"A ghost story?" I asked with a chuckle, giving the other hikers a cursory glance. Anticipation was etched on the lot of their burly features. "I'm afraid I don't know too many of those. At least, nothing aside from the urban legends you've all heard." An audible groan surfaced from one of them. I shook my head. "Well.. something did happen to me recently that's close enough. I doubt you'd all believe me, but it's true. It's up to you what you do with it." This seemed to have gotten the group's attention. They all eased closer, which was my cue to begin my account.
A few months ago, I was returning home one cold night from work on the subway from Manhattan. Normally, these rides served as a moment's reprieve for me. I was able to gather my thoughts and calm my head. This particular night however, wouldn't prove to be a part of the routine I was so accustomed to. For one, the train car was entirely empty. Just empty. While not having to be uncomfortably close to other commuters may have delighted many, I found it to be particularly disquieting. The next train wasn't arriving for another forty five minutes due to delays, so I chose not to let the atmosphere get to me. It had been a long day and I was worn out. I didn't care much at this point.
After a short while, the usual announcement of the station location blared through the PA system. The car doors shut, and the train began to lumber on its way. For the first ten minutes, the ride was uneventful. Things starting getting strange at the next stop, though. Usually there was a flood of people that'd enter the car on their commute home. It was rush hour after all. This time, there was only one person that entered the train. He was clad in a dirty black jacket with equally filthy black jeans to match. I couldn't see his face as his jacket's hood shrouded his face. Considering the car was empty aside from me, the curious stranger had a wealth of options when it came to choice seating. I was wrong. He opted to sit right next to me. I was unnerved to say the least, but I trudged on, doing my best to ignore the odd passenger.
"Do you have a light, friend?" He asked in a low tone after a moment of silence, then producing a cigarette from his jacket pocket. I gestured to where I thought the no smoking sign had been plastered. "What am I looking at?" He questioned. "You can't smoke onboard the-" I was stunned to find that the sign was no longer present. "..." "Come on. I haven't had a damned smoke all day." I at last, obliged, pulling a Zippo lighter from my own pocket and flicking it to light his cigarette. He took a deep breath and inhaled the stuff as if it were ambrosia. "Ahhh.." The passenger sighed in content, and silence followed. The ashes from his cigarette fell into a prim little pile aside his leg.
The train continued to make its stops, but no announcements were made declaring the station in particular, nor did any passengers enter. Even outside the window, the station platforms were empty. My disquiet from before had now escalated to anxiety. Something was terribly off. I had to get off this train. Anywhere but here, and away from this man. "Getting away would be futile at this point, boy. Who knows where you'd end up?" He took another drag from his cigarette. "If you know what's good for you, just have a seat, settle down, and... enjoy the ride." A soft chuckle emerged from his lips. He could have very well been armed, so I reluctantly sat across from him.
Silence again ensued for the next few minutes. Though I could only scarcely make out his face beneath the shroud of his hood, my eyes locked onto his. The cigarette's light had almost made its way entirely down. "...I was a king, once." He said abruptly. This warranted a chuckle of my own. "What, like English royalty? I doubt nobility would be down here skulking around in a filthy subway." "Oh, no boy. Long before your England had swallowed the world in its colonial ventures. I was part of a prouder, much older empire..." His hands moved up to his hood, and pulled it back. The countenance I beheld still haunts my dreams. Stringy strands of black hair fell to either side of his decaying cheeks which revealed rotten black teeth. The cigarette's smoke passed through his teeth's gaps, and swirled around his putrid face. His skin was tightly pulled back. He neither had eyes nor a nose. It was as if the maggots that feasted on his corpse had gone cherry picking.
"Do I frighten you?" He asked, taking a last drag of the cigarette and tossing it away. "Back when I reigned, I terrified everyone." I longed to scream, longed for this nightmare to end. All that surfaced though was a whimper. "I intend you no harm boy, at least not anymore..." A sigh passed through his withered, black lips. "Rather, I'm going to tell you my story. There's a moral in all of this, and I hope you don't end up like me..." I really had no other choice other than to entertain the whims of my horrifying companion. I nodded meekly. "You're familiar with the Roman Empire, I'm sure...?" Again, I nodded. This was elementary knowledge. "Good, good... I am gladdened to know that our legacy perseveres even in this uncultured age. I was an overseer and king of one of its provinces, Moesia."
He glanced idly outside the window, and back at me. "Acacius was my name. For most of my rule, I did what I could to ensure the safety of my people and the kingdom. I had a mighty army, and fought alongside my men. I was fair and just to the people, and was well liked. I even had a beautiful wife, Artemisia, and a son, Caratacus. You could say we lived through an age of glory. I had it all, my people had it all..." Peering up at the lights for a moment, Acacius continued on. "Then... I got old. While it is indeed a common affliction to all of mankind, I saw it as a blight. I had gotten afraid. Up until this time of my life, I was unacquainted with death. Soon though, I'd end up knowing it's embrace!" Acacius laughed at his remark and wheezed.
