As he did every day after five o’clock, Arthur Lothbury put on a gray felt fedora, inserted a fresh white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket, and stepped out the front door of his modest townhouse for a stroll.
The town itself was modest, a cluster of brick and frame dwellings of the 1800s. Located in a hollow, on a railroad line that was no longer active, it had the usual complement of churches, shops, a public school, and a town hall. Located at the center, where two main streets crossed, the town hall boasted a mansard roof and a clock tower. The clock tower rose above the trees and the mass of low buildings. Residents used it as a point of reference.
As he walked, Arthur kept the clock tower in view, though he was unlikely to get lost in the town where he was born. He generally walked for exercise, but this afternoon, he dawdled. His gaze wandered left and right. It was early spring, still rather bleak, but mild. Buds swelled on trees. Cold weather had delayed them. Slanting rays of the sun lit the quiet streets.
He stopped to examine a flowering shrub that overhung a picket fence, as though eager to escape. The yard was unkempt, in a town that was proud of its gardens. How could such a thing happen? Who lived in this house? He knew many neighbors, but not all. In retirement, he was losing track of changes in the population.
This house must have a tenant, someone who did not care for the place. An inflated ball and a broken toy lay on the weedy lawn. Rolled newspapers littered the porch. Maybe no one lived here at present.
Arthur moved on. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. The air was warm and thick with vapor. He had not been outside all day, not even for his morning jaunt to the post office. Yet the day had passed in idleness—light housekeeping, some reading, an hour at his desk paying bills, a letter to a relative. What had he done to get worn out?
A single man with many friends and few responsibilities, he ought to enjoy this stage of life, a seemingly endless stretch of leisure. But contentment was elusive. He pressed himself to walk faster. Chin up and eyes peeled! At any moment, a friend or stranger was likely to cross his path. He would need to say something cheerful, a word of greeting. But today the town was deserted. Was it a holiday? Had everyone left for vacation? Arthur looked straight ahead and spurred his flank. But his feet dragged.
Coming to an alley, he stopped to peer down its length. A creature of habit, he seldom walked in this part of town, which was frankly lower on the social scale. It bordered the railroad track—that was the trouble. He had no memory of this alley. The sun trembled on the horizon. The alley was in shade. Lined by sheds and fences, it looked dull. Things of interest might appear—an old wagon, a gnarled tree, a forgotten bicycle reduced to a sketch of lines and circles.
Arthur strolled down the middle, over gravel and grass. The alley yielded no surprise. It was long—he could not see the end—and getting dark. He tried not to scuff his shoes. He hoped that he would not step in a puddle. Not a living creature met his eye, not so much as a sparrow. Then a small shape shifted. A cat crouched a few feet ahead.
Cats lurked all over town. Some allowed him to pet them, some rolled at his feet, and some fled. This one stared coldly. Whoever said that cats were curious? Another step, and the cat disappeared, perhaps through a hole in a fence.
Dusk came on. Was it so late? Arthur looked all around. Where was the clock tower? How long had he been walking? He had left his watch at home. Was this a blind alley? Should he turn around? That would be an admission of defeat, somehow. Despite fatigue, he pressed on.
At last, Arthur saw that the alley ended at a building with a passage through its ground floor. It was now night. At the far end of the unlit passage was a gate, with open space visible through the bars. Should he enter? What if the gate was locked? He was too tired to retrace his steps. Go forward and hope for the best.
The passage was empty. Beyond the gate was a street. He grasped the gate and pulled. In the hollow space of the vaulted passage, the rusty hinges groaned. The sound startled him. It was almost a voice. It sounded like the drawn-out syllable “woe.” He stepped through the arch, and the gate clicked shut. On impulse, he tried it. Locked.
The street was built up on one side. The other was open to the railroad. Arthur had not been here for years. It was dusty and littered. Shops were closed or boarded up. He wanted to sit, but where? A short distance away stood the station, abandoned. A light burned inside, the only light visible in this gloomy wasteland. He trudged toward it.
A low rumble gradually increased. The earth shook. The rumble grew to a roar, until it was unmistakable. A train! Arthur reached the platform as the train arrived. In a stupor of exhaustion, he watched it slow. It looked antique, an excursion train for sightseeing. It screeched to a stop, a door opened, and a stair dropped at his feet. Where was the conductor? The side of the coach bore a name: “Acheron.”
Was that the destination? Arthur grasped the metal railing and climbed aboard.