Authors: J. P. Hightman
s the day drifted uneasily into early afternoon, Tobias and the others tramped on, the snow clutching their ankles with every heavy step.
“I wouldn't want to be back there, holed up in a train car,” Sattler was saying. “Annette won't take it well. How do you think yours will fare in this situation?”
“Well, there's no fear of enclosed spaces for Tess,” Tobias answered. “She'd never leave home, if she could get away with it. I practically have to pull her out. She has a level mind under duress, for the most part. I think she'll be all right.”
“Have you ever been through something like this before, Mr. Goodraven?”
“Feels like a thousand times,” said Tobias. “Actually, the truth is, we go looking for this sort of thing. But this is the worst I've ever been through.”
Sattler stared at him. “You were serious, then. I mean, about beingâ¦ghostâ¦hunters?”
Tobias nodded. “It's better than most vices. Though it does affect one in most peculiar ways.”
“And what does that mean?” Sattler looked confused. “Have
you some kind of disease, you two?”
Tobias looked askance at him. “It's not catching.”
“Well, what is it, then?”
“We just have a condition that affects certain people, when spirits have passed through them a number of times.”
Sattler looked at him as if he were completely insane. Tobias continued, unfazed, “You feel emotions washing over you, thoughts, ideas. If this happens many times, well, you sort of get to know where they are. You see?”
“No, I don't see at all.”
“Tess and I, we have a special condition. It develops over time. We feel the presence of those no longer with us.”
Sattler seemed unsure what to make of this statement. Tobias kept walking, quite comfortable.
Up ahead, he spied a heap of black cloth upon the snow.
“What the devilâ¦,” muttered Sattler.
On the ground was the slick-looking gentleman who had earlier targeted Tess with his inappropriate gaze. He lay beside his wife, the woman whose clothing was cheap and ostentatiously ornamented. The two were clearly dead, though how they'd gotten that way was open to question.
“Tawdry situation, this,” said Michael, adjusting his spectacles.
“What were they doing out here?” Sattler wondered aloud.
“Selfish pair, they went off for town together. They left the train,” conjectured Michael. “Didn't want to help anyone and delay their own chance of survival.”
Tobias said nothing, examining the snow-covered bodies.
“So what did they die of?” returned Sattler. “They look perfectly unharmed.”
“It could've been head injuries that did them in, right?” Michael asked, backing up a bit, staying clear of the dead.
“Could have been,” said Sattler. “Maybe they wandered off not knowing how bad their injuries wereâ¦.”
The couple's hands were locked together. A final gesture, perhaps.
“Very strange,” said Tobias finally.
Wilder's brown eyes glided to him pointedly. “It is.”
“Nothing to be done about it now.” Tobias decided. “Let's move on.”
“And not even cover them?” Sattler rebuked him.
“You may leave your coat if you like,” said Tobias, continuing onward.
There was nothing to be done, but Sattler seemed annoyed by the comment, and furthermore at Tobias's seizing of leadership again, his driving their pace. “You
to see death,” he said finally. “Isn't that what you said? You came for this. All of us here are just part of the theater of the thing, aren't we?”
Tobias answered, “Yes, well, I'm not very close to other people, if that's what you mean. It wasn't bravery that got me out here. All of that sickening human need everywhere at the trainâI was starting to lose my mind.”
“Starting to?” Michael muttered.
Tobias could feel their doubts about him, like a mild buzzing in his brain, but he was unperturbed. He was accustomed to New
York, teeming with grudges and bitterness.
“Ghosthuntingâ¦it's a very interesting way to spend your time,” said Sattler skeptically.
Tobias waited for more. What did they think his true reasons for being here were?
“I suppose tragedies in general are a lot of fun for you,” Sattler added.
“Most of the time they are,” Tobias replied in anger. “But then there's wonderful occasions like this, with all that screaming and dying. It would make anyone happy, wouldn't it?”
He left out that he could feel the painsâand secretsâof Sattler and Michael as well.
Sattler seemed to grow more curious. “Well, what made you decide toâ¦I mean, why did you ever start to seek out such things?”
Tobias paced on, the snow sludging underfoot. “The first time, I was seeking my mother and fatherâand so was Tess. Both of our parents had died in a theater fire. That's how we met. We were looking for a medium who could connect us with our families.” He drifted off, remembering.
