Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stranger on a Train

My name is Andrew Erics. I lived, once, in a city called New York. My mother is Terrie Erics. She's in the phone book. If you know the city, and you read this, find her. Don't show her this, but tell her I love her, and that I'm trying to come home. Please.

It all started when I decided, around the time that I turned twenty-five, that it was time for me to give up taking my backpack in to work. It would make me look more mature, I thought, if I weren't lugging around a book bag everywhere like a high school student. Of course this meant that I had to give up reading in the subway in the mornings and afternoons, since I couldn't quite fit my paperbacks into a pocket. A briefcase would have been out of line, since I was working in a factory, and messenger bags always seemed a little, I don't know, fruity to me. Too purse-like for my liking.

I had an mp3 player, which helped pass the time for a while, but when it broke - it would shut down at the end of every song if I didn't skip to the next track manually - I gave that up too. So every morning, I'd sit in the metro for a half-hour that dragged on endlessly, with nothing at all to do but watch my fellow passengers. I was slightly shy, so I didn't like to be caught at it, so I'd surreptitiously watch people. Interestingly enough, I quickly discovered that I wasn't the only person in the world who was uncomfortable in public. People covered it up in various ways, but I learned to see through them. I divided them up into categories in my head. There were the fidgeters, who couldn't get comfortable, constantly moving their hands, shifting their weight, moving their legs closer to the bench, then further. They were the most noticeably nervous types. After them were the fake-sleepers, who'd take their seat and practically close their eyes in the same second. Most of them weren't really sleeping, though. The real sleepers shifted more, came awake suddenly at stops or after loud noises. The fakes just zoned from the second they sat until the moment the train pulled into their stop. Then there were the mp3 player addicts, the occasional laptop people, the people who traveled in groups and talked too loudly. The cellphone junkies were either very popular or just completely unable to shut up for more than two minutes at a time.

Just as people-watching was threatening to get unbearably boring, I found my first incongruity. A middle-aged looking man, brown-haired, average size and weight, and dressed casually. Oddly enough, he seemed almost too normal. He had no remarkable features, no mannerisms, as if he were designed to fade into a crowd. It was that which led me to notice him - I was intentionally trying to see how people acted on the subway, and he didn't act at all. Didn't even react, either. It was like seeing someone sitting in front of the television, watching a documentary about fish. They aren't excited, aren't engaged, but they aren't looking away either. Present, but not accounted for.

He was on the subway in the afternoons. It was more than a month into the people-watching experiment before he caught my eye, because I didn't catch the same subway everyday, and didn't consciously sit in the same car when I did. I saw him for the first time on a Monday, I believe, and for the second time on the Thursday of the same week. He obviously did catch the same train, and sat in the same car - in the same seat, even. OCD much? I thought at the time. Since he'd caught my attention so much the first time, I watched him more avidly the next. He was, frankly, downright unsettling. He didn't do anything at all. He sat there, expressionless, head straight, no matter what happened. A woman with a wailing child entered the car and sat right behind him, and still nothing. He didn't so much as turn his head or frown in annoyance. And that kid was fucking loud, too.

By the time the subway reached my stop, I found myself queasy, and when I exited the car my hands were shaking like I was having a nicotine fit. Something about that man was *wrong*. He was, I thought, some kind of freak. A sociopath, maybe, one of those quiet guys who it turns out has a dozen women's heads in his freezer, the first victim his mother.

I found myself intentionally dawdling after work in the afternoons, stopping to browse in kiosks in the mall near the subway even when I didn't intend on buying anything. For a couple weeks, I avoided catching that subway, and when I found myself at the stop when it was pulling in, I made sure to choose a train-car as far from the one I'd seen him in as possible. Then, one morning, I saw another person who set off the same warning bells in my head. A woman, just as plain-looking, just as out of place in hustle and commotion around her. The moment I recognized her, I realized later, was when my obsession began. My people-watching, which had began as a bit of a hobby to stave off boredom, became something of a religion to me. I couldn't enter a subway or ride a bus without finding myself examining everyone, filling out a mental checklist in my head. Plain clothes of solid colors, no brands? Check. No expressions, no casual glances out the windows or towards other passengers? Check. No bags, purses, or accessories? Check. Check, check, check, we've got another. I started calling them the Strangers.

I didn't see them everyday, even after I started taking the metro more than I needed to, even when I found myself riding buses out of my way in the evenings. But they were there, often enough. Seeing one would set my teeth on edge, make my palms sweaty and my throat feel dry. If you've ever given a speech, you might recognize the feeling. Even though they didn't pay me the slightest bit of attention, I felt like I was on was on display for them. I could see them, plain as day. How could they miss me?

