The Ghost Trolley: A Tale for Children and Their Adults, by Christopher Bernard: The Conclusion
Chapter 16. The Tower
The tower loomed tantalizingly in the distance, the two children leading the way, the two parents hobbling weakly after. Many of the fires had died away from lack of fuel, and they made their way cautiously through the smoking remains of the camp. The ruins reminded Sharlotta of the wreckage of her home, and a dark wave of hopelessness crossed the young girl like a shadow, but she tried not to think about that now. She tried to keep herself focused on the tower, and on escaping the camp. Today must be rescued for there to be any tomorrow at all. Tomorrow would have to take care of itself. She felt herself growing up, fast and hard.
The smoke around them was slowly dissipating; the main fire had moved elsewhere in the camp, where most of the Korgan soldiers had gone to fight it. Those they passed paid no attention to them; they had far more important things to worry about than a small bedraggled band of escaped, defenseless Paonas or their allies.
Petey tried to get Sharlotta to explain what had happened at the fork, but she told him to be silent about it within earshot of her parents; she would tell him later, after they escaped. Petey, feeling puzzled, acceded to her request. “But don’t forget!” he whispered. “I not forget,” Sharlotta whispered back. “Now stop to talk!”
Sharlotta’s mother glanced at the two as they bickered, and felt herself smiling through her anxiety and exhaustion. She whispered to her husband as she helped him walk. “I think Sharlotta find her hero.”
“The lucky fellow find his, I think,” her husband smiled painfully back.
It was early evening, the sky a deepening green, like lime Jello (thought Petey) or an enormous emerald (thought Sharlotta). The four had almost reached the tower and rested in the shadows, waiting for the others, at the edge of a parade ground behind an overturned cart near a row of the tanks with the tall, narrow turrets.
They had been looking out, for long minutes, unsuccessfully, for Miua and the two little ones. At the far side of the ground a gang of Korgan soldiers were dragging off debris to create a fire break (the fires still seemed far from this end of the camp).
Then the evening camp lights, on an automatic clock, turned on, flooding the shadows. The four found themselves at the dead center of a cone of blinding light.
Simultaneously, as they raised their arms to protect their eyes, they heard the distant shout of a young boy.
“Paonas!” came the cry. “Paonas! Firebugs!”
It was Bang Bang. Petey was the first to see him at the far side of the parade ground.
There was a pause, then: “They killed Orgun Ramora!”
The soldiers, who had ignored Bang Bang at first, looked up.
Bang Bang started running toward the four in a kind of demented fury across the parade ground, then Petey heard an even higher pitched shout coming from the base of the tower less than a hundred feet away. Sharlotta was the first to see Miua Blue Moon, in full battle cry, racing to meet Bang Bang.
“You are a li-arrr!” Miua cried. “I killed Orgun Ramora!” and within moments she had thrown herself upon him, pulling him to the ground, and they rolled through the dirt like two enraged cats.
The four snuck behind the cart, huddling together out of the light as the two young Korgans gave each other no quarter.
The little ones must be near the tower’s base. Sharlotta peered up at the guard’s nest atop the tower. It was empty.
The row of tanks led to a fence near the tower, and, as the two fought, Sharlotta led the rest, dashing, one at a time, with the parents coming last, hobbling slowly. Once at the fence, Petey caught sight of Beely and little Johja hiding behind one of the legs of the tower and gaping at the fight with enthralled fascination.
They all watched as the young Korgans kicked, screamed and clawed at each other under the bright lights. Even the Korgan soldiers had stopped to survey the spectacle. The fight was epic, like a playground brawl to end all playground brawls, as the two rolled and leaped and struck in a whirl of legs and arms, knees and elbows, fingers and teeth, and jabbed and kicked and screeched and pounded, and shouted words at each other so nasty they made even Petey blush.
Sharlotta was worried: if Blue Moon lost the fight, even if Bang Bang didn’t find them, how would they escape?
