Echoes – Short Fiction

                                                                           

 

The dream begins again; as it always does, with me boarding the Train.

How many times have I raised my right foot and taken that first step within the endless rewind and play sequence of this dream; fifty, a hundred, more? I’ve lost count long ago and really, the number doesn’t matter. The unfailing sameness of the dream – if it can still be called that – does. Like the boldest of strokes to the most trite of lines in an enduring abstract painting, nothing ever changes. If anything, the tiny details grow more distinct and the familiarity with each player in the cast more intimate, with each recurrence.  Of course, what also grows each time is the weight of tragic fore-knowledge and my abject helplessness in the face of it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yes, the dream begins again with me boarding the train. The car is the same as is the Station I board from, as is the faceless humdrum of humanity that shuffles past behind me and around me. I almost feel myself buffeted by the simultaneous charge for ingress into the car, bodies stroking bodies, in a fleeting asexual dance. I see the jockeying for positions as the new entrants seek parity with the ones already ensconced within; the reluctant shuffle of a seated passenger making room and the grimace of those standing, at having to share a precious handhold with a set of unfamiliar fingers.

The minuscule details flash past by rote, as always. The cranberry juice stained carpeted floor of the car, the hardened lump of chewing-gum stuck to the bottom of the third seat on the left, a discarded newspaper huddled forlornly in a corner, a tiny spider-web of a crack at the bottom of one of the windows; all these and many more inanimate minutiae that complete this scene register for the briefest of moments before fading to insignificance.

Now the dream has me undertake a mental roll-call of its cast and crew. I say mental, but a vocal one wouldn’t pan out any differently since none of them can perceive my presence or actions; I’m merely a silent, ineffectual observer here. An implicit rule of this tableau that appears unchanged still.

So I look at them all.

The portfolio bag clutching Executives rubbing shoulders disdainfully with Students sprouting ubiquitous earphones. The blue-collars, the white-collars, the unemployed and the uncaring are all here; blurred faces and co-mingled masses, of little importance and no influence on the outcome of what lies ahead, just like me. And then the others, the designated role-players, whose appearances I know so well by now.

A boy, of about three years of age, struggling to free himself from his mother’s one- handed grip. The mother, expertly using her free hand to text a fitting reply to an ungracious message from her – recently Ex – husband. Seated opposite them, an officious looking gentleman in a pristine Cashmere cardigan, scrolling away furiously on a gleaming laptop perched on his knees. A little further down the aisle, a married couple in their twilight; the wife skilfully working a pair of sewing needles to craft what appears to be a rather voluminous woollen sweater, perhaps for the husband , whose corpulence has been lulled into easy sleep by the rhythmic motion of the train.

Two rows away, a rather intense young man with a frizzy ponytail, in T-shirt, jeans and- the most striking element of his personality- a pair of dazzling, fluorescent-green sneakers; who has recently discovered Twitter on his mobile device and is engrossed in contributing his binary two-bits. Alongside, resting uneasily in a rickety cup-holder is a container of scorching decaf, kept aside to cool. To the rear of the car- seated by herself in a surprisingly empty section- a young girl, pretty in a pallid way, her eyes gazing into a distance far beyond this car. An intricately embroidered shawl covers her, but fails to conceal the prominent bulge of what appears to be advanced pregnancy in her mid-section.

They’re all here, the players; all present and accounted for. They always are.

The train gathers speed, as do the events in the dream. Pages turning towards a foregone denouement, and I can but watch, as I have countless times before.

The little boy finally wriggles free of his mother’s protective grasp, relaxed momentarily, while she reacts to a particularly offensive volley in the textual altercation. He is now firmly in the grip of curiosity, as it urges him along towards adventure.

His first attempt at finding it has him peering eagerly into Mr. Cashmere cardigan’s laptop, willing it to reveal its wondrous secrets. The gentleman recoils in surprise at this unexpected visitation, and then proceeds to buzz away this irksome fly in child’s form. Unfazed by the rebuff, the intrepid explorer ventures forth down the choc-a-bloc aisle.