They didn't, though, not in any way that I could tell. And when, eventually, my curiosity overpowered my fear, I decided to follow one. I chose the one that I'd found first, the man in the afternoon subway who always kept the same seat. I got on and took a seat behind him. We rode to the end of the line, and he rose and walked out before I did. Keeping distance between us, I tailed him, but he didn't go far. He took a seat on a nearby bench, as expressionless as always, and I turned a corner and waited, trying to look nonchalant. After a few minutes, the next metro arrived, and I watched him enter it, and saw him take the same seat. I couldn't find the nerve to follow him again.

He hadn't gone anywhere! He just rode the metro to the end of the line, and then what? Rode it back? What possible reason would he, would anyone, have for that? It nagged at me, long after I'd rode a later train back home and tried to get some rest. I couldn't leave it alone, not until I could make some sense of it. I found myself more than confused - I was downright angry now. Why was this uncanny bastard, this almost inhuman person, riding subway trains back and forth, going nowhere? The mind, I once read, recoils from certain things, because the very sight of them is an affront. Spiders set it off in a lot of people, particularly great big ones. They just look wrong to us, alien. That was the effect the Strangers were beginning to have on me. They offended my senses.

I followed him again the next day, and again the day after that. Every day, for at least a week, the two of us made our silent trips together, though only I knew it. By the end of the week, I was following him for hours, until the last train that stopped at near my apartment block that night. We rode from one end of the city to the other, then back again. I wasn't people-watching any longer. I was person-watching, Stranger-watching. I didn't have eyes for anyone else, though peripherally I noticed more than a few confused glances sent my way. Other than that, we two might have been the only two people on the planet, for all I cared.

I lost my job the next week. My manager was kind, and timid, but firm. I wasn't concentrating, I had no focus. Wasn't being anywhere near productive. It was actually quite a speech, I think, but I could barely hear it. All I could think about was my new work, my vigil. What would that man, no, that thing, on the subway get up to when I wasn't there to keep an eye on him? I left work for the last time at noon that day. Normally I'd have started tailing my subject at five-thirty, but I was sure that he'd be waiting for me. I wish, now, that I'd paid more attention to that day. Was it sunny? It was summer, after all. I could have walked around downtown, maybe checked out a few pretty girls. Could have had an ice cappuccino and a smoke at an outdoor cafe and then gone home, put my growing obsession out of my head. Found a new job and taken to reading on trains and buses again.

Instead, I waited. More than one train goes up and down the lines, so I sat in the station for at least an hour until I saw him through a window. I walked into the subway car, and noticed that for the first time my skin wasn't clammy, my hands weren't shaking, my heart wasn't pounding hard. I sat, for the first time, right across from him, directly in his line of sight. Watched for a change in his face. Would he recognize me? If he did, I saw no sign of it, and I was looking hard. We must have made quite a pair, sitting across from one another that afternoon, staring at and into one another. It was hard not to let the building in rage in me contort my face, but with effort I was able to keep as still and as expressionless as him. Inside, I practically screamed at him. React to me, you fucking asshole! See me, damn it. I know you for what you are!

I didn't, though, and my silent demands weren't answered, not the first trip around, or the second, or the third or tenth. We rode far into the night together , and at each terminus we got out together and waited. I sat right beside him on the bench, watching him from the corner of my eye, and still got nothing from him. But two could play that game as well as one.

Finally, we made our last trip together. I had him and knew it. Last trip of the night before the trains stopped running. I'd always let him get away from me at that point, because the end of the line is a long way from my home, and the buses stop running at the same time as the subways. But this time, I'd follow him, finally see what he was when the trains stopped running. I'd get some answers, maybe.

The subway rolled on, and the anticipation grew in me. The car emptied out around us slowly, until it was just we two silent watchers below the city. I fought to keep a manic grin at bay, and the subway train slowed to a crawl, then stopped. The end of the line.

The Stranger didn't move, still didn't react at all. The car stood still, doors open. I could dimly hear the last few stragglers making their way out of the station somewhere behind us, footsteps echoing in the silence. Nothing. The speaker system dinged to let anyone half-asleep know that we'd reached the terminus. Still nothing. And finally, I could hear footsteps again. A conductor or something, popping his head into each car to make sure it was empty before taking the train wherever the hell it goes for the night. I didn't take my eyes from my silent quarry.

