01 Oct THE THADDEUS STONE
It was a slow awakening. The pain claimed first rights, radiating out from the knife still shoved deep inside. Then the weight of my hands over the wound and the stickiness of the blood. Not all mine. I’d have grinned at that but my face had yet to wake.
The smell was next- that sickly-sweet smell of bodies long since dead, yet dead again. And then the scent of old ladies and old books and old memories from the upholstered bench where I reclined.
Reclined was a generous statement.
I focused on the rhythm of the locomotive, finding solace in its consistency. Soon the train and I breathed as one, and that we were. I’d even named it the Thaddeus Stone. Raised a few eyebrows with that but it is what it is.
The pain receded some, or moved into that numbness it’s known to do- this wasn’t my first injury- and I opened my eyes.
Bodies dead and dead again were strewn across the seats on either side of the coach, wedged underneath the rows, and splayed out on the floor. The faded yellow benches were brown where the bloodshed was lightest, deep red where the heavy pools had yet to dry. Even the walls were marred by the blood of the damned. They were wooden though, a good scrub would put them right again.
I laid my head back on the seat. It looked like I’d have to do the scrubbing myself this time. The ones usually tasked with the job were on benches four and seven, contributing to the mess.
A different pain shot through my chest and I sat up as straight as I could, one hand holding my gut. My gun lay abandoned beside me, leaning up against the bench. I grabbed it with my free hand and used it as a cane of sort, to steady me.
I could not look at the faces of my friends and assistants, monsters all, so I turned to the brighter scene outside the window. The trees and fields passed by and I did my best to forget the madness and mayhem around me. Did my best to forget her.
I was quite good at this, and so could not pinpoint how long it was before I noticed that the scenery repeated at regular intervals. The Thaddeus Stone was going in circles.
This forced me to action. My engineer required questioning and my wound, treatment. I looked for my Hunter’s Kit- bandages are stored in the bottom, beneath the insert holding the standard vampire hunting supplies- but did not find it. The box was of my own design and never far from my side, that I had temporarily misplaced it showed how much this last battle had taken.
I scanned the coach, doing my best not to see the faces of the people.
Not people. Creatures. Monsters with the faces of friends.
Leaning the gun back against the bench, I used my free hand to push myself up and then retrieved the gun for support. From this vantage point I could see most of the coach, save the last few sections at the far end. And I could see my Hunter’s Kit, sitting on a bench beside my dead wife.
I shuddered, tearing at the wound in my gut. The pain would make a lesser man cry out in agony, but I shouted a few ungentlemanly words, gritted my teeth, and set out to retrieve my kit. There were a few places where the blood was still slick on the wooden floor, but I was strong and sure of foot and made it over to Geraldine without issue.
She was propped up against the corner of the bench and the wall, her vest and trousers as crimson stained as my own, her dark hair falling down over her shoulders. Some of it stuck together in a clump, from the blood that escaped her wound. The mortal wound I’d given. The stake was still in her heart. Looking at her caused heat behind my eyes and pain in the wound she’d given.
So I stopped looking.
I pushed my Hunter’s Kit to the opposite end of the bench, rested the gun between my wife and the kit, and worked the closure. The top opened on a hinge, allowing me to lift the wooden insert out and set it beside the box with one hand. I was just reaching for the bandages when something moved in the far end of the car.
I shot up straight, forgetting about my injury, and reached back to grab my gun. The swing of the gun knocked into the insert, sending it crashing to the floor. I heard the breaking of Holy Water vials and the rolling of wooden bullets, but stayed focused on determining the source of movement.
I was a few steps away when I heard something behind me. It did not sound like bullets rolling or vials breaking. It sounded like singing.
It sounded like Geraldine.
I stopped in the aisle and turned, gun in my arms and ready to shoot.
There she was, singing softly to herself as she picked up shards of glass and placed them in a pile. She bent to retrieve another and the stake sticking out of her bumped up against the bench. She stopped singing, pulled the stake from her heart, resumed her tune, and picked up the glass.
My hands trembled as I held the gun.
She placed the last shard of glass on the pile, looked up at me, and smiled.
That smile fueled my hunting, once upon a time. I would rid the world of these dangerous creatures and provide safety for my Geraldine. Her admiration was coal for my locomotive, and I’d felt no shame in that. Yet somewhere along the way she’d gone astray. A Hunter’s wife, turned to the very creature hunted? In that I felt shame.
