BEWARE! DARK SEAS: HELLUVA RAIL BY RUTHIE JONES
Welcome to Beware! Dark Seas Halloween showcase, an annual author & artist showcase that features talented creators. Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Prepare for dark stories, myths & legends, and creepy creations that will make the hair on the nape of your neck stand up straight. May the water have mercy on your soul.
BY ruthie jones
I entered my silent house in a secluded suburb outside of Austin, Texas, and looked forward to a relaxing nightcap after a tedious day of teaching, meetings, and grading papers in my campus office. The late hour meant my wife was long abed. I closed the door to my study with a soft click, moonlight spreading across the cluttered desk and large bookshelf full of dusty tomes collected on my journey as an English professor.
A rustle of fabric from a far corner of the room stilled my hand loosening my tie.
“Would you say you have led a good life?”
I took the two steps to my desk and flicked on the lamp, illuminating a dapper gentleman seated in a high-back chair.
“Who are you? How did you get in my house?” My initial fear that the man was a common burglar who meant me harm had slipped quickly into displeasure.
“You may call me Mr. Lucent. Please, sit. We have much to discuss.”
I finished removing my tie and sat in the chair behind my desk. “Well then, Mr. Lucent. State your business, but be quick about it. My day has been quite taxing.” My weariness had returned, and I felt no need to be at all courteous to someone who had broken into my home.
“But I have already stated my business. Would you say you have led a good life?” The gentleman waved a small glass of whiskey under his nose before taking a delicate sip.
My hesitation was minimal. “Yes.”
“As a good person?”
“What are you getting at, sir?”
“Hypothetically speaking, of course.” The old man’s smile chilled me as it held no warmth or humor.
“Then, yes. I would say I have been a good person. A good Christian. Is there a point to this questioning? To you entering my home uninvited and helping yourself to my whiskey?”
The gentleman’s smile broadened, and the chill running up my spine tickled my scalp. This unexpected tête-à-tête had caught me off guard, but an even colder thought crept into my brain.
“Is fine, I assure you.”
I had no reason to believe him, but I found myself rooted to my chair as if pressed by a heavy hand. I watched Mr. Lucent’s throat bob as he drained his whiskey before leaning forward and setting the glass gently on the desk.
“I have a proposition that I entreat you to accept.”
“I thought this was hypothetical.”
“Well, perhaps not exactly hypothetical.”
I briefly considered pouring myself a whiskey. “Go on.”
“We will travel to Whitby, England, on the coast of the North Sea. I must stress the utmost secrecy. You have no time for goodbyes, and you have no need to pack clothes or retrieve your passport. We leave immediately.” Twelve peals from the grandfather clock in the hallway drowned any objection I might have voiced, even if I had not become overwhelmed by a sudden bout of lethargy and resignation.
We boarded a private jet as a thunderstorm was brewing, the wind whipping at our suit coats and trousers. We were the only passengers, and no one welcomed us aboard. The door to the cockpit was closed, but our pilot must have already boarded because as soon as my host, Mr. Lucent, had shut the cabin door and fastened his seatbelt, the engines revved and whined, and we quickly began taxiing towards the runway.
My throat was parched, but I saw no flight attendant waiting to serve beverages. I saw no one for that matter, except Mr. Lucent sitting across from me, pulling a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket and placing it on the small table between us.
He unfolded the paper and said, “Just a formality, you see.” If possible, the man’s grin was even more sinister.
“What is it?” I didn’t want to know, actually.
“Nothing illegal, rest assured.” He extracted a pen from his front pocket and placed it next to the paper. One well-manicured hand pushed both items closer to me.
I reached towards what looked to be some sort of contract; my steady hand belied my uncertainty. Most of the legal jargon sailed over my head, but I could see that by signing, I would waiver my chance of offering any defense, with the ultimate verdict rendered unequivocal and final.
“What is this defense and verdict? Am I to be on trial for something? What are you accusing me of exactly?” More questions raced across my brain, but Mr. Lucent’s grimace shut me down.
“Just a formality,” he repeated.
I balked. I was no legal expert, and I knew not to sign a formal document without fully understanding and agreeing to its contents. “I need more information before signing such a waiver.” I leaned back and crossed my arms.
“You refuse to sign?”
“Of course, I refuse to sign, especially without first consulting my lawyer.”
Mr. Lucent sighed and replaced the paper and pen in his pocket. “Smart man.”
