Hungry Old Engines


The train was a patchwork tangle of flippers and vertebrae, sinew and keratin, forestomachs and lateral ventricles and faded upholstery. Handholds dangled from its roof like saliva from a gaping mouth. Below them, passengers napped, took calls, exchanged seats and carried on with their lives, unaware or at peace with the fact that they were being slowly digested.

The bones of the thing creaked as it came to a stop and a crowd swarmed in, peeling off raincoats and shaking out umbrellas. A woman tumbled into the second carriage from the back. For one peaceful second, she was so distracted by the sudden warmth of the rickety heaters that she almost didn’t notice the devil sliding into the seat beside her. Its skin was pierced with a million tiny needles, its dark robe was inscribed with sigils in a language that had never graced a human tongue.

“Nau mai, haere mai, and welcome aboard this Metlink service to Upper Hutt. Please familiarise yourself with the safety information available in poster form in each carriage,” said the announcement.

“Oh my goodness gracious,” said the woman, getting up to switch seats.

The devil moved its legs to make way for her, turning up the volume on its headphones until the sound filled the compartment. It started picking its nose. The woman watched it from behind her copy of The Listener, jumping slightly every time it moved, or blinked, or took a breath. The corpse of some slaughtered beast lay beside it on the seat, still in the early stages of decomposition. The hair on the back of her neck stood up as she watched the creature, still bobbing its head to the music, unzip the corpse and start pulling out its entrails.

“In accordance with section nine of our conditions of carriage, please refrain from drinking, smoking, practising unlicensed marine biology and consuming any warm or smelly foods while onboard this service,” continued the announcement, barely audible over the music. “Refusal to comply with these conditions is punishable by fine, community service, or death, depending on whether you share your snacks. Kia ora, and thank you for travelling with Metlink.”

The creature yawned, and there was metal in its mouth. Out of the corpse came a whole roast chicken, a loaf of moderately stale banana bread and two pints of pasta sauce, which it slathered liberally over both. Without wiping its fingers, it took out its phone and started typing.

The woman fainted. Babies wept.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the train, the ticket collector began to sharpen his axe.

Maren Bordeianu, lowly writer for the ‘Backyard Banter’ section of the Upper Hutt Leader, had beliefs about journalism that would cause any reasonable person to faint and any editor to cry and any ruffian claiming both identities to promptly and efficiently explode. She wasn’t in it for the money, nor the fame, nor even the love of the craft. No, Maren’s sole purpose in life was to break the story of the century, win a big juicy award for it, and then, at the afterparty, finally get to try a canapé. If you told her canapés were just tiny, fucked up sandwiches made from ingredients you could probably find at New World, she would haughtily inform you that it was about the principle of the thing, then storm off, high-heels clicking like geiger counters, smart purple coat billowing behind her.

Her lofty career aspirations were hindered by only one thing—nobody has ever been awarded a Pulitzer for writing about vegan quiche recipes and interior design tips.

This was the trial she faced as she rode the train home one evening, the sunset turning the paper in her notebook from white to grey and finally to yellow as the overhead lights switched on. She was halfway through the fifth draft of an already overdue article, neglecting her work to doodle mindlessly in the corner of the page. Triangle, triangle, star. City Council Unveils Plan to Implement More Bike Lanes. Triangle, diamond, hexagon. This decision has been criticised by a spokesperson from the local Wizards’ Society, who says “When we were your age, we flew everywhere by broomstick and liked it!”

She crossed out the last sentence and leaned her head against the cold glass of the window, willing the world to explode.

Through the little patch of fog her breath left, the platform lights bled out like watercolour paint, dripping down onto the concrete below. She could only see what they illuminated, which was graffiti, despondent chip packets and some goth teenager struggling to open the carriage doors. The kid was old enough to be covered in piercings, but young enough to still have braces, flashing silver as she gritted her teeth. She wore a teddy bear backpack slung over one shoulder, and there was something drying on her clothing, red and sticky, with tiny pieces of chopped onion lurking just below the surface.

Maren leaned forward for a closer look, but her view was blocked by the ticket collector. He was yelling at the kid through the glass, something about fare dodging, something about hygiene. The kid pounded on the doors with a blood-soaked fist, but the train ignored her pleas and limped off into the night, grumbling to itself as it went.

Maren shook her head and turned her eyes to her news feed, organising her thoughts back into orderly bullet points.

