All This Marching Time

The boy almost screamed when his grandmother woke him up. In the faint orange light of the bulb above the cabin door, she looked well beyond her years. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, and the wrinkles on her cheeks dug deeper into her skin, like weathered bark on an old tree. 

“What’s the matter, grandma?” the boy asked, blinking and rubbing his eyes, trying to return his grandmother to how he remembered her. It wasn’t working.

“I can’t find your grandfather,” she said, staring down at her grandson. The nightgown she wore was loose on her frail, skeletal frame. 

The boy leaned up in his bed and glanced out at the speeding trees that whipped by the train car’s window. The sky outside was dark with the promise of the creeping morning’s purple glow. In his sleepy stupor, the boy forgot where they were traveling to. “What do you mean you can’t find him?”

“He’s gone,” the grandmother said. “I woke up, and he wasn’t there. I thought he came to visit you or went to the restroom, but I can’t find him.” Her voice was tired, and hoarse, and there was an odd white twinkling in her eyes. “You have to help me find him.”

There was a deep unease in the boy’s stomach. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t fully awake just yet, or because of the train’s constant rocking, but he couldn’t help but feel he was stuck in a dream, a blur of the waking world and slumber. Nevertheless, the boy could not deny his grandmother, no matter how her eyes sat on her fading face or how withered her soul seemed. 

“Sure, grandma. I’ll help you find grandpa,” the boy said. He threw off his thin covers and fetched his robe from the rack beside his bed. He placed it over his pale pajamas.

Without another word, the grandmother turned and exited the boy’s cabin through the open door. The boy wanted to ask her to wait for him as he stepped into his loafers, but the sight of his grandmother hovering just off the ground, floating away in a swift motion, made the words stick to the back of his throat. 

The boy shoved his feet into his loafers and went out into the hall of the train car. The opposing windows reflected the boy’s small figure as the familiar scents of cigarette smoke, and lingering colognes and perfumes clung to the air. It was as if he was back at his grandparents’ house, but instead of soft blue walls and bulky, covered furniture staring back, a long row of closed wooden cabin doors and dim orange bulbs stood before him, seeming to go on forever.

“Grandma?” he called out softly, hoping not to wake the other passengers. The boy thought he’d see his grandmother just down the hall but instead found himself alone as both directions showed no signs of the floating woman. And the only sounds were the wheels rolling steadily along the tracks.

The boy’s grandparents had the cabin next to his. He approached the door and slid it open to find the area vacant. The bed against the window was unmade, and various articles of clothing lay scattered on the floor. A single unlit cigar sat in a glass ashtray next to a book of matches on the little desk against the wall.

“Grandma? Grandpa?” the boy said without getting a response. His attention returned to the lonesome hall that led to the dining car. The boy was hesitant to go forward, but if other people were awake beyond the doorway, perhaps they could help him find his lost grandfather. Hopefully, his grandmother was there, too, asking around. Although, the boy wished his grandmother hadn’t run off as she did. He didn’t like being by himself inside the long, wooden train.

As he carefully stepped past the closed cabins and slumbering passengers, the boy heard a faint sound of music up ahead. A piano. A man’s voice. He couldn’t make out the words, but the tune was familiar to him. It reminded him again of his grandparents’ place. Their phonograph. The big brass horn that played classical music and jazz all through the night.

The boy thought he would find himself in the living room of his grandparents’ house upon swinging open the wooden and gold connecting train door with all of the familiar scents and sounds. Instead, he was on the south end of the dining car, seeing the dim ceiling bulbs barely illuminate the leather chairs throughout, the booths tucked against the windows on either side with clean white cloths draped over the tables. A piano piece echoed across the dining area. The boy could hear the crackling of a record spinning from somewhere unseen.

As he stepped forward, the boy’s gaze traveled to a leather chair in the center of the car. Someone was sitting with their back toward him. A white-gloved arm was planted on the armrest. A lit cigarette stuck out between two fingers as rising twirls of smoke came from its tip. The boy couldn’t see the person’s head, but with his grandparents on his mind, he moved up to see who it was, hoping to be reunited with one of them.

The boy rounded the chair, feeling his chest fall heavy at the sight of a stranger sitting, smiling back at him.

“What are you doing up?” the woman asked. She was strikingly beautiful with piercing brown eyes and ruby red lipstick. Her grey dress hung low enough for her beaded necklace to fall perfectly on her smooth neck. “Couldn’t you sleep either?”

The boy was nervous, frightened he’d get in trouble with this woman who sat unblinking and letting her cigarette burn without taking a drag. “No, I….” He paused for a moment, trying to catch his escaping breath. “I’m looking for my grandma and grandpa. Have you seen them?”

The piano music shifted into an orchestral tune. Violins crackled and echoed. Fresh smoke rose.

