The screen of his phone glowed alive, and in the boundless dark, there was a splinter of light.
Groggily, he turned the vibrating, glowing slice of metal in his hands, so the glare of the phone radiated onto his face, bathing his weary visage in its jaundiced glow.
There was a tab on the screen, indicating he had received a message. Mother said, via the intercession of digital text, that the end was near, and that Father wanted to see him one final time before the inevitable came.
He looked up from his phone. In the dark, the soundtrack of his train ride was underscored. The passenger in front of him was snoring a grunt-and-whistle cacophony. The mechanical strains of the train’s engine hummed and chugged. Tiny fidget shuffles of the other passengers whispered into the night. Outside, whooshing by, were the trees of a dark, nameless forest.
He thought of several things to reply to Mother. Some were not good enough. Some were cruel. Some were words of comfort for her that discomforted him. There are many things to say with regards to the impending death of one’s father. Yet sometimes, the gravity of the situation pulls the mind shut, and one finds oneself with nothing to say – nothing constructive, nothing alleviating, nothing comforting, nothing damning. The dark lulled his eyelids close, even as his mind raced to find the right words to type back.
What woke him up again, mere seconds later, was was another vibration, another tab, another message. He returned to the glare of his phone. The name on the tab was his sister’s.
“Ezra where are you?” read her words on his screen.
“In the train,” Ezra typed. “I think I’m about two hours out.” He sent the message, and clasped the phone in his hands. He welcomed the return to darkness.
That vibration again. That stab of light in the dark again. His sister again. “Hurry. I don’t think he’s going to last the night.”
How? How was he going to hurry? “TELL,” he typed. He was in a train, speeding along its tracks, and he was as capable of hurrying it along as he was capable of willing the sun to rise. “THAT.” His fingers were a blur. “TO.”His sister’s words filled him with a kind of impotent rage, and a dull ache crept into his chest. “THE TRAIN.”
He sent the message, and sagged into his seat. The train continued to career at full speed into the night.
Time passed and the night grew older, its great dark canvas becoming more and more wrinkled with stars. The disembodied howl of the night was now accompanied by the haphazard tapping of tree branches on the metallic frame of the train. The trees were much closer to the track now, as the forest squeezed at it from both sides.
His mind brought him back to his childhood, to the last time he had been inside a forest. He was barely ten years old then, and his father had brought him there – by force. Ezra had punched his then six-year-old sister in the face, for saying that their mother loved her more because he, Ezra, was weird and broody and too much like their Father. Ezra remembered the blood oozing down her face as he shattered her nose. He remembered her blood smudged across his swollen knuckles like a seeping ink stamp. He remembered feeling a twisted sense of power surge across his soul, like his fist was a conduit or gateway for a terrible energy that demanded terrible violence. He remembered a sense of intense guilt at seeing his sister, quickly replaced by a more vehement anger at himself for feeling that way. He remembered the incessant crying that followed – both by his sister and him. He remembered the way his parents rushed into the room, his mother’s face contorted in visceral fear. His father came in after his mother, and, upon seeing what had transpired, his face rapidly became pallid, recomposed into a brazen trepidation. When his father uttered, “No, not you, Ezra,” it was in a voice that was a few registers above a whisper, his voice robbed by fear. His mother used the same voice, but directed her question to his father, “What is he becoming?”
As a ten-year-old drawing blood and imposing brute force for the first time in his life, he felt vile and truly monstrous. Juxtaposed with lessons on caring and sharing he’s had in school; juxtaposed with the positive friendships he’s made in playgrounds and in the classroom, this act was an abomination. It was a misrepresentation of who he was. Or was it? The look his mother had given him shrieked otherwise.
While his mother attended to his sister, his father seized him by the back of his neck with a large hand and took him to the car. They drove out – Ezra remembered crying the entire journey – until the city receded to towns littered with smaller buildings than he was used to, until those towns receded to lands presided by trees rather than the mechanizations of people, and until day mellowed to a deep orange evening. They drove into a dirt path that led deeper into the forest, and his father parked the car where the path’s dirt brown earth met the seemingly endless pandemic of dark flora. Ezra remembered kicking and screaming, as his father dragged him out of the car, into the woods. They arrive at a clearing, as oaks and birches glared down at them in the fading sun. Only then did his father release the vice-like grip on his neck. Ezra turned back to his father defiantly, but his defiance mellowed when he saw that his father had been crying, sobs that shuddered his entire body.