I managed to see the conductor from the corner of my eye when he finally reached our car. He looked in, his eyes roamed over us, and a puzzled look came over his face. He blinked a few times, and paused. I waited for him to speak, and the moment stretched out, but then, with a slight shake of the head, he left us. There was a car ahead of ours, and I heard him stop to check that too, and then a few minutes later, the train started up again. We rode for a time, and then looped around and the subway was parked. I could see into and the windows of more trains on either side of us, and through their opposing windows into even more.

And then he smiled at me. It was just a small curl of the lip, that would have gone unnoticed if I hadn't spent the last several hours studying his face. "So," he said, in a rough baritone. "Here we are."

I tried to respond but couldn't right away. My throat had clamped shut. Terror filled me. It felt like the whole underground cavern we were in had just collapsed onto me. I coughed and stammered and finally managed, with a raspy voice, to ask the question that had kept me up at night, drove me halfway to madness, and led me to this place and this moment. "What are you?"

He ignored me. He stood, and the train doors opened. Then, shockingly, he turned to face me. "Coming?" He didn't wait for an answer, but walked out onto the platform. I scrambled to follow. "Come on, damn it!" I shouted. "Talk to me. Who are you? What? Why do you ride the metro all fucking day?" He didn't look back, or slow his step. I couldn't see his face, but it's safe to guess that he didn't react at all, no more than he had to anything else. I stalked after him, still shouting for a time, but eventually gave up. Five words was all I was going to get out of him, I guessed.

We walked along the platform until we came to a junction, then turned. Now we were perpendicular to the trains around us. The path ahead was lit from above, but I couldn't see where it ended. The trains on either side of us went on forever, as far as I could tell. Far too many trains to service one city, I realized. It wouldn't have mattered by then, I figure, but I probably should have paid more attention to that at the time.

I'm not sure how long we walked. I had a watch once, but it broke. I took out my cellphone at one point, but got no reception down there, and all it would show me was "No Signal". The Stranger would stop every now and then, and look at a subway car for a minute or two, but then pass on. It took me a while to figure out why, but eventually I saw that they weren't all the same. Long lines of them would be similar, and then we'd come to a different model. It'd be a little larger or smaller, or have a slightly different shape. The cockpits, or whatever you call the front part where the conductor sits, were superficially different as well. I didn't and I don't know what exactly he was looking for, but eventually he must have found it, because we turned again, and the subway doors opened when my impromptu guide stopped in front of them. We entered, and took our seats.

"Are you willing to speak now?" I asked him. No answer. I sighed with frustration and seriously weighed the pros and cons of punching him right in the face for a time, when suddenly, the lights in the car came on and I heard the engine starting up. "What the fuck?"

He gave me a look that was almost sad. "You're not going to be able to go back."

"What are you talking about? Go back where?" Nothing again. The stonewalling asshole! The train lurched into motion, pushing off in the opposite direction than the one we'd came from. I think. The endless parade of them had thrown off my sense of direction. It rolled for a few minutes, and then began to slow as we approached the stop. His vacant gaze grew sharper, and for the first time I got the sense that he was actually staring at me, rather than just looking in the direction I happened to be in.

"Be still, be silent. Don't catch their attention."

The train stopped, the doors opened, and they began to flood in. I don't know what I noticed first - the weird clothes, the too long arms with hands that almost brushed the floor, the jet-black eyes and angular faces, or the blue-gray hue of their skin. My eyes took in all those stimuli, but for a long second my brain refused to process it, and when it finally did, I was barely able to bite down on the shriek that tried to tear its way from my throat. I thought my heart was going to explode. Hell, I thought I was going to explode. I was like a strummed guitar string, everything in me lurched and throbbed. My sight grew dizzy, which I was thankful for, and I vomited. My mouth was clenched shut, and I forced myself to swallow it, barely managing it. My instincts were screaming his words at me - Be still! Be silent! Don't catch their attention!

That day is a blur. We rode the subway car up and down the line, still and expressionless, for hours, for days perhaps. It seemed much longer than the line I knew, the line I'd followed the Stranger along. The hideous things around us seemed to pay us no undue attention, though we must have stood out fiercely. I was so petrified with fear that when we finally returned to the endless cavern of trains, alone, I burst into tears. I collapsed to the floor and just sobbed for a long time, the Stranger watching impassively.

When I gained control of myself, I looked at him imploringly. "Take me home," I croaked out. "Please."

