Ghost Train

The train that used to run on the tracks behind the Rambling Jackalope Motel and Casino was just like Emmet’s wife: long gone and never coming back. Well, not just like his wife. He doubted that old steam train had left for a realtor in Lake Tahoe.

It had left stuff behind, too, something Sheryl hadn’t done, neither. She’d gone so far as to take the pennies out of his truck’s cupholders and that painting on the wall of the sailboat. Emmet had liked that boat. He’s bought a few to try and replace it but none of them had quite had that same feeling. Calm. Lonely.

But the train had left its tracks and tiny station. Antiques, really. Ain’t run for decades, not since Emmet was a tot and it quit before he was barely walking on his own. The highway had come in, see. For a while there, that was all it took. Four lanes and a few exits and nobody wanted to train travel anymore. They wanted rubber under their feet and the same greasy burger every three exits.

Emmet wasn’t bitter or nothing. Not really. Without the highway he wouldn’t have his motel. What he really wished was that he could get rid of the leavings. They kept telling the wrong sort of story, and the wrong people kept on listening.

The little bell over the front door rang as the door crashed into it, first one way, then the other. Broke Emmet out of staring at the boat on his wall. It was closer than the rest of them but not quite right. There was too much sun. It wasn’t the mood he wanted. Why, the people on that boat were probably have a nice sort of day. Drinking and swimming and carrying on and all that. The boat Emmet wanted only had one person on it, and they was wondering if they’d ever see land again.

Little family had come in. Mom, Dad, two kids, squirts really, somewhere between five and ten. Maybe older. Emmet and Sheryl had never had kids, although he heard Sheryl had already had three with this realtor fellow.

“Good afternoon,” the Dad said, and Emmet winced. Interal-like only, anyway, he didn’t want to make a face and scare away customers.

Or maybe he did.

He was a plain looking man, round face and close cut brown hair and a bit of a gut from working a desk job if Emmet had to guess. His wife was the sort his mama had always called ‘handsome.’ Strong chin and cheeks, as tall as her husband, shoulders and arms that said she never had to ask when she wanted to move furniture. They both wore stern looks only Emmet could tell that was just their faces and they were actually having a fairly good day. The kids had peeled off to the case with all them brochures and was excitedly reading through a couple, babbling in syllables Emmet only sort-of recognized.

This was why Emmet had wanted to wince and didn’t. The man’s good afternoon had come out in an accent. He weren’t American. None of them was. Emmet couldn’t quite tell where – even after all this time he still had trouble telling a German from a Dutch from a Swiss from a whatever else was over there across this continent and then across the Atlantic and then across that other continent but it didn’t really matter.



Emmet put on his best customer service smile anyway. Maybe it would be all right, this time.

“Howdy,” he said, less because he wanted to and more because it was expected. And yes, as predicted, the couple’s faces split into smiles at hearing the yokel colloquialism. “Got a reservation?”

They did, in fact, have a reservation. Mr. and Mrs. Fischer, all the way from…well, Germany, anyway. They said a town name, and then they named a bigger town nearby that Emmet suspected of hearing before but honestly his hearing wasn’t what it had been and he couldn’t quite make out what the syllables were doing and after all of that it didn’t really matter, did it? The Fischers were visiting him, not the other way around.

“Room keys, you’re in 204. That’s out back, facing the pool, second floor. There’s vending machines and ice machines near the stairs. Laundry room is out this door and to the left. Pool closes an hour after dark, opens again at dawn. Here’s a parking tag for your car. You need maps? Here’s one for town, got all the good places to eat ‘n’ shop and some tourist attraction stuff. And here’s a bigger one with all the good hiking places. This dot right here? That’s the motel.”

It was his usual speech. Nothing fancy, and he’d been saying it to new guests for longer than he cared to remember. He could say it without thinking. Which is what he was doing. While his mouth was moving around one set of words, his brain was chanting a whole nother.

Don’t ask about the train. Please don’t ask about that train. Please don’t. Just don’t. Ain’t nothing about that train you’ll like so please just don’t ask.

Once the Fischers were sorted Mrs. Fischer gestured out the window.

“And how often does the train run?”

