"Somewhere, a butterfly flaps its wings, and across the oceans, a storm is formed."
A train weaves through a remote valley, its track threading between two mountains. Six strangers were the only passengers; each slept soundly in their respective rooms. A college student, a teenage girl, a nurse, a mechanic, a drunk, and a housewife. Sam- the teenage girl, awoke first. She shot up in bed like a vampire from a coffin. Her eyes were hazy, and her limbs felt weighted. She was in a room nicer than she could ever afford. It looked like something out of a magazine from the checkout aisle of a grocery store. Complete with a sliding glass door and a flat-screen TV mounted on the white eggshell wall. She tried to remember how she got here, why, or where she was going.
Sam looked out the train car window and only saw the rocky surface of the mountain, whirling by in a rapid blur. She tried to slide her door open, but it wouldn't budge. She looked under the bed and in the closet. She had no bag, no ticket, no memory.
On the bedside table, there was a remote with a sticky note attached. "Play me." A twinge of fear overcame her, and she hesitated. Still, she didn't see another option, so she relented and pressed the TV's power button.
A woman appeared on the screen wearing a blue pantsuit. Her thin boney arms were delicately placed on the recliner she sat in. She had dark hair, which highlighted her pale skin. It looked like someone had pulled the flesh on her face back as far as it would go and stapled it there.
"Hi, you must be very confused," the woman started. "You're here because of the decisions you've made and the life you've chosen to lead. Over the next 24 hours, you will have a chance to right your wrongs. We'll put you through a series of games; some will require wit, and others will only demand honesty. Complete the round, and you will move to the next section of the train.
As you progress through each round, the train will move faster. Complete all the games, and at the end, you will be able to pull the brake and stop the train from crashing. Fail to complete every round, and the train will crash, and you will die. Good luck. We'll all be watching, eager to see your progress." The TV shut off, filling the room with a heavy silence. Sam was still groggy from her sleep and was half convinced she was dreaming. She didn't have much time to unravel her predicament before a stream of water inched out from beneath the bed. Her toes went numb as it rose above her ankles.
Her reflexes made her jump up. A chill traveled down her spine and made her skin raise with goosebumps. The temperature of the water drove her to hyperventilate as it rose past her shins. She threw herself at the door, kicking the thick glass, but it wouldn't give way. She tried the window, but it was sealed shut.
"Help! Help someone please!" The water climbed over her shoulders. Sam pressed her cheek against the ceiling and braced herself, filling her lungs with oxygen before the water rose above her nose, burying her completely. She opened her eyes under the surface and grabbed the remote as it floated past her. Sam ripped out the back and taped to the inside; she found a key. She swam to the door with her chest burning and her lungs aching for air. She felt for the keyhole in the darkness of her now submerged room. The corners of her vision were fading to black. When she finally found the slot, she pressed the key and pushed the door open.
She collapsed into the hallway, coughing and gagging in a wave of water. She looked around to find a man across from her coughing profusely, having escaped from his room seconds earlier. Sam hoisted herself onto her arms and looked down either side of the corridor. Two more people came crashing out, hacking up swallowed water. At the end of the hall, a woman lay unconscious. Sam counted the people, 6-including herself.
"What the fuck is going on?" An older man said as he scrambled to his feet.
A young man whose room was next to his sat up and leaned against the wall, wringing out his socks. "Seems pretty clear to me. We've all done something these people didn't like. They're punishing us."
"Well, I'm innocent. I've never done anything that deserved that." He gestured to the room behind him and then turned back to the pink-faced boy with a smirk.
"What's your name, friend?" The man extended his hand to his younger counterpart and helped him up.
"Brock. Yours?- Thanks."
"I'm Stan, and you buddy?" He turned to another man in a mechanics' blue jumpsuit, pushing himself up the wall to his feet.
"Daniel." He waved to the two others and pulled out his inhaler, shaking it before taking two puffs.
While the others were making introductions, Sam approached the unconscious woman. She wore scrubs and had a name tag clipped to her right breast that read, "Debra."
Sam dropped to her knees and began performing CPR. First, she laced her hands and squared them on the center of the woman's chest, pumping them four times. Then, she lowered herself to be level with the woman's mouth and blew a full breath through clammy blue lips. "Stay with me, Debra. Stay with me." When the woman was still unresponsive, she went back to chest compressions. Before she blew another breath, the woman zapped to life and started coughing.
