The following story takes place several years after the events in the novel, Disonia.
Erica McGathan tapped her lips with her fingers, watching the color fade with each light touch. She giggled for a moment, watching herself in front of the mirror above the porcelain bathroom sink. Her eyes drifted upward to see her newly straightened, newly dyed hair. Black had replaced the curly red locks she had secretly cursed from grade school to adulthood. This new cut, short on one side and over her eye on the other side had become the newest trend in Disonia. She jumped aboard, partly because trends don’t happen often in Disonia, and if she wasn’t able to crawl out of her skin, she was determined to change something.
It had been roughly four years since the death of her younger brother, Justin. He had been hit by a car after, what police later told her, was a visit to a prostitute. At least that is what the police later concluded. Like most facts and myths of the troubled times, they fell into a haze as the chemicals started to take a hold. She gave a sly smile and rocked her head and shoulders back and forth, gently forcing her arms to give an oppositional sway.
“I wish my name was… Virginia,” she said softly as a brief moment of dizziness overtook her. Her hands grasped the sink, not sure if it was fear or instinct that kept her from falling. Was there a difference? Her certainty faded for a moment before flashes of her parents’ funeral, her brother sneaking off in that stupid black leather jacket the night he was killed, friends and boyfriends coming in and out of view, they all went out eventually. She pondered the ‘who left who’ scenarios for a moment. Another moment where balance lost to gravity. She forced a smile. ‘It’s a bit too late to think about any of that,’ she thought as she steadied herself and exited the bathroom.
The door opened to the modest train station lobby. Wooden benches sat in the middle of the open room. The ticket window stood in the corner, adorned with the same wood. In fact, everything was wood except the grey marble floor beneath her feet. With each stride towards the ticket office, her balance returned, her confidence and determination met and breezed her forward.
A small elderly man wearing a grey shirt and black tie sat behind the ticket window. Erica began to speak, but he slid a ticket through the small arched opening before she could get a breath out.
“Next train. The Dorba line. Head out the door over there,” he said, pointing the the large wooden doors across the room.
Erica politely smiled and took her ticket. She glanced over at the doors and then back down towards the old man. “So, this takes me out of town?” she asked.
“It’s one way out. Personally I would have waited for another line, a car maybe, but each to their own,” the man stated without any discernible emotion.
“It’s funny, I didn’t even consider anything existed beyond my town until a few years ago. I can’t believe this is it. I’m actually moving on.”
“If that’s what you want to call it,” the man cooly stated as he shifted his gaze down towards a magazine in front of him. “Either way, your train will be here soon. I wouldn’t be late if I were you.”
Erica looked around and smiled. “Does everyone pack as light as me,” she asked, throwing her hands out to her sides in a gesture to show the lack of luggage.
“Everyone brings their own baggage. None of my business,” the man replied while flicking the pages of his periodical.
Erica sighed and walked towards the wooden doors across the room. ‘I wonder if that’s oak or cherry, or something else,’ she thought. ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about wood. But it looks really nice, yeah, these are doors I feel good about. A start of a journey sort of doors.’
She found herself outside the station. It was cooler than she anticipated. The sun was setting behind the hills a few miles past the tracks at her feet. She breathed in and coughed, sputtering vaporized moisture and breath. She frantically grasped to regain the correct rhythm of respiration. In that moment she heard the whistle of the inbound train, then the steel wheels against the tracks, keeping better rhythm than her breath, her heartbeat.
It was an old steam engine. Black and imposing, belching out large white clouds of steam from it’s stack. She felt a shaking anticipation as it chugged slower, closer. As it grew near, she noticed the cars being pulled behind. The first was almost ornate, wood trim which matched the station. The second car was more modest, worn. Each car behind that took on more metal, ditching the pitch of wood for the shine of steel. By the time the train stopped with a loud release in front of her, she could see the sixth and last car, sleek and smooth. The orange blue of the sunset around her reflected back at the station.
The exhaust steam filled Erica’s world for a moment as she regained her composure. Slow deep breaths, maintain. She wiped the expelled liquid from her mouth and stood up straight. The vertical rectangle door opened from the third car. Metal stairs extended from the base to yellow painted cement line in front of. Each step clanked hollow as she made her way onto the train.
