I was finishing the last of my nightly coffee when the nineteen-seventies twins approached my table and asked me to bear witness to their disappearance.
This was not an unusual request at Cafe Liminalité, being the locale of patrons that dreamed too much and ate too little. I, being its longest and oldest customer, had heard—and witnessed—this request many times.
“Pardon me,” the taller twin said. “Are you Mme. Hexler?”
Her voice was soft, but her gaze was direct. Beside her, her brother, a head shorter and shorter still by his slouched posture, placed his hands in his pockets. They both had lovely ebony skin and black, cloudlike hair that surrounded their head in a halo. Her shirt was a cheerful yellow knit, and there was a bright kerchief tied around her neck. His was white and synthetic with a wide, deep collar, edged with red. They wore tight fitting pants of blue denim that flared at the bottom. I am told these are called jeans.
They were unlikely twins, but their mannerism, the way they shared a space, betrayed a closeness. Later, I would learn their names: Daphne and Claude.
“I am,” I said.
The twins exchanged a look. Claude inhaled deeply and said: “Ma’am, we’d like to make a request. We’re going to leave the city.”
One of the beautiful things about Cafe Liminalité was that it was always alive, no matter the hour. There were forever patrons in the armchairs and on the barstools arguing, drinking, and complaining. The air perpetually smelled of sweet flavored tobacco and harsh, cheap cigarettes; all the whispers of smoke exhaled.
Even in those rare moments where there was but one customer, Anton, the proprietor, busied himself with some task, loudly, to keep the silence at bay.
In silence, we begin to doubt ourselves.
Claude had not been speaking loudly, but when he voiced, “We’re going to leave the city,” the cheerful din of the cafe seemed to grow distant and cold, like a wind that rips through a window curtain revealing a dark and unknowable world. Some of the patrons turned to stare at the twins. Some patrons turned and stared at anything but my little corner table and the people gathered around it.
In the raw hushness, the twins exchanged another look, a nervous one.
I began to answer, but Anton appeared at my elbow then, refilling my cup with fresh coffee.
“Running low, I see,” he said.
“Never,” I replied and Anton smiled.
“Are you certain you want to leave?” Anton asked the twins. “Is the city so bad?”
“The city is lovely,” Daphne said. “We just don’t fit in anymore.”
Anton raised an eyebrow. Aside from the likeliness in mood and mindset, the patrons of the cafe were as varied as the timelines they came from. From the vantage point of the corner table, we could see customers from nineteen-twenties New York, early two-thousands Tokyo, nineteen-forties Mexico City, and a dozen others with a mix of different clothes and hairstyles from many different times and places. When each specimen was unique, it was not possible to stand out in Cafe Liminalité.
“Well,” Daphne amended, “Waystation City doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
“We’re changing,” Claude added, softly.
“Ah,” Anton said. “And what if disappearing is worse than changing?”
Daphne raised her head and met his eyes directly. “And what if fear is the only reason we stay?”
“They say your accounts are truthful,” she continued, turning to me and nodding at the notebook before me, craning her neck slightly to make out the words.
I closed it. “Yes,” I said.
“Will you record us?”
“If there’s something interesting to record,” I said. The twins relaxed some and did not consider, perhaps, how many stories are not worth telling.
“Can you take us there?” Claude asked.
“I can show you the way. But that’s not the same thing.”
“It’s dangerous to go into the lower city,” Anton interjected. “Foolish even. Would you rather not stay? Have some coffee or wine. Perhaps something stronger? On the house.”
Steadily, the cafe had grown noisy once again. The twins barely considered before saying, “No, thank you,” in near unison.
Anton sighed. Drinkers were calling him from the barstools.
“Don’t endanger my favorite customer,” he said, giving my shoulder a small squeeze. In my ear, he leaned down and whispered, “I’ll let Michela know,” before hurrying to the bar, scolding the drinkers, making them laugh.
“We can pay you,” said Daphne.
“I don’t need it,” I said, standing. “Though you might, depending on where you end up.” The twins fidgeted, they wanted to argue. “But you can settle my tab with Anton.”
Daphne nodded and strode over to the bar. Claude helped me with my jacket. I drained my coffee in one swallow. Nights of disappearances were always cold and long.
“Pardon me for being direct,” Claude said. “But if you don’t want money, what do you want?”
I tucked my notebook and pen into my coat pocket, alongside the envelope that was already there. “Answers.”
