089: Cominetto

Proper noun: Cominetto – The fourth largest island in the archipelago of Malta.

All right, so I was in the usual big train station. No particular station; just a big one. I tried not to think too hard and looked for a counter. Finding one, I walked over and asked for a map of the station. The lady gave me a stern look. “We don’t have them here. Try the peanut bar.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said. Turning away, I smoothly recited the line that I’d practiced ad infinitum in my waking moments: “By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer.” A verbal re-iteration of this concept made me feel better. A thought struck me and I turned back to the counter. The woman smiled at me, as if she’d never seen me before. Actually, it was a different lady. So she couldn’t reasonably scowl at me –

“Peanuts?” she asked, offering me a jar. “No, thank you,” I said. “Could I have a table of fares?” She grinned at me. “Of course you can. Don’t forget to share it with all your friends.” She handed me the little booklet, which I opened and speed-read. London, 2.83; Hamburg, 3.15 … I closed my eyes and committed the numbers to memory, collapsing the booklet. “Thanks for the peanuts,” I said. The jar remained sealed on her desk.

I crossed the thoroughfare to the nearest ATM and verbally requested sixty dollars. The machine whirred and whined and was useless. I kicked it (sole only – I was wearing flip-flops) and it promptly dispensed my money. I thumbed through the booklet again ’till I found that same page – London, 1.00, Hamburg, 5.00. I snapped it shut and strode confidently onto the platform.

I had a moment to scratch my head; the platform was all there, but there was no drop-off, no ledge under which railway tracks ran. This part of the station was all on one level. I turned round just in time to realize that the station was all one big level crossing.

The train from London was suddenly in my face, the lights and the noise unbearable –

I sat up in bed, my heart racing. My fingers closed automatically on what would have been the table of fares, which of course was no longer in my hand.

“You’re still letting your dreams get to you,” said Danny, snnnnnkkkkkkkkknnnkkkkk‘ing loudly. He seemed not to know what to do with a stuffy nose. I stirred my tea sullenly. That wasn’t true. They weren’t getting to me. I was just unhealthily interested and unusually involved.

Danny slurped down a long draught. “Stop being so paranoid. They’re by-products of your brain being weird at night – projections of stuff you already knew and experienced.” Skkknnnnnkkk. I chanced a sip of my tea. No, I wasn’t being paranoid. He wasn’t there in my dreams. He couldn’t experience them. He couldn’t know how unnatural things were. I knew the textbook definition of a dream perfectly well; my dreams were definitely not textbook.

Skknnk. Danny rubbed between his eyes, straining his mouth like a surprised guppy. A little squick-squick sound emanated from his nose as his sinuses cleared. The tapioca balls went round and round my cup as I stirred and stirred. There were times – like now – when I really hated talking to Danny.

That night, I counted sheep in the usual way: “By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer. By and large, rational actions are prohibited here. Act on impulse; direct not, but steer … ”

The table of fares was in my hand. I went to that familiar page again – London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. They were the same as when I had last checked them.

I entered the platform a little more carefully this time. No train mowed me down; I was a good two meters away from the nearest set of tracks. I stepped forward and my foot came down on the shiny shoe of the stationmaster. Imagine an grumpy-looking Alec Baldwin, and color his face with anger for having dirtied his shoe and mashed his foot.

“Sorry!” I said, backing away quickly. “Lost control of the trolley.” (I had not a single item of baggage on me. It was the peanuts jar again.) “I’ll shine them some other day!” I yelled back at him, making for the London train. The stationmaster made a few angry steps toward me as the train screeched shrilly, the locomotive blowing steam every which way. The carriages rattled into motion a lot faster than they could have in real life (I tried not to note that) and I ran for it.

Boarding a moving vehicle is almost always a bad idea. Boarding an anachronistic steam train with unnatural traction is just begging to be ground into human puree.

I made the jump, anyhow, latching myself onto the third-class carriage. The stationmaster ran alongside, hands outstretched, making to peel me off the train. My knees bent unconsciously and I catapulted myself up onto the roof, my shoes just clearing the scrabbling fingers of the stationmaster. He shook his fist at me as the London-bound train whisked me far out of his reach.