"I can't," he told me. "Don't know which one of these would lead you back. If any of them do." He stood and walked out onto the platform, and I rose wearily and followed him. He spun around, sharply. "I think you've followed me enough."

The rage I'd felt for him before, that the panic had temporarily buried, rose up in me. "What?" I screamed, rushing forward. I grabbed him by the shoulders and with a burst of insane strength I didn't even know was in me, slammed him up against the side of a metro-car. "You fucking son of a bitch, what the fuck did you do to me!?" I slammed him again, and again. "Take me back!" He bore it all passively, and soon the flare of anger in me guttered out, leaving me hollow. "Please," I begged, "please take me home."

"That's not how it works." He said. "If we stay together, it's more likely that we'll be noticed. Go your own way. Be still and be subtle, and they'll think that you're one of theirs."

"How could you do this to me? Why?"

He gave me another almost-sad look. "I had to. You will too. You get...stuck, sometimes." He brushed my hands off his shoulders, and turned to walk away. I fell to my knees, suddenly out of strength, and watched him leave. At the junction, he turned back to face me. "I'm sorry." And then he was gone.

I stayed there, on the cold tiles, for a very long time. I curled up into a ball and wept for a while. After there weren't any tears left in me, I even managed to get some sleep. When I awoke, the subway train I'd come in was gone - off carrying more blue-gray abominations to wherever blue-gray abominations go. I couldn't handle going back there, anyways.

I tried to find my way back to where I'd started, to find a subway that I recognized, but I wasn't even sure which direction I should have been going in anymore. I walked for an hour, then another. Finally, I found one that might have looked familiar. Or I was desperate enough to imagine that it did. When I stepped up to the door, it opened for me, and I took a seat. It started up, and in spite of being a life-long agnostic, I prayed my heart out. The train slowed to a stop, the doors opened, and for a second I thought I was saved. People! Human beings! I'd be the most devout man in the world!

Then I noticed the eyes. Specifically, the third, large eye in the center of their foreheads. Well fuck you then, God, I thought.

They were easier to take than the last bunch, though, and I was thankful for that. The third eye blinked independently of the other two, though, and that was nauseating. And when one of them smiled, or laughed, or spoke with another, I couldn't help but notice that their teeth were sharp, and misshapen, and yellow-green with filth. But if I was careful and selectively blind, I could pretend for a stretch that I was home. Until one of them entered with a sandwich in hand, and I realized with a start that I was starving and hadn't eaten or drank in what must have been days.

The next terminus I came to, I decided to try and find something to eat or drink. I don't know why I waited, but it seemed important - to ride to the end of the line. I got there, and could barely bring myself to leave. I'd never seen the Stranger leave the underground - I'd never seen him eat or drink either. My stomach would not take no for an answer though. I steeled myself, and tried to keep my face carefully neutral, and made my way out into the station proper. And then I got confused.

I was looking for escalators, or stairs, or something like that, but all I saw was holes in the ground, the walls, and the ceiling. Gaping, irregularly sized holes, like I was in the middle of a beehive. What was I supposed to do? Leap into one? It didn't make any sense to me, not until someone came through one. He floated up through the floor, and then floated by me. He frowned for a second, or at least I think it was probably a frown, but apparently whatever kept them from recognizing me as alien in the subway extended at least this far. It did not, unfortunately, allow me to levitate, which seemed to be the only way out of the subway station beehive thing. Swearing, I made my way back down to the tunnel.

I was angry, lost, starving, and I'd been abandoned to a fate that, if it wasn't worse than hell, was at least twice as stupid and three times as nonsensical. I was not in the best frame of mind, which I feel excuses the mistake. Normally, I take corners with a wide berth, because everyone knows that if you just dart around a corner sharply in a public place, chances are decent that you're going to walk right into someone. As I did. I slammed into someone, a woman, and fell to the ground. Without thinking, I reacted like any New Yorker would - badly. "Jesus fuck, you stupid bitch! Watch where you're going!"

I realized my mistake even before she did. Her eyes grew quizzical and confused, and when she really noticed me, they bulged with horror. She leapt - well, floated quickly - back from me and let out something scream-like. A little more yowly than I was used to, but I got the point. Further down the tunnel, I saw alien, three-eyed heads turning towards us. I thought, suddenly, about all those sharp, filthy teeth, and just like that I was running. The subway train wasn't there, but there was a walkway along the tunnel - for the repairmen, I assume. That's who'd use it where I'm from, anyways. I took it at full-speed, and just kept running until each breath felt like getting stabbed. I stopped, panting, and looked back. The tunnel had curved, so I couldn't see the light any longer, but nobody appeared to be following me. Going back, though, was not an option.

