“Did you bring my medication? It’s time for my pills.”
“Yes, mother,” Marshall Destry answers wearily. “…As if you even know what you’re taking…”
“What? Speak up. You mumble all the time these days.”
Lifting her head from her cushioned seat, Rosamond Destry looks out of the window.
The scenery blends into a blur as the train speeds along, its whistle blaring loudly.
“Where are we?”
“We’re on a train, mother. We’re going to your new home.”
“Inka’s not your nurse anymore. You’re going to have a new one.”
Rosamond’s tired eyes blink sporadically as she digests the information. “I need Inka’s help with my medication.”
“I can handle it until we get to the assisted living facility.”
“Facility? You mean old folk’s home. What happened to my real home?”
“You agreed to sell it, remember?”
“I did not. You tricked me. You were always trying to trick me into selling it to cover your gambling debts.”
The conductor appears, standing next to Rosamond.
“Is there anything I can get for you, Mrs. Destry?”
Rosamond smiles. “Maybe some water for my pills. And you can call me Rose.”
“Such a nice man. Reminds me of Errol Flynn,” Rosamond says. “Look at that smart uniform he’s wearing. You could take lessons from him, Marshall.”
Marshall rolls his eyes as the conductor walks off.
“…If only I was a younger woman…,” Rosamond whispers.
Feeling his blood pressure rising, Marshall clenches his fits.
“Where are we going?” Rosamond asks.
Still irritated, Marshall spits out, “The Brockton Shady Rest Home. I’ve told you that six times already.”
“Well, don’t have to be so nasty about it. I’m not well. I’m eighty-eight. I forget things.”
“You’re ninety, and you’re sharper than you let on.”
“I swear you’ve been a different person lately,” Rosamond says. “So irritable.”
“I’m the same person I’ve always been, mother.”
“Well, then, that’s a shame. Still betting on the horses, are we?”
“It’s the family business.”
Rosamond raises a withered fist. “The family business is raising horses, not betting on them. And you’re not good at either one.”
Marshall grits his teeth. “Ungrateful, that’s what you are. Who sacrificed the better part of his life to take care of you?”
“No! I did!”
“She’s the one who gets me in and out of my wheelchair, feeds me and gives me my medication. What do you do?”
“I pay your taxes, drive you to the doctor, do your shopping, pay your bills.”
“And gamble away the rest of my money,” Rosamond says. “Whenever I ask how much money I’ve got left you mutter something and walk away. When I ask to look at the books, suddenly you’re the one who’s forgetful. Well, I fixed your wagon. Inka found your crooked ledgers.”
“She had no right going in my office.”
“Shame on you. Stealing from your own mother.”
The conductor returns with a glass of water, handing it to Rosamond. Marshall hands her several pills.
“See, Errol put ice in my water, and he barely knows me. Why can’t you ever remember?”
Marshall sighs, pushing his glasses up off the end of his nose. “How long before we get to Brockton?”
“You’re not going to Brockton.”
“What? I paid for tickets from Pleasantville to Brockton.”
“My goodness, he can’t even buy a pair of tickets without screwing things up,” Rosamond laments.
Marshall nearly jumps out of his seat, pulling the conductor aside.
“Did she promise you some sort of payoff? I’m the one who holds the purse strings.”
The conductor gives him a disapproving look.
“You don’t understand, Casey Jones. I’m trying to take the old bat’s yolk off my neck. Mother dearest is going to an assisted living facility in Brockton.”
“Your idea, no doubt.”
“You’ve seen how she treats me. She’s been a battleax since she had a stroke seven years ago, and she’s been an invalid for just about as long. I’m sixty-two, and I’ve lived under her thumb practically all my life.”
The conductor eyes Marshall’s Armani wardrobe.
“You look like you’re doing all right. I’d venture to guess you haven’t missed many meals either.”
