Chapter 82 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

At a few minutes before midnight, Jim wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a snack. He couldn't find much food in the Asylum kitchen, and all he managed to scrounge up was some whole wheat toast and a mug of hot chocolate. Thus provisioned, he went back upstairs to his room to watch "The Twilight Zone." It was an excellent episode called "The After Hours," about the secret life of department store mannequins. After the Zone, he watched the first half of "Late Night with David Letterman," occasionally flipping channels to see parts of a rerun of "The Odd Couple."

At one o'clock in the morning, he snapped the set off and crawled into bed.

That night he had a dream.

He was at a railroad station. It was late at night, and the early winter air was cold and windy. He entered the station. Inside it was warm, but drafty, and the station, large and open, seemed very deserted. Three or four people sat waiting for the train, seated stiffly on the cold metal benches, their big, fully packed suitcases resting at their feet, their faces, blank and expressionless, still somehow displaying a sense of calm happiness.

Jim set down his own full suitcases and checked his pockets for perhaps the fiftieth time. Did his passport have the correct exit visas? Yes. Did he have enough cash to purchase a ticket? Yes. He checked the timetable. His train was due in ten minutes.

He approached the ticket window. The clerk was very old, and seemed very, very tired. Jim asked him for a one-way ticket. The clerk checked Jim's passport, then sold him the ticket. One hundred twenty two dollars and seventeen cents. The train was posted as being on time, due to arrive in seven minutes. Jim took his place on the benches with the others.

The time passed slowly, but at last Jim heard the shrill sound of the steam whistle as the train approached the station. Jim and the other passengers moved out onto the platform.

The train stopped and he stood waiting with the others as the arriving passengers disembarked. They moved very slowly. Their faces were also blank and expressionless, but there was no calm happiness in their eyes. They had a shell-shocked look, they seemed bewildered and confused, they wandered, aimlessly and listlessly, their eyes barely seeming to function. Some collapsed, helpless, on the platform. Guards appeared from somewhere, helping them to their feet, giving them directions as to where the rag-tag group should go.

Then they were boarding. As Jim awaited his turn, he again checked his passport, he again confirmed the existence of the ticket in his hand. Finally he was next. The conductor looked him over. He took Jim's ticket, and studied it. He took Jim's passport, and studied it even more closely. The conductor frowned. He stepped up into the train and conferred with another conductor. They talked in whispers, Jim could not hear their words. Finally the conductor faced Jim again. The train gave out a long, shrill whistle.

"I'm sorry," said the conductor.

"What?" squeaked Jim. His pulse raced, his breath was in quick, short bursts. "But I thought-"

"I'm sorry," said the conductor again. "Your ticket price will be refunded." The conductor swung up and into the passenger car and, with a lurch, the train began moving, very slowly at first but with gathering speed, vanishing into the distance.

The terrible cold silence of the winter night enveloped Jim, as he stood, amazed and confused, alone on the empty train platform. Then a guard appeared. "This way, sir," he said.

"Almost," thought Jim, as he went back into the Empty City.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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