Writing Prompt “The Train”
Theme: The Story Takes Place on a Train
You must use ONE of these 3 scenarios in your story.
- There’s a case of mistaken identity
- An unexpected reunion takes place or
- A mysterious death occurs
Word Count: 1,200
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104 thoughts on “Writing Prompt “The Train””
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I want to take the opportunity to thank those who commented on my last story even though it wasn’t officially part of THE RACE. You made me feel visible (as Jürgen’s red nose would point out)! 🙂
There is a train in my story. The train follows its tracks through a prairie landscape. From horizon to horizon, only tufts of grass, in the far right some bison grazing. A few minutes ago the train stopped at a station somewhere remote, a station without a town or a village.
A man in a trench coat makes his way down the aisle and looks into each compartment. He is thrown back and forth by the rocking of the train. He opens a door. Sitting in the compartment is a man wearing a Stetson hat, snakeskin boots, plaid shirt and jeans with a huge brass belt buckle. He has his feet on the seat opposite and his hat pulled over his face. He seems to be sleeping.
The man in the trench coat climbs over the legs of the sleeping man. This wakes him, he winces and picks up his revolver. Then he looks the other man in the eye, relaxes and takes his feet off the seat. The two men nod to each other.
“How are you, cowboy?” The man in the trench coat looks at the other. “How come you’re on the train and not on your horse?”
“My horse left me. I’m going to St. Louis to get her back. ”
“Your horse left you?”
“Yes, unfortunately. We’ve had a complicated relationship for some time. We were not always honest with each other I’m afraid. But I love my horse. I will try to find her. Then I want to convince her, we have a future together. I hope, she’ll come back to me.”
The man in the trench coat nods slowly: “Horses are complicated beings.” Both men nod in silence for a while.
The cowboy looks at the man in the coat. “And you? Why did you get on this train? I just saw you boarding at ‘Tumbleweed Expanse’. Noone ever gets on the train there.”
“I’m a private detective from L.A.”, replies the man who has taken off his trench coat. He wears a shoulder holster with a rather large gun in it.
“Hunting for criminals?”
“No, not this time. I’m trying to find a rich heiress who has run away from home. A wild girl. Her parents are sick with worry. ”
“A rich heiress? Sounds interesting. Could be money in it, right? ”
“Probably not. I hate rich heiresses. Again and again I have to do this kind of job. First, I’m just looking for the girl, then there are corpses everywhere and the homicide division makes my life difficult. Also, I’m being chased by all the gangsters between Chicago and L.A. When it’s finally over, most parents don’t pay. Rich people don’t like to pay. That’s how they got rich, you understand? ”
Now it’s the cowboy’s turn to nod slowly and thoughtfully: “Wild girls are complex creatures. I’m glad I love a horse.”
“Yes,” the detective nods, “that makes things a lot easier. I think I would rather love a horse. But that’s out of our hands, right? It’s fate. We have to accept our sexual preferences.”
An old man in uniform enters the compartment. It’s the ticket inspector, and he wants to see the tickets. But then he stares at the cowboy.
“Eh you! Are not you Harry, my son?” The ticket inspector’s voice has a doubtful undertone.
“Father?” The cowboy asks back. “Is that really you? Am I meeting you here of all places?”
Now the father’s voice gets quite accusing. “Are you still running after that treacherous mare? Why don’t you grow up and forget her? ”
“My private life is none of your business,” the cowboy says. “Here’s my ticket. Just do your job and we’ll get along very well. ”
The inspector looks at the ticket. “Ah, it’s St. Louis this time. Good luck! And write to your mother. She’s not getting any younger either. I wish the phone was invented already, but that will take a few more years I guess.
Now he checks the detective’s ticket. “Change at Foul Creek!” He hands him the ticket back. Then he leaves the compartment and slams the sliding door shut.
The two men sit nodding in silence for a long time. It looks like they’re thinking, but maybe they’re not.
After a while, the cowboy says, “That’s another completely stupid story we ended up in. A cowboy traveling after his horse. I mean, who makes up that kind of thing? ”
The private investigator nods a few times. Then he thinks. Finally he nods again thoughtfully.
“I am so fed up with the rich heiresses. Always rich heiresses. Always wild girls going off with bad guys. When I find them, they try to seduce me. I don’t want that anymore. Why can’t I look for an accountant just once? But that doesn’t occur to any of these so-called writers. It’s probably too realistic for them. Rather, they bathe their stories in clichés.
“And then my old man comes in and checks the tickets? What kind of story is that? That’s totally crazy and unconvincing.”
The detective gets in a rage. “Doesn’t that author have an editor? An editor should be able to forbid writing such a crap. I mean, that’s what editors are for, right? ”
“Let’s talk a little sense into the author,” says the cowboy. “I saw him in the next car. Traveling first class, the fine gentleman.“
The detective nods in agreement. “Hey, good idea. We’ll do that. We’ll tell this writer that we’re not taking this crap anymore. He has to listen to us. After all, without us there’d be no story. ”
The two get up.
“I’ll tell this scribbler my opinion,” says the cowboy loudly. “And if that’s the last thing I do!”
There is a big bang. A vulture has flown against the window. Both men jump up, grab their weapons and shoot each other. They hit each other’s hearts.
This happens when the characters of a story rebel against their creator, the author. After all, that’s my story, and I have the power to do whatever I want with any character. I don’t discuss anything with the characters I invented in the first place. Sorry about that!
The train continues through the prairie, the wheels rattle and the two dead men slip deeper and deeper into their seats until they lie on the floor. On a curve, the locomotive lets out a shrill whistle.
I just love what you did here as you took some unlikely scenarios and, by mocking them, made them even more unlikely. Then you cap that by appealing to the author who, quite rightly, ends their involvement. We can’t have our characters dictating to us, can we? Can we? Should we?
By the way, I had a real struggle this time around to put something together on this theme and I was wondering where all the other stories were. Funny really that two of my most recent stories were about trains.
But beyond that:
I liked your story for its lightness, it made me feel as if you were literally shrugging it off as you wrote.
But I need to know: do I detect a very slight irritation that was going on as you wrote…? or is it very well controlled make-belief irritation, beautifully expressing the mood of the fictional author…? If it is: congratulations! it’s very convincing!
If it was your own irritation: congratulations for channeling it so convincingly into your story!
… either way, you win!
Maybe that “irritation” was not the best to describe it, then… But definitely a certain impatience… Like the one parents can have towards their kids when they refuse to obey… (which might be part of what triggered Ken’s sequel…?)
I hear it in the overall tone, the refusal to give real background to the story, most of the imagery feeling like it comes directly from hundreds of movies we have all seen before, in the characters starting as archetypes that you then twist around your finger (especially the cowboy). I see it in the swiftness of the dialogues. There’s irritation in the detective towards his job hunting rich heiresses, in the inspector towards his cowboy of a son, in the cowboy towards his love story with a horse, in the two of them towards their author, and finally in the author towards the rebelliousness of his characters…
His statement is without ambiguity, right? =
“After all, that’s my story, and I have the power to do whatever I want with any character. I don’t discuss anything with the characters I invented in the first place. Sorry about that!”
And to top it off, even the locomotive has the final word, as she “lets out a shrill whistle”!
Yet another very good story from you. You always seem to come to the theme out of left field, and it it invariably works. Here the reader is pleasantly baffled by the incongruity of the cowboy & private detective being in the same scene … until we find out why. That meta twist is really well done – like those old cartoons where you’d get the artist’s hand appearing in the frame with a rubber (‘eraser’, to stifle any giggles) to rub out the bomb, or whatever. I really love the cowboy’s story – the love affair with the horse. If I have any qualms it’s that the ending (last para) doesn’t quite live up to what came before. But it’s still a very witty take on he theme.
– I understand what you mena about the las paragraph, Let’s say it’s there for my own amusement.
