My cousin Ronnie and I used to chase the ghost train on Grandad’s farm. It was on the small size for a Nebraska farm: 174 acres…but big enough for three houses on the land. Each of
them just far enough away from one another that you could avoid seeing one of your neighbors if you were mad at them. You couldn’t avoid them forever though, on account of being related to
them. We grew up close friends because we were cousins, but also because Uncle Richie and Aunt Arlene and my cousin Ronnie lived just a stone throw away. Our family, me, Mom, Dad,
and my older sister Samantha lived in a second house; Granddad in the third.
The train track spanning the center was from another era. Grandad said those tracks hadn’t been used in decades. That’s why nobody believed when we started on about the ghost train.
Ronnie said that the disused tracks made perfect sense: that was why it was an old train we’d see, one from the early 1900’s. Not like the ones you see operating today. Ronnie knew a lot about trains. He was obsessed with them. He collected books and pictures of trains the way other boys collected Hustler. I realize how that sounded. I meant it that way. I walked in on him in his room once. He was looking at one of his train books–naked. He acted embarrassed because I’d caught him… You know the rest. Whenever we talked about chasing the ghost train that week, more than once I’m pretty sure his pants bulged with an erection. We never talked about his conductor fetish or whatever it was. He just wasn’t all the way right, but he was family. You got to let some of these kind of things slide. He wasn’t hurting nobody.
The first time we saw it was in the summer. On nice summer nights Ronnie and I used to take a tent out to spots on Grandad’s farm. We’d watch fireflies dancing in the fields like ethereal lights
from another world. In late July that year, the nights were balmy but we’d made a fire just the same. We spent half the night telling ghost stories. Ronnie always wanted to pitch the tent by
the disused train tracks. I realize how that sounded. I mean that in that way too. You don’t get to pick your family, you just got to love them. That’s what my daddy said every time I used to tell him his brother’s son was kind of weird.
The first time we heard it, it was late, much later than we usually stayed awake; the whistle on the front of the train pierced through 3 a.m. fog, like a distant memory, recalled.
Ronnie’s eyes glistened: excited as a fire inside of him grew. “Do you hear that?” He asked. Ronnie said the train we saw was a Shay Locomotive, at least a hundred years old. We were
baffled by the mystery of it as it approached that first time. Ronnie began running before it even fully passed us–anything he could do to gaze at it just a few moments longer. As it made its way
out of sight, I watched Ronnie duck into the bushes. He didn’t return for almost 40 minutes.
We stayed out there the next night, and the next after that. Each time, Ronnie and I would get a bit closer. We stayed in our tent out by those tracks every night for a week. Eventually he
reached out to touch the train, expecting his hand to cut through its ghastly exterior like water. Like a hand through a ghost or a spirit. Like putting your hand into mist. The ghost train pulled him for 100 yards before ripping off his arm. His screams of agony echoed through the night. No matter how fast I ran, it wouldn’t have been fast enough.
Grandad’s house was closest, but by the time we’d gotten back in his truck, he was dead from loss of blood. Ronnie died July 27th, 1997, right there on the tracks.
Nobody could explain how, why or even what happened; no trains had used those tracks for almost 50 years. Nobody would have believed what I’d seen so I just told them I was sleeping,
awoken by his screams. In his grief, and with Grandad’s blessing, uncle Richie had the tracks pulled up and removed.
Grandad has been dead for years. In adulthood I moved away, but the farm still remains in our family. I haven’t really thought about this in a long time. I haven’t returned there in almost two decades, but I’m on a flight now to Nebraska; back to Grandad’s farm.
Samantha’s a single mother. I’m sure it’s not easy, but the farm provides. She says my nephew Jason’s been telling wild stories. She had been brushing it off as her teen boy trying to shock
her but eventually decided that it was a little too unnerving. She called a few days ago to ask me what actually happened that night, so I finally told her. She took a moment’s pause and asked
me if I’d come help her pack to move in that same phone call. I reminded her that after I left for the last time, I always said I never intended to return, but I’ve changed my mind and bought a
I agreed to come help when she said that she’s been having a hard time keeping her son away from where we used to play and tell our campfire tales so many years ago; from where those
tracks once were. She said in my nephew’s tales of the ghost train there’s a passenger inside. You can only see the top half of him on account of the windows but my nephew can tell the guy is naked. He’s doing something with his hands and he makes eye contact with you and you feel drawn nearer to the overgrown ruts left by the up-pulled tracks and you can’t look away from the
young passenger’s face. There’s a fire in his eyes that looks a lot like ecstasy.