's 2019 Horror Write-off:

The Twin Lanterns

Submitted by L.C.

The Twin Lanterns

     James never liked the rain, or the cold for that matter.  The long winter days in-between November and January always put him in a gloomy mood.  He hated the heavy rain that poured down as if from giant faucets in the lifeless grey clouds.  He hated the long wait for Christmas that seemed to never end. But most of all, he hated that his mom had to travel for work.  His mom was a business trader, and every year the company she worked for held an annual conference on the other side of the country to discuss prices for homes and property or some other boring crap like that James didn’t know or care about.

     Despite his sour disposition, there was one treat James got to have while seeing his mom off; he and his dad got to visit the local train station.  James loved trains and steam engines. Their parts, their sounds, how fun it was to simply watch them chuff to and fro with such precision, and the fact that here in the UK, diesel engines hadn’t completely taken over.  It might have been just his imagination, but James thought the people who worked at the train station always liked seeing him. Their usual bored faces brightened slightly whenever he and his dad came by for a visit. James would play around with the model train set in the station gift shop as his dad talked to the ticket seller.

     One rainy day in November James’s dad took him to the station to cheer him up.  James’s mom had only left a week earlier, and the pair of them were feeling down.  The whole car ride there James couldn't keep quiet about the newest train models that Bachman just released, and no doubt the station gift shop would have some for sale.  His dad gave him a skeptical look.

     “Don’t you already have enough train models Jim?”  he asked his son.  

     “Kinda, but this one is is a different kind of gauge!  It’s bigger than the last one and I want to have more engine sizes for my railway.”  For two years James had been collecting all kinds of model train parts and components to make his own model train railway like that of the Island of Sodor.  A tall order for a 10-year-old.

     James’s dad smiled at his son as he parked the car in the lot.

     “I’ll call and talk with your mother about it when I can.  Maybe we should save that sort of stuff for Christmas yeah?  It’s only a few weeks away.” The mention of his mom struck a blow in James’s heart, and he felt his happiness deflate a bit as he got out of the back seat, tucking his yellow raincoat around him.  It had stopped raining, but James knew that wouldn’t last for long. The clouds overhead were as grey as the road, and thick fog had enveloped the train station completely. James knew trains had bright lanterns to light their way in this kind of weather, but even so he was worried.  Would there even be any trains running on the line today? He sure hoped so.

     As James and his dad walked up the steps to the station, the fog rolled over them in gentle wisps of grey air, giving them both a chill.  They soon came to the ticket booth window, which they were surprised to find was dark and empty, devoid of any friendly ticket seller. James’s dad scratched his head.  

  “That’s odd.  It’s Wednesday.  Usually the station is open at this time.”  He cupped his hands over the window, trying to get a look inside.  He tapped once, two, three times on the glass, calling out if anyone was there.  No reply. A nervous knot started to tie itself in James’s stomach. Something had to be wrong.  Clearly somebody had been here this morning judging by the freshly lit lantern hanging above the booth window, but not now.   He couldn’t think of any reason behind this.

     The heavy fog seemed to roll in from all sides around the station.  Sound was at a standstill, muffled. Even James’s own breathing felt somehow quieter than usual.  The boy gazed nervously out onto the track, hoping to spot the dim glow of an engine's lantern in the distance.  He didn’t see a glow. But he did see something else. All at once a powerful gust of air whooshed over the train track towards the station.  James started to get scared, and turned to ask his dad if they could leave, but his dad wasn’t there. He was just gone. Out of sight and reach.  

     James grew more scared still as the whoosh of air reached the station platform, nearly taking him off his feet.  It howled and whirled all around him, and the thick fog followed suit, enveloping James in its cold grip. James tried to cry out, but found himself muffled with the sensation of a blanket over his mouth.  He saw nothing on him, but still felt the cold, clammy grasp of it, muffling all sounds he tried to make. His arms went limp at his sides and he could barely turn his head. He was trapped and helpless. 

     That’s when he saw it.  In the distance a bright, gleaming lantern shining its way through the haze of fog, the light of it casting a long, yellow beam.  Soon, a long, chalky, ghostly shape emerged from the tunnel track, a pair of two train whistles blowing an ethereal tune that echoed everywhere.  James urged his legs to make a run for it, but he was rooted to the spot by an unseen force. His eyes grew wide and panicked as the pure white shape chuffed closer and closer to the platform where he was standing.  As it approached, James could make out not just one engine, but two, a flatbed car between them loaded up with piles of clean, white, bedsheets and pillows.  

     The lanterns of both steam engines bathed the platform in a ghostly, yellow light that chilled James to the bone.  He felt the hairs on the back of his neck and arms prickle, goosebumps erupting across his skin. Spooky wisps of steam wafted creepily from their cracked funnels as the ghost train pulled to a smooth halt in full view.  Both locomotives were covered in what looked like chalky sheets covered in white powder and cobwebs, dust particles drifting off them in small clouds. At this point the boy was so frightening he’d been trying to wail and cry out for help despite how futile he knew it was.  If something was going to come save him and stop whatever this whole thing was, it would’ve happened by now. All he could do now was wait to dare see what happened next.

     The quiet chime of a bell from the lead engine’s boiler drew James’s attention, and he would’ve fallen over if his legs weren’t held in place.  There were two, expressionless eyes embedded in the dark center of the lead engine’s front, the white orbs staring directly at him. The engine made a left off steam, and somehow spoke with an heir of cheerful mourning without a mouth.

     “This stop was for you my boy.  Don’t be confused. Hop in and come for the ride.  We’re both eager to show you.” The engine opened its cab door, seemingly of its own accord.  Warm, orange light spilled over the platform as James glimpsed what was inside. His bedroom. His bed with the train patterned sheets.  His window with wooden letters that spelled his name as train cars. His toy box full of all his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toys, books, and videos.  His walls with pictures of him riding locomotives.  “We have arrived for you, my boy,” the lead engine continued, “we need good, young dreamers like you.  Where we’re going, you’ll be very useful indeed.”  

     It was as if James had never been sad or scared in his life.  Now really, the fog and cold weren’t that bad. He walked sleepily forward as his body became mobile again.  The engine didn’t even buckle as he stepped off the platform into the cab, and into his bedroom. Suddenly James was wearing his soft pajamas, and he no longer felt so afraid.  

     “You’ll take me where I want to go won’t you?” James asked the twin engines, to which they responded in monotone unison, 

“Of course my boy.  Where we’re going, you’ll be very useful indeed.”  With that James laid down on his bed, the cab door closed with a click, and the ghostly train chuffed away with a whoosh of cold air, leaving behind a cloud of cobwebs and dust in its wake.

     In the weeks that followed nobody saw or heard of James after that, and nobody seemingly cared.  His parents carried on without him, and could not for the life of them even remember why they had so many boys clothes packed away in their house, nor the collection of model train toys.  It was as if the boy who loved trains had never existed at all. But sometimes, just sometimes, the couple wakes in the middle of the night to the faint, echoing sounds of an old train whistle in the distance.  They hear it coming closer and closer and closer, but it never reaches them…