Her smile faltered as I stared. I held the gun steady and focused on the hole in her heart. No, in her chest. She was naught but a heartless shell of the woman I loved.
“Thaddeus?” The sound of my name on her lips was a heavy weight.
I aimed at her chest and pulled the trigger. The click reminded me I had yet to reload the bullets.
“Thaddeus.” The word was a command and I responded.
I experienced then the same odd effect that led to my initial suspicions of my dearest wife. A sensation occurred within my body, as though I’d previously been full of air and someone had opened the release valve. My insides deflated, leaving behind a haunting emptiness. This was not in the literal sense, of course. That would leave me some new kind of creature, shriveled and empty of soul.
I am not a monster.
“If you were dead set on redecorating this coach in red, my love, there are less grisly options.” She gave me that half smile she gives when making light of that which is too dark to carry. “All of them, Thaddeus? They were all vampires?”
“As you know quite well.”
She mocked my Hunter’s discernment. What game did she play?
“I didn’t intend to question your abilities as a Hunter, I-”
I scanned the immediate area for scattered wooden bullets that may have missed Geraldine’s tidying, and was rewarded for my efforts. Three lay under a bench, to the right and forward. A hasty step toward them resulted in a sharp stab of pain in my gut. I leaned on my gun once again and took a moment to regain my composure.
There are no sufficient words in existence that accurately describe the rhythmic pattern of the Thaddeus Stone. Its very consistency is a source of comfort, perhaps a reminder of the infant stage when cradled by mother. It moved from an underlying constant to a full focus and for a moment I heard only the train, felt only the movement beneath my boots.
I heard only the train- Geraldine was quiet.
A spark of something lit inside me- surely not fear. I smothered it and faced my wife.
She stared hard at the far end of the coach. I could see nothing beyond the blood and bodies of my friends, but then recalled the movement I’d failed to investigate. The resurrection of Geraldine had demanded my attention.
Her loud gasp made demands yet again. She looked askance at my wound, her jaw slack and mouth open. There were tears in her eyes and when she blinked they spilled over onto her cheeks.
A spark of something lit inside me- this I knew as anger. The one who’d held the knife, who’d driven it deep within, the one who held ultimate responsibility for the savagery surrounding us- this one would not shed tears of sorrow on my behalf. I struggled to hold my composure, then questioned the point. My Hunter’s snarl turned her expression from sorrow to fear.
The pleasure at this change brought shame right alongside it, with no time to indulge in either. She grabbed my Hunter’s Kit and held it in front of her. The box was solid. It would serve well as a makeshift weapon and she had strength within her.
She came at me. I jerked back, knocking the gun from my hand. A Hunter’s reflexes are known to be quick and mine did not fail- the gun was back in hand before it could hit the floor. The wrenching of my body ripped at my now seeping wound. I clamped down on the shout of pain. Geraldine was near upon me. I stepped back, my eyes on the bullets to the right and forward.
The sensation of falling and the puddle of slickness under my boot barely had time to register before I hit the floor, hard. The shout of pain burst through. My vision clouded and I feared Geraldine would crush my skull before my sight returned. I crawled sideways, toward the bullets I knew were there, determined to win this battle.
My vision cleared. The bullets were close at hand. Geraldine loomed over me, the box at her feet. I snatched the three bullets and shoved them in the pocket of my vest. She held a stack of bandages in her arms, enough to smother a man three times my size. I pushed myself away with my legs, gritting my teeth at the pain. She spoke my name, as if she were still my Bride and I still her Hunter. I pushed myself away again, kept her in my sight, and loaded the gun with the three bullets. She reached toward me with her stack of bandages and her false tears. I aimed the gun at her heart and looked straight into her eyes. They widened in horror. She hesitated. I pulled the trigger. She screamed.
The bullet barely grazed her left shoulder.
I swore at myself for not taking my weakened state into account. Her eyes drew my gaze when I should have kept my aim steady. I took aim again but she refused to cooperate. She traded the bandages for the box, tossing it at me as she ran. It bumped my left knee.
I raised the gun again, analyzing the odds of hitting a moving target while badly injured. While I hesitated, she reached the far end of the coach. Something moved between the benches.
“What in tarnation?!”
She heard my exclamation and turned to look at me while still running forward. A rectangular shape rolled out in front of her. Her feet came up off the ground and she landed on top of the thing, sprawled on her stomach.
