A/N: So. This was my entry (first ever! OMG!) in the Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest. The prompt was "In transit."
Thanks to everyone who read and voted for my story! I'm happy to announce that this is the Winner!
All other participants had awesome pieces for the contest and, in fact, you should head on over to the Review Game right now (it's the first one in the General Forums, not that hard to find) and check out all the other entries because they are AMAZING! Spread some love. :)
The girl didn't so much mind being dead.
No, no, not at all.
It was the actual dying part that had been particularly nasty.
Well, not the whole falling thing, actually. She'd kind of liked that part. Hair slapping her in the face, wind stinging her ears, the eighteenth floor balcony slipping farther and farther away...
That sense of flying. That weird sensation of being—
Enlightened? Was that the word? Had to be
She didn't worry or remember or think. Her mind was a blank. She just felt.
Exhilaration. Adrenaline. An electric shock of power, as if her whole body had just licked a 9-volt battery.
She was alive. Yes—alive!
If she'd had time to think about it, she would've laughed at the irony.
She hit the ground with a sound reminiscent of wet meat slapping a tiled kitchen floor. Then—
For just a split second, there was pain, flooding every part of her body. It danced up her neck, her arms, her legs, through her fingers and toes. A wildfire. It bounced around inside her head like a pinball, smacking nerves and striking the walls of her skull with such a force that it cracked.
She took one last breath. Barely a breath. More like a tiny gasp, louder than thunder in her ears. Her lungs rejected it. Locked. Forgot how to breathe.
There was a gentle tugging, somewhere deep inside her. Like there was a chain wrapped around her heart and someone was carefully, hesitantly, pulling in the slack.
Her eyes fluttered open, glimpsed a splash of red. Tried to breathe again. Then—
Another tug on the chain, harder.
The girl blinked, and, for a brief moment, she was looking at herself. Broken. Bloody. Splatters of red bloomed around her, as if she were outlined by a Jackson Pollock painting. The girl blinked again, frantically trying to put the pieces together, but her thoughts were a jumble, melting into one another and evaporating almost as soon as they were made. One last glance at herself on the ground, and her mind wondered, feebly: Who is that?
The invisible chain began to reel in, quick, and she was wrenched upwards. The world grew smaller and smaller below her as she sailed toward the sky, quickly. Much too fast. As if God Almighty had pushed some kind of fast forward button on the Earth.
The world fell away, the size of a teardrop, and, suddenly, she was hurtling through space. Past planets and moons. Through cosmic bodies of light, intense and colorful. Spinning around galaxies and pockets of space debris.
Then she blinked—and it was gone.
Now she was lying on her side on some weird kind of ground; it was soft, the color of a bright white eggshell, and—was it cold? She couldn't quite tell.
She carefully propped herself up on her elbows and touched the white, cottony surface. It should've been soft, judging by the looks of it, but it wasn't. It felt like water beneath her fingers. Dry water. Yet solid and strong, almost like some kind of pliable metal.
Hesitantly, she took in her surroundings. Left. Right. There was nothing. Nothing but endless white gaped back at her, everywhere she looked.
The girl scrambled to her feet and took a few steps forward, testing the strange ground beneath her. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something move.
She cupped her hands around her mouth, an impromptu megaphone, and shouted out into the whiteness: "Hello? Anybody there?"
No answer. Not even an echo to mock her.
But the whiteness swirled, just slightly, like smoke, and the girl narrowed her eyes, as if that could help her see through this nothingness that surrounded her.
"Hello?" she ventured, quieter. Uncertain.
This place was oddly familiar. Though she couldn't quite remember when she'd been here last. Though, surely, she must have been here before. She felt it, deep inside. Some part of her remembered this place, even if her mind didn't.
She tossed another glance around, and her eyes snagged, once again, on a disturbance in the endless cloud of white. Again, she squinted, and slowly took a few steps forward. There was a shadow behind the white. Very faint, but she could see it. A shadow that grew darker and bolder, its shape twisting behind the white that engulfed it.
A smile crept across the girl's face.
It's almost here, she told herself and stopped suddenly, confused by her own thought. She shivered. Wrapped her arms around herself, comforting the uneasiness that began to stir within her stomach.
There was a strong gust of wind, a burst of air that hit her like an invisible tidal wave, and then there was a monstrous machine breaking through the whiteness—a train. It was gunmetal gray, spewing a thick stream of black smoke in its wake and pulling what looked to be an endless line of empty passenger cars.
The engine did not make any kind of noise. As silent as the grave, it came to a stop right in front of her.
The girl just stared, unsure of what to do. Then one of the doors of the passenger cars swung open with a faint hiss and an old man poked his head out, taking in the world from under thick-lens glasses. His head slowly panned across the whiteness, his brow furrowed. When his eyes fell on her, they brightened.
"Aha!" he cried, bringing some sort of clipboard into view. "One newlydead."
The girl's brow furrowed. "Excuse me?"
