The rhythmic clack clack clack broke through Mark’s dreamless sleep and roused him with a start. He didn’t remember dozing off in his seat; the previous night must have taken more out of him than he remembered, what little he could remember after leaving the bar. The clack clack clack continued to rattle around him as he gradually broke through the early morning fog of sleepiness. He was glad to have splurged on the upgraded ergonomic desk chair for his home office. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d pass out in the chair after a night out on the town.
Mark adjusted himself in the seat and reached for the padded armrests to push himself out of his slouch. Hard plastic met his fingertips instead. He shuddered as he came fully awake. This wasn’t his office. It wasn’t even his apartment. The clack clack clack kept its pace like a metronome, steady and constant. He turned in his seat to get a better look at the room around him. No…it wasn’t a room. There was an empty seat next to him, an aisle and two more seats on the other side. What he had thought was a wall in front of him was actually a chair back.
Clack clack clack sounded all around him. Mark realized it was coming from below him, somewhere close. He looked at the wall to his right. The surface reflected his image back, almost like a mirror but not nearly as sharp, yet somehow darker than a mirror should have been. Something seemed wrong in the reflection, and Mark looked down quickly.
‘These aren’t my clothes,’ he realized, now on the verge of panic. Where he expected to see nondescript business casual attire from the night before, Mark wore a white long-sleeved shirt with what looked and felt like gray scrub pants. They were comfortable enough that he hadn’t noticed the strange clothes until he looked in the mirror. Panic gripped him fully.
‘Breathe in, breathe out,’ he silently chanted, trying to mimic the techniques his therapist had taught him. He calmed enough to open his eyes again and take stock of his situation.
There were seats arranged in rows and a center aisle. Was this some sort of passenger vehicle?
‘Oh no, how much did I drink last night?’
Clack clack clack.
Mark looked back at his reflection in the ‘mirror.’ Maybe he had fallen and hit his head. That would explain his memory blackout of the last few hours, not to mention the strange clothes. As Mark examined himself, his reflection began to fade as a light emitted from behind the pane of glass. Before he realized what was happening, a brilliant burst of light erupted from outside the window forcing Mark to recoil and cover his eyes. Once he had adjusted to the brightness, he looked back at the mirror but now in place of his reflection, he stared out on a green vista through what he now realized was a window.
Verdant fields rolled across the gentle hills, stretching out as far as the eye could see. They were arranged in neat rows, clearly farmland even to Mark’s untrained, urban eye. The sun sat well above the horizon, but Mark could not tell if it was rising or setting. Surely it was just midmorning, there was no chance he had slept the entire day away.
Clack clack clack.
Mark realized what type of vehicle he was traveling in…a train. There were several old rail lines that still ran into the city, but he could have sworn those were merely a tourist trap. Something to take a little extra money from the people who wanted to get the ‘full experience’ of the Old Town.
A thought crossed his mind and he fumbled around for his pockets.
‘I’m not hurt, so I must have bought a ticket.’
He felt around his pant legs but found nothing. Not only was there no ticket, his cell phone, wallet, and keys were also missing. In fact, he soon realized that his new wardrobe had no pockets at all. That was bad, very bad. He didn’t know where he was going and had no way to call for help.
‘Well, this is fantastic,’ he said aloud. ‘How do you always manage to screw things up?’
Mark watched the fields roll by outside the window. It was a beautiful, peaceful view all things considered. Even in his current predicament, he couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of it all. Strangely, his burdens felt far away. All of the meetings and presentations and emails fled from his mind. The steady clack clack clack of the tracks chipping away at them bit by bit. He tried to track the position of the sun to get an idea of the time of day, but the star seemed to hang in the same spot in the sky as the train thundered on to whatever destination lay at the end of the line. He sighed and turned his eyes back to the headrest in front of him. Mark had lived his whole life in the city, it was comical to think he could tell the time by the sun’s position in the sky. Half of the time it was obscured behind the city’s skyscrapers, only ever peeking out at noon before hiding itself again.
‘Maybe there’s an attendant somewhere,’ he thought.
