Afterlife Train

Mia Manton

The sound of the train station was akin to a cemetery, or at least how she imagined rows and columns of gray stone pagodas would sound like. She squeezed underneath the green flaps of the ticket gate, awkwardly ducking her head and pressing her elbows into her sides. After climbing to her feet, she shook out each stiff leg and tipped her head back to squint through the palpable gloom, feeling momentarily blind. Her eyes— the dark brown consumed by black of dilated pupils— were able to make out the silhouette of a single electronic sign wedged between opposite walls. Ironically, there was no electricity to illuminate the white letters, but she was able to discern a single arrow directing her towards a single station, towards a dark escalator that failed to buzz with any characteristic of life. The rubber soles of her Adias sneakers squeaking against the ceramic tile, she jogged over and gripped the rubber handrail of the escalator, half-expecting it to jolt into motion at a human presence. It didn’t. Thus she began her descent to the platform.

She took a seat on one of the dark beige plastic benches, resting her elbow on the curved armrest. She fiddled with her iPhone laying on her lap, continuously dragging her thumbnail down the gap between the phone and its case. The gesture failed to stifle her anxiety. Something dense pushed against the bones and cartilage of her rib cage, and plastered uncomfortably to the inside of her chest like wet blue paint, the kind she’d daubed her brother’s walls with when they repainted his room last Saturday. Her hand flew up to clutch at the collar of her faded pajama top, and she pried the blue fabric away from her throat, finally able to draw a shaky breath for the first time since leaving the house. Everything was too recent; the throaty metal creak of the arched overall roof, usually drowned out by the shuffling of numerous feet; the grooved yellow path lining the edge of the platform for those who couldn’t see; the train station sign hanging haggardly from the ceiling.  ‘1 黄泉,’ read the fading black letters inside the arrow on the sign, and underneath in smaller print, ‘Afterlife,’ in English. 

She checked the time on her phone, instinctively furrowing her brow in a grimace at the brightness. ‘11:58’. One minute until the train. She sat up a little straighter, wringing her hands on her lap. Would she catch a glimpse of him in the train window, his face pressed up against the dirty windowpane until his nose flattened, breath fogging up the glass, dark brown eyes glittering with a child’s shallow fascination? Or would the train speed past, dull pencil-sketched faces blurred until they became a single canvas window, leaving her standing alone on the platform? 

In the near distance, the breathless huff of the train grew audible. Subconsciously, she leaned back on the bench until the plastic dug uncomfortably into her upper back. Squinting against the glare of the low mounted headlights that illuminated the back of the tunnel, wispy strands of hair tickled her cheeks as the train barreled past. And then it began to slow. She abruptly stood as the train whistled to a halt, inching forward as the train doors slid open with an airy hiss. Hugging her arms close to her stomach, she tentatively padded forward; a child, afraid of the dark, on her way to her parents’ bedroom. “Haruto?” she called, knuckles blanching as she clenched her phone in her right hand. The gap separating the train and the platform parted its black mouth to emit ominous silence in response. She craned her neck to peer into the train window, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. The only movement she caught was the gentle sway of a hanging strap, as if someone had been standing there only moments prior. Clenching her molars together, she edged her toes onto the yellow tactile paving.

Then startled by an abrupt flutter of wings, she jumped. In the process her phone slipped from her sweaty palm and clattered screen-first onto the concrete floor, flipped over, and was promptly devoured by the void between the train and the platform. She didn’t dare crouch to check how far it had fallen. A bird, the size of a large baby, landed on top of the fixed panel of the platform door. Though moderately upset at the loss of her phone, she waited patiently as the lesser cuckoo ruffled its blue-gray feathers and after a few moments, parted its beak. “Hey Sachi.” She opened her mouth to return the greeting, but the sound of his voice caused the words to clog her throat. She dug her fingernails into the soft flesh of her palms, angry with herself. Having had too much time all afternoon to brace herself, she hadn’t foreseen choking up. The bird gave no indication that it noticed her falter. “How’s Mom? Does she know you’re here?”

“She’s not too good,” Sachi admitted, the words finally tumbling over the lump in her throat. She shuffled her feet. “And no. It’s probably better that way.” She nervously rubbed the backs of her arms, unsure what to do with them, and breathed in sharply. “Did it hurt?” she blurted out, feeling stupid as soon as she looked up to make eye contact with the bird. Of course it must have hurt. 

The hototogisu cocked its head to the side, squinting its beady brown eyes at her as if in thought. “Dying?” it asked, as if Sachi had asked him to pass the jam at breakfast when the jar was already right in front of her. “It wasn’t too bad. It was instant, y’know. Then I was here.” It shifted from foot to foot in the same restless movement she often saw Haruto do. “The train’s actually kind of nice. The interior, I mean. Come see for yourself.” 

Prompted forward by his voice, all reluctance forgotten, she stepped onto the train. “Sit down,” the hototogisu suggested, and appeared to gesture towards the black cushioned seats with a weird jerking motion of its wing. “Let’s talk.”

The train doors slid shut behind her with a faint hiss, like air leaking from a birthday balloon, and she turned sharply, her heart stuttering in her chest. What was she even doing here? “I want to get off,” Sachi suddenly told him, unable to suppress the panic that breathed down her throat, swallowing her air. Cramming her fingers in between the two steel doors, she strained to pry them apart. 

“It’s hardly been a second,” the bird whined in a perturbingly childish manner. Her brother had still been a child, after all. But Sachi still felt goosebumps prick her skin when the bird perched comfortably on her shoulder, small talons digging into her white pajama top like two plastic hair clips. “C’mon, it’s felt like forever.”

“We saw each other this morning,” she responded tightly, arms trembling from exertion as the doors remained fast shut. “Let me off, Haruto!”

“I died then,” the bird reminded her. “This morning doesn’t count.”

She stumbled over her own feet as the train jolted into motion, and latched onto the dull metal stanchion for support. “I should’ve never waited for your train,” Sachi mumbled to herself. “You knew I- You- You tricked me. Why’d you do it?”

If the lesser cuckoo better wore an expression of guilt, she might have convinced herself that it felt remorseful. “I was lonely.”

“Now Mom’s lonely, too,” she murmured, and if the bird heard her, it pretended not to have.

“Hey, it’s not too bad here Sachi.” Taking her silence as acceptance, it continued, “C’mon. The others are two compartments down.” This time, as she followed the hototogisu to the compartment door, Sachi noted to herself that its feathers were more of a sooty gray than gray-blue.

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