Hannah Deaton surveyed the crowded train station in dismay. Flanked by a pair of friends, she stared at the scene in front of her and thought of an old western she'd seen on television recently. "The cattle are about to stampede," she joked as their small group moved hesitantly forward to join the rest of Parker High School's Teen Tour from Chicago to San Francisco.
The train station was noisy with clusters of students weighted down with backpacks and shoulder bags and suitcases stuffed to excess. Most of the travelers had gathered in groups. Hannah couldn't help feeling sorry for the handful who stood apart from the safety of a cozy, friendly group. Caroline Brewster, a girl in Hannah's geometry class, waited off in a corner by herself, continually glancing at her watch as if she were waiting for someone to join her. Hannah knew she wasn't. She was just pretending.
An unhappy-looking trio caught her attention. Eugene Bryer, a thin, quiet boy with sun-bleachedhair and a sullen expression on his pale face, stood off to Hannah's right. With him was Dale Sutterworth, a huge boy with dark hair and glasses, and Lolly Slocum, a stocky girl with sad eyes and lank blonde hair. They weren't talking or laughing as the other groups were, and Hannah couldn't help wondering why they were taking the trip. They didn't seem the least bit interested or excited and she knew they would never be included in the fun.
What was it like to always be on the outside looking in?
Grateful that she and her little group didn't fall into that dismal category, Hannah returned her attention to her own friends and to the excitement of the moment.
The tour's chaperones, two young teachers, Clara Quick and Benjamin Dobbs, stood in the center of the throng, armed with clipboards and looking bewildered. Thirty students were taking the endof-summer train trip to the West Coast. Ms. Quick, in a pale flowered dress and high heels, and Mr. Dobbs, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved white shirt and blue tie, looked like they'd been slapped with a pop quiz and weren't at all sure they knew the answers.
"Poor Ms. Quick," Hannah murmured. "She looks like she'd rather be home cleaning her oven."
"Yeah," Mack McComber agreed, tossing an arm carelessly around Hannah's shoulders. "I'll bet Dobbs would volunteer to scrub every restroom at school with a toothbrush if it would get him out of this."
"I can't believe we were only allowed one suitcase!" complained Kerry Oliver, who was standing beside Hannah. Kerry was a tall, olive-skinned girl with waist-long, straight black hair that glistened like patent leather. "A whole week on one suitcase? It can't be done. I'll have to wear the same outfit at least twice… maybe two outfits twice."
The boy next to her gasped in mock horror and clutched at his throat. "Oh, no! Kerry Oliver wearing an outfit more than once?" He was Kerry's height, and stick-thin. A wild jumble of carroty hear threatened to engulf his narrow, tanned face. Warm gray eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses reflected amusement. "Cable cars will stop in their tracks," he teased. "The Golden Gate Bridge will collapse into the Bay. The earth will shake,, all because Kerry Oliver could only bring one suitcase to San Francisco."
"Lewis Joseph Reed," Hannah said, her lips curved in a gentle smile, "quit teasing her. We all know you get a kick out of dating the best-dressed girl in school."
"Darn straight!" Kerry said, yanking playfully at a lock of Lewis's burnt-orange hair. "Hannah's right. You love it and you know it. Anyway, don't worry. At least I won't embarrass you on the train by showing up in grubby clothes." Pointing to the bulging maroon bag at her feet, she added, "We're allowed one carry on during the trip." She grinned. "No one said what size. Ms. Quick said if we could carry it, we could bring it."
Lewis hefted the bag, testing. He barely raised it an inch off the tile. Groaning, he glanced around the station before asking, "So where did you park the crane that hauled this over here?"
"Mack will carry it," Kerry said lightly with an unconcerned shrug. She smiled at the tall, husky boy with the dark hair and a strong, rugged face. "He has all those muscles, he might as well use them someplace besides on the football field."
"You must have me mixed up with someone who's all brawn and no brain," Mack McComber said with a grin. "If you think I'm some dumb jock you're going to sucker into carrying that ten-ton piece of baggage you were dumb enough to bring, think again. The rules say, if you can carry it,' not if someone else can."
Before Kerry could protest, the chaperones, looking grimly determined, took command and began shepherding their charges toward the blue and silver train waiting on the tracks beyond the terminal.
Lewis dragged Kerry's bag, while she danced lightly ahead of him, ignoring his groans. Anxious to get on board the train and "check it out," she hurried ahead, not noticing when Lewis, hampered by the heavy burden, fell behind.
Hannah approached the elephantine coach with mixed feelings. The lure of San Francisco, the city on the Bay, had enticed her into taking this trip. Her parents had visited there several times, and loved it. They assured her she would, too.
But she had been dreading the train ride. Trainsscared her. They went awfully fast, their coaches swaying dangerously as the wheels sped over the tracks. It was a long way from Chicago to California. Was it possible to sleep on a train that was moving so fast and rocking back and forth?
Approaching the steps leading into the coach, Hannah glanced nervously down at the wheels. They were comfortably wide and, made of metal, looked strong enough. But how did they stay on that narrow metal rail when the train reached top speed?
Sometimes, they didn't. She knew that. She had heard about derailments, some almost as devastating as a plane crash. Some people said you were safer on an airplane than you were on the ground.
But this tour had been planned, according to the brochure she'd received in the mail, so that students could "see the country." You couldn't do that from an airplane. So, here she was, at three o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon in late August, boarding a huge, blue and silver train with her friends from Parker High.
Hannah pushed an errant strand of naturally wavy, chocolate-ice-cream-colored hair behind her ears and, urged gently onward by Mack, climbed the steps into the coach.