I was so moved by the lack of stories that I created a series of imaginary story names, assigned one to each writer, (I know all of your names by heart.) Added a heartfelt and emotional exhortation challenging each writer to dig down deep into their demented souls and pull forth from that turbulent tide-wash, a short and tidy tale that would render the Gods of the Galactic Hegemony de-speechified. But….. as I drifted ever closer to a state of trance-like torpor, with my finger hovering above the delete button, as the weight of one-full atmosphere pushed down on my thumb, held aloft solely by my incredible strength and will, and built-in resistance to sleep, but unfortunately, gravity, the gods, sleep and sanity prevailed, lowering said thumb the final three sixteenths of an inch to rest, with a fore-ordained sense of fate, on the single key that would delete the wisdom and inspiration that would surely open the floodgates of creativity sleeping peacefully within your fossilized imaginations. But then, as if fate itself were interested in the outcome, a sudden gust of wind stirred the curtains behind me which, rather than waking me, pushed me over the edge into dreamland, whereupon my entire massive brain-filled head fell forward onto the keyboard, after which I then rolled my forehead back and forth, dreaming of headbutting my cat, no doubt, thereby rendering all of my encapsulated wisdom into a meaningless pile of random letters and grammatically incorrect gibberish. (Ahhh, life. What a wonderful shitstorm.) What can I say but, oh well. You’re all probably better off for it anyway.
Fun fact: I don’t actually have curtains, I have blinds.
Maybe everyone is redoing their taxes, after doing them once, and realizing their promised tax break went to pay for a ceramic zip-tie on a six-zillion dollar invisible airplane that makes its pilots seasick whenever they fly the damned thing, over land. I’m guessing. (Honestly General, I don’t know anything. I’m trying to make shit up over here. Can I help it if the stupidest things I can dream up are actually TRUE?) Fiction is becoming harder and harder to create in the current climate of global stupidity.
But enough about me. What’s going on here? Where is everybody? What was the question again????!!!!!
It was one of the old types of trains, with a corridor running the length of the carriage, divided up into compartments with six seats in each. I’d got on at Plzen but the train was coming from Prague and was pretty full. I struggled along the corridor, squeezing past people, some chatting, some leaning out of the windows, some, like me, looking for a seat. It seemed hopeless but then a door slid open and a man stepped out with a bag, obviously ready to get off at the next stop. I beat a Japanese tourist to the door, entered the compartment and slid the door closed behind me.
I managed to get my weighty backpack onto the rack above the seats and sat down on the only empty one, next to the door. In the corridor, the Japanese tourist was glaring at me through the glass but I stared her down and she eventually went off to find her own place. Relaxing into the rather comfortable seat, I began to surreptitiously inspect my fellow passengers. Opposite me, also next to the door, was a man of around my age, accompanied by a woman who was obviously his partner – at least I wouldn’t expect complete strangers to be kissing and cuddling as they were.
They were speaking what I assumed to be Czech, although all Slavic languages seem the same to me, with their ‘shushes’ and ‘tchitches’. The man in a suit sitting next to me had his newspaper open. It was obscuring the face of the woman at the end of my row, next to the window, but opposite her was a teenager, staring out at the suburbs slipping by. My eyes stayed on him.
There was something about him, something familiar that I couldn’t put my finger on. I didn’t know any Czech people – I rarely go out of my way to make acquaintances when I’m travelling, and this trip was no exception. I figured that he was just one of those lookalikes that you might see every day on the street, in a bar, on a bus – people who look like film stars, or footballers, or friends of yours. I took my eyes off him and closed them, preparing myself for a nap – the gentle swaying of trains always lulls me in this way – while trying to remember who the boy reminded me of.
Then he spoke, and my ears pricked up; he was Spanish. I spent five years in Spain and speak the language quite well. After weeks in Eastern Europe, it was refreshing to hear something intelligible for a change.
“Mum, can I have my sandwich yet?” he said in Spanish, looking straight in front of him. So the woman on the other side of the newspaper was his mother, and presumably Spanish as well. She handed him a bag and the boy took out a sandwich, which he attacked voraciously.
I was still trying to place him; his style of eating was familiar, too. After a while, the man next to me put his newspaper down and took a book out of his briefcase. Finally I could see the woman, in profile. And my blood ran cold.
That nose – slightly too big; the eye that I could see – deliciously large with full eyelashes; the arched eyebrow; the delicate ear, exposed as she had her short, brown hair tucked behind it; the dimple in her cheek. She had a few more lines than I remembered, but it was Carmen.
I whipped around to face the window on the corridor side. My head was spinning with a maelstrom of emotions: shock at the coincidence; rapid, vivid flashbacks of our affair in Madrid; a rush of momentary, rekindled passion; fear at being discovered.
Out in the corridor, the Japanese tourist, obviously seat-less, had returned and was leaning against the window. Her black anorak provided a makeshift reflective surface, and I peered into the glass to take in the mother and son at the other end of the compartment. I studied the woman’s profile again and doubt flooded through my mind. Perhaps I was mistaken. She was similar to Carmen, yes, but what were the chances? To meet her here in the middle of the Czech Republic, almost 15 years after I’d left her without saying goodbye. Indeed, without giving her any explanation for why I had to leave. I hadn’t seen or communicated with her since.
And why did I leave her? I returned to the discussion I’d had with myself countless times over the years. I was young – well, in my mid-20s – and unprepared for settling down. But that’s what Carmen had been hinting at for weeks. I knew that if it came down to a direct discussion, she’d win and I’d be tied down. And I had so much of the world still to see. So I silently packed my key possessions one early spring morning and simply left Carmen sleeping. At the time I was convinced it was the right thing to do – for me – but I’d been racked with guilt ever since. And sadness – at losing what I came to realise was the love of my life.
Was this woman Carmen, though? Because of the low probability, doubt had superseded certainty and I was beginning to feel relieved, until she spoke.
“We’ll get some proper food when we arrive, Juan. I’m fed up with sandwiches, aren’t you?”
Now I was sure. That slight nasal whine, for me her one flaw. The profile, and now her voice. This was Carmen.
I twisted more in my seat to make sure my face wasn’t seen, and to be able to use the rudimentary mirror to observe the pair better. Now that I’d confirmed in my mind that this was indeed Carmen, I switched my attention to the boy. He had some of Carmen’s features I realised, the eyes especially, but his nose wasn’t like hers, and I knew that the sense of familiarity I’d felt wasn’t entirely connected to her.
How many is two plus two? In a flash I finally made the addition. The boy was in his mid-teens. His name was Juan. And he had a nose that was a little like a boxer’s. A little like mine.
What would you have done? Would you have come clean there and then? Begged Carmen for forgiveness? Introduced yourself to your boy and hugged him? You would?
I stood up and pulled my backpack down from the rack. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Carmen looked up. I’d lost a lot of hair over the years, and had a traveller’s beard, but even so, I half-expected a “John, is that you?” She said nothing.
As soon as I left the compartment, the Japanese woman squeezed past me and claimed the seat. I pushed my way along the corridor, which seemed more crowded than before. I would get off at the next stop, and then return to Prague for a while.
From there I wasn’t sure, but I knew I had a lot of the world still to see.
At last the stories are starting to come in and this was worth waiting for. It raises a question regarding why did we do what we did all those years ago. I expect we all have such moments when we would, if possible, rewind our lives and make a different choice. Or would we?
My only query is that in a carriage with only a few seats I find it hard to believe that Carmen would not have spotted you / him despite his efforts to keep his face away. It does not though affect the quality of your writing which is great, as ever.
Quotidian? No, I don’t think so. Is that work-a-day? (Oops, that means mundane. Damn it.) I can’t think of the right word. Anyway….
Your character’s behavior, his desire to satisfy his curiosity and subsequent decision to flee, were all very realistic to my way of thinking. And to me, what makes this story and your writing so good, is that your description of ‘the character’s actions’ are as realistic as the motives behind them. Your character’s use of the reflection of the glass, the way he checks out the other passengers when he first enters the car. In fact, you indicate your character’s possible lack of scruples early on when he races to take the empty seat from a Japanese woman. (Perhaps he’s just a bit of an opportunist.)
So, you know, I just wanted to make it clear that I REALLY thought the story was excellent on every level.
I hate to disagree with Flo on this, but I thought the character behaved exactly as he would have, because of the way he left in the first place. The presence of a possible son complicates his feelings, but not his actions. It doesn’t effect a change of heart. No, this story is excellent because it doesn’t judge the character, despite describing him very well. To some, maybe most people, the character is foolish and shallow, a cad, to others, he’s a free spirit, still roaming. And while that appears to most of us to be a dismal future, at least the character seems content with it.
There’s a lot going on here. (And I blame Flo for making me stop and think about it all. But you’re not innocent either.)
Doubly kind, Ken. Thanks.