But when I turned around to get the wind in my face, a chill passed through me – this was not a train for London. It looked more like a train for Siberia, a train out of Doctor Zhivago. We steamed heavily across an empty white expanse of nothingness. The station was already out of sight, leaving only the train snaking across my immense dreamscape, ferrying me to an uncertain destination.

There was no time for dillydallying. I loped unsteadily across the roof (which was surprisingly stable, making my unsteadiness inexcusable), peeking fearlessly here and there over the edge of the train to check the windows. I leaped between cars with an ease that would have shamed a seasoned stuntman.

Finally, I came to a frosted window with a small transparent slit in the middle. I arched my upper body over the edge of the roof (if the train went around the wrong side of a curve now, I was done) and put my eye to the glass, praying that nobody was there.

The lavatory was indeed empty. I swung myself upright, turned round, and put my foot through the glass. (I was still in flip-flops.) I swooped fluidly through the window, leaned forward, and smoothly slid the lock home just as somebody tried the door. There was a sound of confusion out in the corridor, to which I could not think of a response.

“If I have any say on when scripted events happen, I think that this is a good time,” I said aloud. “By and large, rational actions are forbidden here. Act on impulse: direct not, but steer,” I added in an undertone. “Try another bathroom, mate,” I said at normal volume. “I’ll be a while yet.”

The sounds of confusion diminished and disappeared. I breathed out. I tore a bit of toilet paper off and mopped my face (which was completely dry). After a thought, I seized the rest of the roll and stuffed it down my shirt.

A scream echoed through the corridor and footsteps erupted all around. My chance. I unlocked the door and slipped into the corridor with the rush of nosy people headed for the source of distress. I got out my book-of-fares and found my numbers: London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. No change.

I squeezed through the fore of the crowd, which had now bottlenecked at the compartment of interest. ” ‘scuse me, I’m a Doctor. Pardon me, I’m a Doctor – ” I murmured, trying to put on a professional air.

I squeezed between the last two men in the door and found myself standing over a dead rabbit (its neck was wrung) and a girl bent over her deceased pet, sobbing wretchedly.

Well, she wanted it to sound wretched. I couldn’t believe anybody was being taken in by her little act. I certainly wasn’t. I stooped, hands on knees, and whispered, “Come on, Miss, he’s gone now. The best we can do now – ”

She looked at me. My hand went to the table of fares in my pocket. Whatever part of my brain was responsible for generating the dreams had a nasty habit of investing far too much detail – uncomfortable levels of detail, for whatever parsed my dreams in my conscious self – on the female cast. I would have blushed in real-life.

The corners of her eyes were dry. Her make-up wasn’t running. Her hair was still tidy. No sign of a handkerchief or other ladylike tear-wiper. A-ha. What are you playing at, Miss?

Her expression hardened and I leaped to my feet – her mouth opened, and I pushed my way into the crowd –

She accused me. It’d been a setup. She wanted the roll of toilet paper. It was valuable. I tucked it tighter still into my shirt and ran faster, trying to outrun the call to seize me. Information travels slower than I do in dense mediums, and so I easily broke free of the crush, forgoing my washroom-window entry route and bursting into the adjoining car, locking myself into that bathroom instead.

I gathered my thoughts. Footsteps skittered outside, but nobody knocked on the door. It hadn’t occurred to them that I was inside this bathroom. I glanced at the toilet paper hanging there: it was not special, not as much as the one in my shirt. I pulled out my table of fares – London 1.00, Hamburg 5.00. Still no change.

I waited for the footsteps to quiet (I didn’t want my escape to be immediately noticeable) and punched through the window. I apologized to whatever patron saint of water closets there might be for my second transgression and climbed out and up, back onto the train roof.

I blinked. No more Doctor Zhivago. This was now a cross between The Polar Express and Uncharted 2. The train snaked around a snowy mountain, the track built inches from the edge that went way down to oblivion. The roof was suddenly a lot shakier.

I again consulted the table of fares – and indeed, London .43, Hamburg .57: I was done here.

A tunnel came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a chance to duck. The train was going too fast. I was going to be slammed into the side of a mountain at high speed.

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