I wasn’t the best behaved child a parent could hope for. I was selfish, greedy and hostile. Basic nightmare kid. I’d pitch fits when I didn’t get my way, and often make sure to break something my folks treasured to make my point. I would pound on walls, throw things across the room, and even slap or hit my mother or father when they would feebly attempt to calm me down.
My dad had apparently been abused by his father when he was a kid, so he would always try his best to keep his cool when I raged on. I took advantage of that fact, and made sure to push every single button I could to practically dare him to hit me. Many times, he would just walk away and leave me screaming and raging, but I considered that a win. Oh yes, I was far more than a handful, but my parents still loved me, even if I was a monster in the making. It wasn’t until that Christmas Eve of two thousand one that I learned I was not the center of the universe; a lesson I most definitely needed to learn.
It was during the family gathering on that day before Christmas, that I pitched a legendary fit upon learning the supposed truth about the reality of Santa Claus. I was only ten years old, and were it not for the kind hearts of my folks, I would have spent every single one of those years on the naughty list. That late November threatened to turn even those who still cared for me off the deep end.
Everyone had arrived at our house for the festive meal, and my cousin, Courtney, had been pushing my buttons all day. She was a good three years older than me, and thought she knew everything that the world had to offer. Being far more experienced and knowledgeable than I, she assured me there was no such person as Father Christmas; a truth I was not ready to hear.
She kept pushing and pushing as the day progressed, and I finally just lost it. We were up on the second floor of my childhood home, where my bedroom was located. Over the course of my raging tantrum, I pushed her out of my safe space with every ounce of strength my little arms could muster. Even after I got her out of my door, I continued thrusting my palms into her back, paying no attention to what lay ahead.
She had already started crying before I gave that final jab that sent her rolling down the stairs. She tumbled against the wall and the railing as her arms flailed and head bounced from one step to the next. The snapping sounds and muffled yelps ended with a thud when she hit the floor below. Every adult had made it out there before her fall came to a close, and their shocked and appalled eyes cut from her twisted body to my guilty face.
I had performed some awful acts during my short lifespan before that day, but my parents had always attempted to cure my terrible ways with kindness. This would mark the end of such times. Before the ambulance arrived, my father snatched me by the ear and dragged me into my bedroom. He screamed at me in a way I did not realize he was capable of. I was crying my eyes out while begging for forgiveness, but he wouldn’t let up. He wanted me to cry, and he was right. I deserved this and worse.
As his anger grew more intense with every word, until he raised a hand up to strike me. It wasn’t until then that his own rage faltered. He just stared at his own hand for a moment, before he dropped it exhaustedly back to his side. He glared back at me, and I watched the scowl on his face lighten back to a more blank expression, with tears slowly dripping from his eyes. He shook his head from side to side, and turned to leave the room without so much as looking back at me before he slammed the door shut. I would not see him again for the remainder of the day.
The house fell silent after the paramedics left with Courtney strapped to a gurnee. I watched out my window to see everyone, including my parents, leave the house to follow the ambulance to the hospital. I was never left alone at home, but clearly nobody could stand to be around me at that moment. Truth be told, I didn’t much care to be around myself at the time.
The hours dragged by while I sat alone in my bedroom, surrounded by all of the toys and video games my behavior had never earned me. Regardless of my short life having included an almost endless supply of tantrums and violent mood swings when I didn’t get my way, I never really felt bad about the misery I wrought. I generally only cared that I got what I wanted by the time I was done. This time; however, I did not feel any level of joy from this.
I tried to defend myself in the back of my mind; reasoning that it was completely the fault of my older cousin for pushing my buttons, but I knew she didn’t deserve this. Perhaps if she hadn’t gotten in my face, I wouldn’t have snapped like I had, but her actions did not warrant what I did. Maybe she just ended up with a couple of bruises, and it’s not as bad as it sounded, I reasoned with myself, though I could still hear the snapping of her bones ringing in the background of my silent, darkened room.
No matter how hard I worked to evade the guilt that was in pursuit, I could not escape it. I can’t say I had ever felt like this before. Even when I broke the big screen television my father took such pride in, I didn’t feel bad. Regardless of my inadvertently setting fire to the curtains in the living room, which very possibly could have burnt the entire house down if my mother’s reflexes hadn’t been so quick, my conscience still felt clear. There was no getting away from this one, no matter how much inner arguing I performed. Courtney could be dead for all I knew, and her blood would be on my hands.
For hours I just sat there in silence, perched on the floor of my room. Even after the sun retreated for the night, I did not move from that same spot. I could have gotten to my feet to at least turn a light on, but I wanted to be in the dark. Any light could run the risk of me seeing my reflection in the window, or something. I couldn’t look into my own eyes right now.
While my brooding continued and the world outside fell still, I became aware of a slight rumbling. It felt as though the whole house had begun to tremble slightly. The sensation was growing more and more intense by the second, finally inspiring me to break myself free from the carpeted floor for the first time in hours. I ran to my window to look outside after light appeared to beam through, almost as if the sun had shot back up from it’s dormant state. I could barely believe what I saw while I pressed my nose to the glass.