· A shirtless man had been arrested for standing on the roof of a chicken restaurant, refusing to come down for three hours.

· There had been a chemical spill in the local pool.

· Rent was way up.

She scrolled through headline after headline, reading all, absorbing none. Something was trying to claw its way out of her stomach, scratching a message into the lining, desperate for her attention. It wasn’t until she was home in her dingy little flat, tucked into bed and staring up at a spiderweb in the corner of the ceiling, that she realised what it was. The girl at the station had left no reflection on the glass.

Maren switched on the light and went to find her shoes. The night air smelled like canapés.

To Jupiter, day fifty-five of being dead was pretty much the same as day one of being dead. It felt like being eight years old and climbing out of the pool after swimming lessons, hair still wet, goosebumps pricking up along her spine. Then again, that sensation might have been the axe wound.

“One ticket to Upper Hutt, please,” she said, as cheerfully as she could muster for what was the nineteenth time that day.

In the performance of a lifetime, the ticket collector stared right through her, deeply engrossed in the signage behind her head. Petone Station. Please do not feed the pigeons. His stomach growled. Wondering what to make for dinner, he reached up to scratch his nose. She kicked him in the shin with a boot that was more spike than shoe.

“Please,” she said again. “I just need to finish my trip before I can move on. You’ll never see me again.”

“We don’t accept payment from ghosts,” he mumbled, eyes darting towards the door mechanism. “Besides, you’ll scare the other passengers.”

Jupiter tried a different tactic, standing on her tiptoes to make herself look bigger.

“Have you ever seen your own liver? Would you like to? My nails are very sharp, and they have little spiderwebs painted on them. Super cute, right?”

“Super cute,” agreed the ticket collector. He made a move to shut the doors, and she made a move to jam them open, and both of them jumped at a sound from inside the carriage.

“I’ll pay for her,” said a woman with ink-stained hands and tired eyes, sweeping her long, magenta hair back and hopefully arching her exposed neck like a contortionistic swan. Her lanyard read Maren Bordeianu. “You may enter.”

These last words were directed at Jupiter, although she didn’t realise it for a full minute, so paralysed was she by the woman’s gaze. Two dishwater-coloured eyes drilled into her skull like she was a puzzle to be solved, to be cracked open and catalogued and put back together in mostly the wrong order. She began to blush.

“I said,” repeated Maren, her smudged-lipstick smile straining with the effort, “you have my full permission to board this carriage.”

“Uh,” said Jupiter, still staring.

“Are you getting in or not?”

“I’m getting in! I’m getting in.”

Jupiter scrambled for the doors before Maren could change her mind, and the train took off with a huff and a sigh. She was courteously allowed three seconds to find a seat and fall down into it before the interrogation was launched.

“Why have I only seen you at night? What’s your opinion on the Bible? In terms of being stabbed through the heart, must it be a wooden stake or would finding an old grocery list in the handwriting of somebody you quietly, gradually, and irreversibly lost do in a pinch? Speaking of groceries, do you want some bread?”

A warm, garlicky smell filled the carriage as the woman unwrapped a shiny tin foil package.

Oh my god, thought Jupiter. Is this a date?

And then,

Oh my god, thought Jupiter. Not again.

She lunged for the bread and hurled it, hurled it like she’d never hurled before, even at her cousin’s twenty-first after drinking one too many KGBs. The loaf was cleaved neatly in half by the rapidly closing doors.

“What’d you do that for?” asked Maren, though her tone was more like reverence than fear. Her pen had not once slowed.

“Keep your voice down,” hissed Jupiter, but it was too late.

An axe blade swung over Maren’s head, narrowly missing her scalp.

Jupiter, who had already died once before and had not particularly enjoyed the experience, hid under her seat. She was not a not a brave person, nor a strong person, nor a person of staunch moral character, but she was able to fit into tight spaces, and often this was sufficient.

The ticket collector swung again, and a scream rang out through the carriage, shaking the walls as the axe hit its target. It lodged itself right into Maren’s chest, the wound dripping dark blue liquid onto her snakeskin boots. For a second, there was quiet, nothing but the sweet, mechanical noises of the train rolling gently down the track. Then-

“My notes!” Maren screeched, wrenching the axe from where it was stuck. “That’s it, you little freak. The second I get off this train, I’m lodging a complaint!”

