The Ghost Trolley
By Christopher Bernard
Chapter 1. A Town and a Boy
The town was called Halloway. More than a century ago it was a fishing village, and the fishermen went out each morning for cod and menhaden and lobsters and the streets were full of shrieking children and the sour smells of the harbor. There were mysteries about its past: rumors about an eccentric old woman being burned alive in the town during the Salem witch trials. Another rumor had it that, a generation later, after he was killed in an ambush by the Puritans, the head of a rebellious Indian chieftain was stuck on a pole outside the town’s palisade and left there as a warning for any other ambitious young natives.
A pleasanter rumor was that Halloway had been the last stop on the underground railroad for slaves trying to escape to Canada before the Civil War. But like the other rumors, there was no certain evidence to prove it one way or the other.
Then the fishing failed and the town fell on hard times. Many businesses closed, much of the younger generation moved out, and the town gradually shrank into itself, like an old man. Over several decades the small harbor silted up.
Then the war struck. Even this remote place was traumatized with the country at large for four long years, tragic telegrams coming even to this small community, until, like a gigantic Roman candle, the war burned out. Once it was over, young couples living in the big cities were eager to forget the war’s privations, and, like many another quaint seaside place, the town was discovered and for a time became a fashionable resort for the summer, with a trolley service and new streets planned and sewer lines and new telephone posts riding out far into the surrounding countryside like threads from an enterprising spider’s web.
But those times were ever a roller-coaster ride: the state was hit by another economic slump, the summer trade petered out, and the town was once again forgotten; two motels shut down, unfinished houses crumbled away with no one to occupy them, and to top it off, the local pastor murdered his wife and ran away with the church funds. The new roads ended in the middle of the surrounding woods, and the sewer lines stayed empty and waterless, hollow and echoey to the young local boys who stuck in their heads to explore their mysterious, fusty darkness.
It had finally been almost forgotten when elderly New Englanders discovered the little forgotten town near the sea, filled with untouched architecture going back half a dozen generations: a sweet little place, they thought, to retire to (the darker historical rumors were effectively suppressed by the local chamber of commerce). One of the retirees, a mailman from Burlington, Vermont, posted on the internet photographs of the town in its autumn splendor, though locals knew the deepest beauty in the region always came in the depths of winter, when the sun was disappearing like molten bronze through the stark, leafless woodlands.
A computer worker in far away California saw the photographs and promised himself to visit the lovely town next time he was back east. And when he did, he found himself not only in a pocket of natural loveliness, but also in an oasis in time, where people kept up old “analog” traditions on the verge of vanishing from the rest of the twenty-first century—scrimshaw, sampler weaving, knitting bees, building matchstick sailboats inside old whisky bottles, writing the entire U.S. Constitution on a kernel of dry yellow corn . . .
And, since he could work offsite wherever he wanted to, he decided to stay. And started posting his own pictures.
His friends in high tech soon learned how happy he seemed to be, and how perfect the peace and quiet, far away from the rat race of commuting, bad traffic and punishingly high housing costs where they were trying, with mixed success, to make a living. And, naturally, they grew envious . . . So, over the next few years, late into the night, the dark streets became increasingly lit by prim New England house windows behind which diligent techies worked, coding, testing, recoding, retesting, sending ghostly communications all over the world from this place which could be anywhere and so, in a sense, was nowhere.
Halloway had an Episcopal church with a white spire pointing heavenward and a small library with statues of John and Abigail Adams out front. Regularly you could hear, in the distance, the clang-clang of one of the trolleys from the service built long ago during the resort’s glory days.
Hickories, oaks, sycamores lined the streets, and deer were often found standing in the early morning on the front lawns, sniffing the dawn air as if listening to a far off call.
One day a young computer game programmer and his wife (who sold fashions on the internet and had a passion for Russian writers) moved to the curious old New England town.
As techies, neither was tethered to an office, so they had taken a deep breath and decided to move away from the “tent city of billionaires” (as the young woman called San Francisco, where they had been sharing an apartment with six other techies for an egregiously high rent—and where “never in the next millennium” would they ever be able to buy a home). But where to go? Then they had seen the idyllic little New England town and its many pictures on Instagram.
It offered an ideal combination of rustic seclusion and the stimulation and conveniences of the digital age—Netflix, Amazon, Skype chats! They would be able to live and work there comfortably while paying off their astronomical student loans. And it appealed to the earnest romantics in them.
A year after they moved to Halloway, they had a child. They named him Peter Myshkin Stephenson, after the hero of a famous Russian novel.