My childhood home was on a very average suburban street. Most of the houses sported similar designs, with not much variation in color palettes. A two lane road with houses on either side of it, just like millions of other neighborhoods across the country. Said road had now been replaced by a train track, with a long and somewhat ancient looking steam train parked upon it. The smoke billowed from the wide chimney on the front, lining the street in an almost unnatural fog.
As I stared in at this unusual sight, I saw a man in a conductor uniform exiting the train. As soon as he set foot on the snowy ground, he glanced up to meet my gaze. I quickly ducked down beneath the window, but I could still feel the eyes on me. I lifted my head up to look down at the man once more, to find he was still glaring at me. He had a kind face, with a wide smile and bright eyes. He raised his hand and gestured for me to come to him. Though I was more than a little freaked out, something inside me was almost begging to march out into the cold to see this up close and personal.
I grabbed my thickest winter coat, scarf, and boots and ran down the stairs without looking back. I threw the front door to my home wide open and I just stood there staring out. I pulled the knit cap from my coat pocket and pulled it snugly onto my head, while the conductor still smiled on, waving his arm to beckon me forward. I stepped out into the thick snow on the ground, while swinging the door shut behind me. The wide eyed and grinning expression of the man did not falter while I took wide steps, crushing the snow beneath my boot.
“Are you ready, lad?” The man asked in a deep voice and very proper sounding English accent.
“Ready for what?” I asked, craning my neck to look into the man’s eyes.
He was much taller up close than I had expected when I watched him from my second floor window. He appeared to be straining a little while bending his head down to look back at me.
“To go to the North Pole, of course!” He replied.
“You’re not serious!” I scoffed.
“Do you doubt your own eyes, child?” He asked, holding his arms out as if to present the train to me, like I hadn’t noticed it.
The man’s expression had still not wavered, even a little. His bright green eyes were so wide that they almost appeared to not be cupped on top and bottom with any eyelids. Just perfectly round circles with small pupils in the center. His perfectly aligned and sparkling white teeth looked almost false and slightly cartoony. Though the face as a whole seemed unthreatening, I became more and more uncomfortable the longer I stared up at it.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head softly, “I don’t think I should.”
He just glared down at me with those cue balls for eyes and chicklet teeth, neither blinking nor moving in the slightest. I felt my back tense up, and I was unsure if it was due to the frigid cold, or the gaze of the stranger in the dark red train conductor’s uniform.
I started to back away from the man, whose brow had begun to sink a little, forming a crease above the large and somehow darkening eyes. They had been a light green before, but as I stepped away from him, they appeared to have grown a much deeper shade, bordering on black.
“I think I’m gonna go back inside now,” I said as I continued to back away.
We continued our staring contest as I waved my hands around behind my back, hoping to feel my front door approaching soon. The second I felt my fingertips make contact with the reflective brass doorknob, the conductor outstretched his own arm in front of him, still maintaining his unsettling gaze. As I turned the knob, the white gloved hand shot towards me, growing as it drew closer, until the elongated fingers wrapped themselves around my entire torso. The grip was so tight, it almost squeezed the breath right out of my lungs, before it rapidly yanked me back to the man.
Before I knew it, he was holding me right in front of his face. His unblinking eyes appeared almost the size of my head while he examined my face.
“You will be boarding this train, young man,” his foul breath hit me like a truck, causing me to cough and gag at the stench.
“Would you care to climb the steps of your own volition, or shall I carry you like this?”
His eyes looked as though they were pulsing while they glared into mine. The horrendous odor that spilled from his mouth still lingered in my nostrils, but that wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as his stare.
“I-I’ll walk,” I stuttered, in little more than a whisper.
The man nodded his head as he gently placed me back onto the ground. My shaky legs threatened to drop me to the concrete, and I briefly considered attempting to flee again. Somehow, I knew there would be little point in that. I would be boarding this train whether I liked it or not. The choice was no longer in my hands, if it had ever been in the first place.
The lanky conductor lowered his body into a bow while he gestured towards the open door that stood just above the four metal steps. My whole body was trembling while I approached, and then climbed up into the cab. There was an aged and musty smell that spilled from inside as I crossed through the precipice with the tall, slender man pulling himself up behind me.
“Take any open seat you like,” he said, as we paced through into the passenger car.
I glanced across the carriage to see only a handful of other children perched upon the seats of the elegant, yet somewhat eerie room. They all turned to look at me when I entered, and they all wore the same exhausted and timidly fearful expressions. There was a short haired blonde kid with large, circular lensed glasses, wearing striped pajamas and a dark green robe. He appeared to be around twelve or so, if I had to guess. An African American girl with long, braided pigtails, who looked to be about the same age as I, dressed in a unicorn nightgown and a thick white coat with a fur lined collar. A little red haired girl in a puffy pink coat sat next to a ginger boy, who looked maybe a year or two older than her. I presumed them to be siblings. He wore a long, hooded blue coat, and appeared to be bordering on tears while he glared back at me.
The cabin itself was quite large; far bigger on the inside than I would have thought when I looked on from my bedroom window. The ceiling was maybe fifteen feet high, with three golden and ornate chandeliers hanging from it. They each held several flickering candles, though they provided little light to the darkly lit cabin. Shimmering, yet slightly tattered tinsel drooped from them in no particular pattern or design. Each red velvet lined row of seats had a large, arched window to the side, with delicate filigree borders. The carpeted floor was the same color as the chairs, but it was lined in yellows and greens, while speckled with a variety of muddy stains.
