By R.L. McGuire
Old trains made noise, this much was certain. But this one, this one made music. The train lumbered along with its creaks, groans, and rattles, forming an unexpected rhythm that lulled its riders to sleep soon after it pulled away from their station.
Even the conductor barely stayed awake. He managed, long enough to collect the tickets, or sell them, as the case warranted. Now and again a traveller would board wide-eyed, confused, a look he knew well, and he would pause long enough to explain where they were headed.
If they didn’t like it, and protested just so, he would acquiesce and send them fluttering and flitting back from whence they came. They’d be back soon enough, he knew; everyone always came back, some a little bit brighter. It was the nature of things, and he didn’t mind, once in a while, bending the rules a bit.
It was their time, after all, until he took their ticket. Fine with him if they withered away some more before landing back aboard, listening to the old train’s sweet ratchety lullaby, sleepily drifting onward toward the station they never reached.
It wasn’t until they awoke they realized it was not the last, but only the next.
Then off they’d go, mingled souls and brightened spirits, each one among many now many become one, to explore and discover some place new, filled with what they thought was wonder, ’til the next train came ‘round to collect and carry them on again to whatever waited down the line.
He loved his work, the conductor, especially that part about bending the rules. They were always happy, the ones he sent off, when they came back. That gift of extra time, of no meaning to him (just a flash, really), allowed occasion for things undone.
Some longed for completion in a fond farewell, old souls holding hands, time writ large in their wrinkled flesh, speaking volumes on sweet whispers as the day’s light finally fades. For others, absolution. Forgiveness never sought and never offered, the parent and the child, ‘til time closed the space between the two, and truth, at last, could be told.
Then there were the lovers who never loved, failing in their time to seize a precious moment, self-sabotaged by fear and inhibition, circling back to make a different choice, letting go a lifetime of regret.
However long they took, a day, a minute, years and years, it didn’t matter. The conductor could always tell, when they handed over their ticket for the second time, how well they’d spent the nothing he had given them.
They’d climb the metal stairs, slip their hands along the burnished bronze, and slide across the darkened oak benches to stare through the crackle glass windows, waiting for the world to move.
The whistle would blow, the bell would clang-clang-clang, the wheels would turn, and the steam stack would billow out its great foamy cloud. The journey began, and the song played out once more.
This time though, they didn’t mind the sleep.