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Undertaker
Prologue to Nihil
© 2024 James LaFond
JUL/6/24
He never thought to see
Spring’s Soft flower,
As he fought to be free
In Winter’s cruel power.
Solace she sought by the sea—
A fay quest stalked by the All-Sower.
The train rattled and clattered with a mad cadence that rendered her somehow more sad. Helen was alone, all, tall and alone. There had been a time when she could have been a runway model, a tennis pro or a choral singer. But, hiring practices as they had been upon her gradation in 2024, she went for the easy money, taking her long blond looks, her voice and her composure, into Men’s World.
Her mind’s eye cast back with some bitterness, “I made not decision one: some pencil necked twerp, some fat slob, or some jelley-gutted sleazeball always made the call. I was nothing but a marionette.”
Her eye began to wet, the traitor left eye, that alone could cry, and could not be kept entirely dry. If the rest of her class could see her now; those dumpy white girls, witchy Latinas destined to look like beanbag chairs, under-foot aloof Asian princesses who envied her on one hand and saw her as a zoological exhibit of barbaric splendor on the other hand, they had found their place by now, quaking underground, shrinking above ground. They, were, at last not alone. The sub par woman seemed to have a knack to hit the ground always with a man—scum though he might be.
‘Whores,’ she seethed inside as she looked out upon the miles long expanse of tents under the condemned interstate span between Emmeryville and Oakland. ‘You meth whores at least have your tweaker husbands—not alone in this cold world,’ she whimpered inside.
Despite the fact that the train coaches were all but rattling apart, the doors, at the nearly deserted Emmeryville platform
had opened automatically. The station attendant had been a wheeled janitorial robot, the like she had once laughed at in a supermarket. The cafe attendant in the bottom level of this viewing car, had been replaced by a kiosk. There was not a passenger on this train, other than shoulder-shrunken Helen.
People were not visible outside the tents or the buildings. No primping homo was darting forth from his bird cage condo.
A shiver struck her.
Lonely to the bones, she rose in a panic that she really was the last one above ground. Helen, rose, brushed her skirt just so, just in case there was a man in there, making certain that her beige skirt covered the broken vein on her 40 year old knee, still showing off her still smooth and full calves. Hopefully this would take away from the hasty makeup job done in the clattering train, down in the changing room out of Reno.
Reno had shivered her to the bone, with the handful of other passengers from Salt Lake City and points east having detrained there to spend the last of their sorrows at the nearly deserted gambling Medina.
‘Fucking Saudi Mormon,’ she steamed within, marking her rejection by what was such an unlikely hiring officer for the whitest refuge available. This caused a worsening chill in her back as she realized, clearly, her mind having rejected the idea before, that she had possibly been the only passenger returning to California. Now, the jittery thought that she might be the only passenger on the train from Seattle to California, triggered a spasm of self-recrimination.
“Dumbilina,” she bitched out loud, “the LDS has all of the tall, good looking blondes they need—Seattle should have been the call!”
‘But I haven’t made many calls,’ her lesser half wilted inside.
‘I am still fertile…’
“No body wants babies anymore, dumb dumb.”
She wore her winter boots, sensible shoes these days. Kicking the foot plate of the door from within the coupling housing. The silvery door slid aside and she entered the dining car, with its white table clothes and tiny tables, where one figure did sit, as conductors of old had, when she took the night train to Seattle or Salt Lake City on business. Going away from San Francisco had always felt so liberating. Now, this return, to its wretched outskirts, drew her haltingly down.
It was a man, an older man, in his early sixties, owning a silvery mustache twisted in that ancient waxed way, underneath his conductor’s hat, his Amtrak uniform worn, but neatly appointed. He wore medical glasses, the ones that did let you see there were eyes behind them by how the soft blue optical dots on the external screen behaved like an iris, mimicking the actual activity of the compromised eye behind. Everyone ordered blue, the blue iris. But that brown eyed camel jockey had sent these blue eyes packing.
