(Help a writer out here)
I’ve written before about how much I like writing contests. They can provide challenge, inspiration, and, if you win or get a mention, a big whacking shot of confidence — something every writer except possibly James Patterson could use more of.
Some contests have themes. Some have words or first sentences you have to use. Some have a prompt, like the one I recently entered on Vocal.media:
Write a story about someone who wakes up on a train. They have no ticket and no memory of how they got there. Oh, and one more thing: the train shows no signs of slowing down.https://vocal.media/challenges/the-runaway-train
My fiction writing had been in a bit of a slump; I’ve been stuck on the draft of a novel that is making me gnash my teeth. It’s never occurred to me to write a story set on a train — so I thought, why not?
So I wrote the story and entered it. But here’s the thing. Vocal holds these challenges to gain more readers — so the more people who read my story (particularly if they hit the heart button), the better chance it has of winning.
I know, I know — not the loftiest method of judging a literary work. But also no more subjective than any other writing contest, when you think about it.
So here’s my shameless plea. Below is the first part of the tale — a story trailer, if you will. If you like it enough and want to know how things turn out, head to the link below and give it a full reading.
And if you really want to help me out, hit the “heart” — yes, you’ll have to sign in or create an account if you don’t have one. But it’s free, and you can unsubscribe whenever you wish — or you might find other stuff on Vocal that interests you. It’s a big platform.
Thanks for indulging my request — I’ll let you know if I hit the jackpot! Here’s the opener:
On the Wrong Track
It’s the rocking sensation, ceaseless, that wakes me. Groggy, I wonder if I’m still drunk. I shift my weight, trying to get comfortable enough to finish sleeping it off. The slip under my vintage dress sticks to my sweaty legs. I’m not in my own bed, not even undressed. Oh my God, did I pass out at my own party?
A clacketing, dull metallic roar surrounds me, coming from everywhere at once, including beneath my feet. The queasy rocking sensation, the sound — with an effort, I open my eyes, sticky with last night’s mascara.
“Miss, may I pour you some coffee?” I peer up to see a stately Black man in a uniform standing next to me, his feet braced for balance, holding a silver coffee pot. “Might make you feel better,” he says, his voice kind. “These early morning trips can be hard on a body.”
I stare wordlessly as he pours coffee into a china cup. It rests on a saucer atop a spotless white cloth laid over the table in front of the seat where I’m half-sprawled. Motion catches the corner of my eye and I turn my head to see trees and fields rushing past a large window.
I’m on a train.
Not a subway, not a commuter train. White smoke boils past the windows in drifts. A steam engine? Those were nearly all scrapped before the 1960s. Trains run on diesel or electricity now. I know this from my research for my dissertation.
The man with the coffee pot gives me a polite nod and moves on to another table. I blink at him as he goes, recognizing his uniform. It’s a perfect recreation of a World War I era Pullman porter’s livery.
And I’m in a vintage Pullman dining car, speeding along through countryside I don’t recognize. Not only that, but the dining car has other passengers, all wearing clothing that’s even more authentic than this outfit I put together for last night. For the party I threw to celebrate successfully defending my dissertation. It’s taken years, but finally I’m a bona fide historian with a Ph.D.
Is this train thing a gag? It’s way more elaborate than something Drew would dream up. He’s brilliant, but planning is not his strong suit. Hence me having to organize my own party. Would Dinusha, my advisor, arrange this for me? Is this some historical re-creation experience I’ve never heard of? None of those seems likely.
I glance around at the other passengers. Nobody looks familiar, and none of them smile at me or show any sign of knowing who I am. If they’re in on the joke, they’re playing it to the hilt.
My antique handbag is next to me on the seat. I rummage in it for my phone to send a group text to my party guest list and a private one to Drew, both of which will begin with “OK haha.” In the purse I find a lipstick, a compact, a handkerchief, a pair of gloves, none of which I recognize. There’s nothing else but an antique-looking packet of Wrigley chewing gum. No phone.
