by Gavin Broom
On most mornings, Ben would be like any of the other zombies on the train. His nose would be stuck in a battered novel or his pen would be poised over a cryptic crossword clue that his sleepy brain couldn’t comprehend, never mind solve, or he’d be simply avoiding eye contact with his fellow passengers in some other way. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to spend the entire commute staring at his lap or the battery gauge on his iPod or the collection of lunchtime stains on his tie.
This morning, though, somewhere between Larbert and Croy, Ben finds himself looking up at a sky far too blue to rightfully belong to a Monday, when the train eases to one of those unexplained halts that makes commuting such a pointlessly stressful way to spend twelve hours every week. While the carriage sits and waits, his attention wanders until he notices that the shape his gaze has settled on, over by an old cement factory silo, is, in fact, a boy: skinny, dirty blond hair, around ten years old.
Bare-chested, the boy stands amongst the weeds and dirt on the embankment with a white shirt tied round his waist, leaning into the slope like he’s pulling a stunt on a skateboard. Maybe he feels the attention or perhaps Ben’s luck had washed off in the shower but moments after the boy’s arm flails like he’s grasping for balance, a rock the size of a potato appears out of the summer sky and crashes into the window, right in line with Ben’s nose.
“Jesus!” Ben cries, jerking back from the window. The three others who share his table either glare at his lack of commute etiquette or just ignore him.
“Did you see that? Did you see that kid?”
The grumbling engine roars as though it’s been stung and the train pulls away. As it passes the silo, Ben stares as the boy climbs to the top of the embankment, his path shrouded in the dust his retreat has kicked up, and once he reaches the crest, he stands and throws his head back and his arms up in a V.
Ben’s pulse pounds against his eardrums while he absorbs the fact that both the window and his face are intact. A small white spot that could easily be a piece of bird shit gives the only sign of impact, although maybe that was there already. He can’t be sure.
“Did you see that?” he asks again but by this point, attention has gone back to papers, novels, laps.
Ben raises a finger to the mark on the window and spends the rest of the commute and most of his day trying to decide if it was normal for it to burn so hot.
Tuesday brings clouds. Ben’s sitting in a different carriage this morning as he thinks this will make it less likely for him to see anyone who witnessed his embarrassing little outburst yesterday. During the journey, the hum of the train’s engine does nothing to lighten his eyelids and he finds himself frequently drifting off, only to jerk awake when his chin drops against his chest. Each time this happens, and it happens a lot, he checks the faces of the people around his table and standing in the aisle in case he’s been snoring or mumbling. He needn’t bother.
“Sorry,” he says to the middle-aged woman sitting next to him. He has no reason to apologise but feels like he needs to hear his own voice and maybe get confirmation that he exists outside of his own head.
“No problem,” she says without looking at him but her two words are enough and he feels better, more alert.
He’s still immersed in this relief when he inadvertently turns and looks out of the window and, even though today’s sky is heavy, grim and low and it’s almost grey enough to be October instead of May, it only takes a second for him to realise where he is. He’s somewhere between Larbert and Croy and that old, faded silo can’t be too far away. This morning, though, the train is showing no signs of slowing down, the drone maintains its pitch and the relief swells so much that he has to disguise a laugh with a cough. Today might be a better day.
The boy is standing further down the embankment this morning. Again, his shirt is round his waist but because he’s closer, and even though the train is moving at fifty or sixty miles an hour, Ben can see the boy has his tie round his head like Rambo and a small pile of rocks at his feet. Ben notices the boy’s arms are above his head in triumph just as a rock explodes against the window.
Ben’s instincts once more push him away from the impact but this time he ends up falling over the middle-aged woman’s lap and his forehead connects with her chin.
“Fucking hell, I’m so sorry,” Ben says. One hand covers his mouth while the other makes the mistake of touching her shoulder. She quickly slaps him away.
“It’s okay,” the woman says.
“I got such a fright.”
“It was the boy who threw the rock, you see?”
She shakes her head and blinks, a mixture of confusion and rage and upset scattered across her face. Moments later, she leaves her seat and disappears into the forest of standing passengers in the aisle. No one takes her place.
“It was the boy,” Ben explains. “He threw a rock. It hit the window. Did you not hear it?”
He doesn’t expect a response so he’s not surprised when he doesn’t get one. Instead, he slides across the vacant seat and pushes his way through to the toilet where he stays until the train reaches Glasgow.
Things look different in the light of day and Ben thinks that maybe he did sleep for an hour or so and he didn’t spend the entire night watching the digits in his clock slowly advance. The reason he thinks this is he remembers a dream in which the boy is screaming his joy to the skies, arms up in that victory pose, and nothing Ben says or does is enough to make him stop or explain. Even when he hits the boy, he feels his punches are too feeble to attract a reaction. When the boy suddenly snarled at him and he woke with a jump two minutes before his alarm was due to go off, he felt very small and exposed lying alone in his double bed. He may have cried while he stood under the shower.
