The Ghost Trolley: A Tale for Children and Their Adults
By Christopher Bernard
Chapters 14 and 15
Chapter 14. Conflagration
The fire had spread like an angry flood while they were trapped in the shed. It was now a tempest of flames, the sky above it darkening into a forest-green twilight. The guards had escaped. A gale of scorching wind tore through the camp, picking the children up and pushing them over the ground as though they were no more than rag dolls. Flames shot above them high as church spires. The fire was like a living thing grabbing, devouring, crushing as it marched through the camp, stepping from tent to shack to barrack. This part of the camp was like a city under siege. The smoke billowed into a towering black cloud that turned half the sky into night.
They stopped and stared at the fire in awe. The intensity of the heat was turning their faces red. Then, seeing a break between two arms of the fire, they made a dash for it, Sharlotta grabbing Beely and little Johja by the hand.
Little Johja stumbled and fell and Sharlotta and the others had to stop.
“Where Mummy?” shouted little Johja.. “I want Mummy!”
“Crying stop!” Sharlotta shouted back.
But it wasn’t little Johja who was crying. It was Sharlotta, the tears falling uncontrollably down her face. Her sister had only said what she, too, was bursting with inside. And the enormity of the fire made the unthinkable possible.
What if their parents were already dead?
But she mustn’t break down now. Now she had to hold on to herself, not let herself go to the emotions going on in full tantrum inside her, or they might never get out of here. She felt as though she were being wrenched in two; she was leaving her childhood behind, it was disappearing down the wells of her little sister’s eyes. “Mommy we find! Promise I! Promise I! But we no can stay here. To where Mommy is, we must go . . .”
Little Johja stopped wailing and stared up at her sister with a look that said it wanted to believe her but wasn’t sure it could. Petey and Beely stood waiting. The younger boy looked like he was waiting to see if Sharlotta had stopped her tears before starting a crying jag of his own. At least that was Petey’s thought.
“We’ll be burned to a crisp if we don’t get going!” he said, truly enough.
Then Sharlotta heard in the distance behind them a small voice crying out.
“Wait! . . . Wait! . . .”
They turned and peered through the smoke blowing in waves between them and the distant shed.
The owner of the voice appeared as abruptly as an apparition out of the smoke.
It was Blue Moon, bruised from her struggle with One Eye and limping on one leg.
“Are you all right?” she demanded, in her froggy voice.
They nodded bedraggledly.
“Whatever happened to . . .?” Petey asked.
Blue Moon shook her head impatiently.
Sharlotta, feeling grateful but confused, wanted to ask the Korgan girl why she had rescued them, but there was no time.
“I know a way out of here,” said Blue Moon. “But you have to follow me. We have to move fast. The fire’s burning the whole camp.”
And she dashed off, limping, without waiting for their response.
The four glanced at one another, but there seemed to be no alternative. Blue Moon was unaware of the need to find and rescue the children’s parents.
“What are you waiting for!” Blue Moon cried out, looking back at them, then hurrying on.
“But we have to . . . !” Sharlotta was beginning to call out to Blue Moon when there was a hollow whoomp! The four looked behind them to see the shed collapse in a fiery ball.
They instinctively dashed after the Korgan girl as she ran down a row of burning tents toward an iron tower they could make out in the distance.
Korgans roamed about, dazed and frightened; too absorbed in fighting an arm of the fire thrusting deep into the camp and destroying a home tent or some part of the Korgan military machine, or just trying to escape, to even notice the fleeing children.
The children passed the charred remains of tents and shacks, overturned carts and trucks, even something that looked like a tank, gutted from the fire and with its gun askew, looking surprised.
Lying abandoned along the roads were dead draft animals – an armadillo-like creature the size of an SUV (Petey thought), and the flattened hippopotamus-like creature with the howitzer on its back, which they had seen before, and a magnificent-looking beast, a sort of camelion, part camel, part lion, probably used for display by generals and kings in parades.
There were swarms of rat-like creatures with two heads, dashing in mobs from commissaries and food depots where they had lived in relative safety, and the children stopped briefly, clinging to each other (except for Blue Moon, who stayed ahead and watched them with impatience) to let them pass, the rats squealing frantically. Every so often, in the distance there was the sound of a massive explosion as another ammunition or fuel dump blew up.
Petey was a little frightened by what his little match had made happen. Though it was helping them escape a fate worse than burning, he promised himself he would never, ever, play with matches, not ever again, no sir, no ma’am, if he ever got out this alive, that is. Not ever! Cross his heart and hope to die if he ever says a lie! Well, ever says a lie again.
Blue Moon pointed toward the iron tower, which they could see through breaks in the blowing smoke.
“I know a way out near there!” she shouted.
