A Story by A.W. Carl

Ghosts is a story that contrasts the innocence of youth with the reality of life. A young boy attempts to help out an elderly man that he meets on a train, but his eyes are opened to the real world.




The man had a certain look about him. He had a gentle, warm face; yet it appeared to carry many ghosts along with it. His head was slumped over looking towards the ground, his left hand clutching his cane. His left hand shook the cane ever so slightly, teetering back and forth rapidly, scars scattered about his wrists and fingers. The man sat in the very back of the train in a seat all by himself. It was a crowded train, but no one dared to sit next to the man. Across from the man was a jumpy young boy and his mother. The mother seemed to be constantly urging the boy to “sit down” or “shush”. Every so often the boy would sit still and stare over at the man with a curious gaze that only a child could exhibit. The man looked up with his scratchy, hairy face, and winked at the boy with a faint smirk. He then proceeded to pull the army green flask from his shirt pocket, taking a slow drink. The mother looked over. She flashed him a disgusted look and then turned away. The boy just stared. The man pulled a pack of cigarettes from a plastic bag seated next to him and began to smoke. The cigarette vibrated in his hand as he lifted it to his crusty lips. The rest of the passengers looked over at him, perplexed. Everyone knew smoking wasn’t allowed on the train. No one said anything to him. When he was done, he put the cigarette out by squishing it against the frosty window next to him. Dropping it on the floor beneath him, the man glanced up to see the boy still staring at him. The man tipped his cap and smiled, a bigger one this time, showing his dark grey teeth. Every movement, even a smile, took all the strength the man had. A stack of newspapers rested next to the man, and when he wasn’t occupied smoking or drinking, he would flip through them slowly. He licked his fragile fingers to turn each page leisurely. The smudged glasses on his face rested on the very tip of his nose as his head tilted downward. A sudden voice erupted over the intercom causing many passengers to jump.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are a couple minutes away from Saint Louis. All passengers who are getting off at the downtown station please gather your belongings and prepare to exit in a couple of minutes. Thank you for riding with us today and we hope you guys have a wonderful Sunday evening. Again, pulling into downtown Saint Louis in about 2 minutes folks”

The man leaned over, stretching across the seat, and sifted through the plastic bag again. His hand emerged out of the bag with his cigarettes. It took him about 15 seconds to finally gather one single cigarette. Another 15 to light it. One minute to smoke it. 10 seconds to put it out. Across the aisle, the boy still stared in wonder. Noticing the boy again, the man grinned from ear to ear and dragged his weary head to face the boy. The cigarette already out, he leaned over, cigarette resting between his index and middle fingers, to give the cigarette to the boy. The boy cupped his hands together and reached out to receive this awe inspiring gift from the strange old man. The old man pulled the cigarette back and chuckled to himself. This chuckle gave way to a cough. The boy’s cheeks flushed bright pink and he burrowed back into his mother’s lap, turning away from the old man. The train slowed. The train stopped.

“We have arrived in downtown Saint Louis folks. Please grab all of your belongings and exit accordingly. Have a wonderful evening and don’t forget to ride with us again!”

The man glanced up at the intercom and sighed a deep breath. He then scooted to the edge of his seat. Spreading his knees apart, he began the difficult ascent to stand up. Wiggling to and fro, he stood up with his cane in his left hand and grocery bags in his right. Passengers watched as the man struggled and inched down the aisle. It appeared that tragedy was imminent, just a matter of time. His feet didn’t get off the ground, but rather dragged across the black rubber floor. No one stood up to help the man but everyone winced while watching him. Eyes all around the car were fixed upon the meek, frail man huffing and puffing along. Everyone else had cleared the train by now. A couple of attendants in uniform came and aided the man down the stairs and off the train. After another minute or so the train kicked up and started on again.

As soon as the train began to move again, the boy jumped over to the seat the man had previously been sitting in. He looked down and saw the cigarettes lying across the floor. He smiled a devilish, sneaky smile. Curious about how many cigarettes the man could have possibly smoked, the boy began to count all the cigarettes he could see. Counting still, the boy knelt on the ground to see if the man had left any underneath his seat. Gasping with joy, the boy crawled further under the seat extending his arms to grab something. “Get off the floor! Get up boy!” The mother quietly, but sternly voiced from across the aisle. “What are you doing?” Surfacing from under the seat, the boy emerged with a stack of newspapers and a crumpled up piece of paper. His arms black and spotted with specks of dust, the boy jumped onto his seat and began to unravel the paper. It appeared to be some old map drawn on a blank piece of paper. It contained lines and street names that the boy could read, but couldn’t recognize. He studied the map for a while. The newspapers rested next to him. An empty box of cigarettes also lay at his side.

