David M. Hoenig
The May Featured Writer is David Hoenig
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APPROXIMATIONS THAT GRADUALLY
The wind howled like a living thing, but as I strode through it hunched into my coat, I wasn’t sure if it was enraged or miserable. The rain which the nor’easter brought was another matter entirely—the wind was clearly angry to the point of being vengeful, as it trickled under my collar to raise gooseflesh.
At least, was fairly certain it was the cold, wet wind that did so. The other possibility was that I was afraid of the self-appointed task for which I’d braved the deserted, stormy streets of late night Boston to reach the Faneuil Hall Railway Station.
I turned from State Street onto Congress and felt something slam into me. I flew backwards and fell into a lamp post which knocked the wind out of me, even as I stayed on my feet.
“No!” yelled a shrill male voice from the ground. “No, no, no!”
My heart hammered in my chest as I pushed away from the post. “I say, are you all right?”
“Keep away from me!” The man, still on the ground, scrabbled backwards along with rainy cobbles, putting distance between us. I recognized an Australian accent.
I reached out my hand to help him up, then realized what he had said, but not why. “What?”
I saw his head swivel around with sharp, jerky movements. “This is…we’re stopped. I shouldn’t be here.” He sounded dazed, then he snapped at me. “Where the hell is this, anyway?”
“Boston,” I told him as the rain streamed down my face.
“Sonofa…” He got to his knees, shoulders hunched against the rain, arms wrapped around himself. He wore a light overcoat, quite inadequate for the weather. “It’s bloody freezing,” he complained.
“Why are you running without knowing where you even are?”
He snapped a look to his left, and I saw the fitful lights of my own destination defying the storm. When he looked back at me, I could see his eyes were wide and he was grimacing. “I’m not going back!” he shouted.
“Back? You mean, to Australia?”
“To the railway!”
I took a hesitant step towards him. “Please, sir, allow me to help you?”
He looked suspiciously at me. “Why should I need your help?”
“You seem disoriented, so I gather you came in by train?”
“Yes, I did. I couldn’t sleep, so I’d gone to the café car. No one else was around, and I was drinking a coffee when the conductor came through. He was companionable, even offered me a chance to visit the control car. Can you imagine? Never had been, so I went with him. He showed me the controls, all shiny brass with crystal lights set in and among the metal. Then he raised the shade for a moment and then—”
Abruptly stopping, he shuddered, and I heard his teeth snap together as he threw his head back. “No!” he shouted suddenly. “I’m not going back. It’ll be a dirigible for me, it has to be…”
I took a step closer as he began to mumble to himself, seemingly distracted, but jerked to a stop as he looked up at me with a feral expression. I opened my mouth but did not get a word out.
“No!” he screamed again, and the storm shrieked along with him. He flailed out at me suddenly, and I jerked backwards only to see something, which gleamed silver, flash past my face.
I sprawled back and fell onto the cobbles. I was terrified that he’d be immediately after me with that knife, but when I looked all I could see wash him sprinting off into the darkness, north up Congress Street and blessedly away from me.
I stood and listened in case he returned, but heard nothing above the nor’easter after the Australian’s footfalls had faded. Then I experienced a feeling of such incredible vulnerability in the wet and gusty dark that I panicked somewhat, and rushed towards the lights of the railway station to the east.
As I went, I couldn’t help but reflect on the bizarre encounter. According to him, that man had gotten onto a train somewhere in Australia but ended up in Boston.
I knew that sort of thing was the rule, not the exception. It was common knowledge that in the earliest days of the the railway’s track-laying, something strange and amazing had happened which caused a great deal of confusion in all the years since.
From the very beginning when the whole thing went on-line, the trains didn’t go where they were meant to. Oh, they went, steaming and clanking along, and people traveled in luxury the world had never seen, but they didn’t exactly tend to get where they’d set out to go. You might purchase a ticket for New York, but you were sure to end up in some place like Hong Kong, Rio, or even Cairo. That was all considered a part of the railway’s charm.
hey even billed themselves as a venue of magical surprise.
