A couple of months ago I made the impulsive decision to enter a very interesting short story contest called ‘Joust’. Run by One Throne Magazine, the contest prescribes the first and last sentence of a story and requires the writer to fill a 1000 words between – all in the space of 24 hours. I thought I’d dust off the old creative writing aspiration and give it a go. Now that they’ve announced the winner and honourable mentions (better luck next time, for me), I’m hoping it can furnish an interesting few minutes to bored visitors out there.
They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. That’s how I realised they were following me. No matter how many times I got lost in transit like everybody else or ended up halfway across the world just trying to move forward, they would find me because they knew how. You see, that’s what they knew best – how to get things back to front. They would know; that’s how they built the world.
The train moved slowly tonight, sluggishly pushing through the fog. There was a rising nausea in the compartment as the locomotive screeched into movement, a shared clenching of insides. Even inside the train, breathing was a trick that left you gasping against a scratch in your throat, against the tepid thickness that slunk into everything. Newspapers curled, their crinkles dampened by the soft light and the heavy air. The station’s gas lamps flashed by in the windows, yellow bulbs in the framed darkness. I saw him there, at the edge of the platform – a silhouette in the haze, tendrils clinging to his top hat.
He turned back into the fog, and the train chugged beyond the platform, beyond the city. I looked around the compartment then, but there were no top hats peeking over seats. Only varied heads and the tops of papers, headlines screaming.
“Train reaches destination!” one proclaimed, on the next seat. The owner of the paper saw me eyeing it and sneered. “Tabloid junk,” he muttered. “Don’t get your hopes up. I won’t believe a damn thing until I actually get to Constantinople, somehow.”
I nodded. There wasn’t much to say. I definitely wasn’t going to tell him that it was my by-line, buried under a thick black line that separated the truth from the teller. Across from me a small head looked curiously between us, then turned to a shabbily dressed lady with equally protuberant eyes.
“Mama, why are we on the train?”
“But mama, where are we going? Ow!” his whisper was cut short by a pinch.
“We’re going where we’re going, alright?” she hissed. “The train’s heading for London, so maybe we end up in Jerusalem.”
“Hell,” I piped up. “I’m heading to Shangri-La myself.”
“Aren’t we all?” an old lady said behind me, too soft for anyone else to hear.
When did it start and who’s to blame? Was it agriculture that led us down this path? Did they get their bearings wrong during Colonization, or was it all because of some incorrect calculations that turned the Industrial Revolution back to front, upside down – just, wrong? Nobody could put a point to it, only a picture of overdressed men sitting around a table, planning the world. The Mothmen, we called them now. Chasers of light: men who built the world so that it could get closer to the flame, and ended up burning us out. We realised too late that the world was built back to front, that we started it all wrong and just went downhill from there. Now we just putter along, and the men in top hats and silk cravats make sure that we keep going on, moving towards the light. What they won’t admit is that the light has always been behind us, pulling us backward. They won’t admit that they’re stuck just north of the Enlightenment, and can’t reach the Enlightened.
And now they’re chasing me, because I found a way to get where I want to go. I broke the system, and they’re not happy.
The train pulled to a stop in a shabby mid-western town, halfway across the world. Disappointed passengers shambled off, trudging through the rain to the snack carts and restaurants before their next chance came along.
“You see,” she newspaper man grumbled. “Just back to where I started.”
“That’s your problem,” I answered, but he’d already moved away. “Everyone’s trying to get to Constantinople or Babylon, or New Jerusalem or Avalon. London, Shanghai, New York. To all the old places where the flames once burnt. No one’s happy where they are.
“Me? I’m exactly where I want to be –”
The wooden platform creaked as I started to run, pushing through passengers and families, people milling about, waiting. A top hat broke the line of swarming heads, and even through the rumble of trains I heard the rustle of a cloak as one of them reached for me.
There have been others like me. They were caught, rounded-up and burned. They thought the secret was to stand still, that the Mothmen wouldn’t find them then. But standing still is just as backwards as back to front, and the Mothmen found them. That’s the paradox. The movement gets you nowhere, but if you don’t move, you’re dead. They’ll always find you, but hopefully you’ll already be one step ahead.
Hopefully you can step just out of reach. You can keep going, even when you get nowhere. You can be happy, just being, just breathing. Even when the air is thick and tepid and squirms in your throat. Even if the trains you catch don’t go where they’re supposed to. Even though Constantinople is destroyed and Shangri-La is just a dream. You can go from one city to the next – from Perth to Lima to Johannesburg, trying to go forward instead of trying to go back.
But they don’t want that. If you don’t chase the flame they will give it to you – offer you to it.
And that’s what they did, when the hand closed around my arm. They kept me until the next train came, and the platform emptied. The flames lapped despite the dampness of the platform, given enough accelerant.
On the train, no one noticed the smoke, or the screams. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.