‘The Shunting Yard’ by McKenna Faulkner

man sitting in front of turned on screen

“You won’t be getting any drugs, I can tell you that much,” Mevrouw Dekker tells my empty medical records. The stark white light of the computer screen is turning her features to mush. I blink a few times, but can still only make out the question mark shape of her back. “So many of you kids come in here asking for drugs nowadays. Half the time you’ve got a name ready, like we’re in the US.”

My heartbeat pounds in my temple. With two fingers, I try straightening out the frown across my forehead. “I’m not expressing myself very well. I’m really not asking for drugs, just some kind of-”

“Noah, you don’t cut yourself, do you?” She’s peering at me over the top of her reading glasses now.

I shake my head before I speak. “No. No, I don’t.”

“So, you don’t self-harm. You’re sleeping normally and you’re at a good weight. And where was it? Ah yes, I see your marital status has been updated in our system. Congratulations.”

“I really think I need some type of professional help. It’s just…” I block the fluorescent lights with my hand. “Again, half the time I manage, but the other-”

“Our practice nurse has a spot in a few weeks. Here, I’ll put you in for an intake, okay? With some tips and tricks you’ll be feeling better in no time. You’re a smart girl, Noah – have you considered talking to your friends about it?”

My bottle thumps rhythmically against my thigh. The whistle has already been rung by the time I slip between the sprinter’s beeping doors; a conductor a few carriages down sighs at me.

Sweat pricks on my skin. In the air conditioned carriage, I feel like I’m radiating a cloud of heat. I shoulder my way to the opposite door, sending a collective huff through the throng. I wish I wasn’t here either, I think to myself. Then: I should get a GP closer by. But that would also mean I would have to unpack the bags left sprawled across Joel’s living room, which in turn would mean I can’t gather them all back up again within half an hour to go back home if – 

Yes, if what?

A lady crashes into me as the train skids to a halt. I look up with a forgiving smile, but she’s already shuffling towards the door. My eyelids feel heavy, like slabs of meat beyond my control. Seats are coming free, and I rehearse in my mind the steps it would take to push myself off the wall, walk down the aisle and sit down. The doors close again, people have settled.

I am sitting in the corner below the trash cans. The train doors sends cold shivers down my spine. My arms wrap heavily around my knees. The last girl to get out shoots me an uncertain glance, but then she scurries off down the platform as if to catch up with everyone else.

“Eindbestemming Den Haag Centraal. Vanaf nu is deze trein ongeschikt voor reizigers. Eindbestemming Den Haag Centraal.”

I could still take the tram from here. It would have been quicker to get off at my stop, but I can tell Joel there was a problem with the trains. He won’t question it. All I have to do is stand up.

The lights flicker. In a moment of darkness, I close my eyes and hold my breath. I can’t imagine what death must feel like. Then the lights come back on and the train is moving.

The tips of apartment buildings flee across the closed doors opposite me, flashing a patchwork of apartments lit blue, gold, and red. The wind carries leaves towards the other side of the window until, at last, only a pale blue sky remains alongside the drumming interruption of the electricity poles, like sheets of paper taped together, revealing the darkness of what lies behind between the cracks. If the sky does tear apart, I think, at least I will know what I am running from.

The brakes shriek. My head slams against the glass partition wall. When I remove my hand from my aching temple, another train is slowly slipping past. Ivy writhes around patches of flaky paint. Past showers have streaked the dirt on the windows.

It crosses my mind to be disappointed. Then I see them.

The first head only darts by – couldn’t it have been a bird’s nest, or a lantern perhaps, further into the shunting yard, outlined by the lowering sun? But the second one passes slowly, as if the woman is walking backwards past our train. She is clearly within the train parallel to us, I see now – not behind it. When her face shifts toward me, I squeeze my eyes closed too slowly; hers, unblinking and dull, continue to stare at me from the inside of my eyelids. Small pockmarks covered the woman’s sunken-in cheeks, like craters in the purple shadow cast by her cheekbones. Tiny cobwebs sagged between her lashes on either side of wide-open eyes.

Heavy sobs bubble up to my throat, choking me. I bury my face between my knees and force myself to take slow, deep breaths. In the darkness behind my eyelids, breathing through the horror, I am back in my childhood bedroom, too afraid to call out for my mom in fear of alerting the eyes peeking out between the floorboards.

Nowadays it seems that even when I do scream, nobody answers. I slowly open my eyes. The woman does, too.

Her features melt out of mine like a nightmare fades against the bright light of day. I blink the last cobwebs away and smooth out my hair by running a hand down the reflection in the window. My stomach is still heavy with dread, so I lay my forehead against the cold glass.

Pressing a trembling hand against the wall, I push myself up. The door opens with a press of the button and I lower myself down before jumping out. My bottle thumps rhythmically against my thigh as the crisp air prickles against my face. Dry leaves skittle across the rocks between the tracks, leading away from the carriages upon which gold light melts from above.

Meet the Author!

McKenna Faulkner is an American-Dutch poet and writer currently studying Creative Writing at Oxford. She writes and publishes in both English and Dutch, featuring in magazines such as Absint and Tijdschrift Ei. Her work touches upon topics such as multilingualism, mental health, and ecology, almost always with a touch of fantasy. She is currently working on a debut novel and learning to play the violin.