A Train Bound for Nowhere

by Tale Swapper

Chapter 1: I Met Up with a Young Woman

I've met a lot of people in my life, wandering from place to place. There are a lot of different types of people, but travelers on the long haul have a few distinct looks which stick in the mind.

I've seen a lot of people with eyes fixed on the horizon, unable to see where they were for the future stretched before them. (I've seen them die, not seeing the fall below their feet; the drugs, the police, their own failures.)

I've seen those obsessed with putting one foot in front of the other, obsessed with the journey itself. (I've seen them age, until they wander into a place, look around, and lay down roots, one way or another.)

I've seen people with a goal, something tangible; not necessarily a place, but an ideal, a destination. (The lucky ones find something good along the way, before the journey's end. Some never do.)

And then there are those like me. I've seen my face reflected in others' faces more times than I care to think about. We're running, one way or another; from our pasts, from the future, from who we are.

The girl who sat down three rows ahead of me had that look. Old, tired eyes in a face far too young to have them, tracks of old tears staining golden skin. Her hair, strands of red over yellow, hung limply from a knit cap, and she clutched an old backpack tight to her chest.

As the train pulled out of the station, I couldn't help but watch her. Whoever she was, she wasn't an old hand at traveling. She wore a bulky jacket in bright colors, and she didn't seem used to her surroundings. Despite the obvious pain in her face and the bags under her eyes, she wasn't trying to sleep. Maybe she was afraid of someone making off with her things.

As I watched her slowly sink down, something struck a cord with me. I rose up from my seat, lifted my pack, and wandered over to the row which faced her. Sinking into the seat, I saw her tense. Not that I blamed her; when a strange man with five o'clock shadow and a worn overcoat intrudes without warning, you have every right to be cautious.

At first, I said nothing, just looking her over. As the silence wore on, I turned my head to watch the suburbs recede into the night. Thinking, I decided to break the silence through confusion. "Where are you going from?"

The girl opened her mouth as though to respond, then hesitated. Tilting her head slightly, she seemed to tumble over the words for a moment, before she responded. "Do you mean where are you going?"

"No. I meant, what are you leaving behind." I turned back to face her, only to see her eyes straining against the near-darkness outside.

"I'm leaving behind... a group of friends. Or, I thought they were." Her voice dragged, sleeplessness etched in each syllable. "I'm not certain they were, now."

I listened to the clatter of the wheels for a moment before responding. "Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"Why should I?" There was a tired pain in those words. "None of them listened."

"Nothing better to do." I replied. Pulling my deck of cards out of my pocket, I began to turn them over, worn edges tapping fingers as I shuffled. "Unless you're up for a game."

Turning back to me, she glanced at the cards in my hands. "...why do you care, anyway?" Looking up to catch my gaze, she frowned. "And how did you know i was running?"

"The way you hold your head. The way you hold your eyes. I've made a life out of reading people's faces, especially fellow travelers." I stacked the deck, then drew my cards, motioning for her to do the same. "Crazy eights. Know the game?"

"Yes." She picked up her cards, then looked up. She peered at me for a moment. "You called yourself a traveler. Are you-"

"Just that." I cut her off as I made the first play. "No other job. I guess if you wanted to give me a title, you could call me a gambler. But that's not really a profession, you know."

"If you're making a living off chance, I don't know why I should listen to you." The girl's voice had gotten a little steadier as we played. "But, if you could read me so well, maybe you have a calling elsewhere."

Playing my own card, and skipping her turn for a second, I replied. "Why would reading you be difficult? You're young, girl. Compared to the people I play against, you have a thousand tells."

"I hid being a monster for two years." She played a response. "I thought I was good at fooling people."

"Hmm. A monster, upset at losing her friends?"

"I've left that behind. But as soon as something went wrong, they thought I'd never changed."

"Oh." I looked at my hand, then played my last cards. Finishing the first round, I let her deal the next hand. "No other options? No one else to help?"

"No... maybe." She gulped, and there was silence for a little while as we played. Eventually, she continued. "I- there were others. But one's given me too much already, and another I burned my bridges with a long time ago. No one else trusts me."

"Hmm. Sound like you have a few cards left in your hand." I looked down, frowned, and drew a new card. Looking up, I saw her play her last. "Or perhaps you don't. Make it best two outta three?"

She nodded, and we continued. The last round was played in silence. Looking up, I could read her shoulders. Tense, uncertain. She seemed... tentative. As we finished the game, she glanced up at me.

"You call yourself a gambler. How'd you lose?"

I shrugged. "Luck can be with you one moment, then away the next. You gotta know when to hold and when to fold; you're not going to win every hand." Scooping up the deck, I shuffled it back and forth a bit. "Where are you going? You've not mentioned family, and you've left your friends behind."