“Look I found a treasure map Mom!” The boy eagerly waved the paper back and forth high above his head. Smiling with pride, he gave the paper to his mother. She chuckled, shook her head, and gave it back to the boy who was confused as to why his mother was not nearly as excited as he was. His mood quickly changed. The map was worn out and scribbled all over. It appeared that someone had drawn this map long ago. Clearly, making the lines straight and neat was of no importance to the cartographer. At the end of the lines on the map was a star. Many arrows and lines pointed to this star. This star was certainly the destination, according to the boy, the treasure. The boy remembered the old man and realized that the map was his. He saw that the man needed help and thought that surely the man could use the treasure map to get better. Originally determined to find the treasure for himself, the boy’s desire shifted.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are 1 minute away from Kirkwood. Arriving in downtown Kirkwood shortly. Please gather your belongings and prepare to exit if this is your stop. Thank you”

“Alright boy,” the mother said. “Put that garbage down and get your backpack. This is our stop. And no, I don’t want you taking any of that with you. Not the cigarettes, not the newspapers, and definitely not that piece of paper.”

     The boy groaned, but he knew better than to talk back to his mother. His mother was busy gathering her things so he swiftly stuffed the treasure map into his coat pocket. He then sprung out of his seat and back over to his mother where he grabbed his blue Spiderman backpack. The train slowed, then stopped, and the boy exited the train with his mother.



     The boy scurried up and down the busy street waving his arms furiously. Confused, people stared at the boy likely asking the questions. “Where is his mother? Shouldn’t he be in school? What in the world is he doing?” The previous night the boy went to bed early. Instead of going to school that morning, he hopped onto his bike and rode into the city. The skyscrapers played as his compass. It was the boy’s duty to return the treasure map back to the man. “This treasure map,” thought the boy, “could help the man get better.” Speeding pass house after house, going up hills and down hills, the boy reached the city. Now on the street, the boy inquired for help on how to get to the train station. Flailing his arms, stopping his feet, the boy finally got the attention of a young woman. The young woman pointed him in the right direction. Without hesitation the boy leaped onto his bike. Crossing streets, weaving in between fire hydrants and people and other obstacles, the boy pressed on. Panting like a dog on a hot summer day, the boy stopped after five minutes of pedaling to get help again. Again, someone was kind enough to point the boy in the right direction towards the train station. The boy assumed that since that’s where he last saw the man that he would be waiting for him there. However, upon reaching the downtown station, the boy was shocked to find that the old man was not there. There were many people like the old man. Many people smoking and reading the newspaper waited for their trains. One man even drank out of a similar flask. The boy sat down and pulled the wrinkled, torn map from his shirt pocket. He unfolded the map and pondered his next move. Suddenly an epiphany hit the boy. “I should find the treasure first and then try to find the man”

Hustling onto his bike, back into the heart of the city he went. (Here, it is to be noted that the boy was a remarkable bicycle rider. It was no small feat that a boy of his age and stature was navigating a busy city. His desire was pure; to help the man he met on the train.)

The boy continued on towards taller buildings and more people. A taxi pulled aside and a large man got out of the taxi. “Hold up boy!” the man yelled. The taxi driver skipped and hopped, reaching the boy and putting his arm around him.

“What you doing out here?” the driver asked.

“I need help. Help finding this. Treasure map.” The boy pointed to the star on the map. Scratching his head, the driver looked over the map. He knew every street in the city so he certainly knew where this map led to.

“You wanna go there?” the driver grumbled in a low voice. “That ain’t no treasure,” again the man muttered under his breath so that the boy wouldn’t hear. Reluctantly, the driver motioned the boy over to his cab. Ecstatic, the boy dove into the back seat of the car as the driver held it open for him. His bike lay out on the street for a moment, until the taxi driver scooped it up and placed it inside the trunk. The boy shook with excitement. The driver wiggled himself into the front seat, ducking his head down low to avoid the ceiling. His big hands gripping the wheel, the driver took a deep breath. He smiled. “Aight boy” the driver said cheerfully followed by a deep thronging laugh. A brief 15 minute ride followed, then they arrived. The man pointed to a building on the street corner and explained to the boy what to do. Listening intently, the boy leaned forward in the back seat and nodded. His eyes were nearly the size of golf balls. He then rolled out of the taxi and onto the street as the driver retrieved the bike.

