The Ghost Trolley: A Tale for Children and Their Adults, Chapters 5, 6 and 7
By Christopher Bernard
Chapter 5. One Eye
The two children crept up to a fallen tree just a stone’s throw from a gate where the Korgans had entered. Soldiers were beginning to come and go, carrying burdens of various kinds, nondescript bags and crates, some of them weapons – what looked to Petey like spears and rifles combined in some weird way – and a few civilians, maybe working for the military, on early morning errands and chores outside the camp. A burly guard kept watch, eyeing his fellow soldiers with deep suspicion as if expecting at any moment to find a spy.
The Korgan with the muddy boots had glanced back as he entered the gate with a salute to the guard, who stiffened to attention – Petey noticed muddy boots had only one eye. The other was covered with a patch.
Sharlotta whispered, “We got to get into camp somehow—”
A strange, cruel shriek interrupted her. Under a tree nearby a trio of scruffy-looking Korgan kids—a few years younger than they were—were playing, to the two children’s horror, a cruel game of toss-the-kitty. The kitten mewed frantically, its little tail spinning as it flew as the little Korgans tossed it back and forth with yips and shrieks of a mean pleasure. A large tabby sat crouched in the grass, its tail fluffed, its mouth open and clicking ominously, its eyes watching the kitten being tossed back and forth with a look of fascinated hopelessness.
“So terrible!” whispered Sharlotta.
Petey scowled under his watch cap. He always hated seeing helpless creatures being tormented.
A moment later Sharlotta said, “Where you go?”
“Just a sec.” Petey slipped away into the brush.
A few minutes later a stone came flying out at the Korgans. Then a second. Then a third.
“Paonas!” shrieked one of the little Korgans.
The kitten fell onto a soft patch of grass and the three kids ran off, disappearing through the gate. The guard ignored them as he peered hard at a passing soldier hunched under a box of projectiles. “Ain’t you seen me a thousand times, Harree? Watcha staring a’ mee loik ya’ thought me were a Paonee?”
“Maybe ya’ bee, Jorok!” snarled the guard. “Ya wouldna bee the feerst t’ve turned tween dawn ’n’ noon on a visit outer the gates.”
The guard’s brief distraction did not go unnoticed: Petey ran from the brush, swept up the frightened kitten, and ran back with it to Sharlotta.
“Mew!” went the kitty. “Mew!’
“Poor thing!” Sharlotta whispered, cuddling it against her cheek. “You safe now.”
But the kitten didn’t look too sure of that.
After a moment, the large tabby emerged from a bush and sat nearby, staring at them suspiciously.
“Must be the mom,” said Petey. Sharlotta placed the kitten carefully near the tabby, who hissed instinctively at the young Creel, then sniffed at the kitten, bit it by the scruff of the neck and carried it swiftly into the brush.
“Now all we must do be to get into camp,” said Sharlotta.
“And follow One Eye.”
Suddenly they looked at each other. They had gotten the same idea.
“We have to dress like Korgan children,” said Petey.
It was a little trickier than that, of course: they would have to disguise themselves until they convincingly looked like Korgan children.
“Well,” said Petey, in a subdued voice, “their hair is dark, and really long . . .” His own hair was bright orange and very short.
“And dirty! And full of snarls!” Sharlotta’s voice was filled with disgust. “And clothes of them be all muddy, and they look they have not had bath in one month!”
Petey looked solemn: he did not exactly enjoy taking baths himself, and in fact had skipped one last night, so he could get up early (anyway, that had been his excuse). He hoped Sharlotta hadn’t noticed.
“But that means,” he said, “that if we get all dirty, and rough up our clothes and hair, they might not notice we’re not Korgans. After all, adults never really look too closely at children who aren’t their own.”
“Yes,” Sharlotta said thoughtfully, “I notice that.”
“And if they do look, and think we don’t look quite right,” Petey said, brightly, “they’ll just blame their parents!”
So, not having a better idea, and needing to get into the camp as soon as possible so they could follow One Eye, they set about roughing up their hair and clothes and smearing mud on their faces and hands, and making themselves look generally scruffy and grungy and beat-up and dirty. Petey had to apply a lot of mud makeup to the hair at the edge of his cap: it took a lot of dirt to hide the orange, even when he pulled the cap down to his ears.
“There be one good thing,” Sharlotta said cheerfully. “I can wear my jacket right side out now.”
