Painting Flames on Runaway Trains
I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. I hated that apartment. Like the bag with the busted zipper and the hole in the bottom. The bag that I couldn't ditch because I couldn't afford a new bag, let alone a new apartment. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. And I knew that I couldn't take it another night.
In the cold light of morning, the grey nothing sunlight that spilled through the torn curtains told me that the train was coming. I knew the pillow over my head wouldn't work. I knew the earmuffs wouldn't work. I knew there weren't enough sleeping pills in the world to keep me from the blistering racket of the train tearing across the tracks. That's a lie, but there weren't enough sleeping pills short of suicide that would help me. The temptation to down a whole bottle came and went, but I might have just put a bullet through my head for what it was worth.
The dark rings around my eyes had garnered me the nickname 'Panda', even though that was where the similarities ended. Right on time, the train ran past my apartment and magnified my ever present migraine. I had the glass of water sitting on the bedside table and the pills in the drawer. Two tablets of paracetamol, two of aspirin. These were my breakfast pills, and I chugged them down. Each day I found myself receding into my own lethargy. The dark rings grew deeper and darker and more resolute. And I found my mind balanced on a knife's edge, between raging madness and bitter resentment. I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for the blade to tip one way or the other. I tongued around my mouth for the bitter residue that lingered from the pills. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. And I took my pills, and I began to wonder if I slept at all. The dark rings appeared to grow exponentially and take on a wider spectrum of colours. From the grey droopy sacks beneath my eyes grew deeper, more distinct hues. Blue, violet, black. And my eyes flushed red with tiny angry blood vessels shaped like tiny angry lightning bolts. I saw this in the mirror in the bathroom every morning.
“Good morning Panda.” I said to the mirror as I drowned myself in deodorant that smelled more like fly spray. I drowned myself in the basin filled with cold water, I let it fill my nostrils and mouth until I coughed and spluttered and pulled my head from the basin with a violent jerk. I almost broke something. A towel rail, a set of scales, an arm, or a leg, I didn't know. But I just stumbled back against the bathroom wall, taking whooping breaths that sounded not unlike a broken vacuum cleaner. This was the only way I knew how to truly wake myself from this dull stupor, this constant sub-consciousness, this madness in limbo between the living and dead.
That morning I knew I had to make changes. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. And I didn't care what went wrong any more. I was sick of this shit, this dead end life in my apartment too close to the tracks. I pulled the two gas cans from under my bed and splashed the liquid over the bed, the table, the floor, the walls. The bathroom, the kitchen. The dining room, the lounge room. The hallway. It wasn't long before the petrol was all I could smell. It coated the place, it left its pungent stench wherever I went, it left its greasy shine on the walls and on my hands. After this, I thought to myself, no going back.
The red head match in my hand trembled. Everything I owned and despised so much was in this apartment. Everything that felt to me like a whole lot of nothing. I was not nervous or afraid, no. I was excited. I rubbed the beautiful red head against the outside of the matchbox gingerly, gently. This was peace. The calmest I'd been in years. In years. I lit the match and flicked it to the floor. I didn't even look back.
The fire crackled and licked the flaking wallpaper into delicate coils of charcoal black, and the flames ate away at my furniture, and the smoke smouldered beneath the closed front door. Within minutes it would all be black, ready to be torn up and thrown out and sanded down, ready to accept a new life with open arms, ready to crush the unsuspecting new occupant like a butterfly. Life in the apartment would repeat itself. Repeat itself. Repeat itself. Like the others before me, I was glad to be rid of the place. No strings attached, no questions, no awkward snags to tug me back the moment I tasted the freedom.
At that time I thought I had burned everything away. I came to realise that it never ends. There was always the slow madness. There were always the rings around my eyes. There were always strings. In truth the thrill and excitement filled me with a satisfaction that lasted only as long as water in a leaking bucket. It was a hollow victory. There was still the bitter taste of the pills in my mouth and there was still the rank smell of petrol and fly-spray deodorant on my skin and clothes. I was a wanderer. I could go where I wanted and do what I pleased, although I felt void of purpose. But the first thing that I did was walk as far from the train tracks as my legs would take me. That night I slept on a trampoline. That night I actually slept.
I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. The train. I reached for my glass of water, on the drawer with my pills, but I only grabbed springs. I hadn't been dreaming the fire and I certainly hadn't been dreaming the trampoline. I had, however, been dreaming the train. I could have downed a bottle of sleeping pills there and then if I had them. I thought it was just an afterthought of the years of torture, that it would fade away with time. I gave it another week. I woke up again, to the sound of the train again. Again and again and again. I was getting some sleep, that was certainly an improvement. But nothing could rescue the dark rings or the red veins that haunted my eyes. And through the ringing in my ears from the constant clacking of the faraway morning train, I began to wonder whether the train was ever real?
