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Destination: Unknown

by Morgan Hiler 4 months ago in Short Story
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It's All About Your Choice

Destination: Unknown
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

The gentle rocking was comforting as I felt myself slowly coming awake. Sometimes - not often, but sometimes - I sleep so deeply that I forget where I am as I wake up. I blink my eyes against the soft light and take in my surroundings. Where was I? As the rocking continued, I sat up quickly and absorbed everything around me. I was on a train, but not a subway or modern train at all. No, this was like period movies I had seen. Old brass sconces along the entire cart gave off a soft yellow glow, making it feel like the train was traveling at night. There were dark green velvet couch-style benches facing each other with large picture windows between the benches. Green velvet curtains matching the seats framed the windows. The sound of the metal wheels on the tracks creaked when the train rocked. The car smelled like oiled wood. That was something I had not experienced since childhood.

I stood up and noticed a woman two rows behind me, she was a young girl; a teenager based on her attire. I walked over to her.

“Excuse me, where we are?”

She didn't respond but kept looking out her window. I glanced out the window and noticed that there was snow on the trees and we seemed to be passing through a forest. I reached out to tap her shoulder, thinking that maybe she was wearing headphones, but as my hand reached her shoulder it softly passed through as though the girl was a hologram. I jerked my hand back quickly and stumbled backward into the adjacent bench.

This was wrong. This was all wrong!

I moved quickly up the aisle and saw two more people, both men. One was probably my age and the other was older, maybe in his fifties. I hurried toward both of them. “Please help me! Where am I?”

Neither man responded, but both were gazing out their respective windows. The old man's window showed an almost bayou-like scene, but that couldn’t be possible because out the girl’s window there was snow. My fear grew as I looked out the window of the other man and saw a desert. Panic began to sink into my body, making my lungs feel heavy and breathing difficult. I once again stretched out a shaky hand and reached for the older man’s shoulder. Again, as my fingers should have brushed his dusty coat, they passed through him. Sheer terror overtook me and I ran down the car, racing toward the door. I reached it and desperately tried to pull it open. I pushed, pulled, and rattled the latch but nothing worked. I spun around and ran toward the front of the car. There were other people in the car but I didn’t care. I needed to get out. The door at the front was latched too, and no matter how much I pulled and struck it never moved. I could see what looked like another car so I banged on the glass yelling for help but no one came.

I faced the car once again and slowly moved to the closest window. It was almost pitch black with no scenery outside at all. I tried prying it open, but again nothing, it was like the small window was welded shut. There was no give at all, so I made my way carefully down the aisle once more. There has to be a way out of here. As I passed each row, I made sure to pay attention to every window, checking for weakness but also observing the scenery. There had to be a clue as to where on earth I was. But as I looked out each window, I just became more and more confused. All the empty seats were like the one I just tried to open – black and void of any scenery - and the ones with occupied seats were all different. Altogether, there were eight people besides me. The most disturbing thing was a little boy who looked about twelve, sitting alone in the very last row in the car. I didn’t know why it disturbed me, but the sight of his solitary form with no hint of an adult sent a chill up my spine.

Fear still permeated my being, but anger was quickly taking over as my most dominant emotion. Someone had put me here, against my will, and was trying to mess with me in some way - for what only God could know - and I was pissed. Nothing is impenetrable. This may be the train from hell, but it was still made of destructible materials. The metal sconces along the walls and by the doors looked weighty enough to break glass. I was getting off this train one way or another. I moved back to the front of the car. The windows were smaller there so the glass should be easier to break. I grabbed the sconce closest to the front door, braced my right foot against the wall for leverage, and was about to throw all my weight and force down to rip the sconce off the wall when I heard a door latch click. Whipping around, I saw a man dressed as a train conductor enter through the back door. He had the blue suit, funny hat, watch chain and all. I watched as he shut the door behind him. He faced the front of the car and looked directly at me. He saw me! He could see me!

“Miss, you need to return to your seat please.”

My heart leaped in my chest. “You can see me!” I let go of the sconce I forgot I still had a hold of and rushed to him. “Please, tell me where I am. Why can’t I touch anyone? Why can’t anyone hear me? What is going on?” My hurried questions did not phase the man at all he remained almost stoically calm.