They could at least tell him where he was, that would be a good enough start. Mark unbuckled himself and stood, surprised that his muscles didn’t feel tight and cramped after sleeping in the seat. He turned to exit the row and stopped short as he reached the aisle. In the row adjacent to his, which only a few minutes prior was vacant, now sat a young woman. She slept soundly, her head resting in the crevice between the headrest and the window. It couldn’t be comfortable, especially with the constant clack clack clack of the tracks, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders and Mark saw that she was wearing the same long-sleeved white shirt and gray scrubs that he wore.
Mark could only see the profile of her face, but he recognized her from somewhere. Although on his life, he could not have said how. Slowly, he crossed the aisle and reached out to wake the woman. A hand slapped down across his wrist. Mark spun in surprise as he met the newcomer’s glare.
‘You are not to wake the other passengers,’ a stern woman’s voice reprimanded. Her eyes were an icy blue, and although her face was stern, she did not appear unkind. ‘It is quite rude to wake a sleeper. A gentleman such as you should know this.’
She wore a light blue blouse, buttoned to her neck with a red neckerchief, with a navy-blue skirt and jacket. On her jacket was a lapel pin which said simply, Terminus Railway.
‘You’re an attendant here?’ Mark asked, hope and desperation mingling.
‘Clearly,’ she replied, raising an eyebrow. ‘And you’re a passenger. Are there any other obvious observations you’d like to make?’
Mark began to speak but stopped short as he realized that he couldn’t judge her age. Her features still had the smoothness of youth but were somehow steeled by age and experience. The question went unanswered. He wasn’t sure what was obvious anymore.
‘Well then,’ she continued, ‘if that’s all you had to say then I’ll be about my work.’
She brushed by him as she made her way towards the back of the car. So far as Mark could tell, he and the sleeping woman were the only two occupants. The attendant reached the door at the back which led to the adjoining car. Mark called out to her to wait before shushing himself as he remembered the sleeper. He whispered an apology as the attendant shot her icy stare his way again.
‘I thought you had asked all of your questions,’ she chirped.
‘I just need to know where we are,’ Mark replied. 'And... where we're going.
‘Again, with the obvious questions,’ she remarked, mildly irritated. ‘Clearly, you’re on a train en route to your destination.’
‘Right but I’m not supposed to be!’ Mark blurted out, trying to keep his voice down and failing miserably. ‘I should be at home. I…I don’t know how I got here.’
‘Well, that’s simple then,’ she replied. ‘You paid the ticket fare, the same as everyone else.’
‘But I don’t have a ticket!’ Mark exclaimed.
‘That’s not how Terminus works, dear,’ she explained, her tone softening. ‘All paperless here you might say.’
‘I don’t have anything,’ Mark continued. ‘Not my wallet, not my phone…’
‘And ruin the view with such distractions?’ she asked mischievously. ‘Truly a sad generation that can’t appreciate natural beauty.’
Clack clack clack.
She turned away and opened the door, leaving the car and Mark behind her.
‘Why can’t I remember how I got here?’ he wondered as he followed after her. Maybe he’d been kidnapped and robbed. They could have knocked him out and put him on the train to make their getaway. That seemed too fantastical to be true. Besides, that didn’t explain the matching ‘uniforms’ the passengers were wearing. He must have been drugged at the bar and stumbled away then. His friends who had visited the tourist train said they did all kinds of role-playing packages. He must have booked a ticket in his stupor.
‘So, is this like the Orient Express or something?’ he asked, as they emerged into the next car.
‘Something for sure,’ the attendant replied over her shoulder, never breaking stride.
Mark paused as his eyes adjusted to the lighting in the new car. Most of the blinds were drawn, throwing the car into shadow. But even through the dimness, he could tell the car was full of people, all sitting quietly in the gloom. The one open window was to his left and through it, Mark saw golden rows of wheat lined up and waiting for the harvest. The sun seemed lower in the sky than it had before, but that could have just been hills in the distance that were tricking his vision.
