Lukas Hitch said the children go missing, because of Captain Arrowood’s train. But not a single train’s run through Smokey Hill, since 1894. All that’s left of them were the old tracks, barely stable, with mud piles and wildflowers grown in between, surrounded by an abandoned wood left barren of a human heart since the 80s when the first child went missing — Arthur Green. The part of town surrounding it was empty by the 90s, after the tenth child went missing — Amelia Bennett. But their captor, was not a train, let alone one belonging to a ghost pirate. The trains left in 1894. Lukas Hitch was a liar, or so said Harry Gold.
“Derek Manning went missing yesterday,” says Tyler Moon, as the boys saunter through the market. “They haven’t seen him or his mom’s pearl necklace, since midnight.”
Tyler Moon is tall for his age — five foot four, age twelve — and his hair was the color of wet tree bark. His eyes matched. It was disappointing, his mother thought; brown eyes were always beautiful. Brown eyes had the power to pull you in, and force you deeper and deeper into an endless midnight chocolate abyss, until you find yourself fallen straight into the depths of a soul. Brown eyes were supernatural, in that when faced with light, they bleed into gold. A brown eye caught by sun, had the power to freeze time, and make you lose yourself wherever you are, forever encased in the golden beauty that’d been imbedded into a simple human being. Brown eyed people were lucky. But not Tyler Moon. His brown eyes, were just eyes. Mud pools on a milky face.
“Think he got caught?” asks Mouth Peters.
“By what?” asks Harry Gold. “The train?”
Mouth shrugs. “No.”
Harry Peters was the smallest of the group, and of their seventh grade class. He wore a mat of strawberry red hair, and eyelashes sandy brown, and freckles splotched across his face. His eyes were the color of emerald green, appearing as though they were incredible gems, shoved where his irises should be. Harry Peters was skinny beyond normal measure, but healthy. He stood four foot five, and shy. He was usually quiet, and often whispered when he spoke, but he was one to fool you. Get him mad enough and he’d yell at you so loud and so bad you’d think you were hit by an atomic bomb. That’s why they call him Mouth.
Harry Gold was the oldest of the group, and that made him their leader. In three months time he’d be thirteen. He stood five feet even, and his hair was the color of fresh sand. He wore proudly, the brown eyes that Mrs. Moon’s always loved so much. The kind that were beautiful. He deserved them. Though the boys weren’t the best behaved, Harry had the most sense out of them, and would protect the other two to the death. The least he could get in return for his service, was a set of melted gold for eyes.
“Whatever took him did us a favor,” Tyler says, “Derek Manning was a dick.”
“Shut up,” Harry scolds. “You getting taken would do a lot of people a favor, but it doesn’t mean they’ve gotta wish it. What number is he?”
“Eight. . . Asshole,” Tyler mutters. “He probably ran away, and took the pearls for money. Either way, it wasn’t a train.”
“I’m telling you, it has to be,” Mouth mumbles, finally admitting it.
“No,” Harry says. “Those tracks can’t hold a train. Let alone one that disappears.”
“If it disappears, that means it’s magic,” Mouth retorts. “It probably doesn’t even need the tracks.”
“Then how come no one’s seen it?” Harry asks. “Why just your mom?”
Mouth stops in his place. The boys stop to look at him, but for awhile he does nothing but stand. So, Harry asks it again. “Why hasn’t anyone seen it?”
“Because,” he says. “They don’t want to.”
Mouth pushes past the other boys, resuming their journey down the straight and steady path. He thinks of the old tracks. His mother used to play on them with the other children when she was young. She said she heard a whistle, before she heard the train, before she watched Constance River jump through the open car door and never come back. Captain Barnum Arrowood’s train disappeared before her very eyes.
They say he was a pirate before he was The Piper. The most vicious pirate to sail the seven seas, or pillage the seven lands. They say he was the grandest thief, the best slight of hand, the greatest pickpocket, the slyest burglar to roam the black nights, and ravage the blue days. It was gold he wanted. It was gold, and everything else worth it, he received. And when he found the whistle, he received inside, the very best idea.
“No rational person believes that a whistle was powerful enough to make children run away from home and jump on a train,” says Tyler Moon. “That’s why nobody wants to.”
“It’s just another Piper’s tale,” Harry adds. “It’s just our parents scaring us into good behavior.”
They say he’s lived through every moment in time, but still looks as though he’s a younger man. They say he’s a ghost, or vampire, or a god— and that he bought the train system when he got the idea, to rule both land and sea. He used the whistle to attract naughty children, and lure them to his locomotive, before he hid them someplace and trained them to be his crew. They say the train appears whenever he needs a new one. But if you see it and it doesn’t take you, it means he’d only stopped for a quick pillaging, and not a new member. They believe Arrowood to be the greatest thief, because he had the power to steal human beings right in front of every working, naked eye, and yet, no one ever noticed until it was far too late.
