I smelled the coal smoke before I opened my eyes. For a moment, I was eight again, in the shop where my grandfather repaired motors. I used to sit by his old stove and watch him work.
“Hannah, what’s the piston firing order of a small block Chevrolet?” he’d ask, and I’d recite, “1, 8, 4, 3, 6, 5, 7, 2.”
He’d laugh and toss me one of the snack-size Hershey bars he kept in his toolbox.
But the lurching and pitching… where was I?
Opening my eyes took more effort than it should’ve. My head felt leaden, leaning against something cool and smooth. Finally, I cracked my eyelids. Scenery whizzed by outside. Lush, green mountains, a clear blue sky… where was I? I couldn’t think. I struggled to raise my head, but it immediately fell back against my seat. Was I on a train?
“I want my mama,” a little voice whimpered and I managed to raise my head to look at the seat across from me. A girl of about four lay on it, sucking her thumb. She seemed as lethargic as I felt. She also looked familiar, but I couldn’t think. My head throbbed, and I felt queasy.
Someone moved swiftly down the aisle. A lady in a bright blue uniform. She knelt beside the girl. “It’s okay, sweetie. You’ll see your mama soon.”
I tried to get her attention. She whipped her head around and I cried out. Her eyes were black as coal.
But I blinked and it was gone. She looked at me with concern in her sky-blue eyes.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s probably the smoke from the train,” she said.
Then she walked away.
Someone groaned to my right. A blond guy about my age slumped forward. He turned and squinted at me.
“Jake,” I whispered.
“I am Jake,” he said, as if it had just occurred to him. “What–”
“I don’t know.”
He closed his eyes. I remembered him, somehow. A #7 on a black jersey. I pictured him at a locker. Helping me open mine. And I knew without being able to see it clearly that the baseball cap he wore backwards had a Red Sox symbol on it.
Looking beyond him, out his window, I tried to recall where I’d been just before the train.
“I’m gonna be sick,” he said, and struggled to his feet.
He made it halfway down the aisle before the lady in blue stopped him.
“Please return to your seat,” she said.
“Restroom,” he muttered. “I’m sick.”
“It will pass,” she said cheerfully, and tried to pull him back. He shook her hand off and lurched down the aisle. At the end, he disappeared into a door to his left. The lady in blue looked anxious. She glanced at the other passengers, but no one else seemed strong enough to stand. Lips pursed, she waited for him.
Finally, the door opened and he staggered out, pale and red-eyed. He looked annoyed to see the lady in blue waiting. He turned as if to go through the door to another car and she freaked out.
“Stop!” she cried. “You can’t go in there.”
She almost shoved him down in her attempts to get between him and the door. He lifted his eyebrows and held up his hands in surrender. Then he headed back down the aisle. Instead of taking his previous seat, he fell into the seat next to me.
“Please return to your seat,” she said, and he ignored her. “Young man–”
“Where are we?” he demanded. “Where are we going?”
She strode to the first seat of the car, where a man in the same type of blue uniform sat. He turned to look at us and they whispered behind their hands.
“What’s going on?” Jake said. “I can’t remember. My head hurts–”
“Mine too. Do you think we were drugged?”
He looked at me, then at the little girl in the seat in front of us. “But–why? The last thing I remember is… Mr. Greely yelling at me.”
“He yelled at you for sleeping in detention.”
“That’s right! You’re Hannah.”
“I have a bad feeling,” he said. “We need to get off this train.”
The two employees still watched us. Jake lowered his head and said, “These kids. They’re from our school. And the younger ones…” He tipped his head at the girl. “I think they’re from the daycare next to our detention room.”
I looked at the girl, surprised. “Mrs. Campbell’s daughter. Allie!”
A voice came over the loudspeaker. “Approaching Stop 105. All passengers remain seated unless a service member directs you otherwise. Only people with tickets for Stop 105 will be allowed to disembark there.”
“Do you have a ticket?” Jake asked.
Before I could look, the two service members in our car moved quickly down the aisle, closing the blinds over the windows. Jake tried to stop the man from closing ours.
“Leave ours open, please,” he said, and the man closed it anyway.
Jake reached for it and the man grasped his wrist.
“Don’t touch that,” he said, and for a moment, his eyes flashed black.
“There are things on this journey you do not want to see. Stop 105 holds many of these things. In fact, you do not wish to see any of the stops until we get to Stop 110.” He smiled and said, “Enjoy your ride.”
We watched him walk away.
“Did you see that?” Jake hissed. “His eyes?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “And hers were the same, earlier. I thought I imagined it.”
The train lurched to a stop.
“No one from our car is disembarking at this stop,” the lady in blue announced with a smile. “Perhaps you should close your eyes and nap. It will help the time pass.”
She took a blanket from the overhead compartment and tucked it around me. Jake refused the one she offered him. “Rest your eyes, honey,” she said. “I’ll wake you when we reach your stop.”
A nap. I still felt so groggy, and my head wouldn’t stop pounding. Maybe if I closed my eyes for just a minute…
“Stay awake.” Jake nudged me with his knee. “We can’t go to sleep.”
I opened my eyes and noticed Allie was asleep, snoring softly. All over the car, passengers slept. Some faces I knew, others were still hazy.
“Hannah,” Jake whispered. “Do you hear that?”
I did. It sounded like wolves howling, or…
Moving quicker than I was capable of at the moment, Jake reached across me and opened the shade.
