Sitting on a street corner on the outskirts of Altoona, Pennsylvania in front of a junk food gas station combination, I was stranded with nowhere to go. My life lost in the maze created by a bad marriage, a lost job, and homelessness. I sat on the curb and cried like a mad man certain passersby thought I was a total loser with no modesty.
Those anonymous passersby would no doubt be correct in their impression of a thirty-seven year old man crying like a baby as he sits on a yellow painted curb. I have no modesty when I am so impassioned about a life gone sour. I’m not afraid of what people might think of my oddness or emotional state. Nevertheless I sat for a long time before I decided crying wouldn’t get me a room for the night or a meal. I had all of ten bucks and ten bucks won’t take you far. I bought a hamburger, soft drink, and a pack of smokes. After my feast I wandered by a darkened bar which had an aging sign in their window advertising rooms to rent for the night, four bucks. I drifted into the cool, dark, and smelly establishment. I ordered a beer on tap and handed the barkeep a quarter. “I need a room,” I said flatly.
“Got one upstairs, gotta share the bathroom.”
“Not a problem.”
He handed me a key, I drank my beer, and made my way to the stairs. There was a cockroach party going on when I found my room, #206. They greeted me with scraping noises on the ceiling and walls and some whispered noises as they scrambled beneath my nice sweat-colored pillows. Perhaps the foulest display of all time was the two brown mice fighting over a cheese cracker that had been left in the trashcan. The can tipped over but the mice were not deterred from their fist fight. I threw an empty cigarette pack at them hoping to stop the war. Instead they peeked up at me for only a moment and continued their conflict. Things are just wrong when a mouse doesn’t run from a human who is a thousand times bigger than it. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned, but I was in no mood for lessons.
A thought came quickly, lightning fast, I got the hell out of the room and trampled down the dirty steps and barged into the barroom. With my best pissed-off voice I gave the vacant-faced bartender the key. “I aint sleeping with your Smithsonian insect collection up there, what kind of shit is that? I want my money back.”
“I’m sorry,” He snickered, “I didn’t hear you asking me for the fucking honeymoon suite.” I heard snickers and giggles behind me but I didn’t give them the honor of turning around.
“I didn’t ask you to sleep in a fucking terrarium either.”
“I can’t give you a return,” He spat, “but I can repay you with a pint of Jack.”
My eyes didn’t leave his. “Just what I need a flea market swap?”
“Take it or leave it.”
I grabbed the bottle out of his hand and tromped out of the dingy dump more pissed off than the fighting mice in the trashcan. I figured if I finished the bottle I wouldn’t give a shit where I slept. Hell the Juniata Bridge would be a good bedroom after an empty bottle of Jack and a half a pack of smokes.
I decided to find myself a spot near the railroad tracks next to the bridge, but just out of sight of authorities. All I needed was some crazy vagrant charges trumped up by an overzealous cop. I brought my duffle bag which I had left in an alley behind the cockroach hotel. I managed to squeeze a pillow and a blanket in it just for this moment. I knew this moment would come but my hope was that it would come later and not sooner, so much for hope. If anyone reads this drivel they probably would like to know something about me, but I really don’t want to discuss my fucked up marriage and the fact that my wife was sharing spit with the contractor working on our roof. Suffice it to say that I’m near thirty-five, I have dark beady eyes, and my black hair has some snow gathering on my sideburns. That’s it I’ll admit nothing else except perhaps the fact that I’m a pathetic loser. By now you have already figured that one out.
Unscrewing the bottle of fine whiskey I took a draw and felt the burn all the way down to my stomach. I had a couple of small packs of beef jerky which I unwrapped and began feasting. This could be my last meal. Where my next meal would come from I hadn’t a clue. Once again I swigged another measure of liquid gold. This draw wasn’t as bad as the first one. In fact I felt no after burn during my ritual of emptying the bottle. As I suppose many drunks do in this situation I calmly and without fanfare passed out cold.
I awoke to the clacking sounds of a freight train, a freight train on which I apparently was a passenger. My head felt a little foggy and when I tried to move I discovered that I had been tethered to a large fifty-five gallon barrel containing I don’t know what. “I see you’re awake, Tommy boy.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Where am I and why have you tied me up like this? You have no right.”
“Just where do you think you’re at? You’re on a train, a very important passenger.” The voice sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it with a name. “Sorry about the rope but you kept trying to climb out of the boxcar which would have been certain…death.” Did I note a hint of cynicism when the man said “death?”
“How did I get here?”
“You jumped on just as we passed beneath the old bridge.”
“I couldn’t have.” If my mind serves me right I was passed out and couldn’t have moved if a train was headed straight on. I turned my attention to the voice, nothing seemed to make sense. “Who are you?” My suspicions were blinking like red lights on a cop car. My gut was on high alert. This voice without a body was acting just a bit too casual. The current situation did not require casual, things were fucked up, placing things at a very minimal perspective.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
“I can’t see you.”
“You can hear me can’t you? Surely your ears still work.”
“John Shackler, you’re John Shackler. But you can’t be John Shackler because you’re dead.” The thought brought an unwelcome chill to my spine. You sound like him but you’re not. So who are you really?”
“You’ve worked with me for what, nine years?”
“No, I worked with John Shackler for nine years, not you.” My mind was swimming either from the alcohol I drank or from my state of complete confusion. “What direction is this train heading?”
“I don’t know. I guess it depends where we are going.”
I was getting pissed off at this guy. “What the hell does that mean? You’re talking nonsense.”
“Nonsense is what nonsense is.”
“How prophetic,” I sneered.
For what seemed to be hours the man and I stopped talking. There were no more questions to ask. His answers were always nonsensical and ambiguous. He sounded like John. That was the catch. He sounded just like him, right down to the husky nicotine saturated sounds John made during lunch breaks. Of course it could just be a coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences. The train’s sudden movement brought me out of my reverie. It was slowing down.
