They told us we had to stand in a certain spot, far enough away from the road so that the lights from passing cars didn’t cause us to lose our night vision.
We looked due west, down the tracks. There was an overhead trestle about fifty yards out. We couldn’t see it clearly late at night, except as a starless black bar above the rail bed.
A little bit further out, the trees closed in around the tracks. The line had been abandoned for twenty years, at least. If you hunkered down, it looked like a darkened stage: trees as curtains, dark trestle making the arch.
Rosamund, Will and I brought a blanket out that night. It was cold, and the three of us passed the flask. We’d heard the stories since we were little kids. We were out there to see the light.
The stories went something like this, depending on who was doing the telling: A nameless conductor had died horribly on the line, and his restless spirit still rode the tracks, when the weather and moonlight were just right.
The old folks said you could see his lantern, waving slowly from side to side, bumping a little up and down. They figured he was alerting folks along the way that his phantom train was coming through.
He’d get closer and closer to you if you didn’t move, until finally drifting off into the swamp somewhere along the tracks between the trestle and the road. Then he’d reappear in the distance, do it all over again.
We scoffed about their old ghost story, told them all we knew about natural phenomena, things like swamp gas and St. Elmo’s Fire. We had it all figured out as we drove out to the tracks.
We sat there on the blanket looking west, right at the center of the darkened stage beneath the trestle. Giggling, tipsy, tickling, whispering “boo” in each others’ ears.
Until the light appeared.
And we got real quiet. And we got real still. And we didn’t hear a thing, but damned if that light didn’t start bobbing down the tracks towards us, getting brighter as it came.
We sat there like we’d been electrocuted, shaking, unable to move or speak. We’d never actually seen swamp gas or St. Elmo’s Fire, but we were pretty sure neither of those things looked like that.
Will panicked first, right about the time the light moved under the trestle. With a wet sounding hiccup he bolted for the road. Rosamund moved next, a thin squeal emerging from her throat as she ran, her blanket and flask forgotten.
I still couldn’t move. I still couldn’t move. I had that feeling I get in dreams when I’m standing on a cliff, and I know that any motion’s going to send me over the edge. And I still couldn’t move. And I still couldn’t move.
The light got closer. Maybe twenty yards away, when it slowly veered off to the right and bobbed away into the swamp. I watched it until it disappeared into the mist, and then I looked up, and it was coming down the tracks again.
Rosamund and Will were yelling at me from the road, “Come on! Come on! Come on!” I heard the car start up; the engine roared as Will stamped on the accelerator, and I imagined being left where I sat.
That broke the spell: and I screamed as I ran, never looking back over my shoulder as I sprinted for the car, desperately afraid that the light might have raced up behind me. I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to know.
Rosamund was crying when I got in the car, and Will pulled out before I’d closed my door. He dropped us off at home and quickly drove away.
We never spoke about that night again.