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A ghost train carries a murderous secret deep through the North Georgia mountains. Betrayal colder than the wind blowing through the pines. A young girl with a burden a hundred years out of time. An old man's tale of guilt and regret. A heartbroken woman caught in a mystery only she can solve. A boy long past living holds the key. Can unearthed secrets end the nightmare at last?
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To my grandfather, Fred Steffey
A long-working railroad man.
Mary Robbins stretched her legs out, groaning at the warmth of the fire against her aching feet and muscles. The ancient oak, maple, and locust trees soaring overhead sported dark green leaves poking through the bright springtime shades, but a distinct chill lingered in the North Georgia early evening air.
The view across the granite and limestone gorge opened up barely twenty yards away, the river at the bottom hundreds of feet below as musical as it was beautiful. A skeletal frame of bright new wood suggested what the observation deck would look like in a couple of weeks. The gorgeous scenery would draw people to the grand opening, and the bike trail she was helping build would bring them back.
The antiquated narrow-gauge rails were long since removed, probably hauled off for scrap decades before, saving the crew gathered around the fire the work of pulling them up now. A stack of decaying cross ties waited beside the emerging bike trail for the four-wheelers and bigger ATVs to carry away.
Those same noisy, stinky vehicles would be banned from this trail once it opened, but Mary and everyone else working on the trail was glad they were here for this phase.
The road and parking lot less than a mile away weren’t passable yet, and no one wanted to pack in the heavy equipment, food, or camping gear miles on foot or on a bicycle. Opening day in June would be soon enough to tackle this steep climb without any fossil fuel assistance.
Mary held her hands out to the heat of the fire, her pale palms contrasting with her much darker hands and arms, then brushed her fingers over the cargo pocket on her thigh.
The strange watch she’d found was still there.
She’d noticed the glint of the gold case beside one of the tracks the ATVs had churned in the red clay right before the crew knocked off for the night. She was almost certain it was an antique railroad watch. Even in a coating of that heavy soil, it looked remarkably like one her great-uncle carried.
She wasn’t sure why she’d slipped it into her pocket instead of turning it in for the museum in the ghost of a town at the bottom of the mountain. She planned to do just that. Eventually. A strange catch in her mind, and in her heart, begged her to hold onto it just a little bit longer.
As if anyone around her could read her vaguely guilty thoughts, Mary jumped when an empty water bottle bounced off her thigh. Lisa Dewey, the crew leader, grinned at Mary.
“Still with us, Ms. Robbins? We can help you get your tent set up if you’re ready to crash.”
“Not just yet,” Mary said, unable to hide a yawn. “I’m not about to be first to bed in this bunch.”
Fifteen people, half men, half women, were getting this trail through the North Georgia mountains cleaned up and ready to go. Mary had taken several of these working vacations with the three women sitting closest to her, and with her wife, but she hadn’t been out on a trail for a little over two years now.
Not since Rachel died.
Long absence from such hard work had her feeling the strain, but this was also her first bike trail. With a cleared railway there wasn’t much digging through roots or struggling with boulders as on a brand new forest path, but shoveling endless loads of huge ballast gravel, then increasingly smaller layers over top of it had her back, hands, and shoulders aching. Tomorrow they’d shift to building several raised platforms for camping and a restroom facility before moving to the next trail section.
“Don’t worry about it, Mar,” her friend Mia Chen said, pulling the clip out of her long, shining black hair. “I’ll go first, as usual.”
“Looks to me like the rest of us aren’t far behind,” Lisa said. “Bike trails are a bit tougher than most people expect. I’ll let you all sleep in before we turn into carpenters. Breakfast at eight, then we’re back at it.”
Mary let Mia pretend to help her up, though she certainly would have overbalanced her dainty friend. Mia stood not quite as high as Mary’s shoulder.
“I’m even more jealous of your new ‘do after today,” Mia said. “This mop on my head is burning me up, but Josh whines when I cut it.”
Mary touched her dark brown hair, the barely quarter inch of curls tight and strangely thick under her fingers. She hadn’t gotten used to that change yet, but it was far cooler.
“Yeah, Rachel liked mine longer, too.”
“Oh hell, I’m sorry.” Mia closed her eyes and turning her head away. “I’m too weary to keep track of my mouth. Need help with your setup?”
Mary knew her friend was just worried about her, but the taboo subjects and anxious glances her way were getting on her nerves. If Mia was convinced Mary wasn’t ready for this, why had she badgered and pushed for the trip in the first place?
“Nah, I’m good.” Mary waved toward the far end of the clearing. “I think I’m heading out to those pines over there. We drove up to Michigan to camp all the time when I was a kid. The breeze sounds amazing through them at night. I always slept like a baby.”
Mia’s dark brown eyes widened, but she couldn’t quite hide her smile. She’d been on almost all of these trail building trips with Mary and Rachel over the past several years. Fear didn’t seem to be a part of her reality, much less her vocabulary.
“Right next to the woods? Good luck with that.”
Mary didn’t think twice about setting up far away from the rest of the group, not anymore. She’d started having awful nightmares when the car crash took Rachel. They were different from night to night, but it was generally variations on a theme. What Mary could have done to stop it, or at least stop it enough to still have Rachel. Who, or what, she could have bargained with to make it turn out any other way.
She knew her dreams would keep anyone sleeping near her awake all night.
