We spent that Fourth of July in Hempstead, attending the festivities in town square, reveling in the warmth. Old and young, men and women, white and black, it was a day to commemorate historical events and remember the lessons we were taught in school.
To this very day my memories of that day are crisp. For a short time we forgot last year’s bad harvest and the dry spell that continued into this year, for the sixth year in a row. That day we didn’t go hungry, like so many times before. I picked up Freddy and Tim near the statue of Captain Wharton, Hempstead’s own Great War hero.
Freddy was my oldest and dearest friend. When our teacher, Mr. Holloway, introduced us to class, I immediately felt a click with this scrawny, awkward kid, although not so much an attraction as a mutual understanding that there was strength in numbers. We had been inseparable since that first day in school.
Tim was a more recent addition. His parents moved into Hempstead three years earlier. Tim’s dad needed work, since most farm jobs in the great dustbowl had disappeared. Hempstead was by no means wealthy, but there was always room for someone willing to work hard. Tim was a dreamer, always thinking up schemes to get wealthy, or famous, or both. Most of the trouble we got into was Tim’s doing.
The last of our merry band was dark haired Nancy Grundig, regular tomboy, braver than all of us together. We saw her on the stage with her father, in a pretty dress we knew she despised, especially now that her body was beginning to show curves. We waved at her, knowing she hated when we did that and fully aware she would punch us, hard, when we would meet on Coal Miner’s track, end of the afternoon.
“There she is,” Freddy said. He threw another rock down the slope, watching it raise puffs of dust where it hit the ground until it rested against the rusty rail track that ran past the foot of the hill.
“Took her time,” I said. I shifted my straw hat a little to get a better look at the odd shapes of the small white clouds that drifted by up high.
Tim spit out a piece of grass and waved. He and Nancy were kind of popular in school and Freddy and I sometimes wondered what attracted them to us. Was it some kind of weird loyalty? Did they genuinely enjoy spending time with the two less-than-popular kids? Or did they see something in us neither Freddy nor I could understand?
Nancy had a long face. She wore her older brother’s trousers and shirt, stitched with enough patches to mostly obscure the original fabric. “My folks wouldn’t let me go,” she explained.
“It’s ok,” I said. “Sun’s not setting for another hour, maybe two. You climbed out the window again?”
She nodded and held up a knapsack. “Mom baked too many cookies for the contest. I snagged a bag full.”
Tim got up and patted his own bag. “Perfect for a midnight picnic with some wine and sausage. What did you guys bring?”
“Some corn bread,” Freddy said.
I knew he saved it out of his own mouth this afternoon. His parents had trouble making ends meet. “We won’t go hungry then,” I said. “My mom’s packed a jar of her strawberry jam and a bag of scones.”
Nancy looked at me. “Your folks let you out at night?”
“They think I’m sleeping over at Freddy’s,” I replied.
Freddy chimed in. “And I’m sleeping over at Frank’s.”
We had it all figured out. We even had an oil lamp with us.
“So, we’re all up to it?” Tim asked. He reached out his hand and looked at us. We each laid our hand on his. Tim smiled. “It’s on then. Tonight we sleep in Kensington station. What an adventure, eh?”
“What if it’s really haunted?” Freddy asked, a soft tremble in his voice.
Tim shrugged. “We’ll see that when we get there.” He walked down the slope until he reached the tracks, then waited for us to follow.
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Although it’s a lot less warm and dry now than all those years ago, I can somehow still feel the heat emanating from the ground, the gravel having soaked up the sun all day long. As we walked along the path the railroad cut through the woods and hills, we heard the track’s metal creak as it shifted slightly and settled on its bed of sand, stone and pebbles.
We hummed Brother can you spare a dime? that had been popular a few years back. We sang the chorus out loud as well as the phrase Once I built a railroad, now it’s done. At the time it seemed more than suitable, although we had no clue why the artist used these specific words.
The walk from Hempstead to Kensington station took well over three hours, but the weather was good and we knew of at least two streams that crossed our paths and that allowed us a drink or two.
The first abandoned cars were on a piece of side track. They were coal cars, still filled with stones that might have been coal or perhaps some type of ore. Remnants of dark brown paint on gray weathered wood above the reddish brown rusted wheels contrasted with the bright greens of the summer forest.
As always we climbed the cars, picked up hand sized stones and threw them as far away into the forest as we could. Nancy won. Her aim was impeccable and her stones flew almost twice as far as mine and Freddy’s. Only Tim managed to get close.