I continued forward in the dark for a long time. Eventually I came to a small opening in the wall, and stopped there for a rest. Hunger, despair, and a full-speed terrified run had all left me absolutely drained. I probably would have wept again, which seemed to be all I was capable of lately, but it just seemed like too much work. I sat against the wall, legs splayed out, and imagined I was beating that bastard Stranger to death with a hammer. It was a relieving image.

A rat was shuffling around nearby in the dark. Every so often, I would kick out a foot to scare it away, but after a time I didn't even bother with that. Rabies or any other disease it might be carrying would be a blessing compared to endless traveling through the subways of strange worlds, lost, destitute, and alone. When it crept near me again, I didn't shoo it off. Even when it reached and pressed against my leg, I couldn't bring myself to care. Not until a train passed by, and the lights of its cars lit up the culvert I was in, and the thing that I had thought was a rat.

It was rat-like, yes, but not as much as it was spider-like. If someone had bred the two of them together, the resulting abomination might have been almost as horrible as the thing nuzzling my leg. I shrieked, flung myself up from the floor, and booted it like a soccer player would, right into the opposite wall. Its back made a sickening crunch, and I watched it twitch out its last before the final car passed and the darkness returned.

And in the darkness, a terrible thought came to me. I wondered if it was edible. I didn't want to, and I gagged just imagining it, but I was hungry, and there was no guarantee that I'd be able to find food in this place, or ever again. Rat-spider was my only option. I held off as long as I could, but in the end, survival trumped squeamishness. I had my lighter, but nothing to light on fire. I picked meat off its carcass and cooked it a little by holding it over the flame, but it didn't help much. Nothing could have. It's meat was foul, more foul than anything you can imagine. I've been that desperate for food since, and eaten many other questionable things, but nothing has ever been as bad as the rat-spider was.

In retrospect, that is when I became a Stranger. Before, I'd struggled to reach that expressionless state the other had maintained. What I'd taken for calm was numbness. A sharp rock thrown in a river will, over time, have its edges rounded off by the water beating over it, and what I'd gone through had done the same. Tearing up and eating a monster in the dark, below an alien world, the last of my edges smoothed. By the time I left the darkness and came back into the tunnel, I was as expressionless and empty as the one who'd led me here had ever been.

That was not the worst of it, though. The worst came later, the first time I got stuck. The Stranger had mentioned it, but in the state I'd been in, I had hardly noticed. One night, at the end of the line, I was asked to leave the train. The world was one of the closer-to-normal ones. The people were almost human, as I recognized it. They were orange, sure, and hunch-backed, but other than that, they were practically normal. After the last world, where the people had been hideously overweight, six-breasted hermaphrodites with no noses, the orange guys were pretty much beautiful to me.

I thought, at first, that the conductor was talking to someone else, but I was the only one in the car. And moreover, I'd understood him. The Oranges certainly hadn't been speaking English all day, but nonetheless, I could understand what he was saying. When I stood, I began to realize why. I couldn't stand up straight. I was hunchbacked, and as I saw in my reflection against the window as I exited, orange. I pieced together the rest from there. Stuck meant that I was trapped in this world, for some reason, and stuck looking like them as well. Which would be handy if I wanted to take the opportunity to leave the subway station - which is possible most times, but requires a lot of care and is quite overwhelming. Alien worlds are a little revolting, I've found. You try to compare them to your own, but the differences are so vast that it just makes you sick.

I left that subway, anyways, because it was clear I wasn't returning to the central hub (what I'd taken to calling the infinite line of subway trains) that night. Or any other night, I soon found out. Whatever had let me go unnoticed wasn't working any longer. I considered, briefly, staying. But this place wasn't home, and could never be. Even if they looked like me, their culture was bound to be different. That was a lesson I'd learned before. Even worlds where the people are absolutely indistinguishable from me are fraught with danger. I was once on a world where the people looked just like me - well, actually they looked Brazilian, but that was more than close enough - and learned the hard way that the gesture that to me means "Hello" meant something gravely insulting. Insulting enough that I'd been beaten half to death while a crowd looked on with approval.

Besides, even if that place had a culture I could fake, I didn't want to stay. I wanted one of two things: to find my way home, or to find the Stranger who'd set me on this path and beat the shit out of him. Nothing else would do.