He smiled kindly, but that did little to lessen my reoccurring panic. “Your concern is not unusual for new passengers, and if you return to your seat I can explain.” Why couldn’t he explain now? Why did I have to go back to my seat? I felt like a child being told what to do by an annoying teacher, but I wanted answers so I did as he asked. I turned and began walking back to my seat, but kept myself in a bladed stance as I walked to make sure I could see the conductor as I moved up the aisle. I knew which seat was mine because of all the unoccupied benches, my window was not black. Instead, it glowed a soft gray. It reminded me of an old tv before the movie started. I must be mired in nostalgia if I associated everything about this crazy train with old movies. I take the seat facing the front of the car and wait for the conductor to step forward and answer my questions.

He surprised me by taking a seat on the bench facing me. Well, that seemed unprofessional but whatever. “Can you answer my questions now?”

He nodded. “The train doesn’t have a name and the destinations are for the passengers to decide for themselves.” This was not a promising start. Every railway has a name! “Every passenger on the train has their own journey to take aboard the train, and every passenger is only meant to interact with those whom they have influenced in life.”

“Wait, you said ‘in life?’ What does that mean? Where am I?” The hairs on my neck stood up as I took in what the conductor could mean.

“Where you are and where you are going depends entirely on you. Your ticket has not been punched yet.” He had folded his hands in his lap but motioned with them toward my left jacket pocket. I reached into the pocket and indeed found a ticket. What sort of magic, voodoo was this? As I looked at the ticket it seemed like a standard cardboard ticket with a stamp of an old train with scrollwork on one side and on the other was travel information. My name was listed beside ‘passenger’ but beside destination a single word: Unknown.

The conductor looked at me closely, almost oppressively, and continued. “You asked yourself recently if your life mattered. What is the purpose? You questioned the value of it. Well, we are here to let you decide.” His eyes peered deeply into mine like they were searching for my soul. Some eyes you can forget, but not his. His were soulful, a deep milk chocolate color with what I can only think of as ribbons of gold running through them. His gaze was not pleasant or comforting as some might find it to be given the beauty of his eyes. Instead, it was like he expected more from me and found me wanting. As uncomfortable as his gaze was I couldn’t look away, but he did and turned toward my window. Then, just like a movie, the window lit up and a scene began to play outside the window and I was completely drawn into the memory.

A little girl with curly black hair is pushed to the ground and then sits up crying and rubbing her eyes as two little boys stood over her pointing and laughing. I feel like I relive the moment as I run in from off the screen and swiftly punch the little boy that pushed the girl. My six-year-old self was unable to stomach the injustice I had witnessed. Nissa was my forever best friend and this was the moment we met. The jerk was bullying Nissa and I was not going to have it. The two little boys run off - to cry to their mothers if I remember what happened next correctly - but the focus out the window was centered completely on Nissa’s face. Nissa’s smile slowly spread across her grubby face, but despite the dirt and tears her smile out shown everything. Her smile at that moment was just as bright and all-consuming as I remembered all of her smiles being. It lit up her face and radiated joy. No one could see her smile and not feel like she was smiling just for them. Nissa stopped crying, stood up, brushed herself off, and threw her arm around my shoulders smiling the entire time. We were best friends from that moment on.

As I continued to stare at Nissa’s young face out the window, my mind flashed instead to the gruesome scene of a car crash. Mangled metal and debris covered the road and all anyone would say was, “Un-survivable.” I lost Nissa to a drunk driver that came across the highway and killed her instantly. She had been driving up to the city to spend the weekend with me.

I had just begun to sink under the pain and guilt when the scene outside the window changed again. Now it showed me, standing on an old front porch as a big man with a booming voice threw open the door and yelled, “It is about time you got here! I haven’t had any good help around this place since you left.” Grandpa.

My ten-year-old self threw my arms out as he swept me up in one of those hugs only Poppie could give. The completely safe, nothing will ever hurt you hug that filled you with all the love he had to give. He carried me inside, where we stole some cookies that Gram had set on the counter to cool then rushed outside to his workshop. There was always something wonderful and fascinating happening in Poppie’s workshop. The wonder that only children have filled me as he showed me his newest invention. I asked so many questions that any other adult would have become frustrated, but Poppie never tired of answering. He loved sharing new things, he loved teaching me, and more than almost anything, he loved curiosity. Then, just as I remembered, he patted my head and said, “Never stop asking questions Spunky. Questions always lead to the next best thing.”

