Into The FogRead at the Tamale Hut Cafe Reading Series, October, 2014.
Mark Curtis never remembered his dreams, at least not for more than a few seconds after waking. He was not even sure that he did dream, although when he told people that, their reply was always that everyone dreams, that it's a normal part of sleep, just not everyone remembers what they dream.
When he was at college, he kept a dream diary for a class he was taking. Everyone in the class was supposed to keep track of their dreams, to write them down as soon as they woke, before the memory faded. At the end of the semester, Mark's diary was almost empty. There were a few scattered notes written there, but it seemed that he could not even keep the dream in his mind long enough upon waking to reach next to his bed for pen and paper.
So it was strange that fall morning when he woke up and remembered something. He couldn't remember details, but he distinctly remembered that he was dreaming. He lay there for a minute after shutting the alarm off, wishing he could remember what the dream was about. All he had was a feeling of dread.
He got out of bed and went into the bathroom. As he did every day, he didn't turn any lights on, relying on the dim night light that he left on all night to make sure he didn't step on the dog, who had an uncanny knack of laying anywhere Mark wanted to walk. He knew if he turned the light on then, she would want to go out immediately, and that would disrupt his morning routine.
Mark ran some cold water in the sink and splashed it on his face. As he wiped the water from his eyes, he looked in the mirror and was surprised by a face he didn't recognize. In the dim light from the night light in the next room, he thought he saw a square-shaped head with a thick brow, a flat nose and a gaping, crooked mouth, full of brown, tobacco-stained teeth. One eye was staring at him, and the other drifted lazily down and away. He fairly jumped when he saw it, and immediately switched on the light. In the harsh light from the bulbs over the mirror, the only face he saw was his own. I need to lay off those late-night chili dogs, Mark thought, shaking his head and reaching to turn on the shower.
As the warm water ran over him, he had a nagging feeling that something was wrong. He knew the face in the mirror was just a trick of the light. The squareness he thought he saw and thickness of the brow was probably just his own hair mussed from sleep, and the rest of the features were just shadows in the dim light as interpreted by his imagination. Still, the face seemed familiar, and he felt he would remember such a hideous visage had he ever seen it before.
Mark let the dog out to run around the yard while he prepared his lunch. As she ran out, he noticed that the fog had rolled into the neighborhood overnight, and combined with the pre-dawn darkness, it served to hide his dog from view. He had to call for her several times before she came trotting towards him and up the stairs, wearing that pleased-with-herself expression that usually meant that she had got into some mischief. He made a mental note to check the yard later, after he got home from work, to see any damage she might have done. He gave her fresh water and a treat, then grabbed his lunch and walked out the front door.
Mark was one of the lucky ones. When his job moved from the suburbs into the city, he found that the train he needed to take stopped at a station only a block-and-a-half walk from his home. While most of his co-workers had to drive to their local station and fight for parking, even before embarking on a long train ride, Mark was able to just walk to the train. He went from putting gas in his car every week to filling up once a month. And the extra walking was doing him some good, too, giving him some well-needed exercise.
When Mark left that day, he walked into the thickest fog he'd ever seen. He was getting accustomed to leaving the house before the sun came up as the calendar moved deeper into fall, but that morning seemed darker than normal. The glow of the lone streetlight on his block barely cut through the haze to reach the sidewalk, and Mark was startled as a rabbit he hadn't seen on the lawn suddenly jumped across his path and dove into a clump of bushes in front of the house he was passing.
The fog was so thick that he could only see the width of a few houses in front of him, and he could feel the moisture on his face like a fine mist. He hunched his shoulders and walked straight ahead, and soon saw the lights of the train station materializing out of the gloom.
The station was a small one, with no ticket booth or coffee vendor on site. There were only a few trains daily that serviced that station, so Mark had few choices if he wanted to use that stop, and all of them were locals. Mark didn't mind not being able to take an express train. It took a little longer to get to work and back, but he used the time well, reading or listening to music. He liked to catch the first train of the day that stopped there. That train was rarely crowded, which meant he always had his pick of a seat, something that was not always the case on the next one, 15 minutes later.
As he waited at the station, the few regulars for that train arrived to wait with him. There was Frank, a guy a couple of years older than Mark, who worked some kind of a construction job, and Ray, a lawyer. Louise arrived, waving hello like she usually did without saying a word as she walked past towards the forward end of the platform, now obscured by the fog.
"So do you guys have Experiment in Terror going through your head?" Mark asked.
"You mean Creature Features?" Frank said. "Doon-DOON, doon-DOOOON."
"That's it! Man, I love that tune. Did you ever see the movie that..."
