By Alexandra Grunberg
They told her she was sick, and Meg did not argue.
You never argued when they came to take you away.
Her parents stood in the living room, holding hands, their eyes gazing at some point far above Meg’s head. They could have been avoiding eye contact to prevent a breakdown in front of the Officials, which would imply an objection to their diagnosis. Or they could have been avoiding the gaze of the person they had committed themselves, perhaps to gain approval from local Officials by contributing to the new Healthy Community Hostels. Either way, her parents did not even say goodbye to her as she was led from the house she had lived in her entire life, guided gently but firmly by two Officials in long white coats.
Meg was actually surprised at the conduct of the Officials. In the hallways at school, during sleepovers after curfew, and in the alley behind the mall, she and her friends would try to scare each other with stories of the Officials confining their patients in metal straight jackets, leaving them on leashes in cells for days, spitting on them as they grasped through the bars of tight cages. These Officials did not seem like the monsters from her stories. They just seemed like the doctors at the hospital, but maybe a little more tired, a little more worn out.
A small black car was waiting outside. The Officials helped her into the back seat and locked her inside. It was dark inside the car. Too dark.
Meg could feel her heart beating faster, her breath getting louder.
She forced her breath to slow.
She felt her heart grow calm.
The worst thing to do was to panic, to freak out, to scream, or assault. The number one thing to remember was not to show any sign of insanity.
Meg did not know why this was the case. She had already been diagnosed as insane. She could not see how having a fit would hurt her position even more. But everyone knew that you had to stay calm. Or else.
Or else what? That information, nobody knew.
She did not know how much time passed before the door opened again. Two different Officials led her out of the car, just as gently and just as firmly as the first two. It was bright outside, still morning.
They were at the train station.
The train was large, and its metal hull shined. Meg’s first impression was that it looked like a series of metal sausage links. She stifled a laugh. Laughing right now would definitely be seen as inappropriate.
“Were you okay back there?”
Meg looked up at the Official who spoke. The woman’s eyes were kind, but her grip on Meg’s arm was secure.
“Fine, thank you,” Meg said, hoping her smile looked genuine.
“Good,” the Official said, smiling back. “Some patients find the darkness uncomfortable. But it’s more painful to look out at the place you’re leaving. Trust me.”
Meg nodded, but she did not trust her.
The Officials led her to a restroom, handed Meg her new clothes, and waited as she changed. A plain gray shirt, gray sweat pants. The shirt was modest, but the neck was cut just low enough that the edge of Meg’s tattoo, right beneath her collarbone, was visible. A simple black circle with a line through it.
As they left the restroom, Meg saw that she was not the only patient being transported today. Cars were arriving, each one carrying a new patient. The ones who had already changed were being led to the train. Meg felt the slight pressure of hands on her back, guiding her to one of the train cars.
Inside was a thin hall, with small rooms on either side. Meg was led into a room closest to the doors. She watched as a young man was dragged, kicking and screaming, to a room near the middle of the car.
“I want to go home! Let me go! I’ll kill you! You better let me go!”
“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be right across the hall.”
The Official put a reassuring hand on Meg’s shoulder as her partner rushed to help the others with the struggling patient.
“What do you mean?” Meg asked.
“I’m the chaperone for this car,” explained the Official. “I’m going to take care of all of you.”
They heard a scream and sobbing from the middle of the car.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” said the Official. “I’ll watch out for you.”
Meg was not sure if that was a reassurance or a warning.
“What’s your name?” Meg asked.
Diane. She would have to watch out for Diane.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you, and then I’ll kill everyone in this train!”
“Excuse me,” Diane said, giving Meg’s shoulder a last comforting squeeze before running out to subdue the patient.
Meg turned to examine her room. There was a toilet and a sink in the corner with a mirror above it, probably made of the strange water-like material that was replacing expensive and dangerous glass. There was a small window at the top of the car, barred from the inside and outside, barely letting in any light, though it did not really need to. A large lamp hung from the ceiling far above her, way out of her reach, emitting a warm, bright light. On the end of the wall was a bunk bed. The bottom bunk was empty except for neatly folded white sheets and a single white pillow, probably designed to thwart any attempts of self-suffocation. The top bunk was occupied.
The girl who sat on the top bunk could have been Meg’s age, or a little younger. Her gray clothes hung loosely on her thin frame. She had large blue eyes that were currently locked on Meg. She did not blink.
“Hello,” Meg said.
The girl shook her head.
“What’s your name?”
The girl shook her head again.
She did not speak. Smart. You cannot say anything incriminating if you do not say anything at all.
The door shut behind Meg with a loud bang. Meg spun around and was faced with what looked like solid wall, no sign of an exit at all. The room looked much smaller now. Meg realized she had never asked Diane how long they would be in the train. Not that she would have trusted her answer. But it would have been nice to have an idea.
Time passed strangely in the car. The light never went out. She slept when she was tired, and when she woke there was food in the room. She never saw the other girl sleep. At first she felt uncomfortable using the toilet in front of the other girl, but she was so unresponsive it was like Meg was alone.
Inside the room was silence. At first, Meg heard cries outside from the other cars. Little by little, the cries became silence too. Time ticked by unmarked. If she was not insane before, Meg had a feeling she would go insane by the end of the trip. She began to talk to the other girl, just to fill the room with noise.
“Do you know where we’re going? Me neither. I know all these stories about getting there, all these rules to follow, all these things you have to do along the way, but I don’t know how this is going to end.
“Do you know? Of course not. I don’t think anyone really knows where the trains are going. Maybe Diane doesn’t even know. If she did, I doubt she’d tell me. Only the Officials are allowed to have that information.
