For Mom, who always encouraged me to dream
(even when it weirded you out)
Deep into that darkness peering,
long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal
ever dared to dream before.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Edgar opened one eye to a slit.
The passenger car jostled, and there arose from beneath, one long metal-on-metal cry. The sound squealed above the clatter of tracks, then faded with the hot sooty belch of smokestack steam. It merged, at last, with the staticky whispers that had awoken him.
“Does he sleep?”
Edgar felt his muscles clench. He took pains to stay calm, to not move, to keep his breathing steady, measured.
It had been during the passage through the last tunnel, when the world had once again gone black, that he’d first become aware of their renewed presence. The demons. They had returned. Always they returned. To drag him from this world into the other.
A shudder ran through him. He let his eye slip shut.
“Watch him,” rasped another voice. “He will take the next train.”
Edgar’s hand on the armrest twitched. The sweat of his fever now became the cold sweat of fear, and it beaded on his broad brow until he felt a trickle slide down his temple.
He could not go back with them. Not when he had come so close to severing his link with their world— her world—forever.
He heard the sharp slide of the compartment door and stealthily hazarded to raise his eyelid once more.
A stout man in a snug uniform pushed into the compartment.
“Arriving in Baltimore,” he announced, his voice a mellow drone. Edgar knew the man would not— could not—perceive his pursuers, their grotesque grins, their fiendish claws.
The man brushed past. Edgar seized his chance. He stooped low, making use of the conductor’s wide frame to shield his movement as he slid from his seat. Instinctively, his grip tightened on Dr. Carter’s malacca cane, the one he had taken such care to switch out for his own. The one within which slumbered a sleek silver blade.
The wheels squealed again. Without warning, the train lurched to a halt.
Edgar faltered, crying out. He caught himself, gripping the sides of the door frame, and turned in time to see the hollow black gazes of his pursuers lift and capture his.
He broke into a run.
They slunk after him, their furious whispers now like a torrent of rushing leaves.
Edgar dashed through the next compartment and the next. His pathway ahead narrowed with travelers gathering their belongings, blind to the monsters that followed in his wake.
Someone shouted as he shoved through, nearly toppling another man to the floor.
He closed in upon the nearest exit and stumbled out, almost losing his hold on the doctor’s cane as he staggered onto the platform. He grasped the silver handle, itching to draw forth the sword concealed within, even in the midst of such a dense crowd.
With a piercing hiss, the train released a clouded burst of steam. Edgar slipped into its enveloping cover and raised the hood of his cloak.
He watched the creatures emerge from the train, their forms loosening into miasmic coils of black. They spilled forth from the doorway, curling with the steam before re-forming once more into wholeness.
Tall, gaunt, and rakish, the demons convened for only a moment, then dispersed in search.
Edgar merged with the assembly of fellow travelers. He made his way through the sea of the oblivious, his sights narrowed on the train that could return him to Richmond. To the singular hope that waited for him there.
Reaching the second platform, he lingered, hesitated, his back turned to the crowd. Then, with the conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” Edgar grabbed the railing and hoisted himself up.
“There!” he heard one of them growl.
He hurried into the compartment, glancing behind him once—once only, peering through the darkened windows. Yes, they followed, dogged him like hellhounds!
Not until the first chug of the steam engine fell upon his ears did he fling open the closest door and leap from the moving train back onto the platform. Staggering to his feet, he rushed headlong into the crowd while behind him the train, puffing hard, picked up speed, his pursuers still aboard.
He knew that they would not be fooled for long.
No matter. There were other means of reaching Richmond.
Edgar pushed through the throng and found his way to the busy street, where he hailed a carriage.
“To the harbor,” he called, and rapped the cane upon the rear wall as he shut the door behind him.
The carriage jerked, tottered, then rolled into action.
Edgar fell back within the coach, allowing himself a deep breath. He braced a quavering hand at his heated brow, where, behind his right eye, a dull ache began to throb.
The carriage swayed as it ambled through the narrow streets, and soon the pain in his head was replaced by a queer yet familiar tingling. It crept upon him, pervading his senses like the dull, faint prickle of a limb gone numb.
Slowly Edgar lowered his hand.
He turned his gaze to the shifting shadows at his right.
She sat beside him, her slight form draped in luminous white gossamer.
“No,” he murmured.
But the enveloping blackness had already begun to take its hold.
It wrapped him like a sheet, and as her hand, cold as marble, grasped his, he felt the pitch overtake him as it never had before.
In an instant, the blackness devoured him, leaving the coach vacant.
By the end of fourth period, Isobel’s espresso buzz from that morning’s venti latte had long since worn off. She yawned, fast approaching crash-and-burn territory and shifted in her seat as Mr. Swanson droned on and on about the green-eyed monster, Desdemona, thus, thou, and yea verily. She traced and retraced the looping spiral design she’d all but ground into the front of her blue notebook.
“And with that,” Mr. Swanson said, finally snapping closed his ultrathick teacher’s copy of their text, cueing the rest of the class to follow suit with a unanimous thunk, “we’ll leap into further discussion about Iago and his supposed honesty on Monday.”
Isobel straightened in her seat, brushed her sheet of blond hair behind one shoulder, and shut her own book with relish.
“But hold on, hold on,” he said above the rustling and scraping of chairs. He raised both hands and lowered them through the air, as if such a motion somehow held the power to still the room and reinstate the Elizabethan-literature-inspired stupor he’d managed to cast over all.
Kids jonesing for lunch and already halfway out of their seats sank back down again, their butts reconnecting with their chairs like magnets snapping together. All around, backpacks slipped from shoulders and chins returned to hands.
They should have known better, Isobel thought wryly. Swanson never let them out early. Never. Especially not as early as a quarter till.
“Don’t go and get antsy on me yet, folks,” he warned, now brandishing a stack of what looked suspiciously to Isobel like fresh-from-the-copier pages.