I Didn't Ask To Be Here
Our most valued gifts are so often the ones that we never knew we wanted.
“We didn’t ask for this room or this music. But because we are here, let us dance.” - Stephen King (11/22/63)
Something isn’t right. It is something I know—I feel—before the words have a chance to take form in my conscious mind. The surface beneath me is hard; it jerks and rattles. I wince at the sound of metal twisting and grinding, threading its way into the folds of my brain. It is the sound of chaos. The sound I would imagine ripping the strings of the universe from the fabric of space and time would make. But there is a rhythm amid the discord. A steady clacking, chugging, churning coalesces, much like the thought that had emerged from the haze moments earlier.
Something isn’t right.
It’s dark. Too dark to see. A disorienting pitch black. I don’t know if I’m upside down or inside out, floating or falling.
Where am I? Why am I here?
I didn’t ask to be here.
Fine white lines begin to appear on either side of me, paper-thin in short bursts. No, not bursts. Unbroken lines, momentarily hidden behind thin beams at regular intervals. Windows. I’m seeing the lines through windows. They’re outside. Rushing past.
My stomach turns. Pressure in my head expands. I’m moving. Hurtling forward or backward, up or down. Which means the white threads outside aren't lines at all; they’re dots. Points of light stretched out before my eyes as I blaze across whatever or wherever this is.
I close my eyes. Sync my breath with the sway of the seat underneath me. The pulse of the unseen steel and steam.
What is this?
I didn’t ask to be here.
I open my eyes. The threads of light outside have widened. They produce a modicum of light, just enough to illuminate the lines, the edges of the room I’m in. Rows of empty seats. They sway in time with mine. Ahead, the outline of a doorway. A small window high on the door stares unblinkingly down the aisle in between the empty seats. A cold dawn of light lies beyond it.
I turn in my seat. No one behind me. I brace myself on the seat in front of me and stand. My legs wobble as I find my balance. I straighten and the door is glaring at me now, swaying along with me and all that surrounds me. I take deliberate steps, placing my hand on each bench as I pass. I can feel the weight of movement.
When I reach the door, I place my hands on it. It’s cold. The window is too high to see through, even on my toes. There is no handle. No knob. My breath quickens. I have the sudden urge to pound on the door. The muscles in my arms buzz. I don’t know if it’s caused by the door's vibration or the fact that I’m actively restraining them from lashing out, beating themselves into bloody stumps against the cold steel.
I close my eyes.
The door hisses at me as it opens. Metal grinding on metal. The sounds are swallowed by the roaring rush of wind. The space behind it is open. There’s a gap between me and another door. Another car. Another cage.
The wind buffets into my chest and face, pushing me back. The brilliant white lines rush past on both sides of me and over my head. My eyelids flutter in the gale as I look up, searching for something beyond the white lines. If there is something, it is beyond my reach. Beyond my gaze. Maybe it’s just beyond my comprehension.
I lunge forward against the invisible waves. My foot finds the ledge of the car in front of me. I falter and flail to keep my balance. I wave my arms and I might have screamed but I can’t hear anything for the slamming of the wind and the screaming steel punching forward, forward, ever forward; steam and smoke and the silky insatiable shadow of night surround me as I lunge ahead and before I can even fear slamming off the door and into the rumbling metal rolling beneath me, I’m on my stomach, my arms folded beneath me, and the wind and the noise have vanished...
Where am I?
I didn’t ask to be here.
The light is cold, but I can see. There are more than lines and edges. I can make out the walls, the seats, the floor, the door at the other end of the car.
And the hooded figure.
Its head and shoulders protrude above a seat several rows ahead. I brace myself against the seats to my side. My fingertips brush upon soft velvet upholstery. I remove my gaze from the hooded figure long enough to examine the area closest to me. The frames of the seats are chestnut brown, same as the curtain rods that hang over the windows running the length of the car, capped with bulbs of glistening gold. The view through the windows has changed. There are colors, blues and whites and greens, but we are moving too fast to make out any details. It’s all just a blur.