“Well, it was partly successful. We had a sÃ©ance, and the entire room caught fire. I connected with my father's ghost, but just for a moment. At least I think it was him. He called me a wretched little good-for-nothing, so that's a clue.”
Tobias could tell Michael did not want this conversation to go further. He clearly figured Tobias for a madman.
Sattler pressed. “Father was a bit of a tyrant?”
“Not really. But he thought of me as slothful.”
“Interesting,” Wilder remarked. “My father took such a view of me as well. I'd nearly forgotten those words.” He looked pensive. “It almost seems as if he's with me now. Calling me forward out here, even in death.”
The others all glanced back at him. “You have that feeling?” asked Tobias.
Wilder was reticent. “I feel something. Since we got here.”
In that instant, Tobias mused that perhaps all along what he had felt in the forest, this calling from the other side, was nothing more than death itself, a lingering bounty of decay rising like mist, and Tobias had merely associated the sensation of death and loss with his own family.
He figured Wilder could have simply done the same. When one thinks of death, one thinks of lost loved ones, the explanation was nothing more than that. Tobias burned. He felt a bigger fool than ever. There was nothing special here for him.
“So is that what keeps you looking?” Sattler continued, not sure if Tobias was pulling his leg. “The search for your parents in the afterworld?”
“No. It's just that Tess and I seemed to have a knack for it. We started to seek out hauntings, and then it just got so wickedly interesting. You get to feeling things you never felt, and then you get to wanting the sensation again and again. Ordinary life becomes a bore.”
Wilder said nothing.
“What I can't figure out is how you two came together,” Michael said abruptly to Tobias. “She seems such an elegant girlâ¦”
“Tess? Oh, we're torn from the same cloth. She'sâ¦well, she's everything. She's my heart and my lungs. And my liver and my bowels,” he quipped.
Michael groaned. “Lovely.”
Wilder glanced at Tobias, tainting the air with envy.
“We've become so close now, I can feel her even at this distance. I can feel herâ¦fear,” said Tobias, his confidence slightly fading. He
feel her still, but their link was weakening. “Tess and I have been through quite a lot together. When we read about thisâwitches of Salem, fugitives, tortured and hangedâwho could resist such an encounter?”
“I could have,” muttered Sattler.
“No, I don't think you could.” You're the most hypocritical one in the bunch,” Tobias said flatly. The wind hissed around them as they trekked onward.
Wilder watched them with special care, a man used to conflicts spilling out of control.
“I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, sir,” Sattler replied, caught off-guard.
“You're lying,” Tobias said. “It has to do with what's in the pack. What
in the pack? You couldn't leave it on the trainâ¦? I even left my cello, for heaven's sake.”
Sattler looked at Tobias, caught. “You're going to think I'mâ¦something of a disgusting fellow.”
Tobias feigned shock. “You think so?”
Sattler frowned and handed Tobias his satchel, allowing him to take a look inside. Tobias rifled through the contents: sketches and rolled-up paintings.
“What of it? It's art. Michael's an art student, is he not?” Tobias could sense Sattler was a good person despite his lapses, and the young man folded under his gaze.
“These areâ¦” It seemed hard for Sattler to say it. “These are sketches by murderers. Reputedly by Jack the Ripper, the New York Garroter, people like that. I sell them. They're worth a lot of money.”
Tobias looked them over with interest, and then he found what looked like a child's mitten.
“Some of these things come from murder victims,” explained Sattler. “It's perverse, but there are people who pay for this kind of object. I actually thought you might be doing the same business here, and I was pressing you to find out. This place could be a treasure trove.”
Sattler averted his eyes. “So, we were coming to get some wood splinters from the old town before it's too late, and maybe some remains from the witch-killings. Those articles would be worth something.”
Wilder looked disgusted, and Michael and Sattler clearly felt embarrassed. Michael kept his gaze fixed on a far-off point. But Tobias was fascinated. “Wellâ¦you're much sicker than I am! You two are going straight to hell.” He said it like it was a compliment.
He handed back the satchel and walked onward, as Sattler called after him. “It's not as if we like this. I have to pay off one of my teachers or he'll flunk me out of Harvard. I knew a fellow, and I just got started in thisâ¦”
Tobias kept walking, uninterested.