So I wanted to move on. I wasn't sure, though, if I could do to some poor sucker what had been done to me. Could I really force someone else to wander the eternal underground like me? It turned out, I didn't have to. After a few months one of them did notice me, yes, and begin to follow me for weeks. I very carefully made it seem like I hadn't seen him, just like the Stranger had. But I was torn between the desire to warn him away and the desire to bring him to the end of the line so I could leave his dismal world already.

The last night, he followed me to the end of the line, just as I had once done. He hadn't managed to work up the nerve to sit right across from me, though. And as soon as the train stopped at the terminus he rushed off. I waited, hoping the conductor wouldn't see me and I could continue on, but to no avail. I left the car, and the metro rushed off without me, and I cursed inside. As I walked around the corner towards the ticket booths, the young man who'd been following me attacked. He had a wicked, curved knife, and should have caught me by surprise, but I'd been traveling through hostile alien worlds for several years. My reflexes were sharp.

We struggled, viciously, before I managed to wrestle the knife from him. I don't know how it got in his neck. I don't think I wanted to kill him. I hadn't even been that angry, remembering my own building rage from so long before. Afterwards, as he lay there, bled-out, I got pissed. I kicked him repeatedly, shouting. "You dick! You were supposed!" Kick, kick, "to follow me!" Kick. I fled the scene of the crime, but not for long. I was there bright and early the next day, to catch the first subway of the morning. And that night, when I rode it to the end of the line, I was invisible to the conductor again. I guess you can either kill them or bring them with you if you want to return to the central hub.

I was invisible again, but I was also orange and hunchbacked still. I stayed that way until the next time I became stuck. The next time I killed. That one went much faster. I didn't wait for her to follow me. Once I was recognized as a Stranger, I recognized her as the next one, and I made my choice. I won't bring anyone else into this.

It makes me wonder, though, about the Stranger who inducted me. I wonder what he originally looked like, and whether he knew he could have killed me. I wonder, too, about the others I saw back home, and the rare few I come across since I left. Do they kill them or take them? And whichever one they choose, do they consider it a mercy? I can't bring myself to talk to them, to ask. We're damned either way, and the damned should suffer in solitude.

I've killed fifteen of them now, and I've gotten very good at it. But I've made a decision. I'm done killing - innocents, at least. Before I returned to the central hub, I filled a backpack with as much paper as I could cram into it, and I wrote this story. Over and over again, to be left in as many subway trains as I can. A couple thousand messages in bottles, cast into a sea of steel rails. This is a request, and a warning.

My request, above, was that you find my mother and tell her a lie. It's a white lie, don't worry. Tell my mother that I love her, and that I am trying to come home. It may give her some hope, or a small measure of peace. I wish it were true, too. But here's the thing: I've been thinking of myself as like Odysseus, lost and adrift, looking to return to familiar shores. But I am not lost at sea. I am lost in endless tunnels - the labyrinth. The difference is important, because labyrinths are designed, built. Somebody or something made this impossible place. And they must be held accountable for what they've done to me. They cast me as Theseus, not Odysseus, but I won't play that part any longer, either. The strange rules of this place have turned me from the human I began as into something else, then something else again. They have made me a monster, and so I will be the Minotaur of this labyrinth. And if I can, I will tear it down around me, and destroy those that built it.

My warning is that you should be very wary, in public places, of silent, expressionless men and women. Keep your distance. They may kill you, or they may do worse. If you see them, run far and fast. And even more importantly, I warn you, I beg you: don't ride the train to the end of the line.

The Tulpa

Last year I spent six months participating in what I was told was a psychological experiment. I found an ad in my local paper looking for imaginative people looking to make good money, and since it was the only ad that week that I was remotely qualified for, I gave them a call and we arranged an interview.

They told me that all I would have to do is stay in a room, alone, with sensors attached to my head to read my brain activity, and while I was there I would visualize a double of myself. They called it my "tulpa".

It seemed easy enough, and I agreed to do it as soon as they told me how much I would be paid. And the next day, I began. They brought me to a simple room and gave me a bed, then attached sensors to my head and hooked them into a little black box on the table beside me. They talked me through the process of visualizing my double again, and explained that if I got bored or restless, instead of moving around, I should visualize my double moving around, or try to interact with him, and so on. The idea was to keep him with me the entire time I was in the room.

I had trouble with it for the first few days. It was more controlled than any sort of daydreaming I'd done before. I'd imagine my double for a few minutes, then grow distracted. But by the fourth day, I could manage to keep him "present" for the entire six hours. They told me I was doing very well.

