The train tracks glinted in the moonlight as they stretched out from the Arcane Town and into the dark countryside. They reminded Janey of long threads of spiders silk laid out to trap unwary day people. But when the clouds shrouded the Moon the tracks just looked old and tired. No one cared for the train tracks any more, not since the town had a high-speed monorail zipping back and forth to the big sparkling city over the horizon.
Jany felt sorry for the train tracks and the old station that sat on the edge of the town, all alone and uncared for. She had only ever seen it in daylight but even then it looked sad and miserable. It’s once bright red paint was cracked and peeling, the circular brass windows, that reminded her of portholes on an old ship, were cracked and covered in cobwebs. She often wondered if it could be restored to its former glory, a monument to an older more dignified age of travel. A museum perhaps. Sure. Why not? Arcane Town had some pretty old buildings and the population should celebrate its history.
But in the dark of the night, the train station looked like a hideous dolls house left to rot in the rain. The wooden shingle roof dipped in the middle so either end seemed to be clawing up at the sky. Most of the windows had been boarded up and the wooden sides were cracked and warped. Piles of leaves lay in drifts along one side and rats scampered in and out of secret entrances.
In daylight the train station spoke to her. It said things like: “Howdy ma’m! Top of the morning to ya! I’m waiting on the 9.20 Mail Express to Oakridge, yers indeedy, it should be along any minute now, sure as eggs is eggs. Clickety-clack, says Rickety Jack, and watch out for the Post Master’s sack!” But in the darkness she thought it just sat there sulking and muttering to itself: “Dunt nobody want steel wheels on polished rails no more, no clickety clack on my train track.”
“Mojo, I don’t like this place,” said Janey.
Her friend sighed. “No one does, no one can.”
“You just stick close to Mojo, little Janey, everything will be a-okay.”
“Why are we here?”
“To see Rickety Jack of course, to pay our respects, to take in the sights and make good on promises.”
Janey allowed herself to be pulled along the tracks. Up ahead the train station loomed against the night sky as if shifting a beady eye to stare at them before hulking down again to continue its brooding.
“Rickety Jack? Who’s that?”
Mojo helped her on to the platform and pointed to the old train station. “That is Rickety Jack. Be slow with your words, little Janey, he don’t hear so fast, nor speak too loud these days.”
“The train station talks?”
Mojo nodded and gestured to the battered entrance. “Talks, listens and sometimes sings. Rickety Jack has a soul as old as a mountain, is as wise as a forest of oak and has cunning to match a skulk of foxes.”
“But it’s just a building.”
“Sshh.” Mojo put a finger to his lips. “Day people say it so. Everything is just something to them. Night dwellers see the truth of things, what is instead of what does. Remember to use your real eyes, little Janey, not those lumps of sinew in your skull. Show respect, show your patience, be quiet your day talk and let Rickety Jack know you well.”
It often took Janey some time to understand Mojo which was why she usually wrote down everything he said. She was busy replaying his words to notice her friend had propelled her inside the train station and closed the door behind her.
Alone in the darkness she imagined her heart beat echo inside the empty building.
6. Rickety Jack
Jenny peered through the gloom at the empty waiting room. Moon beams picked out cobwebs and parchment leaves spread like a blanket across the faded timber floor. In one corner the smoked glass windows of the ticket booth were covered in dust. A blind hung from a trembling hook. Copperplate letters told passengers: CLOSED FOR THE DAY. SEE YOU BRIGHT & EARLY!
Wooden benches sat in rows like coffins before an altar of forgotten time tables. Janey was drawn to the counter of a sandwich bar. Seven chrome stools sat at the counter awaiting hungry customers that would never come. The centre stool looked as if it had just been delivered, there was no dust on it and the velvet seat was still a lush deep burgundy.
Without thinking she climbed onto it. Behind the counter everything was as it should be. Menus sat in their metal holders, cutlery was arranged in tall jars and bottles lines the shelves at the back. In the middle a dull mirror reflected everything except her own reflection. Janey wasn’t exactly disturbed by this, after all she was investigating werewolves, zombies, vampires and other assorted ghouls that roamed Arcane Town.
The train station felt less intimidating now she was inside. She sensed a feeling of loss, like an old-timer struggling to remember the day of the week. Mojo said the train station could talk but that didn’t make any sense, so what did his riddlesome words really mean?