His shoulders were broad but bony. The leg that could be seen was so thin that the black slacks hung on a knob of knee. The man searched her face, not admiring her still shapely body. Seduction was out—not that sexual charm had ever been her game. Daddy was in—how life might have been different if she had a daddy, rather then the limp fish that involved himself in social justice and ignored her, to the point of blaming her for his lack of protection when the unthinkable did occur.
“Ms. Brighton,” the man intercepted her budding question.
“Is everything to your satisfaction—you are my final duty, the last ticketed passenger. When you detrain, I retire.”
Flustered, she smoothed her skirt down again and sat as daintily as a six foot woman can.
“Sir, I applied with the LDS for ecological asylum.”
“As did, many, Ms. Brighton. You had, and I see still, have the good character to refrain from the Reno option. I wonder, if it was compassion or cruelty that moved the LDS to comp rejected applicants with yet another low odds wager.”
She noticed his crutches propped between table, bench and window, wrist crutches with what seemed to be medical reading bands, with opaque display screens which seemed to sync with his eye movement.
He noticed, “No need to apologize or inquire. I was brought out of medical retirement to conduct this last train, and possibly another, so that one of my colleagues might be accepted at the Cheyenne Mountain refuge.”
“Do you have anyone?” she inquired, concern for him rivaling her own self pity.
“No, Helen, I do not. I detrain at San Jose, de-commission the Starlight… and, like so many, wait. In that, I am not alone.”
“No one is headed to LA?”
He chuckled slightly, “No nearer than San Jose.”
“I was used to getting my way, making my way…” she confessed.
He completed her spoken thought, “Based on your remarkable beauty and health—a rich voice as well.”
“But what do I do when it all goes to hell?” she cried, cried from both eyes, her hand inching across the table for a caring grasp.
He took her hand in a cold yet dry hand and his voice held a deep raspy quality that she had failed to notice—he was concerned, “Helen, I have de-listed the stop from the Jack London Square Station kiosk. Those that wait there will expect no passenger to detrain. The station is the nexus of four powers. If you remain at the station you shall be the subject of a battle or a barter. East rule the Angolans, practicing the most unfortunate dietary habits. South, along the tracks, are the tweakers. North, where we pass now, is Mexican cartel territory, the most likely purchaser of a woman from the other factions. To the west are the Muslims.”
He patted the back of her hand with the other large, cold, arthritic hand, “You have a minute to choose, Helen.”
“South,” she blurted, cringing as she did so, her choice being based on race rather than power, in deep violation of her American conscience.
The man then rose crookedly, clamped his wrists into the medical braces, and turned before her, pivoting on a pair of odd looking crutches that must have been heavier than his withered legs, “Than follow me, luggage be damned, in your sensible boots. I have an engineer’s safety jacket for you, and a hard hat. You shall detrain from the crew car.”
“Thank you, so much, sir,” she blurted.
He stopped and froze, his shoulders tight, then continued crutching with every word punctuated by a rubber thump, “I should be cursed, rather, for failing to abscond with, or at east defend, the last flower of my kind. I am a slave, a creature of duty, and have been instructed. So I conduct, ashamed, Helen. Only forgive me if it makes your burden the more bearable.”
“Can I have a weapon?” she asked.
“The sledgehammer, behind the glass, next to the exit. Take that. We have found it too heavy to swing in repelling boarders. Hold it behind the head with one hand and near the butt with the other, and thrust and chop with the head. I earned this injury in such an encounter battling an unticketed mob in LA.”
They soon stood at the door as the train slowed, Helen holding a sledgehammer rather than her discarded purse, as she listened to the shrieking, rattling, clattering sound of her delivery into Hell.
The conductor slammed the door open before the train stopped and said, “As soon as she’s at a dead stop, step off and run. I’ll roll slow for a mile so you can’t be seen by the Angolans.”
“Thank you!” she stammered, and he cringed, looking down and away.
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