The inside of the car was clean, almost sterile, with the metal tube enclosed around her. Red curtains were neatly pulled half way over every tiny plexiglass window. There wasn’t a single speck of dirt or dust on the grey carpet that ran the length of the car. The seats were upholstered grey fabric with red dots throughout.
Erica looked around for anyone else but the car was empty. She glanced down at her ticket. “No seat? I guess I can sit wherever I want,” she said to herself as she moved forward. She sat down in a seat to the left and sunk into it. The heaviness of her eyelids pulled a veil over the illumination from the overhead lights. Sleep overtook her as motion carried her stillness forward.
“Miss? Miss?” The gentle voice shook her out of slumber. For a moment she forgot she was on a train. Above her was a pleasant looking woman with brown hair down to her shoulders which was accented by her large brown eyes. She wore a red vest over a white shirt. “Miss? I’m sorry to disturb you, but I wanted to let you know that the ‘Cocktail Club Car’ will start serving shortly.”
Erica nodded politely and proceeded to settle back in. In an instant a loud screeching filled the car, jolting her to an upright position. The train was coming to a stop.
“I’ll see what’s going on,” the woman said as she moved back to the front of the train. Erica shifted over to the window seat and looked out. The world outside was bible-black. She stood up, nearly hitting her head on the overhead compartment. She moved away and stretched. As she was arching her spine, hands behind the small of the back, the brown haired woman came back through the sliding door.
“It appears that there was a car accident up ahead. It looks pretty bad but I don’t have anymore information than that we’ll be stuck for a bit longer. While you’re waiting, why not enjoy a drink in the ‘CCC’? It’s just straight back. The very last car.”
Erica smiled and sat back down. For a moment she closed her eyes, trying to regain the rest she was in. After a few minutes she opened her eyes wide and side punched the seat next to her. “Fuck it,” she proclaimed before standing up. It was then she noticed the figure pass next to her. She was about ready to politely tell the attendant she wasn’t interested in a drink when she caught a glimpse of a tacky black leather jacket move past her. She sat there frozen, her mind processing the image of the jacket as desperation swelled within her cells. She had to turn around, to see who was wearing that jacket. Time had become thick, her movement slow as she spun around to see the door slide shut. She squeezed her hands together, took a deep breath, and stood up to make her way to the door.
The next train car was filled with crates and boxes of various sizes making way for a narrow path straight through the middle. Erica scanned the dark room, there was only stillness. She felt a ping of hesitation as she moved down the length of the car. Lights from overhead sparked on and the sound of a door opening on the right side of the car seized her movement. She heard what sounded like wheels rolling towards the train. She reserved herself and took refuge behind one of the larger wooden crates near the door where she entered.
“Joe, do you have the list?” a low toned voice inquired from outside the car.
“No, Tom said he had it. Tom, where’s that damn list?”
“Stop bitchin’ it’s right here. Looks like an easy night.”
“Easy night my ass. We had to walk all the way down here from the depot. If it wasn’t for that accident, my noodles would still be warm.”
Erica peeked from behind the box to see three creatures step aboard the train. Each one was about one to two feet in height with tiny arms that swayed back and forth. They each had disportionately large ovaled heads about eight inches wide and six inches high. On top of each head were sets of waving tubes that looked like something she’d seen in an aquarium. Their large black eyes took up almost half their face, just above a small circle which Erica could only discern as a possible mouth. The first one to waddle in was bright blue with a brilliant yellow spot on it’s ‘belly’. The second was dark green from top to bottom. The third had a yellow head with a dark red body.
“Alright, let’s do this quick, we have a long walk back to the depot,” the green one said as he pivoted his head to look around the car. His head stopped and fixed itself on Erica’s location.
“Hey, Tom, we have a stowaway.”
The small creature with the yellow spot came closer to the green one. “I’ll be plucked, we see you, sweetheart. No reason to hide back there. Just don’t get in our way. We have a schedule to keep.”
Erica shook her head and slowly came out from behind the crate. Her hands were shaking as the three creatures lined up and stood a few feet ahead of her. “I’m, I’m sorry to have… Um… my name is, it’s, I’m Erica. Erica McGathan.”
“Nice to meet you, doll. My name’s Tom,” the green one stated. “This guy is Joe,” he said, pointing to the blue creature. “And he’s Intrebesula, we call him ‘Big Man’ cause he can load like nobody’s business. Speaking of which, we need to get to that crate behind you.”
