Eileen shivered from the lack of sunlight and the abundance of adrenaline. Hazel eyes darted left and right, scanning the tangled mass of naked trees and the empty parking lot. She gripped her cardigan tight as she all but ran across the crumbling asphalt. Upon reaching the wooden porch of the station building, she huddled in the shadowed corner while her numb fingers fumbled to find the proper key. She’d done this job for the past month and silently scolded herself for her continued anxiety. Thirty days ago, she told herself the work would grow easier each night. Still, she felt vulnerable as the clang of keys jingled through the air. Eventually, iron penetrated the rusted lock and she slipped inside.
Residual heat warmed the small room, though she knew the darkness would soon claim it. So she headed straight to the ticket booth, dragged out the small lantern and space heater, and settled into her chair. Staring through the plexiglass window, she took in the tiny station. The ticket booth remained relatively clean. The other side, however, rested under a thick coating of undisturbed dust, shocking her with how quickly it accumulated.
The last of the day's sunlight stabbed through the trees. When it finally dropped below the horizon, nothing but empty blackness surrounded Eileen. No traffic buzzed past the station, and the nearest house hid behind a thick copse of trees. She leaned back in the well-worn office chair, propped her feet on the desk, and let the solitude claim her. After a moment in silence, the ever-present question invaded her mind.
“What compelled me to come back?”
She’d been offered a position at another station but had refused it. She didn’t understand why she turned it down, but it baffled her far less than her decision to return. She snatched a key the day before they decommissioned the station. And the next night she found herself walking her usual route at her usual time.
It’s not as if throngs of people flooded the station at the busiest hours, but even on Eileen’s slowest nights, she’d entertained a dozen or so people. She believed she knew quiet, but this silence ran deeper than she imagined possible. Then again, nothing about this job seemed possible. Yet night after night, she returned.
Her lantern barely lit the peeling desk in front of her. She stared through the permanently smudged plexiglass into the dark until her vision no longer knew what was real. Her watch buzzed and broke her daze. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. The alarm told her only minutes remained. Soon the tiny room would bloom with light and sound. She wondered if anyone ever spied on the station’s secret gatherings. The notion quickly vanished though. Were the nightly festivities noticed, the police would have come knocking. She never met anyone in her hometown who minded their own business.
At precisely one quarter to midnight, she heard the call of the train in the distance. The breathy whistle no longer startled her but brought odd comfort. She gripped her lantern and stepped onto the frosty platform. While greeting passengers had not been a part of her former duties, she found her new ones required more guidance.
A pinprick of blue light blossomed in front of the blackest black. The monochrome vessel still filled her with a primal dread. She knew it always would. Sleek and menacing, the train pulled into the station in a shroud of inky shadows. She felt the sharp cry of metal on metal in her teeth as the ghostly carriage braked. The familiar wave of nausea slammed into her core as the porters stepped out. She’d given up on trying to look at them. The first night she braved a glance, her head swam as she toppled to the ground. After a few more attempts, she realized things existed that mortal eyes were not meant to glimpse.
The station lights flickered to life, emitting a soft blue glow. The sickness growing in her abated as foggy figures poured out of the train. Some nights she could count them on her fingers. Uninvited sorrow encapsulated her when they filled the platform edge to edge.
The milky-white shapes slowly took a more human-shaped visage as they stepped onto the creaky wood. Eileen lifted her lantern and they flocked toward her. Glazed-over eyes stared at her. Serene faces that saw nearly a century's worth of life mingled with confused, youthful ones. Some wore pajamas or their daily attire. Bloody rags draped over others. No matter how they lived, or how they died, they ended up at this station. What originally frightened Eileen, now brought comfort. A sense of purpose replaced the fear she’d felt a month before. Horror turned to melancholy.
Like moths to a flame, she led the ghostly gathering into the station. Ethereal light illuminated the darkened room. Like a choreographed dance, she worked. Eileen weaved around each body toward her booth. She knew their solidity left them behind and she could easily pass through each one, but she felt it polite to dodge their opaque forms. She shielded her eyes from the jagged, white light that split through the air adjacent to the ticket booth. Like a lightning bolt frozen in time. Back behind the plexiglass, she extinguished her lantern. Its light no longer required.
A cracked, leather-bound tome appeared before her along with a golden quill and ink pot. She pried the book open to the marked page and recorded the date. A glittery cloud radiated from the pages and swam amongst the crowd. Some stared in awe while others ignored it completely. Either way, the silver dust awoke an instinct in them, and a queue took shape. As each soul approached Eileen’s desk, they handed her their ticket. Each ticket contained a single name that Eileen then wrote in the book. The book absorbed the liquid obsidian and returned a name in gold. Once accepted, Eileen ushered the soul through the white light.
After each ghost in the station passed through, Eileen’s work was completed. She didn’t know where they went, or what fate awaited them. Though curiosity plagued her, she felt no urgency to discover what lay beyond the light.