Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
The people from the train club couldn't have been nicer—or goofier—as they helped what was left of the Forrester family board the train. They even helped the kids unload everything from the van into a rickety old baggage car. Megan had the sense to ask about long-term parking. Jimmy, the cadaverous-looking “conductor“ invited her to leave her car in an old warehouse that the railroad didn't use any more. “We lock it up when the train isn't running, so it should be safe.“ He didn't add that it would be out of sight, but he seemed to be reading Megan's mind on that point. Megan, momentarily in Jason Bourne mode again, couldn't help noticing that the warehouse had a metal roof, which might interfere with satellite surveillance, and that several other cars were already parked there, including both late models and some great “oldies,“ like a '72 Plymouth Fury and an original Mach Two Mustang. A few, but not all, of the cars had a thick layer of dust. Megan wondered how much dust would accumulate on her minivan before she started it up again.
While the kids were waiting inside for the train to leave, Megan had another “What Would Jason Do“ moment. She borrowed a screwdriver, took off the license plate and hid it under the driver's seat. Then she left an old newspaper on the dashboard where it would cover the VIN.
By the time she got back into the station, Megan could tell that Harry was getting more and more excited, and Jessie was getting more and more upset. By the time the family boarded the train, she was almost in hysterics. “You can't be doing this to us, Mom!“ “I'll explain once we're off the train,“ Megan said, but that did nothing to calm Jessie's nerves.
Once the train was ready to start, Jimmy stepped into the coach with them, made a show of punching their tickets, and started into a sort of tour-director's speech. “Please,“ Megan interrupted, “Not now.“ She glanced toward Jessie, who was biting her lip and clearly on the verge of tears. Jimmy took the hint.
The train took a few minutes to get up to any kind of traveling speed, and was bumpy at that. Megan couldn't help looking out the window to get some idea of what they were getting into. Swamps, bayous, an abandoned former plantation, lots of Spanish moss, clouds of gnats, the sort of things you'd see in dozens of low-lying counties in Gulf states. Though the sights weren't exactly cheerful, Megan couldn't help wishing Jessie would take some interest.
In contrast, Harry was just plain having fun, bouncing back and forth to look out one side, then the other. After a few minutes, Harry asked, “Can I see the rest of the train, Mom?“ Jimmy must have noticed Megan's hesitation, because he said, “Don't worry, Mrs. Forrester, I'll keep an eye on him.“ Megan nodded gratefully as Jimmy and Harry moved toward the front. From the next car, she could hear Jimmy calling, “Don't get too far ahead, son.“
In a few moments, Harry had reached the baggage car, the first car in the train. He looked for a door or window on the front end of the car, but there wasn't one. Jimmy realized why Harry was confused. He said, “You can't get to a steam locomotive safely on a moving train anyway, so they seal off the front end of the car.“
“But I saw a door there when we were at the station.“
Jimmy nodded. “You've got good eyes, son. They put a fake door on the front end so it looks like the other cars. We call it a 'blind.' It used to be the hoboes' favorite place to ride.“
“What's a hobo?“
“Oh, folks who sneak rides on trains without paying for them. Most of them used to be homeless, traveling to find work and such.“
“Used to be?“
“Yeah, there aren't very many hoboes left these days. Not very many trains with blinds on the front end either. Let's go look out the back.“
While Harry was out of the car, Megan tried to talk to Jessie. But Jessie was obviously more interested in making her Mom know that she had ruined her life by bringing the family down here. “Jessie, I know I owe you an explanation,“ Megan started, but Jessie started up again.
“Like there's any way you can explain this. Sneaking us out of the house, out of town. What has got you so paranoid? This is just sick. I saw that little dance you did on your cell phone in the parking lot. What do you think this is, a spy movie?“
Megan shook her head. “Try gangster movie.“
Jessie's eyes widened. For a moment, Megan thought she was getting through. Then Jessie said, “That is so rich! I get this now. You're mad at Dad for leaving us in the lurch and somehow in your twisted mind, you're getting back at him by making up these sick scenarios and putting us through this.“
Just then, Harry bounced back into the coach, followed by a panting Jimmy. Blissfully unaware that anything was amiss with Jessie and Mom, Harry told them what Jimmy said about the hoboes, and how they used to ride on the front of the baggage car. Megan glanced at Jimmy with a look asking for help. He nodded knowingly, and called for Harry to accompany him to the rear of the train.