If this is a prank, I’m finding it less than amusing.
Sliding out of my seat, I approach a couple sitting at another booth, steadying myself by clutching onto the backs of seats as I go. This train is really moving. Fragments from my dissertation research surface unbidden. Steam locomotives like this one, popular in the early 20th Century, were capable of impressive speed.
“So, where are we going?” I say when I reach the couple. The woman peers curiously at me from under her broad hat. The man, stout and sporting a mustache straight out of a barbershop quartet, looks up from his newspaper and begins to rise from his seat. Proper behavior for the times. I decide to play along. “Please, don’t get up,” I say. “Would you be so kind as to tell me what train this is and where we’re headed?”
Maybe I’m laying it on a bit thick. The woman gives me a puzzled frown. Her husband, or so I assume, chuckles. “This here is the No. 1 train, my dear, and the tracks still go to Nashville, even if we are a half-hour late,” he says. He looks me up and down, not bothering to disguise his expression, mild lust combined with amusement. He picks up his paper, dismissing me, and takes a slurp of his coffee.
“Nashville?” I ask. “As in, Tennessee?”
Drew and I share an apartment in west L.A., commuting distance to our two universities. That’s where we held the party, and it went on past 1 AM, which I know because I was still awake then. We’re not all that far from the airport, but there’s no way that anyone could get me, passed-out drunk, to somewhere in the middle of Tennessee in this amount of time.
“Not aware of any other Nashville,” says the man, his smile strained. “So yes, that would be the one.” He flicks his paper, a signal that he’s done with this conversation.
I notice the railroad logo on his coffee cup, NC&StL. Another detail from my dissertation surfaces. The Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, also known as the Dixie Line. It hasn’t been in operation since 1957.
“Are you quite all right, dear?” It’s the woman speaking to me, in a tone that suggests she’d prefer I take whatever’s wrong with me elsewhere. I don’t answer her, because now I’m staring at the date on her husband’s newspaper.
July 9, 1918.
My breath stops. My head feels light, oddly buoyant, as though it might detach from my body and float off like a balloon.
I devoted an entire chapter to this date. The news media of the time were preoccupied with the war, so it got little attention for such a momentous event, making it ideal material to flesh out my dissertation. It’s the date of the worst head-on railway disaster in American history, the Great Train Wreck of 1918. Two passenger trains, pulled by 80-ton steam engines, coming from opposite directions along a single track and both going over 50mph, plowed into each other. Over a hundred people were killed, more than 170 injured.
They were both from the NC&StL. Both Dixie Line trains.
“What time is it?” I shout, looking frantically past the couple, through the nearest window. Morning light suffuses the cornfields that pass in a blur, brightening as the sun ascends. We’re traveling east.
This isn’t a prank or a joke. I can’t explain how, but I’m on the No. 1 train headed from Union Station in Memphis to Nashville. And at 7:20 AM, on the stretch known as Dutchman’s Curve, this train and the No. 4 from Nashville are going to collide.
“Just before seven o’clock, miss.” The kindly Pullman porter reappears at my elbow. “How about I help you to your seat,” he says as he steers me toward my booth.
“Seven?” Panic shrills through my throat, amplifying my voice. “Shit!”
“My word!” huffs the man’s wife, and there is a clatter of saucers and cutlery as other passengers look up in alarm. “Harrison, do something!”
“That is quite enough, young lady.” Her husband stands, his barbershop mustache quivering with indignation. “George, find her somewhere else to sit. She’s disturbing everyone.”
The porter nods gravely, his grip on my elbow tightening slightly. “You best come along with me, miss,” he says in my ear as he guides me toward the door to the next car.
“Wait!” I yell. “You have to stop this train! We’re going to crash!”
A small girl at one of the tables whimpers and then wails. Her mother tries to shush her, while at the same time glaring at me.
“Get here out of here, George!” roars Harrison, his face beet red above his mustache.
To read the rest, click here — and “heart” it if you can.
Cheers & thanks,