Saqib Mansoor recently joined Qineqt, a Karachi-based news & media haven, as a Gaming Analyst. He's also a freelance writer and a video game nerd, both of which allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional couch tester.
The Lonely Tracks
The sun went gracefully down the horizon, dragging across the blanket of night. A lonesome wind whining in search of an identity tasted of mild winters to Jerome Barlow.
He couldn’t remember how long he had had been running. An hour, perhaps two? It didn’t matter. All he cared about now was gaining distance and for his exhausted body to keep up somehow. The terrain looked almost alien to him that night. The mountain path was riddled with loose rock and uneven trails. Thick dark green flora would materialize out of the night like random signposts, and he was following it blindly. Like breadcrumbs the flora were leading him further away from his pursuers.
No matter where he turned, he could see the vast twinkling sky, joining with darkened planes that stretched across like a rippling ocean frozen in time. Only the silhouettes of distant mountains warned him of where the ground and the sheer cliffs met.
The cold had begun creeping in. His body felt battered from tumbling left and right; exposed skin stung by the touch of the wind. Only the warm clouds constructed by his labored breathing were soothing. The trail he had been following began rising sharply. He mustered whatever strength he had left and willed his legs to move faster. It wasn’t long before exhaustion finally took over. He felt himself falling.
For the next few minutes Barlow lay stretched and unmoving on the dusty earth. His mouth tasted dirt and his limbs refused to lift him up. For what felt like an eternity, he stayed a lifeless form, pondering his options and recalling events that had unfolded earlier in the night. His hubris had convinced him of staying back another day, close to the very people he had stolen from. They were now closing in on his trail, with starving dogs and cold steel.
Distant barking and chatter finally brought him to reality. Somehow Barlow managed to stand up again, coughing as the cold wind filled his lungs. He looked from his high vantage point and saw small bobbing lights in the darkened mountains. He heard snippets of their conversations, unintelligible growls of their beastly companions, and even the sound of crunching gravel, echoing off the canyon walls as a warning sign.
They had not found his trail, but they were close. The dogs would soon catch his scent. He had to keep moving.
Barlow began to drag himself once again, his body aching and his head pounding. The trail kept taking him up what seemed to him a never-ending summit. The clouds had parted slightly and the moon shone down more charitably. The illumination helped him increase his pace a little.
Minutes later, the trail suddenly took a sharp bend to the left. Barlow followed, hopping, tumbling, and crawling. It spiraled twice around the mountain before taking him straight down to the canyon floor.
He had escaped his pursuers. Whatever path they were on, it was highly unlikely it would take them down the mountain in so little time. As luck would have it, the moon had, once again, hidden behind the clouds, plunging the canyon in darkness. A faint smile appeared on his face.
Barlow slowed his pace to a leisurely walk; he could afford to go easy on himself now. The temperature had fallen even further and the darkness was now mixing with a viscous, grey fog.
It had perhaps been another hour when he tripped over something large. He fell, but this time his fists did not grab on to the usual dirt. Instead, he felt hard steel and wood beneath him. A wind blew past him again, but this time disturbed the fog enough to reveal train tracks.
Barlow had no idea why there would be train tracks laid so far out here but if there were a train coming through, it meant there was a train station nearby or even a maintenance shack. His previous zeal was deflated and he anxiously followed the tracks westward.
About fifteen minutes later, a timid looking man, dressed smartly in a warm coat and pressed trousers appeared out of the fog. He was bald, with large round glasses set on a heavily wrinkled face.
“Are you here for the train as well?” he asked, meekly.
Barlow was surprised. This person wasn’t one of his pursuers, and he couldn’t see a station in sight. Why would anyone be waiting for a train so far out in this rugged region, at this time of night, with nothing but a walking stick?
“I think so,” Barlow replied, his guard up.
“Page Mackwell,” he delightedly offered his hand, not once expressing any sign of shock or surprise at Barlow’s disheveled appearance. “You’re just in time, then. The train should be arriving soon.”
“Right here?” Barlow asked with raised eyebrows. “I don’t see any station here.”
Mackwell laughed. “Oh, Mr….” he trailed off. “You never told me your name.”
“Ah Jim, I mean Mr. Jim, there’s no need to worry. It’s all written on the ticket.” Mackwell took out a weathered scrap of paper and waved it at him. Its edges were worn, and it was taped in the middle where the centre crease had once been.
“I think I must have misplaced my ticket,” Barlow feigned by dabbing his pockets.
Mackwell’s face grew dark with worry. His large smile was gone and his brows furrowed.
