The Ride of a Lifetime

Gregory Halley

(Washington, D.C.)


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I.

I do not remember getting on the train. Its constant vibration and occasional bumps are as normal to me as anything can be. Truthfully, I don’t remember anything before the train. All I can focus on is the awkward cabin, the parental passengers, and the mysterious view.

The cabin is newly refurbished. The carpet beneath my feet is spotless and I can smell the cleaning supplies used to make it so. It must be strong, as mud seems to appear without a moment’s notice. How does it keep getting there? The aroma burns my nostrils with its pungent strength, and the only thing that makes it bearable is the combination of my other overwhelmed senses. The cacophony of people speaking, wheels squeaking, hot air blowing, and cold wind flowing. The tactile invasion of every dust mite, sprayed particle, uneven surface, and bristled hair. The nascent taste of meals uncooked, unchewed, and undigested. The bench on which my back rests is not stiff, but mendable, and the cushions are soft and squishy. Around me, the walls and doors seem disproportionate, as though the engineer ordered pieces of the wrong size. It is an awkward cabin, but despite its odd nature, I feel hope.

I turn to the windows and see brilliant green hills rolling by. Dappling the landscape are brilliant shrubs of every color imaginable! The sun of early dawn blankets the ground with warm rays. Along babbling cerulean creaks grow columns of daffodils, stretching in the morning glow. The sky is clear and pure, unblemished by clouds or smoke. I wish to see as much of this place as I can. I’m given plenty of time to do so as the train meanders down its track. The lazy string of cars couldn’t care less about its destination. I pry my eyes away from the outside and turn my gaze to my two companions.

Sitting to my left is a large guardian. Smiling, she wraps her warm, soft arms around me and I feel safe. She hands me food so I don’t become hungry on the ride. Occasionally she’ll stand up and change the curtains or scrub the carpet which so easily dirties itself. It appears she’s the only one taking care of this cabin, and I am grateful. Sitting to my right is an even larger guardian. He is colder and rougher. He smiles at me, but keeps his distance. He has no treats to give. For every ten times she cleans the carpet, he does so once. What distracts him?

As I tug on their coats and point out the window, they appear to see something different. The lush green mounds and rainbow flowers do not appeal to them. They put on faces, trying to convince me otherwise. Why can’t they see the beauty I see?

I thought the tracks went on forever, but the train now slows to a stop. This is the second station, though I still don’t remember the first. My companions move closer as the doors open. The three of us are no longer alone.

II.

We move faster now, but slow enough to soak in every detail. My memory of the previous stretch has been washed away by the flood of new experiences. The ride is no less confusing than before, but more comfortable. Every so often I wonder why I am even on the train, but I have yet to find an answer.

The cabin is larger. It can hold more than me and the guardians. The smells, sounds, textures, and tastes are not as biting. I’m still surprised by the occasional foul flavor or painful prick, and these rare cases result in permanent markings upon my memory. The benches are more rigid, and the cushions less fluid – soft, but firm. The doors and walls have begun to fit together nicely, though the sensation of cuteness is no less prevalent. Looking around, I feel a strange onset of wonder.

The landscape outside is different as well. It must now be mid-morning, though the sun barely peeks over the frost-tipped mountains. The creeks have been replaced by rivers, and the shrubs by jungles. In the distance I can see skyscrapers. Even from afar, they tower over me, daunting and inspiring me. What a fascinating place!

There are more people in the cabin now. Sitting at my feet is a fuzzy ball at least twice my size. For whatever reason it refuses to leave my side, but I am delighted by its presence. On the other side of the guardians are smaller people roughly my size. I’ll call them me-sized people! They wave and offer trinkets, though I must reach around the guardians to retrieve them. The guardians don’t mind them, but seem protective of me. Merely sitting near the me-sized people distracts me from the train and its unknown destination. I haven’t stopped to wonder where it is going or why. Maybe the train has a grand destination, or perhaps it is heading nowhere at all. But now, the train slows again as it prepares for its third stop.

III.

Have the tracks always screamed like this as the wheels scrape against them? We are moving faster than before, but not fast enough. It is as though we are wading through tar. The comfort from the last stretch is gone and the ride now feels wrong.

The cabin has grown putrid. The carpets are dirtier than ever, gushing with oil and grime, and I try to clean them myself. Why am I so bad at it? The overpowering smell of my cleaning supplies could cause one to gag. Upon the walls I feel a strange collection of gravel and oil as though they’ve worked deep within a coal mine. My tastes have betrayed me as sweetness is now accompanied by pain and disgust. The seat cushions have ballooned in the most uncomfortable of ways as I sit on the pudgy keloids waiting to burst. The cabin has grown again, but once more fallen out of proportion. The door no longer fits its hinges and the windows are in danger of falling out. As I look, I feel an unyielding sense of anger.

The scene is no prettier outside the train. It is likely noon, but dark clouds have blocked out the sun. The indomitable mountains have turned into weeping volcanoes. They bleed their molten rock which swallows villages and farmlands whole. The skyscrapers are even farther in the distance, pristine and dauntless. Will I ever reach them?

The fuzzy ball got off the train at the last stop. So did the soft guardian. I need them more than ever and they left. Why would they do this to me? How could they abandon me? The stern guardian offers little warmth as he sits aloof. The me-sized people have inched closer, some of them new, and I at least have some respite with them. Across the aisle I spot another me-sized person whom I simply adore. For that reason, I’ll name them Dora. I am tempted to reach out to them, but something deep within stops me. Why can’t I just give a wave? I am frustrated with myself only to see them wave first. I smile for a moment, but we are interrupted by the slowing of the train. Finally we may move on from this place. The fourth station awaits.

