Tomorrow’s Train Today

Standard
Digital drawing. View down the middle of a train car. Several seats are visible, but only two are occupied. On far right, a young man is asleep, his left elbow propped on the window edge, his head resting in his hand. His other hand lies on his lap, holding an object that looks like a cell phone. It’s dark outside the windows. On far left, an older man with a table attachment folded up, holds a cup of coffee in his right hand. His left arm and hand are curled around a briefcase that lies on the table. He’s glancing to his left. It’s bright outside the windows. At center, standing in the aisle is the same young man who’s seen sleeping. He is surrounded by a glowing light. His arms hang by his side. He’s still holding his cell phone. His expression looks scared.

I felt my gut drop.

I can’t believe I did this.  How did I do this?

I’d almost missed the train.  Almost.  But I’d made it. 

I thought I’d made it.

But I’d missed my train after all.

I was late after all.

I was a whole day late.

***

Sure, the days had been blending together lately.  But how could this have happened?  I had alarms set.  I had reminders set.

I checked my phone.  Something was obviously wrong with it.  It was displaying the date I expected.  But the screen was flickering.  There weren’t any new missed calls or messages.  I would have expected dozens by this time.  I hope no one had tried to file a missing person report yet.

I asked to borrow the phone of the man who was sitting across from me, the older man in a business suit who had just corrected me about what day it really was.  He glanced at my phone.  I told him I’d be brief.  And explained how I was supposed to have boarded the train the previous day.  But what I’d thought was today, as it turned out, was tomorrow.  I’d be missing an important family gathering.  Once they saw I was alive and well, I’d have a whole lot of people to answer to.

He chuckled and handed me his phone.

I called my mom, but the call didn’t go through.  I waited for voicemail, but it just kept ringing and ringing.

“No luck?” the businessman asked, taking a sip of his coffee.

I shook my head and handed back his phone.  “Thank you anyway, sir.”

He mentioned that reception was spotty in the stretch of track that we were currently on.  Then he offered me his hand and we introduced ourselves.

Mr. Merlocke invited me to tell him all my troubles.  He’d only been dealing with work troubles lately, and he said he could use some family drama for a change.

I didn’t say much at first.  I wasn’t one to immediately tell a stranger my life story.  But our car was mostly empty.  There wasn’t anyone within earshot.  And I focused on recent events.  My cousin Dora was having her first baby.  After her mother and a few other cousins decided to come to town and stay until a little after the baby was born, Dora’s baby shower had turned into somewhat of a family reunion. That was why I was going up to visit far sooner than I’d planned.

We chatted for a while, and then Mr. Merlocke said he needed to make a work call.  He offered to let me use his phone once he was done, and went off to get some privacy.

I stared out of the window, enjoying the soothing countryside view.  I might as well let myself feel some calm and peace before I had to face the consequences of letting an entire day slip through my fingers.

I dozed off. 

When I woke again, it was dark outside.  Only half an hour remained before we arrived at my stop.  I should have been relieved.  But it wasn’t so late in the evening that they’d let me just shuffle off to bed.  I suddenly remembered that I’d meant to try calling again.  My phone still wasn’t working.

My train car companion wasn’t in his seat.  I got up, a little woozy still from falling asleep, and headed to another car to find a phone to borrow.  The train itself didn’t have any onboard public pay phones.

In the next car over, I passed a woman whose baby was blubbering, face red and blotched, and wet with tears.  Poor little guy.  He looked terrified.  His mother cooed at him gently and patiently.  He gave a final anxious moan before reaching out to her face.

I passed a couple of young women, in their early twenties maybe.  They had textbooks and notebooks open before them on a portable folding table.  I overheard a line of their conversation.

“…but if that one constant was changed, it wouldn’t really affect us at the macroscopic level, right?”

From somewhere ahead, a man laughed and said, “Just shuffle the cards.”

I’d just decided to try bothering the card players when I saw a bright flash from ahead.  I heard an intense, painful screech.  The train car lurched.  People screamed, and then—


<<<<< 

I woke with a jolt. 

My head snapped up.  My face felt hot.  A drop of sweat trickled down my right temple in front of my ear.  I was breathing fast.