Out came a stream of water but also a small baggy. Sam picked it up and brought it up to the light. Contained within it were three blue pills. The rest of the strangers huddled around her.
"What are those?" Sam looked over to find a blonde woman clutching her abdomen in pain. She looked to be in her early thirties, "I'm Taylor," she said. She looked around the group with the anxious hesitance of a child.
"Not sure." Sam looked down at Debra, who glared back at her and shrugged as she hoisted herself to a sitting position. "Don't ask me. I woke up in the room, and that's all I know."
"What's your name, miss?" Brock asked as he offered Sam a hand to get up.
She clutched his calloused hand and stood. A steel door to the group's left slid open. Inside, a chorus of TVs lining each wall was playing news reports. Sam could hear the words all running together in a monotonous stream. She leaned down to help Debra up before the group made their way into the next train car.
"Local mother charged with the poisoning of her young daughter. When police interviewed her, she claimed she was saving her."
"Doctor charged with multiple homicides after discovering he was poisoning his patients. When asked about his motive, he replied, "they were suffering.""
"Nurse is the suspect of interest in a string of Hill Side Retirement home murders after several children claimed she was over-medicating their parents in hospice care."
Sam was trying to absorb what they were saying when every TV went black but the one in the center of the room. It was the same woman. Her dark brown bob cut made her jawline look sharp. "One of you took an oath to protect and save lives that you abused. Now you have the chance to right your wrongs. Another one of the participants took a life via poison and now will reach the same fate unless you can save her. There are three pills, one is the cure, one is cyanide, and one is a placebo. Pick the correct one and save a life. Fail, and take another. You have 1 minute to decide."
The group exchanged looks for a moment in stillness. Stan cracked the silence by shouting at the group with the rabid eyes of a caged animal. "Well, she said it was a "her," so speak up; which of you feels sick?"
"It's me," Taylor admitted. "My stomach has been killing me since I woke up."
The sound of grinding gears pierced the air, and the far wall began to move toward the group. They huddled against the other side, trying to buy as much time as possible. Stan banged on the steel door with a hammer fist. "This isn't right. Let us out!"
"The walls are closing in on us!" Brock yelled. "Someone's got to pick. Where are the pills?"
"I have them. But the oath...Debra, are you in the medical field? Take them." Sam said, handing the baggy to the career nurse.
"I was protecting them," Debra replied, snatching the baggy from her. "They needed me." No one debated her as the wall was over halfway across the room now.
"Pick!" Daniel cried, shaking Debra's shoulders. "We don't give a fuck. Just pick!"
Debra started to examine the pills, and Taylor retreated into a corner. "Wait, I'm supposed to trust her?"
"Oh, the murderers got morals? How could you poison someone? How cowardly can you get, both of you!" Stan said, pushing her back towards Debra.
"I can't tell the difference. They all look the same!" Debra exclaimed with tears streaming down her face.
"You fucking pick, or I'll shove one down her throat." Stan hissed.
The wall was now upon them, constricting their movements.
"I can't breathe!" Daniel yelled, squeezed between the two masses. He scrunched his eyes shut.
"Here, this one! take this one." Debra held out one of the pills with a shaky hand, and Taylor took it from her reluctantly.
"I can't," she said through a voice shaky from tears. "I can't take it."
The space in the room was becoming minimal, and the panic among the participants was palpable. "I'm not dying here!" Daniel shouted. "Take the pill!"
Taylor finally swallowed the pill, and the door still didn't budge. "It was my husband," Taylor admitted. Sam was facing her and could see the tears welling in her eyes and sliding down her cheeks. "I poisoned him for life insurance money. At least someone will know if-" She clutched her neck as if she could stop the poison in her trachea from spreading. Sam tried to grab her, but there wasn't enough space. She watched as blood dripped from her eyes and down her cheeks in the same trails her tears had. Sam could hear Debra's wails as Taylor's body went limp and slumped over in an unrecognizable heap.
