"I know you don't care for flying, but no one travels by train anymore Elaine!" her mother's words were bubbles of love pierced by the needles of scorn.
Elaine struggled to keep her voice even, "Mother, it's not that I don't care for flying. I'm afraid to fly, there's a rather important difference."
"You know Karen was telling me that her daughter-in-law gets medication from her doctor so she won't be anxious when she has to fly," continued her mother, undaunted.
A sigh she didn't dare release filled her lungs and she rolled her eyes. Her mother didn't understand phobias. "That's irrational," she'd say, completely missing the point that if the fears weren't irrational they wouldn't be phobias.
"That's great Mom, I'll have to mention it to my doctor when I get back." Elaine rushed on before her mother could slip another gem into the conversation, "I've really got to go, I'll see you tomorrow afternoon at the train station. Love you, bye!" She snapped the cell phone closed without waiting for her mother's response.
She loved her mother, but she wasn't looking forward to this trip to New Orleans. If it weren't for her sister's wedding she'd be happily ensconced in her Chicago apartment, brewing a cup of hot tea, and picking out a worn paperback novel to entertain herself with for the evening. It would be worth it though, to see her twin sister's wedding and celebrate the beginning of her marriage to Todd.
Long, thin shadows were making their way across the pavement in front of Union station when the taxi pulled up. The driver smiled at her generous tip, showing - she couldn't help but notice - an appalling lack of oral hygiene. He released the trunk latch and left the warmth of the blasting heater to lift her suitcase out and onto the sidewalk.
"Thanks!" she offered a shy smile and pushed the long brown strands of her hair behind her ear to keep it out of the way when she reached for the handle of the bag.
"Yeah, no problem lady," he grinned back at her from the other side of the car. "I didn't think anybody rode trains no more."
"So I've been told," she sighed, and slid her carry-on sized bag onto her shoulder with her purse.
"Well, have a good trip lady!"
Elaine moved back from the curb quickly as the driver shot away from the curb and into traffic, apparently unconcerned with the presence and relative speed of the other vehicles on the road.
The high, arched glass of the ceiling offered no additional light to the cavernous interior of Union Station. Her previous trips had been on trains traveling either west or east, and they'd left earlier in the day when the stately building had been active with people. Shafts of light had illuminated the dancing dust motes and added a cheerful warmth to the space.
The only light in the station at this time of night came from lamps and recessed lighting. The effect was probably meant to be soft and relaxing, but Elaine couldn't help but notice how the shadows seemed to reach for her out of pockets of darkness, and the building fog was rolling against the doors of the great hall as if eager to gain entry.
Elaine shivered and hurried to the ticket window. The train's departure time was listed as 8:00 pm, and she wanted to be settled into her sleeping car long before the train pulled out of the station.
The sleepy agent slid her boarding pass under the bulletproof glass partition that separated them and directed her to the appropriate door. It was heavier than she expected and it closed without warning, trapping her suitcase half on and half off the platform.
"Hang on lady, let me give you a hand!" Elaine turned to see a tall, thin man in a janitor's uniform ambling toward her.
He pulled the door open effortlessly and gave her suitcase a light shove to move it out of the doorway, and she stumbled over her thanks. "I appreciate the help! It just closed so fast!"
"Yeah, we catch a lot of luggage that way. Strictly catch and release though!" and he let out a guffaw that echoed around the platform. "So you gonna ride the City of New Orleans, huh?"
Elaine turned and looked at the train waiting patiently in the fog. It didn't look anything like the way she'd pictured it whenever she heard that song on the radio. "Yeah, I guess I am."
"Well, she's a good train. Lots of history. You have a good trip!" His lanky form disappeared into the fog before she could thank him again for his help, so she turned her attention to boarding and finding her sleeping car.
As the train began the slow process of pulling away from the station and building up speed, Elaine settled onto the narrow bed with one of the books she'd brought along. The lights of Chicago faded into the enveloping fog, and the gentle rocking of the train relaxed her better than any cup of tea in her living room.
The sharp rap of the compartment door shutting startled her and she sat up, dropping her book on the bed. A glance at her watch told her that it was nearing midnight - she'd fallen asleep.
"For crying out loud," she muttered, as her racing heart slowed. The view through the window revealed the glow of distant lights through the heavy fog that seemed to have followed them from Chicago. She pulled the shade down and undressed for bed. After she'd pulled her nightgown over her head, she traded the clothes she'd been wearing for slacks and a blouse from her suitcase. A night hanging on the door would take care of the worst of the wrinkles.