Erica turned around to see the crate she had hid behind. She nodded. “Sorry,” she exclaimed then stepped to the other side the narrow aisle. The creature with a yellow head moved towards the crate and pointed to it. In an instant it disappeared.
“Where did it go,” Erica inquired, unaware that her hands had ceased to tremble.
“Oh, well it’s on the cart outside. I told you that Big Man was the best,” Tom said before looking around the room. “Okay, we got the side of beef. We still need the set of silverware, the new summer line of clothes, and… and…,” Tom stammered, lost in thought.
“A few of the new CompuPods, I swear, we can’t keep those in stock,” Joe said.
“Right, those have been a hot damn pain, I tell you what,” he replied. “Well, an order is an order.”
“Excuse me, I don’t mean to hold you up or to be rude, but what are you guys,” Erica asked.
The trio looked at her for a moment. Joe spoke up, breaking what could have been an extremely awkward silence. “Well, we’re loaders. Dock workers. More importantly, we’re union.”
“Oh, okay, well, I guess I meant, what is your species. Like I’m human,” Erica stated inquisitively.
“Ah, I get where you’re getting at. Well, huh, I guess we have a lot of names. I guess we’re us. Lately you people have been referring to us as ‘Machine Elves’,” Joe replied.
“And that’s a damn slur,” Big Man stated boldy.
“Give it up, Big Man. Nobody means anything by it,” Joe said, throwing his tiny heads up to his chin. “ Anyway, we have to finish up. It was nice meeting you, sweetheart. We’d stay and chat but time is money.”
With that the creatures began to point at various crates and boxes, causing them to disappear into ether. Once they seemed satisfied with the work they turned and walked off the train. Erica followed to the exit and watched as they walked into the darkness, with a fully loaded cart in tow.
“Hey, Tom, can I bum a smoke,” Joe asked.
“Sorry. The Mrs. made me give them up. She’s been reading the magazines again. As if they can harm us,” Tom replied as the trio and the cart disappeared into the night.
The door closed in front of Erica as the lights overhead flickered then died. She made her way forward to the next car. The door slid open. She navigated the space in between until she reached the car. This car was empty of people yet was warmly lit. Ornate scenes were carved into the stained wood in the overhead area. Matching wood seats lined both sides, coupled with rectangle windows. As she made her way forward, she couldn’t help but stare at the carvings around her. They seemed quite random. Some showed kids running through a forest. As she moved forward, the engraved scene changed from forest to a town that looked very similar to Disonia with it’s small buildings. ‘Is that Gene’s place?’ she thought to herself as she stopped to stare closer at one image in particular. She shook her head and moved on. As she did, the scene changed again, this time back to the forest, but this time looked like flames had been carved into the trees. There weren’t any children, but one portion showed what looked to be a young man standing in the middle of the flames, his hands raised up to the heavens. A spike of cold shot up her spine, causing her to arch forward. Her legs began to tremble. She took a deep breath and made her way past, ignoring the mural of wood.
Erica found herself at the door at the end of the car. There was no button to push or latch to open. There were no windows, just a steadfast wooden door. She attempted to push, pry and kick it open. With each attempt, her a quiet desperation grew into a deafening blood red howl. She noticed her mouth was open and could feel the heat of a silent scream as she beat herself against the door and into exhaustion.
Her body collapsed into the floor. Everything inside and out was trembling. Slowly the sound returned with a steadier breath. She pushed the sweat soaked hair out of eyes and attempted to stand. At first she thought her legs were shaking too much to gain traction. After a few moments she realized that the motion was that of the train finding the rhythm of momentum.
Erica made another attempt to stand, finally finding ground. She turned from the door and walked back through the car. Halfway through she looked back at the carvings. The town was still there, but this time it was if the carved flames had spread and engulfed the buildings. A certain sickness took her, forcing her to look away. She passed quietly to the next car and through until she arrived back at her seat.
The chair felt easy on her back, beckoning her towards sleep. Just as her eyes faded the constrained world around her, a voice brought her back to surface.
“Miss, have you tried the Cocktail Club Car yet?” inquired the familiar attendant.
Erica looked up at her and blinked slowly. “No, I haven’t. I don’t think I should drink. So, the train started… did that accident get cleared up?”
“Not all of it, Miss. But we had to move on either way,” the attendant said with a sympathetic smile.
