Since that last post actually went through, I should probably let everyone know what happened. Consider it a public service; if you find yourselves getting lost on any backroads – just stop and GPS your way home before it’s too late. You get nothing from that place… except PTSD.
Fuck’s sake where do I even start? Well, with the Station, I suppose. You know you’re a lost cause when you start thinking of a shitty convenience store as home… Though, to be fair, getting drunk everyday was a big help… I freely admit I was half belligerent writing that last post, and I understand that what I’m about to tell you sounds crazy – but this is what happened.
I don’t think I mentioned it before – I didn’t mention a lot of things – but that last store constantly played some weird radio station over the speakers, and I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off. The music was unsettling… there was never any singing, just instrumentals… The tunes were slow – almost soothing in the mornings, and then, they would become more upbeat in the afternoons, but at night, they would play dark, bone-chilling symphonies… Those were far beyond simple elevator music… Those sounded like Satan’s personal orchestra.
I was usually relieved when the woman came on to talk – she was the same one from the gas pumps. A monitor hanging in the back corner would turn on to show her reports, but I couldn’t change the channel or get it to turn on any other time. She usually doesn’t appear after the evening news, but I guess it makes sense there would be a final call… Though, the haunting rendition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was almost more than my fragile heart could bear until it was interrupted by an Emergency Broadcast; then, Olivia O’Neal was back with another special announcement.
Greetings Grass Grovers; thank you for choosing Last Stop Station. The store will be closing in ten minutes. Please gather your final purchases and calmly proceed to the exit in single-file. There is no need to shove or shout. The Cleaners will not arrive until 12:01 AM. Sirus be with you.
It was hard to focus on what she said; I was too busy looking at her eyes. I could have been hallucinating, but it looked like they had turned black. I don’t know what color they used to be, but they were definitely normal eyes all the other times I saw her— not pitch-black orbs.
I was hoping it would end quickly – like a shot to the head – there one second and gone the next… Hell, the only time I tried to eat a bullet, I couldn’t pull the trigger; I kept talking myself out of it and ended up stashing the gun under the counter. I couldn’t get rid of it, but I didn’t want to look at it anymore, either…
At 11:59, I was racing the clock to drink myself unconscious and thought I had succeeded when everything suddenly went dark, but it only lasted for a second. Just as quickly, a silent, red siren descended from the ceiling, and the strobing light made me so dizzy, I puked all over my shoes.
I glanced at the clock in time to watch the last five seconds tick down, and – at the stroke of midnight – the siren receded into the ceiling. The lights came back brighter than ever, and while spots were still dancing in my vision – the automatic doors slid open; I almost puked again as several white, blurry blobs entered the Station and split off in every direction.
Seeing them file in was a sobering moment, but I was too far gone to articulate sensible speech while panicking. I tried to ask who they were – what they wanted – but there’s no telling what I actually said, and they were never going to talk, regardless.
They advanced, and I retreated; when I backed into the counter, I went over and continued crawling for as much distance as possible. My vision was finally clearing, and I felt a slight relief upon realizing the intruders were only humans wearing some kind of hazmat suits and not Stranded. I’m not sure why, but I’ve named the one who came at me, Al.
He was the only one to acknowledge my existence; none of the others even glanced my way. Some were restocking shelves while others were cleaning, and that’s when I remembered the thing about “Cleaners” arriving at 12:01.
Have you ever seen a movie where they check for radiation with little machines that click and beep. Well, these guys had some that looked like they were from the 50’s. I thought they were little radios at first; they had handles sticking out of the top with a few dials on either side, and there was a detachment that looked like a microphone without the mouthpiece.
I couldn’t help but let out a slight yelp when Al finally had me cornered. I begged him not to hurt me, and it took several seconds to realize – he wasn’t; he was scanning me. After his machine failed to detect whatever it was looking for, he put it away and reached towards me. Not in a fast or threatening manner – but casual – and placed both hands on my hips…
When I felt his fingers close… I just… I thought— Ugh, it’s not important what I thought, but I screamed for real that time. Every head in the Station turned to stare; they didn’t seem angry – only creepy. All the machines were turned off by this point, so there was complete silence when Al replaced his hands on my hips, and – in one, smooth motion – pulled my shirt over my head. I’m not sure why I lifted my arms… I guess it was a reflex…
After dropping my shirt onto the ground, Al tried to unbutton my pants. I was outnumbered more than 10 to 1, and there was no question those people meant to have their way. I salvaged what little dignity remained by throwing my own pants to the ground; it was my only choice.
