hanging on its spool. She took a deep breath and held it as she hitched up her skirt, ready to give her complaining bladder the respite it deserved.
Minutes later the small girl hastened from the toilet stall, her business finished in record time. The toilet hadn’t flushed when she’d pulled on the chain but she wasn’t going to worry about that. She very much doubted she’d be able to wash her hands either as she looked dubiously at the sinks. With a shrug she decided to give it a go, selecting one of the remaining taps at random and spinning its top to turn it on. A few flakes of rust dropped into the sink but aside from a faint gurgling somewhere further along the pipes there was no sign of water coming any time soon. Leona sighed, then smiled at the multiple reflections of herself in the big, broken mirror. It didn’t matter. The sooner she was out of this rotten place the better.
Something small and soft brushed down her cheek, coming to rest on her coat’s collar. She brushed it aside absently, engrossed and amused with a myriad of Leonas smiling back at her from the mirror. Another small something dropped in front of her face and she batted a hand at it. Another one landed in her hair, and Leona shook her head to rid it of whatever was there. Another object fell across her vision, and she looked up to see where they were coming from. Her breath hitched in her throat and she let out a small moan as she saw what was above her.
The entire ceiling on the rest room was covered in a vast sheet of thick spiders web. It billowed here and there, as if buffeted by an unfelt draught, almost resembling a cloudy sky on a breezy day. Maybe it isn’t being moved by a draught, maybe there’s something moving it! The small, panicked voice in her head grew louder as her face paled considerably. Spiders! Oh my god, spiders! I HATE spiders! Rooted to the spot, gazing fearfully at the obscured ceiling, she watched, horrified, as a small tear in the web dropped another small and black object onto her. Spiders, the panicked voice screamed in her head, spiders are falling on you! Another followed, and another, a trickle of falling objects quickly becoming a torrent. The tear ripped wider, and what appeared to Leona to be all the spiders in the world tumbled from the giant web, covering her completely.
The small girl in the bright red coat screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
* * * * * *