“Will be dark soon,” Freddy said. He was worried about sundown when the no-see-ums were out in force, especially on a hot summer day. We knew they always singled him out.
“Ranger’s Ledge is close by,” I said. “Last time you barely scratched. Want to sit and watch sundown from the top?”
“Yes, please,” Freddy said. He took the lead up the North slope.
Tim and Nancy followed. I looked back once more, seeing in my mind’s eye the many coal cars, freshly painted, filled to the brim with coal and ore, moving slowly along the track, pulled by some invisible locomotive that huffed somewhere around one of the many bends.
“Frankie!” Nancy called. “Stop daydreaming!”
I shook my head and quickly followed them.
Ranger’s Ledge was a broad, rocky outcrop with a magnificent view of the surrounding land. The path the rail track cleared through the forests was clearly visible, winding back and forth between some of the rocky hills in this part, but straightening a few miles on to go directly on to Kensington.
We made the trip a couple of times, but never in the evening. It was Tim’s idea to venture out at night. He called it a grand adventure. “C’mon guys, you can all call me Tim Sawyer and we’ll find our pot of gold in the thieves’ den below Kensington Station.”
“You’ve read one book too many, Tim,” I told him. Still, I liked the idea of walking around there at night, albeit with a torch and my friends close by. The whole notion excited me and apparently my friends as well. We decided on the night of the fourth of July, hoping our parents would be too exhausted or inebriated to check up on us. And we would be back the following day, somewhere in the afternoon.
Then the sun touched the land and we were silent, all of us, while the glowing sphere sank below the faraway horizon.
I kept an eye on Freddy, but apart from some idle neck scratching he did not seem bothered by the invisible pests that usually foraged for blood in the dying daylight. That pleased me. Freddy and I dealt with bullying classmates all day, every day and where I could shrug off their pranks and catcalls, they often reached Freddy, shaming him, hurting him, both physically and mentally. Sometimes there wasn’t much I could do, just be there for him when someone bloodied his nose, but that seemed enough.
“We should be out of the forest before it gets really dark,” Tim said. “We have another hour of dusk, so let’s go.”
When we descended from Ranger’s Ledge the light in the forest along the tracks had changed. The friendly greens had turned a darker shade and the shadows below the canopy were deeper and somehow threatening. We were all happy for the long twilight that allowed us to move out of the forest and onto the prairie where the tracks ran in a nearly straight line.
Tall grasses covered the tracks and the bed of gravel they rested on. The chirping of crickets and other insect sounds surrounded us, much different from the deep silence of the forest. I remember feeling vaguely relieved that we were out in the open, with the light of the stars illuminating the prairie and the far-off hills and mountains.
Nancy and Tim were slightly ahead and they whispered and giggled a lot.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, raising my voice enough so they could hear me.
Tim stopped and turned, a smile on his face. “Nancy and I wondered how you and Freddy would react to the ghost of Injun Joe.”
I snorted. “Probably much the same as you, Tim. And I think it involves shitting my pants.” Tim and Nancy both laughed, but it was strained. They’d had a different scenario in mind, obviously. On the inside I sighed. With friends like these…
Later on Tim and Nancy would walk with me, at least the first few years. Tim was the first to stop visiting, Nancy decided to call it quits the year after. Considering their earlier behavior I wasn’t surprised, or even angry. Ever since, I walked the track all by myself, just me and my memories, of that fateful fourth of July.
Kensington station was really not much more than a station with several tracks spreading out to the various coal mine entrances in the vicinity. Coal cars would be loaded at the mines and placed on a side track until the next train arrived to deliver passengers and pick up coal and ore, mostly for the steel works in Maukee, to the north.
A black hill of discarded ore and coal towered over the station, a bleak reminder of better days. Once a lively place, the station sported a drugstore and a cheap hotel for those miners that remained during the week, but Kensington had been so remote that no one wanted to settle there for longer than strictly necessary.
Now we wandered around the decrepit building, rifling through old pamphlets with time tables and looking for hidden nooks that might contain archaeological treasure still. Or perhaps Injun Joe’s pot of gold, like Tim kept reminding us.
The drugstore held piles of old wood, formerly cupboards filled with canned food, bags of rice and flour, jars of molasses and lard.
For some reason we started whispering the moment we entered the old station building. It seemed like someone was watching us, pairs of invisible eyes that scrutinized these unexpected invaders and the utter darkness surrounding us made that feeling worse.
Around midnight we sat together around my oil lamp in the lobby of the cheap hotel on some broken chairs and enjoyed a meal of scones, cookies and corn bread, lavishly covered in strawberry jam. We took turns drinking wine from the bottle and the look of surprise on Freddie’s face made us giggle.