I think I would have been ok if it had ended there, but I found new depths of unexplored terror when my pants were added to the pile yet Al was still coming back for more. More?! All I had left were socks, shoes, and boxers! Even my gun and bag were being added to the pile.
I threw my socks and shoes at their feet in a desperate attempt to keep my boxers and began walking towards the exit, but I barely made it three steps before being detained. Two men took hold of my arms while a third stripped away my last shred of humanity…
I was scanned and cleared once more before being pushed outside. It hadn’t felt like I went anywhere, but the Station was suddenly in a warehouse with enough lighting to imitate the sun. The surrounding metal walls were a perfect fit – as if they were built after the Station was placed there. It felt like being on the set of a movie studio.
My car was still parked next to the pump, and a team of Cleaners were busy going through it. I was considering a way to get one of them alone – finding clothes was my top priority even if it was one of those weird suits. That’s when I noticed what was beyond the parking lot – a wide, concrete path… I could follow it to the right or to the left. There were no doors, just trimmed openings in the walls, and – when standing on the path – I could see for miles in either direction with no end in sight.
I didn’t know what to do, but thankfully I didn’t have to wonder for too long. As I looked to the left once more – what I thought to be a solid wall opened up into a doorway. It scared me at first, and I was prepared to run in the other direction when a man suddenly stepped out and waved me over. It was comforting to see he wasn’t dressed like a Cleaner, but that’s not what made me trust him; I trusted him because he wore the same look of terror I imagined wearing myself.
His eyes searched the tunnels like something could appear any second, and I wasn’t ready to learn what put that terror on his face. When I was close enough, he pulled me through the door and slammed it shut.
I found myself in what I can only describe as an Amazon warehouse; it was like the mother of all Sam’s Clubs, and we were surrounded by shelves of trash bags and paper towels. I didn’t know what to say, so I opted for standing silently with my hands awkwardly covering my junk.
“Here, man. Use this for now, and I’ll take you to grab some clothes before we split. I’m Doug, by the way.” He ripped open a box of industrial-sized trash bags and tossed one over.
I wrapped it around my waist and introduced myself as he led us through endless aisles of random supplies. Occasionally, he paused to put something into his bag, but we never stopped for more than a few seconds. He was thin and a few inches taller than me with long hair pulled back into a man-bun, and he wore an orange shirt with white and blue flower-print board-shorts; I’d think he were my age, but his deep voice made him sound older. His pack was the kind campers take on week-long excursions, and it looked like it couldn’t fit one more item without bursting a seam.
I had countless questions but no clue where— or how – to begin. Finally, I settled for, “where are we?”
“That’s a pretty loaded question, my friend. If you’re here, you must have stayed in a Station past the midnight countdown – which means the Cleaners came and took your clothes away. That was the worst part for me, but it doesn’t look like you fought back – smart man. Check this out.” He lifted his shirt to reveal a nasty, circular, burn scar slightly larger than a quarter.
When a Cleaner reached for his pants, Doug punched him in the head; this resulted in a second Cleaner producing what appeared to be a police baton – but it was actually something closer to a cattle-prod. Doug described the sensation as being electrocuted with a branding iron, and it instantly rendered him unconscious. When he woke, he was lying in a concrete pathway just beyond the Station’s parking lot, and his entire body felt like it was on fire; knowing he couldn’t stay there – he began crawling through the tunnel.
“Exactly how long have you been here?” The realization he had been trapped there long enough for that wound to heal added a new layer of fear to the situation.
“No telling; it’s too easy to lose track of time around here. You’ll try to count the Sundays for a while, but it’s impossible. There’s no windows to know if it’s day or night, and if you get a new watch or phone – you’ll find they’re useless in most places. Watches don’t work at all, and phones seem to change at random pending your location.”
