I awoke to a shrill shrieking noise. My head jolted so quickly as to ruffle the brim of my hat. With no idea how long I’d been asleep, I stood collecting myself as I prepared to intervene, only to lose my balance as the ground moved under me. I realized, or perhaps one cannot call it a realization so much as its opposite: that I had utterly no clue where or who I was. I was in a classic-looking railway car, and I had fallen to the ground like a babe from the womb in the hands of a particularly unqualified doctor, yet I stood again: a full-grown woman. I looked at the booth across from me, where a couple seemed not to have noticed my fall. I patted myself down and was quite pleased with what I found. I must have been some sort of athlete or builder, perhaps I was even military. My confidence became reinstated and my tight suit no longer uncomfortable.
The shriek came again and I decided to return my attention to its owner. I approached an ethereally beautiful woman and gave her a nod before turning to the owner of the noise: an elaborately dressed man she appeared to be arguing with.
“What seems to be the problem here?” I mused, attempting to lean on the backs of the nearby chairs, but missing and slipping slightly. A woman nearby stifled a laugh. I ruled out athlete in my mind.
“Thank goodness, this trollop has somehow tricked her way onboard. Clearly she is trying to scam people out of money and I will not have her ruining my vacation,” the man responded. He oozed a glib sort of – well, he simply oozed.
“I am not scamming anyone. The creep gave me a glass of scotch and I accepted. Now he’s just changing his mind because I don’t want to sleep with him,” the woman jumped in. Notably the man did not correct her.
“You knew what I wanted!” He shrieked again.
“Now, now, why don’t we settle down. There’s no way she could’ve read your mind… unless,” I gasped and shot her a look, though neither party seemed amused, I received another small chuckle from the woman behind me. “Why don’t we wait until the next stop and I’ll buy you a glass of whiskey.”
“Please, you could never afford the whiskey I gave her,” he sneered, “but it will have to do. The next stop it is.”
“You’ll be waiting quite a while,” the woman behind me finally spoke and all turned to face her. “Oh, surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.” We waited. “This is a runaway train.”
Just then it hit, darkness like I’d never experienced before. A pitch black that knocked the wind out of me and I stumbled on to the nearest seat. My breathing was quicker, my chest tighter, my eyes sewn shut. I heard screams, I heard gunfire, and the only thing that pitched through the darkness: I saw the face of evil.
Then as quickly as it started the darkness was gone. We looked around the train at each other. Every passenger looked as if they’d seen a ghost, and in the middle of the room sat an envelope that hadn’t been there before. I heard the woman stifle a laugh again, only this time the titter came from under me, and I finally realized which seat I had clung to in my haze.
“Stay here any longer and I would have to assume you enjoy this position,” she murmured to me.
Jumping up, I again decided to take the lead. I picked up the envelope.
“Stop!” The oozing man screeched, “that could be anthrax for all we know!”
I surveyed the train car, eye rolls and head shakes, and proceeded to open the envelope. It was a simple letter, handwritten in red, it stated “WHY DON’T YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELVES.” I read it aloud as I saw it and suddenly panicked. I looked around and the others were avoiding eye contact. Some sipping tea, some closing their eyes still recovering, so I made a bold decision.
My voice was low as I tried to explain, “well, I would love to, but frankly, I can’t.”
Even the couple in the corner stopped talking.
“I’m afraid my identity eludes me at the point,” I stated.
“You too?” The ethereal woman probed.
“So you don’t actually know you haven’t tricked your way onboard!” The shrieking man shrieked again. Whatever got into me at this point I do not regret, but I do not condone. My instincts took over, and I punched the man. He collapsed unconscious on the seat next to him. The beautiful woman handed me a glass of his scotch.
“Have we all forgotten?” The laughing woman mused.
“Aye, we thought it was just us,” the man from the first couple piped up in a thick Irish brogue. A moment of fear passed. Was it really the loss of our memories that frightened us, or was it the loss of direction that accompanied the new knowledge that not one of us knew who we were, where we were, or how to get off this cursed train?
“Perhaps, we should come up with names for ourselves to make things easier,” the ethereal woman suggested. “Call me honey,” she winked.
“Call me Gary,” said the Irish man.
“Barbara,” said the woman across from him.
“I’ll more likely call them boring,” the laughing woman said to me under her breath.
“I’ll be Marlene… Dietrich,” I stated, puffing my chest.
The laughing woman, well, laughed.
“And what shall I call you?” I asked.
She tousled her hair and sat upright, looking at me through her untamed brows, “why you can call me anytime, Ms. Dietrich.” She stuck her hand out for me to kiss and laughed as I did.
“A pleasure, Anytime,” I replied, Honey rolled her eyes.
“What should we call him?” Anytime asked.
“Garbage,” Honey stated. It was clear this was not something that was up for debate. Honey kicked his shin to emphasize her point and he woke with a yelp.
That’s when it hit again. The darkness was there like before. The gunfire, the screams, I felt myself start to sweat, but this time I paced my breathing. I stared the evil in the face, and it became clearer; stepping through layers of fog, it was a being in a trench coat and gas mask. But just as it turned to see me staring, like a sick game of Marco Polo I heard her.
