THE TENTH TALE - TRACKS
SIMON P. CLARK
We called them the Rattle Tracks. Well, the children did. I don’t know what our parents called them – the old train line, maybe. I don’t think they had a particular name.
We called them the Rattle Tracks, and the train that rode on them was the Rattle Train.
Every school has stories and myths. They always build up, get bigger over time – the stories of ghosts, of lost children, of devil teachers. I think that’s part of being people, really. We make things up, pass them on, always with more details, more hints that something might be true.
For us it was the Rattle Train – and the ghosts of the men who rode it to hell.
Malvern High School. It wasn’t a very good place. Old buildings, old teachers, and kids who didn’t want to be there. The whole town felt like that, to be honest. A grey, dying town with a dead train running through it, like a scar. It started in the factory ruins – I’ve seen the exact spot, where the track bursts from a rotting wooden shed – and made its way, more or less straight, from east to west, over roads and under houses that have grown since the trains stopped coming. In the west it goes out into the woods, and then – who knows? Maybe it goes on forever.
Probably it just rusts into nothing, and not even the train company realises the track’s still here, in our town.
Here’s the important bit, though: it passes right by Malvern. From the chemistry labs you can see the track as it slinks past the playground. If you walk out the school gates and push through the bushes, you can follow the track west until it you hit the fence that’s meant to stop you trespassing.
The fence does not work very well.
The Rattle Tracks. That’s what we call them. And the ghost train that runs on Halloween – that’s the Rattle Train.
‘It’s not real’, said my sister. She was young, new to the school, and she knew we were trying to frighten her.
‘That’s what they all say,’ said Tay. ‘But it is, and it comes, and if you don’t watch out it’ll take you away.’
‘Yeah? Where to?’
Tay looked down, shook his head. ‘Only one place that train’s welcome at,’ he said. ‘The gates of hell itself. The men ride it there once a year, snatching at anyone they can reach, desperate to switch places with a living soul.’
‘They do not,’ said my sister.
‘They do. Didn’t you hear about Sarah Perkins? She was here last year. Now she’s gone. No one knows why – but I heard her scream on Halloween, and I knew she’d gone too near the tracks.’
‘Poor Sarah Perkins,’ I said. The other boys lowered their heads, murmuring together, ‘Poor Sarah Perkins.’
My sister looked uncomfortable.
‘That isn’t true,’ she said. ‘And if you keep trying to scare me, I’m telling Mum.’
Everyone laughed at that, but we left her alone.
Every school has stories and myths – and if you’re not careful, the myths come alive.
Every Halloween was the same for us; you had to show how brave you were. At Malvern, at Halloween, that meant running the Rattle Tracks. It had always been a test for the boys at our school. You ran down the track, as fast as you could, and whoever got the furthest was the winner. If you tripped or fell, you had to stop. If you chickened out and wouldn’t run, you had to take a punch. No torches allowed. No phone lights. We ran through the dark, following the tracks, until only one of us was left, and he was king of the night.
‘I thought you said not to go near the tracks,’ said my sister. ‘I thought the ghost train took you to hell.’
‘That’s why you have to run,’ I said. I shrugged. ‘I didn’t make the rules. You want to run the tracks in my place?’
‘I don’t see why anyone has to,’ she said. ‘You’re all idiots.’
‘You should be careful. If I see any ghosts tonight, I might send them your way.’
She sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘Just be careful, OK?’ she said. ‘You could break your leg, you know.’
‘The Rattle Tracks need the blood,’ I said. I lowered my voice, doing my best Dracula impression. ‘Tonight, we run! Ah-ha-ha!’
She went out with her friends. I went to meet the other guys, and to jump the fence that led to the tracks.
Last year’s king was Bob Watson. They said he’d run into the woods themselves, and almost got lost. They’d had to call the police. He’d been the winner, which meant this year he didn’t run, and he got to start the race instead.
‘Men of Malvern!’ he shouted. We shouted back, laughing, some drinking. The lights from phones lit up my schoolmates’ faces.
‘It’s time to run the Rattle Tracks! Who’ll be chicken? Who’ll be a king? Who’ll fall flat on their arse in the dark? You? Or you? How about you?’
‘No!’ we shouted. ‘No!’
Bob Watson smiled, and turned to look down the tracks. It was late, and clouds covered the moon. It was dark already, and the tracks soon slithered into nothing but shadows and space.
‘No light,’ he said. ‘And no tripping on purpose. That’s the rules. You ready?’
‘We’re ready!’ we roared.
‘Then I’ll see you in hell!’ he shouted, and with a wave of his hands he started the race.
I’d been running for ten minutes. I knew I was almost alone. Only two, maybe three boys, were still keeping up. I heard the way their feet hit the earth, heard their breath, their panting, and then a hissed curse when one of them fell or got hit by a branch.
I’m going to win this, I thought. I’m going to be king of the night.
I could barely see a thing. I felt the tracks beneath me. I matched my pace to the spacing of the wood. I felt the vibrations as the old iron screamed.
I heard the voice beside me.
‘Who runs on my tracks tonight?’
I swore, skidding to a stop. I caught my foot on a twisted root and fell to my knees, skidding on stone and metal.
‘Who the hell was that?’ I shouted. ‘No tripping! That’s cheating!’
My knee was bleeding. My hands, too, where I’d braced my fall.
The voice was thin and old, but it spoke from somewhere far too close.
‘You don’t know my name? But surely you know where we’re going?’
‘Who’s that? Is that you, John?’
Everything was silent. Everything was cold. Then, ‘Not John!’ said the voice. ‘Not john! Someone worse than that.’
I stood up, pulling out my phone. I turned on the light. Screw the rules, I thought.
In the bushes up ahead, something was moving. I thought I saw eyes. I thought I heard breath.
‘Who is that? You know you can’t –‘
‘I’m not a boy, you child,’ said the voice, and it rumbled with anger. For a moment, I thought about running.
‘I’m not alone,’ I said. ‘You perv. Where are you?’
‘You called,’ said the voice. ‘You called, and I came. How is that my fault? I know when I am needed. I know when I have work to do. I think you’ll be pleased with the work I have done.’
On the edge of hearing, something was growling. I looked up, peering through the black trees. A plane, overhead? I squinted. I could feel something big, something mechanical and vast.
‘We must beware the Rattle Train – we must not run too slow! It runs along the Rattle Tracks, to drag us down below!’
The air was full of the voice, singing, laughing, and the ground was shaking now, small pebbles dancing on the rotting wood, and dust, dust filling the air, drifting up in clouds like smoke.
‘What ?’ I said.
‘We must not run the Rattle Tracks - and those that do know well, the woken sleepers' endless train will drag them down to hell!’
Something was crashing through the trees up ahead, something huge and fast and unstoppable. The ground hummed with the engines of the train.
‘That’s ... impossible,’ I said.
‘I don’t make the rules,’ said the voice.
Lights burst from the darkness. Steam filled the sky. A piercing whistle, a screech of air and noise, filled my head. The Rattle Train had come for me, and all I could do was scream.
Tracks, Eren Tales © Simon P. Clark 2015. All rights reserved.
Photography © Brandon Rechten 2015. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission
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