The sheets were cool and slick under the light blanket thrown over them. Elaine slid into bed and leaned over to set the alarm on her cell phone. Something made her hesitate as she reached for the switch to turn off the light. The twist of anxiety caught her by surprise.
When she realized she was considering leaving the light on for the night, she laughed nervously. "Get real Elaine," she scolded herself. "If you're not careful you're going to become as neurotic as everyone thinks you are!" She snapped the light off and then found herself freezing.
When the bogeyman failed to snatch her out of her borrowed bed, she sighed and relaxed against the pillow. She fell into the measured breathing of the relaxation technique she used to calm her mind and ease herself into sleep.
A bang from just outside her door shot her into a sitting position, her heart pounding frantically in her chest. She slid backward until she was pressed against the wall, and groped frantically for the light switch.
"I don't recommend that, Elaine."
A scream tore out of her throat at the soft voice and her flailing hand connected with the light switch. The light flooded the room and Elaine struggled to keep her eyes open against the sting. A woman stood in front of the door.
"Who are you?"
The woman smiled warmly. "I'm Clara, it's nice to meet you."
Elaine gaped at the calm introduction and she struggled to match the stranger's demeanor while her mind scrambled. "Yeah, nice to meet you. Why are you in my compartment?"
"Don't worry Elaine, I'm not here to hurt you."
Instinctively, Elaine lowered her voice to match Clara's. "Yes, but that's what you would say if you were here to hurt me...isn't it?"
Clara's smile widened. "I suppose it is, which makes it less effective in keeping you calm than I'd intended."
A loud thump rattled the door, startling a shriek out of Elaine. An expression of concern moved across Clara's face, but otherwise she showed no reaction to the noise in the hallway.
"Elaine, I don't want to frighten you, but...it's imperative that you don't scream." Her voice was low and calm, in direct contradiction to the worry in her eyes.
"What?" Elaine squeaked. When Clara shook her head and held a slim finger to her lips, she continued in a low whisper. "I'm going to start screaming long and loud in about half a second if you don't tell me what's going on!"
Clara sighed. "It's very hard to explain, and you won't believe me."
"Well, you'd better give it a shot!"
"You're on a midnight train, and it's midnight," Clara stated, matter-of-factly.
A light bang from the corridor made Elaine jump. "That's your explanation? Maybe in your crazy, room-invading little brain, but I need a few more details!" she hissed.
"Yes, I can see that." Clara paused and seemed to collect her thoughts. "A midnight train is a train on which people have...well...died. Don't panic!"
Elaine took some deep breaths and struggled to remain calm. "I'm not panicking!" she wheezed. The car gave a shuddering jerk and Elaine tumbled out of the bed onto the rough carpet of the floor. She shoved to her feet as the car jerked again, throwing her away from the bed and into the wall. Her shaking hands yanked at the shade, and she looked out into the fog.
"We're not moving! Why aren't we moving?" she gasped, and spun around to face the door.
"Don't panic! You're fine, we're fine... just settle down and everything will be fine."
Curls of smoke began winding their way under the door to the compartment, drawing Elaine's horrified gaze. "What is that?"
"It's smoke, of course," Clara replied calmly.
"Oh, of course." Elaine closed her eyes as another bang echoed through the corridor. She turned back to the window and pushed on the emergency exit panel in the window. She heard cries of alarm coming from the back of the car, and more banging from the neighboring compartments.
"Please don't..." Clara pleaded, and Elaine turned to see the woman wringing her hands.
"It's jammed. Look, I don't know what's going on with you, but I'm not staying here!" Elaine snarled. She rushed toward the door, forcing Clara to step to the side.
The door was stuck, and it took several hard yanks to open it. Smoke filled the corridor and immediately began to make its way into the compartment. Elaine fought back the need to cough as she moved into the hallway.
"Hello? What's going on?" Her voice seemed to hit a wall in the smoke. She moved forward slowly, one hand on the wall to keep her bearings in the smoke. There was a red glow from the back of the car, and when Elaine turned to look at it she realized Clara hadn't followed her out of the compartment.
"Clara? Are you coming?" Her call was unanswered, and a chill crept up her spine. She turned and moved closer to the front of the car and the exit, pulling her nightgown over her mouth and nose to help her breath.
