Between the city and the wide-open country was a sleepy old town. It was quite a special town, but not because there was anything particularly special about it. After all, it had no historic buildings or monuments, and it wasn’t well-known for its people, its industry, or its food.
However, what made the town special was the type of train that ran through it. Although like the town itself, this train appeared to be quite normal in every conceivable way, it did have one slight peculiarity: it only ever moved backwards.
And in addition to the unusual one-way, backward, direction of the train, there was something otherworldly about it – something dangerous and magical; for the minute one stepped on it, one felt a certain powerful aura about them – a power that grew the more one continued to ride it.
In fact, the train’s power was so famous and its mystery so alluring that all kinds of people would flock from around the world to board it – not to get to anyplace new, but to visit places they’d already been. You see, the tickets the passengers purchased were not ordinary tickets, but tickets to specific places in time where they could fondly recall certain years of their lives.
Of course, everybody had their own reasons for boarding the train. Some wanted to relive their youth while others sought forgotten wisdom. Others simply wanted to remember what it felt like to experience a certain feeling.
However, not everyone’s experience on the train was was positive. Some had mixed feelings about it, while others never wanted to go back. Some would come on with high ideals would leave in a state of cynicism, while others would come on curious and leave with more questions than answers. Some would come on in a state of despair and leave with a renewed sense of hope while others with high hopes would leave with their spirits dampened.
Still, there were always a few who enjoyed the experience a bit too much – so much, in fact, that they became addicted. One such addict took the form of a failed businessman who once lived in the city and ran a very large and very successful company. After his business went under, the failure affected him so deeply that he never quite recovered. Since he felt could no longer be responsible for anyone or anything, his wife divorced him and moved away with their daughter to live in the country.
One rainy morning this addict boarded the train. It was a slow day, so there weren’t many passengers. All the better, the man thought to himself as he climbed into the car closest to the engine, his mind racing but focused. A woman sneezed loudly in the back and startled him, but just as he was processing the origin of this noise, a uniformed figure appeared before him. It was the conductor making her rounds. She gazed down at the man with a stern, professional gaze which made him squirm in his seat.
“Where are you headed?” the conductor asked.
“All the way down” the man muttered.
“That’ll be seven-fifty,” the conductor replied.
The man quickly jammed his hand into his pocket, his body visibly shaking, his face perspiring slightly.
“Are you alright sir?” asked the conductor.
“Yeah…yeah, I’m alright.” He handed her the money.
“Okay then,” replied the conductor. “Here’s your ticket.”
She continued her walk up and down the nearly-empty cars, collecting fares and distributing tickets. After she had finished her rounds, she strolled up to the front of the train and closed the cabin door.
Soon the passengers felt the lurch of the train and the force of inertia pin their backs against their seats. The man’s mind, which had been caught up in the present, began to slowly move backwards – first very slowly, and then rather quickly as the train continued to gather speed.
His mind trailed back to before he boarded the train. It went back to what he had eaten for breakfast and watched on the news that morning. Soon enough, months were flashing before his eyes, soon followed by years. The train was running at full speed. Then suddenly everything began to slow down until the train and the man’s mind had reached a steady crawl.
He was back at his million-dollar business making record profits, buying expensive gifts for himself, going to fancy dinners with his wife, and teaching his newborn daughter new words. He bathed in the warm, immortal glow of his past self, no longer feeling the pain of loss, but the never-ending wholeness of love and success that was his past life.
In fact, the man had gone backwards so much that he had developed a strict ritual. He would first walk through the halls of his mansion, running his fingers down the wall, and tracing the many precious antiques and decorations that adorned his eternal castle. He’d even stop in the bathroom just to hear the calming, musical sound of his majestic fountain as it filled his mind with serenity.
After he’d absorbed his surroundings, he’d usually make his way upstairs to his wife’s room where he’d witness his past self making love, and most of all, making his wife laugh. However, lastly and most importantly, he’d make a point to visit his baby daughter’s room.
It was here that he longed to be the most, and he knew that he wanted to be there forever. He knew had to be. But after a few hours passed that seemed like seconds, the train suddenly ground to a halt at the final station and the man awoke from his nostalgic reverie to hear a voice speaking loudly over the intercom:
“This is the final station. When the train has stopped, please exit the train with your baggage and watch your step on your way out. I repeat, this is the final stop, please exist with your luggage and watch your step. Thank you.”
As the passengers sifted clumsily out of the cars and onto the platform of the station, the ruined businessman sat still with a heavy heart and a deepening sense of loss, for he had collided more painfully with the present than the other passengers. This collision reminded him of his original plans and only reinforced his desire to carry them out. He knew he needed to act.
The conductor, scanning the cars for sleeping passengers and stowaways, approached him again.
“Last stop,” the conductor said curtly. “You can’t stay here sir.”
The man began to sweat profusely now, his body trembling erratically.
“Do you need to see a doctor, sir?” the conductor inquired.
But no sooner had the conductor asked this question that the man sprang up and covered the conductor’s mouth with his left hand while sticking a knife dangerously close to her throat with his right.
“I need to go back” the crazed man whispered desperately. “Take me back now!”
“I..I can’t!” said the conductor in a scared and muffled voice. “You won’t come back..You can only stay for so long!”
This reply only seemed to make the man angrier.
“Do it!” the man screamed, his knife pressing uncomfortably into her skin.
“Okay, OKAY!” moaned the conductor.
With his knife still drawn to her throat, the man then marched the conductor to the front of the train and ordered her to engage the engine.
“Do it now!” barked the man with escalating fury and desperation.
Scared for her life, the conductor obediently did as she was told.
The train lurched, and the man immediately felt a familiar jolt. His body began to move backwards, quickly followed by his mind. He saw himself in the front of the train a few moments before he kidnapped the conductor, then a few hours, followed by a few days.
He was soon back with his family and his job, his wealth and success unmarred by years to come. He slowly drifted through the halls of his mansion, stretching his hand longingly against the walls and furniture, his fingertips tracing the intricate craftsmanship of priceless antiques and rare collections.
But when he got to the bathroom he noticed that something wasn’t quite right. The comforting ripple that usually issued from the majestic fountain was silent. In fact, there was no sound at all because it wasn’t even moving.
With a growing sense of alarm, the man ran into the bedroom to check on his wife. She had fallen still as well, her expression frozen in time in a half-smiling pose, her hands clutching her favorite book with a unique bookmark: a pressed blue flower from their honeymoon in the tropics. It was given to her as a present along with her book, and had come to mark the first month of her pregnancy.
The baby! He rushed into the baby’s room to find her crying but still moving. Thank God! He thought to himself. But no sooner had he spoken these words than she too became a motionless, soundless doll. No! This can’t be happening!
He blindly rushed out into the hall and ran towards the front door, frantically trying to escape his now-frozen memories, but it wasn’t long before he began to feel himself slowing down too. First he noticed he had trouble moving his feet, then he was short of breath. Soon his thoughts began to come to him more slowly and his is vision began to blur. Eventually, his mind stopped altogether.
The man collapsed at the front of the train, his body slack, his mind paralyzed. The conductor called the police and an ambulance wheeled the man out on a stretcher at the next station. And as the man’s body disappeared into the back of the ambulance, an older woman and her teenage daughter boarded the opposite platform for the next train forward – away from the country.
As they both stared at the scene, the daughter thought the man’s face looked familiar, but she was too far away to see him clearly. She then opened her mother’s favorite book, which was now hers, wondering at the strange bookmark: a pressed blue flower of mysterious origin.