In Death there is Destination
The weight of air—it’s solidity—is never more evident than when it pounds against the whole of your self in its relentless struggle to remain unmoved. It claws at your face, using your own body against you as it whips your hair into your eyes, across your cheeks until they are a watery mess of burst capillaries: red and burning. It rips at your clothing and fights to leave your lungs unfilled in its refusal to be contained until you are gasping, and crying, and closer to death than you’ve ever felt before. It can be exhilarating under the right circumstances. When you’re, say, at the crest of the first big drop on a roller coaster and the momentum finally catches up to you to send you hurdling faster and faster toward the earth. Or when the land goes flat, and the road stretches out toward the horizon, and you and your best friend have chips and candy and energy drinks spilling from the central console, and you stick your head out of the passenger side window to howl at the sky. But when you’ve pulled yourself up through the ceiling hatch of a speeding train, like I have; when you’re staring out into a bleak, and desolate landscape you don’t recognize from even the depths of your wildest nightmares, like I am; when you, like me, can’t remember how you came to be here in the first place, any sense of hope or joy or exhilaration is replaced only with the dread of choice: leap or return.
Cassandra’s voice is soft in my ear:
“What out there is better than what’s in here?” she asks. Her words are a soft whisper, as if she’s trying to convince herself of their meaning even as they pour out of her chest. She asks this when we’re the only two left—when we’re all that remain of the five of us who had woken to the dense wail of metal grinding upon itself. She says this like acceptance means escape.
Cassandra is the first person I meet and the last person I lose on the train. She stands over me when I come to, groggy and disoriented. Her black hair, peaked on her forehead, cascades in an asymmetrical bob on either side of her freckled cheeks. Her brown eyes are wide and bewildered, and glow almost violet in the dim light.
“See?” she says. “I told you he was alive.”
Maxwell grunts from behind her. “Ask him why we’re here.”
“Where is ‘here’?”
My head is pounding as I rub the sleep from my eyes and prop my torso up on my elbows. A tight, dark brown tweed suit I’ve never seen before restricts my movement as I try to find my balance against the sturdy plush of the emerald cot. A soft, fluorescent light illuminates the small room as I attempt to find my bearings. A dark, dismal landscape rushes by the window. A ferocious howl echoes through my ears.
“This is bullshit!” Maxwell exclaims. He pushes past Cassandra and pounds a tight, aching fist against the top bunk of the sleeper car. A muddy bird’s nest crowns his head, and there’s a pink, jagged scar kissed across his left cheek. A tight, white t-shirt with yellowed pit stains hugs his body beneath a pair of fabric suspenders buttoned to a pair of old-timey trousers. The whole of him is an agitated fury. “Who the fuck are you? What the shit is happening? And how the hell did we get here?”
Again, I ask, “Where is ‘here’?”
Maxwell bristles as Cassandra cups her hand around his arm, shaking her off, and moving back to lumber in the doorway. Her nails are immaculate in gold leaf, except for the index finger she’s nervously gnawed on since she awoke only twenty minutes before. A beaded, flapper style dress which matches her manicure clings at her hips.
“You don’t know what’s happening either, do you?”
I shake my head, as much in answer as to ground myself, as I twist my body and plant my feet to the floor. A pair of perfectly fitted leather boots are tight tightly around my ankles. Another thing I’ve never seen before.
“See,” she says to Maxwell who rolls his eyes and crosses his arms over his chest, “he’s just like us.”
Maxwell scoffs, and my mouth gapes as I catch my reflection in the mirror across from the bunks. My red hair is white now, cropped short at the sides and parted in a different direction. My lips, too, seem thinner than I remember them being. But it is still my eyes staring back at me, still the same confused furrow of my brow.
“We’re on a train, I think,” Cassandra offers. “Neither of us knows how we got here either. We just woke up a few minutes ago in the next car, spread across the seats and in these clothes that aren’t ours. I don’t have black hair.”
I nod and swallow hard, still staring at the mirror. A paisley ascot chokes at my throat.
“What is going on?” I ask.
Maxwell explodes into the room once more, grabbing me by the collar and breathing hot brimstone into my face.