The door burst open, and the group ran through it with only seconds to spare. Brock yanked Sam's shirt collar to pull her away from Taylor and through the exit. Debra was last in line, and before she could cross the threshold, Stan shoved her back, and the door slammed shut. He stood at the window watching like a voyeur, but there was no scream.
"What the hell, man? Brock grabbed his shoulders and spun him to face him. "What's wrong with you?"
Stan shook him off and stalked to the corner of the room, digging out a damp cigarette from his pocket. "My mother was a resident at the Hill Side Nursing Home."
An eerie quietness settled between the four of them. No one felt holy enough to cast judgment when they all found themselves in hell. The train lurched forward, making the walls shake. The group could hear the tracks rattling, signaling that the locomotive was accelerating.
Sam and Brock huddled together, consoling one another. Brock brushed a few stray strands of hair from her face, tucking them behind her ear. At the same time, Daniel made his way over to the table in the center of the room. A piece of paper, a newspaper clipping, and a rope were on it. He stood there standing stiff as a soldier staring at the form.
Stan flicked his cigarette and looked at the newspaper beside him. "Hey, kid. Isn't this you?" Stan cleared his throat and read it off in his best reporter impression. "High school student Brock Davenport- son of prosecuting attorney William Davenport, was involved in a two-car collision over the weekend. While driving under the influence, Davenport passed out behind the wheel and lost control of his vehicle, drifting into the other lane. He walked away unharmed. Yet, the passengers in the other vehicle, Tom Provenzano, his wife Vivian, and their adopted toddler son, were all pronounced dead at the scene."
Brock launched forward and yanked the newspaper from Stan's hands. "No need to be embarrassed, kid. We're all corrupt here. Ain't that right, Danny boy?" Stan slapped an arm over Daniels's shoulders, who was still staring at the paper.
"Why are you so broken up about an invoice?" Stan grabbed the paper, and Daniel's hands held shape. His eyes were empty as he stared ahead. "Maybe you know something about this." Stan handed Brock the invoice. Brock looked from the sheet of paper to the newspaper clipping. Above head, a voice bellowed out from a crackling speaker.
"Hey buddy, this is William. Thank you so much for fixing my son Brock's exhaust system. It's been malfunctioning a lot lately and just hasn't been safe. Did you know carbon monoxide can build up in the car? Crazy stuff. Anyway. Send me over what I owe you, Dan. Take care. Bye bye"
Brock's eyes settled on the back of Daniel's head, but another TV sparked to life before he could speak. The same woman began, "well, well, well. A cheap mechanic and an irresponsible, reckless child. Was it the car's faulty parts? Or an alcohol-induced mistake? Neither of you has taken responsibility for your actions. Today, one of you will have a reckoning and pay the ultimate price."
Sam started to detect a hissing sound and noticed a tube mounted in one corner of the room. Three gas masks dropped down, and Stan promptly removed two from their rope. He tossed one to Sam and ushered her out of the way. As he led her, she caught a whiff of sandalwood, which seemed familiar.
Brock crept up on Daniel. He grabbed the rope and wrapped it around the mechanic's neck, ripping him backward. This brought Daniel back to reality. He pulled at the rope around his neck, trying to suck in a breath. "My father killed himself after what you did. He wouldn't even look at me. I couldn't even look at myself!" Brock screamed, and spit flew from his lips. Daniel pushed back against him, running them both into the back wall. As the two slammed against it, Brock lost his grip on the rope, and Daniel was able to breathe.
"Oh, shut up. You were wasted. If you were in your right mind, you might've noticed a weird feeling and rolled the god damn windows down!" Daniel raised his right hand and hit Brock squarely on the chin making his knees buckle. "Or I don't know? Stopped the car?? Pulled over?" He threw his arm for a left hand that Brock rolled under. Brock then twisted his torso to ram his fist into Daniel's kidney.
The blow made Daniel double over, gasping for breath. Brock surged forward and lifted his knee, cracking Daniel's nose open. Daniel sank to the floor, diving for his inhaler that had slipped from his pocket. Brock pulled the final gas mask from the wall over his head and kicked Daniel's inhaler across the room. Dropping to his knees, Brock rolled the mechanic over and repeatedly battered him across the face.
