[Chapter 15]: Oh, Oh Dear.
Deprived of a way to stop, Lyle’s abandoned cars came barreling through a pocket of In-shift, into a town that had previously had little to boast of other than the relative seclusion most people who passed through found envious and quaint. Like every good town of this sort, it had at least one legend, and it just so happened to concern the train tracks that cut through the middle of the square. Everyone knew they were supposed to be haunted. More than half the inhabitants had felt the ground shake many times before or sworn they heard the faint sounds of a locomotive ghosting by…but that night put all doubt and superstition to rest.
Circa early 1900s, the spectral train burst out of thin air, wheels sparking. Dogs barked wildly at the improbable beast and there wasn’t a house within twenty miles that didn’t hear the roar of the impending crash or the screams of those inside. Real, human cries split the air, and terror deadened the faces of those who happened to be out of doors to watch the nightmarish scene. The dogs that had sounded the alarm tucked their tails between their legs as the train cars shot by.
After the crash, after the ruined cars lay hissing and groaning in the grass and rocks, the real commotion began. Police and ambulances arrived on both sides of the tracks, accompanied by almost the entire town. There were no more screams, but the pale figures inside looked out at them, their luminous eyes glinting white in the moonlight. A shattered window in the fourth car was drenched in fresh blood and something black that looked and smelt like ink. It had attracted the attention of both EMTS and police, the latter of which had already begun to scoop bits of the strangeness into small containers. But this was almost an afterthought; the passengers were the more disturbing.
Almost all of them seemed injured, but as the officers drew closer they could see that these were not the usual injuries that might sprout from a wrecked locomotive. There were men without limbs who blinked their sickened faces without a single sign of pain, women who were bruised and blue, but unconcerned, and children whose bodies were pierced by painful foreign objects, but did not cry. None of them seemed to want to leave.
Consequently, the evacuation went at a maddeningly slow rate, with the officers receiving no help whatsoever from the crash victims. None of them spoke, no matter how hard they were coaxed. No one would explain what had happened, why they were all dressed as if they had been dragged from different periods of time, or where on earth the train’s engine had gone.
A police officer picked up a little girl who seemed, of all of them, relatively unhurt. He stepped out of the train car, but as soon as his feet touched the damp grass, the girl vanished. He stared in alarm at his hands, and the panic began all over again. They tried it a second time with a tottering old woman, but she, too, melted into nothingness. No one knew what to do. How did you assist people who melted through your hands?
Those who eventually ventured into the belly of the splayed beast to treat the wounded where they lay found the floors sticky with a thick mixture of blood, bodies, and the inexplicable octopus ooze. One paramedic, who was either more open-minded or more superstitious, stumbled from the wreckage and vomited onto the grass, holding his sides. His partner stepped out and put a hand on his shoulder. She didn’t speak; there was nothing to say. They knew what the other first responders were trying desperately not to accept. The passengers were dead. Dead, and still moving. Dead, and waiting for their transportation to somehow right itself so that they could be on their way.
“We need to help seal the area,” she said. “There’s nothing else we can do right now.”
“That guy,” the paramedic wheezed, wiping his lips. “Did you see him? His eyes were full of glass.”
“I saw him,” she frowned. “He wasn’t the worst.”
His partner let him sink to the ground and take a moment to recover. They both went quiet, preoccupied, while behind them a pair of police officers escorted a drooling, staring man with moldy blonde hair out of the third car. He clawed at them with fumbling hands and did not vanish once they got past the train. If there had been any reason to check his pockets, they would have found a small dried up owl corpse linking him to their world.
All of this, the two paramedics missed. They almost failed to see the shadow hunched over in the dark in front of them as well, until it gave a shuddering sob.
“Hey,” the paramedic said, “was he there a minute ago?”
“Sir?” his partner called. “Sir, are you hurt?” She was already heading to his side. Reluctantly, the paramedic followed. He had had enough of this shift.
The man was covered in blood, his dark hair smeared into place by it like an oil slick. He was gripping his knees, rocking back and forth, much like the paramedic wanted to be doing right now. As they knelt he spoke in a quavering voice without looking at them. “She lied to me,” he said. “He doesn’t know anything. She lied.”
“It’s okay, sir,” the paramedic assured him. “We’re going to help you, all right? Where are you hurt?”
Slowly, the man raised ice blue eyes to look at him. They were so stunningly blue that the moonlight actually seemed to shine in their centers. “Here,” he said, pressing a blood-stained palm against his head. His face was badly bruised, and in one place the skin had been scraped so deeply that his cheekbone was showing. “There are no stars here,” he mumbled, his gaze drifting off into the black sky. “I want to go home….”
“What’s your name?” his partner asked, trying to draw his vision back to her. “Hey, can you hear me? What’s your name?”
“A ship. I have a ship. Despernot.” He smiled tiredly. “There we are.”
“Your name’s Despernot?”
“Okay, Despernot, can you stand? Do you think you can walk?”
“I think I can fly, if you think happy thoughts.”
The paramedics exchanged uncertain glances, but helped ease him to his feet. He didn’t seem to have any problems with walking and let them guide him along towards the flashing lights of their ambulance. Both of them expected him to vanish before they got there, but he stubbornly continued to exist. They had him lie down on a stretcher and loaded him into the back.
“Do you think you can drive?” his partner asked.
“Yeah,” the paramedic replied. “Do you really want to ride back there with crazy, though?”
“He’s just hurt. Take it easy on him.”
“He’s creepy, Em.”
She flashed a mischievous smile. “Funny, that was my first impression of you, too.”
