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THE HELL TRAIN




I experienced this story in a dream. I found myself in a small, ghostly town that overlooked a forest during late autumn. I didn’t remember the reason why I had come there, just that the atmosphere was dismal. All the houses were abandoned and dilapidated. The only distinctive thing about that place was a big railway station, which seemed functional, as opposed to the rest of the town.
I decided to catch a train back home when I found out that the ticket booth was closed. I loitered around, hoping to come across someone I could talk with, and as I waited, the dreadful atmosphere began to weigh me down.

It was only after sunset that I finally stumbled upon somebody. It was an old, nicely dressed woman. She was heading to the house closest to the station, so I approached her and asked:
“Excuse me, could you please tell me when the next train leaves?”
The woman gave me a distrustful frown and answered: “You have to wait until the morning.”
She was about to leave, but then turned and advised: “You should spend the night somewhere.”
“Oh, is there a hotel nearby?” I wondered.
“Not really,” she said evasively, weighing something up, and finally suggested: “Why don’t you come with me?”

Without waiting for my answer, she walked past me towards her house, leaving the wicket gate wide open for me. I reluctantly followed her to the front yard, left with no other choice but to put my trust in a stranger. We stepped inside the shabby old building which to my surprise had a well-kept, homely interior. The old woman entered the living room and began rifling through a pile of papers which were lying around; a collection of magazines, notebooks and diaries.
“The train timetable must be here somewhere,” she said, and then turned to the big window, where she had another pile of papers. Just as I was approaching, I felt the ground begin to shake. It felt like a small earthquake, so I looked at her, startled: “What was that?”
“The hell train,” she said with a look at the clock, “it’s going to arrive for the first load.”
“First load…” I repeated, baffled by the nonchalant way she spoke about such a strange thing.
“The first load of passengers,” she explained, but I still didn’t understand.
“So there is an evening train after all?”
“Not such that you would want to take,” she warned. “Trust me on this, you should wait for the morning ride.”
I noticed that her scowl had eased into a more relaxed expression when she said: “I’ll fix you a simple meal, prepare a bed for you down here in the living room.” She glanced at the timetable she had finally found and added: “The first day train arrives at six am.”
I was touched by her kindness but felt a bit embarrassed about invading her privacy.
“I hope me staying here doesn’t bother you,” I said hesitantly.
She gave me a firm look, and assured me: “Not at all, I’m glad to be of service to those who seek my help.”
I narrowed my eyes, unsure of what she meant by it. Everything about that place seemed suspicious and strange, and even more so when the ground shook again. That time it didn’t feel like an earthquake, though, because a rumbling and squealing noise followed. I instinctively tilted my head towards the window, but the woman hurried to draw the curtains.
“If I may give you a word of advice: Don’t worry about the sounds you might hear or the bright lights you may see flashing through the curtains.” She looked at the big chiming clock and said: “Actually, just avoid looking outside at all until five am.”
“Why?” I asked, with a feeling of anxious foreboding.
She hesitated, but finally just smiled and waved at me to follow her: “Come, let’s have some dinner.”
Before we left the room, I stole another glance at the window and saw the shadow of a half-bare tree moving in the wind as the rumbling noise intensified.
Later, I helped her cut up some root vegetables for a simple stew and enquired some more about the odd town I was visiting.
“It may sound strange, but I don’t really know how I got here and why.”
“That happens,” she said carelessly. “Many dreamers come here. You are probably astral travelling in your sleep.”
I didn’t know what to think of that statement and concluded that the woman might be mad.
“That’s one good thing about this God-forsaken land,” she continued. “It’s not only lost souls who come here, sometimes visitors appear for different reasons too. Some seek inspiration, some try to help the hell train passengers, and others just come out of curiosity…”
I was afraid to inquire about what she meant by it, as I felt that I didn’t really want to know. Even if she was right, and I was actually dreaming, I would still rather wait out whatever was going on in the town in her safe haven.
“May I ask you why the town is abandoned?” I enquired.
“It’s not abandoned. Most of the local buildings are illusionary. It’s been arranged so that the passengers may spot the station better from the forest labyrinth below.”
“Oh,” I exhaled, even more disconcerted than before. “What about your house then, is that real?” I asked, as if talking to a mental patient, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“This one is real, just like the train station. Each hell needs a beacon of light. And that’s what my house has been.”
“Each hell?” I repeated, fear grasping me in its claws. She smiled, probably at my unwillingness to fully accept the reality of her world.
“Don’t worry. I’m not a part of the charade. I’m here to actually help the lost souls, the passengers,” she explained. “I offer them the last chance to set out on a different journey. That is it, though. I don’t like to strike up conversations with them, only if they knock on my door or approach me in the streets. Thinking about evil attracts it, that’s what my grandmother used to say. Send it away or guide it to light, but don’t talk to it or it will play wicked games with your mind.”
“Who exactly are the passengers?” I asked.
“The souls who lost themselves and ended up here or somewhere between this and their own hell, but let’s not talk about it anymore.”
Another quake disturbed our conversation, this time even stronger than the two previous ones, so I leaned against the wall.
“It’s not here yet," she said. “It always takes its time as it’s approaching. The first hell train leaves at three in the morning.”