As they left the coach, Megan tried again to get through to Jessie. “Listen, I know it's hard to believe, but we aren't safe in town. I wouldn't be doing this except to keep you and Harry safe, and that's the truth.“ Jessie stared out the window with her arms crossed and said nothing. Megan continued, “Remember that man with the white hair whose daughter came in to use the bathroom a couple of weeks ago? He works for some casino owners, and he stopped by to let me know that Dad owed them a whole lot of money when he died.“
Jessie swiveled her head long enough to give her Mom the “get real“ look, then turned back to stare out the window. Megan said, “More money than I could pay back in a lifetime. But that wasn't the scary part.“ Megan plowed on, not sure whether she was getting through or not, but when she saw a tear on Jesse's cheek, she became hopeful that something was sinking in.“
In the old dining car, Jimmy and Harry passed another one of the rail club members, dressed like a zombie, wiping the counters. “Hi, Ralph!“ Jimmy said. “Beautiful day, isn't it?“ replied Ralph.
The last car had a real door on the end, one that opened onto a little platform with a rail around it to keep you from falling off. “This is the observation car,“ said Jimmy. “It's a great way to see the countryside. Oh, look over there.“ Harry looked where Jimmy pointed, but he didn't see anything.
“It was a big alligator, sunning himself on a log.“
“Cool. Are there very many alligators around Fosterville?“
“Why, yes, on the low side, across the tracks. You'll never see one in town.“
“Is it really a ghost town?“
“Of course. Why do you think this train's called the 'Spook Hill Express?'“
“Well, that's just a joke, right? I mean, there's no such thing as ghosts.“
Jimmy smiled and said, “Maybe we'd better let Ralph explain that part to you.“
Back in the dining car, Jimmy told Ralph, “My friend Harry here thinks there's no such thing as ghosts. What do you think?“
Ralph leaned in and gave Harry a good, close look. Harry was observing, too. Under the obvious makeup, Ralph was an older fellow with plenty of wrinkles, but a friendly smile. “You look like an intelligent young man,“ he said. “So you think I'm just dressed up like a zombie.“
Harry laughed, a bit nervously. “Of course. If you were a real zombie you'd have things falling off you and stuff.“
Ralph said, “In that case, I'm very pleased to meet you.“ He reached out his hand for a handshake. Harry took his hand, which seemed unusually cold to the touch, and gave it a shake. To his shock, Ralph's whole hand came off, forearm and all. Harry jumped back three feet and sputtered, too upset even to scream. Then he noticed the leather straps attached to the dislocated limb.
Jimmy laughed, “Yes, Ralph has a prosthetic arm. But we have to get at least one passenger per trip. And it was your turn.“
For a few minutes Harry didn't think it was funny at all. He was still thinking how close he had come to wetting his pants. But then Ralph offered Harry a candy bar and a Coke, plus some snacks to take back to his mother and sister, and all was forgiven.
By the time Harry had shared the candy and Cokes, the train was obviously slowing down. He wanted to tell Mom about the alligator and Ralph's zombie act, but even he could tell by now that everything he said was upsetting Jessie, and that was upsetting Mom. So his stories got reduced to an account of how nice it was to see things from the observation car.
Spook Hill Station was built like thousands of other small 19th-century train stations, but it was ancient-looking gray, with orange and purple trim, just like the Spook Hill Express. Jimmie saw the dismay in Jessie's eyes as the train pulled up. “Don't worry, young lady,“ he said, “It's just a leftover paint job from the amusement park days. It's really a nice place inside.“
And it was. The Forrester family went inside to wait while their belongings were unloaded from the baggage car onto a sort of cart. How they were supposed to get the stuff up the hill to great-great-aunt Sarah's house was anybody's guess.
While the family waited, several of the ghostly volunteers brought in cases of canned goods, flour, and sugar and stocked a small row of shelves in one corner. Ralph used a key to open an iron box with a slot in the top; then he got out some money and started counting it.