In front of the boy stood an old red brick building. Ivy tickled down the right side covering much of it. A faded, cross symbol stood over the doorway. The boy had seen this symbol at his local church. In the center was an immense arch shaped door. The door was a deep brown, wooden door, that looked as if it could have been too heavy for the boy to even open. It nearly was. The boy yanked on the door with all of his might and stumbled into the building unaware of what it was or what he would find inside.

The boy discovered many eyes staring right at him. Men of all colors and ages gathered around tables stopped what they were doing. Twisting their chairs around and putting their forks down, nearly everyone’s attention was fixed upon the boy. Speechless and confused, the boy strolled to the middle of the room. Some men were laughing and all were smiling at the adorable boy.

“Excuse Me!” the boy said as loud as he could.

“Listen up!” one of the men said. “Little man’s got something to say.” The men chuckled and then quieted down quickly anticipating more laughter to come.

“I have a treasure map that told me to come here!” the boy yelled with excitement.

“You ain’t go’n find no treasure here” one man shouted. The room vibrated with laughter.

A man sitting towards the back of the room waved his cane in the air. The man eventually stood up and smiled, saying nothing. Recognizing the man from the train, the boy leaped into the air. He hurried over to the man and thrusted the map into his chest. Taken aback by the boy’s aggressiveness, the man stretched his arms out to shield himself. He grabbed the map to look at it, meanwhile reaching into his shirt pocket to snag a smoke. The man chuckled and gave the map back to boy without saying a word. Confused, the boy waited. He waited for a “thank you” or some sign of gratitude. The boy had anticipated excitement. Nothing came. The old man gave him nothing, not even a word. In front of the man the boy stood, rising to see the man eye to eye. The old man was seated next to many other men who, to the boy, looked the same. Many of the men around them went back to eating and talking. Towards the back of the room was the kitchen, where several other men were working and moving about. It was now just the old man, his friend next to him, and the boy who engaged in the current situation. After a long period of silence, the friend stepped in.

“Listen here boy.” The friend rested his hand on the old man’s shoulder next to him.

“Your buddy here... he can’t talk. He can’t speak anymore. Also, that map of his that you have. There is no treasure in here. You can see that now right boy?” The friend chuckled. “That was just an old map that led him to get to here. So he could get food. Undastand boy?”

     The boy didn’t understand at all but he nodded his head as if he did. Sensing the boy’s bewilderment, the friend continued on. Unsure if he really wanted to begin the endeavor, the man hesitantly began. He told the old man’s story, and he told it well for he was used to being his spokesman. He talked about how the man was born mute, but the man was once a young boy too. The old man once fell in love and had a beautiful family. Then the Great War happened and the old man was called to serve his country. Proudly the old man served and fought. The man eventually returned home to his wife and kids, but it was after many injuries and scars. It wasn’t the physical injuries that were the most damaging, but the mental scars. Those were the scars and the ghosts that never seemed to get better. Those were the pains that couldn’t be healed. Returning home, the man failed to connect with the real world. He spent most of his time in bars and on the couch. His best friends were his cigarettes and an empty bottle his companion. His wife left him and took the kids with her because she found him useless. He was a shell of who he used to be. Nobody would hire him. It turns out that not many people want to hire a mute, weak man who is suffering from PTSD. The government was of no help to the man. The man continued to drink and smoke and soon suffered from heart and liver issues. He couldn’t afford his housing anymore and certainly couldn’t afford to pay his medical bills. Before long he was an old, sick, homeless man. Someone had told him of a shelter that would provide homeless people with food. This shelter served three meals a day to the men and offered the men clothing and other materials. The good samaritan drew a sketch of a map illustrating where this shelter was. He gave the map to the man. This is what the boy had found. The friend told the boy that the old man did not need the map anymore. He told the boy that he should return home and not come back.

Meanwhile the old man listened and nodded to the boy. Extending his frail arms out, the old man pulled the boy in. Wrapping his arms around the boy, he patted the back of his head. Resting his head upon the old man’s shoulder, a few tears rolled down the boy’s cheeks. The embrace lasted but a few seconds and then the boy sauntered out of the building into the brisk, outside air.

The boy could not comprehend most of the man’s story. The boy could comprehend that the man was in need and was lonely. Overwhelmed, the boy knelt outside the red brick building on the curb. He cried uncontrollably.  After many more tears, the boy picked up his bike and started on home. The journey was long but the boy arrived just in time for dinner.