“Rickety Jack,” she said.
The sudden movement of bottles on the shelves made her jump. Like many teenagers she was used to special effects in movies but this was no computer generated jibba-jabba, they were really moving. The empty bottles chinked against each other and rolled across the surface of the mirror. They were joined by napkins and cutlery and tomato ketchup bottles. It reminded her of Disney’s Fantasia where the mops worked under the misguidance of Mickey Mouse’s magic.
Janey was mesmerised by the ballet on the mirror. Not once did anything seem out-of-place, every last napkin, menu and spoon swirled across the mirror with grace and confidence. Janey realised they were settling down, nudging each other into place to form something…a word or a picture maybe. The mirror gave the objects a strange three-dimensional feel, almost like the mirror wasn’t there at all.
When two eyes formed she gasped. It was a face! Bottles and glasses had napkins draped over them to form eye lids and cutlery made up the eyebrows. She tried to anticipate what the rest of the features would consist of. Menu’s overlapped one another to make a bushy moustache and coffee cups climbed over themselves to form a nose. More cutlery and ketchup bottles gave the lips colour. Mops heads skittered across the top of the mirror and organised themselves into hair.
Then everything stopped.
The face staring at her was of an old man. Plates and tea cups rolled across the eyes and napkins blinked over them. The mouth opened and closed as if testing how things worked. Janey waited patiently. She understood that if she were a face made up of many different objects she’d need a moment or two to get accustomed to where everything was too.
When the eyes settled down she watched them rolled across the mirror and stare at her. The ketchup bottle mouth turned up and a slight smile and a rep napkin lip licked the lips. It seemed almost pleased to see her. The train station groaned as if in protest against a violent wind, the timber floor creaked, the wooden walls rattled and the old roof wheezed. For a moment Janey expected the train station to collapse around her. Whatever force had come together to form the face on the mirror may have expended the train stations last ounce of energy.
The cacophony of sound slid around the train station and concentrated into a squeal behind the mirror. Janey winced as the pitch rose like a congregation of pigs baying at a predator. If sound was sand Janey thought it could easily be poured through a funnel to arrive on the other side with every grain forming a complete sound.
Silence replaced the clatter of sound grains.
The face relaxed and smiled at her.
“A long time to sit and wait,” said the face. It spoke with a voice like an old man with a sore throat. It was deep and rough. It spoke slowly and carefully. “Everything gets lost in time, even time itself will be lost when no one is here to remember it. But here we are and we must keep on, no time like the present to remember the old times.”
“You’re Rickety Jack?”
“Questions are there to be asked and I must keep the balance in play with answers to those questions. That is what they call me, clickety-clack, Rickety Jack.”
Every so often a note would drop from his voice to reveal the slight screech of wood about to snap or the squeak of glass on the verge of shattering.
“I thought Mojo was talking in riddles again when he told me about you.”
“But did you doubt what he said? Did you question his truth and believe him a spinner of lies and falsehoods?”
“Not exactly,” said Janey. She was still amazed by how she was talking to a train station.
“So you believed that be believed what he said was a true thing and not a claim to trickery or a jape at your expense?”
“Er, yes, that.”
“Hmm, that would and must lead to a conclusion that takes me to a question of my own.”
As Rickety Jack thought his napkin eyes blinked and he looked around the empty waiting room. “Mojo brought you here on this dark and brooding night, brought being the word in question, brought implies lack of knowledge or inexperience. I see your face as you see mine, but since I have never seen yours I am correct to say you have not seen mine.”
“I’ve never seen yours before,” said Janey.
“Ha. Then you are a stranger to me, and a stranger to the night. My question, young stranger is this: are you a day person? One who shuns the night and hides behind locked doors for fear of those who stalk the evening air?”
“Mojo said to be quiet my day talk,” said Janey. “He told me to show respect and let you know me. But as I seek the truth behind the jibba-jabba I must be honest at all times. So yes, I am a day person. But I don’t shun the night and I hate locked doors.”
Rickety Jack grinned, showing a set of faded yellow menu teeth. “You seek the truth? That is an honourable quest for a day person. You are an admirable young quest seeker.”
“Thank you,” said Janey. “Sir,” she added.
