this was a train he’d ridden before
by Derek Ivan Webster
His eyes still closed, Adam placed two fingers a few inches below his left ribcage. That was where it should be. He opened his eyes and looked down to check. There was nothing there. No hole. No blood. No pain. Just a slight bulge in his vest.
Adam’s free hand went to the long silver chain that emerged from the top of the pocket. A tug, and the watch emerged without complaint. It fell into his waiting palm: cover plate up, showing the intricately carved portrait of a moonlit owl in flight. His thumb went to the button knob, more habitual than intended. The cover clicked open, exposing the delicate but sturdy iron-on-ivory face of the timepiece. There it was, ticking away with the same ceaseless precision it had always demonstrated. The hands read 12:01, ante meridiem.
Adam took a deep breath and let the fingers fall away from his unwounded side. He was sitting on a painted metal bench, sheltered by the unwalled roof of a train platform. Stars shown across the night sky and a dark set of train tracks stretched on into the distance in either direction. He’d been here before. The sense came to him without the brain twisting delicacy usually associated with déjà vu. It was simpler than that, and more straightforward. This was a place he’d been before. A moment he’d already lived. If he couldn’t locate it precisely within his memory, it didn’t prevent him from fully owning the realization. He glanced back down at the watch. Just past 12:02.
Too far away to see, the lonely cry of a train whistle called out to him. Its distant lumbering chug soon followed. The fuzzy certainty remained, chewing at the back of his mind: this was a train he’d ridden before. Even though the platform held no familiarity; and neither the dark woods in front of him, nor the open grassland behind promised any further recognition. The certainty would not waver.
By 12:03 he could make out the distant plume of smoke. By 12:04 the floodlight at the nose of the train had emerged through the tree line. At exactly 12:05 the imposing engine came to a piston-hissing stop in front of him. Adam closed the watch lid and slipped it back into his pocket. He set the hat on his head and stood up. Looking about him, he could find no bag or case. What sort of trip was he on, with no need for luggage?
No engineer poked his head through the engine window. No conductor stepped down to call on the passengers. No sign of life at all. The train just flushed its steam out into the silent night. And it waited.
Adam couldn’t quite shake the oddity of the moment. There was nothing out of place; all the right pieces were here. He was a man about to step onto a midnight train. Nothing more, nothing less. So why was he so afraid? He had no ready answer. Only the unflappable certainty that he was retreading ground he had walked before. Reliving moments he could not otherwise recall. It all felt a bit like walking backwards, using a shaving mirror to find his way. He only hoped he wouldn’t trip.
Adam buttoned up his overcoat and pulled himself onto the train.
The car was nicely appointed. Polished hardwood and soft, red velvet seats. Clearly this was not the usual commuter line. Neither was it occupied. The engine lurched back into motion behind him. Outside the landscape began to creep by. Adam took a seat near the front. He pulled the watch from his pocket. It was now 12:07. The train was on its way.
Adam took his hat off and rested his forehead against the cold press of the glass. It wasn’t a headache he felt growing behind his eyes. It was more like an awkward question. The interior light of the car reflected strongly against the window, making it impossible to see through clearly. All he could make out was the pattern of passing trees broken by the occasional flash of an opening in the forest. Adam found the steady parade of light and shadow soothing. He had always loved life’s smallest consistencies. The things he could count on. Like his watch. Or the schedule of the train.
Her face came to him then, disrupting the steady pattern. It was only a scrap, but it was the closest he had come to a memory. She had been there when his wound was real. That face, one of the great beauties of his life, standing over him when he fell. And another. There’d been someone else with them. Another man.
The train shuddered as the engine applied its heavy breaks. It ground to a slow, steaming halt. Adam regarded his watch. It was nearing 12:33. Through the window, he saw another platform appear.
The train came to a final stop. Adam watched through the glass as two people, a man and a woman, argued atop the platform. The woman was beautiful. The man was diminutive, barely larger than her, but he was angry. A stack of luggage stood at his side.
Adam itched the space between his eyes. It felt like something was about to chew threw his skull. He had finally found a familiarity. He knew these faces. Knew these two people and what they were arguing about.
Adam shoved the watch back into his pocket and sprung from his seat. He left the train car and emerged onto the platform.
“Is this what it comes to?” the woman was asking. “Do you trust me so little?”
“Don’t make it about me,” the angry little man shook his head. “Don’t you dare turn this thing around.”
Adam approached the couple. He was having trouble focusing his eyes now, and his steps were unbalanced. He reached into his pocket, his fingers encircling the cold metal of the watch for reassurance.
“What took you so long?” the woman asked, speaking past the little man. It took Adam a squinting moment to realize she was talking to him. That’s when the other man turned to look at him. That’s when the world snapped back into focus and the pressure let loose in Adam’s head. He felt his face change. The bones lengthened and the flesh filled out. His body grew suddenly thicker and more capable. Or, perhaps, it had always been that way, and he was only now noticing.
“All this sneaking around takes time, love,” Adam heard himself saying. Except it wasn’t quite his voice. It was deeper, more insistent than usual.
“What’s going on here?” the other man said. Except he wasn’t just any other man. He was another Adam.
Adam’s hand emerged from his pocket. His fingers were stronger than he remembered, and gloved now. He no longer held a watch, but something more dangerous.
The eyes of the other Adam went wide. They raced from the gun to the woman and back again.
“I don’t understand,” the puzzled Adam said.
“You never did,” the woman sighed.
“If it’s any consolation,” the Adam holding a gun heard himself saying, in that voice that was not quite his own, “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t love me either.”
“Get on with it,” the woman screeched.
Adam felt his meaty finger tense. There was an explosion. He could only watch as the bullet shattered the glass and metal hidden away in his other self’s fob pocket. He watched himself look down at the small, wet hole that had appeared a few inches below his left ribcage. He watched this other Adam, the real Adam, fall down to his knees. Collapse to the ground.
That’s when she stood over him. That’s when his eyes closed. That’s the last thing he remembered.
His eyes still closed, Adam placed two fingers a few inches below his left ribcage. That was where it should be. He opened his eyes and looked down to check. There was nothing there. No hole. No blood. No pain. Just a slight bulge in his vest pocket.
Adam’s free hand went to the long silver chain, and pulled. The watch fell into his waiting palm: cover plate up, the portrait of a moonlit owl in flight. He thumbed the button knob. The cover clicked open. There it was, ticking away with the same ceaseless precision it had always demonstrated. The hands read 12:01, ante meridiem.
He’d been here before. Perhaps more than once. This was a place that already knew him. A moment that would not let him go.
Adam closed the watch and stood from the painted metal bench. In the distance, he could almost make out the chug of an oncoming train. Always on time. That’s what he loved most about riding the rails. A schedule you could count on. Reliable. Unavoidable.
Like a good timepiece.