Here is a short story I wrote, inspired by Dave Ryan's photograph:
The Mystery Train
A sustained whistle pierced the darkness of night. A deep rumble shook the ground. Rising from my seat on the floor, I looked outside, into the pitch blackness of night. Overhead, dark clouds broke the moonlight.
“That’s old Engine 49,” my grandfather explained. “It derailed about a mile from here. Worst wreck they ever had on the old Winchester line. More than a hundred people died that night. Not just men from the coal mines, but women and children, too. You could hear their wails as the coal from the heating stoves caught the old wooden coaches afire. Some folks say their souls still linger here like maybe they can’t make the move to the light. Others say it’s howling wind blowing through the rocky pass up where Judson Road makes a bend.”
Dean and Fred and Mac and I decided we’d go and check it out. We’d follow the old railroad track until we reached the site where, even today, sections of track stand as twisted and distorted as a roller coaster. Just before midnight, we would set out with our backpacks and flashlights.
Mac’s grandmother’s grandfather clock had just chimed the midnight hour when we climbed from Mac’s bedroom window. We made our way north, up the lane. A quarter-mile along, we picked up the old railroad tracks by Norton’s gate and set a westward course.
We had taken only a dozen steps when we heard the mournful wails. It was more than Dean could bear. He drew back and seemed as though he were ready to turn and run. Fred grabbed him and pulled him back.
“What’s that blood-curdling sound?” Dean asked in horror.
“Nothing. Just settle down,” Mac replied. “Old Man Wiggins is off his brew. He hasn’t been able to make his ale since the sheriff shut him down.”
“Sounded more like ghosts,” Fred seemed to think.
“You settle down, too. Ain’t no such thing, ghosts,” Mac declared.
“Wanna bet? I seen ‘em,” Dean claimed as we cleared a fence post that had fallen across the track.
“Cut it out, guys. We’ll go on,” I decreed. Even so, as I stepped out, I felt as though I weighed a ton. A part of me wanted to run. A better part wanted to know what was causing the strange noises we had heard. I forged ahead through the darkness, leaving my friends to follow.
I had gone no more than a quarter-mile when I heard another sound, deep and rumbling. No, it wasn’t the sound of a locomotive. It was more like a moan made by a creature, maybe even a human.
“I’m going home,” Dean exclaimed. “You can’t drag me to that train.”
“You can’t go,” I told him. “We’re in this together. We’re going on.”
On we went into the night. Just ahead, we rounded the bend that paralleled Judson Road.
There, before us, shone a light. As we drew near, the moon came from behind the clouds to reveal an old railroad car. Its windows were lit an eerie green, the color of swamp gas, Fred said. Inside, ghostly figures milled about. Drums boomed, and cymbals crashed. Horns like sirens shrieked and wailed. Bodies bent and turned and loomed. Skeletons seemed to appear in the windows of the train. I blinked hard. Had I really seen skeletons? I couldn’t be sure.
Just then, Dean began to chant words from an olde world prayer:
From ghouls and ghosties
And long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us.*
Instantly, all before us vaporized. Band and dancers, bones and songs. The green mist in the windows liquefied, running down, like water on glass. The darkened clouds went away, and the moonlight shone as bright as day, showing us what truly lay before us. It was no more than a decaying railroad car, which stood forlorn and alone in tall grass.
“This can’t be real!” I heard myself exclaim. “Where are the ruins from the crash? Bodies died here. The burning cars scorched the rocks. This car looks like it was just driven here and left.”
“I ain’t even gonna try and explain what’s gone on,” Mac replied. Turning, he said, I’m going home. This is too weird for me.”
“I’m right behind you, Mac,” Fred agreed. “Lead the way. You come, too, Dean.”
From the far end of the car, two green eyes looked on with glee. “Silly boys. They’re all the same.”
Me, I crouched down in the grass, my eyes peeled upon the car, and waited to see if the ghosts would return or whether there ever had been any ghosts. Minute after minute passed without any sign of activity. All I saw was an abandoned railway car that was losing its battle with the ravages of nature. I was getting cold, for the wind that was blowing the clouds over the moon was rustling the grass where I lay.
I nearly had decided to give up and go home when I heard footsteps. The steps were too heavy to belong to one of my friends. Besides, I had heard them talking all the way up to the road leading home. No. This was an adult footstep, a foot in a heavy boot, not the foot of a bony skeleton. As I looked around, I saw Old Man Wiggins standing over me in his hunting coat and hat, with his rifle tucked under his arm.
“You might as well give up and go home, son. They don’t come out to play if we’re around.”
“Then, you’ve seen them, the green stuff and the skeletons?”
“You’ve heard the band and seen the dancers?”
“Yep! Every time the ides fall on a Saturday, my whole life long.”
“Then, they’re real?”
“As real as you and me, son,” Wiggins insisted.
* Traditional Scottish Prayer
Story copyrighted by Virginia Tolles, all rights reserved
Photograph copyrighted by David T. Ryan, all rights reserved. Used with his permission.