“I’m so sorry, Ezra,” he said through tearful whimpers. “This is not supposed to happen to you.”
The next few moments remain, to this day, the stuff of Ezra’s nightmares. With seemingly superhuman strength, his father took him by the neck while still crying inconsolably, pinned Ezra against a tree, used his other hand to hold Ezra’s right hand against the tree trunk, released his grip on Ezra’s neck – Ezra remembered the sudden inspiration of air, and how he finally appreciated the simple miracle of breathing. He, Ezra’s father, then drew a long, thin spike from his back pocket and before Ezra could say anything, he drove it right into his son’s right palm, nailing it onto the tree.
Ezra remembered the pain, like a million stings that painfully brought to awareness the flesh and bone that had snapped apart to make space for the intruding spike. He could feel his bones scrape against metal, he could feel sinew torn asunder and the exposed nerves erupt in waves of agony.
He called for his father, and he begged his father to help him, to stop the pain, to love him as a father should.
His father took a step back, not to study his handiwork, but to lament it, crying profusely and apologizing to Ezra over and over and over again.
Ezra cried and begged for his father to remove the spike, a mess of fluids pooling where they can on his face, and cascading down where they cannot.
“No I cannot, son,” his father said through angry tears of his own. His father tried to place an unscarred hand, blemished with his blood, gently on Ezra’s face but Ezra pulled away. He had heard of stories of child abuse during his three years in school, but he never thought it would happen to him. The pain was becoming unbearable, and he felt his mind lull, away from the pain, into some escapist fantasy moulded by Saturday morning cartoons. For awhile, his pain seemed muffled and far away. But then his father houted something, and Ezra felt his mind snap back to agonizing reality. Ezra could have sworn his father was directing that scream to his hand, but as he came to, his father quickly held him. “Ezra, you’re okay. You’re okay.” Despite sounding reassuring, Ezra’s father could not ease his son’s abject fears. I’m going to remove the spike, but there’s something you need to promise me. The next time you feel as angry as you did, I want you to cut your hand.”
It’s a strange moment for anybody to experience – the moment a parent descends into madness.”No, I cannot, Father. The pain is too much.”
“You have to do it, son. You have to. Promise me!”
“This is the life you and I have been given. There are things more powerful than you and I.” Ezra’s father hung his head as he sobbed but quickly recovered. “Now promise me!”
“Father, please, no…”
“Promise me or I’ll do it to you!” his father yelled through tears.
“I promise!” Ezra was willing to say anything to get the spike out of his hand. With a dismal squelch, his father removed the spike. Ezra keeled, and cried into the carpet of grass and dead leaves. His father left and came back with a first aid kit, and tended to his wound. “I love you, son, so much,” his father had sobbed, and Ezra never believed it. The drive back was wordless and long, allowing the pain in his hand to dull into a smarting throb, and the mottle of angry red blood on the bandage to lull into an insipid brown.
When they got home, Mother saw his bandaged hand and exchanged grim looks with Father. She never asked what happened – or at least, she never asked him, Ezra, what happened. Since then, his father had been cold and distant and sometimes unreasonably angry, and, Ezra would notice when his father thought he wasn’t looking, sad, defeated. Ezra, in the meantime, kept his promise unquestioningly. To his father’s credit, it worked. The mere prospect of reliving the pain of that fateful day in the forest kept his fists and his temper at bay, for most of the time.
It took eight years, on the day he moved to college, before his sister hugged him for the first time and apologised for her role in the events of that day. In all this time, Ezra had never entered a forest.
A vibration near his chest snapped him out of his reverie, and for the first time in nearly half an hour, he remembered his phone in his breast pocket. A second vibration followed while he was taking his phone out. The first one was from Mother: “He’s gone. You’re too late.”
The second was from his sister: “Father just passed. Keep him in your prayers. Will pick you up from the train station later.”
So there it was: the inevitable. It came without fanfare, without sorrowful goodbyes and the tearful exchanges of absolution, as he pictured when he was younger. It happened via text, soulless digitizations of a message more dire.