“My sketches don't pay real well, you see?” said Michael, regretful.
For con men, they were awfully sorry for themselves. Have some
“The money's a great temptation. We're going to get twenty dollars just for their effects,” Sattler added.
Tobias stopped. “Whose?”
“Well, that Salem couple, the ones who fled to Blackthorne,” said Sattler. “This is all that was left of them. I got it from one of the Boston investors. He wanted to be rid of the stuff.”
He was holding up a small box. Tobias took it from him. Inside were tatters of lace, two candles, and two wedding rings.
“What naughty children,” Tobias commented. “Rings were not allowed by the Puritans.” Married couples used to exchange thimbles; girls would get creative, defy their fathers, and work the metal into rings. Tobias was touched by the sight of someone's precious keepsakes, and he decided to dislike Sattler even more for having the box. “These things belonged to Malgore's daughter and the German, the two from Salem?”
“This is not the sort of thing someone like you should have.”
“I came to get more. You're not going to take it from meâ¦.”
Tobias pushed the box away, bothered by it. “Oh, no. No, it's yours. But I think it
valuable. No telling who would want it. You hold on to it tight.”
Tobias walked off, leaving the other three to follow.
what gives them power, and seize it,
old man Jurey had said.
Beware the art student with no money,
Tobias told himself. “Well, I'm glad Tess didn't hear this. All she wanted was to be somewhere at Christmasâ¦where it was
now floated down gently, but tranquility was nowhere else in evidence this afternoon. Of the 240 original passengers, 183 were still alive. The survivors were mostly collected in those cars at the portion of the train still on the tracks; the wounded lay in overstuffed chairs, the grand parlor made eerie by their presence. Some lay on the floor. Others sat beside them, offering comfort. Tess checked to be sure everyone in her car was being cared for, and then passed through the doorway into the next car.
There she saw more wounded, more agony. Ned was tending to the injured, but he stepped over to Tess, and spoke quietly, with a trembling, embarrassed smile across his doughy face. “Strangest thing. I keep feeling a breath on my back, like someone's thereâ¦”
It was the last thing she wanted to hear. “We're all a little rattled. We need more water. I'm going to the dining car,” she said.
She couldn't get out fast enough, her empathic sense overwhelming her. She felt the physical pain of everyone around her: she crossed past a leg injury, her legs stung; she walked past a gouged eye, her vision blurred.
These people had meant nothing to her before; now her wellbeing was tied up in them almost literally.
“I think we should find the ones related to the Salem witch-hunters, and throw them outside,” said Ned, a touch of unwelcome gallows humor. And then he tiredly yelled after her, “Get us more whiskey for the wounded if you can, Tess.”
“It's the only tonic for pain that we have left,” said Gil, catching her sleeve, “and there's no telling how long we'll be out here, unh?”
“I'll do my best.”
Tess crossed into the dining car, a soft oasis.
Annette was sitting at a table, and near her some of the women were huddled around coffeepots and teakettles, perhaps a dozen others simply resting, taking in the warmth from the woodstoves. Everyone looked at Tess guiltily, and she felt sorry to always be driving them on, like some impossible wartime nurse.
“Come over, get yourself a couple seconds' rest,” said Elaine, opting to bring her into their small rebellion. It struck Tess again that Gil's wife gave off such youthful energy. Attuned to her now, Tess understood that rather than being odd, she simply had no real awareness that she was no longer young.
Another, much older woman, Lucinda, a grand Southern dame, who was managing to look impressive and composed even now, introduced herself and poured some coffee. “Get yourself warmed up,” she said kindly.
Tess accepted, and felt a strange sensation coming off them, not quite warmthâthere was too much distress for thatâbut stillness, at least.
Lucinda smiled. “I was telling Elaine this place ought to be more famous than it is, all the business that's gone on around it.” She had a great storytelling voice, and Tess sat unmoving, clutching the steaming coffee, listening with interest. “It's just not a place that gives up its dead. Which I take as a good sign. If I die, I want it to be right hereâ¦where I can live on in some form.” She laughed, becoming thoughtful. “You know, they tried running this train beforeâ¦”
The wind became audible outside, a low distressed hum. “What happened?” Tess asked nervously. She felt the interest of the other women around the car rising.