Mouth hasn’t ever seen it, but they’ve all seen the tracks, claimed to have started it all — in the woods, where their hideout lies. It’s clever, right? A set of secret explorers storing their hideout, in a place nobody’s willing to look. That’s something the Captain would do.
Tyler glances around the market. It’s always packed, but today it’s easier to walk through— which is a shame, because it’s easiest to nick a wallet from a back pocket, when you’ve got crowded spaces to blame. He’d have to rely on pure skill, if he really wanted one today. It’s easier to run though, if the merchants notice your slight of hand. The boys learned how to steal proper, when they once admired Captain Arrowood. . . But if anything now, he was something to remember. A nostalgic thing, to smile about when you are old, and wish to travel back. Not something to believe in.
Harry thinks about Derek Manning. Derek Manning is the eighth kid to go missing since January. It’s August now. Alissa Todd was the first. Then Janet Abrams and Michael Tyler. Austin Greene was the fourth, and Aaron Meijer the fifth. Next was Lucas Singh, and Grant McDonald. Derek Manning was number eight. He didn’t understand. Usually everything in this town made sense. But the only thing these kids had in common, was Smokey Hill. Why were they the ones to disappear?
“Hey!” Tyler shouts to a stranger, when the boys round the corner. Some passing idiot in a black hat, and a long wooly coat — despite it being summertime — who continues to walk with his hand fiddling in his pocket, without acknowledging the fact that he’d bumped into Tyler’s side. “Watch where the hell you’re going!”
The boy does not respond.
“Whatever,” Tyler spits. “Anyways Mouth, you’ve gotta stop believing all that kid stuff. We don’t have any trains, and even if we did. They don’t disappear.”
Mouth shakes his head, and rolls his eyes. “Why are we even going, if you guys don’t believe it? Why can’t we just camp in someone’s backyard?”
“Because your mom’s a pain in the ass, and that’s no joke. And his dad and my mom aren’t much better; the hideout’s our only option.”
Mouth rolls his eyes again. “The hideout’s stupid if you don’t believe. . . I took four oranges and three apples from Mr. Jennings,” he decides to move on, “and a flashlight from the Hudsons. What did you guys get?”
“I got enough to last us two days,” Harry replies. “Mostly fruit, but candy too. If we watch what we eat, it should be enough to keep us from going hungry. Tyler?”
Tyler smirks, and slowly creeps his right hand behind his back. He gestures with his left, for the others to come closer to him, and slowly, cautiously, inch by inch, they do. When they’re close enough, Tyler whips a switchblade from behind his back, just barely missing Mouth’s cheek.
“Shit!” Mouth screams, as Tyler lets out a vicious cackle. “What the hell, you could’ve killed me!”
“Pipe down,” Tyler orders. “You’re gonna get us caught— I took it from Mr. Peters.”
“You stole from my dad!”
Harry scoffs. “We’ll die out there if we’re relying on you. . . Did you get anything useful? Something we can eat, or a lighter maybe?”
“Yes,” Tyler spits. He rolls his eyes, and runs his fingers down the side of him, towards his satchel. It was then that he realized, his satchel was gone.
Without muttering a word to the other boys, Tyler sprints back to the corner where he first bumped into that passing idiot boy, and quickly comes to a stop. Frantically he scans the grounds for his assailant. He spots him eventually, standing by Mr. Harding’s stand, shoving fruits into his satchel. Tyler’s satchel.
“Moon!” the other boys yell, finally catching up to him.
“Hey!” Tyler roars, pushing past them, barreling towards the thief. “Get back here, asshole!”
Tyler’s assailant grew wide in the eyes, temporarily frozen in place. It was when he realized how quickly the boy and his friends were dashing towards him, did the adrenaline kick in, and he begin to flee. The boy, with an orange in his left hand, and his right hand down his coat pocket, speeds through the newly crowded path of the supermarket grounds, pushing through and shoving the bystanders as he went. The trio speeding after him all the while.
“Hey!” Mouth shouts, “Moon what’s going on?”
“He stole my bag!” Tyler yells. “Thief! Thief!”
The merchants around them roll their eyes, and turn their heads. Tyler yelling thief was like a pyromaniac yelling pyro. Hypocritical.
Tyler’s assailant glances behind his shoulder, to see the boys just ten feet away. But soon that ten becomes twelve, and that twelve, twenty. For some reason, they’ve stopped. The assailant, relieved, slows his run into a steady walk, and that walk into a long pause. He needed to catch his breath if he wanted to make it out alive.
“Hey!” the assailant hears. Unbelievable, he thinks. Bikes. They have bikes now, and they’re speeding straight towards the him! The boy runs forward, and faster than he’d ever run in his life. But soon it won’t be enough. His wobbling legs won’t be enough to outrun six wheels.
“Come on!” Tyler orders, leading the other boys.
The boys inch closer and closer to the assailant, just barely running over the heels of his feet. The boy runs faster. Eventually, they make it out the market, and the running child blasts through town, to the abandoned wood. He rushes through all the trees, and makes sharp turns to throw the bikers off, but even with everything he’s got, he still can not shake them.