But I don’t know exactly what to make of the story itself. My problem lies with the cynicism it pretends to impart (… and I have been called a cynic more than once…) If I can believe that the narrator would repeat the same action, years after, under those circumstances, I am struggling with the idea that he would convincingly have such a detached, finite, inner dialog, after he said that he had “been racked with guilt ever since”. If he does, he is definitely lying to himself, isn’t he, refusing to look deep within himself…? In which case, where does that leave us, readers, just watching and not learning anything from it…? In conclusion, a sense of in-completion as far as I’m concerned…
And I think this story could go further. If we had more space. Because I can well imagine that this short encounter does something to the protagonist, a tiny little someting. But a growing little something. So it might be material for a novel.
Very good writing.
It wasn’t every day that Vernon Culpepper sat opposite himself on a train.
At first, still lost in rueful reflection on his stalling career and lack of success on all fronts, he didn’t recognise himself. Looking up, it took several moments before recognition registered in a widening of his tired eyes.
This second Vernon was not an exact doppelganger. To Vernon he looked both a little older and a little younger at the same time. The hairline receding, perhaps, and just a hint of grey. Some deeper lines at the edges of his eyes. Perhaps they were laughter lines, in contrast to his own world-weary wrinkles. Yet Vernon number 2 sported the stylish goatee he himself had cultivated as a younger man, and seemed possessed of a youthful vigour that was now but a distant memory.
The second Vernon smiled, appreciating the effect he was having on his other self.
Vernon sat up straighter in his seat. He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped himself. How do you begin a conversation with yourself? Did he need to somehow verify who this person was? No, he knew with inexplicable certainty that the person opposite was also himself.
“Eight minutes is all we have,” said Vernon 2. He held out his hand to Vernon. They shook hands firmly, like old friends meeting after too long apart.
Vernon blinked a couple of times to regain his composure, leaning forward towards his other self. “You’ve got to tell me what’s happening here. How is this even possible?”
Vernon 2 took a deep breath. “It’s a little complicated – ”
“No shit …”
“ – but I’ll try to make it as simple as I can. In a nutshell, Vernon, I’m your future self. In one potentiality, anyway …”
“So – why are you here, now?” Vernon spoke softly, almost in a whisper. The conversation, if overheard above the noise of the train, would surely seem outlandish to other passengers.
Vernon 2 leaned forward and matched Vernon’s level of speaking. “We’re approaching what you might call a critical moment in our lives.”
“Uh huh …”
“It’s a moment when your life might end, or my life begin.”
Vernon thought for a moment. “I’m not following … The ‘or’ is confusing me.”
“OK. I’m a potential you, if in the next 7 minutes you act decisively. If you ‘seize the day’, so to speak. Otherwise I won’t exist. Neither of us will.”
“But if you’re a future ‘me’, then surely, in a sense, I must have already done what you want, or else you couldn’t be here now.”
“It doesn’t work quite like that. Time, we’ve found, isn’t some kind of ‘ever-rolling stream’. It’s like a plane of being where all possibilities exist, where all points in time can connect to each other. I’m a potential you who could spring from the act you might be about do – if you make the choice.”
Vernon shook his head doubtfully. “That’s insane. You’re telling me you’re not real, but I can make you so?”
Vernon 2 stroked his beard, then sat back a little. “It’s like in Indian philosophy: the effect is pre-existent in the cause. In that sense, my potential existence is as real as your existence. Just as your current existence is the realised potential of all the decisions you’ve made, or avoided, in your life up until now.”
“Whoosh!” said Vernon, sweeping his hand back over his head. “You’re going to have to run that past me again at some point, only slower.”
“You’re approaching an abyss, a point of no return. Here on the edge, time operates differently. We are accelerating into darkness, pulling multiple points in time towards the same moment. 5 minutes 15 seconds.”
“Very precise! So what is it you say I have to do?”
Vernon 2’s face became grave. “Look along the aisle. Three rows up, facing you, on the right. See him?”
Vernon saw a dark-haired man, nervously glancing around.
“That shifty-looking guy in a green anorak and baseball cap?”
“Yes, him. In 4 minutes 23 seconds, he’ll open up that holdall by his feet. He’ll pull out an AK47 and begin firing. You’ll be his seventh victim. Then he’ll walk through the train, shooting everyone he sees until his rifle jams.”
“Jesus! You’re kidding …?” Vernon felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “You expect me to do something about it?”
“Why not? You have the advantage of surprise.”
“Yeah right! You know when was the last time I had a fight?”
“Of course. When you – we – stood up to that thug Josh at school. That took courage.”
“Sure. Then he and his pals beat me to a pulp.”
“And you’ve never stood up for yourself since.”
Vernon remained silent for a few moments, stung. “You’re here too, mate. You bloody deal with it.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works. Three minutes 15 – ”
“Let me think.”
“It should be a no-brainer, Vernon. Live or die. And then his other victims – what about them?”
“So why aren’t their other possible selves popping out of nowhere to spur them into action?”
Vernon 2 frowned. “Isn’t that what you always do?”
“Leave the heavy lifting to others?”
Vernon shot his other self an angry glance, before looking ahead again. “Oh shit. He’s getting more agitated. Checking his phone again and again. Now he’s lifting his holdall onto his knees..” He watched intently, his right leg beginning to shake. “You’ll help me with this?”
“I’ll do my best.”
* * * * *
“No idea how he did it. One minute he seemed to be nodding off, muttering stuff to himself. Next thing, in one movement, he goes from dozing to throwing himself on that guy. Flying right past me!.”
The police officer nodded and jotted down the witness’ statement. “He says the guy opposite him helped him.”
“I didn’t see any other guy. Looked like he did it on his own. Is he, you know, like special forces or something. Was he keeping that bloke under surveillance?
* * * * * *
After the dust settled, and Vernon had endured the dubious pleasures of a month or two in the limelight, he felt something of a new man.
A year later, he felt a little more confident and assertive, less gloomy about his job and career prospects. He noticed his hair had receded a little already. And he decided to once again sport the goatee of his younger years.
He still caught the same train to work. The train company had granted him free first-class travel for life in gratitude for his action.
One day a fellow passenger hesitatingly approached him. “Excuse me – you’re Vernon Culpepper? I remember your face from the news. I was on that train, you know. Do you mind if I sit here?” she said, gesturing to the seat opposite. “Oh, it has a ‘reserved’ sign …”
“It’s fine. I always book another seat. Just in case.”
“Just in case of what?”
“In case I need my courage to drop by and help me out again. But today, I think I’ll be fine.”
I’m glad to see a few stories finally arriving. It has been a strange few days with nothing happening.
This is such a great story. It mixes the mystical with a very practical outcome: Vernon being offered an unusual opportunity to enhance his life or, if he is too afraid, then to die as victim number 7. I like to think that I would have acted in the same way but then again, how would I, or anyone else, react when meeting my other self on a train?
A great premise, well worded and a great read.
There’s a deep existential poetry in the last section, particularly the last sentence: “In case I need my courage to drop by and help me out again.” I find that image profoundly moving. Thank you for creating it and sharing it with us!
It is indeed an existentialist tale, centring around a moment of crisis/choice/to-be-or-not-to-be, with the knowledge of what is to come and what could be heightening the nature of the choice. Really glad you liked the ending 🙂
This is, as Ken says, really lovely … even if at times I was “sweeping my hand back over my head”, especially when we got into Indian philosophy. It’s kind of the same principle as the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey, isn’t it? (the bedroom scene) The plot is constructed like a Swiss watch, all the parts clicking perfectly into place (as they were destined to!) One thing I’d change would be to take out the police officer bit as superfluous – the little leap from “I’ll do my best” to “After the dust settled” (with a separator) would have worked just as well, I think. Loved Vernon Culpepper (great name!) as the unlikely hero. Really enjoyed it.
I think in a way I was giving the reader a kind of of out in terms of getting to grips with the Indian philosophy (satkaryavada, if you’re interested!) by having Vernon perplexed by it also 🙂
I hadn’t thought about the end of 2001 for many a year – does anyone really know what it means, lol?
Thanks for that suggestion about taking out the witness statement. I think you’re right in that the story does work without it, but it does change its meaning a bit. As it stands I think it injects some ambiguity about whether the encounter with his other self ‘really’ happens or is an entirely interior event. One way or another it’s ‘himself’ who makes the choice to act, but the mechanism of the decision is up for grabs …
I’ve just read through your story a couple more times to reacquaint myself with it. It confirmed what I thought I already knew – a masterful piece of writing. All the parts fit together so well and are linked by excellent dialogue which I think we do not use enough.