The windows are partly covered in bunting drapes, semi-circular layers of differing shades of red, accented with a golden rope that winds and twists along the chestnut staff. The floor is covered in blood-red felt, save for the wood-grain walkway with golden trim that leads to the door at the opposite end of the car. From that door, warm light stares out at me through its window.
The hooded figure hasn’t moved. It sits with its head slightly bowed over slim shoulders. The hooded cloak it wears is also red, quite like one of the shades in the drapes. They could have been made from the same sheet of material.
I open my mouth to say something, but the words catch in my throat. I take a few steps forward, my hips bumping against the seats as the car undulates beneath me.
As I draw nearer the hooded figure, I begin to feel the urge to rush to the front of the car. I look up at the door, through the window. Wait, are those people? I could swear I see people bobbing around in the small transparent square, but the two cars are bobbing of sync; I can only catch small, short glimpses.
A new thought begins to form: There is no time for curiosity. No time to make sense of my surroundings. I must make it to that door. I must get out of this car and into the next.
I lick my dry lips, but my tongue carries no moisture with it. My mouth has gone dry. I glance back at the hooded figure to gauge my chances of success at sprinting past it.
No, it’s moved.
I stumble backward, clutching the seat next to me so firmly I can count the lines of the woodgrain on my skin. The figure is sitting several rows forward on the left side now. Is this a second figure? Did the other simply lie down as this one popped up? What is this? Why is this happening?
I didn’t ask to be here.
I look past the figure. The scene in the car ahead of me roils like waves just before a storm. I just want to get there. I need to get there. Everything will be fine once I get there.
Using the seats, I pull myself forward. I keep an eye on the figure as I approach the seat it had occupied earlier. It remains stolid, slightly bent. Slowly, I extend my neck to examine the seat in which the figure had originally been. I expect a hooded figure lying there, giggling. Some kind of prank. But no. The seat is empty.
And so are all the seats ahead of me.
I gasp this time, a stuttering intake of breath, cold in the back of my nose. With it comes the smell of sulfur and sweat.
The figure is gone.
I consider sprinting toward the door. Sprinting to safety. To security. But I can't. I'm frozen in place. My feet feel like they’ve set down roots through the wooden walkway. My back aches like hooks have been placed into the muscle and something is holding me in place.
I twist to see what holds me. There is nothing there.
Except the figure.
It sits in the back row. Its head is still bowed, but there is a flurry of motion under the hood. As the hood raises, I realize that the flurry is a series of ripples. Within the hood is a dark pool. Invisible pebbles seem to be flying into different points of the pool. Ripples rush outward. In each, a distorted face is formed.
The figure stands. Steps into the aisle.
Under each circle of waves, my face stares back at me. Each twisted into an intense expression.
A sound accompanies each one.
He moves closer. The pool grows wider. Deeper. Darker. LOUDER.
The ripples rush outward and collide. At the area of impact, more expressions emerge. Odd mixtures of emotions that I can barely comprehend. Sadness and happiness. Fear and determination. Love and hate. The cacophony is deafening.
It is so close now that I can feel the mist launching away from the water’s surface as the invisible pebbles make contact. Some create the smallest of effects; others, rumbling tidal waves in every direction.
My face stares back at me in a myriad of ways, and I wonder which one is the real me. My reflection.
My breath has grown shallow. My eyes burn and my throat constricts and I want to push it away but it’s nothing but water I’ll fall forward, forward, ever forward; and what if I fall in, I’ll drown! The voices cry and call and cackle and I feel every single one like the metal churning beneath me is in my head I just want to run just get to the next car...
I turn to sprint down the aisle.
The tears in my eyes blur the inside of the car just like the speeding train blurs the landscape outside. The metal door is a blurry puddle of iron ahead of me and I’ve just got to reach it. I just need it to open. I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, I didn’t ask to be here, and I can’t see clearly through the tears, but the door just rippled.
The pool ripples. The door is no longer in front of me. The pool is there. A wall of ripples and waves and emotions and I don’t realize it until I’m tumbling in, head-first. It’s cold and warm and wet. I can’t breathe. Just got to get out. Just got to get to the next car.
I don’t want to be here.
I didn’t ask to be here.
But a spark of something tells me that the final expression I see as I plunge into the sea was the real reflection of me.