I took the opportunity to pull myself to my feet.
She turned over and sat up, her attention on the object beside her. I walked closer, using the bench seats for support. It was a toy boxcar she’d fallen over, a model sized version of the Thaddeus Stone’s. I was close now, gun in hand, yet Geraldine appeared not to notice. She was enthralled by the toy train car that was to be the death of her.
I took aim.
Above or in or under the pattern of the Thaddeus Stone, I heard another. Similar, yet not.
She looked up and started to say my name.
I shot her.
She slumped over the toy. My aim was true.
I turned the gun on the source of the movement- a small boy trying to make himself smaller. He hid between the two benches on the other side of my dead yet again wife, his knees to his chin and his head down.
“It would seem I have a stowaway,” I said. “One more to add to my list of things I am not prepared to deal with this day.”
The boy lifted his head from his knees and looked up at me.
My grip on my gun tightened. My grip on my mind I questioned as I stared into the face of my own, some forty years prior.
I scrambled to make sense of the nonsensical. Geraldine and I had no children. Neither was there possibility of a bastard born nine or ten years past. A child on my train who was the mirror image of myself at his age? It defied logic.
“I’m sorry.” His voice was small but his gaze fierce. “I did not intend to hurt the lady.”
“I know,” I said. “I did.”
He clenched his fists and stared past me, at the woman or the toy I did not know.
“What are you?” I asked.
The bell on the Thaddeus Stone rang out. One ring. Then silence.
I could discern no cause for such a thing at this particular time, which troubled me. But the boy troubled me more.
“What are you?” I repeated. “I will not ask again.”
He gave no response, his eyes locked on the toy boxcar that pulsed with its own rhythm. The pattern wound in and out through that of the Thaddeus Stone’s, like precision machinery.
What magic this, to bring a plaything to life from the arms of a boy that could not be? Nothing good, that was clear.
I would not ask again.
I aimed the gun at his face. My face.
The gun trembled in my arms, refusing to be strong and steady.
The door to the coach slammed open.
My gun went off- the how forever a mystery, as Hunter’s do not startle- and my last bullet ended the life of a flowered reticule clutched in the lap of a very dead undead creature whom I formerly called friend.
There was no time to mourn the reticule, nor the bullet. The door slammed open, the gun went off, and my fireman rushed into the coach, nearly tripping over Geraldine. Coal dust clung to his clothes and skin. Well worn goggles were shoved up on his head, leaving two pale circles around his eyes- eyes which were wide and questioning as he took in the sight of blood and bodies and me and the gun and the boy.
My eyes were likely wide and questioning as well. The fireman should not be in the coach judging the workmanship of the owner. The fireman should be in the cab, feeding coal to the firebed. Little and often.
I said it aloud.
He reached up to rub the side of his jaw, nodded at me, then swallowed hard.
“Little and often, Sir,” he said, “that’s the way of things. Methodical. Controlled firing.” He nodded again. “Coal from the tender to the firebox, adjust the firehole doors, do it all again. Little and often, that’s right.”
He laughed then, a harsh “Ha” that held no humor but sparked an explosion of rapid fire words I could barely make out.
“The engineer’s gone mad due to the tender it’s not right and why does that boy look like me the engineer he feels responsible but nobody prepares you for things like that and it’s not right, nothing is right.” Quick breaths between the last few words, one deep breath as he scanned the coach’s carnage, and then more words, fast paced but understandable. “The impossible is living and breathing on this very train, Thaddeus. You killed your friends?” He looked at Geraldine lying near his feet, then looked back at me. His words, like his gaze, became slow and steady. “You killed your wife, Thaddeus?”
“That’s not my wife.” I stared at her for a moment, dead on the floor before me, her cheek pressed up against the newly bloodstained boxcar. The intertwining rhythm from train and toy paused, then picked back up, like a hiccup. Or what Geraldine would call a “hitch in the throat”.
I would not lose the Thaddeus Stone.
Gesturing to the boy still sitting silently between the benches, I addressed my fireman. “Bring him with us to the cab. His fate will have to wait.”
I was out the door before he could respond, a new sense of purpose numbing the wound in my belly. The fresh air was life and the locomotive’s roar a battle cry, as I scrambled across the side of the tender and into the cab.
And if I leaned a bit heavier on my empty gun, what of it?