Ezra found that in his heart, he felt nothing. It was an emptiness carved out from contempt, hollowed by years of servile compliance to the incandescent whiplash of his father’s fiery indifference. It was oblivion where the tribute to his father should have been staged. It was irresolution, a void made by a million unspoken words from both father and son.
“Cor inanem est initium tabula rasa.” The emptied heart is the first step towards a clean slate. He chanted it, and allowed the words to fill the void inside his heart. He chanted it, trying to will into his soul acceptance and relief, rather than the emptiness he felt at his father’s passing. He chanted it, over and over, as much a reminder as it was a contrivance that, he wildly hoped, would become true through repetition. Emptiness is not loss. “Cor inanem est initium tabula rasa.” He chanted it, just as forcefully as he did when his Father first taught him those words.
Then suddenly, the groan of metal grinding on metal grated into the night. The steady hum of the train’s engine began to abate before finally stopping, terminal and still.
Static cackled from the carriage speakers. A voice cracked through the static, droning, “Ladies and gentlemen, the train has stopped due to a blockage on the track. Please remain seated and normal service will resume shortly.”
Ezra got up gingerly, careful not to hit his head against the ceiling of the carriage. He turned to the rear of the car, walking past an elderly woman peering to the front of the car, as though it held all her answers. His right thigh brushed against the shoulder of a petite woman with lips so sensually full that, for a split second, he regretted even standing up. He forced an apologetic smile at her, then he walked on, past a rotund man opening a bag of crackers, and his disapproving, equally rotund wife tch-tch-tching in the adjacent seat. The last seat before the lavatory was occupied by a solitary, frightened-looking child, a girl no more than ten years old.
“Hey,” he said, bearing his best smile. “Is the bathroom occupied?”
The child nodded her head.
“I’ll wait, then. Are you alone?”
The child tilted her head towards a sleeping couple across the aisle. The man appeared to be in his forties, clad in a black coat draped over a white shirt and faded jeans. The woman, slightly younger than her husband, was in a long blue-and-white striped dress. They held hands as they slumbered. “My papa told me not to talk to strangers,” said the girl, her voice soft as a breeze.
The man chuckled. “My papa told me the same thing. My name is Ezra.” Ezra offered his left hand, which the girl shook meekly.
“See? Now we’re no longer strangers.”
The child did not smile. Instead, she fixated on the man’s scarred hand.
“Hey,” Ezra called, snapping the girl’s attention back to him. “What do you think is blocking the track?”
“Something unimportant, the way they announced it,” said Preta. “I hope we move along soon.”
“Same here.” He studied the girl’s thin face, and noticed, for the first time, her pallid countenance. “You okay there, Preta?”
“I’m scared of the dark,” she said, her eyes darting between Ezra, her parents and the unmoving vista of a forest blackened by night outside the carriage windows.
There was the loud click of the lavatory door being unlocked. “I’ll be right back,” said Ezra in dulcet tones. “There’s nothing in the dark that you need to be afraid of. Everything’s going to be alright, Preta.”
The lavatory door swung open and a tall blond man in a grey suit stepped out. Ezra gave the girl one final smile before proceeding inside. Quickly, he closed the door behind him and basked in the solace. Ezra exhaled a beatific sigh, and after the sigh fully left his body, he began to cry – a frenzied, terrible sobbing eulogy to his father.
Ezra washed his hands first, a brown-skinned left hand, and an angry red right hand striated with the ghosts of recent wounds. He then held his hands up against the dim toilet lights, and in that particular relief, one of them felt like it did not belong to him. Nevertheless, he wiped both with equal care, using the rough single ply napkins dispensed there.
He then splashed water on his face, wiped it down, and peered at his reflection. As he got older, he would see his father in the mirror staring back at him, just with small modifications such as gaunter cheeks, or blemishes where none were on his father, or darker hair. A voice from another life shouted at him through his reflection, “You’re killing me! How are you this stupid?” Ezra looked down at his right hand, half-expecting to see his grade four report card in it, indicating his failures in Mathematics and Physical Education, and a pithy liner declaring him a disruptive influence in class. He looked back up to the mirror, half-expecting to see his father, large wooden ruler in hand, ready to swing…
Ezra shook the image from his mind and gave his face a final splash of water. He grabbed some napkins and wiped the tears out of his eyes. As he did so, there came the hiss of churning hydraulics. The train shuddered to a start and began to accelerate.
