Shit, only forty five minutes. I throw my purse on the counter, grab frozen Chicken Tikka from the freezer, pop it into the microwave, and peek into the bedroom. Mom is snoring mildly and Mark (looking far too fine in his scrubs) looks up from his kindle, the back-light illuminating his bright eyes in the murk.
“Hey Lizzie.” He whispers, looks over at Mom who remains flat on her back, and tip-toes out into the kitchen with me. “How’s it going? I didn’t expect you back till six.”
“Nope I’m not back back.” I let him know that I’m just grabbing a bite before heading to my new second shift job. He assures me that Mom is doing ok and is kind enough to leave me to inhale my meal in private before I’m back out the door.
Ten minute walk to the train station, catch the very last midnight train, and start my second full shift of the day. I’m tired already. I don’t know how I’m going to keep at this for the next few months.
I answer my mobile as I’m flying down the tile steps to the platform. It’s Kelly, no doubt getting stoned and knitting in her bean-bag chair, probably for the next several hours, all warm and comfortable.
“My sweetness! How are you”? Yep. Her voice confirms my assumption. Smoked up and fully relaxed. I try to be as nice as I can and keep the jealousy from my voice as I explain my mad rush to my new second-shift data entry job.
“Oh Babe. Another data entry job? What about your degree, hun”?
“Listen, getting a job in social work isn’t easy to begin with, and more-so with Covid. And frankly I don’t have the time to interview and wait for responses. I have to think about Mom. Time’s running out. If I have any chance of affording her treatment in time, I need money now. Guaranteed fast cash”.
“I know babe. And I feel for you, you know that. But nothing is guaranteed. Ever. Sometimes you need to take a risk. Even if you’re not sure that it will work out, you need to take a chance on aiming for something higher”.
“Listen, the train is pulling up. I’ll call tomorrow once I get some sleep before my day job.” I snap the phone shut. Love the girl, but she just doesn’t get it. Doesn’t have to. She has no one to take care of but herself, and she’s pretty low maintenance to begin with. I can’t blame her. But I also can’t deal with her laissez-faire attitude about work right now, when I’m frantically trying to put together enough money to keep my only remaining parent alive.
I’m getting nervous as I watch the train fly past me before it finally begins to slow. For a moment I was worried that it didn’t make this stop and I know this is the very last regional headed to my destination. Missing my first day could literally be a life or death proposition.
By the time the train comes to a complete halt and the doors wrench open in the flickering station lights, I find myself at the very last car, which is thankfully entirely devoid of passengers. At least I’ll get fifteen minutes of peace along the way.
Gshk, gshk, gshk… the sound of passing rails grows in speed thrumming in my head, piling onto the growing headache. I look out at the night sky, the bedroom lights in the high rises we pass, thinking about those people preparing for bed. A nice bath and some rest. I join them, placing my face in my palms for a moment and close my dry eyes.
When I look back up, I see that the train has entered the tunnel and the windows are dark. That’s when I noticed the door.
Every train car has a front and back door, even the last car, though I’m sure that the back door in the last car is bolted shut for safety. It’s not that there is a door. It’s that the door at the back of my car is not the standard grimy silver colored metal and rubber matching the rest of the car. It’s wood. A dark stained oak to be exact, elegantly stained, with three panels and intricate scrolling. Complete with a classic rosette brass and crystal doorknob.
It is so entirely out-of-place that I find myself utterly stunned. Frozen in my seat staring, trying to make sense of this. Was it some sort of strange inner city art project? How had I not noticed it before? After a few moments of racing for an explanation I turned to check the other door to find that the front one was as expected. Metal and glass, framed by black rubber. I also noticed that the train has exited the tunnel and the city lights are once again visible out the window.
When I turn back, the wooden door is gone. In its place is the more rational and comforting standard train door. Christ. I must be going crazy. Maybe the stress. Maybe the lack of sleep. Who knew, not I said the crazy lady.
The rest of the ride proceeded without incident. I spent it worrying about my own mental health, and it was not as restful as I had hoped. The rest of the night proceeded without further disturbance as well. I left the train, and helped a man who had dropped his wallet near the edge of the platform. Proceeded to my new office. New names of co-workers to remember. New forms and computer systems. All of it moving along in that slow dull haze of exhaustion. Something I managed fairly well, I think.
All followed by a pat on the back for a “great” first day, a morning train home, a few words with mom and Mark, exactly five hours of restless sleep, and then another day. Another mad rush to the train. Another final empty train car. Another decent into the pitch black tunnel, and to my astonishment, another wooden door.