Erica smiled back as the attendant took her leave. The steady siren motion of the train called her to rest yet she let that call go unheeded. She rose to her feet and made her way to the back of the car. ‘Sure, a drink sounds fine,’ she thought.
The next two cars were more sterile than the original. The red was replaced by all grey furnishings, empty spaces waiting for a spark, a consciousness to make an imprint on them. The door to the Cocktail Club Car was sleek and metal, a large silver button was installed to the left. Erica pushed it, the door slid open to the the vestibule. She balanced herself across and opened the last door.
The club car was smaller than the other car. There was a red compact table top to the left. Straight ahead was a small bar counter with a few red stools attached to the front. Behind the bar was an elderly man with a white shirt and red vest. He looked up and smiled at Erica.
Erica moved past the table and sat on the middle stool. She glanced up at the gentleman and gave a brief smile. “Do you have whiskey?” she asked.
“We do, but wouldn’t you like something that takes a bit more skill? It looks like you’ve had quite the trip. Might as well enjoy something special,” the bartender replied.
“Sure, just nothing with gin. I can’t stand gin.”
“Fair enough,” the man replied. He proceeded gather bottles of booze and mixers and pour the contents into a shaker. He then strained them into a clear plastic glass half full of ice. “There you go, the CCC Special.
Erica took a small drink. “It’s good,” she said as she gently shook the cup.
“It should be. I’ve been making that drink for some time now. Go easy, it packs a punch,” the man said.
“That’s okay. I just want to sleep but I keep getting interrupted. Maybe this will solve that problem,” she stated with limited resolve.
“If you fall asleep, you’re going to lose your chance to choose your stop. It’s coming up soon,” the man replied.
Erica looked up at him, her face grew red. “What choice do I have? Trains go where they go. And it’s not like there are a lot of choices in that fucking town.”
“There’s not always a choice, sure. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have an important one to make very soon. Some choices are harder than others. Some more permanent than others. You have one shot at this, Sis.”
Erica froze, her vision became distorted and blurred with moisture. “W-what did you just call me?” she stammered out.
The old man smiled and reached underneath the bar. He grabbed a gaudy black leather jacket and threw it over his shoulder. He stepped to the side of the bar, flipped up a portion of the bar and walked past her. She forced the fibers of her muscles in her arm to move, making a swift attempt to grab the man before he passed by. He turned and held her hand with his free hand. She felt a warmth envelope her, matched by the hot tears which began to stream down her face.
“I made my choice when I went up to that apartment,” he said with a familiar smile. “You’ve had a rough run and I can’t blame any choice you make. I just know that I regret mine. Not because of what happened to me, but because I wasn’t there for you like you were for me. For what it’s worth, I vote you get off at the next stop,” the man said before releasing Erica’s hand. “My shift is finally up.”
He smiled again then made his way to the door. He reached for the silver button then turned around. “I was looking forward to seeing your red hair again. Not sure this cut suits you.” The door slid open with a push of the button. He threw his jacket on the table behind him, then walked through the door.
Erica watched through her tears, certain he looked younger, like the Justin she remembered. She wiped her eyes and he was gone. She repressed the urge to chase him, knowing the result. She took one last drink and moved forward through the cars and back to her seat. She sat down, feeling the heaviness of fatigue. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward.
“Miss, will you be getting off at the next stop?” The attendant said from behind her.
“What’s the next stop?”
“Disonia. Or will you be travelling further.” the woman inquired.
“Disonia? That’s where I got on.”
“Was it? That’s funny,” the woman replied then turned towards the front of the train.
The train’s rhythm slowed to a stall. Erica stood up just as the exit door opened. She looked around the car then made her way off the train. She was back at the train station. The air was cold as the blackness above her began to give way to shades of navy.
The way home wasn’t easy, sickness strode alongside her, causing her to stop every few blocks. By the time she made her way back to her apartment she felt as though she would collapse. She moved to the bathroom and ran her hands along the cool porcelain of the sink. She drank several handfuls of water and splashed the rest on her warm red face.
Erica undressed and stepped in the shower. A few minutes later she found herself on her bed, watching the dawn fill up the room. She stretched and laid her head on a nearby pillow. Thoughts and images pulled and pushed through her mind, some terrible, some beautiful. She watched them all, falling asleep when she was sure she would wake up in the same town she went to sleep in.