The door to their carriage slams behind them and Grainne leans into the aisle to see who is approaching. Shante hears footsteps, but before she can turn around a train guard is standing by their table, wearing the same navy blue uniform as the woman back in the station.
Good morning, he says, smiling broadly. Shante smiles back at him. It makes her feel normal, as though she’s taking part in any old transaction that can be undone at any time.
Can I see your tickets and papers, please?
Shante slides the pile out of the folder again. She’s more relaxed about giving them away now.
How long is this journey? Shante already knows the answer, she’s known since she bought the tickets, but she feels the need to make conversation with this man. Maybe she’ll tell him she’s going to see her husband, she’s leaving this city for good, that her sister’s a software programmer, and ask if he knows of any jobs going in the north. If he’s nice, maybe she’ll tell him about Charlie, ask him if people usually go to visit their friends and family in other cities.
Four and a bit hours, madam, he says, shuffling the pile of documents. He nods to Locke, still pressed against the window. You’ll have to find another way to entertain the little one I’m afraid, we’ll be going inside the tunnel in a few minutes.
A tunnel? Locke turns around quickly, his eyes wide with delight. A real one?
The train guard smiles. Oh yes. Not as interesting as you’d think though, young man, I promise you.
He places the documents on the table, and his casualness with her magic talismans makes Shante relax. The difficult bit is over now. Only four hours, that’s it. By lunchtime she’ll be there with Zeb.
I wish you a pleasant journey, and if there’s anything you need at all, just press that button over there. He indicates the door. I’m just in the next carriage. Only us lot on this old clanger today, so it’d be no trouble at all.
Thank you, and Shante taps Locke’s arm.
Thank you Mister Train, says Locke, and Grainne chuckles. The guard waves and turns back towards his carriage.
Shante unwraps a fruit bar and gives it to Locke just as the view outside the window goes black. Now all he can see is his own reflection and the occasional orange light.
He watches the blackness for a moment, then takes the fruit and sits back on his seat so that his legs swing, not touching the floor.
Why do we have to go through a tunnel?
Because it helps the train go faster. Shante crumples up the wrapper and pushes it into the waste disposal under the table. She knows Charlie has told him all the stories and urban legends about the edgelands, about how all the criminals live there, witches and robbers and child snatchers, the same stories he’d told her and Grainne when they’d been his age. She has no idea what is really out in the edgelands. She suspects it’s only wind farms, factories and the occasional prison, but every city has to have its dark and scary places where everybody knows not to go. How will anyone care about the light, if they can see everything they need in the dark?
Grainne has pushed her earpieces in and shut her eyes. Locke is looking droopy too, and she lets him lean against her, pulling his shoulder into the space under her armpit and nestling his head against her breast. There’s not much time left of him wanting to snuggle against her like this, she wants to savour it while she can.
She munches a cracker from the packet and shuts her eyes too. She won’t be able to sleep, not even with the rocking of the train, but it feels good to rest her gritty eyes and think about Zeb and the new life to come.
She met him when she was playing at a wedding. His cousin’s, she remembers. She had been settled in the corner of the dining room, under the window on the other side of the room from the table of food, and it had taken her a while to notice him standing a bit too close to her, staring at her fingers dancing on the strings. What kind of instrument is that? A lute. He frowned. I’ve never heard one of those before. She smiled. He was handsome, skin a shade darker than her mother’s, his hair twisted into thin locks to his shoulders. It sounds like you’ve time-travelled from another century. She ducked her head to hide her pleasure, and began another piece. At the end of the night, he asked for her number, and she had saved it on his tab with little hope of romance, but perhaps some more work.
She won’t send him a message now, she’ll wait a bit until they’re closer. She doesn’t want him hanging around the station at the other end. She drifts into the floating space between wakefulness and sleep, rocked by the gently bouncing train.