“What? No, I eat well. Okay, maybe I overeat to compensate for my frustrations. And yes, we live in a mansion. But she won’t let me run the business the way I see fit, and she’s ruined every relationship I’ve ever had. Now she’s senile and angry all the time. Her life is over, and my life needs to begin.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Rosamond asks.
“See? She’s cantankerous. Help me out. We need to get to Brockton.”
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to. That’s a different train line, sir.”
“All right, fine. Just let me know where and when we can transfer,” Marshall says, heading back to his seat.
Rosamond hands the conductor her glass.
“Can I get you anything else, Rose?”
“Another son. This one’s a thief.”
“He wasn’t always like this. He was a nice boy when he was young. He loved living in Pleasantville. It’s a town that really lives up to its name. You’d love it too, Errol. You should consider raising your family there.”
“I’m not married.”
Rosamond’s touch dwells on the conductor’s arm. “A handsome devil like you, not married? Such a waste.”
“Anyway, when Marshall was a boy, we had picnics, went sailing, and watched old movies at the theater. We lived the American dream. What we loved the most were our horses. We had a dozen purebred racehorses and showhorses. The pride of the Destry family was Atlas, a strong white Appaloosa. He was sixteen hands high. Remember Atlas?”
“A fleabag. Never let anyone else ride him,” Marshall replies.
“Marshall had his own horse, Kyrie Ellison. A nice black thoroughbred. He and the other boys would race. Marshall and Kylie only lost once, but that changed our lives forever. Kylie was twenty lengths ahead of the rest of the field, a sure winner when she dropped dead from a heart attack. I suspected it was something Marshall had given her, a pep pill or something.”
“That’s not true, mother.”
“Really? His girlfriend, Monica, a cute little girl from a rich family, told me the truth. He dumped her. It was one of the dumbest things he ever did. She ended up marrying a Rockefeller. My husband died soon after Kyrie Ellison. That was when Marshall got the perverted idea it was more profitable to bet on horses than raise them.”
“It’s just a hobby, mother.”
“A hobby that’s cost me fifteen million dollars over the past seven years, and some of the best horses ever bred. He killed my Atlas.”
“Here we go again,” Marshall laments.
“He started hanging around with a shady veterinarian named Dante who was known for giving racehorses furosemide to make them run faster. Since he spent most of his day at the track, it became too much of a chore for Marshall to take care of the horses. But he was a lousy handicapper who won small and lost big. Then he figured out there was more profit in cashing in on their insurance policies. So, our horses started to die, one by one, starting with Atlas.”
“He had a broken leg. I had to shoot him.”
“You didn’t have to enjoy it.”
Marshall stares down his mother. “You loved that fleabag more than me.”
“See, Errol. He wishes he’d shot me instead. And that Dante, he was a creepy, eccentric little man who spoke in a sinister breathy voice like a mad scientist. I expected to wake up one night and find him standing over me in bed, ready to jab a needle in my arm.”
Marshall’s eyes blink rapidly behind his glasses. “…She’s senile…,” he whispers to the conductor. “How long before we get to a station where we can transfer?”
The conductor checks his watch. “About half an hour.”
“You shouldn’t have told him that Errol,” Rosamond says. “He might want to make a bet on it.”
The conductor checks on Rosamond, who is fast asleep.
Marshall follows him down the aisle.
“Hey, Casey Jones, can I borrow your cell phone? I must’ve left mine at the house.”
“What a coincidence. I did the same thing today. But I wouldn’t worry, you’re not going to need one where you’re going.”
Marshall frowns. “You’re pretty judgmental for a public servant. You need to be more respectful toward me, or you’ll be punching tickets for the toy choo choo at the supermarket.”
The conductor grabs Marshall by the collar. Lifting him off his feet, he slams Marshall against the door.
“What do you know about respect? I’ve transported a lot of greedy bottom feeders - even Jeffrey Dahmer had more love for his mother than you. Do you know why you’re on this train? Think about what happened last night.”
