PREFACE: This story was previously published as a 6-part serial by The Junction, a Medium publication. It appears here, for the first time, in its full uncut version.
Nobody thought it was real.
When the new stations were built throughout Paris and its suburbs, word-to-mouth spread their peculiarities quite quickly. Advertising claimed that tickets would be free for all. Many thought there would be a catch... they were not wrong.
Anyone wanting to use this new service was required to sign a contract. Some did not bother to read it, but those who did noticed the fine print that spelled it all out clearly...
First, you could only get one-way tickets.
Second, by signing the ‘agreement’—that was their word for it—your soul became the property of the Company.
No one in their right minds would have believed any of this. I certainly did not.
Those who used the service, since they could not return with the same train, decided to ride the regular on the way back. At least they’d only pay for half the trip.
As time passed, people went missing. They left with the train and never returned. Complaints were raised, but the Company would just bring out the signed contracts. They had provided service one-way only and could not be held responsible for whatever happened after arrival. Law officials studied the documents but, albeit the odd terms, could find no fault with them.
The historical companies—SNCF and RATP—, which had initially worried about this new entity, began to relax. If passengers disappeared, surely, folks would stop using these one-way trains and the Company would eventually go out of business.
But, human nature being as it is, people continued to use the Twilight Stations—as they became known. Some because they did not believe the stories. Others because they did, and hoped for some sort of thrill ride. A few even saw it as some strange and painless way to commit suicide—one day you were there, the next you were gone. I doubt any of them considered what might happen to them after they’d disappeared.
In case you’re wondering: No, I’m not suicidal. In fact, I’ve always avoided the mystery train. If I’m sitting in one right now, it’s because of my younger sister. Angela.
Our family moved to France ten years ago. I believe it had something to do with legal issues involving some of my father’s former business associates. He never talks about it, and I never ask. I suspect I wouldn’t want to know.
After living on the Riviera for a couple of years, our parents found this nice little house in Issy-les-Moulineaux. Mother teaches English in a nearby school while father takes the subway into Paris—he works for a bank in the fifteenth arrondissement.
Three years ago, a Twilight Station was raised a mere two blocks away from us. We pointedly ignored it. Until, that is, an emergency arose.
Last week, my sister’s best friend—Sophie—was mugged and roughly beaten. She was hurt enough to end up at the hospital. Mother had taken the car to work, so Angela—who was desperate to see her friend—decided to ride the train.
It was a stupid thing to do, but my sister has always been impulsive.
Under normal circumstances, she would have ridden a bus or taken the subway, but both were on strike that day—one of the perks of living in France—and she did not have enough cash to cover a taxi fare. The mystery train, however, was there—waiting next door, ready and available.
When we found the note she had left behind, we immediately hurried to the station... but it was already too late.
We never saw her again.
My parents went to the police, but all they could do was report her missing. A lawyer was hired, but he too was unable to act. The Company itself was unblamable.
The minute she had boarded that damnable train, Angela had just vanished into thin air. The station claimed she had reached her destination safely. They even provided video footage of her getting off at their Montparnasse station. Yet, no other trace of her could be found anywhere. And she definitely never showed up at the hospital. That was proof enough that something had gone terribly wrong.
I should stop writing. I am getting off at the next station and must be careful not to get caught...
Two men followed me for a while—at least, I think they were following me—, but I ditched them in the crowd. I am now resting at a bar, sipping some coffee. The Necker hospital will be my next stop. I need to speak with Sophie...
But I am getting ahead of myself.
When we could not find my sister, I resolved to investigate the mystery train. But I was unwilling to sign their contract. I figured if I could cheat the system, and get on the train without a ticket, I might have found a loophole for my parents to use in case I vanished too... as I guessed was likely to happen.
The result, however, was uneventful and somewhat anticlimactic.
There were no controls aboard the train, nor when I got off, and I arrived on time at my destination. I thought I was followed, when I left the station—but I may have imagined it, as I was expecting trouble.
Still, there is something that bothers me, though I cannot quite seem to make out what it is. I would describe it mostly as a feeling—of being observed, certainly, but it’s not just that. It is a general sense of unease...
