The Last Stop on the Line

Rebecca’s jaw was clenched in determined resolve. She moved among the others in the security team as they made their way to the subway platform.

Mark walked beside her, crestfallen, but resigned. “I wish you’d change your mind,” he told her, quietly. He knew she wasn’t going to; she no longer had a compelling reason to stay. Her husband and children had been on the surface when the explosions started; images from the city’s surveillance cameras had shown total devastation. Rebecca held no hope that they’d survived it.

Besides, the decision to bar the subway entrances made their possible survivals a moot point; they weren’t ever getting back in.

Rebecca briefly considered turning back; she hadn’t brought a thing with her. She had a few dollars in cash and her bank card in her phone case, which was currently riding along in the back pocket of her jeans. Any of those things either would or would not do her some good at the end of the line; she decided she didn’t care much, one way or the other.

Mark, Tony and Damien each hugged her long and fiercely before she boarded the train. They all voiced their concerns and assured her she’d be well taken care of if she’d agree to stay, but she couldn’t bear the thought of going back to an empty apartment, knowing her family was never going to return. She gave them one last shaky smile, turned her back, and stepped through the door.

There were plenty of people aboard, but it wasn’t so full that she couldn’t find a seat by herself. She was in no mood to talk to anyone, and thought she might have a good cry once the train got moving. She looked around at the other passengers and realized she wouldn’t be the only one succumbing to tears.

Finally, she was unable to resist the urge to look out the window. The security team was still on the platform, waiting. Her eyes met Mark’s through the window, and she smiled shakily, even as tears rolled down her cheeks. He looked like he wanted to say something; his mouth worked, but didn’t seem to be forming words. Then, he smiled back and nodded encouragingly, but there was no way to miss the tears standing in his eyes.

Damien had his face turned away from her, talking into his radio. He’d continue finding something to do until the train pulled away, Rebecca knew. He and her husband, Jeff, had been great friends for years, and he wasn’t doing well.

Tony gave her a thumbs-up sign as the train started to pull away. She returned the gesture, more to perk him up than to express any optimism.

As the train began its departure, the team on the platform started walking away. Rebecca sighed, knowing she would never see her friends again.

Things had happened so fast and had been so odd that Rebecca knew the motorman had to have serious concerns about the state of the tracks. But Megan and Ruben had seen no damage anywhere along the lines, at least where surveillance cameras were in place.

She had deliberately taken a backward facing seat, as the train would be moving in reverse, back to its destination stop. She wanted to see where they were going. No one was next to her or across from her, which suited her just fine.

Across the aisle, a lone man sat, his face buried in a thick hardcover book. Rebecca sighed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone anywhere without something to read. She strained to get a glimpse of the cover–reader’s curiosity overwhelmed her–but he was sitting at an odd angle and she couldn’t see it.

This would be a long trip. With nothing to distract her, all she could do was think about Jeff and Holly and Joe. She’d seen the destruction of the Broadway stop; she could only pray that they’d been far from it when things went so drastically wrong; she could only pray that they had somehow escaped.

Surely there were survivors on the surface.

The train picked up speed, and Rebecca leaned against her window, trying to see ahead to the next platform. Would there be more passengers to board? Would they stop?

As she stared out, there was a sudden flash of light unrelated to the periodically placed fluorescents  along the track. It was almost as if they’d passed directly into a storm cloud as lightning strobed through the atmosphere.

The passengers gasped and squeezed their eyes shut. Rebecca waited, in vain, for the screams to start. It seemed, however, that these people were all screamed out. There were sounds of quiet sobbing, a few mumbled questions and that was all.

Flash.

Flash.

It wasn’t like a strobe light, and yet that was as close to a comparison that Rebecca could reach. The reader across the aisle lowered his book to his lap, and looked at her, eyebrows raised. She shrugged.

When the flashing stopped, Rebecca resumed her attempts to see where they were going. That’s when she noticed that the tunnel and tracks now looked nothing like the ones she had been monitoring for the last five years.