When I was small, I thought it amazing that no one seemed to know why or how. A curse from the Age of Enchantment, some said, while others argued for a shattering of realities when mighty steam engines were first used to probe the nature of space-time. It had become a somewhat stale joke that The Company’s initial bureaucratic incompetence had somehow ballooned into what was now an adored, if inexplicable, travel eccentricity.
I finally made it to Faneuil Hall, but I had to go around the station to get to the harbor-side where the steam-powered ticket kiosks stood. My carry-all, proudly displaying the Massachusetts Institute of Technology crest, caught a stray gust and whipped back around to choke me.
I had a worrying moment when its clasp flapped in the wind, and could see the pages of my painstaking research on the school’s newest, fastest, pedal-puters ready to fly away. Fortunately I got my hand on it before I lost any of that precious information. That sheaf of paper held the proof of a theory I’d formed only a few days before: That no one actually knew why the trains ran as they did.
The bag readjusted to a more comfortable spot, I made my way to the kiosk’s entry where it belched steam intermittently to create a slightly less frigid spot in the storm.
“Destination?” asked the clockwork lady within.
I paid and got my ticket, then went into the market to wait in a coffee shop.
As I settled in a waitress came over, pencil and pad poised. “What’ll it be?”
“Cream and sugar?”
I nodded, and took out my notebook as she left. I had drawn a small chart with cities to travel to listed in alphabetical order along the left margin, and a blank space for the destination I’d find myself in once the trip was done. I put a check next to Aachen, and felt a sense of excitement for the scientific adventure about to begin.
My tea came and I paid the bill, adding a nice tip. I took a sip, savoring its heat, then set it down so I could close my journal. I was just putting it into my carry bag when a shadow fell over me. I looked up to see a tall, dark-haired man in a rail-man’s uniform standing by my table. The creases in his suit seemed sharp enough to cut glass.
“My name in Renault. Mind if I sit, young sir?”
I stood and offered my hand. “Please do.”
He shook my hand, then sat. “I can always tell the first-timers.” A somewhat perfunctory smile settled upon his countenance. “What is the purpose of your travel this evening?”
“I’m doing some research, actually.”
“On the railway?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, on behalf of my employer, why do research about the railway itself?”
I took a sip of tea to give me time to consider before answering. “Is there some problem here, sir?”
He gave a rather perfunctory smile. “There may indeed be, Mr. Gaines.”
I spilled some tea in my surprise. “How do you know my name?”
“The Company knows a great many things, Mr. Gaines.”
“Well, it does not seem to know how or why the destinations never match the purchased ticket.”
“Who says it does not?”
That took me aback. “But all the research I’ve done has shown no satisfactory reason which explains the inconsistency! Top scientists have studied the matter extensively and…”
“Perhaps it is not a matter of science, young sir.”
“Magic?” I scoffed. “It seems rather unlikely at this juncture in history.”
“Not magic, Mr. Gaines. The railway would never rely on such ill-conceived notions to deliver its customers around the globe. It would be quite…”
“Haphazard, I should say.”
“It seems awfully haphazard already.”
“Ah, but you do not understand how the Railway works, young sir, else you’d not think it so in the slightest.”
“Will you explain it to me then?”
“I’m afraid that I am not allowed to do so.”
I checked my pocket watch, finished the last of my tea, and stood. “Then I shall find out for myself.”
“Allow me to guess at your plans, Mr. Gaines: you intend to travel to a selection of cities as part of a grand experiment, and compare where you arrive with what your destination was to be. You will then cross-correlate in order to elicit some understanding of how the mechanism might be anticipated, and then develop a theory to explain it?”
The shock which caused my loss of words must have been apparent on my face as I sank back into my chair.
“There is no such pattern to discover, young sir, not if you travel to a thousand destinations.”