It was nearly midnight when we left Cafe Liminalité and the city was wearing its best nightgown. Under the eaves of shops and on the corners there were small gatherings of people talking or laughing, their conversation weaving in and out of five different languages, their clothes and hair a mishmash of sarongs and button downs, overalls and sarees, bobs and long, intricate braids. True Waystation citizens.
The stone paved roads glistened after a sudden shower and the soft electric street lamps illuminated the ground, but only hinted at the buildings on either side: short and tall, wooden, or stone, or bamboo in construction. As eclectic and mismatched as the people. As we moved towards the main boulevard, the smell of rain and the flowers blooming in the terraces above the shops, haunted our steps.
Waystation City was lovely always, but it was this late night beauty I loved best.
The twins and I walked to the nearest tram stop and waited. On the nearby street light, hung a poster that read: “Avoid the lower city. It is not worth the risk. WAIT.”
Claude read it quickly and turned away. Daphne ignored it, pointedly staring up the tracks. In the cool, damp night, the twins stood out, with their bright shirts and bell-bottom jeans, looking like fresh arrivals to the city, ones still searching for answers. Which was true, though the question tonight would be the last they would ask of this place.
“Tell me your story,” I said. The twins looked startled as if they forgot I was beside them.
“Why?” Daphne asked.
“You can’t understand an ending without knowing the beginning.”
“Jesus, Daph,” said Claude. “Haven’t you read her articles?”
Daphne flushed. “Tram’s here.”
The tramcar approached, bright blue, lit up merrily with strings of lights, announcing its arrival with a tingling of bells. We boarded. Daphne held out City-minted coins for three tickets. “End of the line, please,” she said to the conductor.
The conductor hesitated. There was only one reason travelers took a late night tram to the edge of the city. He studied the twins with some trepidation, taking them in. Daphne’s determined stance, Claude’s gaze that was fixed on some spot near the ceiling. When he turned to me, there was recognition in his eyes. For a moment, I thought the conductor was going to refuse us passage.
Instead, he gave me a small nod and accepted Daphne’s money. I knew then, that one day soon, he would ask me to witness his disappearance too.
That is, if I was still in Waystation City.
The tram’s bell rang and its engine thrummed as it shifted gears.
“Wait!” A voice cried out. The voice was followed quickly by a tall, lanky figure springing onto the tram. The late comer wore a bespoke suit and a trilby, with short-cropped hair and polished shoes. With one smooth motion they handed their fare to the conductor and took a seat next to me.
“Good to see you too, Gerty,” they said, after a moment of silence. That was when I realized the late comer was Micheala.
“You cut your hair,” I said.
“You got new clothes,” she replied. I was wearing a pair of trousers in a feminine cut, which felt strange after a lifetime of skirts. But also thrilling. One of a million little changes I had adopted since coming to the city, many of which would have horrified my younger self.
“You wear them well,” she observed.
“Not as well as you,” I said. Micheala beamed.
“Ah. New victims, Gerty?” she said, turning to the twins.
“They were just about to tell me their story,” I said and then, to the wide-eyed twins explained: “Please excuse, Micheala. She’s an old friend and knows the lower city better than anyone.”
“Oh, I didn’t miss the good part!” exclaimed Micheala, taking off her hat and stretching out her long legs, settling in.
The twins stared at us from across the tram. Their hands instinctively found one another’s.
“What do you want to know?” Claude asked, hesitantly.
“Everything,” I said.
The soft click-clack-clack of the tram was a steady heartbeat as the twins relayed their story. Claude began and Daphne took up the tale when he faltered, trading it back when she ran out of words.
Micheala listened, with her hat on her stomach and her olive skinned hands folded neatly over it.
I opened my notebook and began to transcribe. Tonight, I would witness the twins’ story, whatever the ending, and if it was worth telling, I would send it to my editor at the paper in the morning. Despite the signs and warnings, it seemed everyone in this peculiar city was hungry for stories of the disappeared I provided.
“We don’t know how we came to Waystation City,” began Claude. “Not exactly, at least.”
It had been a late night when the nineteen-seventies twins arrived in the city. They began the evening with reggae at the Four Ace Club, before a friend suggested checking out the Marquee. It was June 5th, 1977 and a Irish punk band was playing, The Boomtown Rats, lanky, untried, captivating, and full of rage. The twins didn’t drink much that night, didn’t have more than one or two pulls on a joint. They didn’t have the luxury of being less than sharp and aware, violence and hatred against immigrants being rampant. After the show, they took the tube home, surrounded by friends, talking and laughing, and lingering close, keeping an eye on other passengers too.