The woman frowned slightly, eyeing the boy up and down as if she was taken aback by the boy’s question. “I’m sorry to say I haven’t.”

“Well, if they come through here, please let them know I’m looking for them,” the boy said as he started to turn away, noticing there was someone else in the dining car now. A man in the corner booth beneath the light was reading a newspaper so tall that it blocked out the man’s face and upper body, only leaving the top of his brown fedora to poke out.

Despite his nerves going wild, the boy approached the man in the corner and carefully said, “Excuse me, sir.”

The man lowered his paper and glared at the boy with dark, serious eyes that matched his suit. Much like the lady with the cigarette, no smile painted his face. Instead, the man scowled at the boy with a frown and curled eyebrows.

“My grandparents–”

“I haven’t seen them,” the man said before the boy could finish. The newspaper promptly popped back up, blocking the man from the rest of the world. “Would you get back to bed, please?”

“I’m sorry,” the boy said as he backed away from the table, his heart beating in frantic blasts. “I’m sorry.”

The woman sat in her leather chair, staring at the boy as the cigarette’s ember slowly inched closer to the black holder gripped between her gloved fingers. The train continued to rock, and the hidden music waned into a lower pitch, but the boy didn’t notice for the two strangers in the dining car knocked his nerves off-kilter. So, instead of waiting another moment, festering in discomfort, the boy turned to the doorway that led to the next car. The kitchen, so the boy thought, but when he pushed on the wooden bar and swung the door open, he found himself in another hall of cabins, except only half of the orange lights were lit along the wall. It was longer, dingier. More unwelcoming than the first. 

“Grandma, where are you?” the boy said in a loud whisper. His voice was deeper all of a sudden. “Grandpa, are you here?”

There was no answer, no movement from the intimidating hall. Shadows danced in-between the spots of dark in-between the lights. Each one seemed to pop out of the wooden walls and beckon the boy before bouncing back into the nothingness. 

He turned back, too afraid now to venture ahead. He was worried he’d get lost himself or get in trouble with one of the other passengers or the train workers. The boy thought if he went back to his room, his grandmother would have to show up eventually. His grandfather would be found. Maybe if he could get back to sleep, all would be normal in the morning.

But there was no turning back, for the door to the dining car wouldn’t budge. No matter how hard the boy pushed on the smooth wooden bar in the center, the door was stuck in its frame. 

“Hello?” the boy said as he knocked on the door. “Can someone let me back through, please? It’s locked.”

After a moment of waiting and listening, no one came to the door. The boy placed his ear against the wood but could hear nothing beyond the train’s rocking. Not even the faint sound of the violin music remained.

As he had his head turned and planted on the wood, the boy caught his darkened reflection in the window. He was taller now. Older. From what he could see in the limited light bouncing off the glass, the boy found shadows of facial hair around his mouth and jaw. His hair was longer, blacker than before.

His heart rate kept its quick pace as his mind tried to absorb what he was seeing, but before the boy could lean closer to his reflection to get a better look and understand such a sudden transformation, the light bulbs along the cabins began to flicker, placing him in a shadow, sending his reflection away in flashes much like the dark figures that appeared a moment ago. 

The boy turned to try the dining car door again but found the same locked result. Then, after several panicked pulls, he gave up and ventured down the flickering hall of cabins, moving in a careful quick-step. He was eager to move along the train to find someone, anyone to help him, but still wanted to keep his noise low.

As the boy approached the next door to the connecting car, the sound of music came from ahead. It was similar to the record playing before. A waning violin. Somber piano keys. A fading voice somewhere in-between.

The music grew louder as the boy pushed on the golden-trimmed wooden bar of the door and entered what looked to be the exact same dining car that he passed through only moments ago. It had the same leather chairs, the same white-cloth-covered tables. The boy even saw the tall newspaper man in the corner, the woman sitting with her back toward him in the center, her arm resting with a burning cigarette hanging between her gloved fingers. However, after a second of staring at the scene, the boy noticed the lights flickering on and off. He winced in anticipation of the shadows returning.

The boy was confused in his fear, unsure of how he could re-enter the dining car, considering he had already come through it. He thought he must’ve turned around somehow and that the locked door was unlocked after all and merely forgot after seeing his strange appearance in the window. Still, how would the boy be at the south end of the dining car if he’d turned around from the second hall? 

Without wanting to disturb the two strangers again, and with the desire to return to his cabin and stay in his bed until the morning sun, the boy turned around to leave. However, much like the door before, the handlebar wouldn’t push. The door wouldn’t budge. The boy was locked inside the dining car with the woman and man, who sat in silence beneath the warping, ever-changing music that didn’t pair well with the flickering lights. 