It was there again. Actually there. I shot up from my seat this time, and ran my hand on the oiled and sealed wood. It was solid. Real. My mouth fell open stupidly and without thinking my had dropped and fell upon the crystal knob.
Leaning left, I peered through the side windows at the back of the train, just barely able to make out the shape of the passing tracks behind the train in the gloom of the tunnel.
“Take a risk. Take a chance, even if you’re not sure….” Kelly’s words echo in my mind, and my hand moves, turning the knob. The door swung inward just as the train hit a bump and the car hops off the track for a moment, sending me careening through the doorway.
I push myself up from the carpet gasping for air, as if I’d been underwater for too long. Unable to reconcile what I thought must have been my death or grave injury falling at speed onto the tunnel tracks.
Instead I found myself in an ornate train car that looked like it should be in a museum. Oak and granite counters on either side of me, Clinking crystal chandeliers hanging from the sloped shiplap ceiling. A burgundy oriental runner carpet beneath my shoes.
And before me an enormous ornately carved throne, easily five feet tall, with dragon head arm rests, claw feet, and an entirely bewildering occupant. A large black man in his late sixties, dreadlocks spilling out over his thighs, wrapped in layers of thick sweaters and stained winter coats befitting the lowest class of career homeless.
His dreadlocks snake in all directions and I soon see that many of them wrapped both around his limbs and the structure of his throne. Tightly wound and winding. Moving and twisting slowly, tightening and releasing their grip. The movement makes my stomach churn as I try to stand regain my footing, steadying myself against the counter tops at my sides.
My eye line met his for only a split second. I could bear no more. The flash of red in his pupils sent a current through my body that felt like death. As if everything I had ever considered or wanted fled from me and I was falling into an endless pit of certain empty pain.
Before I completely lost my legs I spun around to find the door shut behind me, and the knob seized and immovable. The door was locked. Solid and unyielding.
My mouth opened but I found myself unable to speak. What is this? Who are you? Let me out. Please help me. Please don’t. I know what I intended to say. But none of the words would surface.
The entire train car resonated with the sound of his booming voice. I could feel it in my body, and remembered once when Kelly had given me a “Didgeree-doo massage” by playing the large instrument while moving it over my back. The feeling was similar, though far less comforting.
“You may return.” I remained frozen on the spot, resting my forehead against the door. Hopeful at these words. “But first you must take something. And leave something”.
The following silence was all encompassing. I could not even hear the rhythmic beating of the train tracks any longer.
“Turn, and keep your eyes low. You will find several choices on the platters upon the shelves. One will be empty. You will leave something upon the empty tray. Take something from the other trays, at your discretion. Then, only then, you may turn and leave.”
I was slow to comprehend. Even slower to act. But I followed the instructions, paying particular attention to the first, keeping my gaze low, lest I catch sight of those terrible flaming pits of eyes once more.
I tore two buttons from the sleeves of my coat and placed them upon the empty tray. Then I observed the objects upon the trays on the same counter. I dared not turn to peruse the collection on the other side. It was enough that I could hear the dreadlocks of the Indigent King snake across his clothing, I had no interest in catching sight of him again, even in the corner of my vision as I turned.
A man’s watch. A set of headphones. A business card. A scarf. And a pair of black chopsticks imprinted with cherry blossoms and capped in silver.
Struck by the harmony of placing two objects, my two buttons, and taking two objects, I decided on the chopsticks. I lifted and placed them in my coat pocket, turned back the way I came and exited through the now unlocked door as quickly as I could.
And I was back in the normal world.
Grungy, dirty, beautiful metal and plastic. The feel of dirt between my shoes and the black rubber floor. The smell of fuel oil and body odor. It was so welcoming. Looking out the window I also knew that we had left the tunnel and outside was the rest of the wide cruel and reliable city. I had not left it for long, but was so happy to be back. And happier still to see that the exit from sanity was no more. The gross factory machined door was back, in place of whatever blasphemous portal had stolen it’s rightful existence.
I stood on the platform of my arrival station for some time, considering throwing the chopsticks onto the tracks. Putting the last remaining stain of that insane experience behind me. But I could not bring myself to do so. Some part of me knew that I needed to treat the object with respect, and that destroying or mistreating them would mean very bad things for me. They were heirlooms. Not in the sense that they were old or historical, but that they carried something. Some otherworldly power. They existed by rules I could not understand. That demanded to be respected. More than that…. Implemented. These were implements. And to ignore them would be equally detrimental as attempting to destroy them.