“Bad one, huh?”

My shoulders jerked.  I turned to my right.

He was there.  Sipping on a coffee from a paper cup decorated with dark green leaves.

Mr. Merlocke.

He held up a hand.  “Sorry about that.  Didn’t mean to startle you even more.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have a nightmare while sitting up.”

“It was,” I muttered.

“Come again?”

“It was…a bad one.”

“Feel like sharing?”

I shook my head.  I wiped my temple with the back of my hand.

Mr. Merlocke extended his hand to me and introduced himself.

I stared at his hand and frowned in confusion.

He retracted his hand.  “I’ll leave you alone,” he said with a polite smile.

I exhaled a sigh.  I’d mostly recovered myself.  I apologized and offered Mr. Merlocke my own hand.

He changed the subject by asking me where I was headed.

I answered, and found myself meandering into a familiar conversation.  Not just generally familiar, familiar in the specifics.  Mr. Merlocke said sentences I remember him saying before.  His name was not the only thing he told me about himself that I already knew.

He was an executive.  He made the trip regularly.  His wife had just taken a trip to Belgium.  At some point, he mentioned he needed to make a work call.  Our conversation ended as he walked away to get some privacy, taking his briefcase and empty coffee cup with him.

I yawned, feeling a little woozy and drowsy.  I remembered then how my nightmare had started.  I checked my phone and saw that the date was the date I expected.  The screen wasn’t flickering.  I called my cousin’s house, deciding to give it ten rings.  Dora herself answered after two. 

“Weird question,” I said, and I asked her to confirm the day and date.  Dora laughed.  I heard relief in that laugh.  Gratitude.  She was surrounded by aunties.  She was glad her cousin was trying to get to her in time.  She warned me not to get lost on my way. 

I almost made some joke about that not happening unless the train jumped the tracks.  I stopped myself.

Dora advised me to rest on the train, because she’d be putting me to work tomorrow.

I smiled.  I actually felt a little swell of excitement in my chest.  I hadn’t seen Dora in a year. 

I relaxed in my seat and had a quick sandwich.  I gazed out of the window, watching farmland roll by, and misty hills in the distance.  The drowsiness overcame me.

I dozed off.

I woke with my head leaning against the cold glass of the window.

It was night.  Just over half an hour till our destination.  I glanced over to see that Mr. Merlocke was not in his seat.  I assumed he might be in the dining car.  He’d mentioned some dish they served for dinner that he liked.

I decided to walk around a little to stretch my legs and stay awake so I wouldn’t miss my stop.

In the next car over, baby was crying, or winding down his crying.  His face was red and blotchy, wet with tears.  His mother cooed at him gently and patiently. 

I passed a couple of college kids.  They had textbooks and notebooks open before them.  I overheard a line of their conversation.

“…but if that one constant was changed, it wouldn’t really affect us at the macroscopic level, right?”

I frowned. 

A man laughed and said, “Just shuffle the cards.” 

My heart skipped a beat.

I saw a bright flash of light.  I heard an intense, painful screech.  The train car lurched.  People screamed, and then—


<<<<< 

I woke with a jolt. 

My head snapped up.  My face felt hot.  A drop of sweat trickled down my right temple in front of my ear.  I was breathing fast.

“Bad one, huh?”

My shoulders jerked.  I turned to my right.

He was there.  Sipping on a coffee from a paper cup decorated with dark green leaves.

He held up a hand.  “Sorry about that.  Didn’t mean to startle you even more.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have a nightmare while sitting up.”

“Mr. Merlocke?” I said.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smile fall away so quickly.  His cheeks flattened.  The burst of wrinkles at the edges of his eyes got smooth.  His eyes themselves turned blank.

“What’s that?” he said.

I slide over and turned around in my seat toward him.  “That’s your name, isn’t it?”

I wiped the sweat from my temples with the back of my hand.  And I told him about the conversation we had already had.  How I was going up to visit my pregnant cousin.  How he was an executive on a business trip.  How he’d coaxed me into talking about my family so he could hear about something other than work problems.

We’d gotten to know each other a little.  We’d laughed.  We’d shared a snack.  When I’d told him about my sweet tooth, he’d insisted on giving me a piece of chocolate that his wife had gotten on her recent trip to Belgium.