The attendant steadily made her way towards the back of the car, and Mark hurried after her trying to keep up. As he rushed down the aisle, he glanced at the passengers seated quietly in the rows of seats. Some were sleeping, but not all. Their eyes turned to follow him, gently reflecting the light that provided dim illumination. As his eyes adjusted, he realized the car was full of elderly people, a diverse mix of men and women. All wearing the same white shirt and gray pants.
One of the men stood as Mark neared the rear of the car, gently raising a hand and beckoning Mark to stop.
‘You shouldn’t be here, son,’ the old man said with a kindly voice. ‘This ain’t a place for you.’
‘You’re telling me,’ Mark muttered. ‘I don’t even know where I am.’
The old man laughed as though Mark had told a joke, ‘Ain’t it obvious? You’re between where you started and where you’re going.’ You would have thought it was the funniest joke the old man had ever heard by the way he laughed.
The attendant shot the old man a look and held a finger to her lips for quiet. Mark couldn't help but notice she was far gentler with the elderly gentleman than she had been with him. The old man chuckled again and sat back down next to a sleeping woman. At least the attendant had supplied this poor grandmother with a pillow. Mark guessed she was his wife, but the man made no indication that he knew her. Mark shook his head and followed the attendant into the next car.
Clack clack clack.
Mark stopped short as he stepped inside this third car. The interior differed starkly from the car he had awoken in and the one he had just left. This car looked and felt more closely akin to a subway, and its passengers appeared to be of a similar ilk to the late-night riders one might find taking those metro lines. The ambiance was made complete by the darkness outside the windows. They must have entered another tunnel as Mark was stepping between the cabins.
‘Where the hell are we?’ Mark wondered again. There shouldn’t have been anything but forests around the city for miles and miles. This looked more like Iowa where he had summered with his grandparents as a kid, but that was a thousand miles away.
Most of the passengers slept, which seemed to be a recurring theme for the people aboard the Terminus Rail Line. As was the uniform all of the passengers wore. Only here in this subway car, the riders slept wherever they could, in whatever position they could. Some sat in their seats, arms folded across their chests and heads leaning back against the glass. Others curled up in balls on the seats or even on the floor. They didn’t seem to mind the awkward positions in which they slept; it was as though they were used to it and simply happy for the rest.
The attendant moved swiftly and deftly between the sleepers, providing pillows and blankets to those who seemed to need them. Mark didn’t see where she had taken the bedding materials from but marveled at the motherly care with which she attended to the passengers. The few passengers who were awake glanced furtively from the attendant to Mark and back again. Looking but never seeing what was in front of them. A few mumbled to themselves incoherently, whether awake or in a dream Mark could not say.
‘You’re still following me,’ the attendant remarked, not looking at Mark as she continued her work.
‘Please,’ Mark begged. ‘I just want answers. That’s all.’
She half turned to look at him and then sighed.
Clack clack clack.
‘We get your kind occasionally,’ she said in a resigned voice. ‘The curious. A true pain in the neck, let me tell you, sir.’
‘Compared to this?’ he gestured at the subway car and its inhabitants. ‘You’re basically playing nurse with these people.’
She rose from the passenger she was attending to on the floor, a young man who was asleep and shaking, and with two quick strides stood a foot away from Mark.
‘We turn no one away on Terminus Rail,’ she hissed. ‘And mark…my words, anyone and everyone who steps on that platform will ride, and I will take care of each and every one of them in whatever way they need.’ There was venom in her tone, but somehow it wasn’t hate that fueled it. He felt as though he stood in front of his mother as she chastised him for some foolish childhood mistake.
‘Then where the hell are we going,’ he pressed on.
‘Watch your words, young man,’ she smiled without mirth. ‘I’ll take you to Sticks. He’s the conductor up front.’
‘Thank you!’ Mark exclaimed. ‘Finally.’
She brushed by Mark and walked back the way they had just come. The denizens of the metro didn’t acknowledge their passing. One man near the door merely turned his head as he muttered ‘Repent, repent,’ as they left. They entered the dimly lit car and the sunlight trickled back through the blinds. ‘Odd how well we timed that,’ Mark thought as they strode down the aisle. Golden fields rolled by outside the window as the train sped through them to whatever destination lay ahead.
