The Nameless Horror

The City Of Lost Children

Roughly a year ago, Luca asked me on board for his second charity story anthology, OFF THE RECORD 2: AT THE MOVIES. The notion was that every story would have the title of a movie, and the one I came up with was THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN.

It’s been nine-ish months since the anthology came out. It has an absolute boatload of writers in it, ranging from up-and-comers to hefty names. The stories are really good, too. I suspect that having a hook to start with and then the complete freedom you have in short-form fiction that you don’t in novels (certainly not in novels you have to write for publisher sale) encourages experimentation and variation. Certainly everyone seems to have been fired up to write, and some of the results are great.

Since all of the money the book makes after Amazon’s cut goes to two very worthy causes, and since the contents are really good and widely varied, I figured, apropos of nothing, that it was worth reminding the world of it’s existence by sharing my own contribution here. After the jump you’ll find THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. It’s clearly the weakest story in the collection, so if you read it and like it, it’d be marvelous if you buy the whole thing from your local branch of the big-A. You genuinely won’t be disappointed.

SEAN CREGAN - THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN

It is 11:05. Jenny stands at the junction near the little row of empty cafés. The big clock on the tower across Evergreen Park tells her it is 11:05, and since neither she nor most of the other kids in the City have a watch, she has come to rely on it. As she does at 11:05 every day, in this place without true days, she stands there and watches the ghosts, hoping with all her heart, as she does at 11:05 every day, that this time she will see her parents.

Later, when Scott never shows, Jenny’s first thought is that maybe her best friend has managed to escape without taking him with her. He’s been talking about it for weeks — whatever those counted for in the City — but she’s never actually believed it would work. There’s no way out, that’s what he used to insist. The City just goes on. He’s taken her with him a few times, long hikes out of Batterytown, where they’ve both settled, to far-off parts she’d never even heard of. Neighborhoods that look a bit like she imagines Paris or Rome or Moscow, but that was crazy because you couldn’t just walk to those places and they weren’t there anyway, they just looked like there and maybe more of the kids there talked in other languages or with other accents, but that was all. It didn’t matter anyway because it was all just part of the City.

“It just goes on,” he said. “I’ve talked to kids all over, and none of them know of an edge. Like wherever you are, you’re in the middle of it all.”

“So why are we here?”

“Because maybe the way out is anywhere you look for it, and maybe if I learn enough from all over, something will tell me how. Then we can go home, Jen.”

Home. Home then for her was Brooklyn, originally, and Scott came from some part of London. Yet they both ended up, eventually, in Batterytown, home now, two kids from thousands of miles apart. Distance in the City was like time in the City: there but not so it made much sense.

Scott helped her when she first found herself in Batterytown. Two twelve-year-old kids, lost. She can’t, now, remember exactly how she found herself there, not all of it, but what she still knows of before she figures she knows because of him. “This place does things to your memory,” he said. “Everything blurs if you let it. You need to find something, concentrate on something, that’s you, and stick to it no matter what. Keep a focus.”

Which is why she went to that junction, one that most reminded her of before, every day. It was one of the places where you could see the ghosts. Here and there in the City, where the world was thin enough, if you let yourself defocus, sort of look past the City, you could see people, grown-ups. Barely there, hard to see like ghosts, but walking the streets, going about their lives back in the world. One of her few clear memories of what had happened was a clock reading 11:05, and she knew she was out with her parents then. And if her parents were out at that time once, no reason they wouldn’t be again. Maybe she could see them and maybe they could see her and then… and then she doesn’t know what. It doesn’t matter.

Scott’s focus, she learned over time, was more practical. He wanted to escape the City. He never said anything about his before, but he wanted away from now for definite. Maybe, she thinks, he’s done it, and that’s why she’s sitting alone on the landing outside the apartment she’s taken as home, waiting for a boy who’s an hour late and counting.