The next steel door opened, and Stan shoved Sam through it. Brock didn't even notice. He kept punching Daniel until his fist ached. "You ruined my life! You killed those people, not me. Not fucking me, you understand ?? It's your fault!" Though no one else could see it, Brock was crying. He slumped over next to Daniel, who was now unconscious, sobbing.
"Brock! Let's go!" Sam called out to him.
Brock advanced to his feet and jogged toward the door but staggered all over the room. His vision split into fives, and his head was pounding. "Sam...I don't think my mask works. Sam, help me!" Sam rushed toward him, but Stan stopped her, wrapping his arms around her body, locking her in place. "Don't." He whispered. Sam kicked and dug her nails into her capturer's arms but could not free herself from his grip.
The door shut, and Brock ripped off his mask, banging on the glass. He was inches from Sam but separated by layers of steel. "Sam! I didn't do anything, Sam. Listen to me!"
The back half of the train split, and Brock and Daniel's car stayed while the front half increased speed. The distance between them grew further, but Sam held his pleading eyes. The train car exploded when she could barely make out a silhouette in the window. Mushroom clouds of black smoke drifted into the air. The glass window shattered from the force of the explosion, sending Stan and Sam spiraling backward in a heap.
Sam howled like a wounded animal, curling herself into a ball on the floor. Stan gave a disgusted scoff and rolled her body off of his.
While Sam lay on the checkered linoleum screaming, Stan walked the room. Wooden cabinets lined a square perimeter; a black fridge accented the back wall with postcards and children's drawings taped to the front. He opened the refrigerator and found a six-pack of beer on the otherwise barren shelves. He grabbed one and cracked it open as he walked over to the old electric stove plucked in the middle of stretches of countertops. Stan examined the pasta sauce stains on the wall behind it, chuckling as he approached the island in the center of the room. A square was carved out in this kitchen so you could look into the dining room.
Stan watched Sam writhing in pain, sipping his beer. The keys to a 97' Ford Contour and a pack of cigarettes were on the counter. Menthols, like he smoked. He looked over to the dining room table. Sitting in the center was a revolver. He walked over to it and spun the chamber open. One bullet. He turned it again to mix up its placement and set it back on the table as he took a seat.
Sam finally gathered herself enough to scan the room. When she reached the fridge, one of the drawings made her stop in her tracks. "Ronnie Provanzano" was scrawled across the bottom of a drawing of a giraffe. She ran her fingertips over the sticky crayon. "Ronnie," she whispered. She turned to stabilize herself on the counter. She took a deep breath and looked at the floor. She noticed a piece of paper peeking out from a drawer. She creaked the door open, glancing up at Stan, who was taking continuous rhythmic swigs of his drink, savoring each swallow with closed eyes. She pulled the paper out, and her eyes danced across the page, "This document is to signify the adoption of Ronnie Adams by Tom and Vivan Provenzano." Sam felt dizzy trying to grapple with the weight of reality.
"They want us to play Russian Roulette." Stan splintered the silence in the room with the sound of his voice. He lit a cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his legs. "Tell me, Samantha, what brings you to this hell hole?"
"I left home when I was 15," she began. "My dad left when I was really young, and my mother never recovered from the betrayal. I floated around from place to place. I met a guy. He was married and promised to leave his wife for me." Stan nodded along, taking gingerly puffs of his cigarette.
"I got pregnant," Sam went on. "He told me if I kept it, he would kill me. He said he already had a family and wouldn't let me ruin his life. So I did the only thing I knew and ran. I couldn't afford doctor's appointments and went to the emergency room only when I felt labor pains. I had the baby on a bitterly cold January night. I named him Ronnie. He was so beautiful, I felt my heart expand when they placed him on my chest, and I heard him cry for the first time. But when his eyes met mine, I knew I couldn't give him a life. That wasn't a life, drifting from town to town with no home, no guaranteed meals. I thought about it until morning, and when dusk broke, I went to see him in the baby room. I put my hand on the glass and watched him sleep. I said goodbye, and I left. That was the last time I saw him.
Sam spoke calmly, letting the words roll off her tongue. It was the first time she had heard them. The first time they had left the safety of her mind. As she spoke, she couldn't stop, and they continued to come tumbling out. "I never knew what happened to him. I could never find any records. Only now that I see these papers do I know that Tom and Vivan Provenzano adopted him. She looked up at Stan with tears blurring her pupils like stained glass. "He was happy. Those are his drawings on the fridge." Her lips spread into a half smile as she turned to look at the pictures.
