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The Loop

Don't get stuck.

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 2 years ago 22 min read
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The Loop
Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

My stomach lurches. I open my eyes, and my head is throbbing. My mouth tastes like I’ve eaten an ashtray. Something jolts me forward, and I hit my head on the seat in front of me. A wave of nausea rises from the pit of my stomach. I reach into the seat pocket searching for something to retch into. I open a paper bag just in time. The bile reeks of watermelon liquor. After vomiting a second time, I sit back a moment with my eyes closed. I feel the earth shifting below me, the sound of wheels on tracks. I’m on a train. Not the first time I’ve woken up on the train after a night out. I look out the window, searching for any sign of coming up on a station, but all I see is my face looking back at me from a pitch black view. My reflection has looked better. My hair stands up in tangled knots along the top of my head. My eyes are dark from smeared makeup and lack of sleep. I yawn, and my breath almost makes me turn back to the bag, but a voice startles the sensation away.

“Happens,” A girl’s voice says. I turn to see a blonde holding out a linen napkin and a cup of water. She’s beautiful, with creamy skin and rosebud lips and cheeks. Her hair is braided, and it falls down her back almost to her waist. She smells like lemons.

“Have we passed the stop for 23rd?” I ask her.

“Not sure,” she says.

“Where are we now?” I pry further, annoyed that I have to ask. I take a small sip of the water.

“Not sure,” she says again, smiling. “I can take you to the bathing car, if you’d like.”

I just blink at her. What is she even talking about? The more I look at her, the stranger she gets. She’s wearing a spotless white jumpsuit, which is just stupid for the subway. It’s stupid for New York, in general, unless you’re loaded, which she could be. She looks wealthy. But then, why is she down here? Shouldn’t she be in a car with leather seats and a driver? I place a hand on the seat in front of me to steady myself as we jolt sideways a bit. I notice the plushness of the fabric. Where was the hard plastic? I take a moment to look around. This isn’t the subway.

The seats are velvet soft and crimson. The floors are a springy carpet with a pattern of alternating large and small diamonds–gold, burgundy, gold, burgundy. I look down at my clothes. Ripped black jeans that sling low on my hips, a cropped top that barely covers my small breasts. On the subway, I see other people dressed in even less than I’m wearing–people in mini skirts and tube tops. We’re part of our own club, the early morning commuters before the early morning commute. There’s always some pretty, used thing willing to share a blunt or hit of something. I;m usually with Benny on that transitional ride from Friday night into Saturday morning. His hair color is different every time. Last night, it was pink. We smoked a joint together and giggled the whole ride home. But Benny isn’t here. Nothing familiar is here. Panic rises red to my cheeks, but I just sip the water.

“We have toothbrushes,” the girl says, the smile plastered on her face. “Soap, toothpaste. ”

I just nod, unsure of what else to do. As I stand, the car spins around me. I grip the seat to steady myself, then shuffle from the row. Everything around me feels like luxury as I follow the girl, from the crystal and gold chandeliers overhead to the scent of the car, the kind of smell that wafts out of those fancy hotels like the St. Regis.

“I don’t have like, my ticket or anything,” I say, fishing for information. “Do I need that?”

“No,” she says.

“Oh,” I say. “Okay. Well do I need money, quarters, a card? For the bathing car?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “You don’t need anything, Sadie.”

Goosebumps cover my neck to my toes. She knows my name.

“I’m sorry,” I say, trying to keep my voice even. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“Elizabeth,” she says, her tone still pleasant. “Here we are.”

She opens the sliding door from the car I woke up in and leads us into another. This one is filled with other kids. No one looks older than seventeen. They’re all in stark white jumpsuits, playing games and reading around cherry wood tables. The chairs are deep and made of worn leather. The whole thing looks like a Ralph Lauren ad–if he’d decorated an asylum.

“This is Sadie,” Elizabeth announces.

A girl springs up from her seat.

“Is she taking Heidi’s place?” She says. She seems a bit younger than the rest.