A worthy winner and a model for us other writers to aim for ( I was told never to end a sentence with a preposition, however..)
Looking forward to the next round,
Every time I learn something from reading the stories of other participants, which is what it’s all about.
I’ve got another really busy spell of work coming up and a lot of travel, so not sure how frequently I can take part – but hopefully again soon.
All the best – Andy
Jasper, Canada 1953.
By Ken Frape
She had the kind of face that launched a thousand ships and the way she swung those hips, she could have created her own waves as she sashayed down the aisle of Canadian National steam loco 8472. Honey blonde hair trailed down her slender neck and then over her bare shoulder, reluctant to cover even one inch of that curvaceous cleavage.
As she wafted past I caught a lungful of her scent and it drew my nose like a magnet. For the first time since I was a kid I kind of understood that old Bisto gravy ad. But this gal sure wasn’t selling gravy.
By sitting nice and wide in their aisle seats, every guy tried to make contact with those silky hips in that tight red dress as she slid past like a liner slipping her moorings. The guy standing at the far end, who jumped on late and missed the kerfuffle for seats, now found himself in the prime position as she progressed towards him, closing the gap real slow. As she passed each seat a head would appear behind her, each pair of eyes checking out those swaying hips and the seam running down those silk sheathed calves. If he had been packing his pistol, that end guy could’ve picked off each one like a duckshoot at the county fair.
She took her time closing the gap between herself and that guy. Her progress was real slow, deliberate. She made to open her silk clutch bag but even before she had time to search for a smoke with her gloved hand, the stranger had magicked his Marlboros from nowhere and tapped one free. As she slipped the cigarette between her slender fingers she ran her pink tongue across her reddened lips and moistened them in anticipation. She gave the guy the kind of slow, lingering smile that said “I’m real grateful,” and maybe more besides. She tipped her head as the guy leaned towards her and fired up his Zippo. She rested her hand lightly on his forearm then took a long pull on the lighted smoke. She blew a beautiful smoke ring as she half turned towards her waiting audience, who let out their breath too, only it sounded like a collective sigh.
She smoothed her skirt down across those rounded hips and almost took out the eye of the nearest guy as she thrust her Playtex – pointed breasts forward in a way that your mother wouldn’t approve of.
The train chugged around a sharp bend and the girl nearly went with it. The guy slipped his hand around her waist and pulled her towards him. Long after she was back on an even keel he kept his hand there. She slipped her hand onto his shoulder, her breast pressed hard against his chest. If they’d got any closer a fire would have broken out and we could feel the smouldering from our seats. They looked like they should get a room. They looked like they wanted to. I guess we all did. I know I did.
They stayed up close and personal for just too long for comfort, ours not theirs, as she stood there pouring smoke into the air and moving those hips oh so gently from side to side against his leg to the rhythm of the train on the track. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
As the train slid into Jasper halt the slowing down threw her hips up against his and that final jolt pulled them apart. He slipped the catch on the door and she oiled her way smoothly towards it. She stopped at the top step and threw us a winsome smile that took our breath away. The guy had stepped ahead of her and down the wooden steps. He waited and held out his hand and she took it, carefully stepping down from the train onto the trackside. She came down those steps backwards and gave that guy the kind of view we’d all have paid a week’s wages for.
He slipped back up the steps and closed the carriage door, his eyes never leaving hers. Their hips may have parted but their minds were still smoking in time. She had a curious look on her face, her mouth curling at the corners. The guy could read the signals as he mouthed a kiss and blew it her way. I could swear we all saw it land on her pretty pink cheek.
The train slipped away from the halt. Every eye stayed with that girl until we cricked our necks too far. Then we all relaxed and breathed again. The guy opposite me looked real embarrassed and his wife gave him a look that said a lot and none of it good.
“That’s a wrap” shouted the director on the trackside through his megaphone. “Marilyn, you were wonderful. “
That lucky guy, Robert Mitchum stood smiling at the trackside as he lit up another Marlboro. He got paid to do this!
Marily Monroe stood there down the track and looked back at the train as we all applauded from the open windows.
“Oh, thanks guys” she said. “You’re not so bad yourselves!” Her laugh was like a mountain stream, smooth and cool.
Just love that girl!
Ken Frape April 19
Author’s note: “The River on no Return” filmed in Jasper, Canada in 1953 and starring Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Everything else is poetic licence but I would love it to be true.
But about one third down, I realized you had to be talking about Marilyn, and there you got me… I have never been quite able to analyze it, but though she stands for everything I hate that our humanity has made certain women to be, I have a undeniable fascination and tenderness towards Marilyn… What can we say? She was magic! Though I can’t agree with Ken C: I don’t believe she was ever allowed to be herself, which is part of what lead to her demise… My favorite book about her is “Blonde”, by Joyce Carol Oates.
So, between fascinating Marilyn and your superb writing, what do you think the expression was on my face, by the time I reached the end…? 😉
Thanks for making me struggle with my own contradictions: always a good practice!
You are the master of description, and this is masterfully done. You’ve spent a whole story describing a line or so of action (woman walks down train aisle, attracts appreciative looks from men, focusses on one, they have a moment, she gets off the train), but it has tension/suspense, dynamics and is as provocative as the woman. Flo says her mood was getting increasingly sombre because of the objectification of the woman, but you’ve faithfully reproduced a pulp style here … and that’s of its time. The references are there and perfect for us of a certain age (“I kind of understood that old Bisto gravy ad. But this gal sure wasn’t selling gravy.”, and ‘Playtex’). One tiny false step, perhaps? “They looked like they should get a room.” – that “Get a room!” line (for couples getting a little too amorous) is more modern, I think. I must admit I was a little disappointed that it turned out to be Marilyn Monroe (As I was reading, I was going to say it was like her – based on her walk in ‘Some Like It Hot’. I haven’t seen ‘The River of No Return’.) I would have preferred a ‘real’ resolution to the couple’s spontaneous meeting. But that’s just me being too demanding maybe. Your descriptions, though!
Thanks for your comments that I feel are most perceptive. This was an exercise in writing something in the style of the period, the early 1950s as you noted.I think the story speaks quite accurately about Marilyn Monroe who was a tragic figure in the end. Her story is a sad one in many ways. It was a very different time and for those who have watched the TV series Mad Men, the way women were treated seems frankly, despicable to us now. However, were the men despicable because they lived in that period? Maybe they were, maybe not. Can we use modern standards to judge history?
I toyed with this piece for quite some time before deciding that I would post it hence it being posted quite near to the deadline as I was concerned about possible repercussions. I may still have it taken down.
Your story got me thinking. I’ve been a member of this group for over four years now. (I joined two days before Philip. He says after.) And I’ve only picked the prompt five and a half times. Now, I’m not that good at math but, five and a half times in over four years? With two prompts a month, times eleven months, (give or take), that’s twenty-two prompts per year, times four-point-five years equals a sum greater than the parts of the whole. That’s eighty-eight, plus half of eighty-eight, which is forty-four, which equals one-hundred and thirty-two prompts since I joined this writing group, and I’ve only picked the prompt less than six times. Six, into a hundred and thirty two, is an infinite quantum number times an insult, from a child, in a foreign language. Clearly, someone is trying to pull the rutabaga over my eyes. I’m going to go talk to the associate modulater about this, or the manager, or the cote du jour. (Shit, I hope that wasn’t dirty.) And see about my prompt status.
I mention this because, While we’re waiting, it occurred to me that (after reading your story) it would be neat to do a prompt where everyone got to re-write a famous scene, (or any scene) in any old movie. Not, necessarily to make it different,, but to make it better. Or different. Frankly, I can’t think of a single movie that I could improve on. Except maybe Frankenstein. (In which case, Frankenstein is the butler. In a murder mystery. But he’s not the murderer, the actual murderer is achhph. Jesus, I can’t believe I almost told you. You’re good, Ken. Very good.)
Okay so its a crappy idea. Don’t worry. I have plenty more where that came from, Ken. Don’t you worry about that. By the way, don’t take that story down, Ken. It’s fine. (It reminded me a bit, of the movie ‘South Pacific.’)