“That’s not good. That’s just not good,” he puffed. “You need your ticket Mr. Jim, or else you can’t get on board.”
Barlow didn’t respond. He couldn’t care less about a ticket. All that was important was the fact that a train was going to be rolling in soon and it was his only means of escape.
He raised his collar in an effort to protect himself from the chilly winds and sat down by the tracks to await the train. Until its arrival, death walked for him tonight.
Mackwell shook his head in disappointment at Barlow’s laidback attitude. He left him by the tracks and began searching the vicinity, sometimes even going on his knees to rustle through wild bushes, exclaiming intermittently that Jim’s ticket had undoubtedly fallen out of his pockets somewhere there. Barlow let him be and rested his back on the uncomfortable cold tracks. The whistling wind was a lullaby for his tired soul and soon his eyes shut, his breathing became unlaboured and his mind wandered into a tranquil world of his own choosing.
It began – sometime soon after – with a low pounding like the pulsating human heart, slowly pulling him away from his sleep. There was a deep ringing in the earth. Barlow turned his head to the side and pressed his ear to the ground.
Huge shockwaves broke out sending tremendous jolts in every direction. Barlow scampered away from the tracks and a minute later saw a monstrous shape come bearing down out of the gloom.
The train knifed through the darkness, panting steam, pulling six cars that all had their blinds drawn. There was no sign of life in any of them except for the last compartment where faint traces of light peeked through the drawn shutters.
Barlow scanned the hulking mass for a registration or serial number on the side, which would give him an idea of where the train was coming from or where it was headed to. There was nothing to be found. The train had seemingly swum through a sea of black ink. Its coal-black paint stretched from one end to the other; with flakes escaping through tortuous cracks, and aging segments peeling back to reveal scratched and dented steel.
Once the last car had passed him by, the train began slowing down. Its squeals were deafening and bounced back and forth between the canyon walls. Mackwell ran out of the mist, his face red as he panted past Barlow and after the train. Barlow followed.
Not until they had both caught up with the train did the doors to the last compartment open to reveal a tall, well-built man casually walking down the steel steps. He wore a black pin-striped suit and red tie over a crisp white shirt, and polished shoes. There were no service stripes on either his sleeves or shoulders and his head was devoid of hair. His most distinct feature, however, were his reddened eyes. In his hands he held a thick volume covered with a dusty cloth.
“Tickets, please,” he said with a stony expression.
“I’m first,” declared Mackwell with a large smile. He brushed past Barlow and held out the folded ticket.
The conductor glanced over the crumbling paper in Mackwell’s hand and nonchalantly opened his book. He turned the leaves of the book, scanning each line with his finger until he came to the desired entry.
“Page Mackwell,” he announced. It didn’t occur to Barlow that he had just taken Mackwell’s name without even touching the still folded ticket.
“This is not your train,” he said flatly and slammed the book shut.
“This cannot be,” said Mackwell woefully. “I’ve been waiting for more than twenty years.”
“This is not your train,” the conductor repeated, ever so coldly, and then turned to Barlow.
Barlow felt something cold crawl across his flesh. “I need to get on this train. I don’t have a ticket but I’m sure we can work something out.”
The conductor raised an impassive eyebrow at the disheveled and tired looking Barlow and opened his book.
“Jerome Barlow,” he stated, and then scanning the page in front of him, added, “Impressive, but as things stand, it’s not enough for me to grant you passage.”
“How did you know my name?”
The conductor slammed his book shut and turned back towards the steps that led back into the car.
“Perhaps we’ll ride together next time.”
Barlow took out a revolver from underneath his shirt and aimed it at his head. “It’s important that I take this train. I’m sure you will understand.”
With his foot still on the first step, the conductor cocked his head at the sound of the gun’s hammer sliding into position, and turned slowly.
“You have still not earned yourself a ticket,” he said calmly.
Barlow was enraged at the mention of the ticket . He had no time to spend on this pretense.
He turned towards Mackwell and fired a single shot. The timid man dropped to the ground, blood pouring from the opening in his head, his face frozen in shock. Barlow approached the corpse and picked up the still folded ticket.
“Here’s your blasted ticket,” he threw it at the conductor’s feet. “We ride now!”
The conductor picked up the ticket, unfolded it, and opened up his book. Barlow saw his trailing finger stop at a point, and then his glowing eyes rose to meet his in the moonlight.
He punched the ticket and handed it back to Barlow with a smile. “Welcome aboard.”
Barlow threw a quick glance at the ticket before crushing it inside his pocket. The paper said “Route 7734 – Seat 8,440,317,266” and was dated for the same day.
