Authors: Mark Edwards
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Thrillers, #General, #Crime
was frozen for a minute, barely able to process or believe what had just happened. I stared at the space where the train had been until the night swallowed it up and I couldn’t even hear it anymore. The full moon came into view, bathing the spot where we stood with weak light. Stars were dotted here and there. With the train gone, everywhere was silent. No crickets throbbing in the grass. No traffic rushing on nearby roads. All I could hear was my own heavy breathing.
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. We were in the middle of the countryside somewhere not too far, I assumed, from the Romanian border, though it was impossible to estimate how much ground the train had covered before the guards had expelled us. And I wasn’t familiar with Romanian geography. All I knew was that it was an alien landscape, and that we were a very long way from home.
On my left (without a compass I had no way of knowing what direction I was facing), the ground rolled and swelled, an undulating landscape of hills and valleys, trees clinging to steep slopes, an expanse of water in the distance winking silver when the moon showed its face. Beyond, looking down on the hills like elders standing guard over their children, were mountains, jagged and foreboding. They reminded me of the Tolkien books I’d read as a teenager, the hobbits setting off on a treacherous journey in search of the Ring.
In the other direction the ground was flat and covered in thick forest which stretched for miles. In the far distance, beyond the
, another row of jagged mountains formed the horizon. A number of silent birds, black in the dim light, rose from the trees on the forest’s edge before swooping and vanishing again. During the day, with the sun shining, it would no doubt be beautiful. But not now. Not on a night like this.
The station was tiny, with just two platforms which were
by a narrow footbridge. There were no lights; the
appeared to be out of use. There was a small, wooden building with weathered, flaking paintwork that would have once been the ticket office, I guessed. I turned in a slow circle. There were a few dark, similarly abandoned-looking buildings nearby. It looked like a village, a settlement really, that had died at some point in the not-too-distant past.
I turned slowly to face Laura, who stood hugging herself on the dimly lit platform.
‘Daniel,’ she said again, more urgently.
I stepped over to my girlfriend and pulled her into an embrace, feeling her soft hair against my face. The temperature had dropped significantly and she was shivering in her shorts and T-shirt. Goosebumps rippled on the flesh of her arms, her teeth chattered. I looked around for my backpack, which lay on the concrete, its contents spilling out like guts. I dug out a hoodie, which I passed to Laura. She stared at it like she didn’t know what it was.
‘Come on, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘Put it on.’
She looked at me with wide eyes, jerking her head round at a movement in a tree overhead. A bird, its silhouette just visible among the black branches.
‘We’re going to be OK,’ I said, but I sounded like I was trying to reassure myself more than her.
In fact, she seemed to be recovering from the shock more quickly than me, as she cracked a weak joke: ‘When I said I wanted to go off the beaten track, I didn’t mean this far off it.’
Alina stood a few feet away, gazing along the tracks, seemingly in a trance.
‘Do you know where we are?’ I asked.
She didn’t reply.
‘Alina?’ I went up to her and, finally, she snapped out of it. I repeated my question.
She looked around and shook her head.
‘What the fuck just happened?’ I asked. ‘Where was Ion? And why didn’t you wake us like you said you would?’
She rubbed her eyes, shook herself awake. ‘I . . . I fell asleep.’
‘He went to the dining car to get something to eat. I must . . . I guess I was only asleep for five minutes, maybe ten. When I saw the border guard and the ticket inspector heading towards you I jumped up straight away, came to help.’
‘And that went really well.’
She hung her head. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Then her eyes lit up. ‘That guard—what a fucker. If I ever see him again, I’m going to kick his ass so bad.’
We both turned around. Laura was still hugging herself, her eyes as round and wide as the sun that had burned so brightly on the first part of our trip. The beaches of Italy and Spain seemed a very long way away now.
I tried to hug her again but this time she flinched away.
‘If you’d booked us into a sleeper carriage in the first place, hadn’t been so bloody tight.’
I protested. ‘We might still have been robbed.’
‘No. No, we wouldn’t.’ She raked her hands through her hair and sighed. ‘I shouldn’t have agreed to go into the sleeper carriage. I knew it was a bad idea.’
‘I thought it would be OK . . .’ I trailed off. ‘I’m sorry.’
Alina turned away to give us privacy and produced a crumpled packet of cigarettes from her pocket. She lit one, sucked on it hungrily, then looked over her shoulder. ‘At least you guys still have your stuff. All mine is still on the fucking train.’
‘Have you got a phone?’ I asked.
She checked her jeans pockets, pulling out her passport, glancing at it, and sighing. ‘No. It was in my bag.’
