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Echo098

How do you make it through... when everything is a lie?


The Blurb

A silent train. A murdered conductor. A mysterious town. And threatening letters. 'Clara' is slowly solving the mysteries of the town she's come across. But in a world where nobody knows her name, and there's nobody she can trust, she only has herself in the end. And maybe, finally telling the truth, will make all the difference in the world.


-1-

The train is quiet. The only noise comes from the turning of the wheels. I have been the only passenger, since I got on this morning.

Normally, it’s alright. I like the silence. But today, it feels strange. I haven’t even heard from the conductor, and he should have come to stamp my ticket.

I stand up from my seat, and walk through the halls. My footsteps echo, as I make my way towards the front of the train. There is someone driving the train, it appears. The man stands away from the door, and he appears… unfocused.

My hands reach into my pocket, and pull out an old hotel keycard. I’ve kept it for no reason, other than to pick poorly made locks. I save my lockpicks for proper occasions.

The door opens, as soon as I slid the card through the slit.

When I walk in, I realize why the conductor is turned away. He is slumped over, onto the lever that lets the train run.

He is dead.

Despite knowing this, I try for a pulse. There is nothing, and he has stopped breathing. A single bullet has gone through his head.

I know he was alive, when I got on the train. He waved, as I dragged my suitcase on board.

There’s a powder burn on his forehead. He was shot at point blank, that much is obvious. He died fairly quickly, judging by the wound. Someone shot in the forehead wouldn’t last long, if even at all.

I still don’t know when he died, however. If I can’t figure that out, I have no hope. Two hours ago, we stopped to refuel, in a small town called Jehonë. I saw the conductor outside, talking to the mayor then.

I fumble around my pockets, and pull out a map. After Jehonë, we stopped in Jeka. After that, we didn’t stop again. We missed our stops in both Exo and Kaja.

The next town on the map is called Kaiku. Looking out the window, I can just see a train stop.

But something is still bothering me. How did I miss the sound of a gunshot? And is the murderer still on the train?

I shake myself. I need to get a grip. What I need to do, is stop the train, and get off at Kaiku, or the train will run off the tracks.

I run back to my car, grab my suitcase, and return to the engine room. The station is coming closer, and I have no choice but to get off.

I try to pull the lever, but it’s been forced into place by the conductor’s weight.

“Okay…” I tell myself, “I just have to jump off the train. No big deal.”

Taking my suitcase, I find the first door I can use to escape the train. Quickly, I unlock it, and do my best to ignore the sirens wailing.

Taking my suitcase, I find the first door I can use to escape the train. Quickly, I unlock it, and do my best to ignore the sirens wailing.

The paved ground is there, and it’s only three feet away.

“One chance! Once chance, or you’re a gonner!”

With all my might, I jump off the train. I land on the stones, and bruises form on my knees. Still, I’m alive, and that should count for something.

There’s nobody inside, which is very lucky for me. But what I need to do for now, is hide my identity.

I wheel my suitcase into a bathroom, and lock the the door. I rip the tags off my suitcase, and throw them in the toilet. From there, I go through my pockets, and find anything that has my name, or can be traced back to me.

My train ticket. A receipt for the coffee I bought this morning. My credit card. Then I rip them all up, and throw into the toilet. I quickly flush it down, and wash my hands, in case anyone is waiting outside.

The station is still empty. I have no idea where I am, and I don’t have anything to guide myself with.

I leave the station, and drag my suitcase behind me. I’m greeted by a smiling girl, with long brown hair.

“Welcome to Kaiku! I’m Tanya, and I’ll be guiding you around!”

She seems perky, and it makes me suspicious. Nobody is perky like that, not even my little sister.

But I need to make a good first impression, so I smile back, “Nice to meet you, Tanya. My name is Clara.”

It is always good to have an alias when travelling.

Tanya looks delighted, “Ooh! I’ve always wanted to meet a Clara. You’ll be welcome here in Kaiku! Come on, lemme show you around! We’ve been expecting you!”

Tanya spews foolishness from her mouth. I have not been expected here at all. I was not even supposed to get off here. It appears I will not be arriving in Gema for a long time.

Everywhere in Kaiku, has some interesting aspects. There is a Town Plaza, where a giant tree stands tall. According to Tanya, the first mayor of Kaiku planted it.

They have a campsite, a Recycling Shop, and many houses scattered along the town. Tanya is insistent on introducing me to everyone.

I make a point to remember everyone’s names. Names that I write in a notebook. I must have a good idea of who lives in this mysterious town.

After a tour of the town, Tanya takes me towards a hotel by the train tracks, that I hadn’t noticed before.

“You’ll be staying here, Clara. Remember Isabelle, from earlier in our tour?”

I vaguely recall a short blonde girl, who looked loyal, but unreliable.

“Well, she manages the place! She’ll take care of you from here! Adios!”

