My grandfather had the reputation of being a good storyteller. I remember sitting at his feet with my sister as he would spin one of his yarns. His specialty was ghost stories, and I can hear them even now after so many years. I truly believe I’ve been blessed with the art of storytelling as well, though none so good as his. Actually, most of my training conference breakout sessions are built around stories, but none like I’ll share with you right now. Take a short break from corporate L&D and enjoy!
Waiting For the 9:29
Dust blanketing the smooth wooden floor planks seemed to be deeper than he remembered. Even in the quiet stillness of an empty lobby he could imagine the hustle and bustle sounds of travelers milling about waiting for the 9:29 train from Manassas. Many would be waiting to depart on a trip of their own to someplace else, while others waited anxiously, as he did, for the return of a loved one. She’d be on that train, he was certain of it. He never tired of waiting for her. Something about his persistence and patience gave him a sense of strength; an endurance that belied the number of times he had waited there for the arrival of the love of his life.
Fingers fished an old watch out of the tiny pocket on his vest; the gold cover popped open to confirm another twenty minutes or so of his seemingly endless vigil remained. The first train of the day would be on time, it always was. Long strides carried him outside onto the platform adjacent to the iron rails that would deliver her to him.
A late October sun was barely above partially denuded maple trees. Every breath of the autumn breeze brought another shower of red and golden leaves toward the ground. Several floated onto the station platform to join others already dancing with the wind around the feet of long benches lining the brick wall. Easing onto his familiar bench, he settled in to wait for his beloved Elizabeth.
He loved this time of morning. The amber glow of the advancing sun gave the colors of fall an even richer hue than nature’s palette intended. It seemed like he had relived this same scenario hundreds of times over. Under his feet, the breeze choreographed an endless dance as the dried leaves chased and swirled. He shook off the puzzling redundancy of this morning and relaxed into his simple act of waiting, watching the sun slowly creep farther skyward from the naked upper branches of the tallest maples.
The routine continued as he folded his arms across his chest; sleep claimed him like it always did, pulling his chin to his chest, pacing slow even breaths and wrapping him in the inevitable repetition of peaceful repose.
* * *
Tall doors at the front of the station swung open slowly, straining against dry rusted hinges with a grating screech. The sound rudely jarred him awake. He stood slowly and turned, straining to see through a dusty window into the lobby. It was empty. A bold sunbeam angled downward through a lazy swirl of dust disturbed by the opening of the heavy oak doors. He could not believe it. It was still morning. He usually came awake to find morning had passed into early afternoon. Even so, the lump of disappointment that usually welled in his throat, prompted by the normal outcome of missing his beloved once again, had returned.
He shook his head slowly in disbelief. Tears collected in the corners of tired eyes until their weight forced them out onto weathered cheeks. He began to cry the lonely cry of frustration he’d felt so many times before. The sense of loss pressed his shoulders down into broken submission, as he called out softly for his Elizabeth. Overwhelming sadness pushed in on him, forcing him to sit back down, dropping his face into his hands to sob in silence.
The tall woman who strode through the heavy doors stopped and cocked her head. “Did you hear something?”
Her real estate agent stopped and listened for whatever sound her client and long-time friend heard. “Probably just a rat or that stray cat; they’ve run of the place these days.”
A puzzled look remained in place on her friend’s face. “No. It didn’t sound like that. It was more of a moan or a cry, or something.”
The agent shrugged and shook her head, following her client farther into the station lobby; still listening. Deep shadows slowly lightened, as her eyes adjusted to the dim, musty interior. She stooped low to look under the double rows of wooden seats near the rear doors for the stray tomcat that was the likely source of what her friend heard.
“It was probably that old Tom I’ve seen running around. He’s acting stationmaster I think. Kind of a spooky cat; stays pretty much to himself. I suspect he doesn’t relish the thought of anyone infringing on his turf,” explained the agent.
The tall woman slowly turned, looking around the deserted room. “I can’t believe I’ve never come down here. My mom used to tell me stories about how her grandfather died here…died of a broken heart right here in this station.”
The agent looked at her and nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard stories about that too. This place has been vacant forever, and I’d bet this old station has quite a few ghost stories to tell.”