He navigates through the shifting maze of legs with practiced ease and growing abandon. It is perhaps a testament to the self-involvement of the times that so far no one has actively registered this potential accident on the loose. No one that is except for me, and the lone girl seated at the back, now awake from her reverie; but I can’t act and she doesn’t react.

Now the child is stopping by the elderly couple, seemingly fascinated by the dextrous movement of the knitting needles. The old man snoozes on uninterrupted, while the lady pauses work on her masterpiece long enough to pat him on the head and offer him some foil wrapped cake, which she retrieves from the depths of a cavernous purse. The child is not hungry and moves on, his fascination with the needles short-lived. How I wish she had held on to him, made meaningless conversation, force-fed him that cake; anything to keep him from what I know lies next. But of course, that wasn’t to be.

The child homes in on Mr. Ponytail now, his brilliant footwear drawing him like a beacon. The young man in question is still utterly rapt in his virtual-feed; his steaming cup of coffee forgotten.  The little boy approaches the young man, and kneels before him to get a better look at those fascinating shoes. Mr. Ponytail and the others around him appear oblivious to the tiny interloper in their midst, or at least pretend to be.

The train speeds into a sharp curve, at the far end of which lies the most populous Station on its route. Passengers and objects alike are yanked sideways, out of their inertia. The child hastily grabs onto Mr. Ponytails’ foot, to keep from being swept to the other side. The young man himself, suddenly aware of the presence at his feet, throws out one hand to grip the boy’s head and keep it from slamming into the seat- legs, while the other steadily holds onto his iPad. The Coffee cup, teeters, totters and breaks free from its restraints; plummeting, its angry contents airborne and at the whim of physics and gravity.

Now the tragedy unfolds in earnest.

Everything is happening at once: like multiple frames filling a single screen. The bulk of the coffee spill lands on the boy’s face and neck, scalding and blistering the skin in seconds. For a fleeting instant, the child reacts with surprise rather than pain, trying to wipe away the offending wetness with his free hand. Then the agony arrives and so does a heart-piercing scream that resounds through the car and jolts the studied detachment of the passengers. The hand on his face is now a claw, desperately trying to snatch away the torment.  His mother, suddenly aware that his hand is no longer in hers, looks around frantically and then hears his scream. She erupts from her seat like an unguided cannonball, and in the process, crashes a knee violently into Cashmere cardigan’s laptop. The laptop bounces off and collides with his open jaw, forcefully enough to dislodge teeth and unleash a spray of blood.

Meanwhile the train is slowing down to a stop as it arrives at its next station.

I see all this, but only peripherally, my gaze is now fixed on what the dream always wants me to see most clearly at this point: the lone girl at the end of the car. She remains uncaring of all the drama that surrounds her, as also of the fact that she has pissed her pants. Her already pallid skin is now alabaster, her eyes glassy and her hands can’t stop shaking. Nothingness floats on her face but there is a determined bent to her jaw. She glances outside the window, making sure it’s the stop she was waiting for.

Now she rises from her seat, casting aside the shawl. She yanks up her upper-wear, exposing the distended belly underneath.  A belly that isn’t real, just as the pregnancy isn’t. In one seamless motion, she unclasps the grips that hold the protruding synthetic belly in place and tears it off: to birth the horror she is nurturing within. Semtex ,– with a breakthrough coating to prevent electronic detection- enough to wipe out most of the train and much of the surrounding station at the behest of the detonator she now holds in an unsteady fist.

No one but me is paying attention to her, everyone focussed on the burnt child or the bleeding man. And I don’t matter, just as I didn’t on all those previous occasions that I’ve seen this re-played. Still, I try to act: I try to reach out, reason with her, yell at her; knowing full well she can’t perceive me. Perhaps I persist with this futility only because I know her so well; after all, she is me.