Still, as classy as the place looked, there was something about it that felt ancient and ghostly. This seemed a place in which the dead would gather to travel from one plane to the next, not one that would carry small and terrified children to the wonders of Santa’s workshop. As my trembling legs led me to the closest seat, I had little doubt that we were not bound for anyplace fantastical and inspiring. Given the fact I had very possibly killed my older cousin, this journey was not to reward me. The sour expressions etched onto the faces of my travelling companions led me to believe we were all on the same page. We would be facing punishment for our ill deeds this night. Something I could not deny that I deserved.
We all sat in silence while the tall, thin man made his way to the front of the cabin, before sliding the door open and leaving our sight. Occasionally, one kid would glance at another, before cutting their eyes back to the world that was now swiftly moving beside us. The train made little noise as it traversed the tracks that seemed invisible to the occasional bystander or driver behind the wheel of one car or another. It felt like we would just pass right through any obstacle that may drift in front of the speeding railcar, as though we existed now in a separate plane of existence.
I briefly considered the notion that I had died, and was now being transported to whatever realm awaited me in the afterlife, but it was more of a fleeting thought, mixed with a grain of denial. As I stared out the window to see the row of houses give way to a snowy and empty expanse, I became aware of the sweat that had begun to drip from my brow. I realized it was almost suffocatingly hot in here, and I thought it may be best to remove my thick, winter coat. As I leaned forward to slide the padded fabric down my shoulders, the cute little pigtailed girl across from me cleared her throat loudly to catch my attention.
She shook her head violently, whispering, “Don’t!”
“Why not?” I asked, “It’s so hot in here!”
“Shhh!” One of the gingers echoed from up front.
“What the hell?” I asked, darting my eyes between the other occupants of the train car.
“Shhhh!” Came from all directions now, and the girl across from me still shook her head wildly as I continued to pull off my coat.
“You guys are being dumb,” I said, shaking my own head, pulling my left arm free from my jacket.
Suddenly, the door at the front slid to the side revealing the still smiling face of the conductor behind it. Instantly, all of the other children turned their gaze away from me to look down at their own laps or out of their windows. I sat in place, with my right arm still in my coat, staring at the tall man as he strolled in wide strides towards me. He stopped when he got next to the seat I sat in, before turning to face me with his head tilted to one side.
We just stared at each other for a moment, before he said,
“Here, we only have one rule:”
I felt my heart begin to race while the wide, round eyes darkened once more.
“Never, ever, let them cool….”
I slowly pulled my coat back up my left arm and pulled it shut in front of me. As I continued my staring contest with the grinning man, he held his right hand up beside his face, snapping his fingers. Seconds later, another man came speeding through the door, pushing a cart which held a tall pitcher and a single, filthy mug. It took me a second to notice that the one who pushed the tray appeared to have absolutely no features upon his face. It was like a blank sheet of flesh, with two small holes for eyes. No mouth, no nose or ears. The stained green and white striped shirt he wore hung to his knees, with eerily thin, pale legs protruding from beneath. I only refer to him as, well, him, because the proportions and mannerisms were somewhat masculine. Otherwise there was little way of telling what he actually was.
The blank faced man stopped with the cart right beside the conductor, who reached for the pitcher with his eyes still fixed on me. He poured dark and steaming liquid into the cup without spilling a single drop, despite his gaze not shifting from mine. He laid the pitcher down, and snatched up the cup, holding it out towards me. I reached up with my trembling hand and grabbed the mug, expecting it to burn my fingers, but it surprisingly didn’t even feel warm.
I raised the cup to my mouth, and instantly recoiled when the steam billowing from the fluid within felt as though it would burn my upper lip.
“It’s too hot!” I whined, lowering the cup back down.
“But…..” I tensed up from head to toe while tears began to stream down my face. There was no way I could pour this scolding drink into my mouth. I knew it would burn me from the inside out.
The slender arms reached out to me again; one wrapping its thin fingers around the hand which held the mug, and the other clutching onto the top of my head. He forced the cup up to my mouth, while pulling my head backwards.
“Never…..” the rim hit my lower lip, immediately and excruciatingly fusing the tender skin with the ceramic.
“Ever…..” the thumb of the hand which gripped my head tightly, extended and lowered to push my bottom jaw open.
“Let them…..” I was struggling to break free from his grasp, and though he only held me by the head and hand, I could barely move my body.
“COOL!” He tipped the bubbling beverage into my open mouth, spilling the burning liquid across the skin of my face, as much as down my throat.
I screamed out, horrified by the immense pain I had never before imagined. I felt blisters form on the outside of my mouth, as well as the inside of my gaping orifice. It was like fire was erupting from within me, as though it were melting my insides, tearing holes in the inner lining of my esophagus and stomach. My flesh bubbled and popped, while my guts churned against the unbearable suffering. As the final drops fell from the cup into my gullet, I felt the dark fluid begin to leak from holes it had formed in my neck and torso. I was only vaguely aware of the hand as it let go of my head and hand, while I coughed up thick blood onto my coat.