The cab was of decent size, with a short leather bench along one side. Any momentary pleasure I received upon entering- the firebox was a thing of beauty with its variety of glass and steel valves and gauges- was replaced by a sense of dread when I saw the reason for the previous odd ring of the bell.
My engineer hung by his neck in the bell pull, his arms loose at his sides, his body still in his seat. The man responsible for driving this beast had apparently hanged himself.
My fireman arrived then, the boy with him.
“This.” I pointed to my engineer. “This is what happens when you allow monsters aboard your train.”
The boy moved to examine him.
I turned to the fireman. “We’ll sort him out later, the Thaddeus Stone is priority.” I gestured toward the firebox. “You need to feed this beast. I’ve no idea what happens should we run out of steam.”
He hesitated, rubbed at his neck, then spoke slowly. “I was trying to say before, Sir. There’s no coal.”
“That’s impossible. The tender’s empty?”
He squirmed a bit. “Well, no, not quite.”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” the boy called out, “but this man is not dead.”
A coughing fit from the engineer confirmed this.
The fireman laughed without humor. “I wondered how a man could up and hang himself from a bell pull, but odder things I’ve seen this day.”
I asked my engineer if he could speak.
I told him of my concerns, the odd hiccups (its occurrence continued, with no regular pattern I could discern), and the lack of coal in the tender. He stared at the boy as I spoke, mumbled something about “like me”, then dragged his attention back to the matter of the Thaddeus Stone. My engineer hung his head low as he admitted to possible internal stress on the firebox and a malfunctioning safety valve. “It’s only a matter of time, Sir. Only a matter of time.”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” the boy called out again, “but I’ve discovered the problem with the tender.”
Frustrated by yet another interruption, I was less than my usual patient self when I responded. “What in tarnation is the problem with the tender then?”
The boy got small again, shrinking into himself and speaking softly. He did speak though, I had to give him that. And what he said made my blood boil.
“The tender’s full of dead vampires.”
I pushed back the rage. A Hunter did not allow feelings to rule. A Hunter remained calm and did not allow the creatures control.
“If those monsters have somehow replaced the coal,” I said, “then use them as such.”
“Sir?” My fireman’s tone indicated his disdain for such an order.
“They are vampires, they are in my tender, and they will burn.” My wound demanded a bit of relief. I moved to the bench and sat, back stiff and straight. “You have an ax. Chop, chop.”
A gasp came from the boy, which I ignored.
My fireman crossed his arms over his chest and defied me with a simple, “No.”
So distracted was I by this defiance, I didn’t notice someone enter the cab until everyone else did. I turned to follow their gaze.
“Burning vampires will not make a lick of difference, Thaddeus, look at the sight glass.” Geraldine stood much too close, cradling the boxcar in her arms.
“It will if we start with you.” A Hunter did not allow feelings to rule. “How in tarnation are you alive?” A Hunter remained calm and did not allow the creatures control.
“I’m not your enemy, Thaddeus.” She rocked the toy gently as she spoke.
Its pulse, its rhythm, drew me in. A strong desire rose in me for whatever it held inside. A powerful need. I leaned closer.
“I’m sorry I tripped you and got you killed.” The boy stepped between me and my wife, offering apology.
I sat back, equally enticed and repelled by whatever horror dwelt in that boxcar.
My wife knelt down next to the boy and smiled. “Thaddeus does not have the power to kill me,” she said. “I refuse to die, you see, so I get back up.”
The boy nodded like this made a lick of sense, my fireman rubbed at his eyes, and my engineer stared out at the tracks as though the end of the world would arrive at any moment.
“Thank you for bringing the boxcar,” the boy said, “it’s the only way to save us.”
Geraldine handed the toy to the boy, then stood and reached out to me. “We must go, Thaddeus.”
This woman. I’d adored her, admired her, respected her. Trusted her.
The wound in my belly burned hot and deep. The anger near as much. I’d married a vampire. I’d loved a monster. And now she refused to die and leave me alone with the gut wound she gave. The vampires in the tender, they were likely part of her plan to sabotage my train. And the sight glass… she had mentioned the sight glass.
I ignored her outstretched hand and looked at the sight glass. It indicated the water level and it should never, never be low. It was low. And she was the one to mention it. Of course.