“She is,” Elizabeth nods. “And we want her to feel very welcome, yes?”

“Of course,” the girl says with a sad smile. “Welcome, Sadie.”

“She’s just a bit nostalgic over the last girl,” Elizabeth said quietly enough that only I could hear. “As soon as she and the others get to know you, they’ll forget all about Heidi. It’s how it always works.”

“I don’t understand,” I say, so confused and so hungover that my ears start ringing.

“Wash, first,” she says. We walk into another cart, and this one has a long hallway with rooms lining both sides. Elizabeth opens one of the glossy wooden doors for me, holding it open with one hand so I can peer inside. “Tub to the left, sink on the right. You’ll find soap and toothpaste and anything else you might need in the cabinet beneath the sink. On the back of the door you’ll find a clean towel and change of clothes. I’ll be back in a few to check on you.”

I nod at that. I lock the bolt when she leaves. I close my eyes and beg my memories from the night before to come back, but my mind is blank. I fill the tub. I find the soap under the sink. It smells lemony, just like Elizabeth. A memory of a lemon drop shot zips through my brain. A club with pounding music. My fake ID hadn’t gotten denied at that one bar. I search my pockets. No phone, no ID, no money. I swallow a scream that’s building in my throat. I have to focus. I slip into the tub, and immediately let my head sink underwater. I hold my breath as long as I can, then break through the surface, gasping for air.

There was a girl named Heidi, and I seem to have replaced her. There have been other replacements before that. Did they all wake up like this, not knowing where they were? A knock sounds at the door.

“What?” I say, a little too sharply. I take a deep breath. “I mean, yes?”

“Sadie?” A low voice whispers through the door. “I’m Ashley. May I come in?”

I sigh and stand up. I reach for the towel on the door, and beneath it is a thick, cotton robe. I dry off, then tie the robe around myself. There is a white jumpsuit hanging on the door. I roll my eyes, and search the ground for my clothes. They’re gone. My stomach flips, and the ringing starts in my ears again. Another knock sounds at the door.

“Sadie,” Ashley whispers. “I hate to bother, but it’s urgent.”

I unlock the door, and a girl with red hair and freckles slides through the opening and shuts the door quickly behind her.

“We don’t have much time,” she says. “I replaced Emily.”

“What the does that mean?” I say, trying to keep my voice low. “Where are we, Ashley?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know, but I’m the newest one here, aside from you. All I know is there are always fifty boys, and fifty girls on this train. The train never stops. No one remembers how they got here. But everyone has a similar story of their night before–their life, before–and I want to know yours.”

“I doubt we have the same story,” I say. This girl looks clean cut. Well-fed. But Ashley just stares up at me, waiting. “I went out last night. I go out every night. Mom’s dead, dad’s a junkie. I’m sixteen, but the Yellow Cab Lounge doesn’t know that. They think I’m eighteen. I did my shift there, made a ton of tips, and then went out after. Me and some of the staff did shots at the bar–lemon drops–then we went to the Alley Cat. They always let me in there. All I know is I drank my face off. I danced until my feet were numb, then walked to the train with–” my memory flickers back now. I remember walking with Benny and Alyssa. “With my friends. We got on the train, like we always do.”

“Was there anything out of the ordinary?” she asks.

I try to think. My head is pounding. I was with Benny and Alyssa. We smoked cigs on the platform as we waited and this horrible troubadour was alternating between scatting and playing the sax. Alyssa put her arm around me and tucked me in close so she could rest her head on mine. The train pulled up. The troubadour yelled something vulgar at Benny, and Benny flipped up his skirt to show his thong-bare cheeks to the man before getting on the train. We’d all laughed at that, even Alyssa. I remember falling asleep on Alyssa’s shoulder, and through blurry eyes watching Benny flirt with a business man that was on the train way too early. It had to have been like 4 am, and this dude was in a three piece suit, ready for work. I remember thinking as I dozed that I could never be one of those corporate robots. Then, I woke up here.