Now the smears of ash stains looked just right for a scruffy Korgan girl.
“How I look?” asked Sharlotta after they were done.
Petey looked her over doubtfully.
“Your hair looks too pretty.”
“And your head look too ugly! You never have to comb long hair full of snarls!”
“And it’s way too clean . . .”
Petey, without further ado, filled both hands with mud and splattered it over Sharlotta’s hair, at the same time grabbing and violently matting it.
“What you doing! Stop that! Right now!”
They started wrestling and fell in the mud.
“What’s goin’ on over there?” a Korgan voice rang out.
A shadow fell over them and they stopped, suddenly terrified.
Petey glanced up and saw, against the sun, the guard with his lance staring down at them.
“Quit fightin’ and get back into camp. There be Paonas around here, and they eat little-uns like you for breakfast. Go home!”
The children, covered with mud and with their tangled, dirty hair in their faces, were too frightened to say a word, so they stood up and scampered through the open gate into the camp.
Chapter 6. The Camp of the Korgans
The children were faced with a spaghetti of dirt lanes and passages through which a strange assortment of ox and donkey carts and curious-looking tanks, with long snaking treads, snout-like guns, and tall, needle-like turrets, and fat, tubby armored cars and troops of Korgans moved, mostly armed soldiers, some marching in platoons as their sergeants barked orders, some on the backs of horse-like creatures, or on patrol, some bustling about on unknown errands, some sitting in front of their tents, cleaning their weapons and trading jests.
Among the crowds were more civilians, women and children and a few old men and women, but all of the Korgans looked curiously fierce, whether because of the styles of the clothes they wore, or their habit of expression, or just how they were born; they all looked angry about some unknown grievance, and Petey quickly decided he had better put on his “angry face” if he hoped to fit in—even though he didn’t feel especially angry, just excited and a little scared—and looking scared he realized would definitely not do.
The camp was as big as a small town constructed entirely of tents and cabins, huts and sheds, arm depots, bivouacs, lookout towers and long, ramshackle barracks above which flagpoles rose and the Korgan flag flapped loosely in the morning air—a black flag with a pair of lightning bolts crossed in a crimson circle.
The children had no time to investigate their surroundings and didn’t want to stand out by gawking, so they scampered down several lanes till they found an unused tent in a vacant corner and crouched behind it. They had been right: no one had paid any heed to them; they were just a pair of urchins playing in the street.
One curious thing that Petey noticed about the Korgans: though the hair of some of them was brighter and shinier than that of others (they ran from sandy to streaked, from dark to dirty to platinum, and some were even like what Petey’s mother referred to contemptuously as “peroxide”), they were all, every single one of them, blond.
“You know what?” Petey suddenly grinned. He felt quite exhilarated.
“That was fun!”
Boy, Sharlotta looked funny, with her hair all mussed and full of mud! But maybe he should keep the thought to himself. Girls could react weirdly to teasing—not like boys, who would just push you and tease you back, then forget about it.
Petey was also going to tell her about making sure she put on her angry face, like the Korgans, but she looked angry enough on her own, now they were in the camp, so maybe she didn’t need to be told.
Sharlotta looked askance at Petey.
“There must be special place where they keep prisoners,” she said in a whisper.
“I’ll bet he’ll take us to it if we can find One Eye,” said the boy. “He was talking about having to interrogate your family.”
“That was the other one. But no matter.”
“It was One Eye.”
“It was the other one!”
“No, it was One Eye! And anyway, we only know what he looks like.”
Sharlotta was silent, with dignity.
“All right, Know-It-All, and how do we find him?”
Petey stared down at the dirt between his knees where he was crouching.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” said Sharlotta. “They won’t come to us. How do I look?”
“I’m sure. You look terrible!”
“Good,” Sharlotta said stiffly,
“How about me?”
“Well, you look awful!”
“Of course I be sure!”
“Really truly awful?’
“Really truly awful!”
Petey rather liked the idea of looking awful but decided not to press his luck by asking a third time.
He paused and took a breath.
“Are you ready?”
“No. But that not matter, yes?”
They both took a breath, and went out into the camp.
There was a feeling of tension in the air. Korgans on duty seemed especially busy, rushed, and even off-duty Korgans looked tense; a truck bristling with armed soldiers careened through the street past the two children, the soldiers shouting for pedestrians to get out of the way.
Many of the soldiers had covered their faces with red and black war paint, and their solid, hard bodies made the ground rumble as they marched past on the double.
