The Abney, by Jack Crowder

A patent leather shoe traced the one red brick surrounded by gray.

Each brick was uniformly laid along the platform. They showed very little wear other than the change of color. A lifetime ago, they were all this red and vibrant. Some, along the edge, still wore specks of the original yellow lead paint as a reminder of the traffic. This station was technology dead. There were no whistles or electric signs or flashing lights of any kind. There had been, however, a heater installed forty years ago but only its iron chassis remained above a wind-shelter. The wind-shelter harked back to when the glass was glass and not plexiglass. Brilliant ironwork framed the shelter. Where shapes once told the story now rust did but now the variant story of Little Red Riding Hood now looked more macabre than ever.  The rust turned the wolf’s pelt almost alive and his eyes crimson as he stalked the child.

None of these sights were new for Walter Herennottin. He had attended this station during its heyday and seen it through two world wars. Now the train only ran twice a week when it once rain daily. Walter had, ironically, sported the same pencil-thin mustache back then as he did now. The clothes had changed as had he style as had the worlds in a nearly a century. He had lost meat on his frame the older he had gotten. He did not resemble his father any longer. Life’s abrasions had made him thin, his skin crinkled and his walk heavy.

On a cloudy day, the light from the train burnt the sky. It began like a star and grew into a sun the closer it came down the track. Its smoke trail curled like a dragon’s tail following. For being its age, the train’s detail was astonishing. Ornamentations licked each panel between the bolts and the many scratches. Dual archaic rope holsters still remained on the sides of the passenger cars. It had been a lifetime since they had been hauled by anything other than steam but they had once. Oh, once there had been many hoofs that towed these three cars day after day.

Walter Herennottin had not always sat alone but there were little that still carried the tradition of taking the train. Now one could go about travel in so many quicker and swifter means. Time was money and the train took time. Walter knew the cost of time. He worked as a logo for his company. He always wore the very best fabrics, his suits were always the very best cut and his sewing was always the most professional. The business had been a pass-on from his mother. Each of the Herennottin Clothing Collections were done by her delicate hand and mass produced by the machines created by his father’s coarse hand. Today he was alit against the drab backdrop of a rainy sky. Suit: lime, white lapels. Tie: white, narrow, straight. Gloves: white, tight, leather. Walter: logo for an enterprise.

Train roared as it approached the platform. Its nameplate smoldered in reflection:  Abney. Each of the letters slowing fading from their vivid bronze to gray as the train halted. Steam wheezing from underneath the vessel as the doors drew back. No figure emerged as each door was manually opened from inside. Finally, the conductor stepped out. It had been tradition that the conductors wear the military uniform of the period that the train had first began running. Walter had seen – never met – over a dozen conductors throughout his time riding The Abney and it was the same uniform every time. Walter had spent a fair amount of sketching of how he would redesign their uniform.

He nodded to the conductor as he boarded. Walter noted that the conductor’s frock coat had recently been made. A keen eye (in his line of business) knew the coat’s materials cheap and the buttons poor replicas. However, the trousers had been the genuine article. A very odd sensation ran along the back of Walter’s neck as he entered the passenger car. He felt as though the end of his days had come. His eyes cut back to the conductor who was now wandering to the engine. Walter’s mouth caught open, eyes narrow, his balding forehead furrowed. Had the Abney been kidnapped? Was that conductor a fraud?

Walter settled in the same cabin as he had for the past ten years. There had been one instance where a rather scaly young woman had taken the cabin but this had typically been his seat. Age had forced his back to require lumbar support. Walter could only assume that bunk was made for the older passengers as its seat had a bend for the back that none of the other bunks had. He drew shut the door to the cabin, his hands going to his knees, his back settling and he blew out.

His weary hazel eyes skimmed over the signs that hung on the divider wall. No Talking. Walter had been told as a boy, the very first time he had boarded The Abney how fragile the trip between the worlds was. That even the whisper could cause The Abney to get stuck in limbo (and according to legend, The Abney had spent several days in limbo during its first run). While Walter’s mother had been human, his father had been a robust gnome. He had grown up understanding to not question any myth or legend. His career had often forced him to meet a wide variety of mythical figures. He sat. Quiet. As he had for a lifetime while the train commenced yet again.

There were times when Mr. Herennottin would sketch as he had done so many times redesigning that awful conductor outfit. His visit had caused him no desire to do anything productive on this ride. Instead, he sat with his hands on his knees in silence. Today had been the last in a chain of horrible happenings. Walter had never married but he had taken a lover for a spat of twenty years. Jared had often been his muse when he needed one. Usually, it was the muse who was coming in for a dress and Walter was used as a tool for the divine to craft such a piece.