If he hasn’t escaped, then something has happened to him, and for a moment she feels a spike of fear that maybe he’s just gone instead. But that only happened when kids started drifting, ones you saw less and less, ones who stopped bothering or caring, until one day they just weren’t any more, like they’d faded into nothing. Scott is a long way from that; he couldn’t be more there if he tried.

By the time she’s come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong, it’s too late to do much about it. There’s no night any more than there’s day in the City — the sky is always grey, too dark to be proper daylight and too light to be night time — but the big clock all the way across Batterytown by the park is tolling ten and she’s too tired to look for Scott now.

“You’re worrying too much,” Duncan tells her in the morning when Jenny finishes explaining. She’s helping him forage in the cupboards of the tenement building he occupies, usually alone. Food and other things just sort of happen in the City. You can clear a place out, and then a day or two later, it’ll be like it has restocked with groceries. None of the children ever see it happen. Scott once forced himself to stay awake for nearly three days, watching Jenny’s empty kitchen, waiting to catch the mechanism that brought them fresh food. Nothing. The day after he gave up, the cupboards were full again. It’s the same everywhere: houses, stores, cafés. No one restocking them. No one looking after anything. Just the kids. The only adults you see are the ghosts.

The way it goes, no one ever seems to get any older in the City. You just sort of feel older in your head. Except for the really young kids, who seem to go backwards, become more childish. But they mostly went before long. It was the older ones like her and Scott and Duncan who stuck around.

“He promised he’d meet me,” she says. “He’s never failed to make it before.”

“Scott’s always going away. He’s travelled more than anyone I’ve ever met here.” He passes her a can of soup. “Hold onto this for me. I think there’s Oreos back here.”

“He always says when he’s going away, though. What he said this time was that he’d see me today at two and he was real excited about something. I think he might have found a way out.”

“And?” He turns to look at her. “Look, Scott’s been trying to find a way out for ages. I’ve seen him get worked up plenty of times. You should check his place. Whatever it was probably just didn’t work out and he’s moping.”

“I checked his place before I came here. He’s not home.”

“Which place, though?” he says. A grin on his grubby face.

He wants to take her to Scott’s other place, his secret place he never told her about, but the morning is wearing on and she has an appointment she must keep. She makes him promise to find her afterwards and then they can go to Scott’s.

It is 11:05. Jenny stands at the junction near the little row of empty cafés. The big clock on the tower across Evergreen Park tells her it is 11:05, and since neither she nor most of the other kids in the City have a watch, she has come to rely on it. As she does at 11:05 every day, in this place without true days, she stands there and watches the ghosts, hoping with all her heart, as she does at 11:05 every day, that this time she will see her parents.

Scott lives out of a little rowhouse a few streets from Jenny. But it’s not here that Duncan leads her. Instead she finds herself standing on the top landing of a grubby tenement. There is a lock on the door in front of her, and she cannot remember the last time she saw one in the City.

Duncan knocks and waits sheepishly for a moment. Then takes out a key from his pocket — “Spare,” he says — and lets them in.

The apartment inside is a lot less spartan than the one she’s already seen, a place Duncan says Scott keeps as a casual crashing spot, but it’s not the oddments he’s picked up from across the City that draw her attention, not the total lack of Scott himself, but the walls. Scott’s walls are covered — covered — in tally marks. They run from room to room all around the apartment, stopping with a couple of yards of bare wall in the lounge. There are numbers every 30. The last numbered batch is 5460.

“Days?” she says.

“He always told me he needed to know, even if there aren’t any days and it’s just sleeps. So he wouldn’t lose count. So he wouldn’t lose himself.”

No one ever seems to get older in the City. You just feel older in your head.

“So where is he?”

“I dunno,” Duncan says.

She tears her eyes from the mad chickenscratch tallies and looks at the things he’s collected from across the City and the notes he’s taken as he’s done it. They form layers of history. Topmost on the stack is a charcoal drawing of a boy in smeary facepaint and a funny-looking top hat. Written next to it is ‘Klein + Exchange’.

