If there was anything that struck Davis about the ticket collector, it was how much he reminded him of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

Maybe it was the way he strutted down the hallway of the train like some leering vulture. Maybe it was the way his bony face burned holes in the walls with his narrow eyes. Or maybe it was the way he demanded attention the moment he stepped into the room.

Whatever the cause, the ticket collector owned the train like he owned the clothes on his body, and as he loomed closer and closer Davis shrunk further and further into his seat.

The train cackled loudly as it flew over the rails, and a ripple went through the carriages, jostling and bumping latches and bolts. Davis felt pinpricks of stinging pain rise over his back and shoulder-blades, and suddenly the compartment seemed like it was ten degrees warmer.

And then the ticket collector was standing over him and time had run out.

The man didn’t even hesitate. “Ticket.”

“I don’t have one,” Davis said quietly. He felt his face flush bright red and the temperature was rising more and more. He had a sudden urge to vomit.

“You don’t have a ticket?”

The urge grew.

Hartman fixed Davis with an intense glare, and Davis didn’t meet his eyes. He just dropped his chin and stared at the carpet.

The compartment door slid shut, and Hartman sat down opposite him.

Davis blinked and looked up at the noise, a soft wheeze as the sticky leather seat cracked and groaned. Hartman made a similar sound, and Davis saw that he was older than he’d first thought. There was something else about him that hadn’t been quite visible at a distance. Something Davis couldn’t quite put his finger on.

There was a silence for several seconds.

And then,

“How old are you, boy?”

The question wasn’t an attack, a demand, or even a forceful inquiry. It was just a question. Nothing more, and nothing less.

“Nineteen.”

Hartman nodded slowly. “Can I tell you something, from one man to another?”

“Uh…sure.”

Another nod. Davis’ breathing slowed a fraction of a beat. Hartman didn’t seem to be mad. Surely this was temporary. A trick. Within minutes he’d be thrown off the train and just like that his journey would be over. There was no mercy at Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s boot camp. There would be no mercy on Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s train.

“You’re still young, boy. Young in body and young in spirit.Naïve. You don’t know where you’re going or what you’re trying to achieve.”

“You don’t know tha-“

“I can see it in your face, boy. You’re running away from something.”

Davis closed his mouth quickly. His jaw tightened, and the pinpricks began to shoot over his body again.

Hartman’s hands were clasped, and he shook them, mouth tightening. “It’s okay to run, you know. Everybody runs some time.  But you have to know where you’re running to. Do you know where you’re running to?”

“… No.”

“I thought so.”

Hartman looked out the window, and Davis looked too. The scenery flew by in a blur, going too fast to make out anything particular.

“It’d have to be bad, to get you to run,” Hartman said. He was still looking out the window. “But it’s not the end. Like I said, you’re young. You’re lucky. You can start over. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

The ticket collector didn’t answer for a long time. And then he said, very quietly, “I mean that I’m old, kid. I’ve been marching up and down this train for forty years tearing tickets and collecting money. I’ve had a good time, and I’ve kept this old mistress alive with me.” He paused again. “But when I ran, I didn’t leave. I stayed.”

Davis didn’t know what to say. Instead he chose to concentrate on his heartbeat, which was already beginning to calm. He didn’t know why.

Hartman’s body clenched, and he rose from the old seat. The leather didn’t spring back to place, but remained molded by his body, as if capturing his presence.

“Don’t stay behind, boy. If you’re going to run, run somewhere that will give you the life you deserve. And thank the Lord above for it every single day. Just like I do.”

And then he smiled – yes, smiled – and moved out of the cabin, sliding the door shut behind him. Davis watched him go in silence, and was still silent an hour later when a plume of smoke and steam billowed past the windows and the train’s laughter slowed.

Then he stood and departed the train. Davis breathed deeply and felt the wind of the new day fill his lungs as he strode down the platform, as tall as a mountain. It was time to run. His old life was over. His new one had begun.

The train whistle blew and he turned to watch it go. And there at the window, smiling that same old smile, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman rode his mistress into the dawn.