I tell Ashley the condensed version of my memories. She nods along.

“I was a crackhead,” she says. I don’t have time to let that sink in. She just continues. “I woke up, and Elizabeth took me straight to a room with IVs and all kinds of screens. It wasn’t like this–the ornate, fancy stuff. I don’t think I was supposed to remember being there. That room got me clean within an hour. Haven’t wanted crack since. I have searched for that car, and can’t find it. But I know I was a junkie, and she fixed me.”

“How long have you been here?” I ask her.

“I think a year,” she says. “I try keeping count of the days. I don’t even know if I’m right. We all go to bed at the same time, we all wake up at the same time, so I assume that’s day and night. Haven’t seen the sun since I got here though.”

“A year?” I say, my mouth going dry. “I can’t be here for a year.”

“What,” she says. “You got something better to go back to?”

I think about it a moment. I don’t. I technically live in a one bedroom with my dad. The place is covered in rodents and cigarette butts. I stay out, mostly. Sleep on friends’ couches. My days and nights are a blur anyway, and if I’m being honest, I don’t know the last time I’ve really seen the sun either. I’m always hungry. But this girl is saying she was a crackhead, and she looks like she summers at Martha’s Vineyard. The rest of my life back home is looking like shifts at the Yellow Cab until I’m too old, then who knows what? If I didn’t die before my 40s, I probably would end up like dad. This place looks pretty ok in comparison.

“What do we do here, though?” I ask.

“I don’t really know,” she says. “We eat. We read. We play games. We sleep. Josie is super smart, she’s read every book here. She’s the one that stood up about Heidi earlier.”

“You mean all of the books in that library car?” I ask. “There’s no way. She’s what, 12? There has to be at least 1,000 books.”

“1,245,” Ashley said. “And she’s been here almost the longest. About 10 years. Heidi was here longer than her, 15 years or so.”

“Wait,” I say. “If she’s been here 10 years, she would have been 2 years old. She probably didn’t learn to read until around 5. She couldn’t have read–”

“That’s the thing,” Ashley says. She looks at me as though she’s trying to gauge if I’ll believe her. “Josie didn’t arrive here at 2 years old. She arrived at the exact age she is now.”

“But you said–”

“Josie arrived at age 12,” Ashley continues. “But she’s been here for a decade, and she hasn’t aged a day. Neither have I. None of us have, actually.”

“So, what?” I ask. “We’re stuck in some sort of a time loop?”

“It seems that way,” she says. “Eric has come up with some sort of theory that the speed of the train is somehow keeping us locked in the same day. That we’re like, skipping time zones or something.”

“But wouldn’t our bodies still age?” I say.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she says. “All I know is that every day, Elizabeth guides us through the rules and schedule. We’re told when it’s mealtime, when it’s time for exercise, to sleep. At first I hated it. But, this is the least hungry I’ve ever been in my life. And because I’m not hungry, my brain works better. I get to learn. And I sleep like a baby. I’ve never slept like that. When you grow up in a house like mine, you sleep with one eye open.”

“I know the feeling,” I say.

“So,” she says. “Just trust the process. At least until we figure out what we’re doing here.”

“You don’t seem eager to leave,” I say. “Why bother figuring it out?”

“I’m not, but,” she hesitates. “Every few years, someone disappears. Like Heidi. Before her, it was Timothy. Jason. Mallory. There’s always a replacement. 50 boys, 50 girls. But the train never stops. No one could have gotten on or off. They just disappear and appear, and no one remembers how they got here. Everyone comes from a place like us though. Josie’s family beat the crap out of her. Jamie was an alcoholic between foster homes. The list goes on.”

“Were they all on trains?”

“Yeah, but from all over–Chicago, Nebraska, California,” she says. “I’m from Arkansas. The Ozarks. Pure trailer trash. How about you?”

“New York,” I say. “I was on the subway then ended up here.”

“Yep,” she says. “Sounds about right. A bunch of burnouts, misfits, and runaways with no one to miss us.”