What had been sunny and lush only moments ago was dark and barren. People lurched into the darkness. Then yellow lights appeared. It took me a second to realize they were eyes.
Something jumped at our window and I screamed. I had a flash of scraggly black fur and yellow eyes as it slammed against the glass, then the man in blue was there, yanking on the shade.
“I told you not to touch that!” he yelled.
“What the hell was that?” Jake cried. “Where are we? Where are you taking us?”
“To a nicer place than this, if you will listen to the rules,” the man snapped, looking rattled.
He stood right beside us until the train chugged in motion again. Along with the howls, I imagined I heard screaming. Jake took my hand. His fingers felt icy in mine and I looked down. His fingers were pale, the nail beds cherry red. So were mine. So were Allie’s.
“We have to get off this train,” Jake said.
His reddened eyes and lips stood out against his pale skin.
“You don’t look so good,” he said.
I was sleepy. Every time my head dipped, Jake squeezed my fingers. I dozed somewhere between stops 106 and 107, but Jake kept bringing me back. The two employees in blue still stared at us. Finally, the man came toward us.
“I need to see your tickets, please.” He didn’t even try to hide the black flash of his eyes when he said, “Now!”
I dug through my pockets and produced a yellow ticket from my jacket. It simply read Stop 115. Jake’s search through his pockets yielded nothing.
“What can I tell you, man?” he said. “If you’d tell me how I got on this damn train, I might know where my ticket is.”
The lady in blue approached and the man hissed, “He doesn’t belong here. I told you so.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. “Impossible.”
“He’s too strong,” the man said. “He cannot stay on here.”
The woman frowned at us and pulled the man away. We watched them engage in an animated conversation.
“They’re gonna kick me off,” Jake said.
“I want to go with you,” I said. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” he promised, and squeezed my fingers. “I don’t know where we’re going, but I don’t trust them.” He glanced out the window. “I used to like trains when I was a kid. This one seems kind of slow. I figure we’re doing about 80 miles per hour. If we try to jump at this speed, we’re probably dead. But have you noticed how much it slows when we’re approaching a stop? We have to be close to Stop 109 now. Maybe we should take our chances, jump when we get close?”
“But… he said we don’t need to look outside before we get to 110. What if those creatures are there? What will we do?”
Jake looked up at the couple in blue that was still talking and looking at us. A third, large man in blue had joined them. “I don’t think we have much choice. I think they’re about to kick me off. Are you going with me or staying here?”
My hand felt cold and clammy in his, but I squeezed his fingers. “I’m going.”
The voice over the loudspeaker announced we were approaching Stop 109 and the train began to slow. Jake moved fast. He jerked me up and half-dragged me down the aisle. I glanced behind me and saw the people in blue running toward us, but he’d caught them off-guard. He reached the door in the back of the car and threw it open.
Hand-in-hand, we jumped into nothingness.
I awoke to the beeps and whir of machinery. Cold and the smell of pine disinfectant. Something covered my nose. I fumbled at it, only to feel a warm hand covering mine. I expected the lady in blue, but it was a different face that hovered over mine. My eyes burned when I recognized my mom
“Hannah!” she cried. “Grant, get the nurse. She’s awake!” To me, she said, “Honey, just be calm. Leave your oxygen mask on. You’re okay.” She covered her mouth with her hands and her eyes shone with tears. “You’re going to be fine.”
“What–happened?” I gasped.
“The furnace at your school. There was a carbon monoxide leak. It hurt a lot of people before anyone realized what was happening. Especially on the bottom level. Your classroom room, the daycare…” She shook her head. “But you’re going to be okay. They found you in a doorway with some boy. The two of you made it outside before you collapsed. That’s why you’re alive.”
“Jake,” I whispered. “Is he okay?”
My mother nodded. “He is, and he’s been asking for you.”
She left the room and I lay there, trying to remember what happened. Trying to piece together some crazy dream about a train and workers with black eyes.
My mother wheeled Jake into the room. He smiled at me from under the bill of his Boston Red Sox hat. “Hey, you,” he said. “You scared me.”
Mom smiled and parked his chair by my bedside. “I’m going to go grab a sandwich with your father, let you two talk.”
“What… what happened?” I asked.
He frowned. “I don’t remember much. They said there was a carbon monoxide leak. We were the only ones from that classroom who made it out alive. I remember holding your hand, trying to get to a door. But that’s about all.”
I wanted to ask him about the train, but that would sound crazy, right?
He shook his head. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I remember Mr. Greely yelling at you for falling asleep.”
“I couldn’t keep my eyes open,” Jake said. “I guess it the poison was already hitting me. I’m not sure how I even woke up enough to get out.”
He reached over and squeezed my hand. I looked down. Our hands were pale and the nails were still red.
I’d had a crush on him since 7th grade. I couldn’t believe Jake Marlow was here, holding my hand. I laughed. “I dreamed about you. I dreamed we were on a train. You saved me from these weird, black-eyed train workers.”
Jake’s already pale face blanched. “Train?” he said.
He pulled his hand from mine and rubbed his hands over his face, accidentally dislodging his hat. He grabbed it before it hit the floor.
“What the hell?” he whispered, and extracted something from the inside ridge of his cap. He held it up and we both stared at it.
It was a simple yellow ticket with the words STOP 115 printed in black letters.
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