It was difficult to appreciate the magnitude of his words; a sea of clothes racks were just ahead, and walking through a store naked can be terribly distracting. “Are we alone here? Are there more Cleaners? What about the Stranded?! Please tell me those other things—”
“We’re alone for now.” He cut me off before I could talk about the real monsters. “All the Cleaners are out prepping the Stations for another week of service, and we’ll be long gone before the first groups return. I only come here once a week to restock supplies, and – sometimes – I pick up bits of information along the way. On this occasion, I heard there was another Quitter in the Tunnels and decided to see if I could catch your eye. I wouldn’t have come out or shouted to you, though; nothing personal – I just can’t take those kinds of risks… Anyway, put on some clothes, and don’t leave this spot; I’ll be back in sixty seconds.”
“Wait, no—.” I didn’t have a clue what he was doing; I thought he was leaving me, but I had to get dressed before chasing after him. There was no telling when – or if – I would have another opportunity. I grabbed the first of everything I saw in my size and dressed as quickly as possible. In the end, I had an electric blue version of Doug’s Station shirt, a gray and red version of his shorts, and black flip-flops. I still can’t believe there wasn’t a single pair of jeans. It all looked typical of what you expect to find in the gas stations off busy interstates that sell unusual souvenirs to travelers.
I was debating on what to do about Doug when I saw him headed back with an extra bag slung over his shoulder. “Here – pack some extra clothes.” He tossed me the pack before continuing. “Sundays are the only day it’s safe to enter the Hub; essentially, this is where the Cleaners live, and if you’re caught in their home – they’ll put you on the shelves, too. I promise, you don’t want that…” He cringed just thinking about it, and I didn’t press the issue.
“But how do we get out? I’ve been away from home for too long; my family must think I’m dead!”
“Sorry, man; you may want to say goodbye to your old life. It’s easier that way; some people even choose a new name, but we all grieve differently. Just do what feels right for you.”
“But what is this place?! It doesn’t make any sense? Where are we?!” I didn’t care if my voice was cracking – I needed real answers.
Doug checked his watch for the hundredth time and let out a long, deep sigh. “I’ll tell you what I’ve heard, but it’s up to you whether or not to believe it… Plus, we’re almost out of time, so keep moving or get left behind.”
That was fine; after everything I had experienced – I thought I was ready to believe anything…
“Have you ever heard any of the Game legends? The ones where you do something incredibly dangerous for a chance to win something from the devil? It’s usually a wish or some kind of fortune, but there’s a ton of them; the Infinity Game and Midnight Game are fairly popular, for example.”
“Like Bloody Mary or Candyman?” I did not like where this was going.
“Well, sort of… you’re on the right track, but those are fake and only for a scare. The ones I’m talking about are all too real. The first thing you need to accept is that demons exist; they come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s a group of elite that are uncontested in power – almost god-like. Souls are the currency, nourishment, and fuel that sustain their powers, but collecting them can get a little tricky. A demon can’t simply take a soul by force – it must be freely given, and even the humans who don’t believe in souls tend to get protective when asked point-blank to part with one. So, what do they do? They create a situation that makes you want to give it away. You follow me?”
“Uh, sort of… you mean it’s like the Devil’s Crossroads or the thing with the golden fiddle?”
He considered that for a moment. “Closer… but they haven’t done things that way for decades. Business was slow – people weren’t buying into it anymore. You know what they say about things too good to be true… But if you add an element of challenge – something to balance the effort with the reward – then, people believe it.”
“So, somewhere in this maze of madness – you’re saying there’s a demon who will send me home in exchange for my soul?!” It was a shitty deal, but one I was prepared to take; that’s how badly I missed my family.
“Pft, hell no, man. This game isn’t active; it’s just a relic of the past no one bothered to shut down. There was no rhyme or reason to getting here – it was practically based on chance; the asshole running it made himself a new game where suckers alternate turning left and right in order to play. I don’t know what happens after that, but it’s clearly more lucrative than this place. Now, we’re just stuck here while everything essentially runs on auto-pilot.”
It took me a few minutes to respond… It’s not that I didn’t believe him; no other explanation fit the scenario. I was just shocked. “…Does that mean the Cleaners are the only danger down here?”