‘And mine is dead.’ The battery had shed its last scraps of energy while I was asleep. ‘Laura?’
‘It’s in my backpack.’
She knelt and rummaged through the backpack, then raised her face to the sky. ‘It’s not there. They must have stolen it along with the other stuff.’
I swore. ‘Someone must have looked into the compartment, seen us asleep, decided to try their luck. Hey, maybe it was that guy. The one who kept staring at you. Did you see him, Alina? Did he leave the carriage?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t see.’ She took a long drag on her cigarette.
‘It doesn’t matter, does it?’ said Laura. ‘It’s all gone. We’ll never know who it was.’ She looked around. ‘I don’t like this place. It feels . . . haunted. In a bad way.’
Alina raised an eyebrow. ‘Haunted? You believe in ghosts?’
‘Yes.’ To my relief, she didn’t say anything else. I had long since accepted Laura’s belief in the supernatural but felt slightly embarrassed when she mentioned it to other people. And I really didn’t want to talk about ghosts, right here and now.
Alina must have seen me staring at her cigarette because she held it up and said, ‘You want one?’
She shrugged and approached the ticket office, peered through the filthy glass.
‘There’s a map,’ she said.
I stood beside her at the window. Laura came over to look too. An A2-sized map showing what I assumed to be the local area hung on the wall opposite the window. It was just possible to make out a red arrow, indicating where we were, but in the half-light I couldn’t discern any of the place names.
‘Can you read it?’ I asked Alina.
‘Kind of . . . I think that green area there is the Apuseni Natural Park. So we’re in that area of forest just below it.’
She squinted. ‘There’s a town, not too far.’
I scrutinised the black dot she was referring to. The name was short but I couldn’t read it. Not that it really mattered. All we needed to know was that it was a town. People. Civilisation.
‘Did you notice if we went through a town on the train, before we got here?’ I asked.
‘I think so. Yes, I’m pretty sure we did.’
We all turned and looked at the tracks, leading back the way we’d travelled. Whoever had built the railway had cut a wide path through the trees, slicing the forest in two. It was wide enough for two tracks, with another two metres of clear ground either side
rails. Only the first few metres of this path were visible. Beyond, pitch darkness.
‘How far do you think it is?’
‘Hmm. I don’t know. Nine or ten kilometres.’
‘So that’s, what, six or seven miles?’
Laura put her hand on my arm. ‘You’re not thinking of trying to walk there, are you? Wouldn’t we be better off heading out of the station, trying to find a road?’
‘I don’t know,’ Alina said. ‘You can see here, on the map: the train track runs straight to the town. The road also goes into t
est, but is much longer.’
As she said that, a noise came from the blackness at the far end of the platform. Laura’s grip on my arm tightened, her fingertips digging into my flesh.
‘What the fuck was that?’ she said, her voice escalating a pitch.
Alina took a few tentative steps along the platform towards t
‘It’s a dog,’ she said quietly.
The growl came again and the dog came into view to our left, at the end of the platform, the mountains behind it. Then, as Alina backed away, another appeared. Two black dogs. They looked a little like Dobermanns, but slightly smaller and completely black. They stared at us, silent now, but with drawn-back lips that displayed two sets of sharp, yellowish teeth.
Laura stepped behind me. She has always been afraid of dogs. My parents have a black Labrador, a docile but boisterous creature, and whenever Laura visited, the dog would have to be locked in the kitchen because Laura found him frightening. It stemmed from her mother, who was attacked by a dog when she was a kid, passing on her lifelong fear to her own child.
Alina had moved slowly back to stand beside the window. Laura was gripping my arm so hard that I would have bruises the next day.
One of the dogs took a step forward and growled again, low and menacing. A word popped into my head. Rabies. With it came images of foaming mouths, thrashing bodies, heat and pain a
‘I think,’ Alina whispered, ‘I would rather walk to the nearest town than stay here with them. If we walk along the edge of the tracks it should only take a couple of hours.’
‘What time is it?’ Laura asked.
I checked my watch. ‘Just after three.’
‘Then we’ll be there in time for breakfast,’ Alina said.
I nodded. ‘Laura, are you OK with this plan?’
She looked at the dogs, then turned her head to look along
‘It’s too dark. How the hell are we supposed to find our way?’
‘They’re railroad tracks. We just follow them. And I have the torch, remember?’
I had slipped the skinny Maglite into my backpack at the last minute when packing back home, thinking it might come in handy. I had stopped short of bringing a Swiss Army knife, but only because I didn’t own one.