The walls were dark grey, and the florescent lighting had been replaced by bulbs in wire baskets hanging from the ceiling. The walkway on her side of the car was mostly dark; metal handrails ran the course, with the occasional candle-like light placed for a minimal visual aide.

A woman’s voice from behind her: “What is this place?”

Another voice, ahead of her, this one male: “Where are we?”

The train slowed down. Rebecca held her breath, anticipating an overhead announcement from the motorman. None came.

The conductor, a grizzled Hispanic who looked to be well past retirement age, made his way up the aisle toward her. He looked bewildered and frightened; he wasn’t bothering to check for tickets. He stopped walking a few feet away, flopped into an empty seat and triggered his radio. “Okay up there, Joe?”

“Yeah.” The reply was staticky, but clear enough. “Weird shit goin’ on here, Juanito.”

“Si.” The old man paused. “Did we take a wrong turn?”

“There is no turn.” Joe’s voice sounded as bewildered as Juan looked. “I don’t… I guess we’ll just keep going.”

“Si, mi amigo. Track goes somewhere. Seguro.”

“For sure.” Joe agreed. “It’s clear. Looks stable. I’m just taking it a little slow, that’s all.”

The passengers in Rebecca’s car had no trouble hearing this exchange, but there were other cars and other passengers to consider, so Motorman Joe finally elected to make an announcement on the overhead speakers.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. It appears we have taken a detour of some sort. I’m as surprised as you probably are. I’m sure you noticed the different scenery out your windows. I have slowed the train to be certain that we don’t encounter any surprises on the track ahead.”

There was a pause. Then he added, “This has been an interesting day. If you believe in the power of prayer, you all might lend a voice to mine and ask for a good end to this ride.”

Things had gotten interesting, all right, Rebecca thought. So much so, she had forgotten to have her cry. She wondered what Megan and Ruben were seeing on the monitors back in the security room. This wasn’t something she’d ever seen, and she’d monitored miles of track in all directions.

“Toto,” she whispered. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The gentleman across from her heard this, and replied, “I’m not sure we’re in Oz, either.”

As the train slowed down, they began to hear a locomotive-like clatter as it moved over the tracks, very unlike the hum of an electronic. Clack-clack, clack-clack. Uneasiness filled the car, and the passengers began to move from their separate seats to sit closer together.

Rebecca was disinclined to do this, at least for now. She was still reeling with the pain of losing her family, and felt that if anyone sat too close to her, she might fly into a real case of hysterics. The way things were beginning to look, she might be with these people for a while. She didn’t care to embarrass herself right off the bat.

The reading-man across they aisle made no move toward her; it seemed he understood her state of mind. He did smile kindly, though. “It looks like we’re on a bit of an adventure,” he said.

“One I could have done without,” Rebecca replied dryly.

“Indeed.” The man nodded. He drummed long fingers on the cover of his book. “My plan was brunch with my wife.” He looked out his window, pensively watching as those periodic candle-shaped lights flashed by. His voice was low and soft as he added, “I hope she was somewhere safe.”

Rebecca swallowed hard before she offered, “My husband and children were out for the day. Work. School. I hope the same for them.” Then she added, “For everyone.”

An older woman made her way up the aisle, and after some hesitation, sat across from Rebecca. “I saw you with Security at the station,” she said.

Rebecca nodded.

“Were you with them? I mean…” The woman looked flustered, but pressed on. “Do you work there?”

“I did,” Rebecca admitted.

“What did you see?”

Rebecca looked around the car, mostly to acknowledge her suspicion that all eyes were on her now. She sighed. Did she really want to describe the images they were able to pull up on the cameras around the city? It was bad enough that the footage was now permanently seared into her brain.

Then again, what was the point in lying? There were valid reasons Megan and Ruben had elected to lock down the underground. Letting people return to the surface would be like sending them to their deaths. Letting outsiders come down below would reduce the limited resources of those who made their homes in the underground.

There was no win/win situation to be found, no easy compromise, no information to sift through, and no time to debate.

