This is a new writer for me—but I have heard very good things.
And one can’t just pass up a creepy story set on an old train…
Excerpt from “The Number 121 to Pennsylvania”…
You know those stories I used to tell you about the Number 121 to Pennsylvania, Rusty?
Yes. Some of them.
Well tonight you’re going to see it for yourself.
Arnold sat on his porch, watching the sun die a phoenix death, bruising the clouds as it struggled to stay afloat in the evening sky. The shadows grew bolder; the trees hissing like tuneless flutes as the breeze strengthened. It would be a calm night full of sparks both earth and heaven bound; stars and fireflies fighting for the attention of anyone who cared to look upon the scene as more than a little majestic. From the old man’s pipe, a tendril of smoke drifted as far as the breeze would allow before shredding it into a lingering scent of contentment. Arnold rocked himself forward, paused with his heel on the rocker, then let it roll back before stopping again.
The screech of the screen door made him flinch and he sighed around the stem of the clay pipe. “Scared the life out of me,” he grumbled as his wife Trish, a picture of happiness with gloves of flour up to her wrists and unkempt strands of hair as silver as winter moonlight, set a clinking glass of lemonade on the porch railing next to where his elbow rested. “Mind you don’t tip that over now,” she said cheerfully and left ghostly fingerprints on his sleeve. When he said nothing, she turned to see what had caught his attention. Once, the trains had been the objects of his scrutiny but now that they were taking up the rails, she had discovered the most banal of things; a twig, a leaf, a chipmunk or squirrel frolicking in the garden, could court his fascination. Though a harmless pastime, it sometimes worried her, perhaps because she could not always share his appreciation for the commonplace.
“Beautiful sunset,” she said and he hummed a response. “How lucky we are they never built a bunch of houses in that field or we’d be looking at someone else looking out at their sunset.”
“True,” he said and sucked on his pipe. “One of the benefits of bein’ too far away from proper civilization, I guess. Too much of a jaunt for young folk into the city, and of course, that’s where all the work is. Nothing to do out this way, ‘cept of course,” he said with a wistful sigh, “tearin’ up them tracks.”
Trish smiled, rubbed more flour into his sleeve. “It’ll be okay as long as they don’t put a highway in its place.”
“Why else would they tear ’em up but to make it more convenient for people to get on I-39? I tell you, pretty soon they’ll be knocking on our door asking us to kindly move on out of here to make room for a Wendy’s.”
Trish clucked her tongue. “I reckon we’ll be long in the ground before that happens, sweetheart. It isn’t worth the worrying.”
She stooped to kiss his grizzled cheek, warmed only briefly by the smile he offered her, then went back inside.
Arnold nodded slowly to himself, his eyes lit by the magnificent inferno the sky had become as dusk consumed the horizon and sundered the last of the day’s clouds, then he set his chair to rocking. The slow creak vied with the chorus of crickets for a rhythm to sing the sun to rest.
* * *
“Gotta do somethin’ about the painnnn! Them bones shouldn’t be pokin’ out like that. I know they shouldn’t. Oh God it hurts. H-hurts real bad…”
“Sssh. Say nothing, Rusty. Just stay real quiet.”
* * *
- “The Grief Frequency” (originally appeared in Subterranean #1)
- “The Number 121 to Pennsylvania” (originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #47)
- “Mr. Goodnight” (originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #51)
- “Empathy” (originally appeared in Corpse Blossoms, ed. R.J. & Julia Sevin, Creeping Hemlock Press)
- “Peekers” (originally appeared in Horror World, ed. Nanci Kalanta; reprinted in Eulogies: A Horror World Yearbook, ed. Nanci Kalanta)
- ”High on the Vine” (appears here for the first time)
- “Tonight the Moon Is Ours” (originally appeared in Inhuman #3; reprinted as “La Lune est a Nous Ce Soir” in Borderline, ed. Lionel Benard)
I grew up around the memory of trains. Those memories weren’t mine, but that didn’t make them any less vivid, or any less intriguing to me. There were images on the signs outside grocery stores and pubs, and old black and white and sepia-toned photographs in the museum showing the town a hundred years before, people going about their business with a huge black train in the background, thick white smoke billowing from its chimney, as if it was fueling the sky with clouds. My mother recalled the years in which she and her friends would stand atop the bridge a few short yards from our house looking down as those monolithic giants tore across the tracks and burrowed beneath them with all the urgency of blood through a vein.
I’d like to have seen them.
Today that bridge looks down on nothing but a gravel path, narrowed for the passage of people, and nothing else, but in following it, one can retrace the journey of those steel dinosaurs, from one end of the town to the other.
But I don’t live there anymore.
These days I live in a small rural area in Ohio, and every night, no matter what the weather, no matter what the season, the trains come rumbling along the track not far from our house. When I tell people this, they groan in sympathy and ask: “How do you sleep at night?” And my answer is this: “Like a baby.” In fact, I have come to suspect that if I were to lie in bed at night and those trains didn’t come, if the air went undisturbed by their lonesome cries, I would have trouble sleeping at all.
On those nights, on the verge of dreaming, on the threshold of sleep, when the trains unleash their sorrowful wails and send them echoing across the fields toward our house, toward me, I wonder who else is lying awake, listening, and what it might mean to them. Does that forlorn sound remind them of past loves, past lives, or past regrets? Does it summon to mind ghosts they’ve struggled to forget or longed to recall?
And sometimes I tell myself those freight trains, ferrying their loads to parts unknown, are nothing less than the specters of those dinosaurs I missed as a child.
The stories herein are train tickets for you.
Use them. Take your seat. Watch through the windows as life passes by, endure the darkness of the many tunnels, meet your fellow travelers, and see what’s waiting for you at the next platform, when you get there.
If you get there.
Kealan Patrick Burke