Every time. American tourists, Canadian, Mexican, anyone from around here knew better than to ask. Ain’t no running trains, not anymore. Europeans, though…

“It don’t,” Emmet said. “Sorry. Ain’t run for decades.”

He almost let them go with that. That was the truth, wasn’t it? And wasn’t that his only duty? To tell the truth?

It was a cop-out and he knew it. Maybe it wouldn’t change nothing. Maybe it wouldn’t.

“Ma’am? Sir?”

The family stopped at the doorway, the kids already running around out front.

“Look, I mean it when I say that train don’t run, okay? You got your rental, you take that everywhere. Even if you see a train in the station, you don’t get on it. Understand?”

The husband and wife conversed a bit in German, so quiet Emmet wouldn’t have gotten much if they were speaking in English anyway. He could tell they were confused. This conversation wasn’t over. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, after all. Maybe it wouldn’t have come for them.

It comes for everybody. These Europeans don’t know well enough to stay off it.

“I am sorry,” Mr. Fischer said, slowly. “We do not understand. Does a train come to the station or not?”

Emmet sighed. He’d gone this far. They’d just think he was eccentric, anyway.

“No train comes to the station. But something that looks like a train does. Sometimes. And this fellow on it, he’ll tell you he’s taking you where you need to go. But he ain’t, okay? That ain’t no train and that ain’t no conductor.”

“This is…I’m sorry…a joke of some sort?” Mr. Fischer asked. Clearly confused but keeping a smile on his face, as though to say I could laugh, too, if you’d only explain. Trying to be polite.

“Ain’t no joke. Sorry. It’s hard to explain. Just…please, drive everywhere, okay? Ignore the trains. We don’t do trains in America, not anymore, so why don’t you blend in and drive?”

They looked at him. Talked to each other again in those low tones. Looked again, and gave him a bland sort of smile. He’d heard that Germans don’t smile as much as Americans – or were that Russians? Or both? Turned out that maybe you’re crazy smile wasn’t cultural. It was just human. They gave him brief goodbyes and left.

Maybe they’ll listen, he thought as he watched them go.

Bright and early the next morning, while Emmet was in the back office watching the coffee drip from the basket into the scratched up pot, he heard it. It was a rather unmistakable sound even before all this started. Probably everyone on earth knew it. Anyone that had ever watched TV, anyhow.

Dread made his neck and shoulders stiffen and he abandoned the trickle of coffee. Rushed through the door from the back office to the little lobby, past the boat painting and around the desk, and through the door into the mounting early morning heat.

There was a train parked in front of the little station, shimmering in the sun. Never mind the track was completely broken up a quarter mile up, and broke up again a couple miles down. There it sat, white steam pouring out the top like a chimney.

And there was that family, the Fischers, Mom and Dad and the kids, climbing aboard while that thing that looked like a man ushered them on.

“Very good!” the father was saying. “Everyone back home told us there were no trains in America.”

“I assure you my good man, there are!” that thing said. He glanced over his shoulder, directly at Emmet, and winked. “You just have to know where to look.”

Emmet thought about yelling. Running after them. Trying to pull them off. But to be completely honest, Emmet was scared down to the bone. He’d never gone nearer to that train than he had to, and he didn’t intend to, neither. How close did he have to get for it to take him, too? He’d tried his best to warn that family, he really did. Americans would have understood. Europeans…

The door shut and the train whistle blew, and then that train was chugging along right past where Emmet stood.

He stood in front of his little lobby and watched it go. Through one of the windows in the middle car he could see the Fischers. The Mrs. gave him a little wave, maybe looked a little smug. Like he’d been lying and now she could show him the truth.

The Mr. though. His face showed it all. He hadn’t remembered their curious conversation from the day before. Not until he saw Emmet standing there. The German glanced around the train car, looking for the moment it would all melt away.

And it would. Just not in front of Emmet.

He watched until he couldn’t see that shimmer on the horizon anymore. He’d take their rental out into the desert. Easier than talking to the police again.

Next time, he’d just be straight and use the words ghost train. Then, maybe, even those tourists used to trains would listen to him when he’d tell him to stay the hell off.

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