We landed at the Durham Tees Valley Airport near Darlington, England, where Mr. Lucent hastened me into a black car with tinted windows. The 40 miles or so to Whitby passed quickly as I stared at the back of our driver’s head and at his gloved hands loosely gripping the wheel. My host had leaned back against the plush seat and closed his eyes, but I would venture to guess that he did not sleep.
Once in Whitby, we were deposited close to the sea, our chauffeur quickly driving away, never exchanging a single word with my host. The hour was late, and the many tourists flocking to the famous seaside town that had inspired Bram Stoker to compose his legendary Dracula were either sleeping or downing their final drinks of the evening in nearby pubs.
We walked across the sand towards the North Sea but stopped just short of the waves touching our shoes. I tucked my hands under my arms for warmth.
“What are we waiting for?” I wanted to go home to my wife and to my warm bed, back to my life, as boring and mundane and predictable as it was. I cursed myself for entertaining this man’s nonsense and for not refusing his request when I had the chance. Back before I had agreed to this scheme.
But as we stood in the darkness on the deserted beach, a bit of doubt slipped across my thoughts. Did I even have a choice? Had I even agreed to this journey? I suddenly felt coerced, like a puppet or perhaps a small child tempted with sweets if I obeyed. My lips thinned in frustration as I realized everything had no doubt been meticulously planned, right down to my refusal to sign that blasted waiver. I was now convinced the entire situation had been well orchestrated, my responses and actions measured and predicted. I started to voice my annoyance and end this farce but stopped when Mr. Lucent pointed to a light bobbing in the distance.
“What is it?” But I could already see it was a small boat, with a lantern hanging from a short pole. The lone figure in the craft was rowing with strong, steady strokes, the waves pushing him closer to the shore. When the hooded man was almost six meters out, he stilled the oars and sat with his head bowed, as if in prayer.
I looked at Mr. Lucent in astonishment. He could not be serious.
“Do you mean for us to swim to that small boat? Absolutely not!”
“Yes, but it is not too deep. We can wade out and simply climb aboard.” He gestured towards the boat, and I felt an odd tug at my feet that had nothing to do with the frothy waves pushing and pulling at the shore. I did not want to do his bidding, but any vestige of autonomy had long since disappeared, if it was ever even present at the outset of this absurd odyssey. I sighed and began walking.
The surging sea water hit my knees and splashed up into my face as I made my way to the boat. I rubbed my stinging eyes and noticed Mr. Lucent was having no such difficulty. In fact, he seemed to glide through the water, whereas I was leaning into the waves and trying to maintain my balance.
Once we were both seated in the small boat, the man, who continued to look down at his knees, began rowing. His build was so slight, I could not fathom where his strength came from. It would take the muscles of Hercules to fight the waves from pushing the boat back towards the shore.
Instead, we were out in the open sea in a matter of minutes; I could barely make out the ruins of Whitby Abbey outlined against the indigo sky, illuminated by intermittent moonlight. When the man stopped rowing, I twisted in my seat to look at my host. Was the deep waters of the North Sea to be our destination?
“Mr. Lucent, what is this all about?”
“Please, do not tarry.”
My next words died on my lips as I watched my host tuck his knees to his chest and roll over the side of the boat. I gasped and peered into the dark waters, but he had vanished.
“He’s gone under!” I turned to the man still clutching the oars. “Where is the life preserv—”
I stood in horror when the man lifted his head. I took two steps back in a boat too small for such extensive footwork. As I tumbled backward into the icy waters of the North Sea, my vision narrowed and locked onto empty eye sockets in a face of white bone.
I sank a few meters before trying unsuccessfully to push my way back to the surface; something had taken hold of my body. Blood-red tentacles were wrapped around my knees and ankles, pulling me down into the sea’s murky depths. A primal instinct to survive kicked in, and I began clawing at the creature’s thick grasp, but alas, it was hopeless.
As my brain reeled in terror at being dragged to the bottom of the sea, I noticed that other than fear, I felt no other discomfort. My lungs did not burn for lack of oxygen. My body felt no pain, even in this leviathan’s tight clutches. I finally stopped struggling as we sank deeper and deeper into the abyss.
I landed with a thump on top of what appeared to be a train car. But how was that possible at the bottom of the sea? I looked around, mystified at what could only be a bad dream. At any moment, I would awake to the sun streaming through my bedroom window and to the sound of my wife making breakfast on a crisp Saturday morning.
Instead, I saw Mr. Lucent beckoning me as he perched atop a small ladder at the end of the car. I began crawling towards him, barely noticing that I could move freely through the water as if we were not many fathoms deep below the surface of the North Sea. Small sea creatures swarmed my face in curiosity before darting away, only to be replaced by a fangtooth fish. The beast move past me in search of other prey, but not before bumping my face and plucking out my left eye. I cried out in fright, clamping my hand over my empty eye socket and seeking succor from the torments of those dark seas. When no aid was forthcoming, I continued crawling towards my smiling host.
