Out on the platform stood a sparse handful of people, and of them fewer yet looked like late-arriving passengers. Monty turned his head back to take in the empty compartment and sighed contentment at the prospect of not sharing this space for the next hour. He leaned against the window, stuck his legs diagonally across the space between the seats, and opened his newspaper.
The movement of the train getting underway distracted him from his reading. He glanced out the window again to watch the platform spooling away, the only people still out there wearing safety vests. He snuggled down into the corner of wall and seat, but as he began to re-erect his paper his eye was caught by a figure in the corridor. It was an old person whose gender he could not quite make out– long wispy hair floating about the head, but also about the chin– in a long grey coat, and carrying either a large purse or a medical bag. This person had stopped a little short of the compartment door, and looked fore and aft along the corridor as if uncertain where they should go.
Monty, firmly committed to the idea of my compartment, thought furious dismissal at the figure and sprawled to claim the space more completely. He held the paper up just high enough that he could see over it without being obvious in his staring.
The oldster, now facing the direction of travel, held the bag up just below chest height and gave it a little shake. Then they set it down. Monty could not see exactly what happened, but it seemed they opened the bag and peered into it for a moment before straightening. They turned to face back down the car, repeated the lift and shake gesture, then set the bag down again. This time, it was directly in front of the door, and the full length glass allowed Monty to see that they did indeed open the bag.
He lowered his paper a little, but the lip of the bag itself kept him from seeing what it might contain. Whatever it was, the bag’s owner consulted it, nodded, and to Monty’s dismay opened the door after closing and lifting the bag.
Monty elevated the paper, then made a show of lowering it to give a peevish look at his new travelling companion. They looked back at him with no sign of shame, nodding to him as they set the bag on the door end of his seat– his seat!– before settling down opposite it.
“You are near the end of your journey,” they said, and the piping, frail voice still gave no clue to gender. Monty braced himself against an expected gust of halitosis and made a marginally affirmative noise.
“There’s no pleasure in it,” they added.
Monty let his paper droop. They were looking directly at him, face set in the long moue of a funeral director whose heart was no longer in the game. “No,” he said, “all business.” The old person nodded at this, but did not look away. There was a smell, but something other than he had expected. Could such a creature be wearing patchouli?
“How about yourself?” Monty cursed his weak subjugation to social niceties.
A slow shake of the head. “Journey’s end… oh, if only, if only.”
Monty brought his paper back up, and withdrew his legs slightly, hoping that he might get some measure of peace for the rest of the trip by yielding some territory. It worried him that the traveller with him had no book nor paper of their own. From what little they had said thus far, an earnest diatribe seemed all too possible, with the only the theme uncertain– religion, or some secular crack-pottery?
A level crossing grumbled past beneath them. The vibration was enough to wilt Monty’s newspaper, the corner dropping to cover what he read. As he reset it, he noticed that the other was now looking at their bag, which stood open. The contents were still obscure, and Monty made no serious effort to glimpse them. If the old party were content with staring quietly into their own luggage, Monty was not inclined to distract them.
It was like the sound of small pieces of wood colliding, but Monty could not recall having heard a noise just like it.
“I know,” said the oldster. “One moment more.”
Monty dropped his paper just as the other said, “Yes, of course.” They spoke into the open bag. A few chalk-white objects which had been poking up above the bag’s mouth dropped back in with a clatter. Monty got enough of a look at them for recognition; the curve of a rib, the knob of a thigh. His mouth dropped open, and he felt horror clutching at his chest.
“Alarming. I know.” They rose, and delved in the bag with one hand, swaying a little with the train. Monty pressed himself back as the smell he had detected earlier increased, not perfume but the deep vegetal rot of a forest floor. The thin hand emerged from the bag, clutching a long bone. From where he sat, Monty could see there was a spiral crack running up its length.
“Your niece kept your secret,” they said, turning to place the bone gently across Monty’s lap. The newspaper crinkled a little under its insubstantial weight. “Not even in the note she left. But her bone remembers.”
“That had nothing to do with,” Monty began, then after labouring down a breath, air seeming thick as gelatin, “I can hardly be blamed.”
“I am not the one to decide,” the other said, carefully closing their bag. “When that bone is placed on your balance, you may try to explain it.” They drew the door aside, stepped out of the compartment, and walked toward the back of the train without a further glance in his direction.
Monty tried to rise, to go after them, but he was pinned in place by the little bone. The tightness in his chest that he had mistaken for fear blossomed, sending branches along his arms. The darkness of a long tunnel engulfed him.
The train sped on across the open fields.