Catherine sighed as she looked out the window, watching the trees speed by, a broken film reel that would never stop flipping. Mom was so wrong, she thought. Train rides aren’t exciting or adventurous. They’re boring. Not even the name of the train she took, the Zephyr, could add excitement to the never-ending sea of trees, rocks, and grass.
The train banked a sharp curve, revealing miles and miles of plains beyond the trees, an even more generic view. As the car shifted, so did something on the floor near her feet. She bent to examine the paper-wrapped package that bumped into her.
For Catherine Morrow. Open only when alone.
The script on the label reminded Catherine of the fancy calligraphy she’d seen on her cousin’s wedding invitations, though the ink was brown and faded, not bright and thick. The paper wrapping was stiff against her fingertips, and it had suffered water damage at some point, though the wrapping had long since dried.
Oh, great, she thought as she looked around the car for the potential messenger. Mom’s trying to hook me up again. I bet the guy’s watching to see if I’m swept away by this grand romantic gesture. The train car was packed with bodies, but none seemed interested in Catherine or her package. Noses were buried in books or newspapers or tablets, with the exception of a few small children whose excitement at riding a train for the first time could not be contained. They scrambled from window to window, announcing every cow or coyote they saw.
Well, if I open it here the kids will descend and demand to see what’s in it–and if I know Mom, there’s no telling what kind of potential “suitor” she shanghaied into this. I could be opening a box of chocolates or a box of vibrators. Better to open it back in my room on the sleeper car.
She stood and tucked the box under her arm. Shadows flickered in the train car as it sped past another copse of trees. With those shadows came a flash of recognition. Something about this train ride was familiar, though Catherine was as new to train travel as the kids that bounded down the aisle in front of her.
She glanced down to sidestep a child and bumped into a man who hadn’t been standing in front of her moments before. A quick look revealed him to be dressed in strange attire, something more at home in an old Western than in modern-day couture. He tipped his wide-brimmed hat, which cast a shadow over his face, and cleared his throat.
“My good lady, I see that you have found my package. If you would ever-so-kindly return it, I might offer you a reward.” He’s got a lazy drawl that pairs well with the outfit.
What the hell is Mom up to? This guy looks more like part of the dinner show than a possible date. “Your package?”
White teeth flashed in the shadow. “Why, yes, ma’am. Right there under your arm. I dropped it earlier and it slid clear down the car.”
Something inside Catherine’s gut screamed at her to back away, to keep the package safe until she could open it. She plastered a polite smile on her face. “I’m so sorry, sir, but you must be mistaken. This package is for me. It’s got my name on it.”
“And what might your name be, ma’am?”
Warning bells sounded in her head, warring with the screaming from her gut. Wherever Mom found this guy, it was the wrong dating site. He’s bad news, I just know it. “Sorry–I’m sure you’re nice and all, but I’m not giving my name to some random guy on the train. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a nap.” She hesitated for a split second. “Besides, my boyfriend’s waiting for me in the car.”
The shadowed grin widened, and he tipped his hat again. “My apologies, ma’am. I shall look around for my package.” He paused. “Perhaps I dropped it in another car…”
With that he turned and headed towards the sleeper cars. Catherine’s heart pounded in her chest.
Shit! What do I do now? He’s going the same direction I am; if he sees me go into my room alone, he’ll probably break in and attack me or something. Damnit, Mom, why do you have to go meddling? I’m perfectly happy waiting for Mister Right to come to me of his own accord, thank you very much. Now I’ve got a stalker on this train, and it’ll be tomorrow before we get to Chicago.
The man disappeared through the door between cars and slammed it shut behind him. Catherine jumped, and for a moment the door looked more like split wood than smooth metal.
A tug at her sleeve drew her attention down to one of the children, a small girl. She was dressed in a ruffled floral-print dress, and her golden hair was neatly woven into tight pigtail braids with ribbons on the ends. “Hey, miss, is that a present?”
Catherine knelt to be closer to eye level with the girl. “Yes. But I can’t open it here. It’s a secret.”
The girl’s brow wrinkled, and a frown marred her pretty face. “That’s a stupid present.” She whirled around and skipped down the aisle.
When Catherine stood back up, the door was back to its metal state. Geez, I’m going crazy. She inched closer to the door and peered through the glass-paned window. Though the sleeper car was dark, she could see that the strange man was nowhere in sight.
She slid the door open and slipped through. Tucking the package under her arm, she dug through her purse for a lighter. Once she found her trusty Bic, she flicked the little red tab and it burst into flame, illuminating the face of the man from the other train car. He was so close she could smell the musty tobacco on his breath, but his sudden appearance wasn’t the most disturbing thing about seeing him in the light.
He had no eyes.
In place of his eyes were two gaping holes, lidless.
His tobacco-stained hands reached out towards Catherine. “I do believe you have my package, young lady.”
Catherine screamed and dropped her lighter. She backed up, fumbling in the dark for the door handle. Once found, she jerked it to the side and fell back through the door into the passenger car. She scrambled to her feet and looked for someone who could help–but the car was empty. No businessmen tapped away at their laptops, no soccer moms read their cheesy romances, and, most notably, no children played.
She ran to the back of the car and tugged at the handle of the back door. Maybe they all went to the dining car. The door didn’t budge, and she cried out when a splinter stabbed her finger.
Wait…a splinter? She looked around and noticed that the car had changed in the few seconds she had been gone. No longer were there metal-framed plastic seats or fluorescent lights; now lanterns hung from the ceiling, and the seats looked more like wooden benches or church pews. The ride grew bumpy, and the sounds of the wheels on the tracks grew louder.
Standing in the doorway through which she had fallen was the eyeless man. He took slow, deliberate steps towards her. “My package, young lady. It is impolite to steal and open someone else’s property.”
“I-it’s got m-my name on it,” she stammered. “You’ve got the wrong package.”
He reached for the package, but Catherine jerked it out of his grasp. “It’s mine!“
In the struggle, the paper on the package tore at one corner, and the flap on top bounced open. Catherine backed into the door and ripped the other flap free and looked inside the box.
What she saw inside made her blood run cold.
Inside was a still-beating human heart.
The man chuckled. “Well, well, I guess it was your package after all, sweet Catherine.”
“I n-never told you my name…”
“You didn’t need to, my dear. I would recognize you in any time, at any place. You are and will always be mine.”
She stood frozen in fear as his hand grabbed her chest. The force of his grip was strong, painful, and she looked down to see blood trickling from five finger-sized wounds in the center of her chest. He dug deeper, and she heard bone cracking as he ripped through to her heart. He pulled it out in one smooth motion and grinned.
“You don’t need this anymore, Catherine. I have your original heart right here.”
From the box he pulled the dismembered heart and shoved it into the gaping hole in her chest. She gasped for air. One gulp. Two gulps.
He squeezed, and the new heart inside Catherine began to pump. He drew his bloody hand out of her chest and placed it on her cheek. “How do you feel, my dear?”
She gazed into the voids where his eyes once sat. “I feel so much better now, Charles.” She straightened the bloody linen dress she now wore and adjusted her blood-stained while gloves. “How long has it been this time?”
“A hundred years, my love, since we last were together.”
Catherine nodded. “Well, Charles, shall we find your eyes now?”