“He’s playing us,” he says. “In here, in a bed, in a fancy suit while the two of us woke up slumped over hard chairs and drooling on ourselves. Now he’s gonna talk, or he’s gonna bleed.”
I wince and recoil, and Maxwell’s fist pulls the ascot from my neck.
“Stop!” Cassandra demands. “He’s got it too!”
I crane my neck toward the mirror to see a tiny puncture wound surrounded in a yellowing, purple bruise. I wince as I touch it, searching my memory for any recollection, but the last… I don’t know how long is blank. I eye the same wound on my assailant. He growls and punches at the bed again.
A pop of mechanical static fills the room, followed by a staged, robotic voice:
“Attention, passengers,” it says. “Please proceed to the dining car. Your meals have been served.”
“What do we do?” Cassandra asks. Worry shakes through her voice and trembles across her limbs.
“We go find out who the fuck is playing games with us,” Maxwell says, bolting from the car.
Cassandra follows, and I scramble to my feet to stagger after them.
The train barrels violently down the tracks, seeming to pick up speed with each sudden lurch through a curve in the path. The lighted arrows shining from the walkways to guide us are anachronistic against the tailored seating and wood-paneled walls adorned with ornately carved emblems and vegetation. Outside there is the vast nothingness of pitch, like charcoal renderings of landscapes which would be commonplace if you could just figure out what they really are. Nothing seems quite real beyond the glass, and I feel my breath catch inside my throat.
White linens drape the tables inside the dining car. Five place settings, domed in silver, dot the scene, shining dully in the dim light. Placards denote whom should sit where.
“What the ever-loving—“
“We should find our names and sit,” Cassandra cuts Maxwell off. “Maybe if we play along, we can figure this out.”
A swift groan announces the opening of the door at the far end of the car, and two others join our party. The man looks poured into his custom-fitted tuxedo. It forms a hard shell of finery about his body, buttoned tightly at the waist with mid-length black tails like a cape, like fangs hanging behind him. His skin, the color of newly-tilled soil, is as smooth as china, and his chapped lips serve to bring attention to his beauty. He would seem angelic if he didn’t appear so uncomfortable.
He clears his throat as his spots his name—Mitchell—etched finely in a delicate calligraphy and moves toward his assigned chair.
His companion—Natasha, by her nameplate—sways nervously in a delicate, floral sundress. Her hands cup her stomach, and she swallows hard as she takes in Cassandra, Maxwell, and me. The ringlets in her copper curls bounce as she laughs anxiously, crinkling the button nose above the cupid’s bow of her lips.
We are silent as we stand behind our assigned seats, the mixture of fear and surprise heavy as we eye one another suspiciously. I jump, startled at the clamor of Maxwell’s chair legs against the floor as he pulls out his seat and plops down. Natasha bites her lip to contain her giggle as we follow Maxwell’s lead. Mitchell speaks first:
“No.” Cassandra shakes her head. Her hair ruffles like feathers before falling back perfectly into place. “Do you?”
“No,” Mitchell says. His eyes strain against the back of his mind as if there is something there to be found, if he could just remember it. “I woke up, maybe half an hour ago, buttoned into this monkey suit. I didn’t know where I was—still don’t. I was just in some bedroom, alone, on a freaking train. Then I found Natasha in another car. Filled with hunting trophies and taxidermies animal heads. And then her, cradling herself and rocking on the floor.”
Natasha laughs once more and slams her hand down on her arm to stop it from shaking. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I laugh when I get nervous.”
“So none of us know where we are,” Cassandra says, “why we’re dressed like this, or how we got here?”
“Not a clue,” I say. My eyes lock with Mitchell’s for a moment, and I feel a fleeting glimpse of familiarity before it’s lost to the shifting landscape.
“I call Bull,” Maxwell howls. “Somebody here knows something. And they better start spilling ‘fore I start splitting lips.”
Natasha’s blue eyes grow wide as she recoils in her seat, but she doesn’t laugh. She breathes deeply as she glances around the room, refusing to lock on anyone, on any one location, in the same fretful energy we all feel.