Sweat caked the boy’s forehead as he had no choice but to move through the dining car to the door on the other end, hoping that would get him somewhere back to sanity. He wasn’t interested in bothering the woman and man again, especially not the man, although part of him at least wanted to warn them that the door was locked. 

The woman in the chair looked different than before as the boy came to the center of the car. Her once smooth skin showed wrinkled lines forming on her cheeks. The necklace hung on a chest that exposed more bone, and her lipstick was a more faded red than the ruby shine it had not long ago. The woman wasn’t elderly, not like the boy’s grandmother recently, but if it wasn’t for the same gray dress and white gloves, the boy might not have recognized her.

“Did you find what you’re looking for yet? Are you ready to settle down for us?” the woman asked. Her cigarette was burned closer to the holder, leaving a line of ashen remains hanging off its end. Still, she didn’t puff on it.

“No, I’m still looking for my grandparents,” the boy answered. “But I can’t get the door to open. It’s stuck. The doors keep locking on me when I try to go back.”

The woman stared at the boy, seemingly unimpressed by his words. A sort of tiredness fell upon her face as the music faded into itself. Pianos played, and violins started to interrupt until a horn sounded somewhere in-between, adding another song to the mix of distortion. 

“Why don’t you just sit down?” the man in the corner asked from beyond his newspaper. He said it more like a sigh that sent shivers down the boy’s spine. “We’ll soon be at the stop.”

The boy, who didn’t want to be responsible for the brewing trouble, apologized to the man again as he backed away toward the door behind him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

The man in the corner booth lowered his newspaper, exposing that he, too, was aged. His eyes sat lower in his head, and his face drooped slightly. His brown suit was more worn than before, not as tight and clean as stray threads jumped from the coat. The fedora was losing its color. “Don’t go out there again! You stay right here with us!”

As the music shifted again and the light bulbs in the dining car flickered throughout, the man stood up from the table and approached the boy. The man’s movements were so sudden and quick across the dining area that the boy almost tripped on the leg of another leather chair and stumbled backward to the ground before he could reach the door and push it open. 

The heavy door shut behind the boy as he started to run down the next train car of cabins. This time, there were no light bulbs turned on. Only the very faint glow of the early rising sun coming through the windows on his left guided him. Trees whizzed by. Dark figures frolicked. The man in the dining car shouted through the closed door, but the boy couldn’t understand the words. He was so scared, so terrified for his life, that all he could hear was his heart beating in his ears, and he was too distracted with escaping that he didn’t notice his slight reflection in the glass. 

Now, the boy was aged further, sporting a black beard that hinted at grayer tones. His robe was stained, yellowed from what looked to be several years of use. The loafers on his feet were coming undone at the seams, and the bottom rubber treads were wearing away.

The boy continued forward, not looking back to see if the man had made it through the door. Not that it mattered, anyway. The boy could still hear his voice bouncing off the wooden train car walls in unintelligible echoes. 

Using his elbow, the boy pushed through the door at the end of the hall. He stumbled forward into the dining car again, finding the woman sitting in her chair, the cigarette burning closer to the plastic holder, the smoke rising from the ashy ember. 

The room was darkened and cold, with only the faint light coming from outside. Overhead, the music was scratchy, sending reverberating sounds of clashing instruments and slowed vocals over the smoky train car. Everything seemed to spin as the boy ran toward the other end of the room, heading for the door.

He wasn’t planning on it, but the boy’s eyes caught the sitting woman’s profile as he passed by. Her skin was a sagging pale, ghost-like. Her eyes were nearly hollow. For a second, the boy thought it was his grandmother with how frail and skeletal her body looked. The gray dress and beaded necklace clung onto her for dear life as the woman was skinny, practically swimming in her clothes as everything deteriorated. Even the faded white gloves on her arms were too big for her now.

“Stop!” the man shouted as he entered the south end of the car. “You stop this behavior right now!”

The boy didn’t turn to face the man but instead raced to the northern door, pushing it open to reveal yet another long train car of cabins. The loud, decomposing music was at his tail, moving him forward with a haunting echo. 

His feet stumbled and weakened with every step. The boy had to hold onto the walls and cabin doors to keep himself upright as he struggled to run at his usual pace down the car. The train continued to rock and sway as if it transformed into a ship lost at sea. It made the boy nauseous. But he had to keep going, for the sounds of loud footsteps were right behind him, and he could feel the heat just inches from his neck. Was it the shadows reaching for him or the shouts of an angered stranger? Perhaps it was the expansive noise of a broken record and dying music.

The boy fell to knees before the next door. He crawled like a baby for a few feet until he could reach up and grab the wooden push bar. His body was so suddenly weak that his arms shook like leaves as he pulled himself up. Then, just as the boy was back on his feet, the golden-trimmed bar snapped off the door. It fell off at an angle that allowed the boy to leverage it between the floor and his palm, like an instant walking stick or cane. It saved him from falling face-first.