You’re describing something that takes maybe less than a minute, and really suck as in as reader by the close and intimate description and the device of seeing things through the eye of the ‘chorus’ of (male!) passengers and their reactions. I wonder what the women were thinking about Robert Mitchum, btw?
(I was watching some jaw-dropping comments from our old friend Nigel Farage on the news as I was wrote the comment, and lost track of myself I think as reality dissolved around me …)
“Welcome aboard the Murder Mystery Train,” greeted the host. “We’ll leave the station in 5 minutes. Anyone who wants to leave must do so by then, otherwise they will have to remain aboard until we arrive at our destination.”
Matt and Cat looked at each other, excited and nervous at the same time. They loved the thrill these games offered. “I hope this one is as challenging as they advertised,” Cat said looking around, already scanning the place for anything out of the ordinary.
One of the passengers decided to leave right before the train departed. “This is rubbish! My time’s worth a lot of money to be wasted on this nonsense,” he grumbled as he left the carriage.
“He’s a famous Wall Street guy,” the male passenger in front of Cat whispered. At the same time the train started to move, “Here we go!”
Suddenly the host returned to the carriage, blood dripping from his neck, pouring from his mouth, while he was trying to talk: “Help, this is not part of the game. Stop the train. Call the Police.” Then he dramatically fell on the floor, apparently dead.
“What? Is that it? That’s so lame,” Matt said.
“Stop it. A crime has been committed, there’s no time for criticism,” Cat reprehended him, although she agreed that even she would die with more conviction.
Some of the passengers got up and approached the dead man, Matt and Cat amongst them. As they got closer they felt that something wasn’t quite right. They couldn’t say quite what it was but… The dead man’s chest wasn’t moving at all, and for someone who was so bad at dying, he was quite good at remaining dead, by not breathing. And the blood… The blood was very realistic – the reddish brown color, the thickness, the way it flowed… Matt got down on one knee and dipped his finger into a puddle of blood near his feet. He smelled it and looked at Cat, her eyes revealing to him that she was thinking the same as he was, “The guy who created this blood must be a real genius. Or they stole real blood from a blood bank.”
A terrible feeling took over both of them, and Cat decided to approach the dead man to feel his pulse. There wasn’t any. By now, some of the other participants were looking at them, at what they were doing, slowly realizing what they suspected.
“Is he really dead?” one of the passengers asked. At the same time a man’s voice screamed “HELP! Someone stabbed me! Please help me!”
Everyone turned their heads towards the carriage door, Matt and Cat included.
The passenger that had supposedly left the train right before the journey started was standing there, his white shirt under his jacket all covered in blood. He dropped to his knees. “You have to find my killer! Please!”, and as he prepared to lay on the floor he spotted the dead man lying between the passengers’ feet. An expression of doubt took hold of his face, “What’s happening here? Who’s that?” he asked pointing at the dead body.
Instinctively everyone looked towards the corpse and then to the bloody passenger, who, meanwhile, had got up. “What’s going on here? I thought I was going to be the only murdered character. I can’t work like this, I have to know the script fully if I’m expected to do a good performance.”
Everyone remained silent while he approached them, and with the end of his shoe kicked the dead man’s leg. “You there! Get up! Let’s clarify this,” he demanded, right before Matt grabbed him saying “Stop it. He’s not faking. He’s really dead”.
“What? What do you mean dead?”
“Dead dead. Like, not breathing dead!” Cat answered.
Upon hearing this of the man jumped away from the body and began to move backwards towards the door. “What’s going on in here? What have you done?” he asked pointing to everyone, obviously terrified.
“We didn’t do anything!” someone screamed.
“He entered the room already bleeding!” somebody else stated.
“We thought he was pretending!”
“Oh, my God!”
“There’s a murderer on the loose!”
All of a sudden everyone was talking at once, some whispering, others screaming, and there were two or three crying. Panic was installed.
“EVERYONE SHUT UP!” Matt yelled, “Just stop it. There’s no advantage in panicking right now. Let’s just calm down, breathe and think for a while”.
Gradually there was silence; everyone stepped as far away from the body as possible and stood still at the end of the carriage, looking at Matt and Cat, waiting for instructions.
Matt and Cat were ‘elected’ the leaders of the group.
“Ok. Let’s think,” Matt started “First we have to stop this train, find out where we are and then call the police”.
Cat went to the emergency break and pulled it. Almost instantaneously the train stopped and they all stumbled forward.
“What’s wrong?” asked a voice coming from the intercom. Cat explained what had happened. “No kidding…” he replied sarcastically, “I think that’s the point of this whole trip…”
Cat took a deep breath and explained what had happened again, asking the voice to keep the train stopped, keep all the doors locked and call the Police, giving them their exact location.
“Why did you do that?” the hired actor asked. “I don’t want to be locked in here with a dead body until the police arrive”.
“Yeah,” someone else agreed “I’m already nauseated with the smell of the blood”.
“You don’t understand. Nobody can leave the train until the Police arrive. Think for a minute. The killer is on this train. And very likely in the next carriage, where the props are. We can’t risk him escaping”.
A muttering sound of people agreeing filled the air.
“Now, just in case one of us is the killer, and I’m saying ‘just in case’”, Matt stressed, predicting another series of complaints, “We should sit down, one person per row, and empty our pockets, just to make sure no one has a pocket knife, or something of the sort”.
Facing various complaints, he started moving along the corridor between the seats, and one by one they all emptied their pockets and nothing that could be used to slice someone’s throat was found.
“He’s probably in the next carriage” Cat said, “The one they use to change clothes and prepare for the acting-out”. She turned to the actor that was supposed to be the ‘victim’ “Didn’t you see anyone? While you were in there splashing all that blood on your shirt?”
“No, I saw nothing, no one” he replied in a defensive tone. “Not until I got back in here”.
A metallic sound of a door unlocking was heard and four figures stormed into the carriage
“Police! Nobody move! Please remain in your seats!”.
Welcome to the group M. Costa. I’m Alice, one of two moderators of this group, Carrie is the other. This is a friendly little competition where writers submit their stories to be critiqued by the other contributing writers. The contest begins on Thursdays and runs two weeks, ending the second Wednesday when voting begins, which in this case is tomorrow. You can not vote for yourself, and you must vote in order for your story to count.
Again welcome to the group!
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
And I hope it’s not a scary “welcome” as in your story… 😉
I’m overwelmed, not scared, with all the previous stories that have been posted, which I have been devouring!
A really pacey, fun story that transfers the planned ‘mystery’ to an actual one. Matt and Cat are neat characters – they know what they want from the ride and are sceptical at first when they think they’re not getting the quality they paid for … but then, a bit like Agatha Christie’s ‘Tommy and Tuppence’, they take charge and start organising the witnesses to begin to solve the mystery. There’s some amusing dialogue (“Dead dead. Like, not breathing dead!”) and situations (the ‘plant’ coming back, pretending to be dying, then seeing the real dead man and breaking out of character immediately). The scene has great potential, though I think maybe the ending is a little anti-climactic. But I enjoyed it!
(Oh, and welcome! I hope you stick around!)
Thank you for your comment.
I have to agree with you about the ending…
Welcome to the group. As a relative newcomer myself, I have found this site to be both supportive and demanding. People offer superb insights and first class critical evaluations. They point out the best and worst parts of our writing which we really need.
The notion of a Murder Mystery Train mixed up with real blood, death and murder (or was it?) isa great idea. I love the way you have some participants in the story who seem happy to go along with the notion that it really is all make-believe and others who quickly dissolve into a panic.
A great start. looking forward to reading more of your work.
Thank you for your supportive words.
This is a fun, fast-paced story, but alas, like my story, the ending fails to deliver an effective pop. Which is important. My story is kind of like a fighter throwing a roundhouse punch and completely missing, whereas this story is more like the fighter going to his corner and sits down, and then the bell rings. It’s backwards. All the parts are there, but presented in a way that leaves no surprises and answers no questions. (This is good advice. I should follow it myself! I can’t imagine where it’s coming from.)
Like, the story could begin at the end. With two dead guys on the floor of the train. Then one of them gets up. Why? Because its a murder mystery train where someone really gets murdered. Maybe the first guy to die is the fake, then the second guy really dies, causing the second to jump to his feet. I don’t know, I do know that I frequently have to rearrange the parts of my stories to improve them.
Anyway, welcome to the group.
Thank you. I find your comment usefull, and the analogy you make fits perfectly.