But when I told him about those details now…I was telling them to a man who hadn’t experienced them. 

The more I spoke, the more he drew back from me.  He clutched his briefcase.

He stood up.  “Did someone send you?”

I looked up at him.  “No, we just met.  I….”  I didn’t know how to answer. 

He backed away as he firmly asked me to leave him be for the rest of the ride.

I felt a pulse of anxiety in my chest.  I had just chased away the one person who might help me.

But how could he help?

He just happened to be the person who was sitting across from me. 

I calmed myself down and realized that things had happened differently this time.  I hadn’t had that friendly conversation with Mr. Merlocke.

I pinched the skin of my arm, just below my wrist, like I used to do when I was a kid, after I’d heard that was a way to tell if you were awake or dreaming.

The pinch hurt.  I guess that meant I was awake.  But I had been dozing off.  And every time I did, the same two things happened.  I dozed off, then woke up and some disaster happened on the train.  I blacked out, then woke up and Mr. Merlocke was sitting next to me.  And sometimes it was today.  But sometimes it was…tomorrow?

I shook my head and traced my memory of the last repetition.  I checked my phone, like last time.  It was today.  I called Dora, like last time.  I confirmed the date with her.  We laughed about my somehow getting lost.  I was faking it.  She noticed.  She asked what was wrong.  I told her the truth.  That I was tired and stressed.  I told her we would talk when I got to her place.

It didn’t comfort me to get through to Dora this time.  Maybe that was a good thing.  I yawned.  I felt drowsy, but I needed to stay on my guard.  I needed to make sure I didn’t doze off this time. 

And I succeeded. 

I watched the time.  I watched for the signs.  I paced the next car, looking for the passengers I’d seen before.  The woman with the crying baby.  The two college kids who were studying.  The people playing cards.  But I didn’t see any of them.  I only saw people I recognized from when I first boarded.  A couple cuddling in a booth as they flipped through a magazine together.  A soldier in uniform who was telling the elderly lady sitting across from him that he was surprising his family by coming home early.  A woman wearing neon green headphones and watching movies on her laptop.

About forty minutes before we would reach my stop, I was pacing and eyeing the emergency brake pull-cord.  I wasn’t pacing fast, but I started feeling hot, so I slowed down.  I started sweating.  I had to take my jacket off.  I felt a sudden wave of dizziness and stopped.  And then everything starting spinning around me.    


>>>>> 

“Are you okay?” someone said. 

I was on the ground apparently.  I was trying to get up, but I couldn’t…I couldn’t get my balance right. 

People were helping me up, just as the spinning started to slow down and recede.  And it was cooling off.  Or I was cooling off.

Someone handed me my jacket, and I recognized the purple nail polish.  I felt steady enough to move my head.  I glanced at my helpers.

It was the two college kids.  The ones talking about some constant in the universe. 

Right before the disaster struck.

I thanked them and wobbled my way to my car as they watched.  A baby started crying behind me.  Ahead of me, through the window, I saw movement in the seat beside mine.  Mr. Merlocke.  I didn’t have time to get to my seat.  I wondered if I would get arrested for doing what I was about to do.  It was now or never. 

I reached for the emergency brake.

Someone grabbed me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides.  I glanced down and saw muscular arms straining through the material of a gray suit jacket. 

I opened my mouth to beg whoever was holding me for a chance to pull the emergency brake.

But it was too late.

I saw the bright flash.  Heard the metallic screeching.  The train lurched, and we were both knocked to our feet.  When we fell, I noticed the bright light glinting off the large gold watch on his left wrist.  The train lurched again, but this time, it kept going, tipping, crashing.

People screamed, and then—


<<<<< 

I woke with a jolt. 

“Bad one, huh?”

My shoulders jerked.  I turned to my right.

Mr. Merlocke took a sip of his still-steaming coffee.

He said what I’d heard him say a few times already.

I pushed back my sleeve and pinched the skin below my wrist.

Mr. Merlocke saw me and chuckled.  “You’re awake.  Trust me.”

I responded with a polite smile.