I knew there had probably been many people sifting through my apartment, trying to find the source of the fire, the reason. I thought a week was a good enough buffer to chance returning to the area. I had spent so long deprived of sleep, I needed to see the tracks for myself as validation before I could start figuring out how to remove them from my mind. It was dread that I felt on the walk back to my apartment. I felt like I was running along a narrow path and there was a fork up ahead, but but I was blinded by doubt and delusion. I tried to remember those fatigued years that slipped through my fingers, the fence behind my house, and the razor wire forming large hoops all across the top. I clutched to the fence with my fingers and pushed my face up against it. And there was the railway gravel, the steel railing on timber sleepers, those wretched train tracks.
Yes, the tracks were real. Yes, the train was real. But I couldn't get on with my life until something was done. Even standing against the fence, even looking at the tracks, with no train in sight, I could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the wheels on the tracks and the high-pitch squeal of the friction between metal and metal. I reached for my water and my tablets again as a pain shot through my head, and I remembered where I was. The water was gone, the tablets were gone. I looked up to my apartment window where the walls were still charred black. I could smell the burning from the week before, and I could smell the burned petrol and the acrid black smoke that came with it. And I could also smell freshly mown grass. The lawnmower. I figured that was where the burned petrol smell was coming from, that I wasn't completely losing touch with reality. I followed the stench to the little garden shed, and the ideas ticked over in my head. Once, twice, three times, I struck on the shed door before it splintered inwards. I felt the ideas in my head begin to smoulder.
There, in the corner of the small shed, was the offending lawn mower, the motor still warm and the floor scattered with a loose trail of cut grass. The combination of petrol and grass smells in the cramped shed was dominating. It was a mess, shovels on the floor, trowels and secateurs scattered on the bench, even a little digging fork sticking out of the wall. There was a coil of hose in the corner that looked like something was nesting inside it. Then I heard some noises outside so I propped the shed door back against its frame. It must have been people talking in the front yard, because I couldn't see anything through the window, and no one came looking to see why the shed's door was resting askew.
I flicked the light switch on and I began looking around the shed for something I knew must be hidden in there. There were drawers and cupboards in that shed that looked like they hadn't been opened in years. Half-used tins of paint, dusty jars containing mystery items, power tools that had burned out aeons ago that had eventually made their way into the power tool graveyard in the toolbox in the shed. There were spider webs in almost every crevice. And there were plenty of spiders that were crawling around making still more webs while I searched, while I destroyed their delicate lace work. It was tucked away, deep in a cupboard which flaked paint from its surface like it was shedding skin. It was a fuel container for the mower. I slid it out from its spot on the bottom shelf, but as soon as I grabbed the handle, I knew it was empty.
I took the container with me anyway, and I left the shed door off its hinges and I walked out onto the street. I followed the path parallel to the tracks and I passed by house after house of what I assumed were filled with the same morning train torture that I was. The people living in those houses were unfortunate people. They were sick people. And I had to help them. When I saw the weather-worn red cottage across the street with the overgrown jungle for a garden, I knew it would be an easy house to steal from.
“Nothing personal”, I told myself. “What's one little act of breaking and entering to a lifetime of peace?”
I sat on a bench a little way down the road from the house, and I waited for the little rust-bucket car to pull out of the driveway. I stashed the fuel container beneath my feet and I waited patiently. I didn't have a watch, but judging the angle of the sun I guessed it was early afternoon when the car left. I felt the rush of adrenaline kick when the car drove out of sight. It was as if I were back at the fire again. Not nervous... excited. I didn't have any tools to assist me, but I didn't need them. I was superman, always there to serve and protect. I'd be in and out before anyone noticed, faster than a speeding train.
I walked up the dirt driveway past all the weeds that had taken over the front garden. The back garden was much the same. I started looking for rocks on the ground before I noticed the back door had been left open. It could have been that there was someone else in the house, or it could have been that there was nothing worth stealing in there. I had come this far, I just chose to believe the house was empty and I followed the stone steps up to the battered old fly wire door.
“I am superman” I whispered as I pulled the door outwards and stepped onto the tacky linoleum floor of the kitchen. In and out before anyone knows.
