Annie woke up feeling tired, like she’d thrashed around a lot in her sleep. Not tired enough to notice she wasn’t in her room, though. She jumped up, heart pounding, almost slipping on satiny sheets. She was in a small, lush room, all embroidered brocade and rich cloth in carefully-coordinated earth tones. Her favorite colors. There was even a small china plate of chocolate chip cookies on a tiny nightstand that was built into the wall. They smelled like they were freshly baked. She herself was in a silky negligee, but it went down to her feet, very classy-like.
She didn’t understand. She didn’t know how she’d come here. But if she’d been kidnapped or something, this was somebody really sick—who treated their hostages like royalty? She tried to remember what she’d been doing last, or at least what she’d been thinking before she’d fallen asleep, but her mind was a blank. She had an impression that she’d been with Derek—that she’d been breathing in his cologne and the smell of the ocean as he’d kissed her neck—but as she ran a hand over the same spot, the certainty skipped away, out of her grasp.
That was when she first felt the rocking. The whole room seemed to be rocking to-and-fro ever so slightly, and it was loud. It reminded Annie of the sound of a train—she’d been on one when she was six—and she realized suddenly that there was a distinct ch-chung, ch-chung, ch-chung sound, also. But that didn’t make sense! She was in a fancy bedroom, with a window with wooden shutters and—
Annie jumped off the bed and threw the shutters open. It was dark outside, the creeping dark that came just before dawn.
She could just make out that she was looking out at an open field, with mountains covered in pines behind it. And the landscape was whirring past. She couldn’t see much of the train from the window, even when she dipped her head into the wind that it seemed to freeze in its speed. All she could see was the sleek black metal of its sides, and a row of windows, a few of them lighted.
She took another look at the bed beside her, and then towards the bureau that was built into the wall at the other end of the room, and a part of her couldn’t help but be enchanted by the idea of it all. Maybe she was still asleep after all, and she only dreamt of the rich carpet cushioning her toes. She felt like she was a little girl again, all worries about Derek and slowing down his engine were pushed aside.
Nibbling on a cookie, she went to the bureau, opening it to find a whole arrangement of clothes, from fine dresses to stylish casual tops and jeans, and spent the next half-hour playing dress-up. Everything was perfectly tailored to her body, and there was a mirror above the bureau that she admired her reflection in. This had to be a dream, because while she was still her curvy self, she’d never looked this great in clothes before.
She stopped to watch the sun come up, and ended up wearing jeans and an asymmetrical teal top, something she’d never have had the courage to buy for herself. She was just thinking about maybe lying down again when there was a soft knock on the door. The door! She’d almost forgotten that there was the whole rest of the train to explore.
Annie opened the door to find a middle-aged woman with curly orange hair—it was really the only way to describe it—in a navy blue button-down dress. “Oh Miss Everdeen! I’m so glad you’re here. I wasn’t sure if you’d arrived yet or not. Breakfast is already being served, best to come before it’s all gone!”
The woman rushed away to knock on other doors, and Annie stared after her for a moment, until the woman caught her looking and made a gesture with her hand, shooing Annie in the other direction.
She passed through her car and the next, before she got to the dining car, which looked more like a speakeasy than a dining car. There was a bar and low leather couches and people in fabulous clothes everywhere. None of them were talking, though, except for a couple of small gatherings here and there. Mostly they ate quietly, or stared out the window, blankly. The only person who didn’t seem to fit was a boy in a gray hoodie and jeans, who had his head down on his arms, and seemed to be crying, or shivering.
“What would you like?” the man behind the bartender asked.
Annie slid onto a stool in front of him and examined the taps behind him. She wondered if she could pass as of-age. “Gin and tonic?”
He chuckled, his laugh rich and deep, and shook his head. “No liquor onboard. Seems a little ironic, doesn’t it? How about some breakfast?”
She asked for Eggs Benedict. She’d never had them before, but it was the fanciest breakfast she could think of. Maybe when they realized she didn’t have any money they’d throw her off the train, but she would have already eaten, anyhow.
“So where are we headed?” she asked, as the bartender—Julian, his nametag read—produced a plate of poached eggs on an English muffin with some sort of sauce. He seemed to have pulled it straight out from under the bar, which was odd, as it was clearly still hot.
“Well that’s the question everyone wants to know, isn’t it?” Julian smoothed out his salt-and-pepper mustache with long brown fingers. “Do you remember anything yet?”
Annie’s forehead wrinkled, and she seemed to remember another train—or at least the scream of one, the bright light cutting through the darkness—she started as she realized that she was safe in the dining car. Julian watched her with concern, and the boy in the corner booth started whimpering as he shook. Annie couldn’t stop staring at him.
“What’s going on here?” She was surprised at how small and scared her voice sounded. What did she have to be afraid of?
“It’s alright, miss. Everyone’s a little confused when they first get on the train.”
“I don’t remember getting on.”
“That’s perfectly natural. In time you will. And you’ll figure out where to go from there.”
Annie stopped tasting her food. All desire to eat had vanished. “We haven’t come to any stops since I woke up.”
“Oh we’ll get to one by and by. I think Stan’s about ready to get off,” Julian said, nodding towards a balding man who was reading a book and drinking tea.
“Do people stay on this train for long?” Annie asked, looking at the blank faces on most of the diners.
“Some longer than others. Some stay on for ages and ages.”
Something was tickling the back of Annie’s mind. Something that she knew was there, but she felt like she didn’t want to know. The image of the train’s light slicing through darkness shook her again as the boy’s wailing started to die down.
“Where is Stan going?” Annie asked, taking a sip from a glass of water that Julian had given her.
“Oh, off the train, I guess,” Julian said, then gave her a knowing look and finished, “On.”
Annie finished her breakfast, but loitered in the dining car, watching a middle-aged woman with jet black hair, who looked furious about something, but didn’t seem to even notice the train around her. None of these people seemed aware of any of the others, except for Julian.
“What about you?” she asked, looking at the older man behind the bar. “Don’t you know where you’re going?”
He smiled dryly. “I surely do. I’m just afraid of getting there. So I stay on the train.”
Just when Annie was going to say that the train never seemed to stop, it slowed to a halt. She exchanged a look with Julian, who nodded to Stan—but it was the boy in the sweatshirt that jumped to his feet.
Annie’s heart gave a lurch. It was Derek. And he was sobbing.
When he caught her eyes, he shook his head. “Annie. I’m so sorry, Annie. I’m so, so sorry.” And then he left the car. Annie raced after him, but she was just too late to stop him and ask him why. She saw him jump off the train, and it started moving on again before the doors were even fully closed.
As she slumped back against the cushioned wall, Annie closed her eyes and saw it all—a playground near the beach. Derek’s mouth on her neck and his hands wandering too far. Annie pushing him away for some air and then walking away from him as he asked what was going on. Walking faster and faster, because it was Derek and he was supposed to understand. Crossing the train tracks just up the hill, and getting her shoe caught, and Derek right behind her, trying to help, and then the sound of the train coming on close, the cry of warning that it gave, its light blinding in the darkness.
And then pain. And then, nothing.
The train screeched to a halt. A soft hand touched her shoulder, and Annie opened her eyes. It was Julian.
The old man nodded towards the doors she’d seen Derek pass through, moments before, a kind, wistful look in his eyes. “Your stop, miss.”