The train station at the end of the world sits on a cliff above the great expanse. The road to it takes you around a mountain of layered rock twisted into a shape not unlike a tightened rosebud. The station is perched on the lip of one of the petal outcroppings, and the track trails off it down into the milky nothing like a snapped spider web. The stone of the mountain is a pale, sand-dune brown, almost pink in the dawn’s light. The train station is a tin shack about as tall and broad as a farmhouse, and as long as an airplane hanger. It’s tail end hangs off the lip of the ledge above the nothing. The building is dappled with rust that eats clean through it in some patches. There’s one lone conductor that stands at the top of the platform’s stairs.
There is only one platform. There’s only one train. It goes only one way.
I had a friend that went there before all this. In return, I got a postcard of the station with their name typed on the back at the bottom.
Lousy going away present. Lousy farewell. Then again, they always are.
One August, I kissed you on the mouth outside of a darkened bar. In August the nights are always dark and violent with the death of the season. I hated those times, transitional times. They were always hard on me.
The inside of the bar had been just as dark as the night, and though I had stood next to you while the band played and bodies milled around, and had even held your hand, I had yet to see your face clearly. I liked you by smell. It was clean-sheet smell with the tang of a nervous sheen of sweat underneath.
I followed you outside and lit a cigarette and smoked at your back.
“Nice band,” I said
“Yeah,” you said.
“You seem nice,” I said.
“Thanks,” you said.
“These things have been really hard for me,” I said.
“They can be,” you said.
“I just used to come here with a friend of mine,” I said. “But they’re gone now.”
You turned and put a hand on my shoulder and I leaned into you.
“We’ve all got missing stuff,” you said. “I’m sorry.”
I peaked my head back and our lips touched, then parted, and then pressed into each other harder. When I came away, there was something warm and small and round on my tongue. I pulled it out between my fingers. A pale, pink light sputtered between us.
That was the night I spit out the glow-worm. And I saw you come into focus.
After my friend had gone, I had looked into the train station. On the Internet I read stories about it. About the famous musician who went up the mountain and came back, his head shaved and a thick seam running down the arc of his head. How he never wrote another song after that and never appeared in public.
A man followed his wife up once, but the conductor wouldn’t let him on the platform. He had to watch from the bottom of the stairs as she boarded, as she stood stone-faced in the frame of the last car’s window, and as the train coughed itself to life.
I had stories like this printed and left out all over my desk, and the postcard pinned to my wall. I bought paintings of the station, books about it, little key chains of the Rosebud Mountain and miniatures of the black steam engine. There were maps showing the way to it. I had a few. But try as I might I could never find any maps of its routes, or timetables of when the train came. There were no tickets on sale, but I did find a bus schedule to the town at the foot of the mountain.
I packed everything away into a chest, the night of the glow-worm, and set up a small aquarium for it in its place. I put everything about the station at the end of world into a chest and pushed it into the back of my closet.
All it would eat was leaves coated in honey and a light dusting of sugar. At first, it was easy to feed, but it grew as time went on, from a pebble to the size of my pinky to the length of my palm. You used to come and sit by its aquarium with me at my desk and watch as it inched across the glass floor, shimmering. We’d take it out and shut the lights off and let it crawl back and forth across our linked hands.
“It’s getting so big,” you whispered, and pressed your lips to my cheek.
“I hope it lasts the winter,” I said. “It gets cold.”
“Can I help?” you asked.
“You should move in with me,” I said. “You should help me take care of it.”
“Really?” you asked.
“It’s yours, too,” I said.
The glow-worm had looped its long body around and around our fingers. I could feel its tiny feet scratching against my palm, and I thought this is a good feeling. These are good things to think.
Not about snapped webs arcing above the mist, floating as if they were tetherless, but about growing things.
For the first three days of the New Year we were stuck inside thanks to a blizzard. By then, the glow-worm was as fat as the desk its aquarium had once sat on. At night, we had to close the door to our bedroom so that its light wouldn’t keep us awake.
“We save so much on electricity,” I used to say, and I wrap my arms around you from behind and kiss your shoulder.
