On the Rails
Sleep was not easy after a night of looking over my shoulder. Something followed us home, but with Leo’s six-foot-plus body asleep on the floor guarding the doorway, there was no logical reason left for me to be afraid.
When sleep finally came, I saw the most vivid dreams. Floating in the air high above tall, lush green trees, the dark evergreens brushing my skin felt as soft as kitten’s fur and smelled like wet pine needles and warm tree sap.
Old metal train tracks scarred a vast space between the dense carpet of trees. The mound of crushed rock they sat upon was considerably higher than the forest floor. Dark gray beams ran straight and true through the length of the forest for as far as I could see in the distance.
Floating down to the forest floor, I walked in the dew-damp weeds between the rock bed and the forest edge. It was nearing daybreak, still dark at ground level, but the purple night sky turned light pink in the distance.
A green banana-seat bike with a noticeable dent in the frame lay in the brush ahead. Wheat-colored grass wove its way through the spokes. Its thin black tires were freshly wet with morning dew. A memory of riding my similar-looking bike down a steep muddy hill with Leo came to my mind. We weren’t more than ten or eleven, but it was an exciting day out in the hot sunshine away from the prying eyes of our parents.
The sweet smell of the tall green weeds baking in the humid afternoon heat permeated the air around us. Hidden in the shade of a tall tree at the edge of the trail, Leo would whisper my name, Alerie, and look at my cheery Chapstick-slathered lips.
His mouth tasted like pop rocks and strawberry snow cone ice. We didn’t know how to kiss yet, but we knew what it looked like. We knew the smacking sound our lips should make and how you were supposed to close your eyes the whole time.
The mud kicked up from the bike tires soothed the thousand razor cuts on my legs from the tall sticky grass and caked in the ends of my long braids. The old, forgotten memory brought a smile to my face as I savored the happy images.
From behind, I heard a faint scraping noise, like a sharp knife slowly slicing through cardboard. A tall figure with an unnatural-looking shadow walked purposefully toward me. The hairs on my neck and arms stood on end as I sucked in a deep breath, but I couldn’t scream.
The shape entered the first glimpse of the sunrise. Its skin was slicked red and black, dripping a thick dark liquid. Claws replaced fingertips, large black horse hooves for feet, and piercing-green human-looking eyes looked at me as it smiled. The creature dragged a sizeable human-shaped object along the metal train tracks behind it.
With the ever-increasing sunlight, the rails were razor-sharp and caked with clumps of glistening hair and skin. My eyes watered as queasiness and dread filled my stomach.
“What a delicious memory you shared, and you made such a valiant effort to avoid me tonight,” the creature declared, looking down into my eyes.
“Thank you?” I questioned. My voice was barely audible. The remains of the body clutched in the beast’s hand looked to be a man’s trousered leg. The rest of his bloodied victim lay sliced in sections upon the length of the track behind us.
“Did you want to speak to me?” it asked, tapping the severed leg on the tracks at our feet.
I shook my head and tried to look only at the creature’s face.
“Well, this is what I do when I’m not following you home from a pizzeria.” It laughed, looking me over carefully. “This man you see is not a man at all.” The creature dropped the leg on the tracks and clapped its clawed hands together loudly. All at once, the human slices strewn along the track assembled.
The once-sliced-apart man stood in front of me, whole again, wearing a well-tailored blue suit and polished dark brown shoes. His deep exaggerated breaths puffed into the cold air and led to what sounded like incantations. I didn’t recognize the language he cursed in, but I felt the dark intent of each angry syllable he uttered.
I mustered what volume remained in my voice. “Why are you torturing this man?”
“Me?” the creature asked. “No, I don’t torture. I collect from those who are overdue. Those who do not honor their sworn contracts.”
The well-dressed man fell on his back with a heavy thud and a puff of dirt. The creature grabbed him by the ankle and began dragging him down the tracks again.
It beckoned for me to follow with the flick of its clawed finger and switch of its thin, black articulated tail.
“You are a collector?” I confirmed, watching the victim slide along the rails like lunch meat ordered at a deli counter.
“Very good. Yes, I am a collector. This fool doesn’t want to give up his vessel.” It tugged at the man’s remains roughly. “He won’t get another one either, not after this, but I still need to convince him to abandon this property so I can collect him.”