I was right. There are people here.
Despite plunging head-first into the abyss, I am standing in the doorway of this new car. People mill about. Some of them are dancing together, slowly swaying between the bodies and I realize that this car is a far smoother ride. There are fewer seats. It is brighter. We must be traveling across a high bridge. The scenery I view through the windows is moving slowly and steadily by, but it is far off. There is nothing nearby. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think we were floating.
There are fewer seats in this car. Fewer windows, too. It’s a warm space, crafted mostly of light-colored wood and shades of greens and bright yellows. Floral patterns adorn the curtains along the windows. There’s a small bar in the center of the wall to the right.
I realize there are more people in here than seems possible. I watch them pass by—and they watch me, mostly out of the corner of their eyes with a hint of suspicion—and they slip away from my periphery; but where do they go? I am only vaguely aware of this quandary, and I feel no urge to select one at random and follow them with my gaze to see where they end up. Instead, pull my arms in close and begin shuffling toward the bar.
The car isn’t packed tightly, but I feel constricted. Each step I take seems to be into someone’s way. I step around and back, trying to make way, be polite.
Eventually, I make it to the bar. I feel a twinge of familiarity toward the bartender—what I might identify as a retrograde familiarity. Have I met this man before? Or will I meet him in the future?
I speak, but the aggregation of voices in the room has overpowered my own. People are huddled in groups of two, three, four—chatting, laughing, whispering. Even the whispers seem to fill my mind in a dull roar.
I speak again only to realize that the crowd may not be drowning me out; I may just not be making any sound. I try again. I chuckle and pull at the collar of my shirt when nothing comes out. I can’t even feel the vibration in my throat. I try once more and then I scream—or at least I try.
My jaw drops open wide, and I feel the tendons in my neck protruding. Again, no sound. I feel sweat beading up on my brow. My eyes begin to search the room in short jerks.
Why are their words so muffled? How are there so many of them? It feels like a ballroom more so than a train car, yet I feel like I’m stuffed in a coffin. Each glance, stare, or nod in my direction feels like another nail in the pine-box lid.
They’re talking about me. They’re all discussing me. Dissecting me. Ridiculing me. Analyzing me. And they all generate that vague sense of familiarity.
Who are they? Where did they come from? Where do they go?
Where is this train going?
I want to get off. I want off the train.
I didn’t ask to be here.
I go to the window. The distant landscape eases past, slowly—if at all, really. I can’t tell which is more maddening, the blurry haste of the previous cars or this mind-numbing slog, inching along even while seeming to stand still; I’ll never get out.
It is only now that I realize I haven’t even noticed another door. Haven’t even thought about it, actually. I straighten and bob my head side-to-side, trying to see past the faces, the staring eyes, the thinly veiled whispers.
The door is there.
Good to know, but hardly relevant. I don’t want to pass through to the next car. I want to get off this train. Perhaps there is a way off through the car ahead, but the people...the thought of wading through them exhausts me. I’m tired. I’m tired of wondering and wandering. I’m tired of the sideways glances and the confusion. I feel like I’m dragging this train through a desert. My legs are tired. My mind is weary.
I look back to the landscape. I can’t tell if it has moved at all. If it weren’t for the steady clacking beneath my feet, I’d think we were sitting still. Dead in the water.
It isn’t until I notice the reflection in the window of a single woman walking past me that I realize she’s the only reflection I see. I stand and turn, expecting to be faced with an empty room but the people are there, huddled in their secretive gaggles of mockery and spite.
The woman is there too, though. She makes her way effortlessly through the throngs of people. I can’t tell if she’s navigating them or simply passing through them.
I hear blood rushing in my ears over the deprecating murmur, over the chattering of the wheels on the rails. I spring forward. A man with a mustache gets in my way. I push past him, catch a glance of her golden hair as she disappears behind a bald man. I side-step a group of three women who squeal as if I’ve frightened them.
They should have seen what was in the last car, I think.
I lose sight of her. The crowd seems to have grown—in both size and height. I can’t see! She was just there!