Tanya leaves, and I let out a sigh of relief. While she is friendly, she is quote overbearing, and it feels good to hear silence again.

I enter the hotel, and Isabelle is standing behind the counter. She waves, “Clara? Tanya told me you’d be checking in here.”

I nod, “Yeah, I will be.”

“Any idea on how long you’ll be staying?”

This is a question that I am not prepared for. I was not even supposed to end up in this town. My destination is Gema. But if I do not stay long, it will be suspicious.

“Clara?”

My mind snaps, and I turn, “Sorry. I get lost in my thoughts a lot. Artist problems.”

Isabelle believes my lie, “I do that all the time, and I’m not even an artist like you!”

I figured an artist was an ideal cover. I always keep a sketchbook on me, and some pencils. It makes a believable lie.

“I supposed I’ll be staying for at least a week.” I say, and Isabelle nods, “Okay, cool! I’ll remember that. Come on, you’re staying in room 503.”

Isabelle hands me the key to my room, when we arrive. I’m used to keycards, and this is the first time that I’ve been granted an actual key.

I enter the room, and lock it behind me. There is one bed, a bathroom, a fridge, and a bedside table.

I set my suitcase down on the floor, and turn on the lamp on the table. Then, I remove my sketchbook, and notebook, and prepare to jot down what I know.

Everyone here is suspicious, from Elena, the snooty teen, to Melody, the crabby old lady, to Caleb, a silent boy who only showed up for an instant.

Hopefully, I’ve made an accurate judge of the people I’ve met so far. To be honest, I doubt it. I’m terrified here.

I haven’t been this afraid, since I was nine years old, and was sitting by my sister’s bedside. But back then, I knew what would happen. Here, I have no idea.

I need to escape from this town. I can’t trust anyone. Everyone here is my enemy. My mission is to escape with my life, and complete my mission in Gema.

If only I had some way of doing so.

-2-

I wake when the sunlight streams through my window. My vision slides into focus, and I check my watch. 7:03 am.

At first, I’m not quite sure where I am. I’m supposed to be in a tent, with Darryl snoring beside me.

Then I remember.

I get dressed quickly, and head out of the hotel. Isabelle is asleep at the front desk, and I decide not to wake her, so I tiptoe out.

Nobody appears to be awake yet, so I use the early hour to my advantage. I didn’t have time to look over the town properly, when Tanya was showing me around yesterday. Now, I can properly snoop about.

Flowers grow abundantly in this town. Almost a little too much, if you ask me. Tulips, roses, pansies, and any other flower you could think of was somewhere around here.

I wonder if that is significant.

Most of the houses I come across, still have sleeping occupants. Melody is awake, as the lights in her window are on. But Melody made it clear that I was not welcome, and I do not want to anger her further.

I settle myself under a tree, and sketch one of the many flower patches in the town. I’m supposed to be a travelling artist, so I better look the part.

But I can’t focus on the drawing, and put it aside after a few moments. I need a way to get out of this town. I can’t just leave. Someone will see it as odd, and my cover will be blown.

If that happens… well, I have the pill Darryl gave me. Only to be used in dire circumstances, when it was far too late to escape, and start over.

Last year, Darryl’s twin brother had to take the pill. He’d been cornered, and the interrogation was about to begin. But Michael was one to protect the secrets till the end. If it came to dying, than that was how it had to be.

He’d lectured several of us, when we first met him. Always saying that it was better to take the pill, to save the others, than to give up information to save ourselves.

I’d liked Michael. He was kind, and always the kind of person who could make you laugh. He was good person to have around, and he was one of the few I would agree to work with in a heartbeat.

Thoughts of this past are getting to me, so I pick up the sketchbook, and start heading back to the hotel. There are people walking around as I head back, and I check the time. I’ve been reflecting for over an hour, and half to town has gotten up in that time.

It’s okay. I try to tell myself, Nobody will notice what’s happening to me.

But I hate lying to myself, and it’s eating at me.

When I arrive back at the hotel, Isabelle is waiting for me, “Hey Clara! There’s a letter for you.”

This is what surprises me. Has Darryl found a way to contact me, despite not even knowing what happened to me? But how would he know my alias here? He doesn’t even know my real name, so why would he know this fake one?

Turns out, the letter is not from Darryl. It’s typed out, and Darryl always made a huge deal about writing by hand. He hated modern technology, because he didn’t like the idea of a machine being smarter than him.

At first, it seems like the letter is no big deal. And then, it gets serious.

To ‘Clara’,

First of all, welcome to Kaiku. You’ll be here for a while, so get used to it. Once you show up here, you can’t get out. I know you’re lying to everyone, so don’t try to pull that on me. Your real name isn’t Clara, and you’re no freelance artist. You might wonder who I am. That’s not important. What’s important, is that would quit snooping around. I know your type. We had one here a couple years ago. Mind you, we took care of him, if you know what I mean. Resistance is futile. You’re a smart girl, Clara, so I am sure you’ll figure out my identity in now time. This is a formal warning. Cease your investigations of this town… or be eliminated. Do not attempt to contact anyone. Nothing is safe. You can’t trust anyone. Not me, not Tanya, not anyone else in this town. You are being watched.