The house was empty, I could tell from the moment I walked in. There was the sound of the cat clock in the corner, and the almost silent hum of the fridge and freezer, but no television, no knitting needles, no voices or footsteps, nothing. From the moment I walked in, I felt like I knew everything about the woman that lived here. She lived alone, and she loved cats, but she could never own another after her last cat died. There were photographs of her with her cat, her fluffy white everything with the squashy toad-face that she loved regardless. There were cat plates and bowls and calendars and tea cups and a woollen, whiskered tea cosy, and I could be sure her doorbell would meow. It was the knife. I went there for the kitchen knife. It was in the second drawer below the regular cutlery. The long stainless steel blade, it was perfect. I slid it into my jacket pocket and left knowing that she wouldn't notice a thing. She'd notice a cat plate or a cat clock, but not a knife.
No looking back. I saw looking back as a sign of weakness, and I knew I was not going to crumble. The train station was only a few more kilometres away, and I could smell the end drawing nearer and nearer. I kept telling myself that I would be done with everything tonight. Not tomorrow, not maybe later... tonight. I just needed to fill my fuel container up and the plan would come into full swing. That proved to be little trouble at all. I stopped at the next gas station I came across and pumped the container full from bowser number one. The fuel was regular unleaded, although that didn't matter at all. I paid in shrapnel and left, no looking back.
My feet were sore and after a few more kilometres of carrying the full container my arm was aching too. But I wasn't going to stop, I wasn't going to let this madness get the better of me. I knew no one else on this damned street would do a thing, so I had no choice but to act for them. It was closing in on sunset when I came up to the train station. There was no-one. A guard or two, but the commuters were gone. I looked at the timetable and I looked at the giant clock on the wall. The train was due in five minutes.
I waited patiently, all the while noticing the glances the guards were giving me. There were no more trains leaving this station. There were no more trains scheduled to leave, to be more accurate. I waited my five minutes and the train came in empty. Perfect. I walked up to the driver's door at the front with my fuel container in one hand and I drew my knife out of my jacket with the other. The driver stepped out of the train, appearing to be relieved that his work day was over. The guards stepped forward and called something to me, or to the driver, I didn't really hear which, but I shoved the little uniformed man back on the train and locked the door. He sat slumped in the corner, whimpering like a baby, with wide eyes that refused to part with my knife but for a moment.
“How do you start this thing?” I asked.
He pointed a quivering finger at a lever. I slammed it forward as far as it would go, ignoring the guards hammering on the door and objecting my actions with violent threats.
The excitement was rising in me, and although the sound of the train roaring across the tracks almost split my head in two, I felt a thrill, an aliveness that neither the robbery nor the fire could match. I smacked the driver's head with my knife handle, hard enough to knock him out for a minute or two. I slid open the door to the rest of the carriage and I emptied my fuel container all across the floor and seats and graffiti covered windows. And then I lit the fire that engulfed the train. I threw the match and closed myself in the driver's cabin with the driver still resting on the floor. The track was probably a good sixty kilometres long, but I knew that wasn't going to last long at the speed we were going. It felt like only a few minutes before the train raced past my own apartment, and it wasn't long before the smoke began seeping in through the cracks in the door.
It wasn't the smoke that got to me first though, it was the heat. Most of the smoke was carried the other way, but the heat from the flames radiated through the walls and turned the cabin into a micro-sauna. Then came the wailing sirens of the police, and I'm sure the fire brigade and ambulance services weren't far behind. It was going to be death or prison for me. I'd come too far, I'd dreamed what others were too afraid to dream, I came so far that I couldn't turn back. I was on these tracks for good. No turning back.
They'd set up a blockade. I couldn't see what it was before I was on top of it. All I could see was the flashing lights and then something was caught in the wheels. Worse than the thrumming of the train on the tracks, the jammed wheels screamed a pitch that threatened to obliterate my eardrums. I didn't need to adjust a thing on the controls before the train jerked and lurched and started slowing down. Eventually, the train came to rest under the guidance of the jam. In the absence of the orchestra of nightmare sounds of the train, there was only the amplification of the police sirens. I heard the crunching of police footsteps on rail road gravel and the tinny sound of an authorised knock on the side of the train.
“Sir, you're going to have to come out of there with your hands raised” He said.
My excitement was gone. I wasn't sure what had happened, whether it was failure, or something else. I grabbed the train driver and unlocked the door.
I held the knife to his neck, now with my hands shivering from the nerves. “I've got a hostage.”
“Stay calm, sir. We're here to help you.”
Help. The word ran through my head like lightning. I let the knife slide from my grip. “Ok” I said. It was about fucking time.