Ellie and the train

She walked the dog at midnight on most nights.  Ellie was wide awake at midnight because, with two toddlers, a husband, and a full-time job, she had no time to do her reading, writing or other activities while they were awake.  This night she’d been repotting her bonsais.

Repotting bonsais was a fussy business: clearing the roots of soil, clipping the roots by a third, sifting the soil of any small roots, placing the plants properly above a pile of soil just the right size, carefully adding soil around the roots splayed like fingers so that no air pockets remain, replacing the decorative rocks within the exposed roots, replanting the moss and small surface plants, and finally watering the whole artistic endeavor carefully so that the soil or plants would not be disturbed.

Ellie had set up the whole business in the middle of the kitchen floor on a plastic bag, hoping to contain the mess, but truthfully she knew she could never contain any mess, repotting, cooking, sewing or anything else.  There were scored marks in the dining room table from some long forgotten craft project, along with skewered dents, like something had drilled holes here and there on one end.  Yes, those were hers also.  And she had not washed the dinner dishes yet.

The dog was curled up next to her now, but had been ‘helping’ by digging in the dirt as she tried to shoo her away while not losing hold of a plant.  It was useless and dirt was scattered across the kitchen floor.  One of the cats had come along and scratched a little in the dirt, starting the motions usually reserved for the cat box, but Ellie had not had to do a thing—the dog jumped up and ran cat and dirt through the rest of the kitchen and into the dining room.

But now the bonsais were complete, on their trays, watered and ready to be placed on the windowsills.  She stood up and placed each of them on the kitchen counter, admiring their forms.  The dog stood up too, looking expectant.  She debated.  Clean up the mess or walk the dog?  Definitely walk the dog.  Ellie needed to be out of the house.

She found a jacket, hers or her husband’s—she wasn’t sure, but it would be fine for the fall weather and the wind, and her boots.  They were steel-toed work boots, which weren’t really needed for a short walk around the block but she liked their scarred nature.  Ellie grabbed the leash and the dog, who had been relatively calm until now, started her ecstatic pre-walk leaps.  The dog was very athletic and had been known to leap a sofa seated with five book group members without disturbing anyone, but these leaps were not particularly graceful and she nearly took down a side table.

“Stop!”  said Ellie sharply, and the dog sat, tail wagging.  Ellie attached the leash and they headed for the front door, the dog leading.

spooky-streetThe night was windy, wildly windy, but clear, and leaves were blowing in the streetlights.  It didn’t feel like a storm, just September weather in Minnesota, when the days were so bright that everything had a crystalline edge and the nights were meant for bonfires and children running wild.

Ellie’s neighborhood was a strange one.  It was old, older than others around it.  Originally, farmland on a hill surrounded by prairie, shacks had been built along the cow paths around and up the hill.  This little shantytown had not been a good place to live.  The hill was called Abe’s Hill or Abe’s Hell, depending on whom you asked.   Rumor had it that there had been a second hill that had been taken down, although Ellie always wondered how people took down a whole hill in the 1800s and why.  That hill had a name too, Annie’s Knock, which Ellie had thought was really funny at first, but then later when she asked one of the garden club members why it was called Annie’s Knock, the woman just smiled at her and talked about daffodils.

The Abe’s Hill-Annie’s Knock (just because the hill was gone seemed to be no reason to drop the name) neighborhood had streets that still followed the cow paths, meaning they had no rhyme or reason to them.  Only residents who had lived there for years could tell you with any certainty where all the houses were.  Some houses didn’t even come up to the street; they were buried amongst the alleys.  If you looked at a plat map, which Ellie had, many houses didn’t appear on the map at all.  She had pointed that out at a neighborhood association meeting, the AHAKRA (Abe’s Hill-Annie’s Knock Residents Association).

“Pattie and Mike’s house isn’t on here,” she had said to the secretary, Mary Woodan, a small busy woman.  They were standing in front of a laminated plat map of the whole neighborhood.  “Well, isn’t that unusual,” said Mary. “ They do make some mistakes downtown.  It took us years to get them to change the shape of Exeter Road when they took the curve out in 1962.”

“But isn’t it a problem if the house isn’t on the map?” asked Ellie.

“I don’t think so, dear,” said Mary, smiling.   “It’s not like it’s going to disappear or something.”  And Ellie had to drop it.

Ellie walked down some of the alleys with the dog on her late night walks.  It wasn’t like walking down the streets, even at night.  The alleys were strange, ill lit, and the houses looked wrong.  No, not wrong, they looked different, as if they had changed shape.  They seemed smaller, their windows cloudy as if the glass were running with water.  The light that came from the insides seemed yellowed, candle-lit or gas lamps.  Ellie often heard people in their back yards laughing softly, playing music or talking, but could never see them, and she tried not to seem overly nosey, although she would have loved to have been invited to a gathering at any of the houses.  After three years her little family was still not a real part of the community, although they had friends among other new families.

Tonight she walked down the block towards the edge of the neighborhood that bordered the industrial area.  She didn’t mind being so close to the industrial area—as far as she could tell, there was a man who fixed cars and also did metal sculptures on the side, a company that shipped something in and out, but didn’t make the items on site and another warehouse for holding truck parts.