Dead. The word triggered a feeling, somewhere deep inside her, though she couldn't quite place it. She felt should know what it meant. Oh, yes. She should. It was a bad thing, her stomach told her. You weren't suppose to be dead. But her brain didn't seem to remember.
The man looked at her over his glasses and then down at his chart, a pen in hand. "D'ya got a ticket?"
"A ticket," the girl echoed stupidly.
"Ah. Yes, yes. A ticket," the man said, marking something down on his chart. "You got one, don't you?"
"No," the girl said, hesitantly. "No, I don't have a ticket."
"Hmmm," the man mused, checking his chart. "Well, you are a Miss...Emma Dean, correct?"
After a moment, the girl nodded, but very slowly. Yes. She remembered that being her name. But the memory of it was difficult to grasp. Such a long, long time ago. Seemed like forever, in fact.
"Ah, 'n it looks like you're right on time, too." The man smiled at her, too wide. It split his face in two, like a Cheshire Cat grin. "Ah, well. No ticket, no worries," he said, and checked something off on his chart. Then he looked back up at her and swept his hand theatrically in front of the doorway, encouraging her to enter the train. "Welcome aboard."
The old man hobbled back inside, and the girl, after a moment of hesitation, pulled herself up into the passenger car. There were two other people on board this particular car, besides the old man. A young, troubled looking teenager sat towards the back, hair covering most of his face. He stared out the window, an odd, glazed sort of look to his eyes, like he wasn't really seeing anything at all.
The second passenger was a middle-aged man, dark-skinned and balding, sitting closer to the door of the car. His head was laid back on the seat and his eyes were closed, appearing to be sleeping.
The train didn't waste any time in starting up again and the girl quickly fell into the empty seat next to the middle-aged man. The inside of the car shook slightly as it sped through the strange world of white, clouds of black smoke the only color marring its otherwise perfect sheen.
The old man was standing by the door, holding on to a silver rail that ran around the length of the car for balance. He was watching her, an amused sort of smile lighting across his face. "Is this your first time?" he asked. Not nosy, really. Just curious. When she failed to answer him, he added, "Dying, I mean. Is this your first time bein' dead?"
The girl shrugged. "I...I can't really remember," she admitted, and found the back of her hands to be incredibly interesting.
The man nodded. "Ah, no worries. It happ'ns. All the time, really." He flashed her another grin. "You'll 'member, soon enough. Given that you arun't..." He paused, fidgeting with the pen in his hand. "Well, given that you make it where you're a-goin'."
"Where am I going?" the girl asked, tossing a quick glance up at him, hoping she didn't sound too eager.
The man shrugged.
She pointed to his chart. "You don't have it on that thing?"
"This?" The old geezer laughed and shook his head. "No, no, no. This jus' tells me dates 'n times 'n names. They keep life stories somewheres else."
"Well," the girl ventured. "Do you know where the train is going?"
He sighed. "It goes 'ever you wan' it to go," he said, though he didn't sound so sure. "It kind of...has a mind of its own. No conductor, see? It's fueled by souls—the newlydeads, like you. It stops every so of'en, lets people off. Though some people stay on the train lot longer than others."
The old man scratched his head with the tip of his pen. "Some people jus' don't know where they're a-goin', I guess," he said. "Some people jus' can't let go-a life, so the train doesn't stop. Jus' keeps runnin' 'n runnin' in circles."
"That's sad," the girl said.
"Yes," the man agreed. "I s'pose it is."
"Why haven't you gotten off yet?"
"This here's my job." He patted the clipboard. "I've already got where I'm a-goin'. More times'n I can count. Now I'm a soul excorter. I jus' make sure you newlydeads get on the train. Keep you away from the Sin."
The girl was suddenly struck by a thought and it slipped past her lips before she could stop it: "Didn't there used to be a river?"
"Ah, well, yes," the man said, thinking. "Yes, there was. Once. But there was only one boat 'n only so many souls could fit innit 'n it took awhile for it to get back 'n forth. There was a line, see? Too many souls didn't get where they were a-goin'. The wait made 'em reckless—the Sin crept up on 'em eas'ly. So the Big Guy thought he might as well get with the times, see? So he made the Engine Styx." The old man patted the side of the car, and a dull, metallic thud filled the air. "Beauty, isn't she?"
It was something, all right. But the girl didn't know if she'd call it beautiful.
"Where did you go?" she asked after awhile.
"That place. Where you were going," she said, slowly raising her eyes to meet his. "What was it?"
The man smiled. "Ah, well," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "I s'pose you'd call it…home."
"What was it like?"
"Diff'rent every time," he said. "I can't really explain. But it always felt the same."
The girl nodded. Somehow, she understood.
The two fell into a comfortable sort of silence.
The girl couldn't be terribly sure, but she felt like the train was slowing down—just slightly.
Home, she thought. And she turned and looked out the window at the endless sea of white, and wondered what it would be like.