As the conductor gingerly placed the mug back onto the rolling trolly, after tearing it away from the lip which had bonded to it, he ushered the blank faced man out of the room. My body was spasming and twitching, while the holes in my flesh sealed themselves back shut. The bubbling skin on my face became still and soft once more, and the horrendous agony subsided. I turned to face the tall man again, to see him studying me, tilting his head from side to side like a curious dog. I just stared back at him, still trembling from the shock of the events that had just transpired. He turned on the spot, before walking back to the front of the cabin, and out the door, sliding it shut behind him.
Though my wounds had all closed, and my flesh showed no signs of the torment it had just suffered, my clothes were still damp from the liquid which had poured inside and through me. I had never felt more pain than the occasional scraped knee or elbow before this day. Perhaps some bruises from a fall from my clumsy twin left feet from time to time, but nothing even close to what I had just experienced. I was still shaking all over, and none of the other kids would even acknowledge me. They had tried to warn me. I couldn’t deny that. Had they already experienced this themselves? I wondered. How long had the others been on board this train before I arrived? Would any of us ever escape this wretched thing?
My head was in chaos as I turned to face the window again; to watch the world beyond these walls travel rapidly away as we thundered forwards. There had to be a way out, even if it meant leaping from the train and onto the snowy ground outside. Perhaps it would be thick enough to break my fall. I’m sure I wouldn’t make it unscathed, but what hell awaited us if we reached our destination? I had to try to communicate with my cellmates, so to speak. I can’t say that I was in a rush to break any more rules, but according to the conductor, they only had the one.
Snow covered fields were all that surrounded the speeding train, as I gazed through the glass, which was heavily frosted on the outside. My body was still trembling, though it was still insufferably hot in the train car I shared with the other silent children. Every now and then, I could swear I saw movement within the white mounds of earth outside. Though it was dark outside, the full moon shone down through a cloudless sky, which may have just been causing me to see things as we sped past the landscape on the other side of the window.
Regardless of how peaceful, yet strangely unsettling my surroundings appeared, I was terrified of what awaited us when the train reached its destination. With the torment I had already endured, surely what was still to come would be far worse. I felt my eyes welling up again as the hopelessness of it all struck me like a hammer to the jaw. I bowed my head, whispering prayers under my breath to make it through this in one piece. I had been an awful and conniving little brat my whole life; all ten years of it. Perhaps I had no right to ask for forgiveness with the awful things I had done only hours before I found myself on this journey to hell.
“Hey” I heard a whispered voice call from my left.
I turned to see the little girl across the aisle smiling at me.
“Hi,” I replied softly.
I meant to speak a little louder, but it seemed I was no longer capable of anything more than a whisper. Maybe I had sustained some lasting damage after all.
She smiled at me, with something remorseful in her eyes. It was as if she felt guilty for what I had just endured, but even as much of a shitty human being as I was, I knew she tried to help me. I was just too damn pigheaded to listen.
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” she cut her stare away from me as she spoke with a slight crack in her voice.
“It’s not your fault!” I said, attempting to smile as much as I was able.
We just stared at each other for a moment. She was a pretty girl, with beautiful, big brown eyes. She looked very tired, though I couldn’t tell if it was exhaustion from this experience, or just the fact that it was some time after midnight by this point. I was still very young, and hadn’t really taken the time to appreciate the opposite sex just yet, but I found myself quite taken with her, which caused my face to flush, and cut my eyes away from her in embarrassment.
“I’m Zophie,” she whispered.
I couldn’t tell if she was keeping her voice low in hopes of avoiding alerting our host, or if she may have been forced to ingest the acid-like concoction herself.
“Mikey,” I replied, still feeling incredibly shy.
“Will you shut the hell up!” The boy in the round glasses called out in an aggravated whisper.
“You’re gonna get us all in trouble if you don’t stop!”
His neck was craned around the edge of his seat to look at me, and his brow formed a scowl not unlike the one my father had shown me earlier that day. It mildly annoyed me that he was seemingly only directing his rage at me, when I was not alone in the conversation I was having, but I could still understand where he was coming from. God knows what the other members of this small group had gone through before I boarded.
I just nodded at the angry kid, before giving Zophie a guilty smile and a shrug. The boy turned back to face away from me again, while I still gazed at the little girl on the seat beside mine. We locked eyes for a few moments, and I was surprised the experience didn’t make me feel more uncomfortable. There was something peaceful about her, which helped my scattered mind regain a more composed state. That was; however, before the door slid open again.
“Tickets, please,” the conductor said as he strolled up to the red haired kids up front.
“I-I don’t h-have a t-ticket, sir,” the boy replied, stammering to get the words out.
“I beg to differ, young man,” the tall man said as he snatched the right hand of the child up.
The boy yelped when the man whipped a large ticket puncher out of his pocket. In one quick motion, he slid the kid’s hand into the device and punched a hole right through the center of his palm. He cried out in pain as blood spurted from the wound onto his shirt, and tears spilled down his face. The little girl beside him tried to struggle against the slender man in the dark red suit when he wrapped his long fingers around her wrist, but he was far stronger than she was. As much as she fought to pull her hand away from him, he still managed to poke a fresh hole into her flesh, just as he had her brother.
I tensed up and began hyperventilating as I watched the blood trickle onto the carpet, while the conductor made his way to the kid with the round glasses, leaving the two still sobbing behind him. Another scream echoed through the cabin after the third ticket was punched, and I found myself shaking violently as the man paced back towards me.