After we dined, and the old woman retired to her bedroom, I became restless. I tried to fall asleep, but I couldn’t. The rumble was intensifying, and the squealing of the tracks grew louder as well, so I remained staring at the clock until it struck three. Soon after, another quake shook the house to such an extent that it made me fall from the bed. Then strong lights began flashing through the curtains. Despite the numbing fear, I was tempted to peek outside, so I did. What I saw frightened me to death.

A deep blue, Victorian-style train approached the station wreathed in dark cinder smoke. It stopped with a screeching noise and then tensed in a spine-chilling silence as the clouds dispersed. I noticed a queue of people standing nearby – some were nervous, others apathetic. One of them, a young man in a labourer’s uniform, hesitated about whether to knock on the door of the house I stayed in, but then took a determined step towards the train. 

At the same moment, a hideous giant disembarked. In the darkness, I could only see his robust, naked figure and big, bold head. He was muscular and tall, about two metres or more, and devilish in appearance. He had a whip, which he used to whip the passengers inside the carriages. I couldn’t believe that someone would actually wait for the monster, and enter the hell train with him, yet they obeyed. I didn’t even want to imagine where the poor souls were heading. Once they were all inside, however, the demonic creature stepped into the first carriage, the rails squealed again, and the train dashed onwards.

I was stupefied by the horror of the scene and remained hidden behind the curtains. A part of me wished I had never looked, but the other part was glad. I needed to see it to believe it.

Like the old woman said, the train kept coming back every half an hour until the clock struck five. In the meantime, more people gathered by the tracks, some quite resigned to the journey, others unsure. Again, one of them weighed whether to knock on our door or not, but in the end, he didn’t. They were all ready to leave, and so they were whipped on board and the train departed.

It seemed like ages before the dawn came, but as the sun’s rays filled the corners of the supposedly illusionary town, everything fell deadly silent. Like the day before, there was no sign of life, just the tense foreshadowing of another evening ride.
Judging by my fearful expression, the old woman could tell that I had seen everything and grinned at my stubbornness.
“Most people who come here don’t listen to me,” she smiled, “but that’s all right. Maybe it’s better you see, then you will more likely lose interest in places like these.”
“I just don’t understand,” I said with a shaky voice. “Why would those people board that train?”
“Because they think it’s the only journey they deserve.” She replied to my thought as if it was obvious. “Emotions such as self-hate and guilt create these realms. That’s why the hell train exists. It was created by those who believed they were damned and deserved only the worst. Remember, girl, your heart should be the main conductor of your life, and forgiveness and love for others as well as for yourself unlock the gates to heaven. Before you leave this town, talk to the girl who lingers by the station. She is on the right path out of her inner entrapment, and she has an important message to share.”
Then the old woman kindly offered me some breakfast, and sent me out to the station. As she advised, I looked around for the girl she spoke of. No one was there, so I simply settled down on to one of the benches, waiting for the train, which I hoped would be normal and safe.

A young girl did then approach, and sat down beside me. She was about fifteen years old, and her face was strangely swollen and scared, so I had to keep myself from staring. Although she didn’t seem ghostly to me, she said that she had passed away a few years ago in an accident, but she didn’t want to go into details. Shortly after her passing, she began to feel very guilty about how she had behaved during her life, mainly about the lies she had told and the way she had manipulated her friends. She grew hateful towards herself and feared punishment, so she saw no other place for her soul than hell.
However, the hell train ride turned out to be just as futile as her regrets. It was an endless journey, which went round and round and lacked meaning. It felt like a voluntary jail, which offered an entrance but also an exit many times a night. Most passengers remained sitting in the carriages, pondering the reasons for the bad deeds they had done, while others became completely lethargic. They gave up on the world, and on themselves. She decided not to stay there in the end, but couldn’t leave the hell she had willingly entered before she had made peace with herself. 
“Although it may take a long time, the passengers are able to awaken to their heavenly spark again,” she said. “Eventually, light balances darkness. The longer the souls travel through the night, the more they begin to crave the dawn of a new day.”
That girl spent many years on the hell train until she understood that a good deed could rectify a bad one. Therefore, she decided to give herself a task before she left – to do as many good deeds in the afterlife as the bad ones she had committed during her lifetime. Instead of manipulating and lying, she had begun to share her truth and so helped the passengers and visitors.
“Someday someone might replace me, but until then I cling to what I have set my mind upon,” she said.

After she shared her experience, she told me to write the story down, and tell it to as many people as I could. Then she walked away, and without looking back, she disappeared into the autumn forest beyond the station. I watched as the sunbeams made their way through the fading mist, and pondered the meaning of her words. Then, on the stroke of six, the day train approached. I stepped on board and as it left the strange town behind, I slowly began to awake in my here and now.