Saturday, October 27, 2007

Carolina Special ~ Part Three

The whistle blew mournfully as the train chugged around a curve on the track nearly drowning out the voices of the spectral chain gang that still played in Floyd’s head. He felt sure he would hear their mournful voices toiling for many years. The miles flew by as they cross the North Carolina / Tennessee border, winding through the Smoky Mountains.

The moon faded in and out of violet clouds that were moving so fast it seemed like the glowing sphere was itself traveling through the sky. Though there was only a slight breeze, the sky above seemed to be driven with fast moving air, herding the clouds ever westward.

Floyd watched the mountains roll by and the surface of the French Broad was glassy like a ballroom floor. The train was slowing to move past the market town of Newport and Dusty pointed his finger up to one of the cliffs that rose above the town.

“Look up there, boy,” he said, “This might be good for you to see.”

Floyd followed the line of Dusty’s pointing finger up to the cliffs above. There, illuminated by the moonlight, and giving off its own gentle glow was a white cross.

“What’s that for?” He asked.

“Well, you’ll see in a minute, but it’s there so all trainmen can say a prayer for the little girl who died on these tracks some years past. Her daddy put it up there.”

“All the way up there? You’d need some serious ropes to get up there.”

“Yes, that would have been the safe thing to do.” Said Dusty, “But just watch…”

As the train drew abreast of the town, Floyd looked down at the tracks below and saw to his amazement a young girl emerge from under the train. It shocked him so much he jumped back.

The child was dressed in a frilly old fashioned dress with lots of frills and bows. Her hair was arranged into cascades of curls on either side of her head. She cut a glance back at the train and waved at Floyd and flashed him a wide snaggletooth grin. Floyd waved back in astonishment. Then she ran off to the center of the river, floating above it as if it were solid. About the same time, he looked up to the glowing cross and saw a man emerge from behind it. He was dressed in an engineer’s garb of striped overalls and he had an impressive handlebar mustache. As Floyd was watching, he spread his arms out and floated down to the surface of the water where the little girl in the party dress waited. He landed gently and held a hand out to the child.

Then the two ghosts bowed at each other and began to waltz over the slick surface of the river. It was one of the most beautiful sights that Floyd had ever seen. And in his mind’s ear he could just barely hear the sound of the band playing the waltz.

“Who are they?” Asked Floyd in a half-whisper, not wanting to interrupt the ghostly dance that was taking place over the glassy water.

“That’s the little girl who died in this spot. And that’s her daddy with her. You see, he didn’t use no ropes to erect that cross on the cliff. He fell to his death while he was trying to climb back down. So he haunts the cross and makes it glow to remind other trainmen to pray for her, and she comes out from the tracks on nights when the moon is full and they dance a waltz. The love they shared for each other is what haunts this place.”

Dusty pulled his bandanna out of his side pocket and blew noisily into it and dabbed his eyes.

Floyd gave him a searching look.

“What? Cinder got in my eye is all.” Dust said gruffly.

The train emerged out of the mountains on that clear autumn night and picked up steam across the plateau as it got closer and closer to Knoxville. Floyd felt he’d learned so much from Dusty and felt he’s soon be able to take a train on this run by himself. But he was wondering if with his new ability to see the shades around him if this would be the best thing for him. He thought perhaps he’d give it a few more runs and see what happened. As long as he could do as Dusty advised and keep his mind on the engine and the track,

It seemed like the rest of the journey was going off without a hitch. Once in a while he’d hear something or see something out of the corner of his eye and Dusty would look at him and shake his head. Floyd had learned it was best to do as Dusty said.

The miles clattered by and soon they were approaching New Market which was just 20 or so miles from their final destination. The train started gradually slowing down so it could take on water at New Market. When it finally drew to a grinding and reluctant halt, Floyd realized Dusty was getting his kit bag together.

“That’s a good idea.” He said, “I’ll start getting my stuff ready to go, too.”

“No hurry, boy.” The old man said. “This is where I get off, I’m afraid. It’s been right nice traveling with you.”

