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Fiction: Good Help is Hard to Find June 1, 2014

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Fiction, Horror.
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Ed Note: This story contains some strong language as well as horrific imagery.

“Tickets! Have your tickets ready!”

The voice roused Scott. He wondered how long he’d been out. That was some nap.

He checked his watch… but it wasn’t there. Neither was his phone.

Now he was wide awake.

“I’ve been robbed!” he said aloud.

As soon as he spoke, he regretted doing so. He wasn’t on his train.

train

He had to be dreaming. That was the only rational explanation.

He had boarded an Amtrak commuter that ran from Baltimore-Washington International to DC. It wasn’t exactly modern, but compared to this train—it might as well have been a space ship.

This looked and felt like something right out of “The Great Train Robbery.”

He looked at the seats. Velvet? Who upholsters with velvet anymore?

Scott tried to remember what he’d eaten last night. Whatever it was… note to self.

He looked around the car, and was greeted by vacant expressions. None of the other passengers looked the least bit familiar.

The Conductor looked at him and smiled a sweet, grandfatherly smile, apparently ignoring Scott’s previous outburst. There were only a handful of people in the car, and he was attentively taking his time with someone in a few rows ahead as he examined their ticket.

Scott reached into his pocket to get his ticket out. At this point, he wasn’t going to be surprised if his Amtrak ticket was gone and had been replaced with one to Tombstone.

He had no ticket in his coat pockets. He checked his shirt.

The shirt didn’t even have a breast pocket. The cuffs were well-made, as was the front.

As dreams go, this had an extraordinary level of detail.

“Ticket sir?”

The Conductor interrupted Scott’s preoccupation with the shirt.

Holding up his hands, Scott grinned and said, “I guess I don’t have one.”

Scott was playing with his dream now. He wondered what strange twist it would take. He looked up.

The almost comical smile had disappeared from the Conductor’s face.
“That is… unfortunate.”

The Conductor’s words were unsettling for some reason.

“Without a ticket,” the Conductor continued, “you have no proof that your fare has been paid.”

There was something in the Conductor’s tone that had shifted. Where his smile had been sweet and kindly, and the lines on his aging face had seemed friendly, without the smile he now seemed quietly threatening. His voice was also lower, such that only Scott could hear what he was saying.

Then there was the smell he gave off. His outstretched hand had come near Scott’s face, and reeked of some kind of industrial cleaner, but a foul odor had followed him over as he walked. It was now overpowering the smell of whatever he’d cleaned his hands with.

Scott decided to go for friendly and said, “Look… surely there’s a way we could work something out. I’ll be glad to…”

“Yes, surely we can” the Conductor interrupted.

And then the smile returned, but now it was downright horrifying. Scott looked around, and other passengers were watching the exchange with mild curiosity, but none seemed to have picked up the weird vibe he was getting from the Conductor.

Scott looked at the woman in the row across from him. She looked back at him with an awkward smile that invited no further interaction. She was dressed in a simple dress, from apparently the same costume shop that had made his shirt and suit.

She showed the Conductor her ticket, he touched his hat and smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Two rows ahead and across the aisle there was a small boy, with no adult accompanying him, who looked out the windows, peeked over his seat the way boys do, and played with some kind of wooden puzzle. He seemed to sense that Scott was looking at him, and turned around and looked back. His face was happy, and he gave a quick wave before turning around and going back to his game.

As he was moving on to the next row, the Conductor leaned back to Scott and said, “At our next stop, I will take you up to the tender. You seem able bodied enough to work.”

As the Conductor spoke with someone in the row behind, Scott turned to watch the exchange. He immediately regretted doing so, as the Conductor shot him a glare that silently said, “Mind your own business.”

Scott closed his eyes and listened intently, but all he could hear was mumbling until the passenger behind him spoke louder.

“No… please!” he pleaded.

Then Scott heard a familiar and unmistakable sound and his eyes flew open. He’d heard it many times, so he didn’t need to turn around and confirm it.

It was clicking/zipping sound of handcuffs, “Brrrrip!”

If the sound of the first cuff got Scott’s attention, the second sent a chill down his spine. He tried to remember something… anything about the man in that row, but he couldn’t. He didn’t think there were many others in the car behind him, and the lady across the aisle seemed indifferent to the commotion that had erupted behind Scott.

His mind racing now, Scott had completely abandoned the idea of this being a dream. He was in a mild panic, and just wanted to escape.

He looked out the window, but there was nothing in the dark shadows that passed to give Scott any indication of where he might be, or might be going.

Hours passed. The rhythmic sound of the wheels on the rails and the gentle rocking of the car would normally have been sleep-inducing, but now they seemed maddening.