A bell chimes. Ashley startles and jumps to her feet.

“I have to go,” she says. “Elizabeth will be back.”

“Ok,” I say. “But let’s talk again, soon? I don’t want to disappear if I can help it.” I try to laugh, but it gets caught in my throat.

“We will,” She smiles at me. “Now, get in uniform.”

She winks at me and closes the door. I shimmy into the plain white undergarments and jumpsuit. Another knock sounds, and I hear Elizabeth’s voice coo: “Ready, Sadie?” through the door.

I open it, and she looks at me approvingly.

“Lunch time,” she says.

We go to the dining car, and when we arrive there are plated meals at each seat. Boys and girls between the ages of 12 to 17 make their way to the tables.

“Where does all this food come from?” I ask.

“I just comes,” Elizabeth says.

“But who brings it here?” I ask. “Who set up all these plates?”

“So many questions,” Elizabeth says, and she clicks her tongue. “Let’s just be grateful it appears every day, three times a day, yes?”

I nod and find a seat next to Ashley. The food smells better than anything I’ve ever eaten before. Perfectly roasted stalks of broccoli rest lightly on top of a heap of thick mashed potatoes. Chicken with buttery crisp skin gleams on the plate next to the veggies.

We go through the day, listening to Elizabeth direct us with each chime. I try to count them. By the sixth chime since my arrival, Elizabeth tells us it’s time to go to sleep. We all go to the sleeping carts, girls in one, boys in another. I almost make a smart remark about how I’m into girls anyway, so it kind of defeats the purpose, but I think better of it. I climb into the bunk above Ashley. There are gauzy white curtains around each bed, like luxury mosquito nets.

Elizabeth passes around tea. She says it’s important that we drink it to calm our nerves. Everyone does as she says, but when her back is turned, I lift my pillow and pour the hot tea right under it onto my mattress. It seems plush enough to absorb it. When she makes her way back to me, I fake yawn. I hand her the empty cup, and she smiles up at me.

“You’ll sleep like a baby,” she says. “Just wait until you get a full eight hours.”

She turns out the lights. I whisper to Ashley in the bunk below me, but she’s already snoring. That stuff does work. I lie there wide awake. I begin to let my whole, sad, worthless life flash before my eyes, and think about how this train isn’t any more of a trap than the system I was born into. If I had to be somewhere I couldn’t escape, this is a whole lot nicer than the street. And, I get to stay young forever. Not a bad trade. But what if Ashley is right? What if I disappear like the others?

I hear someone open the door, and I squeeze my eyes shut. I see lights flicker on through my eyelids. I hear a cart rolling down the aisle. It stops near the end of the car. I risk opening my eyes just a sliver. Elizabeth is hunched over Josie. She’s only visible from the waist down, covered by the top bunk. There are vials on the cart in a test tube holder. Coming from the tops of the vials are two tubes that snake down toward Josie. They are the size of drinking straws. Something begins to make a whirring noise. Slowly, liquid rises through the tubes, as deep red as the carpet under Elizabeth’s feet.

I want to shut my eyes. Maybe I’m dreaming. But I can’t. I watch as the vials fill to the top, then Elizabeth shifts. I should look away when I see her rise from the bunk. She’s holding two needles connected to the tubes with gloved hands. I pray that the curtain around me obscures me just enough that she doesn’t notice me. My neck aches, but I don’t dare to adjust it.

She opens a machine now. It looks like one of those fancy egg cookers. The top pops up, and she places the vials inside. She closes it, clicks a button, and another whirring sound starts, as though something is spinning. I watch as she lifts the vials. The once full- red vials are now layered like a trifle, with something milky white at the top, then pink, then red again. Elizabeth’s back is still to me, but she’s angled just enough that I can see her stick the needle of a syringe into the vial.

She lifts the plunger of the syringe, and pulls out only the pink part from each vial. She squeezes the pink stuff from the syringe into another clean container. She uncaps a black marker. On the container, she writes “Subject 294 - ‘Josie’”.

