Below is a story I am entering in my first ever writing contest. I want to challenge myself ! We were given a required word count along with a prompt which is – someone wakes up on a train with no idea how they got there, no ticket, and it doesn’t appear to be stopping. Here is my story and I would LOVE your feedback of any kind!
Gracie tried to open her eyes. Her head was throbbing and she was shaking, and the more she moved, the sicker she felt. She forced her eyes open enough to realize it was dark other than small flashes of light flickering in the windows by her head and as she laid there, she tried to clear her mind and remember where she was. She couldn’t remember anything. Finally, she turned and sat up, her head spinning for what felt like minutes. Once she was able, she looked around and saw the light was coming from a large window to her right, and the shaking hadn’t been coming from her. It was the train. She was on a moving train and had no idea why.
As Gracie started to get her bearings, she slid over towards the window and looked out. It was dark other than the occasional lights hanging over the tracks but she could see trees flash past the window. The train felt like it was going way too fast although she didn’t have much experience with trains. In fact, she’d never been on a train at all.
Totally confused, Gracie leaned over and put her head on her hands, grasping, struggling desperately to remember what happened last night. The last thing she remembered was going to the cemetery to talk to Michael. The same thing she’d done every Friday this past year since he’d been gone. She’d taken the usual bottle of wine and two glasses, they’d had a nice chat, although she did all the talking. Usually, she’d empty the bottle and head home, already looking forward to the next Friday night, but now, her memory stopped at sitting on the ground, leaning against the stone, and talking. Just talking. Maybe she dozed off, maybe she was kidnapped, maybe it had been an hour or a day. She looked down and saw that she had on the same jeans and sweater she’d put on that morning so it couldn’t have been long. As her mind raced, she wondered if maybe she’d bought a ticket on the way home and just didn’t remember. She searched her pockets. Nothing.
Finally, Gracie stood up, unsteady on her feet. The train was going so fast, it felt like the floor was coming out from under her. She leaned over and grabbed ahold of the back of the bench where she’d been sitting and edged towards the door of the compartment she was in. As her hand reached the handle of the door, she realized she was shaking, but she grabbed it and slid open the door. Gracie stuck her head out into the corridor looking both ways not able to see much except for the dim sconces that were on the walls. The only sounds were her breathing and the clacking of the train on the tracks. And perhaps her heartbeat in her ears.
Gracie stepped out quietly, as if anyone could hear her over the sounds of the train, and started down the corridor towards what she hoped was the engine. Up ahead, she saw a dim light coming from under a closed door that had a small window in it. As she got to the door, she reached up and rested her fingers on the edge of the little window and peered through hoping no one would see her. The glass was foggy and she reached up to wipe it with her sleeve. Looking through again, she saw a beautiful train car with deep red velvet seats and candles, and on the far end, a fireplace was burning. A fireplace on a train, it didn’t seem real. Then she froze. Someone was sitting in one of the chairs at the fireplace, their back to her, and all she could see was the top of their head over the velvet chair. She held her breath waiting for them to turn around but they didn’t, and for a moment, they felt familiar. She didn’t know whether to be scared or thankful that someone was there.
After standing there for several minutes watching and waiting for whoever it was to notice her, she decided she had to find out where she was and where they were going. As she gently slid open the door, a scent waved past her that was as familiar as her face in the mirror. Dunhill. It was something she had gifted Michael their first Christmas together. He loved it and had worn it ever since although she never knew if it was for her or him. Knowing Michael, it was for her. As she stood, flooded with thoughts of that first Christmas, she didn’t stop to wonder why the fragrance was in the room.
Gracie finally took a few steps towards the fireplace, thinking through what she would say when the person saw her. As she got closer, she froze in her steps. It couldn’t be. Her mind had to be playing tricks on her or the dream was too real. It was the profile she knew so well, the freckles, the crook in his nose, those eyelashes. God, those eyelashes. She thought then if this was a dream, she did not want to wake up. Gracie wasn’t prepared when he turned to her and smiled, “Hello, Gracie. I’ve missed you so much.” It was Michael.
Not sure if she was breathing, Michael stood and was reaching for her hand, leading her to the seat across from him. She definitely needed to sit down although she never removed her eyes from his. Michael returned to his seat and continued to look at her with that boyish grin of his and without saying a word.
Finally, Gracie broke the silence, and asked, “Am I dreaming or am I dead?” Michael let out a roar of a laugh, the one she’s missed desperately every day, and it made her smile. Gaining his composure, Michael looked at her, and replied, “I guess it’s whichever you want it to be.”
Gracie thought for the longest time about what was happening, where she was, how she got there, and the answer Michael had given her. He got up and poured her a glass of red wine, her favorite kind, and as he handed it to her, she realized she had to be dead. Otherwise, he would not be here in this place, nor would she.