Just then, there was a blast of static from the speaker mounted on the roof of the station. "The next inbound train will be arriving in approximately three minutes," a recorded voice said. Frank and Ray nodded to Mark and walked toward the head of the platform, leaving Mark alone where he stood. They liked to sit in one of the forward cars, but Mark preferred one of the latter cars, which usually contained fewer people. He thought it was eerie to watch them disappear into the fog.
He heard a sound from the stairs, and turned to see Eleanor climbing up to the platform. Eleanor was not a regular, but for the last several months, Mark would see her on the platform, once a week at the most, and it always gave him a little thrill when he did. Eleanor was tall, almost as tall as Mark, and pretty, if just a little pale, like she didn't spend much time in the sun, even at the height of summer. She had long black hair that was cut to taper to a point in the middle of her shoulder blades. She favored short skirts and knee-high boots, a combination that was a favorite of Mark's as well. Whenever he saw her, he wanted to sing "Eleanor, gee, I think you're swell," but he never did, because he thought that was corny, and because he always harbored thoughts that he might ask her out some time. He noticed back when he first saw her that she didn't wear a ring.
"Hi, Eleanor," Mark said, "you're just in time. As usual." She always seemed to arrive at the station just before the train, well after the other regulars walked down the platform. In fact, when he'd mentioned her to Frank and Ray, neither could remember ever seeing her.
Eleanor smiled, and Mark's knees went a little soft. "Hi, Mark. You know, I keep this up, one of these days I'm going to miss this train."
"I worry about that, too, and that's why I like this one. I figure if I miss it, it's only 15 minutes before the next one."
They stood quietly for a few seconds, looking down the track. After the three-minute warning, they could usually see the train's headlights as it left the previous stop, but today, they couldn't see beyond the meager cone of light thrown from the halogen light at the back of the platform. "This fog is incredible," Mark said. One of these days, Mark thought, I need to talk to her about something other than the weather or train schedules.
First, they saw a faint glow. Soon they saw the front of the train materialize out of the fog, which inbound is actually the back of the last car as the engine is pushing. It whooshed by, only to be swallowed again by the fog at the other end of the platform. Other cars followed, and the train slowed and stopped with the door of the fifth car almost exactly where Mark and Eleanor were standing.
Mark was constantly amazed by the preciseness of the trains. They were not always on time, far from it, but they almost always stopped in the exact same place every time. Once he figured out the right spot to stand, it was like the train was stopping just for him. The door would open right in front of him, and his usual conductor, Andy, would step out and wish him a good morning. Andy was a portly, Hispanic man, with a pleasant demeanor who always wore an impeccably-pressed white shirt. He said that his wife ironed his shirt just before he left the house so that it was still warm when he put it on, even when he had to be out the door at 3 A.M.
Mark usually got on the train first, then held the inside door open for Eleanor, and she would pass through to find a seat on the top level while Mark sat down below. He thought that one day, maybe he could keep a conversation going as they went through the door, and instead of separating, he might screw up his courage and go up and sit by her. Maybe today would be that day.
Trying to think of something interesting to say, he looked up as the door opened, but instead of Andy's welcoming face smiling at him, there was another conductor there. He had his hat pulled down on his square head, but Mark clearly saw the flat nose and crooked mouth full of brown-stained teeth. The man stepped from the train to the platform and one eye just drifted. It looked to be the same face that Mark had seen in the mirror that morning.
And then he realized where he saw that face. Mark suddenly remembered everything about the dream that he had the night before. In it, the ugly man was bare-chested, looming over a crude stone slab, the area lit with burning braziers. There were dozens of people reverently standing around, and Mark was lying on the slab, staring up at the man. The man was waving a long dagger over his head and was shouting something that Mark didn't understand. Mark's point of view abruptly shifted, and he was viewing the scene from within the crowd, looking up at the man behind the slab, lit by the fires around. He looked from the man to the pale figure on the slab and recognized it was Eleanor lying there. He started to move through the crowd towards the man with the dagger and a hand grabbed his shoulder.
"So, are you getting on the train?" Eleanor asked, taking her hand from his shoulder.
Mark glanced around. The three of them were standing on the platform, surrounded by fog, in front of the open train door. The conductor just stared at him with his good eye. Mark took a step back.
"No, I think we should wait for the next one," he said.
Eleanor looked at him with a funny expression. "What to you mean, we? I don't know about you, but I'm getting on this train. I don't want to stand around in this fog." She started to walk towards the open door.
"No, wait," Mark said, frantically trying to think of a reason to keep her off the train. If he tried to explain the dream, she would have thought he was a kook.