“I’ll bet it does. My mom said it was her grandmother who died in that famous train wreck just east of here, and he, her grandfather, had been waiting to meet her. I wasn’t even born yet. Such a sad love story, but…” She paused in her recollection to sweep her eyes around the room once more, then quickly changing the subject, “This place…you know…this place is perfect.”
The tall woman stepped lively around the lobby and began to talk excitedly, envisioning where the coffee bar should be and where shelves for books and media would go. “I’ve wanted a bookstore like this…a bookstore of my own for so long. This will be absolutely perfect…and the ghosts are welcome to stay…even that stray cat…I think I’ll call him Blytheville Tom.”
He suddenly lifted his head out of his hands, eyes swollen with dust-dry tears. There were voices coming from inside. Struggling to stand, he leaned closer to the window, cupping his hands on either side of his face, pressed against the glass. He peered into the lobby. The woman in the yellow jacket was back. This time she had another woman with her. Their conversation was muffled, and he could not understand what they talked about, but the taller woman was obviously excited about something; walking around gesturing in an animated one-sided conversation while the woman in yellow stood and watched.
“Oh, that’s so wonderful. I’m happy for you. You know, I almost sold this place a couple of years ago to a gentleman who wanted to convert it into a restaurant, but he changed his mind at the last minute. I guess it was destiny that you were the one to come down here and fall in love with the place.”
* * *
There was something about the tall, slender woman that he couldn’t place. He thought she looked familiar, but it was hard to see through the dusty haze on the windowpane. Rubbing the glass to no avail, he strained to see into the hazy interior. Standing next to the woman in the yellow jacket was a striking figure that in some unexplainable way looked like his Elizabeth.
The resemblance was striking and a strong surge of anticipation clutched at his throat, constricting his breathing. A deeply held breath nearly burst from his chest, as he gasped. Both mind and heart urged him to run to her and sweep her into his arms and hold her tightly. He’d ached for so long to feel the warmth of her body and feel her come alive as he held her. It seemed like an eternity had passed since he held her close like that. She was here at last – here to reclaim him – here to release the pain of his waiting.
He struggled mightily to move his feet, but they were held fast like two tree stumps, deeply rooted, refusing to budge. He looked back through the window and watched as the two women walked farther into the lobby. Drawing a breath, he tried to call to her. A raspy voice slightly above that of a whisper escaped from his lips.
“There it is again,” the tall woman exclaimed, “didn’t you hear that?”
“No, I’m sorry,” answered the agent. “What…what’d you hear?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, “but it sounded like someone calling my name. No one ever calls me that ‘cept my mom, and then only when I’m in really big trouble.”
The women approached the rear of the station lobby and pushed open the double doors that led outside onto the platform. Both stepped through just as his feet broke free. He turned toward them with a smile spreading broadly across his tear-stained face. With a half-dozen, quick steps he stood abruptly in front of the taller woman – the woman he was certain was his Elizabeth – and gathered her into his arms, his voiced locked in his throat tangled with a silent sob of joy. The strength of his hug closed on nothingness, and he stumbled right through her.
The tall woman clutched her chest with both hands and screamed. “Oh my God!” She shuffled sideways with a couple quick awkward steps and dropped to the platform, landing on her knees. A look of bewilderment punctuated wide open eyes and gaping mouth, breath frozen in her throat.
“What the…” stammered the agent, “Liz, are you okay?”
“Oh, God! Ohhh myyy,” she moaned, rocking back onto her haunches in a sitting position. A look of total confusion flooded her face as she gasped; a crimson flush crept up her neck and onto her cheeks.
The agent knelt down to help her regain her feet. Liz panted with short shallow breaths as she struggled to stand. Staggering backward on weakened legs, she lost her balance once again, falling hard against the wall, pulling the agent down with her.
Liz struggled to speak; “Something…something just…touched me…and…”
“Touched you?” The agent questioned in dismay, whirling around to look for whomever – whatever.
“Yes,” she burst out. “There was…I felt something inside. I don’t know what…I mean I… I’ve never felt anything like…My God…”
Her face was flushed and speckled with signs of perspiration. The shock of unexplained sensations rocked her sense of logic. Her mouth opened and closed in wordless desperation as her head swiveled around looking for an answer, looking for a source of this incredible rush of energy.