“Okay, hot shot,” Cassandra says. “How ‘bout you go first? How did you get here? Where were you before you were here?”
“I was—“ Maxwell swells in his seat before he leans against the table, shoulders sagging in defeat. “Home, I guess. Or out somewhere. I don’t remember. I… I—“
“Don’t even know where home is,” I finish for him. And it’s true. Not one of us can remember where we were before we woke up on this train. It is as if our lives were made new as we woke. There is something there, in the backs of our memories, gnawing at the present like rats trying to break through, but none of us can seem to access it. I feel it scratch at my being, sharpening its talons with each new swipe.
“So let’s talk about what we do know,” I offer.
“We know our names,” Mitchell says. His eyes meet mine in a soft extension of camaraderie. They are beautiful, and familiar, and shot through with golden thread. “Even if we don’t know who we really are, that’s something, right?”
“We know we’re on a train,” Maxwell grunts. I can tell he’s trying to be helpful, despite every intuition within him urging his fists to punch his way out.
“We know we were drugged to get here,” Cassandra says.
We wince, collectively, as our fingers find the bruises on our necks.
“We know we’re dressed up like characters in an Agatha Christie novel,” Natasha says. Her laughter has stopped, and she’s watching our reflections in the window glass. “The debutante and the ingenue. The street urchin, and the magnate, and the detective.”
“So maybe we play along,” Cassandra says. “Maybe if we do our parts, we get out of this.”
Maxwell growls as his fists pound the table, rattling the domes before us.
“That’s the second time you’ve told us to just play along,” he says. “Seems to me like you’ve got some agenda to keep us on task.”
“I’m just trying to figure this out, same as you.”
“Says the pretty, rich girl with no skin in the game.”
“Hey, now,” I say, trying to calm the brewing argument. “We’re all in this together. The only way we figure this out is together.”
Maxwell’s brow furrows as he spits through gritted teeth: “I’m just playing my part.”
“We know there’s a voice. Telling us what to do.”
Mitchell keeps his tone calm, attempting to quell the situation, as he smiles and nods at me.
“That’s right,” I say. “It told us to come here and eat.”
“I ain’t eating nothing,” Maxwell says. “Not after catching a needle in the neck before.”
“Before that,” Mitchell says. “That same voice woke me up and told me where to find Natasha.”
“You heard the voice before it called us here?” I ask. “Strange. Did anyone else?”
Cassandra and Maxwell shake their heads from side to side. Natasha gulps hard and trembles as she peers at the window. Her eyes jolt across the darkness, like a dancer trying to find purchase on a single spot so she doesn’t fall down.
“I did,” she whispers. She tried to fight it, but her nervous laughter returns, shaking the whole of her self in her chair. “It just kept repeating itself, over and over. That’s why, when you found me, I was rocking on the floor.”
“What did it say?” Cassandra asks. She leans across the table to offer a comforting hand, but Natasha pulls away.
“‘In death there is destination. In destination there is death.’ Just that. Over and over. From the time I woke up until Mitchell walked in.”
“Did you hear that too?” I ask, and Mitchell shakes his head and stares dourly at the table.
The room feels solid and still and crushing even as the train lurches forward. The air is thick, smelling of coal and fire as if the very breathing of it could ignite a flame to consume each of us from the inside out. The passing landscape grows darker and less discernible with each mile as we are moved further and further away from a past we cannot remember.
“This is bullshit!” Maxwell exclaims.
He swipes violently at his place setting and the whole of it clatters to the floor, the silver cloche clanging like the toll of bells as it bounces and rolls away. Natasha gasps and pulls her knees up toward her chest in her chair, wrapping her arms around her legs and rocking, balancing delicately on the seat. Mitchell recoils, his eyes wide as he stares at the remnants of Maxwell’s “meal.” There is no food. Instead, a small, ornately-carved switchblade rests between the broken shards of china.
The rest of us quickly remove our domes, eyes locked on the display: a chrome pistol with a single bullet; a rope—rough and twisted—bound into a delicate noose; a bow with one arrow, its metal tip glistening and sharp; and a bottle of pills. Cassandra trembles as she reaches toward the noose. Her fingers dangle in the air but refuse to make contact with the rope.
