By Tom Baird
As I wake up, I find my left side is numb where I have been lying on it, and my hand aches from having supported the weight of my face, which is also kind of greasy to the touch, something that you clearly needed to know. My spine twinges slightly as I roll onto my back and stretch out, and I regret bitterly not having made it onto a seat, then I remember that it was as much spite as it was exhaustion that made me curl up down here. This self-loathing can be so impractical sometimes! On the other hand, the temperature in the train carriage is warm without being stuffy, and as the blood begins to recirculate in my re-positioned limbs, I find myself feeling remarkably comfortable. I get up slowly, gingerly shaking out my stiff legs and inspecting the carriage for what I realize is the first time. The train is modern and seemingly unremarkable; there are no adverts across the luggage racks, no train line operator’s logos on the backs of the seats, and, thankfully, no other passengers. The carriage is well lit, clean to the point of seeming sterile, and the ride is smooth as it speeds on into the abyss. I begin to wonder how long I was out for.
At the far end of the carriage, I find a toilet compartment, and in that toilet compartment I find a tap. Washing my face with cold water and hand soap from the adjacent dispenser, I try desperately to rationalize; to lie to myself (like I lie to everyone) and pretend that this situation is okay, that whatever I have done does not and should not fundamentally undermine my image of myself as a person. Whatever my attitude to my own life, no one has any right to take it away from me. The man in the station—and I will continue to call him a man, a human—well, he was clearly doing some inhumane, inhuman things. I’m most certainly no lawyer, but we’re looking at kidnapping, false imprisonment, grievous bodily harm, as well as several kinds of assault, right? I was threatened, assaulted, cornered, and in fear for my life, and that’s not even counting the heinous things I saw him doing to the girl. Couple this with the fact that I’m pretty sure this is all some kind of horrible concussion-induced nightmare-illusion, and I decide, on reflection, that my karma is still pretty good. The voice over the PA, however, begs to differ.
“How many chances do you think you are going to get to confront your demons?” a female voice crackles over the speaker system, inquiring politely. I am shocked out of my ruminations; I creep out of the toilet cautiously, half expecting the speaker to materialize in the carriage.
“I don’t really want to face my demons?” I reply hesitantly, unsure if I can be heard, but the question posed by the Announcer was clear, so what the hell.
“That’s hardly the point,” the voice states; a young woman’s voice, which is well-spoken, English, and a little old-fashioned to my ear. “All of this running and screaming is thoroughly immature. You’re going to end up hurting yourself and other people.”
“Listen,” I snap, quickly becoming irritated and forgetting my situation entirely, “I’m not going to be told how to behave by you or by anyone. Besides, didn’t you know, I faced my demon?” I’m breathing heavily now, coming dangerously close to confessing my killing to God knows who. Note to self: come up with a convincing alibi; learn it, live it.
“Him?” the voice intones skeptically. “You think he was a demon? He was just another hapless victim; think of him as a bad hair day or a headache. You have the power to go about things differently; you always have.”
“What!?” I exclaim, confused, frustrated, and stomping out into the center of the carriage in annoyance.
“A little problem always seems much larger if you refuse to address it,” the Announcer replies, still calm and perfectly measured. “You play these childish games, you run and you hide. If that is how you handle a small problem, it’s no wonder you fail to even acknowledge your real issues.”
“What if I’m in league with my demons?” I counter. “What if we’re getting on just fine without your input?”
“While that is indeed a troubling notion, it is demonstrably untrue. You have had every opportunity to kneel and submit, yet here you are,” reasons the Announcer.
“I’m not the ‘kneel and submit’ type,” I reply defiantly. “You clearly don’t know me at all. I’m rather interested in seeing how all of this nonsense concludes, thank you very much. And you,” I glare about the carriage in lieu of her eyes, “are not going to bully me with this holier-than-thou rhetoric.”
“I wouldn’t deign to say ‘holy,’ although I do profess a certain omniscience with regard to your current predicament,” she says, lingering over the word “omniscience” as if in contemplation.
“Oh, you do, do you?” I mock her accent, hands on my hips. “Why don’t you enlighten me, tell me something I don’t know?”
“I’m willing to tell you something you’ve clearly forgotten,” counters the Announcer softly, apparently not fazed by my rising aggression. “As ‘all of this nonsense,’ as you so eloquently put it, occurs, you have forgotten to ask, ‘What is it, in and of itself?’ You’ve abandoned any pretense at the critical thinking you used to take such pride in.”
“Marcus Aurelius?” I inquire.
“Very good,” she patronizes.
