Engine 23 And The Lookout Man
An Original Short Story by Rus VanWestervelt
(Note: I wrote this story last fall for a local horror story contest. Although I did not win, I am extraordinarily happy with how this story turned out. The word limit was 3,000, and I had overwritten by 1,500 words, which I had to cut from the story. I think the edits made it tighter, to be honest. Enjoy. It’s a blend of fact and fiction, as are most of my stories. ~Rus VW)
October 30, 1997
Samantha, now a senior at Towson High and desperately ready to wrap up her final year of school, left the public library and went straight to her favorite place to write: the old abutment at York and Towsontown. She jogged up the small, grassy hill and reached the top of the stone structure, where she looked across York Road and scanned the horizon south to north. The stone abutments here on each side of the road were some of the last reminders that the Ma & Pa Railroad ever ran through Towson.
Not another person in sight. She loved how the skyline of buildings in west Towson opened up a path that curved subtly to the left, just like the rails would have run for the train coming into town and through the center of Towson State College.
She sat on the cold stone, opened her backpack, pushing Focault’s Pendulum aside, and found her journal.
Samantha turned to her latest poem, “When Time Runs Out.” She stared at the messy lines below the title, with colorful edits scribbled along the margins. This had been a particularly tough poem to write about the passing of a classmate five years ago.
Samantha re-read the first stanza, made one change to the third line, then scratched it out. How do you capture the best moment with another human being when you think they will live forever?
She felt a shiver, an almost rumble below her as an invisible wind rushed past her.
Suddenly chilled, she turned away from the poem and looked up at the other stone abutment across the street.
There, a man stood on the stones, staring directly at her. He was statuesque, wearing a black peacoat, heavy work pants, and black shoes. He looked as if he was in his late 30’s, and his thick black hair waved in the October wind. His sideburns fell to his jawline, and Samantha was certain he never blinked the entire time she stared back at him.
Samantha turned to pull a marker from her bag, and when she turned her head to look at the stone structure, the man was gone.
The late October afternoon was brisk, and she was glad she had packed an extra sweater. She threw it on and thought about the man she had just seen, and how he looked at her so intently. Growing up in Towson and walking to school most of her life, Samantha knew the locals who spent time along the York Road corridor. Many were harmless; a few she kept her distance from. This stranger was no one she recognized.
The traffic light was just about to change below her, and she savored those few seconds of quiet from the usual bustle of cars desperately trying to get through the town center. She took a deep breath and exhaled, finally feeling the calm settle in after a very stressful day.
She took a sip of what was left of her after-school frap, savored the sweet, rich caramel at the bottom of the cup, and reached around to get a book from her backpack.
Samantha froze. Instead of feeling the smoothed canvas cloth of the pack, her hand fell on cold and callused fingers.
She looked up and saw the man in the black peacoat, standing over her.
“Howdy,” he said.
Samantha screamed and felt her body lunge away from him. Her back hit the ridge of the stone cliff, and she could feel her body falling over the edge and toward the street below. She waited for her head to snap against the underside of the rock, then felt a jolt as if she were on some mad fair ride, jerking her back up toward the sky.
The man had grabbed Samantha’s heavy sweater, pulling her to safety.
Thankful and terrified in the same breath, Samantha looked up. His hair was thick, black; his sideburns dropped like western boots along his jawline.
“I’m not here to harm you. I’m only interested in asking you for a little help.”
“If it’s money you want, I have change from my frap in the bottom left—“
The man chuckled, then looked a little embarrassed.
“Oh, no ma’am. It’s nothing like that. I’ve got plenty of loose change to tide me over while I’m here. The help I need is, well, different.”
Samantha’s fear eased into curiosity.
“Why were you staring at me that way from across the street?”
“I wanted to make sure you were the one who could help me. You see, when I was your age 20 years ago, I was asked to help somebody, too.”
Samantha, intrigued now, moved a little closer on the rock and wrapped her arms around her chest. “Go on.”
He motioned to take a seat on the rock. “May I?”
“In 1977, I used to hang out here on The Rock just like you. I met a woman pretty much the same way you are meeting me now. She called me ‘The Lookout’ and smiled at me in a flattering way. I know I was being a dumb boy just graduating from high school, but I liked the name, and I liked the way she was looking at me. So I listened to what she had to say. Changed my whole life.”
“Why did she call you ‘The Lookout’?”
The man leaned in, and she studied his icy eyes as he spoke.
“Do you know anything about this pile of rocks we’re sitting on?”
Samantha shook her head. “Some railroad, but that’s it.”
“Not just any railroad. These stone abutments carried the steam locomotives from the old Ma and Pa Railroad across this busy intersection. The Rick-Rick-Rickety sound of those steel wheels clicking their way across the tracks was pure music.”