“But without our parents we not leave!” Sharlotta finally got out. She had been waiting to say this until she was sure they had an escape route.
“Your parents?” Blue Moon asked in astonishment. “But where are they?”
“They be behind a wall in the trash dump,” Sharlotta’s voice seemed to dip, remorsefully. “Where the fire start.” Then she continued, more assertively, “You remember! With your brother you be there, shouting at me two hours ago! We might be then again captured! Did you see what they do to me father?!”
“He’s not my brother!” Blue Moon said, petulantly. Her tone was immediately apologetic. “I’m sorry we nearly got you captured, that was before I knew it was Orgun Ramora who was after you.” She paused, her eyes veiled with anger. “I would do anything anything to stop him.”
“But we must save me parents,” Sharlotta insisted.
Blue Moon considered for a moment.
“All right, there’s no time to argue,” she said. “I take the others to the tower, and we can all meet there. You have to be careful, because it’s at the edge of the military parade ground, and there are likely to still be lots of soldiers around there. The trash dump is over there.” She gestured toward the east, where a dauntingly high wall of flames loomed, belching smoke across the afternoon sun. “They may not even be alive.”
“Not say that!” Sharlotta shouted.
“I’ll go with you,” Petey said suddenly.
The two girls looked at him, as though only now realizing he was standing there, right next to them.
“Okay,” Sharlotta said.
She gave Blue Moon a doubtful look before kneeling down to Beely and little Johja, who, their faces smeared with a paste of mud and ashes, stared gravely at her.
“I go to get Mummy and Deddy and bring them back here, so you must to go with . . .” She looked up at the girl. “I not know your name. I think of you,” she said, ingenuously, “as Blue Moon.”
Blue Moon looked at Sharlotta a little shyly, she thought.
“My name is Miua. But you can call me Blue Moon if you want.”
“All right.” And Sharlotta turned back to her brother and sister. “Follow Miua . . . Blue Moon . . . to that tower,” pointing toward it, “and to meet you there I bring Mummy and Deddy.”
“Promise you?” demanded Beely, looking at Blue Moon with a deep frown and a suspicious stare.
“Promise I,” Sharlotta said solemnly, crossing her heart in the supreme gesture of honor, more powerful in the nation of childhood than a hand on a Bible in adulthood’s court.
Little Johja put her fingers into her mouth dubiously, but seemed to know there wasn’t much she could do: she had tried bawling once, but it had had no appreciable effect. So maybe silent compliance would make Mummy reappear.
Sharlotta hugged each of them. She might not find their parents, they might be dead, she might not see her siblings again. Fire, she knew, was soulless as the wind, ruthless as a cornered animal, unforgiving as an offended god. She forced her mind to focus on finding her parents and bringing them to the tower and escaping with them all from the camp: nothing else mattered, nothing else existed. Anything after that was a blank.
“Good be. What Auntie Blue Moon say, do.”
“She not my auntie!” protested Beely.
“Argue not! Now go.”
Blue Moon awkwardly took the little ones by the hand (something she had never done before; her hands were more used to being used as fists) and, when the result was not an instant explosion or a lighting bolt from the sky, the three gave each other abashed looks.
“We be going,” said Sharlotta.
“Good luck,” said Blue Moon, in her froggiest voice.
And Sharlotta and Petey started running toward the east; the girl looked back only once, to see Blue Moon, with her little limp, carefully leading Beely and little Johja, who was looking back resignedly at her older sister, toward the skeletal silhouette of the tower.
Chapter 15. The Spell
The two ran straight ahead, then around what looked to Petey like a collapsed clam bar surrounded by shattered oyster shells, then zig-zagged through a series of little baby fires, then all the way around a great burning army barracks, all the time slipping like a thread through the last fearful remnants of Korgans still in that part of the encampment, many wandering aimlessly as if in shock: a young Korgan woman stumbled by, crying out the names of her lost children; an old Korgan man with a mustache hobbled on a cane across their path, trying to decide what direction was safe, tears of bewilderment streaming down his face; a young soldier stalked past in an awkward marching step, clutching his weapon as though it would have any effect against an enemy as ruthless, cunning and pitiless as fire.
Sharlotta felt twinges of pity for the Korgans as she and Petey ran past them. Yes, they had long been her enemies, and had done her people much harm, and they would kill her if they knew who she was, but, after all, they were subject, just as she was, to suffering and joy; they were vulnerable, living creatures – vulnerable (she suddenly realized) because they lived.
But she had no time to consider this just now, so she tucked the thought away in the back of her mind, to brood over once she and her family were safe.