Megan said, “So you have a grocery store for a ghost town?“ Ralph laughed and said, “Well, there are spooks, and then there are spooks, if you know what I mean.“ Megan didn't. Ralph went on. “We're on the honor system here. We try to stock the basics, but if you need anything in particular, just leave us a note, and we'll try to bring it back on the return trip. Same thing if you need a ride or something. We try to get over most Saturday mornings. Other times if someone has a special need.“
Harry flipped through a stack of postcards. Most of them were cartoons of haunted houses with cartoon ghosts flying out of the windows. But there was one card with a photo. It showed a decrepit Victorian-era mansion, like the Mary Poppins house gone horribly wrong. The flip side said, “The Forrester mansion, built in 1897 by Hadley Forrester, grandson of Eugene Forrester, the founder of Forresterville.“ He showed Mom.
Megan was intrigued and asked Ralph about the card. “I thought this was Fosterville,“ she said.
“It is now. Has been for some time. Forresterville was just too hard to say. But we figure if your name is Forrester, you must be related to old Eugene somehow. That's why we all came out to join you on the ride.“
“The old Forrester place? This is our house?“
“Best in the town, I'm told.“
“Haven't you seen it?“
“Oh no, ma'am,“ Ralph shook his head. “We never go further than the platform. That's part of our agreement.“
“Agreement? With who?“
“With the ghosts, of course.“ Ralph smiled and winked, infuriating Megan with his need to “pull her leg“ when she needed real, and hopefully encouraging information to go on.
The train's whistle blew two short blasts, just as Megan was coming up with an appropriate response to Ralph's last sentence. “Ooops, that's the signal,“ Ralph said, picking up the snack food basket. “Oh, here's something in case your pantry is bare. Courtesy of the club.“ Ralph swept several items of food into a bag that he handed to Megan so quickly that she had no time to protest. She did manage to squeak out a “Thank you.“
As Ralph was on his way out the door, Harry stopped him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Ralph. But you never told me whether ghosts are real or not.“
The aging prankster in zombie makeup leaned over and looked Harry in the eyes. “You're right, my young friend; I didn't. Well here's the answer. Ghosts are exactly as real as you think they are.“
Harry's forehead wrinkled as he thought that one over. But Ralph escaped without a follow-up question.
Abruptly Megan realized that her family was alone in the station. She saw a “Please Ring for Service“ sign over a little bell on the counter, so she rang it. Nothing happened. She rang it again. Still nothing. Biting her lip, she called the children to her. “Well, we might as well get started. Maybe we can make a couple of trips before dark.“
The three went out to the unmanned baggage cart on the deserted platform. “Start with your overnight bags, and anything expensive,“ Megan said. Harry grabbed his overnight bag and the bag with his computer games, then started out.
Jessie walked past the cart and sat on a bench. “I'm not going anywhere until you admit you made up all that stuff about Dad.“
Megan ignored the attitude and implied insults and said, “Come on up whenever you're ready, Sweetie.“ She shouldered her overnight bag and grabbed her old laptop and a couple bags she thought she could handle along with everything else. “Think you'll recognize the house when you see it?“ she shouted to Harry, who had already reached the first street corner.
“I can see it from here!“ he shouted looking uphill to Megan's right. That would be north, if Megan had her bearings. As Megan reached the corner behind Harry, she saw the house from the photograph, looking much darker and even more run-down. At this moment, though, she was even more concerned by how far away it seemed. And how high—in the tradition of “Nob Hills“ everywhere, it was built on the highest lot in town.
Harry was already a third of the way to the house. Megan called for him to wait up. Then she glanced quickly in all directions to get a sense of the town's layout. There seemed to be a courthouse sort of structure a few blocks west, and a couple of storefronts, all looking very deserted. The rest was houses. Megan started up the hill. Within a few minutes, she was next to Harry, pausing to catch her breath.
Most of the houses she passed looked familiar in a way. Megan recognized them as “Arts and Crafts“ houses of the early twentieth century. Wood framed, with low sloping roofs that almost concealed the fact that they were two-stories. About every third house had two dormers facing the street, over a big front porch. For a second Megan wondered what they reminded her of. Then she realized that they looked a little like faces, not of people but of some animal, say a frog. Maybe a frog with fangs, if you counted the white posts on the front porches. At first she thought it was funny. But after a while, she started to get the feeling that the houses themselves were staring back at her. Hungrily.