I tried to call home—from my cell, first, then from a payphone. In both cases, no one picked up. Nor did I get the answering machine, which I found somewhat odd. But perhaps we forgot to turn it on this morning.
I will observe the crowd for a moment as it mills about... I need to make sure that I’m not being watched.
I believe the coast is clear.
Time to visit Sophie.
There is something terribly wrong here...
I have spent the entire day searching for Angela’s friend, but I was unable to track her down. And that is only a small part of it.
The hospital told me she had left the premises and gone back home. I could not get an address from them—“Confidentiality, sir, you understand?”—but got it off the internet from a nearby cybercafe.
No one answered when I rang at her door. The neighbors hadn’t seen her in weeks, and her mailbox looked full. I was directed to her parents, who live two blocks away.
On my way, I stopped by my dad’s office—so I could give him some news and let him know I was fine—but he was away for an important business meeting. I left him a message and headed out.
Sophie’s mother invited me in. Served me coffee. Explained her daughter had gone to the country for a few days to get some fresh air. It would do her good. She would stay with her grandparents. And no, she had not seen or heard from Angela—and who was Angela, again?
Although the lady was very polite and tried to be helpful, she seemed somewhat distant, cold. And how could she not know of my sister? The two had been best friends for years!
As I left the house, it suddenly struck me. I had seen that same coldness all around me without really noticing it—at the coffee shop, at the hospital, at the cybercafe, at the bank...
I watched more closely as people walked by. Sure enough, they all had that same blank expression on their faces. No smiling, no frowning, no anger, no fear, no weariness... no emotions at all.
It was troubling.
But what did it mean? I could not understand.
I had brought a picture of my sister, so I went back to the station and showed it to some shops in the area. I was met with blank stares and empty words. No one had seen her, nobody knew anything.
Frustrated, I decided I’d try to ride another train in the opposite direction...
Would you believe me if I told you I could not get into the station, despite seeing others walk through the door with no trouble? It was the most bizarre and infuriating experience of my life. There was an obvious opening, but when I’d try to go through, it felt like I was hitting a wall—albeit a transparent one.
That’s when I saw them.
Two pale-faced, black-clad men with furrowed brows. They both had a cane each and wore top hats. They stood still on the opposite sidewalk and stared straight at me.
I spun around and hurried down a nearby street. I checked over my shoulder but did not see them following me. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched.
After a few twists and turns, I slowed down and took a deep breath. What was I going to do next? I was running out of options. Should I just give up and take the regular train back home?
As I was asking myself this important question, I turned a corner and came face to face with the two men. They were standing there, staring, as if they’d been waiting for me.
I jumped back and ran in the opposite direction. Looking over my shoulder, I saw they hadn’t moved, though they were still watching me...
What the hell was going on?
I turned another corner... and there they were again! Waiting for me with their blank expressions.
Out of desperation, I hurried down another street and entered a store.
“Could you please call the police? Two psychos are following me...”
The clerk looked at me with that now-familiar blank expression.
“The phone is out of service,” he said calmly.
I noticed some movement from the corner of my eye. When I turned to look, I saw the two men moving toward me, as if they had already been in the store... How was this possible?
They each placed a hand on one of my shoulders and before I knew it, the surrounding scenery had changed.
We were now in a white-walled room with a small table and two chairs. On one of them sat a silver-haired woman. She looked up and smiled. I found that even more terrifying in this nonsensical world of blatant blandness.
“I believe we need to talk,” she said. “Please, have a seat.”
As I wait in my prison, I can’t help but wonder whether I could have done something differently to avoid the chain of events that followed. But try as I might, I cannot find a single moment that could have affected the outcome. I believe with every fiber of my bones that my fate was sealed the minute I stepped onto that damned train.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again...
The two men with the top hats had vanished as soon as I’d sat down.
I looked back at the woman. “Where the hell are we?”
She smiled. “Let us dispel right away any illusion you might have that you are in a position to ask questions. You are not. Now that we’ve cleared that up, how about you start by telling us your name?”