“My God,” she exclaimed, “I’m so…my heart…it’s pounding out of my chest.” Her hands clutched a handful of sweater over her heart. “It…he…called my name. You had to hear that. Please tell me you heard it too. I’ve never felt…such an intense…” She trembled violently before losing consciousness, pitching forward into the agent’s arms causing both women to sink further down, sprawling in a heap on the floor of the platform.
He staggered, catching his balance and turned around slowly, realizing his arms were empty and watched the bewildered women. Shock and confusion mixed with the sharp edge of terror cut deeply into him. The razor-edge of a reality he’d been ignoring for so many days, so many months, so many years, crashed down upon him without mercy. Deep within the confusion of what just happened, there was something else…something that changed him.
He had been drawn to this stranger as though she was his Elizabeth. Something about her was Elizabeth. Even as his arms melted around her he felt the connection – the connection he had so patiently waited for all these years. A warm sense of calm washed over him, yet there was more – there was a persistent panic that staggered him, pulled at him.
Turning away from the two fallen women he stumbled drunkenly with a private mixture of completion and the ultimate horror of his reality. Losing his sense of balance, he began to fall, drifting in what seemed like slow motion, headfirst toward the heavy wooden door frame. His body twisted as he reached to catch himself, causing him to roll to the side, arms flailing to break his fall. Pitching forward in a futile attempt to remain standing, one arm disappeared into the rough doorframe while the other found no resistance when fingers desperately closed around the tarnished brass knob on the heavy door.
The surprise of not being supported by the oak frame caused his entire body to heave forward through the doorway like it was thin air, tumbling into the lobby. The mid-morning shadows swallowed him whole, and the thick layer of dust on the floor lay undisturbed, oblivious to his passing.
* * *
Paramedics treated Liz for shock, checked her vital signs, and wrapped her in a thermal blanket in an effort to retain body heat. They worked quickly and efficiently and strapped her limp body onto a stretcher. The agent looked on, still trying to figure out what had happened to her unconscious friend.
The senior paramedic turned to the agent. “Are you sure you are okay, ma’am?”
“Yes,” she replied, smoothing her yellow blazer, “I’m…I’ll be alright.”
“Well, this one’s out cold, but her vital signs appear stable.” he said, motioning toward her friend. “We’ve got to get her back to the hospital right away for further observation. Are you sure you feel well enough to drive by yourself?”
“Yes.” she said, “Yes, I can drive. Go ahead. Please go with her now. I’ll follow you downtown in a couple of minutes. I just have to catch my breath.”
The shrill of the siren diminished as the departing ambulance sped out of sight. The agent sat down on the long bench along the wall of the station still completely befuddled by the events of the last few moments. Silently, she questioned what had just happened. She could not begin to understand or explain the source of the sensations her friend described. There was no logical explanation for any of it.
A cold chill rushed through her as her thoughts flashed back to stories she’d heard about this old station. It had been abandoned for nearly sixty years. She wondered if there was a connection to that train wreck in the early ’40s that killed 23 people on its way to tiny Blytheville Station. Rumors of ghosts of those who died always gave her a shiver when she came into the station.
A growing sense of unease prompted her decision to gather herself and leave. Looking around anxiously she stood, hiking the strap on her handbag a little higher onto her shoulder. She tried to dismiss a growing sense of fear that crept into her and ignored the instinctual reflex to flee.
She turned hastily and with short quick steps walked through the doorway back into the lobby. As she turned to pull the doors closed, something on the floor reflected the morning sun, catching her eye. Kneeling, she looked closer. It appeared to be a round, flat disk. She picked it up and quickly realized it was a pocket watch. Turning it over in her hand she noticed an inscription. Walking over toward the light coming in through the window to get a better look, she read: “Forever, my love! Elizabeth”.
Her breath seized, wedged sideways in her throat. She flipped it over and thumbed the stem button and the gold cover popped open. The crystal was fogged inside and scratched, but was still intact. Instinctively, she held it close to her ear to hear if it was ticking. The watch was silent. Upon closer examination she saw it – the hands were frozen on 9:29.