I begin to force my way through. I plant an elbow into a woman’s waist and hoist her off to the side. I place both hands on a man’s shoulders and heave him out of my way. They’re moving randomly now, some just walking in place. Going nowhere. Pursuing nothing. The volume grows to an almost suffocating degree. They swell like balloons, filling the corners and expanding around me.
But I push through. I push forward, forward, ever forward; the crowd falls away.
She is there. She’s standing in the doorway, facing me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear she was glowing.
She considers me for a moment. She extends her hand. Taking it feels like the most natural thing I have done since awaking aboard this aberration. I no longer care if I get off this train. I no longer care how slowly the landscape passes us by.
I didn’t ask to be here.
But I’m starting to feel like it's where I belong.
They’re right outside the window. They pass slowly by, grazing in pastures that look to me too brown to provide any kind of nourishment. I watch them. I don’t know how long. Until a thread of water pools in my eye and I sniff.
The iron rhythm beneath me has slowed, but I don’t consider the impending stop. From the doorway, I survey this new car. Autumn browns, muted yellows, and charcoal reds adorn the walls, the upholstery, the floors. It smells of cinnamon and nutmeg.
I am alone, but for a man with silver hair who sits in the front row. His head is turned slightly to the right. He’s surveying the landscape too. Watching the buffalo graze. Appreciating the passing of time and its heft.
I do not fear him.
Beyond him, there is a door. It stands cold and pale in the center of the wall. There is no window. I cannot see beyond it. And I know I never shall. Not really.
I descend the aisle. My fingers graze the golden rails along the seats. The silver-haired man doesn’t acknowledge me; he simply slides over and makes room. And I sit down.
The sense of familiarity is not vague here. I know this man. He’s always been there. Together, we moved forward, forward, ever forward. And here the long journey will end.
I look past him. The sun seems to wink as it slips over the hills in the distance. It is silent.
I didn’t ask to be here.
But I am grateful for the ride.
Lyndi doesn't like when I write like this.
She hates when I leave her hanging. She hates when I don’t tie everything up in a bow. And who can blame her? I’m sure there are many readers who share her feelings.
Call it closure, call it certainty—perhaps they’re one and the same—but we don’t like to be left hanging. We want everything to be tied up in a bow. We want everything to be certain.
So, when I tell her that it's not my fault, that I’m just the messenger, she’s still ready to shoot me. It doesn't make sense to her when I tell her that they’re my words, but it’s the character's story. My favorite stories—and I consider this one of them—have evolved that way: some whisp of an idea, a dozen false starts, maybe a whiskey or two, and then an open line of communication with the character.
When she looks at me like I’m literally out of my mind, I can’t help but kind of agree. I can’t explain it and I don’t try. I don’t want to. One of the most rewarding aspects of the writing experience is getting to know these characters, watching them grow, and telling their stories. Another of the most rewarding aspects is the reaction from readers, whether it’s confusion, enjoyment, and if we're all lucky, maybe even some closure.
One thing I hope a reader never gets from my stories, though, is certainty. Maybe I will wrap a story here and there up with a bow, but that doesn’t mean that a reader shouldn’t always be curious about what happens next; maybe even about what actually just happened. A third of the best aspects—let’s call these our top three—is making the reader feel something. Not just about what they read, but about something in the real world. It is irrelevant whether that feeling is recognizable and actionable or just some vague sense of something the reader can sit with.
This story was very much the latter. Something I also never want to do is explain what the story means to me, or how it made me feel before, during, or after writing it. That’s as personal to me as what the story meant to you is to you, and my interpretation or feeling is too likely to lead a reader to believe that maybe they were wrong, or maybe they felt the same way that I did when really, they didn’t. I will say that writing this one impacted me. Hard. I don't know why or where the emotion came from. I don't want to.
It’s okay if you can’t put a finger on what you felt. It’s okay if you didn't feel anything. Hell, it’s okay if you didn’t even like it. You aren’t hurting my feelings; I can’t say the same for my characters, though. I’ll have to wait for them to tell me how they feel. I guess there is one thing you can be certain of: I’ll pass it along as soon as I know.
About the author
Born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky, I traveled the world in the Air Force until I retired. I now reside in Delaware with my wife Lyndi, where I flail around on my keyboard and try to focus on crafting something interesting to read.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme