Merry Christmas! First, some festive music. From the band that remains unashamedly one of my favorite ever.
I thought and thought about what I could post for you guys. I was going to post a short story, but wound up sending it out without thinking, so now I can’t. So I give you what I have, which is: the first chapter of The Nondescript, below the line. I hope you enjoy it, maybe a little.
To the red country of Oklahoma, the last rains had come gently and they had not cut the scarred earth. That had been during the summer months, when the days stretched on and on, the nights never cooled enough to matter, and the only relief was the falling rain. The ground never softened much and this year, it had been a bad year: The crops grew poorly in some places. Elsewhere, they did not grow at all. Farmers prayed for a great rain to bring their food back to life, else they would have nothing to eat, nothing to sell. And the great rains came but they swept through in powerful storms, and cut down the crops or pounded them. The hard rains were the fists of giants. The hailstorms were the crushing heels of monsters.
But all of that time had passed now. Those were the problems of June and July. August and even September were full of hot, long days where the skies did nothing at all except grow brighter and darker as the days rolled ever onward. Now, in the beginning of October, the air chilled more at night and the winds blew.
The wind blew the dust around in cyclones and waves, like fast-moving brown fog off the dry fields. It was choking and blinding. The men wore broad-rimmed hats when they were outside, and they wore handkerchiefs tied across their faces, squinting out at a brown world.
The wind rattled through shutters and vibrated against fences. It tugged on clotheslines, pulling shirts and pants around like flags. It pulled hats off people’s heads and, most importantly, when it passed across an opening at just the right direction, the wind whistled like a banshee, or like a train.
Wally Thomas had lived next to the railroad station for nearly thirty years now, in a little house which he had built himself. He had been thirty years younger and stronger then, his eyes had been better, and Mary Thomas had still been alive. He was over sixty now, a skinny frail man with a lot of muscle on a little frame. He went out, every day, and took painstaking care of the little garden which was behind his house. Small furrows and little plants, like a scale model of the bigger fields of crops that surrounded the town of Claremont.
Wally Thomas knew when the wind sounded like the whistling of a train, and he always knew that it wasn’t. He’d been living next to the train tracks all this time, close enough that the trains rattled when they went by his house. Few years back, the town had had a proper railroad station, but now, with the wars, no one went there anymore. The railroad station was next door to Wally’s house, derelict and mostly abandoned. The lad from the post office came by once a month to check the locks and make sure the place hadn’t burned down. That was about it.
It was late at night when a train whistle sounded, faintly, in the distance and it sounded a great deal like the howling wind, rushing through doorframes and windows and creaking houses as it pushed past.
But it woke Wally up instantly, and he sat up, wondering straight away if he’d really heard it, or if it was just something out of a dream, following him back into the real world. He pulled the covers across his legs, because it was cold and he chilled easier these days, and he blinked and listened.
It was only a couple of minutes later that he heard it again: the loud, nearly violent blast of a train’s whistle sounding, echoing across the plains and through the dead of night to announce its arrival, or to mark its passage. It was much closer this time, much louder.
Wally got up, out of his two-person bed – in which, he only ever slept on one side, the same side he’d slept on for thirty years now – and found his pants, a jacket, and a hat. By the time he was dressed and across the house, the train whistle had sounded again, ever closer. And when he opened the door, there was the hissing sound of breaks applied to great metal wheels.
Wally went outside, into the sharply cold nighttime air, down creaking steps and into the yard. He squinted in the darkness and, yes, down a little ways on the tracks was the tell-tale bright glow of the yellow light on the front of the locomotive.
Wally rubbed his hands on his pants, but even if his palms had been sweating, the stiff wind would have dried it and chilled him to boot. He left his yard and walked across the uneven, weed-covered ground between his house and the big old train depot. All the windows were dark in the depot, of course. There was no one there, there weren’t even lamps or lights present anymore. He hadn’t brought a flashlight. He’d been too flustered by a train showing up, this late at night.
He walked around to the front of the depot, where he could take the stairs up onto the platform. Old legs and stiff knees weren’t interested in trying to haul him up the side of the platform, which was a couple of feet above the ground. The wood steps creaked under him and he knew how they felt. He creaked like that too, out in the cold and wind.
