Grace couldn’t explain what she was seeing. One moment she had been with Simon, all her pent-up feelings over what had happened with Hazel about to explode in his face. The next he was gone, and so was the train, replaced by a mishmash of places she knew from her past. The ballet hall, the cafe, and her house had all flashed past, punctuated by static, the details muddled and vacant.
She gasped as her childhood home vanished again, replaced by a sight that made her heart leap into her throat. Her younger self, ten years old and already full of regret, was perched on a hard plastic chair. She was lit from behind; light spilled out from what Grace instantly recognised as the security office at her then-local mall. And if that was where she was, she knew exactly when she was too.
Suddenly the girl looked up, and for a moment Grace met her gaze. Could her younger self see her standing there? But then she heard quiet footsteps from behind, and turned; the girl was looking through her, up at the door to the room. In the window, shadowed by static, her parents drew into view.
Grace stepped back involuntarily as the pair stepped into the room, cold fury on her father’s face. Her younger self shifted uncomfortably, and instantly Grace remembered what was going through the girl’s head. The guilt, the fear, the sadness, all brought on by a desperate desire for someone, anyone, to take notice of her.
“I’m sorry to tell you that your daughter was caught with a stolen bracelet from Blassey’s,” the security guard, framed in the light of her own doorway, said bluntly. She looked down at Grace’s younger self, eyes narrowing accusatorily. “It seems she convinced her little friends to do the same.”
Grace could only watch as her younger self squirmed, knowing exactly what was coming next. Her heart pounded in her ears.
“Well, I’m sorry too,” her father rebutted, “because you’re obviously mistaken!”
“Dad,” the girl near-pleaded, knowing as well as Grace what was about to happen, “I’m sorry.”
“Just stay quiet and we’ll fix this,” he hissed, turning back to the security guard. She was already leading them into her office, no doubt recognising the kind of parents she was dealing with. “It’s absurd!” he protested, breaking into a rant; after a moment his words were muffled by the shutting of the office door.
Grace tried not to focus on his words. She looked down, her gaze again settling on her younger self. The girl’s head was down, her hands clenched atop her knees; she too was trying to ignore the argument breaking out behind the window. Grace sat down slowly beside her, feeling her heart break for the girl; she knew how badly in that moment she had wanted someone, anyone, to show even a hint of real care for her.
“I just wanted to be noticed,” she said quietly, more to herself than anyone else. Gingerly she reached out, unable to stop herself, in an attempt to comfort the girl. As her fingers touched her shoulder there was a hiss of static, a tingle running through her hand. She pulled her hand back, but the sound didn’t fade.
“Who are you?!” a quiet, familiar voice said. Grace froze, breathing sharply in surprise; her younger self was looking straight up at her, undeniably aware of her presence, weary eyes meeting young ones wet with unshed tears. In an instant the desire to comfort herself, that old protective instinct, reasserted itself.
“It’s okay,” Grace said softly, silently praying she didn’t sound as far out of her depth as she felt. “I’m a friend.” Her younger self shuffled, looking up at the window and then back down at her knees, mistrust and desperation for understanding fighting for control.
“I didn’t even want the stupid bracelet,” she sniffed, hands gripping the fabric of her shorts so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She was starting to tear up, her face flushed and her body tense.
“You just wanted them to notice you,” Grace said gently, “I know.” Her younger self looked up, meeting her gaze. There was still uncertainty in her eyes, but it now mingled with a sort of desperate relief.
“You do?” Her voice cracked; Grace could hear the lump in her throat. She nodded and opened her arms, leaning forwards on the hard chair to offer the girl comfort; the comfort she had so desperately needed in that moment. Her younger self hesitated, taking a deep breath, and then accepted the offer, slumping into her arms.
“It’s okay,” Grace soothed, feeling the girl begin to sob, “I’ve got you.” The sound of static grew, drowning out the muffled sounds of indignation from the other room. That tingling sensation flared through every part of her that was in contact with the girl, but still she held on. “I understand, Grace.”
She knew this wasn’t real; there had been nobody there for her on that awful day. She hadn’t met a kindly teenager with understanding words and open arms. Instead the train had come and snatched her away from this world forever. But in that moment, none of it mattered to Grace. Whatever was happening, the child in her arms needed her most.
“How are you doing that?!” A furious voice hissed through the storm of static. Grace felt her blood run cold, her grip loosening involuntarily; the voice was unmistakeable.
