Starlight Spectre • Part 3: People Need Stories


This is Part 3 of a serial horror novella. Learn more about it here.

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Part 3: People Need Stories

Barton flushed. There was Gabriella, standing there before them. Hands planted on her hips, sporting ridiculously tiny jean shorts, the humidity frizzing up her thick hair into something wild and commanding.

“What sorta thing is impossible now?” she asked, blinking an amused glance between the two men.

“Oh, I’ll leave it Barty here to tell you that old tale,” Rudy said as he struggled out of his seat. Barton stood to help him up. Rudy extended a hand to Gabriella. “You must be the gal this one keeps talkin’ my ear off about. Rudy Finn, if you please.”

She glanced at Barton with a twinkle in her eye as she shook Rudy’s calloused hand. “Nice to meet you Rudy. Gabriella, but I’ll respond to Gabby.” The corner of her mouth perked up a notch. “And I’ll be keen to test if Barton here responds to ‘Barty.’”

“I shall not,” he said, willing himself not to start sweating. It had gotten markedly hotter.

“Ah, right there, evidence to the contrary,” she said, laughing with Rudy.

They made some small talk, then Rudy ushered them out, insisting that they enjoy what was left of the day. Barton intended to kick the conversation off with the strange tale of the Starlight Spectre, but backed off when Gabriella steered the topic towards some kind of project she was working on. The girl was in love with physics and science, and Barton still wondered how he had ever managed to convince a sparky, deadly-smart girl like her to even consider dating him. How his art history background and part time library job was appealing to this engineering whiz, he could only guess.

Summer fling, that’s all, is what the pessimistic part of his brain would say. And summer was almost over. She’d be back at UG Tech—which was just an hour away—in the fall, but busy with projects and attractive classmates who could keep up with topics like overcoming static friction coefficients, imaginary numbers and integral calculus. She had learned to steer away from those topics with him; soon she wouldn’t have to worry about that at all.

But right now, her cool hand was entwined with his, and they wove through the sun-drenched sidewalks of the little town, waving to people on their porches, making their way to the little tenement where she was staying.

They shared some craft beer the building’s backyard terrace, which they had to themselves for once. The whole time he debated bringing up the ghost story, fearing her calculating mind would dismiss it as childish fare. But as the sun dipped and strong pale ale massaged his mind, as the tempo of their conversation felt like it had stalled, he remembered the one part of the story that had some scientific curiosity.

“Hey. Question,” he said.

“Shoot,” she said.

“How hot does a fire need to be to destroy teeth?”

“We disposing of someone tonight, Barty?”

He gave her what he hoped was a mysterious sidelong glance, then launched into the story Rudy had told him, starting backwards from the incident. The sun slipped out of the sky while he told it, and by the end, she sat up with intent as he fought off a chill.

She tapped on the side of her beer can, unpainted nails clacking in a rough pattern. “A chemical fire could do it, sure. But it’d have to be sustained. They would have smelled it, seen the smoke in the dawn, and it should have been wild hot and left a big mess even six, seven hours post ignition.”

“So you think the story’s… inaccurate.”

She shrugged. “People need stories, man. It’s a fitting end to the train that was never late. Perfect operation, perfect destruction. Though I’d be curious to see the publication.”

Gabriella grabbed her phone and started to poke at it. Barton watched her squinting at the screen of her device. Through her fuzzy hair, the sky’s pink light cast soft shadows on her cheeks. He watched her attentive eyes dart back and forth, marveled at the way she used just her ring finger to poke and type and jab at her phone. Sometimes her pinky to scroll. Two weeks until summer was done.

“Gabby, hey…” he said.

“Nothing about it in any of the university archives,” she said. “Did you say that your library might have some information?”

“Um, yeah. Well maybe. Rudy said something about records. But the library’s closed now.”

She slugged back the rest of her can. “You work there, don’tcha?”

“I do work there.”

“So let’s grab some road beers and track this train down.”

The fuzzy, romantic lull of the beer flashed away. Barton blinked. “Track it down?”

She waggled her phone. “GPS. We can find the station-equidistant point along the tracks where Starlight supposedly died. Go to the library first—wait, beer store first—then library. See if there’s any more info that Mr. Finn left out. Then hit up ground zero. Grab some deep soil samples from on-site and off-site. Maybe I can find someone at G-Tech that can find trace material. Hits will be unlikely, but it’s where I’d start.”

Barton had assumed he’d be fortunate if he could convince her to partake in some Netflix. Where had this come from?

He coughed. “If what you’re saying is you’d like to go ghost train hunting, tonight, deep in the dark woods…”

She watched him, wide eyed. He waited until a flicker of disappointment appeared, and said, “...then I am so in.”

“Hell yeah!” She popped out of her chair, announcing her requirement for pre-adventure bladder vacancy, and Barton decided he was probably in love.


Continued in Part 4: One Hundred and Three Years – April 11

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