by Seth M. Baker
The train quaked through the night, jarring my soul from my body. Some people slept. Others gazed out the window. Me, I had just woken up. One minute, I’m sleeping next to my wife. Next, I’m in a sparkling new coach on a train to somewhere populated with strangers. Awake. Feeling every detail of the space around me. The synthetic carpet. The faux leather seats. The smell of unwashed bodies and re-circulated air.
I was scared. I’ll admit it.
The girl beside me, she sat with her legs drawn up, eyes closed. She was young and thin. A yellow ribbon held back her dirt-brown hair. She hadn’t moved since I opened my eyes.
“Hey,” I said, “what’s your name?” She looked at me with eyes watery from waking or tears. I couldn’t tell.
“Serena. And yours?”
“Like the country?”
“Like the country. How long have you been on the train.”
“A couple days, I think. I’ve slept a lot. I’m really sleepy now.” With that, she closed her eyes. Talking to me seemed to exhaust her. I looked for someone else to talk to. About ten other people sat in the car. Men, mostly. A couple women. No children. The man behind me was young, maybe a college student. A hip plaid hat sat on his head, a weight to keep his curly blond hair from flying away.
“Hey man,” I said, “you know where we’re going?”
“Wherever they want to take us.”
“Who are they?”
“I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I think they’re cool. Good people.”
“What else did they say?”
“They didn’t say anything. I just know. And we’ll be at our destination soon enough.”
“How long have you been on the train? Where did you get on?”
“So many questions, brother. Relax. Enjoy the ride. We’re quite lucky to be here.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked. He ignored my question and began to hum a song I think I used to know. I rose from my seat. My body felt loose. Relaxed. Pleasantly drugged. I floated to the end of the car and tried the door. Locked. The other end. Locked, too. Trapped. On a coach. With strangers. I stood at the front, cleared my throat, and addressed all the passengers with my sonorous courtroom voice.
“Hello, excuse me, sorry to wake you if you’re sleeping. But can anyone tell me where we’re going?”
“The journey is more important than the destination,” one man mumbled.
“All journeys begin with a single step,” said another.
“Can anyone,” I said, “communicate without clichés?”
“Hey buddy,” a beefy guy said from the back. He took up two seats. “Just sit down. They said we’re closer than we’ve ever been. We’ll know more when we reach the terminus.”
“Terminus?” I said. No one met my eyes. Silence. Only the clatter of wheel on rail.
“We’re here, aren’t we?” the beefy guy said. “Here seems better than anywhere else.” I tried to speak, to respond to this, but my voice squeaked for the first time since puberty. Embarrassed, I sat back down next to Serena. I told myself maybe I should just relax and enjoy the ride. I leaned my head against the seat in front of me and stared down at my brown crocodile-leather shoes. The pattern reminded me of the cells of an onion skin, viewed under a low-power microscope.
The hydraulic hiss of the car door roused me from pleasant sleep. A woman stood in the threshold, her rust-red hair pulled tight against her head. She wore a billowing black robe, like a graduation gown. She started to speak but I forced myself to stand and question her.
“What is this? Why are we here?”
“Things are as they are for a reason. Please try to accept them. By doing otherwise, you create suffering. Do you want your fellow passengers to suffer?” I shook my head. “Just remember that you and everyone else here are special, wonderful, chosen beings and we have a plan for each of you.”
“But I wake up and here I am. On a train. Full of strangers. In the night. And where is my wife?”
“Holland, I understand you’re confused. This is perfectly normal. And your wife is fine. Everything will be okay. I promise. We are looking out for you. We did put you on the finest transportation available, didn’t we?”
I looked around and noticed the mother-of-pearl inlays lining the blonde oak panels. “This is a rather nice car,” I said.
“And you do feel pleasant, don’t you?”
“A bit, yes.”
“So if we can do all that for you, why don’t you just try and trust us?”
“I suppose I can try,” I said.
