Transient Spirit
This is the short story that I wrote for the Joust 24 hour flash fiction contest put on by One Throne Magazine. I didn't win, obviously, but I figured I would share it here.

Again this is free to read, if you have enjoyed the short stories I've been posting, please consider becoming my Patron as free updates end in October.

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They laid the
train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d
think that you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to
Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul.

They hadn’t
intended for it to happen the way it did, it was happenstance that it had
worked at all, but no one dared to argue with the results. There was outrage at
first, of course, for that is the way of humankind. The first disappearances
had loved ones frantically searching, only to be rewarded by finding the
missing people across the globe, living in a monastery, humbled and at peace.

Soon, outrage
turned to intrigue and damage control turned to marketing, as press releases
became public relations.

“Lose yourself!”
the pamphlets proclaimed, disguising the sinister message with brightly
coloured trains billowing creamy smoke while smiling people hung out of the
windows.

“Discover the
you that you never knew you could be!”

It didn’t take
long for people to buy into the propaganda, and money changed hands, the seats
on the train selling out faster than war bonds in a crisis. People of all ages,
of all walks of life arrived, families dragging their spoiled children along to
partake of the adventure of a lifetime, young men and women looking to find
their way. They all came to lose themselves with the hopes of discovering
someone new.

The maiden
voyage of the newly minted system was a spectacular failure. The train arrived
on time, where it was scheduled to be, with everyone on board who was on the
manifest. No one had been lost or displaced. The cycle of outrage and
capitalism started up again while the investors tried to figure out where they
had gone wrong.

The second
voyage went better. Then the third. Trains would arrive at their destinations
missing a passenger or two but the ones who remained refused to speak of where
they had gone. Search parties would have variable luck in locating the missing
passengers. Mostly, they never found them.

When the whole
train disappeared for six months, only to return carrying no passengers, the
rumours started in earnest. The conductor had been left, but when he returned,
his eyes were wild and his stories nonsensical.

Press releases
trumped public relations as search parties turned up nothing. Cleaners refused
to work in the cars. The screaming, they said, came from nowhere and never
stopped, and no amount of perfumed soap or bleach could get rid of the copper
stink of blood.

Soon, whispers
began to turn to conspiracies; novelty turned to safety concerns, and the
people who once paid money to find themselves in the Sahara found better uses
for their money, and newer self-help solutions.

Even still, the
trains never stopped running.

People still
came for the trains that would displace you, but they were a different kind of
people. Long gone were the affluent ones dressed in chiffon and lace, replaced
by the lost souls who walked the spaces society ignored. Rail-thin waifs with
hollow, sunken eyes, dressed in dirty cotton shifts and dirtier shoes waited
patiently for the trains that never stopped, hoping to lose themselves amidst
the choking smoke and screeching brakes. An unspoken prayer that maybe they
would be taken someplace that would give them hope.

The trains
became a thing of ghost stories, told on road trips when the highway crossed
the rusty, forgotten tracks, or on long camping nights when the lonely,
haunting whistle of a steam engine filled the silent night air with its
haunting cry. They said that it had never happened. It was an urban legend, and
there was no proof to the stories.

Other people
said that it had been to cover up a horrible crash that killed dozens of
passengers.

He hadn’t
believed that the ghost trains that never stopped had been real until he’d
found a faded brochure in his grandmother’s belongings. Inside the folded paper
was a yellowed ticket, perfectly pressed and never stamped. He knew that the
station was just outside of town. He would go and wait for the train, there was
nothing for him left after the funeral.

The sky growled
in dissent as he made his way to the station and he pulled his jacket over his
head as the heavens poured, trying to convince him not to leave. He wouldn’t
stay. He knew that the hollow whistle he had heard every night was for him. He
waited on the platform, eyes sunken from exhaustion, shoes muddied. His teeth
chattered in the cold as the clock ticked toward midnight and the rain showed
no signs of stopping. He was ready to give up when he heard it, the low rumble
of the heavy steam engine and the melancholy cry of the whistle.

A light cut
through the gloom, the train arrived in a belch of steam, and he hesitated when
the doors opened for him. A rush of warm air, the ancient smell of an unaired
closet and the sensation that he was being watched greeted him. He held the
ticket in trembling hands, prepared to offer it as proof of payment, but no one
was there. The train hissed, its impatience palpable.

Crushing the
pamphlet in his fist as he climbed aboard, he tried to look back, to give his
town a final farewell, but to no avail because rain dripping from the rusty
gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.