There is no name anywhere on the envelope.

I quickly discard the letter. But the words are burned into my mind. Somebody in this town knows my secret, and is plotting to kill me, if I do not comply with them.

I’m not even supposed to be here. So why is this letter threatening me?

~

I run into Tanya, after I finish my sketch from earlier. She’s grinning still, and I eye her carefully, just in case.

“Clara! How’s my new best friend?”

I don’t remember even becoming friends with this girl, but I smile, “Oh, I’m just great. I was planning on going up to Main Street, actually.”

“Super! I was too! Let’s go together!”

Tanya’s excitement feels false, but I keep my own emotions inside. If I even look at her suspiciously, I’ll be eliminated. That is not something I want to happen.

Main Street is the north portion of the town, on the opposite side of the tracks. There’s a supermarket, a clothing store, a post office… everything a city would normally have.

We stop at clothing store, where Tanya tries on four different outfits, before deciding on a pretty red dress. I pick out a green hoodie, and a couple pairs of leggings. I’m going to need to look the part of an artist. Right now, I’ve got mostly warm clothes. Darryl said it was going to be cold in Gema. I guess I’ll never really find out.

Tanya heads straight for the candy, when we enter the supermarket. I use her distraction to buy some stationary, under the pretence of writing to my mother.

Hopefully, the one threatening me doesn’t know too much. If they knew there was no way in hell I’d write to my mother…

While Tanya’s buying the store’s entire supply of candy, I quickly transcribe a letter to Darryl, using the code we invented together, four years ago.

I mail it without any problems. It will reach Roseanne, back in Solstice, and she’ll forward it to Darryl.

I couldn’t afford to put much sensitive information in. All I said is that I was alive in Kaiku, and not to reply.

At this point in time, I fear for my life.

When Tanya is done buying diabetes, she practically drags me up to Harriet’s salon.

“Come on Clara! She was busy with Elena’s hair yesterday. Today we can talk to her!”

I can’t argue with Tanya, and we climb the steps. Sure enough, Harriet doesn’t have a customer at the moment. In fact, she and Caleb are just preparing the dyes among other things.

Harriet waves us over, “Hello dearie’s! My my, you’re looking just lovely today!”

Tanya heads into a whole spiel on how good Harriet is, and how I need to get all my fashion tips from her.

I ignore both of them, and my eyes settle on Caleb, who has been silently watching us since we came in. Our gaze meets, and then his eyes flash.

I recoil. I can’t anger Caleb. I’m being watched. In fact, Caleb might even be the one doing the watching. I can’t afford to let my guard down, but I remain rigid…

Suddenly Tanya tugs on my arm, “Claraaaaaa! What colour should I dye my hair?”

“It looks fine the way it is. You should leave it brown.” I say honestly.

Tanya pouts, “But I want to dye it blue!” She whines.

Why did you ask me in the first place, then? I think to myself.

Suddenly, something drops into my back pocket. My eyes flicker around, and I spot Caleb inching away from me.

I want to speak up, to question his motives, but I can’t. Harriet and Tanya are still within range, even if their conversation is all about hairstyles.

Caleb’s face is grim. My fingers move towards my pocket, and find a folded piece of paper. I discreetly pull it out, and carefully unfold it, keeping an eye on Harriet and Tanya.

They’re watching me too. You can’t hide from them for long. They know everything. Don’t trust anyone.

I look up at him, but he just sighs. Trembling, I slide the note into my pocket, with plans to destroy it later.

Almost as soon as I hide the note, Tanya skips back over. Blue streaks are in her hair, and she’s grinning happily.

“Look, Clara look! My hair! It’s beautiful!”

Privately, I think the blue is hideous, but I fake a smile and say, “Wow, you look great!”

I got a lot of practice lying, so it comes easily. Tanya doesn’t miss a beat, and keeps on grinning, “I know, right?”

Once more, she drags me out of the salon. But this time, I find myself looking back, and catching Caleb’s gaze. He doesn’t say anything. He just stares.

I manage to ditch Tanya, and start heading back to the hotel. When I get back, I lock myself in the bathroom, and look at the note one last time, before ripping it up.

But when I turn it around in my hands, there’s another message on the back. One I almost let slip through my fingers.

My hands tremble, as I read the words.

Meet me behind the salon at 11pm. Don’t let anyone find out. Destroy this note.

I shred the paper, and flush it down the toilet. My heart is beating faster and faster. What does Caleb know, and why does he want to speak to me?

I’m afraid of the answer.

Correction. I’m terrified.


-3-

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