Great to see your story – seems a good and well-constructed set-up for a murder mystery with a twist.
What do we call you, by the way?
Keep the stories coming!
And you can call me MC (as Phil has pleasantly started calling me 🙂 ) or Marta, I’m fine with both.
By Ken Cartisano
Lysander Haynes had his feet propped up on the opposite bench in First Class compartment 5C on the 6:13 out of Belmont. The hour and forty minute commute to the city and back, which his wife found deplorable, was something of a sanctuary for Lysander and offered him a place where he could think, ponder, research and write his book, if not in isolation, then at least in relative peace. Working title? ‘The Pitfalls of Child Rearing in Rural America.’ Perhaps it should be ‘Modern’ Rural America. The title was already a bit of a mouthful, and no doubt an editor or publisher would change the name to something glib and snappy long before the book went to print, as it surely would.
His book would be a godsend to all those souls who needed his sage, child-rearing counsel, much as the ‘iron-horse’ had proved a boon to those who wished to travel in comfort.
What most parents seemed to lack, from his subjective point of view, was diligence. That’s all. They simply lacked the dedication required to properly rear and control their offspring.
A half-hour wait at any train station would provide all the material evidence to prove his point. Exasperated parents spending the bulk of their time yelling, screaming and swearing at energetic and curious children who would flourish under the proper balance of stern oversight and careful guidance.
He was sidetracked from his reverie by a jarring bang on the compartment door.
He mumbled an invitation to enter, knowing it wouldn’t be heard over the staccato rhythm of the carriage and the rails, but the door opened anyway, revealing a stout young traveler in a well-worn overcoat.
Lysander’s reaction was so negative that the visitor recoiled in response, forcing Lysander to apologize. “I’m sorry,” he said, moving his legs and sitting up straight. “I’m not normally so…” he waved vaguely at a ream of paper on the seat beside him, “…in the middle of something.”
“Oh sure. We totally understand.”
We? Lysander thought.
‘Overcoat’ entered the compartment, revealing a second, younger fellow standing behind him. A cowboy by the looks of him. Scuffed boots, jeans, scarf around his neck, respectfully holding a black cowboy hat in his hands.
“May we come in?” ‘Overcoat’ says.
What could Lysander say? Besides, he was already ‘in.’ He shrugged. “I guess.” He looked around as if dazed, uncertain how to proceed. “It’s a free country, I suppose.”
The duo entered the compartment amidst a great deal of rustling, and a cloud of black dust. Which prompted Lysander to cover his notes with the aid of a notepad.
‘Overcoat’ turned toward the window and made a great show of taking off his coat, revealing a weapon that Lysander would describe as ‘a small, hand-held howitzer.’
Lysander waited. While the cowboy looked pensive, ‘Overcoat cleared his throat. He was the spokesperson for the two. “I’m not sure exactly where to begin, Mr. Lysander.”
Lysander cocked his head. “How do you know my first name?”
“Word travels,” ‘Overcoat’ said, with a tell-tale glance in the cowboy’s direction. “At least, in the circles we travel in.”
Lysander said, “So you travel in circles?”
‘Overcoat’ bobbed his head in a gesture of admission, but not guilt. “Pretty much.”
Lysander was intrigued. “I don’t mean to be nosy but, weren’t you two planning to rob the train?”
“That’s what we thought too.” The cowboy said. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”
“I suppose it isn’t,” Lysander admitted. “Did something go wrong?”
“We got killed,” the cowboy said, but ‘Overcoat’ corrected him. “We killed each other, man. Don’t you remember?”
“I see.” That explained the red ketchup stains on their shirts, Lysander thought. But beyond that, he was left with little to offer. The moment dragged on, getting more and more awkward until Lysander said, with a tinge of exasperation, “Well, is there something I can do for you gentlemen?”
The two characters looked at each other, then at Lysander. “We were hoping you could put us in your story,” ‘Overcoat’ said. “In your book, I mean.”
Lysander shook his head. “No. No, no, no, no, no. I can’t do that. I can’t just…”
“Why not?” ‘Overcoat’ sniffed.
“Afff.” Lysander was genuinely aggrieved. “It’s not that kind of book.”
The young cowboy, who’d been left out of the discussion, brightened unexpectedly. “Hey, I know. We could be alien creatures, that suck the blood out of unsuspecting humans.”
Lysander considered it and liked it. “But,” he informed them, “no blood. You suck the energy out of them by staring at them.”
‘Overcoat’ liked that angle. He was good at staring. “That’s right, they wouldn’t even be able to tell.”
“Exactly,” Lysander said. Sweeping the coat from the floor and tossing it in their direction as they bolted out the door and ran down the corridor. His wife returned from the smoking car a moment later.
“I see our son has made a friend, who left his coat.”
“Apparently so,” Lysander said, as he looked out the window. “They’re playing cowboys and aliens.”
A fabulous dialog between 2 authors. Quite wonderful!
Glad to read another of your stories. I guess in this instance we should read both stories together ( that’s your and Berlinermax’ ) to get the full picture. This is such a great idea, the notion of bouncing one author against the other ( their ideas not the actual people. That would be fun!) and sort of reflecting a theme, like holding it up to a mirror.
As ever, you leave a trail of breadcrumbs and then miss a few out, leaving the reader to work things out, or surprise him / her. Thus, for me, I didn’t think Lysander’s wife was even on board and the coat was a bit of an enigma.
Lysander capitulated a bit too quickly for me when offered the chance to write the two youngsters into his story but, as Flo says, perhaps he thought they were actually going to shoot him. Dead people do that all the time!!!
Great stuff, as ever Ken.
I must admit I was confused at the first read, then I took a little more care 2nd time around and it all fell into very satisfying place … I found it ingenious and charming. The connection between Lysander’s (great name!) book and the identities of the two strangers, and how Lysander deals with them, is brilliant. The tone of the language and the circumstances (and the smoking car) sets it in the 50s-ish, am I right? (When kids REALLY knew how to play! – they’d have their noses in their phones these days. Harumph!). Your dialogue is as good as ever (except maybe this line, which has a bit of exposition tagged on the end: “I see our son has made a friend, who left his coat.” Fussy? Moi?) Very good story!
And, by the way, I love all the comments you write here. They are nearly always full of insight and compassion. I think this website can be more than an anthology of stories. To me it often feels like friends sitting at a table enjoying a conversation.
I want to know if the horse returns, contrite, ridden by an heiress. In a spaceship. But I guess I’ll have to wait for the next episode.
Fun story. And still trying to think of a snappy title for the book.
The train has already pulled in. She has precisely seven minutes to finalize her purchase, cross the street and enter the station, follow the platform up to her car and hop in. Right now, she is in the tiny bookstore, so conveniently located practically in front of the railway station, and where she has made some wonderful discoveries. She is both an avid and a picky reader. From the place where the store stands, she sees trains entering and leaving town, and she has turned her visits here into a ritual. Though she has never discussed this with the store owner, she knows he has noticed, and become an accomplice. Whether there is another customer or not, he infallibly rings her as soon as she hands him the book she has selected, in order for her not to risk missing her train. She likes to think he appreciates books and trains as much as she values books and silly daily rituals.
I barely know anything about her yet. It might come later. All I can say for the moment is that, today, she just happens to buy my book. She lost two minutes looking for her keys right when she was about to leave her house, and it makes her choice all the more random, more fortuitous than usual. The day is quite drab, so that none of the colors on the covers are allowed to pop up the right way from the tables, and call her attention. Her cat has not been feeling well these days, which caused some anxiety and bouts of insomnia. She is not as much worried for the beast –he will pull through yet again – as about the bills accumulating at the vet. He is exceptionally generous with his customers, never broaching the subject of payment, which makes things worse, somehow. Owing people who do not insist on being paid weighs more heavily on your mind than owing awful creditors with their harassing calls at any time of the day, because you don’t have the outlet of hating their guts. So, you could say there was also sleep involved in the way she picked up the book, pretty much with her eyes half-closed. Having deftly paid for it (she always carries sufficient chunks of change in her purse), she breaks into her usual mice-like trot all the way to the station, crosses the street at her favored angle: the one that gives her the impression of paramount efficiency, a direct line between two points, down to the last centimeter. She mentally counts her steps to verify the distance once more. As she does each morning she makes the slight detour to the bookstore. She steps off the curb right before the lamppost could be in her way, aims for the fire hydrant on the other side, stepping up the other curb with the hydrant on her left, close enough for her skirt to brush lightly against it. The mental line she has followed takes her straight to the left panel of the entrance double door… Yes! today, it opens. It is not always the case, and she is grateful for it, on account of the slight rushed sensation that took root in her because of the delay with the keys. She now proceeds to veering off at a 45 degree angle, leading her straight to the platform access nearest her car. Oh… she will not be an easy one to please… And upon watching the remainder of her routine, laden with such momentous protocol, all the way to the instant when she is finally in her seat, facing the direction the train will be taking in just a few seconds, I start experiencing some misgivings. I might have wished for another reader… But do I have a say in the matter…? Besides, who am I fooling? Having a reader, any reader, is all I could wish for. It is not as if I were a bestselling author or a Nobel Prize, constantly hailed by his or her millions of readers. This lady has awoken me from the deep slumber of forgotten writers (never-been-read writers, more accurately), and all I can do now is watch. I should be grateful, if I were not in such a foul mood.