I knew it was too good to be true when I said it, but… I don’t know – what else do you say at a time like that? He could have simply said no; he didn’t have to laugh…
“Ha, I wish! This place wouldn’t be half bad if—” He stopped suddenly and reversed, pulling me with him; the sound of footsteps could be heard in the distance, and they were getting louder. The aisle we were on contained packs of bottled water lined beneath the bottom shelf, and Doug rushed to clear a space among them. I helped as soon as I understood his intent, but I never thought we would actually fit; thank goodness I was wrong.
There was a four-foot space behind the stack, and it ran the full length of the aisles we were sandwiched between. Once we crawled under the shelf, we pulled the water back in to cover our entrance and waited in silence as the Cleaners continued to draw closer. That’s when we realized there was another sound mixed in with the footsteps – one we couldn’t quite identify until it was only a few yards away… It was the sound of something wet and sticky being dragged across the floor, but nothing was distinguishable between the small cracks of our hiding place.
Doug already knew what it was; I could tell by the look on his face – but he only shook his head at my curious stare. We waited until they were well out of our vicinity before crawling out, and the thick blood streaks confirmed the fear I wouldn’t acknowledge.
“Why didn’t they just kill me right away if this is the endgame?” I didn’t expect to get an answer, but there actually was one.
“Because they weren’t programmed to kill humans collected from Stations – they’re meant to strip us for conversion. When the game was still active, it was crawling with low-level demons who would take the humans away once they were naked; nobody knows exactly what was done to them, but when they came back – they were Cleaners. They don’t speak; they just do as they’re programmed – no exceptions.”
“Then why did they kill whoever this was?! There’s no way someone survived that much blood loss…”
“That person must have been in here – getting supplies like we are… every Tunnel connects to this place; it’s the Supply Hub. In here, Cleaners are only programmed to re-stock loose items, and, as far as they can tell – humans are basically livestock, so they’re taken to meat processing…”
With each shocking revelation, I became slightly more numb to the panic. I had already reached that very point less than 24 hours before, but when I survived the countdown – it restored a sliver of hope. Then, I saw people in hazmat suits like some kind of officials, and – for the briefest moment – I thought they were there to help.
I wanted to crush that sliver of hope when my clothes were taken, but Doug appeared, and the damn thing grew; it took a minute for everything he said to really sink in and snuff the hope out at its roots. Part of me just wanted to assess the easiest way to die and get it over with. “How big is this place? What else is out there?”
“It’s endless; don’t you get it? We aren’t on earth – we aren’t even in the same universe! We’re basically in limbo; you can look behind every door, but you’re never going to find a way out. No matter what kind of room you stumble across, you’re still in the Tunnels – never forget that.” He showed a little emotion with the last sentence, and I realized he had probably been an entirely different man before that place.
We turned down an aisle of garden supplies, and there was an EXIT sign above a rusty door on the back wall. Doug took one last look around and handed me a pair of shears before removing a large hunting knife that had been concealed beneath his shirt. “Sorry we didn’t have time for a real weapon, but this is better than nothing.”
“Are guns the only thing they don’t stock in this place? Or are you just really good with that thing?” I nodded towards his knife while trying to find a comfortable way to wield my shears.
“Oh, there’s plenty of guns and ammo… But you don’t want to use it. Some of the low-level demons stayed behind to play Alpha. If they hear a gunshot, they call for backup, and everyone comes running… We’ve lost a lot of good people that way, and now, we avoid firearms completely. Never forget – they don’t have the power to grant big wishes, but that won’t stop them from saying they do—.”
“Wait – ‘we’? So, you’re with a group? How many? We could probably take down the Cleaners without guns! If we can take over the Hub—”
“Don’t talk that way – it’s suicide; you think it hasn’t been tried? You think you’re the first person desperate to get home? There were seven people in the group that found us, but today – there’s five – and not one of them are the same! Within the first year, each of the original seven died – along with quite a few others – and most of it can’t even be blamed on demons!” He was whispering, and I could barely make out his words over the creaking door, but there was no mistaking that tone.
We crept out, and we were in an identical tunnel as before – endless in each direction. “I’m sorry about your friends…” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you the most important rule to survival; never let them see you. They won’t tolerate humans running loose in their deranged kingdom. Once they know you exist – the entire pack won’t rest until they’ve hunted you down, and – Jesse – they don’t need to sleep…”
That struck some life back into my terror. “So what else is down here?! Where are we supposed to hide when we can’t be in the Hub?”
