The train looked older than what I was expecting, but it had character. The interior was spacious, and there was an Old World charm to the wooden paneling and worn leather seats. Looking around, I decided the place was just a bit threadbare but still inviting. I threw my bags into an overhead rack and settled down into one of the booths. The high-back seats were comfortable and provided a lot of privacy.
I had gotten to the train almost a half hour early and was the first one in the car. I spent a little time going over some papers, but mostly just looking out over the scenic view of the city. Copiapo was lovely in the Friday afternoon sunlight and I was enjoying myself immensely. A relaxing weekend in a first class hotel was awaiting me. Life was good.
The train started with a jerk, yanking me out of my daydream. I looked around and saw only a half dozen people scattered about the cabin, all men.
"Well," I thought, "should be a pretty quiet ride. I could use a good night's sleep."
I stared at the scenery for a while as the train pulled out of town, watching a thick layer of clouds roll in from the south and cover the setting sun. It looked like snow, and the view was just changing to winter twilight when the door in the front of the train car opened and let in a blast of freezing air. The conductor quickly slid the door shut and walked to the back of the car. He then started punching the tickets of the few passengers in the car, working his way forward. He was a bit slow about it, chatting with the people. I would be his last stop. I went back to my reading...
I nodded as I handed it to him.
There was the metallic click of a punch. "And how do like my country?" he asked as he handed my ticket back.
Great, he spoke English! "Chile? It's beautiful. I love the air, the mountains, the people... It's so colorful... Back home I'd be celebrating the July 4'th weekend. That's a holiday for our independence. It feels so different to be here, in winter now."
The conductor was a good listener, just letting me ramble on.
I felt a little sheepish. "I guess I really look like a foreigner, huh?"
The conductor smiled as he nodded. "We're on schedule. Should be arriving in Santiago at 10 AM." He paused for a moment. "Are you here on pleasure?"
"No. Actually, I've been working here in Copiapo for a while..."
"Oh really? Where were you staying?"
"The Hotel La Casona."
"Ah, very nice."
"Yes, very nice indeed. It's right in the downtown area too, very convenient. I work for Banco Santander."
The man nodded again and paused for a moment. "And what do you do?"
"I build models."
"Financial models. Until a month ago, I worked in the bank's New York office. I developed a small-business model to predict industry trends. Copiapo was a perfect place to test it out. We use it for both investment banking and customer risk analysis."
"And your superiors are happy with it?"
"Oh, they're ecstatic. The projections are we're going to make millions with this. I'll be in Santiago all next month, meeting with the senior executives and setting up a second program there."
"Excellent senor! I hope you will find Santiago as worthy of love as Copiapo."
I nodded. "It's forty times as large, almost five million people! This is really a tremendous opportunity for me... Say, do you know, is it much higher up? In elevation I mean..."
The conductor was quiet for a moment as he thought. "About the same as Copiapo, I think. Maybe Santiago is a few meters higher. But both cities are less than 500 meters, I'm sure... From sea level, I mean... Breathing should be no problem. The air will be a bit thin as we travel over the mountains though..."
I nodded. "Yeah... Thanks..." He looked liked he was about to take off and I glanced about the car. "Very few travelers. Is it always this empty?"
For the first time, I saw the conductor frown. "No... Some of the cars further up are half full, but here... Ah, superstitions die very slowly..."
"Oh? This sounds interesting. What do you mean?"
The conductor just yawned for a moment, and I thought he wasn't going to reply. But then he said, "It's been three years now. I try not to think about it... There was a death on the train, in this car in fact... It was very strange..."
"Ah... A murder?"
"The police weren't sure. There was never a good explanation for what happened... Ah, best not to speak of it. Enjoy the ride senor. The views through the mountains are beautiful, even at night."
