The train ride was long and quiet. Other than the grinding of the rails there was no noise, no words being spoken, no cars honking or music playing. The lights were dimmed and the other passengers were dozing. No one sat beside or across from Ethan. He’d never been sent so far away on his own before. It was nice to be free, yet he couldn’t sleep a wink. He stared out the window, though there was little more than darkness to be seen. His stomach hurt. He brushed it off as mild motion sickness, but he knew it was anxiety keeping him awake and unsettled. He had no reason to be afraid, not really, yet he didn’t feel secure. It was like the feeling he got when he went somewhere on his own without his cell phone — a small, irrational concern that something might happen and he wouldn’t have any help. He’d be all alone. Except he had his phone with him. So what was the problem?
He shuffled in his seat and tried to get comfortable. He closed his eyes, but they’d slide back open when he wasn’t paying attention. He gazed out the window. The trees and hills and fields shifted and distorted in the moonlight. It was eerie, but comforting, too, in a way.
“You have to help me.”
Ethan looked away from the window to the source of the voice. A man sat across from him, in a seat that was empty a second ago. He had a broad, round-shaped face, not fat, but shrunken, almost, with pale skin and wide, purplish lips. His eyebrows were huge and dark, like two black caterpillars sitting on his eyes. His hair was short and thinning and his ears stuck out like a chimpanzee’s. His features stretched into an almost exaggerated expression of agony and terror and he extended trembling, skeletal fingers toward Ethan, who shrunk back in horror at the sight. The man’s clothes were shredded, hanging loosely off his sweaty white body as though he’d been savaged by wolves.
“Please,” he wheezed, clutching at his side with one hand and reaching to Ethan with his other. “They are coming for me. Do you understand me? They are coming for me because of you.”
The man lurched forward, his hands forming claws and lunging for Ethan’s neck. Ethan tried to scream but his throat closed tighter than it had ever been before as the stranger’s bony fingers wrapped around his neck and squeezed with impossible strength. He clawed frantically at the stranger’s wrists, kicking at his gaunt body, but the grip only tightened more as the stranger shrieked and hissed, like he was scared, even more scared than Ethan. He kept screaming, “Help me! Why won’t you help me?!” over and over, ringing endlessly in Ethan’s ears.
Nobody came to help. They must have heard the screaming, but nobody came. Ethan’s eyes felt like they would pop out of his skull, so he closed them tight and clenched his jaw and tried to open his throat somehow, but nothing helped. His head was throbbing. He was dizzy. He tried to open his eyes again to see if anyone was coming, if someone would be there to save him, but it was as though he kept his eyes shut. His eyelids hurt from stretching them open, but he saw nothing. His vision was black. Everything was black.
Air flooded into his throat as he awoke and he choked on it, coughing and gasping and swinging his arms at the empty space in front of him. The man was gone, vanished as quickly as he came. Ethan searched the train car frantically, pressing his back into the corner of his seat and massaging his throat. He thought his neck hurt, but realized it was just in his head, his mind tricking him into thinking he was in pain. It was just a dream, he realized. He must have nodded off while looking out the window.
Still, he was far from placated, and he was wide awake now, so he stood up and stretched his legs and tried to take his mind off the imagined pain. Idly, he could still feel phantom fingers still clutching at his throat, but the more he thought about it the more he realized he didn’t feel anything at all.
It took him several minutes to collect his wits, to allow his heart to stop hammering against his ribcage. His breath slowed to a steady pace. He forced himself to stop rubbing at his throat, and soon felt no irritation there, no pressure. Everything was normal again. Looking outside, he saw the sun peeking over the horizon, illuminating the flat wheat fields the train was passing by. He must have actually been asleep for some time; it felt like mere moments ago that he was watching the stars and the moon rather than the sunrise.
Unable to go back to sleep, Ethan pulled his duffel bag from the overhead compartment and dug around inside it for his sketchbook and a pencil. The light above his seat was dimmed to accommodate passengers who wanted to sleep, but it was light enough for him to doodle. He flipped the book to a blank page and put the tip of the pencil to it, then paused, thought for a moment, and began to draw the face of the man from his dream. He started with the broad head shape, then sketched in the thick black eyebrows, the beady eyes, the round, protruding ears, the dark lips, the wispy hair. Before long the nightmare man stared at him once again.
Day 277’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Worldmind,” “Stranger danger,” and, “On a train.”
The stranger character idea came from this post. Good luck sleeping tonight.