Jared had been a simple human with no special parents, no special powers other than being the preferred by god. At least, that’s how Walter felt. They were free. They had been given a whole world to themselves and because of that, humans were acceptable to so many diseases. Walter had pulled many favors when he had learned Jared had contracted AIDS (they had never been exclusive because they were worlds apart), he had found applied for Jared to come over but Jared refused to take the leap between worlds. Jared knew that once a human left, a human could never return. Rules like never speaking on the train as it was moving on the tracks had scared Jared. Losing the earth was worse than losing his life. Walter had spent over a month working on the suit that was buried today and he knew he would never see Jared again. It had finally sunk in.

Tears had worked their way halfway down his cheeks when the door opened. This had never happened. The initial shock had kept Walter from instinctually wiping his face. Framed in the doorway was a female. Head: shaved, no eyebrows. Eyes: Completely black. She wore a modern trench coat, Walter identified, but it appeared that she wore a backpack underneath. There was something behind her, underneath the trench coat, which settled behind her shoulders. Hem of the coat settled above her knees as a dress would. There was a symbol on her right chest, along the curve of the breast, a tan leather octagon with white calligraphy. He knew it as Elven, Tolkien or Arabic but they all looked the same to him. He could speak plenty of languages but he never had an eye for their lettered counterparts.

The woman sat parallel to him on the other bunk. As they faced one another, Walter took this opportunity to wipe his face. It had been a very long time since the train had been filled by so many that he had to face someone. Walter felt pathetic to the idea. He couldn’t face anyone right now. Jared was gone. His chest began to quiver.

“Cry,” she said as both her arms folded underneath her bust, “you will not be able to control it otherwise.”

While Walter’s eyes were glassy, he was more stunned by her action. She had spoken! It was a forbidden act! His reaction seemed to have caused her confusion. She withdrew a lighter and pack of cigarettes from her hip pocket. She lit one with a flick of the Silva rope burner, held it out to him (which he took) and then lit one for herself.

“Thank you,” he said using a church whisper.

Her eyes sparked through the smoke. Her whole body rose and fell with every drag off the cigarette. It almost seemed like a passionate act. Walter had seen the same act with a nature sprite that had came to his shop for tailored shirts. The sprite had explained there was nothing pure in human cigarettes and the rush had very little to do with its nicotine for those of the other world. Instead, it was actively killing oneself: a sick little suicide with every drag. Walter was not pure either. A cigarette was just a cigarette. Usually, he detested them for their lingering scent on his clothes. He had been rather angry with the sprite for months for the scent left on the fabrics.

Another tear slipped. Regardless of what the intruder had said (and she had said it!), Walter still tried to control his feelings. He leaned his head back against the wall. The cigarette planted betwixt his lips.

“You are right,” she announced. Her cigarette already dead and she slid the butt into the pack. “The conductor has been switched. The Abney has been abducted.”

Walter’s eyebrows shot up. A twitch materialized in his left leg. Suddenly, it was jumping in sessions of taps. She returned the pack of cigarettes to her pocket and reached underneath her collar. He assumed she was fiddling with her backpack. He wondered what surprise she would remove. Mr. Herennottin had been defeated long before now but he knew death wasn’t  easy to achieve when you were half magical (even if you weren’t active). He had always kept to the life predestined for him by his parents. A life that would provide a modest life and it kept him a little wealthy. He did not feel wealthy as he stared at the black eyed woman.

“You aren’t as shocked as I expected.” Her hand surfaced. In its palm was a foot-long raven feather. The quill a sharp bone and she held it with the feather poking out from between her fingers. She held it like a knife. “You are curious.”

An angel, he concluded, or something of the family of winged bipeds. Walter had usually let his business come to him. His small circle of friends were also Halflings. It was a community, he reckoned.  The weight of Jared’s passing seemed less apparent as his body drew up like a spider. He had never seen a celestial and he did not like seeing one. Walter also did not like anything about that feather knife.

“No, not an angel,” she corrected him, “but yes, like the minotaur: I’m rare.”

A head of ash fell from Walter’s cigarette. He gave a very nervous chuckle as he hid the spent cigarette in the crack of his seat. “Anyone,” he anxiously laughed, “who thinks a minotaur is a mythical beast clearly never had to measure one for a tuxedo. The job took six weeks just to get the fitting right.” His leg continued to vibrate. The No Talk sign rattled against the wall.