Ezra composed himself and opened the lavatory doors. “See, Preta?” he said cheerfully but stopped short. Preta was no longer there, and for a split second, he felt the kind of heavy guilt that comes with forsaking some dire responsibility.
Looking around, he realised that her parents were not there either, nor the tall blond man in the gray suit. Nor the snorer who sat in front of him. Nor the attractive woman with the pouty lips. Nor the cracker-eating fat man and his wife. The carriage was completely empty, save for the personal effects of the people who had been there.
“Hello?” Ezra called. The darkness howled its empty reply. He called again, just as unavailingly.
“Preta?” He turned back towards the other end of the corridor from the lavatory, opening himself, incorrectly, to the possibility that he had turned the wrong direction upon exiting the toilet. The carriage he ended in, instead, was the final carriage – and it, too, was empty, its seats occupied by magazines and stray luggage bags but not a single soul. He headed back to his carriage.
“Anybody, hello?” Only The Bedlam Express replied, with steady chugs. Did everyone detrain while he was in the lavatory? Surely Petra or the man in the gray suit would have said something?
He scanned the carriage from the corridor outside the lavatory. If the other passengers had left, they must have left in a hurry. A solitary copy of a Ghouls of The Orient comic book occupied the seat next to the one that was Preta’s. A baby blue scarf was draped over the seats her parents were in. Ezra approached his chair, stepping over some crackers that had spilled onto the floor. His chair was not empty.
On it was an old Manila file he had never seen before. It was labelled ‘Operation Vathek Descending’ and bore the insignia of the old militia, from the days before democracy, before the last coup d’état many decades ago. Stamped large red fonts across the cover of the file declared it Confidential.
Ezra opened it. It detailed the grisly murder of fifty children by the militia, upon orders by a General Rasheedi, in his attempt to find something termed The Bridge. Various tests were performed on the children for “Bridge induction”, but they all failed. Subject 1 was shot in the head after attempting to escape. Subject 8 jumped off the tenth story of the complex, and soared for a good kilometer before plunging to his death. One of the children, the paper read, Subject 42, was the General’s own son. Subject 51 had been in the programme for a month before it was defunded. The boy was sent home after, but the General signed an order to have him observed in secret. Faded black-and-white photographs accompanied the document, with grisly images of mangled pre-adolescent cadavers. One was in the middle of a field, with his skull cracked open as though he had fallen from a great height. Ezra assumed this must have been subject 8. Another photograph showed a spike driven into the back of a boy’s head, and out through his right eye socket, his eye held by a single red strand of gristle as it dangled precariously off his cheek. The boy was still very obviously alive when the picture was taken. His left eye was wide open, still accustomed to moving in tandem with his right eye, his back hunched, his mouth in mid-shriek. He turned the picture over. There was something scrawled on the back: “Subject 42. No Bridge.” He turned the other photographs in his hands and looked for the one with ‘Subject 51’ scrawled on its back. He found it, but there was something else written on the back of the photograph as well. In fresher ink, and in a different handwriting, were the words in splotchy red: “End the night with your own eyes and all will be clear.”
Ezra turned the photograph, and found himself staring into the familiar hazel eyes of Subject 51.
He slammed the file shut with trembling hands, and threw it onto the seat next to him, as though the act alone could erase the dismal images etched into his memory forever.
There was only one place now where he could get any answers – the locomotive carriage. Even if all the other passengers had disembarked, for whatever godforsaken reason, the fact that the train was running meant there was as least someone operating it.
Before he could get up, however, he heard a whisper, quiet and disquieting. It murmured, “Ezra.”
Ezra looked around. The carriage was still empty.