Clack clack clack.
The constant drone of the tracks had become background noise to Mark, but as he re-entered his cabin it became louder, more pronounced…odd. The cabin remained sparsely populated, but Mark was surprised to see two more passengers sleeping in the car. They sat at opposite ends of the car and wore the same uniform that every other passenger wore.
‘Where did they come from?’ Mark asked quietly, trying not to wake the sleepers.
‘Same place you all do,’ the attendant replied as she marched down the aisle towards the front. As they passed the row Mark had originally found himself in, the young woman opposite him stirred and opened her eyes.
‘Where am I?’ she asked groggily, before fear spread over her face. The attendant stopped and, in her motherly tone, began to comfort the young woman.
‘You are quite safe I assure you,’ she said.
‘I was driving home from my shift,’ she explained to herself as much as anyone. ‘I was exhausted, but…’
Mark realized how he knew the young woman.
‘You’re the waitress at Corner Cafe on 12th and Mulholland!’ he exclaimed.
Surprise spread across her face, ‘You left me the good tip near close. You were there last night.’ He laughed and nodded.
‘Yeah, that was me,’ he said. ‘That’s actually about the last thing I remember too.’
Clack clack clack.
The attendant sighed, ‘Well since you two are acquainted, she may as well accompany us to the front. Sticks is quite patient, but he doesn’t fancy repeating himself.’
The young woman nodded although clearly confused. She stood and for the first time realized she was wearing clothes that were not her own. Mark attempted to assuage her panic as he recounted his own awakening.
‘I’m sure our things are in a cubby somewhere,' he said, reassuringly.
The trio made their way to the front of the car, and Mark took a moment to look back out the window. He still wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening. But upon gazing out the window, he would have sworn the sun still sat in the same place that it had since he had awoken. Still about halfway to its apex over green fields seemingly identical to those he had seen upon waking.
‘What is it?’ the young woman asked, joining him to look out the window at the passing landscape.
‘It’s just…’ Mark began but struggled with the words. ‘I feel like I’ve seen this before, when I woke up.’
They followed the attendant into the next car. It was empty save for a single sleeping passenger. The green fields rolled on outside as the attendant hustled them through to the next car.
‘Who is she?’ the woman asked Mark as they struggled to keep up with the attendant.
‘No idea,’ Mark replied. ‘The only thing on her nametag is Terminus Rail. She hasn’t given me a straight answer since I woke up.’
‘Terminus...the end of the line... that's comforting,’ she replied. ‘Your name is…Mark…right?’
‘How did you know that?’ Mark asked, surprised.
‘You paid with a card,’ she said with a smile. ‘And…I’m just now remembering it…did you actually leave your number on the receipt?’
‘Oh crap,’ Mark realized, suddenly embarrassed. ‘I may have, I’m so sorry. I know that’s weird.’ He always seemed to stray into awkward flirtations when he was drinking. To his shock, she started laughing.
‘No, it’s fine,’ she replied. ‘It happens more than you’d think. You at least weren’t an ass, just drunk.’ She paused before adding, ‘My name is Anna, by the way.’
They kept after the attendant who by this point was a half car ahead of them and showing no signs of stopping. The next car was also dimmed to the bright sunlight streaming in and once again somewhat densely populated. More elderly passengers sat sleeping as they passed, although this time no one rose to meet them. As they exited the car at the front, Mark again saw golden fields out the window. A harvest ready to be reaped.
Clack clack clack.
‘Something weird is going on,’ he said quietly where only Anna could hear him.
‘You don’t say…’
‘I mean, beyond the obvious,’ he said. 'Whatever still counts as obvious.'
She said nothing as they walked, clearly trying to take in everything they were seeing. Mark was still disoriented, and he’d been awake for what felt like an hour, even if the sun outside indicated otherwise. He still couldn’t remember the previous night, at least not much after he’d left the Corner Cafe. He remembered walking down the sidewalk towards his apartment building, and then…nothing. It was just a black hole in his memory.
