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The old woman rocked forward and let her momentum propel her up from her seat on the bench. Her lower back protested and her knees threatened to dump her back onto the cold, wooden slats. With only four minutes until the arrival of the train, she didn't have the time to spare her knees the cold start as she began her shuffle toward the thick yellow barrier line at the edge of the concrete stage.
Her body was stooped under layers of warm clothing; her coat hem nearly brushed the ground. Her arms were bent chicken wing-like and clutched the chest of her coat, holding it closed. Her pockets bulged and clinked as she walked, with the bottles of frosty beer crammed in too small a space slowly inching their way out. When she reached the yellow line, she uncurled one arm and shoved the bottles back down into their pocket with a gloved hand.
The train was set to arrive at precisely 23:34 and wouldn't stop again until midnight. She had been waiting seven years for the train schedule to meet her needs. The last midnight train, the one in '03, didn't have any other passengers, so the old woman had spent New Year's alone. This was her last chance to celebrate. She felt it in every breath.
The wind picked up and howled down the tracks. The train was coming. A blue light over the digital clock flashed, and the time changed to 23:34 just as the train pulled silently up in front of her. A bell chimed three times and the door slid open. A figure sat in the first seat just inside, and the woman felt relief. She ignored the crackle in her chest and took a deep breath as she stepped into the car.
As she shambled across the aisle to the seat parallel to the traveler, her eyes skimmed the figure. A young man was leaning over a book, his shoulder-length hair falling forward, obscuring most of his face except for a scraggly swatch of hair at his chin. He was wearing a charcoal pea coat with a caramel colored scarf loosely concealing his neck. His jeans were black and rolled at the cuffs where his ankles were crossed, one polished black shoe resting on the other.
The chimes sounded again and the train's doors hissed shut. The train moved forward and although the motion was fairly smooth, the woman lurched over the last step to her seat and plopped down hard. One of her bottles slipped out of its confines and dropped to the floor in front of the young man.
With fluid motions reserved only for the young, he scooped up the bottle, while simultaneously closing his book over his middle finger to hold the place, and looked up smiling at the woman. He glanced at the label and leaned across the aisle with the bottle held out to her.
"You dropped your, er, beer."
The old woman met his gaze, her eyes flicking to the young man's right eyebrow, which was pierced with a silver hoop engraved with a black scrawling design. The right corner of her mouth wavered slightly as she tried to hold the smile. She felt a flicker of disappointment as she imagined what other things this fellow might have done to his body. Probably he was full of holes and inked all over underneath his conservative exterior.
His eyes were bright though, and shimmered with a kind amusement. He wasn't the perfect person to spend New Year's Eve with, but he might be all right after all.
"Oh, thank you, dear. I have another…" She adjusted her coat, which had twisted around when she sat, and pulled off a glove with a slight grunt at each finger and reached into her pocket, "…here. Ah. Would you join me in a holiday drink?"
He leaned back and his seat and cocked his head, "I'd love to."
"You'll have to open both bottles, I'm afraid. My fingers just don't work like they used to." The woman held her bottle toward the man as he put his book down on the next seat.
He held both bottles in one hand with the labels facing up. The label on one bottle had curled almost in half, but the other bottle's label was clear and flat. The words 'Kronos Beer' sat atop a picture of an old columned building that had bright yellow rays sprouting from the roof and dark ominous clouds pushing up from underneath.
The caps on the bottles were the kind that twisted off, and the young man did so with ease. He handed one bottle back to the old woman. As she took the bottle, one ragged fingernail raked the first finger of the man, scratching him deeply enough for the wound to immediately well up with blood. He pulled his hand back quickly and shook it a couple of times in the air before bringing the finger to his mouth.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I told you these old fingers just don't always cooperate. Did it break the skin? I might have a bandage here somewhere," the old woman said as she brought the bloody nail to her teeth and bit off the jagged bit.
The man pulled his finger out of his mouth to examine the wound. The bleeding had already stopped and the scratch was just a small pink impression. "I think it's fine. Don't worry about it."
He lightly snorted and shook his head, bringing the bottle up to his lips for a long swallow.
The old woman straightened in her seat a bit before taking a drink from her own bottle, extremely satisfied at her own cleverness for obtaining the necessary flesh.
"This is a pretty good. I haven't heard of 'Kronos' before."
The old woman thumbed back the curled part of the label on her bottle with a sigh, "It comes from Greece. That's where my people are from. It's an old brand, ancient even, and you can't get it anymore. I only drink it on special occasions now."
"Ah, then I really owe you a proper thanks."