"C'mon," the conductor said with a faint sneer. "We gotta timetable."
Mark watched Eleanor walk up the stairs and turn to go through the inside door. He was frozen, unable to move. The conductor grinned at him, a hideous brown grin, then waved his flashlight towards the front of the train before climbing the steps himself. The door closed and the train car slid almost silently away from the platform, disappearing into the fog.
Mark didn't move. What had just happened? he thought. Why didn't I get on that train with her? He just stood there, and soon the commuters began arriving at the station for the later train. Soon, the announcement came over the speaker that the next train would be approaching. Not long after that, a train slid out of the fog and stopped, the door opening directly in front of Mark as the earlier one did. The conductor, a different one, one that Mark didn't recognize, stepped off the train, greeting the passengers who shuffled past. Mark carefully climbed the stairs, walked through the door and found a seat on the main level.
As he sat there, still stunned by what he saw on the earlier train, he heard the chimes and the recorded message that the doors were about to close. He heard the doors slide shut, and expected the familiar lurch as the train started but it didn't come. The train sat for a minute, two minutes, then he heard the chimes again and the outside door slid open. A conductor from another car passed through, practically running, heading towards the front of the train. Mark and the other passengers started looking around, some mumbling annoyances at the delay.
A few minutes later, a voice came on the intercom. "Sorry folks, we're going to be here a while. There's been a problem down the line, and all trains are stopped, and we don't know when they'll be running again." There was a pause. "Since we haven't left the station, I'd suggest you make other arrangements for your commute this morning. We apologize for any inconvenience."
The other passengers began complaining loudly, but Mark picked up his lunch bag and walked towards the door. He figured he could just work from home that day, but he had a sinking feeling in his stomach. As he stepped out, the conductor was standing on the platform, looking unnaturally somber.
"So, what's going on?" Mark asked, nonchalantly. "Mechanical problems like the last time?"
The conductor slowly shook his head. "There's been a derailment." He took a deep breath. "The train ahead of this one hit something and several cars jumped the track. I hear it's pretty bad."
Mark immediately thought of Eleanor. Why hadn't he insisted that she stay behind?
It was many hours later that the Internet had all the details of what happened. He learned that it was the train he didn't get on that had derailed. Apparently, there was something on the track that had fallen off a freight train that was hidden by the fog, and it caused several cars to derail. Unfortunately, there were casualties. In fact, all the deaths occurred in the fifth car, the one Mark usually rode in. But when the list of casualties was published, there was no one named Eleanor listed. Mark noticed that no women were on the list. There was also no mention of any conductor in the car, which he thought odd.
The next morning, Mark was back on the platform, waiting for the train like normal. He heard all about the accident from Frank and Ray, who were fortunate to have been in one of the front cars that didn't derail. He asked if they had seen Eleanor, but like last time, neither of them knew who she was. Mark was puzzled by that but not totally surprised, because she always arrived at the station after the other two walked to the front of the platform. Mark watched the stairs, but Eleanor didn't come up before the train arrived. The doors opened and Andy stepped out.
"Andy," Mark exclaimed. "Where were you yesterday?"
Andy gave a half-smile. "Cracked a tooth the day before, and had to have it pulled yesterday. Picked a great day to take off, huh? I guess you weren't in the car either."
"No, I ... um ... missed the train yesterday. But was your sub hurt? I didn't see any conductors on the casualty list."
Andy looked puzzled. "There was no sub yesterday. They couldn't find anyone to fill in on such short notice. The guys from the other cars passed through to check tickets. At least they did before the crash."
"But what about the guy," Mark lowered his voice, "you know, with the teeth and the eye?"
Andy shook his head. "Don't know who you're talking about. There was no conductor in this car yesterday. Thank goodness for that."
Mark furrowed his brow. "But, I saw ..." He shook his head. "Never mind. I'm glad you're safe. I only hope Eleanor is okay. I think she was in that car."
"Eleanor?" asked Andy, wrinkling his brow.
"Yeah, you know Eleanor. Tall, long hair, legs? She doesn't always catch this train, but I've gotten on with her a few times."
Andy shook his head again. "Doesn't ring a bell. I know most of the regulars, but you know, there are a lot of people on and off this train."
"Yeah, but you couldn't miss her ..." Mark started, then stopped. "Well, anyway, I'm glad you're okay."
"Same to you," Andy replied.
Mark climbed the stairs, entered the car and found a seat. As he did, he scanned the top level to see if Eleanor was sitting up there, but she wasn't. Every day after that, he watched the stairs as the train arrived in the station, and checked the upper level one he got on the train.
But he never saw Eleanor again.
© Matthew Bieniek, 2014