I covered my mouth with both hands desperately trying to hold on to that moment, but my brain punished me for those few moments of joy at seeing him again by replaying another scene in my head.

As the happy scene played on, all I saw was a hospital room where the strongest man I had ever known wasted away to nothing with wires and tubes connected to more machines than I wanted to count. Poppie’s breathing was raspy and labored as he struggled for each bit of life. Cancer had destroyed my safe harbor, and I no longer felt safe in the world because I would never again be able to retreat to Poppie’s workshop and find him there waiting to give me a hug and answer all my questions. The machine started beeping and Poppie fought for one more painful breath as everything went crazy and the nurses rushed into the room. The chaos overthrew everything and I was shoved out the door, but I could hear as the monitor peeled out my grandfather’s last heartbeat. My heart clenched in my chest as I continued to watch the little girl and her grandfather, but they were so far removed from me now that I did not even feel as though I knew them.

The scene jumped again, and I could barely stand it. Oh God, what now? I braced myself and watched as a city park came into view. No, not this one, please!

I walked across the concrete on my way to the little bodega by the park. I was pretty hungry and needed a snack before heading to work. As I got closer I saw a new employee grabbing a little boy by the arm. The boy’s clothes were dirty and he looked to be around eight. “You aren’t gonna steal that on my watch you brat!” The little boy had bread and jelly in his hand and the clerk shook him. “Where are your parents, boy?” The little boy struggled against the vice grip but the clerk wouldn’t let go.

I rushed forward. “Hey, you don’t need to grab him so hard!”

“What do you know? This is the second time he has come in here and stolen stuff. I am not letting it happen again!”

“Okay, I get that you are frustrated but abusing a child isn’t going to help anything. I will pay for it. Please just let him go!” The clerk eyed me suspiciously. I was going to talk to Mr. Glenn about this guy. No one should ever snatch a kid up the way he just did and I know Mr. Glenn would not stand for it. “I shop here every day. Ask Mr. Glenn if you don’t believe me. I will take care of the boy.” The clerk tossed the boy’s arm in my direction and huffed back to the counter.

“He is your problem then sweetheart.” Gross, I was definitely talking to Mr. Glenn now. The little boy had stayed perfectly still even after the guy had let go of his arm when most kids would have run away. He had his head down and clung to the small food items, terrified someone would take them away.

I knelt in front of him and spoke, “You don’t have to say if you don’t want to, but when was the last time you ate?” The boy pulled further into himself and I took in his malnourished appearance and dirty clothes. “I am not going to take your food, but can I get you some other things too?” The boy jerked his head up in surprise. “You know bread and jelly don’t really fill you up without peanut butter.” The boy’s eyes sparkled as I stood and held out my hand. He took it and we went back into the shop. I got him the bread, peanut butter, jelly, milk, and some eggs along with a couple of sandwiches. While we checked out, I glared at the clerk as he shook his head and muttered about useless do-gooders throwing their money away. I walked the boy outside and asked where he lived. He pointed at the building back across the park. I walked with him, carrying one of the bags. He stopped at the door and eyed me suspiciously as I started to follow him inside. “Okay, you don’t want me to go inside. I get it. Here is your food,” I said as I handed him the bag. “But next time you need something to eat instead of taking it. Ask for Mr. Glenn at the store or ask for me, okay? My name is McKayla, but you can call me Mick.”

The boy continued to stare at me as he held his two little bags and nodded. “I’m Andy.” That was all he ever said to me before darting into the building and the door shut in my face. As I headed to work, I knew Andy needed help and I was going to do anything I could to give it to him. I planned to leave a tab open with Mr. Glenn so Andy could get food when he needed it, and I planned to call DSS if I needed to…but, it turned out, all that good intention was too late. The scene outside the window went a fuzzy gray as my eyes glassed over. My brain once again changed the scene. I knew what was coming next, but it didn’t stop the bile rising in my throat. I saw the flashing lights on the street and little Andy’s body crumpled on the sidewalk just as if I was living it all over again. Andy had been hit by a stray bullet the very next day as he tried walking across the park toward the bodega - probably going to look for Mr. Glenn or me just like I told him to. I always felt like I got Andy killed by telling him to return and not saying anything to someone sooner. Do-gooder indeed.