“We lose more in feeding it,” you’d say back, leaning into me. We had to buy our sugar and honey in bulk, and use spinach during the winter. At first it had been finicky about the change, but eventually it took. It had to.
During those three days the glow-worm curled up under the desk and we ran a kerosene heater constantly. I had just quit smoking, and all I wanted to do was sleep, sleep, sleep, until the bugs that were marching through my veins and gnawing away at my brain had died off. We curled together on the bed, and I dozed off and on while the snow beat against the window in a constant wave. It was Heaven, I thought as my eyelids closed, coming down to Earth in one huge chunk to bury us all in bliss.
But I saw mist in my dreams, instead.
I woke up to the sound of rummaging, and a gentle, persistent hiss. When I opened my eyes, you were half in the closet, and the chest was half out. Scattered around you were the papers I had printed.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
You emerged from the closet, the bus schedule in one hand, the postcard in the other.
“What is this?” You asked. “Why do you have them?”
“It’s old,” I said. “It’s just old stuff.”
You opened your mouth and held them out towards me but the hiss had risen to a teakettle screech.
“What is that?” I asked.
I rushed past you, past the postcard, past the bus ticket, and was hit with the stench of burning grass. The glow-worm was thrashing against the kerosene heater; it’s skin soldered to the hot metal.
The first cigarette I had in three months and 17 days was in March, mid-way through the month. I’d kept track of it. Every day was a bloodstain on a calendar that would add up to a better life someday not yet reached. I had the next cigarette two days later, and then three more the week after. I stood outside and smoked them next to the dumpster, threw the rest of the pack in when I was done, then sprayed myself with deodorant every time I went back inside.
It was easy sneaking out then. The glow-worm had grown to half the size of the living room. We had to bring in whole trash bags full of leaves once a day and slather them with honey and a pound of sugar. The house always smelled a little like dirt and earth, so it was easy not to notice the smell of smoke. And there was so little space so suddenly; we were both happy whenever any spare bit was freed up. Absences weren’t only forgiven, but encouraged.
When I finished the fifth cigarette of that year, I threw the rest away as I always did, with a grimace and a promise and a twinge like a needle pinching into my spine, and headed back in. You were in the kitchen with headphones on cooking dinner. On the floor, the desk lay overturned in a heap of bills, cups, and electronic devices on top of the glow-worm.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” I said again, coming into the kitchen and shouting it loud enough so you could hear. You snapped your headphones off and looked at me startled.
“Can you come help me with this?” I said, gesturing towards the mess in the living room.
“I’m kind of busy.”
“Jesus Christ, please,” I said.
We hoisted the table up and threw everything back on top of it willy-nilly. You had to reach under the glow-worm to retrieve your laptop. The screen was a shattered web of glass by the time you got it free.
“Fuck,” you said. “Fuck.”
You threw it across the room and it thudded against the wall.
“It’s getting worse,” you said, shoving the brittle brown end of the glow-worm away from you. The burnt tissue from the heater had spread as quickly as the grow worm grew. It stretched all the way from its tail end to halfway up its body.
“It’s not,” I said. “This isn’t--it’s not damage. It’s not from that. Wounds don’t get bigger as they heal.”
“Maybe it’s not healing,” you said.
“Maybe it would if you’d just fucking help take care of it.”
I went to the corner and pulled a bag of leaves out of the pile and began spreading it on the floor next to the glow-worm’s pulsing mouth. With each fistful of leaves I pulled out I glared up at you. We’d trained it by then, to take it without the honey and sugar.
“Are you seriously going to cry?” You asked. “Seriously? It broke my laptop.”
“It’s yours too,” I said. “It needs care.”
And then I was sobbing. Like I would on and off, all the time, since the first of the year.
“Jesus Christ, calm down.” You took my shoulders in your hands. First rough. Then soft. And then you were cradling me. We eased down against the bag of leaves and I cried wet patches into your shirt.
“It’s fine,” you said, “it’s fine. I needed a new one anyway.”
When I stopped crying we sat up and looked at the laptop lying against the wall.
“I need my own space or something,” you said after a while. I tensed, and if you felt it or not I don’t know, but you eased into me. “Like, maybe we could put a desk in the bedroom.”
“There’s no room with the dresser,” I said.