I had assumed that, by now, she’d have known everything about me. The question caught me by surprise. It also made me uneasy... though that may have been because of her tone and fake smile.
Either way, it drove me to caution.
“Eric,” I lied.
I crossed my arms. “Why are you asking me this?”
Her smile widened. “Have we not mentioned that you are not to ask questions? You are only required to answer. Please state your full name.”
“Eric Caldwell,” I blurted out.
She closed her eyes for a moment, though the smile never left her lips.
While she wasn’t looking, I tried to stand but found that I could not. And yet, I was not bound—at least, not in any physical fashion.
Somewhat distressed by this discovery, I looked around the room—if you could call it that—to try to find something I could use to my advantage, the slightest glimmer of hope...
All I saw was white. The walls, the ceiling, the floor... even the table, the chairs, and the woman’s dress were all white. The cleanliness of it all was also impeccable. I could not spot a speck of dust, a stain, a crack, nothing.
“You should not lie to us.”
The woman sounded upset, but when I turned my gaze back to her, she still was smiling her impossible smile—it even seemed more pronounced now.
I shrugged. “You wanted a name. I gave you one.”
“Your real name, please.”
The smile remained as she stared at me. “It will do you no good to resist.”
I said not a word.
“Why did you take the train?” she asked.
“Who wants to know?”
The words had barely left my lips that I felt a deep, piercing pain run through my veins. I clenched my teeth but managed not to scream.
“You can’t say that we did not warn you,” she smiled at me brightly. “You must obey. Why did you take the train?”
“I’m looking for my sister,” I breathed out.
“What is her name?”
I was tempted to ask what hers was, but I did not wish to feel that searing pain again. I did wonder, though, why she was so obsessed with names.
“Gail,” I lied again.
“Caldwell, of course.”
The creepy smile lingered, though she did not bother to close her eyes this time.
“Still you resist. That is not good. We shall give you some time to reflect on your behavior. Next time, we will require full cooperation.”
Before I could even blink, I found myself in a new location... here, where I write this now.
This room is much smaller, and with a more traditional feel. The walls are of a brownish-green color; the floor made from rugged rocks; the ceiling black. It doesn’t feel clean, or safe. There is an unpleasant smell that I still can’t place, even though I’ve been sitting here for two hours now. There is a small barred window, but no door. A chair and a desk are set against the wall, right under the window, with a cot on the opposite side.
I do not know how much longer they intend to keep me here.
Although I write ‘they,’ the truth is I do not know. It is more of a gut feeling. Like the woman was conversing with someone else while her eyes were closed. And she did say ‘we’ when she talked. This all suggests that she is not acting alone.
Could they be working for the Company? Though I cannot imagine any of this is legal... contract or no contract.
I’ve climbed on the table to look through the window... What I saw terrified me, though it is difficult to describe. But I will try.
Whatever structure my prison is in was built at the very edge of a cliff. We are so high up I cannot see the bottom. All I see, when I look down, are clouds. Above those, however...
It should be sky, but it is not. Instead, a mass of whirling colors hurls stars toward the clouds. Every time one goes through, there is a piercing scream, as if someone had been skinned alive. And within the colors, there are shapes. Humanoid shapes that twist and spin in unseemly motions. At times, they grow so large that parts of them spill out of the colors. In these moments, their true appearance becomes apparent, however briefly. Slimy, sickly green skins with putrid flesh and wounds that ooze pus. Some of them have brownish scales, others dark black feathers. I never saw faces and considered myself blessed for it. I will not look again.
I feel a pull... I think I am being summoned.
“How do you like your new quarters?” asked the woman with the forever smile.
I was back in the white room, stuck in the same chair, facing my interrogator.
“We realize,” she said, ignoring my comment, “that you must have many questions, so we have decided to be generous. We will allow you to ask one question of us. Speak.”
My first instinct was to ask where my sister was, but I stopped myself short. If they didn’t know who I was, let alone my sister, there would be no reason for them to know where she was.
After giving it some thought, I remembered the contract the Company made everyone sign before they could ride the train, and how it mentioned souls.