This time, I would say nothing.  This time, I would stay in my seat.  I would watch for a big guy in a gray suit with a gold watch.

And I would stop the train before it derailed.

But I’m not good at hiding things. 

Mr. Merlocke told me I looked “perturbed and bewildered,” which made me laugh a little the way he said it.  He was obviously encouraged that he’d cheered me up a little.  So when he prodded and asked what was bothering me, I launched into the conversation I already remembered having with him, about my family stuff.  I figured that would keep him occupied.

But he noticed that I was glancing around.  And he noticed that I was specifically glancing around at any passing passengers.  So he next asked if I was in some kind of trouble I hadn’t mentioned already.

“You look like you’re looking for someone, but not someone you’d be glad to see.”

I sighed and told him mostly the truth.  I’d had…an altercation with some guy who happened to be much bigger than I was.  I just wanted to make sure I avoided him.

“Well, I wouldn’t be much good to you as your second in a fist-fight,” Mr. Merlocke said, “but I do have enough clout on this train to have the man thrown off.  If you say the word.”

I exhale a laugh.  “How do you know I’m not the one who should be thrown off?  I could be a villain for all you know.”

He leaned toward me.  “We’re all villains to some extent.”

He seemed to be teasing, but I did need a distraction, I guess, because I had a sudden moment of philosophy.  “Maybe so,” I said, “but most of us are struggling against that.”

“A comforting thought, if it’s true.”

I sat up suddenly as I saw a man in a suit enter the car.  I peered at his wrists.

I felt Mr. Merlocke watching me.  I glanced over at him.

“I guess I’m nervous,” I said.  “I don’t ride on the train all that often.”

“Much better than flying, I say.”

“Has…there ever been any issues with this train or this line?”

Mr. Merlocke reached over and patted me on the shoulder. 

Just as I’d hoped, he started doing the talking to keep me distracted.

I half-listened.  At a certain point, I started feeling warm, really warm.  I took off my jacket and drank some water. 

I was sitting down.  I was sitting still.  But everything around me starting spinning. 

I moaned.  I lay down on my side.  I brought my legs up onto the seat and curled up.  Everything was still spinning, but it helped with the nausea to be in that position.

I felt the shadow of Mr. Merlocke standing above me.  He asked me if I was alright.

“Vertigo,” I said.

Mr. Merlocke surprised me.  I thought he’d toss me some more words of comfort, but I heard him gasp and mumble something to himself.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “It’ll pass.”

The spinning was already starting to slow.  When it slowed enough for me to sit up, I saw that Mr. Merlocke was a few booths away.  But he wasn’t leaving the train car.  That’ when I realized that in the other repetitions, he would have already left to go make that phone call.  He’d postponed it this time, to sit with me.

“What day was it when you boarded the train?” he asked.

I told him.  He put a hand over his mouth, then dropped it to speak.

“You’re on tomorrow’s train now, son,” he said.

I panicked and glanced at the time.  We were still hours away from my stop.

“You were already asleep when I came aboard,” Mr. Merlocke said.  “I was waiting for you to wake, so I could ask if you didn’t mind that I was sitting so close.  I was in the mood for some company, if that company was in the mood for me.”

I peered at him.  I might chase him away, but I needed someone’s help.  “We have to stop the train,” I said.

“Why?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it.

He peered at me.  “What are you scared of?  Tell me.”

I gestured to him.  “I’ve already driven you halfway out of this car.  I…I’ll have to figure it out on my own.”

“No, you don’t.  And I’m not standing apart from you, because I’m afraid of you.”  He glanced down at the briefcase he was holding, then glanced back up at me.  “Please, tell me everything you remember.  Start with your nightmare.”

Mr. Merlocke obviously had a way with me. 

I started talking, telling him about my nightmare.  I told him everything.

To my utter shock, Mr. Merlocke believed me.  He believed all of it.

He returned to his seat across from me, moving hesitantly, asking me if my vertigo was returning. 

I assured him I was fine for the moment.

He nodded.  “From what you describe, it sounds like this train is going to derail in a few hours.” 

He looked at his briefcase, which he had set on the floor beside him.  He kept one hand on its handle.  And I now noticed the dark gray metal cuff around his right wrist, and the cord that connected it to the briefcase. 