“I see,” I offered, trying to pull my dream sweater around my cold chest.
“Hmm, you need to learn to maneuver in this place. It will help you survive in the Yolk.” A thick blue coat appeared over my sweater, warming me almost instantly.
“Wait, what do you know about the Yolk?” Rhymes from my bedtime stories tumbled through my mind. I could hear the cadence but couldn’t remember all the words.
“I can tell you quite a lot about the Yolk, the White, and the Grove of the damned, but don’t you understand? This is the most intimate view of my life I can share with anyone. I chose to let you see the part I play in this fight for balance.
“A demon, like this ridiculous thing, can’t run from a collector like me. The balance must be maintained by force if necessary. This body was his for a measure, a contract length. He broke the contract. Usually, I slice them apart over and over until they realize I have no other place to be, and they have no choice but to leave.”
“Why?” I asked, not knowing if I wanted to hear the answer.
“So, I can kill the entity inside, of course. We have a different focus than you and your arrogant Powers. I want this creature dead because it broke my kind’s most sacred arrangement. Not because I want to save your meat sacks. Order must be maintained, or chaos reigns. It’s the only way demons can live in your world undetected. Plus, I wish to keep the body I found.”
“I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”
“Look at me and remember this place and what I really am when we meet in the dirt. None in this struggle are merely what they appear in your dimension. Even your precious angels have four faces. I am a self-serving demon, but I’m much less of a threat to you than any of the others who seek to help you.”
We came to the end of the exercise. The monstrous figure clapped its hands together. Thunder cracked across my dream sky, and the man in the suit appeared whole again. I knew what was coming next. I didn’t want to witness another round of slow dismemberment.
“I don’t want to be here.” I threw my hands over my eyes.
“Lesson one, how to wake up. Simply tell yourself, wake up now; mean it. Say the words with intent and power in your voice.” The creature explained the lesson as if it were vitally important.
“Will there be more lessons?” I asked, my hands trembling more than I liked to admit.
“Thank you,” it said, motioning with outstretched claws for me to repeat.
“Thank you,” I copied with as much volume as I could manage.
“Excellent, my Little Worm. See how pleasant our time together can be? You have not been properly trained. Yes, more lessons are to come. Now gather your fragile little voice and say the words. Exercise that delicious free will of yours.”
I nodded and said the words out loud. I woke in my bed to the sound of a knife slicing through something thick and wet. The distant sound only hung in the air for a moment, but my eyes filled with tears.
Looking around, I found Leo still asleep on the floor, fully clothed, and ready to defend us from whatever might come up the stairs. Only an hour had passed, but I couldn’t continue this way all night. I found a bottle of herbal sleeping pills Leo’s mother sent me and popped one in my mouth.
He told her I was having trouble adjusting to the city noise around my apartment at night. She suggested the low dose of Belladonna and melatonin would help me relax. I put the bottle in the cupboard and sent her a thank-you text, but I never tried them. It was arrogant to discount her help so quickly. I prayed the herbal remedy would work now.
In the morning, when I woke up, Leo was gone. A note left on the door simply read: early practice text me later.
I decided to head to the gym for a morning spin class. By the time the class was over, I had convinced myself the dream about the slimy red monster wasn’t real. I showered and changed in the busy locker room. I was even calm enough to close my eyes as I washed my face.
Heading out the front door of the building, I felt renewed and hungry. A coffee and a hot croissant sounded great for breakfast. Walking into the bakery, hot sugar and fresh brewing coffee grounds washed over my nerves. Everything in the world seemed normal and full of goodness and light. I ordered my regular Americano and added a half-dozen croissants to go.
As I turned to leave the old brick café, I noticed the young man from last night’s pizza debacle staring at me from a table across the room. He wore a white t-shirt with the red, artsy logo of a train engine sitting on silver train tracks in the middle of his chest. One of his arms draped casually around Leo’s new female stalker while his free hand clutched a cell phone.
A podcast played loudly. “Lesson number one, how to ...” He muted the phone and winked at me.
I sucked in a breath and quickly turned to leave, only to find Leo’s stalker now blocking the doorway. Her inhuman speed and lack of breath movements told me she was not merely human. She could probably tell neither was I.
“Hi there, Alerie. My name is Emma. We need to talk about the tracks.”