The old, red caboose shuddered and creaked as the train lumbered away from the station. As it picked up speed, Edger Price anxiously slid open the panel he'd been hiding behind and spilled his lanky frame into the middle of the wooden floor. "Free at last!" he exclaimed as he stretched and rose to his full six feet. He took care not to stand near any windows, not till the train passed the edge of town.
Sneaking a ride on the annual Halloween train had become a beloved tradition by Edgar, and as his age crept ever higher, he feared there weren't many such excursions left in his future. He intended to enjoy every sight, sound and smell to its utmost.
He could smell the aroma of hot, spiced cider and freshly baked doughnuts in the air that came wafting back from the forward cars. His treat would be a crabapple he'd snatched off a tree on his way to the train station.
The long, mournful whistle of the locomotive announced the train's departure and he carefully moved to the rear of the caboose and creaked open the door. He wore an old, denim jumpsuit and hoped any onlookers would think he was a crewman.
The rush of cool, autumn air brought back a flood of memories as Edger stepped out and leaned on the iron railing. The flickering of passing houses and crossings played like a kaleidoscope before his eyes, prompting a wide smile on his weathered features. Then, the train passed beneath the Wilkinson bridge.
The bridge was old, by any standard, wide and decrepit with crumbling supports and rusting, metal reinforcements. It was no longer open to traffic, but it remained a landmark and an eerie portal the Halloween train must traverse. Edger felt an icy chill skitter up his spine as they penetrated its shadow and he nearly gagged on the scent of something foul. Thoughts of a murdered corpse along the tracks filled his imagination and he wished the train would increase its ponderous chugging to a more energetic tempo. Craning his neck, to see how far away starlight and fresh air were, he caught sight of something wrong, something ... monstrous.
At first, it was merely a shape, larger than a man but clearly not part of the darkness. Edger felt a presence emanating from it, and as the train neared the far side of the bridge, the wane light glinted on twin, yellow orbs. Edger's breathing became ragged and his heartbeat was like a trip hammer. His hands gripped the railing so tightly that the cold iron felt like fire. Edger knew this was something evil.
As the train cleared the bridge, Edger relaxed, hoping that his imagination had taken him for an unwelcome ride. However, the shape did not remain hidden. Sensing it had been discovered, the creature broke from the shadows and shot skyward amid a heavy beating sound of leathery wings. It quickly approached the train, and as it silhouetted across the full Hunter's moon, Edger saw a massive, horned head, taloned claws and a long, thick tail.
Fearing for his life and of the passengers -- the children in the forward cars -- he frantically scanned the caboose for any type of weapon to fend off the impending attack.
The caboose held little in way of fighting implements, however he did come across three emergency flares and stuffed them inside his coveralls. At that instant, he felt the train rock as the creature landed heavily on the roof of the caboose.
The ceiling began to crack and splinter as a gaping hole appeared and Edger got a much closer view of those wicked, curved talons. He bolted for the door and escaped into the next car.
The scene that met him was surreal. With a supernatural beast shredding the caboose, he stood facing a varied assortment of fairies, angels, vampires and witches. They all spun about expecting to see some costumed character come to terrorize them, but their wistful expressions became truly fearful as the rampage in the caboose grew louder ... and nearer.
Edger did his best to put on a comforting smile and said: "All right children, it seems that there is a problem in the car behind us and it might be better if we moved the party forward."
The conductor and chaperone -- who stood at the front of the car -- paused momentarily, listened to the sounds of smashing boards and shattering glass, then nervously nodded their agreement and began to herd the children onto the next car as quickly as possible. But before even half the children had been ushered to safety, the rear door groaned and screeched as it was ripped off its hinges revealing the grotesque figure of the beast.
Terrified shrieks and wails erupted from the children nearest the monstrosity. An older boy pointed at the beast and screamed
Expecting this turn of events, Edger pulled out the first of the flares, struck its tip and positioned himself between the children and the creature.
The interior of the railcar took on a deathly pallor amid the sputtering, red glow of the flare, and the frantic cries of the children enraged it even more.
Its tail whipped from side to side and its evil, yellow eyes scanned each passenger, finally locking on a young girl wearing a white robe and large, angel wings. It menacingly stepped towards her, oblivious of Edger, until he waved the flare in front of its face.
The beast hurled Edger out of its way with a swipe of its arm and closed on the young girl. She sat paralyzed with shock and fear, staring glassy-eyed at the floor.
Marjory!" screamed the woman who'd been chaperoning this group of children. "Marjory, move away from there!" At that instant, the creature grabbed the girl's wings and lifted her off the seat. It seemed confused by the sight of a human with wings and was trying to figure out what manner of beast she was. Its mouth opened and closed revealing large, hideous teeth.
In this moment of confusion, Edger scrambled to his feet and fished the crabapple out of his pocket. With a grunt, he hurled it like a baseball and caught the beast on the side of the head. The yellow eyes burned with a new hatred and the girl was discarded and forgotten.
Edger reached for the second flare and saw the first one lying in a corner, its flame scant inches from a spider web decoration. The heat from the flame had caused the webbing to shrivel and smoke. Edger scanned the front of the car and got the glimmer of an idea. The sounding of the train's whistle announced the approach of the Ganley River Bridge and spurred Edger to action.
He shoved the chaperone into the next car and jammed the latch with the spent flare, he knew it wouldn't hold for long, but he only needed a minute. Next, he gathered all the spider webbing he could and tucked it inside his coverall. All this time, the creature was moving closer and closer to the front of the car and it was mere feet away now. The stench he'd smelled earlier now filled the air and Edger had to fight the urge to gag.
With a thrust of his arm, he shoved the tip of the flare at the creature's head and it reeled back from the glowing flame. Edger bolted out the door and scurried up the ladder to the roof. With a loud, defiant hiss, the creature regained its senses and stormed after Edger.
Atop the railroad car, in the darkness and rushing wind, the beast had the advantage. However, the children were now safe. Edger had crawled to the center of the car and was waiting for the right moment to act. The second flare had gone out and as he tossed it over the side, he felt something hot and reptilian clamp onto his right wrist with an iron grip.
In an instant, they were airborne -- headed away from the train and into the night. Searing pain shot down his arm and he had to fight to remain conscious. He looked down and saw moonlight reflecting on water; they were flying high over the Ganley river. With an anguished groan, Edger opened his coverall and pulled out the spider webbing. He managed to reach up and press it against the beast's chest -- he said a silent thank you as the webbing easily clung to the beast's rough skin.
The next step would be more difficult and require a measure of luck. Edger pulled out the last flare and finally managed to ignite it by holding the striker in his mouth. The flare blazed like a bonfire and Edger lifted it to the webbing where it instantly ignited.
The beast screamed in agony and began flinging Edger around like a piece of meat. Long, tortured seconds passed, then it released its grip on him and he tumbled towards the river.
The water hit him like a wall and Edger had to kick off his shoes and wriggle out of the coverall before they pulled him to the bottom. As he burst out of the water and cleared his eyes, he caught sight of the creature -- still burning -- winging its way back to its lair. And Edger knew that wherever that lair was, it was in a deep, dark place.