“What’s all that stuff I saw through my window?” I asked. “Am I in Hell?”
“Those are two questions,” she remarked. Despite the permanent grin, there was a tone of reproach in her voice. “But we understand how you might connect them in your mind. So... we will attempt to explain in words that you may comprehend.”
She paused for a moment, closing her eyes. When they popped back open, her pupils had turned red. The voice that came out of her throat sounded different, deeper, more hoarse, and much less feminine.
“We are the nexus of time and creation. We are the sum of what ails your minds. We are what lurks in the dark and creeps under your beds. We are the world of shadows and of darkness. We come by night to feed on your souls. We are hunger defined. We are one, we are legion, and this is our home.”
She blinked, and her eyes turned back to normal. The smile, that had never left her lips throughout, widened further.
“But whether this is a hell is for you to decide,” she said sweetly. “Now... What is your full name?”
I remained speechless for a long moment, staring at her happy and hopeful expression.
If she, they, thought those were supposed to be words I could easily comprehend, I wondered what a more obscure explanation might have sounded like.
“Well?” she insisted.
“John Williams,” I responded distractedly.
While she took the time to verify, I allowed my mind to wander. Why did she keep asking for my name? If I were in her shoes, I’d be more interested in motivation. She did ask me what I was doing here, but even then she had immediately focused on my sister’s name.
Why were names so important to her—to them?
I closed my eyes and pictured my sister’s face... Angela. That was her name. I tried to visualize it in my mind. Wrote it in large flaming letters. Beheld it. Waited.
“You lied again,” said the woman. I could hear the disappointment in her voice, though I was certain it had not affected her facial expression. It never did.
I kept my eyes shut. Ignoring her, I continued to focus on my sister. Nothing was happening. Then again, I had mentioned her name to many people since my arrival in this hellish place. Nothing had happened then either, so why should I expect a different outcome now?
Then I remembered that she always asked for full names.
As soon as the name formed in my head, I sensed something... a presence. It was distant, but distinct. I repeated the name, drew it in larger letters, called out... The presence grew and soon I heard her voice.
Peter? Is that you? Oh please God, let it be you!
“This is very irregular,” I heard the woman say. “Not to mention rude. You are to look at us, young man.”
The burning pain hit me suddenly and, this time, I let out a scream and opened my eyes wide.
The woman was smiling at me.
“Welcome back. So, where were we? Ah yes. Your name. Please state it clearly.”
“I’d like to go back to my room, now,” I said. “I’m tired.”
The smile wavered for only a second. “Tired? But we’ve only just begun...”
“Why do you think I had my eyes closed? I’ve wandered through the streets of your crazy upside-down hellhole for hours. I don’t know what kind of creature you are, but we humans need sleep every once in a while.”
“Oh.” I recognized genuine surprise in her voice, despite her immutable expression. “Very well, then. We shall reconvene at a later time.”
“At least seven hours if you want me to be in top shape.”
“That is acceptable.”
And just like that, I was sent back to my prison.
Could it really be this easy?
I reached out again, calling her name...
And again, I sensed her presence. It grew closer as I called out louder.
Yes! Angela! It’s me... Where are you?
A torrent of emotions flooded out of her—a mixture of confusion and relief that felt so overwhelming.
I thought you had left...
Never, sis! I was... occupied. But I am here now. Where are you? I repeated.
I don’t know... It’s dark here... and cold. I’m so frightened, Peter!
What happened to you?
Shortly after I got off the train, two men with top hats came for me. I didn’t want to go with them, but I felt compelled to do so. They took me here... wherever here is... oh God! Peter! It is so dark! So cold! Please help me!
Can you see anything at all?
No... it is too dark... but I can hear them.
I don’t understand...
I’m not alone, she went on, the pitch of her voice rising, I don’t know who they are... but they are never quiet, Peter... when they don’t groan or growl, they scream... their voices pierce my soul... I can hear one now! Oh please, make it stop!
Could the Company’s contract be literal? The more I spent time here and uncovered things, the more it felt like this might really be Hell.