Scott looked around the car again. Nobody else was sleeping either. He couldn’t remember ever seeing that before.

The train car shuddered with the familiar sensation of the train slowing. Apparently, they were coming to a stop, though there was nothing to be seen out the windows to indicate how close the station might be, or that there even was one.

As the car slowed to a halt, Scott looked around, and everyone except the handcuffed man behind him got up and started toward the door. Thinking this might be his chance, he joined them.

As he stepped off the train and onto the platform, Scott noticed that everyone was waiting for a door at the station to open. The other passengers had all started lining up, so he slipped into the line behind the boy from the front of his car, and a little girl.

Several people lined up behind Scott, and he relaxed a bit. The platform was almost pitch black, with only oil lamps at the very corners making it possible to avoid bumping into the other passengers.

Just then, the little girl in front of Scott turned around and looked up at him. As she did, her large bonnet revealed, not an innocent smile, but the face of the Conductor.

Scott backed up suddenly, almost knocking the woman behind him over. He caught his breath, and noticed the girl’s finger, beckoning him to come closer. As he did, he noticed the same stench that had been so overpowering in the rail car. As she spoke, the Conductor’s voice somehow crept from her mouth.

“This is not the way to the tender,” she said.

Scott stood up as the little girl turned back around, and then noticed the Conductor, the one he’d met in the car, standing next to him, glaring.

His voice was low as he spoke. “This way.”

The Conductor turned on his heel and began walking back toward the train. Scott considered making a break for it again, but the memory of the Conductor’s face on the little girl’s body was still too vivid.

As they reached the tender, the Conductor opened the door and waited for Scott to step up and inside. As he entered, the platform lit up behind him. They had opened the door to the station, and impossibly bright light came pouring out of the doorway. The line slowly started moving as the passengers stepped inside.

Turning back to the tender, it took Scott several seconds to understand what it was that he was seeing. Unlike some coal-fired engines where the tender is a separate car, this one seemed to have the it built onto the back of the engine. The firebox was at the front, next to the door where they entered, with a windowed door that allowed you to see the condition of the fire.

At the back, it looked like a small pile of unsplit logs and branches. Scott was incredulous. He was about to say something when one of the branches moved.

Scott looked closer, and realized with horror that they weren’t branches. They were arms and legs, severed from human bodies.

Scott blurted out, “What is this?”

The Conductor looked squarely at Scott and said, “Fuel. It’s what powers the train.”

Scott stood there, stunned. He had no idea what to say.

The Conductor was about to step out the door, but paused and said “The firebox won’t load itself.”

It was clear that he would stand there and wait to see that Scott would proceed with the task. Having few options, Scott went to the back of the tender, cautiously picked up an arm, and immediately dropped it.

The hand had tried to grab Scott’s wrist.

“It’s still alive!” he screamed.

“Of course it is,” the Conductor replied. “He wouldn’t feel pain otherwise.”

With that, the old man closed the door, leaving Scott in the tender, staring at the arm, quivering on the floor.

Against all his urges otherwise, he bent down and picked the arm back up.

It was… surreal. The arm was still warm, and moved slightly in response to his touch. Scott was certain he would throw up.

As he stepped toward the firebox, Scott wondered what he was doing. Even so, he continued, surprising himself as he reached for the handle to the firebox door.

Quickly, he opened the door, tossed the arm inside, and slammed the door. The clang of the door echoed in the room, which took Scott’s attention away from how the flame flared up as the severed arm began to burn.

That’s when Scott heard the scream.

It was a bloodcurdling scream, and Scott was certain that it couldn’t have been a coincidence. It couldn’t have come from the firebox, but as he stood there, Scott’s mind filled with doubt about what he had or hadn’t heard, much less where it came from.

Breathing heavily now, and horrified at what he’d done, Scott rushed to the door. He had to get out.

The way the arm had grabbed his was familiar. He’d been grabbed like that before, years before. When it happened, Scott had pushed the man away.

Scott’s mind raced back to that day. He’d been grabbed by a bum who hung around the station near Scott’s house. When Scott pushed him away, the bum had stumbled back through the crowd on the platform, and fallen off the platform and onto the rails.

Everyone just assumed that the bum had stumbled and fallen on his own. Scott never admitted to anything. He quietly ignored the flurry of news reports that had followed about the highly decorated vet that had fallen on hard times, and tragically landed on the third rail, and moments later been hit by an express train passing through the station.

Now, trying desperately to get out of this nightmare, all he knew was that he had to get out of the tender. He had to.

Just as he reached the door, it opened, and the Conductor stepped up and in. His eyes were fierce.