“I’ll kill you!” Tyler yells.
Tyler leaps off his bicycle, and throws it against a nearby tree, before running to the boy who lies now on the ground. Tyler grabs him by the collar, and throws him down onto the nearby tracks. The boy groans, and even still, thrown about and tattered, he refuses to move his hand from his pocket. Tyler lifts him again, and throws him down again. The assailant’s hat flies from his head at the force of it, revealing a head full of long, wavy, wooly hair, that fell to the boy’s mid-back. And his face could be seen more clearly, now that it wasn’t covered by the visor of a hat, nor ruined by the blur of the passing wind. Well, I’d say they were all fooled. For he wasn’t a boy at all.
“No shit,” Tyler scoffs. “Well this’ll be fun.”
The girl hisses at him. Tyler shoves her harder onto the tracks. Harry rolls his eyes, taking a seat on a nearby oak stump. He isn’t necessarily concerned, but, he opts to stay close by, just in case. Mouth travels to a nearby tree. That tree holds seven carved tally marks.
“What number is Derek!” he yells, taking the box cutter from his satchel.
“Eight!” Harry yells back, never taking his eyes off of the girl.
He’s become enchanted by her every terrified move. He watches as she shivers on the old abandoned tracks, and he watches as she slowly scrapes her hand against the wood, placing it behind her back in attempt to push herself up. No doubt, she’d given herself splinters. He watches as her frizzy brown hair captures all of her, almost swallowing her whole. He watches as her brown, African American skin, shines golden in the light. He watches as her golden eyes grow wide, when they are greeted by the shining glint, of a silver blade.
“Hey!” Harry yells. “Tyler put that thing down!”
“No,” Tyler refuses, grabbing the girl by the back of the head. “You know what thieves get?” he asks, pressing the knife to her cheek. “Thieves get cut.”
“We stole first!” Harry yells. “Let her go!”
Tyler presses his blade harder against the girl’s cheek, just barely cutting into the skin. He watches as a skinny line of blood bubbles against the blade. She grimaces, and attempts not to cry. He didn’t cut her deep— but enough to scar, at least for awhile.
Harry slowly rises from the tree stump, and inches his way towards Tyler and the girl. He almost makes it, when they’re interrupted by a sound they didn’t expect. It was the scream of a miniature, silver, long whistle, smooshed between the center of her lips, clasped on the bottom by her balled right hand. The wooly blue pocket of her coat, lie broken, hanging by mere threads, she’d ripped her fist and the whistle from it so hard. Tyler laughs at her, right in her face. The thought that she could think, that a whistle would save her! Tyler laughs so hard, his face turns red, and he locks his thighs together so he wouldn’t soil himself. He laughed when the whistle fell from her lips, and onto the track beside her. He laughed when she tried wriggling away. He laughed all the way until they heard it. . . He laughed until he was interrupted, by the call of a train.
“No way,” Harry whispers.
The girl smirks as the newly distracted Tyler Moon, loosens his grip on her, and the train draws nearer. She elbows Tyler, hard in the center of him, forcing him to drop both her and his weapon together. She pushes the boys off the tracks, before grabbing her long whistle and the blade, leaping from the tracks herself. She glares at them, but decides their save was a worthy one. Even though they tried to kill her, she didn’t see the need in having them splattered by a train. They were just ignorant boys after all, and she did antagonize them first.
It isn’t long, before they see it. A train bigger than any they’d ever seen on television. A train made of old metal, rusted, and clearly forgetful of its youth. The cars all closed, except for one. It’s empty from what they could see. It was empty, until the girl sat cross-legged at its opening, smiling back at them. They’d been so distracted by the sight of the train, that they didn’t even notice her grabbing all of their satchels, and hopping it. Not until they saw her smiling face, waving her skinny hand, sitting on the edge, of the open car door. On the side of her, stood a tall man, with a white face, and a yellow beard, and piercing eyes, in a white shirt, with a brown vest, and a pirate’s hat. The loop of a long pearl necklace — Mrs. Manning’s — hangs across his thigh. He looked just like they thought he’d look when they were younger, before he disappeared. He flickered in and out like a light bulb.
“H-Hey!” Harry yells through the shock. “We need that stuff for camping! Thief!”
“Oh now she’s a thief,” Tyler yells, running backwards, towards his discarded bike.
“Hey!” Harry yells, taking off after the train.
He chases it until he thinks he’s gotten close enough, and leaps forward towards the back railing of the train car. He missed. Harry falls onto his chest, and scrapes his cheek, left knee, and right elbow. He lies on the wooden tracks, groaning, as the train goes on. He hears the sound of two bikes zip past the both of his ears, and weakly raises his head to see Mouth and Tyler biking after the train. They’re catching up to it, but they all know it doesn’t matter, if what they’d seen of the man was true. For the greatest thief known to mankind, would allow time to forget him, before he allowed himself to be captured by pure children.
And just as soon as they predicted it. The train disappeared.