Yes, she is me, I am her and this is not a dream: the dead don’t dream. This never was a dream, not this time nor the innumerable times I’ve had to watch it since the moment I pulled the trigger on that detonator in this very train; so long (days? months? years?) ago. This is the perdition I’ve reaped, for what I did then.

Because, if having to re-live every agonizing second of the worst moment of your life over and over again, without the power to change anything isn’t perdition, then what is? Each time the senseless, unconscionable wrongness of it hammering the stake of guilt and self-loathing deeper into my soul, a pain unmatched by any I knew in life. Each reminder that I let my own miserable, disenchanted existence be seduced by the promises of eternal glory after death; and in seeking that glory, robbed so many precious lives of the magical uncertainty of a tomorrow; more damning than the last.

I want to tell her/me that all those promises they made – of the Paradise that waits on the other side of this one final act of so-called faith and retribution – were lies. I want to tell her that after she pulls that trigger there is no Celestial veneration and no blissful ever-after; there is only this: an eternal limbo of maddening repetition; a bleak corridor of haunting echoes.

All I have left is the hope that if I could change the hideous outcome even once in this unending series of after-images; unreal though it is, I might free myself from its unrelenting and unforgiving grip. Free to just cease; not be any longer, and not feel any longer.

I want to tell her/ me all this, and maybe this time she’ll hear me. Maybe this time I’ll say it with enough contrition to break the shackles.

But then she closes her eyes, mutters a meaningless prayer and pulls the trigger. And there is fire; not holy, just fire, everywhere. And Death wins the day again.

Epilogue

The dream begins again; as it always does, with me boarding the Train.

The End

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Unwanted Tenants

Unwanted Tenants

No, I don’t remember;

those scant occasions when your lips ignored their usual measured smile and reached for your ears instead,

with your head thrown so far back that it tested your neck.

Or those times when you convulsed with muted mirth; every inch of you shook yet barely did a sound escape,

as if you were worried that this rare hilarity might stage a prison-break.

 

You’re wrong to believe that I still have any memories;

Of those sucked-in lips, when you were peeved,

or the saucy dip of your chin, when you were being a tease.

Nor indeed, of the playground of expressions on your face as you read something enthralling,

or the flush on the back of your neck, when you found something appalling.

 

It’s pure myth that I recall;

the fierce slant of your eyebrows when you made a point,

and the rapid-fire rat-a-tat of words when you were on a roll.

The awkward pout of your lips when you applied your lip balm,

or the roll of your eyes whenever my stubbornness tested your calm.

 

Never do I think of;

how you would scold the crows

while indulgently feeding them every day at the kitchen windows.

Or how precious were your one-sided chats with the cat and the dog

and once in a while, even with the errant lap-top.

 

Please do not think, that I ever reminisce;

about that tiny crease in your brow, as you birthed your wonderful stories to life

and the annoyed bent of jaw, ready to snap heads off; if you were interrupted meanwhile.

Of the childish glee, you found in startling people with your toy- monsters tableau,

or how very often I’d find you lost to the World in a book-store.

 

My ruminations never travel;

to images of you prancing in the rain,

or licking the icing from the bottom of the baking tray.

Nor to moments when you almost ground the stirrer into the cocktail glass, in a signal of extreme irritation

or those three deep breaths you would take to rein in your frustration.

 

Certainly I’ve never introspected about;

how sometimes amidst people and conversations, that faraway glance said you longed to escape to your iPod,

and how finishing the cryptic crossword in a single sitting, made you self-applaud.

The way the thought of coffee would make you beam,

or the way you crinkled your nose daintily at most things main-stream.

 

This, that and so many more of the others – your countless moods undefined,

none of them do I ever re-collect voluntarily.

So, instruct these vagrant, unruly phantom mementos you left behind,

to seek residence elsewhere, and stop haunting me.