“We saw chaos,” Rebecca replied. “We saw destruction and death. Massive levels, all over the city.”

“Where are we going, then?” The woman bit her lip hard enough to draw blood.

Rebecca had no answer; the train had had a destination, but it appeared to have gone drastically off-course. Nothing she could see out the windows was familiar; these were not the tracks and tunnels she had monitored. If they were to stop and look around, Rebecca suspected there would be no cameras to be found.

“Miss?”

“I don’t know,” Rebecca admitted. “I have no idea where we are now.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Isn’t it your job to know?” This, from a young man with a purple mohawk and an eyebrow ring that looked like a pitchfork.

Rebecca was beginning to regret her decision to leave the underground.

“Look,” she began, “I-”

She was interrupted by the overhead speakers. “We are nearing the end of the tunnel and will return to the surface in approximately two minutes.” The motorman’s voice was shaky. “I can see the light ahead of me. I’m not sure now where we’re going to come out of this…”

“How can you people not know?” Mohawk was agitated, but didn’t seem to be contemplating any crazy moves.

Rebecca sighed. “There was a plan, to get as far out of the city as possible. The track we’re on should have led straight there. But…”

“Things have changed,” the reader across the aisle acknowledged, after a long pause.

“It was the lightning,” Mohawk suggested.

“I just do not know,” Rebecca admitted. “I have never seen tunnels like this. I don’t know how we could have changed tracks. There are no other tracks…”

Further down the car, a child turned to her mother and said, “I’m scared, Mommy.”

Her mother replied, “I guess we all are.”

Clack-clack, clack-clack.

The train was moving backward; that hadn’t changed. The motorman wasn’t able to see ahead of him through his window. What he saw was what they were leaving behind. Still, he had monitors that showed him clearly what was ahead, and when the back of the train emerged from the tunnel, all the passengers heard his gasp from the overhead speakers.

All eyes turned toward the windows, and faces pressed against the glass, trying to see what was coming.

As the emerged from the tunnel, they all gasped and murmured amongst themselves. “Where are we? What is this place?”

It was a full desert landscape, low shrubs and sand dunes. The train slowed, then slowed even more as they approached a low structure that looked to be made of a combination of board planks and logs. As they came alongside it, they could read a sign: “Welcome to Outback Station. End of the Line.”

Clack….clack…clack…clack…

The train came to a stop.

Silence on the train.

Finally, Rebecca directed a question to the Conductor. “Is he going to open the doors?”

Juanito thumbed the button on his radio, and flinched when it uttered a squawk. “Joe? Doors?”

“Yeah, yeah.” The doors slid open.

No one moved. All eyes were on Rebecca.

Jesus, why me? She felt a sudden intense irritation with the woman who had exposed her as a security employee.

Whatever. She stood abruptly, causing the others to jump a little in their seats. She found this reaction appeased her irritation a little. She stepped to the door.

There was a wooden boardwalk just beyond the threshold, and she stepped out. It was wide enough for at least four grown people to walk side by side. She walked toward the station, unsure of herself but unwilling to let her trepidation show.

Mohawk had followed her out. “Do you know where we are?” he asked.

“Nope.”

She looked beyond the station, and saw a huge, teepee shaped rock, deeply fissured, standing alone in the midst of low rock formation and sand. Besides the station building, there didn’t seem to be anything else around besides sand and rocks and the occasional scrub bush.

“God, I hope there’s someone inside that building.”

“Me, too.”

People began creeping out of the open doors of the train. They slowly made their way to the doors of the station–there were four, all closed. The building was long, nearly the length of the train they’d arrived in.

Rebecca, took a deep breath before grasping the handle of the door in front of her. Mohawk put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She pressed the latch, and it clicked audibly, making them both jump.

Not locked…

If it were possible to exchange looks with so many people at once, they all did so now. Every face was resolute. They were going in.

Whatever else happened, this really was the last stop on the line.

 

Author’s note: This is a continuation of June’s story, “The Last Train”. It was inspired by a prompt on Writers Unite!

 

 

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