Laura looked at the dogs, then at the tracks, then back at the dogs, both of which took another step forward, teeth on display.
‘OK,’ Laura said, her voice just audible above the growling of the two dogs.
We backed slowly away from the dogs, careful not to make any sudden movements. I bent and picked up the two backpacks, passing Laura’s to her, and we slung them onto our backs, but not before I’d retrieved the torch, which I switched on, relieved to find that it worked. We walked to the end of the platform, passing beneath the footbridge. Someone had graffitied a crude image of a man with huge genitals which were pointed at a smaller female figure. Next to that was a drawing of a devil, its face contorted into a scream.
Averting my eyes, hoping my girlfriend hadn’t seen the graffiti, I followed Alina down onto the tracks, taking care to stay away from the rails in case they were live. I held Laura’s hand and we began to walk towards the trees, onto the track that cut through the forest.
e walked along beside the rails, the forest to our left, tracks to our right. The trees formed a wall beside us, as still as sentries. In some places the taller trees bent forward to create a threadbare canopy, their tips touching the tops of their counterparts across the tracks, as if they were reaching out, trying to fill the gap that had been ripped through them. I tried not to look at them too much, concentrating on the ground beneath my feet, the few metres ahead that were illuminated by the torch. The flat space between the forest edge and the rails was dry and crunchy, seed pods and leaves scattered around, along with the occasional sign of human life: a rusted beer can or crisp packet that had been thrown from a passing train. Alina lit another cigarette which, when finished, she paused to tread out.
It was so quiet that I had started chatting almost as soon as we left the station behind, eager to fill the oppressive silence.
‘I’m starving,’ I said now. ‘I wonder what we’ll be able to get for breakfast in this town.’
‘We haven’t got any money,’ Laura responded. She had changed out of her shorts into a pair of jeans and had stopped shivering.
‘I’ve got a little in my pocket,’ I said.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a bottle of gin in there too?’
‘No, but I’ve got some water in my backpack. Hang on.’
I found the half-empty bottle of mineral water and passed it to her. She took a sip and offered it to Alina, who waved a hand to say no thanks.
I groped for something else to say.
‘This is a bit like that film,’ I said. ‘You know, the one with River Phoenix, when those boys go walking through the woods along the train tracks.’
Stand by Me
,’ Laura said. ‘At the end they find a dead body.’
‘This is nothing at all like that film with River Phoenix,’ I said.
She laughed. As we went further along the path she seemed to relax a little, especially when the clouds above shifted to reveal a bright moon. It helped illuminate the path, so I was able to switch off the torch. I squeezed Laura’s hand and she squeezed back.
‘I bet Ion was shocked when he saw that you’d been kicked off the train,’ I said to Alina.
‘He was probably pleased.’
‘Why do you say that?’
She looked at us sideways. ‘We had an argument. That’s why he went to the dining car. To get away.’
‘Have you been together long?’ Laura asked.
Laura and I exchanged a glance, but Alina didn’t say any more.
‘Have you ever been to England?’ I asked, trying to keep the conversation going. Every time it fell silent I could hear noises from the forest: rustling, swishing, unseen things stirring in the darkness.
‘You should,’ I said. ‘I’m sure you’d like London, if you’re an artist. My best friend is a musician, a singer. He reckons London is the most creative city in Europe.’ I wondered what Jake would say when I told him about this escapade. It comforted me to think I could turn this experience into an amusing anecdote, even though I knew that Jake would tell everyone we knew about it.
‘I think next year Romanians will be free to come and work in the UK,’ I kept on. ‘The right-wingers have been banging on about it like we’re going to be invaded.’
Alina made a non-committal noise, then said, ‘So what do you think of Romania so far?’
Laura and I laughed. Laura said, ‘Oh, I’m going to recommend it to all my friends. I particularly like the forests, and the border guards are just lovely. So welcoming.’
I couldn’t see Alina’s face well, and wasn’t sure if her question had been sarcastic or sincere. The former, I thought, but didn’t want to risk offending her so I said, ‘I’m sure once we get everything sorted out, and get back to civilisation, we’ll love it.’
‘If I were you,’ Alina said, ‘after this I’d get on the first plane out of here.’
I was about to say something about how much I’d been looking forward to seeing Sighisoara when Laura grabbed my arm and said, ‘Did you hear that?’
I froze. ‘What?’
‘A clicking noise. Like animal claws.’ She made a spidery gesture with her fingers.
‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘Maybe the dogs are following us?’