“Now that his concerns are addressed, let me explain what happens next. We will reach our destination at the terminus. There, your gaps in understanding will be filled. Things will become clear and you will flourish. For now, be at peace.” She turned on her heel and left. The door slid shut behind her. I expected chattering and discussion, but the car was as silent as a casket.
The train hissed to a stop. The front door opened. Everyone stood and started for the door. No one stretched. I grabbed Serena’s arm before she left. She didn’t jerk away or stiffen. She didn’t seem to notice until she realized she was unable to walk forward. Only then did she look at me.
“Don’t you think this is strange? I said. “Aren’t you worried about what’s going to happen?”
“What choice do we have?” she said as she stepped out. I followed her. I couldn’t have stayed on the train. Where could I go?
Outside, starless darkness formed a dome above our heads. I stood on the creosote–covered timbers of the platform with the other passengers. The idling engine shook my eardrums. All around us, the ground shimmered. Water. In every direction. Lapping against the platform. Reflecting light. The tracks and the trestle upon which they sat rose from onyx water. About fifty yards distant sat a well-tended Victorian mansion lit with high-intensity discharge lights, connected to the platform by an earthen bridge flanked with small willow trees.
The red—haired woman beckoned us to follow her across the bridge to the house. At the end of the bridge a man stood beside a folding table. He held a clipboard in his hand. Behind him sat a wooden crate filled with shoes. The beefy guy was the first in our line. When he reached the table, he wrote something on the clipboard and removed his shoes. The man handed him another pair, white canvas with Velcro straps.
Registration and processing.
I didn’t want to be registered or to sign my name or give up my crocodile—leather shoes. I wanted to be home, in bed with my wife, with the suburban night humming and barking around us. If I could only remember how I got here, maybe I could find a way out, a way home.
“Holland,” the red—haired woman said. “Sign your name and get your new shoes.”
“My shoes are fine. I like them. I want to keep them.”
“I’m sorry, but I promise you your new shoes will fill you with joy. And shouldn’t a man begin a new journey with new shoes?”
“Journey? Who are you to tell me I can’t keep my shoes.”
“This is what you’re supposed to do.”
“I’m not supposed to do anything,” I said. “I’m supposed to be at home.” She smiled and leaned forward, exhaling almost kissing my face. From her mouth, a lilac breeze ruffled my hair and filled me with mercurial trust. I felt the pen in my hand, my hand signing my name, my body bending, my hands removing my shoes, my hands receiving and slipping on the new shoes. They smelled of the factory. Putting them on felt like immersing my feet in warm velvet. Thinking back, no one asked for a different pair of shoes. Newly shod like draft horses, our group went up the wooden steps, across the grey painted porch. The red—haired woman opened the door and the smell of sawdust and clover wafted out. The engine, now at the rear, rumbled to life and pushed the train back the way it came. The backward—facing lights illuminated a black—and—yellow striped barricade.
This was the terminus.
Inside, we stood in a high—ceilinged parlor. Yellowed plaster walls. Turkish carpets. A tarnished brass chandelier with electric lights. An oil portrait depicting an old woman with a beakish nose. In the background of the picture, a barn owl. Both had the same wide, slightly surprised face. The red—haired woman left the room, clicking the door shut behind her. A couple people sat on the couch, two others sat in the two stiff claw—footed chairs. Serena sat half—lotus on the floor, her hands folded in her lap.
Me, I sat on the floor as warmth and comfort pulsed through my body like an opiate injection. The hands of the grandfather clock spun round as I basked in the easy weightlessness one whose fate is predetermined. Just before comfort changed to bliss, the ceiling lights flickered. A shaft of light reflected off my wedding band, an eighteen-karat pawnshop special, abraded by a thousand memories. My vision focused on the ring and I felt myself being towed back to the right path. I knew now what they felt, and I had to warn them.
“Don’t any of you people wonder what’s going on?” I said. Serena looked up at me.
“You say ‘you people’ as if you’re separate from us. We are with you, Holland, and you’re with us. We’re not your enemy.”