He was a curious little boy—in both senses of the term (as his great Aunt Marguerite noted on one of her visits from the city a hundred miles to the south): an “odd creecher,” full of wonder at this peculiar planet he had fallen to as if from outer space, full of doubt at people’s glib responses to his questions about why things were done the curious way they were in this world, full of objections to many things that seemed to strike many people as reasonable but struck him as ridiculous, and full of what he considered stupendously great ideas, a number of which, rather notoriously, backfired, such as his invention of a self-administering bathtub for their cat Max, or the self-propelling slingshot that turned rather too quickly into a boomerang and almost knocked the inventor’s eye out, or his revenge on Chace Fusillade, the son of their wealthy neighbor, for Chace’s burning of Petey’s homework assignment about Paul Revere, which paradoxically made Chace one of Petey’s best friends but made their parents enemies for life.
“Is Peter a complete idiot? The boy is impossible!” his mother lamented to his father, adding accusingly, “And where did he get that orange hair? We’re all blond in our family!”
The father—a quick, irritable man with a beard as thick as a hedgerow, and who looked older than his years and often acted younger—would roll his eyes and twist his mouth and say nothing, or smirk to himself, which made his witty, willowy wife hopping mad when she caught him. (His attitude was, what was the point in even trying to answer questions like that? There was no conceivable app!)
But the mother could never leave unanswerable questions alone. And soon they would be in the middle of one of their rows, which were becoming harsher over the years, as they blamed each other for their unhappiness in the old town far from the world they had tried to escape but had brought with them like an invisible monkey on their back: they had expected too much from Halloway, and Halloway, through perhaps no fault of its own, had let them down.
The Stephensons, it seems, still believed in happiness, and they blamed each other for not finding it.
Petey, alone in his room, exploring something in his home-made lab—the wing of a late summer moth, a crystal of purple mineral he had found in the garden, the mysterious result of mixing unknown chemicals in his little glass retort—would overhear these exchanges, which would build in intensity until the whole house seemed to shake with their fury – even when that fury was silent – and then, feeling frightened and ashamed, the young boy would sneak to a distant corner of the house where he didn’t have to know what was happening.
This place was often the bathroom, and he would look at himself, with alarm and scorn, in the mirror. What he saw was a moonlike, pudgy face, with two questioning eyebrows above blinky eyes and a pug nose covered with freckles and a small chin and two large, shapeless ears.
Was he stupid? Was he ugly?
The mirror stared back at him silently. “Well, what do you think?” it seemed to ask.
So: was it maybe true that it was entirely his fault that his parents were fighting like two mad dogs?
Maybe he really was an idiot. They valued above all things cleverness, good grades, cunning. His father made a big deal about outsmarting his rivals in the company, and both parents loved to play verbal one-upmanship games, sparring over dinner until his father, who was always a little behind his mother in the quick, blunt verbal rejoinders department, grew red in the face.
Petey’s grades in school were not bad. But then everybody’s grades were not bad. Even a true, genuine dope (everybody agreed on this one) like Charley Dunkin didn’t get really bad grades—just not bad enough.
On the other hand, if Petey truly were an idiot, how would he possibly even know it? This was a conundrum that gave him much food for thought, until his brain ached.
And then there was the other question: why was his face so round? Neither his mother nor his father had a round face. Even his grandparents had high cheekbones and long faces, like horses.
And where had his orange hair come from? He used to be quite proud of it, it was unique, no one else he knew had orange hair—but now he hated it.
And he hated himself. The mirror didn’t lie: he was fat, and he was ugly, and he was stupid . . .
He had been a mistake. He was sure of it. (The other day he had overheard Kelly in homeroom whispering to Melissa that Gretchen had been a mistake. No wonder nobody liked Gretchen, Kelly had whispered! Even her parents had never wanted her!)
The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became. It explained everything. Why had he been born so soon after they arrived in Halloway? Had they perhaps moved here so they could hide him from their families, so they would never even know he existed? He had never even seen his grandparents, except on Skype, and he sometimes darkly suspected they were in fact CGI . . .
He grew quieter around the house, and started saving his pestering questions for his teachers at school, and his reveries for the privacy of his room at the end of the corridor off the dining room, where he had a bed and a desk and a bookcase and his stuffed toys (Andy, Lionel, Monkey, and Lucile) and his telescope and chemistry set and his laptop and his charger, and a window that overlooked the backyard with the swing set and a great casement of sky speckled and sandy with stars on a cloudless winter night for as far as the eye could see (like last night, after the snow stopped and the moon rose like a face brooding over a stark, white world), and a door he could shut, turning his room into a place where he could dream up entire universes, inventing any possibility, worlds on worlds upon worlds, far from all perplexities and shame . . .
Chapter 2. To Otherwise
The trolley turned the corner, clanking through the freezing predawn, and, with its single headlight blinding bright, glaring like the head in the raised hand of the headless horseman, directed straight out of the fog toward Petey where he had been waiting, alone and half-frozen, under the old flickering streetlight.