The fence near the tower was like a wall that, tantalizingly, gave a view of freedom outside without showing any way to reach it. There must be a way through it the Korgan girl knew, but it could be anywhere, and there was no time to find it on their own. The parade ground lights didn’t go as far as the fence, which was already beginning to darken in shadow. The sun was setting, the hour of the stars would soon be upon them, a deep green dusk was beginning to suffuse the sky.
Bang Bang was getting the better of the fight. Blue Moon had more passion, but Bang Bang was taller and stronger and more ruthless. Eventually, thought Sharlotta with dismay, as she watched them slug it out, shouting and yelling in frustration and rage, he must win.
Then Petey sniffed something.
He looked behind him and gasped.
The fire had snuck up to within a dozen feet of them, quiet as a cat. It was beginning to eat its way along the fence. This wouldn’t be any help to them, as the fence was made of iron chain links; where the fence broke, melting in the heat as the flames leapt and gnawed and clawed away at it, the fire stood tauntingly between them and escape. And it was moving swiftly toward them.
The rest were too intent on the fight to notice.
Then, just as Petey was opening his mouth to alert them, he saw it. At first he was certain his eyes were playing tricks on him. His teacher in far away Howtiz (how he longed to be back there now!) had recently been teaching the class about optical illusions, and he thought this must be one of them. A great, vague form seemed to be shaping itself in front of him in the flames – a leaping, dancing, shapeshifting form of white and yellow and the black of the smoke, in fluid stripes, with great green eyes – like a huge tiger made of fire, but continually changing its shape, sometimes vast, sometimes small, sometimes like a lion, sometimes like a gazelle, sometimes like a falcon, sometimes like a bear, but always returning to the shape of a tiger – constantly metamorphosing, like the flames Petey watched during winter nights in the chimneypiece at home. And it seemed to be moving toward them out of the fire.
At first Petey was frightened, and almost cried out. But the tiger of flames seemed to warn him, he didn’t know how, not to say anything, as it advanced silently out of the flames.
Then, as it moved toward Petey a step of its giant, flaming paw, it was gone.
And in its place, moving lightly over the ground, was a tabby cat – a cat that looked just like the one Petey had last seen at the black tent, and that he had first seen when he saved its kitten from being tossed about cavalierly by the Korgan children outside the camp.
She stopped, looked up at Petey, and blinked, then turned and dashed along the fence a dozen yards and slipped out through a crack Petey would never have seen on his own. Then she looked back on the other side of the fence, as if to make sure he had seen.
“Hey!” Petey cried out. “I found it!”
“What found?” whispered Sharlotta. “Quiet be . . . !” Then she noticed for the first time the fire moving steadily toward them. Her parents turned to see it too.
“The way out through the fence!” Petey said, pointing, though of course nobody but he could see it clearly from where they stood. “The cat just showed me!”
“What cat?” asked Sharlotta. “What you talk about?”
“Didn’t you see it?” Petey asked, impatiently. And the words came tumbling out, somewhat incoherently, “It came out of the fire and it was as big as a tiger but it turned into the tabby cat that was inside the black tent whose kitten we saved from the kids who were throwing it around like a beanbag outside of the camp and it’s come back and showed me how to escape through the fence!” And Petey ran over to the fence where the cat had escaped and pulled a strip of it back, revealing a gap just big enough to slip through.
Sharlotta turned to her parents, who had heard and seen all of this, though of course without having any idea what tabby cat Petey was talking about, and certainly not having seen a tiger walk out of the fire, though of course all of them now saw the fire. And the open gap in the fence.
“Get Beely and little Johja!” her mother commanded Sharlotta over the sudden roaring of the flames.
“I’ll go,” Petey volunteered and was off like a shot. He ran, close to the ground, to the leg of the tower, gathered up the little ones, who at first resisted, as they both wanted to see the outcome of the donnybrook that seemed to be reaching its shrieking climax, but he grabbed their hands and, using the magic formula – “I’ll take you to Mommy!” – successfully unriveted them from the fascinating spectacle and dragged the pair over to the fence.
The mother held back the strip and all four children slipped through, then the father insisted on holding the fence for his wife, who gave him a quick smile, then managed to scrootch through himself.