The losses felt like one hit after another; they just kept piling up and oh it hurt so badly. The window began to light up once more. “Stop, please! I can’t watch anymore. I can’t take another one!” This was why life hurt. The loss, the pain the meaninglessness of everything we do; why would anyone cling to this?

I turned completely away from the window, refusing to look at anything else and to my surprise, the conductor was still sitting across from me. “Why?” I almost yelled at him, “Why are you torturing me? What did I do?”

The conductor met my eyes solemnly, “Because you have a choice to make, and it is the only one that matters. Do you want to live or do you want it to be over?” As he asked his question my arms began to burn. Is it worth it? As I look up in anger to answer this self-righteous jerk when I see a man near the front of the train stand up. I watch silently as he steps into the aisle, turns, and calmly makes his way to the back of the car. I notice a light over the exit. As the man steps up to the door, it opens, allowing him to walk through, and closes once more. I face the conductor again, “Where is he going?”

The conductor tilts his head and simply answers, “Where he chose to go.”

The non-answer infuriates me as I begin to feel the weight of all I remember from life. There are scenes still playing out my window but I refuse to look at them. “Please,” I ask him, “can you just make it stop?” For the first time, hurt and empathy pass over his face. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees but still clasping his hands together.

“Life can be crippling, but you have missed the most important thing. There is - ”

“No!” Lunge forward cutting him off. I refuse to let him utter the word. “I no longer see hope. All there is any more are ghosts.”

He sits back, speculation on his face as though he doesn’t believe me. “Really? What if I showed you what they saw?”

What they saw? The conductor lifts his hand and I slowly turn back to the window. This time the scenes move quickly, and instead of seeing things through my eyes, I see myself.

There are moments from all the trips Nissa and I took; London, the beach, Oregon. There are moments that flash by of simple times together filled with smiles, laughs, tears, joy, pain, and jokes; a lifetime of beautiful memories.

As they pass, I feel an arm being slung around my shoulders, just like Nissa would always do. I try to look and see her, but no matter how hard I try my head won’t turn and I am forced to keep watching the memories. “You left me Nis.”

Her soft, low, voice fills my ears. “I lived a full life. I don’t regret anything. You were always the stronger one Mick. You only thought you relied on me, but really, I relied on you so much more.”

The memories continued but the arm was gone, and I was finally able to turn my head but the only thing there was the empty car aisle. I slowly turned back to the window not knowing what to expect anymore.

The scene changed to that of a hospital room and a fussy baby in a pink blanket refusing to be held.

“Ah, we have a spunky one here.”

Oh, that voice, how I have missed it.

The baby looked up, and Poppie always said that even though I was a newborn, I smiled, and seeing this memory I think he may have been right. I watched myself grow from a baby to a little girl; rambunctious, clever, cheeky, headstrong, and always spunky. The utter pride that filled me as I watched myself could only be because that is what he felt when he looked at me. Then his hand rested on the top of my head and the smell of vanilla and pipe tobacco fills my senses.

Poppie.

“You were my heart from the moment I first held you in my arms baby girl. I miss not being there, but you were ready and it was my time.” Caving under the light pressure of his hand I folded in on myself. “I know you are tired Spunky, but is it really your time?”

Poppie never missed a chance to help me take just one more step. I wanted more than anything to see him one more time, just one, but the hand was gone and the crushing weight of his loss swept through me just as deeply as when I lost him the first time.

Ripped back to reality, or whatever this place was, I drifted in what felt like an ocean of pain. I pulled my legs up on the bench and rested my head on my knees, hoping the tightness would keep me from physically falling apart, the grief was so immense. My hands stayed by my side as I couldn’t muster enough strength to even lift them, so they laid limp on the seat as I wept. I don’t want to see anymore. There is nothing left for me to give. They were wrong. I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t ready. Darkness crept in on me, but then the feather touch of a small hand reaching under my hand to hold it pushed it away. I knew it belonged to Andy. I wanted so desperately to help him, but all I did was get him killed. His small voice broke through my shame, “You did help.” What? How is that possible?