I thought back to the woman’s answer to my question. Despite its cryptic nature, I wondered if it did not hold the key. Everything she had said referred to immaterial concepts—shadows, darkness, night... it further spoke of ailments of the mind.
Peter! Where are you?
I’m... not sure. But I’m going to find you, Angela. I promise. I will find a way.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take... I’m afraid I’m losing my mind... maybe I already have... sometimes it can be hard to tell...
If these creatures, whatever they were—spirits, ghosts, demons?—dwelled in a realm of illusions, then perhaps I could use that against them. That I was not in the same place as my sister—or the other victims, as I suspected those were whose voices she was hearing—proved that my case was different. That the woman kept wanting to know who I was proved it as well.
I had not signed the contract.
When doing so, one was required to sign with one’s name. Perhaps that was how they could bind you to their will, for whatever their purpose. But they did not have mine. Which meant...
All of this... the walls, the cot, the window, the whirling colors without, the clouds below... all of it was just smoke and mirrors. It had to be. They were trying to manipulate me, to scare me into blurting out my real name, which—if my theory was correct—would bind me to them as surely as if I had signed that damned contract.
I hit the wall with my fist.
Though the surface was solid, it did not hurt me.
I hit it harder, and still could not feel a thing.
This convinced me I must be on the right track. But how could I break free? There had to be a solution.
I never saw the two men walk—nor the woman, for that matter. Even when they’d come to me in the store, those creepy fellows had seemed to slide, more than walk. How did they move... themselves, or even me? With their minds, perhaps.
Could it be as simple as willing oneself to be elsewhere?
Closing my eyes, I focused my mind on the Necker hospital. I opened one eye to check... I was still in my prison.
What was I missing?
I’ve tried everything I could think of, but still I remain stuck in this horrid room.
My connection to Angela is still open. I maintain it, for both our sanities. We comfort one another in our respective desperations. I refuse to give up on hope. I am so close to her now... and yet, so far.
She told me that, sometimes, a presence manifests itself in their midst. It crawls amongst them, grazing their skins as it moves, groping aimlessly. But whatever the presence is, it has no flesh, and when it reaches out to you, it penetrates your skin and you feel parts of your body wither and die as it creeps through... and then it is gone, having moved to the next person.
Again, it speaks of incorporeal beings, and I grow all the more convinced that my theory is sound.
I must escape!
There is no way here for me to measure time, but I sense that several hours have passed and I fear soon I will be summoned again by my smiling host.
As I stared at the lines I just wrote, I thought I saw them blur for a moment. Is my mind slipping? Or maybe my eyes are so tired that they are deceiving me... unless it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.
But it makes me wonder...
I remember once reading something about how our eyes are constantly lying to us. The world is not how we see it. By its very nature, our eye distorts reality, translates it in terms that our minds can comprehend. Take the vision of a fly, for instance, how it sees everything in multiple copies and in tainted colors. But, to the fly, that is reality. Who is to say whether our vision or the fly’s is more real?
There might be something here... I must think about this.
I am free!
But there is no safety here.
They could find me at any moment.
I must hurry.
Angela helped me. She kept calling my name, my full name. That gives us power here. Especially for one such as me who is not bound to them by contract.
I say ‘them,’ though I still do not comprehend their nature.
Following her voice, I came to a pit. It was vast, deep, dark, cold; and a myriad voices were pouring out from it—screeching, howling, pleading... My heart sank as I realized my sister was down there, trapped. How could I possibly free her?
Though before I free her, I should mention how I freed myself. But I don’t know that I’ll have enough time. I still fear that they will find me...
Things are quiet now, and I have found a place to write... I would have said it was safe, but can there be any such thing as safety in a place such as this?
I must hurry. There is little time left... I should finish my story before it runs out.
Sitting at the desk in my prison, I stared at the light that shone through the window. I dared not look through, for fear of what I would see.
I had tried to break out, but I had failed. And yet, it felt like I was on the right track. My notebook sat on the desk. The lines, that had seemed blurry for a moment, were now crystal clear once again.
The woman with the fake smile would soon summon me for another mind-bending session. I needed to get out before that happened.
I thought back to my attempt and tried to understand why it had failed.