Mr. Merlocke shook his head.  “Would they go to such lengths?”

He turned to me.  “I am so sorry.  You aren’t supposed to be on this train.  It’s my fault that you’re here.”

I kept my gaze fixed on him.  “Because of what’s in that briefcase?”

Mr. Merlocke explained what he thought must have happened—or what was going to happen based on where we currently were in time.  He couldn’t tell me details, but there was something in that briefcase that could affect time.  It wasn’t meant to be used.  It was dangerous.  Volatile.  Not just by its own nature.  But because of the usual “falling into the wrong hands” problem with things that were dangerous and volatile. 

Someone had tried to stop me from stopping the train.  That was enough proof for Mr. Merlocke to believe that the derailment was no accident.  No one was supposed to know that Mr. Merlocke had what he had.  But someone must have found out.  Someone who wanted the contents of that briefcase destroyed.  Someone who was willing to kill an entire train full of people to make sure.

“I must have…” Mr. Merlocke shook his head.  “When I realized what was happening, I must have done the only thing I could think of to do.  The desperate thing.”  He placed his hand on the briefcase.  “I used it.” 

He rubbed his chin with his free hand.  “I probably intended for it to take me backwards.  That makes the most sense, so I could prevent the disaster.  But it obviously didn’t send me backwards.”

I gaped.  “It pulled me forward.” 

Mr. Merlocke pointed to the seat I was sitting in, jigging his finger up and down.  “It pulled you forward because you were sitting close enough to me.  Just you.”

I shook my head.  “That still doesn’t make sense.  In the other, uh, repetitions, I saw you, so I was already here in your time, hours before it happened.  Tomorrow, for me.  But then later, I checked my phone, and it was the correct date, for me.  I called my cousin.  She confirmed.”

“But you said the first time you remember trying to call home, you couldn’t get through.  You borrowed my phone, and it didn’t work for you either.”

I frowned.  “That’s true…but you said reception was spotty.” 

“Typically, that would be the reason.  But I may have another explanation.  My proximity—or the proximity of my briefcase that is—must have been serving as a magnet to keep you here, in your tomorrow.  But when I walked away to get some privacy for my phone call, you may have returned to your native time.  The train is the same.  The booth is the same.  The path we’re traveling is the same.  You wouldn’t have noticed.”

I snapped my fingers.  “Except for the dizziness.  But it wasn’t as bad.  I thought I was just sleepy.”

“But you were returning to where you belong, temporally speaking.”  Mr. Merlocke’s eyes were wide.  “Intriguing.”

“Just before the train derailed, I was in the next car over.  If you weren’t this close to me, how was I in my future?”

Mr. Merlocke shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Maybe the physical range changes as we grow closer in time to the…inciting event.  When I initiated the whole loop, I was trying to go back about thirty minutes, to give myself enough time to warn the train crew and have them stop the train.  Seems you were pulled forward to that time.  But when the derailment happened, instead of dying with the rest of us, you were thrown back to earlier today…to the point where I boarded the train.  In a sense, you’re not really here.  That’s why you can’t make any phone calls.  You’re not going to die.  But you are stuck.”

I inhaled sharply and blinked as I exhaled.

“Yes, it’s bewildering,” Mr. Merlocke said.  “Time, it would seem, is a slippery fish.”

“Okay, based on what we’ve reasoned so far, if we stick together, than I should stay in this time.  And we can figure out how to stop the train.”

Mr. Merlocke pressed his lips together in a tight smile.  “Or I get as far away from you as I need to, to keep you in your native time.  Knowing what I know now, I can have the train stopped.”

I shook my head.  “As long as I’m on this train now, the loop is intact.  We have a chance to save everyone, including ourselves.  And you need someone to watch your back, in case that guy with the gold watch tries to stop you.  I wonder if we can explain all this to him.  Tell him his bosses sent him on a fatal mission.”

Mr. Merlocke shook his head.  “I suspect there’s no reasoning with your attacker.  He tackled you knowing the train was going to derail.”

“If we succeed in stopping the train, will I stay here in this time, or will I…”

Mr. Merlocke again shook his head.  “I don’t know.”