Ellie and the dog rounded the corner and a blast of wind hit her face.  She looked at the sky just to make sure.  No clouds, not a one.  It wasn’t a particularly cold wind, but it was moving the trees and turning the leaves upside-down, and in her experience, that meant a storm.  She noticed that the lights were on at the company across from the metal workshop and she slowed down.  The dog took the opportunity to squat on the median strip so she continued to stare at the gates and lights.

Suddenly, the gates began to open.  Ellie supposed that a late night shipment was leaving and continued to watch idly while the dog finished up.  The gates completed their movement and Ellie heard the blast of a train horn and was startled.  The train yard was close but not that close and the blast had come from the direction of the gates.  The dog was now watching too, and was whining.  Ellie squatted down and pulled the dog to her, both of them with their eyes fixed warily on the gates.

Slowly, very slowly, the nose of a train engine poked out the gates, with men hanging on the sides.  The engine continued her progress until she was completely through the gates and into the road, blocking all progress, which, at midnight, was nil.  Men swarmed over her, wiping her down.  Ellie could not believe what she was seeing.  There were no railroad tracks on the road by those gates.  How was that train traveling?  And it was a steam engine—what was a steam engine doing here?

The dog was whining even more and shaking.  Ellie murmured kind words and patted her, but couldn’t calm her.  Without warning, one of the men on the train looked in her direction and saw Ellie and the dog.  He turned and barked orders to several other men who hopped off the train and started trotting towards Ellie and the dog.  Ellie stood up alarmed.  The men were grinning as they moved towards her and, and oh, she realized their eyes were red and they leaned forward and began to run on four legs.  “Come!” she yelled to the dog, but the dog needed no encouragement and they turned and ran together around the corner, across the street and towards her house.

Ellie didn’t dare look back.  She could hardly breathe from the running and the terror, deeper than a fright from someone appearing around a corner, deeper than a scary movie.  This was terror from the oldest part of her brain telling her that what chased her was from the oldest part of the earth and she must flee.  She took the steps in two jumps, slammed open the porch door and was in the house with the dog and locking the door.  She peered through the window but saw nothing.

Ellie dropped the dog leash and ran to the kitchen.  What had her grandmother said?  What?  She found sake cups in the cabinets with shaking hands and scooped the dirt from the floor into each of them.  Salt, that would help.  She dropped the salt container and spilled salt on the floor but didn’t even notice as she added a little salt to each cup.  Then she stacked them and ran with them to the front of the house and unsteadily placed one on each windowsill.  When she ran out of sake cups, she found a set of shot glasses and filled each and continued her work until every windowsill had a small container on it.

Ellie took the salt container and carefully ran a line of salt along the doors, not enough to be obvious, but enough for an unbroken line.   She sat on the floor and listened to the night.  The dog sat next to her and Ellie draped an arm over her.  “Good dog,” she whispered.  She could feel her own heart slowly from the frantic thudding, the dog’s warmth and heartbeat, and then a low growl from her throat.  Ellie tensed.

She held the dog tight to keep her from moving.  “Shhhh,” she shushed the dog.  Ellie could now see in the darkness outside the house the shapes of large animals moving in the front yard.  The animals were soundless except for snuffling and she could see them moving to the side windows.  She stayed perfectly still.  Please, let my grandmother’s charms work, she thought to herself.  Soil and salt, soil and salt.

Ellie hadn’t done the upstairs windows and she was looking at the window on the stair landing when she heard the train whistle again, loud and dissonant.  The animals in her yard immediately stood on their hind legs and walked out of her yard and into the street.  Ellie stood and went to the front window.  A woman stood in the light of the street lamps, dark hair shining.  She wore overalls, boots and carried gloves.  Oddly a bird seemed to be sitting on her shoulder.

The men met her in the street and Ellie watched as they gestured towards her house and spoke vehemently to the woman.  She raised her hand and the men stopped talking.  Then she slapped the closest man with her gloves and he slumped to the pavement as if stunned.  The other men grabbed him and dragged him along as they followed the woman back towards the train.  At the last moment, the woman turned back to look at Ellie’s house and Ellie shrank back and closed her eyes, but she could feel the woman’s gaze on her.  The woman knew she was there and had seen her and Ellie’s brain burned with her eyes red as coals.

Without opening her eyes, Ellie said to the dog, “Brigit, I think we just had a narrow escape.”  The dog leaned against her and they sat for a very long time in the quiet house.  



  1. Anita Marie said,

    March 22, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Oh Sen- that gave me shivers.
    the good kinds
    i think

  2. rosylee said,

    March 23, 2009 at 9:05 am

    That was a gripping read, Sen.

  3. March 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

    oh wow that was a good read, sent shivers up my spine too

  4. almurta said,

    March 24, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Creepy – I rather wish I hadn’t read it but it certainly gripping and well written.

  5. Lori said,

    October 26, 2009 at 2:22 am

    Oh, Sen — this is good, really good.

  6. cydlee61 said,

    October 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Oh my this is great! Like the others said, truly had shivers up and down my spine. Have the feeling I will have this story in my head late tonight when I take my dog out in the dark! lol

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