A shuffling of slow knocks from outside the train jolted him out of his seat and made him turn. It seemed to originate from outside the final cabin, but steadily, ploddingly, it grew closer and closer like a dread larghetto. He could not dismiss it for the trees – this one was methodical, done out of agency rather than the haphazard brushing of branches against the train’s metallic frame. Closer and closer still, it grew, until the tapping arrived at his window. Ezra yelled, a primal expulsion of horror. There, perched outside his window was a dark figure, its palms and knees black and featureless as the dead of night as it pressed against the glass. Occupying most of Ezra’s field of vision was its torso, which appeared to be clad in a hospital gown soiled with splatters of browned, stale blood. Ezra’s gaze moved up the gown, to the opening at the neck. There was a head there, hidden behind long, slithery hair, but it dangled feebly wrong-side-up off a neck that had obviously been snapped and twisted. Slowly, but with movements that barely registered to Ezra, it crawled back so that the two were face-to-face. Despite its grotesque countenance, Ezra recognized the face immediately.
The thing had his father’s face, but grotesquely disfigured, like his father’s skin was stretched over a tumourous, demonic cranium. What was most disturbing to Ezra was the fact that it was upturned, such that he was staring into its upside-down mouth when he should be looking into soulless eyes. The scraggy thing crawled on black spindly limbs, much unlike what his more stout father had. Everything about it was not his father – save for the upturned face that neither smiled nor cried nor berated; just gnarled and infernal. It was a ghastly and profane and volitional defilement of his father’s countenance, and it frightened Ezra more than any of his father’s bouts of violent anger ever had.
The gash that was its mouth stretched open and a horrible, inhuman cry escaped it. “Ez-ra, come.” The dead eyes of his father locked with his, only where his father’s eyes had been hazel, this one was fully black. It held his gaze for seconds that stretched into the abyss of eternity. And just as soon as it arrived, the figure crawled towards the front of the train, defying gravity and seemingly unperturbed by the speed at which the train moved.
Time stretched and tautened before he found himself able to move. He took out his phone and dialed manically for his sister. The dial tone rang. It rang again. The train sped along like a glinting knife stabbing into the darkness.
The dial tone was in mid-ring when it got replaced by the sound of his sister answering his call. “Naema!” he cried. “Naema!”
But Naema did not answer him. “Ez-ra,” a wispy, masculine voice croaked through the phone.
“Come.” The voice came from his phone, but also from outside the carriage. Outside the window, shapeless things whooshed by, flying and careening, and making anonymous poundings on the body of the train. He closed his eyes, and considered the possibility that the past minute had been a figment of his imagination.
Ezra opened his eyes. The carriage was empty. His phone showed that his call with Naema had ended. The train sped along. Nothing was perched outside his window.
The ash-stained red locomotive carriage was five cars ahead, with each car approximately 22 metres in length. A total of 110 metres separated Ezra from a fellow human being. It was within sprinting distance. I can do this, he thought. And so, with a great bound off his right foot, Ezra took off.
Ezra sprinted into the next cabin – a sleeping cabin – not daring to look inside the berths or out the windows. The winds seemed to carry voices uttering his name, but he did not, could not, stop. He was gathering speed, sprinting faster and faster, into the next cabin. This one had a large television screen at the front, and though the feed broke into static frequently, Ezra could make out a newscaster reporting gravely from a train track. He sprinted on.
There was the pounding of unseen feet above him, and it grew in reverberance.
Two more cabins. The pounding of the feet had transited to the windows to his right, and he thought he saw a black figure scurry on the windows, defying gravity and inviting madness. He did not stop.
Ezra continued, to the penultimate cabin before the locomotive. He was so close now. He jumped over a mound of luggage bags, and then finally – finally – he stopped.
The thing stood at the corridor quietly, its misshapen neck still holding the visage of his father grotesquely inverted.
Ezra looked past it. The door to the locomotive carriage was closed.
“What are you?” he shouted at the thing. And then the more pressing question came, “Who are you?”
It spoke and this time, Ezra hears it clearly, registering its register and noting its note. It was a voice from the darkest reaches beyond the ether, an inimical voice that bit into Ezra’s soul and festered there, a dark growth blighting the space in his soul his father had occupied.
It said: “I am your father’s sins.”
Author's note: This is the end of the first part of The Bedlam Express. I wish this short story was shorter, not just for the word count. This has been a rather discomforting write. But I guess that's part of the writer's adventure, eh?