Twilight was beginning to gather, and they scurried across a cleared strip of land to the forest edge.
Sharlotta stopped and started back toward the fence.
“Sharlotta!” her mother said in a loud whisper. “What you be doing?”
“Something there be that I must see.”
Sharlotta went up close to the fence and peered through. She just had time to see Bang Bang brutally stomp on Blue Moon with all his might. Then Bang Bang gave her a parting kick, said something Sharlotta couldn’t hear but must have been terribly insulting, then stalked arrogantly away. Blue Moon lay motionless on the ground.
Sharlotta was stunned. Was Blue Moon – was Miua – dead? This Korgan child who had, for mysterious reasons, saved them, fought her father’s torturer, Orgun Ramora, maybe even killed him – for Paonas! For (Sharlotta suddenly gulped) – for her. Was it a mystery she would never solve?
Then she saw a sign of movement in the young girl on the ground – first her arm, then her head, then she slowly pulled herself up.
“Miua!” Sharlotta whispered as loudly as she could.
Miua Blue Moon looked toward her. Thinking that maybe she could see her, Sharlotta waved.
“Me thanks to you,” Sharlotta whispered softy.
Miua stopped and gazed toward Sharlotta for a long moment. Then (or so it seemed – it was hard to see in the deepening dusk) she raised her hand in a little wave.
Sharlotta couldn’t stay. Her parents were calling her from the woods.
Miua knew they had escaped – that was what mattered now.
Sharlotta ran over the clearing into the forest.
Chapter 17. The Yellow Trolley
They stood at the top of the low rise where they had climbed from the wood above the encampment. The camp spread before them in the deepening twilight, most of it now a vast, smoking ruin, with here and there a few remnants of the conflagration, bursts of yellow and red slowly burning out. In the far distance Petey could see an enormous black smudge across the landscape, but, uncannily, it was moving. And he realized it was crowds of surviving Korgans leaving the camp and moving in a mass toward the mountains.
Sharlotta’s father raised his voice to speak, leaning against his wife. “The Korgans of Ramora be defeated,” he said. “The Paonas of Steed and their friends be safe.” There was a pause before his wife added, quietly, “For now.”
“Now we must go to our home,” the father said. “And build anew.”
“Deddy,” Sharlotta said, hesitantly.
“I know how the fire start . . .”
And she looked slyly at Petey.
“Yes. Petey . . .”
It was at that moment that Petey, who was standing a little way from the reunited family, heard in the distance three faint rings of a bell coming from down the slope away from the camp.
Petey stared into the gloaming. It couldn’t be what he thought it was – but it couldn’t not be either.
“That’s my trolley!” he exclaimed, unbelievingly. “I have to go! I have to get home! Sorry!” He looked pleadingly at the small family, worn and weary after their ordeal. They looked at him sadly, but understandingly. “I can’t stay! I have to go! I have to . . . ”
And with a wave, he set off at a run down the slope toward the sound, stumbling and falling in the dusk only once, then pulling himself up and dashing ahead.
Sharlotta, after only the slightest hesitation – glancing at her mother, who understood what Sharlotta was feeling and gave her a small, encouraging smile – dashed after him, setting her feet with greater care than the headlong boy, with her family following more slowly after.
Just past a wall of brush, shadowy and bristly in the darkness, and a staid row of hickory-like trees, Petey found, to his amazement, a pair of trolley tracks running through a cutting in the forest, and there coming toward him, not a hundred feet off, was a yellow trolley, clanking and squealing, its single headlight like a small surprised, brightly lit face.
Soon Sharlotta was beside him, slightly breathless.
“But I thought it was blowed up!” Petey said.
“There be two yellow trolleys between Howtiz and Otherwise: one that come,” Sharlotta said, “and one that go.”
Above the windshield a row of lit-up block letters read “2 HOWTIZ.”
As the trolley came toward them, Petey remembered something.
“You told me you’d say how you did that at the clock . . .”
Sharlotta looked at him quietly before speaking.