Marshall swallows hard. “…Last night… I was really out of it last night. Tranquilizers aren’t just for horses, you know. I mixed a few too many with my martinis, so I don’t remember most of the evening. I do remember I was still angry with mother for refusing to go into assisted living.”
“Then what happened?”
“I woke up on this train. Inka must’ve brought us here… I do remember having a horrible dream…”
“What was the dream about?”
“I don’t remember much, just flashes, but it seemed so real. Mother and I were screaming at each other. I went into the kitchen to make another drink. That was when I noticed Inka had left some of her pills out.”
Marshall’s eyes bulge behind his glasses. “I took a handful. I brought them to mother, and I told her it was time to take her medication. It was easy. She gobbled them down like candy, swallowed enough to stop six people’s hearts. Then Inka came in and saw she was dead. That shrewd Swede could always see right through me. She didn’t believe it was an accident because I seldom gave mother her pills. She started screaming at me, hitting me with her fists. I had to get her to shut up! I guess I choked her because the next memory I have is Inka on the floor next to mother’s bed. I remember thinking ‘What have I done?’, and I knew I had to get away.”
Marshall runs his hands through his thinning hair. “Thank God it was all just a dream…”
Marshall’s eyes dart back and forth as his memory returns. “I was so scared. I grabbed all the money I could. I slipped on that stupid rug mother keeps at the top of the stairs. I keep telling her somebody going to get hurt tripping over that thing. It was me! I fell down the stairs…Then I woke up here on the train, and I was actually thankful my mother was sitting across from me.”
The conductor gently shakes Rosamond, “This is your stop, Rose.”
The conductor helps her into her wheelchair.
“What about my son?”
“Let him sleep. He’s not getting off here.”
“But he was supposed to take me to my new home. It was his idea.”
“Don’t worry, Rose. You’ll know what to do when you get off the train.”
The conductor wheels Rosamond down the aisle.
“I feel like I’m sneaking off,” Rosamond says. “We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he’s still my son. I should at least say goodbye.”
Marshall wakes up, his heart pounding when he doesn’t see his mother sitting across from him.
He catches up to her and the conductor on the steps of the train.
Rosamond has left her wheelchair behind.
Marshall looks up at the sign above the stationhouse.
“Pleasantville? We’ve been traveling in a circle! Why?”
“This is where your mother belongs.”
Stepping off the train, Rosamond’s bent frame straightens, her thinning grey hair turns into lush blond locks, and her gaunt body becomes healthy and shapely.
“Mother? You’re young again.”
Marshall watches his mother leave the station. She walks toward the parking lot. Inka is waiting there, holding the reigns of a white horse.
The two women climb onto Atlas. Rosamond waves at Marshall as Atlas gallops off.
Marshall turns away. “I forgot how beautiful and elegant she was, that she was generous and loving. How did you do that? How did you make her young again?”
“It’s what she deserves.”
The train leaves the station, blasting its whistle as it picks up speed.
Marshall’s lower lip quivers. “Will I be getting what I deserve?” he asks the conductor.
“And what do you think you deserve?”
The train speeds past rough, rocky, and barren terrain. The land gradually flattens, turning into rolling hills and miles of fertile grasslands.
The train pulls into the town of Aiken. The stationhouse has an old-west appearance, with a passenger deck, a newspaper stand, and a ticket window, both of which are closed.
“Time to disembark,” the conductor says coolly.
“You expect me to stay in this one-horse town?”
“Funny you should mention horses. You’ll find plenty here. Aiken doesn’t have the amenities you’re used to, but after all, you’re being punished, not rewarded. Walk up the road to Sunnyfield Farm. You’ll get what you deserve.”
Marshall tries to forget the conductor’s thousand-watt smile as the train pulls away.
