(Published December 21, 2018)
His eyes flew open, instantly awake and alert.
Pete Lancaster looked up at the digital sign hanging on the bank building across the street, already knowing what he’d see there.
12:45 AM, 61 degrees, exactly the same as it had been the past three nights when he found himself on this corner.
Tonight, and the previous three nights as well, Pete had woken from a sound sleep precisely at 12:45 AM and found himself sitting on this old bench in front of Major’s Pharmacy, watching the reflection of the traffic lights change color on the smooth cobblestones and tracks in the street. The light mist in the air helped the worn stones reflect the light almost as well as the tracks did.
He leaned back on the park bench and surveyed the area. Not a single car in sight, parked or moving. The storefronts were all closed, most secured behind the graffiti splattered metal security gates that shopkeepers had installed over the years as the neighborhood had changed. The only sounds were the creaking wood of the bench as he shifted his weight and the mechanism inside the metal box on the post as the traffic light changed. Nothing looked different or out of place at all.
Almost nothing. The street, however, now that was different.
The street in front of him was paved with gray cobblestones set in cement, a pair of metal tracks running through the center, just as it was over a century ago. The weathered wooden bench he sat on, as well as Major’s Pharmacy behind him, the only other artifacts back from a bygone time. He’d somehow found himself at the intersection of then and now.
The elevated tracks overhead looked as they always had to Pete, as did all the buildings and shops that lined Foster Boulevard… except for Major’s.
When he got off the train coming home from work in the late afternoons, he walked past the modern new drugstore that now sat on this corner. Major’s was long gone, having been consumed by one of the giant chains that seem to have overtaken independent pharmacies everywhere. That had happened some twenty odd years ago, as best he recalled, yet… here was Major’s once again, looking fresh and new.
On the first night he found himself here, he’d walked into the pharmacy, a silver bell mounted over the door announcing his arrival. A tall man wearing a white jacket behind the counter, presumably Charles Major himself, nodded in greeting and went back to work placing small brown glass bottles in a massive oak apothecary, ticking off entries in a ledger book on the counter next to the intricately carved metal cash register with a fountain pen.
My God, it looks like he just opened for business, Pete thought.
He’d looked in wonder at all the shelves lined with products from the past, three ornate ceiling fans hanging from the pressed tin ceiling turning slowly overhead. He saw teething drops for infants containing codeine and cough medications containing heroin right on the shelves beside aspirins and sundries, remedies that he knew had been outlawed long ago. Just inside the front door stood a polished oak telephone booth, the kind with a seat inside, a shelf with a crystal ashtray beneath the phone, and the folding door that would turn on the light and fan above once it was closed.
He remembered coming here as a boy with vacuum tubes in a brown paper bag, testing them on the tube tester machine that had taken the phone booth’s spot, so he could purchase a replacement for whichever failed tube had made his small TV stop working and enjoy his shows again. Major’s seemed to sell everything in those days.
Pete nodded back to the tall man in the white jacket, then walked outside and looked down at the cobblestone street again, his mind swimming with memories and confusion.
Those streets were covered with asphalt ever since he played on them as a boy, more than fifty years ago. The crosswalks were well worn, in need of a fresh coat of paint from the endless passage of feet and tires, even back then.
Sometime after they originally constructed those elevated tracks so long ago, they finally put down the asphalt, covering the old cobblestones and the abandoned trolley tracks.
Must have been paved before I was even born, he thought, yet here they are again, just like the drugstore.
The tracks curved there, at the corner in front of Major’s, turning north up Camden Street, as did the elevated subway tracks above. The “el”, as they called it, had been built and running since the early 1900s, casting a permanent shadow on the grimy brick warehouses that lined Camden Street.
The morning after that first night, he vaguely remembered waking in his own bed, thinking it had just been an odd dream, but on the second morning, he seemed to recall a sharp pain in his fingertip. He’d gone into the bathroom and used an old pair of tweezers to remove a gray splinter that was not there when he’d gone to bed.
The same gray color as the weathered bench on which he was now sitting.