“But there must be! Scientific reasoning would suggest that…”
The rail-man shook his head slowly. “Perhaps neither science nor reason are at play here, Mr. Gaines. It’s not the tracks, it’s what they pass through…”
He stopped suddenly, and we sat in silence for a moment. Then: “If you wish to learn more, I am authorized to offer you an entry level position with the railway, Mr. Gaines.”
Hope flared in my chest. A rare opportunity indeed!
I had never heard of anyone going to work for The Company before, and suddenly within reach was the possibility that I could uncover the answer to the mystery firsthand! But before I could reply I noticed a subtle change in the rail-man’s expression which caused my jaws to lock tight with my ready answer behind them.
“If you will accept a personal word from me, young sir?”
I nodded, not trusting my own voice.
He leaned forward, and I saw a droplet of sweat leave his temple and carve a path to his jaw. He spoke in a low voice.
Do not accept this offer. Return to school. Learn things, find a lover—or several, if you so choose. Forgo this quest or you may regret what you learn.”
“Whyever would I regret learning this, or anything?”
“Because I do!” His eyes darted right and left before returning to mine. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Every. Single. Day.”
He stood abruptly and returned to a more normal tone, tinged with some hurried anxiety. “Please consider The Company’s offer, Mr. Gaines—should you choose to accept, merely express your desire to the conductor. Now, I must go and make things ready for your train to Aachen.” He pivoted smartly and was gone before I’d even gotten out of my chair.
I now had yet more questions than answers, but then thought that as a student I should be used to that. I stood and got my bag, then took my ticket out and rechecked the time. I left the coffee shop for the platforms.
The storm continued to howl its rage beyond the dubious shelter of the tin roof which overhung the tracks. I saw my train waiting, lashed by wind and water, its windows dark. I looked down to recheck my ticket, and all seemed to be in order.
Soon, I thought. I would travel, and learn, and perhaps even become a railway man myself. Such an opportunity! I felt the smile curving my lips and raised my gaze from the ticket to look at the very first step of my journey of discovery.
But when I looked at my train again, I had the sudden, unaccountable feeling that it was somehow hungry.
There was a sudden lump in my throat, and I could not tear my sight from the thing. I stood frozen on the platform as the time for departure ticked closer, arrived, then passed. The train’s horn sounded, then steam blew, and its mighty engines cycled up. Amidst the screeching of metal, I was still staring as the awful thing pulled out of the station without me. It was headed, I knew, for somewhere other than Aachen, only that wasn’t the part which bothered me so.
It was the thought of what it might have to pass through to get there which was unaccountably chilling. I stood there and felt as though awash in echoes of the mad Australian’s earlier terror.
I ended up watching the empty track with dread fascination for hours, the unused ticket clutched tightly in cramped fingers while the rattle of other arriving and departing trains played a disturbing counterpoint to the shrieking storm. Finally the rain, driven by the gusting wind, came in under the rusty gutters to whip across my face, waking me to myself with a start.
My ticket flew away when I unclenched my hand; gone in an instant as though it had never existed. I wiped the cold from my cheeks and closed my eyes. “It’ll have to be a dirigible for me, too, I guess,” I murmured to the storm. There was no answer but the agonized soughing of the nor’easter, and then I couldn’t help but feel that that was probably enough of an answer.
With a shudder, I threw the sheaf of pages from my carry-all into a nearby trash bin and left the platform. It was early morning by then, and I was chilled, fatigued, shamed, and relieved all at the same time. I caught a pedi-cab I could ill afford from the station back to my dorm room through the cold, wet streets of Boston, intent to find a lover as the railway’s man had suggested.
Perhaps several, I thought as the taxi carried me back to the warm and familiar world with which I was familiar.
David is a practicing physician for whom writing is his ‘second career.’ He recently won two short fiction contests (Dark Chapter Press, Espec Books) and placed third in another (Morning Rain Publishing).
He has had poetry published in The Horror Zine (selected as ‘Editor’s Pick Poet’ for November 2015), Yellow Chair Review, Ad Libitum, and with Horrified Press, and is working on his first novel. Slowly.
His website and publications can be found HERE