“Simon?!” she called out, looking up. The mall security office was gone, swallowed entirely by crackling greyscale, with no sign of Simon anywhere. The only concrete thing was her younger self, still very much in her grasp.
“What’s going on?” the girl asked, eyes wide with panic. Her breaths started coming faster, her chest heaving beneath the pink fabric of her top. And to her horror Grace noticed jagged edges of static forming on the girl’s shoulders, as if the void was trying to claim her too.
“I don’t know,” Grace admitted, “But I’ve got you.” She pulled her in, tighter than ever, against her. The crackle of the static became a roar, swallowing every other sound and interrupting every thought. “It’s going to be okay!” She clenched her eyes shut.
“There!” Simon’s voice boomed from somewhere, distant and close at the same time. There was a loud fizzle of electricity, the hiss fading to a quiet background crackle, and suddenly Grace felt solid, wet ground beneath her. “Fixed it!”
She opened her eyes slowly. She was kneeling on muddy ground, surrounded by large orange pumpkins. Her younger self was still in her embrace, clinging on tightly. But something was different; her skin and hair were slightly darker, and the pink of her shirt was more vibrant; it was like every colour on her was more saturated, more real. The static faded from her shoulders, retreating into the world.
“Where are we?” the girl asked, barely above a whisper. Her gaze went all around, passing over the rows of giant pumpkins, growing wider with each new sight. Grace paused, an uncomfortable realisation settling in her gut. She recognised this place too; this was another memory.
Before she could answer, a new sight made her freeze all over again. In the mud, just past her younger self’s head, she could see footprints forming. They were getting closer, fast, as if someone were running through the mud. But there was nobody in sight; the prints were appearing on their own.
“Why is it still not working?!” Simon’s voice was no longer distant. She looked up to see him standing over her, framed in the orange light, his face twisted by a furious scowl. She gently shifted her younger self out of her arms and stood up, making sure to put herself between the girl and Simon.
Another footstep formed beside him, and then no more. Watching, Grace felt the hairs on her neck stand on end; behind Simon floated a terrifying mass of mechanical tentacles with a white mask for a face, frozen mid-dive towards the spot where the footprints ended. An aura of blue flame flickered in and out of existence around it.
The realisation hit her like a truck; this was her first day on the train, the day she had seen the Conductor. But somehow, in this version, she was missing.
“Are you even listening to me?” Simon snapped. She blinked, turning to meet his gaze; she hadn’t even realised he had been speaking. “How did you manage to break this?”
“What are you talking about?!” she demanded, all her pent-up emotion brimming at once. “I don’t know where I am or what’s going on.” He took a step forwards; she fought to hide her surprise as she saw fresh numbers appearing on his chest, glowing green through the neck of his shirt.
“This is your tape!” He threw his arms wide in exasperation, before leaning in and jabbing a finger at her. “Your memories. That’s all it’s supposed to be!” There was another hiss of static; suddenly the mud and the pumpkins and the tentacle-robot were gone, replaced by the universal outside edge of a train car.
Grace glanced back, checking to make sure her younger self was still there. The girl was crouched down, sending panicked glances back and forth between her and Simon.
“Somehow,” Simon continued, snapping Grace’s attention back to him, “you broke it. You grabbed onto her,” he jabbed a finger at her younger self. Grace stepped in front of it, arms out protectively. “And the tape got stuck and now nothing’s working right! Watch!”
The door to the car’s interior opened with a heavy clunk of machinery. As she watched, a younger version of Simon sprinted desperately through it, the door slamming shut with another clink behind him. He stopped by the bridge to the next car, hands on his knees, panting from exertion, completely unaware of the three other people around him.
“You saved me,” he said weakly, looking up at the closed door as if someone else was there. Silence answered; Grace already knew the missing party was another younger version of herself.
Suddenly everything stopped dead; the rattling of the train, the wasteland flashing by, and younger Simon, the first hints of tears in his eyes. The only things Grace could still see moving were her younger self, more confused than ever, and the other, real Simon.
“Do you get it now?” the real Simon demanded. “This is your fault!”
“What do you mean, my fault?” she spat back. “How did I cause any of this?!”
“By protecting her!” Simon kicked the side of the car in anger; a wave of static rippled out from the impact, dissipating through the greenish metal. “You weren’t supposed to be able to change things! How am I supposed to know when you’ve lied to me if I can’t even trust your tape?!” He took a step towards her, through his younger self; the boy dissolved into static as he passed through.