“This is insane,” she says. “Are we supposed to off ourselves?”
“Or each other?” Natasha adds.
“No,” Mitchell says firmly. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Speak for yourself,” Maxwell says. He dives for the switchblade and clutches it to his chest. “I’m at least gonna protect myself.”
“From what?” I ask. “As far as we know, there’s no one else on this train. And all of us are in the same situation.”
“I don’t know you. Any of you,” he says. “Fuck, you don’t even know yourselves.”
Cassandra and Natasha swipe at the noose and pills, cradling them close as if their hands are burning from the touch of the weapons.
“We can’t start turning on each other,” I say. “Not if we’re going to figure this out. Cassandra, you yourself said we need to work together.”
She nods but her fingers don’t loosen from the rope.
“Mitchell,” I say, and he gulps as he meets my eyes. “You said you found Natasha in a Trophy room, right? Was there a safe or something in there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I’m going to bet there is,” I say. “In those old novels, those sorts of rooms always have a safe. I propose we lock all these things up in there. And then we search every car on this train until we find a way out.”
I can sense the reluctance in the room, its edges tinged in fear as the fight or flight instinct of our group duels for control. I pick up my arrow and snap it over the edge of the table. Mitchell nods and stands.
“Here,” he says.
Timidly, Natasha wraps her fingers around the tiny bullet, caressing it slowly against her palm like a precious gemstone.
“We have to figure this out,” I offer. “And the best way to do that is if we aren’t fearing one another.”
Cassandra’s eyes widen in agreement, and Maxwell shrugs. I bring up the rear as Mitchell leads us to the door.
Each car of the train seems frozen in time—as if it were plucked and placed directly from the pages of some early Twentieth Century novel, with anachronistic notions belying the truth of time. Lush fabrics, curved and polished woods, and grasscloth wallpapers are offset by modern lighting and recording devices—“I think we’re being watched,” Mitchell whispers—alongside framed photos of people who could have been us in different poses and fashions throughout time. It is eerie and unsettling, even without the misbegotten landscape hurdling past the windows as the train bounds forward, never slowing, never ceasing.
The Trophy Room is no exception. Its lush, velvet couches flank a solid walnut desk that has been lacquered to a high sheen; a green banker’s lamp emits a delicate glow from its surface; but it’s the trophies themselves—great mounted heads of majestic and angry beasts—which serve to capture the room’s true horror. They stare down at us in malignant disapproval as we enter.
As expected, I find an opened safe under the desk. Inside I place the bow and broken bits of arrow, Cassandra’s noose, Mitchell’s gun, Maxwell’s knife, and, from Natasha, the rattling bottle of pills and the bullet. I close it gently, and, when I hear the bolts slip into place, spin the dial to ensure it stays locked.
“So, is this supposed to mean we’re safe now?” Maxwell asks sarcastically.
“None of us knows the combination,” I reply. “We’re at least safe from each other.”
“And ourselves,” Cassandra whispers.
I take in their expectant faces and nod solemnly. Just as they do, I understand that stashing away our weapons was an empty gesture. It places us no further along in knowing how we came to be here, who we are, or what game is afoot. I also realize we may have just locked away our only means of protection.
“We need to search the train,” I say. “Look for clues as to how we got here. Find out if we’re alone.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Natasha shrieks and throws herself onto one of the sofas. She hurries her head in a pillow and weeps in gasps and shudders.
“You can’t stay here alone,” Maxwell says. It is an offer to stay behind with her, but I can hear the tinge of fear beneath the bravado in his voice.
“I’m not leaving her alone with you,” Cassandra says, eyes locked on Maxwell’s. “You already tried pulling a knife on us. Who knows what happens if you’re left alone.”
“Can’t we all stay?” Natasha sobs. “Just all of us, stay right here. Maybe if we refuse to act, whatever this is just ends.”
“I don’t think that’s how this works.”
I try to sound sympathetic, but there it is again—that gnawing sensation deep inside my gut telling me to keep moving.
