When eleven year old Millie finds herself stepping through the dark and onto a strange looking train, there’s not an awful lot she can do. Without her parents and the comfort of familiar surroundings, Millie is left to ask strangers for help. But the other passengers are silent and sorrowful, looking anywhere but at her - and they won't tell her the name of the next stop... Show Less
The smell was coming from the sole passenger, who was trying to light a pipe but having little success. There was a stream of muttered curses from the back seat as its owner slipped another match from a box.
Beyond the rounded windows, the small slice of road outside was caught in a halted storm. Raindrops paused in their descent, lingering in the air, while the cold wind that should have accompanied them was absent.
A few empty cars were stranded beside the bus, but those too were still. The tarmac they rested on stretched a few feet in either direction, then cut off into nothing. There was no horizon, just white.
Back inside, the flame of the match finally took, and after a few hurried puffs a small line of grey smoke spiralled up and into the air.
“You told Nate you’d stopped that nonsense.”
“I said no such thing.”
A young man in a black suit waved a hand in front of his face as he stepped through the open doors and up onto the bus. “Implied it, then.”
The smoker shrugged. “Serves him right for being so gullible. Come sit with me.”
There was a quiet minute or so while the man walked down the centre aisle and situated himself, sinking back into the foam and relaxing. It was lighter out here, in these calm, white spaces. His mood was improving with each passing moment, though that might have just been the company. “Did you want to ask me something?”
The end of the pipe glowed happily, the light causing the small silver cross around the smoker’s neck to shine in the dim. The metal made for an interesting contrast, resting as it was against an old tartan scarf. “A little one went missing from down my way last night. No more than nine.”
“Could have ended up with Nate.”
“No, I don’t think so. The parents... they were, well, you know.”
The man sighed and twisted in his seat. He reached out a pale hand and pulled at the pipe until the smoker gave up their grip. He took a drag from it. “There’s nothing you can do to stop it, I told you that long ago,” he said. He continued before his companion could respond. “If there was a child on my watch I would have seen them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t down there somewhere. I can look for them, if you want me to, but it won’t make much difference in the end.”
The smoker took the pipe back. “I know, but still...” They trailed off with a sigh, fingertips of their free hand picking at the old wool of their skirt.
“It’s become much easier for you, hasn’t it,” the man said after a moment. “Finding these places.”
He got a nod in reply.
“You know it’s not just because of your particular talents, right?” he asked, gesturing to the necklace.
The smoker bit at the inside of their bottom lip, an old habit. “When I last saw your little opposite, he told me people had started falling. He said he didn’t know where they were ending up.”
“Can’t say I blame them,” the man grinned. “All that singing.”
He was rewarded with a short, sharp jab in the side and a stern look. “Aren’t you worried too?”
The man sniffed, “Maybe a little, but it’s not exactly my department.” He stood up and turned back into the aisle before reaching out a hand to help his old friend up. When they were both on their feet he lead the way to the front of the bus, sparing a glance at the empty driver’s seat.
“I’ll look for your little one,” he said before they left. “But don’t be surprised if I don’t find them. This sort of thing is happening more and more now. It’s part of the price we paid.”
He got no reply, and hesitated before stepping off. He turned his head to look at his companion. The years had done as they tended to, and young impulsive eyes had aged into wiser ones. But there was still a hint of the same dogged determination he had glimpsed during their first meeting.
He shrugged. “All we can do is wait and see.”
The smoker slipped their hand into his and they departed. And after a moment, the bus did too.