Whether he slept or not, another Wednesday morning has rolled around and Ben thinks that this might very well be the day he’s going to die. He’s having a heart attack, he decides. It’s been building all week. The lack of proper sleep and the caffeine he’s consumed to compensate has contracted his chest to the point where it’s about ready to burst, right here, right now, at a ScotRail table on another new carriage on his morning train to Glasgow.
When he receives a tap on the arm, Ben plucks out his earphones and turns to face a young guy in an HMV polo shirt. The guy flinches a little, which tells Ben his own drained complexion is as noticeable as he fears and the chill in the film of sweat that covers every inch of his skin drops another few degrees.
“I think that’s your phone, mate,” the HMV guy says.
For a moment, Ben’s about as confused as he’s ever been but then the pieces fall into place and the sensation he had assumed was an oncoming cardiac arrest is actually his mobile phone vibrating in his shirt pocket.
“Thanks,” Ben says, managing a smile as he retrieves his phone because if he isn’t having a heart attack, maybe he’ll survive the day after all.
It’s a number that shows on the display rather than a name, but Ben recognises it, mostly because he remembers removing its owner from his address book last weekend.
He gets a different feeling in his chest as he says her name.
“Ben,” she says. “Sorry to bug you.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Where are you?”
“On the train going into work,” she snaps. “Probably on the train that’s five minutes behind yours. Where else am I likely to be at this time in the morning?”
“I’m only asking. I’m not checking up on you or anything.”
Ben has a quick look at the faces of his audience. They all do a good impression of not paying attention.
She sighs, saying, “I know. That wasn’t fair. I’m sorry. I’m a little tetchy just now. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“Forget it,” Ben says. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “So what’s up?”
“Ben, I was wondering if you could arrange to be somewhere else on Friday night after work so I can come over and collect the rest of my stuff.”
Another new feeling introduces itself to his chest.
“You realise you’re not the only one on a train full of people right now? You realise there are people within earshot at this end, too?”
“I’m very aware of that,” Amy replies. “It’s better if we don’t argue again and if it takes an audience of complete strangers to make sure that happens, so be it.”
“So be it,” Ben repeats. “You’ve been saying that a lot recently.”
There’s a pause that’s about long enough to make him think she’s been cut off and just as he’s inhaling a breath to say her name, a number of things happen, more or less at the same time.
Ben notices that the LED tickertape display hanging from the carriage ceiling announces that the next stop will be Croy.
There’s a massive bang on the window next to his right ear.
In his peripheral vision, or maybe in his imagination, he sees the boy flashing by with raised arms and face pointing to the sky.
He makes the same, semi-paralysed scream for the third day in a row.
There’s an identical bang in his left ear; the ear that has a phone pressed up against it.
“Amy?” he says, sounding desperate, knowing that people can hear, not caring. “Amy, are you okay?”
“Ben, I have to go,” she says and the line dies.
It’s Thursday and it’s raining and Ben didn’t sleep last night but he’s in no danger of snoozing on the train this morning. Instead, he sits and stares out at dark, wet towns, fields and unhappy cows as they roll by. The train sits at Larbert for a long time after the final passengers have boarded and the doors closed. Someone at the table behind him whispers something about the possibility of dodgy points on the line near Croy.
Ben sighs and fogs up the window with his breath. Once they’re beyond Croy, he decides, the train can fall off the tracks for all he cares. If he never makes it into work, it wouldn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. It just needs a few more miles.
“We need to get moving,” he says aloud.
The discussion behind him moves on to ponder what exactly points are and what can cause them to fail as often as they do, when there’s a series of beeps and the train glides away from the station as though unaware of the drama it had been causing. Ben wipes the condensation from the window and waits.
The train keeps a good pace while it runs alongside lethargic rush hour traffic on the dual carriageway. Shortly after the line drifts toward woodland, Ben feels the speed die, then just after an embankment begins to form at the side of the tracks, the brakes are applied for definite. Ben suspected this would happen. He doesn’t know why, but somehow he knew that the train would come to another of its mid-station stops today and it would choose to do so near an old cement factory silo.
The window is free from condensation but he clears it again anyway to be absolutely sure because the boy isn’t anywhere on the slope. Then his focus moves into the near distance and that’s when he sees him.
He’s standing at the bottom of the embankment maybe fifteen feet away, on the grey stones at the side of the opposite tracks, his shirt round his waist, his tie round his head, his hair wet and a darker brown, stuck flat to his head. As Ben sees the boy through his own reflection on the train window, he notices that the boy has a familiar shape to his face, like he’s seen him before, although there’s something about the pointed chin that doesn’t quite match up. Before Ben has a chance to contemplate this properly, the boy throws another rock, but this time it’s tossed underhand and judged with such skill that it barely brushes Ben’s window before trickling out of sight. The boy’s arms shoot to the sky, his face up, accepting the bullets of rain as they fall and he shouts words that are lost in the air and weather. For the first time, though, Ben realises that the cries aren’t in victory or joy. Instead, they come with anger and pain and fear.
Ben shoots his attention to his neighbour: a plump girl in a Nirvana t-shirt with piercings across her face.
“Can you see that boy?” he asks as he taps on the window.