With what strength he had left, the boy pushed through the door without looking back for the chasing man. He was too tired, too confused about his destination to run any longer. All he wanted to do was find somewhere he could lay down and surrender to whoever was after him.

Of course, the boy found himself in the dining car yet again, although it felt like the first time for him as he shuffled forward, using the push bar cane to keep himself upright. He held onto the back of the leather chairs as well. 

There were no light bulbs turned on, no music playing. Only the sound of a record crackling and popping played over the chilled air as the boy maneuvered toward the center of the car, where a gloved arm rested on the side of one of the chairs. A black cigarette holder was stuck in between the fingers, but no cigarette was inside. There was no smoke coming from its tip, although the scent of burnt tobacco lingered.

As the boy moved forward and stumbled by the arm, he turned and saw a dress-clad skeleton sitting on the leather. The skull was tilted back with the jaw hanging open. Cobwebs covered the eyes. A beaded necklace hung over an exposed ribcage. Bony arms were stuck inside the yellowed gloves. Whoever this skeleton belonged to, he didn’t know. All he could do was stare and wonder.

Suddenly, the train’s horn blared over the sound of the crackling vinyl record. The constant rocking of the car slowed, and the wheels screeched against the tracks. The change of motion made the boy wobble, drop his cane, and fall towards one of the booths on the side of the car. He stopped himself from falling into the seats as his eyes went to the window, seeing out at the morning grey and the station that appeared through the glass.

People donned in coats and hats stood on the platform beneath the glow of the rising sun. Men clutched fat suitcases, and women kept themselves bundled beneath their scarves. Tufts of white came from their mouths as they chatted and smoked under the awning.

The boy scanned the crowd until his eyes met a couple at the left end of the platform, sitting on the benches. His mind snapped as the sight of his grandparents broke through his ball of confusion.

Both grandparents looked healthy and well-kempt, the polar opposite to how the boy’s grandmother appeared as she was waking him up earlier. Instead of the hanging skin and weathered face, the grandmother had her soul back, her life back. Same for his grandfather, too. He had a healthy smile beneath his grey mustache as he sat and waited in the foggy morn.

“Grandma! Grandpa!” the boy said with a gravely, tired voice. “I’m coming!”

The boy went to move and find the exit of the train when a strong hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back from the window. He jerked his head around, making his neck go stiff as he stared back at the strange man who had been chasing him down the train cars. The same man who was reading his newspaper in the corner before the boy came and caused so much trouble, although the boy wasn’t so sure anymore. The way he stared at the man was as if he was looking at him for the very first time. The man’s eyes weren’t as low, and his suit wasn’t as worn now. The fedora on his head returned to its proper brown color.

“That’s enough, father. You’re making yourself sick. Please, have a seat,” the man said, a little out of breath. 

The boy was beyond confused, especially since he could see that the dining car was now returned to its normal setting. The orange bulbs were aglow. The sound of jazzy piano compositions returned without skipping or the haunting crackles that plagued the air. Not only that, but the boy could see the pretty woman sitting in the leather chair in the center, no longer a skeleton, puffing on a cigarette as she watched the strange man holding onto him.

“The train’s at our stop now. We’re here with you. You’re going to be okay,” the man said as he eased the boy down into the booth, keeping a solid grip on his shoulder.

The boy was too tired to speak. He felt like he was moments away from falling back into dreamland. A force was pulling him into a slumber to turn him into a sleeping shadow. “But…my grandparents…they’re….”

“They’re up in heaven, father. They’re in a better place,” the man said. He glanced back at the woman on the chair, who was furrowed with worry. “Maybe this trip was a bad idea. Maybe he’d be better staying with one of us. I don’t know how I feel sending him away like this.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” the boy said.

The woman shook her head as smoke bellowed from between her ruby red lips. “We can’t put him on another train. He’s sick and needs the proper help. We should be thankful no one got hurt with you two running in and out of here.”

“Don’t talk like that in front of him. It isn’t right that I lost my patience with him,” the man said before turning back to face the boy. He picked up the cane with the golden trim off the floor. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I’m sorry. Are you all right? Can I get you anything? We’re at the station now.”

The boy, who wasn’t much of a boy, but more of a withering old soul beneath a robe and a set of pajamas, sat in the back of the booth, trying to decipher who these people were, what the shadows and voices were saying to him, and whether or not this train only had one stop. He wondered what it all meant. The staggering dark and moments of light. All this marching time. 

Then, just as he almost had when his grandmother woke him from his sleep, the boy started to scream.

Oliver C. Seneca is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. His novels, When the Sky Goes Dark and Faces in a Window, were published by Sunbury Press. You can find his poetry and short fiction included in The Dillydoun Review, Bluing the Blade, and The Festival Review.