Hey, folks, here’s another bit of flash fiction from my vault of almosts, not quites, and something’s missings. Like a lot of these flash pieces, this one came about in a one-hour flash fiction writing exercise. Sometimes those exercises result in publishable fiction and sometimes they result in, well, something else. This is one of the latter. As usual, this is essentially a first draft.
Here’s “End of the Line.”
Arnold awoke to the rumble and vibration of a moving train. He opened his eyes and found himself face-down on cracked filthy boards that smelled of rot and old blood—sour and coppery. Above him the wind howled, and he rolled over onto his back to see that he was lying in an open-topped rail car. The car was walled with bare boards—newer than those that made up the floor—nailed together to form a kind of fence or pen. It was desperately cold, and he could see the ghostly white shapes of snow-topped trees flash by overhead as the train sped along.
He had no memory of how he’d gotten here. He had gone to bed last night, safe in his apartment. He remembered closing his eyes, looking up at the ceiling in his room as sleep stole over him. Then he’d awoken here.
He sat up slowly, his limbs heavy and aching in the cold. He vision swam and a spike of exquisite pain lanced through his skull. He moaned and rocked forward onto his knees, trying not to vomit, trying not to pass out.
“Sorry about that, friend.”
The sudden realization he was not alone cut through Arnold’s pain like a white-hot knife. He pushed himself away from the floor and onto his backside and scanned the rail car from end to end. It was little more than a bare box some twenty feet long by ten feet wide. The moon overhead offered some illumination, but thick shadows pooled in every corner—they could be hiding anything.
The shadows farthest from Arnold shifted, and their tenebrous mass took on a man-like shape. It slithered forward, and Arnold caught a glimpse of black cloth and the suggestion of a face, round and pale like the moon above. He couldn’t see much else; the shadows seem to gather protectively around the figure, obscuring all but a vague outline.
“I had to tap you on the head to keep you quiet,” the shadow man said. His voice was barely a whisper, but it reached Arnold’s ears unobstructed by the shrieking wind or the noise from the moving train.
“I don’t—,” Arnold croaked, his mouth was bone dry and his tongue felt like it was made of cotton batting. He tried again. “Where am I?”
“On your way,” the thing in the shadows said. Arnold heard a smile in its voice, or maybe he saw a flash of teeth—long, yellow, and sharp—in the flickering moonlight.
The answer meant nothing to Arnold, but it filled him with such horror he could scarcely breathe. He moved away from the voice, until his back brushed up against the far wall of the rail car. “Why?” he whispered.
Again the shadow man smiled, but this time he saw—with certainty—a pair of eyes, lantern-like above that ghastly grin. “He keeps me very busy,” it said and laughed—the sound sent tiny spiders of terror down Arnold’s back. It was like hearing breaking glass or splintering wood, a fractured, unnatural sound. “He is hungry, always hungry. I bring him the choicest morsels, the most delectable sweets, and that keeps him quiet.”
“I don’t understand,” Arnold moaned. “I was asleep in my apartment. How can I be here?”
“I know you don’t understand,” the shadow man said. “You don’t need to. I came for you because you have certain qualities he will enjoy, certain qualities that will keep him quiescent for a few more weeks and save many from his hunger.”
“Please don’t kill me,” Arnold moaned, terror robbing him of hope and dignity.
“I won’t kill you,” the shadow man said. “Not I. But why should you care? You have nothing; you are loved by nothing. I snatched you from your bed because your life is barely worth living. You are hopeless and pointless, Arnold Graves. He will give you purpose so those who deserve life can keep it a little longer.”
“But I don’t want to die!” Arnold howled. “I don’t—“
The shadows surged forward. A hand shot from the darkness and grasped Arnold by the throat, cutting off his scream with a choked gurgle. The shadow man lifted him bodily from the ground, turned him about, and slammed him into the wall of the rail car. He could see over the top of the barricade, where a black engine belched smoke into the night as it hurdled down rusting tracks through a nameless forest.
“End of the line, Arnold,” the shadow man whispered, his breath cold in Arnold’s ear. “Can you see him where the tracks end?”
Arnold tried to close his eyes, but long fingers reached over the top of his head and pried them open . . . and he saw what was waiting. It rose up from the forest, trees splintering in its wake, blocking out the moon and the stars with its enormity. The wind howled louder, and Arnold heard its voice carried in the screaming torrent. He felt its hunger, felt its mind, immense and alien, reaching out to gather his soul as its vast claws reached out to gather his flesh.
The shadow man released him. Arnold had time for one long, lingering scream before the dark and the cold swallowed him whole.
Okay, so this is another one I actually like, and I think it’s effectively creepy in places. The problem with it is my main character is just kind of blah. He doesn’t have much personality or anything, and he’s really there just so the monsters can do bad shit to him. If I were to expand this story, he’s the first thing I’d focus on, especially the part about his life being pointless and all that. That’s something the reader needs to see, to experience, rather than have a shadow monster mention it off-hand.
Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.