The mesh skylight in her cozy tent made for fantastic star watching, though she wouldn’t see much under the trees tonight. The lullaby whisper of the pines would be worth it. The clear ground and lack of undergrowth made for quick work setting up her tent.
She was crawling inside her sleeping bag with a sigh before anyone closer to the fire was finished, in bed first after all. She tucked the muddy watch under her backpack.
“’Night, sweetheart,” Mary whispered, same as she had every night without Rachel. That was the only thing that let her get to sleep at all. “Love you.”
Mary barely managed to turn over and pull her sleeping bag up to her ears before she was out.
Chattering teeth woke Mary a few hours later, and at first she thought they were her own.
She was certainly cold enough for that. The temperature in the tent had to be a lot lower than the fifties she and everyone else had prepared for. The air felt frozen in her nose and lungs. She started to pull one arm out of her bag to reach for her jacket, then stopped.
Someone, or something, was in the tent, pushed hard against her chest and belly. The chattering was coming from her unknown bed guest. Mary blinked, trying to get her bearings. She couldn’t imagine some kind of animal unzipping her tent door and getting inside, but no one in the camp would do that, either.
This wasn’t the strangest dream she’d ever had, but it might be close. More than one therapist had told her to engage with her nightmares, try to figure out what her subconscious was telling her. No time like the present.
“Who’s there?” she whispered, her own shivering making her voice tremble.
The body twitched but didn’t move away. Surely any animal would take off when she spoke, unless it was some kind of sentient dream creature. Wouldn’t be the first one Mary had met. She moved her arm slowly out from under her pillow, reaching for her flashlight.
“Listen, I’m not going to hurt you if you don’t hurt me,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Where did you come from?”
Her fingers, numb from the cold, found the metal body of her light. It felt warm to her for some reason, as if it had been outside by the fire. She usually couldn’t operate electronic things in a dream, but something this simple should work. Mary pushed the button, squinting against the glaring bright light.
A girl’s voice moaned, and Mary felt arms wrap around her waist. She blinked several times, but every time she kept seeing a snarl of kinky black hair and nothing else. She tried to move back to get a better look, but the girl only moved with her. As her vision cleared, she saw bare arms as dark brown as her own, rippling with gooseflesh.
“Okay. You can see I don’t have a gun or a club, and I can see you’re not Bigfoot trying to get me into the sack,” Mary said, trying to calm herself as much as the girl. “Let me figure out what’s going on here. What’s your name? Why are you in my dream?”
“That wind so cold.” The girl spoke in a slow, singsong accent, not moving away from Mary. “So cold.”
The tent shuddered, the wires anchoring it to the ground thrumming in the frigid gust. Mary tried to make a mental note to ask Mia what the deal was with this crazy weather that intruded into a dream. Her notes didn’t always survive waking up in the morning.
“But why are you out here?” Mary said. “Where did you come from?”
“Been sleeping in them pines. Got nowhere else I can go.”
“Let’s try again. Why are you in this dream? In this tent? I have no idea who you are.”
The girl finally drew back enough for Mary to see her face. She wasn’t quite as young as Mary thought, maybe twenty years old but as small as a child. Her wide eyes looked solid black in the flashlight’s beam.
“Ain’t been nothing warm out here for long as I can remember. Can’t remember my name either. Been lookin’ for my husband so long, never spoke to a living soul until you. Railroad man, name of…”
She froze, staring over Mary’s shoulder, trembling harder by the second. Mary had just about decided it was worth the risk to turn and see what kind of monster her sleep-addled brain had come up with when the girl moaned again. She put her head down and wrapped her arms around Mary, squeezing tight.
“Train coming,” the girl said, her voice urgent but getting lower and softer. “Longest train you ever saw. Devil driving that train, took my husband away with him. Been trying hard to take me but I hide.”
Mary opened her mouth to ask what she was really hiding from when she heard a strange, ringing noise, gradually rising until it was louder than the wind. She’d heard that metallic hum many times, but she couldn’t possibly be hearing it on this mountain.
The singing of the rails, the distant sound of a fast train getting closer.
“There’s no train.” Mary pulled her jacket over the girl’s painfully thin shoulders and arms. Her eyes had adjusted well enough to see the girl only wore a dirty cotton shift, stained brown and green. “Those tracks are long gone, I promise. The last train ran decades ago.”
“Where that sound come from then?” The girl’s whisper was high pitched and breathy, making her sound like the terrified child she appeared to be. “And that awful cold wind?”
The tent shuddered, and Mary felt the bottom lift off the ground enough for the frigid air to pass underneath. She couldn’t imagine how the anchors could hold much longer, unless they were made of steel cables in this dream world.
The eerie notes of the rails were drowned out by the screech of metal as the train got closer, then the noise rose to ear-splitting levels when the brakes engaged. The girl squeezed hard enough to take Mary’s breath, and her shriek was louder than the train’s.
The sharp hiss of steam right outside the tent walls brought a scream to Mary’s throat at last.
George Evans held one of his boyhood books, pretending to read. He ran his fingertips over the rough cloth cover of Treasure Island, watching his grandfather stare at the television. Decades of squinting and suntans marked Adam Evans’s pale face with deep lines, the thick light brown hair of his youth reduced to a delicate gray cloud around the back of his skull.
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