When everyone was on board, the conductor -a tall, heavy man with a tiny black mustache, and a perfectly pressed blue uniform - led them on a brief tour of the train.
Hannah found it did little to ease her fears. The coaches weren't bad, wrapped in windows that provided lots of light and an all-encompassing view. But the narrow corridors between the sleeping compartments were cramped and dark. The walls were covered with a dark paisley print of rust, deep gold, and navy blue. The carpet underfoot shared the same gloomy pattern. Hannah felt a grim, heavy feeling descend upon her each time they entered a new car.
Mack noticed her nervous shivers. "You cold?" he asked with concern.
Hannah shook her head. "No. It's just… nothing. Never mind." She wasn't about to let a silly case of jitters spoil Mack's fun. He wasn't afraid of anything. At least, she didn't think he was. She'd only gotten to know him about six weeks before, in the middle of summer. But she'd never seen him frightened. Maybe that came with his size. What would anyone so big have to be frightened of? While she, on the other hand, barely came up to Mack's armpit and weighed only ninety-six pounds, soaking wet.
Shaking aside her gloomy feelings, Hannah continued onward with the group. But she let Mack fold her hand inside his, telling herself it was so they wouldn't become separated as Lewis had, struggling somewhere behind with Kerry's bag.
The Cafe, Hannah decided upon seeing it, was a fun place. No dark paisley here. Instead, the walls were panelled in a warm, light wood, and the stools, tables, and booths were a vivid red. Skylights and windows made it feel light and airy. A cheerful tune played in the background while passengers separate from the Teen Tour sat at the bright-red Formica counter sipping cold drinks.
Everyone wanted to order something to eat or drink, but Ms. Quick insisted they "get settled first." A special low tour rate had allowed the students to be housed in compartments rather than coach, which Hannah appreciated. She and Kerry would have more privacy in a compartment. And Kerry had insisted that she never could have slept in "one of those chair-beds. I need to lie down to sleep!"
Lewis met them in the corridor. He was emptyhanded. and he looked worried.
"Where's my bag?" Kerry asked him immediately, her eyes going from one of his hands to the other. "Did you put it in your compartment?"
Lewis shook his head. Rusty strands fell against his forehead. He shoved them back nervously. "No… I… the conductor made me stow it in the baggage car, Kerry."
"He said it was too big to be a carry on. I argued with him," Lewis added desperately, seeing the flush of anger begin on Kerry's face, "but it was no go. He just took it from me and headed for the baggage car. But," he added hopefully as Kerry drew in a breath in preparation for another shriek, "the baggage car isn't locked. You can go get what you need from your bag."
"Lewis," Kerry cried, her cheeks deepening in color, "my face is in that bag! And most of my clothes for the trip!"
Lewis frowned, uncomprehending. "Your face?" But Hannah understood. Kerry's makeup and hair care supplies were in that bag. Kerry would have to boomerang back and forth between their compartment and the baggage car every time she wanted to change her "look." Which, knowing Kerry, would be often.
Hannah knew Kerry wouldn't accept this arrangement.
She didn't. "This is ridiculous!" Kerry said, turning away from Lewis. "Ms. Quick said we could have a carry-on bag and that's what I brought! Who does that conductor think he is, anyway? Lewis, you have to go get that bag. I need it!"
"Kerry," Hannah offered, "you, can share my stuff."
Kerry stared at her. "Your stuff? Hannah, you only wear mascara, and you use that cheap stuff. It gives me a rash."
Hannah flushed and fell silent.
"Lewis?" Kerry turned a stern gaze on her boyfriend.
"Look," he said, "I told you, you can go get what you need when you need it. Quit making such a big deal out of it. The conductor said you can't have that bag on the train, so live with it."
Kerry's mouth fell open. Then, just as quickly, she clamped it shut. She turned to Mack. "Mack?"
He shook his head.
"All right. All right!" Kerry said grimly. "I'll get it myself. I need that bag, it's mine, and I have a right to have it with me."
And, swinging her black hair angrily, she stomped off down the corridor, heading for the baggage car.
She was back only minutes later, before Hannah, who had gone into their compartment, had had time to open her own small tote bag.
Kerry pushed the compartment door open and immediately sank into one of the seats. Her face was an odd pea green, her dark eyes wide.
She did not have the carry-on bag.
"What's wrong?" Hannah asked. "Did the conductor yell at you?"
Kerry shook her head. "No," she said almost in a whisper, "I didn't even see him. But Hannah… Hannah, you won't believe what's in there. You won't…"
"In the baggage car?" Hannah smiled. "Luggage, I guess."
"It's not funny," Kerry snapped, surprising Hannah. Hannah took a couple of steps forward and sat down beside her.
"Kerry, what's the matter? Why are you acting so weird?"
Kerry lifted her head and looked straight at Hannah. Then she said with horror, "Hannah, there's a coffin in the baggage car!"
"A coffin?" Hannah repeated in response to Kerry's grim news.
Kerry nodded. "Yes. In the baggage car. It's sitting up on a table that's draped with a long black cloth." She shuddered. "A coffin! A dead person is on this tour, Hannah! It's disgusting."
Hannah sat in thoughtful silence for a moment and then said, "Kerry, maybe there isn't anyone in it. Someone along the train route could have ordered a coffin from Chicago. You know… someone from a little town where they don't have cons. So they have to send away for them when someone… dies."
Kerry sent her a skeptical look. "Hannah, how can a town not have coffins? One thing people do absolutely everywhere is die. Even the tiniest town would have to have a funeral parlor, and funeral parlors have cons."