Soldiers walking the streets greeted each other with sharp, animal-like cries.
Some of the Korgans looked at the two children a little too closely, a cold gleam in their eyes. Petey was especially worried Sharlotta didn’t look quite “terrible” enough. Maybe she was one of those girls who, no matter what they did to themselves, always looked nice. He should have put more mud in her hair.
He was going to tell her to cover her face with her bangs when a Korgan suddenly stopped them.
“Hey, girlie!” he said, grinning at Sharlotta and pulling her hair away from her face. “Anybody tell you you cute as a Paona? Bet you get that from fellas all the time!”
Sharlotta stared furiously at him.
“And you,” she shouted, “look just like a Korgan!”
The Korgan hooted, laughing, as the children scampered off.
Sharlotta pulled her hair over her face until only one eye peered out as if through a parted curtain, without her companion having to advise it.
They huddled behind a pile of junked weapons, watching the passing parade. Drums thundered, trumpets rang out, and cries of “Ramora, Ramora!” and “Death to Steed!” echoed through the camp as a war party gathered in a parade ground in front of them.
Then, from a broad space between two low barracks, a solemn procession emerged and moved toward them.
Chapter 7. Bang Bang and Blue Moon
Columns of armed soldiers in black uniforms and helmets, with the strange crossbow machine guns across their chests, marched in precise and mechanical order, their simultaneous tread shaking the ground. Behind the soldiers moved a platform, like the floats Petey had seen in parades at home, but draped in red and black, on which stood a Korgan, in a commanding pose and wearing scarlet robes and a black cone-shaped hat, like a wizard at a Halloween party, that Petey would have laughed at any other time. He looked to the young boy like a priest and held a staff shaped like a young dead tree, its branches writhing in profile against the sky. Behind him rose a monumental figure of crossed lighting, like the figure in the banners, but all of gold. The priest’s face was covered with red streaks like war paint. And kneeling in front of him, two acolytes held up an open book as he made elaborate gestures with his small, gloved hands and chanted in an incomprehensible tongue.
The platform, a kind of large moving altar, was being pulled by a mass of tall, delicate-looking creatures, with pointed ears and elven features, and patches of fur on their cheeks and arms, their heads and faces, and they dragged the platform with long ropes tied around their shoulders and waists. They seemed vaguely familiar to Petey. Two Korgans with whips “encouraged” them, with shouts and lashes, to keep moving in time with the marching soldiers.
Suddenly the boy realized where he had seen them before, or creatures like them. They were like the monkeys he had seen when the yellow trolley had first entered the forest in Otherwise.
“That must be Altar of Ramora,” Sharlotta whispered. “I hear of it but never see it before. And those are Paona. Prisoners that have been turned into slaves.”
Petey realized something else that was strange and unsettling: if the Paonas were like monkeys, then the Korgans were like people . . .
Behind the altar a choir of Korgans in black robes solemnly marched, singing a hymn to the rhythm of the marching soldiers—but it was like no hymn Petey had never heard in any church he knew.
It was a series of blood-curdling cries and swooping yells, with fists raised to heaven, to discordant blasts of trumpets and drums.
Behind the angry choristers came a crowd of Korgan women, looking cowed and fearful, their hands clasped before them and their heads bowed. And behind the women scampered a rag-tag gang of Korgan children, whooping and shrieking.
Sharlotta and Petey watched as the procession passed. Then a couple of the Korgan children following the women ran up to them. One of them picked up a pistol from the pile of junked weapons and started waving it.
“Bang, bang, Paona!” he shouted at Petey. “You dead!”
“I’m not a Paona!” Petey shouted back, immediately regretting it. Being silent would probably have been wiser just now; this was not the first time that thought had occurred to him, invariably a fraction of a second too late.
“Yes you be!”
Petey glared back at the boy.
“You new here?” the girl Korgan asked Sharlotta, in a deep, froggy voice.
“Yes,” Sharlotta said, carefully lowering her voice and trying to imitate the frogginess of the other’s voice.
The boy aimed his pistol at Petey.
“Bang, bang! You dead!”
“Where you from?” asked the girl Korgan.
“Over there.” Sharlotta pointed vaguely toward the east.
“The land of the blue moon?” the girl said, sounding skeptical. And the blue moon was indeed already drooping in that part of the sky.
“I said you dead! Now fall down!”
Petey glared even harder at the boy. He would not fall down just because he was ordered to.