Rickety Jack laughed. “She calls me sir! That I have not heard for time and forever. Ho! I am joyous with your candour, young stranger, and pleased to make your acquaintance. I care not to recall the last time a day person dared speak with me, he was not so forthcoming as you, nor was I so delighted to speak with him.”
“Who was that?”
“A clacker-jacker!” said Rickety Jack with wide eyes. “An unsavoury character with mischief on his mind and money in his pockets. I care not to think of that fear monger now or again or ever if I am to be as truthful as you.”
“Sorry,” said Janey.
“Fresh minds are curious minds, they want to know, they need to know, it is in their nature to explore and ask questions. Apologies are for mistakes not for questions.”
Rickety Jack laughed again. A coffee cup fell off his nose and shattered on the floor.
“A shame,” said Rickety Jack. His plate and tea-cup eyes examined the broken cup. “Everyone becomes nothing in the end, such is the way with things, with everything in the end. Even one as old as I can not weather the test of time without losing something to its hunger.”
“Can it be repaired?”
“Leave it be, let it rest. I welcome the change. Everything changes and so must I. To stay in one place is to grow stale and worthless. There is no desire left in me to stay strong and ever lasting. Not any more.”
“How old are you?”
“How old?” asked Janey. “Because Arcane Town is probably no older than two hundred years.”
“Arcane Town is but a young pup, a mere baby even now begging for a teet to feed it. It is full of clacker-jackers hungry for more, always more they want but it will never be enough.” Rickety Jack smoothed a napkin tongue over its menu moustache. “I have been here a long, long time, shall we agree on that much, young quest seeker?”
“Okay,” said Janey.
“Done and settled.” Rickety Jack fixed her with a stare. “You are here to seek what lies behind the jibba-jabba. I see you well, better than you would see yourself in a mirror made of truth. You have questions for me, many questions, and for you I suggest a proposal, a deal to benefit both you and I.”
“There is a path laid out before you, a yellow brick road of trickery and lies that will either lead you to the truth or condemn you to slavery. Which of these belongs in your bag of destiny I will not say. I see many things, the past, the present and how they split into many futures. A day person seeking the truth of the night has a future of uncertainty, and must walk that yellow brick road until it brings them to the answer they seek.”
“What is wrong with Arcane Town?”
“Ho! Yes indeedy, the question in all it’s glory. Unbound and free from rumour. Straight as an arrow yet crooked like lightning. It is a question no one wants an answer to.”
“Because something is wrong and it shouldn’t be.”
“You have pluck for a young quest seeker. And courage too I see. Let us iron out the deal, you and I, and find common ground to plant our deal sapling. Would you wish to want to hear my proposal of the deal that will place you on the yellow brick road?”
“Yes. Tell me.”
“Then hear me well, young quest seeker, for I will make but one deal with you. One that if broken will seal your fate faster than a ray of golden sunbeams. Only one other day person struck a bargain with me, that clacker jacker wriggled free of his obligations and has avoided his fate for too long. One deal, one chance. Agreed?”
Janey didn’t really understand what the deal was or what they were both supposed to get out of it but she needed to know the truth and if this was the only way then so be it. She ignored the fact that she was talking to a train station and decided to take the plunge.
“Agreed,” she said.
Rickety Jack grinned and his menu moustache crinkled. When he spoke Janey felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up and the palms of her hands tingle.
To be continued…
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt.
Part 2 took just under 2 hours to write and aside from spelling mistakes I haven’t edited it.
I purposely didn’t write any more of this story right away because I wanted to forget about it. I didn’t want to do any planning for it, just sit and write. By forgetting about it I could then return and continue blind writing the next chunk. I honestly had no idea where Mojo was going to take Janey or where Rickety Jack came from! Now he’s here I actually quite like old RJ!
I’m hoping this doesn’t read as nonsense, even though it’s a pretty strange twist to the story. There’s something dark going on and Janey needs to work it all out. Even though I don’t want to think about the next part I am curious to know what this deal is!
I had to stop where I did because my back was killing me! I’ve been writing and editing my novel most of the day and took a break from that story to write this as a refreshing tonic!
Next Thursday or Friday 22nd I’ll add another instalment, that should give me enough time to forget all about Arcane Town and its problems!