I thanked him as he walked forward and left. I looked at the mountains for a while, until the blowing snow obscured the view. It looked bitterly cold outside. It felt nice to be inside the train, cozy... I had a light snack from my backpack, watched the storm, did a bit of reading. The rhythmic clack of the wheels on the rails was very soothing. I decided to sack out.
The train dimmed the interior lights in the late evening. I was asleep for a long while, and then in the dead of night I heard the back door of the train- car slide open and close. I was semi-aware of someone walking up and down the aisle, and decided to wake up and see who it was.
What I saw was completely unexpected. I guess the closest description would be gothic gaucho. It was a young woman, very thin but fit, dressed in a black leather gaucho hat and poncho, black pants and boots. As she got close, I could also see she was wearing black lipstick and black nail polish. Even her hair, and there was a lot of it, was dyed a jet black. Her one small travel bag was, of course, black. Her face was a mask of concentration and distress and... sadness? The total effect was startling.
She kept looking over the few sleepers in the car, as if deciding where to sit. There was so much empty room, I couldn't understand why. But then I thought maybe she wanted some company. So as she passed, I smiled at her and waved my hand at the seat across from me in my booth. She looked startled at first, surprised I was awake, but then shrugged and nodded, throwing her bag on the opposite seat and sitting down next to me on my side of the booth.
I've always had a fantastic sense of empathy, so strong I could run magic shows with it when I was a kid. I would pretend to be a magician who could read minds, and my hunches were so often on target it drove the other kids nuts. But nothing prepared me for what hit me now, wave after wave of gnawing hunger. The woman looked so young, I wondered if she was a teenager, and it felt as if she were starving. Without thinking, I blurted out in my broken Spanish, "May I feed you?"
"What?!" she hissed, looking both mortified and furious. My empathic sense threw me a complete curve ball then. I got the crazy feeling she was about to lock my head in an embrace and give me an intensely passionate kiss. I backed up out of reach and shook my head in bewilderment, and then thought about what I had just said.
"Oh! So sorry. I didn't mean to sound insulting!" I looked at her eyes for the first time, pure black. Tinted contact lenses? How bizarre was this night going to get? Well, at least she spoke English. "I've just started learning Spanish a month ago... I have some food. Are you hungry? Would you like some nuts... a piece of fruit?"
She made a deep frown, and then shook her head no.
Her response was at total odds with my senses. She looked thin, really thin, and my empathy was still sounding alarm bells about waves of gnawing hunger. I persisted. "Are you sure? When was the last time you ate?"
"I don't want your food."
"If you don't eat for long enough, you'll get weak."
She laughed. "No, not me!"
"Huh? Sure you will."
"Sure I won't."
I blinked. "Oh yeah? So what does happen when you don't eat?"
"I get hungry."
"But how about after that?"
"Even hungrier." She flashed me a wicked smile.
"But eventually..." I blurted out.
"Yes! I get so hungry I must eat!"
"Right... So how long has it been since you've eaten?"
She paused for a moment. "Years..." she whispered and then glared at me, daring me to challenge her.
Okay, I thought, I give up. "Gee, I'm sorry if I pestered you. My name's Gary, by the way. I'm pleased to meet you."
She stared at me for a moment, looking very surprised that I had introduced myself. "My name is A'moth," she whispered back.
"A'moth?" I said uncertainly. There was a long A sound with the accent, followed by the word moth. I had never heard of such a name before.
The woman looked furious at my uncertainty. She hissed at me. "Yes, A'moth! What's the matter?! Doesn't my name sound feminine to you? I assure you, I can be very feminine!"
I was hit again with a strong wave of empathy, an overpowering feeling she was about to hold my head and fiercely kiss me. I backed up in confusion. "Hey! I meant no offense. And I admit, I was a bit surprised by your name. I kind of like it though. It fits you."
She looked very confused by my response, finally just nodding and looking away for a moment. Then she stretched and took off her poncho and threw it across the booth to the opposite seat. I gasped at the sight of what was underneath.
.... There is more of this story ...