Out of her jacket pocket, she pulled a very brave, very battered notebook, ink pouring out from a deep cut down the centre. Had the book been a single page thinner, she would be a stain on the oddly patterned seats. In her rage, there was no time for the collector to pray or blink or scream before she brought the book down upon his head so hard he saw the heat death of the universe. This gave her enough time to race for the doors, trying to prise them open with her fingernails.

They stayed firm.

The train jolted, and she fell, tripping over half a stale loaf of garlic bread. The collector, chillingly dedicated to upholding company health and safety standards even in his half-stunned state, stumbled forward to lunge for her neck. He missed, grasping at the walls for support, then regained his balance and reached for her again. Jupiter stifled a gasp. The collector pulled Maren up to his eye level, and her tiptoes brushed the ground.

“I’m sorry, Miss,” he said, reaching for his axe with the other hand, “but it’s against company policy to bring warm or smelly foods onboard our services.”

“Then what,” she asked, raising one trembling arm, “are you eating?”

That’s when she shoved the loaf into his mouth.

He dropped her immediately and collapsed to the ground, spitting wet, half-chewed pieces of bread all over the floor, but the taste of garlic still lingered on his tongue. He was a failure of a role model, a failure of a man, and most egregiously, a failure of a ticket collector. There was only one true punishment for violating section nine of the conditions of carriage, and he would accept it gratefully. In the seconds between the axe piercing his flesh and his soul falling backwards into the waiting dark, the ticket collector looked down and saw his liver for the first time. It was beautiful.

“If it’s okay with you,” said Maren, stepping over his corpse, “I’d like to continue the interview now. So, what made you realise you were a vampire? Were you born this way, or was it a conscious choice?”

“Huh?” asked Jupiter, still under the seat. “Oh, no. I’m not a vampire, I’m just really goth. Common mistake.”

This stopped Maren in her tracks. She blinked slowly, willing herself to have misheard. Her notebook trembled in her hand.

“Do all goths have no reflection?” she asked, voice only a little shaky.

“Uh,” said Jupiter, still a little distracted by the bloody corpse in the centre of the carriage. “Maybe?”

“But you dress in all black! You only come out at night! You needed an invitation to get on the train! Is there anything else you could possibly be?”

“Do you think that guy’s okay?”

“I think he’s dead,” said Maren, head in her hands, “much like my career is about to be. What am I supposed to write my article on now? I’m never going to break the story of the century, I’m never going to win a Pulitzer, and I’m absolutely never going to get invited to a party with canapés!”

“What’s a canapé?”

“I don’t know!” said Maren.

This, somehow, was what broke her. She started violently sobbing, ripping out pages of her ruined notebook to use as tissues, soaking them through. Jupiter crawled out from under the seat to rub awkward circles into her back. Gradually, the crying stopped, and Jupiter closed her eyes, allowing herself to be swayed by the movement of the train. It was as close to peace as she had ever felt before, and as close to breathing as she would ever feel again.

“You could write about the lack of cycle lanes in Upper Hutt,” she suggested, sleepily.

“Boring.”

“What about an acrostic poem about your feelings?”

“Irrelevant.”

“Feelings are always relevant, dude. Free yourself from the capitalist mindset.”

“What?”

They sat in silence after that, Maren staring out the window, Jupiter scratching a really cool ‘S’ into the seat in front of her. Houses and shops marched past as the train approached the city, the lights in their windows blinking sleepily to one another as though saying goodnight. Maren, who had been biting her nails so ferociously that she was in danger of severing her fingers at the knuckle, yawned quite suddenly. An announcement came over the speaker.

“Next station, Upper Hutt.”

“You know,” said Jupiter, as though the thought had just occurred to her, “you could always write your article about the ghost you met on the train. Tell them all you were the last person to ever see Jupiter Manzo, living or dead, and that she said thank you for helping her.”

“What was that?” asked Maren, pulled out of her thoughts.

When she looked around, no one was there. The seat beside her was cold.

She stumbled off the train, telling herself it was nothing, that late services were always odd, that she had fallen asleep and dreamed the whole encounter. The night air hit her face, and she breathed it in, long and deep, before turning around and getting back on the train to Wellington. Just before the doors closed, a thought fluttered into her mind, completely unbidden. Perhaps she should write an article on hauntings.

She chuckled to herself. Who would want to read that?



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