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Midnight Train Choice This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

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I'm walking the cobblestoned road alongside the grim looking tracks. My wide-brimmed hat is pulled low, casting a dark shadow across my skin, shielding my identifying features from prying eyes. The station is silent, and at first glance there appears to be nobody else around but the shadow attached to the soles of my feet, and even that seems to be giving me a judging look. My hands are shoved deep into the pockets of my worn-down work suit, and the bench sitting alongside the tracks looks inviting. I sit upon the rotting oak and take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of termite-infested neglect. Footsteps... I lift my head and look off towards my left. A man sits down next to me. He's dressed in the same attire I am, right down to the same color laces on his shoes. He doesn't say a word to me, just stares at the ground.

"Excuse me," I say, my voice coming out in a surprisingly low rumble. "But where am I?"

He lifts his head, but doesn't turn it to look at me. Instead he stares straight ahead of him for what feels like a lifetime. Finally, with a sigh that sounded heart-wrenchingly sad, he turns his head to look at me. His face is aged, very aged, and his skin sags with the weight of that age. His eyes were a tired-looking soft blue, and they pinned my very soul with their sad gaze.

"You are at the end of the road, my friend." He reaches his hand out and puts it on my knee comfortingly. "And I hope for your sake, and the sake of your loved ones, that you, too, had no choice in coming here." He pulled his hand back and sagged up onto his feet. My gaze followed him, and then a strange sound caught my attention on the tracks. A large black train pulled to a stop in front of us. The air smelled heavily of death and despair, and the screeching sound of the breaks ripped through my skin like nails on a chalkboard. A man stepped down from the train wearing a formal black business suit over a white shirt with a black tie. Oh, how I instantly longed to choke him with that tie when I saw him, like my shadow, pin me with that same judging look.

The old man turned to face me. He pulled his wrinkly lips up into a comforting, surprisingly warm smile, reaching up with his shaking hand and taking hold of the brim of his hat. He pulled it down in a courteous gesture of farewell, then spoke his final words to me.

"If you are here by choice, here this. No matter if your eyes see it, your ears hear it, or your brain perceives it... you have a choice, and you have someone who loves you. It took me a lifetime to see that, and I only wish I had more time to enjoy it."

He turned, and without another word, stepped up onto the train and seemingly melted into the blackness. The man in the business suit stared at me for another few seconds then climbed up after the man, and the train was instantly off and out of sight.

Using what felt like every last possible bit of strength in my body, I fought the overwhelming sense of dread, worthlessness, and heartache, and pulled myself to my feet. I turned to my right, to the exit, and just stared. Stared and stared, breathed and breathed. Perhaps if I stared long enough, someone or something would come along and take the steps for me, make the choice for me... No, I couldn't think like that. I had to make the decision on my own. I had to fight the shadows that even now seemed to be closing in on me from all directions.

I closed my eyes and took another breath... then took the first step forward. Then another.. and another. The first steps of the rest of my life, so to speak. With newfound confidence I opened my eyes and quickly exited the station. I turned to look back at the sign... The Midnight Train...

Then everything went black. A woman was weeping. There was also a man's voice... he seemed angry, upset, and he was arguing with someone... another man? Maybe a woman, I couldn't tell. No, it was a man, there was that deep rumble. It sounded familiar... the sheriff?

I felt my eyelids flicker, and I blinked them open. I heard a gasp, and then a very solid weight had thrown itself on top of my body and wrapped their arms around me. I gasped at the sharp pain in my chest and tears burned my eyes. That vanilla scent... I brought my arms up and wrapped them around the familiar body of my not-so-official-girlfriend, and the tears streaked down my face.



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