I heard the man shuffling around the boxcar but he was only a silhouette in the darkness. Another voice became apparent, an unknown voice. It only filtered through the clacking of the wheels as a mumble, but the silhouette seemed to be engaged with the other voice. Soon the train stopped. “This is where I get off Tommy boy. Apparently there’s another destination for you.” With that the silhouette slipped out of the door into the dark night.
It was the ghost of John Shackler. Had to be, what other explanation could there be? Ghosts were not allowed into my brain, they don’t exist at least not until this moment. Someone else is here. I shivered with uncertainty, what is happening to me? The silhouette spoke to someone, someone else is in the boxcar. I spoke into the rumbling darkness. “Who are you?”
Only silence returned. I fell silent for several minutes maybe more. Time is an unknown quantity in a pitch black boxcar and I didn’t have a glow-lit watch. I heard a shrill sound, a voice but a voice that was almost beyond the human hearing range. What I saw next made me want to vomit, but I was fairly sure my stomach was empty, growling its discontent with my current behavior.
Before me stood a creature, my entire body quaked at the sight. It was dark and I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing but I’m damn sure it wasn’t human. If the ugly looking thing could see me in the blackness it would see my mouth hanging open like a door without a latch. The critter in question was a cockroach the size of a six or seven year old child, I tried to stifle a gasp but it had already left the station. It came out as a hideous scream which oddly terrified me of my own horror. A shrill voice escaped the creature’s mouth, if cockroaches have mouths. “Name’s Gus, I rented a room to you. You do remember that don’t you?”
He was the bartender that I gave a bunch of shit about the mice and cockroaches in my four-dollar room. I spit a muffled answer, “I remember.” I wanted to ask if this was some kind of joke, but no one would play a joke like this. It had to be a nightmare. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“What am I doing? You’re just going for a little ride on a train, that’s all. Simple isn’t it?”
I ignored Gus’s squealing sarcasm. “Where is this train taking me?”
The laughter was hideous even higher pitched than his conversational tone. “You won’t like it Tommy.” Several of Gus’s legs stretched out with some kind of gesture I didn’t understand. “Wait for it,” He paused, “Wait for it.” He screeched, “You’re going to hell.” The laughter was maddening. “And it’s filled with cockroaches, rats, and your very favorite furry little friends the ever popular mice.” Again the sonic laughter, how much more of this shit could I take? My world in a matter of…hell I don’t know, my life became an insane asylum.
The train’s movement shifted. It was slowing down. The cockroach known as Gus the barkeep began making a buzzing sound like a mad hornet. Once the train jolted to a halt Gus began scuffling around the boxcar like a cornered cat. I could only see his outline against the darkness but I could definitely hear him buzzing and shuffling. I heard something else climbing inside the car. The climbing sounds came from all around the darkened freight car. My eyes saw movement. It was a swarm of darkness. That’s the only way I can describe it, darkness within darkness. There were thousands if not millions of small black insect-sized creatures hitting the sides of the car. Soon they came through the huge opening in the side of the car. I braced myself for a horrific attack, but it never came.
Instead, the swarm moved rapidly towards Gus covering his body entirely. His desperate squealing could have broken my eardrums but it stopped almost immediately. The black swarm had either eaten him or dissolved him. I couldn’t tell. I only know that they left as hurriedly as they had entered. During the bizarre train ride I had been teasing the rope binding my hands until I finally managed to loosen one hand and then the other. I then untied my legs and managed to get to the door. It slammed shut in front of me. I pushed, pulled, and tugged, but the door would not budge. I was trapped as the train began moving again. Was I going to hell? I don’t think so for surely I had already experienced the place.
Something happened soon after the car door slammed shut. Though I felt the train moving I could no longer hear the wheels meeting the rail or the clacking sounds that freight trains make when passing a crossing. The only sound I could discern was wind, a soft whimpering wind. The train was climbing. My ears popped and breathing became more difficult. What was happening couldn’t be happening. The train was floating or flying and I had to go wherever it decided to travel. I was trapped inside of a ghost train, a train heading for my final destination.
Officers Joe Bricker and Nolan Garogiolla were assigned to police the main line of the Norfolk Railroad. It was an area of high crime and vandalism. It was their unpleasant task to round up drifters and sometimes criminals hiding in the thickets along the line. They drove blue and white ATVs with red swirling lights shining. On most days they found no one, captured no one, and the only time they used their pistols was for their annual weapons’ test. Today would be different.
Joe noticed the body first and gave a whistle to his partner. “Get the fuck over here Nolan. We got ourselves a dead one.”
Nolan let out a gasp, “Holy Mother of God.”
“Yeah that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Look at him. Shit there’s every kind of insect and rodent crawling over this guy.” Joe turned away from the corpse and emptied his stomach of the bacon, eggs, and toast he had for breakfast at Irene’s Breakfast Club. “Nolan, call this in.” After giving the creosol soaked ground the contents of his stomach he made the mistake of turning to look at the body again. “Christ, Nolan look at that.” He pointed to one of the rodents that was making a feast out of the corpse’s jellylike eyes. A cockroach climbed out of the victim’s mouth. “Make that call,” He insisted.
“Just did, they’re sending an ambulance.”
“Wonder what happened?”
Nolan checked around the body and discovered a business card, Gus’s Bar and Grill. He stuffed the card in his pocket and forgot about it.
Joe was kicking at the cockroaches, but they paid little attention to him. The body was like a magnet to the insects. The hair on Joe’s back bristled with a combination of awe and revulsion, He was certain he could hear a buzzing sound made by the insects. Joe turned away from the dead man. He would never look at the body again