But let me turn my attention back to her, since she has chosen to call on me: settled at her place at last, she has slipped her arms out of her trench coat, allowing the piece of garment to rest on her shoulders, while carefully smoothing out any potentially unpleasant fold against the back of the seat. She has lowered the small tablet from the back of the seat located in front of her; and placed my book on it, squarely at its center. She is now turning towards her handbag, which she has rested on the seat beside her, satisfied with the fact that it remained unoccupied this morning. Out of the purse comes a thermos bottle, most likely filled with coffee. Unless it is tea. Yes, something in her tells me it could very well be tea. For now, she rests it on her lap, pressed against her stomach, and her face infuses with the unconscious expression of subtle contentment, most likely procured by the warm sensation of comfort and safety that bottle must be spreading on to the core of her being. Not that the weather is cold, but I can feel it myself at this instant, the temperature of the bottle probably evocative of the warmth of a bed one has left less than half an hour ago. As I am making these observations, I also note that her eyelids look heavy. They keep shutting down longer than a regular blink of an eye, and I realize that she is indeed still pretty sleepy. Now, her eyes turn towards the window to watch the train leaving the station, and they appear glazed rather than observant. Oh no! she is going to fall asleep on me! Instead of turning her attention to the book, opening it and diving in as she is supposed to! Sure enough, her head swivels ever so slowly towards the seat in front of her, and rather than dropping her gaze towards the book, her eyelids lower once more, and she simply stops moving, her eyes now closed. Her breath slows down. In less time than it takes for either one of us to recognize what is happening, she is fast asleep! I am aghast. I can’t believe I am being put to the test like this. But I can’t allow it to make me blow my top again.
I close my eyes. I fall asleep in turn, reentering my reader-less repose. I refuse to follow this woman on her silly routine, breathlessly waiting that she deign to open my book, read the first sentence, while I anxiously scrutinize every flutter of an eyebrow, every twitch of a lip. I just missed my encounter with my first reader ever. So be it. As a mental image of her tranquil face crosses my mind one last time, I am not sure who I am addressing this ultimate thought to: Bon voyage!
(Welcome back from your sojourn!)
This is a magical piece. The first thing that struck me was the choice of tense, and it’s a perfect choice – the present make everything very light and immediate. And then there’s the seemingly ordinary description of this woman’s trajectory, from home to shop to train. But the details add to the magic – the geometry of the walk from the shop to the train. And then there’s the narrator. Who are we to believe this is? The actual author, stalking the purchaser of the first book? No, it can’t be. How would he/she know the story of the cat? It must be the spirit of the author*, hovering around the book but all-seeing, all-knowing. Yet powerless to get the woman to actually open up the book and start it. But that will happen later. Lovely stuff!
(Willing to be corrected!)
I must say I had fun writing this, with no idea where it was going to take me, and it was an informative experience, seeing how this little lady wanted to take on a real life without me having ever thought about her before. I suspect only the lack of space lead me to take my leave from her in that manner…
I am grateful that you used the word magic, as it means that the pure magic of writing itself transpired.
I suppose it looks a little bit like the limbo in which come to dwell forgotten gods…
This story is such a joy to read. You have created a little world inside the bookshop and inside the minds of the three characters. The way the bookstore man is involved in the little ritual as an accomplice, the sick cat, the over-generous vet who never demands payment and how such generosity tugs at your emotions and the author / narrator who appears like a fly-on-the-wall to observe the most important purchase of all, his / her book.
The agony of the unread book, sitting awaiting its first exposure to a reader. Ah, such is the bitter-sweet life of an author. That’s all of us.
Beautifully written, as ever and a joy to read.
I am so glad about what you said regarding those details: I must confess I was not sure whether I had overdone it or not.
And yes, I figured every writer would share in the mixed feelings toward readership… 😉
You certainly have a gift for writing. And my impression of this particular story is that since you create characters as a matter of course, you decided, ‘hey, who might my first reader be / or have been? What were the circumstances?’ And then you sat down and created her. This is an omniscient narrator, with no dialogue. (Right?) There could’ve been dialogue, between the woman and the bookstore clerk. At which point you could have shown us more of your character’s personality. (Perhaps.) And she is who this story is really all about.
Early on you claim that you ‘barely know anything about her.’ I think I understand where this sentence came from. You were still creating the character, and merely confessing that you didn’t know what she would look like until you got to that point in the story. But this is misleading
To confess to ‘barely knowing anything’ suggests that you have nothing of value to offer me about her, and that, clearly isn’t true because you’re creating her as you go.
So this might better be expressed as, “I don’t know what she does for a living, (and I don’t care) but she’s congenitally punctual.” Or something that gives us some qualifying info. Rather than claiming you know nothing, you’re merely admitting to limitations, which is more accurate.
I would also suggest that you break the story into smaller chunks. (All stories into smaller chunks.) This story consists of four paragraphs, two of them are quite long. Adding a little dialogue would help break your story into smaller chunks too. Smaller sections of copy are innately more inviting. It’s psychological. Don’t fight it, use it.
I hope my suggestions don’t sound too pompous. I have no complaints about your writing, and the concept is damned clever too, the story is very entertaining. You’re meticulous in your grammar, spelling and syntax. It’s the presentation that could stand improvement. A pretty minor thing, but first visual impressions are important.
Even if I’m not convinced about the suggestion regarding dialogues for this particular text, I was extremely interested that you should bring it up right now: I had just been thinking about it those past few days, how I tend not to use many dialogues in what I write in general. Pondering whether it was because they actually do not fit in my style of writing, or whether it is because I am not quite sure how to make them work, and thus purely shy away from them…
So, now that you have broached the subject as well, I will make sure to pay attention to my motivations in the next texts, and be on the look out for the perfect opportunity to explore more.
Thank you for the precious feed-back and encouragement!
A great story, and one which i enjoyed more each time I read it (3 times so far!) It’s really well constructed. Using the present tense and seeing things only from the position of where the book is, either in the store or with the woman buying it, it’s a real challenge to remain consistent both grammatically and from point-of-view. And you do it.
Very closely observed, it’s a character study of a woman who seems very precise, possibly lonely, certainly tired, and that has a certain poignancy. And then there is the neediness of the book or maybe its author, the need to be wanted, to be appreciated, to be the centre of the purchaser’s attention. (But the book is also a bit of a tart perhaps, as it wants many lovers …!)
Maybe there’s a hint of spookiness underlying, with the self-consciousness of the book or maybe some stalkiness of the author. But then again, maybe the book is only doing what we accept as normal from the smartphones and other devices we carry with us, that track our every move and want to know oh so much more about us …
Great, touching and thought-provoking story, Flo.
Seriously, I love that you brought a completely different view on the story, one I had not envisioned at all: the possibility that it were the book being the narrator… A fascinating possibility, that will leave me thinking a lot.
Precisely what I love about this sharing with all of you: our sometimes tunnel-vision on our own texts being forced to expand. That is truly invaluable.
Many many thanks!
I struggled to put something together and I had concerns about the content of my other story about Marilyn Monroe. Therefore, here is my latest effort, finished ( after endless editing,) just a few minutes ago. See what you think.
The Train Now Approaching………by Ken Frape.
I know a lot about trains. Too much really. Especially with my condition that seems to magnify my fears.