Still reeling from the burning liquid being forced down my gullet, I knew it would be a terrible idea to refuse the man’s demands, so I offered my trembling hand, while biting down and preparing for what was to come.
If nothing else, it was quick. Truth be told, the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I still screamed out, but it wasn’t from the pain as much as the sound of the metal prong chewing through my tissue. I can’t say I had ever seen that much blood pour out of me before, though. Sure, the holes which had only recently formed in my throat and gut mixed scarlet streams with the brown liquid as it oozed out from within me, but this was just thick, dark crimson that leaked from me now. It didn’t stop flowing as quickly as my previous injuries either.
The conductor still glared at me while I cupped my gushing right hand in my left. He almost appeared disappointed that I wasn’t making as much of a fuss as the other kids, who still whined and sobbed. I turned my gaze to meet the little girl across the aisle, trying to mentally signify to her that it wasn’t all that bad. Strangely, she showed no signs of fear or apprehension. She just smiled back at me with something in her eyes I couldn’t quite decipher.
“What are you looking at, child?” The grinning man asked, before I cut my eyes back to meet his.
“Huh?” I replied, quite confused by the question, as I found it quite obvious who I was looking at.
“What….are….you….looking….at?” There was an impatience to his voice, regardless of the fact that he spoke almost mockingly slowly.
Before I could finish my single word reply, he swatted the back of his hand at the side of my face. This hurt considerably more than the hole in my hand, though I could not tell if my spinning head was due to the impact or the blood loss, as my palm still oozed onto my pants.
“The girl!” I replied with tears streaming down my swelling face.
For the first time, I watched the wide smile falter. The conductor’s expression appeared to melt into an almost human form before he turned slowly to face the girl sitting across from me. He stood staring at her for what felt like minutes, before he quickly turned on the spot and sped back through the door at the front of the cabin. When the door slammed shut, I looked back over at the cute little girl, who quickly cut her eyes away from me.
“What just happened?” I asked, truly mind boggled over the fact that the man appeared to not even know she was there.
“That’s, um, complicated,” she replied with a shrug.
Nothing had made any sort of sense since this whole nightmare began, but this was something I could not even begin to wrap my head around.
“Well,” she said, still refusing to allow our eyes to meet, “the thing is….”
She was cut off by the door sliding open, with the conductor practically sprinting through it towards us. I pressed my back against the window, bracing myself for whatever was about to happen, while the little girl jumped out of her seat and into the aisle. She just glared at the man with her hands balled into fists, as he charged at her. His movements were fast, so much faster than my eyes could even register. In an instant, he tackled the girl, rolled into the floor, and back up onto his feet with his arms wrapped around her. She was struggling against him, but he held her far too tightly as he headed out the door behind where I sat, slamming it closed behind him.
We all stared at the sealed door with our collective mouths hanging slack and wide. The kids at the front of the car were murmuring back and forth, clearly attempting to puzzle together what had just transpired. Before I was even aware of what I was doing, I took off towards the back door. As I pulled it open and headed through, I heard the other kids yelling at me to come back, but I felt suddenly filled with more purpose than I ever knew myself to be capable. I charged through the door of the next train car, then the following one, still finding no trace of the two who had passed through.
All three cars that were behind the one I had fled from showed no evidence that they had ever been occupied. While I stared off the back of the train, taking in the vast, empty landscape in our wake, I knew what I had to do. Clearly they had not fled backwards, leaving only one logical direction. As he had not carried her back through the doorway he entered, I had to deduce they had gone up to the roof of the train. I sprinted back through the cars until I reached the doorway to the one I had left. Though my hands still violently trembled, I reached for the ladder which led to the roof with my still bleeding hand. I had no idea what I would do if I caught up to the conductor, but I had to at least attempt to save the little girl from whatever he had planned for her.
I had never put anyone’s needs before my own my entire life. Perhaps it was the guilt I still felt over what I had done to my cousin that drove me to attempt a likely ill-fated rescue. I knew I would likely not survive this, but there was something about that girl. I had to save her, no matter the cost.
The strong wind was freezing when I reached the snow covered roof, which honestly felt quite remarkable at first, given the stifling heat inside. Still, it didn’t take long for the cold to feel as though it was biting right through me. The chill aggravated my still leaking hand, though the blood flow had slowed considerably. As I paced on, I found it difficult to even hold myself upright, let alone push my body onward, but I knew I had to. The first several steps required far more effort than I had hoped, leaving me unsure if I would even be capable of completing my self appointed mission. Perhaps it was the guilt I still felt over what I had done to my cousin that inspired me to continue to force one foot in front of the other, but I dreaded to think what the cute little pigtailed girl was enduring while I trudged through the thick snow.
Once I got into a rhythm, I managed to quicken my pace, but only slightly. Pushing against the strong and icy wind, combined with the high strides I was having to take to break each step free from the snow, made swift progress out of the question, but it was progress, nonetheless. I could barely see four feet in front of me, let alone whatever distance I would have to traverse before reaching a battle I was sure to lose, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. I plundered on with purpose, and with every single successful step, I was more and more driven by that.