“The other rooms; I’m going to show you how to find them. Look at where we just came from – do you see the door’s outline? Your eyes will get used to spotting the straight lines faster than you think. You’ll want to pick something close to a Hub entrance, but never stay in one place too long… And if you ever see a thick, black, slimy residue or smell rotten meat – leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible; that means a demon is nearby.
That time, his choice of words was unmistakable; I wasn’t being invited to join the group. I’m not a particularly sensitive or petty man, but the prospect of being alone in those tunnels… I couldn’t process it. “Oh, I get it… I guess I didn’t make the cut for your exclusive club, huh?”
The face he made in return was raw and powerful; I almost wanted to apologize, but it was hard to feel sympathetic under the circumstances. Then, his words cut me to the bone. “No disrespect – you seem like a nice guy, but I don’t trust strangers anymore. All I have left is my wife, and no other man is ever going near her again. Ok? Whether you understand it yet or not – you’re fucking lucky to be alone!”
It didn’t take a detective to put those pieces together, and it was an impossible point to argue; I wouldn’t have trusted him, either. There was only one thing left to say… “Got any more tips?”
“Play the odds; the Tunnels are endless. We don’t know how many demons are out there, but as long as you keep moving, you probably won’t run into one. If you bunker down in one place – something will eventually stumble across you. When we change locations, we walk six hours before looking for the next Hub entrance; then, we check the doors closest to it for a place to rest until the next Station Clean. And be very careful about who you trust. New people show up every week, and even good people can do horrible things when they’re desperate.” His words brought back memories of Rob, but I pushed them down deep where they belong.
“Wait… But how do I keep track of the days… And when we first met… you said you heard there was a new Quitter… What did that mean? Who did you hear it from?” We were walking side by side with our heads close together – whispering in hushed tones, but I had to restrain myself from shouting at the end. I was being expected to process too much too quickly, and the threat of a full-blown panic attack was looming ever closer.
“Every room plays the same radio channel you heard in the Station; I’m not sure why it doesn’t work in the Hub, but I guess the Cleaners don’t need it… And we are Quitters; we stayed in the Station because we wanted to quit playing without making it through the final level. It’s practically a Game Over screen… As for who told me about you… Well, there are a few people who want to put the Cleaners out of their misery, and they don’t care if they die in the process; they tend to take extreme risks like stealing Cleaner uniforms and infiltrating their ranks… If one ever approaches you with both hands palms up – that’s the signal. Try to help them if you can; they’re doing good work. I know I would want to be put down if it were me.”
I was trying to commit each word to memory, but I could only think of walking those dim Tunnels alone; so much so that I nearly missed the fine, door-shaped cracks next to where Doug had stopped. “I guess this is where we go our separate ways… Thanks for everything, really. I’d already be dead without you. Do you mind demonstrating how these things open before I go?” My voice came out less steady than I hoped.
“Just push.” The wall opened like a swinging door with the slightest effort, and he gave me one last warning. “Don’t forget about the sludge; if you need to escape – run through the closest door and immediately find a different exit. Then, find another door and another exit. Do it at least 4-5 times. All the Tunnels are straight; the only way to change direction is by cutting through a room… And good luck.”
We shook hands before he disappeared into what looked like a 90’s hotel lobby, and I caught a glimpse of his wife as the door closed. She had a jagged scar across her throat, and that’s when I knew Doug had been right; I was lucky to be alone.
I wandered the endless Tunnel for hours hoping I’d have the willpower to resist running away when I finally crossed paths with a demon. I wasn’t interested in living out the rest of my life in a monster’s playground, but I was still terrified of dying. Since I wouldn’t be able to hang or shoot myself, I hoped a demon could take the matter out of my hands…
Never underestimate your survival instincts, folks. I continued walking under the dim, blinking lights, and the first time they went completely dark – I thought something was coming; all my big talk vanished as I began throwing myself into the wall, searching for a door. In that moment, there was no remembering ‘but this is what I wanted.’ I was in a full panic – running off pure instinct and fighting to survive with everything I had.