Suddenly the wall her hand pressed against disappeared into a doorway, and Elaine nearly tumbled forward. Surprise made her cry out, and echoing cries seemed to float up from the back of the car. Gasping, she turned to the doorway and felt her way down the three steps to the exit door. The handle felt cool to her hand, and the thick fog outside seemed to match the smoke she was fleeing.
"Please, Elaine. Don't open the door!"
Elaine spun around to see Clara standing at the top of the steps. She shook her head at the pleading woman and turned back to the door, pushing the handle down with her left hand while she gripped the sturdy railing in her right for balance.
It was the railing that saved her. As the door opened a rush of cold air swirled in, grasping and pulling her toward the opening. She had a brief impression of quickly passing trees and as her body began to fall forward she heard the clacking whir of the train traveling over the tracks below them.
Confusion paralyzed her even as she realized her grip on the railing was beginning to weaken. Her scream echoed into the night and blended with the train whistle to become a long wail of despair.
Before she could catch her breath for another scream, a strong hand closed over her wrist and yanked her up the steps to the corridor floor.
"God almighty lady! What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Elaine gaped at the steward standing over her in the brightly lit corridor. "The...the train stopped! It knocked me out of the bed...and then there was smoke...and people were screaming..."
She trailed off as the man shook his head slowly, his silver hair catching the light and reminding her, for a moment, of the smoke and fog.
"Let me help you back to your compartment." He reached down and lifted her to her feet, guiding her back to the small room she'd left in a panic.
"Look, I know what I saw," Elaine sat on the bed and tried to stop shaking as he wrapped the thin blanket around her shoulders. "I fell asleep while I was reading, and when I woke up it was nearly midnight. I got into the bed and turned the light off, but then there was a bang...and a woman in here with me!" She paused as she struggled to remember the exact sequence of events through her fear.
"She told me not to scream, but then the train stopped and knocked me out of bed. And then I could hear other people screaming, and smoke started coming in under the door. The emergency exit wouldn't open, and the corridor was full of smoke, and there was a red glow from the back of the car. And the train was stopped, I know it was!" She stared at him, eyes huge in a pale face.
"The woman...was her name Clara?" he asked carefully.
Elaine's mouth dropped open. "How did you know that?"
"Most everyone who works on the City of New Orleans has met Clara at some point or another. She usually leaves the passengers alone, though." He frowned, and glanced at the door to the compartment.
"She's a passenger?"
His eyes shot back to hers, and he smiled. "She's a ghost, actually."
"A ghost?" Elaine sat back against the wall.
"She died on this train, back in 2004. The train derailed - a lot of people were hurt, but she was the only one who died. People started seeing her a few months after."
"What about the smoke? And the other people I heard?" She thought back to what she'd experienced. "I smelled the smoke, I know it wasn't my imagination!"
The steward sighed and shrugged, "I think you saw the Bourbonnais wreck, from '99. Eleven people died when the train hit a truck - the sleeper car caught fire and they were trapped."
"Was she trying to kill me? I mean...I really thought the train had stopped, that we'd crashed! Was she making me see all that so I'd panic and try to get out of the train?" She shivered again as the fear she'd felt resurfaced.
"We were going almost 80 miles per hour when you opened that door. If I hadn't heard something from the other car, I wouldn't have been there to pull you back in." He shook his head and laid a hand over her knee, "No, I think she was trying to help you."
Elaine sighed, "You know, my mother thinks train travel is boring."
The steward laughed, and she smiled back. "If you like, I can move you to another car. She's not as...active in the others."
Elaine thought about it, staring at the doorway where Clara had been. "No, I think I'll stay. The creepy stuff is probably done for the night...don't you think?"
He nodded and patted her knee again. "We're past midnight now. The rest of the trip should be nice and quiet, through to Memphis." He stood and walked to the door.
"Oh, by the way," she called out, and he turned to look at her where she sat on the narrow bed. "Thanks. For saving my life and everything."
He grinned and touched his cap, "Just part of the service here on the City of New Orleans, ma'am!"
After he'd shut the door quietly behind him, Elaine sat in the silence of the compartment for a few minutes. Everything seemed surreal, like a dream that was already starting to fade. She sighed and reached out to snap the light off, settling back against the pillow and pulling the blanket more securely around her shoulders.
As she relaxed into sleep, a light hand brushed over her hair. A smile ghosted over her lips as she drifted off to the sound of a lightly hummed lullaby.