He followed the conductor into the car. It was empty except for a shapely brunette in her thirties. The lamps hanging from the low ceiling looked ancient and were covered in grime. The illumination caused more hurt to the eyes than comfort, seeing how it thickened the night’s swirling mist. The entire interior was plastered with crudely designed wallpaper that was peeling away.
The seating was arranged in rows of threes, on each side of the aisle, all facing forward. The conductor headed to the front of the car and sat down in a seat that extended from the wall.
The doors closed and the train started moving. Barlow tucked his revolver back inside the waistband of his trousers and sat down across the aisle from the brunette, instantly realizing how uncomfortable the seats were.
He finally breathed a sigh of relief once the train picked up speed. Barlow looked over at the conductor in front, who sat motionless.
“Where is this train headed to?” he asked the woman. She didn’t reply.
Barlow wrinkled his nose at the smell of something burning. He figured it was probably the oil from the engine car in front.
“Miss, I asked you a question.”
The woman kept to herself, her head bowed slightly and partially hidden behind her long unkempt hair. He noticed that she was clutching something wrapped inside her shawl.
Barlow then smelled it again, the stench of burning cinder.
He reached out and tapped her shoulder. Gently at first, and then shook her. She mumbled something incoherent, but then she slowly turned her head in his direction.
The lights in the car began to flicker and Barlow looked up at the lamps. The smell had gotten stronger and he could feel cold perspiration forming on his forehead.
When his eyes fell back on the brunette, he saw she was holding the mangled corpse of a baby in her hands. The front was cut wide open, with the insides ripped and shredded, the blood had long since congealed.
“I didn’t want him. I killed him,” she sobbed.
Barlow leapt up with a cry. The car now felt like a steaming oven, and the stench of rotting flesh reached his nostrils. He cried and stumbled back, trying to put as much space between him and the wretch.
He whisked out his revolver. “Stop this train,” he shouted at the conductor in front.
The conductor did not look up from the book. Barlow fired at him, once, and then once again. The bullets penetrated the skull, leaving in their wake two wide openings.
The conductor did not topple over. No blood oozed from the wounds. There was no cry of pain.
“Yes Mr. Barlow, you have indeed earned your ticket,” was all Barlow got from him.
Barlow screamed and emptied his weapon at the conductor. His skull was now completely destroyed, his shoulders riddled with holes. Yet, the conductor still sat idly in his place, refusing to acknowledge the nightmare Barlow was witnessing.
There was a deathly silence in the car then, marred only by the soft wheezing from the quietly sobbing woman and Barlow’s palpitating heart.
The chugging of the locomotive then grew stronger and louder. The sound hurt him like a hammer pounding rivets inside his bones. The cars shook violently as the train propelled fiercely towards its unknown destination.
Barlow felt his world leaving him behind. He ran to the doors, feeling the worn leather of the seats along the way beneath his clammy hands. The glass in the doors revealed nothing of the outdoors to him, except an unearthly shadow swirling in the darkness.
He tried to release the handles but they didn’t budge. He punched the doors, kicked at them in fury, and used his empty gun to hammer the handles. Nothing could make the doors open.
The air inside had become thicker. The walls were breathing voices, screams of anguish and despair. Barlow’s heart raced, and in a maddened state he tore at the walls, ripping down the wallpaper and screaming for the painful screams to stop.
The now naked walls were covered in scratches, far too many for him to count but enough to realize the terrifying truth. He pressed his fingers against the coldness of his confinement and they neatly embedded themselves in the marks left behind by many before him. Barlow, broken, turned around to see the conductor stand up and fix his tie, fragments of his shattered skull decorating his suit and one eye hanging from its socket. It blinked at him and a wry smile formed on his half missing jaw.
“I hope your stay with us will be pleasant.”
Back in the canyons, the hunting party had caught up with Barlow’s scent. The dogs stood confused, circling the tracks again and again, as if the scent of their prey had suddenly vanished.
“We lost him,” cried a disgusted man.
“Looks like there was a commotion here,” pointed another.
They all huddled around him to see where he was pointing. The dirt was disturbed and lined in the silhouette of a stretched body. In the center was a freshly sprouted white rose.
“I didn’t even know they could grow in this region,” remarked one of them.
In the distance the party suddenly heard poundings of a locomotive. The deep booms of its powerful thrusts reached their ears in waves, and then it stopped, plunging the night into silence once again.
The party members looked at each other questioningly. The canyon walls huddled in silence, refusing to divulge what had taken place that night.