Pete glanced over at the top slat of the bench to his right, seeing the worn edge, splinters peeling up and away from the wood, right next to where he’d casually draped his arm even now. His fingers lightly traced the raised patterns in the wood surface, the grain prominent from all the years of winter snow and summer heat. No, whatever this manifestation was, it certainly wasn’t just a dream.
It had to mean something, he just didn’t know what or why.
And there it is, that clicking sound again, still far enough away to be little more than a hollow echo off the silent storefronts. He’d been unable to identify it that first night, although there was something familiar about the sounds. When he realized what it was, that discovery was as bizarre as his being here at all.
The sound was the ‘click-clack’ of metal horseshoes on the cobblestones and the ‘ka-lunk’ of steel wheels rolling over the joints in the tracks.
The trolley was coming, returning to the intersection of then and now.
That first night, he never saw it… the sound was clear and distinct as it passed right in front of him, but all he saw was a slight shimmering of the building across the street as it passed by, almost like heat rising over a blacktop road in the desert in contrast to the chill he felt as it moved past him.
On the second night, there was something more, vague shapes at best, as shapeless as passing clouds making that shimmering effect less distinct.
But on the third night, he saw a translucent, yet defined image, a majestic horse pulling a black trolley, the hooded driver holding leather reins and staring straight ahead. There seemed to be rows of filled seats inside, the heads of the occupants all tipped forward, as though staring at the floor.
That he could finally see the macabre image was highly unsettling, but that he could still see through it, even more so. What did this ghastly apparition have to do with him?
As the sounds got closer this time, they sounded different, fuller somehow, more present then they had before. Pete stood up and looked down Foster Boulevard, where he saw it emerging from the mist.
The horse was a magnificent beast, pure black and huge, his muscles flexing as he pulled the gleaming black trolley along behind him. The driver never raised his hooded head, the horse knowing what to do without any guidance. Even though the sign on the bank now read 63 degrees, great clouds of condensation plumed from the horse’s nostrils, as though he was moving through bitter cold.
The temperature had moved, but the time remained at 12:45 AM.
The trolley made the slow turn onto Camden Street, but this time the horse came to a stop. The driver turned to face Pete, his face deep in the dark shadow beneath the coarse hooded robe he wore. Pete glanced into the trolley and saw that it was completely empty, unlike the previous night. Row after row of polished wooden seats illuminated by a flickering lantern, not a single passenger within.
Pete’s whole body convulsed with violent shudders, the air surrounding the trolley much colder than it had felt only moments before. There was no translucence tonight, the midnight black horse and trolley every bit as solid and clear and real as the wooden bench he’d been sitting on. His own breath was condensing now.
The driver stood, his hood sliding back far enough to reveal the skeletal visage of the Reaper as he gestured toward the trolley with his left hand, the ever-present scythe held in his right. Pete never saw it move, but the trolley door was now wide open, inviting his entry.
Speechless, anxiously longing to wake up, Pete shook his head slowly side to side in denial.
“Come on, wake up, wake UP dammit!” he muttered aloud.
“You honestly don’t know, do you?”
Pete jumped at the sound of the voice, turning to find Charles Major standing beside him.
“Where the hell did you come from?”
“An astute observation, Peter, but hardly the question at hand. You truly don’t remember, I can see it in your face.” Major’s surprised expression seemed genuine.
“Remember? Remember what? What the hell are you talking about? And how do you know me?”
“Oh, I’ve known you for years, Peter. I filled prescriptions for your grandparents when they were still newlyweds. I was their pharmacist, as were my son and grandson after me. We’ve been your family’s pharmacy for generations.”
“But, that’s not possible! Charles Major has… ah, you’ve been dead for decades now!”
“In this place, at this time, anything is possible.”
“Well then, what is it that you say I don’t remember?”
“You became despondent, Peter. Your wife succumbed to cancer less than a year ago, and then you were unexpectedly laid off from your job on Friday. You spent the entire weekend in an alcoholic stupor, do you remember that?”
“Not at all, no.”
“On Monday morning, faced with the irreversible loss of everything you’d devoted your life to, you took your gun and fired a single round into the side of your head.” Charles tapped his right temple as he spoke.
“Then how the hell can I be here now, night after night? Look, I don’t know who you are or what you’re trying to pull here, but…” Pete stopped as Charles held up one long finger.
