Starlight Spectre • Part 16: The Gleaming Tracks


This is Part 16 of a serial horror novella. Learn more about it here.

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Part 16: The Gleaming Tracks

By full dark, they were exhausted. Barton’s back throbbed and Gabby’s body wouldn’t stop shaking. Their water was low too. There was no moon, no stars. No trees. That had all faded away to pure blackness long ago. There were just two glowing lines, like a movie theatre aisle from hell.

He said, “It’s time again.”

“Maintenance?” Her voice was tiny.

“When we stopped all those other times, he never got closer.”

So they stopped. He helped her sit, facing her west. He then sat with his back against hers, facing their follower. The relief was intense. He hoped he could get back up again.

The tracks partially illuminated the shadow. Its upper body faded into the black, the head just barely discernible. It didn't walk when they stopped. It just stood there, a hundred paces away.

“He stopped,” Barton reported.

She didn’t reply, but he felt her relax. When he felt they had rested for about as long as they could, he pulled out the phone to find it frozen on a dim grey screen.

“No more,” the shadow whispered. “All alone.”

He looked up to find it had crept up fifty paces. There had been no sound, no warning. Barton rose slowly, his legs protesting and threatening to seize. He struggled to help Timekeeper to her feet and nudged her forward.

“How we doing?” he asked her.

“On schedule. Not too far now.”

He hoped so. They started off again. Behind them, the shadow steps resumed as well.


“Burn,” called the shadow.

His legs were killing him. Every tenth step was rickety. She walked with a slump, powering on, whuff, whuff, whuff. They finished the water. He wasn’t hungry, and there would be no more stops, so he let the knapsack fall. It didn’t help.

“You’re running late,” it said.

She shook her head, and raised a finger, pointing down the tracks. Infinite blackness ahead. The shadow, now twenty paces behind. It stunk, and Barton would gag if he inhaled too fast. Something in his back popped with every step now.

“Rest a while.”

She stumbled, and almost fell. Barton caught her and pressed forward. The shadow laughed and he felt it close even more distance.

Stumble, shuffle, stumble.

He looked down to see fat little curls of smoke puffing past their feet.



There was a light ahead. It was orange and flickering.

“Oh no,” she said.



The tracks led into fire. They could feel it, a furnace heat wafting forward. That sticky smell all around them. Smoke rose from the tracks. The blackness between the fading white lines was now a thick soup of tarry wisps. Every step stirred the mixture, kicking up little whirls and laces.

It had caught them, they were in it now. She stopped, leaning into him.

“I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, sooty tears streaking down her cheeks. They shined orange-red in the firelight.

“Keep, the schedule,” he breathed.

She shuddered and made an attempt, surging a few steps forward with his help. Then she fell. He got her arm around his neck and began to heave and drag, but his legs were numb and useless. He fell too. Around them, fire grew tall on both sides. Barton looked back, and there the shadow stood, right over them, shoulders hunched. Motionless. Dripping smoke and sludge. It began to fill his lungs.

Barton coughed and rolled Gabby onto her back. It was hard to tell if the dark curls around her head were hair or smoke.

He wiped away her tears and put his nose close to hers. “Timekeeper, Timekeeper?”

A hazy look of recognition. “I’m sorry.”

“How close are we? You keep the schedule. You’re always on time. How close? How close until home?” His throat scratched and his eyes stung, but he ignored it.

Her eyes rolled. She said, “Close.”

Then her eyelids fluttered shut and she let out a deflated breath. She was still. A low laugh oozed from all directions, and around the tracks the flames rose higher still. It was so hot.

“Gabby, no, no! Come on!” He shook her, kissed her, even tried a slap. She was gone. He began to half cry, half laugh, and collapsed beside her. The side of his head pressed onto one of the planks, the wood blessedly cool. He grabbed at her hand and started to talk, started to say things just so that laughter might not be the last thing he heard.

“They say if you come out to the haunted tracks, come at midnight, and put your ear to them... you can hear the old ghost train rumbling. You’d see it, a thin white streak. Moving fast along the tracks, coming from the east. But they didn’t tell us her name was Starlight Spectre—the Timekeeper—and they didn’t tell us how she died. How it wasn’t her fault. How she just wanted to get them all home. And I wish they could know how she tried to make it right again. And…”

A whooshing roar of fire drowned him out. It didn’t burn though. He thought maybe he was dead now, free of pain and in some other place. But then a twitching muscle fired up one leg and that sure as hell hurt.

He scrambled up onto one elbow. The fire wasn’t roaring. It was the tracks. They vibrated and hummed. Smoke raced west, rolling away in great hurried tufts like clouds on a windy day. The flames leaned westward too, snapping and jittering.

“Barty?” Gabriella clutched at his arm.

“Gabby,” he croaked. He looked down at her, and her hair lit up in a black-white glare. Then he looked east, and there stood the shadow, no longer cozy with the blackness, but silhouetted against a brilliant white light. It twisted around and raised its arms.

A horn shrilled, a WHUFF! WHUFF! WHUFF! beat back the flames to nothing, and Barton grabbed Gabriella as they floated up off the tracks like leaves. A strong gust pulled them away from the shadow, rocketing westward. He saw the grill, saw the boxy superstructure, saw the proud steam stack. He saw her perfect and thundering along the gleaming tracks; what timing indeed!

Timekeeper smashed the shadow and it popped into a grey mist. She raced through them, tooting a merry one-two, and Barton thought he heard cheering. The gust flew them faster, and faster still as the length of the train carried them home.

Gabby held him tight. Barton realized he was the one cheering.

Then the Starlight Spectre was past and beyond them. The gust slowed and settled them down, gentle as can be. A wave of blessed fatigue fuzzed up Barton’s spine and gripped at his soul the moment he touched the soft earth between two planks. Gabby was already asleep, and he was all too eager to join her now, but he wanted to see it. Need to see it. In the distance, the horn echoed one last time as he pulled the fully functional phone out of his pocket.

1:20AM. Right on schedule.


Concluded in Part 17: How Strange the World Could Be – May 11

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