Then, the lights suddenly flickered back to life, and there was nothing in sight. As it turns out – this was a fairly common occurrence in the Tunnels. I wasn’t too worried about failing my first test though – after all, what chance did I stand out there alone? I didn’t expect to make it another day – let alone weeks! Though, it seemed like a lot longer… It was Thursday, June 16th, when I got lost on the Backroads, and I came home yesterday, August 11th. That’s just under a month, but it felt like years.
Those rooms really could be anything, and they were completely random. The first night, I stayed in a rundown bowling alley, but they had things from the past and present – fantasy and reality – nothing was off limits. I’ve slept in the Millennium Falcon, and I’ve slept on benches in bus stations; when you have no one to share the good things with – stuff like that loses all meaning fast.
I was leaving the White House yesterday when I noticed clumps of black sludge staining the walls ahead and dripping from the ceiling. The first spots were only twenty to thirty feet away, and they extended at least that much further. The lights near it were going out, and the ones still lit were dimming by the second, but at the very edge of the darkness, I could just make out a tall, humanoid shape…
I threw myself into the closest room – which happened to be an old rubber factory – wound my way through broken machinery, and found the other exit. The new Tunnel was clean, but I went through a bank, airport, and carnival, too; when I entered the third clean Tunnel – I walked ahead a few yards and chose one more door… I had no clue if the shape I saw really was a demon or if it saw me, but the fresh terror I felt at the prospect erased any lingering notions of running into one on purpose.
Though, with the way things turned out, I should probably be thanking the damn thing; that last door led outside! It wasn’t like the Station or airport where the small, outdoor areas were still under a roof – there was an actual sky, and it looked exactly like the Paved Streets of the Backroads! The fresh air was absolutely delicious, and I took my time searching for the exit; in fact, I was still searching two hours later. At one point, I even let myself believe I was actually out of the Tunnels, but that hope was squashed when I reached the crossroads.
Dark clouds rolled across the sky, and it grew darker by the second as I advanced; I knew it was different from the Backroads then, and I knew I should turn back, but I couldn’t. The door was gone and there was nothing but miles of deserted highway behind me.
A bright flash of lightning revealed a dark figure in the center of the crossroads. There was something about the way it stood – facing me – that made it seem like it was waiting to speak. The one in the Tunnel had been hunched over like a rabid beast – waiting to strike out for its next meal… Or maybe that’s what the new one wanted me to think… Either way, I walked right up to him because I was fairly certain he only wanted to talk… because of how he was standing… Damn, that sounds really bad when I hear it out loud…
… Sorry, I’m getting pretty tired; I’ve been at this a while, now… It’s hard to describe, but it was like looking into a human-shaped black-hole. Where its face should be was only a vortex of even blacker swirls, and looking at it was like falling into a bottomless pit. Yet, somehow, it kinda sounded like Samuel L. Jackson when it spoke…
It said it was the original game owner and still preferred to operate in the old ways when possible. It wanted to know if I’d be interested in trading my soul for being with my family again, and boy – was I interested! All it took was a simple prick of the finger, a few drops of blood on a dotted line, and we were good to go!
With a wave of its hand the sky cleared, and a new door suddenly appeared behind us. It opened onto my front yard, and I ran through it without another glance at the demon. Everything looked and smelled exactly how it should, and my wife’s car was in the driveway. She knew there was more to my story than getting lost, but she gave me time with the kids before making me explain, and I appreciated that. I also appreciate the fact she doesn’t know about my Reddit account…
I did my best to tell her what happened, but now, she wants me to see a psychologist. She’s been on the phone all day trying to schedule one around the police visit; an officer was supposed to stop by to speak with us so we can officially close the missing person’s report, but I guess he’s running late. I’m not complaining, though, I never want to leave this house again. Call it PTSD or whatever you want – I just have this overwhelming sense of dread that something awful will happen the second we try to go somewhere…
This whole thing really messed up my dad, too; he didn’t sound like himself, and even my mother-in-law seems shaken by the ordeal. I feel horrible for the trouble I caused everyone, but— Shit, I gotta go; there’s another problem. My wife called the police station and they’re saying the cop already came by, but nobody answered the door! Can you believe this crap? Then, the call dropped in the middle of their conversation, and now the lines are busy! What a joke!
Credit: Page Turner
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