(1 of 1. Originally posted on September 30, 2022 for the prompt “On a Train.”)
“Come on,” Sam kicked his brother under the table. “Finish your breakfast. I have a surprise for you.”
Dean pulled his eyes away from the dusty window long enough to give his omelet a disgusted look. “I asked for ham and cheese, but I barely see any cheese. And what is that green stuff? I don’t eat green stuff. I do not want it, Sam. I am not eating it.”
“Fine. But don’t complain to me when you’re hungry later.” Sam pulled the window down, letting in a gust of hot, sandy air, and magnifying the clack-clack-clack of the railroad. He grabbed Dean’s plate and tossed the offending food out the window.
“You got sand all over the dining car. Mom’s gonna kill you.” Dean jumped up to push the window closed.
“Not if she can’t find us.” Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny metallic card, waving it with a flourish worthy of the most extravagant ringmaster.
Dean’s heart stuttered in disbelief, then ran double speed to catch up. “Is that…?”
Sam gave his brother a single slow nod, with the kind of smile that siblings everywhere recognize with a mixture of dread and excitement.
“How did…?” Dean’s mouth couldn’t seem to form more than two words at a time.
“Dad left it in his coat pocket.” The sly smile morphed into a self-satisfied smirk. “And today’s his day off, so he won’t be looking for it until tomorrow.”
Dean shook his head. “When I said mom would kill you for sand in the dining car, I may have exaggerated. But if we get caught breaking into the creature cars, they’ll kill us for real.”
“Then we’ll be extra sneaky.” Sam waggled his eyebrows. “The car right behind this one is the mermaid car.”
“Are they? Have you ever seen them outside their tank?” Sam sauntered toward the door at the back of the car, waving the key card in the air as he walked. “Ever wonder how they hold their breath so long?”
“Hollow tails with oxygen pouches? Clear hoses hidden in their hair?” Dean’s mouth protested, but his body followed his brother as if pulled by a fishing line.
“How sure are you?” Sam held the card against the sensor, then twisted the latch with his other hand when the light turned green.
Dean followed his brother out into the enclosed connector. He held on to the door behind him, keeping a path of retreat open just in case. But the moment Sam keyed the door to the next car, the dining car door pulled itself closed with irresistible force.
They stepped into the mermaid car, into darkness and eerie silence. The door pulled itself closed behind them with a hiss, cutting off the last bits of light and sound. Sam lit a small lantern, illuminating curved metal walls and a glass tank full of clear water that filled almost the entire space.
“There’s no windows, or doors.” Sam tilted his lantern and looked up. “Not even on top.”
“The tank is empty. But I found the hatch.” Dean reached out and grabbed at his brother’s shirt, his voice trembling. “It’s at the bottom of the tank. And it’s standing open!”
“Where are the mermaids?”
“More important, why isn’t the water draining out? And why can’t I feel the train moving? Or hear it? Something’s not right here.” Dean took a shaky step back towards the dining car.
“We can’t go back yet,” Sam grabbed his brother’s arm and dragged him toward the far end of the car. “This is just getting interesting.”
Dean put up a token resistance, but curiosity pulled him with a firmer grip than Sam’s. As they crossed the next connector, the sound and vibrations of the train resumed. The moment they entered the next car, it stopped again. This time, light flooded the car.
The boys stared up through a glass roof. One side appeared to be hinged, as if the whole top could open like a box lid. Through that glass top they saw only fog, and heard the sound of rushing wind.
“This is the dragon car,” Sam pointed to the rows of heavy-duty cages that lined the sides. “And it’s empty, too.”
A piercing shriek drew their eyes back to the fog above them, just in time to see a winged shadow pass overhead.
Dean’s urge to go back eclipsed his curiosity, leaving him frozen between advance and retreat.
“Come on.” Sam dragged him forward to the next car.
The air in the next car hit them like a sauna. Large windows on each side revealed a jungle sliding past to the steady clacking of the railroad. The inside of the car featured plush carpet, low table-like platforms, and cushions. Two snake-men stretched across the cushions on each side of one of the tables. The tail end of some furry animal hung from the unhinged jaw of one. The other one eyed the two boys, who stood frozen just inside the door with their mouths hanging open.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” The snake-man spoke with the softest voice, the t and d sounds almost silent, how the wind might speak if it had a tongue. “Our next show is not for two days.”
Panic chased the boys all the way back to the dining car, where they barreled straight into the broad chest of their scowling father.
“I suppose I don’t even need to ask where you two have been. Let’s have a talk.”