If sight was illusion, and matter was illusion, then all I needed but do was to close my eyes and take a step forward. Yet, I could not... because I feared I would fall. For if all was an illusion, then would I not be stepping into nothingness?
You’ve never been afraid of the dark before, my sister said.
It was odd to hear her say that, considering where we were... where she was.
It’s not about darkness, sis. It’s about falling...
Nor have you ever been afraid of heights.
That wasn’t the point either, but I remained quiet as it dawned on me what her point was. It wasn’t about what I feared, but about fear itself.
This realization gave me strength. She was right. What did I have to lose? If I did not risk it, we would never get out.
I wondered... If I could control the illusion by making matter disappear, should I not also be able to fill that nothingness with my own creations?
Sliding the notebook into my pocket, I stood and stared at the wall for a moment. Closing my eyes, I took a step forward... and another... and another... I kept going until I knew I had walked much further than the wall. Still, I kept my eyes shut and pictured sand under my feet, with a river flowing nearby.
When I heard the water and the chirping of birds, I opened my eyes and grinned. I’d done it!
Where are you, Peter? I’m so cold...
I’m coming! Show me where you are.
It was then that she began calling my full name, so that I could follow her voice.
When I reached the pit, a knot formed in my stomach. How was I going to get her out of there?
And now I sit here, in this isolated cabin. I willed it into existence so I’d have a place to write and reflect. But I dare not linger more.
I’d been back at the pit for only a few minutes when I heard the familiar voice behind me.
“You’ve given us quite a run, haven’t you?”
I spun around and saw the woman grinning at me. The two tall men with the top hats were behind her, staring with their empty stares.
“Would you now tell us your name, please?”
“You should know better than to ask that by now.”
There was a pause as she conferred with whatever entity controlled her.
“Then perhaps,” she said, “we can strike a bargain. You mentioned your sister, did you not?”
“Don’t ask me her name again, I won’t tell you...”
“Not even if it’s the price to free her?”
I squinted at her. “What’s the catch?”
She smiled. “We just like to help.”
“Of course you do.”
“We’re glad you agree. As soon as you give us her name, we will fetch her.”
I crossed my arms. “And why should I trust you?”
“You’re right! But there’s a simple solution. We will sign a contract!” Her smile brightened as a stack of papers appeared in her hands. “Would you like to read the terms?”
“What is this trick?”
“No trick! We will free her in exchange for her name.”
“That makes no sense... How about that whole soul business from the contract she signed?”
“This contract would render hers null and void. It’s clearly stipulated in Article C-45:B. Here.” She extended her arms to offer me the document. “Check for yourself.”
I took it from the smiling woman and suspiciously scanned through the pages. There were hundreds of them though... I could never read it all.
“I don’t like this...”
“Which part? We can make changes or amendments, if required.”
“The whole thing,” I said in exasperation as I threw the contract to the ground. “I can’t possibly read all that and you know it! I won’t let you fool me into falling for some fine print on page 97.”
There was another moment of silence as she consulted with her superior being again.
As she did this, I looked down into the pit and tried to visualize a beam of light piercing through the darkness below... nothing. I pictured stairs going down... nothing. I willed a wall to appear between me and the woman... nothing.
“Don’t bother,” I heard the woman say distractedly, “you cannot alter our world while in our presence.”
Great. So I turned and started to walk away. Maybe if I put enough distance between us... The three appeared in front of me, blocking my way. The woman, of course, was smiling.
“We’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
She was right.
I know you’ll disagree, Angela, but she was right.
I came here to save you.
If the only way to do that is for me to stay, then it is a small price to pay.
To seal the pact, I will tell them my name. But not before they have safely returned you to the world.
They have agreed to let me see you first, so we can say goodbye.
That is when I will slip this notebook into your pocket.
They do not know about these writings.
Please, Angela, do not cry, do not mourn me. I have made peace with my choice. You have your whole life ahead of you.
When you find these notes, make them public. The authorities will probably have their hands tied. So... go to the people! Post this on the internet.
And maybe, just maybe, all this will not have been in vain.
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Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
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