One by one, their friends got off at other stops until they were the last in an empty car. They noticed nothing strange, in this last part of the trip, even in hindsight. And yet, when they emerged from the tube station, they did not find themselves in Brixton a few streets from the flat they shared with a mother and two other siblings.
The city they found themselves in was not the one they began in and it was nearly dawn. Later, they learned its name: The Waystation.
The air was cold as the twins rose from the street and dread settled within them. It had been a mild, summer night when they entered the cab. Now, there were snowflakes floating around them, clinging to their eyelashes. They cast about, panicked as they realized the strangeness of their surroundings. The streets were lined with buildings from a dozen different centuries, all looking impossibly new. There were flowers blooming in the terraces amidst the coldness of winter.
They learned quickly that Waystation City was full of good Samaritans. That the woman who helped them off the street and to the city’s resource centre, had also arrived under mysterious circumstances. That all the city’s citizens came from a different place and a different time, unexpectedly. The woman, the workers at the resource centre, everyone they met in the years that followed, told them they were lucky to have each other, to be siblings in this unexpected limbo. Usually new citizens arrived alone.
The twins were given housing—a spacious apartment, not too far from the city’s parks. They were given jobs—Daphne working with distribution of shipments coming from the river ferries (she was always quick with numbers) and Claude with a tailor’s shop (he always had a good eye for fabrics and was clever with his hands). They were welcome and accepted.
They were grateful, but homesick for their friends and family, worried about the rising fascism in Britain and the state of the anti-racist protests they were part of. They begged for directions home, but their caseworker shook his head sadly and told them to wait. That one day, they would find a ticket or a letter or a map with instructions on how to leave the city and return to their own time and place. Everyone in Waystation City did. Eventually.
(“We gave patience a good go,” Daphne said, defensively. “Really we did.”)
For two years, they worked, they tried out new clothes that were from more than one decade and place, and went out in the evening, making friends with other lost people, exchanging gossip, debating the influence of music across genres and equality late into the night. They smoked cigarettes and ate whatever was on the menu, picked up a little French, German, and Mandarin. They watched as one or two of those friends got their promised directions back to their timelines. Or simply disappeared.
But always the nineteen seventies called them home and they held onto every piece they could.
They hummed songs from that last concert they attended, talked about the growing Rock Against Racism movement, their endless fight against fascism, sexism, and racism like a talisman, reminding themselves of the things that fuelled them in their lives before. They could not stop dreaming of where they came from, terrible as it was.
(“We were helping to organize protests,” Claude said.
“We were at the grassroots, the center of change,” added Daphne. “We were doing something.”)
They were going to be patient for their ticket, their map, really, but then one morning a week ago, Daphne woke up and couldn’t remember any of the lyrics or riffs she loved. Claude couldn’t remember the faces of his mates or the street names around their home. They could no longer recall the fury and dreams that compelled them to go to rallies in the London streets.
Their life before Waystation City felt like a worn and faded dream.
“We’re losing ourselves here,” Claude said, putting his head in his hands.
“We can’t stay,” said Daphne, fiercely. “We were fighting for something at home and here…here…”
“We’re just waiting,” Claude finished.
Beside me, Michaela sighed, running a hand through her black, shorn hair. I closed my notebook and did not argue.
We did not get off at the end of the line. Rather we disembarked at the second to last stop and walked the last quarter mile to the stairway.
The entrance to the stairs was mercifully empty of any good Waystation Samaritan trying to discourage those who wanted to disappear. There was another sign on the railing that said: “Please, just wait. Your time will come.”
Daphne scowled at the message and without breaking stride, headed down the long stairway. Claude read it and bit his lip, but only for a moment, before following his sister. Michaela followed next. I followed them all.
The stairway was badly illuminated and the stairs were slick. On our right was a rough stone wall and on our left, there was open air and darkness that promised a long, unpleasant fall.
We proceeded slowly, sinking down into the belly of Waystation City where the trees grew tall and the stone arches were broad and shrouded. The stink of the river came on strong and camouflaged behind the wind, were the sounds of stone grinding on stone, of something rusted and ill-used creaking open. Of something heavy and final snapping shut.
The twins moved silently and with caution, afraid of slipping, perhaps or perhaps nervous of what they might find tonight in the dark, shifting places of the lower city.