"Now don't you even worry about that. It only does any good if you share it with someone." The old woman closed her eyes as she took another swallow.
"Well, thank you anyway. It's very much appreciated."
An almost edgy silence settled down over the pair as the young man finished his drink. The old woman checked the digital time display over the door. According to the clock, thirteen minutes had already passed, which meant she only had thirteen more to set up for the Feast.
"Have you heard of the King of Misrule?" The old woman slipped her nearly empty bottle in the netted pocket dangling from the seat between her shins and began to rummage through her seemingly never-ending supply of pockets within her coat.
"Er, no, I'm afraid I haven't heard that one."
"Ah, here it is." With a flourish she pulled a small leafy wreath from beneath her coat, and held it out to the man. The leaves were stiff and the edges a little sharp. The woman had sewn small flowers and berries in a clump on one side. The effect was supposed to be grand, but seven years in storage had left everything drab.
"The King of Misrule is a sort of elected head of a New Year's party. Some people call him the King of Drunkenness, but getting completely drunk isn't even necessary." The young man's smile was frozen on his face, and the woman could tell he felt a little uncomfortable. "Go ahead take it. I made it for another party, but I couldn't get to that one."
The man took the wreath and turned it over in his hands.
"Go ahead. Put it on; it's meant to be a crown, you know?"
"Oh, well, I appreciate the thought but..."
"No one else is here to see. You don't have to be embarrassed. I'd just like to see it get worn once. I made it years ago and not one soul has ever placed it on their head." The woman widened her eyes and pleaded with the man.
Long ago, nearly all young people would bend to an elder's way just out of politeness, but the woman knew from experience that it got trickier and trickier each year, as people got more and more spoiled. She felt lucky tonight, though. The young man had pity in his eyes, but a smile plastered on nonetheless.
"Oh, sure. What the hell." He placed the crown upon his head and the woman clasped her hands together with joy.
The clock read 23:55.
"I have treats in here somewhere." She again fumbled through her coat and when her hands emerged, she held an old tin. She passed it to the man to open.
"Hurry now, it's almost midnight. We don't want to be caught without food to offer the dead."
The man visibly winced but took the tin, rusty around the edges with age, and pried the lid off before handing it back across the isle to the woman.
The woman frowned at the contents. The dates looked all right, but the cakes had crumbled and settled into a jelly-like substance that had hardened over the whole bottom surface of the container. "Hmmm," she said tapping her forehead, "I really should remember to check the offerings before the next time I attend a ritual, er, ceremony. Well, lucky for us, the dead aren't so concerned about freshness." She pulled a lace handkerchief out from her sleeve and spread it on the seat next to her, placing the rusty tin in the middle.
"There, that's rather festive I think."
The clock read 23:58.
"Our train is about to stop." He reached up to pluck the crown from his head.
"Wait! You have to have it on at midnight. It's a tradition; very bad luck to be at party without a king."
His hand paused midair and she could tell he felt ill at ease. As the train began to slow, he brought his hand back down to his side and began to stand for departure. The woman made no move to get up.
"You know this is the last stop on the line. You have to get off. Would you like help carrying your things?" The man held a hand out to the old woman as the train came to a stop and the doors chimed three times.
The clock read 00:00 as all the entrance and exit doors slid open at the exact same time. A bitter, cold force rushed in, and the old woman's arms rose and fell as if conducting. The air concentrated between the pair and began to swirl. The woman could hear the chimes of the cathedral bells in the distance as the wind enveloped and pulled at the old woman and the young man.
She locked her gaze upon her prey and felt intoxicated, as his eyes, blazing white with fear, found her own and froze.
The last dong of the church bells drew the wind from the train's car like a shot, and all was still.
The clock read 00:01.
The old woman looked down at the young man occupying her old body, as he shook his head and wobbled a bit, still dizzy. He looked up at the old woman, and instead saw himself backing out of the train door. "Wha…s…"
"That was the New Year, my dear. It's out with the old and in with the new. Don't you know any of the old traditions?"
The young man began to panic as he felt the heart in the old-woman-chest whump loudly. A sharp pain radiated down the left side of the old-woman-body and the young man pitched forward to the floor as the doors chimed three times and slid shut.
The old woman tipped her crown toward the withered body she had just left, as the train crawled away. She pulled the woolen coat closed, sinking her new chin down into the caramel colored scarf and breathed deeply.
She felt great, like a new man, she thought, giggling as she briskly walked away from the train station.
Good story. A little predictable, but entertaining. The set-up is meticulous.
Nice twist on the Sacrifical Stag ritual
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