At one point she and Petey met a fork between two lanes; the one on the right narrow and twisting, the one on the left straight and broad. A public clock stood above the fork, still functioning amidst the mayhem. Petey looked up at the clock (he had always been fascinated by clocks of all kinds): its curious face had four hands and was divided into 22 units, rather than the 12 he was used to. Petey peered wonderingly at it, and finally figured out what time it was: 15:73. Which was certainly an odd time for a clock to read.
“Come!” Sharlotta said impatiently. “We no can wait here!”
“But which way should we go?” asked Petey, gaping indecisively between the two paths.
Sharlotta stared at the paths for a moment, then up at the clock, then, despairingly, made a decision and led the way left.
But after a hundred feet of smooth broad lane, it suddenly turned into a warren of dead-ends they were lost in for long minutes before they finally clambered out at the edge of the trash dump. It was barely recognizable, most of it burnt out, charred black and still smoking.
A heavy silence lay across it like a sleeping animal.
Twenty feet away from them, they saw the collapsed wall where they had left Sharlotta’s parents.
The children stopped.
Petey was the first to move. He crept up to the wall and slowly peered around it. He glanced back at Sharlotta with a frightened look in his eyes.
“No!” Sharlotta cried out, running up.
There, huddled up at the base of the wall were two bodies, miraculously untouched by the flames. Sharlotta’s mother lay on top of her father, as though sheltering him from the smoke and fire.
“No!” Sharlotta cried again, kneeling by them, then throwing herself over them. She buried her face in her mother’s shoulder. “She still warm!” She felt for her mother’s pulse, then the pulse of her father, whose eyes were still open, staring up toward the green sky. “They still alive ago few minutes. They just died! They just died!” the young girl yelled hysterically.
“If only we had taken the other path, we might have gotten here before . . . !”
She let out a wail of despair.
Suddenly she stopped. Petey stood near her, staring at her in a kind of reverence at the intensity of her grief. He felt helpless, wanting to help and not knowing how.
She looked up at him. The girl’s tear-stained face held a question in it. And in the question was a hope.
“You see time on the clock?” she asked, in a trembling voice.
“Yes,” said Petey. “It said 15:73.”
“And you see seconds?”
“You can guess?” Her face was pleading.
“Um – how about 15:73 – um – 28?”
“You think you guess how far from here the clock is exactly? I mean, exactly?”
“No,” said Petey, “not exactly.”
“You might guess?” she asked, even more desperately.
Petey was at a loss, then said the first thing that came to mind.
“A hundred sixty-seven feet and three-and-a-half inches!”
“What are ‘feet’ and ‘inches’?” Sharlotta asked.
Petey gaped at her. How was he going to explain that?
“Never mind!” she said, muttering to herself afterward, “Maybe it work.” She turned back to Petey. “And direction exact?”
Exact this, exact that! Is the girl crazy? Petey thought, irrelevantly. Well, all girls are crazy.
He looked behind him with a shrug, in the direction they had come from, and saw the iron tower in the distance. It was as good a guess as any.
“There!” he said, pointing.
“And what you thinking at that moment exact?”
“I was thinking,” Petey said, bewilderedly, “what a strange time the clock read . . .”
“Okay,” said Sharlotta. There was a tone, half of hope, half of despair, in her voice. “Now, that thought think right now.”
She grabbed Petey by the hand, closed her eyes, seemed to think hard, then muttered a long string of words under her breath, opened her eyes again, pointed toward the tower, and shouted, “Shantih otherwise there!”
And a moment later, Sharlotta and Petey were back at the fork between the two lanes, and the clock face above them read 15:73, and the second hand was just passing 28.
“How did you do that?” cried Petey.
“No time! Quick!” And Sharlotta dashed off into the twisting paths to the right, with Petey right behind her.
The paths immediately turned into a labyrinth, and Sharlotta was for a moment certain this had been a mistake, when without warning the maze opened out into a small, shadowy space, and Sharlotta, to her amazement, saw she was standing behind the far end of the collapsed wall: her parents lay, not a dozen feet away from her, in a faint on the ground.
The children ran up to them, Sharlotta grappling her mother and pulling her off her father, and her father started to cough uncontrollably. Sharlotta violently shook her mother, whose head wobbled groggily.
“Mummy!” Sharlotta shouted. “Mummy!”
Her mother moaned, her eyes flickering open. “Sharlotta?”
“You suffocating each other! Just in time we get here. You . . . die! You die!” Sharlotta began crying hysterically.
“Sharlotta, sweetheart. I here, not dead, I . . . be fine . . .”
But all Sharlotta could say was “You die, you die!” as she wept in her mother’s arms. Her mother embraced her, kissing her on the head.
“But where be your father?” her mother asked.
The father had stopped coughing and pulled himself up against the wall.
“All right I be, love,” he said. “Sharlotta, darling, you all right be?”
But Sharlotta could not stop crying.
Crying (Petey suddenly realized) with joy.