You stood then and left me alone on top of the bag of leaves, and brushed yourself off while trying not to glare at me.
“There would be. We could put the dresser in the closet if you just got rid of all that stuff in the chest,” you said. “Just keep the postcard. The rest is just--it’s just--trash.”
“It means something,” I said. “I can’t just throw it away.”
“Jesus Christ,” you said, and you put your headphones back in and went to the kitchen.
The glow-worm squirmed next to me, its mouth puckering, trying to reach a cluster of leaves on the ground just out of its reach.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night and sneak out to smoke. Too often I had to crouch under the open lid of the dumpster to try and avoid the summer thunderstorms as they rolled in, one after the other. Sometimes you knew I smoked, and you’d snort and turn from me and I’d tell you I’ll try again, I’ll try again, and sometimes then you would give my shoulder a squeeze and say I know you can do it.
When I’d come back in I’d go to the chest. I’d take everything out and lay it on the floor as you slept. Every night everything seemed to be in a different spot then where I had placed it. I was afraid one night I’d come in and find something missing. Something that had some clue, or something that spoke some truth about what decides what leaves from the station at the end of the world, and why and where to. I didn’t think you’d taken anything. I wasn’t sure. I believed you wouldn’t.
But it was hard for me to know what you were doing when you spent all your time in the bedroom with the door shut.
I tried to remember the exact location of where I put every single thing when I repacked it, but somehow I was left with only a vague sense of unease when I opened it back up. Like something delicate and forgotten had broken inside, but I could only hear the rattle of it shifting around.
After, I would go out to feed the glow-worm. It had to be fed by hand since the crust that had grown around it had reached up to the very top. All that was open by mid-July was the mouth.
Not long after, that closed up too.
A week after it did, you pushed me to get rid of the leaves. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but eventually I gave in. After we tossed the last bag, you stood staring at me, hands crossed over your chest.
“What do we do about it,” you said, nodding to the glow-worm.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Do you want to bury it?” you asked.
“No, I don’t want to bury it. Are you fucking nuts?”
“It’s dead,” you said.
“It’s not dead.” I climbed down on the floor and laid my hands against it. The crust--the scar--the shell or whatever it was, was hard, but flaky. Pineconish. It felt cool, despite the summer heat. Like a stone plucked from the bottom of a deep river. I put my ear to it and closed my eyes.
“I can hear its heart beating,” I said. “Just come listen.”
“You’re delusional,” you said.
“Just listen,” I said, sitting up. “Is that hard for you to do? To listen? To care a little?”
You stared at me and I stared at you. Then I lowered myself back down to the ground and pressed my ear back against the glow-worm.
I heard the bedroom door slam shut.
I printed pictures of cocoons and slipped them under the bedroom door. It’d been so long since I’d seen your face during the day; I wasn’t sure what it looked like anymore. I only came in the middle of the night, to check the chest. To look towards you in the dark.
“It’s a cocoon,” I called. “Come look at this. It’ll open up someday.”
“It’s just going to take some time,” I said.
From beyond the door I heard the shuffle of the sheets and your footsteps, slow and hesitant. I closed my eyes and pressed my ear against the door.
“Wait,” I said.
“That isn’t what this is,” you said.
“Just come out and look it over,” I said.
A moment of silence passed, and then I felt something brush against my knee. When I looked down, I saw you had shoved the papers back through the door.
“Just open up,” I said.
From further away, I heard your voice muffled by the pillows.
“It’s dead,” you said. “Why can’t you see that it’s dead.”
“Just wait,” I pleaded.
When you said nothing else, I took the pictures and crawled across the floor to the glow-worm. I laid my head against it and tried to listen for the faint beat. Something, anything that might convince you it wasn’t over.
One night I stepped out to buy cigarettes, and as was my custom, I stood outside smoking them one after putrid other by the dumpster, shivering and gagging in the black, violent night of August. I could stand out there for an hour and a half, doing that. And I did, frequently.
When I came back inside, the glow-worm was gone, and the bedroom door was open. I called your name as I went to the bedroom door, and hoped for one blind foolish moment that you had come out, you had heard the heartbeat, and then you had decided to pull it with you into the bedroom. To cradle it in our blankets until it was ready to hatch.