I was only able to lift my head toward the window and I watched as Andy walked into what I assumed was his apartment with the food I bought. When he opened the door, a small girl was waiting for him, and the joy on her face when she saw Andy and the food broke my heart. They hadn’t eaten in days. Then, it showed that after Andy died, the little girl was removed from their home and was placed with a good family. “My sister is alive and safe. You did that. You helped. You mattered to me.”

The little hand was gone but the pressure on my shoulders felt just a little lighter. I moved my eyes back to the conductor; not fully trusting myself to put my legs back down yet. “Aren’t there others you need to speak to?”

He shook his head. “I am here for you. Will you let me show you one last thing?” I don’t feel like there is really a choice to refuse, so I turn my eyes back as my heart clinches.

A bright smile on a handsome face fills my eyes, but there is no familiar tug on my ear like he would do as he teased me. Caleb. I never felt like I deserved the amazing man I watched out the window, but for some reason he loves me. Moments flash by from his perspective. His memories of me; moments I didn’t even realize happened: watching me read in the glow of a sunset, me smiling as I picked wildflowers. The wonder he felt holding my hand, wrapping his arms around me with utter thankfulness. I can feel everything he felt and relished in his warmth and light, but then the scene changed abruptly.

It was the familiar setting of my apartment, but it was also completely unfamiliar. There was noise, chaos, people, yelling, flashing lights, and blood. Caleb was sitting on the floor across the room being held from the back by someone in uniform. Tears poured down his cheeks branding them like rivers. “Mick don’t leave me! Please baby come back!” He isn’t yelling; he is begging in a broken voice I had never heard before. I lose the ability to focus on anything except the anguish on Caleb’s face. The devastation destroys me, and then I hear Andy again, “You matter.”

My window goes dark like the windows of the unoccupied benches. I continue to stare out the window at the nothingness for a long time until I finally drag my eyes back to the conductor. His head is tilted, watching me quietly. “They certainly believe your life matters and has value. The question is: do you?” His eyes were so vibrant and just seemed to peel away all the rubbish inside of me and just see me.

“I don’t know.” He nodded at my answer and I turn back to the window, desperately hoping to see Caleb’s laughing face one more time, but the window stayed black.

“You can’t choose just for him. It doesn’t work that way. The only way the ticket will change is if you decide to do this for you.” The long-forgotten ticket lay next to me in the seat, its ominous words taunting me, Destination Unknown.

Upset at this requirement I look at the conductor, “Why can’t I?”

His answer floored me, “Would anything change if you did?” He meant would I make the same choice again? The guilt of the truth forced me into silence.

Did I want more time? Was the pain worth it?

Suddenly the window lit up again. This time, the scenes were foreign to me, but a feeling I could only describe as anticipation filled me as I watched.

I was standing under the northern lights, I was walking under a Wisteria tree in Japan, and I was smiling at Caleb in a white dress under a blooming cherry tree. We were walking on the beach and I rub my rounded belly. Oh, there was so much left!

The train lurched a bit and the scene outside the window became a regular rolling view. I picked up my ticket and just stared. The destination had changed, it said HOME. I wanted to go home. The conductor broke into my reverie. “Are you ready?”

I looked up and over his shoulder, I saw a light over the front door of the car. Was I ready? The fear had me glued to my seat. “Can’t the train just slow down?”

The conductor smiled for the first time. “Time slows for no one.”

I smiled back and stepped out into the aisle and made my way to the front, but before I got to the door I turned back to look. The conductor was standing in the aisle, hands behind his back. “Can I know your name?

He inclined his head with an all-knowing look and said, “Asher.” I nodded back, turned, and walked toward the door, which opened for me and I stepped into a soft blue light.

…………………

Actions define you, it’s true, but I think that even more than actions it is our choices that make us who we are. I have to live with the scars of my choices every day. Some days are hard, some are good, and others feel as though nothing in life is worth the pain. But then there are moments where everything melts away and all that shines in the world lights up just for me.

I am living in one of those moments right now. With Caleb sitting beside me as I look into our son’s eyes and caress his smooth cheek; I can only marvel at his soulful milk chocolate eyes with ribbons of gold running through them and just feel utterly blessed by Asher, my personal ‘gift of hope.’

Short Story

About the author

Morgan Hiler

I have been writing and telling stories to my friends since elementary school, but never had the courage to carry those stories forward. So, I am here to finally prove to myself that I am a writer and the stories I have are worth sharing.

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