“Marlene?” Her voice was laced with desperation. The laugh ripped from it.
“Anytime,” I felt around for her and pulled her into my embrace.
The light came again. Again, an envelope lay in the middle of the train car.
“This time, I hope it’s anthrax. You all deserve it,” Garbage muttered.
I looked to Anytime who let go and turned away, suddenly shy. I walked to the center and picked up the envelope.
“Everyone alright then?” I scanned the room. Barbara looked as pale as a sheet. Staring blankly ahead. “Barbara?”
I walked over to comfort her with my wit and winning smile but stopped dead in my tracks. Perhaps that isn’t the right word because what I saw was our companion Gary immobile, a knife in his neck. I lay my blazer over his head and gently moved Barbara to another booth.
“You’ve got a bit of blood there,” I indicated to her face and smiled. When I walked back to the others, they had understood the news.
“I want to get off this instant!” Garbage shouted.
“Not this again,” Honey sighed, “I am not going to sleep with you!” She took his bottle of scotch and smashed it over his head. He slumped back into a hopefully happier state of consciousness.
I opened the envelope.
“You each have a role to play, you were the chosen few, let’s see what you can do.”
After a silence, Honey roared, “is this some sick game then?!”
“It sounds more like an experiment,” Anytime replied.
“You think that’s an important distinction right now?” Honey stormed at her and I jumped between them.
“Yes, I do,” Anytime stated more confidently than before, “see, a game is about luck, a game is meaningless, an experiment is a learning process, an examination of behavior; if we just study the maze, we can make it to the end.”
At this, Honey seemed to calm.
“So how do we find the end of the maze then?” Honey asked.
“It must be something to do with the darkness,” Anytime mused.
“You think that guy in the gas mask is doing this?” I asked.
“You mean the woman in the fatigues,” Honey said. We looked to Anytime.
“I see a man in a balaclava,” she stated.
“Great, we’re nowhere with this,” Honey said.
But she was wrong, the patterns are always important in experiments like these. Everyone we had seen was military, and, since we all saw different people, none of them were really there. As I came back to the present, Honey and Anytime were bickering.
“What do you feel?” I asked, and they turned to stare, “when the darkness hits?”
“Doom,” Anytime responded and for once Honey agreed.
“It’s like I know certain death is coming. Sheer and overwhelming panic,” Honey added.
“It’s the same for me,” I added.
“It shouldn’t be possible,” Barbara’s sudden voice scared us all. “It shouldn’t be possible!” She screamed now as we inched toward her. She stood, grabbing my shoulders, “you shouldn’t know!” She yelled at me, then to the sky, “call it off!”
Darkness. The same as before. I slowed my breath. This time I had to test a theory. When the gas mask man looked at me, I charged. I fell directly through him and watched as he took out a dagger, raising it to the sky. I closed my eyes. The light hit again.
“Where on Earth is Barbara?” Honey asked. After a short search we realized there was no sign of her ever having been there. We needed to address the elephant on the runaway train now. What were we not meant to know?
“This feels like a bad acid trip,” Honey said.
“Wait, how do you know that?” I probed.
“I - I don’t know,” she said, “it feels like my body remembers even when my mind has forgotten.”
“Yes! Like I know the smell of lavender even though I know this tea is chamomile,” Anytime added.
That’s when the darkness hit again. This time, I saw more. I saw the man in the gas mask, but I also saw the battlefield. I saw him take the life of my fellow soldier. I smelt the fires, the gas, the bodies. I tasted metal. I remembered.
Gasping. This time when the light hit, I was alone. A man in a nice suit walked into the train, and it stopped its movement.
“It was never a real train,” I stated more for myself than him.
“We had to instill a sense of urgency to make sure the treatment would work under all circumstances of pressure,” he said, “I’m sorry, cadet.”
“Which parts were real this time?” I asked.
“All but the train and the woman you know as Barbara,” he stated, “we simply took your memories, but it seems even without the visual memories you always choose to be yourself.”
“If she wasn’t so troubled, that would be wonderful news,” I replied.
“We’re dismissing you from the experiment now, Mary,” he stated, “you’ve tried three times, and you know we can’t push the brain much farther without serious risk.”
“Understood, Lieutenant,” I shook his hand, and he walked me into the waiting room.
“If it isn’t Marlene,” a familiar voice awaited me there. She laughed like her life depended on it. She added, “turns out you can call me Sergeant O’Hara.”
“Can I call you Sergeant O’Hara anytime?” I responded.
“How about you start by calling us a cab to the nearest pub first? I don’t know about you, but I need a drink after that,” she winked. When I took her arm it felt like it was created just to fit mine. I knew right away it was something special, destined to be, because when I took her arm it felt like my body remembered hers. From some distant and beautiful universe.
About the Creator
A queer, femme, literary liberal. I am passionate about storytelling, both fiction and nonfiction, with lapses into autofiction as we are wont to do. I aim to see the humor in any situation. Let us laugh our way to the gallows.