"But Brock killed him. Or maybe it was Daniels's fault, or maybe it was mine because he should have been with me." The tears were now free falling and wetting the paper, smudging the ink, but she continued through a clenched throat. "That's why I'm here, Stan. I killed my only son."
Stan opened his eyes and looked over at her. He pinched his cigarette between two fingers, then ashed it on the table and slid the gun over to her.
"Well, this is my kitchen. I lived here with my daughter and wife. My wife and I always fought. She thought I drank too much, and I thought she should mind her damn business. But this night was worse than usual. We had spaghetti." He gestured to the stains on the wall. "She was yelling at me, cursing me up and down. I don't do enough for this family. I'm never home. Typical stuff. She got in my face and ripped my shirt right down the middle." He laughed and shook his head, pausing for a moment in thought. "I turned to leave all in a hurry, slamming the door behind me, and went to sit on the back of my old car to have a smoke and cool off.
I sat there and smoked, then I got in the car and thought I'd head down the road for a beer. The cig didn't quite take the edge off like I wanted, you know? One beer turned into ten, and I crashed at a buddy's house and returned to the bar when I woke up. As each day passed, I kept thinking that I should just go home. That's all she wants. I should just go home. But I couldn't stand the sight of my daughter's disappointed face. It haunted me, and eventually, I decided they were better off without me. I haven't seen my daughter in 16 years. I probably wouldn't recognize her if she passed me in the street." Stan chuckled and tilted the bottle against his lips to take another sip. "So shoot me, Sam. Shoot me and go on with your life. You'd be doing me a favor." He opened his arms and laughed harder, closing his eyes and tossing his head back. "Shoot me!"
Sam couldn't hear him. She was transported back to a memory she didn't know she had. It was so vivid it left her body frozen stiff. She could see herself peeking through a crack in the door, watching her parents arguing. She remembered her mother sizing her father up, yelling at him with bared teeth. She saw her tear her father's shirt down the middle. She could smell the sandalwood as he lifted her and put her back in bed on his way outside. When he left the room, she crawled to the edge of her bed to peek out the window. She could see the orange glow from his cigarette and the rips in his white shirt puncturing the dark night. That was the last time she ever saw her father. She watched the old blue ford until the red headlights were swallowed in black.
Sam blinked and looked up at the man in front of her, who had taken on a new form. She couldn't breathe as she watched his chest shake from laughter. She wanted to run or scream but could only utter a single word.
Stan stopped laughing, and they locked eyes. Both had specks of recognition. Stan's mouth fell open, and he went to speak, but before he could, the train collided with the mountainside, and their train car went airborne. The glass from the windows shattered and sent shards flying across the room. Flames erupted and devoured the fridge, the stove exploded, and the room filled instantly with a fiery blaze.
They had spent their last day together, but the flames erased them before they could have a reunion...
The room filled with applause, and Clarice took a bow in front of the movie screen. "Thank you all for coming, please look out for invitations for next year's showing. Have a great night!" She waved to the crowd as they showered her with another round of applause and whistles of approval. She made her way to the exit and said goodbye to each guest as they filed out of the theater.
"This batch was great, Clarice, my favorite yet."
"Wonderful showing this year."
"You really outdid yourself, Clarice."
She smiled as they each paid their respects and left. When the room was empty, she got out her cell and dialed a number, putting the receiver to her ear.
"Hi, Cathy, sorry I just had the chance to return your call."
"Oh, no worries, he wanted to say goodnight to you, is all. Can I put him on? He's pulling on my shirt as we speak, trying to get the phone."
Clarice chuckled and brushed her dark hair behind her ear. "Put my little guy on."
"Hi, mommy! When are you coming home??"
Clarice turned off the lights, holding her phone between her neck and shoulder. In her free hand, she clutched a folder labeled "Batch 54." She shut the door behind her and headed out into the night air. "Right now, Ronnie. I'll be there very soon, little one."
Wow, I loved how everyone turned out to be tangled up together in real life. That was suspenseful and face paced! Great work :)