His voice growled, “Load the firebox. We need to leave the station.”

Scott stood his ground, and said, “I can’t… I won’t.”

Scott shoved the Conductor in the chest in an attempt to get to the door. Somehow, his shove never quite connected.

With a surprisingly quick movement of his right arm, the Conductor grabbed Scott’s wrist, held it in between their faces, and jammed Scott’s thumb into a silver mechanism that looked almost like pruning shears. Scott’s thumb was stuck through a hole in the end, with blades on either side that connected to the handle.

“Perhaps,” the Conductor began, “you’ll make good fuel. Heinous sins burn even more intensely in the firebox. How much power do you think one of your fingers would generate, Mr. Kramer?”

His eyes had been locked onto Scott’s the whole time. Scott realized at that point that the Conductor never blinked.

“OK,” Scott blurted out. “I’ll do it.”

With that, the Conductor dropped Scott’s hand and deftly slipped the silver mechanism back into his pocket. He stepped down the steps and out of the tender, closing the door behind him, and leaving Scott to his morbid task.

Now, Scott was determined. He would load the arms and legs into the firebox, and wouldn’t let himself feel anything. He had little choice.

He went to the back, grabbed a leg, and began dragging it up to the front. Scott was startled how heavy it was! As he opened the door, the leg began kicking spastically in his hand, and fell to the floor.

Scott screamed .“Son of a bitch!”

He picked the leg up off the floor, opened the firebox door, and jammed the leg inside. As he did, Scott saw, quite clearly, the arm that he had thrown in earlier. Somehow, it hadn’t been fully consumed by the flame, and the blackened fingers were dragging it along the embers.

Scott slammed the door again, and once more heard screaming, but from a different voice. He tuned it out and returned to the pile at the back of the tender.

As he repeated the grisly task, Scott noticed that some of the limbs were female—or at least had belonged to a woman at some point—but most of them came from men. Scott wondered what it meant, but chose not to dwell on it.

As he was loading the firebox, Scott felt the train lurch into motion, and he felt a sick sense of having accomplished something. Before long, they were underway again.

Soon enough, he was down to the last arm. The firebox was roaring, and the chorus of screams had become just background noise to Scott. As he closed the firebox door, he saw the now familiar frantic scratching of a hand against the glass window.

He turned toward the back of the tender, and wondered what would happen next. As far as Scott knew, there wasn’t a passage from the tender to the rest of the train. Without more fuel, maybe they would make another stop soon.

“The rest of the train…” Scott thought to himself. “I wonder…”

He stood near the door, trying to remember if there was a walkway on the side of the door, or maybe a ladder to the top of the car. He couldn’t remember anything about the exterior. He’d been too distracted by the light behind him at the station.

Suddenly, Scott turned around and looked at the back of the tender. All of the limbs had been piled up against the back wall.

That doesn’t make sense. Why put them all the way back in the back?

Scott walked to the back of the car, and found what he was looking for. It was a seam, right in the middle of the metal wall. He reached up and felt along the top edge. There were three large hinges. It was the loading door. That gave him an idea.

Scott began frantically looking around the tender. He was searching for a crowbar, a tire iron, or anything that he might use to pry the loading door open.

Behind the firebox, he found a shovel. It was probably there for cleaning out ashes, but it appeared sturdy enough for his purpose.

Moving to the back of the tender, Scott slid the edge of the shovel into the seam at the bottom of the door. Feeling that it was solidly in place, he put his weight against the handle, and to his surprise, the door started to move.

Had he thought about what he was doing, Scott probably would have expected what happened next. Because he didn’t think about it, the sudden influx of human limbs through the now-open loading door almost made him scream.

Also because he didn’t think about it, the door opening suddenly caused the shovel to slip out, causing him to lose his balance and fall. He was almost instantly buried in still-moving arms and legs. Once again he wanted to vomit.

Scott suppressed the rising bile and began digging his way out. He wondered if this was what quicksand was like, as he was digging out of kicking legs, flexing arms, and hands that continually grabbed blindly onto anything that touched the fingers. He wiggled and fought his way to the surface of the shallow pile, amazed at how difficult it was.

With the sudden outpouring of quivering body parts now over, Scott realized that one of the legs had only partially fallen through the door, and was keeping it propped open. He moved quickly but carefully, fighting to keep his balance on the writhing limbs he was now kneeling upon.

When he first looked up through the loading door, all he could see was a ceiling and the shallow bin that had been holding the severed arms and legs. Rising, he could see, just barely, between the open door and the far edge of the bin.

As before, Scott probably would have expected to see what he did, had he only thought about what had been happening. He didn’t, and his revulsion and horror felt brand new.