I lie statue still. I hear a beep that sounds like an old walkie talkie. Elizabeth speaks, not even trying to keep her voice down. She truly believes we’re all properly sedated.

“Peter?” She says. “We have another expired subject.”

“Be there in a sec,” he says.

The end of the car, which had seemed to be a solid wall before, reveals itself to be a hidden door. A man walks through, and my stomach flips. It’s the man from the subway. The one in the three-piece suit Benny flirted with. He wheels in another metal cart. I lower my head a moment and try to catch my breath. I hear grunting and shoving and eventually the sound of what could only be a body hitting the metal table.

“Make sure you close the door to the furnace tight this time,” Elizabeth said. “I could smell Heidi’s hair burning. So unpleasant.”

“Sorry,” Peter says.

“And you’ve identified a new subject?” she asks.

“We’re coming up on Union Station,” he says. “Molly. 14.”

“Younger would be better,” she says. “This last one is 16.”

The sweat on my skin turns to ice. They’re talking about me.

“Plasma is plasma,” he says. “It’ll still keep the ancient Margot Hendrick’s and Yvonne Maywood’s of the country’s skin looking baby-smooth. People are selling these kids like hotcakes, especially the girls.”

“Good,” she says. “Good.”

“I’ll be back before you can notice I’m gone,” he says.

I hear the cart rolling away. The door slides open and shut.

Josie should be 22. She died, here, at what would have been 22 years old in the real world. If I make it 10 years here, I’ll be dead by 26. Is that better than risking the life I had before? And what is plasma anyway?

Elizabeth finally gets to me. I have to stay perfectly still. I can’t even breathe differently as she pricks the needles into my arms. I don’t know if I pass out, but the next time my eyes open I know I’d been dreaming. I’d dreamt of Ashley and I in a little house in the country somewhere, with a kid. I think we were married. Everything was clean and pretty, but not like this, not stuffy. Open and covered in wildflowers. It looked like a real life.

I find Ashley during free time the next day, and I suggest we do some art. She brushes off the idea at first, saying she isn’t creative, but I insist. We find a corner, and I pretend to draw her. I make the curve of her cheek, then I write the words “DON’T REACT TO WHAT I WRITE” inside the outline of her face. I show it to her as if I’m getting her approval. She smiles and nods, but her eyes tell me she understands.

I color over the words, and begin on her jumpsuit. I write a few sentences at a time, explaining what I heard the night before. I finish the story, then begin to write “DO YOU BELIEVE ME?”, but she turns her paper to me first. It says “WHAT DO WE DO NOW?”

I tell her we have to stop drinking the tea. We have to wait until the next body expires. And then, we have to somehow follow Peter off the train. She agrees with me, and during every free time we begin to read from the science section of the library. Biology, chemistry, medicine.

One day, Ashley comes over to me with a book. A page is earmarked. I open it and run my finger down the page, looking for a word to jump out. And it does. “Plasma”. I read the full passage: Platelet-rich plasma, also known as autologous conditioned plasma, is a concentrate of platelet-rich plasma protein derived from whole blood, centrifuged to remove red blood cells. It is used to treat anything from injuries to aging, providing rejuvenation of the body, skin, hair, and more.

I whisper to her, “Meet me in the bathing car. Second stall.” She nods. I look around for Elizabeth. She’s in the corner, deep in a book. I slip to the bathing car. I wait in the stall for a few minutes, then Ashley joins me. She sits in the tub, and I follow her, our legs twisted around each other.

“So they’re using our plasma to stay–youthful?” I ask.

“Seems that way,” she says. “Everything I’ve found though says you’re supposed to use your own blood for it.”

“Maybe they’ve learned new information since the book was published,” I offer. “Maybe they figured out that younger blood is better blood. They figured out how to suspend time, so why not figure out how to use our blood? It makes sense, right? They keep us young, harvest our youth, then throw us out when we can’t serve them any longer. They keep us as long as they can since they pay people to traffic kids to them. I wonder how much I cost.”