Understanding is a strange thing. Impeccable when existent, even if the source or reasoning is inscrutable. Undeniable nonetheless.
Once again the world moved on. I arrived at work. I worked. I returned home. Spoke with my mother’s nurse. Spoke with my mother. Spoke with Kelly. But never about what happened that night. I knew better.
The chopsticks lay dormant on my bedside table. It was necessary to have them there, in view. I knew that too. And it was becoming more and more necessary to pay them the proper respect as the days passed. That knowledge grew and became more urgent in my consciousness over time. My nightmares reinforced it more and more frequently each night. It was always the same. The train crashed into my bedroom, and the Indigent King leapt from the throne, that was his prison, to stab out my eyes with the chopsticks.
I needed my sleep. I only had six hours between shifts. So this morning I put up my hair into a bun and wore the chopsticks out. I found that the moment they were placed, I felt more rested than I had for weeks. I found my eyes closing softly and a sense of peace spread through my body, as if I had taken several painkillers. Thick warm contentment spread over me and I floated down the hallway onto the street.
That whole day was pure joy. Before reaching work I received a call from the IRS informing me that I had overpaid several years worth of taxes, and I would be receiving several thousand dollars in compensation in the coming weeks.
I had a half day at my day job so that I could attend a meeting with my mother’s oncologist, during which I received some incredible and unexpected news. For months I had been scrimping and saving money for a new treatment just recently approved by the FDA. It had an 82% success rate even in cases of late-stage treatment, as my mother required. Incredible considering that all previous treatments had almost zero chance of being effective due to the rate of her progression.
Dr. Kapertnick told me that he had recently applied on my behalf, and my mother had been accepted into a trial for the second generation of that same treatment which had been proving even more effective than the one that was currently approved. He was cautious not to raise my hopes too much, but was clear that there was a very good chance of success, even more than if I had managed to afford the first gen treatment I had been working towards affording.
It was as if my whole life had changed drastically, in only a few hours. I did not dare to quit my night job just yet. I would not feel comfortable doing that at least until Mom was starting the new trial and was showing some positive results. But I felt an overwhelming sense of relief with this sudden turn of events, and decided to treat myself to a quiet hour at a high end-rooftop coffee house that I had heard tell of in center city.
That is when I met Amanda Jenkins. Before I could pick a seat I found myself being approached and practically caressed by a stunning older businesswoman. She stood and ran her hand across my hair and over the chopsticks as if transfixed, wonder in her eyes. I didn’t know what to say, being approached by a stranger in this way and soon she was all apologies and self consciousness.
She told me that she had just lost her mother, who had a habit of wearing chopsticks in her hair just as I did that day. I told her about my mother’s illness. One connection led to another and we eventually sat for coffee together.
It turned out that Amanda was a manager at “Hope for all” a local non-profit focused on providing state funded mental health to the less fortunate in the area. Coffee soon transformed into an interview. And the interview resulted in a full time position doing exactly what I had gone to school for, and dreamed of doing my whole life.
I started one week later with full health benefits. After officially leaving my other positions, I spent several days making a framed glass display case for my strangely obtained, but powerfully new instruments. They had been satiated by everything that happened the day that I wore them. I could feel it. I did not know if they would remain dormant, but either way I would pay them the proper respect in return for their gifts.
I got almost no sleep the night before my first day at the new position. I was nervous, yes. But it was not simple nerves that kept me from my rest. Each time I started to drift off I found myself startled back to vigilant wakefulness by one sound or another. The first was a single loud tapping sound, as if someone had bounced a quarter off of a glass table. Half an hour later I was woken by the sound of muffled giggling and my mind raced, wondering if we had new neighbors in the apartment next door, of if I had left a window open in the hallway and was catching the sound of children in the street. I punched at the mattress and got out of bed to check. While I needed some rest, it was supposed to get quite cold tonight and I didn’t want to wake up later from the chill, or impact my mother’s health in any way.
It was closed. All the windows and doors were closed, locked tight. Then I heard the patter of footsteps behind me and spun in the direction of the noise. Nothing there, just the door to my mother’s bedroom, closed tight. I knew I had heard something in that direction, and I would never feel comfortable without investigating. I dashed into the kitchen and pulled my biggest chef’s knife from the block, cautiously making my way to my mother’s room.