Looking back up the hill toward the “Old Forrester Place,“ she realized that one reason the house looked so foreboding was that every shutter was closed. Of course, that was a reasonable precaution for a house that wasn't going to be lived in for a while, especially in a hurricane-prone part of the country. “What dark secrets do you hold?“ she mentally asked the old structure as she stared up at it. On the other hand, the houses near her weren't shuttered at all. Megan thought it odd that only a few panes of glass were cracked or missing after all these years. Or, for that matter, that Kudzu, soft maples, scrub pines, or willows hadn't taken over every lawn, like they kept trying to do in the home she had just left. No wonder the lineman had given a positive report. You could almost imagine that folks had been gone only a few months, instead of a half-century.
In the few minutes it took her to make those observations, she recovered as much “second wind“ as she expected to. So she started back up the hill, wishing she hadn't tried to bring along quite so much on the first trip. As Megan and Harry approached their potential home, each block seemed to hold older homes than the last. Frame houses gave way to bricks, to brick-and-limestone, to limestone, to fieldstone. What did the postcard say, 1897? More like 1737 if you'd ask Megan. The last row of houses looked positively Colonial, and Megan couldn't help wondering if her family had somehow stumbled into old New England. What did these houses remind her of? Plymouth? Salem? Sleepy Hollow? No, don't go there, she thought.
Finally, Megan caught up again with Harry. He was standing in knee-deep weeds that had grown up through the brick street in front of their new home. As she looked up at the house, it seemed to stretch far above her like some sort of dark obelisk. There were at least four stories if you counted the dormers poking out of the Mansard roof. No, five—there were little dormers above those. And above that was a rickety iron fence guarding a widow's walk that ran the length of the house. Megan faltered, and took a step backward inadvertently. She realized she was getting dizzy from looking up too high, too long.
“Cool, huh?“ was Harry's comment.
Looking straight ahead, Megan saw a porch that stretched across the front of the house, decorated at intervals by concrete planters, as well as a few little concrete birds and rabbits. She also saw that, in addition to being shuttered, many of the windows were protected by boards fastened over the shutters. She hoped that meant that the inside was preserved in some kind of shape. As long as there was some sort of ventilation, and the slate roof was intact.
Reaching the porch, she was glad to notice that it was clear of leaves and debris—perhaps a recent rainstorm had cleaned things away. It also seemed solid enough, always an issue in termite country. Harry dumped his baggage on the porch and started investigating the little sculptures. Megan gladly dumped her load next to Harry's and wondered if the door would be locked. It was. Not to worry. Harry had already found a key under a concrete rabbit.
“Can I try it?“ he asked, and Megan said, “Sure. Be careful.“ The key went in, but Harry couldn't get it to turn. Finally he asked for help. Megan worked the key for a few minutes and finally got it to turn. “We should have brought the WD-40, I guess,“ she said. Then she gave the door a gentle pull. Nothing happened. She pulled it harder. Nothing happened. Then, just as she stepped back to gather her strength for another pull, it swung open, as if on its own.
“Guess you got it loose, huh, Mom?“ was Harry's reaction.
“I guess so.“
Megan absent-mindedly flipped the light switch near the door, but of course nothing happened, so she peered in carefully, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She had fully expected to see moth-destroyed rugs and drapes, termite-eaten floors and furniture, and mildew-blackened walls. Instead she saw a tiled entry hall leading between what looked like two parlors, each with gritty, but intact gum floors, faded, but intact wallpaper, and what looked like worn, but usable furniture. If you didn't count all the spider webs and the half-inch of dust on everything, it didn't look too bad.
“I hope they have a broom somewhere,“ Megan said. From behind her, she heard, “I was thinking more of a fire hose.“ That was Jessie's voice, not Harry's.
“So you decided to join us?“ Megan asked, as Jessie dropped her bags next to Megan's on the porch.