I had no way of telling how much time had passed by as I leapt from train car to train car. The first jump was the hardest, and the most terrifying, but not unlike those initial hesitant footfalls, every leap was less scary than the last. By the time I saw a faint light ahead of me, I had successfully cleared six boxcars. As I drew closer to the light, I could see it flickered like fire, though it appeared to float several feet above the roof.
“You should not be up here, little boy,” a voice even deeper than that of the conductor spoke.
I felt my bladder attempt to give way as the shimmering light moved closer to me, revealing what appeared to be an incredibly tall person with an ancient looking fire lantern for a head. It wore a long, brown, snow speckled coat which came down to feet that were buried in the snow. It’s long arms hung just past where I presumed it’s knees to be as it stared down at me, well, as much as a lamp can stare, I suppose. Still, I could feel it glaring at me, causing that same discomfort the conductor’s wide eyes gaze caused.
“I-I have to get by!” I said, doing my best impersonation of someone with actual confidence in their words.
Without another word, its long arms reached towards me. I ducked down and rolled through the snow, managing to avoid its grasp, but this did not get me any closer to my goal. It swiped at me with the right arm, following with another swing from its left. Fortunately, the thing did not move quickly, and I found myself able to dodge. It just continued to swat at me, while I tumbled and leapt around the elongated limbs, while attempting to locate any way of getting past.
Finally, I noticed a split in the long coat, where the buttons ended just above the presumed knees. As both arms reached out for me again, I jumped forwards into the open section of the trenchcoat. The legs I now crouched between looked thin and frail, so, before the bony hands, which were attempting to reach me through the opening, could grab me, I kicked at the left foot which stood in the thick snow to my right. Even with my small and weak stature, it didn’t take much force to cause the tall creature to stumble.
As the leg I kicked slid to the side of the roof of the train, the other came crashing down on me. Before it could pummel me to the ground, I rolled out through the curtain-like back of the long coat. Once I was clear, I turned around to see arms and legs flailing as the lamp headed thing stumbled off the speeding train. I saw nothing more than a quick flash of light, followed by a thin line of smoke rising from where I assume it made contact onto the ground. With my heart still hammering, I stood up on my trembling legs, and started back on the path in the hopes of tracking my quarry before whatever the conductor had planned for the little girl occured.
Though I feared I would run into another of whatever that thing with the flickering head was, I did not run into any more obstacles until I reached the front of the train. The carriages ended, with only a long trolly filled with coal, and the engine just ahead of it. Just as I started to gather up enough courage to leap into the rough and jagged coal, I found myself nearly paralyzed with fear when a familiar voice spoke from behind me.
“And where do you think you’re going?” The conductor spoke directly into my ear.
I spun in place to see his wide eyes and grinning face only inches from mine. He stood in place, leaning over at the waist to gaze directly at me.
“I-I…um…I was…” I could barely form anything close to actual words while we stared at one another.
“Well, speak up, boy…” his darkened eyes formed that unsettling scowl again.
“Th-the g-girl?” I asked in little more than a stuttered whisper.
“Ejected, I’m afraid. Would you like to join her?”
We just stared at each other for a moment. I was terrified that I was about to be launched from this very spot, only to crash down to the ground around us. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would be a better option to whatever hell he had in store for me if I were to be permitted to remain on board.
“I didn’t think so,” he said, wrapping his fingers around my face and lifting me from the snowy roof.
I braced myself in preparation for being tossed like a rag doll, but he did not throw me over the side. He just stomped in wide strides, with me hanging from my head in his outstretched arm. He stepped in wide strides, crossing the carriages much faster than my tiny legs had. Though I wouldn’t say I was particularly comfortable, dangling like a fleshy Christmas ornament by the face, I was beginning to feel secure that my punishment may not be overly severe this time. Naturally, I got far too ahead of myself.
“Hmmm,” he said, stopping in place.
He glanced back into my eyes, one of which was covered by his large palm.
“It’s quite cool out here, isn’t it?”
With those words, my heart began to race again.
“One rule,” the words echoed from the back of my mind.
I hadn’t broken the law of the train by climbing out of my seat. Not when I crossed through the other cars, nor when I tipped my attacker off the side. Stepping out into the cold night air in the first place; however. That’s where I crossed the line.
The smile on the conductor’s face practically extended to his ears as the malice formed on his brow once more. He tilted his head to the side, studying what he could see of my face through his fingers. He reached his other hand up and snapped his fingers again, causing the hand which held me to burst into flames. The pain was immediate and unbearable. I screamed out as my skin bubbled, popped and dripped onto my shoulder, while fluids leaked down the conductor’s arm. I could feel my flesh peeling away in thin sheets, while my eyeballs popped and oozed from their sockets. As the tall man paced on, I lost all track of the passage of time, existing only in the insufferable agony of my melting head.
Somewhere along the line, I must have blacked out. It wasn’t until my body was tossed onto the hard floor of the cabin behind the one which still held the other terrified children, that I became aware once more. As soon as my regrown eyes opened, I grabbed at my face to find that everything felt intact again, though I remembered every single excruciating second before I passed out.
“Should I strap you down, or will you behave?” He asked, glaring down at me with his hands behind his back.
I just nodded, unable to make my voice work, hoping that he would understand which part of his question I was agreeing to. I grabbed onto the armrest of the chair closest to me, and heaved myself up from the floor. I planted down into the seat, to which the conductor returned a nod. He then spun in place, stepped through the door, before gently sliding it shut. As soon as he was out of sight, I fell into wailing sobs, before curling up in the fetal position on the chair.