“The labyrinth held the minotaur in. Imagine,” she ignored his comment and her hands bopped with the words, “the whole earth being made to hold a unique breed. A breed who originally thought they were here as soldiers only to find out that they were being captive and slowly put down.” She crossed her legs. Her feet were bare and their bottoms black from the earth.

“Then imagine you’re the last,” her eyes became slits of night, “and you find all of this out. You’ve watched all your kind go quietly in the night. You’ve seen them fall to other forces or become pawns in other games. In essence, they are all gone from what they were in the beginning.”

It was then that Walter fully understood she could hear his thoughts. She had not simply concluded that he was sad earlier. She had responded a moment ago from what he was thinking. That he had thought she was an angel. He had no care that she was rare. He only cared that now the train had been captured. That he may not be going home. That, as he gazed at the feathery knife, that this would be his end. He thought of Jared.

Her palm opened. The feather laid there.

“And with that knowledge, your wings turn black. Your eyes turn black. Your hair falls out. You’re corrupted like Eve. You’re alone because you’ve discovered the truth.” Her eyes mirrored the feather.

“Sounds like a good reason as any to kidnap a train,” he looked at the window with its rolling hills, “there is another station coming up…”

“You will be let off there,” she informed him, “we will be switching tracks after that station. There is a very old line that we will be taking. An ancient line that we must take.”

Walter chewed his lower lip but only the bottom right side. He was relieved that he was going to be able to get off. He was relieved he was going to get to live. His body seemed to relax at this news. His leg stopped its shake. He wanted to ask for another cigarette.

“We are taking The Abney home. Back to its Mount Olympus. Back to its primordial swamp.” She let the feather fall to the floor of the cabin. “I wish to face whatever created these worlds. I wish to knock on the door and see if anyone is still home. That is why my companion, the conductor you met, and I have stolen the Abney.”

Walter had not asked nor had he wanted to know. The very idea of meeting God made him weak in the stomach. The two patent leather shoes clicked as he straightened in his seat.

“What if there isn’t anyone there?” he asked softly.

“Then your train will be on time the next time it runs.” Aside from her eyes, her face was the picture of tranquility. “My companion plans to return the train. Regardless of where we end up, I am not returning.”

Walter leaned down and picked up the feather. Rays of black exuded on his off-white palm.   “May I?”

“It is yours,” she said with a mute smile playing at the corner of her mouth, “try not to waste it on a hat.”

“Oh no,” he murmured, “I will not be using it for my crafting. I have to ask, have you always been on earth? Have you ever traveled to the other worlds?”

“No,” she said as she lit another cigarette, “I have been locked to earth since the beginning. My experiences have all happened there. We believed we were the defense and for centuries we did get word. We did do acts that helped. We did matter until I suppose they got busy with these other worlds.”

Walter scratched his cheek. “Well, you didn’t miss anything important. I’ve only ever visited earth. If you remove the people, it is far better. People tend to ruin everything but earth is paradise.” His thoughts went back to Jared. “To die for even.”

She nodded there seeming to know where those words came from, seeming to understand but Walter wondered if that was merely because of her beauty. The train began to shudder as the speed decreased. His hands went back to his knees. Silence retook the cabin as it had forever.

“He is King,” she abruptly declared, “Jared now lives in complete peace with no pain with many servants at his command.” Walter smiled weakly at her. He did not know if she spoke the truth or what she believed. Sometimes, he had found, faith did not require you to believe it in return. He accepted her conclusion and he stood. The train had come to a stop.

“I hope you find what you’re after,” Mr. Herennottin said before he left the cabin. In many ways, he had. There was closure in this meeting that he would have never fostered on his own. She only answered him in smoke. It was the last he had ever seen of a celestial,

This platform was in worse condition than the one he had continually taken. He had only been to this station once as a young man and it had been poorly kept then. The aged schedule (whose faded text could barely be seen) stated there was not to be another train for days. He knew there was never going to be another train. His patent leather shoes walked down the cobblestone path. There were other modes of travel back to the other world. He watched the train diminish into the distance as the sky became as dark as her eyes.

“I hope you find what you’re after,” he said to the night.

#  #  #

Submitted for the 10/09 challenge, “Minotaur”

This story was written in response to the prompt, Anyone who thinks a minotaur is a mythical beast clearly never had to measure one for a tuxedo.

To see more of Jack’s work, check out http://jackcrowder.deviantart.com/