“Hey, old man, you can’t get off here! There ain’t nothing here but the water tower. ‘Sides…you have to sign off in K-town for me.”

Dusty gave him one of those long looks with his eyes slightly narrowed, as if his old creased eyes were looking into the sun.

“ Oh really?” He said softy. “Look around you.”

Floyd ran a soot covered hand through his hair and then looked out into what should have been rolling hills of farmland. What he saw was like a punch to the gut.

All around the train were the ghostly remains of a dreadful train wreck. The real train, the one he was standing on was crossed and intersected by the ghostly twisted metal corpses of two steam engines. A cowcatcher, twisted into nothing was laid next to the stack of another. The carnage was dreadful. Specters walked up and down the remains of the train. One, an engineer, waved up a Dusty and Dusty waved back at him.

“Dusty, but…but…No!” Floyd said, looking desperately at the old guy.

“This is New Market, son. Site of the deadliest train wreck ever. Two trains going sixty miles an hour hitting dead-on with no warning. This is where I come from. See, I’m one of the lucky ones. I get to haunt this entire stretch of track from Spartanburg to here doin’ what I love best. Runnin’ trains. Can’t go to K-town. See, I never made it there on that run of the Carolina Special. Yessirree, my journey stopped right here.”

Dusty slapped Floyd on the back and grinned. “So you sign off for just yourself. Really, you’ve been doing it all on your own on this trip. I was just along for the ride.”

Floyd stood speechless as he watched the old man jump down from the cab. When he did so he assumed the same translucent, ghostly shape that the other apparitions held. The old guy went up to the engineer and shook his hand heartily and then turned and waved at Floyd as the train chugged forward towards Knoxville.

And in his mind’s ear he heard the old guy say to him, “Just remember, keep your eyes on your work…keep drivin’ the train and you won’t go wrong.”

But Floyd was severely shaken. The thought that he’d been traveling with a shade all this time was almost more than he could bear. And he’d grown genuinely fond of the old man and he would have liked to buy him a cup of coffee in the railroad diner. That Dusty was no more real than any of the spirits he’d seen that night was unthinkable. His cheek still stung where the old man had slapped it and he could still feel the imprint of his hand on his back. What was real anyway?

And Floyd wondered how he could run the train if he couldn’t trust his own senses. If the experience he had made it so that he couldn’t distinguish reality from the spirit world, perhaps it would be better not to work the rails. And it was then that Floyd decided to apprentice in the engineering department repairing the big engines back at the yard rather than being responsible for driving them.

When he disembarked at the K-town station, he walked to the local boarding house and slept deeply but restlessly. The next morning he came back to ride back to Carolina, this time in broad daylight. Blind Charlie Oates was already parked in his usual spot with his guitar and harmonica. His guitar case was open to hold his tips. He was singing “The New Market Crash”, one of his gorier train wreck songs, full of decapitated corpses and screaming metal.

And Floyd went up to Charlie and nudged him with his boot, interrupting him.

“Hey, Charlie. Here’s a dollar. I’ll give it to you if you’ll play something else.”

“What you want to hear?” he asked, his white eyes rolling up and around in their sockets as he rocked in the direction of Floyd’s voice.

“I don’t care, Charlie. Just don’t play that one.”


He started tapping out the cinders from his pipe once more. He tapped them and tapped them past the point that there could possibly be anything else in the bowl.

His eyes were watery and blue that day.

“And you know what? Every time I found myself in Knoxville after that day, I always would pay Blind Charlie Oates to not play that song. And you know what?” He cut his eyes up with a half-smile. “It was money well spent.”

And he reached for his tobacco pouch and began filling the pipe and tapping down the shreds of tobacco.

The End

1 Comment:

  1. Mary said...
    Great story, Rosie. I enjoyed it. I've always loved trains and train stories, especially ghostly ones. Thanks for sharing. I especially enjoyed it and will be back to read the next installment of your stories.

    Have a wonderful day.

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