Hours seemed to trickle by as I lay across the seats, trying my hardest to fall asleep to escape this nightmare. Every time I closed my eyes, it was as though I saw myself from the outside, watching my face melt away. I also couldn’t evade the guilt I was feeling from being unable to save the little girl who was apparently thrown from the train. I couldn’t figure out why the conductor got so angry at her, nor why he appeared unaware of her even being there in the first place. Of course, nothing made any sense since I boarded this hell on wheels.
After giving up on my attempts to sleep, I sat back upright in my seat to look out the window at the world beyond the glass. I no longer saw the same snowy landscape, but an unnerving lack of anything. It wasn’t like the night sky had grown so dark, hiding the world behind its blanket; it was just nothingness. Though the train still felt as though it were speeding along the metal tracks, I saw no evidence of any road through the seemingly endless void. It was almost hypnotizing to look upon, though my mind could not make any rational sense of it. The longer I gazed through the glass, the more the emptiness mesmerized me.
“Did he hurt you?”
The voice practically caused me to leap from my skin as I sat, zoned out in front of the window. I slowly turned my body around to see Zophie, once more perched on the seat across from me.
“Is it really you?” I asked, pressing my back against the glass, fearing this was some sort of trick being played on me.
“Thankyou,” she cut her eyes down to the floor, “for trying to rescue me…”
“He said he ejected you…” I still wasn’t ready to believe this wasn’t some sort of cruel trick.
“He tried. I thought I was done for, but I managed to grab onto the railing before I hit the ground.” She still wouldn’t meet my eyes, which only made me less willing to believe what she was saying.
I just continued to stare at her. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the odds of her claims being possible, even though I was just a child. Santa Claus? Yes. Of course he was real, regardless of what my cousin thought. Scooby Doo? Obviously based on true events. I’m sure he couldn’t really talk, but they have to exaggerate things for tv. A young girl being tossed from a speeding train in the middle of an icy cold expanse, luckily wrapping her fingers around a metal railing, saving herself from certain doom? Unlikely at best.
“I swear I’m telling the truth!” She pleaded, finally locking eyes with me, while sliding off her seat to cross the aisle towards me.
I still pushed my body against the glass, terrified of the possibilities of what actually stood before me, dressed up as a little girl. That was until she sat beside me and placed her warm hand on the side of my face. There was something about her touch that caused my heart to regulate for the first time since stepping into this God forsaken train. I hadn’t even realized I was trembling this whole time, until my skin stopped shivering. My back relaxed, and my body almost drooped exhaustively from the weight of all of the pain and anguish I had suffered fading away into the background.
Before I knew it, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close to me. I laid my head on her shoulder and cried harder than I had in years, even more than after the conductor left me alone in this carriage. I wailed from the lingering guilt of the actions that led me here, along with so many others that had only now become clear. Yes, I was just a small child. It’s easy to claim that I didn’t know any better, but I did. Somewhere in the deepest pits in my mind, I knew what a spoiled and selfish little bastard I was, and for the first time ever, I wanted to change. I saw flashes of the exhausted looks on my parents face when I would lose it in public or around others. I heard the sounds of my mother sobbing when I had pushed her way too far, so many times. At that very moment, as I spilled a seemingly endless river of tears onto Zophies coat, I swore I would make things right if I was ever able to return to my home again.
Truth be told, I could have sat there for hours; content in the arms of someone I had never laid eyes on before this day, but like every other fleeting fancy on this voyage of the damned, it was to be short lived. I didn’t even hear the door slide back open before the bellowing voice of the no longer smiling conductor raged from the front of the cab.
“HOW DID YOU GET BACK HERE!?”
In an instant, Zophie pulled away from me and leapt from the seat to stand in the center of the aisle, glaring up at the tall man in the dark red suit, just as she had before. She didn’t even appear frightened while they waged a staring battle that sent shivers up the length of my spine, while forming goosebumps across my skin.
“You have overstepped your bounds, Abigor,” the little girl said in a voice strong and proud.
“This train is mine, Zophiel! You have no jurisdiction here!” His voice sounded sinister as it moaned the words filled with sheer hatred.
As the conductor slowly paced towards her, a long and jagged blade manifested in his hand which reflected the dim lights of the cabin across the walls. While the pigtailed little girl stood her ground as David facing the hulking Goliath, I found myself filled with a purpose I had never felt before. Though it was similar to what struck me when he first pulled her from her seat in the other carriage; that urge, no, that need to protect her, this was far more intense. This child was special. She was sacred. I had never performed a selfless act my entire life, well, all ten years of it anyway. It was time for me to make my stand.
My own fear practically melted away the instant I saw the man reach his sword high above his head to strike her down, while she bowed her head, seemingly accepting her fate. As the scene played out before me in almost slow motion, I jumped from my seat, pushing Zophie away from the approaching man.
“Run…” I said, offering a sincere smile to the girl who now stared at me with tears welling in her eyes.
I stood in place, blocking her from the sword which sliced down through the air to split me in two. I closed my eyes, feeling content in the knowledge that her face would be the last thing I would ever see. An awful, self consumed brat dies, so that a brave and wonderful little girl can live…Yeah…That’s a fair trade. I felt proud of my actions; a feeling I had never before known.