“Well, this place is creepy enough. But it's not any creepier than that station platform got after you left. Suddenly music started playing out of nowhere, and I started hearing voices, but I didn't see anybody. I figured we were probably better off sticking together. So, is it everything you imagined it would be?“
“Thankfully, no,“ answered Megan, meaning that for once, her worst fears weren't realized. “Harry, go back out and see what it would take to get the shutters open so we can get some light in here. Jessie, hold this door open and I'm going to see if I can find my way through to a back door somewhere and get this place aired out.“
“Watch out for the Headless Horseman,“ Jessie said. Megan laughed and admitted, “Yeah, I thought of that, too.“
Megan crept gently through the house, trying not to disturb the dust too much just yet. The air in the old house smelled hot and stale, but not moldy. That was good. At times, though, she got a whiff of smells that weren't particularly good. She wondered if some animal had got in, and whether it had ruined any rugs or furniture.
Before long she hit a dead end and had to decide whether to go to the left or the right. She chose left, holding her right hand against the wall and moving slowly, in case there was furniture or something in the way. When she came to the first doorway on the right, she could see a crack of light coming in from the other end of that room. So she started slowly toward that light.
“Ouch!“ Somehow she had managed to step on the runner of a rocking chair at just the right angle to get it to flip up and crack her on the head. Even as she was startled, she realized what she'd done and laughed at herself. The sliver of light was only a few feet away now, and she was hoping that wall would have a door she could open from inside.
Then Megan stepped on something soft that jumped up with a vicious snarl and ran off bumping into things. Actually scared for the first time that day, Megan stood absolutely still, trying to figure out if whatever she had disturbed was still in the room. She didn't have to wait long for the answer. Suddenly the sliver of light grew a foot in width, and for a moment Megan saw the biggest raccoon she had ever encountered silhouetted against the bright opening.
From the front of the house, Megan could here Jessie calling, “Are you all right, Mom?“
“Better than the raccoon I just stepped on, I think,“ she called back. The brief flash of light had given her some sense of her surroundings. There was a door a yard to the right of the raccoon's exit path. Megan found it in the dark, felt and released a night latch, and opened it up. The daylight was blinding, but the fresh air was very welcome. Turning back around, Megan was looking into what might have been a library or music room, with many shelves. A few rows of books were still there, as was an old piano. Like the front part of the house, there didn't seem to be any problems that a year's worth of dusting and scrubbing wouldn't cure.
Megan went back through the house, wondering how she had avoided so many of the obstacles she could see clearly now. By now Harry had the shutters open on two windows, so light was streaming in through the dusty glass, and cutting laser-sharp yellow-white beams in the millions of dust motes she had stirred up. Harry came in and admired the big rooms, the dust, and especially the sharply-defined sunbeams.
“Thanks for the light, Harry,“ said Megan. “Do you want to go out the back and see if you can get any shutters open out there?“ Megan could guess where the kitchen was, and she wanted to get some idea of whether they'd really be living in the 1800s here. She headed toward the back as well, but went to the right this time, holding her left hand along the wall as she moved toward what she hoped was the kitchen door. Jessie followed her, though Megan sensed she was less interested in exploring the house than she was afraid of being left alone again.
When Megan found the first doorway to the left, she warned Jessie, “I'm taking a left turn now,“ and went through. Her hand hit a light switch and she absent-mindedly flipped it, assuming that the power had been off for decades. But the lights came on, which startled her even more than the raccoon had. In later explorations that day, they discovered that most of the light bulbs in the house were either burnt out or missing. So Megan added light bulbs to her mental “grocery list.“
The refrigerator shouted “1960s“ but the cabinets were a timeless built-in style that Megan could live with indefinitely. For some reason, the dust didn't seem so oppressive in here—maybe the hard surfaces gave it fewer places to cling. Jessie opened the door of the refrigerator and the light came on. Megan reached in and turned the control knob. The compressor came on. “Do you suppose it still works?“ Jessie asked.
Megan shook her head. “I don't know. Getting the power turned on to a house is a big deal. I can't imagine it's been left on accidentally for forty years or so.“
From the front hall, Harry shouted, “Hey, guys, you have to see this.“ By now there was enough light to see by, and Jessie and Megan reached him in a few moments. Harry was staring out the front door at the porch. And no wonder, because next to the baggage they had brought up the hill was every single item they had left on the station platform.