“But they are,” I said, pointing to the door. “Does none of this strike you as a little off? Forget how you feel, look at the facts: they brought us to a place in the middle of nowhere. We signed in. They knew our shoe sizes. They were expecting us.”
“It’s good to be expected,” the beefy man said. “To have someone waiting on you.” He sat in one of the claw—footed chairs.
“Nobody thinks this is creepy? Nobody?” I looked around the room for support. The plaid–hat guy just stared back at me, his eyes as inscrutable as a cow’s. I wanted to tell these people we needed to escape together, to run far from this place. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe they knew some vital, reassuring piece of information I wasn’t privy to. Smug bastards.
The door opened and the red—haired woman emerged.
“Koblenz, Jameson, Dietrich. Come with me,” she said. The beefy guy, the plaid—hat guy, and an old man stood and followed her like a mother duck and her chicks. Through the threshold of the door, green walls and a long hallway. The door shut before I could see more.
“They’re so lucky,” Serena said. Another woman nodded. She had close—cropped hair and rheumy eyes out of place on her youngish face.
“Yeah, they were chosen first. Good for them. Great.”
“Aren’t you worried about yourselves?” I said, trying to open the door they had just passed through. “We’re prisoners here. Don’t you see that?” Everyone stared at me as I went from window to window, trying and failing to open them. “Why are you so damn calm?” Blank stares from all around. Serena gave me what could’ve been a smile. Or a facial tick.
We waited. I sat on the carpet and tried to think, to meditate, but all those swirling, exotic patterns on the carpet entered my mind as if through osmosis and merged with my darkening thoughts, writhing and twisting, turning inside and out, puking themselves out and swallowing themselves back up. I fought the thoughts back down until I knew what I had to do.
The door opened again. The woman called three more people, two women and a man. Smiles crept onto their faces as they left. Before she pulled the door shut, she spoke to Serena. “Not everyone is ready at the same time.” Only Serena and I remained.
“I, I think I’m jealous,” Serena said. “I wanted to be first.”
“But first for what?” And again, she gave me that knowing, incomprehensible gaze. I began to think she had no idea what she wanted or what she was waiting for. “I’m leaving,” I said. “This is untenable. As far as I’m concerned, this is a death camp. You don’t get that feeling?”
“Not at all,” Serena said. “But maybe it’s not the right place for everybody.”
“Is that doubt I hear in your voice?”
“I have nothing to doubt. I just know things are as they are for a reason.”
“I wish I felt that way,” I said. “I don’t trust anyone, not even you. No offense.”
“None taken.” She untied the yellow ribbon, ran her fingers through her hair, then retied the ribbon with fluid and practiced motions.
“I’m leaving,” I said. I took off my shirt, wrapped it around my fist, and punched the glass. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I picked up one of the claw—footed chairs and slammed the leg into the window. Finally, a tiny spider web appeared. I slammed again and again. Eventually the entire window shattered into tiny little pieces, just like auto glass. I expected alarms to go off, for the doors to fly open, for an immobilizing attack, but none came. Nothing happened.
“Last chance,” I said. “You can come with me. We can get out of here.”
“I’m already where I need to be,” Serena said.
“You’re a weird one, but I respect your decision. Good luck to you.”
“Luck is irrelevant now. For me. Maybe not for you.”
I nodded to her as I crawled out the window and onto the porch. Outside, bullfrogs croaked arrhythmic melodies with their tuned—drum throats. Careful, rolling my feet to keep quiet, I crept across the porch. Ducking, I passed two windows with shades drawn then came to the corner of the house. Peering around, I saw nothing save a single illuminated window. I planned to slip into the water from the back of the house and swim out and away in a wide arc, eventually reconnecting with the railroad tracks. From there, I would follow them wherever they led. Daylight would come and, with that, relief. Maybe even understanding. Before I swam off, I decided to peer through the illuminated window. I needed to see something, anything, if I was to make sense of the happenings here. Slinking across creaking boards, I crouched on my haunches beside the window and peered through the glass.