"I wished to escape from it. I longed to live forever, free from the ravages of time and without a haggard, withering frame. So, I chose to erect an altar to the Lord of Shadows, the God that presided over death, Pluto. Though, I'm sure you all know him in this time as the devil. Satan, or whatever moniker he's decided on these days." I stared dumb founded at him, this Acacius. Was he a lunatic, or indeed honest? Following logical rules hadn't gotten me very far at this point, so I went on listening. "I constructed the thing in secret. When it was done, I appealed to him with an offering. It didn't take long for him to show up. Contrary to what you might be thinking, he didn't appear in anyway remarkable. In fact, he resembled a beggar. Still though, he went right on with business. He offered a proposition, one with which I would supply him with a human offering every week in exchange for reversing my age. I thought about it for a time, and thought about it again. I agreed." A long sigh surfaced from the morbid passenger's lips. "I had what I thought was an ideal solution first. I proclaimed that for the safety and future of Moesia, I would execute any and all convicts, murderers, thieves, rapists, and the ilk. People believed me. I believed my own delusion. It went on like this for a while. I murdered so many of them at that altar. Eventually though, that supply ran out."
"I began to age again, more rapidly than before. I was desperate. I then went off of what I did before, with a twist. In the name of utopia, I murdered people who even committed the most minor of infractions. I could tell my subjects were becoming afraid, but I didn't care. Like before, that supply went dry. I only had the most noble of my subjects left. I killed them too. I even took the lives of my beloved Artemesia and my son. Their screams, their betrayed expressions still plague me even after all these millennia. My once flourishing Moesia now stood empty. I was the sole survivor of my own genocide." Acacius was silent for a long while, but at last mustered the resolve to conclude his tale.
"I went to the altar that night in hopes I could bargain with Pluto again. I had already given him everything. He showed up with a toothy grin and demanded his sacrifice. There was of course none to be had. Oh, I begged to him all right. I pleaded for another deal, but my cries were for naught. Pluto stated that I'd played right into his hands, and that my now wicked, vile soul would sustain him for eons to come. He assumed the form of a flock of crows and they feasted on me. It's why I have no eyes, no nose, no cheeks to speak of, boy. That wasn't the end, though. While Pluto did drink me dry of all the vitality I possessed, I was neither allowed passage to the Tartarus nor the Elysian fields. Instead, my punishment was to wander the Earth as a corpse for all eternity, never to know love, compassion, or understanding again. Still, I chose to do something with my punishment. Even though it's too late, I have learned. I've been telling individual travelers this tale for centuries in hopes that history wouldn't repeat my mistake. Of course, I've seen it happen again and again. Genghis Khan. Napoleon. Adolf Hitler. I've told them all my story for naught and have witnessed the worst atrocities committed to man."
I was speechless. Ever since my parents had perished in that horrific car accident, I was afraid of ending up like them. I was still young and had much to do in life, but the chance of my death always existed at the most abrupt times. I truly was horrified. This was the reason for Acacius's visit, I realized. "Don't be afraid, boy. Don't repeat my sin. Would you like to know why?" I again nodded. "Look outside the window and see for yourself."
The train at last pulled up to another station and unlike the others, it wasn't empty. The crowd that assembled there however made my throat tighten. My father and mother stood there. It wasn't possible. Yet, there they were, again young and sporting the most beautiful smiles. "I've missed you, Lucas. My beautiful boy, my son." My mother stated, outstretching her arms. "You were my world, Lucas. I know I was always out working, but your smile made it worth everything. You were the light of my life." My father said in the quiet voice I'd always remembered. The family cat and dog were at their side too. Harold, my black Pekingese wagged his tail excitedly and howled, while my gray tabby cat Dusty cried and mewed for my attention. I longed to get off the train and be with them all again, but Acacius seized my wrist. "Now isn't the time, boy. This is my lesson, my gift to you. You've lived a good life. Keep it that way, and know this is the reward." Before I could even reply, I blinked and my ghoulish mentor had vanished. The car was instead full as usual, and wasn't far from my stop. I discreetly wiped the tears away from my eyes, and pulled my briefcase close.
The hikers stared at me like I had at Acacius, dumbfounded and bewildered. I doubt it was as profound of an experience for them as it was for me, but I nodded. The campfire had began to die and dwindle away. "I had learned a lesson far more valuable than most have the privilege of receiving. Like I said, this is all true. You all can do what you want with it, whether or not you believe me."
There was no answer but the silence that had enveloped our campsite. Though I had circulated my tale as a simple curiosity, a yarn for the campfire, I knew it was here that I'd set the gears of bravery in motion. Fear was but a hindrance for them, for all people to overcome. Righteousness would prevail.