The second week, they gave me a different room, with wall-mounted speakers. They told me they wanted to see if I could still keep the tulpa with me in spite of distracting stimuli. The music was discordant, ugly and unsettling, and it made the process a little more difficult, but I managed nonetheless. The next week they played even more unsettling music, punctuated with shrieks, feedback loops, what sounded like an old school modem dialing up, and guttural voices speaking some foreign language. I just laughed it off - I was a pro by then.

After about a month, I started to get bored. To liven things up, I started interacting with my doppelganger. We'd have conversations, or play rock-paper-scissors, or I'd imagine him juggling, or break-dancing, or whatever caught my fancy. I asked the researchers if my foolishness would adversely affect their study, but they encouraged me.

So we played, and communicated, and that was fun for a while. And then it got a little strange. I was telling him about my first date one day, and he corrected me. I'd said my date was wearing a yellow top, and he told me it was a green one. I thought about it for a second, and realized he was right. It creeped me out, and after my shift that day, I talked to the researchers about it. "You're using the thought-form to access your subconscious," they explained. "You knew on some level that you were wrong, and you subconsciously corrected yourself."

What had been creepy was suddenly cool. I was talking to my subconscious! It took some practice, but I found that I could question my tulpa and access all sorts of memories. I could make it quote whole pages of books I'd read once, years before, or things I was taught and immediately forgot in high school. It was awesome.

That was around the time I started "calling up" my double outside of the research center. Not often at first, but I was so used to imagining him by now that it almost seemed odd to not see him. So whenever I was bored, I'd visualize my double. Eventually I started doing it almost all the time. It was amusing to take him along like an invisible friend. I imagined him when I was hanging out with friends, or visiting my mom, I even brought him along on a date once. I didn't need to speak aloud to him, so I was able to carry out conversations with him and no one was the wiser.

I know that sounds strange, but it was fun. Not only was he a walking repository of everything I knew and everything I had forgotten, he also seemed more in touch with me than I did at times. He had an uncanny grasp of the minutiae of body language that I didn't even realize I was picking up on. For example, I'd thought the date I brought him along on was going badly, but he pointed out how she was laughing a little too hard at my jokes, and leaning towards me as I spoke, and a bunch of other subtle clues I wasn't consciously picking up on. I listened, and let's just say that that date went very well.

By the time I'd been at the research center for four months, he was with my constantly. The researchers approached me one day after my shift, and asked me if I'd stopped visualizing him. I denied it, and they seemed pleased. I silently asked my double if he knew what prompted that, but he just shrugged it off. So did I.

I withdrew a little from the world at that point. I was having trouble relating to people. It seemed to me that they were so confused and unsure of themselves, while I had a manifestation of myself to confer with. It made socializing awkward. Nobody else seemed aware of the reasons behind their actions, why some things made them mad and others made them laugh. They didn't know what moved them. But I did - or at least, I could ask myself and get an answer.

A friend confronted me one evening. He pounded at the door until I answered it, and came in fuming and swearing up a storm. "You haven't answered when I called you in fucking weeks, you dick!" He yelled. "What's your fucking problem?"

I was about to apologize to him, and probably would have offered to hit the bars with him that night, but my tulpa grew suddenly furious. "Hit him," it said, and before I knew what I was doing, I had. I heard his nose break. He fell to the floor and came up swinging, and we beat each other up and down my apartment. I was more furious then than I have ever been, and I was not merciful. I knocked him to the ground and gave him two savage kicks to the ribs, and that was when he fled, hunched over and sobbing.

The police were by a few minutes later, but I told them that he had been the instigator, and since he wasn't around to refute me, they let me off with a warning. My tulpa was grinning the entire time. We spent the night crowing about my victory and sneering over how badly I'd beaten my friend.

It wasn't until the next morning, when I was checking out my black eye and cut lip in the mirror, that I remembered what had set me off. My double was the one who'd grown furious, not me. I'd been feeling guilty and a little ashamed, but he'd goaded me into a vicious fight with a concerned friend. He was present, of course, and knew my thoughts. "You don't need him anymore. You don't need anyone else," he told me, and I felt my skin crawl.

I explained all this to the researchers who employed me, but they just laughed it off. "You can't be scared of something that you're imagining," one told me. My double stood beside him, and nodded his head, then smirked.