The boy never saw the man again. The encounter on the train was a rather common experience for the old man, yet it made a big impact on the boy. The boy could not think critically about the man’s condition. He could not wrap his head around issues such as poverty and homelessness. Yet the boy was affected by his encounters with the old man. He was colder. He became more reserved and less optimistic, though he was still a boy. Sometimes he would attempt to get into his mother’s purse and take her cigarettes. He would often wink at others and smile a grin much like the old man’s. His mother hated when he did that. Reading the newspaper was the one habit that the boy was especially fascinated with. Each night, he would read the newspaper in bed. A quick 2 or 3 minute flip through, was all that kept his attention, but he enjoyed it. He could read some of the words and he really enjoyed looking at the pictures. It made the boy feel like an adult, and most importantly, it was a way he still connected with the old man. Whether he knew it or not, it was a way to remember the old man. The boy’s mother did not approve of him reading the newspaper.  She wanted to eliminate all things the boy remembered from the old man. She would tell the boy, “That man reminded me of your father.”  “I have worked hard so that you don’t end up like him.” These comments went in one ear and right out the other. The boy did not understand. He never knew his father and he didn’t understand why his mother seemingly disliked the old man. So he would stack the newspapers underneath his bed to attempt to hide them from his mother, knowing she disapproved.

Months went by since the boy saw the old man but his newspaper endeavor continued. One particular evening, he began his usual bedtime routine. The boy slipped into his pajamas and brushed his teeth. He went down the stairs to kiss his mother goodnight and on his way up the stairs he snagged the newspaper from the kitchen table. Sauntering up the stairs, the boy began to open the newspaper up and glance it over. He snuck underneath the covers in his bed and yanked the covers over his head for a brief moment. Lying on his back, the boy shoved the covers out of his way and leaned over for the newspapers he set beside him. He went from picture to picture. Pictures of crowds of people and politicians braced the front pages. Pictures of sports figures and buildings graced the middle pages. Flipping through the pages was no easy task, but he had gotten much better at keeping the paper together. After a few brief moments the boy flipped the newspaper over. Turning it over, he lay the paper flat down on his chest, his head resting on his pillow upright. The back page contained many portraits of people, followed by a small written portion. The boy’s eyes were quickly drawn to an elderly man. “He looks like the man on the train,” he thought. The boy smiled at the picture and tossed the newspaper onto the floor next to him. He laid his head down on the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. Remembering his journey into the city and back, the boy chuckled before closing his eyes and falling asleep.

     Later that night, the mother entered the boy’s room to check on him as she always did. She found the newspaper lying on the floor and shook her head. She began to slide it under his bed with the rest of his newspapers, but something caught her eye. On the back of the newspaper, the same picture the boy was fascinated with, intrigued her as well. She studied the picture of the old man and realized it was the man from the train. She exited the room quietly, newspaper in hand, and gently closed the door. Standing just outside of the boy’s bedroom, she took a deep breath and began to read the few sentences underneath the man’s picture. It read.

“James Ray Spence died Wednesday night due to a bullet wound to the head. Authorities are saying it was suicide. He was found on the corner of Washington and Maryland. A World War I veteran, Spence lived in Saint Louis his entire life. Divorced, Spence had two children and a wife who lived separately in Peoria, IL. A small funeral service will be held at St. Mary’s homeless shelter downtown at 5pm this coming Saturday.”

The mother immediately took the newspaper down the stairs and out into the garage. She tossed the newspaper in the trash and went to bed.

© 2016 A.W. Carl

Author's Note

A.W. Carl
ignore grammar problems unless they are repeated several times

Honest Opinions are the only helpful kind!

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This was a great story. You have very captivating descriptions of the old veteran. The imagery was entertaining and the plot was definitely on point. The one concern in my opinion is the how long the veterans sad life story was in comparison to the rest.

Posted 2 Years Ago

Had to say that this was an interesting piece of writing from my specific point of view.
Reason is my main aim to describe my story in detail but can't get that, maybe i get short of words.
But you have that specific quality which makes your writing quite interesting and reader get's a chance to admire writer for his artistic work.
While reading writer can easily visualize everything writer is trying to say, which makes story easy to understand.
Infact your story telling ability is impressive
Keep writing

Posted 2 Years Ago

You have a lot of great descriptions in here. I could visualize a lot of your scenarios. It did seem to be a very long story in comparison to the amount of action but you have written it very well. Maybe tighten it up a little? Great job over all! :)

Posted 2 Years Ago

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This was really good. You're really talented at writing. :)

Posted 2 Years Ago

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4 Reviews
Added on April 12, 2016
Last Updated on April 12, 2016
Tags: Urban, City, Innocence, Youth, Veterans, Poverty


A.W. Carl
A.W. Carl

Wildwood, MO

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