"Hmm." She looked out the window again. "I don't know."

I paused, then withdrew my bottle, taking a slug of the brown liquid within. "Running with no destination? That's how my journey started." She looked up at me, aquamarine eyes curious, and I shook my head. "No story worth telling, girl."

I finished my last swallow of whiskey, putting the bottle back in my coat. As I sat there for a moment, thinking over what we'd said, I remembered, long ago, my boots stepping into a train car much like this one. I'd found myself alone that night, and it had torn me up; I'd spent my money on drink and cards in the next town, starting a cycle I'd never really escaped from. The girl, though... she had more wit than I ever would.

I reached into my coat and withdrew a battered pack of cigarettes, ignoring the look the girl shot at me. Reaching in behind the liner, I pulled my tobacco money out; a few dollars saved up to buy the next pack, immune to dice or cards. Tucking the pack back into my coat, I pressed the bills into her hands.

As she stared at me, I grinned. "Take this, girl." Letting the money go, I sat back, staring out at the darkness. "You- you've got a choice here. I did too, once. I had a home, an angry family I was running from. I chose to take my money and run, just like you're doing. And I never found home again."

"Maybe you'll be different. Maybe you'll find what you're looking for. But I doubt it. You've go the look I carry- one which turns tail and flees as soon as things go wrong. It's new on you- but I can see it."

"Take those bills. Get off at the next stop. If you want, go buy a cup of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, or put a bet on dice or cards." I turned back to her, my voice soft. "Or do the hard thing. Pay for a ticket back. Turn around, face what's going on. Fight instead of running. You can run later, if you really have to, but I can tell; if you start running now, you might never stop."

She looked down at the bills, then back up at me. "And why haven't you turned to fight? Why have you kept running?"

"I went back, once. They were gone; parents dead two years after I left, brother gone to find an education. I'd run from home, never imagining that it would be gone if I ever went back." I stared at my hands. "Sometimes, you need to be there. You need to make a clean break before you leave. I didn't, and my search for home hasn't ever ended as a result." I looked up at her. "Go back. If you want to try to fix things or just want to leave with a clean mind, go back. You'll play the "what if" game for the rest of your life if you don't."

As I leaned back, I motioned to the battered deck sitting in front of me. "Take those with you, at least. Just remember to keep track of what cards you have- that deck's had more replacements than any other I've ever carried."

Frowning, she took the cards. "...you remind me of my old mentor, you know. Half-cryptic words, learn-it-yourself attitude."

"Experience is the best teacher, girl." I reached beside me, and pulled on my old hat, tipping it down to block the lights of the cabin. "I'd suggest you get some sleep. The road- one way or another,- is waiting in the morning." I was asleep as soon as I finished speaking.

When I tipped my hat up again, the girl was gone. Morning light etched across the seats, a clear sky rebounding rays off the snow outside. Looking out he window, I caught a glimpse of a puffy jacket and a knitted cap as they vanished into the crowd in the station. My cards were gone, but in their place was a note wrapped around a solid object.

Wrapped in paper, a small coin, made of gold and emblazoned with the sun on one side, a winged unicorn on the other. I didn't recognize the language, nor has anyone I've spoke to since. The note, on the other hand, was written in plain English.

"I don't think my hand's played out yet. Maybe yours isn't either. Thanks for the advice." It was unsigned.

I don't know what happened to the girl I met that cold night, a week before Christmas. I wonder, sometime, whether the next hard face- hair pulled into a ponytail or cropped short, puffy jacket traded for layers of coats- which boards the trains or buses I ride will be her, still running from a place which rejected her. I don't know if she went back, to make up with the friends, to prove she wasn't a monster. Maybe she ended it all, or had it ended for her; dying in a back room or at the feet of one thought a friend. Maybe she triumphed, one way or another.

I don't know. What I do know is that the little coin she left me feels warm to the touch, and I've had more luck flipping it then any other coin I've carried. I know she seemed wise and young, with scars of her own making on herself.

And I know she thinks she had a chance. I hope- wherever she is- she remembers the cards, the train car, and my advice.

There's little else I've left on this world that'll remain. Maybe she'll carry the memory of the gambler she met one day.

As for me? I expect to die on some ride to nowhere. But maybe I can hold onto hope she avoided having a journey with no end.

Author's Notes:

Inspired by the song "The Gambler"(shown below), written by Don Schlitz. I've always wondered how Sunset would react to a bit of advice given at the right moment, at any of the turning points in her life; before leaving Celestia, before the fall formal, as Anon-A-Miss was at its worst. Here, an old traveler gives some advice.

How do you think she reacts? What happens next?

I'm leaving it open. Happy reading.


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