He never liked her city. He’d come there a year before he’d met her, to work in a shipping insurance company. From the beginning he told her how wonderful his city was, how there were bike lanes in every street, how every building was panelled with solar glass and the parks filled with cultivated orchards with real, fresh fruit growing on the trees. His parents got visitors’ visas and came to see them when Locke was born, and their manners were so impeccable that Shante knew they had never had to shove into a queue for food, or rewire a failing generator when the authority electrician didn’t turn up, or dip endless water-testing kits into the sink every time you ran the tap.
Everything will be better there. Locke will go to a better school and Grainne will earn more. She’ll get to know other musicians in the city, maybe she could record, join a band, even teach a little. Possibilities, a future, a whole life swells in her chest. She’ll apply for a visitor’s visa for Charlie as soon as they get there. Maybe when he sees how much better it is, he won’t want to leave and they can reapply for him to get residence.
The train is slowing. Shante checks her watch, twenty past ten. She thought this was a direct train, but perhaps it has to stop to unload some cargo. It stops with a screeching hiss that wakes Locke up and he reaches to her, bleary-eyed.
Are we there already?
I don’t think so, she says, peering behind her into the aisle to see if the train guard is coming back. We’ve just stopped for a bit. We’ll be going again soon.
She leans past him to look out of the window and sees that they’ve pulled into an abandoned station, one of the ancient ones from the old slow trains, maybe even from the diesel engines before that. There’s a sign on the wall with a place name Shante’s never heard before, and torn posters for long ago plays featuring long dead actors. The walls of the station are the same reinforced grey concrete of all train stations everywhere, but this one has little squares of light beaming from high windows. It looks grimy, as though centuries of soot and dust are coating the concrete.
Grainne takes her earpieces out. What’s happening? I thought this was a direct train.
Maybe it’s a cargo stop.
Locke tugs at her arm. Can we get off and look around?
No. She listens for the train guard’s step behind her, but it doesn’t come. Stay here. It’s going to get going any moment now.
They wait. The music from Grainne’s earpieces tinkles faintly until she presses a button on her tablet and it stops. Locke has his nose pressed against the window again, looking at every detail of the old station. The minutes tick by. Shante checks her watch. It’s ten thirty-four. Nothing is moving. There are no noises of unloading, no people or machines on the platform.
I’m going to ask that guard what’s going on, Shante says. She gets up and presses the red button by the doors to the carriage. She hears the intercom connecting with a crackle, but no one answers. She waits, listening for a voice, but none comes. The intercom disconnects and she sits back down next to Locke. Grainne is sitting tense and upright now, her hands gripping the seat.
No answer. Shante drums her fingers on the table, collecting some stray breadcrumbs on her fingertips. Perhaps I should go into the next carriage and see if everything’s alright.
She doesn’t move, and neither does Grainne. She waits, listening for movement. The silence is like a smothering blanket, there aren’t even any mechanical sounds of hunks of greased metal clanking together or the rasp of plastic sheets of wrapping over the cargo sliding over each other.
I’m just going to have a look in the next carriage. Shante stands up and brushes her fingertips lightly to get rid of the crumbs. Perhaps that intercom is broken.
Grainne doesn’t offer to go instead. She nods, and looks out the window to the abandoned station.
It seems strange that she can get into the guard’s carriage by pressing just one button, but the doors slide open for her and she steps into the rubber concertina part between carriages and then presses another for the next set of doors. This carriage isn’t like the passenger seating, it has one set of four seats around a table, like in their carriage, and then shelves and shelves of neatly labelled boxes, all held behind glass doors clasped shut. She’s looking at the boxes and reading their labels when she sees a shoe sticking out from behind a seat.
The shoe is completely still. There is an emptiness to the carriage, the unmistakable feeling that she is alone and unobserved that reminds her of waiting in the room for her father to come home, after her mother had died. She hadn’t been scared then, waiting on her own with a dead body lying in the bed; just lonely.
She leans behind the seat. The guard’s neck is twisted at an improbable angle, his face pressed against the wall. She wonders at the force it must take to wrench someone’s neck like that, so hard that their spinal cord is snapped and their life over. She walks closer to his body and steps over his back so she can see his face. She crouches to look into his eyes, wide and unseeing. She wants to close them so he can rest easier in his death, but she knows she shouldn’t touch him. She holds her hand above his cheek, hovering just over his skin to see if it is still giving off any warmth. None.
