Happy Halloween, Everyone!
For my favorite holiday this year, I’m posting the beginnings to two spooky stories and asking everyone to weigh in on which one I should finish first. If you missed part one of “Babe at Arms” posted earlier today, make sure to read it too. . . unless of course, you’re TOO AFRAID!
Julia peered over her open laptop at the small pair of eyes and wild, fly-away hair. She’d noticed the little girl looking at her from the seat a few rows ahead of hers on the train.
When their eyes met, the child squeaked and pulled her face completely behind the seat. Julia giggled, surprising herself. Two years ago, the antics probably would have annoyed her more than anything, but she found her heart changing toward children more and more these days.
She lowered her eyes back to her laptop and began typing again. She was glad she’d also have the morning hours of tomorrow to work on this report before reaching the destination of her business meeting. Her brain worked best in the morning, and she knew she could also take her laptop to the observation car where the buzz of people coming and going would mimic the energy of her favorite café back home, an atmosphere she always found particularly energizing.
It would also, she knew, eliminate the distraction of the little girl. As much as she was enjoying it, Julia knew she’d get more done without all the interruptions.
And now she felt the presence of the little girl once again, this time behind her. She must’ve been working too intently to notice her sneaking past the row of seats. She could only hear the quick little breaths. Turning her head slowly, a mischievous look in her own eyes, she expected to see the wild hair and lighted face. Strangely, she saw nothing but the tall seat back. She rose and turned to see if the little girl had ducked down to hide, but found the row empty. Furrowing her brow, she turned back and scanned the rest of the compartment. To her surprise, she spotted the back of the child’s head, in the row with the rest her family.
Julia turned again to look at the empty row behind her, thinking of the tiny child-like breaths she’d heard. Could she have imagined them? She sunk back down into her seat, her eyes drawn to the laptop screen. She felt a wave of fatigue pushing both confusion and motivation out of her mind. She saved her work and shut down her computer, putting it away in her briefcase and pulling her travel pillow from her satchel. She pulled her sweater around herself and leaned up against the window, glad to have this row to herself. The scenery flying by outside the train window blurred as she relaxed her eyes, letting her lids droop low.
Julia woke with the setting sun shining in on her face. An announcement about dinner service in the dining car rattled out of the speaker on the ceiling. Julia looked at her old-fashioned watch which she knew was now an hour behind the local time. Its hands pointed to just past 4:30. Five-thirty, she thought. Well, I’ll be on this time for the next 48 hours at least. Might as well convince my body of it. She had a generous per diem from her company in exchange for agreeing to take the coach-class train instead of a sleeper car for this business trip.
She stowed her briefcase next to her carry-on in the overhead compartment and tucked her travel pillow back in her satchel. She pulled her purse strap over her shoulder and walked to the compartment door. On her way out, she noticed her little friend asleep, leaning up against her mother’s shoulder. She smiled at the family, though all their heads were lowered, some in sleep and some in attention to a video playing on a tablet computer held by one of the boys.
* * *
After her dinner, Julia returned to her lower-level compartment, mostly empty at this hour. The little girl and her family where among those missing, likely off to the dining or observation cars. Julia took her seat again, glancing out the darkened window at the street lamps and large security poles lighting up the big box stores and sprawling parking lots not far from the train tracks. She pulled out her phone to check her messages, answering a few work emails before tapping on a message from her sister that made her chuckle to herself.
She was vaguely aware of her fellow passengers returning from dinner. When she looked up from her phone, she realized the only completely empty row in their lower level compartment now were the ones directly across from her and the very last row, right behind it. How different from when she’d gotten on the train this morning and been one of only three other passengers among the 36 seats.
She heard the train’s whistle and felt the pull of slow deceleration. She could see nothing outside of the darkened windows until the branded sign for the small train station slipped across the view. Julia looked back at her phone, closing out of her email and pulling up her project outline. She’d just tapped the button to begin editing when a shadow fell over the screen.