“This is a Maskelyne,” she says.

Duncan pulls a face. Says, “Good luck with that, Jen.”

“You’ve got to come with me.”

His expression worsens, because she’s right.

Two hours later and they’re in the dusty stairwell of the subway station they call Blue Castle. “I don’t know about your friend,” the girl behind the concertina metal gate is saying. She has the same grime-and-chalk facepaint as the picture and a hat made from black-painted cardboard. “You’re not Masks, so you can’t come in. We don’t let people in. Not creeps, non-Mask peeps.”

The last sentence sees a hint of Maskelyne sing-song slip in. Jenny wonders if this girl is picked for work watching the door because she’s not totally different to outsiders. Not yet, anyway. She’s met a couple of other Masks in the City, both times with Scott, and they have their own way of talking. Like she’s heard twins sometimes do, their own language. The Maskelynes spend all their time down in the station, even though they could stay anywhere in the City and it’s not like there are any trains. All together, all slowly picking up their own weird way of speaking, echoing it back to one another. There are plenty of other gangs or tribes of kids in the City, sprung up out of a need to belong to something, but the Masks are more shut-in than most.

“He came to speak to you before. You let him in.” It’s a guess, but the girl doesn’t need to know that. “And now something’s happened to him. We just want to know what he talked to you about, what he was doing. One of you’s got to know.”

“Go go, bye bye. If Masks want to talk, they come out. You don’t come into the Castle, rascal.”

Jenny pulls out the charcoal drawing and shows it to the girl. “Did he come out?” she says. “This Mask? Did he come out and talk to our friend?”

The girl looks at the picture for a moment, silent. “Maker King, in, in,” she says, and opens the gate.

The station is broad, three platforms spanning four tracks, all dead and criss-crossed by plank bridges and lines of motley flags and pictures lit by fluorescent tubes repainted in swirls of inky colour. Jenny can’t count the number of Mask kids down here — and in the chaotic murk it’s hard to say how she sees more than once — but there seem to be a lot. The upper levels of the station, up the unmoving escalators, are given over to various stages made from junk wood and cloth, and the court of the one they call the Maker King. It’s him the girl shows them to. He’s a kid maybe a bit younger than Jenny and Duncan, dressed in much the same garb as the rest of the Maskelynes except his hat is a proper one, albeit dented and scuffed. He looks his visitors over and has a quick conversation with the girl before beckoning them forward with a flourish.

“Come, come.,” he trills. “I hear clear a picture Mary Quick’s sure’s Tom Trick. See he?”

“Sure,” she says, and shows him the drawing. “A friend of ours had it. Scott. I think he must’ve talked to you guys.”

“Tom Tom, long gone,” he says. “Your boy brought us toys, things with string and wings, asking Tom, Tom. Where and when he was gone, gone. The how and who and why and I told, for Scott was bold and old and brought us Masks more than gold.”

“What did he want to know about Tom? What happened to him, anyway?”

“Tom? Scott thought he’d gone — got out — but not, we say, not Tom. Scott says no and asks us how. Again, again, and we tell him about the train. Tom hit, struck, run by the train.”

Jenny looks at Duncan. “But there aren’t any trains,” she says.

“Clear, not here.” The King shakes his head, but now there’s a look of genuine puzzlement on his face, as if she’s said something really silly. “Deep, like sleep, drop down another line to find.”

“Another line deeper down? How do you get to it?”

“We hear the trains, each midday, times on the chimes, but the way only Tom may know to go. A place, lost or hidden or ghost. Masks search, never learn. Now we stop. Not Scott.” The Maker King smiles and waves. “Go, go, more questions no, no.”

With that, they are ushered back to the gate. Jenny thinks about the note beside the drawing of Tom’s face: ‘Klein + Exchange’. A street address. Duncan’s obviously figured the same thing because he says, “Are we going to look for a way down to the trains at that intersection tomorrow?”