“It be what I hear my father tell my mother the night before the Korgans raid our house,” she said. “If you know exactly where you be, and exactly what time it be, and exactly what you be thinking when you make the important decision, and when you say the right words in the right way to the right person, you maybe go back and make it happen ‘otherwise.’ Maybe!”
“So it was the Spell?” said Petey, though he felt just as confused as before.
Sharlotta said nothing.
The trolley clanked noisily up to them and stopped; the doors opened. Petey stood staring at this strange little girl standing in front of him, with the honey brown eyes and the soft, cocoa-colored skin. She reminded him more than ever of the little African American girl in the other fourth grade class who he had such a crush on. But not maybe anymore . . .
“Here,” Sharlotta said. In her hand was a little key.
“Thank you,” said Petey, not looking at the key. “What is it?”
“It be a key, silly.” And she put it into his hand.
Petey stared at it.
“But what is it a key to?” he asked.
“Are you getting in, young man, or not?” said the driver with a humorous smile. “I can’t wait all day, now.”
Petey got up on the first step and looked back, questioningly.
“What is it to?”
But Sharlotta only stared up at him and slowly and solemnly shook her head.
The doors closed and Petey scampered up and put in his token (hoping it was usable in Otherwise – apparently it was, since it slid into the fare box without causing any alarms to go off) and, still grasping the key, sat down in the seat across from the driver.
As the trolley moved off, Petey stuck his head out the open window and looked back at the receding family, lit faintly by the trolley’s back lights. They were standing beside Sharlotta, who seemed to be talking to them while watching the trolley leave) – her father and mother suddenly looked toward Petey and began waving, as if they only now knew how he had helped save all of them, Beely stared round-eyed, and little Johja watched with a look of wondering amazement, and Sharlotta raised her hand and slowly waved, with a sad smile, reaching higher and higher with each wave, as if she wanted to touch the sky.
The mysterious eyes in a small face watched as the trolley rode off through the twilight. The wings fluttered calmly, and another pair of eyes appeared nearby, then another, then another. There was a sound, like a low, quiet “who? who?” that sounded oddly satisfied, as if they already knew the answer. Then their wings fluttered again, and they rose, one, two, three, more, into the gathering night.
Petey, unaware of any of this, watched and watched until Sharlotta and her family vanished in the darkness of the shadows of the forest as the trolley moved away.
“Are you new here, young man?” the driver abruptly asked him. He was a plump, jolly-looking fellow, a bit like a big frog ensconced on the trolley’s throne. He smiled easily at Petey. On his shirt was embroidered a name: MR. CUTTLEBACK.
“Yes,” Petey replied at last. “I’ve only been here since this morning.”
“So, now you’re going home to Howtiz?”
“Yes,” said Petey, with a sigh.
“Just as well,” said the driver with another chuckle. “Howtiz definitely has its charms. I like to go to Howtiz whenever I need a nice rest. Sometimes just thinking about Otherwise makes me dizzy!”
“What . . .” Petey asked hesitantly, “. . . what really is Otherwise?”
“Ah!” said the driver, with a bit of a frown. “That’s a hard nut. Let me think . . .” And the trolley rattled ahead for a time while the driver seemed lost in thought. “Did you ever wonder what would have happened if you had turned left at the corner rather than right when you were taking a walk that time? You might not have met that bully who always makes your life so miserable! Or if you had said anything but what you said to your mother that morning last week? . . .”
“Yep,” Petey said with a sigh. “I sure have.”
“Well, that’s where Otherwise is.”
Petey gave him a perplexed look. “Huh?” Though he was immediately ashamed of how dopey that sounded.
“It’s the place where all the choices you didn’t make, you do.” Which only made Petey look even more perplexed. “Otherwise is where everything that might have been comes true. If you had done your homework rather than played the latest computer game – and got an A rather than a C on the last test of the year! If you had told the truth rather than spun your mother a fairy tale – and gotten off with a heck of a lighter punishment than you did when she found out what really happened. If the wind had blown all those leaves across Mrs. Simpson’s porch rather than into Mr. Howard’s windshield, startling him and making him drive right into Mrs. Simpson’s living room – however small the difference, a whole world would have resulted that would have been, well, Otherwise. There’s no one Otherwise, there’s lots and lots of them, an infinite number, at least in theory, because more are being created every day, every hour, every moment, with everything that might have happened.”