“I always wanted to go to the land of the blue moon,” said the girl.
“You fall down! You dead! I just kill you!”
“Maybe I can come and visit you?” she asked politely.
“If you want,” said Sharlotta in her froggiest voice.
“No, you fall dead!” said Petey, who pulled a pistol out from the pile and started waving it at the boy.
There was the sound of an explosion. All of the children stared in alarm at the Korgan boy: his pistol had gone off, the bullet just missing Petey’s head.
The hair on the Korgan boy’s head rose like the fur on a frightened cat, and he threw down the pistol and ran off, followed by the girl, after a shrug and a shy glance back at Sharlotta. “Boys!” she cried out as she ran off.
Petey dropped the pistol and the two of them ran behind the pile as a massive Korgan soldier picked up the fallen gun and tossed it onto the pile.
It was One Eye.
“You!” he shouted.
Petey felt a hand grab his shoulder and lift him bodily from the ground.
This is it, thought Petey. I’ll never get home alive.
“Many times you have been told never to play around weapon dumps.” The Korgan spoke in a calm, measured voice, like a more brutal version of Petey’s dad’s. “How often must we tell you? You might kill someone. You might kill each other. You might kill me.”
One Eye gave Petey a single hard fierce shake that made the boy’s teeth rattle in his head (unlike his dad, who rarely did more than give him lectures and send him to bed without his smartphone), then opened his hand and let him drop to the ground.
“Now go home. And take your girl friend with you.” One Eye looked at Sharlotta, whom he had not even bothered to chastise—she wasn’t sure which insulted her more, this, his calling her Petey’s “girl friend” or his general attitude of condescension and contempt. She was about to give him a piece of her mind when Petey—seeing her turn red and open her mouth—pulled her away, and they ran off, as ordered. Sharlotta glared back, with fury in her eye, and caught One Eye staring after them strangely, with his single crimson eye, as though he had noticed something that did not seem quite right. Then Sharlotta noticed that Petey had a tear in his cap, and a patch of his hair was exposed, like the bright skin of an orange.
They ran behind a horse cart and stopped.
“Some of your hair be showing through a tear in your cap,” said Sharlotta.
“Oh!” said Petey. Unfortunately, there was no mud where they were, but there was some dust, which he applied vigorously. “How does that look?”
“A little to left—no, to right—no, to left—no—yes—here, let me . . .”
And Sharlotta applied her hands to his head as Petey scowled.
“There,” she said, “that better, anyway. What be your parents thinking when they give you orange hair?”
But Petey had no time for another tedious debate on that subject.
One Eye was walking away after commanding a guard to keep watch over the weapons pile. Petey pulled the young Creel to the other side of the cart as One Eye disappeared into a warren of lanes among a chaos of tents, then they followed, at safe distance, after him.
One thing made it easy for them: the black strip of his eye patch stuck out against his dirty yellow hair, even in a crowd of Korgan backs, so they didn’t have to follow too closely. Sharlotta was worried he had seen through their disguise, but knew there wasn’t much they could do about it. As long as they didn’t bump into their new Korgan “friends,” Blue Moon and Bang Bang.
They threaded slowly through the colorful encampment, passing whole mini-villages where tangles of Korgan families lived, with smells of cooking by the small Korgan women wafting across them (and making both of them hungry, as Petey hadn’t had much breakfast, and Sharlotta hadn’t eaten since before the raid on her home the night before)—smells of baking bread and soup and coffee—with long lines of washing hanging out to dry, showing the array of Korgan fashions for men and women, girls and boys, and even their undergarments waving like banners in the breeze (Petey was left wondering at some of those, they were so peculiarly shaped, whereas Sharlotta delicately pretended not to notice)—but all the time keeping One Eye in sight, losing him only once, when he turned into a weirdly constructed little hut with a chimney three stories tall and didn’t come out for ten minutes, and they thought they had lost him for good; then he came out, adjusted his belt and continued on. Petey turned to the young girl and grinned. “A Korgan outhouse!”
At last One Eye turned into what looked like a litter dump in a distant corner of the camp where skinny, famished pariah dogs lurked, biting and snarling at each other over snatches of left-over garbage. He approached a forbidding-looking tent, black and low. Two guards at the entrance saluted him sharply, and One Eye saluted cursorily back and disappeared inside.
The sun stood, brilliant and hot, at the peak of the green sky.
Then a light wind began blowing.