Every summer since Charlie turned six was spent on Grandpa’s Iowa farm. Charlie loved to run through the fields chasing butterflies and spent his nights laying on the cool grass, watching the fireflies and Milky Way. Life was perfect until the train arrived.
“I don’t believe it,” Grandpa said, shaking his head. “Are you sure?”
Frank, a family friend from the other side of town, nodded. “Saw it myself two nights ago out by Cooper’s Ridge.”
Grandpa pulled his old handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “What are we going to do? We can’t let it happen again. Charlie… I can’t… I won’t.”
“What’s the matter, Grandpa?” Charlie walked into the kitchen when he heard his name.
Grandpa’s face turned white as he grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and shook him. “Don’t you ever get on that train. You hear me, boy? No matter what he says, or what you see happening inside, you never get on that train.”
Charlie was terrified by Grandpa’s expression and could only muster a whimper.
“I’m going to let you go,” Grandpa said, hugging Charlie as tears streamed down his face. “He’s not going to get another one.”
Later that night, as Charlie laid in bed and imagined the mysterious train that had terrified his Grandpa, he heard a whistle in the distance. Slipping on his shoes and bathrobe, Charlie stood at his window and watched as a train appeared through the night’s mist and blew its whistle again. Charlie rubbed his eyes and gulped.
“You get out of here,” Grandpa shouted as he ran out the front door carrying his rifle. He fired twice and screamed at the train. “You can’t have him! You can’t!”
A well-dressed man stepped into the doorway of the train, looked at Charlie in the window, and said, …
“Boy, you come over here. Don’t make me come and get you, Charlie.”
Charlie was conflicted. He remembered his Grandpa’s warning to him to never get on that train. But the man calling out to him looked so dapper and debonair, just like those men in the fancy magazines his mother would look at back at home. And inside the train he saw other kids playing and partying, having what seemed like a lot of fun. And where was Grandpa?
“Charlie,” the man called out once again. “It’s time to go. You need to come out here and join us on the train before we leave for the next stop.”
“I need to get dressed,” Charlie called out to the man, stalling for time as he tried to figure out what to do.
“No, come as you are, Charlie, you’re fine,” the man called out. “Your Grandpa is already on board, and we have new clothes for you here.”
Charlie grabbed his stuffed teddy bear and slowly walked out of the house and approached the train. The well-dressed man had a broad, welcoming smile on his face and held out a hand of encouragement to Charlie as he neared the train.
“Come on, boy,” the man said, his hand still reaching out to Charlie. Charlie was still hesitant as he thought about Grandpa’s warning, but he couldn’t resist the draw of the man and the train. Charlie reached up and grabbed the man’s hand and was gently assisted onto the train.
“Welcome to the Soul Train, Charlie,” the man said. “Go inside and meet the other children.”
“Where’s Grandpa? Where does this train go?” Charlie asked.
“Relax, Charlie,” the man said, his smile now appearing more sinister than welcoming. “We’re headed straight to ….”
Boomtown where all your dreams will come true.”
Charlie thought that sounded a good idea and looking around found himself in a small room in which there was a tiny window that looked down the corridor of the carriage he was in.
He expected to see the many children he saw when he was being lured to the train, but instead, there was no one apart from the scurrying of a few rats.
Then unexpectedly a rat’s face appeared at the window he was looking through, and he stepped back in fright.
The rat looked at him and shook its head as if disapproving. Charlie found himself against the far wall of the small room as the rat continued to gaze at him.
Then to his amazement, his body shrank down to the floor. His nose grew, his body was wracked by a momentary shudder as a tail grew out of his rear end, and he realised he too had been turned into a rat.
The man responsible for luring him onto the train reappeared at the same time the train gave a jerk and moved along its invisible tracks.
Charlie looked up to see the man standing over him a pleased look on his face as he opened the door of the room and beckoned for Charlie to go through into a room filled it appeared with rats similar to himself.
“Good boy Charlie,” he heard the man say, “you will all come in handy when we…
Crispina’s bit .…
“…thread the labyrinth.”
Charlie looked up with questioning eyes.
“The labyrinth,” the man said as if Charlie should know what that meant. “The labyrinth … you’ve had your short life to learn how to thread it. Ah, don’t remember?”
No, Charlie did not remember, and he was sure that he would.
“Done in your sleep,” the man explained. “Done in your dreams.”
But wasn’t this a dream now? It couldn’t be real. And he wasn’t alone in his confusion. Thousands of sniffing rats all scurrying and turning in circles.
The rattle-chunt of the train changed; became sharper and developed an echo.
“Ah,” the man said, “we’re into the mountain won’t be long now.”
But on and on that train rattled along. And Charlie grew tired. And sleepy.
He woke with a start.
“Labyrinth Station. Labyrinth Station. All rats disembark,” boomed a voice that seemed to thrum in the air.
A door opened, the rats streamed out, Charlie amongst them. But where was he? Everywhere, all around him, everywhere so bright …
. . . . almost blinding. Yet despite the brightness, there was something cold and “shadowy” about the place.
The well dressed man from the train stood before the “rat” children. He had changed, not in a blatant way, but he too seemed darker – more imposing. Two other men appeared from the interior of the train and produced heavy hard bristled brooms and began to force the children towards the entrance of a maze of some sort. The walls were angular and seemed to produce the brightness from themselves. This made the gaps and passages of the labyrinth difficult to distinguish.
“Okay, my little rats,” the man said in a mocking tone. Some of you will find your way through my little test. There are two ways out. The first will take you home to you “Mommy” the other will take you to my Boomtown. A place of fun and enjoyment for me and mine. Are you worthy of me?”
At this the broom-men sniggered, as if the “Prince of Air,” had said something funny.
Charlie could see no humor in it. He had been tempted by the exciting prospect of a journey on the Soul Train with happy playing children, and even of the idea of “living it big” in Boomtown. But now all he wanted was to go home to his Grandfather.
Just then the broom bearers started to force the rats into the labyrinth. There seemed to be the inviting sound of party music and brighter light in some directions. Many of the children began to instinctively head in those directions.
Charlie was unsure. He and a two small sandy coloured rats stopped together at the first intersection. Uncertain as to what to do, Charlie went in the other direction, and the small rats followed him.
As they began to move alone down the passageway a loud roar came from in front of them. The small male rat immediately turned around and chased after the larger group of rats.
The young female stared after her brother for a moment, and then she followed Charlie.
As they turned a bend, instead of finding a beast waiting for them there was a basin of cold fresh water, and three archways. Two were bright and blinding like in the first passage, the other had a more pleasant soothing light.
Pair drank the refreshing water, and then followed . . . .
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