The diner's neon buzzed like a dying fly as Carmilla stared out the dirt
streaked window. The yellow glare from the fluorescent lights gave
her face an old, washed out look, and she squinted at her reflection in
the dark glass.
She rubbed her shoulder, tense from riding six, no, seven hours now. If she hurried, she thought she could make Jacksonville, at least, make the border and get out of Georgia.
She didn't like Georgia, where the people talked so slow that you began to wonder if they were just affecting the accent, if perhaps they weren't playing for the tourists like some kind of animals in a human zoo.
She shook her head violently, taking a deep breath and trying to drive the thought away. The images would not be banished so easily though, and barbed wire fences sprung up, unbidden, in her memory.
She made a small sound, like an animal clearing it's nose of an unpleasant smell, and the waitress, who was sitting at the counter, looked over at her. Carmilla made a show of wiping her nose with the napkin. Best not to be remembered, and someone making strange noises in public would stand out, even in an all-night anonymous chain restaurant two miles off the highway.
The woman went back to her work, not even holding up the coffee pot in silent question again. Carmilla had nursed the cup she had for at least a half hour now, and planned to make it go another 15 minutes before she got back on the bike and down the road again.
gotta remember not to get road fatigue again …
Carmilla had noticed the woman before, how her hair was going to gray under the thick patina of black dye and hairspray, had seen the desperation wrinkles around the woman's eyes as she smiled and made small talk. She noticed how the woman was now leaning over the counter to help one of the truckers with the crossword puzzle, 'accidentally' exposing more of her saggy breast and pasty skin than the uniform already exposed anyway.
playing for time, thought Carmilla, and then, and aren't we all?
Time for one more round on the carousel, one more candy apple in the fading twilight, one more hoop rolled through autumn streets filled with fallen leaves, time for a room of one's own and a hot shower and a full belly…
Time to be young. Time to measure one's life in milestone years, like a highway.
Time to believe in immortality.
But that was so long ago.
and how you played to get those things, my pretty pet crept the cold dark voice into her head.
That was easy enough to ignore. The voice had been her constant companion for long and long, and she could just turn from it, and make it go away.
I've seen better days she thought sadly, and the country song on the all night radio caught her ear and agreed. The sound of plates clanking together came wafting out of the kitchen, silenced every few seconds by the swinging of the door.
ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk it went, sounding almost like a train.
Like a train….
And Carmilla stared out the window, into the darkness that now seemed suddenly liquid, and the coffee she held in one hand slipped unremembered onto the cheap vinyl seat.
Through the center of town, paralleling the dimly lit four lane main street ran a set of railroad tracks. They probably carried freight during the day: oranges and tomatoes from Florida, going north to markets in colder climates. She'd bumped over them coming across town from I-95, and had fought hard to suppress a chill that ran down her back and up again, turning her mouth into dry chalk and leaving the metallic smell of fear in her nose. She'd given them a cursory glance after parking the bike, somehow assured by the fact that the entire width of the road lay between them and her.
But now she saw she was not nearly far enough away.
The locomotive was one of the older models; newer, faster trains were in demand at the front, to carry troops and ordinance, and anyway, these trains didn't have to run on time.
Time was all we had, in the end…
The plume of black smoke it threw should have been visible for miles, but in the dark it was concealed, along with the faces of the engineer and brakemen. she could never remember a face in the front of any of the trains, though she had seen many of them. Perhaps, she sometimes thought, they had no faces…
And now, as it drew closer, she wondered how she could have mistaken the sound of dishes for the sound this thing was making. It was loud, almost pounding inside her head, and shrill, like an alarm in the night. Like fire. or death. Or murder.
Yes, just like murder.
And then the crossing gates dropped down like a funeral pall, rushing down so fast they stirred up dust eddies from the gravel and cinders in the rail bed. The red light flashed menacingly, like the eyes of an angry bull.
Carmilla sat, transfixed. she knew what was coming, always did, but she could no more look away then she could grow wings and fly to the moon.
First passed the engine, long, sleek, black, eating coal and shitting fire and cinders into the clean night air, then the tender, bulging and distended like a tumor, or a drowned man's corpse.
Then came the cars.
They were the same rattletrap cars that had transported cattle and pigs before the war, but now, they carried cargo of an entirely different nature.
The moon came out from a cloud just then, spilling cold white light across the scene. The first car slid past, it's wheels sparking over the rails, rocking gently back and forth on axles already overloaded and ready to seize and scream at any second.
And she could see the outstretched arms, dangling from between the slats that made up the sides of the car, the grasping hands and the beckoning fingers, the coarse hands of the old laborer and the soft dainty ones of the tailor's wife, the big brawny forearms of the ditch digger and the thin black clad ones of the rabbi.
And she could see the myriad of tiny hands pushed out between them, the short stubby fingers of children too young, too young for all this. She trembled as she saw the chubby hand of a baby shake out from between the splintered boards, and then made a small cry as that car was proceeded by another, and another, and yet another, all the same, all bearing their bulging cargo away, into the night.
Into the night, where she had once disappeared to herself.
But she'd come back. They hadn't. they still rode the rails, or their souls did, trying to find the hotel terminus, the end of the line, the siding where they, too could get off and stretch tired legs and backs and arms.
But they would never find it, and she knew this…
Tears streamed down her eyes, and when she finally came to her senses, she was sitting one the bike, idling, facing out from the parking lot, her palms sweaty and red, and her eyes stinging and teary.
She shook her head and rocked back the throttle, sliding out onto the road and whipping through the wind, trying to get away, as far away as she could.
Inside the restaurant, the waitress still stood by the door. Two of the truckers had come up behind her when the girl had gone crazy and ran out, knocking herself against the pane of glass in the door until she had crashed through it and spilled out into the lot, landing in a tangle of shattered safety glass and dark hair.
"I'm calling the po-lice," the waitress, Peggy, said. One of the truckers, a long hauler of twenty years experience named Tom, nodded his head in silence. He'd seen men thrown through glass windows before, and not one of them had gotten up and walked, let alone run, away from it with no injury at all. He knelt to look at the sidewalk, seeing only a few drops of blood mixed in with the glass.
damn he thought, and then hot diggety damn, that's some shit
"What the hell was she yellin' about?" asked his co-driver, who had been heading back to the booth from the bathroom, and who, in Tom's earnest opinion didn't have the sense to pour piss out of a boot with the directions written on the heel in Braille.
"Somethin' about the train," he said slowly, trying to remember just what exactly she had said.
"Train? Whut train?" Joe asked, pulling a battered Swiss army knife from his back pocket and picking at a hangnail with it.
"We-llll, I guess that'd be the train that runs on them tracks over there," he said, gesturing to the rails crossing the road.
"Musta been on dope or sumthin' then," Joe said with irritating slowness.
"Whut makes you say that?" Tom demanded.
Joe pointed with the pocket knife, slowly motioning to the crossing and then to the grass on either side of it.
"Th' state took out them tracks a good ten, twelve years ago. they didn't need em after the branch line opened up in Savannah. Ain't been a train through here in, hell, must be about fifteen years now."
"Well," Tom looked up at the moon in the sky and thought about how some people just went crazy from the full moon.
"Well," he said again, to no one in particular, "Don't that beat all."