“Well, the first time they tried to run it, not twenty years ago, when the tracks were new, it got trapped under the snow just past Blackthorne. Except for a little smokestack, the whole train was lost under a blanket of snowfall. Covered up like a babe in a cradle. They wired for help. Told everyone, you just sit tight. I imagine it wasn't too terrible at first. They had first-class accommodationsâ¦. People bringing you hot cocoa and little English cookies, roasted duck and what have youâ¦waiting however many days 'til someone came to dig you out.”
“This actually happened here? The entire train buried?” Tess marveled. “What became of the people?”
“For two days a blizzard raged here,” said Lucinda. “The men that dug it out found everyone dead. Blood on the furniture. The children had been locked in cars away from their folks. Curious thing, as if those people wanted to protect children from themselves. Lord knows what took place. The young ones died of fright, they thought.
“Whatever the reason,
happened down there. Spooked the rescuers so bad they made quick work of cleaning up, and never ran the train after that. Figured someone didn't want them coming this way. That simple.”
Elaine was a tough-minded, practical New Englander, but the Southern woman's story caused her to shudder. “It was a lot of terrible luck. It can't be more than that.”
“Used to be folks had no reason to come up here,” added Lucinda. “Now we got a reason. Our big celebration, our âgrand defiance' of winter and of being closed off from each other and ofâ¦deathâ¦”
Painfully, Annette reflected on some private memory, and seeing Tess regard her, she admitted, “I keep thinking there are so many little questions I've had for Sattler, so many talks I wish I'd had with him before now.”
Tess smiled. “Where he'd like to live, how many kids somedayâ¦”
“Yes. Wellâ¦well, not that. I mean to say, I can't have children, so that doesn't come up much.”
Tess nodded, and Annette added rather nervously, “I'd just as soon you didn't tell anyone. Sattler has a great interest in starting a family, and I'd rather be the one to tell him. He's a very understanding person, though. You can count on Sattler for most anything. If he were here, I feel we'd all be in much better shape.”
There was an awkward pause, and Lucinda broke in, “Y'all need to worry less, rely less on your men. I never had need of one in sixty-eight years. We're going to be fine out here now, you just watch.”
“How ever did someone like you end up here?” Tess asked her. She admired the woman; to be striking out on her own at such an age must have taken courage.
Lucinda smiled. “Well, I wanted to live out my final years in a new place, somewhere quiet. I am sick of Southern men and Southern drink, and I am sick of the heat in Atlanta.”
“We have heat in New England,” countered Elaine.
“Not like Atlanta. It's Southern heat. It comes with drunkenness and public carrying-on,” Lucinda said. “And I wasn't about to put up with the noise and the arrogance of Boston or New Haven or Providence. Blackthorne has itself some history. I confess a fascination with it, and it's cheap to get somewhere to live.”
“I wish you'd been in my train car earlier,” Elaine said. “We might have had a lot to talk about.”
“You have a husband?”
“Well, he'd have shut you up, and we wouldn't have talked. That's the way it is.”
Elaine laughed. “Gil isn't so bad. He's a thinker. He likes facts. He's spooked by all this, and he hates to say it. He might grumble a bit, but he cares for me. The man I'd wanted to marry when I was younger was a brute to his wife, I found out later. I was lucky Gil found me, and I didn't know it 'til now, as I sit here thinking about it. You can forgive a lot in a man, if you know the other hand you might've been dealt.”
“I don't want to have to forgive a lot,” murmured Tess.
“If you want perfect, my dear, you're not going to find it in this life,” Elaine replied. For an instant, a veneer of violet tickled Tess's
vision, a hue that signified hope. Elaine, it seemed, had hope for her husband to change, even at her age.
We come in and out of fooling ourselves,
Tess thought. That must be how it's done over the long haul.
Wind shook the windows. Tess looked around the car, spooked by a new chill entering the space.
“I feel like something is opening upâ¦,” she said, sickened. The women stared at her, blankly. She looked around for a source. “Something's with us. It's on the train. Right now.”
The women kept staring, their expressions unclear.
Tess took in a breath of the cold air, wishing for Tobias. But he was not here, and try as she might, she could not feel him near her anymore. For all she knew, he was dying. Or already dead.