Torch Song For A Night Ride. Prompts used: a train, it's good to have dreams.
The sound of the ten o’clock express hitting the tracks was enough to wake Peter from what had been a very deep nap. He opened one eye, slowly, to see the red blinking light display the time from across the darkened room. Moonlight from the semi-opened window created a grey path that connected the foot of the bed to the faraway dresser.
It had only been about an hour since Peter lay back onto the bedspread, fully clothed, and attempted a decent nap time twice as long as he actually slept for. Papers were spread out on his desk in fan shapes, a desperate method of concentration based on the placement of objects that only worked half the time. A red pen sat on top of the mess, awaiting further instructions.
Instead, Peter sat up in his bed and stared out the window. He could see from the section of window that peeked through the parted heavy curtains the outline of the world at night, silhouettes of trees against his neighbor’s house. In the distance, the curve of the hill upon which the train tracks ran, upon which the train was still coursing along as per schedule. Two minutes past ten. It sounded like a freight train, even though Peter knew little about freight trains and what they carried, just that it seemed like it should have more weight to it, more heft, a larger frame for all the mass it carried about every day.
A sharp screech of wheels sliding against metal came from the hill. Peter closed his eyes, as if waiting for the impact of a crash. He opened his eyes a second later, disappointed. The back end of the train whipped around the soft corner of the hill, and disappeared over the edge and into the blank darkness of the horizon, its path lit only by the crescent moon drifting overhead.
He was still disappointed. He wanted fire. He wanted the crash of metal against earth, of broken glass tumbling through gnarled tree branches. He wanted to watch the flames climb up the side of the smashed body of the train, climbing higher and higher into the sky until they looked like a ladder reaching into the stars. He wanted these things and he did not know why, but he did, and he continued to be disappointed as he watched out the window. Already, the fumes of sleep were gone, replaced by the cold sharpness of clarity gained from a long day and an even longer night.
Peter decided that he’d stay in bed. He would not grade essays from his students. He would not go downstairs where his wife was, present in the framed photographs and the unopened letters on the hallway table and in the blinking red light of the answering machine on a phone he intended to disconnect in the morning. He would not rise, not yet. He also would not sleep.
In his freshman composition class, he had a student who often wrote about dreams. Not those of aspirations, but dreams she had every night. Her portfolio was beginning to look like a dream diary, filled with images of dead family members, missing teeth, rushing water, disembodied screams, a world that was faceless and terrifying and yet comforting in its repetition.
Peter would often ask her if she would write about anything else that semester, just for a change. She said she’d consider it, then wrote an introspective piece about a dream from the night before, in which she was in the water and yet burning from the inside out, and all her teachers were there, and her parents too. “Why don’t you change?” they asked. “Change everything,” they pleaded. They fell apart in front of her eyes, from flesh to sand.
“Next time, write about a family vacation.” Peter gave the girl’s paper a C. She dropped out the next week. He didn’t think about her until that night, when the train woke him from a vague collection of images he could only recall for one second before they slipped away to be forgotten.
“It’s good to have dreams,” his wife said. She rolled over and propped herself up on her elbows. “Did you have a nice nap?”
Peter’s eyes moved over the outlines of his wife’s face. “I didn’t sleep at all. Not even a little.”
“I don’t know.” He rubbed his eyes in mock exhaustion. “Maybe I’m too tired to sleep.”
“Come sleep with me.”
“I should finish my work.”
“No.” Her eyes flashed. She was on fire. The room was billowing flames and smoke. “You should come with me.” She reached for his hand.
The roar of the train woke Peter up. He jolted up from the bedspread, fully dressed, clothes soaked in a heavy layer of sweat. The window was open and the night air set the curtains to waving in the breeze. He laid his hand across his breastbone and felt his heart thump back to normal. He remembered that he was alone. Then he blinked, and he forgot what he had been so worried about.
Outside, the train inched past on its path across the hillside. The wheels rolled against the smooth curved metal as if it wanted to jump the track.
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