Michaela broke the silence first.
“I’m assuming you’ve read Gerty’s accounts of other disappearances, yes?” she said.
“All of them,” Claude replied.
“We know what to do,” Daphne said.
“Of course. Of course,” said Michaela, airily. Of our party, she seemed most at ease, unperturbed by the ominous sounds and the creeping apprehensiveness that grew stronger as we descended. “So you know the dangers?”
Daphne turned quickly to glare at Michaela and did not see the transformation. The stone stair she was about to step onto blurred for a moment and solidified with a soft grinding sound and a thin sheet of ice upon it. Daphne’s foot slipped and for an agonizing heartbeat she lingered in air, hovering before the fall.
Then, Claude caught her shoulder and steadied her.
“Damn,” she breathed, clutching her brother’s elbow. “That wasn’t there before, was it?” she asked, glowering at the icy step.
“No,” I said. “The shifting will only get worse from here.”
The twins looked at each other, hesitating. The groans and grating of the lower city reshaping itself was louder now, but not yet in the forefront.
“Shall we turn back?” Michaela suggested.
“Stop trying to change our minds!” snapped Daphne.
“Perhaps I’m your voice of reason,” Michaela replied, cheerfully.
“There’s no reason here,” said Claude. He peered over the side of the steps into the canopy below. The darkness was not enough to obscure how the leaves on the foliage were changing shape, color, and species at random, how the foundations of the stairway were stone one moment and glass or cork the next.
“True,” said Michaela, sighing. “Docks are this way.”
We continued, more cautious than before, as the stairs beneath our feet became treacherous and unknowable. Michaela led and she would often pause an instance before a step would turn into water or silt, having developed a bit of foresight for the moods of the under city over the years. Once, after one particular late evening in Cafe Liminalité, Michaela confessed to me that sometimes she came to the lower city simply to watch one thing transform into another.
The twins almost collapsed in relief when we reached the final stair.
“Oh no, not yet,” said Michaela and she hurried us to where the walls became arches and then became caverns. Soon we found ourselves navigating the narrow pathway between the sloping stones floors and the rivulets of water running down them.
The caverns were timeless, unchanging, but the groans and cracks of the lower city shifting echoed through this space. Perhaps that was why the twins did not notice the words on the wall at first.
“Wait,” Claude said and approaching a wall. Sprawled across it were messages of the disappeared in thick white paint. Simple statements such as “If nothing else, I was here” and “We’ll meet again” to long poems or confessions that were too intimate to copy down.
“There’s so many,” he breathed. “It’s beautiful.”
Daphne came up beside him. “We should add our own.”
At the base of the cavern wall sat a handful of cans of paint and brushes.
“How about here?” Claude asked, pointing to a bare spot between a farewell and a hymn.
“Perfect.” Daphne reached down and readied a brush. In a steady hand she wrote: “We want to stay what we are.”
Michaela sighed, accepting defeat gracefully.
“The docks,” I said, pointing ahead. “Be as quiet as you can.”
The twins became somber at this, and nodded. They followed my lead.
When we reached the river docks, we could just barely make out the ferry drivers.
They moved with cold efficiency, stacking crates of food and materials on the docks. They were figures of soft edges and blurred lines. It was impossible to distinguish gender or coloring or the cut of their clothes. Why they provided for the city and where they came from was a mystery. They answered no questions and accepted no passengers. Any direct encounter with the ferry drivers and Waystation City citizens ended badly.
My first newspaper article as a fresh citizen here followed a man who thought he could reason with the ferry drivers. But when he entered their line of vision, he simply dissolved before my eyes. One moment he was a whole, the next he was a puddle of water, a mound of graphite, and calcium flakes.
It has been years, but that moment still revisited me in dreams. His story, however, made me Waystation City’s most infamous journalist.
At first glimpse of the ferry drivers, the twins threw themselves behind the last of the arches. Michaela and I joined them.
Beyond the docks, the ferries were coming in and departing, dozens of them of various sizes, hues, and builds.
Beyond the ferries were the holes in the fabric of the world.
The twins gasped almost in unison.
Witnessing the holes was always a sight of wonder and terror. Wonder, because some of the holes showed lush gardens and bustling cityscapes. Terror, because others showed polluted oceans and desolated towns. The holes appeared without warning with a clap, lingered for a few minutes while the ferries crossed through, and snapped close with a sharp thud.
To reach the holes, one had to swim.