I refused Mr. Lucent’s outstretched hand as I made my way down the ladder and into the old train car. Before the door closed with a snap, I looked down at the steel tracks snaking across the seafloor and into the unknown.
“Please, have a seat. The others will be here shortly.” Mr. Lucent gestured towards a lone chair along the length of the car, facing two rows of six chairs. He sat down off to the side in a luxurious seat of crimson velvet and mahogany, a small school of fish circling his head before moving away.
“All in good time.”
Bewildered, I shook my head. “How did this train come to be here? How does it travel underwater? Who laid the rails? Where are we going?” The questions tumbled from my tongue, without waiting for any response.
The train started with a jerk, throwing me into my seat. My steady frustration since this entire journey began took a backseat as I curiously gazed around at what appeared to be an old-fashioned bar car, no doubt pulled by a gleaming black steam engine. I had momentarily forgot that we were at the bottom of the sea until my gaze swept across the windows. I reared back as blood-red tentacles rippled into view before attaching to the glass.
I rubbed my remaining eye and opened it to that same school of fish now swimming away from me, followed by a mauve stinger jellyfish. My brain refused to believe this wasn’t simply a nightmare, but I was never one to succumb to such fanciful dreams. A dark thought pushed its way to the surface as I realized there could only be one other explanation.
“Am I…?” I clutched at my throat in terror, wanting to deny what I already knew to be true.
“Yes, my good man. You are indeed quite dead.”
I struggled to wrap my mind around this unholy situation, similar to the leviathan wrapping its tentacles around the train.
“Am I in hell?”
“This cannot be heaven. I am not Catholic, so I do not believe in purgatory.”
A small chuckle escaped my host’s lips. “Ah, human religious beliefs never fail to amuse me, but I must confess that purgatory does exist. However, you are not there either.”
“All in good time,” he repeated. “We must wait for the others. They will be arriving from the next car at any moment. Please, sit back and relax.”
But relax was the last thing I could do. “Why all the theatrics in luring me from my home and subjecting me to all these ridiculous modes of travel? Could you not have simply snapped your fingers?”
My host frowned and said, “Just as birth is a journey, so too is death. One must not snap one’s fingers and be done with it.”
“At least tell me how I died.”
“A rather grisly automobile accident, I’m afraid, on your way home from work. Not your fault; an intoxicated driver ran a red light. It was all over quickly, and no one else was injured, in case you were concerned.”
“My wife will be devastated.” I pictured her mourning my death and wished we had spent more time together.
“She is. She has already been notified. But you must put that earthly life behind you. It is your soul now that is in dan…well, all in good time.”
“What about my soul?” But Mr. Lucent had already looked away.
The door at the end of the car slid open with a whoosh, and 12 people filed in and took their seats across from me. Although, calling them people was an exaggeration. My entire body shuddered as these sea-ravaged corpses in various stages of decay looked at me. Some were curiously eyeing me up and down before turning away with what appeared to be sorrow. The disinterested ones looked away quickly and began picking at their remaining flesh. But the ones looking upon me with sheer loathing were the most disconcerting. What had I done to elicit such hatred? Their rotting bodies no longer resembled anyone I might possibly have known, but their hatred surged towards me, causing me to shrink back in my chair.
“Quiet! Your turn to speak will come in a few moments. I must start the proceedings.” Mr. Lucent stood and faced the panel, clapping his hands once to gain their attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “Please hear this man’s defense. He has already claimed he was a good person, but he must now defend that statement because in life, he was both good and bad. He is like you once were, both guilty and innocent. I ask only that you accord him the same fair consideration you were given before you decide his eternal fate.”
My host started to return to his seat but stopped. “One more thing. He has refused to sign the waiver, so I am afraid we cannot forgo this trial and send him straight to hell. A pity.”
Twelve heads swiveled in my direction. I thought my troubles had started hours earlier when I entered my study, but the nightmare had only just begun.
When Mr. Lucent resumed his seat, I noticed subtle changes settling over his delicate features. Red eyes replaced blue ones, and his once alabaster complexion became gray as death. He was no longer the soft-spoken gentleman as he turned to me and announced my alleged crime.
“You are accused of committing a grave falsehood.” He held up his hand when I opened my mouth to speak. “All in good time.”