After a long, dry-mouthed walk down a dusty, empty dirt road, the silos and barns of Sunnyfield Farm loom ahead. Hundreds of horses dart around freely in its lush fields, stopping to look at the sweaty, bedraggled newcomer. Marshall is so deliriously thirsty that he swears some of the horses whisper his name.
Marshall walks into the office, a mahogany structure shaped like a teepee adorned with dozens of framed pictures of horses on the wall.
“Hey! Anybody here?”
A horse trots out, or at least Marshall thinks it’s a horse.
“Ah, Marshall Destry. We’ve been expecting you.”
Marshall rubs his eyes, snickering uncontrollably.
The top half of the desk clerk is a horse with arms instead of hooves. From the waist down he’s a man.
“Is this a joke?”
“I haven’t stopped laughing since I heard you were coming,” the clerk says grimly. “Follow me.”
The clerk leads Marshall past a series of examining rooms. One of the half-man half-horse creatures is leaning over a woman on an examining table, pulling her tongue out with a pair of tongs. Another creature is riding on the back of a rotund, sweating man, slapping his bare buttocks with a whip as he begs for mercy.
One of the creatures stands in front of six horses whose hindquarters are facing half a dozen men tied to a crossbeam. The creature shouts, “JUMP!” and the horses whinny with glee as they kick the men in their faces.
The clerk leads Marshall into a room with a series of dentist chairs. The men tied to the chairs are moaning, their heads twisting from side to side.
“Sit,” the creature commands.
“Can’t we work something out? My family’s got money,” Marshall pleads.
“Around here a bale of hay is worth more than money,” the clerk says, whinnying.
The clerk ties Marshall to the table. “The doctor will be in soon to give you your shots.”
“Tetanus, influenza, botulism, you know the ones you used to give your horses. Oh, and you won’t be getting them in your arm.”
The clerk whinnies sarcastically, trotting away.
The man next to Marshall groans as his eyes slowly open.
“Dante? Is that you?”
“Marshall? I heard the police were looking for you. Did you really off your mom and her nurse?”
“I guess so. I thought you got away with some gangster’s insurance money.”
“So did I,” Dante replies. “Last thing I remember was being in a limo headed for the airport. I turned around and saw a town car closing in on us. Next thing I know, I’m tied up by my wrists, and a Quarter Horse is kicking me in the head.”
“Looks like neither one of us escaped. I died falling down a flight of stairs, and your body is probably in a suitcase somewhere. What is this place?”
“I call it equine hell. You will too.”
“Is this our sentence for killing mother’s horses?” Marshall wonders. “And what are those creatures?”
“We call them reverse centaurs. They run the place. They’re also the jockeys.”
“You mean they ride the horses?” Marshall asks.
“No. They ride us. We’re the horses.”
Marshall snickers. “C’mon, Dante, really? They look like they weigh over three hundred pounds. I can’t carry one of them.”
“None of us can. I usually stroke out around the second turn. The pain is excruciating.”
“Well at least if that happens, I’ll finally be dead.”
Dante laughs. “No, you won’t. They revive us over and over. There are three races a day. And get this - they bet on us. It’s really creepy seeing horses in the stands clapping their hooves together, neighing out our names.”
“This happens every day?”
“Every day. And after the races, we have to clean out the stalls.”
“I’ve done that before.”
“With a toothbrush?”
“Doesn’t anything good happen here?” Marshall asks.
“Sometimes you can pick your own form of retribution. Be careful, though. I found out that their definition of tanning and mine is painfully different.”
A reverse centaur enters the room. A black horse follows behind him.
“Kyrie Ellison!” Marshall shouts. “Remember me, girl?”
“I’m afraid she does,” Dante whispers.
“She came to see you get your shots,” the reverse centaur says. “We’ll start with a dose of pentobarbital.”
“Wait a minute. That stuff’s poison.”
“That’s right. You’ll get used to dying.”
“Is this what’s going to happen to me? Dying three or four times a day for eternity?”
The reverse centaur grins. “That depends on your definition of eternity.”