A hundred tonnes of metal, plastic, fabric, people and possessions. The London to Edinburgh Inter City 125 express train hurtles down the track at two hundred and nine feet per second whilst in the opposite direction at two hundred and nine feet per second, the reciprocal Edinburgh to London express completes the other half of the pairing. They both left their respective platforms at 11.57 for the four hours and fourteen minute, 393 mile journey. As they reach the magical one hundred and twenty five miles an hour the closing speed is two hundred and fifty miles an hour or 418 feet per second. All things taken into consideration, these two trains should pass each other approximately half way, midway between those two capital cities. It’s actually about nine miles north of York but they rarely do cross there. Delays here and there may slow one of the trains down whilst the other races ahead.
At that speed, a one hundred tonne irresistible force meeting a one hundred tonne immovable object head on would annihilate everything in the first three coaches. The kinetic energy is enormous. The engines, with their drivers perched like precious eggs at the very front would be pulverised beyond recognition. Some people, but not all the people, would die in every carriage, a random live or die roulette wheel. People sitting next to each other, one might live and the other might die, plucked from their seat by the force of the impact. The human body does not cope well with the sudden deceleration from one hundred and twenty five miles per hour to nought in a second, even when sitting comfortably in a cushioned seat. Unfortunately, train passengers are unsecured in their seats, surely a mistake in this modern health and safety age. The forward facing passengers would become missiles like the rear passengers in a car if not wearing a seat belt, as they were hurled into the passengers sitting opposite them, killing them both instantly. If they were separated by a fixed table, their legs would be broken. People would die or be maimed even in the last carriages which would be buckled and twisted as they rode over each other, leaving the tracks, crashing down embankments, hitting trackside buildings, dissipating all that kinetic energy.
There would almost certainly be fire somewhere in the wreckage. Amongst the carnage there would be miraculous survivals, a baby in a carry cot unharmed, a guard unscathed as she checked tickets, glass bottles of wine unbroken. Stories of sacrifice and heroism would emerge to be pored over by the Press.
Of course I tell myself all the time that these two trains are not on the same track and they will pass each other quite safely somewhere between those two great cities without incident. There will be over a metre of space between them, not much but enough. I really must move house, working in London and living in Edinburgh is not ideal for someone with train phobia but this is the lesser of several evils. I would be physically sick if I had to get on an aeroplane and I’ve never learned to drive. My car sharing came to an end last year. That’s another story.
As I sat in my seat on the Inter City 125 I wish, and not for the first time, that I didn’t know all those facts about train crashes. Of course, it was doctor’s orders or rather psychiatrist’s orders to be precise. Aversion therapy. There hasn’t been a crash in this region for some time so my nerdy brain and geeky personality tells me that means then that there must be one due any time soon. Perhaps this very train. Will I be a statistic on the death toll or will it be my chance to become a hero as I rescue a baby or perhaps that famous actor sitting at the seat opposite me? I’ve never been a fan of the personality cult but this is one man I really would like to meet, to talk to. I won’t approach him and ask for his autograph. That would be so gross. He has been in so many gritty TV dramas that a train crash will be routine for him. Then again, maybe not. He was just acting after all, wasn’t he? Surviving this train crash could be the making of me.
For the first hour or so of the journey I have tried to keep my head down and fight my fears. I am desperate to get through this but it’s tough. My heart is beating loudly. I am convinced the lady sitting next to me can hear it but she just carries on looking at the scenery. It looks as if the famous actor is reading a script and he rarely looks up, certainly not in my direction, as he turns over page after page, jotting notes in the margins here and there.
I suspect that no one else on board this train or very few apart from me, harbour such dark thoughts as they took their seats. After two hours I begin to sweat as the midway point approaches and I can almost feel the pressure wave building as the other train approaches mine as they slice their way through the English air or gobble up the Scottish countryside. That metre gap between passing trains gets narrower and narrower in my febrile imagination until I can clearly see the sides of each train, gravitating towards each other, sparking and gnashing inwards to destruction.
Without warning there is a sudden rush and a roar as the two trains hammer past each other, just that one metre apart. The blur of train past the window lasts for less than two seconds. The famous actor looks up as the scream leaves my mouth and my body spasms in panic. Within moments he has left his seat and is anxiously yet calmly enquiring,
“You OK? It’s fine now, the other train has passed. Just take deep breaths. Don’t you just hate that sound?”
I nod feebly as he takes my hand and holds it as my shaking stops.
“It used to scare me half to death when I was a kid,” he explains. “I used to think that we were going to crash head on.”
So this famous actor, my hero, is just like the parts he has played. Cool, calm and collected. Perhaps he wasn’t acting at all. Just playing himself.
As my heart rate returns to normal and my panic attack subsides, I realise that he is still holding my hand. He is even better looking up close than on the TV screen, his eyes a much more striking shade of blue, his hair greying at the temples and a few creases around his eyes adding to his air of authority.
“How you feeling now?”
“A bit better,” I say with a faint smile. No point in pretending I’m OK quite yet.
I’m not ready to let go of his hand.
(Just kiddin’, Ken, just kiddin’… I truly believe your Marilyn text is wonderful, and I sincerely hope that my comment did not make you worry that you might end up the target of an #MeToo avenging crusade… 😉
But this is another powerful text, and I would have a hard time choosing between the 2 if I were in your shoes right now…
I literally cringed during the gruesome description of the potential accident. But it allowed me to enter the mind of the character. Which was needed, because I have always loved traveling by train… So as much as I hated looking at the picture, I had to go through it to build real sympathy to him. And all the other specific and well researched details efficiently participate in building the realism needed to achieve that.
… and then the sweetness of the last 2 lines…
You are in brilliant control of your craft, Ken!
Ken, only one story can qualify for voting. So would you like this story or the first one on the voting list?
My understanding is that only the first story can be voted on so let’s go with that.
Perhaps you should remove the second one to avoid confusion. I just wanted to give it an airing!
Thanks Ken 2. I’ll leave the second one up so people can read a story you put a lot into. Only the first one will be able to be voted on 🙂
Okay folks, this story thread is now closed, and again it’s time to vote. Remember you can NOT vote for yourself, and you MUST vote in order for your story to qualify. Ken Frape, I went with the first story you posted since I already had the voting page ready to go. Otherwise, good luck everyone.
You have until Thursday, 1pm EST time to vote
First Place: Event Horizon by Andy Lake
2nd Place: Sometimes A Cowboy by Ken Cartisano
3rd Place: Nodding Men by berlinermax
4th Place: Bon Voyage! by Flo
5th Place: The River of No Return by Ken Frape
6th Place: Flames Flickering by Phil Town
7th Place: Murder Mystery Train by M. Costa
Favorite Character: “The Woman” from Bon Voyage! by Flo
Character Dialogue: Event Horizon by Andy Lake
Congratulations Andy, great to have you back!!!
And thank you all for participating.
And congratulations to all the others! I loved seeing that Ken C and Jürgen were running hand in hand: you were such a brilliant tandem!
… and my little lady asked me to tell you how honored she was! (I had some difficulties waking her up… luckily, she had reached her destination by then.)
Really enjoyed reading all the stories, which I think were pleasingly very high on the originality stakes this session!
However, writing my last story was like wrestling an unruly alligator with bad breath. And you’re not making things any easier there bucko, with yer slick writing and quantum plot devices. I got your number. I see what you’re doing. Science, imagination, excellent writing. Doing all three at the same time. Throwing in some characters, a doppelganger or two. (Why not three?) Because…..never mind. Then you sprinkle in a few ‘wave functions.’ That’s right, I know about wave functions, and strings, And string theory. The eleven strings in one theory, theory. (Forget the dimensions for a minute.) The whole ball of wax theory. The earwax theory, and the whole ball of earwax theory. I’m up on all that stuff.. You’re not fooling me. I know that all of this stuff that you’re making up is actually real.—
No but seriously. Congratulations Andy. (Twas brillig.)
Maybe you can take those eleven strings you mention to restring some banjos, to improve child-rearing options in rural America. Has your travelling author Lysander thought of that one? (I know all about rural America, I’ve watched Deliverance. Much like rural Lincolnshire, really, apart from the banjos and the weaponry.) Anyway, those extra strings could add new dimensions to the children’s playing and keep them out of harms way. Way out of harms way.
Yes, all that cod-science stuff is real. As real as my characters, as real as my online self … 🙂
Hey folks here’s the link to the new prompt.
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