IV.

The train moves swiftly away from the dark ages. I can no longer understand why the previous stretch felt so wrong. Hope is what I feel now. Hope and inspiration.

The cabin has reached its maximum capacity. I have gotten better at cleaning the carpets and curtains, though there’s always room to improve. I find comfort in their consistency, and I have developed a routine to keep up with the mess. The odors and discomforts from before have dissipated and it is actually quite pleasant. Most moments of disgust only last a brief time. My taste has grown more bitter, but in a good way. I can sense the train is using more fuel, as though the engineers in front are frantically shoveling coal into the furnace. The cushions have deflated and I finally feel at ease on them. The room is large and finally fits the way it is supposed to. It is confident. It is strong.

Outside, we are finally approaching a long-anticipated skyscraper. Up close, however, it is actually a towering metropolis with crowded streets and formidable traffic jams. The afternoon sun bears down from above, reflecting off the windows to create a blinding prism. It feels important.

The rough guardian has since gotten up to sit further down the train, as have some of the me-sized people. Dora has taken their place, and the two of us firmly enjoy each other’s company. Tiny sproutlings now sit between me and Dora. We are their guardians. Beyond my humble bench, the cabin is busier than ever. Creatures of all shapes and sizes come and go, bustling about the train. I’ll call them bustlers. A donation box has been placed in the foreground with some bustlers adding to it and others taking away. My focus is drawn to this box, and it feels like the most important thing to me. Even more than the sproutlings. Even more than Dora. I am transfixed, and I hardly notice the train slowing once again. The first one who gets off at the fifth station is the rough guardian. I do not question him, but I hate to see him leave.

V.

I wish the train would slow down. It barrels down the tracks with no intention of wasting time. I spent so long wishing for a faster ride, and unfortunately I got my wish. The only thing I can do is settle in and try to enjoy the rest of the ride.

The size of the car has not changed from before, as though it is set in place. The smells and tastes have become stale, and the walls are rough like sandpaper. More fuel than ever is needed to propel us forward as the train aches from the long ride. The wood is firm, but the cushions are no longer comfortable. I wish I could sit on those from previous stations, but they were put away, never to be used again. Some of the walls have started to crack, revealing weaknesses in the train’s structure. If they had been taken care of, they wouldn’t be as apparent. Nevertheless, I try to relax and watch the world roll by.

We’ve left the city behind and are entering a desert. The buildings are few and far between, baked in the evening sun. The sands swirl and shift like distracted dandelion seeds. All I see is dryness. Where has the water gone?

The sproutlings are now sprouts, but they’ve dispersed themselves throughout the train. They no longer ask for treats. The abundant bustlers have dwindled to a handful and donations are no longer added to the box. It slowly drains until almost nothing remains. I had been so focused on this box, but it now seems pointless. The greatest comfort to me is Dora who remains at my side. We watch the landscape roll past together. Before we know it, the train slows and I fear what the next stop will bring.

VI.

The train moves dangerously fast. If it were earlier in the journey I’d fear derailment, but that prospect no longer worries me. The squeals and creaks are incessant, but I soon forget they exist as I sit and wait. I am tired, but I am happy to still be on the train.

For the first time, the space is smaller. The smells and tastes have come back to life, and once again the textures are sensual. Every sound is like a cooing songbird or a laughing child: beautiful. The benches are brittle and the cushions are hard, but I have grown accustomed to it. I’m glad to be sitting at all. The door hangs loosely on its hinges and the blurred windows are in danger of shattering. They can no longer be fixed. No matter – I am more interested in the outside.

We’ve come upon a lake. It glistens in the sunset. Boats and swimmers enjoy themselves in the cool water. A waterfall feeds into the sea, carrying them off to new and exciting places. I’ll never see where they end up, but I am happy for them nonetheless.

Every once and awhile the sprouts will stop by my cabin and give me treats. I enjoy their visits, and some of them are accompanied by sproutlings of their own. What excitement they bring! When they are not around, I sit with Dora. Every moment with this final me-sized person brings me warmth and joy. I’m so glad they’ve stayed next to me so long. I try to point out the images upon the horizon, but Dora is distracted. I don’t mind. We just sit. Then, our silence is disturbed by the train slowing. I am not ready for it to stop. As it comes to the station, Dora rises to their feet, waves goodbye, and exits the train.

VII.

Without Dora, the train once again inches toward its destination. I know in my heart there is only one stop remaining.

My senses are numb. The cabin is dilapidated in form, but remains pristine despite my inability to clean it. The engine has shut off and the cars are slowed by friction. It feels as though it were perfectly planned to break down at the finish line. Beyond the windows, twilight falls upon a garden of flowers. In the distance, a small cabin illuminated by candlelight awaits. It must be my destination.

I am alone. Though all my companions have left me behind, I still feel their love. The train stops one final time. I am glad I took this ride, especially since it was the only one I’d ever get. The conductor emerges from the front and offers his hand. It is warm and firm. I take it and rise to my feet. He leads me to the doors as I take one final look around the cabin. Then, he lets go of my hand and I step off the train.

Gregory Halley

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Gregory Halley is an aspiring writer currently based in Washington, D.C., but he was raised in northeast Ohio. His other work has been published in Bright Flash Literary Review, In Parentheses, and Free Spirit. His passion is storytelling, and he's honored and humbled to share his tales with you. He hopes you enjoy them!

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