“Hardly, I’m simply familiar with The Silence of the Lambs,” I confess.
“And there I was marveling at how well read you are,” chides the Announcer.
“I did read that book, at least, but I thought Red Dragon was better, although they kind of made a hash of that film. Both times.”
“Quite. But if we can go back to my point?”
I consider it. It seems somewhat unreasonable, accusing me of failing to engage my brain when I’ve been forced to live on my wits. It took no deep philosophical insight to determine that I should be rescuing the little girl or running away from the man. On the other hand, my immediate response, once in the train, was to determine what these events meant for me and to assess my actions against my hypersensitive self-image rather than against the situation that provoked them. There is a certain narcissistic self-preoccupation evidenced here that extinguishes my anger with an uncomfortably familiar splash of shame.
“Okay,” I concede, sighing, “what would you have me ask?”
“What might have given rise to the idea of the mutilation of that little girl’s flesh? Why might somebody be interested in harming little old you? Even, at a stretch, why are there no longer cookies? If you can answer these questions, you’ll be well on your way to understanding.”
“Right,” I mutter, sinking down onto a seat in bewildered resignation. “I can’t say I see the connection.”
“What are these things?” she asks patiently. “what is it that there were once cookies but now there are none?”
“It’s a change,” I venture. “It’s a deterioration in that place. Maybe it shut down; clearly it’s not frequented by anyone normal.”
“We’re not speculating as to causation or meaning just yet,” she scolds, “but you are essentially correct. It is, in and of itself, a change, as you say.”
“But in your initial question you asked ‘why’!” I protest.
“The ‘why’ is the overarching puzzle; you need to begin with an evaluation of each individual piece before you can assume knowledge of the whole. One mustn’t attempt to run before mastering the ability to walk. We’ve just achieved the first baby step.” She pauses as if for dramatic effect. “It is an indisputable change in circumstance that there were once cookies but now there are none.”
“So you’re telling me that to begin to understand how exactly it got into that man’s head to restrain and torture that little girl, I ought to be musing on what exactly it means to carve the skin off her limbs while she screams in pain and bleeds all over the place?!” The Announcer tuts, although it could merely be a crackle of static. “Sorry,” I correct myself, “what exactly it IS to carve the skin off her limbs while she screams in pain and bleeds all over the place?”
“Unpleasant as the subject matter undoubtedly is, yes. It is precisely so.”
“Right,” I sigh again, “sure. And this understanding will give me great insight into the truth of the universe and let me get on with my business in peace?”
“It will bring you to an understanding of the events which have been set in motion, no more and no less. But it will require you to be completely and utterly honest with yourself. I hope,” she states, her voice becoming ever so slightly firmer, “that you are up to the challenge.”
“And what makes you think I’m not?” I demand, indignant once again.
“Why, all of this running and screaming, of course. I reiterate, how many chances do you think you are going to get to face your demons?”
“Oh, wonderful,” I snarl. “When the Devil comes knocking, I’ll beat him back with Socratic questioning and existential reductionism. Boy, do I feel better equipped!”
“You ought to put the Devil right out of your mind, dear. You have encountered neither angel nor demon thus far, and I have seen no evidence of self-honesty in your actions up to this point.”
“Fine!” I scream, the accusations of dishonesty hitting far too close to home. “I hit him! I smashed him round the head with the heaviest object I had to hand, and while I can’t say for certain that he’s dead, I can honestly tell you that I couldn’t give the tiniest little fuck at the time whether he lived or died!” I begin to sob, sinking to my knees in the aisle, reduced to a wretched parody of a sinner confessing all at the feet of God.
“That,” states the Announcer without emotion, “is the most honest you have ever been with yourself. Now show a little dignity. You’re not one to kneel and submit, remember.”
“Can you please just tell me where we’re going, that I might shed this guilt before it crushes me?” I beg. “I can’t stand it anymore. All I want right now is to be rid of it.”
“You should pay more attention, listen more carefully. You chose this path.” The voice on the PA is as perfectly spoken as before, but I sense a certain shortness now, a bluntness about this particular delivery. I feel that she has more to say, and I wait, wiping the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand. “The train will be arriving shortly. Please ensure you have all of your personal belongings with you before alighting,” the Announcer continues. I pull myself to my feet, bending down to pick up my torch on the way toward the doors. “Lenora,” the voice continues, “when you make your choices, and you will have to make them, please at least try to think about how they will affect other people. And mind the gap between the train and the platform edge.”
The train slows as soon as this message is completed, and after it judders to a halt, the door beside me slides open.
Category: SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing