Time to wake up.
Luck listened to the steady chugging of the train as it traced its way along the tracks. He thought of the hot coals making steam of water, propelling the rods back and forth which moved the wheels. He thought of how it all worked together smooth like. Absent-mindedly, he traced the circular face of his wristwatch and smiled.
“What ‘cha smiling about Luck?”
“Shh! Una, Luck’s sleeping.”
“No he’s not,”
“His eyes are closed.”
“But I saw Luck smile.”
“Do people smile when they sleep?”
“Sometimes,” Luck, a man in his late twenties, opened his eyes and looked at the two young Mexican-American girls sitting across from him dressed in matching black dresses. “But I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Ha! I was right!” Una pointed a finger at her identical twin sister, Uno. “I’m super smart, huh Luck?”
Uno shoved her sister to the side. “Not as smart as me though, right Luck?”
Luck smiled. “I think you’re both smart.”
“Yay!” The girls cheered, their jet black pigtail braids (braided by each other every morning) bouncing excitedly, their squabble all but forgotten.
Luck glanced out the window of their compartment as grassy hills peppered with pine trees rolled past. The year was 1930, maybe 1931. Luck couldn’t be bothered to remember. With the Great Depression in full swing, many people found life hard, even unenjoyable. Luck couldn’t understand that, as he always made the best of any situation. Una and Uno were runaways from Texas he met two years prior when the tag team stole his wallet. After tracking the pair down to a nearby alleyway, the sparse contents of his wallet strewn about the greasy ground, he took them under his wing no questions asked. In the time since the trio had traveled the country, going from odd job to odd job and city to city. He never did get his wallet back.
“Hey Luck?” Una crept into his line of vision. “What exactly are we doing on this train anyways?”
“Are we going to have some fun?” Uno asked.
“Of course we are.” Luck said.
“Are we really?” Una asked.
“Of course,” Luck said, sitting up straight in his tan suit and tie. “Have I ever lied to you?”
“Well,” Una looked at Uno.
“Well,” Uno looked at Una. “There’s that thing you keep on saying,”
“Yeah, that thing.” Una said. “That we’re not real.”
“But I feel real.” She poked her face to make sure.
“How come I’m not real?” Uno asked eagerly, leaning forward with her hands on her knees.
“Because my existence is the only existence I can be certain of. All this,” Luck motioned around the train compartment and the world beyond. “Is nothing but a dream. I could wake up any minute and this whole world would disappear just like that.” Luck snapped his fingers as demonstration.
“I’m afraid so.” Luck said, fiddling with his wristwatch. “But! That just means there’s nothing to be scared of, right? Since this is a dream we don’t have to worry about getting hurt or dying.”
Una raised her hand. “What about that one time I broke my arm?”
“Things happen in dreams all the time, but that doesn’t mean they really happen. Remember what I told you about my parents?” The girls nodded. “Such cruelty could only exist in bad dreams.” Luck leaned back and folded his arms. “In this world, my existence I know to be true. Anything else is a result of my imagination.”
Una furrowed her eyebrows in contemplation. “I guess that makes sense…”
“You’re so smart Luck,” Uno marveled. “Your dream is the best!”
“I bet Luck dreamed me up first.” Una glanced at Uno with a smirk, casting aside her doubts.
“Nuh-uh! Mom always said I was your older brother!”
Una rolled her eyes. “Then you started calling yourself my sister! But you started calling yourself a girl after me, so I’m older. Right Luck?”
“Makes sense,” Luck reasoned.
“Mom never did like that,” Uno looked down at her feet, the tips of her black shoes just barely scrapping the floor.
“But we don’t have to worry about that anymore!” Una insisted. “We’re with Luck now.”
“So what are we doing on this train?” Uno switched the subject, throwing herself back against her seat with a huff. “I’m bored.”
“Tell me something: What do you do when you’re having a bad dream?” Luck asked. The girls looked at each other and shrugged. “You have as much fun as you can until it turns into a good dream!”
“But how?” The girls asked, their eyes wide with excitement.
“Why, we’re going to take over this train and rob everyone on board.” Luck said.
“Oh boy!” The twins threw their hands up in the air. “That does sound like fun!”
“They served breakfast about twenty minutes ago,” Luck glanced at his wristwatch to confirm. Silver with a plain black leather strap. Luck swore it looked just like his father’s, though of course they couldn’t be one in the same. “So most people should be in the dining car. We’ll storm in, catching them completely unawares, and take them for everything they’re worth! But first,” Luck stood up and pulled down a suitcase from the overhead storage racks. From its leather confines he pulled two Tommy Guns, which he handed to the twins. Even though Una and Uno were pretty small, they knew how to handle the heavy weaponry. Luck had seen to that. He pulled out a pump-action shotgun, a longtime favorite, for himself. “Now remember girls: this is just a dream. You don’t have to be scared of hurting someone if they fight back, okay?”
“Or of being hurt,” Una chirped.
“Or of being hurt.” Luck nodded.
The trio exited their compartment and walked towards the front of the train, the twins skipping hand in hand. Luck followed whistling the chorus to ‘Coming ‘Round the Mountain’, not a care in the world with his shotgun slung over his shoulder. He wasn’t thinking much about anything, except how sad it was he had to miss breakfast on account of the robbery. The sacrifices he made!
Up ahead a compartment door opened and out stepped a man. Glancing down the hall, his eyes widened when he saw Una and Uno looking so happy with Tommy Guns in their hands. Without a word Luck cocked his shotgun and let loose a shot, the force of which knocked the man back against the wall in a splatter of blood. Walking forward, Luck examined it like an inkblot and saw his mother’s face. Luck wasn’t worried about someone hearing the commotion; the man appeared to be alone, and the dining car was still two cars ahead. Over the rushing wind and early morning chatter, no one would have heard at thing. He was sure of it.
“Wow, did you see that Uno?”
“I sure did!”
“That was really something, huh Uno?”
“Sure was!” An uncomfortable silence settled between the girls, their feigned enthusiasm falling flat.
Luck looked between the young girls—children really. He had never ‘killed’ anyone in front of them before; he could see how the image of murder was shocking to them. He’d been there himself once, after all. Out of habit, he touched his fingers to the black leather strap of his wristwatch. “What did I say earlier?” He began. “You don’t have to feel sorry for this guy because he didn’t exist to begin with. If someone’s not alive, well, you can’t very well kill them, can you?” With that Luck started forward, leaving the bloody scene behind. Squeezing each other’s hand, the two girls followed.
The dining car was filled to the brim, Luck could hear it when he pressed his ear to the door. A whiff of bacon teased his nose, and he felt his mouth begin to water. All those unsuspecting people, eating their jam and drinking their orange juice, just sitting around waiting to be robbed. They had to be feeling pretty invincible, like nothing bad could happen to them. After all, nothing bad ever happened when you were eating breakfast.
“Are you ready girls?” Luck turned to his companions. Kneeling down in front of them, he set his shotgun aside and placed a hand on each girl’s shoulder. “I know things haven’t always been easy for you. Things haven’t always been easy for me. But with the money we get from this we can turn a bad situation into a good one. We can live somewhere real nice with no worries. All we gotta do is take some stuff from people who don’t need it, and we’ll be sittin’ pretty. You two are all I have in this world, so I’m going to take care of you until I wake up, okay?”
The two girls nodded, finding it within themselves to smile. “We’re with you.” Uno said, holding up her Tommy Gun.
“We know what to do,” Una said, giving a thumbs up. “It’ll be easy-peasy.”
“It’ll be fun.” Luck corrected. “Above all else, it’ll be fun.” With that Luck picked up his shotgun and turned towards the door. One deep breath later he kicked it open, Una and Uno following behind in a flurry of rounds aimed at the ceiling. “Thank you, thank you, a villain has arrived!” Luck welcomed the screams and frantic scrambling as the room’s occupants instinctively ducked to the floor. “Listen up! Me and my two friends here are robbers, and we’re here to take all your money and valuables. Nobody do anything stupid, and you’ll all get to go home and kiss your wives, got it?”
“Hey kid, ain’t you a police officer or something?”
Paul shifted his body closer to the dinning car wall in an attempt to hide his face. He hadn’t planned on a robbery when he boarded the train that morning. He was supposed to be on vacation, to ‘gather his nerves’. A week earlier Paul was at the bank, to deposit a paycheck, when a duo of bank robbers burst through the door, Tommy Guns blazing. Two of the mafia’s men, he was sure. The first to dive to the floor, he covered his head and listened as the robbers went about their business with a showy vigor he was sure the papers would eat up later. Terrorizing the customers who looked vulnerable, they threatened to ventilate anyone in the joint who tried to stop them. They shot the bank guard stone cold dead when he reached for his gun. Paul didn’t move a muscle. Sure enough, front page news. ‘Police Doormats for Mafia Takeover.’ The chief called him every name in the book and placed him on paid leave, instructing him to vacate town until the whole ordeal blew over. He hadn’t planned on a robbery at all.
The old man nudged him again, harder. “Stop the robbers, will ya? This watch is a family heirloom.” He motioned to a tarnished silver pocket watch clutched between his knobby fingers. Paul could care less about his pocket watch. A few minutes before he’d been eating breakfast, two eggs over easy with buttered toast, chatting with the old man at the next table over. He was on his way to visit his grandson, and Paul remarked how nice it was some people still placed value on family. Then those guys showed up, two girls and a man, shooting off bullets and orders left and right. The man was young and tall, handsome by anyone’s standards. Slicked back dark brown hair topped a worn tan suit, the edges of a burgundy vest peaking out whenever he turned his body just right. Paul felt his heart skip the usual way whenever he came across a handsome man, and fought to keep any related thoughts at bay. He just couldn’t catch a break.