It was a brand new trolley he had never seen before, shiny as if it had just been washed, which was of course impossible in this cold, or it would have been covered with a film of ice, and with a new route number and destination Petey had never seen before displayed above the windshield.
The bell clanged twice. The trolley squealed and groaned on the rails gleaming with ice and snow melt. There was no other traffic on the street and the night was pitch dark just before dawn.
The new trolley was painted bright yellow, and the new route number and destination appeared above the windshield in glowing capitals: “2 OTHERWISE.”
Petey had never heard of any place with the weird name of “Otherwise” – huh! It must be out near the ocean, or far in the other direction, where the old unfinished roads died out and the woods began. Someday, he would go to the end of the line and find out. But there was no time to do anything like exploring right now.
He hugged himself, his breath steaming in a shapeless white cloud in front of his face, and frowned ruefully. He has been waiting here for almost half an hour. Why was it so late? He mustn’t be late for school – not today!
The front, like that of most of the trolleys, looked very much like a face that was trying to hide a joke and doing a poor job of it.
Petey jumped in and clambered up the steps as soon as the trolley stopped. He asked the driver, who he could barely see where he sat in the dark cabin, whether this trolley went past his school.
“Yes, young man,” said the driver’s voice. “It does.”
Not entirely convinced, Petey slipped a school token into the coin box, trudged to a seat near the back and sat himself down.
There was no one on the trolley he knew, so he sat by himself and stared glumly out the window.
He had been late too often recently, so much that he’d been threatened with suspension if it ever happened again.
It was unfair; it wasn’t as though he was lazy. He’d had good reasons for being late. Once it had been because his mother had overslept after a particularly nasty late night quarrel with his father. Another time it had been because he’d had to make his own breakfast and prepare his own lunch. And the last time it had been because the cat had run away after the failed bathing invention and he’d gone looking for it. They never did find Max. He never came home again.
Now school was threatening him with suspension. He’d been suspended once, for breaking the principal’s window with a paintball gun while playing with Chace Fusillade. It had been an accident, he hadn’t meant it. But his father had beaten his bottom with a broken surge protector when he got home that night, shouting at him to “apologize! Apologize! Otherwise I’ll . . . !” And maybe for that very reason, he had clammed up.
When he was grown up, he sometimes thought, he would run away. Then they’d see. . . .
He listened to the trolley as it moved over the rails, seeming to say, in endless repetition, “Apo-lo-gize, apo-lo-gize, apo-lo-gize, oth-er-wise . . . ” and stared sleepily up at the winter sky.
It was a blue so dark it was almost black above the snowy ground, with the stars going out one after another like distant candles in a huge cathedral (he had been inside a cathedral once, in New York City), and there was a pasty pallor just above the horizon where the sun would soon be rising, and he felt his eyelids grow heavier and heavier as the trolley clanked in a lulling rhythm on the tracks. The sky just before dawn always seemed to be beckoning . . . “Must-not-be-late-for-school, must-not-be-late-for-school,” the tracks seemed now to be saying, over and over, “must-not-be-. . .” He felt his eyes becoming heavier and heavier. Whatever he did . . . he must not . . . miss . . . his school . . . stop. . . .
Soon he was fast asleep.
“Otherwise!” the trolley driver suddenly called out. “Last stop!”
Petey started awake—Oh no!—and rushed to the open door.
If he got out now, how long would it take him to get the next trolley back?
On the other hand, if he just stayed on this trolley, it would have to go back eventually – wouldn’t it?
He looked around him. There was nobody in the trolley car but himself and the driver.
Suddenly the door closed.
Overcome with despair, the boy returned and plopped back down in his seat and stared into the blackness outside, imagining the principal’s face twisted in wrath as she suspended him and the reaction of his angry and “disappointed” (that awful word saved for only the most unforgivable humiliations) parents.
After a small torturous eternity that was in fact only ten minutes as the driver took his break, the trolley jolted awake and started moving again.
But something strange happened: instead of turning around, it continued going straight ahead.
The boy felt a little spike of panic, craning his neck toward the driver, though all he could see was the tall back of the seat inside the little cabin, and a jacket swinging from side to side on a hook near the front door. Then he turned back to the window and the darkness outside. He would never make it to school on time.
Then something happened to him. Oddly, now that there was nothing whatever he could do about being late for school (the sound of the trolley’s wheels on the track seemed to say, over and over again, “nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do about it”), the despair collapsed over him like a great wave and almost immediately washed away, leaving behind it the strangest tingling feeling – a curious combination of helplessness and a feeling of resignation, a sense of irresponsibility, and a peculiar feeling that he recognized, after a moment, was—yes!—relief.
He even felt a little thrill.
What would happen next?
Where were they going?
What would he find there, in this place with the strange name “Otherwise”?
And the yellow trolley carried him ahead into the darkness.