“If you could make one wish, what would it be?”
I couldn’t make out where the voice was coming from. I couldn’t figure out where I was, for that matter. I had no body; not one that I could see or feel, anyway. I could see, but everything was shielded by an intense, bright light. I think it was my street, though it was hard to tell. Was it my street? Who exactly am I? It was as though everything was hidden in plain sight, behind a translucent curtain, of sorts.
“So? What would you wish for?”
“Anything at all?” I asked through nonexistent lips.
“Within reason, of course.”
I knew that voice. I had heard it only recently. She was familiar to me, but how? Where was I before I was here?
“It has to be something personal. Something unique to you and your life.”
“What do you mean?” I was growing a vague awareness of who I was, but what was it that I desired?
“Some ask for riches, others for fame.”
“That could be nice,” I replied. Is that what I really wanted, though?
“There are those who wish for beauty. You could grow to be the most handsome of men.”
Attractive people do tend to have more doors open to them than others. Perhaps I could have it all! Money, fame, looks… No! That’s not what I ached for. I had a wish, not too long ago.
“You could have a life many would envy….”
I could, couldn’t I?
That’s not what I wanted. Not like this, anyway.
“Can I go back?” The question presented itself before I even understood what I was asking for.
I did something, didn’t I? I did something bad. What was it?
“I want to change something that happened…”
“Yesterday!” Was it yesterday? It wasn’t long ago, was it? When is now, for that matter?
“Is that what you would wish for?”
“You could have it all, you know.”
“No… I made a mistake. I want to take it back… Can I wish for that?”
Please! Let me change this one thing. Let me set things right! I think I remember now… It was bad. I was bad. One more chance! That’s all I want!
“Perhaps you can…”
“You know Santas not real, right?”
“You’re ten years old now! You’re way too old for that baby shit!” She was poking me in the chest, giggling after every sentence.
I hated it when she acted like this! So what if I still wanted to believe? What’s it to her anyway? The more she pushed and prodded, the more I could feel my face flush. If she was going to act this way, she shouldn’t even be in my bedroom!
“STOP IT!” I screamed, pushing her back with every ounce of my strength after she jabbed me in the chest again.
Her eyes widened and her lower lip quivered as she looked into my infuriated, red face. Just as I readied myself to push her again, something struck me. Deja vu? No. I remember this. There’s something else…That scar in the center of my hand…
Suddenly, a veil lifted before my eyes. Memories spilled back into my mind as though they poured from a jug. My scowl softened. My face cooled. I looked up into the eyes of my older cousin and suddenly felt a stab of guilt.
“What the hell!?” Courtney cried out as I wrapped my arms around her.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, while my eyes welled up.
“You’re so damn weird!” She said, pushing me away before running down the stairs.
I stood alone in my bedroom, watching her swiftly move out of my sight, descending the stairs the proper way, as she should have been permitted to do the first time. I turned my gaze back to the interior of my room, glancing at all of my wonderful belongings. More toys and games than the average kid could hope for, lazily scattered around my spacious bedroom. Items purchased with love, which I showed as little respect for as those who bought them for me.
I practically sprinted down the steps towards the dining room, to where my parents stood surrounded by family and friends. I could tell my father tensed up as soon as I entered the room. No doubt he was prepared for yet another day of my whining, bitching and moaning. The look on his face was almost comical when I ran forward to hug him. He and my mother shared a shocked stare, while I extended my arms around her too.
“Y-you ok, kiddo?” He asked, reluctantly, while placing his hand on the top of my head.
I just looked up at my folks with tears still trickling down my face.
“I’m so sorry for everything! I promise I’m gonna try to be better.”
“I love you both so much!”
They stared down at me and back at each other, completely lost for words.
Things changed dramatically in the weeks that followed that Christmas Eve I lived through twice. It took a while for my family to accept that I had actually changed my ways, but before long, I was closer to my mom and dad than I had ever been. Even Courtney became almost like a sister to me. Though she was a few years older than I, she only lived a few blocks away. She would babysit me for free when my folks would enjoy the occasional night out; another thing they were hard pressed to achieve when I was still a screeching, fit pitching, little brat, as nobody would have any desire to take care of me in their absence.
The full memories of my experience on the train took some time to reform in the back of my mind, but the lessons I learned have stayed with me to this day. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to the other children I shared that train car with. Perhaps they had their own trials to endure before they would be set free. I can only hope they succeeded as I did. On occasion, I allow myself to wonder if the entire experience had only been in my head, but the small circular scar that still remains on the palm and back of my hand would suggest that was not the case.
Some years back, I married and fathered a child; a boy who is almost as prone to tantrums as I was at his age. My wife and I are trying everything we can, though little seems to have any effect. Maybe this is my karma for being such an insufferable little shit before I found a better way to live. Though my experience, almost twenty years ago now, still causes me to jerk awake from a graphic and horrific nightmare from time to time, I’m grateful for that hellish trip. My son is ten years old now; the same age I was when my outlook changed for the better. I can’t deny there’s a little voice in the back of my head that secretly hopes the train arrives for him, this Christmas Eve. Does that make me a bad parent?
Credit : William Rayne
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