Petey, startled, looked around him, half expecting to see new worlds spinning out all around him made up of everything he might have done but hadn’t in the last few minutes. What a crazy idea! What a scary idea! What an amazing idea . . . Mr. Cuttleback glanced benevolently at him.
“But not to worry! Howtiz will stay as it always has. Howtiz is the world, Otherwise is the world’s dream. Howtiz is what it is. But Otherwise is infinite, just as dreams are. Every time you visit us,” he added, “if you care to visit us, that is, you’ll find another world that might have been.” The bus driver chuckled. “After all, there’s just too much that would be left out if there were only one world. The universe must work out every possibility. That” – And he gave the boy a wry look. – “is the whole point of it.”
After what Petey had just been through, he could understand at least something of what the driver meant. What Sharlotta had told him about the clock at the fork in the lane was almost beginning to make sense. Though the driver seemed a little too complacent about the stability of Howtiz: from what he had learned about the Korgans, there was more leakage, and a lot more peril, between the two than the driver seemed to realize. Maybe Howtiz was not so stable after all!
Petey looked down at the key Sharlotta had given him. It was made of bright, new copper, with an oval head and little wavy notches. Even if he didn’t know of any locks it could open, it would be an excellent lucky charm. A good replacement for the rather too dangerous matchbook!
He slipped it into his pocket, then turned back in his seat just in time to see the sun, a vast blaze in an emerald-green sky, sink to its resting place in the east. He suddenly felt overwhelmed with fatigue after the turbulent day.
I guess that means this Otherwise happened when the earth bounced left rather than right? No! Because it rained east, not west? No! Because the moon went to New Jersey? No! Because . . .? he thought confusedly as, as the sound of the trolley’s wheels seemed to say, over and over again, “could have been otherwise, could have been otherwise, could have been otherwise, could have been . . .”
“Petey Stephenson! Wake up! We’re at school!”
Petey suddenly woke, dazzled by the blazing sun just rising in the east in the early winter morning.
Priscilla Li, the pretty girl in the class across the hall from Petey’s, was shaking him roughly by the shoulder. She must have been sitting next to him on the trolley ride to school after getting on while he was asleep.
“Okay,” said Petey, trying to smile and yawn at the same time, which he discovered was a difficult thing to do, it seemed to turn his whole face into salt-water taffy, and he pulled himself together, with his lunchbox and his backpack, with his homework inside it, and his smart phone, he had really missed his smartphone – so the trolley hadn’t exploded after all!
“Priscilla!” he said, excited, and still groggy from sleep. “You’ll never ever believe the dream I just had! I was in a land where everything happens that could never happen and there was a war and there was a big fire and we saved a family and . . .”
He suddenly felt a funny lump in his pocket he didn’t recognize. Hey, where were his lucky matches? . . .
He stopped, pulled it out and stared at it.
It was an bright, new key, with an oval head and curvy notches.
“Hurry up, Petey! You better come now!” Priscilla called out sternly through the half-open window. She had scurried outside while he was gaping at the key. “Otherwise you’ll be late for school. You don’t want to be suspended, do you?”
Suspended! He’d almost forgotten. Now that was a possibility he was sure he didn’t want to happen, ever. Miss Marigold would never believe his story – would she?
He saw her towering over him with her terrifying glare.
“’Howtiz’? ‘Otherwise’? I’ll show you how it is, Petey Myshkin Stephenson, and there’ll be no otherwise about it!”
The little boy, never having felt so young or so vulnerable in all his life, hastily slipped the mysterious key back into his pocket, then jumped from his seat and scrambled in a panic out of the yellow trolley.
“Promise you’ll tell me your dream,” Priscilla called out as they passed through the entrance.
“Okay!” said Petey, “I promise!” And he ran as fast as he could down the hall to class.
Though maybe it hadn’t been a dream after all.
To be continued . . .