The thought sends a chill down my spine. I picture Benny, talking to Peter on the subway. It’s the last thing I can remember. Benny. Benny must have sold me. He was the closest thing I had to family, him and Alyssa. I wonder how much he made off of me?

“Are you ok?” Ashley asks, cupping my face and forcing me to look up at her.

“Mhm,” I nod, and I notice I’m crying. She leans in, and her lips brush mine. Fire rises in my stomach. The dream I had, it could come true. “We need to make a real plan. Who’s the next to expire?”

“Another girl,” she says. “Caroline. 17.”

But night after night goes by without any expirations. Ashley looks tired, but neither of us can show it. We should be well-rested after a night on the tea. We can’t keep this up much longer. After what feels like weeks, it’s time. Caroline finally expires.

Peter comes in and heaves her onto the cart. Just as he rolls away, I hold my breath, waiting to see if Ashley will really do the plan. And she does. She pulls the alarm wire, the one we are only supposed to use in case of emergencies that runs along the perimeter of each car. Elizabeth scans the room, looking to make sure we are all properly asleep, and she is fooled. She rushes through the door, eager to shut off the alarm before it risks waking us.

Ashley and I move fast and low. We slide the false wall open just wide enough to sneak through, and to our luck, Peter is so busy with Caroline that he doesn’t notice us. We hide crouched in the corner, and watch as he slams the furnace shut and clamps the lock tightly. He wipes his brow, and picks up his briefcase that he’d left near our corner. I hold my breath as he leans down. He is inches away. But he just walks away and pulls a lever. The train begins to slow. He turns a dial on a large clock that sticks out of the wall. It begins to tick. The train groans to a stop. He presses a red button, and a door whooshes open. He steps out. Ashley and I race to the door. The clock is ticking down.

We fumble for the button, and it feels like years before the doors open. The timer dings, and just as the train engine begins to rev back up, the doors slide open, and we step off onto the platform. We see Peter in the distance. He’s holding his ear and talking fervently into a bluetooth headset. He swears, then looks up and around. Elizabeth knows. Ashley grabs my jumpsuit and guides us quickly through the station.

She yanks me into a souvenir shop. She rips off her jumpsuit, and I take off mine. The cashier is scrolling on his phone. We grab t-shirts from the stand, hers covered in a giant Bears logo, mine the Chicago flag. We grab big sweatpants and slide them on, crown ourselves in tacky hats. We run so hard the cashier doesn’t have time to realize we left without paying. We make it up the escalators, out onto the city street.

“What now?” I ask.

“We’re whoever we want to be,” Ashley smiles.

“We’re just a couple of burnouts,” I roll my eyes.

“We’re whoever we want to be,” she says. She kisses me. She pulls a wad of 100 dollar bills from her pocket. It had to be tens of thousands of dollars.

“Where did you–” I ask.

“His briefcase pocket,” she says. “Consider it a refund for your sale, since you got returned.”

We walk to a hotel called The Peninsula. Ashley says Drake stays there when he’s in Chicago. We look stupid in our tourist gear in the fancy lobby, but they take our money regardless, even though it’s cash and not card. Maybe they think we’re socialites slumming it. Kendall Jenner types. Relatable but loaded. I try to rest once we get up to the fancy bed, but I worry for the new girl, Molly. I worry for the two girls that will have to replace us. Ashley wraps her arm around my waist.

“We have to help them,” I say. “The others.”

“We will,” she says. I think about the kids. About us. The unwanted. The burnouts. The kids who disappear, and their so-called guardians are relieved. How many kids would trade the life they have now for a half-life on that train?

I think about what to do next. Is there human trafficking center near here? There has to be one, just like New York. They’d never believe me.

“It happened right?” I ask.

“It happened,” Ashley says, sleepily. She tightens her grip around my waist. My eyes shut, and I sleep my first eight hour night.

Sci Fi
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Alexandra Hubbell

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  • Kat Thorne2 years ago

    Really interesting story!

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