It was dark inside but I caught a flash of reflection in the gloom, near the monitors at monther’s bedside. Then I caught movement, just for a split second I could make out the shape of two little girls. Two little asian girls were on either side of mother’s bed leaning over her from either side. Their mouths pulling back into horrific and exaggerated grins. But even worse were their eyes. Each of the children had one cataract-white eye, and the other eye blacked out. Obscured by a single black button. My buttons. I knew it the moment I saw their faces.
I flicked the light on, keeping the knife in front of me, and found the room empty except for my sick and now stunned, mother, confused and gasping. I helped her sit up and comforted her, continually scanning the room and making excuses to check the closet, peering behind the chair in the corner for good measure. Empty. They were gone.
I sat at the kitchen table the entire remainder of the night. Keeping watch. Sipping black tea. Thinking about balance. Gifts and Costs. Debits and Credits. I had taken something. Something enormously powerful. But I had left something too. In the end I decided, based on hours of googling, that what had happened was that my eyes had been opened. The fact that I had stepped outside normal everyday reality, I had opened myself up to notice and see otherworldly intervention that most others are tuned to ignore. Things that were always there, I now had the power to see. In effect, I had become sensitive, overnight and without intention. But why the buttons? If there were two little girls who were ghosts or spirits or the like, why did they have my buttons? Why were they wearing them?
The sun rose before I could think of a good answer for that question. And it was time for me to start my new position at the mental health clinic. The place is incredibly busy, consistently overwhelmed really, and I was given my first case file that very day. A local woman living in Chinatown just a few blocks away whose children had recently passed, was picked up on assault charges, presumably due from a mental breakdown caused by her unimaginable grief.
After the paperwork needed to release her into our custody, and quickly skimming the first few pages of her file, I took her into my office and did my best to make her feel comfortable. Her tea sat untouched as she stared at the floor, unresponsive to small talk or niceties. I changed tactics to try to get her talking.
“I cannot imagine what you are going through right now. I understand that you have lost your children in a tragic accident. Would you care to tell me about them? What were their names?”
“No”. Her head did not move an inch as she spat out the rebuke.
“I understand. Maybe we can talk about something else then, tell me about yourself. Were you born in the city”?
She raised her head slightly. “No. No accident. Not accident”.
“Oh, I see. I was made to understand that there had been an accident.” I nervously flipped through the file on my desk to garner more detail. Not a good start. I had been given very little time to prepare, and going into this with incorrect information must seem callous, never mind extremely unprofessional. I found the report page, and a printout of a photo spilled out onto my desk.
“This says that your daughters….” My eyes fell upon the photo, and I dropped the file. “No.” The inflection in my voice matched her previous tone almost exactly.
“Choked. Yes, choked to death. Both of them. Same time. No accident”.
The photo. The children. The very same that I had seen last night. Grinning and leaning over my mother. They… the spirits… they were this woman’s daughters. My head spun and I could feel that fizzy lightheartedness come over my as I swooned in my chair. My eyes catch sight of several words scattered across the police report. “Assault”. “Homeless man”. “Train Station”. “Door to nowhere”.
“Choked on gifts. Gifts from the Yaoguai. Demon. Choked on Yaoguai’s buttons. Two buttons. One each. Same time, no accident. Yaogua look like bum. I kill. I kill him.” Her little hands compressed into fists.
Her eyes were filled with rage. I recovered myself from fainting and my sudden comprehension took control. I shot out of my seat and took her hand.
“I met him. The Demon, on the train, through the wrong door. I saw him too. I took something. I left something”.
I practically dragged her out of my office. In retrospect I am astounded at my actions. I was a mad woman, possessed. But at the time there was only clarity. Clarity of need. Clarity of the danger I had brought upon my house.
I explained what had happened to me, as she sobbed in the passenger seat next to me, speeding down the highway and then through the snaking side streets to my apartment. We were sisters. Instantly. Two individuals that had shared and experienced something beyond most people’s comprehension, and she understood my need in the moment.
I half opened, half broke through my front door and flew into my mother’s bedroom, Kimmie politely remaining a few feet behind me in the kitchen. Matt jumped up and blocked my entrance to the room.
“Lizzie, I’m so sorry, I’ve got some terrible….”
I shoved past him to confirm what I knew to be true. Gone. Mother was gone. The sheets were red with blood. Pulling them back, I found that she had been stabbed. Repeatedly. By a yellow and black handled screwdriver, still protruding from her side.
Twenty eight months of fighting. Twenty eight months of doctors appointments, options, paperwork, hopes, letdowns. Gone in a flash. Taken by the Indigent King and his artifacts. By his unscrupulous trading of power.
