A short story, written and edited during a winter train journey.
As a student, I used to take the train home to see my parents and siblings every few weeks. I grew up in a remote area: there was plenty of space, but the trains home were infrequent and the journeys long. I’d arrive at the station to wait for the train in the early evening but wouldn’t get home until nearly midnight.
One Friday night in early winter, I arrived on the platform to find it deserted. This was a little unusual – there were usually one or two people at least. A chill wind blew, stirring up dead leaves and carrying the smell of snow. When the train pulled up, I boarded and was again surprised, this time to find no one else on the train – I couldn’t even see the conductor. A little rattled, I took my seat in the empty carriage, listening out for the conductor’s signal to depart. On time, the bell rang out and the train began to pull away.
It was only then that I noticed a shadowy figure further ahead on the platform, an old man that I must have missed while I was waiting. He was wrapped up warm against the winter night in a dark coat, wearing a hat that came down over his eyes and with a dark scarf knotted around his neck. As I passed him, his head seemed to turn to look at me and he may have smiled at me, though I couldn’t see his face clearly through the frosted pane of the train window. Soon, we had left the station and the old man behind, and all thought of him too.
I began to doze in my seat as the train picked up speed, and it was only by chance that I woke before my stop – the carriage was as empty as when I’d boarded, and there was no one to wake me had I continued to doze. Odd that there was no one else on the train, I thought, as I picked up my suitcase, but once outside I thought nothing of it, and spent a pleasant weekend in the company of my family.
A few weeks later, when winter had really set in, I again arrived at the platform to find I was the only one waiting for the train. Since this wasn’t the first time, I didn’t find it so odd as I might, and boarded as usual, though I could again see no conductor. The carriage was very cold, with only one other passenger. I settled into my seat and wrapped my coat closer around me. Again, the bell rang out on time and we set off into the night.
No one else boarded the train for the entirety of the journey. I didn’t notice when, but the other passenger must have disembarked shortly after we set off, because when I looked up maybe a quarter of the way into the journey, I found myself alone in the freezing carriage, the lighted stations that we passed the only distraction on the hours-long journey. As the train began to slow for my stop, I stood up and reached for my bag, looking out the window into the blackness of the night.
It was then that I paused, frowning. This was odd. Where were the lights of the station? The train had come to a halt by now, but there was no sign that we were at our destination. Outside was only a swirl of snow and darkness, impossible to make out what was outside with only the carriage’s weak lights. But I thought I made out a figure in the black and leaned closer to the window, when with an electric hiss, the lights blinked out and the carriage door crashed open, glass tinkling into the aisle, a blisteringly cold wind blowing. A flurry of snow covered the floor and seats in seconds. The temperature dropped alarmingly, and I was frozen to the spot.
Amid the howling of the wind, I heard a rasping sound from behind me: I turned my head and in the halflight, partially obscured by drifts of snow caught in the wind’s play, I could make out the figure of a man at the other end of the carriage. The figure, wrapped in decaying winter clothes, with a wide-brimmed hat and dark scarf knotted around its neck, began to stagger towards me, its hoarse voice uttering no words but only hissing, guttural sounds. I couldn’t move – I was frozen with both cold and fear.
The creature picked up speed and as it reached me I looked straight into its eyes: they were blue chips of ice, burning, set in a bleached skull hung about with taut and ancient frozen skin. The creature made to grab at me with a skeletal hand, bones flashing through rotted woollen gloves, but at that moment, the lights blinked, the cold vanished and with a spinning head l saw that there was no snow, the carriage door was closed and intact, and the train was standing at the station, the platform lights bright. I grabbed my bag and hurried off.
That night, with my family, I was shaken and distant. I didn’t join them for dinner but stayed in my room, pretending I had lots of studying to do. In fact, I wrapped up in my covers and went to bed almost immediately, unable to shake the cold feeling that had penetrated me to my core ever since my vision on the train. I stayed in bed all the next day with the curtains drawn and I ate nothing, for I had no appetite. But later that night, after my mother had knocked on my door to wish me good night, pausing before heading to bed herself, I rose, dressed, and made my way back to the now dark and lifeless station. There was no one there – the last train had long since passed through – but this being a small town there were no barriers or gates to hop. I made my way easily to the platform, drawn there by some power I felt helpless to resist.
There was no one there, of course, and so I brushed the evening’s light dusting of snow off a bench and sat down. My breath billowed out of me like smoke but though I sat awhile I didn’t mind the cold – in fact, I could hardly feel it. As the night wore on, the temperature continued to drop but still I sat, not feeling more than a prickle of cold. My breath ceased to mist before my eyes, but I didn’t find this strange: it felt natural. When the sun came up, its rays hurt my eyes and felt uncomfortably warm on my skin. I decided to head back home before anyone woke up to miss me, and ask me where I’d been.
I felt strange all throughout that day, out of sorts, taking too long to respond to questions and not knowing what to answer when I did hear what someone was saying. When the sun set that afternoon and night fell, I grew more relaxed, and bade my siblings and parents a friendly farewell as I left for the station, shaking my father’s hand and kissing my mother’s cheek. They felt so warm to my touch! I discouraged anyone from accompanying me, assuring them I knew the way and would be fine, happy to go alone. I walked to the station, revelling in the cool night air after the warmth of my parents’ house. Snowflakes danced slowly through the dark before me, a mesmerising dance that I had never fully appreciated until that moment. I had left my gloves at home, but I didn’t mind.
Waiting on the platform, I hardly noticed that there was no one else around, no ticket seller, no conductor, no other passengers for boarding. I felt calm. The platform lights were blinking, and eventually fizzled out as I waited. When the train arrived, encrusted with chunks of ice and with the driver’s cabin dark, I pulled open the carriage door by myself and climbed aboard. The carriage was dark, but full of people, a mix of young and old, different races, men and women; some dressed in clothes from days gone by, others sporting more modern fashion. They turned to face me as one, icy blue eyes glowing in their skulls, their skin glittering, crystals of snow in their hair, on their shoulders. Together, they smiled at me through blue lips.
I smiled back, my blue eyes glinting in the winter dark, and took my seat.