“Tell us a story, Tim,” Nancy said.
Tim grinned. “You guys sure?”
Freddie and I looked at each other. Tim could tell nasty stories. I blinked, he nodded. “OK, good,” I said.
Tim sat close to the fire and started his tale while we ate and drank some more.
“…and so he got on the train that morning, sat down in one of the carriages and read a newspaper. The train had travelled some time when the lights dimmed. He looked up and saw the lands were dark. He then looked out of one of the windows and saw the locomotive covered in flames while the lands had turned night black. Panicked he left his carriage and moved to the next carriage. He saw several passengers, all reading papers, but when he got close he saw their hands were desiccated flesh.”
Tim paused and drank some more wine.
“And then? What happened?” Nancy asked.
Tim grinned. It was an evil smile. “Does it need an ending? There are so many possibilities. Just think about it…” And he refused to continue.
I finished his tale a thousand times at least, each version more gruesome, more outlandish than the next. It’s an alternative to thinking of what really happened that night. I still remember waking up in the lobby, the three of us, Tim, Nancy and myself. Freddie was gone.
The sun had not yet come up, but the first light illuminated a gloriously clear sky. The morning air felt fresh and sharp and it was filled with the scent of dew on prairie grass. We walked around, thinking Freddie could have stumbled somewhere, maybe hurt himself. There were treacherous pits around the station and some long forgotten deep holes and failed or unstable mine shafts.
None of us dared go near the old steam loc. There was something odd about it. It stood off to the side, on its own piece of track, with rusted steel chains and padlocks around its axels and the track, like someone tried to keep it from being stolen. It was somehow threatening, emanating a darkness of the mind that crept into our imaginations, reminding us of the train in Tim’s story of the night before, feeding our worst fears.
The old steam loc was still there, still dark, though more thoroughly rusted. From the loc I could almost see the hole in the hillside where Freddie’s bones were found, well after the second World War. Seeing it brought back more memories.
When we returned to Hempstead the next day, our hearts were heavy and our minds were fearfully pondering our parents’ reaction. We weren’t disappointed. Soon we travelled back to Kensington station, this time on horse and carriage, with several adults accompanying us with lamps and rescue gear. In stead of spending the weekend in church, we searched and called and dug in any likely place that might hold a body. We even dared look inside the old steam loc.
Late Sunday evening the sheriff called it quits. “If we haven’t found him by now, we’re not going to find him in the darkness.” We drove back in silence with only the occasional sobbing coming from the carriage that held Freddie’s parents.
School was never the same without Freddie. When the shock of his disappearance and likely death wore off, the bullies came back with a vengeance. Not a day went by without some hurtful remark or nasty prank.
Eventually I grew up and spent some time in the army towards the end of the war. But I never once missed out on my yearly trip along the coal track from Hempstead to Kensington station. In my mind’s eye I could see the slow deterioration of the place, of the tracks, the trees that grew to double or triple size in the almost seventy years I’ve been coming here.
Today’s another Fourth of July and the weather is good, almost as perfect as that fateful day, although the sky is crisscrossed with high altitude contrails. I’ve walked along the track, following the exact same route we did so long ago, reminiscing, feeling the same feelings that I felt back then, now filtered through years of experience and a calloused soul.
At Kensington station I located the hole Freddie’s remains were found in and sat down in the warm sand. I folded my hands and said a short prayer. “Missed you, man. Missed you a lot all these years.” I sighed and felt my eyes burn. It felt like the time my mom died. My father and I visited her grave once in a while and we would both cry.
“What’s with the deep sigh?” a voice behind me said.
I turned to look at the stranger who accosted me. I blinked a few times to clear my eyes. “A friend of mine died here. In this hole.”
“Ah, yes, the old shafts. Deep, dangerous and unstable,” the stranger said. “I missed you too, Frank.”
My heart skipped a beat when this stranger not only identified me, but did so with Freddie’s exact voice. I looked at him, carefully, suspicious. “Do we know each other?” When he smiled I knew who he was. “It is you, isn’t it. How can this be? What the hell happened?” Freddie looked like a tall man in his mid thirties, big brown sideburns, brown eyes and a clear skin. He wore simple jeans and a white T-shirt.
“That night, I needed to step outside for a piss. I met Tim’s Injun Joe.” His face contorted like he felt some unseen pain. “He was a bad man and he hurt me.”
“Jesus,” I said. I felt for this boy, this man.
