Starlight Spectre • Part 6: Pay Attention


This is Part 6 of a serial horror novella. Learn more about it here.

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Part 6: Pay Attention

“Dare you to walk to the tracks,” he said.

She stood up and gripped his hand. “Think people ever come out here and have sex on the rails?”

A different heat blossomed in him.

“Uh,” he managed.

“Let’s go to gee-zee,” she said, flashing that magnetic grin and pulling him onto the beams.

As they stepped between them, something that sounded like a squirrel chittered, so loud that even Gabby stared around. Barton was still distracted and was mostly confused by the sound. As the pitchy racket died away, he swore he heard the fading sound of a horn.

“Woo-ooo, ghosts!” Gabby said, and tickled at his stomach. He play-fended her off, the closeness of her and the smell of her shampoo restoking his heat. The forest sounds levelled back to their regular peeping and buzzing. They bounded west.

The moonlight continued to be a reliable guide as they walked, the urgency in her pace not lost on Barton. He was glad for the distraction, because there was just something about being on train tracks that summoned a primal caution in his head. Not from ghost stories, but just from sensibility… it was like standing on an active tarmac or on the lip of a live volcano. Nothing to worry about, so long as you paid attention.

There was a creeping urge to look over his shoulder. This grew as they walked. Each time Gabby balance-walked on the rails, her footsteps caused little shivers. He could imagine too well the speed and monstrosity of a thousand tonnes of steel rolling with no good way to stop.

Barton told himself to watch the way her heat-curled hair bounced in the nightlight, told himself to listen to the wavering notes and grinding rattle of the cicadas and katydids. He pushed away the nagging, irrational thought that this was all a mistake.

Her phone blatted.

“We’re here.”

A cloud passed over the moon and the world darkened. She wasn’t walking anymore, but he still felt the rattle of her footsteps. She was kneeling, looking over her shoulder, smiling. There was a light in her eyes, too bright. Reflecting something.

Taking off her backpack. What was he going to do? Now she wasn’t looking at him, busy with sampling. He checked over his shoulder for real this time.

It was too easy to see the track. It should have been gloomy with the cloud cover. The trees, he could barely see the trees right beside him but the steel was visible in two curved lines, bright and inviting, disappearing around a bend and alive, alive, alive.

Barton tore his eyes away and turned around, slow and with effort, like he was underwater. Gabby scraped away at the tracks, saying something. But he couldn’t understand the words. He tried to speak, but his breath came out in a tight puff. And the tracks weren’t just rattling any more. They vibrated, bright and fresh, no sign of rust. Solid, fresh planks held them in place, proud if not a little worn.

Pay attention: a train was coming.

A horn punctuated this thought. Sonorous, washing away all the forest’s ambience. It hung like a poison cloud in the air as a new light filled his vision.

She was still crouched—her dark brown hair appeared black and white as the glare grew. She turned her head slowly, one hand gripping a small scoop. Gabriella's eyes were stark white, with a pinprick of black in the centre.

“Can’t be,” she said, or rather he saw her lips make the words.

Barton wrenched himself around again to see, even though he could hear: whuff whuff whuff. From around the bend, it was coming. Oh, the way the angle of the shadow moved around the edge of the curve, like a door opening. Oh, it raced fast.

“Gabby!” he said, or maybe shouted. They had to move.

But he was stuck. Her hand gripped the crook of his elbow, as she tried to pull herself up. All he could do was shift his weight to help her. He had his focus on getting his foot to move when the Starlight Spectre came round, wailing her siren straight through his soul.

He saw it only for a second. Most of it was lost behind a blinding sphere of light—but there was the boxy outline of the locomotive, the stacked exhaust column, the sharp grill that raced low to the ground with its idiot smile.

Then the grip on his elbow pulled hard. His foot came loose, struck the edge of the track, and Barton fell. He heard himself howl as something hit him, as something surely killed him, the reality and weight and terror of death exploding all at once.


Continued in Part 7: Always on Time – April 18

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