“I don’t know how it happened. The door was locked… I was just trying to get a shower, this is my second shift and I hadn’t…. Oh Lizzie….”
The police arrived a few minutes later. After their questioning, I sent Matt home. I felt for him. This was not his fault and the police had made it clear that he was a person of interest. Kimmie rubbed my back as I sat and cried. Sadness turned to rage. And rage turned to planning and action. Kimmie was onboard immediately. She had already tried to take deadly action in response to what had been stolen from her. Her only failing was that she did not understand how and when the door opened, on schedule, on that particular car, on the very last night train.
By a quarter of twelve we were at the station. Filled with fury and determination. Awaiting the last train West. Kimmie carried a camelbak filled with gasoline and a small plastic forensics bag containing two buttons that she had insisted on demanding from the coroner. I had nothing more than the chopsticks. It seemed proper to both of us. Fitting for us to return what we had taken, as well as what I had given.
The car was empty. The darkness of the tunnel fell around us. And this time I watched as reality shifted and turned at the back of the car. It took only a moment but we were both witness to the strange evolution, or devolution of the portal at the back end of the last night train.
We made our way into the elegant car hovering over the tracks to nowhere, careful not to look the Indigent King in the eyes. Just us now. No tricks. No minions. No power that could possibly eclipse the retribution of a scorned mother, and daughter.
I imagine the Indigent King opening his mouth to speak, or preparing to defend himself or attack before I moved, but I witnessed no such thing. The moment we entered, I broke into a sprint, leaping into the air and raising my fists aiming the chopsticks where I imagined his eyes to be with my thumbs pressed hard against their cold silver caps. My aim was true and I plucked those fiery lights from his eyes, shuddering as his painful shouts escaped and the cabin shook along with him.
The screaming subsided as he fell over to the side, and I saw the dreadlocks binding him to his throne release their grip and writhe in agony, first looking for purchase, and then wilting away. Kimmie came up from behind me, squeezing her camelbak, spraying the throne and body down until the container was spent.
There was one more thing to do before we launched this dark passage to it’s final demise. I returned to the man’s body, retrieved the weapons from his mangled face, turned and placed them upon an empty platter to the right. Kimmie similarly opened the plastic bag and returned the buttons to the platter on the other side, then took the Zippo from her pocket.
We looked at each other for a moment. Each crying. Each smiling. Knowing that the pain that had been brought down upon us would never be inflicted on another. Then the fuse was lit, and thrown. The flames tunneled through the space, through the air in a flash, and I turned toward the exit before the car was overwhelmed. Opening the door, I turned back and found Kimmie, facing me, slowly moving backward, her back to the inferno.
“Kimmie, no!” I was too late. Before I could even think about snatching out for her hand she was engulfed, keeping her empty eyes fixed on mine before the flames engulfed her tiny frame.
The heat against my face and eyes increased tenfold in seconds and I had no choice. I turned and shut the door behind me for the last time. The portal was closed. It was done. Four lives had been taken, that I knew of, but it was over now. I was sure of it. Not sure enough that I would not confirm it the following night, but I knew.
I got off at the next station. The very same one I had taken two weeks ago that had started all of this. It was terrible to go through the same motions as that night, as if I was living it all over again. When I saw the man drop his wallet near the platform that sentiment was doubled. I did a double take. Same man. That was the same man I had seen on the first night of my new job weeks ago. Dropping that same beige leather wallet. I looked up at the train schedule and saw “Wed” in crude red lights. Wednesday. Not today. Not Monday.
I lost my new second-shift data entry job. Because I did not show up for my first day. Instead I rushed home to see mother, and tell her how much she meant to me. Laid beside her all night crying and reminiscing about Christmases past, vacations we had taken, how ridiculous Dad had always been about holidays.
Whatever dark force had been enacted by the trade of items I had made two weeks ago was undone. Completely. The effects had been reversed at their source, and time unwound itself to before it had begun. I thought a lot about Kimmie and her two little girls who I had unsuspectingly almost murdered and thought that perhaps one day I might visit them and tell them the story. They would think I was mad. Maybe I am. But perhaps they are the type to enjoy a good story nonetheless.
There is one person who I did see again very shortly after that night. Amanda Jenkins, the manager at “Hope for All”. I ran into her at a rooftop coffee place in the city. The same day and time that I knew she would be there. Right after I spent the day shopping in Chinatown, for something to hold up my hair for the evening.