“I’ll go with you,” Mitchell says. His smile seems so genuine as he catches mine. “The rest of you stay here. And keep each other safe. We’ll start and the front of the train and work our way back here. Okay?”
“Okay,” Cassandra says. She grabs my hand as we turn to leave and pleads, “Be safe.”
“So, do you have any theories?” Mitchell asks as we traverse the cars to find the start of it all.
He’s removed the jacket of his tuxedo and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. The bright white dances delicately over his rich, dark skin. I feel as if I know him, as if somehow, somewhere, we have a connection.
“None I’m ready to share,” I say. “They’re all half-baked with no real evidence to support them.”
Mitchell smiles. It’s a beautiful smile, filled with a comfort and glee in stark contrast to the world around us. A grin I could find myself lost in for hours.
“You’re really taking this detective role to heart, huh?”
I laugh. It feels good to laugh. And Mitchell’s adjoining chuckle alights the car in music as we search the periphery in our walk. We reach the first car of the train, but find no conductor, no controls, no way to stop the forward momentum. Mitchell is perplexed, but moves to check every inch of the space. I watch him move and glimpse a memory—or maybe a wish—of his arms wrapped around me.
“Maybe the clues aren’t in the train itself,” I offer. “Maybe they’re in each other.”
Mitchell stops his search and stares deeply into my eyes.
“You think?” he asks.
“I do,” I say as we take a step closer to one another. I can feel his breath trickle across my lips.
“I feel like I know you,” he says.
A scream echoes through the car from the overhead speakers. It’s fraught and devastating and breaks us from our trance. We don’t speak as we rush back to the Trophy Room. Cassandra spins toward us as we enter but keeps her arm outstretched to ward off Maxwell who’s standing across the room, trembling like a frightened foal.
“Keep him away from me,” she screams.
“I ain’t do nothing,” Maxwell says. “I didn’t even leave this room.”
“You didn’t have to!”
Mitchell steps between the two of them and holds his arms out, as if he could push the distance there into solidity.
“What’s going on?” he asks. “Where’s Natasha?”
Cassandra crumples to the floor as Maxwell looks away. Despite his tough boy exterior I can see tears welling up in his eyes. I cross the car, laying a gentle hand on Mitchell’s shoulder as I pass him, and wait for the door to swish open at the far side of the room. As it does, Cassandra’s wails grow louder and I gasp.
There is Natasha, crumpled on the floor. An ornately carved switchblade handle extends from her heart; her copper ringlets match the blood pooling from her wound. I step back swiftly to allow the door to close.
I try to ask the question calmly, hoping some sense of decorum will overwhelm the situation.
“She wanted to go to the bathroom. I think she really just wanted to get away from him. So we went that way looking for one. Next thing I know, the door shoots open and a knife comes flying through the air.”
As Cassandra speaks, I walk back toward the desk to find the safe open, it’s contents spilling out, and no knife among the weapons.
“It wasn’t me,” Maxwell says. “I swear it.”
“You say you never left this room, right?” I ask. He stares at me like a deer caught in a hunter’s site. His lips tremble but he doesn’t respond. Slowly, I retrieve the weapons from the floor, laying them out on the desk in a neat row. “How’d you get into the safe?”
“I—I didn’t,” he stutters. “Okay, look. I did leave. After they left that way, I didn’t want to stay in here alone. So I went that way to come after you guys. But I ran back when I heard the scream.”
“Real convenient,” Cassandra snarls, the accusation in her voice as sharp as the blade in Natasha’s chest.
“I need to examine the body,” I say. “And we shouldn’t split up.”
“I’m not going anywhere with him!” Cassandra cries, throwing herself into Mitchell’s arms.
Maxwell looks confused and frightened and to the point of exhaustion.
“Fine,” he says. “Lock me up. That sleeper car you woke up in, it had a lock on the cabin, right?”
“From the inside, yes.”
“Great. Then I lock that and you can find something to barricade me in from the outside. I’ll feel a hell of a lot safer in there than out here anyway. Mitchell can take me.”