The two girls, dressed in gaudy lace black dresses, walked here and there stuffing wallets and jewelry in their dress pockets. They were going back and forth about whether they wanted matching pink ponies or not while waving their Tommy Guns in the air for emphasis. The man stood in the middle of the room, looking proud as a new father, occasionally making a great show of checking his wristwatch. “I—I can’t.” Paul said.
“I can’t stop them.”
“Don’t you have a gun?”
“No.” He had turned over his revolver to the chief before he left. Not that it would do him any good, even if he had it. “I really hate violence.” Paul confessed to the old man with a weak smile.
“Figures,” the old man grumbled. “What’d ya become a cop for anyway?” Reaching into his suit jacket he pulled out a pistol, a Colt, and forced it into Paul’s hands. “Listen,” he whispered, staring hard into Paul’s eyes. “There’s no telling what those people are planning, but I want to see my grandson again. I’m not young like I used to be, but you might stand a chance. You have an opportunity to save the train and sort out whatever you got goin’ on in that head of yours, understand? You gotta do this.”
Paul’s hands shook, and the warm handle of the Colt felt slick in his sweaty palms. He didn’t want to, but the intense look of the old man’s face, earned by what Paul guessed was a hard life, left no room for negotiation. He had to try. Taking a deep breath, Paul stood up and pointed the gun.
Luck was surveying the train car while listening to Una and Uno chatter about horses, Uno grabbing a particularly fine pearl necklace from a woman’s hands, when a lone man stood up and pointed a pistol at him. Una and Uno noticed first, dropping what they held to raise their Tommy Guns. No one moved as Luck looked first at the gun, then at the man. Cocking his head to one side, Luck found it amusing a hero would find himself among the rabble, and started laughing.
“Luck?” Una raised her voice. “Should I shoot him?”
Luck subsided into a chuckle. “It’s okay Una, it’s okay. Can’t you see this man is nervous? He’s terrified, about ready to lose his mind from fear. Are you going to stop me?” He asked the man, taking a step forward. “Are you going to stop me with that gun?” Luck took another step forward, then another, then another, until he stood in front of the man pointing a gun at him. “What’s your name, kid?”
The man didn’t answer. The man didn’t say anything. Luck watched as a single bead of sweat rolled down his temple. Luck saw determination in his eyes, when they weren’t skirting around the room like a frightened puppy’s. “Let me tell you something kid,” Luck began. “I’m assuming you stood up just now with the intent to stop us, us being me and the girls. I’m also assuming you’re pointing a gun at me to intimidate me, right? But here’s the thing pal, I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything.” Luck threw his shotgun down to the floor and took one more step forward, standing so close to the man now he could feel the barrel of the pistol pressing against his chest. “I’m the center of this world. It begins and ends with me. Fact is, you can’t hurt me, and you can’t kill me. So go ahead—shoot. I’ll just wake up from this bad dream I’ve been having and go about my normal life like nothing happened.”
Luck could see the confusion in the man’s eyes. “You’re crazy,” he whispered.
“Luck’s not crazy!” Uno jumped in.
“Yeah, Luck’s telling the truth!” Una followed.
“Go ahead. Prove me right.” Luck taunted, shoving the man in the chest. “Go ahead!” Luck shoved the man again, and he pulled the trigger.
Luck felt a pressure in his chest and staggered back before falling to the ground, dead.
A week after the train incident Paul found himself back in the chief’s office. Much had happened in the past week, but Paul hadn’t noticed. He was still on that train, holding that gun, looking into that man’s eyes as he stumbled over his own feet, eyebrows furrowed together in confusion…
“Jesus boy, look at me when I’m talkin’ to you.” The chief wanted to personally congratulate him on a job well done. Taking out a robber with one shot, saving a train full of civilians, didn’t know he had it in him. “I especially like how you handled the press. Swarming around the second the train got in. Goddamn vultures. Best to give ’em the cold shoulder, I always say.”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded. “Sir?”
“What happened to the two girls who were with him? The man, I mean?”
“The brother and sister? Eh, probably on a truck to Mexico. That repatriation is still in full swing, ya know.” The chief kicked back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk.
“What I don’t get is this Luck guy.” The chief pondered, lighting up a crumpled Camel he’d pulled from his crumpled shirt. He picked up a manila folder from his desk and flipped it open. “Orphaned at ten. Mother killed in a home robbery, father commits suicide the day after. Aged out of foster care, then drops off the face of the earth until last week. His name’s the most tragic part of the whole deal.” The chief took a long drag from his cigarette and let out a cloud of smoke. “Crazy bastard. All of life’s a dream, huh? I tell you what, if I thought I’d dreamt up this world, I’d think I was living in a nightmare too, you know?” The chief took another long drag.
“Yes, sir.” Paul looked out the window through the chief’s smoke, but even then all he could see was a gray haze.
*Note: Claire Stanfield, from a series called Baccano!, was a big inspiration for Luck’s character. They both share a belief in solipsism, a concept I find fascinating. Life Is But a Dream is my take on it.