Inside, the first men who had been called, the beefy guy, plaid—hat guy, and the old man were stripped naked, on their knees. Metal wires ran from their genitals like catheters. Reverent, like penitential worshipers, they stared up at two figures.
One figure towered over the room, standing almost eight feet tall. It was humanoid with a round, wrinkled face, eyes the size of baseballs, with yellow irises, black pupils, and big, sleepy lids. A bone—colored beak extended out from its face about six inches. It wore a grey robe streaked with blue, orange and red. A hood covered its head. Downy fur poked out from under the collar.
Another figure stood beside the creature, wearing a round Día de los Muertos skull mask and the same grey, streaked robe. Red hair flowed back from behind the mask, as if blown by a strong wind.
Startled, I stumbled. The creature turned its face to me. I crawled off the porch and into the stagnant water surrounding the house. It reached my waist as the smell of florid decay filled my lungs. I sunk low, keeping only the top of my head above the surface. I moved as fast as I could without splashing
A door on the house opened and the man with the clipboard ran onto the porch. He shouted something I couldn’t understand then ran back inside. My sides ached, my feet were cut, and all my muscles cried for rest and oxygen, but I kept going, going.
Around me, the world was monochrome, the sky as black as cuttlefish ink. Most people would be blind, but I’ve always had superior night vision, and while I rippled through the water, my eyes adjusted to the scant light. I scanned my surroundings. A tree rose in the distance. Being the only feature I had seen since the house, I went to it. The tree sat on solid, if muddy, ground. Excited, I pulled myself out, stumbling once on the water’s slippery edge.
I ran my hand over the wide trunk. The bark felt like redwood. In the tree’s base was a hole, wide enough to house a body. Tired, aching, scared, I decided I would hide in the tree. Like a cat, I thought the confinement would be comforting. Inside, I drew my legs against me, and waited until morning. Once during the night I heard something overhead like the beating of wings, only the sound was too loud, too big for any bird. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe, until the sound subsided.
I may have slept, I may have hallucinated, but after what felt like hours had passed, daylight hadn’t come. I felt more rested, so I continued, heading in the direction of the railroad tracks, all the while listening for footsteps, voices, or sounds overhead. The dark was silent.
I walked in what I hoped was a straight line. The ground soon changed to dirt, cracked and naked. I never did find the railroad tracks. Later, though, I heard the sound of running water. If I couldn’t follow the tracks, I could follow the stream. Streams lead to rivers, I thought, and people live along rivers. Normal people.
When I came closer to the stream, I noticed a faint red glow. At first I thought a city loomed on the horizon, but closer I realized it was the stream itself. Nearby, the air smelled of aluminum shavings. My heart, it had been pounding away inside my chest the whole night through, but when I came closer it started skipping beats and playing jazz.
The stream was wider than I thought, but it wasn’t the water that glowed. A reddish, oily substance floated on the top, luminescent and swirling like the wax in a lava lamp. I sat on my haunches, wondering if it was safe to drink. I was so thirsty, but I decided to rest for awhile. Time passed, and I saw something floating down the stream. It came closer: a hat, trailing clumps of curly blond hair, like a plaid jellyfish. My stomach turned, but the water had a hypnotic, calming effect and I continued to gaze into it, watching, waiting for something else to come along.
The sky began to change and dawn revealed its secrets, the quivering orange holy moment before the crowning of the sun. Looking down at my comfortable Velcro shoes, then at the sky, then back to the creek, a laugh sprang from my mouth. I was aching, spent, waterlogged, and free.
And then I saw it, floating and twisting upon the oily surface like an eel: a yellow ribbon. As it drifted closer to me, I reached down and plucked the ribbon from the water. It was waterlogged and covered in bloody splotches. I wrung it out and stood. Placing the ribbon in my shirt pocket, I began to follow the glowing stream away from the terminus and towards the nascent sunrise.