“It doesn’t matter, I guess.  Alive is alive.”

*** 

Mr. Merlocke and I made our way to the front of the train.  He knew the conductor personally. 

It took some convincing, but Mr. Merlocke was persuasive.  He assured the train crew that he would take full responsibility.  He even put it in writing, drafting a quick statement on his company letterhead, and signing it.  I signed as witness.

Mr. Merlocke made a phone call to someone he trusted and asked for them to meet him where the train would be stopping, for extra security.

“We should return to our seats,” he said once all arrangements were made.  “If you’re restored to your native time, that’s where you’re supposed to be.  I don’t know if it will make a difference, but—“

“Makes sense to me.  Let’s go.”

We were still an hour away from my stop.  And I could have been imagining it, but it already felt as if the train were slowing.

The announcement came that the conductor had been made aware of an issue and asking all passengers to prepare for an emergency stop. 

We were half through the neighboring car.  I saw three people playing cards.  I saw the two college kids just finishing their meal and pulling out their books.  I saw a woman tucking in her sleeping toddler.

And from the opposite end, I saw two men walking straight towards Mr. Merlocke and me.

They both had on gray suits.  They were both hulking.  And one of them was wearing a gold watch.

I stopped and tugged at Mr. Merlocke’s sleeve.

He spotted the men.  “I thought you said there was just one of them.”

“Head back up-train,” I said.  “I’ll try to slow them down.”

By throwing my limp body in their path, so they’ll trip on me, I thought.

“No, let them pass and get to your seat.”  Mr. Merlocke patted my shoulder.  “You’ve done your part, for better or worse.” 

He stepped away from me and started to move toward the front of the train. 

I readied myself to face the two guys who were looking taller and bulkier the closer they got.  I wouldn’t be able to trip them.  The one in front would probably shove me aside without losing his stride.

Just then, everything started spinning.  A severe wave of nausea made me double over.  The men passed by me.  I tried to turn and look for Mr. Merlocke. 

He was in the vestibule between cars.  He opened the door that led off the train.  And he jumped.

That couldn’t have been what I saw.  I wasn’t sure, what I was seeing.  But one of the two gray-suited men turned around and started walking back towards me.

I got up, grasping tables and edges as I stumbled ahead.  The closer I got to my seat, the better I felt.  The spinning slowed.  And the train slowed.  I heard screeching now, of the train’s brakes.  But it wasn’t a sudden screaming screech.  It was high but slow. 

By the time, I got to my seat, my vertigo was gone.  But I couldn’t sit down.  I glanced back the way I’d come and saw the other man still coming toward me.

I braced myself to keep moving backwards through the train, until it stopped, then I’d get off and run for it.

But another wave of vertigo hit.  The worse one yet.  The car was spinning around me, faster and faster. I cried out and collapsed on the seat, clapping my hands to my ears against the sound of the screeching.


<<<<<<< 

I woke with jerk.

The inertia of sleep made my head bob.  I shook it off. 

I glanced to my right.  There was no one sitting in the seat across from me, or anywhere around me.

And it was dark outside.

I checked the time.  Twenty minutes till my stop.

I glanced at the emergency brake.

But I didn’t reach for it.

I reached for my phone.  I saw that it was today.  I called my cousin’s house.  The call went through. 

Someone was already at the train station waiting to pick me up. 

The train made it to the station.

I made it to my cousin’s house.  Exhausted, I went straight to bed, but didn’t want to sleep.

I was afraid I’d wake up sitting on the train.

But I dozed off at some point.  And when I woke, I woke in a bed. 

It’s tomorrow, I thought.  And I thought about the train.

But a happy hectic day spent with family distracted me for the rest of the day.  Until night fell.  And I wondered if I should do something, about the train that I was no longer riding.  Under the dinner table, I pinched the skin below my wrist.  The pinch hurt.  If they were nightmares, they were the most vivid ones I’d ever had. 

We were just finishing dinner when someone came to the front door.  Another cousin answered it and called me over.  Said it was for me.

A messenger handed me an envelope. 

I stood on the porch to open it. 

My gut dropped when I read what was written on the card inside. 

Mr. Merlocke sends his regards.  And his thanks.



Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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