Finally, as if to read her mind, Michael began. “Gracie, you’ve been dying all year, I’ve watched you. Every week you’ve gone to that cemetery without fail and the Gracie I knew is never with you. I mean you’re as beautiful as ever, although I think you may need some sleep, but you’ve disappeared. I’ve been so worried about you.” As he spoke, the movement of the train seemed to fade away, her focus solely being on his words and every detail of his face. She’d begun to forget them and wanted to memorize them in case she woke up.
Quietly, without realizing the tears that were forming, Gracie simply replied, “You’ve watched me? How… how is that possible?”
“Oh, Gracie, I hope I can explain it. When we pass over to the other side, we’re not able to really live there fully until those we leave behind let us go. You’ve not let go of me, Gracie, and I understand. I don’t know that I could have either if it had been you instead of me. But I also know now that you have to let go for your sake and mine. Tonight, you’re being given one last chance to let go. Or not let go.”
Gracie was totally confused by his words when suddenly, a horn blew so loudly on the train, that she covered her ears. Michael’s eyes never left hers. When the blaring subsided, she asked Michael what was going on. The train felt like it was moving faster. He replied, “The train is picking up speed and I’m afraid you don’t have much time.”
Once again, Gracie leaned over and put her head in hands, trying desperately to take all this in. There was no way Michael was here but when she looked up, he was still there, leaning towards her. He reached out and took her hands. He was so warm and she looked down at his familiar hands, how she’d missed them so. As she finally turned her face up to his, she saw a sparkle of light around his neck. It was there, the pendant he had given her when they got married. He’d had the word regardless engraved on one side. The little joke between them that no matter how crazy they drove one another, they would love each other regardless. The necklace had been so precious to her and when Michael died, she’d placed it around his neck moments before his service and whispered that she’d always love him regardless. Gracie then raised her eyes to his and smiled.
Michael saw her notice the necklace and smiled too as he said, “Gracie, I’ve been given this one opportunity to see you. And I’ve been given this one opportunity to offer you. It is for you to come with me or stay behind and you have to make this choice before the train reaches its destination.”
Gracie could not believe what she was hearing, her heart started racing. Of course, she wanted to go with Michael. The last year had been so lonely and empty, as empty as she had felt, but there was something stirring inside her now, something she didn’t recognize.
Gracie held Michael’s hands and asked, “Oh, sweetheart, what should I do?” to which Michael replied, “Only you can decide.”
“But, Michael, you have to know this has been the hardest year of my life. I’m so lonely and just want to be with you.”
“I know you do, Gracie, and I miss you too.”
“But can’t you help me choose? I’m scared, scared to be alone, but scared to leave all I’ve ever known.”
“Honey, I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you this. If you choose to come with me now, it will be amazing, but you have to know you will miss out on so many beautiful things ahead of you, all the things we planned to do together and more. I will never get to do any of them but you will and I was kind of counting on you doing them for the both of us. But if you choose to stay here, you have other choices to make. Difficult ones.”
“What kind of choices?”
“To let me go, to move on, to laugh enough for both of us, to find love. It won’t replace our love, it can’t. It will be a new love, one to carry on with, to add more stories to your life. I mean no one will ever love you as much as I did, you know that’s not possible,” he said with a smile, “but you’ll find someone who loves you so much, your heart will be full again. Just never too full not to remember us.”
Gracie didn’t know if that was even possible as she thought over his words. Finally, she asked, “Can I still come to the cemetery to see you?” Michael laughed and replied, “Well, Gracie, I hate to tell you this. I’m not really there. I mean there’s that stone you picked out, nice job, by the way, but you’ve kind of been having those pity parties alone. I’ve shown up a time or two but it was too sad for me to hang around quite frankly. I really wish you’d find a better way to spend your Friday nights. I mean, the cemetery? Who does that?” Gracie laughed, Michael always knew how to make her laugh.
Michael and Gracie continued to talk and hold hands until finally, Michael looked out the window of the train, as if he heard something. He turned back to her and said, “Gracie, we’re nearing the end of this ride. You have to choose now. And I want you to know, I love you regardless, and I will love you forever. You know that.” Gracie stood and walked over to Michael, pulling him up with her hands, and placing his arms around her waist. They hugged, until finally she leaned back and with tears in her eyes, said, “I love you regardless and forever too but I know what I have to do. What if I go live enough for both of us? And I’ll see you before you know it.” Michael replied, “That’s my girl.”
The lights of the train went out.
Suddenly, Gracie heard the sound of a horn nearby, and it startled her awake. She looked around and realized she was still at the cemetery. The grass was cold and wet with dew and she was still wearing the jeans and sweater from yesterday. Gracie had been there all night. She turned to the headstone she’d been leaning on and saw Michael’s name. She smiled and ran her fingers over each letter still wondering if it had all been a dream. It was then she saw it, the silver laying on the edge of the stone. She reached over and picked it up, recognizing the pendant she’d left with Michael. She leaned back against the stone turning it over in her hands and she saw the familiar word, regardless. And then, turning it once more, the light caught the word forever, the word that had not been there before.
Gracie smiled not knowing what had happened or how or if it had all been a dream. She just knew it was going to be okay and she had living enough for two to do. Finally, she headed home.