By the time he got back out by the railroad tracks, on the platform now, the train was pulling in. It was a big black locomotive, billowing black smoke out the top and, as the train slowed to a halt by the platform, jets of white steam from out around the wheel. The steam came with a shriek of pressure which would have startled other people, in days long past, but it didn’t bother Wally at all. He’d seen too many trains come through for that.
Although very few of them arrived so late at night like this.
Wally put his hands into his pockets and bunched them into fists. They stung, from the cold and the wind. The steam hung low to the ground and rolled over the depot platform and curled around Wally’s legs. It moved in fast jets away from the engine, and then the wind caught it and swept it off to the east, where it vanished into the cold nighttime air. That was off the platform, though. For as long as the engine continued jetting steam, the platform itself was covered in a smelly fog: people do not know, or forget, the scent of hot metal and steam, but the sharp tang of it was old and familiar to Wally.
He turned his back to the wind and looked down the length of the train: at the long black locomotive which sat, ticking as the metal cooled; at the coal car latched behind, and the cars which went on from there. They were a hodgepodge of cars and Wally puzzled over them. There were old flat-beds which held all manner of long bundles, none of which seemed to be anything in the darkness, and there were cars which looked like old dinner cars. There were two cabooses, but one of them was painted black, it seemed, and the windows were all boarded up.
Wally Thomas squinted at the car directly attached to the coal car. It was painted in wild colors, that was plain to see even in the night, as if someone had used cotton candy as their pallet. In big black letters on the side, Wally could faintly make out words.
Mama Gordon’s Traveling Carnival
& Exhibit Of The Impossible
Wally frowned, but before he could think anything about it, something creaked further back along the train, and it wasn’t just the metal of the cars settling in: it sounded like a door.
He looked down the length of the train and saw nothing. Well, he saw something, he saw a black shape, but he wasn’t sure it was anything more than shadows and steam. In his pockets, his hands shook a little, but he was pretty sure that was just the cold getting to him. Old bones are always cold.
He walked to the edge of the platform and peered out, at the long black locomotive which sat, like a lumbering beast, just past the depot. He had expected a conductor to swing down from the car, to check on his train and see to his passengers, but no one emerged from the little room on the train. There was a lantern inside and Wally could make out shadows, moving around inside, but there was nothing else to see.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when, silent as the mist, a hand landed on his shoulder. He turned fast and his hands came out, as if he were going to put up a fight. It was pure instinct. He was small and thin, and although he was strong, it was an old man’s strength.
And the fight would have done no good. He gaped up at the man who had put a hand on his shoulder. He was a great figure in the nighttime sky, a shadow which rose far above Wally’s own frame. Massive arms, like tree trunks, and a big neck and a large head. The man was at least eight feet tall. Taller? Probably. Wally stammered and took a step back, but the edge of the platform was just behind him, and there was no purchase for his foot. He might have fallen, but for the big hand which again came down on his shoulder and pulled him easily back, as if he weighed nothing at all. The hand covered his entire shoulder.
A big voice said, “You want to be careful, or you get hurt, hey? And leave the engine alone, don’t want to upset nobody.” It was a deep voice and it had to come a long way down to get to Wally. The towering man spoke with an accent, like it came from Mexico or somewhere further south, but he was understandable enough.
Wally backed away from the man and the edge alike, and it seemed the further he backed up, the more the man loomed high up. Tall and broad, just a shadow against the nighttime sky and the rolling mists around them.
The giant man turned away and walked in great strides back toward the train cars, and Wally could only stand and watch as more shapes and shadows moved off the train cars, slowly or quickly, each to their own level of energy that late at night. There were massively broad men and tall women and fat women and a man so short, only the top of his head showed through the mist. In the moonlight, Wally was sure he saw a man with checkered skin, as if he’d painted all over himself and left black squares behind. And there were others. They got off the train and huddled together, the tall man towering above them all like a mast. None of them paid any attention to him.
Wally Thomas turned and fled the train platform, not shivering because of the cold any longer, but shivering hard nonetheless. He went out into the empty streets of Claremont, where only the occasional yellow street light illuminated anything at all. Even then, the light only changed the color of a small patch of ground right below it, but little else. Some of the streets were paved, some were cobbled, a few were still dirt. Even in the night, with only patches of light to see by, Wally knew where he was going.
It was time to wake up the Mayor…