“I don’t like this.”
“It’s okay,” Mitchell says. He places a gentle hand over mine in reassurance, and that feeling of trying to remember something important overwhelms me again. I sigh, and nod, and glance away.
“So, Cassandra, you’ll come with me,” I say.
“I don’t want to see the body. Not again.”
“You can’t stay here alone.”
“I’ll go with them. I want to make sure that bastard is locked up tight.”
“Okay,” I say. “Be careful.”
As if on instinct, I give Mitchell a hug. His embrace is warm and tight and breathes out a wholeness I think I’m supposed to know. His lips brush mine with the static shock of recognition. And then they are gone, the three of them, and I am alone.
“What out there is better than what’s in here?” she asks.
It’s just the two of us now—Cassandra and me. It all happened so suddenly. It all defied explanation. First, Natasha’s body is not there—the train car itself is not there—when I move to examine her body. Then Maxwell, locked tight inside the sleeper car, struggles violently against the noose that, moments before, had still sat on the desk three cars away. We fight against the barricade, but do not make it in time. And then Mitchell—dear, sweet Mitchell whom I feel I love but do not know why. Mitchell froths at the mouth and collapses, and we notice the pill bottle missing. Three dead and two left. The sleeper car and dining car missing from the lineup as well. It’s just Cassandra and me, sitting opposite one another in the Trophy Room, the great beasts listening intently to our conversation as if their input would be so valuable had their lips not been glued shut.
“In here is death,” I say. “You heard what Natasha said the voice said when she woke. ‘In death there is destination. In destination there is death.’ That’s all that’s waiting for us here. But what if we don’t reach our destination?”
“You really want to jump?” she asks incredulously. “Into whatever it is out there? From a speeding train?”
“I want to live,” I say.
I pull the desk chair to the center of the room and balance atop it as I push the roof hatch up and open.
“Don’t leave me,” Cassandra pleads. “I’m scared.”
“Come with me,” I say. “I don’t know what’s out there, but I do know what’s in here. At least out there is a chance.”
Cassandra recoils from my hand, and I nod. I pull myself up.
The weight of the air rips at my skin, tearing the jacket from my back to disappear into the depths which surround me. I scan the horizon. There is nothing but a bleak, unformed darkness all around me. Darkness and a speeding train. I turn my head from the wind and inhale deeply. A gunshot sounds from inside, and I know Cassandra is gone. Cautiously, I move toward the edge of the train. I peer down, hoping for land, but there is only more darkness. There is no knowing to where I will jump, how I will land.
I take one more deep breath and leap.
My head is pounding when I wake. The entire world feels as if it’s spinning beneath me. I feel sick to my stomach.
Mitchell’s perplexed voice is sweet in my ear, grounding me for a moment, and I let my eyes flutter open to take in his red-tipped mohawk. His arms look great in his black t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, and I wish they were still around me. I yawn and motion him back toward the bed.
“How did we end up on a train?” he asks.
I stumble to my feet and join him at the window. That’s why the earth felt like it was moving: it was. Outside, a vast blackness tumbles by, unwilling or unable to form anything discernible in its nothingness. I look at my partner, confused and biting on my lip ring the way I always do when I’m nervous.
We jump as we hear the static of the overhead speaker break into the hushed churning of the room.
“In death there is destination,” it says. “In destination there is death. Please proceed to the dining car.”
It looks like a bad cafeteria from an 80s high school flick—the dining car. Linoleum tables and florescent lights and plastic, compartmentalized trays. Plus the goth chick with cat eye makeup and black dye still staining her scalp. Or the bubblegum pop star in neon colors and exposed shoulders in her oversized halter. Or worse still, the preppy jock with the color permanently popped on his sky blue polo.
“What in Hades is going on?” The goth girl asks and the pop star laughs nervously. “How did we get here?”
“I don’t know,” I say, spotting the machete on the tray next to my name tag and leaping toward it. “But I know how we leave.”
About the Creator
Andrew Forrest Baker
he | him
Southern gothic storyteller.
My new novel, The House That Wasn't There, is out now from April Gloaming Publishing.
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