But then I saw the chest overturned in the middle of the room. Everything had poured out across the floor. Everything but the bus schedule.
The town at the foot of the mountain was small, but packed together densely in tall concrete buildings painted in pastels. Despite the empty streets and the cold, clinical taste to the air, it had an artificial warmth to it, as if the whole town were a smiling sticker slapped on a child’s IV stand. I had looked at it time and time again, on Google Earth, or in books, or paintings. Stepping off the bus into it felt like I was stepping out of consciousness into a dream without having fallen asleep. But it was an effect I didn’t have time to appreciate. I ran through the narrow streets, following black arrows painted on buildings towards the start of the mountain. I kept running until the incline became too steep, and my breath was shooting out of me in short, sharp wheezes.
You had a head start. But you also had the glow-worm on your back. I’d caught the next bus, two hours after yours.
Round the mountain I went, and round the mountain I went, and with each turn the town dropped further and further away, and on the other side of the cliff the mist got thicker and thicker in the air. It dissipated in my mouth and left the taste of rubbing alcohol and fresh mint, hospital clean and burning.
Sometimes I had to stop when I was free of it and just breathe, but almost every time I did I’d picture the platform empty save for a trail of smoke wafting out of over the tracks, and the conductor standing there with a new postcard in hand.
The spirals became tighter, until the mist hung around every corner like garland, and I could barely see where I was placing my feet. How you could manage it with such a heavy load, I didn’t know. You must be determined, I thought, and the thought stung as deep as the mist.
Then the walls started burgeoning out again, and the path grew narrower when the petals pushed out, and only widened as they curved back in. It was slow going then, and I had to press myself to the wall to stay on the path. I began to worry that you could have dropped the glow-worm. Or even you could have fallen.
By the time I came to the top, my clothes were soaked through with sweat and smelled of the mist. Across the stretch of sandstone, I saw you hauling the glow-worm across the ground towards the stairs of the station. Despite the sore clean ache in my lungs I took off at a staggering run.
By the time I got within a shouts reach, you were already mounting the stairs. The conductor stepped forward and looked you over, and you stepped aside to show him the glow-worm.
“Just dropping off,” you said, your voice skipping across the stone expanse.
I tried to shout, but there was no wind in me. Instead I sprawled forward and skidded against the ground, got to my feet and hobbled the rest of the way to the stairs.
“Stop,” I managed to say at last, but you had already hoisted the top half of the glow-worm back into your arms and were dragging it towards the last train car. I got to the first step, and the conductor grabbed me by the shoulder.
“Sorry,” he said. “Passengers only.”
“It’s not dead.” My voice was hoarse, raw, and weak, and you didn’t even turn towards it. I looked towards the conductor, but he just held me by the shoulder and looked off in the distance. When I tried to push past him he twisted me around and held me by both my elbows so I could do nothing but watch as the door slid open.
“It’s not dead,” I said. “It’s not.”
You put the glow-worm in the back cab and stepped away, walked to the edge of the platform with your face turned down. When the doors had closed, the conductor eased his grip on my elbows.
“How could you do that?” I came towards you, quicker than I had meant, as if a burst of speed now that it was over could make up for the time I lost before the end. You didn’t even look up. Your hands sprung out between us and you shoved me backwards.
“You need to learn to let go,” you hissed between your teeth, and for one moment I saw your face, turned towards me, before you were past me and running across the stone.
I looked back to the train, and saw a light, pale and pink, throbbing in the final car. It grew, and then something velvety and thin brushed against the corner of the window.
“It’s hatching,” I screamed, turning around to watch you run. “Just come back! It’s hatching.” But you didn’t turn to look until you were already so far away I couldn’t make out your face when you did. And then you were going again.
The train whistled and a billow of smoke filled the station. When the smoke cleared, I watched as a flood of butterflies, glowing softly, fluttered up into the window’s line of sight, filling the cabin, floating in the air, crawling against the glass.
And then, the train pulled away.
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines such as Bone Parade and Syntax and Salt. Her short story collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, will be available through Bridge Eight Press, April 2020. Find out more by following her on Twitter at a_couri, or at her website, www.courijohnson.com