“If you are to do this, choose carefully,” I whispered to the twins. “Your timing must be exact.”
“You don’t want to end up on an island in the middle of the Pacific,” Michaela added.
“Or in the middle of a war.”
“Or in the ferry drivers’ sights,” said Michaela, and I shivered. I checked to ensure my notebook, pen, and the envelope were still in my pocket. They were.
Daphne nodded and Claude reached for her hand. They studied the holes beyond the docks with a fixed intensity.
The twins did not choose rashly. Instead, we crouched in our hiding places for almost an hour, watching the ferries come and leave, the holes appearing and disappearing. They waited.
A hole appeared a few hundred yards from shore and Daphne’s breath caught. “That one!” she whispered and rushed forward.
“Daph, wait,” Claude said, but she was already running. The hole showed a town by the coast and judging by the cars, the powerlines, and lights, it was sometime in the 1970s. Daylight streamed through it with the smell of the ocean and the cry of gulls.
“Daph,” cried Claude racing after her. The docks were changing and transforming under their feet as the twins ran. Wood slats became metal, then linen, then bamboo, before reverting back to wood. The cacophony of noise from the change was overwhelming. It was the only reason why the ferry drivers did not notice the twins immediately.
Daphne was the first to dive into the black, rippling river and she swam with strong strokes to the hole. “Claude, come on!” she called.
But on the dock, the wooden slats became marble as Claude slipped, and fell into the water with a large splash.
Nearby, the ferry drivers looked up from their work.
“Hurry!” I shouted. “Go!”
Daphne spotted the ferry drivers turning toward her. “Hurry, Claude!” she cried, and threw herself through the hole. She disappeared.
“Wait!” Claude was desperately swimming towards the hole. He was almost there.
Then, the hole snapped closed with a thud.
I was too far to see the despair on his face, but I felt it.
The ferry drivers were alert now and scanning the water, only missing Claude because a new hole opened up with a clap a dozen feet from him and the ferry emerging from it shielded him from their view.
The new hole showed a field of wheat. It could have been anywhere. In any time.
“Claude,” Michaela yelled. “Swim back.”
He did not. He did not even hesitate. “Write this down!” he called. “Don’t let me vanish completely!”
“Come back!” I shouted.
In the distance, he shook his head once. Then, he disappeared.
“Well, that was exciting,” Michaela said as we climbed carefully up the stairs.
“I wish Claude stayed and waited,” I said.
“Me too. Will their story be in tomorrow’s paper?”
“Day after,” I said. “I’m too tired tonight.” It was nearly dawn.
The citizens of the city craved stories about the disappeared. They wanted reports of the dangerous, shifting landscape of the lower city, for glimpses into other worlds and possibilities. While the disappeared wanted to be remembered, to go down on record before they embarked into the unknown, to be more than the messages they left on the walls.
“If only I could’ve convinced them that changing isn’t so bad,” Michaela said with a sigh as we reached the top of the stairs.
“They were happy with who they were,” I said. She offered me a cigarette and I accepted. “They were stuck here, while at home, the fight for change probably marched on without them. I don’t blame them, Micheala.”
Michaela exhaled and nodded. “You’ve decided then.”
I pulled out the envelope from my pocket. Inside was a ticket with my name, the city I came from and the year I left behind. It was my passage home.
I stared at it for a long moment. Then, I reached out and dropped the ticket over the edge of the stairs. It disappeared into the lower city. “That’s my answer.”
Michaela breathed a sigh of relief.
“Could you imagine me going back to 1904 to write solely about ladies’ etiquette again?” I said, gesturing to my new pants, and Michaela laughed.
“God, no. It’s like me going back to skinned tight dresses and coiffed hair,” she replied grinning, but then grew serious. Softly, she added: “I’m thinking of changing my name to Michael.”
I studied my friend. In profile, she did look like a man. Or rather, more like himself. Before I came to Waystation City, such a declaration would have shocked me, such a change would have been beyond my imagination. But why does a city like this exist if not for the unimaginable and unlikely?
“It suits you,” I said and Michael smiled.
“We want to remain what we are too, I suppose,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed, snubbing my cigarette. “Now, let’s go home. I’m cold.”
There were those in Waystation City who waited and there were those who disappeared. And then there were those of us who changed, who were changing still and we were the ones living in the spaces in between.
(Author Note: This story will also appear in anthology marking the occasion of Luxcon/Eurocon 2022 at some point in the future.)
© 2023 A. T. Greenblatt