Julia looked up at the young man in the conductor uniform.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he continued, but we have a family of five coming in, and I wondered if you could take one of those back seats, so they wouldn’t have to split up between rows?”
Julia looked over at the row of seats where the young man gestured. The three seats across the aisle and all the way at the back of the compartment stood empty. Across from them, behind where Julia sat now, two women who’d boarded together, sat with their heads bent toward the same diversion whether it was a book, a tablet or something else.
“Sure, no problem,” she replied. She stood and began pulling her bags from the overhead compartment. She glanced all around the seat to make sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind. From her peripheral vision, she saw a new family waiting at the front of the car, but it was a frown on the face of the little blond girl she’d befriended earlier that caused her to do a small double take.
She didn’t pause long though, but moved toward the three empty seats in the very back row. She let her bags fall into them, moving them one by one up to the overhead bin. When she turned to sit, she saw the little blond girl still looking at her, her mouth frowning, and an expression in her eyes that caused Julia’s stare to linger. Was that anger? Fear? But the girl’s mother was pulling her out of the way of the family that was now filing into both sides of the row Julia had just left. Her gaze fell to them, a mother and father with two teen girls, perhaps twins even, and a younger boy. Julia finished stowing her bags and sat down just as the train began to pick up speed once again, the lights in the compartment dimming to their nighttime level.
As she sat, she noticed it had begun to rain outside and she watched the beads of water trail down the outside of the plexiglass, at first nearly vertical and then more and more horizontally as the train picked up speed. She checked her watch. She still hadn’t set it forward an hour yet. It read 9:03. Time to sleep, she thought. The sun would rise early tomorrow, and she wanted to be as well-rested as possible and get to the observation car early. She wedged her travel pillow between the headrest of her new seat and the window, leaning into it and pulling her sweater around herself once more.
* * *
Julia awoke with a start, hearing loud clap of thunder outside. A flash of lightning illuminated tree-lined fields outside her window for a split-second. She was about to close her eyes again, but caught a glimpse of motion beside her and gasped, flinching away. In the dark, she made out the features of the little blond girl and a wave of relief washed over her until another flash of lightning revealed the child’s expression, the same as it had been last time she saw her. Dark, unsmiling, impossible to decipher as wholly fear or anger. It made Julia’s heart beat faster again.
“He’ll see you,” the little girl whispered, her tone full of concern.
Julia didn’t have time to react before the child continued.
“Don’t look behind you. He’ll see you for sure.”
It took all of Julia’s self-restraint not to turn around straight away, but then she remembered she was in the very back row. There was nothing behind her but the back wall of the compartment, with only an inch or two between it and the head rest. No one could be behind her. She felt relief wash through her again, and her concern turned completely to the child.
“I think you’ve had a nightmare, kiddo. Let me take you back to your parents.” She moved to stand, but the child moved faster pushing her back against her seat. Julia gasped again, barely quenching a shriek of surprise.
“Don’t look behind you!” the little girl whispered again, her face only inches from Julia’s and a few tears glistening on her cheeks. “He’ll see you!” With that, the child leapt away, back into the aisle, the sound of her running feet muffled by the puffy pink slippers Julia had seen her wearing earlier. She stretched upward in her seat to see if the child had gone back to her own seat, but over the tall headrests, she could only make out the heads of the mother and father in that row, no sign of any of the children who she realized were probably too short to show up while leaning against their parents or the window.
Out of curiosity, Julia turned to look behind her. The smooth compartment wall met her gaze, utterly unremarkable without any sort of graffiti, advertisement or even a mirror that might have confused the little girl into thinking there could be a person there. She must’ve just had a nightmare, she thought, though the memory of the child leaping into her lap, the way those piercing eyes had looked into hers…. Julia yawned, and looked at her watch reflexively, though she had to pull out her phone anyway, because of the dimmed overhead lights. 1:13 a.m. She shook her head.
“Definitely a nightmare,” she mumbled to herself, taking one last scan around the compartment. Everyone seemed to be asleep.