“I think my old teacher used to be an Official. She would tell us these odd stories about the insane. She said that inside of each of us is a light. It shines with goodness and kindness. It shines with compassion. This light is our soul, or spirit, our pure mind, and it is what makes us human.
“But sometimes shadows come across the light. Most people can ease the shadows away, let the light shine through once more. But some people can’t fight the shadows. The shadows take root deep in their minds and plant the seed of insanity, the poison of darkness. The insane can’t fight it on their own. They need help.
“Until the insane get help, they are dangerous to others. They feed the shadow and let it grow, passing it on to others, letting it consume themselves. We can help them to stop feeding the shadows, so their light can shine out once more.
“Or, if we can’t help them with their shadows, we can at least make sure they won’t hurt anyone else.
“I think I’ve felt shadows inside of me. I’ve felt them grow in the pit of my stomach when I heard about the trains. I can feel them in my heart when I’m in the dark.
“It’s funny. I used to think about escaping. When we reached whatever place this train is heading to, I would calmly walk out of the doors, and I would look around for the sign. The circle with a line through it. The sign for nothing. No Officials. No light. No shadow. Silence. It is the sign of people who think the trains have gone too far.
“I’ve seen the sign on TV, in the protests that are supposed to show us the bad people across the borders. The shadows would hurt the most then. I could feel them tighten my throat and eyes as I watched the protestors cry and make speeches. I was so happy when we heard stories about them bombing Healthy Community Hostels or attacking Officials. Oh, I must be sick!
“When I saw the sign, I would run for it, just run, and I would jump, and I would be free!
“But how can I be free when I feel these shadows? How can I know how to escape if I don’t know what I’m escaping from? It’s hard to find hope when you don’t know what you’re hoping for. It’s hard to change the ending when you don’t know where you’re headed.
“Maybe all I can do is believe that the Officials will help me. Maybe what I know is better than what I hope for.”
There was a loud bang from behind Meg. She turned around. The other girl was standing in front of the open door, her hand pushing down a perfect square in the wall.
The girl pointed to the hall. Outside, Meg could hear the muffled sounds of people talking. Meg walked out into the hall, following the sounds to the middle of the car. Another door was open. Quietly, Meg made her way to the door and peered inside.
Diane was inside with another Official and the boy who had thrown a tantrum while entering the train. Or what was left of the boy. His smile was broad and ecstatic. The smile of the insane.
“You’re happy, aren’t you?” Diane asked the boy.
“You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you?” Diane asked.
He nodded again.
“He can’t hurt anyone now,” chuckled the other Official. Diane glared at him.
“Now, don’t you worry about a thing,” Diane said to the boy. “I’ll watch out for you.”
Meg did not need to see any more. She snuck back to her room. The other girl released her hand from the wall, and the door shut once more.
Meg stared at her hands. They were visibly shaking. She slowed down her breathing, relaxed her body, until her hands were still. The worst thing to do was to panic, to show any sign of insanity.
“Any ending is better than what you know,” the other girl said.
Then they both were silent. They were silent for hours, or days, and their silence filled the room with at least one true, completely sane piece of knowledge to hold on to.
Then the door opened. Diane stood in the hall. Her eyes were tired, but kind.
“Are we there?” Meg asked.
“No,” Diane said, sighing. “We’re having some problems with the train. A malfunction with the engine.”
A malfunction with the engine. Caused by what? Caused by whom?
“Don’t worry,” Diane reassured Meg, misinterpreting Meg’s suspicion. “We’re fixing it up right now. We should be ready to go within ten minutes. But we thought this would be a nice time to let the patients get some fresh air. We’re actually by the ocean. Would you like to look at the boats?”
“Yes, that would be lovely,” Meg said.
The other girl nodded.
Diane led them outside the train, her hands on their backs, guiding them. The train had stopped at the top of a low cliff overlooking the water. A spiraling staircase led down to a pier where docked ships were just preparing to leave. Patients in gray shuffled around the cliff, followed closely by Officials, or stared into space, unmoving, still watched closely by Officials.
It was odd, seeing boats. They were not used very often nowadays. Desires to keep policies private meant that travel across borders was discouraged, and boats could leave borders far behind them as they travelled across the world.
The rare view was marred by the water. It was choppy, blackish brown, the color of oil, feces, and other refuse. Calling it water was just a formality. It was liquid garbage, the remains of what used to be an ocean. But Meg did not have to swim in it. Just enjoy the view. Maybe her last view of open air.
She watched as the boats began to leave the pier. The cracked paint of the first boat showed that it used to be named “Good Times.” A tropical island scene was painted on the side of the second boat, now faded almost beyond recognition, the green palms and yellow sands blending with the brown of the wood, tainted with the brown of the ocean. But the paint on the side of the third boat was fresh.
A black circle with a line through it.
Meg felt a gentle hand on her back. She looked at the other girl. She was silent, but her eyes told Meg to run.
She heard Diane scream behind her, but to Meg it was just noise. She ran to the stairs and began to spiral her way down, hearing the pounding feet of the Officials behind her. She went as fast as she could, flying downward, trying not to trip, watching as the boats moved further and further away.
The water slapped against the edge of the pier with wet thuds, a constantly turning sludge. Meg could hear the breath of the Officials behind her, ragged and loud, as she ran. The boats were so far now, but maybe not too far. She could feel a hand grasping at her shirt, ready to pull her back to the trains. But her breath was steady, her heart beat calm.
Alexandra Grunberg is a New York City based author and actress. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Pantheon Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction, and more. You can find links to her stories at alexandragrunberg.wordpress.com.