“You say you have led a good life as a good person, and you have. That fact is not in dispute. However, because you have done good deeds throughout your life, the motives behind them must be examined. I will list only two examples to indicate my point.”
Questions whirled through my brain, but I was mesmerized as Mr. Lucent raised one finger.
“First example. You spent many weekends serving food to the homeless. That act was good, but your motive was not.”
“Did you or did not you not think while you were serving those less fortunate people how glad you were that your situation was nothing like theirs? How happy you would be when this good deed would be over for the day so that you could go golfing before heading home to that hearty meal your wife was already preparing?”
“Please do not interrupt. I know I am asking you questions, but your chance to answer will come in a few moments.” He raised a second finger.
“You went on three mission trips to Central America over the course of several years. Those trips were good, but your motives were not.” He paused to see if I would interrupt again; his smile had become oily and vindictive.
“Did you or did you not tell everyone who would listen about these trips, basking in their praise for doing such good deeds? Did you not hate being near those indigenous people living in want and misery, cringing when the little ones ventured too close with their dirty hands and lice-ridden hair? As you were helping them, were you not constantly disgusted and glad that you lived in the United States and had such a nice house with a full larder? Did you not count the days until you could fly home and put that particular good deed behind you and return to your comfortable yet boring life?”
I swallowed and waited for him to continue.
“Your good deeds have been overshadowed by your true feelings. The irony of it all is that if you had not done such deeds, you probably would have gone to purgatory and then no doubt on to heaven. Maybe. However, because you chose to help others but with an impure heart and with thoughts only about your own discomfort, you must now convince this jury that your good deeds do in fact outweigh your selfishness.”
A sharp crack distracted me from Mr. Lucent’s diatribe. The leviathan’s grip on the train must have tightened because his suctioned tentacles had begun splintering the glass. But such sea monsters no longer frightened me. They were not my judge and jury. My gaze fell once more on my host. I waited to hear more, but he was leaning back in his chair, with his eyes closed and hands tented.
“You may begin your defense. What say you?”
I had no voice. I thought about his accusations and realized they were all true. I had been disgusted by the homeless, by their unwashed odor and bad choices and even worse luck. I did find those people living in squalor abhorrent, even as I handed out food and clothing and preached the Christian Gospel, all the while looking forward to my warm bed and full belly each night.
“I want a chance to be better.” It was not a defense, of course, but a desperate plea for the impossible.
With a quickness that belied his seemingly old age, Mr. Lucent stood and was before me in a blink of an eye. “You are not Ebenezer Scrooge waking up to a bright morning and a pocketful of second chances. You had your chance, but what you have now is an opportunity. You cannot go back and try again, but you can attempt to persuade your jury that you were a good person, despite your self-centered righteousness. Admittedly, you have been both good and bad. The scale is level, but what you say now will tip that scale. That much is certain. Once you rest your defense, this jury will decide if that scale tips towards heaven or hell.”
I stood, knocking my chair over behind me. “But how is that possible when you have already told me I am guilty? How can I convince this…this…group?” I swept my arm out towards the twelve, whom I guessed had perhaps lost in their own trials and were now consigned to this hellish railroad at the bottom of the dark seas, judging others for the same crimes and no doubt sending everyone to hell because they could not bear to see someone succeed where they had failed.
“You must begin your defense. We are almost at our destination. I urge you to tarry no longer.”
I closed my eyes, and despair pushed me to my knees. Another ear-splitting crack sounded from across the car as more glass shattered, allowing more sea creatures to enter and swarm my face. But instead of darting away, many began nibbling at my ears and nose before my windmilling arms scattered them towards the four corners of the train car.
A small sample of my sins had been laid before me and my jury. I thought about all my other so-called noble deeds during my life that Mr. Lucent had not revealed. But I knew that everything was known to this man and his motley group, with harsh judgment pouring from their eyes. What could I say that would not sound like a pathetic scrabble for justification? That would not contradict the ugly truths this man had rained down?
I grasped the sides of my head in anguish and cried out, “I am truly sorry—”
A screech punctuated my only defense as the train halted, toppling me to the feet of my ghoulish jury and my judge, grinning down at me with delight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR RUTHIE JONES
Ruthie Jones is an editor for a large global company, an aspiring novelist who is currently querying her first novel, and a serious pool player. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in Anthropology, and a master’s degree in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Because books are life, Ruthie works with several virtual book blog tour groups (Lone Star Book Blog Tours, Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours, and Xpresso Book Tours) and regularly contributes book reviews and other promotional posts on her Reading by Moonlight website: www.ruthiejones.com