The fire in me rose beyond my Hunter’s control and I lunged at Geraldine. I shoved my hand into my wound, yelling at the pain, and yanked out the dagger she’d stuck in me. My fireman jumped in front of her. We grappled and shoved. I knocked him out of the cab and into the night air.
Darkness had fallen.
The boy hollered at me to stop, to take the boxcar. This barely registered. I was a Hunter and I smelled prey. Geraldine would taste of death once more. Geraldine would leave me be. A primal shout came from within, a release of all she was and failed to be, a release of all I was and failed to be. I placed it all in that one motion and drove the dagger deep into my wife’s heart. Her cry became a gurgle. And when there was silence, I tossed her from the train into the dark.
The Thaddeus Stone was in trouble.
I ordered my engineer and the boy to follow me. My engineer stayed in his seat, staring out at the night. The boy and I climbed out of the cab, around the tender, and back through the coach full of dead friends. The boy sniffled and wiped at his eyes with the back of one hand, but said not a word.
“It would seem our best bet is to jump,” I said. My wound protested the mere idea, the pain so intense it clouded my sight.
“I will stay.” The boy held the boxcar up. “Take it. It’s the heart of the matter.”
“Why do I want this?” I did want it. I wanted it quite a lot.
“Do you hear the beat?”
I nodded. The beat grew stronger and louder as I listened.
“It is yours.” He held it out further, pushing it toward me.
“What is it?” I did not take it. Danger. There was danger in that boxcar.
“I told you, it’s yours,” the boy said. “It’s your heart.”
“Nonsense.” I stiffened, offended at the very idea. “I am not heartless. I am not a monster. I hunt heartless creatures.”
“I know.” His voice spoke of deep sadness.
Pain wrapped itself around me. The boy and his boxcar were buried beneath a haze. I would waste no more time debating the contents of a toy train car while the Thaddeus Stone fell to pieces. With nothing more to be done, I left him to his madness, opened the coach door, and prepared to jump.
I heard the explosion, felt the Thaddeus Stone lift up and to the side, smelled the acrid smoke and burning flesh- all in the same moment. The floor disappeared from beneath me. There was no up, no down. And in the space of that moment I was ejected from the Thaddeus Stone into the dark night of the soul.
Everything was pain.
How long I lay in the wreckage, I had no way of knowing. But when I next opened my eyes, the first glimmer of dawn arrived and the world was still. What was left of the Thaddeus Stone lay on its side near the tracks of its final derailment. Most of it was scattered across the fields of overgrown grass. The extent of the destruction horrified me, and I rolled onto my back to stare at the brightening sky.
My body protested the state of awareness and begged for the release of sleep once again. I gave in for a time. When I awoke next, the sun was bright and warm on my skin. I turned to my side, this time ignoring my body’s protests, and took in what I had not wished to face before.
Jagged pieces of metal. Shattered glass. Unidentifiable bits of former friends- and likely my engineer. If there was anything left of him at all.
The silence no longer felt peaceful and welcoming. I was- I could not bring myself to say the word. Not I, the Hunter. Not I, the protector. I was not to be, and yet I was.
I was afraid.
A wretched noise came from deep within and I allowed myself to weep. For awhile, it was the only sound in the stillness of the scene. And then I heard it. The beat. The pattern.
The rhythm from within the boxcar.
Pushing myself up on my elbows, I searched quadrant by quadrant until I found it. There it was across the field, the toy boxcar, sitting upright and showing no signs of damage. And laying in the grass on either side? The boy and my wife.
I blinked a few times in order to clear my vision. The boy rolled over onto his back to stare at the sky and the sense of relief I felt surprised me.
My wife looked like an old doll, twisted and broken, with her bones ripped through her flesh and a few dislocated limbs. She worked with her one good arm to put herself back together. I had to admit, her persistence was admirable.
And between the boy and my wife sat the boxcar, its familiar pattern drawing me to whatever it held.
I pushed myself up, tried to stand to my feet and investigate, but my injuries knocked me to the ground. I lay there, breathing with the rhythm of the boxcar, and welcomed death.
Death refused my invitation.
I pushed myself up on my elbows once again, measuring the distance between me and that boxcar. It would be difficult, if possible at all in my condition.
The boy laughed, writing in the air with his finger. My wife began to sing. The rhythm from the boxcar intensified. “It’s the only way to save us”, he’d said.
I breathed in deeply, stiffened my body, and moved one arm forward. Little and often, I inched closer to the Heart of the Matter.