“Your neighbor heard the gunshot and called for help. You were rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, then kept on life support for three days as they tried to contact a family member on your behalf. When no one came forward for you, they pulled the plug. It didn’t matter though, as you were completely brain dead. Those hollow point bullets do an extraordinary amount of internal damage. No wonder NATO banned them.”
Pete’s thoughts were spinning. Three days, he’d said, and he had been here the past three nights, that apparition getting clearer, more visible each night.
“Wait a minute. You said something about this place, at this time. What does that even mean? Why doesn’t that clock over there ever change? It’s always at 12:45, but why?” Pete asked, pointing over at the bank.
“Look in my display window, Peter.”
Pete looked over Charles’ shoulder, at the large display window beside the front door to the pharmacy. There were a variety of items on display, including a few old-style wind up alarm clocks on one side of the layout.
Each one of them displayed exactly 12:45, despite the second hands clearly moving in their endless circle around the face. He raised his left arm and looked at his own watch, also at 12:45, the second hand moving steadily.
There was also a chalkboard sign in the window he hadn’t noticed before that read, “To-day’s Trolley departs Promptly at 12:45. Please have your tickets ready.”
Pete turned back to Charles, the confusion evident in his puzzled expression.
“Peter, the clocks have all stopped at 12:45 because you stopped at precisely 12:45. That was the time when the nurses disconnected the life support equipment, you see. That was your exact time of death, as pronounced by the doctor. And now, you have an appointment to keep, which is why the trolley is waiting for you.”
“But, does that mean…”
“I’m afraid so. Once you take your own life, there is only one destination. Your final act made that choice for you. This… place is a way station for that final journey now. If you’d looked at my counter when you stepped in the other night, you’d have seen that I used to sell tickets for the old trolley when I first opened the pharmacy. In this place, at this time, I still do.”
Pete’s repressed memories came rushing back in a flood. His beloved Gloria, her optimistic vitality stolen from her by the unrelenting cancer ravaging her body and mind, eating away at her until she became a raving skeleton beneath a thin veneer of skin, begging him to have mercy and put an end to her suffering.
The depth of the pain and vast emptiness that surrounded his every moment, waking and sleeping. Immersing himself into his work, just to try and think about something, anything but the constant loneliness inside.
And finally, the insincere apologies, the rehearsed speech using phrases such as outsourcing and downsizing that seemed to justify the end of a faithful career spanning decades.
And his only outlet, his only escape from that emptiness, gone forever.
He remembered waking on Monday, his head racked with the worst hangover he’d ever experienced. Sitting in his chair, his father’s old service revolver on the end table beside him. Weighing his options and seeing no alternative at all, picking the revolver up and hearing that painfully loud explosion that catapulted his hangover to another level altogether.
For a split second. And then waking up on the bench here that first night with no trace of the hangover and no memory of the act.
Pete looked over at the trolley. The Reaper looked as if he hadn’t moved, still gesturing toward the open door, but the horse was shaking his great head and snorting, visibly impatient and wanting to move on. He looked down at his hand and noticed he held a black cardboard rectangle in it now.
Pete Lancaster’s feet shuffled slowly, entirely of their own accord, taking him toward the trolley. He stooped as he entered and sat heavily in the first row. He glanced out the window but Charles Major was gone, his pharmacy windows now dark.
The ticket was gone too, although he hadn’t let go of it. He suspected the driver had it now.
The trolley door had closed as silently as it opened, and Pete felt the tug of the harness as the great beast began walking again, pulling the trolley past the dark warehouses on Camden Street toward…
The places and characters in this story are fictitious, but the specter of depression is entirely real. It can affect anyone, from those sleeping in a penthouse to those sleeping in a cardboard box. Depression is an equal opportunity disease, but it doesn’t have to be a terminal one.
When the weight of the world is too much to bear, reach out for a helping hand. Talk to someone, ask for their help. It is there, and it is available 24/7. Above all else, remember that you are not alone in the struggle, despite how it may feel, and it can be managed with the right help and support.
Don’t board the trolley.
G.A. Miller – December, 2018