Their argument settled in the usual way, he climbed into the driver’s seat and waited for her to give him the all clear. Soon they were off, sirens blaring, winding away through wreckage and roads for the hospital. He drove with the window down to let the cold air calm his trembling hands.
In five miles, his partner was banging against the back of his head.
“Shit, what?” he swore and pulled over to the side of the road. He parked the ambulance and pocketed the keys before hurrying around back. He flung the doors open and there they were, Despernot on the stretcher and Em in her place by the wall. She had a clipboard in her hand and he was already hooked up for an EKG.
“Why’d you stop?” she asked.
“You weren’t knocking just now?”
“No? Alan, I think you’d better let me drive.”
He hesitated only a moment before realizing that it hadn’t been a suggestion. “Right. Fine.” They traded places and started off again, a bit more roughly this time. Em had never been very delicate in her driving habits.
“It stains you, doesn’t it?” said Despernot. He kept his head turned away, resting against the pillow. “Seeing things like that.”
“It’s part of the job,” Alan replied, scanning Em’s work on the clipboard. “I should be used to it by now.”
Despernot laughed softly and then coughed and covered his mouth. His fingers came away red. “Used to what?” he said. “Finding a train full of ghosts?” When Alan didn’t reply he went on, “You’re trying to justify it. Your mind wants to do one of two things: explain or ignore. It has to do that, or there’s only one other option.”
“Stop talking,” Alan said. “You’ve got an internal bleed.”
“Oh, you don’t know that.” This time he did turn, and there was something in his bruised expression that was almost kindness. “I remember what it was like.”
“Seeing that one thing. There’s always one thing,” he added, “that stains you and makes your mind have to decide. And that decision decides what you are, forever. I saw a box. It was silver, and there were stars.”
Alan decided it was best not to engage this lunatic. He continued Em’s work, but it took him only a few disbelieving looks at the readouts on his various instruments to realize they had picked up one of the wounded dead. At that point he gave up and sank back against the wall.
Despernot laughed. “You accept it,” he said cheerfully. “That wasn’t the option I meant. Wouldn’t you rather go mad?”
“Just because the world’s gone that way doesn’t mean I have to.”
Em would have shouted at him for being so terse with a patient. But what bedside manners did you use for a ghost? What was the point? You couldn’t exactly tell them they were going to be okay. “Why are you bleeding?” he asked after a while.
“Contrariwise,” was all Despernot said. He wrapped one arm around his head and held it there, mumbling to himself in something that sounded suspiciously Italian. Alan watched him and decided that if he couldn’t do anything to help he might as well get some information. It wasn’t every day you got an interview with a ghost.
“What’s it like, being dead?”
Despernot frowned. “What’s it like? Why are you asking me? Aren’t you alive?”
“I hear a question. If you aren’t bothering to live, don’t ask a dead person what it is to die.”
“How did the train crash?” Alan tried, feeling slightly uncomfortable again.
“It was the Foxe.”
“Foxes are liars and tricksters,” Despernot explained. “They don’t listen to stars and they don’t fear anything at all. Come to think,” he added, glancing up from beneath his arm, “neither do you. Are you a Foxe?”
“I don’t think so. I’m pretty afraid of some–”
“I think you may be.” He sat up and began plucking the EKG wires from his body. “After all, you don’t seem to mind the impossible. Either you’re a little mad already, or you know her. You know the Foxe.”
His eyes were breeding anger. Alan was not afraid of him physically; the man was a sickly shrimp. He could take him if he had to, but he had a feeling that, where ghosts were concerned, their appearances were not the dangerous part. “I don’t know any Foxes,” he insisted.
“Yes, you do. You know what they’ve done with my muse!”
“You need to calm down. If you can bleed, you can be restrained, and that’s what I’ll do if I have to.”
In a flash, the anger vanished. Despernot looked like a lost child who had run to the embrace of a relieved parent, only to find himself in the arms of a stranger. “What should I do?” he whispered. “Tell me what should I do?”
“Are you all right?” Alan asked.
“No,” the lunatic replied distractedly, “I’m all wrong.” He looked up at him pleadingly. There was a faint redness of unshed tears around his eyes. “What should I do?”
“…what you need to, I guess,” Alan replied. He had meant it as an evasive, non-committal response—because really what on earth was he supposed to say—but Despernot nodded and gave a small sigh.
“Thank you, Ward,” he said.
“How do you know my surname?”
Despernot smiled. “They keep shouting it at you,” he said. “And it’s where you’ll end up.”
His vision began to blur around the edges. It was like someone was burning a photograph in front of him, and he could smell the smoke; it tasted like grass and death. Despernot wavered before him for a moment and then he was gone, taking the rest of the ambulance with him. A wave of vertigo swept Alan back miles and miles to someplace cold where someone was shouting his name at him and a frantic pair of hands were shaking his shoulders. “Ward! WARD!”
With a gasp he opened his eyes and found himself in Em’s arms. She was sheet-white, a thin stream of tears pasted onto her face. They were on the ground just outside the wreckage of the train. A small posse of police surrounded them. “I think he’s okay!” she breathed at last. “Ward, can you hear me?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow stand. He turned to look and found Despernot stretching in the pale of the moon. Their eyes met and the ghost gave him a grateful smile before walking away through the trees.
“Ward!” She gave his face a light slap and he looked at her again. “You were talking to yourself,” she said. “You started to seize!”
“I’m okay,” he replied. Far above, the stars were drifting lazily down into his eyes. “What’s it like, being alive?”
(TCOS will continue next Monday!)