I switched the torch back on and shone it behind us. Just an expanse of rail track. I took a few steps forward but there was no sign of the dogs or anything else.
‘It’s fine,’ Alina said as I rejoined them. ‘I’m sure it’s just the branches of the trees. It’s natural to feel scared in places like this. Let’s just keep walking in a straight line. OK?’
‘OK,’ I said.
Laura didn’t respond.
‘OK?’ I said to her as gently as I could.
‘Are there animals in the forest?’ she said, addressing Alina.
‘I guess . . .’
Laura’s eyes widened. ‘What kind of animals? Wolves?
‘I don’t know.’
I interjected quickly. ‘I think it said in my guidebook that all the wolves and bears have been hunted to extinction around here.’
Laura looked at me like I was the world’s worst liar. ‘I just want to get out of here as quickly as possible.’ Her voice broke at the end of the sentence.
‘We’ll be in town soon,’ I said. ‘Eating breakfast. And when this is all over we’ll look back and—’
She started walking, striding forward with a new purpose, as if the backpack on her back was filled with feathers. I looked warily towards the forest. I
lied about the bears. As far as I knew, there were still brown bears living wild in this part of Romania. Though, to be honest, I was more worried about Laura than I was about the local wildlife. Did she really blame me for what had happened? It was a fact that if I’d booked a sleeper compartment to start with, we would have been safely tucked up in our bunks with the door locked. Nobody would have stolen our stuff.
dn’t have met Alina and got chucked off the train. Everything would be fine.
Whether or not Laura held me responsible, I regretted the decision I’d made. If I could turn back the clock . . . Unfortunately, real life has no erase button. There was nothing I could do about it now. We just had to get out of here and then, I truly believed, we would be able to laugh about it.
I increased my pace to catch up with Laura, and Alina fol
I waited for Laura to speak, even though the silence was
. Finally, she said, ‘I suppose I did want adventure.’
‘Laura, I’m sorry I didn’t book a sleeper. If I’d known—’
She held up a hand. ‘Daniel, it’s OK. I don’t blame you. Of course you didn’t know this would happen. You know I’m not the kind of person who sulks or bears grudges. I’m just cold and tired and hungry and
, and I want to get out of here. All right?’
I nodded. ‘All right.’
After another thirty minutes of walking mostly in silence, eyes fixed ahead, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, Alina said, ‘Guys.’
‘I need the toilet.’
‘OK, sure. We’ll turn our backs,’ I said.
‘I’m going to go behind the trees,’ she said. ‘I don’t . . . I don’t like people looking at me when I . . .’
It was strange to see this punky, confident woman come over all coy. I went to hand her the torch but she said, ‘It’s fine. I’m not going in far.’
I looked up at the sky as she walked between the trees, stepping between two thick trunks and slipping out of sight. I checked my watch. It was almost 4 a.m. now. It shouldn’t be too long, I hoped, before it started to grow lighter.
‘Are you OK?’ I said to Laura, pulling her close. Her body was tense, her shoulder muscles rigid. I rubbed them through the cloth of the hoodie I’d given her.
‘I don’t want to be a drama queen . . .’ Tears sprang into her eyes. ‘But it’s all fucked up, isn’t it? Our big trip. What are we going to do without our passports? How are we going to get money out?’
‘It will be fine. As soon as we get into town we’ll be able to sort it all out.’
‘I don’t know. One of my friends at work lost her passport abroad and she had to fly home to get a new one. She couldn’t cross any borders without it. The British consulate gave her a document to get home but that was it. We’re going to have to go home.’
I attempted a smile. ‘Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.’
‘But we planned this trip for so long, and we’ve still got so much to see.’
‘Maybe we can go home, sort out our passports, then h
‘But not to Romania.’
‘Well, I’m sure it’s not—’
‘OK. Not Romania.’ I gave her another hug. ‘Nice though it is.’
She didn’t laugh. ‘Please don’t write about this on Facebook, try to turn it into a funny story, Daniel.’
I stepped back. ‘Of course not.’ Though a few minutes earlier I had been thinking just that: how at least I’d get an amusing status update out of this.
‘Because it isn’t funny,’ Laura said. ‘I don’t want to be reminded of it. I don’t want everyone to know about it. Please, Daniel, do you promise me?’
I tried to hide the disappointment in my voice as I promised.
Laura looked towards the forest, at the trees Alina had slipped between. ‘She’s taking a while.’
She took a few steps towards the line of trees. A couple of
-crushed beer cans lay at her feet.
‘Alina?’ she called. ‘Are you OK?’
We waited for her to reply. But there was no response. Just silence.