“It sounds like that’s what Scott was looking for, so yeah.”

“What about the time, Jen? The King said they heard the train at midday.”

Midday. No time to get from her spot by the park, waiting for her parents, and make it to wherever this place is, to find the way underground and make it down to the train line — if there even is one — before the train appears. She’s never missed a morning by the park since she started looking for her mom and dad.

“Yeah,” she says. “The time. The time.”

It is 11:05. Jenny is following Duncan down a long, cold maintenance ladder. Rust bites at her hands and the air here smells of damp, but it’s not that she’s thinking about, not even the drop beneath her if she slips. She’s thinking about the ghosts and her parents, and desperately worried that today of all days will be the one when they pass by.

“Careful here,” Duncan says, but she’s not, thinking of all the not-quite-there faces passing by in the street where she should be.

They’ve climbed in the dark for what feels like ages, down through the maze of manholes and stairwells beneath the junction of Klein and Exchange, doubling back whenever they hit a dead end, and they still haven’t hit the tracks.

Eventually, they reach the bottom of the ladder. At the bottom, is a door. Plain, unmarked and unremarkable. Duncan looks at her and she turns the handle. Light spills through, stark blue-white, and they find themselves at one end of a subway station platform. It is clean, modern, and in much better condition than the ladder. The signage on the walls is in a language she doesn’t know, all squiggles and shapes. There is a clock, though. 11:58.

“Blimey,” Duncan says, “look at this place. You think… I mean, it looks like it could be…”

She doesn’t know and tries her best to stifle the hope rising within her. “It just means the Masks were right that there’s a deeper line, that’s all,” she says. “Let’s wait for the train.”

“Scott could’ve caught it. He could be out.”

“He could’ve been hit by it like they said Tom was. Let’s just see.” Thinking, out.

“I wonder where the station’s exits are. I mean, it’s got to have them. I wonder where they lead.”

“I wonder. One minute to go.” She finds herself fiddling with her hands, tying her fingers in knots, and forces herself to stop. There’s another platform on the other side of the tracks. They’re the only people here. Their voices are the only sound.

Then there’s the noise of rushing air. A dim light in the tunnel to the right. Jenny holds her breath. Can’t tear her eyes away. A building whirr of electric engine noise.

“Here it comes,” Duncan says, but the light’s wrong, she’s thinking. It should be brighter already.

The sound builds and turns into a squeal as the train rushes past, but it’s not there. As Jenny squints her eyes against the tears in them she can sort of see it. A subway train, sleek and smooth, but smoky, translucent, a swift-moving blur of fog-dreams of a world they can no longer touch.

And gone.

She watches the light recede, taking the brief hopes of a life outside the City with it, and sees the shape silhouetted just inside the far tunnel.

“What does that mean, Jen?” Duncan says. His voice sounds small. “What we just saw?”

“It means…” The words are hard. “The train’s just like everything else. It’s just a ghost. They’re all just ghosts.”

She stands and he follows her over to the mouth of the tunnel where the train disappeared. Scott is hanging there from a noose made of electrical cable pulled down from the ceiling. She doesn’t look at his face. Doesn’t want to look at his face. She can hear Duncan sobbing behind her.

On the far wall, written in chalk, is a message in Scott’s handwriting. It says: ‘There’s no way out. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ On the floor a short way away she sees a dusty Maskelyne hat lying between the tracks. The cold grey of old bones around it. Gone, gone, Tom.

They stay there in silence for a while, then walk away.

It is 11:05. Jenny stands at the junction near the little row of empty cafés. The big clock on the tower across Evergreen Park tells her it is 11:05, and since neither she nor most of the other kids in the City have a watch, she has come to rely on it. As she does at 11:05 every day, in this place without true days, she stands there and watches the ghosts, hoping as she does at 11:05 every day, that this time she will see her parents just one last time.