“Is that what you’re doing?!” she demanded, throwing her arms wide. “You’re going through my memories just to dig out every time you think I’ve lied to you?”
“Not just think,” Simon growled, “I know you lied about Hazel.”
“I was protecting her!” Grace couldn’t stop herself. She was suddenly very aware of the lump in her throat. “You already showed what would you have done if you knew the truth about her.” Suddenly his hands were on her shoulders, gripping tightly. She expected another angry retort, but instead Simon laughed. It was a horrible thing, a hollow, cruel, dry laugh. A cruel smile settled on his face, and something wicked flashed in his eyes.
“Listen to yourself, Grace,” he said darkly, “you betrayed the Apex, betrayed me, for a Null. She’s even worse.” He gestured to her younger self; a glance back showed the girl had been reduced to cowering. Though she was too afraid to speak, her eyes pleaded for Grace to save her from the obvious threat.
“She doesn’t even exist!” he spat. “She’s just a manifestation of your own memories, that’s it! And yet somehow you care about her so much that you broke your own tape? Pathetic.”
“That’s enough!” Grace felt something snap, somewhere deep inside. She shoved blindly; Simon let go in surprise, his fingers slipping free of her shoulders. He stumbled back; around him the whole world dissolved again, the storm of static returning with a vengeance.
There was a loud crack as he hit the floor, and everything went silent. Grace blinked, looking around; she was back in the car with the origami birds, Simon lying slumped on the floor in front of her. The static and the memories and everything else were gone. She let out a breath, one she hadn’t even noticed she was holding.
“Simon?” she asked gingerly. He didn’t respond; he didn’t seem to be moving at all. In one hand he held a small box; from small hole in it light was flickering maddeningly, projected right into his open eyes. Around his other hand was a fistful of torn and tangled magnetic tape, running back to where it was wedged, not moving, in the side of the box.
The sound of quiet crying snapped her attention away. She turned back, suppressing a gasp at the sight of the younger version of herself crouched on the ground behind her. She was sobbing in fear and confusion, halfway curled into a ball, and on the edges of her limbs Grace could see the same static starting to form again.
“Hey,” she knelt down, taking a deep breath to slow her racing heart. “It’s okay; Simon’s not going to hurt you.”
“Is it true?” The girl refused to meet her gaze. “Was he telling the truth? Am I just some figment of your memories?” Grace froze, not sure how to answer. Because the child in front of her definitely was still her, younger and less experienced, but still definitely her. But whatever she had done had pulled the girl right out of the tape, splitting her off from the original somehow.
“I don’t know,” Grace admitted, reaching out to place one hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I’m Grace Monroe, and so are you, but we’re still two people.” For a moment she paused, not sure how to explain it. There was only one thing that really seemed to separate them. “I didn’t have anyone, that night in the mall; instead, I found this place. I was just as scared as you are now.”
“I’m you,” she said firmly, “I know how it feels to end up here. The train can be a scary place, but it’s going to be okay, because I’m really good at it.” The girl sniffed loudly; Grace opened her arms again and she fell into the embrace, leaning up against Grace’s chest. “I’ll take care of you,” she reassured, “no matter what you are. And I promise I’ll be better than mom and dad ever were.”
“Like that’s gonna be hard,” her younger self said with the tiniest hint of mirth. Grace couldn’t help smiling in turn, nodding in agreement. She noticed the static retreat from the girl once again. “But where are we going to go?”
“I’ve got some friends,” Grace said slowly, unable to stop herself from glancing back at Simon, “other kids, who got stuck here like you. I just know you’ll fit right in.” She didn’t mention that she was going to have to break the truth about Nulls to them first; what her younger self needed right now was reassurance, not more worries. But already she felt sure she could bring them around.
“Okay,” her younger self agreed. Slowly Grace released her grip and got to her feet, taking one of the girl’s small hands in her own. She went to set off, but felt her younger self hesitate; she was looking back at where Simon still lay, slowly being encroached upon by curious origami cranes.
“Don’t worry about him,” Grace said gently, giving her a reassuring smile. “He can’t do anything like that.” The girl nodded nervously.
“Who is he?” she asked. Grace paused, trying to think of how to explain it.
“It’s kind-of a long story,” she admitted; her younger self frowned. “What? I’ve been on this train for a long time.”
“Then tell me all about it?” the girl pleaded. Grace paused again; she knew how much she had hated her parents leaving her in the dark.
“Alright,” she acquiesced, starting off towards the car exit. “I’ll tell you on the way.”