Nirvana girl briefly leans and checks outside before going back to her magazine. She doesn’t speak but she shakes her head, no.
“Seriously,” Ben says, shouting a little now, more insistent, “I’m not joking, can you please tell me that you can see that kid?”
“Mister, there’s nobody out there,” she says with an uneasy smile that suggests she might think, or at least hope, that this is a joke.
“Sorry, can you get out of my way?” His mouth is suddenly so dry and his tongue so swollen that most of the words get trapped behind his lips. Rather than repeat himself, he gives up and manages an exaggerated stretch to step over her knees. Once in the aisle, he crouches and weaves his way towards the exit. The process of travelling these few feet feels like it takes an hour and attracts a million tuts of disapproval but when he reaches the doors and checks out of the smaller window, he sees the boy is still there, still screaming to the heavens.
Ben pushes the unlit OPEN button and when it has no effect, he starts punching it.
“Open,” he snarls. “Fucking open.”
And then he’s battering the button and slamming the palms of his hands against the door, shouting, swearing and at some point after the train has pulled away and continued its journey towards Croy, he begins to wish he could wake up.
The taxi driver doesn’t know anything about cement companies between Larbert and Croy, but he indulges Ben’s request and follows the train line into Glasgow by road as close as he can. During the journey, the driver asks about plans for the weekend and any upcoming summer holidays and because he’s concentrating very hard, Ben is able to answer like a normal person. He’s even suited and booted in the hope that this will help the act, even though Fridays are usually dress down days at work.
He expects to be able to see the silo from the road but as he gets closer to Croy the trees between him and the railway become too tall and thick for that to be possible. Eventually, they pass an entrance that’s so overgrown and dead it would be missed if no one looked out for it. Ben panics and yells at the driver to stop at the side of the road, anywhere at the side of the road. After a brief exchange that kills any chance of being remembered as a sane, healthy person, the driver does as he’s told and lets Ben out.
Ignoring how it must look to anyone driving by and at the expense of a few buttons from his suit jacket, Ben squeezes through the gap between the rusty front gates of the factory. From there, he follows his internal compass through the abandoned yard to where he knows the silo, embankment and train tracks must be. During this walk, the only life he encounters is a grey squirrel that dashes across his path before it vanishes up a tree. He’s alone.
So when he pushes through a hedge and finds himself at the top of the famous embankment, he’s not surprised there’s no sign of the boy and, after further investigation, no sign of any piles of rocks. He’s still alone, just him and a squirrel, and not only is the boy not there, he knows the boy won’t show up this morning because he doesn’t need to anymore. His job is done. With this knowledge, Ben finds he knows what to do and he loosens his tie, removes his torn jacket and switches his phone from shirt to trouser pocket. Within a minute, he’s halfway down the embankment, leaning into the slope like he’s about to perform a stunt on a skateboard. His shirt tied around his waist, his tie around his forehead, a rock in his hand, an ear pricked towards the sound of an approaching train.
As though it’s preparing to stop, a train—his train, he’s sure—crawls into view from round a bend and between the tree coverage. He licks his lips, tests the weight of the rock and hopes the dwindling pace will be enough to carry the train to where destiny has placed him. Foot by foot, inch by inch, it creeps towards range. What happens next takes a very long time to process in Ben’s head.
First, there’s an explosion that doesn’t come from any rock hitting glass and is strong enough to push Ben onto his backside. A carriage towards the back of his train rears into the air with a roar and then rushes forward as though someone has flicked the tracks like a rug or a whip. There’s a demonic screech of metal while the carriages buckle and spasm and this massive introduction of energy ripples through the rest of the train. Glass in windows shatters and pours from the carriages, far enough for Ben to feel a fragment fly by his side. Black smoke rises over the tree line in the near distance and the air fills with the scent of burning fuel and fabric and hair. His train lands on its side between the tracks and still, somehow, it scrapes forward as though determined to reach Croy, no matter what. At the back, something metallic and crushed has welded itself on to the final carriage in his train.
His phone is vibrating in his pocket and absently he wonders how long that’s been happening. While he’s still trying to work through all that’s happened, he drops the rock that he’d been trying to crush in his grip and pulls the phone from his trouser pocket. The screen has cracked but still manages to show that unnamed, familiar number.
He lets it ring, though, and he doesn’t press the answer button because walking out of the trees to his left, holding her shoes in one hand and her phone to her ear in the other, comes Amy and her eyes are trained right on him as though she expected him to be here. She’s dressed for work but he knows she wasn’t on the train, just like he knew where to come this morning and just like he knew the boy was screaming his anger to the sky. He only hopes she’s really there and not his mind playing tricks because there’s something he’s just noticed about the angle of her chin and he wants to talk to her about that. He pushes himself to his feet and walks towards her, looking forward to finding out something that might be enough to eventually become everything.
GAVIN BROOM lives in the Scottish countryside with his wife and his cat. He’s had work published in Menda City Review, Bound Off, Espresso Fiction, flashquake and SFX amongst others. At time of writing, he doesn’t own a house at the beach.