Samantha watched the man close his eyes, as if lost in some kind of dream.
“I didn’t know they were still running here twenty years ago,” she said.
The man’s face froze, and he opened his eyes and stared directly into hers.
“Barely, ma’am. They slowed down in 1954 and stopped altogether in ‘58. But my grandfather laid track through the college, and he told me stories that made me feel as if I had been a passenger all my life.”
“Of course,” Samantha said. “My great-grandfather would tell me stories when I was younger about being on the horse-drawn fire engine when he fought the fire in Baltimore in 1904, and how the sparks would fly from the horses’ shoes hitting the cobblestones at night.”
The man smiled. “I knew you would understand. I knew you were the one.”
Samantha looked at her watch. She would soon have to leave.
“I hate to rush you,” she said, “but I have to get home by four.”
“Of course,” he replied. “When that woman approached me and asked me to do her a favor, she got pretty serious, and I did too.”
“What was the favor?”
“She told me that, in 1957, when she was still in high school, they used to hide out by this abutment when the bridge was still here. It was practically abandoned after the trains slowed down, and one day, when she got there before the rest of her friends, a man approached her from the hill behind us. It was all woods then, and pretty thick, too.”
He looked around the library and beyond, and Samantha was sure she sensed a touch of melancholy.
“Anyway,” he said, turning back to her. “The man had just about the saddest story in the world. Said that 20 years ago, in 1937, his son Charlie was up there on the bridge playing chicken with Engine 23, trying to impress his girl Lorraine. He had grabbed her by the wrist beforehand, trying to convince her that they could beat the train together. But Lorraine refused, and Charlie went out there alone. He stood on the plate girders taunting her while she screamed, ‘Look out, Charlie!’ When that whistle blew from Engine 23 and drowned her out, it was probably the last sound Charlie heard before he was knocked off the flange. He was dead before he hit the road.”
Samantha was struck by the sorrow on the man’s face, and she dared not say a word.
“When the man finished telling the story, he asked a favor. He said that ever since his son was killed, he had these nightmares where his son wanted to come back in 20 years and kill that girl for making him show off. Every single time in the dream, he told her, he would meet his son by the bridge and calm him down. Tell him it wasn’t her fault. Let him know that he was still remembered and loved.”
“That is so sad,” said Samantha.
“I know. I thought the same thing. The old man pleaded her to stay with him that night, and maybe if he saw her, he would think that she was Lorraine, and she could tell him she loved him and she was sorry.”
“Did she stay with him?”
“She did. And you know what? Charlie really did show up that night. She said she heard the sound of Engine 23 coming through, and she saw him up there on the bridge, waving to them both. They started shouting at him to run, and that they would always love him.”
“Did he listen to them?”
“He did after she said she was sorry, and he ran harder than ever to the other side of the bridge and beat that train. When Engine 23 passed, he stood there on the abutment holding on to the edge of the bridge, staring across at them both. Then there was a final whistle blow, and he vanished. That was in 1957.”
“So why wasn’t that the end of it?”
“Turns out, the old man started having more nightmares when his dead son figured out he had been tricked, and he vowed to come back again in 1977 to seek revenge by any means. By that time, the bridge had been removed, and the elderly father was scared beyond measure in what to expect. In fact, just a week before Halloween night, the old man died of a heart attack. That’s when the girl — now 37 — approached me and wanted me to play the role of Charlie’s father. How could I say no? I was scared out of my mind, but she had a charm about her that made it impossible to do anything but help her.”
“That’s why she called you The Lookout?”
“Yes. That night, it was getting pretty cold and late with nothing happening. No whistle, no Charlie. Nothing. We were beginning to think his ghost had gone away with the old man when he died the week before, but just then, right before midnight, we heard the faint chug-chug of Engine 23 coming up behind us. No track. No bridge. But the train was coming nonetheless.”
“That’s when we seen him on the other side on that abutment, staring us down, waving to us like some kind of madman. I followed the woman’s lead, shouting how much we loved him and were sorry and that he had to run away from the train. I’ll never forget Charlie looking me in the eyes, unblinking, just lingering there on the stones before vanishing with the rush of the invisible train as it blew by us. That was in 1977.”
“So that should have been the end of it then, right?”
“I had really hoped. But about a month ago, Charlie started visiting me in my dreams, still raging on about Lorraine. Said he was going to come back. I tried everything I could think of to get him out of my head, but I couldn’t do it. Horrible nightmares telling me that I had to get out here again on the 31st of October and let his ghost know we hadn’t forgotten about him.”
“That’s tomorrow night,” said Samantha.
“And that brings me to you.”
The man stared again into her eyes.