“He had nothing to do with it,” Freddie said. “Injun Joe was an old vagrant and I was an easy, weak prey for him. After he had his way with me, he hit me over the head several times and threw me down the hole.”
“We looked for you, for hours, a whole day at least,” I explained. “Your parents returned several times.” I smiled at him. “But here you are.”
“I know, I heard you, but I couldn’t answer. When I heard everyone leave and the darkness came, I gave up.” Freddie’s lips showed a thin smile. “I did not want to leave you alone, but I had little choice.”
I shook my head in confusion. “I never blamed you, Freddie. I was just very sad that you were gone.”
“I noticed you visited several times a year,” Freddie said. “You searched the station and the mine entrances. You even looked under the locomotive, although it scared you.”
“Why did you never show yourself?” I asked. “You look young, actually.”
Freddie blinked. “Look around you, at the horizon, at the sky. Look real good and tell me what you see.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but listened. I gazed at the horizon for a while, not seeing, until, almost cross-eyed, I saw the flames appear. “Holy crap, is that some kind of bush fire?”
“Now look up,” Freddie said.
My eyes saw the sky like never before, glorious, riveting, and overwhelming and the sight left me open-mouthed. I stood for at least a minute until the sound of an approaching train pulled me from my reverie. I looked along the track and, far away, saw the lights approach. “I thought this track was abandoned years ago.”
“That is correct,” Freddie said. “It only rides on special occasions.”
“I’m the special occasion?” I asked, beginning to realize what was going on, feeling the onset of panic. “Have I…?”
Freddie smiled at me, benevolently. Somehow his presence and relaxed demeanor calmed me.
We waited in silence until the train was real close. I recognized the locomotive that pulled the carriages. It was the same steam loc that we did not dare approach all those years. We walked onto the platform of Kensington station and watched the train arrive in a cloud of steam and loud hissing.
When it had come to a full stop, Freddie approached the first carriage and opened the door. He looked at me from the opening and said: “Well, are you coming?”
“Is it safe?” I asked. “Don’t we need a ticket?”
“Come sit with me,” Freddie said.
Hesitantly I entered and looked inside some of the compartments. No desiccated hands holding newspapers, nothing out of the ordinary. I sat across from Freddie.
“I know you missed me, Frank,” Freddie said. “And I missed you too. That’s why I waited all these years, until you were ready to join me. It did come for me, back then.”
With a soft jolt the train started to move. We rolled out of the station and now, when I looked out the window, the flames on the horizon were quite clear, red and yellow tongues rising up from the blackness of the land, trying to reach the blue and white light that emanated from directly above. Continuous forks of lightning crossing the sky illuminated dreamscapes and nightmares alike.
“So, where does this lead?” I asked Freddie.
He shrugged. “Who can tell? For all we know the journey lasts forever and we can relive our lives endlessly.”
I considered that. “What if we get tired, or bored?”
“I’m pretty sure there will be choices ahead. There’s always a choice.”
“So no specific destination? No judge to appoint a final resting place?” I snorted. “I’m pretty sure Mr. Holloway would call us heathens and blasphemers.”
Freddie smiled. He obviously remembered bible class. “People waste time attaining sometimes impossible goals. All the while they forget to look around and enjoy the path leading up to those goals. And what better way to enjoy that than with a true friend?”
I smiled, thinking of all the adventures Freddie and I had along the tracks and the trails through hills and forests. “Yeah, I remember, it was always about the journey.” In the reflection of the window I saw us as two young boys, excited, happy, looking at the wonders of the outside world, ready for another journey.
All was well.
PICTURE: Shihab Chowdhury in Unplash
Mike Jansen has published in Dutch, German, Romanian, Estonian, Polish, Chinese, French, Finnish, Russian, Swedish, Catalan, Spanish and English anthologies and magazines. Since 2011 he has published over 100 English language stories in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. In addition three fantasy novels, two story collections and several novellas in Dutch, a novel and a short story collection in English.
He has won the Dutch King Kong Award 1992, an honorable mention for the Australian 1998 Altair Magazine launch competition, in 2012 the Baarn Literary Prize and the prestigious Dutch Fantastels award, in 2020 the GP Scifi/Fantasy Award and in 2021 the ‘Mossy Statue prize’ for best promoter of Dutch SF, F and H.
Since 2016 Mike organizes the Dutch EdgeZero awards, an attempt to get the best stories from Dutch language genre contests and magazines of the previous year collected and published in a year’s best anthology. So far six anthologies have been published.
Some of his recent work has appeared in Samovar/Strange Horizons.