‘We’re here,’ the attendant reported as they reached another door. She opened it and motioned them through, but she did not enter herself.
‘You aren’t coming with us?’ Mark asked. Meeting another stranger on this train didn’t exactly sit well with him.
‘Some of us still have work to do, sweetheart,’ she replied. ‘Don’t worry. Sticks is expecting you.’
Clack clack clack.
Mark and Anna walked through the door, and the attendant closed it behind them. They were in a car unlike any which Mark had seen so far. There were no passenger seats or aisles here, just a well-furnished cabin fit for a captain. A large man sat at a desk with his back to the door. His black uniform crisply pressed as though he was a military man. A shock of pure white hair, closely cropped in keeping with the military appearance, adorned his head. He turned as the door closed with a click.
‘Ah, what have we here?’ he asked in a kindly tone, offering a smile to the passengers.
‘Some passengers looking for answers,’ Mark replied, evenly.
‘And she didn’t indulge you?’ the conductor asked.
'She wasn't the most forthcoming,' Mark answered.
'She has that tendency,' the conductor replied. 'But she has a good heart all the same.'
Clack clack clack.
‘So, you’re Sticks then?’ Mark asked.
‘Guilty,’ the conductor replied. ‘And you two are having some…buyer’s remorse?’
‘We don’t remember buying anything,’ Anna exclaimed. ‘Let alone a ticket to God knows where.’
‘Well that He does,’ Sticks replied, ‘but rest assured, you certainly paid your fare. Both of you. Everyone on board has paid that, make no mistake.’
‘Just tell us where we’re going,’ Mark asked. ‘I’ll get off at the next stop, I just want to go home.’
The conductor regarded him seriously for a moment, then stood and walked to the opposite end of the cabin. ‘Do you want to see where we’re going?’ With a nod from both of them, he opened the door and cast an arm wide. Mark and Anna walked forward to look out the front window of the train. No one was in the pilot’s seat, but what need was there for a pilot on a track? They looked out as the tracks ran up to meet them, with nothing but the green fields on either side stretching out to eternity.
‘I don’t understand,” Anna said. ‘There’s nothing here.’
‘Nothing and everything,’ Sticks replied. ‘Do you truly remember nothing?’
Mark thought back to the night before, prying deep into his memories. It was a clear night; he had actually seen a star breaking through the lights of the city. He’d left the Corner Cafe and walked down 12th Street. He crossed over at Lanier to get to his apartment and then…
That was it. That was where the blackout set in. There was nothing after he walked out into the street to cross to his apartment building. He looked at Anna as she stared into the endless fields.
‘I was driving,’ she said quietly. ‘I remember my head falling…and then I was waking up here.’
The conductor stepped behind them as they watched the endless vista spread out before them. The sun rested where it had since Mark woke up, where it had for so many crossings of the fields. The man rested a hand on each of their shoulders.
Clack clack clack.
‘I know this is difficult,’ he said gently. ‘But try to remember.’
Mark strained with everything he had to remember.
It was night. He stepped out and felt the pavement beneath his foot.
He staggered from the alcohol but continued on across the road.
There were headlights. A screech of tires. And then…
‘I fell asleep,’ Anna gasped softly. ‘I was on the way to my boyfriend’s house in the suburbs and I…I fell asleep.’
She looked Mark squarely in the eyes as realization dawned on both of them.
‘This is always the hardest part,’ Sticks said with a tinge of sorrow in his voice. ‘The fare is paid, but so many of our passengers don’t realize the cost until we arrive.’
Clack clack clack.
Mark and Anna met each other’s eyes as the fear passed between them.
‘So... we’re dead then,’ Mark declared.
'I've been doing this for a long time,' Sticks said gently. 'The crossing isn't always easy, especially for the young.'
Anna’s hand slipped into his as the reality set in. They turned back as the endless fields rushed by them on either side, fading off into eternity.
'We take you to the end of the line,' Sticks said. 'It's in the name.'
Clack clack clack went the tracks as they sped away towards eternity.