She presses the two buttons to let her back into the passenger carriage, and Grainne stands to meet her. Locke pokes his head sideways into the aisle.
Are we going again yet?
Not yet, Shante says, struggling to keep her voice calm. She wants to scream, to punch these carpeted seats and see a satisfying cloud of dust puff from them, souvenirs from all the lucky bastards who have made this journey safely. I need you to do a job for me, are you ready?
I’m going to show Auntie something and I need you to stay here and have a good look at this station for me. If you see anyone moving, or anyone comes into this carriage, I want you to scream as loud as you possibly can. Do you think you can do that, sweetie?
He nods. Shall I have a practice scream, just so you know what to listen for?
No, don’t do that. Just have a good look out that window.
She turns back towards the guard’s carriage and Grainne follows her. Her step falters for a moment, she wonders if she is doing the right thing by leaving Locke there alone, if she should go back and get him, and the document folder too, perhaps the lute, maybe all of their stuff, just to be sure; but she doesn’t want him to see the corpse. Her head feels foggy. She stops just before she presses the first button. She doesn’t know what to do. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
What’s going on, Shan? Grainne prods her in the back. Where’s that train guard?
Shante presses the button and moves quickly between the carriages. Grainne stops when she sees the foot, lets out a soft groan. She kneels beside him and leans in close to study his neck. She had a summer job in a care home when she was at university. Dead bodies don’t bother her.
Do you think he had an accident? Shante asks, knowing that he didn’t, knowing that the last thing this man saw was someone who was desperate enough to kill him.
No. Grainne bites her lip and it turns white under the pressure of her teeth. This wasn’t an accident.
What happened, then?
Grainne shakes her head. Probably illegal stowaways. Maybe they wanted him to help them get into a city, and when he said no they did this and stopped the train here. They probably didn’t know we were here too.
Those pictures she’s seen on the news from the aerial cameras, the streams of people moving along the old motorways between cities, their homes under metres of dirty water, their governments fled, their fields and factories flooded. Camped out on city borders, hoping they’ll be allowed inside to start their lives again.
That’s going to be them now. Stranded in the dead zone between cities, this dead man the only person who could help them. What are we going to do?
Grainne shrugs. I think we’re going to have to walk there.
Come on! Shante pushes her fingers through her hair, but her clammy hands feel sticky on the strands. Her head is buzzing with panic, everything is slipping from her grasp. Her stomach is swooping at the thought of how close they came to lying in the carriage with their own necks twisted like this. She remembers that she’s left Locke on his own with desperate, dangerous people prowling and dashes back to the gap between the two carriages. Locke is still sitting at their table, his nose pressed against the window.
We’re in the middle of the edgelands, Shante says, we have no idea where we are or where we’re going, we’re illegals ourselves if we get off this train. You can’t be serious, Grainne.
Do you want to stay here, wait for someone to come, and explain that it wasn’t us who killed this man?
It wasn’t us! Shante turns away from the body on the floor. It feels strange to be talking about him while his skin suit is right there. He was a nice man, why would we kill him? We’re properly shafted now without him.
And you think that’s good enough for the immigration police, do you, who are gagging for arrests to make up their quotas?
Shante takes a deep breath. Grainne keeps up with the news even more than she does, she knows about the refugees and the edgelands patrols and the border shootouts. You’re right. We have to leave.
Oh fuck. She covers her face with her hands. She is so stupid. Not two hours ago she congratulated herself on how close she was to being safe, to Locke meeting his other grandparents, to breathing without a weight on her chest again. She told herself she would be kissing Zeb by lunchtime. Fucking stupid.
She shakes her head, balls her fists. Pull yourself together, she tells herself. You have the visas, you have authorised passports. You just need to get there.
Dark River, by Rym Kechacha, is published on Unsung Stories on February 24th 2020.