“You want me to be Lorraine?”
“You would be perfect. I gotta do this for Charlie, and for his father. I’ll even buy you one of those caramel frap drinks. What do you say? Will you help me be The Lookout?”
Samantha looked down at her hands in her lap and turned her wrist. It was nearly 4:30.
“Yes. Of course. But I have to run home now, or I’ll be grounded for a week.” Samantha stood and grabbed her pack. “See you here tomorrow night, around 8?”
The rugged man with the long sideburns smiled as he watched the girl run to and down the grassy hill.
“That would be perfect, Lorraine. It’s a date.”
* * *
The next night, Halloween, Samantha dressed up like the rebellious Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls and told her mother she was going to a dance at the school. Her mother bought it, and Samantha was out the door immediately.
She ran as fast as she could to the library and stopped at the bottom of the hill leading up to the edge of the abutment. She wondered if The Lookout Man was already there. She didn’t see his silhouette against the skyline, and with a deep breath, she walked up the hill and stood atop the large, flat stones.
Samantha looked around; she was completely alone. She turned to her watch every five minutes, and after a half-hour, she started to feel a little foolish, believing some stranger’s story about ghosts and a now-extinct train coming through town on Halloween Night.
“Ten more minutes,” she whispered. That’s all I’ll give him, and then I’m out of here.”
She rubbed her bare shoulders, trying to stay warm, when she felt a faint tremble and a strong, invisible wind envelop her. Samantha heard a whistle behind her, unlike any sound she had ever heard. As it grew louder, she could feel the stones under her feet begin to vibrate. She turned to see if there was actually anything coming toward her — there wasn’t — but the sound grew louder. She looked at her watch and noticed a cup at her feet. She bent down to pick it up.
A caramel frap, just as The Lookout Man had promised.
“Hello? Where are you?” She yelled, shouting above the screaming whistle behind her. Somewhere beyond the grassy hills, she could see a single beacon of light approaching. She turned to face York Road, and there, in the illumination of the train light, was The Lookout Man on the other abutment, staring at her with an intensity that scared her to death.
“Why are you over there? Engine 23 is coming! Get over here!” she screamed. “Help me tell Charlie he is loved!”
The Lookout Man smiled before vanishing. Samantha blinked hard, and when she reopened her eyes, he was inches from her face.
“How did you— That’s impossible.”
The Lookout Man smiled, his icy eyes burning through her.
“You’ve come back for me, Lorraine. I knew you wouldn’t leave me.”
Samantha tried to turn away, but his stare was too strong.
“That’s right Lorraine. We can make it this time.” He grabbed her wrist. “We can run across the tracks together and beat the train. I know we can.”
Charlie tugged her toward the edge of the abutment.
“Charlie, No! There is no train! There isn’t even any bridge! Didn’t you learn all that 20 years ago?”
But Samantha could hardly hear herself shouting over the deafening roar of Engine 23, blowing its whistle against the Rick-Rick-Rickety run against the old tracks.
Charlie yanked Samantha’s arm, looked her in the eyes, and laughed. “Time’s Run Out, Lorraine!”
But it was too late. Digging his grip deeply into her arm, he leaped off the edge, taking her with him.
The last thing Samantha heard was the sound of a whistle in the wind as she fell helplessly.
Below, the screams and screeches were quick, followed by that silence that Samantha often loved, as onlookers stood in shock at the lone body of a girl lying in the center of York Road.
* * *
October 30, 2017
Kaleb sat on the cold stones next to the library, Face-timing with his friend Matt in California. It was just after noon on the west coast.
“Take a look at how beautiful it is up here, Matt.” Kaleb turned the phone around and did a pan of the skyline, a cacophonic quilt of colors covering West Towson. “The leaves piqued a few days ago, but it’s still beautiful.”
Matt laughed. “Meanwhile in Sunny Cali…” Matt showed off the shores of the Pacific. “It’s 78 degrees here. I think I win.”
Kaleb turned the phone back around to speak to Matt, whose face changed almost immediately.
“Whoa, dude. Looks like you got company.”
Kaleb turned around to see a woman dressed in a cute skirt standing behind him. Her icy blue eyes left him speechless.
“Hi,” she offered, sipping a caramel frap through a pert smile. In her other hand, she clutched a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.
“I’m in need of a little help, a favor, really. Do you have a few minutes?”
Kaleb stood up to face the woman, who was now nearly giggling.
“My name is Kaleb,” he said. “How can I help you?”
Kaleb felt a faint rumble below his feet as a whistle blew in the distance.
The woman took another sip of the frap and held out her hand.
“I’m Lorraine,” she offered, shaking his hand. “You remind me of an old friend, and I think you will be able to help me just fine.”