The loading door opened from a small room behind the tender. However, it wasn’t so much a room as it resembled a torture chamber.

At the center of the room was a set of elevated tables. Strapped to the largest table was a man, with fresh wounds where his arms had been, and roughly cut stumps where his legs used to be. Although the man wasn’t able to struggle effectively against the straps without arms or legs, his torso was twisting and contorting against the straps. His head was strapped down too, but his mouth was uncovered, and he was crying and moaning in pain.

The near table had straps that appeared to have held legs in place. On either side of the main table were tiny extensions, also with straps, that apparently held the arms straight out. There were wide gaps between the four tables, making it resemble some kind of horrible, human miter box.

On the wall to the left was a variety of saws, and on the right were axes, all of the tools stained and discolored. They looked rusty, old, and horrible. Scott realized that he was becoming accustomed to the sensation of bile rising in his throat.

At the back corners of the room were two wide, closed doors, with windows at the top of each. As far as Scott could tell, the room was otherwise empty.

Feeling he had nothing else to lose, Scott reached up through the open loading door, grabbed the edge of the bin, and started pulling himself up through the opening. It was difficult, as he was continually kicking against the moving arms and legs beneath him, constantly kicking the hands loose that were grabbing his own legs.

As he neared the edge of the bin, his left foot slipped and kicked the leg loose that had been propping the loading door open. The door fell against the back of his right leg, just above his foot, pinning him.

The pain was excruciating, but short-lived. As Scott was trying to figure out how to get free, he felt the train slow suddenly, and the bumps and shudders that accompany the slowing of the remainder of the cars. The heavy loading door, bumping open slightly from its own inertia, was now loose enough that he was able to twist his leg and foot to get free.

He pulled up to the edge of the bin, hooking it with his left leg, and then fell into the room as the engine pulled hard again, causing the cars to lurch forward. He landed with a thud.

In a rare, pleasant surprise, the floor was somehow not covered in blood. How was that possible, given what obviously went on in here?

Scott scrambled to his feet, and as he passed the man on the table, the man’s crying subsided a bit. He looked into Scott’s eyes.

“Make it stop… please,” the man pleaded. “I’m sorry… I’m really sorry… forgive me?”

Scott had no idea how to respond, so he looked away. He moved around the table and to the door on the right. Carefully, he looked through the window.

This was the last part of tender car, and it was narrow—roughly half the width of the car, and it resembled a long hallway. There were about a dozen chairs along the outside wall, side-by-side.

Ignoring the moans and pleading of the man strapped to the table, Scott moved toward other door. As he neared it, the door opened suddenly, and the Conductor entered. He seemed only mildly surprised at Scott’s presence.

“I see you found your way to the processing room, Mr. Kramer,” he intoned.

His voice was almost playful—almost jovial. Something in the Conductor’s hand caught Scott’s eye. It was a meathook, like the ones Scott had seen used in slaughterhouses for handling slabs of beef and pork. Scott knew what would happen next, and didn’t want to watch it.

He heard the thunk of the meathook behind him, and the accompanying scream from the man on the table. He heard the buckles of the straps clang against the sides of the table, and then the sickening thud of the man’s body hitting the floor.

“There’s no blood,” Scott said suddenly. “How is there no blood?”

The Conductor came up next to Scott, dragging the torso behind him with the hook. He opened the door with his free hand.

“Eternal bodies don’t bleed, and don’t die,” the Conductor told him, and then proceeded to drag the body through the door.

Unable to stop himself, Scott looked through the window to see where the Conductor was taking the body. This half of the back of the car had no chairs, and appeared to have a long, sliding door on the outside wall.

The Conductor unceremoniously heaved the torso past himself along the floor. He deftly flipped the meathook as he did, pulling it loose from the body, and turned back to return to the processing room.

Behind the Conductor was a pile of limbless bodies, all alive, and all in agony. Scott realized that this is where the screams had been coming from as he’d burned the arms and legs.

The Conductor returned through the door, hanging the meathook on an empty spot on the wall and began cleaning his hands at a small sink. The cleaner. That was what Scott had smelled on him before.

Feeling the train slowing again, but more dramatically this time, Scott supposed they had arrived at the next stop. He wondered how many hours he would be spending in the tender, torturing these poor souls, limb by limb.

Breaking the silence, Scott said “I guess I should get back to the tender and load the firebox.”

“Oh no. That won’t be necessary,” the Conductor replied. “Just relax and have a seat on the table. I’m sure you’ll give us plenty of power for the next trip.”

With that, the Conductor smiled, and firmly placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder.

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