I tried to take their words to heart, but over the next few days I found myself growing more and more anxious around my tulpa, and it seemed that he was changing. He looked taller, and more menacing. His eyes twinkled with mischief, and I saw malice in his constant smile. No job was worth losing my mind over, I decided. If he was out of control, I'd put him down. I was so used to him at that point that visualizing him was an automatic process, so I started trying my damnedest to not visualize him. It took a few days, but it started to work somewhat. I could get rid of him for hours at a time. But every time he came back, he seemed worse. His skin seemed ashen, his teeth more pointed. He hissed and gibbered and threatened and swore. The discordant music I'd been listening to for months seemed to accompany him everywhere. Even when I was at home - I'd relax and slip up, no longer concentrating on not seeing him, and there he'd be, and that howling noise with him.

I was still visiting the research center and spending my six hours there. I needed the money, and I thought they weren't aware that I was now actively not visualizing my tulpa. I was wrong. After my shift one day, about five and a half months in, two impressively built men grabbed and restrained me, and someone in a lab coat jabbed a hypodermic needle into me.

I woke up from my stupor back in the room, strapped into the bed, music blaring, with my doppelganger standing over me cackling. He hardly looked human anymore. His features were twisted. His eyes were sunken in their sockets and filmed over like a corpse's. He was much taller than me, but hunched over. His hands were twisted, and the fingernails were like talons. He was, in short, fucking terrifying. I tried to will him away, but I just couldn't seem to concentrate. He giggled, and tapped the IV in my arm. I thrashed in my restraints as best I could, but could hardly move at all.

"They're pumping you full of the good shit, I think. How's the mind? All fuzzy?" He leaned closer and closer as he spoke. I gagged; his breath smelt like spoiled meat. I tried to focus, but couldn't banish him.

The next few weeks were terrible. Every so often, someone in a doctor's coat would come in and inject me with something, or force-feed me a pill. They kept me dizzy and unfocused, and sometimes left me hallucinating or delusional. My thoughtform was still present, constantly mocking. He interacted with, or perhaps caused, my delusions. I hallucinated that my mother was there, scolding me, and then he cut her throat and her blood showered me. It was so real that I could taste it.

The doctors never spoke to me. I begged at times, screamed, hurled invectives, demanded answers. They never spoke to me. They may have talked to my tulpa, my personal monster. I'm not sure. I was so doped and confused that it may have just been more delusion, but I remember them talking with him. I grew convinced that he was the real one, and I was the thoughtform. He encouraged that line of thought at times, mocked me at others.

Another thing that I pray was a delusion: he could touch me. More than that, he could hurt me. He'd poke and prod at me if he felt I wasn't paying enough attention to him. Once he grabbed my testicles and squeezed until I told him I loved him. Another time, he slashed my forearm with one of his talons. I still have a scar - most days I can convince myself that I injured myself, and just hallucinated that he was responsible. Most days.

Then one day, while he was telling me a story about how he was going to gut everyone I loved, starting with my sister, he paused. A querulous look crossed his face, and reached out and touched my head. Like my mother used to when I was feverish. He stayed still for a long moment, and then smiled. "All thoughts are creative," he told me. Then he walked out the door.

Three hours later, I was given an injection, and passed out. I awoke unrestrained. Shaking, I made my way to the door and found it unlocked. I walked out into the empty hallway, and then ran. I stumbled more than once, but I made it down the stairs and out into the lot behind the building. There, I collapsed, weeping like a child. I knew I had to keep moving, but I couldn't manage it.

I got home eventually - I don't remember how. I locked the door, and shoved a dresser against it, took a long shower, and slept for a day and a half. Nobody came for me in the night, and nobody came the next day, or the one after that. It was over. I'd spent a week locked in that room, but it had felt like a century. I'd withdrawn so much from my life beforehand that nobody had even known I was missing.

The police didn't find anything. The research center was empty when they searched it. The paper trail fell apart. The names I'd given them were aliases. Even the money I'd received was, apparently, untraceable.

I recovered as much as one can. I don't leave the house much, and I have panic attacks when I do. I cry a lot. I don't sleep much, and my nightmares are terrible. It's over, I tell myself. I survived. I use the concentration those bastards taught me to convince myself. It works, sometimes.

Not today, though. Three days ago, I got a phone call from my mother. There's been a tragedy. My sister's the latest victim in a spree of killings, the police say. The perpetrator mugs his victims, then guts them.

The funeral was this afternoon. It was as lovely a service as a funeral can be, I suppose. I was a little distracted, though. All I could hear was music coming from somewhere distant. Discordant, unsettling stuff, that sounds like feedback, and shrieking, and a modem dialing up. I hear it still - a little louder now.